Prized Page 7

“Mlady Roxanne can teach you in the mornings with the others. Are you literate?”

“I can read,” Gaia said. “I’m a little slow, though. She won’t make me read out loud, will she?”

The Matrarc laughed with open humor for the first time. “No, she won’t. You’ll like Mlady Roxanne. Everybody does.”

Gaia smiled slowly, letting her gaze drift out to the tables and chairs again, seeing bookshelves in the corner. She’d never had the chance to go to school before. She’d always been jealous of the Enclave kids, but now maybe she’d get to read good books, too, and study about all the things that had always left her curious and hungry.

“I need one other thing,” Gaia said.

The Matrarc was smiling easily. “What is that?”

“I need to know that if my sister’s dying, I can go to her and hold her one last time. Promise me that, and I’ll agree to the rest.”

The Matrarc’s smile faded, and her eyebrows narrowed in genuine sympathy. “I’d be an ogre to refuse you,” she said. “I promise.”

“Will I be attending to your pregnancy, too?” Gaia asked.

“That would be reassuring, actually. This is my eighth pregnancy,” the Matrarc said. “It feels different, but I don’t know why. I had some spotting earlier, and then it stopped.”

“When are you due?”

The Matrarc smoothed a hand contemplatively over her belly. “In twelve weeks. I’m praying for another girl. My oldest, Taja, is my one daughter so far. Imagine, having a girl first.”

“How old are you?” Gaia asked.


The sound of a door opening carried from above.

“I tell you what,” the Matrarc said. “Get yourself cleaned up and eat and rest. Until you’re stronger, I’ll tell the pregnant mladies to come talk to you here at the lodge. I’ll ask Mlady Maudie to set up a room upstairs where you can see them with some privacy.”

“And the libbies? They’ll come here, too?” Gaia asked.

The Matrarc hesitated. “It would be better if you met them at Mx. Dinah’s.”

Gaia was about to object, then decided she would wait to fight that battle.

The Matrarc was standing, reaching for her red cane. “This has been most promising,” she said. “A much better start. You haven’t been feeling dizzy or sick yet?”

“Only a little.”

The Matrarc put her knitting in a small bag. “Soon, you’ll be sick. There’ll be no mistaking it. This is your last chance if you want to leave Sylum,” she said. “You could still go.”

Gaia felt a shiver of foreboding, but she stood, bringing her teacup with her, and reached for the tray. “No,” she said. “I’m staying.”

“Then there’s one other thing you should know,” the Matrarc said. “It’s important. I don’t think any of the men would take advantage of your ignorance, but they might. Men can’t touch you here. They normally shouldn’t even speak to you unless you speak to them first.”

The Matrarc had to be joking.

“Why not?” Gaia asked.

“It’s to ensure you some space because otherwise you could be overwhelmed with men competing for your attention. It’s the same for all the mlasses. And you should respect the men, too. They’re inclined to do anything you ask because they’ll want you to like them, but it’s rude to boss them around.”

Gaia let out a laugh.

“I’m quite serious,” the Matrarc said. “Especially about the touching.”

“The outrider Chardo already touched me,” Gaia pointed out.

“Contact for emergencies and direct orders is condoned, obviously. Any tender touch, any kiss, is strictly illegal until you choose the man you want to marry.”

Gaia laughed again. “That won’t happen in any hurry.”

“Respect our customs,” the Matrarc said. “They may seem strange to you, but they work for us.”

“Don’t worry,” Gaia said. There was no danger of her touching or kissing any man in Sylum. That was the last thing on her mind.

She slept. When she woke in her back bedroom with the slats crossing the window, it was afternoon and someone had put her white boots just inside her door. Her pack was on the chair, and the blue cloak Emily had given her back in Wharfton hung from a peg. They’d given her back everything she could still use, and kept her sister.

How long, she wondered, would it take to prove to the Matrarc that she deserved to see Maya?

She spent much of the afternoon seeing half a dozen pregnant mladies. When the first asked if there was any way to know if she was carrying a girl, Gaia smiled, amused. “You must know I love my sons,” the mlady said. “But a girl would be so wonderful.” By the time she’d been asked the same question for the fourth time, Gaia could feel the anxiety that drove the women to ask. When the last woman, not yet pregnant, asked if there was a way to be certain she could conceive a girl, Gaia felt helpless.

Drained, weary, she made her way back to the kitchen and was grateful when Norris pointed her toward the rocking chair. The day had grown warm, and even with the windows open, the air was uncomfortably still.

“You’re a midwife, huh?” he said. “You look too young.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“My niece Erianthe is expecting.”

“I’ll probably see her tomorrow. There were six moms today.”

All the talk of babies had made her miss Maya even more. She’d spent a whole day without her now, and it just felt wrong.

Norris passed her a bowl of soup and hot slice of black bread, right from the oven. She hardly ate half of it before she felt full. She gazed absently around the kitchen, noting the pipe that brought in water, and the tray of black loaves. They reminded her of Mace, and the night in the bakery when she’d talked to Leon. He’d been so klutzy with the little toy eggbeater. When she closed her eyes, she could actually see the pieces of the broken toy he had been holding, but not his hands. That’s what she wanted to see. And his voice. She missed that, too.

She wanted to believe Leon was still alive: that after he’d been knocked senseless, the guards had brought him to the Bastion with nothing more than a bad headache. He could be playing chess with his sister right now, all safe and reconciled with his family. He could be in the solarium, surrounded by ferns and flowers.

Who was she kidding? If she was going to let herself dream the impossible, why not imagine that Leon was coming across the wasteland to find her?

“You should finish that,” Norris said.

She opened her eyes and looked down at her bowl, still half full. “I think my stomach shrank.”

“I’d say that’s likely. But you need food. You won’t have your energy again until you eat enough.”

Gaia nibbled a few more bites of the bread. She did feel weak still, and she knew she looked haggard. A glance in the bathroom mirror earlier had confirmed that for her.

“Have you heard anything about my sister?” Gaia asked.


His peg made a sturdy noise as he moved around the kitchen, putting away a grater, onions, spices, and other odds and ends. Though there was nothing rhythmic about his steps, the peg noise made a kind of music in the kitchen, a comforting sound that didn’t match his abrupt speech and persistently glowering expression. She could feel her guard coming down a little. His cat, Una, watched the end of Norris’s peg with studious attention.

He passed Gaia an apple. “Try that.”

She palmed the apple, one with golden specks in the red, and a slightly rough skin. It was almost too pretty to eat.

“Thank you, Mabrother.” She caught her mistake. “I mean, Norris,” she added quickly. “Is that your first name or your last?”

The man lifted a bushy eyebrow. His forehead gleamed with sweat, and he ran his forearm across it. “‘Norris’ is my mamname. My given name is Emmett. Norris Emmett.”

“Your mamname? Is ‘Norris’ your mother’s family name?”

“That’s what I said.”

It worked backward, she realized. Not only were the names reversed, first to last, but children carried on their mothers’ family names, not their fathers’. “Back home, women take their husbands’ names when they marry, and then their children have the father’s last name,” she said. “Like for me, Gaia Stone. ‘Stone’ was my father’s last name.”

Norris appeared to consider a moment. “That doesn’t make sense. You only know for certain a child is his mother’s. Of course a family bears the mother’s name.”

Gaia could see his logic, but it seemed peculiar. “So, technically, I’d be Orion Gaia here.” She laughed. “That’s not me.” She stood and walked to the sink to clean out her bowl. A faucet provided a stream of cool water. “Is this potable?”

“You have to boil it before you drink,” he said. “But you can wash with it. Rinse the soap off with the hot water. The drain will take it out for the garden.” He nodded toward the stove where a black kettle was steaming on a back burner.

“We didn’t have running water back home,” she said. “They did in the Enclave, but we didn’t outside the wall. Where’s the water from? A well?”

“The marsh. We have an aqueduct system, and there’s a water tower out back. I have a few minutes now, and I could show it to you, and the garden. Want to come? It’ll be cooler out there.”

He passed her a spare straw hat on the way out. The garden was large, and a couple of boys were working at one end of it, harvesting beans. Norris introduced them as Sawyer and Lowe, and they tipped their hats in greeting. Norris took her through the garden slowly, pointing out each vegetable and herb, but as they progressed, Gaia was increasingly disappointed. There were less than half of the herbs she had routinely used back home, and the prospect of filling out what she would need all by herself was daunting.

She tossed her apple core onto the compost pile.

“You’re not happy,” Norris said bluntly.

“No. It’s all right. It’s a start.”

“You can transplant anything you want,” Norris said. “There’s no shortage of help. Just tell us what to do.”

She glanced again at the boys, who had paused to look up at her again. “Is this the most extensive collection of herbs in the village?” she asked.

He seemed to consider. “Everyone has a garden. The Chardos, come to think of it, might have more variety with their herbs,” he said. “You could try there.”

She asked directions, and though Norris offered to send Sawyer along to guide her, Gaia was eager for a chance to walk alone and think.

“Don’t be gone too long,” Norris said. “The acclimation sickness can come on suddenly and you don’t want to be alone when it hits.”

She hadn’t gone five minutes before she heard footsteps coming fast behind her, and when she turned, a dark-haired girl was running toward her. She was surprisingly fast considering she ran with a hand on her hat, and her yellow skirt flapped out behind her. Gaia stopped to wait, listening to the cicadas starting up their slow buzz in the trees overhead.

“Hey,” said the girl, out of breath. “I wanted to talk to you. I was hoping I’d catch you alone. I’m Mlass Peony.”

“Nice to meet you. I’m Gaia.”

“I know. You’ll never believe how happy I am to know you’re a midwife.”

Gaia looked at her more closely, noting Peony’s curvy figure and the bright eyes under the pale brim of her hat. Brown, lustrous hair fell loosely to her shoulders, and she wore a necklace of fine blue and purple beads. She was the picture of sturdy, farm-girl healthiness, with her cheeks rosy from running, yet she wasn’t smiling.

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