Prized Page 21

Then Leon turned his back to the crowd.

It was clear, even from a distance, that scars mottled the skin across the back of his shoulders in a vivid, savage pattern of white and brown.

Gaia felt sick. “No,” she whispered. Hushed murmurs were spreading through the crowd as others noticed, too, and a gasp came from one of the mladies on the platform.

“That’s not right,” Peony said quietly.

“No one’s been flogged like that here,” Taja said. “Not in ages. He must have come like that.”

“Who would do that to him? Why?” Peony asked. “He must have done something awful. Really awful.” She turned expectantly to Gaia.

But Gaia was unable to answer. She pressed her knuckles against her lips, hating this. She couldn’t bear to think of Leon being hurt. What if they’d done it to him back in the Enclave because of her?

She’d left him in the Sylum prison.

She hadn’t even accepted his note.

“What have I done?” Gaia whispered. She turned to Peony, horrified. “What did you tell him about the note?”

“I never spoke to your friend directly. I told Malachai’s brother the truth: that you refused to take it. Why?” Peony said. “Regrets?”

Gaia could barely breathe. He must hate me.

Round three began, four versus four, and this time Leon was playing defense for the Skins team, facing in Gaia’s direction from the far north end of the field. Fierce concentration ruled his features. Xave’s team tried to pass around the Skins like they had in the previous round, but Leon’s team was quick to anticipate, and a teammate passed back to Leon, who feinted right, then dribbled left, and popped the ball up high and hard toward the goal, perfectly arced for a header.

Two players leapt into the air, straining toward the ball, and a nasty cracking noise came as they collided and fell sprawling to the ground. The ref blew his whistle. Munsch lay still while the bare-chested player slowly sat up, blinking.

On the platform, the Matrarc stood. “Is there blood?” she called.

“Yes,” called the ref. “Munsch is down, and Sundberg. They hit heads.” He waved in a few of the other athletes to lend a hand.

“Bring them here. Where are Mlass Gaia and Mx. Dinah?” the Matrarc said.

“I’m here,” Gaia called, moving forward.

Munsch was moving now, slowly rolling over on the grass, and he touched a palm tenderly to his forehead. Sundberg came to his feet and gave him a hand up, and with the others, the two walked slowly to the sideline before the platform. The crowd applauded out of respect.

“Resume play,” called the Matrarc with a wave. “Mlass Gaia, take a look. See if there’s anything you can do.”

Gaia heard the ref’s whistle and the action starting up again behind her. Sundberg was already looking better, but Munsch had a cut on his forehead, and a bruise was forming under his skin. His eyes seemed fine and he said he wasn’t nauseous, but he looked a little dazed. One of the guards passed Gaia a basket of bandages and a bottle of water, and as she started dabbing at Munsch’s cut, Dinah came up beside her.

“How are they?” Dinah said.

“I’m okay,” Munsch said. “Just let me be for a minute. I want to watch.”

“Hold still,” Gaia said, and finished cleaning his wound.

“That crim’s fast,” Sundberg said.

Gaia glanced over her shoulder, then sat beside Munsch. The Skins captain had repositioned Leon to play forward. Only six men were left on the field, and it was now obvious to Gaia that though Leon’s skills were decent, they weren’t the best. What he had was speed.

On an inbound throw, Leon intercepted the ball and crossed it to his captain, who took a long, risky shot from way out. The deepest Shirts player ran it down, passed it up to Xave, and the Shirts began a punishing series of passes to move up the field again, dominating Leon’s team. The crowd revved, voices massing into a wordless wall of sound as Xave closed in on scoring range

The Skins captain began to backpedal defensively toward his own goal.

“No! Forward!” Leon yelled, driving forward to cut off the angle.

Xave powered a shot high and wide over Leon’s teammate’s head into the goal.

The crowd jumped to their feet in a deafening roar of cheers. Gaia shifted her gaze from the ball in the net to Leon, who stood with his hands on his hips, his head down, his body working for breath. She felt the crush of vicarious defeat. A corps of guards was already moving onto the field to isolate him.

Leon lifted his head and looked over his shoulder toward the Matrarc. He wiped his forehead with his arm, and then, deliberately, he started walking toward the platform. It took the startled guards two seconds to respond, and then they circled tight around him. Leon made a grab for a guard’s sword, but was instantly wrestled to the ground and pinned there.

Gaia couldn’t see because the players were crowding in on the commotion. Peter was talking to the ref, pointing to Leon.

“What’s going on?” Dinah asked.

“Peter’s picking the crim, that’s what,” Munsch said with a laugh. “It’s an insult to Xave and the other players.”

“I don’t understand,” Gaia said.

The guards still held Leon to the ground.

“Xave won, so that makes Peter the other captain,” Munsch explained. “Normally, they’d each pick one new teammate, but there’s only one left since I’m out injured. Peter gets to pick a Skins loser instead, and he’s picking the crim. It’s diabolical. The other losers want to kill him. I don’t blame them.”

“We want the crim!” the crowd chanted.

Boys ran out with water bottles. Xave drank a long swallow and dumped the rest of the water on his upturned face while Peter, animated, continued to talk to the ref.

“Let’s go,” Xave said. He clapped a sure hand on the shoulder of his Shirts teammate. “Give Chardo the filthy crim, and let’s get this over with.”

The crowd laughed. The ref pointed his whistle at Leon. The guards lifted Leon to his feet, untied his hands, and marched off the field.

Leon walked to join Peter on the O. Peter pulled off his shirt, and his torso twisted in a supple economy of motion as he tossed it to a runner. Leon stood listening, rubbing his wrist, while Peter spoke in his ear. Gaia peered at the two shirtless men, trying to see what made them, nearly the same height and age, so different, and where Leon’s stance was cautious, intense, coiled, Peter’s personified an eager, magnanimous confidence.

“They are sweet, those two. No doubt about it,” Dinah said, drawing out the syllables. “Where were they ten years ago is what I’d like to know.”

“Mx. Dinah!” Munsch said.

“Mlass Gaia knows what I’m talking about,” Dinah said.

She did indeed. She might be too polite to say anything, but she was far from blind.

The ref was lifting the ball.

As Xave and his teammate squared off against Peter and Leon, a cloud moved across the setting sun, dimming the light and shooting streaks of orange into the greeny blue of the sky. A slow wind came up from the marsh, audibly rippling the flags of the platform and lifting sparks from the torches that burned and smoked around the field.

Gaia forgot to breathe, and the ref dropped the ball.

Xave was fast. Leon was faster. He shot the ball wide to Peter, who pelted it down the field toward the goal. And it went in.

It was so sudden and unexpected that the spectators were silent a full two seconds. Then they went nuts.

Xave and his Shirts teammate stalked off the field to join the growing line of other eliminated players. Peter walked quickly to the O on the field, the last captain and sole remaining player of the Skins team. Leon strode to the X, where a boy ran out with a shirt. The gray material, ripped during an earlier round, clung in tatters to his sweaty back as he faced Peter, who was already crouching slightly, ready to spring.

It came down to this, one man against the other. Whoever won this point would win the entire game. Peter was the more skilled player by far, but Leon was faster, and Gaia sensed that Leon was hungry in a way that few had ever been before.

“Wait ’til I release the ball,” the ref called. “Ready?”

The crowd went still and the flags stopped rippling as Leon and Peter faced off, primed for explosive attack. A spark from a torch floated silently across the field.

The ref lifted the ball high.

It dropped toward the green grass.

Grit and fury converged.

Peter lost.



THE SPECTATORS WENT BERSERK. Dozens of them rushed the field, where they mixed in pandemonium with the leaping, bounding athletes from the earlier rounds. The crims cheered even more wildly for one of their own. Men were throwing things in the air, kissing each other, hugging and slapping with unrestrained force, as if each one of them, personally, had scored the victory.

Gaia was too stunned to move. Peony charged beside her and jostled Gaia practically off her feet.

“Isn’t it amazing?” Peony squealed. “Can you believe he beat Chardo Peter? I can’t believe it!”

“Look at Peter,” Dinah said dryly, joining them. “He can’t believe it, either. And Xave. He’s fit to be tied. I must say, that’s a beautiful sight.”

“Yes!” Peony said.

Half a dozen guards pushed onto the field, penetrating the congratulatory swarm around Leon and leveraging with their clubs to push the mob back.

Gaia lost sight of Peter, too, in the mass of reaching arms, and still the cheering went on, like a crashing brilliance of sound around her. The center of the swarm on the field gradually began to move, then took up more speed as the crowd delivered the winner and Peter to the area before the platform and a circle widened so they could be seen.

Leon gave his belt a slow hitch up his hip. His straggly hair was nearly black with sweat above his joyless expression, and he was physically spent. Peter, loose-limbed and gleaming with sweat, bore the air of a good sport fairly beaten.

The Matrarc lifted her hand. “My cousins!” she called out.

The rest of the noise simmered to a ripple of laughter and talk, and then subsided so that all could hear. The Matrarc kept her hand lifted until even the quietest hum desisted.

“My dear cousins,” the Matrarc repeated in a clear, strong voice. “We’ve never had a game like this before. Vlatir,” the Matrarc called out to him. “My husband tells me he’s never seen anyone run so fast. What do you have to say for yourself?”

As Leon looked up, a furious, controlled burning emanated from him, a lethal tension that caused the guards to respond by pushing the rumbling crowd back, calling sharply to make more room.

Dominic leaned close to the Matrarc to speak in her ear.

“No, wait,” the Matrarc said to the guards. “Speak, Vlatir. I want to hear your voice.”

Leon’s hand closed slowly in a fist at his side. “What would you have me say, Mlady Matrarc?”

His voice had the same cultured accents Gaia remembered from before, but now with obvious insolence. Obvious, at least, to her. She guessed that the Matrarc heard it, too, though many in the crowd took his words for a joke and laughed.

“We’ve never had a crim win our thirty-two games,” the Matrarc said, providing him no further opening. “Before we can proceed, the cuzines have to make a decision. Come forward so I can hear you, my cuzines. Step aside, please, the rest of you. I want the voters here.”

She held out a graceful hand toward her left, like a great conductor, and the men cleared back to allow the mlasses and mladies to come forward. Gaia glanced around to see Dinah, who lifted an ironic eyebrow and shifted unobtrusively out of the way. The other libbies, likewise, were mixed in with Norris, Chardo Sid, and the other men.

Peony pulled Gaia’s sleeve. “Come on,” she urged.

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