Prized Page 41

Gaia said “Ay,” and she heard an echo from across the table as Mlady Roxanne agreed with her. They were the only two voices.

Then, very softly, Peony’s mother spoke. “Ay,” she said.

The other women at the table looked at her. She said nothing more.

“Those opposed, say ‘Nay,’” the Matrarc said.

Six voices rose in a negative, and the sound fell away to nothing.

Gaia jerked her hand out of the Matrarc’s. “You’re just cruel, all of you,” Gaia said.

“Watch yourself, Mlass Gaia,” Mlady Beebe said. “We’re keeping our girls safe. You just have to be more careful next time.”

“Not to get caught?” Gaia demanded.

“No. Not to let yourself get in such a situation at all,” Mlady Beebe said.

“You’ll learn to respect our ways in time,” Mlady Eva added more gently. “They’re good ways.”

“When an innocent person gets punished, that’s not good,” Gaia said. “I know that much. The men would never support such a law.”

“So now you’re suggesting that the men should be allowed to make the laws? Do you think they should vote?” Mlady Maudie demanded. “Is that what this is really about?”

“If that’s what it takes to have justice,” Gaia said.

There was an outburst around the able, and laughter as well. The Matrarc frowned and rapped her knuckles on the table.

“My cuzines, please,” the Matrarc said. “We will stick to the matter at hand, and that is Chardo Peter’s crime. You need to understand this, Mlass Gaia. Even though you consider him innocent, he still committed a crime against the law as it stands now.” She made another gesture around the table. “The sentence holds? Say ‘Ay.’”

The council agreed, unanimously even Mlady Roxanne and Peony’s mother. Gaia was in such shock she couldn’t speak.

The Matrarc touched a hand to her monocle. “Then tell his father, Mlady Maudie, and have him fetched up from the prison immediately. The time starts as soon as he can be put in the stocks. The days are shorter now, and I don’t want him out in the dark any longer than he has to be. Remember, no food or water. Mlass Gaia, will you drive me back up to the bluff? It’s my son’s birthday,” the Matrarc said to the others. “Little Jerry. He’s four.”

The women smiled, relaxing into casual chat, and began to rise from the table. Mlady Maudie went out the front door. That abruptly, the meeting was over, and Gaia was stunned. The arrogance, the confidence of the women was staggering, as if they hadn’t taken one word she’d said seriously. Mlady Beebe was showing her new son to the woman beside her, who set aside her knitting to coo. Disgusted, Gaia reached down for her satchel.

“Mlass Gaia,” Mlady Roxanne began. “I hope you’ll understand.”

Gaia glared at her teacher, backing away. “I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”

Noises came from above, and she looked up to see several of the mlasses coming out of their rooms. Sunlight was pouring in through the clerestory above. The day was beginning. People were going about their business. Norris must be back in the kitchen, starting breakfast.

She pivoted on her heel and strode rapidly out the front door to the veranda, where she gripped the railing and looked out to the commons. Peter’s brother and father and uncles stood in stoic silence near the stocks, clearly having just received word of the verdict, and Will lifted a hand to his father’s shoulder. Gaia couldn’t bear it. In the commons, other people were gathering to hear the news. She expected them to look somber, concerned, but strangely, perhaps because it was the first time in weeks that the sun had appeared and the day promised to be spectacularly clear and beautiful, there was an undercurrent of joy in the way people smiled, greeting each other. Already a child was playing with a toy truck in the dirt at his father’s feet.

From the other end of the commons, several men came riding in on horseback. More people were following on foot behind, and as Gaia squinted to see more clearly, she identified Peter in the middle of the riders. Someone was leading his horse, and as he came nearer, she realized his hands were tied behind him. She had an awful recollection of the last occasion when she’d seen him ride in, only that time, he’d been an outrider leading in prisoners and one of them had been dead.

Now Peter was the prisoner.

The people in the commons gathered nearer, leaving a path between them for the procession. The Matrarc came out to the porch, tapping softly with her cane, and stood to Gaia’s right. Good, Gaia thought. She should at least be here to witness this.

From the right came the sound of wheels, and Gaia looked over to see Dinah driving a wagon. Josephine sat beside her on the bench, holding her baby, and as the wagon turned before the lodge, Gaia saw Leon was in the back, holding Maya. She hadn’t realized how badly she wanted them there until she saw them.

“Is that Mx. Dinah’s wagon I hear?” the Matrarc asked.

“Yes,” Gaia said. “She’s brought Leon and Mx. Josephine and the babies.”

“She would.”

The entourage from the prison arrived before the lodge, and the guards dismounted into the dust. Peter’s profile was aimed toward his father, who silently lifted a hand. One of the guards spoke to Peter and reached up to him, and then, with his hands still tied behind him, Peter swung off the horse. Several buttons of his pale blue shirt had come undone, and his lip, from where he’d been hit the night before, was discolored.

“He looks bad,” came a soft voice from Gaia’s left, and she realized Peony and the other mlasses had come out to the porch beside her. “I’m sorry, Mlass Gaia.”

I can’t stand this, Gaia thought. She shrugged away from the others and started down the steps. The guards were moving Peter forward. Four sets of stocks were positioned to the right of the lodge. Each device of heavy, weathered framework had three holes cut between two hinged beams of wood. Peter would have his head in the middle hole, his wrists in the outer holes, and he could stand, leaning over, or kneel against a board at the base of the stocks. She could already imagine that the discomfort would be only partly caused by the stocks themselves, but the time, pinned there, would cause his own body to strain against itself, and there’d be no relief, not even for a moment. Thirst and hunger would torment him under the noonday sun. Mosquitoes, at nightfall, would be another kind of torture. She only hoped he’d be numb to it all by then.

They stood him before the nearest stocks, facing the commons, and untied his hands. As if he’d been tied so long that his muscles were stiff, Peter curled his arms forward and hunched up his shoulders for a moment. He stared bleakly at the stocks. The voices in the crowd fell silent. He carefully did up the buttons that had come undone on his shirt. Finally, with slow fingers, he straightened his collar.

The small gesture of dignity sliced through her like nothing had before, and that was when she made her decision.

She turned to the wagon where Dinah and Josephine sat watching with sober expressions. Near them, Leon stood holding Maya against his shoulder. Gaia quietly set her satchel and cloak in the back of the wagon and briefly touched her locket watch to be sure it was around her neck.

“Leon,” she said. “I need you.”

His blue eyes met hers squarely and for a long moment he studied her. Then he nodded, ready to do whatever she needed. He passed Maya to Dinah so his hands were free and pushed up his sleeves.

They were lifting the top bar of Peter’s stocks as she strode forward. She wasn’t going to say anything to Peter at all. She couldn’t. She was already trembling with fear. The hinge squeaked as they brought the bar down on top of his neck and wrists, and she heard the click as a peg was dropped in the slot to keep it closed. There was no need for a lock. No one would dare undo the stocks until the full term of the punishment was meted out.

Gaia kept walking, with Leon following, until she came to the second stocks, but she was too shaky to be able to open up the top part herself. She turned to Leon.

“Help me in,” she said.

“You can’t,” he said quietly.

“I must.”

She couldn’t look to her left, where Peter was. She couldn’t look beyond him to Will or the cuzines on the porch. But she could lift her pleading eyes to Leon, and she knew that she could count on him.

He lifted the top bar of the stocks.

“Look after Maya for me,” she said.

“I will.”

“What’s going on?” came a voice from the crowd.

Gaia tucked her hair behind her ears. She set her neck over the center dip in the wood. She felt along the top of the beam until she came to the places for her wrists, and set them there, and then she closed her eyes as Leon set the top beam, carefully, back in place, and audibly dropped in the peg to keep her there.


the stocks

SHE COULDN’T LOOK UP to see them, but she could hear their voices.

“But she didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Did the Matrarc sentence her, too?”

“He’s in for twelve hours. Is she, too?”

“Isn’t she supposed to be up at the winner’s cabin?”

“Look at the Matrarc. I’ve never seen her so furious.”

And then a nearer voice, a man’s voice. “This is just wrong. You there. Let her out.”

“She doesn’t want out,” Leon said.

“But she’s innocent,” the man said. “I was there last night. I know.” She recognized the voice of Doerring, the big man in the striped shirt.

“She believes that Chardo is innocent also,” Leon said.

“I can’t stand to see her in there. It’s obscene.”

Gaia heard the sound of metal clearing from a sheath and hoped Doerring wasn’t armed. It wouldn’t do her any good if Leon was arrested now, too.

“Stand back, Doerring.” It was Will’s voice. His boots came within her line of sight, black and solid in the brown dirt before her. “She stays as long as she wants to.”

“You’re crazy, the whole lot of you,” said Doerring.

She heard more shuffling and saw more booted feet surrounding her.

Then she heard Doerring’s voice, moving farther away. The sound of metal came again, more quietly. “Who ever heard of protesting a law by getting in the stocks?”

“She’ll grow tired of it,” came another voice. “I left my laundry soaking. Come get me if anything happens.”

Gaia was already growing tired of it. Five minutes in, she started feeling a strain in her ankles, of all places. She tried kneeling, and that was better for a minute, but then her knees began to hurt. It was warmer than she’d realized, too, with the morning sun weighing heavy in her full skirt. Was that a spider, very tiny, dropping down a spindle of web to her right?

“How many are we?” came Leon’s voice.

“I count eleven. I can go for some weapons, some pitch forks and shovels if you think we’ll need them,” said Will.

“I don’t think so,” Leon said.

“No weapons,” Gaia said.

“She says no weapons,” Leon repeated.

She tried to turn her head, but couldn’t twist far enough to see Peter’s stocks. She felt the slight tug at her neck as her locket watch bumped against the wood. “Peter?” she said. “Can you hear me?”

His voice sounded distant. “Yes. You’ve made your point and I appreciate it. Now tell Will to let you out.”

“It isn’t just about you anymore,” Gaia said.

He answered something she couldn’t hear.

“What? What did he say?” she asked.

“He says kissing you was worth it,” Leon said. “Would you care to reply?”

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