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       Prized, p.4

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “The Matrarc said he escaped from prison.”

  “It’s what will happen to you if you get dropped out there. She’s exiled traitors before, men and women, but I don’t know what she’d do in your case. You’re a pretty valuable person.”

  “Because I’m a girl?” Gaia asked.

  Dinah smiled. “Don’t underestimate how much that matters, and you’re a midwife, too. To be fair, I should add that the Matrarc is unfailingly decent to her loyal followers, and that’s pretty much everyone except the crims and a handful of libbies.”

  Gaia could hear the admiration in Dinah’s voice. “You respect her?”

  “Of course I do,” Dinah said, laughing. “I’d be a fool not to.”

  “No, I mean you really do, don’t you? You sound like you admire her, as a person,” Gaia said.

  Dinah gave her an odd look. Then she turned to a dresser and began opening drawers. “The Matrarc’s a curious person. She’s strong and smart, of course, but it’s more than that,” she said, her voice thoughtful. “I can’t explain.”

  Gaia was surprised. Puzzled, she glanced over at Josephine.

  “It’s true,” Josephine said sadly. “When the Matrarc trusts you, you want to tell her things. You can feel how she cares about you, so then if you disappoint her, you feel awful.”

  Dinah turned from the dresser with a shawl and held it out to Gaia. “Here. Take this. You really should go. You can bring it back with the shoes another day. If the shoes fit, I’d say you should keep them, but they’re obviously boats on you.”

  “Thanks,” Gaia said. She stood stiffly. A bit of light was coming in the window now, and the rain was barely a drizzle. She didn’t want to leave. “What will you name your daughter, Mx. Josephine?”

  The new mother smiled. “I’m naming her after me. Fitch Josephine, Junie. I’ll call her ‘Junie.’”

  Dinah touched a hand to her heart, and then to the baby’s head in a gentle, motherly gesture. “You do that,” she said.

  The cabin was quiet, with only the sound of the fire crackling and the soft drum of rain on the roof. As Gaia took a last look at the fire, the warmth penetrated the scar on her left check, almost like pressure. For a moment, she was able to imagine an invisible kiss from her own lost mother, a gift of quiet approval, and Gaia held on to it.

  CHAPTER 3

  a deal

  THE SLATS had been hammered back on.

  Even though she could see that they were secure, she tried the wood anyway, fruitlessly hoping. It wouldn’t give. She looked to her left along the log wall, toward where there was light in the windows of a kitchen. Gaia’s pulse elevated as she quietly crept nearer, climbing the two steps to the door. She tried the knob, but it was locked.

  She peeked in the window screen and saw the back of a man’s head and shoulders. She knocked softly.

  “Back so soon?” came a terse voice.

  “Please. Let me in,” she said quietly.

  There was a thumping noise, then a click, and the door opened to reveal a thickset, gray-haired man with a peg leg. He kept his swarthy arm on the door, barring her way, and lowered his bushy white eyebrows into a stern line.

  “Hi.” She tried a little smile. “I’m Gaia. The new girl. Sneaking back in.”

  The man gave her a once-over, and she could just imagine the picture she made, half wet, carrying her dirty socks, standing awkwardly in the too-large, muddy loafers.

  He backed up with a grunt. “You’re wanted in the atrium.”

  The kitchen smelled of warm oatmeal, and on a rocker near the hearth, a black cat lifted its chin to inspect her, revealing a long patch of white on its chest. Herbs hung from the rafters, and a row of three copper-bottomed tubs hung over the windows. Gaia closed the door and slipped out of her muddy shoes.

  “Is there news about my sister? Who wants me?” she asked.

  “Who else? The Matrarc. Don’t leave those there,” he said. “There’s a boot tray behind the door.”

  “Is she mad?”

  He stepped over to his stove, the peg making a hollow noise on the floor as he strode. “She doesn’t get mad. She makes decisions,” he said, and smacked a pan onto the stove.

  For all Gaia knew, this man was this grumpy always, but she didn’t have a good feeling about it. She set the shoes and dirty socks in the tray beside a tall, solitary left-footed boot. She spotted a row of pegs behind the door and hung Dinah’s shawl there.

  “What do you think the Matrarc will do?” Gaia asked, turning again to the cook. “She won’t send me back out to the wasteland, will she? Just for sneaking out?”

  “Depends.”

  “On what?”

  “On what you did while you were out,” he said.

  A laugh escaped her, and the man glanced up, frowning. “You weren’t with a boy, were you?” he asked.

  “No,” she said. “Nothing so romantic. Should I take time to change?”

  “I wouldn’t. She’s been here half an hour already. Here. Bring her this.” He poured steaming tea from a ceramic pot into a teacup and set it on a little tray.

  “May I have some, too?” Gaia asked.

  He looked at her briefly, morosely, but then he took another cup off the shelf, added it to the tray, and poured again.

  “You don’t have any honey, do you?” she asked.

  He reached for a brown honey pot and dropped a dollop into her tea, spinning off the last strand of gold on the edge of the cup.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  He added a spoon to the tray and waved her off. “Take it. Go.”

  “I don’t even know your name,” she said, picking up the tray. “Or your cat’s.”

  His bushy eyebrows lifted, then lowered again. “I’m Norris. The cat there is Una. Now run along. I’ve got work to do.”

  From the kitchen, she turned left down the hallway until she came to a large, open room. The ceiling rose three stories to a clerestory of windows, just lightening with rosy, fresh-washed dawn. Tiers of balconies bordered three of the walls, creating an atrium with the fourth wall, which was dominated by a great stone fireplace. Before this, in a high-backed chair, the Matrarc sat with her cane and a ball of white yarn, knitting. Her red skirt glowed in the firelight, and her feet looked tidy in black, beaded moccasins. She stretched out a length of yarn and lifted her face.

  “I thought I heard voices. Is that you, Mlass Gaia?” she asked.

  “Yes. How’s my sister doing?”

  “She’s better. I came from there to tell you so. Imagine my surprise when I found you gone. Have you brought tea?”

  “Yes. From Norris.”

  “Set it here, please.” She lightly tapped the round little table on her left, and then gestured to the chair opposite hers. “Take a seat.”

  Gaia glanced down at the cushion. “I’m afraid I’m too wet still.”

  “Is that so? Let me feel your skirt.”

  Gaia set down the tray and stepped nearer, holding up a bit of the cloth until it touched against the Matrarc’s fingers. The older woman fingered it thoughtfully before she dropped it. “Why don’t you pull up one of the other chairs then, or sit on the hearth?” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia glanced over to where a dozen straight-backed wooden chairs were drawn up around a table. Beyond were other groupings of tables and chairs, some in cozy combinations by the windows where sunlight would touch soon, others arranged more like a dining hall or a school. With a glance at the oval braided rug at her feet, she dropped to the hearth, bringing her cup of tea and the spoon with her, and huddled her back toward the warmth.

  “Is Maya really better?” Gaia asked.

  “She started nursing. I wouldn’t say she’s out of the woods yet, but she can be roused and her pulse is strong.”

  She had turned a corner, then. Gaia was so relieved. For a moment she didn’t care about anything else, or anything that could happen to her. As long as her sister lived, that was all that mattered.

  “Save us bo
th some time and tell me where you’ve been,” the Matrarc said, her voice as melodious as ever.

  Gaia glanced down into her teacup and realized the Matrarc would know soon anyway. Babies weren’t exactly top secret news. “I went to Mx. Dinah’s. I heard a girl there in labor, so I went in and delivered the baby.”

  “Mx. Josephine’s?” the Matrarc asked. “She was due about now.”

  “Yes. She had a girl. A healthy one, and Mx. Josephine is fine, too.”

  “Wonderful news,” the Matrarc said, looking pleased. “You seem so young to be a doctor.”

  “I’m a midwife,” Gaia said. She considered adding that she had experience assisting doctors in the Enclave, but decided against it. “I assisted my mother for five years, and I started delivering babies on my own this past summer.”

  “This makes a difference,” the Matrarc said. “A very big difference. We need you here more than you know. In the two years since the last midwife died, we’ve had half a dozen babies die in childbirth, and three mothers as well. Why didn’t you tell me at first?”

  Gaia gave her tea a slow swirl with the spoon, disturbing the honey at the bottom. “I wasn’t sure I could do it anymore,” she answered.

  A slow clicking came from the Matrarc’s lap as she knit a few stitches. “There’s much about you that I don’t understand,” she said. “But the grief in you I sense clearly. For your parents, I assume. I think you’ve come to us for a reason, and maybe you need us as much as we need you. What brought you north? Why didn’t you go in some other direction?”

  Gaia lifted the steamy cup to her lips and took a sip. “My mother told me to come here. I’ve wondered about it. My grandmother left when I was only a baby, years ago, but only a month ago my mother told me to come find my grandmother here, as if she thought my grandmother was still alive. Could they have corresponded somehow?”

  “It’s remotely possible, but not likely. I know Mlady Danni tried to send messages to the Enclave with nomads who passed through, but that was, as you say, a decade ago. I don’t know that she ever received any letter back but I doubt it. Such news would have been enormously exciting to all of us and she never said anything.”

  “It could have taken the nomads a long time to deliver a message or letter to my parents,” Gaia mused. “My grandmother didn’t leave any papers behind when she died, did she?”

  The Matrarc looked thoughtful. “Come to think of it, she had a sketchbook. I’ll see if I can have my husband Dominic find it.” She tilted her face slightly and pressed her knitting needle idly against her chin. “I think we need to work out a deal.”

  “You’ll give me my sister back?”

  She shook her head. “Please face the truth, Mlass Gaia. You’re sixteen. You’re still weak from crossing the wasteland. You’re in no condition to watch over an infant who needs constant care and nursing. I have a mother here who will love her and care for her as her own.”

  “You just don’t think I’m fit to raise a baby.”

  The Matrarc smiled. “You’ve been talking to Mx. Dinah. You’ll be perfectly fit to raise your own baby in a loving home someday. I’m certain of that.”

  “Unlike Mx. Josephine,” Gaia said, with an edge.

  The Matrarc took a sip of her tea. “You liked them, didn’t you? Mx. Dinah and Mx. Josephine are wonderful women. They’ve just made different choices, and trust me when I say they made them with their eyes wide open. But I don’t care to go into the matter of the libbies at the moment. We have things to work out between us.”

  “Like when I can see my sister? Where is she?”

  “You broke out of the lodge to try to find her, obviously,” the Matrarc said.

  Gaia drank another swallow of her tea. “I’ll do it again, as soon as I can. You might as well just let me see her.”

  The Matrarc’s eyebrows arched slightly. “You sound so much like your grandmother sometimes. Come here. Kneel before me.” She set down her teacup and held out her hands. “I want to touch your face, child. Don’t resist me this time.”

  Gaia’s gut instinct was to back away as fast as possible, but the Matrarc merely waited. Gaia eyed the woman’s slender fingers, her pensive face, the rich red color of her skirt draping around her pregnant shape, and gradually her wariness yielded to the Matrarc’s wordless patience. She set her cup lightly on the hearth with a faint clink, then she shifted nearer so that she could gently lean her face up against the Matrarc’s waiting fingers.

  She closed her eyes as a trembling coolness rippled through her. Ten impossibly light fingertips touched along her face, instantly sensitizing every millimeter of her skin. Her eyebrows were traced in simultaneous curves, and then her cheeks. She could feel her scar respond as the Matrarc’s touch returned across the mottled skin of her left cheek a second time, examining, smoothing, and then the touch glided tenderly down her nose, and lips, and chin. The touch came to pause at her jawline, holding her, memorizing her. Gaia could hardly breathe.

  Gaia opened her eyes to see a question in the Matrarc’s expression. No matter how many times people had stared, no stranger had ever touched her this way before, and the intimacy unglued Gaia. The Matrarc’s inspection went deep into her marrow, a cross between suffocation and a kiss.

  The Matrarc’s own face was a study of concentration, and her clear, sightless eyes flickered with prisms of firelight.

  Confused, Gaia knew it was time to shift away, but somehow she couldn’t. Nor could she speak. The Matrarc’s hands slid lightly over her hair and down to her shoulders, meeting the chain of her necklace.

  “What’s this?” the Matrarc asked. As she lifted the locket, the ticking became audible.

  As if released from a spell, Gaia could breathe again. She leaned back slightly. “My locket watch. My parents gave it to me.”

  The Matrarc lowered it carefully. A belated shiver lifted along Gaia’s skin, and she crouched back to her old place beside the fire, hugging her arms around her. What did you do to me? she wondered.

  “I didn’t realize things were so complicated,” the Matrarc said finally.

  Gaia felt the heat of a blush start up her neck. “Don’t pretend to know me just because you’ve felt my scar.”

  The Matrarc laughed gently. “You think that’s all I saw?”

  “I don’t know what you mean.”

  “You need so badly, Mlass Gaia. Every part of you is reaching for someone to care for you.” The Matrarc’s eyebrows arched, and she turned her lips in a contemplative expression. “The men will be drawn to you. They’ll want to protect you. You’re young and full of promise, of course, but it’s the longing inside you that will intrigue them.”

  Gaia hardly knew what to think. She didn’t want be the vulnerable girl the Matrarc was describing.

  “How do I manage this?” the Matrarc added softly.

  “You don’t have to manage this at all. I’ll take care of myself.”

  The Matrarc laughed. “Such independence. You haven’t said anything about leaving a boyfriend behind. Did you?”

  A dim silence came back from her heart where the lonely place was. Explaining Leon would not be possible. It was so much easier when she didn’t think of him at all.

  “Never mind,” the Matrarc said, even more kindly. “As you say, you can take care of yourself. The fact is, you’re here now. I’d like you to look after our pregnant women. There are at least six I can think of off hand, and I’m sure there are more. Could you do that?”

  This, at least, was something Gaia understood.

  “Yes, but I don’t have any supplies,” Gaia said. “Did your last midwife leave a garden?”

  The Matrarc nodded. “She lived near the shore, a bit out of the way. Her place is all overgrown now. I had most of her herbs transplanted to the kitchen garden when she died, but I don’t know how well Norris has done with them.”

  Gaia was curious to see what was there. “If I do this, if I take care of the pregnant women for you, can I have my sister back?


  The Matrarc’s hands stilled on her yarn, and she tilted her face as if she were listening. Gaia heard noises above in the building, the sounds of people waking and moving in their bedrooms. There was a distant sound of water in the kitchen as well.

  “I’ll be honest with you,” the Matrarc said. “The answer is no. I’ll never let you raise your sister, but I’ll let you see her.”

  “When?”

  “When I can trust that you aren’t trying to undermine my authority here. You can’t go sneaking out of the lodge anymore. You can’t go down to the libbies to socialize. I want you attending school with the other mlasses and learning our ways.”

  Gaia could do that. “School?”

  “Mlady Roxanne can teach you in the mornings with the others. Are you literate?”

  “I can read,” Gaia said. “I’m a little slow, though. She won’t make me read out loud, will she?”

  The Matrarc laughed with open humor for the first time. “No, she won’t. You’ll like Mlady Roxanne. Everybody does.”

  Gaia smiled slowly, letting her gaze drift out to the tables and chairs again, seeing bookshelves in the corner. She’d never had the chance to go to school before. She’d always been jealous of the Enclave kids, but now maybe she’d get to read good books, too, and study about all the things that had always left her curious and hungry.

  “I need one other thing,” Gaia said.

  The Matrarc was smiling easily. “What is that?”

  “I need to know that if my sister’s dying, I can go to her and hold her one last time. Promise me that, and I’ll agree to the rest.”

  The Matrarc’s smile faded, and her eyebrows narrowed in genuine sympathy. “I’d be an ogre to refuse you,” she said. “I promise.”

  “Will I be attending to your pregnancy, too?” Gaia asked.

  “That would be reassuring, actually. This is my eighth pregnancy,” the Matrarc said. “It feels different, but I don’t know why. I had some spotting earlier, and then it stopped.”

 
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