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“In that case, I’d enter into a loveless marriage with a man who’s doing me a favor in exchange for a meal ticket,” Peony said. “I can’t do it.”

They were nearly back to the road again, and Gaia paused, setting a hand on Peony’s arm.

“Listen,” Gaia said. “There’s one more thing you haven’t even mentioned. There’s a life starting inside you. It isn’t much yet, hardly bigger than a grain of sand. But you need to think of that, too. You’ll always, always know you lost that life through your own choice. Can you carry that?”

Peony went very still and her gaze went lost and lonely. She closed her eyes. “It’s going to eat me up,” she said in hardly more than a whisper.

“Then don’t do it,” Gaia said.

“I have to! Don’t say that!” Peony’s face contorted with misery and then Gaia reached to pull her into a hug. The choice was not simple for Gaia either, nor free of grief, but she had to support this girl in whatever she decided. Never again would she be party to the crime of taking choices away from mothers.

“You’ll still help me, right?” Peony asked anxiously.

“Yes. If it’s really what you want.”

“It is.” Peony stepped back and wiped her eyes once more. “How do I look?”

“Like you’ve been crying,” Gaia said.

Peony’s smile was rueful. “I’m supposed to have dinner with my family tonight. I’ll just take the long way back.” She walked backward into the forest again. “You know your way?”

Gaia nodded. “I’m on my way to the Chardos’ to see their garden. Norris thinks they might have some of the herbs I need. I’m looking for some tansy and blue cohosh especially.”

“I’d help but I don’t know a thing about herbs. It’s not far,” Peony said, pointing up the road. She told her to watch for a barn on the right with some new construction. “I’ll see you around the lodge, okay? I live on the second floor there, in the corner room nearest the chimney. Will you come find me privately?”

“Give me a few days to prepare what I need,” Gaia said.

“And think it over. You can still change your mind.”

“I won’t.”

Gaia waited to watch the other girl start back into the woods, and then, feeling much wearier than she’d been before, she continued up the road.

As she reached the Chardos’, she heard hammering coming from the direction of the barn, where a scaffolding of pale, new lumber indicated an addition in progress. Beyond, a couple of horses grazed in the pasture, and she recognized Chardo Peter’s horse, Spider.

To the south of the house, on the sunny side, a fenced garden offered inviting colors, and more flowers ran along the wood rail fence by the road. Gaia spotted tansy before she even started up the drive, and her heart lifted. Perhaps she could take some on her way back to the lodge to start a tincture for Peony. The rhythmic bangs of the hammer grew louder as she reached the barn door, and as she paused there, a man inside propped a nail on a box of wood and hammered it home with one sure stroke. In brown trousers and a gray tank top, with bits of sawdust salting his brown hair, he worked in focused concentration, lining up the next nail.

She didn’t want to startle him, but she didn’t want to spy, either. “Hello,” she said. “I’m sorry to interrupt.”

The man turned his head, then straightened and took another nail from between his lips.

“Mlass Gaia,” he said, his voice lifting in surprise, and then his gaze shot to a workbench along the wall. He set down his hammer, walked over, and twitched a blanket over a form on the bench.

“We haven’t met yet,” he said. “I’m Peter’s brother, Will. He’s gone, you know. Back out to the perimeter.” He reached for a gray short-sleeved shirt and, despite the heat, slipped it on, doing the buttons.

“I know,” she said.

She tried to see how he resembled the outrider who had rescued her. Will’s face was more square than long, and he was clean-shaven, with a distinct jaw line. Something pleasing in his voice was like Peter’s.

“He felt bad about your sister,” Will said. “He was afraid you wouldn’t understand. Have you seen her?”

“I haven’t been allowed to,” Gaia said. “Do you know where she is?”

He shook his head. “No. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Norris told me to come see your garden,” she said. “We need some herbs for my midwifery, and I thought I could take a look. I already saw you have tansy and ginseng out by the road.”

“Peter planted them. He brings back plants he finds sometimes. I’ll show you around,” he said.

“I don’t want to interrupt, though,” she said, glancing at the shape he’d covered. “I can see you’re busy.”

“It can wait.”

She couldn’t take her eyes from the blanket, for the distinctive shape of a profile was becoming clear through the material. Then she looked back at the box he’d been hammering. It was not a bit of wood for the addition as she’d assumed, but a coffin.

She backed up a step. “I’m terribly sorry. I had no idea.”

His smile grew strained. “It’s really all right. My client has an endless supply of patience. No one told you I was a morteur?”

“No.” She was still adjusting. He took care of bodies. She’d never thought of a young man as a morteur, but here he was. Now that she knew what to expect, she could smell in the barn, very faintly, the first hint of decay.

“Let me show you the garden,” he said.

Instead, she took a step farther in. She’d never seen her father buried, or her mother, and now she couldn’t resist her own attraction to the death in the barn.

She was intrigued by how inexplicably familiar it felt. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Who died?”

“Jones Benny. He was a retired fisherman. He never had kids, but he and his nephews were very close. I always liked him. We’re having the service tomorrow up on the bluff, at dawn, because that was Benny’s favorite time of the day.”

How she wished something like that had been done for her parents.

“That’s beautiful,” Gaia said.

Will nodded, watching her attentively. “You’ve lost someone recently, haven’t you?” he said.

She nodded mutely. Who, she wondered, had taken care of her parents? Were they dressed nicely? Did someone comb her mother’s hair?

“Was there a burial?” he asked. “Were you there for it?”

She shook her head. She kept looking at the blanket that covered the corpse, as if it might move, as if it were a mistake. She touched a hand to her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment.

“Please. Won’t you sit down?” he asked, gesturing to a bench by the wall.

“It’s been a big day,” she said tightly. “I’m afraid if I sit, I’ll never get up again.”

“Give me just a minute to hitch up the wagon, and I’ll take you back to the lodge.”

She didn’t want to go back. Not just yet. “I’m really fine.”

“If you’ll permit me, you’re not fine. When’s the last time you had a regular night’s sleep?”

She tilted her face with a twist of her lips. “Good point.”

His smile was slow and genuine. “You know,” he began, “you don’t need a gravesite to honor the person you lost.”

“It was my parents,” she said.

“Your parents, then,” he said quietly. “Do you have anything from them?”

“My locket.” She realized she already reached for it often when she thought of her mother or father. It comforted her. She rubbed it slowly along its chain, back and forth. “It was a gift for my midwifery. I think it would be nice to have something different, though. Final. Something to honor them, like you said.”

“Suppose you pick a time that’s special to you,” Will said. “You can keep that moment sacred for them. I have rain to remember my mother, whenever it first starts.”

She regarded him thoughtfully. “When did you lose her?”

“When I was seven. There was a fever in the village. My two youngest brothers died then, too.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Will smiled. “I don’t expect I’ll ever get over it, actually, but I don’t even try to anymore. It’s just been part of me for so long. What about you? Is there something like rain for your parents?”

She already knew what it would be, and a calmness settled around her heart. “Orion,” she said. “The constellation. Whenever I see it, I think of my father anyway. He taught me about the stars.”

“It won’t be out in the summer,” he reminded her. “But it’s the looking for it that will count, even if you can’t find it.”

She glanced up at him. “You’re good at this,” she said.

“You were ready,” he said simply. “That’s all.”

She inhaled slowly and let out a long breath. Her eyes turned once more to the corpse under the blanket, and she slid off her hat, striding idly toward the workbench. “How’d Benny die?”

“It was sudden,” Will said. “They said he clutched at his chest before he went. I’m guessing his heart gave out. If you please, don’t go any closer.”

“Why not?”

He stepped in front of the body. “I’d just rather you didn’t. Let me show you the garden.”

“Are you doing an autopsy?” she asked.

Will lifted a hand to his jaw and rubbed his chin. Then he laughed. “What are the chances?” he asked the ceiling.

“What?” she asked. “I mean, it’s not surprising. You must do them all the time.”

He shook his head. “I’ve never done one before. I could hardly get myself to cut into him. I had to stop because I thought I’d be sick. And now the one person who might know something about bodies shows up in my barn.”

“News travels fast here, doesn’t it?” Gaia asked.

“News about a new midwife? Yes. I’d say so.”

She went to hang her hat on a peg by the door. “Just so you know, being a midwife does not make me an expert in autopsies, but I was born curious. Want help?”


in the morteur’s barn

SHE GLANCED BACK to see his eyebrows raised in gentle surprise. He put his fists on his h*ps and cleared his throat.

“You’re serious?” he asked.

“Sure. I find it hard to believe you haven’t done this before.”

“There’s no point, normally,” Will said. “It can’t change the fact that someone’s dead. It’s my job to clean up the corpse the best I can, dress him, and make the coffin. I try to do it as respectfully as I can.”

“Then what’s different this time?” she asked.

“Benny was an expool,” Will said. “It always bothered him that he couldn’t be a father. He begged me before he died to try to see if I could find out anything that would help anyone else. I tried to tell him I wouldn’t know what to look for, but he made me promise. He said it was time I learned.”

“Are many men here infertile?”

“The expools are,” he said, nodding. “Every boy is tested around his fourteenth birthday. If his sperm aren’t viable, he’s out of the pool of eligible men who can marry.”

“You’re kidding,” she said. “Is it very many men?”

“It’s a lot. Maybe four or five hundred out of the eighteen hundred men here.”

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