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“What can I do for you?” Gaia asked.

Peony hesitated, her eyes darting to be sure they were alone. “I’d like to know if you can help me miscarry.”


peony’s request

GAIA FELT THE BRIGHTNESS seep out of the afternoon. She had known this day would come. Her mother had tried to prepare her for it, but being prepared in the hypothetical wasn’t the same as facing a girl on a road asking for her help. Until this moment, she’d always only used her skills and knowledge to help mothers have healthy babies.

Peony was watching her closely. Gaia gave a weak smile before turning up the road again.

“Can you help me? Do you know how?” Peony asked.

“I know how,” Gaia said slowly. “I haven’t done it before.”

“You don’t want to,” Peony guessed.

She didn’t want to. Not at all. “I need to think.”

“What are you thinking? Tell me.”

Gaia shook her head, unsure where to even start. “It isn’t simple. Back in Wharfton, where I come from, it was my job to advance babies into the Enclave. I took them when they were just born and handed them over to the authorities, and their parents would never see them again.”

Peony looked horrified. “How could you do that?”

“I didn’t really have a choice, and I didn’t much think about it. The mothers let me. We all accepted the system because it was supposed to be good for the babies. They were going to families that loved them and could take care of them better than we ever could outside the wall. Advancing a baby was an honor. That’s what I’d been taught to believe, at least, but then I began to see.”

She thought back to her first solo delivery. The mother had been poor and alone, and she’d named her baby Priscilla, believing she’d get to keep her. Gaia also remembered how she’d girded herself up to be strong enough to take the baby, how she’d even been proud of what she did. There were some things Gaia wished she could forget.

Peony was waiting, her eyes troubled. “How does this relate to me?”

Gaia glanced down and saw a dried drop of apple juice on the back of her thumb. She sucked it away, pressing her thumb hard against her teeth. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “That shouldn’t have been my job. The only one who should have been making a decision about that baby was her own mother. Keep it, give it away—that should have been her choice to make.”

“I agree with you,” Peony said.

Gaia frowned down at the road between her feet. “I think the person who has to live most closely with the consequences of a decision should be the one to make it.”

Peony took a step nearer. “Does this mean you’ll help me?”

Gaia slowly looked up to see the agony and hope in Peony’s eyes. “Are you absolutely certain it’s what you want?” Gaia asked. “Have you talked it over with the father and with your parents?”

“I can’t tell my parents.” Peony turned to look up and down the road again, and then rubbed the heels of her hands against eyes underscored with dark circles. Now that her blush from running had gone, she was visibly pale and restive. “I’ve talked to the father. He’s a lot of things right now, but supportive is not one of them.”

“Will you be in trouble if anyone finds out?” Gaia asked.

Peony laughed. “Whoo-boy! But here’s the thing. I’ll be in much, much worse trouble if I have the baby, won’t I? Like Mx. Josephine. I can’t do it. I just can’t.”

Gaia looked up at the sound of wheels. A horse-drawn wagon was approaching down the road, and Peony smiled. When her face wasn’t troubled, she was an unusually pretty girl, with wide cheekbones, a generous mouth, and large, expressive eyes. She even gave a cheery wave as the wagon passed. Immediately afterward, she was all tense anxiety again.

“Please say you’ll help me,” Peony pleaded. “Please, I’ll do anything for you.”

“I think we’re going to need to talk,” Gaia said. “Not here.”

Peony nodded eagerly. “There’s a path just ahead in the woods. We should be okay there.”

Gaia turned doubtfully toward the green woods on the side of the road. “I can’t go far,” she said, reluctant to admit her weakness. “I’m not my usual self. Where does this lead?”

“It runs back to the bluff and meets another path there, but there’s a little glade before then, with a bench. Not far, I promise. We have bonfires there.”

A few paces farther, the sylvan path veered to the left, then branched again and dipped into a small, open area between old, arching trees. Three big, rough-hewn logs for sitting had been pulled up around a ring of blackened stones. Gaia took the end of a log and sat.

It was only as Peony sank to the log opposite her that Gaia saw the undisguised misery that consumed the girl. A small, choking noise came from her, and then she slumped forward and covered her face with her hands.

Gaia didn’t know what to do. She moved around to sit beside Peony and put a hand on her shoulder. She didn’t know this girl at all, and she felt like she was way out of her league. “Are you sure we shouldn’t talk to your mother?”

“I can’t tell anybody else. You must think I’m terrible,” Peony’s voice was hardly more than a whisper, and then she sobbed once.

“I don’t think you’re terrible,” Gaia said gently.

The girl pressed her skirt against her eyes. “Just tell me you’ll help me,” Peony said. “You have to. There’s nobody else who can. If you don’t, I don’t know what I’ll do. I almost killed myself a couple of nights ago, but then I chickened out.”

“You can’t kill yourself,” Gaia said.

The girl gave a hysterical laugh, looking up again. “No?” Her face crumpled in anguish. “I’ve been so terrified. And then I heard this morning you were a midwife. I couldn’t believe it! It was a sign. Please, please tell me you’ll help me.”

As Gaia met Peony’s distraught gaze, she suddenly realized it didn’t matter that she didn’t know this girl. She wasn’t being asked to help a friend. She was being asked, as a responsible midwife, to practice her skills, and it humbled her.

“If I can, I will,” Gaia said. “It’s okay. Try to calm down a little. How far along are you?”

Peony bit her lips together before she answered more calmly. “I missed my period two weeks ago. I know you’re thinking it might be a fluke, but I’ve been regular for the last four years, like clockwork, and I just know.”

“You aren’t too far along, then,” Gaia said. “I’ll have to examine you later to be sure, but we’ll assume you’re right. Do you want to talk a little? Is there any chance you’d change your mind? I know it’s a lot to adjust to, even in the best circumstances.” She closed her fingers around her locket.

Peony took a deep breath and seemed to settle a little. “It’s like this. If I have this baby, I’ll be cast out of the cuzines just like Mx. Josephine was, but she at least has a sister. My whole family’s depending on me,” she said. “I’m the only daughter. I’m the one who’s supposed to inherit after my mother someday and take care of my brothers, but I won’t be able to once I’m cast out.”

“I don’t fully understand,” Gaia said. “Is your mother old or sick?”

“No, but I’m the one carrying on the family line. The farm and everything, that’s all tied up in me to inherit, mother to daughter, when my mother eventually dies. I wouldn’t just disgrace my family if I was cast out of the cuzines. My family would end up impoverished because of me. Don’t tell me I’m thinking too far ahead. That’s how it is.”

“You’ll hate me for asking this,” Gaia said, “but why didn’t you think of that before?”

“When I was with him, you mean?” Peony sniffed, wiping at her eyes again. “Have you ever loved somebody? A boy?”

Startled, Gaia thought of Leon. “Not that way.”

“Not at all?”

Gaia glanced down to where the tips of her boots poked out from the hem of her skirt and frowned. “I left someone behind that I cared for,” she admitted. “We only knew each other a few weeks, now that I think of it.”

“So you never slept with him?”

Gaia laughed. “No.”

“But you kissed him at least, right?”

“Does this matter?” Gaia asked, hugging her arms around herself and leaning over her knees.

“Just tell me.”

“Yes. We kissed.”

Peony sat back a little, looking more hopeful. “So it was serious. What was he like?”

Gaia wondered why Peony cared about this, but she could see it was making her less anxious when Gaia talked a little about herself. She thought back for the first sign that he’d cared for her. “Leon gave me an orange once, before I even really knew what he was like. He sent it through prison walls to me when I needed hope more than anything. I didn’t find out until later that it was from him.”

Peony nodded, smiling slightly. “You would fall for one of the nice ones,” she said. “I can tell.”

Nice, Gaia thought. Intense, generous, troubled, smart: those were all Leon. But nice?

“He wasn’t exactly nice in the normal way,” Gaia said. “We never had any normal time together.”

“What were you doing in prison?”

Gaia rocked her heels in the dirt. “I was only hoping to rescue my parents, but then I saw a pregnant woman being hanged so I had to save her baby. I got caught, of course, and I ended up arrested. I was kept in prison for weeks, without a trial.” She didn’t want to go into it further.

Peony’s eyes were wide. “You’re really tough, aren’t you?”

Gaia shook her head. “I don’t think so. Listen, I’d rather that people here don’t know about my jail time.”

“We have mutual secrets, then,” Peony said. “Despite what I’ve just told you, it’s hard to trust anybody with this.”

“You can trust me,” Gaia said. “Confidentiality is part of my work.”

“How old are you?” Peony asked.


“I’m seventeen,” Peony said. “You seem a lot older.”

“It’s my scar that does that,” Gaia said.

“No, it’s something else. You’re different,” Peony said thoughtfully.

Gaia had always been different. She felt a rumbling in her gut and frowned. “I think I’d better head back. Are you sure you’ve thought this over?”

Peony came to her feet. “All I’ve ever dreamed of is being a mother. If I have this baby, they’ll take it away from me and I’ll never be able to have a family of my own. But if I miscarry, I can marry and have a dozen kids and love every single one of them.”

“Can’t you marry the father?”

“He won’t do it. He says it isn’t his.” Her voice rose to a squeak, and then she brought it back down. “If I tell on him, he’ll be punished, but I’ll be ruined, too. It’s all a mess.”

“Would anyone else marry you?”

Peony laughed. “I thought of that. I thought of just picking someone, but he’d know, eventually. And what kind of life would that be, married to someone I lied to right from the start? He’d hate me.”

“What if you tell the truth?” Gaia said. She stood, brushing off the back of her skirt. “I mean, this may seem brutal, but if girls are in such short supply, probably some man would want you even if you’re pregnant with another man’s child.”

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