Book 1 in the Deviations series. Don't miss Appetite, Destiny and Bloodlines.
TripStone hates to kill her gods but she must feed her people. An accomplished hunter in the Masari village of Crossroads, she is charged with the ritual slaying of the sacred Yata. Her comrade Ghost tries to end Masari dependence on Yata meat by performing experiments punishable by death. His jeopardy increases when he shelters a teenage runaway sickened by fasting.
Their worldview shatters when they harbor a Yata woman raised to be livestock instead of a god. But Crossroads itself is imperiled. Hidden in the far woods, a secret Yata militia is preparing to alter the balance of power.
TripStone closed her eyes and squatted by a rotting log beneath a canopy teeming with noisy nests. The young calling for food above her melded into a single, insistent voice, a command from the forest itself.
She thought of home, remembered why she was here.
Today was Meat Day and her family table was bare of flesh. It was her turn to dress in heavy canvas and leggings and shoulder her rifle.
She opened her eyes, bent her body to follow the outlines of the dead trunk, and barely breathed. Blued mountains ringed the Basc-Crossroads hunting grounds, but her gaze was elsewhere, closer to the ground, seeking sustenance.
Light from the rising sun glinted off red hair drawn back in her tightly fixed ritual kerchief woven with ancient Masari and Yata pictograms. TripStone's pelt, grown in the manner of young Masari women, trailed neatly in sideburns to her chin, rounding her mouth in graceful scimitar shapes. It blanketed her neck, warming it in the cold, woody air. Her shoulders, dusted under her vest in red fuzz, ached with waiting.
Before dawn she had drawn her purification bath in silence. She had laved herself slowly in water laced with fragrant herbs. Heady, floral scent rose in waves of steam from her tub, obscuring the odors of spiced grains and juice drifting in from the breakfast shared by her parents and brother in the next room. TripStone's dining chair, removed from the table, sat empty beside her family's shrine of ancestral keepsakes.
On any other day her mouth would have watered. If it had today, she told no one.
She dressed alone. She lifted her rifle off iron hooks hammered into dark-grained wood. Conversation in the next room became a steady buzz as she polished and inspected her barrel and firing mechanism until satisfied. Like her kerchief, her gun bore both Masari and Yata markings too old for her to understand. The ancient Masari looked more like bird tracks, the Yata like lizard trails. One was angular and succinct, the other a graceful meandering.
Pretty, both of them.
When she was ready, TripStone slung her rifle across her back. Her boot heels thudded on polished wood as she stepped into the family den. Her relatives ceased their talk and stood, then bowed as one in reverent silence. TripStone bowed back, turned, and strode from their cottage, swallowing hard.
She joined other hunters gathered at the edge of Crossroads. Some still conversed beneath tent flaps with census takers who waited to count the dead. Others, like her, gazed sadly toward the hunting grounds. In Basc, on the other side of the woods, scores of diminutive Yata prepared themselves for sacrifice. TripStone tried to imagine their secret rites, if they held any at all. Perhaps they simply bent to kiss those whom they loved and turned away from their huts, leaving their fate to the gods.