Prized Page 24

She tapped softly on the wooden frame, and her eye caught on the iron scrollwork of the open interior door. A creak of movement came from farther inside, and a moment later, a dark, solid figure stepped into view. Leon Vlatir stood on the other side of the screen, his expression obscured by the mesh, and yet she knew there was no welcome in him. How can it be worse to see him than to not see him?

Gaia reached for the door that separated them. “Hey.”

“I’m not ready to see you,” he said.

She faltered and her hand stopped in mid-air. “Are you all right?” she asked.

He gave an infinitesimal shake of his head.

“I’m sorry,” she began.

“No,” he said. “I don’t want your voice. I don’t want anything about you here.”

Gaia was startled. Unbelieving. He couldn’t be sending her away. Not after they’d both come so far. “I’m supposed to go with you to get Maya.”

“Come back later. Or better yet, meet me on the beach.”

“I just have to see you,” she said. “Just for a little. I want—” Her voice closed in on itself. “Let me talk to you. Please.”

The spring squeaked as she pulled open the screen door. Leon turned his back and walked farther into the cabin. She watched him descend a couple of steps, pass through the main room, and head out the opposite door to a back deck that overlooked the valley. She followed him as far as the door, but there was something so off-putting, so private in the way he stood and leaned his hands upon the top railing, that she couldn’t go farther. Yet neither could she leave.

The back of his head was a mess of damp, nearly black hair, grown full and shaggy, entirely unlike the crisp military cut that she’d known before. His sleeves were carelessly rolled, and the tail end of his brown shirt hung loose over the seat of his homespun trousers. He’d grown slightly taller, and his shoulders were dense where they tested the seams of his shirt. Streamlined as ever, he was clearly stronger than he’d been in the Enclave. Much. She’d never seen him without boots before, except once when he’d inspected the freckles on his ankle, and now his bare heels on the wood of the deck seemed to be the only vulnerable thing about him.

A stillness immobilized him, as if he had schooled his body to remain motionless despite a starved, inner disquiet.

She pushed through the door and stepped softly to the railing beside him, where she could finally see his profile. His beard was gone. Instead of surveying the valley below, he had his eyes closed, and his fingers were clasped tight around the wooden railing. A row of colorful little pebbles was lined up along the top of the rail, as if the last occupants had left them there for a greeting, and they were incongruously playful in the early light.

“Leon,” she began softly. “I can see you’re angry with me. I hardly know where to begin, but I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t,” he said. “I don’t want your apologies.”

She gulped back the rest of her words. But I am sorry, she thought. “Did you really cross the wasteland to find me?” she asked.

Cleanly dressed and shaved, he should have looked more like the old Leon, but when he finally turned, dark bangs hung to half conceal his blue eyes, and his expression was openly hostile.

“Believe me,” he said. “I regret it.”

Her pulse jumped, and she swallowed thickly. “I never wanted you trapped here.”

“That isn’t why.”

“Isn’t there a chance you could be happy here, despite how you started?”

He let out a broken laugh and ran a hand back through his hair in an old gesture she recognized.

“This is what I don’t need yet,” he said. “You, talking to me. Asking your questions. I don’t want to say any of this.”

“But I don’t want you to be so unhappy.”

He shook his head. “Just don’t. You’re not the same person you were,” he said. “It’s not like I’m talking to the old Gaia. I can’t forget that.”

What would you say to the old Gaia? “How do you know I’m so different?”

His expression grew cooler still. “You burned my note, for one thing. That was hard to miss.”

“Peony burned it.”

“You let her. Same difference.”

She didn’t know how to explain it, but her only pride, her last defiance had come from not breaking the rules of her confinement. “I couldn’t accept it,” she said. “As long as I didn’t step outside the lodge, I was still resisting the Matrarc. Your note was part of that.”

“That’s ridiculous,” he said bluntly.

It must seem like that, especially since she’d capitulated shortly after that. How could she explain how lonely and awful it had become in the lodge, how her last strength had vanished as she watched that scrap of paper burn? “It was your note that made me finally realize I had to give in.”

“I don’t get it.”

Gaia turned toward the marsh. “The Matrarc made me give up something. She wouldn’t let you out until I did.” She didn’t want to feel this hurt and confused again. She’d made her decision.

“I’m entitled to know what she asked you for,” he said.

She stared bleakly toward the horizon. “I helped someone miscarry her baby, and the Matrarc wanted to know who. She made me promise not to do it again.”

“It was Peony, wasn’t it? That’s why she helped with the paper.” His eyes narrowed in amazement. “Why didn’t you just agree, Gaia? You could have agreed on day one, and then done whatever you wanted to secretly.”

“Lied, you mean?”

“Wasn’t letting me out of prison worth one lie? Why does the Matrarc even deserve your honesty?”

He was confusing her more. Honesty came from within. It wasn’t what someone deserved. “You know how bad I am at lying, even if I wanted to,” she said. “Which I don’t. Even when I tried to be discreet about Peony’s miscarriage, the Matrarc knew about it in less than a day. I could never lie to her over years. Besides, I wanted her to see I wouldn’t give in. I wanted her to change her mind,” she said.

“But then you did.”

“I had to go on with living. I had to get you out.”

The stillness came over him again, alarming her. He wasn’t satisfied with her answer. It wasn’t good enough, what she’d done, and he certainly wasn’t grateful. In the end, he hadn’t even needed her to get him out of prison. He’d done that himself by winning the thirty-two games.

He peered over at her again. “Look at you. You used to be Gaia Stone from outside the wall. You had nothing to lose and nothing could stop you. Now you’re one of them.”

“I’ve had to adjust, that’s all. I’m not especially proud of it.”

“Why not be? You’re a girl now,” he said.

“What are you implying?”

“Just what I said. You’re a girl in a place where the girls rule.”

She frowned. “You think I just want to be part of the ruling class.”

“I’m sure you’ll find it very convenient.”

She instinctively recoiled. Their positions were reversed, she realized, as neatly and completely as a flip of a card. In the Enclave, he’d been a person of privilege and power, while she’d been a poor midwife from outside the wall, entering it only to become a prisoner of Q cell, and finally a fugitive.

“Now you know what it was like for me back at home,” she said.

“I have just spent two months in prison, shackled to Malachai, for no reason at all,” he said. “I think I’ve got you beat.”

“Really?” she demanded. “You think two months of prison beats years, no, generations of neglect and abuse?”

“What do you think the men here have been putting up with?” Leon asked. “What do you think my future’s going to be like? No man here is free. Even if they’re not in jail, they’re still slaves.”

“They are not,” she disagreed. “I’ve seen plenty of happy men here.”

“Those are just the ones who’ve succeeded in pleasing some girl. The rest of them are all warped and stunted from trying to.”

Now he was exaggerating. “That is totally untrue,” she said.

He laughed strangely. “You don’t even see it anymore. That’s how myopic you’ve become.”

“But you see everything clearly,” she said, getting her own edge of sarcasm. “At least there’s food and shelter for everybody here, not like in Wharfton, where you Enclave people doled out your meager drips of water for the rest of us, and spied on us, and killed the people who resisted you.”

“Now we’re getting to it,” he said.

“Just don’t try to tell me it was better there.”

“I’ll concede it’s better here, for you,” he said.

“It’s not just better for me! You’re like any other man of Sylum now. You can do anything you want: work, build a safe home, eat your fill. You can even marry and have children some day, if you can get someone to love you.”

His eyes flashed darkly. “Yes. The Matrarc’s husband informed me I get to join the pool if my sperm are viable,” he said. “Naturally, I’ll have to be tested. He wants it done soon.”

Embarrassed, she looked over the rail toward the distant marsh. “I’m sorry,” she muttered.

“He’s sure it will just be a technicality,” he added. “And then, as you say, there’s the problem of getting anyone to love me. Even if the male-female odds weren’t ridiculously bad, there’s the fact of how utterly unlovable I am. Thanks for reminding me.”

She looked down at the deck, wishing she could take it back. It was just that he could get her so mad. “I didn’t mean to say that,” she said.

“But you did, didn’t you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You apologize more than anyone I’ve ever known and it doesn’t fix a thing.”

She poised a fist on her hip. “Then what do you expect me to say? You obviously hate everything here, but it’s our new home. I, for one, am trying to find a way to survive in it, and excuse me if I hope to find some measure of happiness.”

“Didn’t you learn anything in the Enclave?” he asked. “A system that exploits any of its people is inherently unfair. Did you hear the men last night, when I asked them to vote?”

“That was your fault.”

“My fault? Gaia, wake up,” he said. “The men are not happy here. They might act like they are, they might even think that they are most of the time, but this whole place is a tinderbox. The right spark, and it would go up in flames.”

“Are you going to be the one to destroy it?” she asked.

“Why not? At the moment, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”

She didn’t believe he could destroy Sylum, but she didn’t like that he wanted to. “Is this what you were like when you first arrived?” she asked. “Is that why the Matrarc didn’t release you immediately? She normally holds newcomers in the prison only until she knows they aren’t dangerous.”

He lifted one eyebrow ironically. “All it took was for them to see my back, and they started asking idiotic questions. I fought back when they tried to tie me, so they shackled me to Malachai. I refused to follow orders when some stupid guard tried to humiliate me, so then I was a discipline reject, which meant they could hit me all they wanted and stuff me in solitary. You never knew?”

She found it difficult to meet his gaze. “Norris told me a little.”

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