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Gaia followed with her, rising on tiptoe to keep an eye on Leon. She kept expecting him to acknowledge her, but he remained directed toward the Matrarc, as if no one else merited any attention. Nearly two hundred women now congregated on the field before the platform.

“Are they ready?” the Matrarc asked her husband.


“Then I want to hear them.” The Matrarc raised her voice. “I need a baseline, my cuzines. Say ‘Ay.’”

The voices of the women rang out in one, cohesive call, startling Gaia with the power of their unity. The call was followed by silence, and then a new, smaller wave of murmuring. Norris’s scowl was as deep as Gaia had ever seen it. The men, excluded from the vote, were looking at each other, as if only now calculating their own numbers. She guessed that they’d never been assembled at a vote before, and it must strike them how many more of them there were, close to eighteen hundred men.

Does the Matrarc not notice? Gaia wondered.

Leon lifted his head, scanning the crowd beyond the platform.

“We have a new situation before us,” the Matrarc said, in her clear, carrying voice. “The underlying assumption of letting a crim compete has always been that a crim winner would be freed.” She smiled. “We just never believed it could happen.”

Laughter greeted her remark.

“Vlatir is a newcomer of two months’ time, from the Enclave south of here,” the Matrarc continued. “He’s violent at the least provocation. He resists authority at every opportunity. He does not respond to any sort of discipline. But he is convicted of no crime, and you deserve to know this. You also saw him on the field today for what that shows of his character. So, this is your choice. We can accept this newcomer, Vlatir, into Sylum as any other man and confer upon him the rights of a winner, or we can deny him, keep him under watch with the crims, and grant the rights of the winner to the runner-up, Chardo Peter. What do you say?”

Excited debate broke out, both among the women on the field and among the men farther out. Gaia stood staring at Leon, watching how he put one fist on his hip and kept regarding the Matrarc. From his unyielding expression, Gaia could not begin to know what he was thinking. It surprised her that he didn’t speak out on his own behalf, and then she wondered if she should.

She swallowed a knot of nervous fear. Across the crowd, she spotted Will, who was watching her closely. When he nodded infinitesimally at Leon, he seemed to be asking her a tacit question. Gaia was supposed to act. She knew that. But what was she supposed to do?

The Matrarc turned toward the women, expectant, and as the noise died away entirely, she lifted a hand.

“Have you made your decisions?” she asked.

“Ay,” called the women.

“Wait!” Gaia called.

Those around her turned, startled. She pushed her way to the front.

“Wait,” Gaia repeated. “Please, Mlady.”

“This is not the time, Mlass Gaia,” the Matrarc said.

“I just have to say one thing,” Gaia declared. “Leon Vlatir’s a good man. A brave one. He came a long way to be here and he deserved Sylum’s hospitality, not its prison.” She turned to project her voice farther. “The Matrarc promised me she would free him tonight. You can make that come true. Vote him the winner.”

There was a murmur in the crowd, and then a smattering of indulgent laughter. They were amused by her? She shot her gaze to Leon, who stood stern and mute, still not looking at her.

“It seems he has a champion. And it’s true, I did say I’d free him, at least until he needs arresting again. I suspect that will be any moment now if he lives up to his past,” the Matrarc said, and more laughter followed. “For practical purposes, my cuzines, you are deciding between his status as a winner or a crim. Those in favor of denying Vlatir the rights of a winner, say ‘Nay.’”

A chorus of “Nay” came from the women, and Gaia tried to guess how many had spoken. Was it more than half?

The Matrarc raised her hand again. “Those in favor of granting Vlatir the rights of a winner, say ‘Ay.’”

Gaia lifted her voice to join the second chorus from the women. “Ay!” reverberated around the playing field and echoed away out over the marsh, and Gaia knew instantly it was louder. Laughter and cheering erupted from the men. The crims at their end of the field cheered triumphantly.

A small, strained smile turned Leon’s lips, and he took a step forward.

Dominic spoke to the Matrarc, and she lifted her hand yet again, invoking silence. It took some time for the enthusiasm to be contained again.

“Well, Vlatir?” she said. “You have something to say now?”

“I do,” Leon said. He made a slow, all-encompassing gesture to the men who ranged up the slopes and around the perimeter of the women. Like quick-silver, a current charged through the men from one to another, uniting them in a silent summons they’d never heard before, and the air crackled with anticipation. “All of you men,” Leon called out. “If you’re in favor of my freedom, say ‘Ay!’”

A lusty bellow of “Ay!” rose up in the air, ten times louder than the calls of the women.

The following silence was deafening, ominous, and complete.

Next came the slick metallic sound of blades as the guards drew their swords.

“If you’re inciting a riot, your return to the prison will be swift indeed,” said the Matrarc.

Leon folded his arms across his chest, and though his lips smiled, his eyes glittered maliciously. There were no fewer than ten blades pointed at his throat. “Forgive me, Mlady,” he said smoothly. “Living as I have with the crims, I haven’t yet fully learned your customs. No offense intended.” He lifted his voice to call to the men. “No riots tonight, my friends. Get that?”

The crowd laughed, its virile good humor tempering a darker undercurrent, and the Matrarc was quick to smile. “Lower your arms,” she called to the guards. “Vlatir. Do you understand what happens next?”

“It’s my prerogative to claim a female to live with me in the winner’s cabin until the next games,” Leon said, his voice carrying clearly. “Correct?”

Peter jerked forward half a step, as if he had only now realized the risk of keeping Leon in the game with him. Turning toward Gaia, he shook his head once and his lips parted in surprise, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Gaia knew, then. She knew Leon was going to pick her. She searched for Will once more, and saw he was watching his brother with a pained expression. Will’s gaze shifted to meet Gaia’s, and the pain deepened.

“That’s correct. Any mlass,” the Matrarc said. “It is the tradition at this point for the winner to invite three young women to step forward.”

“There’s no need. I know who I want,” Leon said.

Gaia reached for her locket watch, but it wasn’t there, and she had nothing to hold while she dreaded the next moment, and longed for it horribly. He still wasn’t looking at her, but she felt his attention as keenly as if he had an arrow notched in a bow, aiming for her chest.

“No,” Peter said. He took a step toward Leon. “No, you can’t.” A guard blocked his path.

“Who do you choose?” the Matrarc asked.

Gaia stared at Leon, willing him to at least look at her before he called her name.

“I want Maya Stone,” Leon said.

Shock froze Gaia’s blood.

“You mean Gaia,” the Matrarc said, her voice lifting in surprise. “Her name is Gaia Stone.”

There was a shift around Gaia as people turned to get a look at her. Her heart lurched back into rhythm, nearly knocking her off her feet.

“No,” Leon said. “I want her sister. Maya.”



A SILENCE STILLED THE CROWD, and then Gaia moved forward to where the guards, as perplexed as everyone else, still maintained their circle around Leon.

“Leon,” Gaia said. “I’m here.”

He didn’t respond. His blue eyes had turned to flint, and his unflinching gaze remained directed toward the Matrarc, who was conferring with her husband and several mladies on the platform. Gaia tried again. She had to speak between the shoulders of two of the guards.

“Leon, please. This makes no sense.”

He turned then, finally, his scathing eyes burning into her with such intense hatred that she jerked back. His fingers closed again in a fist, and she saw up close the iron power contained in his grasp. She could not believe this was Leon, the same man who’d sacrificed himself for her at the great south gate of the Enclave. He looked like he’d happily rip her to shreds and throw her carcass in bits to wild dogs.

You can’t be like this, she thought.

The Matrarc stepped to the edge of the platform again. “Let me clarify,” she said to Leon. “Are you aware that Gaia’s sister Maya is an infant?”

“Yes,” Leon said.

“What could you possibly want with a baby?” the Matrarc asked, openly mystified.

“I don’t care to explain,” Leon said.

“We would never let you harm a child,” the Matrarc said.

“I wouldn’t harm her. Far from it. I’ll care for her most tenderly.”

Gaia opposed the idea with every cell in her body. She didn’t want her sister in Leon’s control, not the way he was now. If Maya depended on him for care or affection, it would be torture for Gaia. Instinctively, horrifyingly, she knew that was his point.

“He wants what’s mine,” Gaia said.

The Matrarc shook her head. “But Maya isn’t yours, Mlass Gaia. You know that. I’ve given your sister to Mlady Adele, out on the island. She stays with her.”

“Mlady Adele may come to the winner’s cabin, too, if she likes, or send a wet nurse. The details make no difference to me,” Leon said, his tone frankly belligerent. “Are you going to follow your own laws, or not?”

Dominic strode forward. “Take the crim back to prison and beat some manners into him.”

The guards instantly closed in again on Leon. “Matrarc!” Leon called out, his voice commanding. He struggled to try to break free, but they pinned his arms in a twist behind him. “You just gave me the rights of a winner. The rights I earned. All your voters here agreed. Or was that a farce?”

The Matrarc’s voice grew hard. “The only farce here was the one you created. Every man of Sylum still has to follow our laws,” she said.

“I am following them,” Leon insisted. “You’re the one who’s reneging. I demand Maya Stone for one month in the winner’s cabin. Send along anyone you want to care for her, but I claim her as my prize. It’s my right. As far as I can tell, it’s the only right I have. The only right any man has.”

There was a grumbling of dissatisfaction among the men as Leon’s logic sank in, and everyone heard it. The Matrarc could not disregard Leon’s claim, not without risking a rebellion.

“It’s not my fault your law has a loophole in it,” Leon added mockingly. “Maybe you didn’t think of everything.”

One of the guards punched him in the gut and Leon clenched over with an oof.

“Release him,” the Matrarc said.

Leon jerked free from their holds and spat in the grass.

“It’s all right, Dominic,” the Matrarc said to her husband, who was leaning near to her ear again. “He knows what he’s saying. Hear this, Vlatir. You’ll get the baby. That’s your right. But if you do one thing to upset the child or Mlady Adele when she comes to care for her, you’re going back to the wasteland.”

“That’s all I ask,” Leon said dryly.

“Mlass Gaia, go with him first thing tomorrow to talk to Mlady Adele. I’ll give you a note to take.”

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