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“What do you mean?” Gaia asked.

Laughter came from the women on the porch. Gaia turned to Chardo, puzzled.

“We don’t have many women here,” Chardo said. “Only one in ten babies is a girl.”

Gaia looked around again in amazement, seeing how few women there were, mostly congregated on the veranda around the Matrarc. Out in the commons, nearly every face was masculine, and many had beards. Even the children were nearly all boys. How had she not noticed?

“It’s more than that,” the Matrarc added. “The last girl was born here two years ago. And since then, only boys.”

“How can that be?” Gaia asked.

The Matrarc shrugged. “You don’t have to understand it to realize you need to make your choice. Leave today, or stay forever.”

“But that’s no choice at all. Where would I go? How would I survive?”

“There was a small community west of here a few years ago,” the Matrarc said. “And there are nomads who cycle through from the north. You could take your chances in either direction, or you could head back to your own home in the south.”

Gaia couldn’t possibly go back, not in her weak condition. She could hardly stand. “I can’t go,” she said. “Besides, I’d never leave my sister behind.”

“I thought you’d say so,” the Matrarc agreed. “Here’s the other side of your decision. If you stay, you must agree to follow the rules of our community. You might find them strict at first, but I assure you, they’re fair.”

“I can put up with anything as long as I’m with my sister,” Gaia said.

A faint breeze moved along the porch, and a tendril of white hair shifted across the Matrarc’s face. She smoothed it back, blinking. “Tell me,” the Matrarc said in her soft, lyrical voice. “What would have happened to the baby if Chardo Peter hadn’t found you?”

Gaia swallowed back the thickness in her throat. “She was dying,” she admitted.

The Matrarc nodded. She drummed her slender fingers around the top of her cane again. “She still might die. If we didn’t have a mother here to nurse her, she’d have no chance at all. Correct?”

Gaia nodded.

“Is that a yes?” the Matrarc pressed.

Gaia didn’t like where this was going. The Matrarc’s gentle manners belied a quiet, unyielding brutality.

“Mlass Gaia?” the Matrarc said, waiting. “Say it.”

“Yes,” Gaia said. “My sister would be dead.”

The Matrarc eased back slightly. “Then from now on, we will consider your sister to be a gift to Sylum. A small and precious gift. What’s more, in light of your gift, and depending on your compliance during your probation, we may pardon your crime.”

“My crime?”

“You knowingly, deliberately put your sister in deadly harm.”

“You’re implying I tried to kill her,” Gaia said, rising stiffly in alarm. “I didn’t! I’ve done everything I could to keep her alive.”

“You admitted yourself she would be dead without our intervention,” the Matrarc said. “You have forfeited any claim to the child. Your sister, the one you cared for, is dead. The only baby that’s alive is the one Chardo saved, and right now, she needs stable care and a new mother.”

Gaia had a terrifying glimpse of what it must have been like for the mothers when she herself had taken their babies to be advanced to the Enclave. “Oh, please. Let me see her,” Gaia begged. “She could be dying right now. I need to hold her.”

The Matrarc turned slightly, tapping her cane once on the wooden planks. “I’m sorry for your loss, of course. It’s terrible to lose a child.”

She was speaking as if Maya were already dead.

“You can’t do this!” Gaia said. “You don’t know what we’ve been through. I’ve lost everyone I care for.” Gaia impulsively grabbed the Matrarc’s cane, jerking it in protest. “You can’t steal my sister!”

The Matrarc released her cane and lifted her hands, stepping back. “Take her.”

Gaia was grabbed from behind and instantly dragged down the stairs. The cane fell rattling to the floorboards. Gaia’s arms were wrenched behind her while half a dozen men sprang between her and the Matrarc.

“She’s my family!” Gaia shouted, struggling to break free. “I can’t lose her!”

The Matrarc smoothed the tendril of her hair back again, and then held out her right hand, palm up, in a silent request. One of the men put the handle of her cane in her hand, and Gaia watched the Matrarc grip it with steely fingers.

“I want her all the way down,” the Matrarc said.

Gaia was pushed down so fast that her knees hit the ground hard, and she had to catch herself with her hands in the dirt. It was humiliating. Her chin was millimeters from the dusty ground. She was so weak that it didn’t take much for a guard’s heavy hand to keep her there, physically, while inside she screamed in defiance.

“She’s down,” said Chardo, and she realized he was the one holding her there. She struggled once more, unbelieving. He’d been so gentle with her before, but now he had the force of a stone block.

“You’ll listen to me, Mlass Gaia,” the Matrarc said, and her voice had dropped to a honey-smooth alto. “There is only one leader here. One. And I speak for everyone. You will learn to obey our rules, or you will be sent back to the wasteland to die.”

“What would my grandmother think of the way you’re treating me?” Gaia demanded.

“Mlady Danni would be the first to support me,” the Matrarc said. “She taught me everything I know. Chardo,” she called.

“Yes, Mlady,” he said.

“Where’s Munsch?”

“I left him back at our camp. There wasn’t time to circle back to him.”

“Return to him as soon as you can get a fresh horse. And keep an eye out for her brother or anyone else. I’ll send out extra patrols. I don’t for a minute believe she’s the only one out there. Something must have happened down south.”

“Yes, Mlady,” he said.

“Gaia Stone, are you ready to cooperate?” the Matrarc asked.

Gaia ground her teeth. She would get her sister back, whatever it took. Groveling included. “Yes, Mlady,” she said, parroting Chardo’s words.

“Bring her up, then,” the Matrarc said.

At the first indication his grip was loosening, Gaia jerked free and staggered to her feet. She flashed a scathing gaze at Chardo. “You rescued me for this?”

The outrider met her gaze without flinching, as if he wasn’t sorry at all. “It was the right thing to do.”

The right thing. He’d known all along that the Matrarc would take her sister.

Sylum was as bad as the Enclave. But the women were running it.



GAIA TURNED ON HER PILLOW, hearing the soft pattering of rain on leaves just outside her open window, and then she heard a faint cry in the night. She sat up slowly, listening, anxious that it might be Maya. A thin line of light glowed under the door.

Since her encounter with the Matrarc that afternoon, the villagers hadn’t treated her poorly, but they’d kept her in the lodge, and Maya had clearly been moved elsewhere. They had run Gaia a bath while she ate a bowl of soup, and they’d provided a white cotton shirt and a beige skirt of soft homespun to replace her torn, dirty blue dress. As she swung her feet to the floor, she could feel the floorboards through the wool of new socks. Her boots were nowhere to be found.

She listened intently until a second cry came floating through the rain, a wild, eerie, spiraling birdcall, as if the marsh itself had found a voice. Gaia shivered, then second-guessed if the earlier cry had truly belonged to a baby. She had to find out.

Her sore muscles tightened as she first stood, and a faint groan hummed in her throat. Trying her door, she found it locked. She turned to push the window sash up higher and inspected the slats that crossed the opening in a grid, imprisoning her. Mist stirred against her face as she squinted, trying to see. The spaces were barely wider than the span of her hand, but as she tested the solidity of each slat, she found the two on the right side were loose at the nails, just waiting for a good shove. They gave with a crack.

By twisting and squeezing through the tiny opening, she was free, and she dropped down into the soggy garden. Her socks were instantly soaked. She had no idea where to look first, or even how large the village was, but that didn’t deter her. She began with the cabins around the commons that had lit windows, peering inside, and progressed slowly downhill. For an hour, she succeeded only in getting drenched, and finally, shivering, she ducked under the shelter of a willow tree. A trace of unfamiliar tobacco smoke laced into the clean smell of the rain, and then a man on horseback slowly passed the willow.

She didn’t want to get caught, nor did she want to give up. She listened as the horse’s splashing footfalls diminished into the distance. A flash of sheet lightning exposed the marsh in a vast, black-and-white landscape, desolate and alive. Hoping for more lightning, she peered into the darkness, and then, as the thunder rumbled away, Gaia heard another cry, only it wasn’t a baby or a birdcall this time. It was the moaning cry of a woman in labor.

For an instant she froze, her inner strings reverberating with the familiar sound, and then she was hurrying down a lane toward the echo of the cry. She didn’t stop until she arrived on the narrow porch of a peak-roofed, one-story cabin, where the cry came again. As it faded away, she knocked loudly on the frame of the screen door.

“Will?” called a woman’s voice from inside.

“It’s Gaia Stone,” she called. She blinked back the raindrops on her lashes and waited.

Nobody came. Gaia peered through the screen into the high-ceilinged room, noticing that shelves of books ran waist-high all the way around the walls. More volumes were piled high on the mantel over the fireplace. A lamp with a rose-colored shade was burning on a table. She stripped off her muddy socks and tried to shake off some of the rain that dripped from her arms and hair. When still no one came, she pulled softly at the screen door and stepped inside, hearing the rush of the rain on the steep roof above.

“Hello?” she called again.

She tiptoed down a short hallway to a curtained doorway. She fingered the curtain aside to find a tableau of contrasts: a slender, red-haired woman in tidy brown trousers and a white, delicately pleated blouse stood beside a bed where a distraught, disheveled, pregnant girl was clenched in the pain of childbirth.

The woman’s gaze traveled from Gaia’s soaked clothes to her muddy feet. Her lips curved. “Sure you have the right party?”

Gaia laughed, rolling back her wet sleeves. “What’s her name? How long has she been in labor?”

“This is Mx. Josephine. She started just after lunch. I’m Mx. Dinah. Welcome.”

Josephine’s face was dusky and flushed, her eyes half wild with fear. In a sweat-soaked, gray nightgown, she curled to her side in a thrashing motion.

“Oh, no!” Josephine said. She wiped a strand of black hair out of her mouth in a panicky gesture. “Here comes another one. Mx. Dinah, help me!” She grabbed for Dinah’s hand and held her breath, gritting her teeth for one long, torturous suspension of time.

Not good, Gaia thought, hoping the mother’s frenzy didn’t presage an underlying complication. She had to be ready before the next one.

She took a quick survey of the room to see what she had to work with, noting the lit fireplace and a pile of clean linens. Two oil lamps gave good light, and the bed jutted into the middle of the room so it would be easy to get to both sides. As she washed her hands in the corner basin, she knew she would need more water and a knife. If only she had her old midwifery satchel.

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