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“You should have let her out of the stocks hours ago,” Leon said.

“Leon, don’t,” Gaia said instantly.

“It’s Vlatir?” the Matrarc asked.

“Yes,” Dominic said. “I’ll make him go.”

“It doesn’t matter,” the Matrarc said. “He can stay.”

Gaia glared at Leon. He shrugged, leaning back against the wall. “Gaia’s nearly dead,” Leon said. “You’d know if you could see her.”

“That makes two of us,” the Matrarc said.

Dominic turned to his wife, and the others went still for a moment.

Gaia beckoned to Leon to bring her a basin and water, and she straightened to wash her hands. The Matrarc lay on her right side, her blind eyes staring toward the black window, her huge belly extended before her. Dominic held her right hand in both of his. Taja was backed into a corner near the door. Will sat at the foot of the bed, his sleeves rolled back and a roll of bloodied towels in a basin beside him.

“When did you come?” Gaia asked him.

“As soon as she let you and Peter out. I’ve been useless, though, I’m afraid.”

Drying her hands, Gaia gave the Matrarc a long, searching look. “You agreed to let all the men and libbies vote when you let us out of the stocks. You realize that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. It’s the end of Sylum.”

“Olivia, you need to think of yourself now, and the baby,” Dominic said. “Let it go.”

The Matrarc clenched her face as a contraction came, and with growing concern, Gaia saw it lacked the intensity and duration to be productive.

“How long has she been in labor?” Gaia asked.

“Ten hours,” Dominic said. “She delivered her last four babies in half this much time.”

“Have any of you examined her?” she asked, turning to Will.

“I tried,” Will said. “It didn’t feel right, but I had no idea what to do. There’s been a trickle of blood on and off.”

Everything about this looked wrong to Gaia.

“Do you feel movement from the baby?” she asked the Matrarc.

“Sometimes. Not as much as before.”

“She didn’t tell us that,” Dominic said, looking anxious.

“I think it would be best if I sat on the side of the bed. I need to be able to examine her and I can’t stand well,” Gaia said.

Will shifted out of the way, and Leon helped her.

“Lift her gown for me,” she said.

Dominic reached to pull the Matrarc’s gown up, and Gaia saw an alarming pattern of black veins already spreading across the mother’s belly.

“Mlady Olivia,” Gaia said. She rested her wrist lightly on the Matrarc’s arm. “Tell me whatever you can. What do you feel?”

“I feel like I’m plugged. Like I’m pushing all I can, but the baby’s just plugged in.”

Gaia spread her hands on the woman’s stomach, palpitating slowly, and then she put her ear to the warm skin and listened carefully for the faint, fast heartbeat of the baby within. It always made her think of butterfly wings, and it was there, urging her to hurry. She straightened to feel around more carefully, until she could feel knees and the back, and knew the baby was lined up normally, which was at least something.

“I’m going to examine you internally now,” Gaia said.

Gaia ignored the creaking pain in her own arms and gently reached inside, feeling carefully for the cervix, which was fully effaced but only about four centimeters dilated. Where the hard lump of a baby’s head normally should be, she found a tight, stretchy substance instead, and as her fingers continued to prod, in her mind’s eye she constructed an image of what she was feeling. The mother was, indeed, plugged. The baby’s placenta had grown across the opening of the uterus, like a living mass of purple dough over the funneled opening of a soft chute, and even though it had torn partially, there was no way for the baby to come through. If it tore much more, the baby would die quickly.

Gaia pulled out and sagged back. She reached for the basin again, and Leon held it while she dipped her hands in the water, where the blood swirled.

“You see?” the Matrarc said.

“Yes,” Gaia answered. Her heart grew heavy. There was a choice to be made soon. It might already be too late.

“Taja?” the Matrarc said.

“I’m here, Mom.”

“Get the others. I want to say goodbye to my children.”

Taja glanced at Gaia, her expression stunned, and then she slipped out the door. As it clicked closed, Dominic seemed to wake up.

“What are you talking about?” Dominic said to his wife. He turned to Gaia. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry,” Gaia said as gently as she could. “The baby’s placenta is blocking the cervix.”

“What does that mean?” he demanded.

“The organ inside the womb that feeds the umbilical cord, the placenta, has grown across the opening of the womb,” Gaia said. “It means the baby can’t get out. It’s plugged in.”

“Then cut the thing away,” Dominic said. “Pull it out.”

“Go in with a blade? The baby would die in the process, even if I could do it quickly,” Gaia said. She could imagine all the blood.

Dominic laughed helplessly. “We can’t just leave the baby in there forever.” He searched Gaia’s face, then looked back at his wife, distressed. “Let the baby die, then,” he said. “Save my wife.”

Gaia didn’t know what to tell him. She couldn’t take the placenta and the baby out without massive hemorrhaging, and she knew what happened then. That was how her own mother had died. Fear backed up inside her, cold and hard.

“I can’t,” Gaia said.

“Are you telling me you won’t?” Dominic demanded. “We have seven other children who all need their mother.”

“Dominic,” the Matrarc began.

“No. I don’t care,” Dominic insisted. “I’m not going on without you, Olivia. We’re losing this one. I know how you feel about it, but we’ll have others. It’ll be okay.”

Gaia looked up at Leon to see if he understood what she’d been trying to say. Then she reached for her satchel and stiffly pulled out the smaller bag of tinctures and herbs.

“It’s not that Gaia won’t,” Leon said. “It’s that it’s not possible. She can’t save your wife by sacrificing the baby.”

Dominic frowned at Gaia, obviously trying to process the information. “Are you telling me you can’t save either of them?”

“It’s not that. There’s a chance I could save the baby,” Gaia said.

She watched Dominic’s horrified expression as the implications became clear to him.

“No,” he said flatly. “Olivia, did you hear that? I’m telling you no.”

“Dom,” the Matrarc said softly.

“No!” he said, standing. “Get out of here! I don’t want you here,” he said to Gaia.

Gaia felt Leon’s hands on her shoulders.

“No, Dom. I want her. Wait, please,” the Matrarc said.

Her face contorted during another contraction, and she reached for her husband’s hand. Dominic sat again beside her, his face grim, his eyes furious.

“Don’t make it harder for me,” the Matrarc said softly to her husband.

The following silence was terrible, and then a soft knock came on the door.

“Cover me up so the children don’t have to see any blood,” the Matrarc said. “Be sure about it. Give us a minute as a family, but then, Gaia, you have to come back. Promise me.”

“I will. Take this, now. Open your mouth.” She leaned near with a tincture of witch hazel and shepherd’s purse, and carefully placed the drops under the Matrarc’s tongue.

“What’s that for?” Dominic said.

“For the bleeding,” Gaia said.

The door was opening and Taja, her eyes enormous, was peeking in. “Mom? We’re all here.”

“One minute,” the Matrarc said.

Gaia packed a clean towel between the Matrarc’s legs again while Will collected the bloody ones in a basin. Dominic sat motionless, stricken, as Leon spread a clean white blanket over the bed.

“Okay. We’re going now,” Gaia said. “Leon?” She reached for his arm, but he simply lifted her off her feet again, and they went out to make room for the Matrarc’s children. Jerry, the birthday boy, sucked his thumb. The youngest, a toddler, was carrying his bear. Will closed the door behind them.

They moved down the balcony toward a bench, and Leon set her gently on her feet. Across the atrium space on the opposite balcony, a couple of mladies waited to be of any assistance, but Gaia waved them off.

“You holding up okay, Mlass Gaia?” Will asked.

She felt his concerned gaze, and nodded. “I’m going to need your help soon,” she said.

“There’s no way you can save the Matrarc, too?” Will said.

“I’ll try, of course, but I’ve never sewn anyone up after a blade delivery, and she’ll lose a lot of blood no matter what I do. Once we start, we’ll have to do it fast.” She considered, feeling rather sick. Even if she succeeded in extricating the baby and sewing the Matrarc closed, there would be nothing to prevent infection. She hadn’t had time to learn more about the lily-poppy Peter had said the old doctor used for pain. “I think we’ll have to tie her down. I only have motherwort for the pain. It won’t be nearly enough.” She touched a hand to her forehead.

“Can you get Gaia some tea?” Leon asked.

Will gazed at her a moment, then nodded and turned for the stairs. As he left, Leon sat, pulling Gaia tenderly beside him. She couldn’t relax, but she leaned her cheek against his shoulder.

“It’s hard for me to believe you’re not furious at the Matrarc,” he said quietly.


“She left you in the stocks for hours. That’s something I don’t think I’ll ever forgive, and you’re helping her as if it never happened.”

Gaia turned over her hand, seeing the raw, bruised circlet in her flesh, but she was already thinking ahead about the surgery. “She’s a pregnant mother and she needs me,” she said. “This is what I do.”

“Remember how she punished you for inducing a miscarriage?” Leon asked. “I can’t help noticing her husband would have no qualms about sacrificing his own full-term child now that it’s the Matrarc’s pregnancy your dealing with.”

Gaia hadn’t thought of that irony. “He’s desperate. It’s awful. All of it.”

“She’s stubborn like I’ve never seen before,” Leon said.

Dominic’s suggestion was bothering her. Gaia remembered a conversation she’d had with a doctor back in Q cell, when Myrna had proposed that a hooked forceps could be used vaginally to pull out a placenta like this one, sacrifice a baby, and save a mother. Gaia had no such tool and no such skill, but part of her wondered. If she’d been released from the stocks earlier, when the Matrarc was still strong, before she’d had much blood loss, could Gaia have cleared the placenta and the baby by hand so that the Matrarc would have lived? There were many ifs, but it almost made the Matrarc’s decision to keep Gaia in the stocks a suicide choice.

“She wasn’t just stubborn,” Gaia said. “She valued Sylum the way it was. Enough to die for it.”

Leon watched her closely. “What are you saying?”

She shook her head. It was pointless to speculate anyway. The Matrarc was now so weak that her body was shutting down and killing the baby along with her. “It feels wrong to play with life and death.”

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