Prized Page 30

She remembered what Adele had said. “Is it true you can’t read? Not at all?” Gaia asked.

“Why does it matter?”

She didn’t like to think he’d never had a chance to lose himself in a book. “It just does,” she said. “It says something about Sylum. So can you?”

He kept paddling. “I never learned.”

“Can you write?”

“What’s your point, Mlass Gaia? You want me to feel stupid, like Mlady Adele? Because it’s working.”

It wasn’t like that at all. “I’m sorry,” she said, startled.

“Apology accepted.”

She needed to be more careful with him, she realized. Just because he was strong and considerate all the time didn’t mean he couldn’t be hurt. “Will you tell me about your history with Mlady Adele?” she asked.

“It’s over, is what it is.”

That clinched it then. She should turn around and let him paddle in peace, she thought, or in anger as the case may be, but when she started to turn, she heard him muttering.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m curious about your past, too.”

Gaia braced a hand on the gunwale and shifted her knee to a more secure place. “What do you want to know?”

He shot his gaze briefly to hers, and then he paddled with strong, relentless strokes. “How did you ever get mixed up with someone like Vlatir? I don’t get it. He’s rude. He’s cruel. He jerks you around. Is that what you like?”

“No. He’s not always like that. He never was before. Or, actually—” That wasn’t completely truthful, either. Leon had seemed cruel to her, back in the Enclave. Heartless, in fact. But then he’d changed, at least toward her. Now, with Adele, he’d used his cruelty on Gaia’s behalf. Was it wrong to be selfishly grateful for that?

“This is strange for me,” she admitted. “Where I’m from, I was never considered special. No boys ever paid attention to me. I figured I’d always be alone, with my work as a midwife. That was enough for me.”

“Until you met Vlatir?”

She frowned, wondering how much to say. “There was nothing between us at first,” she said. “I didn’t even like him. But then, he began to change. He did things for me, like when I was in prison, sort of protecting me. Then he helped me unravel a code and get to my mother, who was also imprisoned.” There were many memories there, more than she could ever summarize for someone who wasn’t there. “He helped me, like now,” she said slowly, tracing Maya’s little hand. “Getting my sister back.”

“You said he saved your life.”

She nodded. “He did, when we were escaping the Enclave,” she said. “There was a moment, this unbelievable moment, when he was able to push me through a closing door. It saved me, while he was trapped. I didn’t know he planned to do it. But he did. I think—” She paused, struggling for the right words. Then her memory leapt back to earlier that same evening, and she could see the old Leon again, the one who had stood with her in an open doorway while the rain poured down just beyond, when there had been no reason to believe either of them would survive the night. “Is that all you do? Respect me?” he’d said.

She looked past Peter, back into the marsh, knowing the same person was back there now, no matter how different he seemed. “He must have cared for me more than I knew,” she said at last.

Peter paddled another stroke and then paused. “Did you love him back?”

The question made her go very quiet inside, listening. “I don’t know.”

Peter’s laugh brought her back to the moment.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“It’s not so much funny. But no matter how powerful your gratitude and admiration are, they aren’t a promise,” he said. “He knows that.”

We weren’t talking about promises, she thought. “You know, you can be pretty annoying.”

He laughed again, sounding even more relieved. “So can you.”

“Tell me about Mlady Adele.”

“Like there. That’s annoying.”

“I told you about me and Leon,” she argued.

“You didn’t really,” he said.

“I certainly did!”

He smiled. “Not everything.”

She closed her mouth primly. He would just have to use his imagination for the rest, such as it was.

“Okay,” he said. “But Will won’t like it that I’m telling you. He hates this story.”

If Will was involved, too, she had to know. “Tell me everything.”

He squinted one eye against a gust of wind. “Mlady Adele used to be very different, nothing like she was today,” he began. “I mean, she was always intense, but she was happier. Very sweet and creative. She was always coming by the barn, and Will fell for her hard. This was a good three years ago, I’d say. In any case, I used to tease him about how she was going to ask him to marry her.” He shot her a quick grimace.

“I take it that didn’t happen,” she said.

“Worse. She asked me instead.”

“But you—” She tried to calculate.

“I know. I was sixteen. She’s only a couple years older than me, so the age difference wasn’t so strange, but I knew how Will felt about her.”

“So you said no?” she guessed.

Peter nodded, still paddling. “Adele’s pride was hurt more than anything else. Men like me don’t turn down women like her. But then she turned around and said she might as well take Will.”

“Ouch,” she said. That had to sting. It didn’t take much to imagine Will a little younger, and idealistic, and disappointed.

Peter made a humming noise in the back of his throat. “Yes.” “Just how old is your brother?” Gaia asked.

“Now? He’s twenty-two.”

“So what happened then?”

“Well,” he said, drawing out the word. “Will said no, too. A week later, the Matrarc assigned me to the outriders and told Will he’d make a good morteur.”

“He didn’t choose his job?” But he’s so good at it.

Peter shook his head. “I know. He’s good at it. But it wasn’t raising horses like he wanted, and let’s face it: being a morteur ruined any chance any other woman would want him. He’s never had another offer. Never even come close.”

Adele’s revenge seemed unfair to her. Gaia glanced down toward the inner ribs of the boat as she pondered Will’s predicament. She cared for Will. A lot. Just how much, she wasn’t sure, but she valued what he’d told her behind the barn. It meant even more now that she knew he’d been burned before.

“Mlass Gaia?” Peter said slowly.

She needed to concentrate. She was missing something about Will, something that didn’t quite make sense, and her cheeks were growing warm.

“And you?” Gaia asked.

He was still looking at her strangely. He’d stopped paddling.

“I mean, you must be—” she stumbled over her own tongue. “The mlasses obviously like you,” she finished.

But he was still gazing at her with a faint crease between his eyebrows.

“You like my brother, don’t you?” he asked. He calculated further. “Does he know? Of course he does.”

She huddled into her cloak. “You make it sound like I can’t like more than one person.”

He let out a laugh. “He won’t talk about you. My dad’s always teasing him about you, and he won’t talk about you at all.”

“Peter,” she began, but then realized she had no idea what to say. “I just got here a couple of months ago, and most of that time I spent in the lodge.” She laughed helplessly, trying to explain. “I still hardly know anybody here, except maybe Norris.”

“And you’ve got Norris wrapped around your finger, too.”

He began canoeing again in earnest, and when she turned forward again, she could see Sylum growing larger on the shore. He didn’t speak for a long time, and the reeds and lily-poppies passed in a steady blur of green and white. Then a hollow, knocking noise reverberated from the marsh behind them, followed by a ripple of Dinah’s laughter.

“I said ‘J-stroke,’” came the libby’s voice, carrying clearly over the water. “It’s about finesse, not muscle. You’re not murdering the water.”

Peter let the canoe glide silently forward. “They’ve switched positions,” he said. “She’s teaching him how to stern.”

“Are you sure?”

There was another bang, and then more of Dinah’s laughter. Apparently, she and Leon were getting along better again. Gaia listened intently, wondering if Leon was laughing, too. She’d never heard him laugh much. A frog croaked nearby.

“The Matrarc’s asked me to stay in the village,” Peter said. “She wants extra guards around for security since Vlatir’s vote last night. She’s called in a dozen of the outriders.”

Gaia turned to see him again. “She has?” Her mind sifted the possibilities. “It’s an opportunity for you, isn’t it? Even at a ratio of nine to one, there have to be more mlasses in the village than there are out on your patrol.”

“I met one out there,” Peter said. “She turned out to be not so bad. I can’t quite get a read on her, though, especially now that I know she likes my brother and she’s reminding me I can meet other girls.”

She was starting to blush again. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

“I’ve just never felt like I have so little control.”

“You have to trust that things will work out all right,” she said, shifting on her hard seat. “Sometimes it’s not about control.”

“Do you really believe that?” he asked.

She thought a moment, hesitating. Maya’s eyelids were closed, and her tiny lashes splayed over her pale cheeks. Gaia stroked the soft skin wonderingly, noticing its contrast with her darker finger. A raindrop fell on the back of Gaia’s hand and magnified the pores. “Yes,” she said finally.

“Mlass Gaia,” he said quietly, so that she looked cautiously up at him again. “I can see things are complicated for you. I’m not going to pressure you. But will you just promise me one thing? Will you please promise not to choose Vlatir while you’re up in the winner’s cabin?”

Her eyes opened wide in amazement. “You can’t possibly mean what I think you’re saying.”

“I see how he looks at you.”

Nervous energy swarmed in her gut, and she shook her head decisively. “Half the time he despises me,” she said. “There’s no danger of me choosing him. None.” She tilted her face, peering at him, and nearly laughed.

He shrugged. “Fine, then. Don’t promise.”

He sent the canoe skimming around another corner.

“Would it really make a difference to you?” she asked.

“Let’s just say it’s not going to be fun for me, knowing you’re up there with him. My imagination is bad that way.”

Looking up, Gaia saw the shore was not far ahead. A flicker of lightning lit the horizon, followed by a low growl of thunder. Soft plinks of isolated drops pattered the water around them in a gentle chorus.

“All right,” she said. “This is the strangest promise I’ve ever made, but here goes: I won’t make any commitment to Leon while I’m up in the winner’s cabin. He won’t ask, either.”

“That part’s not up to you.”

“It still won’t happen,” she said. “I know him.”

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