Prized Page 19

“Mlass Gaia,” he said, obviously surprised. “They’ve let you out of the lodge at last.”

She nodded.

Will took Spider’s reins from her. “Well, welcome! How long have you been out?”

“Just now,” she said. “Just today.”

“And you came here first thing?” Will asked.

A tiny jerk of hesitation caught her, but she nodded again. “Peter said he was bringing you a body.”

Will laughed. “That’s impossible to resist.” Will’s gaze flew to the body, then to Peter, then to her again, in an instant of assessment too quick for speech. “You can finally meet my father and my Uncle John,” Will said. “And Uncle John’s partner, my Uncle Fred.”

The three older men were laughing at something Peter had said, but they turned now with welcoming smiles, and Gaia was introduced all around. Will’s father, Sid, was a shorter, older version of Will, with a weathered complexion, short gray hair, and a wiry build. Uncle John, Sid’s brother, was shorter still, with a round belly that bulged out the front of his overalls, a balding head, and a thick brown beard. Fred seemed a little younger, with a sweet, absent smile and dreamy dark eyes.

“Such a pleasure,” Sid said. “Will’s told us so much about you. I think he was more eager for you to get out of the lodge than you were yourself.”

“Dad,” Will said.

“You can’t blame him,” Uncle John said. “It’s not every girl that’s got him transplanting half the garden for her.”

The older men laughed again.

Gaia glanced uneasily at Will. “Please tell me it wasn’t half the garden.”

“They’re exaggerating,” Will said, apparently more happy than embarrassed.

Peter looked from her to Will, then slowly back to her. “I didn’t realize you knew each other,” Peter said.

“We don’t, really,” she said.

“Not much at all yet,” Will agreed, his smile genuine and warm.

Gaia could feel herself responding to his smile with real pleasure. Maybe we actually do know each other, she thought.

She glanced back to Peter to find his eyes narrowed faintly, studying her with an unspoken question. An awkward, triangular moment hovered. Will shoved a hand in his back pocket, waiting it out. What was she supposed to say?

Nothing, obviously. Like a dope.

“Why don’t you come in?” Sid offered. “Have a glass of cool tea.”

“You’re very kind,” she said. “But I really need to head back to help Norris get things ready for the banquet.” She wished there were a way to talk to Will alone in the barn and make sure he was over the trouble about the autopsy, but it was impossible with his family standing around.

Gaia glanced once more at Peter, who still hadn’t moved.

“Thanks again,” she said. “For bringing me in from the wasteland.”

He lost his stiffness a little and smiled again. “Think nothing of it. See you at the games?”

“Are you playing?” she asked. “I don’t really know how they work.”

The older men smiled.

“Of course I’m playing,” Peter said, and glanced at Will.

“We both are,” Will said.

She backed up another step. “Then I’ll see you both.”


shirts and skins

THE MATRARC’S DAUGHTER, Taja, came by the lodge kitchen after the banquet to collect Gaia. Norris had given Gaia a haircut and a rose-colored, hand-me-down blouse from his niece.

“Ready?” Taja asked.

Gaia had spoken to her only half a dozen times since she’d come to Sylum, and Gaia wondered how Taja felt about essentially babysitting her on her first real outing. She was a tall girl, a year older than Gaia, with square shoulders and strong, lean arms. She was purportedly deadly with an arrow, and her poised manner made Gaia want to stand up a little straighter herself.

“Good luck tonight, Mlass Gaia,” Norris said as she moved to the door.

“Good luck? Why?”

Norris gave her one of his rare, avuncular smiles. “Getting chosen, of course.”

Gaia vaguely recalled Josephine and Dinah telling her about the thirty-two games, but it hadn’t occurred to her she’d be eligible to be the prize.

“Aren’t you coming?” Gaia asked Norris. “We can wait.”

He waved them on. “I’ll take my time with the old peg. Go ahead. Try to have some fun.”

When Gaia and Taja reached the playing field, many of the villagers were already there. The east side of the field dropped off toward a dramatic view of the marsh, and she could see the evening sky reflect in coruscating patches wherever open water collected. Men gathered on the grassy slopes that enclosed the other three sides of the field, with a few women interspersed among them. Gaia spotted Dinah, Josephine, and other libbies near the top of one of the slopes, relaxing on blankets. Prominently figuring at the edge of the field on the half line, a wooden platform bedecked with colorful flags was slowly filling with important spectators: the Matrarc and her husband, Mlady Maudie, Mlady Roxanne, and a dozen other cuzines. Their families joined them. Over it all, the late October sun cast a golden, pearly light, and shadows were long on the green grass.

“Do you want to sit on the platform?” Taja asked. “We can.”

“I’d rather not.”

Taja turned and led Gaia to an area above and to the left of the platform where they’d have a good view of the field. Taja dropped her blanket on the grass and patted a spot on her left for Gaia.

“Here we go,” Taja said. She tucked her blue skirt around her knees and sat straight.

“Do the mlasses ever play?” Gaia asked.

“We play a lot of soccer, but the thirty-two games are just for men in the pool,” Taja said. “Do you play soccer?”

“No. I wish I did,” Gaia said.

“Another thing for you to learn here,” Taja said. Though her voice had none of her mother’s musicality, her dry, regal tone had a distinctive quality.

“Here you are,” Peony said, coming up the slope. Her yellow dress was sunny in the evening light, and she’d brought a sweater. She sat to Gaia’s left as Gaia scooted over to give her more room on the blanket. “Glad to see you out,” Peony said casually.

“Thanks.” Gaia had to remember to act like she hadn’t seen her just the night before and like she knew nothing special about her. “How’ve you been?”

Peony slapped her own arm. “Good. They’d better light the torches soon or the mosquitoes will eat us alive.”

As Gaia looked around for the torches, she noticed guards around the perimeter of the field, their black sashes conspicuous. Sword scabbards and no-nonsense clubs hung from their belts. Others were strategically posted near the platform. Still others fanned out across the playing field to create a controlled pathway, and the reason became clear as a double row of crims came up the path from the village, passing between the guards. Even with the distance, she could hear their chains in the grass.

“I didn’t know the crims would be here,” Gaia said, instantly alert and looking for Leon.

“They always come,” Taja said.

Seventy men or more, the crims kept crossing the field in their drab brown and gray garb. Most of their bearded faces were visible only in profile, and Gaia tried to narrow in on the ones with Leon’s height and build.

“I wish the crims wouldn’t come,” Peony said. “They give me the creeps.”

“Try motivating crims without any incentive and you won’t be so quick to say they don’t belong here,” Taja said.

“There’s Malachai,” Peony said. “Remember him, Taja?”

Gaia’s gaze shot to the tallest man, and walking beside him, linked by the chain on his ankle, was Leon. Her stomach dropped.

“I remember Malachai. He killed his wife a few years back,” Taja said. “Sick guy. Poor Greta.”

Peony spoke softly to Gaia. “I take it that’s your friend with him.”

Gaia nodded.

Leon’s dark hair had grown, and he walked with slumped, heavy shoulders that looked nothing like what she remembered. The chain caused a hitch in his stride as he worked to keep in synch with Malachai. She was shocked by how old he seemed, and when he and Malachai turned to sit in a row with the other crims, she could see hardly any of his face between his dark bangs and his dense beard.

“Chardo’s waving at you, Mlass Gaia,” Peony said. “Look. In the red.”

Gaia forced her gaze away from Leon and turned to the athletes occupying the center of the field, where a man was just lowering a hand. He lifted it again, and it took her an instant to recognize Peter without his beard. She was still too stunned from seeing Leon to be able to respond. Peter passed a ball to another man in a blue shirt, and Gaia realized he was Will.

Gaia looked back at Leon, and despite the distance, she saw he was slowly, methodically scanning the crowd of spectators. It was only a matter of time before he would see her. He’d been stuck in the prison, all this time, because of her. He’d sent her a note, and she hadn’t even read it. Guilt swept through her and ignited an anxiety so intense, she feared she’d throw up.

“Are you okay?” Peony asked her.

She swallowed hard, nodding.

The sound of a horn’s four-note melody carried through the air. The Matrarc stepped forward on the platform, and after a brief speech urging clean play all around, she opened the games.

“The first thing you need to know is there are two teams,” Peony said. “The Shirts and the Skins, except the teams keep mixing up. And there are five rounds.”

“They pick thirty-two players total to start with,” Taja said, leaning forward slightly. “After the first round, the winning team of sixteen players advances to the next round, and they get split into two teams of eight. Each round, the teams get smaller by half, until finally there are only two men left, and they compete against each other to see who wins.”

Peony looked annoyed. “I was getting to that.”

Taja pushed her blond hair behind her shoulder. “I’m sure you were.”

Closely guarded, the crims seemed as relaxed and curious as the other spectators. Malachai was saying something to Leon, pointing to the field. Leon nodded, then returned to his methodical inspection of the crowd. Gaia shrank lower between Peony and Taja, dreading the moment he would find her. For some inexplicable reason, she didn’t want him to see her as she was, nicely dressed, with friends, ready for a game.

A referee in a black shirt and shorts moved to the center of the field, and in response, the athletes ranged into a rough line before him, facing the crowd. They were agile, strong, handsome young men, and it took Gaia only an instant to realize the significance of what Taja had said: before them was the pool of Sylum, the men who could marry. It wasn’t enough that the athletes glowed with the confidence of youth and pulchritude, or that they’d come to play a game. They were answering an unspoken mandate to prove themselves, to compete visibly and physically before the scrutiny of their families and friends. No mlass could miss the significance, or the testosterone. It was clear in every move the men made, no matter how studied or nonchalant a gesture.

A spontaneous rumbling began in the crowd and then rose to a cheer, before the athletes did anything at all, just because they were there. The primal nature of it all stirred something within Gaia, and she looked again to Leon.

He had found her. He made no gesture, but across the distance, among the movement and commotion of the others, he alone sat completely still, a powerful, localized force focused exclusively on her. Time froze.

Then he looked away.

Gaia didn’t know she was holding her breath until she had to gasp for another one. Instinctively, she reached for Peony’s arm.

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