Prized Page 5

Ten children. “That sounds just insane,” Gaia said.

“Not if you think of it this way. We have roughly two thousand people here in Sylum,” Dinah said. “Nine out of ten are men, and that proportion is getting worse each generation. The men, of course, can’t have children. That means, for our population just to stay the same, each of our two hundred women needs to bear ten children.”

“And if they don’t?”

“We’ll die off. We’ve been dying off for generations,” Dinah said, but there was something in her voice that Gaia didn’t understand, as if Dinah was reconciled to this extinction.

“What does that have to do with you and Josephine?” Gaia said.

Dinah dovetailed her fingers before her. “Mx. Josephine and I have broken the rules. We’re not getting married. We’ve opted out.”

“You opted out,” Josephine corrected her. “Some of us got kicked out.”

“If it mattered to some of us to stay in the cuzines, some of us shouldn’t have been sleeping around with men in the pool,” Dinah said.

Josephine pouted, reminding Gaia of a cornered, petulant kitten. “Xave is not any ‘man in the pool’,” she said.

“No. He’s the biggest, handsomest, meanest one of them all,” Dinah said dryly. “Good choice.”

“I take it you’re not going to marry him,” Gaia said, still watching Josephine.

Dinah laughed. “It’s too late for that now. Besides, he won’t have anything to do with her.”

“He might feel differently once he meets his daughter,” Josephine said stubbornly. “We had a girl.” She pushed her black curls back and tucked them behind her ear.

Dinah clunked her hand against her forehead. “Walker Xavier is not coming back to you now, not after all he went through insisting he was innocent. He’s not going to forget hours in the stocks and a month with the crims.”

“You don’t know Xave,” Josephine said.

“I don’t have to know him!” Dinah said. “He’s ignored you utterly for what, seven months now? You think that’s an accident?”

Josephine’s face closed. “I really don’t need this right now.”

Dinah smoothed the blanket around the girl’s feet, and as she did so, Dinah’s expression softened. “I don’t mean to pick on you. It’s him I’m mad at when I think of the hardships ahead of you.”

Gaia glanced up. “What do you mean?”

Dinah flicked her gaze to Gaia’s. “We’re practically men, with no rights and no vote. Second-class citizens at best. Mx. Josephine will keep her daughter as long as she nurses her, up to a year, and then she’ll give her over to one of the regular families with a mother in the cuzines. It won’t be fun.”

“But why?” Gaia asked.

“Libby mothers are unfit to be parents,” Dinah said mockingly. “We don’t demonstrate the proper family values.”

“Just because you don’t want to marry?” Gaia asked, surprised.

“It’s the whole thing,” Dinah said. She retucked her blouse where it was a little loose at the back. “Remember what I said about the ten children? The cuzines are devoted to sustaining the population, and they need every girl to take up her duties of motherhood. The costs are very high for a girl who doesn’t. After all, we libbies are accelerating the extinction. That’s hardly patriotic.”

Gaia looked again at Josephine’s little baby and thought of her own sister. No wonder the Matrarc had been so implacable about taking Maya away, considering that she was accustomed to reassigning libby babies to new parents.

“You don’t seem to have any illusions about it,” Gaia said.

Dinah laughed. “I’ve never been one to delude myself.”

“Do you have any children yourself?” Gaia asked.

“I have Mikey,” Dinah said. “He’s seven now.”

“And who’s raising him?” Gaia asked.

Dinah picked up a blanket from the end of the bed and refolded it carefully. “My brother and his wife. They’re one of the Munsch families, down by the marsh. They dote on him, and he’s happy there now. I visit him often. He calls me his Aunt Dinah.”

Gaia didn’t understand how she could be so calm about it. Either Dinah had an incredibly thick skin, or her nonchalance was a façade. “Why didn’t you just marry the father of your child?”

Dinah smiled with amusement. “I wasn’t going to shackle my life to a man’s just to keep my child and then be bound to have nine more children by him. Besides, I was already a libby by then.”

“But you must have loved him, at least for a time,” Gaia pressed.

“I don’t love anyone,” Dinah said. “I’d rather have my books.”

“Don’t believe her,” Josephine said. “She was chosen as the prize in the thirty-two games five times before she became a libby, and she’s had plenty of expool boyfriends since then. She has to beat them away.”

“Enough of that,” Dinah said, smiling. “That’s none of your business, or Mlass Gaia’s. We’re not supposed to be corrupting her.”

Gaia was impressed, and curious. “What are the thirty-two games?”

“They’re a competition where the men try to win a chance to live with a woman in the winner’s cabin for a month. It’s ridiculous,” Dinah said.

“It’s fun,” Josephine argued, smiling. “You’ll see.”

“Maybe I should be a libby,” Gaia said.

“Don’t you start thinking like that,” Dinah said. “This isn’t the life for you. I can tell already.”

“Why not?”

“You’re smart. You’ll want to do things with your life, and for that, you have to be in the cuzines,” Dinah said. “You have to stay on the Matrarc’s good side.”

Gaia had her doubts about how likely that was. “She thinks I’m a criminal for endangering my sister.”

“I know. I’m not sure what she’ll do to you if the baby dies,” Dinah said. “Sorry. I didn’t mean for that to sound so blunt. I’m just trying to think ahead. For lesser crimes, a woman’s confined to the lodge, but we’ve never had a woman convicted of murder before.” She straightened slightly. “I guess she could exile you, and then the gateway sickness would kill you. Did you say you saw a corpse at the oasis?”

“The Matrarc said he escaped from prison.”

“It’s what will happen to you if you get dropped out there. She’s exiled traitors before, men and women, but I don’t know what she’d do in your case. You’re a pretty valuable person.”

“Because I’m a girl?” Gaia asked.

Dinah smiled. “Don’t underestimate how much that matters, and you’re a midwife, too. To be fair, I should add that the Matrarc is unfailingly decent to her loyal followers, and that’s pretty much everyone except the crims and a handful of libbies.”

Gaia could hear the admiration in Dinah’s voice. “You respect her?”

“Of course I do,” Dinah said, laughing. “I’d be a fool not to.”

“No, I mean you really do, don’t you? You sound like you admire her, as a person,” Gaia said.

Dinah gave her an odd look. Then she turned to a dresser and began opening drawers. “The Matrarc’s a curious person. She’s strong and smart, of course, but it’s more than that,” she said, her voice thoughtful. “I can’t explain.”

Gaia was surprised. Puzzled, she glanced over at Josephine.

“It’s true,” Josephine said sadly. “When the Matrarc trusts you, you want to tell her things. You can feel how she cares about you, so then if you disappoint her, you feel awful.”

Dinah turned from the dresser with a shawl and held it out to Gaia. “Here. Take this. You really should go. You can bring it back with the shoes another day. If the shoes fit, I’d say you should keep them, but they’re obviously boats on you.”

“Thanks,” Gaia said. She stood stiffly. A bit of light was coming in the window now, and the rain was barely a drizzle. She didn’t want to leave. “What will you name your daughter, Mx. Josephine?”

The new mother smiled. “I’m naming her after me. Fitch Josephine, Junie. I’ll call her ‘Junie.’”

Dinah touched a hand to her heart, and then to the baby’s head in a gentle, motherly gesture. “You do that,” she said.

The cabin was quiet, with only the sound of the fire crackling and the soft drum of rain on the roof. As Gaia took a last look at the fire, the warmth penetrated the scar on her left check, almost like pressure. For a moment, she was able to imagine an invisible kiss from her own lost mother, a gift of quiet approval, and Gaia held on to it.


a deal

THE SLATS had been hammered back on.

Even though she could see that they were secure, she tried the wood anyway, fruitlessly hoping. It wouldn’t give. She looked to her left along the log wall, toward where there was light in the windows of a kitchen. Gaia’s pulse elevated as she quietly crept nearer, climbing the two steps to the door. She tried the knob, but it was locked.

She peeked in the window screen and saw the back of a man’s head and shoulders. She knocked softly.

“Back so soon?” came a terse voice.

“Please. Let me in,” she said quietly.

There was a thumping noise, then a click, and the door opened to reveal a thickset, gray-haired man with a peg leg. He kept his swarthy arm on the door, barring her way, and lowered his bushy white eyebrows into a stern line.

“Hi.” She tried a little smile. “I’m Gaia. The new girl. Sneaking back in.”

The man gave her a once-over, and she could just imagine the picture she made, half wet, carrying her dirty socks, standing awkwardly in the too-large, muddy loafers.

He backed up with a grunt. “You’re wanted in the atrium.”

The kitchen smelled of warm oatmeal, and on a rocker near the hearth, a black cat lifted its chin to inspect her, revealing a long patch of white on its chest. Herbs hung from the rafters, and a row of three copper-bottomed tubs hung over the windows. Gaia closed the door and slipped out of her muddy shoes.

“Is there news about my sister? Who wants me?” she asked.

“Who else? The Matrarc. Don’t leave those there,” he said. “There’s a boot tray behind the door.”

“Is she mad?”

He stepped over to his stove, the peg making a hollow noise on the floor as he strode. “She doesn’t get mad. She makes decisions,” he said, and smacked a pan onto the stove.

For all Gaia knew, this man was this grumpy always, but she didn’t have a good feeling about it. She set the shoes and dirty socks in the tray beside a tall, solitary left-footed boot. She spotted a row of pegs behind the door and hung Dinah’s shawl there.

“What do you think the Matrarc will do?” Gaia asked, turning again to the cook. “She won’t send me back out to the wasteland, will she? Just for sneaking out?”


“On what?”

“On what you did while you were out,” he said.

A laugh escaped her, and the man glanced up, frowning. “You weren’t with a boy, were you?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “Nothing so romantic. Should I take time to change?”

“I wouldn’t. She’s been here half an hour already. Here. Bring her this.” He poured steaming tea from a ceramic pot into a teacup and set it on a little tray.

“May I have some, too?” Gaia asked.

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