Prized, p.9Caragh M. O'Brien
“One of the boys, Sawyer, found it in the garden this morning. He thought it was odd to see fresh dirt under the apple tree,” the Matrarc said.
Gaia felt the blood drain from her face.
“Explain,” the Matrarc said.
“You’ve obviously reached the only conclusion,” Gaia said. “Someone had a miscarriage and buried the remains.”
“Who was it?”
“You can’t think I’d tell you if I knew,” Gaia said.
The Matrarc slammed her cane against the floor so hard that Gaia jumped.
“Don’t fool with me. I asked you a question.”
Gaia backed up, bumping against the rocker. “And I’m not answering.”
“You mixed something in the kitchen last night,” the Matrarc said. “The smell still lingered this morning, but Norris didn’t think anything of it until I asked him to account for it. I can’t make any sense of the pantry. That’s all put away. But obviously you’ve started your medicines there, and it’s more than likely you prepared something toxic last night.”
“It’s my job to prepare medicines,” Gaia reminded her. “You asked me to take care of the pregnant women of Sylum. That’s what I’m doing.”
“Did you help someone have a miscarriage? Was it a girl in the lodge?”
“If someone wants to talk to me about a medical concern in private, it’s a completely confidential matter,” Gaia said.
The Matrarc clenched her jaw. “I will not have this.”
“You told me to take care of the pregnant women. You must have known it would include this,” Gaia said. “Why didn’t you tell me Leon was here?”
“We’re not done discussing this miscarriage.”
“I’m done. I need to get back down to him. I have to find out if he’s had the acclimation sickness yet.”
“Have you talked to him?” Gaia asked.
“Of course I have. I talk to every newcomer who arrives here.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me? I don’t get it. He looked like he didn’t even realize I was here.”
“He knows that you’re here. He came on purpose to find you.”
Gaia was more confused than ever. “You should have told me!”
“You were bedridden and half out of your mind. He was violent and dangerous. I expected him to leave.”
“What?” Gaia said. “Are we talking about the same person, Leon Grey?”
“The newcomer said his name was Vlatir. He said he was raised in the Enclave but that he’d become friends with you. I found it impossible to trust anything he said. He tried to attack me.”
Gaia couldn’t believe it. “It must be a misunderstanding. He really is my friend. ‘Vlatir’ was his biological father’s name, from outside the wall.” He must have taken that name instead.
“Let me be clear about this,” the Matrarc said. “I don’t know why you left Wharfton with your baby sister because you’ve never given me a straight answer. But I was willing to give you a chance here because you seemed willing to try, and you have skills we need. Vlatir is another matter entirely. He’s clearly some sort of escaped prisoner. He’s a liability, or worse.”
“You can’t keep him in the prison,” Gaia said. “He’s done nothing wrong.”
“Except threaten my life.”
Gaia couldn’t believe that. “He must have been seriously provoked.”
The Matrarc frowned and slowly circled her cane in her fingers. “He matters to you, then?”
“Yes. Of course,” Gaia said.
The Matrarc nodded and turned toward the window again. She reached out to touch a pane of glass, then glided her fingers downward, to the bottom of the sash, to hold her hand in the gap where the fresh air came in. Her silence made Gaia uneasy.
“You’ve inadvertently given me a very important tool,” the Matrarc said softly.
Alarm flared up in Gaia. “You can’t do anything to him,” she said. “You’ve already taken Maya away from me.”
The Matrarc turned her hand slowly in the open space. “I’ve been trying to think what to do with you. I’ve never known such a deceitful, lying girl.”
“I am not,” Gaia said, affronted.
“I know what you did in the morteur’s barn,” the Matrarc said.
Gaia was amazed. The only way the Matrarc could know was if Will had told her himself, but why would he?
“Chardo Will came to me,” the Matrarc said. “He wanted to quit his job. He said he didn’t want to deal with bodies or burials anymore. So, naturally, I asked him why. He’s done an exceptional job for three years now. And you know what he told me?”
“I can’t guess. I hardly know him.”
“He wants to raise horses.”
Gaia was so surprised she almost laughed. “I bet he’d be good at that.”
The Matrarc turned to face in Gaia’s direction. “He takes full responsibility for the autopsy. He wanted me to know about Jones Benny’s uterus, but more than that, he wants you to have access to cadavers, with no secrecy, right out in the open, so if anyone wants to donate their body to your medical education or the study of the expools when they die, they can do it.”
Gaia was amazed. “He said all that?”
The Matrarc folded her arms across her chest. “What did you do to him?”
“Me?” Gaia asked, taken aback.
“He’s a good man. He’d never do this on his own. Do you know what would happen if this autopsy became commonly known? Everyone would wonder if Chardo Will has been doing secret autopsies on the people they love. It would break their hearts. What were you thinking?”
She seemed to think it was all Gaia’s idea, despite what Will had said. “I wanted to help him,” Gaia said. “That’s all. And we discovered something important.”
“It’s useless. Unless you’re planning to get the expools pregnant.”
Gaia shook her head, part shocked, part disgusted. “Of course not.”
“Did you even think where this might lead?”
“No,” Gaia said, her voice low.
“You don’t think much, do you?”
Gaia was stung. “I’ll tell Will I’m sorry, all right?”
“You’ll leave the poor man alone.” The Matrarc’s features settled into hard lines. “You’ve tied my hands in strange ways. I can’t punish you for performing an autopsy or inducing a miscarriage without bringing these unsavory issues to light.”
“So leave them in the dark.”
“Sawyer won’t be able to resist starting rumors,” the Matrarc said. “That’s why I need to act quickly. You need to tell me who you treated.”
“Why? So you can make her a libby? An example to the other girls?”
“So what I did was illegal?” Gaia asked.
“What she chose was wrong, every part of it, from the fornication to the miscarriage, and she knows it. Her body would have betrayed her soon enough if you hadn’t intervened.”
“And then her pregnancy would have been her punishment? And giving up her child and her future? Who gave you the right to decide about that?”
“It’s a community decision, not yours,” the Matrarc said. “The price is high, but the girls know that. That’s why they stay in line, and the flip side of it is that marriage is a sacred, respected tradition. Children are raised in intact families, with loving, devoted parents. When you get there yourself, you’ll see what I mean.”
“That is the most backward thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Who is she?” the Matrarc demanded again. “Tell me.”
“She can tell you herself if she wants you to know.”
It seemed to Gaia that the Matrarc would explode with fury, but instead she tapped her way toward the desk, then purposefully traced her fingers across the top, finding the box and closing the lid.
“If we didn’t truly need you here,” the Matrarc said soberly, “I’d send you to the wasteland now. Within the hour.
“That’s easy. Just trust me to do what I think is right,” Gaia said.
The Matrarc shook her head, her hand resting pointedly on the lid of the box. “Obviously, your version of right is too far outside the bounds of what’s acceptable here in Sylum.”
“That box is a private matter,” Gaia said.
“Not in a village where the people are going extinct.”
“If numbers are all you care about, she’s likely to have far more babies as a cuzine than she would as a libby,” Gaia said.
“The numbers have never been all I care about,” the Matrarc said. “It’s much, much bigger than that, and you’re a threat to it all.”
“If I’m so dangerous, why don’t you make me a libby?”
“You’re not a libby. Even they have accepted the rules. You’re something else entirely.”
A stubborn, angry knot was tightening in Gaia’s gut. She glared back at the blind woman. “You make me sound like some kind of moral freak.”
The Matrarc’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “Isn’t that what you are?”
Everything inside Gaia revolted at the idea. She was not wrong. Or a freak.
“I want you to go down to the prison with me right now and let Leon out,” Gaia said. “That’s the first thing to do. He knows I’m no freak.”
The Matrarc removed her hands from the box and straightened her shoulders.
“Do not delude yourself about who’s in charge here. As of this moment, you are confined to the lodge until I directly give you permission to leave it,” the Matrarc said. “You will not go to Mx. Dinah’s, or Chardo’s barn, or the prison, or anywhere. You will not see your sister. You will not even step out onto the veranda or out into the garden until I say you may.”
Gaia didn’t believe her. “What about the babies? How will I get my herbs?”
“Unless you’re a reliable citizen of Sylum, completely trustworthy to me in every situation, you yourself are potentially more dangerous than any unattended childbirth.”
“So I’m not even supposed to go to childbirths? For how long?”
“Until you’re tame. A tame person would tell me about a miscarriage or an autopsy or anything else I asked. She would respect our customs.”
Gaia felt the cold start in her fingertips. “What if I never tell?”
“You’ll never get out. Vlatir will never be let out of prison.”
“What does his imprisonment have to do with mine?” Gaia asked, her alarm increasing. “That’s not fair at all.”
“Call it leverage.”
Gaia clenched her fingers in fists. It was the sort of thing Mabrother Iris would say, back in the Enclave. “You can’t keep Leon in prison. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
“Nobody cares about him, Mlass Gaia, except for you. He’s just another man who wandered into a town that already has hundreds of surplus men.”
“Don’t tell me you keep every new man in the prison.”
“If he threatens me, I do,” the Matrarc said. “Are you going to tell me who you helped with the miscarriage and promise never to do it again?”
Gaia cared a million times more for Leon than she did for Peony. They couldn’t compare. But deep in her heart, she knew she needed to care for pregnant women, in all their circumstances. It was what had driven her impulsively to follow the executed pregnant woman in the Enclave, and what had drawn her to Josephine, crying out in the night. It was who she was. Could she give that up for Leon?
“You’re asking me to change completely,” Gaia said. “To be someone I’m not.”
“Yes. I suppose that is what I’m asking,” the Matrarc said coolly.
Gaia found it hard to breathe, as if the oxygen had been sucked out of the air. “What if I won’t?” she asked. “What if I just get up and walk outside?”
The Matrarc touched her hand to her monocle for a moment. “Then we’ll lose the best midwife we’re ever likely to have. Fortunately, we haven’t gotten too used to having you with us.” She started for the door.
“You’re only teaching me to be sneaky,” Gaia protested. “What will you do? Put bars on all the windows? Put a guard at every door around the clock?”
“You’re your own guard,” the Matrarc said. “It’s very simple. If you step outside, even once, even a millimeter, you will prove you’re untrustworthy, and that will be the end. Believe me, I’ll know.”
“You think you can keep me here? Without locks? What will it look like to everyone else? How will you explain it to them?”
“They won’t mind. They’ll trust that I’ve assigned you a period of reflection. I’ve done it to other women before.”
“You have?” Gaia asked, then remembered Dinah had said something similar. “What happened then?”
“They gave in, of course. They all saw what was best, in time. You will, too.”
“I won’t. You’ll have to change your mind,” Gaia said, but the Matrarc’s calm certainty brought a kind of horror unlike any Gaia had felt before. Doubt shook her. “Let me at least talk to Leon and Will, to explain.”
The Matrarc seemed to consider, but then she shook her head. “I can relay a message for you. No letters. Outside contact would only confuse you. You may not speak to anyone outside the lodge or ask anyone else to relay messages after this. What would you like me to say?”
Gaia could barely believe this was happening to her, that there was no way around this intractable woman.
“Tell Will I’m sorry,” Gaia said. “I never wanted him to be in trouble.”
The Matrarc’s eyebrows raised. “And Vlatir?”
“Tell Leon—” Her voice broke, and her toughness evaporated. She wanted to see him so badly. A raw truth struck her: this place would destroy him. She pictured him again, chained to Malachai. It had already started. “Please, Mlady Matrarc. Give Leon a horse and some supplies and let him go, soon, before the acclimation sickness hits him. Tell him I’m sorry. Tell him he won’t ever get out of prison here if he stays. He deserves to know.”
The Matrarc turned with her cane toward the door. “I’ll give him the option of leaving,” she said. “Now take that box to the kitchen and tell Norris to have Sawyer bury it again where he found it.”
a period of reflection
GAIA HEARD NOTHING of Leon, and thinking of him brought a kind of panicky buzz between her ears. She didn’t even know if he had left Sylum, and she didn’t see the Matrarc again to ask her. News of Will, Dinah, and Gaia’s sister was minimal, and Gaia soon learned that the lack of information was another kind of wall, a silence to isolate her.
Otherwise, Gaia took small satisfaction in seeing that Peony was still circulating around the lodge in her normal way. Though a couple of times Gaia looked up to find Peony regarding her closely, they never spoke. Gaia started school in the atrium. The Matrarc’s daughter, Taja, a tall blonde with an athletic figure and confident air, made a point of treating Gaia courteously, but the other mlasses avoided Gaia, and it was clear they understood she was in disgrace. Reflection, nothing, Gaia thought. I’m grounded.
After her studies, when the other mlasses left for archery practice and other activities, Gaia had nothing to do, and she considered it a mercy when Norris assigned her tasks to do in the kitchen. The teacher, Mlady Roxanne, set her to arrange the books in the lodge’s library, several shelves at the sunny end of the atrium. Mlady Maudie, the short-tempered blonde who ran the lodge, also put Gaia to work if ever she saw her sit for a moment, her hands unoccupied. Gaia focused on the work without complaint, whether it was shelling peas, spinning yarn, wiping down tables, or washing the clerestory windows, and while none of it was physically hard, there was a mind-numbing quality to the endless chores that gave her some relief from her worried preoccupation about Leon, at least sometimes. Gaia kept believing the Matrarc would realize she’d never give in.
She’d been in the lodge for
When she stepped into the kitchen, the windows and door were closed up, and there was no sign yet of Norris. She touched a match to one oil lamp, then another. She pulled out the bread bowl and the yeast, but the room was so oppressively silent that even the smallest click of a spoon was magnified, so she opened one of the windows, swiveling it inward and up on its hinge to the hook above.
A gray, fog-enshrouded figure who had been stooping in the garden turned toward the sound. When the man straightened completely, she saw it was Chardo Will. She stepped back quickly against the farthest counter, and her heart began to thud in hard, slow beats.
She couldn’t move. She was afraid to even acknowledge him in case he expected her to speak to him, but when he crouched down again, she stood on tiptoe, trying to see what he was doing. There was a soft, chinking noise of a blade in dirt, and then she realized he must be transplanting more herbs for her.
Unexpected gratitude filled her, just the way the quiet fog filled the garden. Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how much it troubled her that they’d never spoken after the Matrarc confronted Gaia about the autopsy, but now she could interpret his presence in only one way: no matter how much he might have incurred the Matrarc’s disapproval, he held nothing against Gaia. The morteur still counted her a friend.
When a noise came from beyond the fence, Gaia looked over to see Norris limping up the road. Will rose and dusted off his hands. She could hear the men’s voices as a low murmur, and then Will moved away into the fog while Norris came up the garden path. She held the door wide for him as he stomped in.
Prized by Caragh M. O'Brien / Young Adult / Romance & Love / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes