Prized Page 37

“Intimate physical relations are the absolute basis of our entire society here,” Norris said. “You have to remember, there are nine men for every woman. Nine. They’re competing all the time, and the rules are very precise to keep it fair. If one man crosses the line, it’s unfair to everyone else.”

“I get all that. But Peter didn’t cross a line,” Gaia said.

“It doesn’t matter if you personally welcomed what he did. Once he can touch you or kiss you or whatever, you’re naturally going to care more for him. He’s playing on your sympathy, on your desire.”

“Don’t I have a choice about my own desire?” she demanded.

“He’s using your own body to influence your reason, not the other way around.”

“But what if I want that?”

He grunted in the darkness. “I am not getting through to you.”

“No. You’re not. Because you’re wrong.”

“Let me put it this way. Are you ready to choose Chardo Peter over any other man, permanently, for the rest of your life?” Norris asked.

She frowned, thinking of Will and Leon. “Of course not.”

“So then, you were just playing with him.”

“Norris! I’m not like that.”

“You’re either incredibly dense or just plain mean. He took an enormous risk for you. Think, Mlass Gaia. He was unbelievably stupid, but whatever you two just did in the dark meant a lot more to him than it did to you. It mattered.” Norris kicked his horse. “I’m no good at this,” he said.

It began to come clear. The rule against touching didn’t just raise the stakes legally, it raised them emotionally, too. Peter must deeply care for her, and by accepting his kiss, it must seem to him that she cared that much, too. She’d raised his expectations exponentially.

“I never should have kissed him,” she said, horrified.

“Now you’re getting there.” Norris pulled to the right, and Gaia saw they’d arrived at the Chardos’ ranch.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“What do you think? Rotting peg leg’s no good in a stirrup,” he added under his breath.

“I can’t talk to the Chardos,” Gaia said.

“Don’t be a coward,” Norris said. “Come on.”

She watched him head up the driveway, toward the cabin where light gleamed in several windows. “I’ll just keep going up to the Matrarc’s,” Gaia called.

“It’s a bad idea getting her up when she’s with her family. She won’t do anything tonight, anyway. Wait, and talk to her calmly in the morning.”

“But Peter will spend the night in prison,” Gaia said.

“It’ll give him a chance to wise up,” Norris said. “Take my advice on this one.”

She itched to do something productive, but it was possible Norris was right. She rode up the driveway to where he was already dismounting. The door opened on his knock, and Will stood framed in the doorway with lamp light behind him.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “Is there a death?”

“It’s Mlass Gaia. She needs an escort back up to the winner’s cabin,” Norris said.

“I thought Peter was taking her.”

“There’s been a problem,” Norris said. “I’ll let her explain. Let me talk to Sid.” He stomped up the step and passed Will.

“Mlass Gaia? Are you all right?” Will asked.

She wanted to rip up the night and tear it to shreds. She pulled her horse around, realizing only then that, unlike the last time she rode, her feet met the stirrups comfortably. Peter, so considerately, had adjusted them for her height when he’d saddled her horse.

“I think I’m going to scream,” she said.

“Wait,” Will said, already reaching for Spider. “I’m coming.”

She headed impatiently back down the driveway.

“What happened?” Will asked as he caught up. “Are you hurt?”

The clouds had thinned to let through the light of a gibbous moon, and though the horse picked its way smoothly over the road, she could see only outlines and she was glad. She didn’t want Will to see her face.

“I kissed your brother. Or he kissed me,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. Some people saw us and now he’s been arrested for attempted rape.”

The horses’ footfalls beat stolidly on the dark dirt road, underscoring Will’s wordless silence.

“And now you hate me,” she added.

Will’s voice was careful. “I’m just surprised. Are you sure you’re all right? He didn’t hurt you in any way, did he?”

“How can you even ask that? Of course he didn’t. And please don’t say you warned me. I feel bad enough as it is.”

“I’m sure it wasn’t your fault.”

“It was my fault, as much as his,” she said. “I’ll talk to the Matrarc first thing tomorrow. There has to be a way to explain.”

“You have to be careful about what you say,” he said. “You don’t want to make it worse.”

“What do you mean?”

“If you’re too passionate in your defense of him, they’ll wonder why you’re not impartial.”

“Of course I’m not impartial,” she said.

“Listen to me,” Will said, his voice warming. “If witnesses saw you and they can prove he kissed you, then the law is very clear. He’s going to the stocks and then to prison. Can they really prove it? Where did this happen?”

It was getting worse and worse. “I admitted it myself,” she said, her voice tight. “We were in the yard of Mlady Beebe’s house, and Mlady Maudie and several others saw us. I was trying to persuade them it was just a kiss.”

He lifted a hand to the bridge of his nose. “That’s it, then,” he said.

“Will, no. We can explain. They’ll have to listen to us.”

“Peter won’t be there.”

“What?” she demanded.

“He won’t be at the tribunal. You say you had witnesses. You admitted yourself, in front of them, that he kissed you. That’s attempted rape.”

“But I kissed him, too! And nothing more happened! What about presumed innocence?” she demanded.

“That’s it exactly,” Will said. “You’re presumed innocent. That makes him the guilty one.”

She could not believe this. “There was no crime.”

“Whether you agree with it or not, it’s the law here that a man can’t touch you until you’ve made a choice to marry him.” Will audibly flicked his reins. “That’s just how it is. If he breaks the law, he goes to the stocks and then to jail. Peter knew that.”

“You’re talking about your own brother like you don’t even care!”

“Of course I care,” he said sharply. “It’s taking everything I’ve got not to go down there and wring his neck. And then yours.”

Gaia caught her breath. He wasn’t kidding.

“You want to know what’s really funny?” Will said. “We drew straws tonight to see who would pick you up from Mlady Beebe’s.”

She could hardly accept what he was saying, barely imagine that scene between the two brothers. Her mind twisted around the possibilities. This might never have happened if Will had met her at Mlady Beebe’s instead of Peter, but something else might have.

“I never would have tried anything with you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he added. “And not because I have any fear of the stocks.”

“No. You might be jealous, but you’d never think of kissing me,” she said, not really caring whether she made sense or not. She was getting angry all over again, as if he were implying that what she and Peter had done was truly unnatural and criminal.

“Give me credit for some subtlety,” Will said. “I’m saying I would never put you in the position he’s put you in.”

“You’re too decent, you mean,” she said.

“Don’t hold it against me.” He kicked Spider into a faster pace.

She gripped her reins and dug in her heels to catch up with him, riding in stubborn silence while she tried to sort out her emotions. She didn’t like having tension with Will on top of everything else. The path rose through the trees, and eventually reached the more open ridge at the top of the bluff.

“There’s an obvious thing to do,” she said. “We need to change the law.”

“I know.”

“And I guess it’s up to me to do it,” she said.

“You can try.”

A corpse would have sounded more optimistic. As they came around the next corner, she saw a faint glow from the windows of the winner’s cabin at the far edge of the meadow. The lightning bugs of the other night were gone, and the crickets had subdued to occasional chirps. She slowed her horse, then drew up by the stairs.

“Will you tell your family I’m sorry about Peter?” she asked. “I never meant to get him in trouble. I hardly know how I’ll ever face your father again.” She slid off her horse and made sure she had her satchel.

“Peter knew what he was risking, even if you didn’t,” he said.

“That’s what Norris told me, too,” she said, but it didn’t reassure her any. “I wish I had realized what it meant.”

A long moment passed, and she looked up to where he sat in the saddle, faintly silhouetted against the night sky. A thicker cloud passed over the moon and glowed white and gray above him. “I’ll take your reins,” he said, reaching toward her.

As she passed him the reins, she noticed he was careful not to overlap with her fingers, and the lack of touch was suddenly charged with meaning. She understood. It wasn’t that he cared any less than his brother. He just had a different way of showing it, a way that played within the law and managed to transcend it, too. He gave any choice completely to her.

There’s nobody in the world like Chardo Will, she thought.

“If I can do anything for you, let me know,” he said.

“You aren’t going to wring my neck, then?” she asked.

“Much as I’d like to, no.”

There was nothing left to say except good night, and then he was gone.



SHE CAME QUIETLY through the door, dragging her satchel by the handle, and dropped it just inside. A rich, heavenly smell of sweet pumpkin, cloves, and honey pervaded the air, and she breathed deeply. Against the globe of the kitchen lamp, a moth pinged, then fluttered away toward another oil lamp in the living room farther below. She listened for the sounds of babies, or of Josephine stirring in the bedroom to her right, but even the sound of the wind had died down, leaving the cabin quiet.

“Leon?” she said.

She closed the door softly behind her and stepped farther inside. He was asleep with his head on the table, the maps and her grandmother’s sketchbook spread out before him under the soft yellow glow of the lamp. One hand was pressed under his cheek, and his dark hair fell across his eyes. A gray blanket had slipped off his bare shoulder, revealing that he wore no shirt beneath.

She hung her cloak on a hook, silently shucked off her boots, and tiptoed sock-foot into the kitchen where the warm, homey redolence was even stronger. It helped her calm down slightly. He had tidied up, leaving a bowl overturned to air-dry by the sink. Gripping the oven door, she swung it open for a quick peek and found two loaves of pumpkin bread, risen and golden brown. She grabbed a towel for a hot pad, jimmied the pans out, and set them on the wooden counter to cool.

By the time she looked out to the table again, Leon was awake, blinking heavily in her direction.

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