When Tiadone was born, her parents had two choices: leave their daughter outside the community to die in the wilds, or raise her as male and force her to suppress all feminine traits. Now, as the first female living as male in her village, Tiadone must prove her father didn’t make a mistake by letting her live.
As her male initiation approaches, Tiadone knows every eye on the community is on her, and desperately wishes to belong and finally be accepted. But at every step, traditional feminine gifts and traits emerge, and the bird she's been twined with is seen as a sign of the devil.
Worse, as Tiadone completes her rites she finds she is drawn to her male best friend in ways that are very much in line with the female gender.
Confused and desperate, Tiadone tries to become what she must be while dealing with what she indeed has become: a young woman who may be able to stand up to her despotic rulers and uncover her real purpose in life.
“A fantasy that reads like a lost history tome and deftly examines issues of gender. An engrossing story with welcome depths” – Kirkus Reviews Starred Review
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|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.63(d)|
|Age Range:||15 - 18 Years|
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By Lorie Ann Grover
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Lorie Ann Grover
All rights reserved.
In the dim market alley, I gulp from the dipper. A beetle struggles across the silvery water in the communal rain urn until I flick him free.
That has to be enough bartering and haggling for a day. I hitch up my pack, bulging with mutton and herbs. Father must be ready to head home—if only I could find him.
Behind the adjacent door, bells clink against bones. The priest! I sputter and drop the ladle, leaving it swinging on its twine.
I lurch past the butcher's clay pots to disappear in the market throng, but Priest Sleene crashes open the alley door. Bang! Ducking behind a refuse basin, my boots squish in rancid meat scraps.
The priest pauses on the threshold. His black robes clot the doorway, and his attached wings arch stiffly from his shoulders. "Your firstborn female is worthless!" he hisses to the couple inside.
A tiny babe thrashes and starts to cry in the blue scrap of linen dangling from Sleene's clutch. The material is taut across the infant's open mouth and little jerking fists.
Despite the baby's outrage, I can't get past the door without the priest's notice. No one wants to draw his eye, least of all me. "Boy," he sneers whenever he sees me, making my skin pimple.
Sleene sweeps out into the alley. His oiled, bald head glints.
I shudder when the young father stops on the doorstep and bars his pale wife from leaving. She thrusts her thin arms beyond his, and her pleading fingers spread wide. "Our daughter! Don't take her and leave her out there. She'll die!"
Sleene spins and glares at her. He raises his voice above the wail streaming from the cloth. "You and your husband would declare her a male then?" He swings the squirming bundle before her, just out of her reach.
Yes, I beg silently.
"We will!" the woman promises and grasps at the air, but her husband shoves her behind him.
"No! Take the babe." He elbows her back.
"Filthy R'tans," Sleene mutters, as if even the name of my people dirties his tongue.
I grip my knees and duck my head lower, while anger flames my skin.
The woman lunges past, but the man grabs her around the waist and spreads his hand over her mouth.
Sleene glowers. "Tame your woman, Hangrot, or I will." Crying and flailing in her husband's hold, the woman's shirt slides off her shoulder, and I notice two wet circles spread into the bodice as her body leaks milk for her babe. Hangrot whispers into her ear.
Finally, Sleene shifts the wriggling bundle and stomps past my hiding place. A newborn fist tears through the cloth. To keep from reaching out to it, I jerk back against the butcher's wall and cross my arms.
As the priest turns the corner, his robe whips about his ankles, rattling the attached bells and bones sewn along the hem. The end points of his wings drag through the dirt. Trailing jangles haunt the passageway, and a long black feather sticks in the mucky ground.
Why, why did that man let Sleene take his daughter?
The mother wrests her mouth free. "She'll die, Hangrot! We can't let him leave her out there. Our baby deserves to live! Declare her male!"
Please, so you can keep her! I want to shout.
"Do you believe she could provide for us when we are aged?" Hangrot's voice rises. "A female charaded as a male her entire life?"
The woman starts to answer, but Hangrot wrestles her inside the dwelling and slams the door.
Slowly, I stand. "Yes, she could have taken care of you," I whisper.
Like a mother goat's keen over her stillborn, the woman's cry rises.
I scramble out of the alley, into the market.CHAPTER 2
The square overflows with people. Fourteen years after the conquest, we R'tan villagers still give a wide berth to the ruling Madronians. Clad in roughspun trousers, ponchos, and layered dresses, R'tan sidestep the Madronians in their ornate robes, and we continue to avert our eyes from their kohl-dotted ones.
I scan the temporary stalls leaning against the stone shops and homes, and the boisterous crowds of R'tan clumped before them. Everyone is focused on their business, their desires, their needs. Flatteries and cajoling swoop like birds around the market square. In small clusters, Madronians ring the plaza, attending to their own business.
In the throng, I twist around, frantically searching for Father. Boots splat in puddles cupped in the cobblestones. Three whining children tug their mothers' skirts at the nearby sweet stall. The jelly-coated prickle pear draws water to my quivering mouth.
A woman suckling her babe nudges past me, his tasseled cap marking him as a boy. White-blue milk dribbles down his plump, chapped cheek.
In the mayhem, I turn and find my best friend, Ratho, reaching out and steadying me. He flips his black hair coils behind his shoulder as his thick brows arch over his eyes. "Tiadone! Are you all right?" Concern flows through the touch of his strong fingers.
I pretend I stumble so that I can lean into his shoulder for just a moment and breathe in the scent in his tightly woven poncho. Sunshine and lavender from his father's fields overpower my panic.
The village leatherworker hurries by clenching an armload of belts. He jostles Ratho and me closer, and I don't resist.
"Are you well?" Ratho repeats. Even though he is R'tan like me, he makes the Madronian gesture to ward off evil.
I still his hand, nod, and then wipe my nose on my sleeve. "I just saw Sleene—"
Father grips my arm and spins me around. "Tiadone! There you are." In warning, he rolls his full lips inward and tilts his head to the Madronian acolyte at the edge of the crowd. One of Sleene's private guard adjusts his whip, looped on his belt, and overlooks the market. Father's gray-streaked beard twitches.
I stifle my whimper, which sounds more like a babe than a male youth. "Sleene took a new—"
Father interrupts. "And Ratho!" He smiles but jerks me close against him, his arm resting on the top of my pack. "Nice to see you. Having a good day then?"
Ratho gestures respect and nods. "We'll be harvesting the lavender and tuber fields by the end of the week, Goat Tender."
"Wonderful," Father says.
"What were you telling me, Tiadone?" Ratho asks, his eyes looking straight into mine.
But a woman counting finger squash in her basket cuts between us. "Six, seven, eight ..."
A tall man carrying a honking goose shoves through as well. "Haste, haste! Out of my way," he puffs. Brown droppings are smattered down his sleeve. Once he blusters by, the three of us tighten our circle.
Father pats my best friend's shoulder. "You and Tiadone can talk another time, Ratho. We finished our shopping, but we still need to tend an ailing goat."
"But, Father, I want to—"
"Say hello to your parents for us, Ratho." Lacing his fingers and presenting his palms to my friend, Father indicates we are truly departing. Ratho mimics him.
"I'll see you after the harvest then, Tiadone," he says.
I nod, and he steps away but pauses. His look lingers on me until the crowd shifts, and then he's gone. Immediately, panic burns into my centerself.
"Father." I squeeze his clenched forearm. "There was a baby girl and a mother in the alley." He gives me a strong shake. I stop speaking and sputter as he pulls me to his rigid chest. Heavy goat scent weights his clothes.
It's true. Finally, I've seen it for myself. Sleene murders firstborn girls. My tears dampen Father's poncho.
"It's all right, my son," he says loudly. He nods at the staring acolyte and maneuvers me to an empty space in front of the butcher shop. The priest's guard follows us as Father clasps my shoulders. "Four pork and cheese pies will make you ill in the stomach."
The acolyte rolls his eyes and moves on. From his shoulder cape, heavy incense puffs and lingers over the butcher's fresh slaughter. The headless goose dangling above me drips a splat of warm blood onto my cheek.
With the inside edge of his soft sleeve, Father swipes my face clean. "Have mercy, Creator Spirit," he mouths. He leads us around the dingy building and away from town.
Trudging up our steep hill, the quickly setting sun barely brushes our backs. My pack sits heavily between my shoulder blades. I kick a stone loose in the sandy soil, and it comes to a stop by a shriveled rock rose plant. Father's step crushes the flower beneath his boot. I avoid trampling the small bit that still may survive. The pale pink blossom lies crimped in the dirt.
According to Madronian law, I would have been taken like that newborn. Sleene would have stolen me if Father hadn't declared me male. I was a firstborn girl.CHAPTER 3
Father treated the ailing goat at the Bersbad's farm by holding a warm mustard poultice to its blocked teat until it opened, and the milk flowed for its bleating kid. All the while, he shushed the goat's moans exactly like he shushed me.
Now we are home, and night has settled atop our shrub-speckled hill. The coals in the center pit in our pebbled floor barely glow. A couple of stars glitter through the ceiling hole, while a flame flickers in the clay oil lamp on the table.
Father tugs the edge of one window curtain over the other. He sits down on the bench across from me, rubs his hands on his squat thighs. His body is hunched with tension, but he straightens and braces his elbows on our stone table.
"Now, Tiadone, we are safe from Madronian ears. You may question."
The words rush from my centerself, the place of belief and hope in my gut. "You've always told me what the Madronians do to firstborn girls when their parents don't declare them males, but today, Father, today, I saw for myself! Sleene's truly going to leave a girl on the Scree to die in that wasteland?"
He frowns, reinforcing the shallow wrinkles between his brown eyes. "It's as I've said, Tiadone—"
"But it never seemed so real before. I saw Sleene and the parents. The mother ..."
He presses his temples and looks to the rafters, intoning the enemy's dribble once again for me. "Madronian priests in all quarters of R'tania dispose of firstborn girls. They limit our race and add necessary males to their soldiering. You know it is the same in every village and kingdom the Madronians conquer. Only girls born within their native lands are always granted life."
I can merely stare at him.
"At least it is only our firstborn females under the scourge, Tiadone." He lowers his gaze to me. "It is a gift that after a male is established, all daughters are accepted."
"Tiadone, remember the Madronians believe the first living child carries the greatest strength. Can you imagine them permitting a girl to have that power in a conquered village, or that they'd allow a family to offer only females to society?" He holds his hand up to keep me from cutting into his speech. "And we can be thankful they offer us the chance to declare our firstborn girls male to avoid ekthesis on the Scree."
"But ekthesis is murder!" I clench the table edge like lichen grips a rock. "There's no way a babe can survive if she's left alone in that shale wilderness. And what of those parents? That father? He didn't want to risk his future on a female?" My fear claws up and hisses, firstborn females are worthless. "Do you doubt I will provide for you in your old age?"
He reaches over and pats my hand. "I have no doubt in your strength, Tiadone. But yours is the first generation to reach maturity. Our village hasn't seen a declared male proven. All are waiting on you, Tiadone." He squeezes my curled fingers. "They worry about your bird. When your rapion hatches, they wonder if it will join you."
With a jerk, I cover the large egg beneath the gauze wrapped round my waist. My mouth parts hearing these doubts tip from my father. Will this bird reject me?
The rapion gifted me the egg at my birth in exchange for my placenta to nourish their elderly. I've carried their treasure my entire life, and it will hatch soon. Everything will change, but not as Father hints. "I will guard the land with my rapion on my shoulder and then by my side, as well as any other boy. It will work with me to protect the border of R'tania. Everyone believes it."
My father averts his eyes. "People doubt, Tiadone. The declared are not truly male to some. Think. This is why there are no other declared males, at least in our village."
"That's foolish!" I smack the table and lift the fist-sized, red amulet hanging from the sinew tied about my hips. "How can that be when the Madronians mandate the declared carry a desert cat's heart in his father's hair coils?"
I squeeze the soft mass in my fist, and the dry tissue compresses inside the leather pouch. Together, the heart and hair suppress the femininity I was born with and imbue me with the power of the fiercest, most dreaded in our desert, the cat. The amulet makes me male in my mind and in society. As a declared male, I'll wear the amulet for life and contribute as any other male in our village.
I can't believe any would doubt the fierce power. The Madronians trust their ritual and only watch to be certain I am not too weak as a R'tan for the amulet to be effective. As if that would be possible.
"I have the strength of man and feline, Father. My peers accept me as male. In fights, I am as strong as any."
"There are still some R'tan in our village who privately doubt, Tiadone. Over the years, I've seen the look on adults and children, but it is their fear of the Madronians that protects you. They are forced to respect the ritual. I'm glad you never noticed their secret doubts." His sigh deflates his chest like a violet curls beneath a fingertip. "I've trained you hard to prove your equality and value. To prove declaration is effective so that other firstborn girls might be saved as well."
The table jars as I kick, kick, kick the leg. Father finds my foot and holds it still beneath his own boot. The uneven pebbles press through my sole.
"Well, why don't we just rebel against the Madronians?" I blurt.
"Tiadone," he sighs. "I know I'm the one who has fueled your hatred and anger for the Madronians—"
"As is right, Father."
"But now it is time to accept our situation. It's time as you ready for Perimeter service."
"But what of rebellion?"
He snorts. "What sort of rebellion could you expect from high-desert goat herders, spinners, and farmers?"
"I have done what I can by raising you. You suggest military revolt now? It takes all we have to meet Madronian taxes and bend to their false religion. Everyone lying under the sweeping skirt of these people is drained."
My exasperation wobbles the oil flame. "But we have the rapion, birds that work with us for survival."
"And the Madronians don't. And because the birds have always refused to join them, plain jealousy makes for further oppression." He rubs the rim of the lamp. "Jealousy."
I swear beneath my breath.
Father glances at his javelin by the door. "And then there's still the danger along the border of the Triumverate: cat, sandstorm, or further invasion. There's the C'shah to the east, the Porites to the north, or the—"
"I know," I snip.
He grasps the back of his neck. "Eventually, Tiadone, you will understand our oppression and know there is nothing more R'tanians can do."
I prop my forehead in my hands. Priest Sleene flits through my mind: his pasty skin, his scent of decay, and his musty wings. Fear slices up my back like chipped obsidian.
Father covers the table's shallow fissures with his palms. His square jaw ripples. "There's no more, Tiadone. Just bow and worship as the Madronians dictate, and we will continue to live on our ancestors' land as they did."
What? How are false religion and murder life for the R'tan? Why does our Creator Spirit permit this? "How am I living like our ancestors, Father? I'm made to live as a male when I was born a fe—"
He cuts through my prohibited words with his gravelly, deep voice. "There's nothing new here, Tiadone. It's time to acquiesce, to survive. We'll focus on the upcoming change with peaceful thoughts. Your rapion will accept you, and together you will serve well." He glances at the glimmer of my turquoise egg beneath my wrap. "Still your mind, now, and ready for bed."
Father pinches his tongue between his thumb and forefinger and kills the flame. Darkness grabs me from all sides.
Excerpted from Firstborn by Lorie Ann Grover. Copyright © 2014 Lorie Ann Grover. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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