Prized Page 36

“How late is it?” she asked, walking carefully forward, trying not to trip in the dark grass.

“After ten. Not too late,” he said.

She headed toward his voice. “Did you bring Spider?”

She came up against Peter in the darkness. She let out a soft “Oh!” expecting him to step back, but instead she felt his hands close around her arms to steady her, and he didn’t let go.

“I’ve wanted to see you so badly,” he said.

Her heartbeat leapt. “Peter,” she began, glancing around. “It’s not safe here.”

“It’s dark. No one will see.”

He backed up a step, drawing her along with him, and then another. She could just make out the shape of his face and the line of his jaw. She tentatively touched her fingertips to the front of his shirt. Heat lay beneath the fabric.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “Is he treating you all right?”

“Of course,” she said, smiling.

“You sound tired.”

“I just delivered a baby.”

“How’s your sister?” he asked.

“She’s good. She’s gaining weight, and she actually slept six hours straight last night.”

“That’s wonderful. You must be happy.”

“I am. You can’t imagine.” She felt his hands slide around her back, and then he was pulling her gently nearer.

“What do you do up there all day?” he asked. He was so near his voice was hardly more than a whisper.

A tingle started in her gut and spread outward. “I help with the babies,” she said. “There are always diapers to wash. And I cook some.”

“That’s all? You don’t play cards or anything?”

“No, why?”

Her satchel slipped down her shoulder and he caught it for her, lifting it away to hook it over the saddle.

“You don’t walk in the meadow?” he asked. His arms slid around her again.

She laughed. “We’re far too busy for that,” she said. Though one night we watched lightning bugs.

“I’m trying to picture it,” he said. “What’s the most interesting thing you’ve done?”

Inside her cloak, one of his hands moved lightly up her back, and it was getting hard for her to think.

“The most interesting thing?” she said. “We found a letter to my parents in my grandmother’s sketchbook.”

“You and Mx. Josephine?”

“Me and Leon.”

“You and him.” He sounded as if she was finally telling him what he wanted to know. “What did it say?”

“It was in a code. She told my parents to leave Sylum if they ever came here.” She peered up at him, wishing she could see him more clearly. “It made me want to ask you about that time you left and beat the gateway sickness. Did you have any withdrawal symptoms, like shakes or hallucinations or anything?”

His hands stilled where they were. “I already told you,” he said. “I was starting to feel strange, like headachy and nauseous. I wouldn’t say they were hallucinations, but I lit up and that took care of it.”

“You smoked rice flower?”

“Yes. Why? Do you think that mattered?”

Gaia thought of Norris smoking, too.

“I don’t believe it,” she said. She impulsively tugged on his shirt. “Peter, that’s the solution. The rice flower was why you were able to avoid the gateway sickness.” Her mind was flying. “Why didn’t I see it? Norris smoked, too, when he went to rescue my grandmother. Since he went just as far as she did, he should have died, too, but he lived to bring her back because he was smoking the rice flower. Do you hear what I’m saying?”

“We could leave,” he said quietly.

“I know!” she said. She’d never been so excited. She couldn’t wait to tell Leon. And the Matrarc. “This changes everything,” she said. “The people of Sylum don’t have to stay here and die off. I want you with me when I tell the Matrarc. She’ll be thrilled.”

“You want to go now?”

“Sure. Why not?”

He laughed, low in his throat. “You sound so happy.”

“Of course I am,” she said, grinning. “This is huge!”

“You’re so pretty when you’re happy,” he said, and his arms tightened around her.

His absurdity amused her beyond anything. “I can’t be pretty in the dark,” she said, laughing.

“It isn’t dark for me.”

Gaia’s breath caught. Her joy was transformed by sweet pleasure, and then he drew her nearer until her shirt met his. Tentatively, she moved her arms around him, while something anxious inside her wondered why he felt so good to her. She felt a feather-light touch along her right cheek, and the softest kiss followed. She couldn’t inhale anymore. Her heart forgot how to work.

When she tipped her face up, his mouth was already there, barely any distance away. All she had to do would be to tilt up a little farther, and her lips would meet his. She didn’t know how she could tell that he was still smiling, but she could, and then his lips touched briefly against hers. It was just enough so that she knew precisely where he was. He tasted like the night air, pure and clear. And then he just tasted of happiness. She closed her eyes, leaning completely into him, and let herself get lost.

She became dimly aware that a banging had started on a door. “Mom!” yelled a child’s bright voice. “Mom! Open up! Show us the baby! Is it a girl?”

A moment later, the area was filled with the rush of footsteps as Mlady Beebe’s children returned home, and when the door was thrown open, light illuminated every corner of the yard.

Gaia broke away from Peter, but it was already too late. Other people were in the yard, too, and they were turning in curiosity.

“Come on in, children. Hurry now,” Roger said. The little ones scampered in.

“Can you open the door any more there, Roger?” came a man’s deep voice. “We need the light. You all right there, Mlass?”

“I’m fine,” she said quickly.

“Mlass Gaia?” came Mlady Maudie’s voice. “Is that you?”

“You’d best stand aside, there,” came the man’s voice again, warningly. He started toward them, his striped shirt catching the light. “Chardo Peter?”

“Hello, Doerring,” Peter said calmly. “Mlady Maudie.”

Mlady Maudie took a step into the light. “You should know better, Chardo,” she said. “How long have you been out here? Roger, what do you think?”

“Not long. He came maybe fifteen minutes ago,” Roger said.

“Long enough,” Mlady Maudie said. “Doerring, take him.”

The men began to circle around Peter.

“Wait a minute,” Gaia objected. “He didn’t do anything. There’s nothing wrong with me.”

“That was an uncondoned embrace,” Mlady Maudie said. “We all saw it, clear as day. I just hope the children didn’t.”

“Mlass Gaia, it’s all right,” Peter said.

She stepped before him into the light cast from the doorway. “No. I’m telling you,” she insisted. “Look at me. I’m perfectly fine. There’s nothing wrong.”

“Please, Mlass. It’s the law. Attempted rape is a matter for the tribunal,” said one of the older men.

“Attempted rape? Are you serious?” she said. “It was just a kiss. Nothing more.”

“He actually kissed you?” Mlady Maudie asked.

“Mlass Gaia, no,” Peter said and groaned.

“That’s it,” Doerring said. “You going to come easy, Chardo?” The big man crowded nearer.

It was going too fast.

“Get away from him,” Gaia said, backing near to Peter again to shield him from the other men. “For the last time, he didn’t do anything.”

To her amazement, Peter stepped around her into the light and didn’t resist at all as two of the men grabbed his arms.

“Roger, stop them!” Gaia called. “Mlady Maudie!”

“I’m sorry, Mlass,” Roger said. “He went too far. I’ve got a daughter of my own.”

“Just don’t say anything more,” Peter said to Gaia.

One of the men hit him across the face. “Don’t mess with her. You’ve done enough.”

“Peter!” she called. “Are you all right? Leave him alone!” She grabbed at Doerring’s arm.

“What on earth is going on here?” came a new voice from the road.

“Norris!” Gaia called, spinning toward the voice. “They’re arresting Chardo Peter for attempted rape. Make them let him go!”

“The girl’s completely out of control,” Mlady Maudie said.

“I’m not the problem!” Gaia protested.

Norris came in the yard and crossed quickly to Gaia. “Take it easy there, Mlass,” he said softly.

“Chardo kissed her and who knows what else,” Mlady Maudie said, stepping nearer.

“Get away from me!” Gaia said. “You never liked me!”

“See what I mean?” Mlady Maudie said. “You try to handle her.”

Norris laughed. “Take the boy, now. I’ve got Mlass Gaia. She’s not going to cause any fuss, not this late in the evening when the kids are all trying to settle down.”

Something in his tone made her listen. A warning. She looked back at Peter. Already a drip of blood was coming from his mouth. His hair was messed over his eyes, and his lips moved silently in the light from the doorway: Please.

“What are you going to do with him?” Gaia asked.

“We’ll hold him down at the prison until the tribunal,” Doerring said.

“Tribunal!” she said. This can’t be happening. “Can’t you all just forget about this?” she pleaded. “Believe me. Nothing happened.” She turned toward Mlady Maudie. “Truly. Look at me, I’m fine.”

Mlady Maudie let out a brief laugh. “Fine you are not.”

“Mlass Gaia,” Peter said, his voice low and deliberate. “You must stop.” His quietness alarmed her most of all. In a moment of charged silence, she stared around her, grasping finally that these people would not yield to reason.

“I’ll find the Matrarc now,” she said to Peter. “I’ll make her let you go.” She turned toward the horses.

“Norris, go with her,” Mlady Maudie said. “Talk sense to her.”

Frustrated beyond belief, Gaia heaved herself up, threw her satchel over her shoulder, and pulled at the reins. She took a last look at Peter being hustled away by the men, and with a sense of near panic, she took off with Norris.

“Unbelievably moronic,” Norris said as they rode out of earshot. “Kissing, right where you could be seen. You had the whole ride back up to the bluff. Couldn’t you wait five minutes?”

She caught a glimpse of his irate expression as they passed the lodge. “I didn’t know he was going to kiss me. It’s not like I planned anything.”

“He could have, if he had a brain in his head.”

“I told them I was fine,” she said, still infuriated. “This is all a stupid fuss for nothing.”

“If you’ll calm down for a minute, I’ll try to explain.”

“I know already,” she said. “Touching isn’t condoned. It’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard of.”

Norris kept riding, aiming up the road that led toward the bluff, and she could tell from his silence that he wasn’t going to answer her until she calmed down.

She took a deep breath. “All right. I’ll listen,” she said. “But just don’t tell me something ridiculous or I’ll lose it again.”

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