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“A little,” he said quietly. For a long moment he searched her eyes, seeking deeply. “And still you left me there.”

“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

He raked a hand back over his ear. “All that time, I was worried about you. I just wanted to see you and know you were okay.” His lips twisted. “When I heard you didn’t even read my note, I thought that was unbearable. But this—”

For an instant, an ache of promise yawned before her, a glimpse of what had driven him to leave the Enclave and follow her into the wasteland.

Suddenly he slammed his fist against the railing. She jumped in her skin. The pebbles trembled.

“They took the guts out of you,” he said. “That’s the worst of it. I didn’t think anything ever could. Enough of this. I can’t talk to you anymore.”

She backed up. “I was only trying to be honest with you,” she said. “But the more I try, the more you despise me.”

He wouldn’t look at her. “I won’t lie.”

An insidious pain knifed through her. She didn’t need this. She wished she could hurt him somehow, too. He seemed to know exactly what to say to make her feel awful about herself. A small, mean flame burned inside her.

“Why is your back ripped up?” she asked, watching to see if the memory was painful to him.

He lifted his left hand, splaying the fingers, and for the first time, she saw that the top of his ring finger from the knuckle up was gone.

“They wanted to know where the ledgers were. The one we stole,” he said.

“He tortured you? Your own father?”

Leon’s eyes went flat and lifeless. “Until he saw that it hurt Genevieve worse than me.” He lowered his hand and resettled his grip on the railing. “Don’t misunderstand. He would never sully his hands with such work himself, but he routinely checked back in on me.” He ducked his head, turning his neck as if to relieve soreness there. “Resisting only delayed them, anyway. They checked on all your friends and figured out who had hidden you. They advanced Emily’s baby. You probably didn’t know that.”

She shook her head, horrified.

“He was a little old, but they took him anyway,” Leon continued. “Emily even gave back the birth records, but they still kept her son. They think she had a copy made.”

Gaia didn’t want to believe him. “What can we do?”

He let out a laugh. “That’s brilliant, really. You can’t do anything. You’re a wasteland away, in your precious new home.”

She felt dirty, sick at heart. Trying to hurt him had backfired. She turned and paced to the far corner of the deck. He’d been hurt defying his father for her sake, and Gaia’s dearest friend had lost her child because of Gaia. The guilt was unendurable, and she couldn’t begin to imagine how Emily must be agonizing. She pressed a hand to her forehead and squeezed.

“I’m pleased to see you still have some natural feelings of loyalty left in you,” Leon said finally. “Not that they’ve done me any good.”

Raw, isolating loneliness swept into her. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“You know perfectly well,” Leon said. “I risked my life for you back in the Enclave. I crossed a wasteland to find you, and you offered a horse to send me back. You left me in prison for months when one little lie would have set me free. Or don’t think back so far. Not twenty minutes ago, I told you point blank I wasn’t ready to see you. I didn’t want to say any of this, but you couldn’t leave me alone.”

She was struck by his words. It was true. All of it. She turned slowly and gazed down to where his bare toes peeked from under the edge of his trousers.

“If you feel that way about me, why did you choose Maya?” she asked.

He looked as if he wouldn’t answer, and then he laughed in self-derision. “Suffice it to say, I thought it would help me get over you. I didn’t know it would work so fast.”

She hugged her arms tight around herself, hurting. “For that purpose, you could have just chosen me,” she pointed out.

“True. Funny thing. I couldn’t abide the idea of you being trapped as a prize in the winner’s house. With anyone.” He scooped up the row of pebbles and pelted one hard over the railing. “You seem to enjoy being trapped, though. I didn’t think of that.”

She turned away again and blinked back a sting. “There’s nothing left between us at all, is there?” she asked.

For a long moment he said nothing, and the pebbles made a clicking noise in his fingers.

Then, as if it gave him no pleasure at all, he replied. “Whose fault is that?”


riding double

GAIA FALTERED BACK a step, registering his undisguised bitterness, and then she turned and strode back into the house. She didn’t stop until she’d gone out the front door and down the stone steps. Her inner compass had turned upside down. She’d thought she was a compassionate person trying always to do what was right, but one conversation with Leon had exposed her for what she was: ungrateful, disloyal, weak, and mean.

She let out a laugh of disbelief and pressed a fist to her heart, where a crushing sensation made it hard to breathe. She felt a fierce, sudden longing for her mother, who would be nice to her and understand her and let her hide. How she longed to hide.

“Mlass Gaia?”

She glanced up. Chardo Peter was dismounting from Spider with a second horse trailing on a lead rope. The last shadows of dawn were dissolving with the mist, and sunlight touched the russet oak treetops behind him.

“Are you all right?” Peter asked. “What are you doing here?”

She didn’t see how she could talk to him.

There was a noise behind her, and Leon stood at the top of the porch steps, carrying a pair of boots.

“What did you do to her?” Peter asked him.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Leon began shoving his feet in the boots.

“Nothing,” she said quickly to Peter. “He didn’t do anything.”

“If he touched you—” Peter began.

“No. I said. He didn’t do anything,” she insisted.

“Then why are you upset?” Peter asked.

Gaia sent a look back toward Leon, who lifted his eyebrows slowly, mocking her. He stomped his heel in the boot, twisting his foot.

Peter looked back and forth between the two of them. “I don’t understand,” he said.

Gaia felt her cheeks turning a deep, guilty red.

Leon came down the steps and reached for the second horse. “What’s its name?” Leon asked.

“Hades,” Peter said.

“Nice.” Leon swung into the saddle and pulled at the reins with natural command.

“You won’t get lost?” Peter asked.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” Leon said. “I’ll meet you at the shore in an hour, Gaia. That should give you enough time to chat with your boyfriend. Hey!” he said, urging his horse forward with a sharp movement. They took off across the meadow.

Gaia watched his brown shirt catch sunlight once, and then he disappeared in the trees. She slowly turned back to the porch and sat on the steps, sweeping her cloak beneath her to avoid the geraniums. Wearily, she dropped her face into her hands and pressed her cool fingertips against her warm eyelids.

“What’s going on?” Peter asked quietly.

“He just reminded me of some things. Some true things.”

She sensed him standing just below the steps, watching her, yet she couldn’t bring herself to look at him.

“Does the Matrarc know he was your lover?” Peter asked.

That brought her head up. “He wasn’t my lover.”

“You can tell me.”

“No. He was never even my boyfriend,” she said. “We just went through a lot together,” she said. “You can’t think—Peter, I’ve never slept with anyone.”

Peter sat slowly beside her on the top step.

She frowned. “Have you?”

“No,” he said. “I shouldn’t have asked. I just had my doubts after I saw you two together. You must have had quite a past with him.”

“Well, we did. We do. We did.”

“Which is it?”

Gaia smoothed her skirt over her knees, wishing she knew the answer to that herself. It wasn’t what it used to be, but it didn’t feel over, either.

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

She should have felt strange having such a personal conversation with Peter, but none of the normal rules seemed to apply anymore. She glanced sideways at his fresh white shirt, at his clean hair in the morning light, and it hit her that she was sitting on the steps of the winner’s cabin, with Peter. This could have been them, for real, if he’d won.

Peter would have had no compunction about claiming her for a prize. Of that she was certain. She didn’t know if that made him less or more noble than Leon.

Spider nudged his big head down into the long grass beside the porch and switched his long tail.

“This may seem a little strange,” Peter began. “But it’s a new life here for you. You can choose how you want it to be.”

“I can’t choose who I am.”

“Maybe you could,” he said. “You can at least choose who you spend your time with.”

She shook her head, not certain of anything. “What if I don’t like who I’m becoming here?” she asked.

“There’s nothing wrong with who you’re becoming. Nothing at all. Is that what he made you think?”

She turned enough to really look at him, at the regular lines of his jaw and the even angles of his nose and cheekbones. Now that his beard was gone, she saw a pale scar, slightly longer than an eyelash, which marred the complexion of his right cheek like a permanent smile line. With wide-set, perceptive eyes, he watched her patiently, waiting. The truth was that Peter was an innately genuine, trustworthy person, and as she felt the strength of that, something inside her eased slightly, then lightened, like a tight band letting go.

“You don’t care why the Matrarc kept me in the lodge or why she let me out, do you?” she asked.

“Of course I care,” Peter said. “When you’re ready, I hope you’ll tell me. Until then, I know you did what you thought was right.”

His answer made her feel a little better. Leon was wrong about her enjoying being trapped. She wasn’t trapped just because she’d joined the system. “Tell me something,” she asked. “Do you think I have a warped view of Sylum? Do I misuse what power I have because I’m a girl?”

“Not at all,” he said. “I find you’re one of the most respectful mlasses I’ve ever known.”

She felt a slip of disappointment. “You’re just comparing me to other girls here.”

“What else can I do?”

She twisted off one of the geranium petals. “I think it was a mistake, coming up here this morning.”

“You shouldn’t be alone with him. The Matrarc doesn’t trust him.”

“He’d never hurt me.”

“It looks to me like he can hurt you just fine without lifting a finger,” he said. “How well are you sure you know him?”

Of course she knew him. “He saved my life, Peter.”

“So did I.”

Startled, Gaia had to pause. It was true. She glanced out to the meadow, to where cornflowers made a dotted array of blue where the fog used to be. “Of course,” she said. “I owe you my thanks.”

“I don’t mean it like that,” Peter said. “I just don’t want you to think he’s the only one.” He stood and walked over to Spider, who had wandered down the length of the porch, pulling grass in big mouthfuls. As he ran a hand along his horse’s neck, she absently watched the strong, silky motion.

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