Prized Page 23

“Yes, Mlady.”

The Matrarc lifted her hand to the waiting crowd again. “There’s a change happening in Sylum, for all of us. You can feel it, can’t you?” In a flash, her honest question penetrated the hearts of everyone there, and the very quality of the air hummed with surprise, then caution, then curiosity. Gaia was amazed at the sudden evidence of the Matrarc’s power. It wasn’t so much that she influenced people, but that she tapped into what was there, waiting for a lightning rod.

“We can be afraid, or we can embrace it,” the Matrarc went on. “Watch out for each other. Care for each other gently. Come talk to me if you want to talk. We will find our way. We always have.”

A palpable shift moved through the crowd, and then a young voice called out from the edge, “Matina!”

The Matrarc lifted her chin slightly, listening, and all around her, Gaia felt everyone pause to listen for the bell’s reverberation, a sound that wasn’t even there but was somehow all the louder for being collectively imagined, three resonating bongs. Then in the rich silence, the Matrarc touched her hand to her heart. The gesture passed outward in a great, silent ripple of unity. Gaia glanced over to Leon to find him watching her cynically. Slowly, she lifted her hand to her heart, too.

“Thank you,” the Matrarc said simply, with heartfelt sincerity. “Let us go, now, my cousins. Let’s remember to be grateful for all that we have.”

The crowd of two thousand eased subtly, murmured, and then voices started up again. People laughed, turning to each other openly in a unified community, even as they began to disperse and leave the field. Gaia was impressed beyond words. The Matrarc had taken a potentially explosive situation and not only diffused it, but transformed it into something beautiful instead. Gaia had no idea how she’d done it.

Taja left with her family, and Peony walked slowly away beside Munsch. Will was moving against the crowd, toward her and Leon and Peter, but as Gaia spotted him, Dinah’s bright red hair appeared near his shoulder and he turned to the libby. They became absorbed into the throng, and even the guards were drifting away as Gaia moved toward Leon and Peter.

“You got me back in the game. I won’t forget it,” Leon said to Peter.

“It was my mistake,” Peter said. “I thought you’d be easier to beat than the others.”

Closer now, she could see the filth that covered Leon, from his ripped shirt to the stains that darkened his work pants. His shoes were mere shreds of leather, and a line of blackish red was trickling down from Leon’s elbow.

“You’re hurt,” she said.

He didn’t reply. “Where’s this winner’s cabin?” Leon asked Peter. “Up on the bluff?”

“I’ll take you,” Peter said, looking at Gaia. “Mlass Gaia and I will.”

“There had better be food there,” Leon said.

She tried to examine his elbow more closely, and he deliberately turned away.

“There’s no reason to ignore me,” she said.

Leon turned back to her slightly then, and she felt the exact moment when his grim blue eyes met her own.

“You can send me a note if you have anything to say,” he said.

She faltered back a half step. “I’m sorry.”

Leon turned his back on her.

“She just stood up for you,” Peter reminded him. “You should be grateful.”

Leon let out a brief, incredulous laugh. “To her? Never again.”

“Leon, please,” Gaia began.

“Don’t,” he said. “Don’t even start.”

“I’m so sorry, about all of it,” she said.

His teeth clicked together. “Two months I’ve spent in that hell-hole,” Leon said. “For doing nothing worse than crossing a wasteland to find you. And what did you do? You told the Matrarc to offer me a horse.”

“Okay, that’s enough,” Peter said, moving between them.

Leon pushed him with a flick of his fingers and backed away himself.

“The horse was so you’d have an option, so you wouldn’t have to be trapped here,” she said. “I knew she wouldn’t let you out of the prison.”

“Did you even try to persuade her?” Leon asked.

“I did. It only made her more determined to keep you there.”

He shook his head, frowning. “I heard you were stuck in the lodge, confined there like a naughty kid,” he said. “What did you do?”

“This isn’t the place to tell you.”

“No? When did you get out?”

“I was just released today,” she said.

His eyes were sharp. “You know, you could have come down to the prison. I would have seen you over the fence. It’s not like I haven’t looked.”

She swallowed hard, realizing now why it had been much, much easier to go with Peter when she was first released. “I was afraid to.”

“You?” He laughed. “When has fear ever stopped you from doing anything?”

I was afraid you’d be angry. Like this. Shame burned through her.

“Let me get a good look at you,” Leon said, his voice lower. He peered hard at her, until she could no longer meet his gaze. “I see what it is. They’ve ruined you.” A strangled laugh came out of him as he tilted his face back toward the sky. “All this time,” he muttered.

Doubt hit her hard. “What do you mean?”

“We should go,” Peter said, intervening again.

But Leon didn’t respond to him, and his blue eyes went cool and curious as he regarded Gaia. “Aren’t you going to ask if I’ll let you visit your sister? My little prize?” he asked softly.

His question bit deep into her heart. It felt like a terrible, twisted game where she didn’t know the rules, the sort of game his adoptive father the Protectorat might have invented.

“That’s it,” Peter said decisively. “I’ll take you up to the winner’s cabin. Mlass Gaia, why don’t you head back to the lodge?”

She kept her focus on Leon. “I would like to see my sister. I’ll beg if that’s what you want. May I see her, please?”

Leon eyed her with dark satisfaction. “You do realize she won’t remember you anymore, don’t you?”

“Don’t listen to him,” Peter told her.

But she was already hurting, and mystified. She shook her head and lifted her gaze to Peter’s. “He’s not normally like this,” she began.

Leon stepped so near to her that his face crowded her vision. His eyes glittered and his voice was rigidly controlled. “Don’t you ever talk to him about me like that when I’m right here.”

She gasped in fear and then felt his focus drawn to her parted lips. A rapid ticking clicked on at the back of her mind as his gaze lingered, and then in the darkness of his beard, his own lips closed in a hard line. His eyes narrowed, and he pulled back a millimeter, watching her. Testing her. There was nothing kind or inviting about him at all, and yet she felt sucked into a compelling, black, uncertain shadow that belonged to him and her alone.

She finally found her voice again. “Don’t boss me around,” she said, in little more than a whisper.

Some lost, secret impulse flickered through his eyes for an instant, and then his loathing returned full force. “I’m going to the winner’s cabin,” Leon said. “I’m starving and I stink.” He turned and started away across the field.

She covered her eyes a moment, just trying to freeze everything to make it all stop tilting.

“I should have beat him,” Peter said.

She was too unhappy to laugh. “You let him win?” She opened her eyes again.

“No. Of course not,” Peter said. “But if I’d known he’d treat you like that, I would have, somehow. I never would have picked him when I had the choice.”

Leon hates me. It was still a total shock, as if the sun had turned black or the force of gravity had doubled. Foreshortened by distance, Leon’s dark, isolated figure was receding at the far edge of the field, past a smoking torch, and then he turned out of sight.

“I wish I could do something for you,” Peter said.

“Would you take care of him, please?” she asked. “He has nobody here, and he doesn’t want me near him.”

Peter considered her, then took a deep, visible breath. She lifted her gaze to meet his direct regard. Handsome didn’t begin to describe him. He still hadn’t put on a shirt, and she realized now she’d hardly looked at him, even though he stood there, barely a meter away, arms akimbo. She glanced once more at the sheen of cooling sweat on his skin, and then away, ashamed and confused.

“Of course, Mlass,” Peter said.

It was the perfectly polite thing to say, yet even that seemed completely mixed up and wrong to her.

The men always cut loose after the thirty-two games, but this night was by far wilder and louder than the other times she’d seen. She was certain Leon’s gesture of inviting the men to vote had something to do with it, as if he’d awoken a slumbering, destructive force, and the Matrarc’s moment of the soundless matina didn’t carry over to the urges of the night. From the clerestory, she could see a glow reflecting up into the trees from bonfires down by the marsh, and she saw torches heading toward the glade site in the woods where she’d once spoken to Peony, too.

For hours, it wasn’t safe to go out, but as the night finally crept toward dawn and Sylum grew quiet, Gaia couldn’t wait anymore to see Leon. Taking her blue cloak from its peg, she pulled on her old white boots. The early air was surprisingly cold as she let herself out the kitchen door and headed up the road.

The sound of breaking bottles had been replaced by crickets, and as the full moon set behind the bluff, a peculiar, ashy light hovered over the road. Gaia strode rapidly, feeling her breath condense in the air before her face. She turned a familiar corner, and the Chardo place spread before her on her right. The house was dark, but a lamp hanging high in the barn filled the open doorway and cast an inviting yellow parallelogram onto the driveway, almost as if one of the brothers was beckoning to her. Gaia didn’t stop.

The road narrowed as it began to rise along the face of the bluff, and soon she hit several switchbacks. To the east, morning light was creeping over the black, sullen rim of the earth, and the surface of the marsh began to glow with ribbons of lit water.

At the top of the bluff, Gaia paused, uncertain of her way. She remembered overhearing once that the winner’s cabin stood by a meadow. A stump stood beside the road with an abandoned axe propped in its top, like a mute sentry marking the entrance to another world, and she headed to the right. A line of half a dozen cabins gradually emerged, lightless.

When a distant door slammed, a hollow, sharp bang in the stillness, she turned toward the noise and found a narrow track that wound even farther along the ridge. The pines were older here, with thick, massive trunks. Many of the lower branches had broken off over time, leaving sharp spikes pointing horizontally out of the trunks, like blind arms into the mist.

At last the trees parted, and Gaia stood at the edge of a small meadow where the fog hovered knee-high. Across the meadow, perched at the brink of the bluff, stood a sturdy, low-slung cabin with a deep wraparound porch and stone steps. Smoke rose straight and thin from a stovepipe on the left side of the roof. Weathered to the same color as the early morning grayness, the stone and log cabin seemed to grow naturally out of the rock. An enormous oak stood beside it, the tips of its upper branches stretching over the roof, each individual leaf silhouetted against the pink in the sky.

Bright geraniums were planted in two pots beside the cabin’s steps, red velvet in the growing light, and a water urn hanging from the porch reminded her of home. Home. As she reached for the railing and set her feet upon the stone steps to the porch, an ache stirred in her. She stared through the screen door to the empty, dim entryway beyond, and her intuition told her she’d come to the right place.

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