Promised Page 17

“Because it isn’t. Not yet. Not for you,” Leon said.

“I need to check on Maya. I haven’t seen her since I came back out,” Gaia said.

As they reached the campfire of clan nineteen, she had a clearer glimpse of Malachai and two of the other excrims, and they nodded to her respectfully.

“We’ll stay out of your way, Mlass Gaia,” Malachai said. “You’ll hardly know we’re here.”

“Thank you.”

Norris stood to give her a warm hug. “You’re a sight to see. You’re not supposed to worry us like that.”

“I’m okay. You missed our first night in the tavern. Where’s Josephine?” Gaia asked.

Norris lifted a finger to his lips and pointed. Gaia peeked under a tarp to see Josephine asleep on a bed of blankets, with little Junie and Maya asleep beside her.

“There’s room for one more under there if you want to tuck in,” Norris said.

Weary as Gaia was, there was still one more thing she wanted to do. Somehow, seeing Theo had made it all the more necessary. “I have to go home,” she said.

“To your old place? Mlady Myrna’s up there,” Norris said. “With Jack and little Angie.”

“I know.” Looking at her sister’s sweet, sleepy profile, Gaia made a decision. She crouched under the tarp and gently lifted the little girl in her arms.

Josephine stirred and opened her eyes. She shifted up on her elbow. “You okay?” Josephine asked softly.

Gaia nodded.

“Leave her with us,” Josphine said, as Gaia’s intention to take Maya became obvious. “She’s all settled in.”

“I want to take her home.”

“This is home,” Josephine said.

“My old home,” Gaia corrected. I need her with me. She felt guilty and selfish about it, but it was true. Her experience in the Enclave was still just below the surface, making her restless in a way that only Maya could help.

Josephine blinked sleepily. “Then take an extra blanket,” she said, handing one to Gaia. The fabric was already warm with body heat, and Gaia wrapped it around little Maya. She rose again to find Leon waiting for her.

They’d gone only a few paces up the path before he spoke, his low voice carrying easily in the dark stillness. “You’re going to tell me what happened to you in the Enclave,” he said. “You realize that, don’t you?”

Chapter 10

on sally row

“JUST LET ME GET home first. Please,” Gaia said.

As she breathed in the old, nighttime scents of Wharfton, a mix of sweet grass, chickens, and the dry earth itself, her longing for her parents grew stronger. A quarter moon cast just enough cool, blue light to make the path faintly visible. In her habit, she searched the stars for Orion, and couldn’t find it. She patted Maya on her back, cuddling the sleeping toddler along her shoulder and cherishing her limp, heavy weight. Leon’s footsteps whispered behind her along the dark path, and she knew, farther out, the excrims were shadowing them.

Candlelight glowed in the window. For an instant, her ordeal in the Enclave and the past year vanished, leaving her just Gaia Stone, the midwife, coming home and hoping to find her parents waiting for her. This was her first time home since they’d died, and she knew, logically, when she stepped up on the porch, that they could not be inside playing chess before the fire, but as she reached for the latch, the feeling of them was so strong, so powerful, that she closed her eyes and heard their voices on the other side of the door.

“Is that you, squirt?” her father asked.

“She must be hungry. Don’t move any pieces while my back’s turned,” her mother said. “I can always tell.”

Gaia’s fingers closed on the cold latch, and she could go no farther.

“What is it?” Leon asked quietly.

She glanced up, peering at him in the dim light, and confusion swarmed around her sorrow. This was the place where she’d last been together with her parents as a family, and it was also where she’d first met Leon. He’d arrested them, and now she was engaged to marry him. How was that possible? With sudden clarity, she realized her parents would have tried to protect her from him, and not just because he was the Protectorat’s son. They’d have wanted someone warmer for her, someone more demonstrative and openly loving, like them. They wouldn’t have understood Leon.

“It’s my parents,” she said. I’ve grown away from them, choosing you.

“Sit with me,” he said gently. “Stay out here with me, where we can be alone. Just for a little. Want me to hold Maya?”

She shook her head, and sat beside him on the top step of her parents’ porch. He braced a hand on the floor behind her, not quite embracing her. She slid Maya to her lap and tucked the blanket carefully around her.

“I can’t say the wrong thing if you don’t tell me what you’re thinking,” he said.

She let out a sad little laugh. “This is terrible. I don’t think my parents would have liked you.”


“I know.”

“You’re wrong, though,” Leon said. “I’d have won them over. They’d have seen how happy you are with me.”

“You arrested them.”

“True. But that was a different me, before I met you.”

“You wouldn’t do it now, would you?” she asked.

“I would bring your mother flowers and help your father with his sewing.”

She laughed again, more easily this time. “He never wanted any help with his work.”

“I couldn’t even hold his pincushion for him?”

She smiled. “No.”

“Well, then, maybe you’re right. Maybe it would be hopeless.”

She slid a little nearer, to where her knee bumped against his leg.

“Any better?” he asked, his voice tender.

She hardly knew what she was feeling anymore. “This day has been insane.”

“It can’t be worse than what I was imagining,” he said. “Evelyn told me they took you straight to the prison.”

She nodded, gazing out absently at the dim road and the dark houses across the way. “They took some blood from me,” she said. “Several vials. They said I carry the anti-hemophilia gene and my blood is O negative.”

“Which doctor did this?”

“His name was was Hickory.”

“He used to work with Persephone Frank,” Leon asked. “I don’t know much about him. Did he do anything else?”

“He injected me with something. I don’t know what. And he listened to my heart and lungs.”

“This was in a prison office? You cooperated with them?”

Gaia didn’t want to answer any more. She didn’t understand why she should feel ashamed for being so afraid in V cell, but she was. She dropped her head, focusing on Maya’s little fingers curled gently in innocent sleep. “They strapped me down and gagged me to take the blood,” she said. “Then they put me in V cell and left me there.” She took a tight breath. I fell apart.

Leon was very still beside her.

“I can’t be afraid,” she said. “People need me now. I can’t be afraid.”

“Iris,” he said.

She lifted her gaze. His shadowed face looked like it had turned to stone in the dim moonlight.

“No one even touched me,” she went on, “but all I could think about was you and what they did to you. I’ve never been so afraid. I became completely unglued, from my own imagination. It’s some sick, awful game to him, isn’t it? Why is he like that?”

“He just is.” Leon said. “He just knows. It’s like he can empathize completely, but then he uses that knowledge in reverse to hurt people. He did it to me, too. When they were torturing me, back when you first left for the wasteland, he told me that they’d caught you. He said he had you in another room and he could do whatever he wanted to you. I didn’t know he was lying.”

“You never told me.”

“I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “It was unbearable. And I didn’t even know yet that I loved you.” He moved then finally, drawing her close so that his arms encircled her and Maya both. “Remember you said we have places where our minds don’t meet? I don’t want that anymore. Please don’t ever close me out,” he said. “There’s nothing you could ever tell me that would be worse than you not telling me what you think.”

She understood then. It wasn’t just that she could trust him, she realized. He needed her to trust him. It was his own craving, to be trustworthy. She felt a new, small opening inside herself. This was what it meant to truly be close to Leon, to let him in. She peered into his eyes, searching the darkness there, and his lips curved slightly as he studied her in return. He touched a warm hand to her cheek.

“It’s insane what I feel for you,” he said.

She let out a wistful laugh. “I wish we could go somewhere, just you and me and Maya. Leave everything behind.”

“It’s too late for that, even if you really meant it.” He loosened his embrace enough to snuggle her comfortably closer beside him.

A cricket sounded, a thin dry chirp after the lush night noises of Sylum.

“I miss the lightning bugs,” she said. “Remember that night? It seems so long ago, but I can still see it so clearly.”

“They were unbelievable.”

“You wouldn’t come out with me,” she said, recalling how he’d leaned against a pillar on the porch while she and Maya had circled in the dark meadow grasses, surrounded by thousands of blinking, skimming lights.

“I couldn’t,” he said.

“Why? Were you still mad at me?”

“Mad. Lonely. Everything. I was still hoping I could get over you.”

“What a mistake that would have been,” she said.

She felt his arm around her back.

“It’s baffling, isn’t it? Even then, even when we could hardly talk to each other, I still had to be around you,” he said. “I tried to imagine life without you, and nothing made sense. I’m not sure what I would have done if you hadn’t finally seen how much we belonged together. Destroyed Sylum in some way, I suppose.”

“You wouldn’t have,” she said.

“I’d have tried,” he said. “We’d still be there. Do you realize that? You’d have married Peter and we’d have all stayed in Sylum.”


“Yes,” he said. “Or Will. One of those Chardos.”

She shook her head.

“Yes,” he repeated, like it was a certainty he’d considered at length.

She really didn’t want to think about what could have happened with Peter. Or Will. She didn’t want to think of them making friends in Peg’s Tavern, either.

“Well, you won me over with your pumpkin bread and your smooth moves,” she said.

He laughed. “Smooth I was not.”

“You were smooth. You were waiting for me that night with no shirt on.”

“Maybe a little smooth,” he admitted, rubbing his bearded jaw. “I wasn’t going to give up without a fight, that’s for sure.”

She smiled, remembering. “It worked. We’re here.” She inhaled deeply, trying to keep her tension at bay as she recalled what “here” actually entailed. “Was it good to see Evelyn?”

“Yes. She’s incredible. I want more time with her, but I don’t see yet how I’ll get it.” He shifted slightly. “It’s hard to believe I have a baby sister now, too. I wonder if I would be more like Derek if I’d grown up with him as a father.”

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