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Voices mumbled in the crowd.

“What’s your point? We know this,” Mlady Maudie called from the cuzines.

“We don’t have to stay anymore,” Gaia said. “It’s a miasma from the swamp that’s keeping us addicted here, and there’s an antidote. We can smoke black rice flower and get away.”

Astonished gasps and laughter rose from some in the crowd, followed by another ripple of voices.

“Is that for certain?” Will asked her.

“Yes,” she said. Now was when she really needed Peter to explain what he’d done to escape.

Norris came forward. “Let me through here,” he said gruffly. “Listen up!” he called. “The girl’s right. I was smoking rice flower when I fetched back our last Matrarc, Mlady Danni. You remember. And I survived when I should have been dead like she was. I didn’t put that together until just now. We should have been experimenting and trying to leave all this time.”

Voices called out, and Norris raised a hand to settle them again. “Just listen to Mlass Gaia. Hear what she has to say,” Norris said. “The girl’s got some sense, even if she is one of the cuzines.”

As the men laughed again, Gaia could feel the tension easing and genuine curiosity focused in her direction. Her gaze settled on Dinah, and the way Maya was sucking on her little fingers.

“It’s just this,” Gaia said. “I think we need to move away now, with this generation, while we’re still strong. All of us. I don’t mean tomorrow, but as soon as we can reasonably put together a plan. If you elect me, you have to know that’s what I’ll try to do.”

“If you ask me, the girl’s right,” Norris said, and went down the stairs. A knot of men converged around him, and everyone was talking out in the commons and along the porch. Voices were excited now, lifting into the air with charged energy.

Leon lifted his eyebrows, smiling at her. “Cause trouble much?”

“I had to be honest,” she said. “I’m not going to be someone I’m not, especially if they might elect me.”

He laughed. “No kidding.”

“It’s more than they can handle, though,” Mlady Roxanne said, drawing near to Gaia. “With all respect, Mlass Gaia, you shouldn’t have told them like that.”

Will and Dominic stepped nearer, too.

“You’re underestimating the men,” Will said to Mlady Roxanne. “We deserve to know. It matters to us maybe even more than to the women.”

“You think they want to leave?” Mlady Roxanne asked, gesturing to the men in the commons. Conversation there was rising to a cacophony.

Will glanced at Gaia. “If there are more women out there, the men will want to leave. It’ll take them only two seconds to realize that.”

“You see?” Gaia said to Mlady Roxanne.

“Did you tell my wife about this?” Dominic asked. “Did she know?”

Gaia hesitated, then nodded. “I told her this morning. She was afraid the information would divide the community. I’m hoping it will unite us.”

“Mlady Olivia knew what was at stake,” Mlady Roxanne said. “I can’t believe the very first vote is about destroying Sylum. No wonder she left Mlass Gaia so long in the stocks.”

“This vote isn’t destroying Sylum,” Will said. “It’s about making Sylum survive.”

Without another word, Dominic stepped aside and moved further down the porch, touching the wall on his way, as if his sense of balance had been thrown off by his loss. Taja came from the other direction and gently drew her arm through her father’s.

Mlady Roxanne adjusted her glasses with delicate fingers. “I, for one, am in no hurry to leave Sylum, even with the men involved in the governance now. I suspect the other cuzines will agree with me.” She stepped forward and raised her hand. “All right, my cousins!” she called. “I need your attention.”

The crowd settled again.

“Thank you. We’re going to keep this simple,” Mlady Roxanne said. “We’ll first hear the votes for Chardo Will, and then for me, and then for Gaia Stone. Ready?” She pointed to Will. “All those for Chardo Will, say ‘Ay.’”

“Ay!” came a loud surge of male voices, and then a spontaneous burst of applause and laughter. It was the first time the men and libbies had ever voted for real, and their joy was contagious.

Will put out a hand, gesturing to Mlady Roxanne. “And now,” he said. “Those for Mlady Roxanne, say ‘Ay.’”

Another loud “Ay!” echoed through the commons, with a stronger mix of female voices. Of the two votes, Gaia guessed Will’s had been a little larger, but she couldn’t be sure.

Mlady Roxanne turned to Gaia and put a hand on her shoulder. Gaia looked briefly to Leon, who watched her steadily, a slight smile curving his lips, and then she turned to face the crowd.

“And finally,” Mlady Roxanne said, “those in favor of Gaia Stone, say ‘Ay!’”

The sound that followed was deafening, a roar of approval from every corner of the commons, and then the cheering began.



WHEN SHE FIRST sank into a hot bath, the heat seeped deeply into her sore muscles. Like some limp, boneless thing, Gaia didn’t even try to move. Her chin hovered at the surface of the water, and she closed her eyes, imagining she could hear the minute bubbles layering over her skin. She didn’t let herself think of the Matrarc dying under her blade, or the people of Sylum, or the future, or Leon or Peter or Will or Maya; she simply existed, and when at last the water began to cool, she worked soap into a lather to wash her hair, dunked, and hauled herself out, half blind, only to fall asleep the instant she hit her bed.

She made it to the funeral the next day, but otherwise she rested in the lodge, listening to anyone who had concerns about Sylum and how it was going to be run. She ate slowly, finding even a soup spoon heavy. She asked Mlady Roxanne, Will, Dinah, Dominic, Mlady Maudie, and half a dozen others to serve as advisors, and though Dominic declined, the others began to draw up a framework of basic laws that would be fair to all. Dominic, Taja, and the rest of the Matrarc’s family stayed up on the bluff, and Gaia knew they mourned deeply. Dominic offered to vacate the Matrarc’s house up on the bluff for her, but Gaia declined. She moved back to the lodge, to the little first-floor bedroom she’d slept in when she’d first arrived, but with the bars removed from the window.

“You could live with me,” Dinah offered. “We’d have fun.”

“The lodge has a nicer bathtub,” Gaia confessed. “And it’s just easier to run things from here.”

It would be days before Gaia could move again without aching, weeks before the last pain in her neck and wrists was gone. Josephine took a bedroom in the lodge, and the mlasses shared the work and pleasure of raising little Junie and Maya. Leon and Norris agreed to oversee conditions at the prison and determine which cases warranted review, so Leon spent his days divided between the prison and the lodge, where he was often near Gaia. At night, Leon slept in an extra hammock in the cabin Norris shared with his cousin’s family, where he wasn’t too far from the lodge. Mlady Roxanne took charge of expanding the school to include the boys and men who were most interested. On a practical level, many things went on as before, but everything felt different, full of promise and trepidation, both.

Whenever anyone asked Gaia how soon they’d leave Sylum, she said it was too soon to know. Conversations about who might go and who might stay were rife, and Gaia decided it best not to push anyone too hard, for now. She trusted, in time, the majority would persuade the others in their families.

Peter went back out to the perimeter, where he and a dozen of the other outriders began a series of expeditions south, experimenting with doses of the black rice flower and scouting sites for the future exodus.

“Will he ever want to see me again?” she asked Will after a meeting once in the atrium.

“Honestly? We don’t talk about you,” Will said. “He hardly talks at all, frankly. But if I had to guess, I’d say no, he won’t want to see you. I think the nicest thing you could do for him would be to leave him alone.”

The thing was, she missed Peter. She hated feeling like she would never be able to put things right with him, or laugh with him again, or see his eyes all warm and joyful. Even worse, she couldn’t escape the feeling his unhappiness was her fault, and guilt plagued her. Though Leon offered to listen, talking to him about Peter was impossible for her, so she did the only thing she could: she locked the black swirl in a box in the back of her mind and tried not to remember it was there.

As the days progressed toward the full moon, it became clear that most of the men wanted the tradition of the thirty-two games to continue. Gaia realized the competition would be an important emotional outlet and serve as a celebration to give credibility to the new regime. So she proposed a change that was immediately popular: only women who were present at the games and at least fifteen years old could be chosen as prizes. Mlasses who didn’t want to be chosen simply had to stay away.

“Are you going to the games?” Leon asked her once in passing.

She smiled. “What do you think?”

He smiled back. “Just checking.”

The night of the games, Peony stopped in the lodge kitchen to see if Gaia wanted to walk with her down to the shore for the bonfires that would follow.

“An excellent idea,” Norris said to Gaia. “People need to see you, especially since you won’t be at the games. They have to get used to you as the new Matrarc.”

Gaia still wasn’t used to having the title refer to her. “I thought I’d go to bed early with a book,” she said.

“No hiding. You need to get used to yourself as Matrarc, too,” he added. “When Mlady Olivia first took over after your grandmother, she was always around talking to everybody.”

“You told me. I’ve been doing that. You’ve seen me,” she argued.

“But tonight’s important. I can watch Maya for you, or Mx. Josephine can, but you need to get out there.”

“I see,” she said, smiling. She stroked Una’s soft fur and glanced up from the rocker. “You just want to take over with Maya. Grandpa.”

“Can I help it if she adores me?” Norris said. “And it’s Uncle. Uncle Emmett.”

Gaia walked down to the shore with Peony and helped throw extra logs on the five bonfire piles that were ranged down the beach. They could hear the cheers from the field, distant and unified. Even the laughter came in waves.

The sky streaked orange and purple over the marsh as the sun dropped below the bluff, and after the games ended, more and more people began milling between the bonfire piles. Partiers were supplying cider, and she caught whiffs of rice flower smoke. Guards, too, were present in pairs at the fringes. She’d assigned the same number that the Matrarc had designated the month before and hoped, with the new climate, it would be enough.

Peony unfolded a couple of blankets, and they sat down by the wood pile nearest the main road.

“Is this visible enough?” Gaia asked.

Peony nodded. “Norris would approve. I’m glad it hasn’t gotten too cold yet. That red’s a good color on you. Where’s Leon?”

Gaia glanced down at her new sweater. “He’s at the games. I asked him to keep an eye on things there for me.”

Peony flicked some sand off her blanket. “I didn’t know he takes orders from you. That’s so, I don’t know, ordinary. Like a regular guy from Sylum.”

“He doesn’t,” Gaia said. “One of Norris’s nephews was bugging him about it, saying how the last winner ought to at least show up even if he doesn’t play. Besides, I thought he’d have fun going.”

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