Promised Page 4

“You’re welcome,” he said. “I’ll get you more.” He held out a hand for her bowl.

“I’m not finished with this,” she said. Carrot chunks were mixed in with the meat, sweet and orange in the brown gravy, and she pushed one aside to save for last. Suddenly, her stomach clenched again, this time for a different reason, and she lowered her spoon.

“What is it?” he asked.

“We’re almost there,” she said. “Just two more days.”


Terrified was more like it. There were so many things that could go wrong once they reached Wharfton and the Enclave, and the responsibility weighed on her like a leaden mantle. The people of Wharfton might reject them. The guards of the Enclave might turn their guns against them. Her people could all be dead in forty-eight hours. She drew up her knees and curled her arms around them.

“Gaia,” he said gently, drawing out her name. “Tell me.”

“What was I thinking, bringing us all here?” she said. “This is insane.”

“It wasn’t all your decision, remember? And it’s not insane,” he said. “It’s less insane than staying to watch us all die off in Sylum. Not one girl was born this past year. Not one.”

“I know.”

“Haven’t you seen how excited people are getting? We’ll be able to see the obelisk rising over the Square of the Bastion by the day after tomorrow. They’ve never seen a city or even a working light bulb. The men cannot believe there’ll be enough women for them to meet.”

“But see? Right there. That’s a problem,” Gaia said. “It’s not like the women of Wharfton have been eagerly awaiting us. They’re not all single women ready to wave welcome banners to our men.”

“The women don’t have to wave any banners. They exist in sufficient numbers.” He smiled slowly. “You watch. The men will make inroads, and it won’t take long.”

She looked past the nearest campfire to one farther on, where Norris was dishing up the last of the stew to a couple of men while a third reached for a beat-up, blackened teakettle. They had to be exhausted, but there was an air of optimistic happiness about them, an undercurrent of anticipation that Gaia had been sensing for days, while her own anxiety had increased in reverse proportion.

She glanced again at Leon. “All our blueprints and charters to build New Sylum won’t come to anything if we can’t get the Protectorat to give us water.”

“You’ll convince him.”

“How can you have so much faith in me? Honestly,” she asked. “Aren’t you afraid of your father?”

He set aside his bowl. “No.”

“And there. That,” she said, watching his profile in the flickering light. “I don’t like what happens to you when you think about him, and now we’re actually going to have to negotiate with him.”

Leon shifted slightly, allowing a gap of space to widen between them. She hated that.

She softened her voice. “Why don’t you talk about him?”

He pushed a hand back through his hair. “Why do you bring him up? We know he’s ruthless. He’s also politically astute, which is in our favor. He can’t afford to look as ruthless as he is, so outwardly, he’ll have to be diplomatic.”

She uncoiled and reached for her stew again, then swallowed another spoonful. She didn’t have to be looking at the scars on Leon’s back to know they were there. “It’s what he can do to you privately that worries me,” she said.

Leon tossed a bit of a stick into the fire. “You don’t need to worry about me. There’s nothing left there, Gaia.”

She doubted the Protectorat felt equally neutral about Leon. “What about your mother?”

“I left on decent terms with Genevieve. There won’t be any reason to see her much, not when I’m living outside the wall with you.”

Gaia suspected that was an over-simplification, too. Uneasy, she glanced down at her monocle and locket watch, glinting in the firelight. Somewhere ahead, in a grave in Potter’s Field, her father lay decomposing, if he wasn’t dust in the dry earth already. She had no idea if her mother was buried beside him, though she hoped so. Complicated as Leon’s family was, at least he had people to return to. His sister Evelyn would welcome him, and his brother Rafael, too. He had a birth father outside the wall. By contrast, Gaia had no family to return to, beyond her newfound brother Jack and another brother in the Enclave she’d never even met.

A spark snapped in the fire, and the logs shifted, letting out a new burst of heat. “Do you think you’ll get to know Derek better?” Gaia asked.

“He’s a good man. I’m not sure how much he’ll want me involved with his new family, but I’ll certainly look him up. He’d want that much, I know.” Leon smiled, studying her attentively. “You don’t need to worry about my family liking you,” he said. “It’s not like we need anyone’s approval.”

“I know.”

He drew her hand into his so she could feel the warmth in his fingers. “Marry me,” he said. “Don’t make me wait anymore.”

She’d known this question was coming again. He’d been patient for a whole year. But knowing the moment was here didn’t mean she was ready.

“Gaia, we’re starting a new life. We should do it together,” he added. “You know we should. You can’t still have doubts about us.”

“I don’t about you,” she said. “I’m sure about you.” And she was. No one would ever love her as deeply as Leon did.

He almost sounded hurt, and she couldn’t stand that.

“Then what’s left?”

“I’m afraid,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s not rational. I’m afraid the Protectorat will go after you deliberately because I’m the Matrarc. He could try to hurt you to manipulate me if we’re married.”

“You’re too late, then,” Leon said. “He’ll know we love each other whether we’re married or not. All he has to do is ask anyone who’s seen us together this past year.”

“We could pretend we’ve argued,” she suggested.

“And then you’d what? Pretend to start up with someone else?” His voice turned deceptively light. “One of the Chardos?”

She could tell he wasn’t buying it, but she kept trying anyway. “Or someone else. You could pick the guy. It wouldn’t matter to me.”

“This isn’t amusing anymore,” he said. “You’ve had a year to think about marrying me, and any time along the way you could have told me it wouldn’t work. You promised you would decide about us, remember? You weren’t supposed to decide no.”

“I’ve had doubts. You know I have.”

“You’ve also been happy, and loyal, and loving. Don’t forget that,” he said.

“Not so loyal. I talked to Peter just today,” she said.

“Nice try.”

“No, I really did. Up past the ridge, when we were getting Jack,” she said.

“That’s hardly sneaking off to be alone with him,” Leon said, watching her closely. “It probably couldn’t be helped. What did you say?”

“We agreed never to be friends,” she said.

Leon relaxed. “See? That’s not breaking a promise to me. It’s making it stronger. I know you, Gaia. I’d trust you forever. Why are you resisting me on this? I feel like I’m fighting you, and this is supposed to be a proposal.”

She slowly shook her head. “There’s Will, too.”

Leon laughed. “Now you’re really stretching it.”

“He loves me, Leon. He hasn’t said it lately in so many words, but I can tell.”

“Obviously,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you care for him the same way. Don’t you think I’d know? Think I haven’t watched you with him? I have to hand it to the guy. He never crosses a line. His devotion would be funny if it wasn’t so awful to see.”

“I keep hoping he’ll fall for someone else,” she said hopelessly.

“So do I. Both of those Chardos.” With strong hands, he pulled her closer and shifted her onto his lap so he could wrap his arms around her. “What’s with all these excuses? Tell me what you’re really thinking,” he said tenderly. “What’s really the matter?”

She felt a crumpling sensation around her heart. Why did Leon always see into her so perfectly?

“It hurts to love someone this much,” she said finally. “I feel each place where our minds meet, and each little place where they don’t, until we talk things over and line up again. Like now when you won’t let this go. I feel the other, muddled places we leave alone, like with your parents. But even those places are ours. I’ve never had anything like this with anyone else. Now I’m never fully happy anymore unless you’re with me. I’m teetering in this stupid place where I want to keep you selfishly with me every minute, but I can’t. And what if I ever lost you? This isn’t strength. It’s weakness. It’s not supposed to feel this way.”

“You’re amazing,” he said, and nudged her chin up with his thumb.

“But do you know what I mean? Does it actually hurt for you, too?”

“Of course it does. And it doesn’t matter what it’s supposed to feel like. It’s ours.”

By the soft, flickering light of the fire, his eyes gleamed. A tiny corkscrew of expectancy twisted in her gut. His face tipped until she felt his beard skim near, then his mouth, and then everything else vanished. She held on to him tightly, afraid and hungry and sweetly happy all at once. They had never let their kisses go too far in public, but when finally she had to pause to breathe, she glanced around anxiously. People were still moving around the fires, but no one was watching.

“So shy,” he muttered. He was smiling easily, and then he surreptitiously ran a finger along the neckline of her blouse.

“Not here,” she said. She ducked away so his chin tickled her ear, but she was ridiculously pleased.

“Okay, hold still,” he said. “I have something for you.” He shifted his weight but still managed to keep her on his lap. Then he pulled a thin, braided band of red wool from his pocket.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Hold out your hand,” he said. With both arms still around her, he tied the strings of the band around her left wrist. “I had Mlady Roxanne teach me how to make the stitches. See here?” He lightly touched a strand of gold that threaded through a wider part of the fabric bracelet. She frowned, holding her wrist toward the firelight so she could see the tiny characters.

“It says ‘orange,’” she said, awed. “When did you make it?” It was the loveliest thing she’d ever seen, both strong and delicate, with work as fine as any her father had ever done. She could hardly believe Leon had made it for her.

“Last fall,” Leon said. “It took me about ten tries to get it right.”

“And you’ve been carrying it around all this time?” she asked.

“I was waiting for the right moment,” he said. “I have the feeling this will have to suffice.”

She stilled her hand on the bracelet. “You were going to give it to me as an engagement present, weren’t you, like a ring?”

“It’s yours, Gaia. I just want you to have it.”

She felt her eyes misting.

“Just take it.” He kissed her cheek, and then her lips again. “You’ll say yes to me someday,” he said. “I know you will. As far as I’m concerned, we’re engaged.”

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