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       Prized, p.5

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “When are you due?”

  The Matrarc smoothed a hand contemplatively over her belly. “In twelve weeks. I’m praying for another girl. My oldest, Taja, is my one daughter so far. Imagine, having a girl first.”

  “How old are you?” Gaia asked.

  “Thirty-three.”

  The sound of a door opening carried from above.

  “I tell you what,” the Matrarc said. “Get yourself cleaned up and eat and rest. Until you’re stronger, I’ll tell the pregnant mladies to come talk to you here at the lodge. I’ll ask Mlady Maudie to set up a room upstairs where you can see them with some privacy.”

  “And the libbies? They’ll come here, too?” Gaia asked.

  The Matrarc hesitated. “It would be better if you met them at Mx. Dinah’s.”

  Gaia was about to object, then decided she would wait to fight that battle.

  The Matrarc was standing, reaching for her red cane. “This has been most promising,” she said. “A much better start. You haven’t been feeling dizzy or sick yet?”

  “Only a little.”

  The Matrarc put her knitting in a small bag. “Soon, you’ll be sick. There’ll be no mistaking it. This is your last chance if you want to leave Sylum,” she said. “You could still go.”

  Gaia felt a shiver of foreboding, but she stood, bringing her teacup with her, and reached for the tray. “No,” she said. “I’m staying.”

  “Then there’s one other thing you should know,” the Matrarc said. “It’s important. I don’t think any of the men would take advantage of your ignorance, but they might. Men can’t touch you here. They normally shouldn’t even speak to you unless you speak to them first.”

  The Matrarc had to be joking.

  “Why not?” Gaia asked.

  “It’s to ensure you some space because otherwise you could be overwhelmed with men competing for your attention. It’s the same for all the mlasses. And you should respect the men, too. They’re inclined to do anything you ask because they’ll want you to like them, but it’s rude to boss them around.”

  Gaia let out a laugh.

  “I’m quite serious,” the Matrarc said. “Especially about the touching.”

  “The outrider Chardo already touched me,” Gaia pointed out.

  “Contact for emergencies and direct orders is condoned, obviously. Any tender touch, any kiss, is strictly illegal until you choose the man you want to marry.”

  Gaia laughed again. “That won’t happen in any hurry.”

  “Respect our customs,” the Matrarc said. “They may seem strange to you, but they work for us.”

  “Don’t worry,” Gaia said. There was no danger of her touching or kissing any man in Sylum. That was the last thing on her mind.

  She slept. When she woke in her back bedroom with the slats crossing the window, it was afternoon and someone had put her white boots just inside her door. Her pack was on the chair, and the blue cloak Emily had given her back in Wharfton hung from a peg. They’d given her back everything she could still use, and kept her sister.

  How long, she wondered, would it take to prove to the Matrarc that she deserved to see Maya?

  She spent much of the afternoon seeing half a dozen pregnant mladies. When the first asked if there was any way to know if she was carrying a girl, Gaia smiled, amused. “You must know I love my sons,” the mlady said. “But a girl would be so wonderful.” By the time she’d been asked the same question for the fourth time, Gaia could feel the anxiety that drove the women to ask. When the last woman, not yet pregnant, asked if there was a way to be certain she could conceive a girl, Gaia felt helpless.

  Drained, weary, she made her way back to the kitchen and was grateful when Norris pointed her toward the rocking chair. The day had grown warm, and even with the windows open, the air was uncomfortably still.

  “You’re a midwife, huh?” he said. “You look too young.”

  “So I’ve heard.”

  “My niece Erianthe is expecting.”

  “I’ll probably see her tomorrow. There were six moms today.”

  All the talk of babies had made her miss Maya even more. She’d spent a whole day without her now, and it just felt wrong.

  Norris passed her a bowl of soup and hot slice of black bread, right from the oven. She hardly ate half of it before she felt full. She gazed absently around the kitchen, noting the pipe that brought in water, and the tray of black loaves. They reminded her of Mace, and the night in the bakery when she’d talked to Leon. He’d been so klutzy with the little toy eggbeater. When she closed her eyes, she could actually see the pieces of the broken toy he had been holding, but not his hands. That’s what she wanted to see. And his voice. She missed that, too.

  She wanted to believe Leon was still alive: that after he’d been knocked senseless, the guards had brought him to the Bastion with nothing more than a bad headache. He could be playing chess with his sister right now, all safe and reconciled with his family. He could be in the solarium, surrounded by ferns and flowers.

  Who was she kidding? If she was going to let herself dream the impossible, why not imagine that Leon was coming across the wasteland to find her?

  “You should finish that,” Norris said.

  She opened her eyes and looked down at her bowl, still half full. “I think my stomach shrank.”

  “I’d say that’s likely. But you need food. You won’t have your energy again until you eat enough.”

  Gaia nibbled a few more bites of the bread. She did feel weak still, and she knew she looked haggard. A glance in the bathroom mirror earlier had confirmed that for her.

  “Have you heard anything about my sister?” Gaia asked.

  “No.”

  His peg made a sturdy noise as he moved around the kitchen, putting away a grater, onions, spices, and other odds and ends. Though there was nothing rhythmic about his steps, the peg noise made a kind of music in the kitchen, a comforting sound that didn’t match his abrupt speech and persistently glowering expression. She could feel her guard coming down a little. His cat, Una, watched the end of Norris’s peg with studious attention.

  He passed Gaia an apple. “Try that.”

  She palmed the apple, one with golden specks in the red, and a slightly rough skin. It was almost too pretty to eat.

  “Thank you, Mabrother.” She caught her mistake. “I mean, Norris,” she added quickly. “Is that your first name or your last?”

  The man lifted a bushy eyebrow. His forehead gleamed with sweat, and he ran his forearm across it. “‘Norris’ is my mamname. My given name is Emmett. Norris Emmett.”

  “Your mamname? Is ‘Norris’ your mother’s family name?”

  “That’s what I said.”

  It worked backward, she realized. Not only were the names reversed, first to last, but children carried on their mothers’ family names, not their fathers’. “Back home, women take their husbands’ names when they marry, and then their children have the father’s last name,” she said. “Like for me, Gaia Stone. ‘Stone’ was my father’s last name.”

  Norris appeared to consider a moment. “That doesn’t make sense. You only know for certain a child is his mother’s. Of course a family bears the mother’s name.”

  Gaia could see his logic, but it seemed peculiar. “So, technically, I’d be Orion Gaia here.” She laughed. “That’s not me.” She stood and walked to the sink to clean out her bowl. A faucet provided a stream of cool water. “Is this potable?”

  “You have to boil it before you drink,” he said. “But you can wash with it. Rinse the soap off with the hot water. The drain will take it out for the garden.” He nodded toward the stove where a black kettle was steaming on a back burner.

  “We didn’t have running water back home,” she said. “They did in the Enclave, but we didn’t outside the wall. Where’s the water from? A well?”

  “The marsh. We have an aqueduct system, and there’s a water tower out back. I have a few minutes now, and I could show it to you
, and the garden. Want to come? It’ll be cooler out there.”

  He passed her a spare straw hat on the way out. The garden was large, and a couple of boys were working at one end of it, harvesting beans. Norris introduced them as Sawyer and Lowe, and they tipped their hats in greeting. Norris took her through the garden slowly, pointing out each vegetable and herb, but as they progressed, Gaia was increasingly disappointed. There were less than half of the herbs she had routinely used back home, and the prospect of filling out what she would need all by herself was daunting.

  She tossed her apple core onto the compost pile.

  “You’re not happy,” Norris said bluntly.

  “No. It’s all right. It’s a start.”

  “You can transplant anything you want,” Norris said. “There’s no shortage of help. Just tell us what to do.”

  She glanced again at the boys, who had paused to look up at her again. “Is this the most extensive collection of herbs in the village?” she asked.

  He seemed to consider. “Everyone has a garden. The Chardos, come to think of it, might have more variety with their herbs,” he said. “You could try there.”

  She asked directions, and though Norris offered to send Sawyer along to guide her, Gaia was eager for a chance to walk alone and think.

  “Don’t be gone too long,” Norris said. “The acclimation sickness can come on suddenly and you don’t want to be alone when it hits.”

  She hadn’t gone five minutes before she heard footsteps coming fast behind her, and when she turned, a dark-haired girl was running toward her. She was surprisingly fast considering she ran with a hand on her hat, and her yellow skirt flapped out behind her. Gaia stopped to wait, listening to the cicadas starting up their slow buzz in the trees overhead.

  “Hey,” said the girl, out of breath. “I wanted to talk to you. I was hoping I’d catch you alone. I’m Mlass Peony.”

  “Nice to meet you. I’m Gaia.”

  “I know. You’ll never believe how happy I am to know you’re a midwife.”

  Gaia looked at her more closely, noting Peony’s curvy figure and the bright eyes under the pale brim of her hat. Brown, lustrous hair fell loosely to her shoulders, and she wore a necklace of fine blue and purple beads. She was the picture of sturdy, farm-girl healthiness, with her cheeks rosy from running, yet she wasn’t smiling.

  “What can I do for you?” Gaia asked.

  Peony hesitated, her eyes darting to be sure they were alone. “I’d like to know if you can help me miscarry.”

  CHAPTER 4

  peony’s request

  GAIA FELT THE BRIGHTNESS seep out of the afternoon. She had known this day would come. Her mother had tried to prepare her for it, but being prepared in the hypothetical wasn’t the same as facing a girl on a road asking for her help. Until this moment, she’d always only used her skills and knowledge to help mothers have healthy babies.

  Peony was watching her closely. Gaia gave a weak smile before turning up the road again.

  “Can you help me? Do you know how?” Peony asked.

  “I know how,” Gaia said slowly. “I haven’t done it before.”

  “You don’t want to,” Peony guessed.

  She didn’t want to. Not at all. “I need to think.”

  “What are you thinking? Tell me.”

  Gaia shook her head, unsure where to even start. “It isn’t simple. Back in Wharfton, where I come from, it was my job to advance babies into the Enclave. I took them when they were just born and handed them over to the authorities, and their parents would never see them again.”

  Peony looked horrified. “How could you do that?”

  “I didn’t really have a choice, and I didn’t much think about it. The mothers let me. We all accepted the system because it was supposed to be good for the babies. They were going to families that loved them and could take care of them better than we ever could outside the wall. Advancing a baby was an honor. That’s what I’d been taught to believe, at least, but then I began to see.”

  She thought back to her first solo delivery. The mother had been poor and alone, and she’d named her baby Priscilla, believing she’d get to keep her. Gaia also remembered how she’d girded herself up to be strong enough to take the baby, how she’d even been proud of what she did. There were some things Gaia wished she could forget.

  Peony was waiting, her eyes troubled. “How does this relate to me?”

  Gaia glanced down and saw a dried drop of apple juice on the back of her thumb. She sucked it away, pressing her thumb hard against her teeth. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “That shouldn’t have been my job. The only one who should have been making a decision about that baby was her own mother. Keep it, give it away—that should have been her choice to make.”

  “I agree with you,” Peony said.

  Gaia frowned down at the road between her feet. “I think the person who has to live most closely with the consequences of a decision should be the one to make it.”

  Peony took a step nearer. “Does this mean you’ll help me?”

  Gaia slowly looked up to see the agony and hope in Peony’s eyes. “Are you absolutely certain it’s what you want?” Gaia asked. “Have you talked it over with the father and with your parents?”

  “I can’t tell my parents.” Peony turned to look up and down the road again, and then rubbed the heels of her hands against eyes underscored with dark circles. Now that her blush from running had gone, she was visibly pale and restive. “I’ve talked to the father. He’s a lot of things right now, but supportive is not one of them.”

  “Will you be in trouble if anyone finds out?” Gaia asked.

  Peony laughed. “Whoo-boy! But here’s the thing. I’ll be in much, much worse trouble if I have the baby, won’t I? Like Mx. Josephine. I can’t do it. I just can’t.”

  Gaia looked up at the sound of wheels. A horse-drawn wagon was approaching down the road, and Peony smiled. When her face wasn’t troubled, she was an unusually pretty girl, with wide cheekbones, a generous mouth, and large, expressive eyes. She even gave a cheery wave as the wagon passed. Immediately afterward, she was all tense anxiety again.

  “Please say you’ll help me,” Peony pleaded. “Please, I’ll do anything for you.”

  “I think we’re going to need to talk,” Gaia said. “Not here.”

  Peony nodded eagerly. “There’s a path just ahead in the woods. We should be okay there.”

  Gaia turned doubtfully toward the green woods on the side of the road. “I can’t go far,” she said, reluctant to admit her weakness. “I’m not my usual self. Where does this lead?”

  “It runs back to the bluff and meets another path there, but there’s a little glade before then, with a bench. Not far, I promise. We have bonfires there.”

  A few paces farther, the sylvan path veered to the left, then branched again and dipped into a small, open area between old, arching trees. Three big, rough-hewn logs for sitting had been pulled up around a ring of blackened stones. Gaia took the end of a log and sat.

  It was only as Peony sank to the log opposite her that Gaia saw the undisguised misery that consumed the girl. A small, choking noise came from her, and then she slumped forward and covered her face with her hands.

  Gaia didn’t know what to do. She moved around to sit beside Peony and put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t know this girl at all, and she felt like she was way out of her league. “Are you sure we shouldn’t talk to your mother?”

  “I can’t tell anybody else. You must think I’m terrible,” Peony’s voice was hardly more than a whisper, and then she sobbed once.

  “I don’t think you’re terrible,” Gaia said gently.

  The girl pressed her skirt against her eyes. “Just tell me you’ll help me,” Peony said. “You have to. There’s nobody else who can. If you don’t, I don’t know what I’ll do. I almost killed myself a couple of nights ago, but then I chickened out.”

  “You can’t kill yourself,” Gaia said.

/>   The girl gave a hysterical laugh, looking up again. “No?” Her face crumpled in anguish. “I’ve been so terrified. And then I heard this morning you were a midwife. I couldn’t believe it! It was a sign. Please, please tell me you’ll help me.”

  As Gaia met Peony’s distraught gaze, she suddenly realized it didn’t matter that she didn’t know this girl. She wasn’t being asked to help a friend. She was being asked, as a responsible midwife, to practice her skills, and it humbled her.

  “If I can, I will,” Gaia said. “It’s okay. Try to calm down a little. How far along are you?”

  Peony bit her lips together before she answered more calmly. “I missed my period two weeks ago. I know you’re thinking it might be a fluke, but I’ve been regular for the last four years, like clockwork, and I just know.”

  “You aren’t too far along, then,” Gaia said. “I’ll have to examine you later to be sure, but we’ll assume you’re right. Do you want to talk a little? Is there any chance you’d change your mind? I know it’s a lot to adjust to, even in the best circumstances.” She closed her fingers around her locket.

  Peony took a deep breath and seemed to settle a little. “It’s like this. If I have this baby, I’ll be cast out of the cuzines just like Mx. Josephine was, but she at least has a sister. My whole family’s depending on me,” she said. “I’m the only daughter. I’m the one who’s supposed to inherit after my mother someday and take care of my brothers, but I won’t be able to once I’m cast out.”

  “I don’t fully understand,” Gaia said. “Is your mother old or sick?”

  “No, but I’m the one carrying on the family line. The farm and everything, that’s all tied up in me to inherit, mother to daughter, when my mother eventually dies. I wouldn’t just disgrace my family if I was cast out of the cuzines. My family would end up impoverished because of me. Don’t tell me I’m thinking too far ahead. That’s how it is.”

  “You’ll hate me for asking this,” Gaia said, “but why didn’t you think of that before?”

  “When I was with him, you mean?” Peony sniffed, wiping at her eyes again. “Have you ever loved somebody? A boy?”

 
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