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       Prized, p.8

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  She had to pass around the three sides of the balcony to reach Peony’s corner bedroom, and then she balanced the tray along one arm in order to knock softly.

  “Peony?” she whispered.

  The door opened and Peony let her in. Gaia waited with her back to the door, blinded by the darkness, until Peony struck a match and lit a candle on the desk. Her room was cozy, with a watercolor of the marsh on one wall and curtains of a sheer, soft rose color. A quilt with primarily white patches and a dainty, lavender design was smoothed across the bed, and a potted spider plant grew by the open window. The soft night breeze brought the sound of crickets through the screen.

  “I was afraid you would never come,” Peony said. She was dressed still, though her feet were bare. “Is that it?”

  Gaia set the tray on the desk and tried to banish her nervousness. “I need to examine you first.”

  “I’m sure I’m pregnant.”

  “I don’t want to give this to you if I don’t have to. It will make you really sick.”

  Peony climbed onto the bed. “I have something for you. I heard Mlady Roxanne talking about your sister, and I know where she is.”

  “You do?”

  Peony nodded. “She’s out on the first island, with Adele Bachsdatter and her husband.”

  “Why with them?” Gaia asked, both excited and curious.

  “I think because Mlady Adele had a stillbirth just before you came,” Peony said. “They’re good people, Mlass Gaia, and I know Mlady Adele was crazy with grief. It’s possible the Matrarc thought your sister would help her.”

  Gaia tried to think if Mlady Adele would be able to nurse Maya, and guessed she could. “How do I get out to the island?” Gaia asked.

  “Don’t go. You aren’t even supposed to know where she is. I just told you because I thought you deserved to know.”

  There was no way she could stay away now that she knew, but that wasn’t Peony’s problem. The candle flickered in the breeze from the window, and Gaia smiled. “Thank you.”

  “It’s the least I can do.” Peony hugged her knees to her chest for a moment. “Can we please get this over with?”

  There was nothing for it, then, but to get on with the miscarriage. Gaia washed her hands and gestured for Peony to lie back. A gentle, competent internal examination showed her Peony’s cervix had changed from the normal bump with the near firmness of beeswax to a more yielding softness. The other signs of color change were there, too, convincing Gaia that Peony was, indeed, pregnant. Carefully, she settled Peony’s skirt down again.

  “You can sit up,” she said quietly, and Peony shifted up on the bed, crossing her legs.

  “I’m right, aren’t I?” Peony asked.

  Gaia nodded and poured more water to wash her hands again.

  “So what do I do, just drink this?” Peony said, pointing to the concoction.

  Gaia searched her face, seeing the anxiety and hopefulness there.

  “Is there really no chance the father will marry you?” Gaia asked. “You’re sure?”

  “Xave?” Peony asked. “No chance. I don’t even want him anymore.”

  Gaia couldn’t believe she’d heard correctly. “You can’t mean Mx. Josephine’s Xave.”

  Peony gave a bitter smile. “Small world, isn’t it? Hundreds of men to choose from, and we both get suckered in by the same snake.”

  “I don’t understand,” Gaia said. “Why don’t you turn him in?”

  “I have a secret to keep, don’t I?” Peony said. “If I tell on him, everyone knows. And I’m an idiot. I should have known what he was like after what he did to Mx. Josephine, but I believed in him. Now do you see?”

  “So you’re absolutely, positively sure?” Gaia asked.

  “I am,” Peony said. “I swear, I was ready to do something drastic if you changed your mind. I didn’t dare ask anybody, but there are old stories. I knew it could go wrong, but that wouldn’t be any worse than if I set out to kill myself anyway, would it?”

  “That is absolutely not an option,” Gaia said.

  “But you’re here. I’m going to be okay.”

  In a quiet, steady voice, Gaia explained what Peony could expect. The bleeding would be heavy and persistent, but it shouldn’t be a gushing flow. Peony would have cramps, sweating, diarrhea, and nausea, but not a fever. The embryo would be shed with everything else, so tiny that Peony would not know exactly when it happened.

  “You need to know one more thing,” Gaia said. “There’s a chance, a small chance, you could die. If you start bleeding too much or you get an infection, it will be nearly impossible for me to save you.”

  “I trust you,” Peony said.

  “It isn’t trust,” Gaia corrected her. “It’s a true risk. I haven’t done this before. My mother always handled miscarriages. I think I’m right about the herbs and the amounts, but I could be wrong.”

  “You don’t understand,” Peony said. “I’d take any chance. I can’t have this baby.”

  Gaia threaded her fingers together and searched her own heart one last time.

  “You would never do this, would you?” Peony said.

  Gaia glanced up and felt misery move through her like slow, dark molasses. “No,” she said honestly. “I wouldn’t. To me, keeping my baby alive would be worth anything that happened to me, even if I had to give up my baby later. At least, that’s what I believe now, but I’ve never been in your position. Listen, Peony. It’s because I feel so strongly about it myself that I respect how completely this has to be your own decision. You’re the only one, the only one, who can make the right choices for your family.”

  “My family,” Peony whispered.

  Gaia stood. “I’d stay with you, but then everyone would know.”

  Peony nodded. She turned bleakly toward the cup on the tray.

  “The honey bread’s for after,” Gaia said. “The taste is foul.”

  “How soon will it start?” Peony asked.

  “Soon.”

  “And when will it be over?”

  “By morning.”

  There was nothing more Gaia could do. She took a step toward the door, and suddenly Peony reached out to grab her hand with cold fingers.

  “Stay with me one more minute, just while I drink it,” Peony begged.

  Gaia squeezed her hand back. “Okay.”

  She watched while Peony took the cup and brought it to her lips. A last moment Peony held it there, rigid with fear and determination, and then she tilted the cup to drink. She didn’t stop until it was all down. The honey bread went untouched. When Peony climbed onto her bed and hid her face in her pillow, Gaia quietly let herself out.

  CHAPTER 7

  chainmates

  GAIA COULD NOT SLEEP. Two hours later, she snuck back up to Peony’s room to check on her, and later, hearing noises in the bathroom, she checked on her there as well. By dawn, she was anxious to check on her again, but people were stirring in the lodge, and she was afraid it would be noticed and remembered if she went up to the second floor.

  She waited anxiously for breakfast, and when the mlasses came down to eat, Peony was the last to appear, wan but managing to act enough like normal to avoid calling attention to herself. That was it, then. She’d made it through the night. Images that had been hovering at the back of Gaia’s imagination of the girl’s bed awash with blood were finally put to rest, and she sagged in her chair.

  “Are you all right?” Mlady Roxanne asked, looking over.

  Gaia picked at a button on her sweater. It wasn’t chilly, but she was cold. “Yes. Still just a little tired, I guess.”

  “You’ve been working too hard. I warned you,” Mlady Roxanne said.

  “I’m okay. I think I’ll take a walk.” She couldn’t abide the idea of being cooped up inside.

  “I thought you would start lessons with the other mlasses this morning,” Mlady Roxanne said.

  “Just one more day,” Gaia said. “I’ll start tomorrow, I promise.”

 
Mlady Roxanne touched Gaia’s shoulder gently and smiled. “All right. But take it easy today. Give the garden and herbs a rest.”

  Gaia was more than willing to agree.

  She took a furtive glance down the table to where Peony was eating her oatmeal, and then ducked her head over her own bowl. She would go down to the shore, she decided. Maybe someone there would take her out to the island, or at the least she could look out to where Maya was. She needed something to ground her again.

  It was the first time she’d walked downhill since she’d arrived, and soon she found a row of dark, solid cabins where a cooper, a blacksmith, a weaver, a cobbler, and a potter were all busy with their trades. Trees had been felled to make way for gardens and pastures, but most of the cabins and roads were in shade, and the people, she saw, were not as scrupulously careful to wear hats and long sleeves as they had been back home. They looked more comfortable, more carefree than the people in hardscrabble, sun-baked Wharfton, and she took her hat off, too. She liked the feel of lightness around her hair and neck.

  Several lesser roads converged at an arching willow, and she recognized the place from the night Josephine had her baby. The marsh was visible farther below, and the main road curved down to the right toward the shore. A pretty, narrow path headed in roughly the same direction, and Gaia took that instead, winding past a dozen small, tidy, welcoming cabins, where children played in the yards and pumped on swings that hung from the trees.

  A voice was singing, and a man was pinning laundry on a line. The matina bell sounded, and everyone paused wherever they were, even the children, touching their hands to their hearts. Their contentment was almost palpable, and Gaia waited politely, motionless herself until they resumed their activities. Even though the homes and lush terrain were vastly different from those in Wharfton, the neighborhood reminded her of home. Her parents, she knew, would have liked it here.

  The path dipped, leaving the cabins behind, and the rich, mottled greens of the woods enveloped her. She ran her fingers through a bed of tall, delicate ferns and peered ahead to where the blue and green of the marsh beckoned between the tree trunks. Newly careworn about Peony, Gaia felt how easy it would be to slide into loneliness for her parents and her sister and Leon, but she focused on the gentle, powerful beauty of the forest, and she breathed deeply, filling the tiny, empty pockets of her lungs with the fragrant smell of pines and shade. It’s possible, just possible, she thought, that I could grow to love it here.

  A moment later, the path took a last turn and opened onto a ledge that overlooked the prison. To the left, farther below, fishermen were working and canoes were pulled up on the long, curving beach. Beyond, in the marsh, a wind rippled through the fluid expanse of the black rice slue, bending back each individual stem in a fleeting wave. The first island rose out of the flatness like a very small, green-topped hat. Hope lifted within her.

  “Maya,” she said. “I’m coming.”

  A clanking noise drew her gaze to the prison. Just below her, in a dirt yard surrounded by a tall, spiked fence, gray-clad men waited in line for bowls of steaming food. A hint of smoke from the fire below the big cook pot drifted to where she stood, and she sneezed. There were seventy or eighty crims, many chained by their ankles in pairs. Two men worked the ladles, and she was near enough to hear voices as they passed bowls and spoke a word or two to each man. Black-sashed guards armed with short cudgels and swords occupied a station near the gate, and other guards stood by the entrance to the barracks.

  The path to the beach sloped nearer to the prison fence. Uncomfortable, feeling oddly exposed, she put on her hat again, crossed her arms and tried to pass at a normal, unhurried pace that wouldn’t draw attention.

  “Malachai! You want to finish the pot?” called one of the cooks.

  A few laughs rose from the prison yard, and then several shouts of Malachai’s name. On the far side of the yard, a black-bearded giant of a man stood beside a row of seated crims, and he turned to say something that Gaia couldn’t hear. More men laughed this time, and when the tall man, Malachai, shifted his weight, she saw he was chained to a smaller man who sat on the bench. The implication was obvious: Malachai couldn’t get seconds because his chainmate wouldn’t move. Or couldn’t. Malachai crossed his massive arms and leaned his shoulders back against the fence.

  Malachai’s chainmate was leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, his forehead on one fist, his other hand holding a bowl. He straightened and sat back, passing his bowl to Malachai, and then he leaned his head back against the fence and closed his eyes.

  Gaia came to a stop, staring at him, at his black beard and the distinct lines of his nose and eyebrows, disbelieving. It can’t be.

  “Hey, girly!” A jolly shout came from one of the crims.

  Gaia hardly heard it. She took a step nearer. A mix of hope and horror was rising in her.

  “Hey! Girl! Smile for us!”

  Whistles and catcalls broke out around the yard, and the black-bearded crim beside Malachai turned his face, like the others, to scan up the hill. Even with the crim clothes and the deep tan and the beard, he was Leon Grey.

  “Leon!” she called.

  He came to his feet slowly, as if uncertain he was seeing correctly. “Gaia?”

  The wondering joy in his voice was the sweetest thing she’d ever heard. She broke into an ecstatic smile and ran along the path, racing down toward the wooden gate. In the yard below, other crims took up her name. “Mlass Gaia! Give us a kiss, Mlass Gaia! Hey, girly!” Leon had Malachai by the arm, urging him forward, but the big man stayed against the fence, grinning and unmovable.

  “That’s enough!” came a loud voice. The guards pulled out their cudgels, fanning out from the barracks, but the crims only made more teasing noises, now directed at Leon, too. One of the guards was approaching Leon, his cudgel in hand.

  “No!” Gaia called, but her voice was lost in the commotion.

  As she ran, the declining path dropped below the sight-line over the fence, hiding the crims from her and her from the crims. She could see the gate now and two guards standing outside it. She clutched at her hat and skirt, still running full force.

  “Let me in!” she said, gasping for breath. “I have to get in! My friend Leon is in there!”

  The first guard appeared amused. “This is a prison, Mlass. You can’t go in. Visits aren’t until next Tuesday.”

  “This isn’t a visit!” she said. She stepped back to project her voice over the top of the wooden doors. “Leon!”

  She couldn’t hear any specific reply, just the continued rumble of the disturbance inside.

  “Let me in!” she repeated, grabbing at the heavy beam in the brackets that held the doors shut.

  “Back up, Mlass,” the second guard said, setting his hand on top of the beam. “You can’t go in.”

  “But I have to! An innocent man’s in there!”

  The guard didn’t budge. “You’ll have to take that up with the Matrarc.”

  “Leon!” she yelled again. “Are you there? Can you hear me?”

  Gaia listened for an answer, and then turned to run back up the path again. By the time she could see into the prison yard again, Leon and Malachai were gone, and the other crims were filing into orderly groups.

  Gaia hurried back down to the prison gate.

  “How long has Leon Grey been here? The new man from the Enclave?” she demanded.

  The two guards looked at each other and she almost died of impatience.

  “I guess they brought in a new man a couple days ago,” the first guard said slowly.

  Gaia balled her hands in fists. She wasn’t going to get any information out of these idiots. She had to see the Matrarc.

  “Give a message to Leon Grey,” she said. “Tell him Gaia says she’ll get him out. Okay?”

  They nodded, but their ready agreement only made her suspicious that they wouldn’t. They didn’t care. Their job was to guard the door, and that’s all they were doing.

&n
bsp; She spun on her heel and ran up the road, but she had to stop far too soon. She hated not being strong. Did Leon have the acclimation sickness yet? she wondered. How would she help him through that?

  Then another thought struck her: if he hadn’t had the sickness yet, he could still leave.

  Mlady Roxanne met her on the veranda of the lodge. “Where’ve you been? We’ve been looking for you. The Matrarc wants to talk to you.”

  “I want to talk to her, too,” Gaia said. Murderous rage had overtaken her frustration. “Where is she?”

  “She’s in your room.”

  Good, Gaia thought, pulling open the screen door and charging in. She stormed past the mlasses who looked up from their books, down the hall past the kitchen where Norris worked, and into her little room.

  The Matrarc stood before Gaia’s barred window, facing outward, as if she could sense the light, and her red cane was angled rigidly to the floor.

  “How long has Leon been here? Why didn’t you tell me he’d come?” Gaia demanded.

  The Matrarc turned. Her expression was furious. “Close the door,” she said with ominous calm.

  Rage and confusion warred in Gaia’s heart, but the Matrarc’s unyielding, steely eyes penetrated into her with uncanny precision, commanding. Gaia turned to close the door, even managing to do it without a slam.

  “I need you to release him. Immediately,” Gaia said.

  “And I need you to explain that.” The Matrarc pointed to Gaia’s desk, where a dirty box was set. It was a wooden box, with neatly dovetailed corners and a lid, the sort of box made with care to last, and which might be used to deliver a gift or hold keepsakes. With no distinguishing marks, it could belong to any one of a thousand people.

  “I’ve never seen it before,” Gaia said.

  “Look inside.”

  Gaia’s heart beat strangely, and as she stared again at the dirt, the significance became clear to her: a box with dirt upon it had been dug up, which meant it first had been buried. The Matrarc was waiting, listening. Gaia stepped to the desk and lifted the lid. Inside was a neatly folded pile of rags, darkened with absorbed blood, now dried. On top lay a stem of blue cornflowers, dainty and just beginning to wilt. She gasped, stepping back.

 
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