Blindfolded, I can’t see the dawn, but I can hear it. Drums keep time until the sun rises, their pulsing sound vibrating in my bones and drowning out the noises that would normally reassure me I’m not alone. In reality, the rocky outcrop that serves as the fairground stage is crowded—debuting men kneel at the front, debuting women pound the giant heartbeat drums anchored behind us—but the drumbeats wash all that away. All that’s left is the feeling that the entire community is staring at me. I wipe sweaty palms on my pant legs, then catch myself and return my hands to my lap. Somewhere in the audience, my family is watching. I try not to shift as the rock beneath my knees pushes little thumbs of granite into my shins.
A shout cuts through the drumbeats, and their cadence quickens. Another shout, and a last thunderous roll sends echoes reverberating into the distance. In the following quiet, it seems as if all sound has vanished. Even the echoes of drums from neighboring mountaintop cities fade into silent anticipation.
There! A horn sounds, barely audible across the distance separating us from the capital’s mountain. Like a bursting dam, horns on other ridges take up the call, sound cascading across the range until our head priestess sounds ours. The notes fade, and our thousands of voices begin the hymn of thanksgiving sung at every spring equinox. I pour my heart into the traditional words: thanks to the winter rains for giving us food and thanks to the winter darkness for giving us respite from the desiccating heat of the sun. Thank you, Goddess, that this day is finally here. At the end of the song, my heart is racing. Finally. Here.
A cane taps on stone as Priestess Wekmet shuffles forward. “Welcome to this day!” The priestess’s words carry across the crowd, the amplification so subtle that their firm voice seems to come from the mountain itself. “Today, we give thanks for the winter that has nurtured us and prepared us to withstand the summer’s heat. We give thanks for our foremothers. Let us not forget their deeds.”
I bow my head, as everyone does, and the priestess begins the recitation.
“When the waters of Earth rose, flames and storms scoured the land and drove our foremothers from their homes. They appealed for compassion, for justice, for a place where they could raise their children in safety, but they were cast out. They were cast out again and again until finally their last hope of welcome lay in the space colonies far from Earth. But they did not arrive at the colony that had grudgingly promised to take them in. Instead, they were stranded on this sun-scorched world, this dwelling place of monsters. Marooned, they forged a new life, carving a future out of this hostile planet through their perseverance and talent. For our foremothers, we give thanks.”
I try to remain still as the priestess names the founders of each clan, describing their deeds as they exited the space shuttle five hundred years ago, their descendants’ heroics as they battled the waves of solar storms that nearly extinguished the planet’s human presence, the lessons they passed down to ensure that the attitudes that destroyed Earth would never take root again. The thumbs of rock under my legs sharpen into talons.
The priestess turns to address the women at their drums. “You each come from a line of women who created life on a hostile planet. Your deeds have proved you worthy to take up their mantle. Are you ready in your turn to generate life? To create the planet’s future? To carve the next generation out of your own blood and bone?”
A chorus of assent rises behind me. Bracelets rustle and clink as the priestess anoints their brows from a small bowl of oil. “Be welcomed now to the community of women. Today, you take your place among those who generate life of the body, mind, and soul.”
A breathless silence, then cheers and calls from the audience as the priestess anoints the last woman on the stage. The crowd quiets, and there’s more clinking as each woman accepts a bowl of holy water. My pulse races.
The priestess addresses the newly proclaimed women. “These men will be your helpmeets as you work to make this world what it could be. They will lighten your load and remove obstacles from your path. Your drums have returned them to the darkness and the heartbeat of the womb. Now help rebirth them into the world of men.”
Footsteps scramble over the rocks behind us with an urgency that matches my pounding heart. A warm hand grips my shoulder, and my breath catches. The priestess’s charge to us to fulfill the duties of men fades into meaningless noise as I strain my senses for any hint of whose hand it is.
Strong fingers give my shoulder a tiny squeeze, and my heart nearly stops. Please let it be—
Water pours over my head, so cold it steals my breath. The invocation is over. The hand leaves my shoulder, replaced by a rough towel mopping at my face. A waft of smell of cinnamon and musk curls around my nose, and I sag in relief. It is Nareen.
The towel finishes with my face, then fingers slide up the nape of my neck to push the blindfold free.
“Got you, Ya’shul,” Nareen’s throaty voice purrs in my ear.
Her upside down face emerges from the blinding daylight. Her short, black curls flop forward as she braces both hands on my shoulders and leans over me, a mischievous smile broadening her round cheeks. Cinnamon drifts over me again, and my mouth goes dry. Everyone in her family wears that scent, but for me it will always be the smell of her.
She lets me go, then steps around in front of me, holding out her hand. It hovers in the air between us, braced by the confidence she always exudes. I set my palm in hers, and her blunt fingers close around mine, the beige of her skin contrasting with the darker ochre of my own. Every finger tingles against my skin as I lean on her to pull myself upright.
She catches me as I stumble, my feet as numb as if they’ve turned to pillow stuffing.
“Sorry,” I tell her breathlessly. I thought I’d managed to keep my legs from falling asleep. Surreptitiously, I shake them out, and the bells sewn into my presentation clothing jingle as I try to restore the blood flow to my feet and toes.
“Not a problem.” She slips an arm around my waist, her plump curves pressing against my side, and my mouth goes dry. “Take your time.” There’s a wicked twinkle in her eye as she glances up at me and snuggles her hip closer to mine.
Heat pools in my groin. Plenty of my cousins have ignored my grandmother’s oh-so-traditional insistence that we remain celibate until adulthood—until this festival in fact, when debuting makes us eligible to participate in pledging ceremonies. I, on the other hand, have always held back, priding myself on not being ruled by my passions. Moments like this make me wonder why.
Her fingers flex, then slip down to cradle my hip. I stop breathing. In all the years we’ve known each other, she’s been circumspect, properly respectful of my grandmother’s dictates. The heat in her eyes as she looks me over now shows me how much she’s restrained herself.
Yes. Please, Goddess. It takes all my will power not to melt against her. I should move away. I should move away before this ends with her pressing me up against the rock wall at the back of the stage. There’s still an entire festival to go. An entire festival of negotiations and last-minute alliances to make before the evening’s pledging ceremonies seal the deals. You know her family is going to ask for you. I know. But they haven’t. Not yet. Not for hours. I grit my teeth.
“I—” I take a shuddering breath. “I’m all right now.” The words rasp from my throat.
She steps away with a little sigh. Her fingers trail heat across my lower back.
I bury my face in the towel, regaining my composure while she picks up another and wipes the sweat off her bare torso. When I look up, she’s standing in front of me, holding out a pot of scent-infused sunblock.
“My back needs touching up,” she tells me as I take it, then she turns away. When I don’t move, she glances back at me, eyes crinkling in amusement. I stop breathing.
“Are you trying to…” My voice trails off in a strangled choke.
If her grin were any wider, her face would split. “Don’t worry,” she tells me, “I’ll do my front. Besides, picking you means I’m close as family for today, remember.” She snags my blindfold, which is soaked in my family’s traditional perfume, and ties it in a loose loop. Slipping it onto her arm, she tightens the knot with her teeth and waggles the ends at me.
My eyes feel too big. In the olden days, choosing someone at this ceremony was part of a larger mating ritual. Time has attenuated its meaning into little more than this quaint vestige of a tradition, but a thrill shivers over my skin nonetheless.
Nareen laughs and pushes the short curls of her hair up so that the back of her neck is fully exposed.
Oh Goddess. I’m glad that men are no longer picked from a line at this festival like slabs of meat. I am. I’m glad that negotiations between families give me a chance to lobby for who I want to be pledged to. But if I have to wait even ten more minutes…
I dip a shaking hand into the pot of sunblock and reach toward her back. Her skin is warm under my palm as I smooth on the ointment with all the restraint I can muster. The little noise of pleasure she makes as I work my way down her spine sends a shiver through me.
“It’s—it’s all set.” I wipe my fingers on the towel and tug at the neck of my shirt. It was all well and good to have pride in my self-control when I was sixteen and convinced that my debut was less than a year away. But now, three more years have passed, my family deciding each festival that I’m almost ready. The delay has left me cursing my grandmother and my pride in equal measure.
“Oh, good.” Nareen takes the pot back and turns away to apply the rest of it. Her hand follows the curve of her neck and shoulder, then it’s only my imagination that fills in the feeling of smoothness giving way to the puckered scar just below her collarbone as her hand slides lower.
I look away. Around us, the formal ceremony is dissolving into talking and mingling as initiates return to their families. I rub at my new beard. When I lower my hand, the scent of her lingers in the stubble.
There’s a satisfied smile on Nareen’s face as she leads me off the stage and through the crowd toward the back of the fairground, where families have staked out their areas and are arranging low tables full of food for the fast breaking. I shade my eyes. The strengthening sun gives the celebration a determined edge, as if everyone is squeezing the most out of the dwindling time before summer makes it unsafe to venture outdoors without a sunshade. A few more proactive families have already erected canopies, and Nareen steers me toward where my family has claimed a prime spot in the middle.
As we approach, my mother looks up from arranging a plate of food in an artistic spiral. She holds out a hand, and I help pull her to her feet.
“Congratulations!” She kisses my cheek, then turns to Nareen, holding the plate out to her favorite apprentice.
Nareen accepts it with a grateful duck of her head. “To you as well, Viya-lun. I can only hope that my career might be as fruitful as yours.”
My mother chuckles indulgently. Even though I knew it was coming, it’s still strange to hear my mother receive the honorific -lun. Just as Nareen started her initial transition into womanhood at puberty, my mother is transitioning out. In the year since her menstrual cycle stopped, she has been wrapping up her work in the family laboratory and preparing to transition from woman to zoman. Under her serene exterior, I can’t tell if she’s excited about the next part of the festival or nervous. Her upcoming ceremony isn’t just about changing pronouns from “she” to “they;” it’s about taking responsibility for all one hundred and fifty people in our family.
Nareen catches my mother’s hand. “Come! Now that I’ve delivered Ya’shul back to you, you must accept my family’s hospitality. It’s the least we can do for all you’ve given me—and continue to give.” She casts me a significant look, then gives my mother’s hand a little tug.
“Of course,” my mother tells her. Her golden-brown face crinkles with amusement, then sobers as her attention settles on me. “Ya’shul, are your presentation materials still back at home?”
“Of course.” There isn’t room to store them up here while the fast breaking tables are set up. It’s only once those are dismantled that we’ll set up the booths where men and women can present their accomplishments to the community.
“You should probably go get them now. Marin-lun has been asking if you’re ready.”
I look around warily. My grandmother demands perfection at the best of times, but during festivals, the stress of being the zoman in charge sends their tendency to find fault into overdrive. Negotiating all the alliances between our family and others requires attention to the smallest details.
“Even before I eat?” The smell of frying bread teases my nostrils, and my stomach grumbles a complaint. Surely, even my grandmother wants me fed and comfortable before the day’s scrutiny.
My mother gives a sympathetic shrug. “Up to you.” The arch of her eyebrow makes clear it’s anything but.
I nod, and my mother finally allows Nareen to tow her off into the crowd. This presentation, along with the opening dances, is my last chance to impress Nareen’s family. Dodging around my bustling kin, I head toward the far edge of our family’s area.
“Where are you going?” My grandmother materializes in front of me with a flash of metal and the wave of an age-spotted hand.
I jump. Like many zomen, Marin-lun is frail enough that they rest in a spider-like mechanical walker whose six metal legs pick a path through the crowd. I have no idea how it’s possible to sneak up on people in that thing, but they manage it often enough to keep me on my toes.
“Ah…” I eye the zoman’s frown. “Home to pick up the materials for my presentation?”
A glimmer of approval sparks, then dims. Elegant gray eyebrows snap together over the wide-set eyes we all share.
I blink. Technically, I should be chaperoned by a family member, a sign that we’re serious about guarding the family genome. For all that things have changed in modern times, they’ve changed less for my grandmother than anyone else.
“Of course I’m not going by myself,” I lie. A flash of movement out of the corner of my eye comes to my rescue. “I’m taking Ya’kinem.” I nod to where my sixteen-year-old brother is desperately trying to distract the five-year-old he’s supposed to be caring for. At least in this day and age, little brothers count as chaperones.
My grandmother’s eyes narrow, but they don’t call me out for my lie. “I expect your presentation to be perfect,” they finally say, pinning me with a look. “Make your family proud. There’s a lot riding on how well we impress people this year.”
I’ll say. There’s always some reason my grandmother thinks that being perfect is The Most Important Thing, whether it’s trying to keep our family’s seat on the ruling council or simply striking the best bargains for our myriad alliances. But this year, it’s personal. Now it’s my chance to impress everyone and show that I deserve to be pledged out to carry my family’s resources into fruitful collaborations with others.
As unobtrusively as I can, I make my way over to Ya’kinem.
“I need to go downslope,” I murmur. “Want to ‘chaperone’ me?”
His lips twist, and he rubs at the scraggly beard that he finally managed to grow. “Was Grandmother—”
“Ooooh, ooooh!” five-year-old U’kylay squeals, cutting off whatever he was going to say. “I’ll come chaperone you!”
Ya’kinem looks at the child, then shrugs. “Works for me.” A gust of wind catches his sunshade, and he wrestles it back into place before the equinox sun can strike his unusually pale skin.
“This way!” the child says, wriggling between a pair of adults and speeding off toward the low stone buildings that line the side of the fairground. Halfway there, U’kylay veers to the right, darting instead into the gardens at the far end.
“U’kylay!” Ya’kinem calls.
“It’s a shortcut!” Spikes of straight black hair, strands somehow already stuck together in disarray, bob behind a strand of rustling grass as the child’s deep-brown limbs whisk out of sight.
I turn the corner myself with a pained grunt. We can get back home this way, but a shortcut? Hardly.
U’kylay is standing stock-still in the middle of the path, face skyward, wide eyes fixed on something high above my head. My breath catches in my throat as a giant pteradon glides over the fairground. It flares its leathery wings for a landing and alights on the towering, rocky promontory that juts up behind the fairground stage. The beast folds its majestic wings and plants its elbow-hands on the ground, crouching to allow its riders to dismount. The bony red crest on its head flashes in the light as it cranes its impossibly long neck to peer around. A plump figure in garish riding leathers slides down its neck, then turns to assist a thinner figure, this one clad in similarly garish robes. On the ground, their tiny figures only highlight how massive the beast really is. The pteradon tosses its head, and I suck in my breath. No matter how many glimpses of one I’ve caught, the beasts are still awe inspiring.
“I want to climb up there!” U’kylay exclaims.
The promontory is by far the tallest point in our village, a jagged upwelling of rock that sharpens the tip of our ridge into a rugged prow. Over the millennia, the river that meanders through the mountain range has bent around it, carving cliffs on three sides that plunge to the river below. The view must be spectacular: From up there, the entire top layer of our village would be laid out like a patchwork throw, with stone buildings surrounding the central fairground and bordered in turn by a line of wooden platforms at the top of the northern and southern cliffs. At the far end, the gardens and orchards would be a verdant boundary between our settled area and the wildness of the remaining ridge, whose sides slope steeply off into a mix of trees and grazing land.
I’ve never seen that view myself, though. Our village’s temple to the Goddess is directly under the promontory, and a flock of sacred ptercels, the pteradons’ smaller cousins, have been cajoled to roost in the tiny caves that dot its surface. It’s not exactly sacrilegious to climb on it, or to land a pteradon on top of it, but it’s not far off. Disturbed ptercels wheel around, chattering their outrage.
“Come on, U’kylay, we need to get back home,” I say, steering the child onward.
“Besides, you know we’re not allowed to climb higher than the stage,” Ya’kinem adds.
I glare at him. Now you’ve done it.
U’kylay stops. “They went up higher.”
The two riders pick their way down as the pteradon flips its wings again and curls up among the rocks, indifferent to the screeching ptercels.
“Well,” I venture, “they’re Wanderers. They do things differently.”
Ya’kinem snorts at the understatement. Most clans escaped the intense solar radiation of this world by burrowing deep into the cliffs and staying there for generations, but the Wanderer families didn’t. To this day, they’re still nomads, building wooden settlements out in the open and moving them every few handfuls of years.
“But why?” U’kylay asks.
“I don’t know. They’re merchants. Maybe they need to move around a lot.”
“But they make trips here even when they don’t live here,” U’kylay protests.
“Then ask them,” I snap—an error. The last thing we need is U’kylay trying to slip off to the Wanderer settlement that, as of this past year, now perches on the ridge only a short walk away from our village. I rub my forehead. The synthaglove I’m wearing taps the time into my palm. I still need to eat, set up, and change into my dance regalia.
“Or better yet,” I say, “maybe after we go down and get my materials and come back up again, you can go around the festival and see if you can find the ones who just landed.” I’ve never actually spoken to a Wanderer, but with any luck U’kylay will have forgotten the possibility by the time we return.
The child finally starts moving. Slowly.
“I don’t have time for this,” I mutter. Ya’kinem gives me an apologetic look, and I regret taking my nerves out on him. I know how hard it is to manage U’kylay—and how sensitive Ya’kinem is about whether he’s good at traditional manly duties like caring for children.
He nudges me. “Think of it this way,” he jokes. “Guiding U’kylay down and back up again ought to give you enough material to add an entire section to your manhood presentation about your caregiving experience.”
A laugh almost forms in my throat. “Like I have time to make changes now. Don’t scare me like that, Ya’kinem.” I run a hand through my hair, then hastily pat it back into place.
“You’ll be fine,” he tells me. “Just remember—U’kylay! Get out of the dirt, please, you’re wearing festival clothes.”
U’kylay, a stick clutched in one hand, emerges from under a broad-leafed plant. In the child’s shadow, light-blue spots glow against the dirt. I blink, but the blue spots remain—tiny, glowing mushroom caps that have been meticulously arranged into the shape of a vulva.
“Oh, for the love of—” I bury my face in my hand.
“Well,” my brother says, patting me on the shoulder, “at least someone appreciates your fungus.”
Make your family proud. My grandmother’s admonition echoes through my mind.
“What are they?” U’kylay asks.
“Part of Ya’shul’s capstone presentation project.” Ya’kinem tries to suppress a smirk, but his lips twitch until I glare at him.
“But what are they doing here?” My hands clench with the urge to gather them up. They should be in the compost pile where I’ve been growing my experiments.
“Don’t worry about it.” My brother pushes my hands down and brushes at my disarranged hair. “There were still a lot left the last time I looked.”
“Last time—” My head whips around, and he steps back. “What do you mean ‘last time you looked?’”
He has the grace to look chagrined. “It’s not like you were using them anymore. They were just growing and growing and…um…I may have shown them to some people, and they transplant really easily, you know, and…well, they’re pretty popular.”
“Popular,” I echo, heart sinking. I close my eyes, but the glowing afterimage is burnt into my retinas. “I’m going to be a laughingstock. Marin-lun is going to kill me.”
“No, no.” He waves his hands. “Making little drawings out of them is only a thing among the younger crowd.”
“You made—oh, Goddess.” I rub my forehead. U’kylay starts moving again, and I follow, my heels hitting the ground with staccato thumps. “I need people to take me seriously, Ya’kinem, not this!”
He pats my shoulder. “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. We all trust that your presentation will be very, very serious.” Ahead of us, U’kylay stops next to one of the platforms at the edge of the cliff, swings on the railing once or twice, and starts skipping down the wooden stairs that lead to the family dwellings carved into the cliffs below. “You’ll be fine,” my brother repeats as we start our own descent. He deepens his voice and begins, “I’m Ya’shul, creator of glowing mushrooms. And glowing mice. And glowing goats. And everything awesome. Pick me!” He gives me an exaggerated frown until my lip finally twitches.
I bump him with my shoulder. “The glowing isn’t the point. And the traditionalists who think wearing color is sinful don’t like it, anyway.”
“Have it your way.” His mock sober expression reappears. “I’m Ya’shul, the serious and boring. But at least I figured out how to stop phosfoz from poisoning everything.”
“It wasn’t poisoning everything; it was building up in the tissues of mammals and making them sickly and less likely to produce milk.”
“Like I said.”
“Getting the details right matters!”
He makes a face. “That’s why you’re the one who spends all your time in Mother’s lab rearranging genomes, not me. A, C, G…close enough.”
“No,” I insist, “it matters.” On this, at least, I’m confident. “Knowing that a common toxic compound on this planet is phosphorescent is the detail that made me realize that bacteria in the compost pile were concentrating it. And being precise meant that I could splice those genes into fungi when I was younger, instead of wasting all my time on boring practice splices. And that’s what made it possible to engineer mice that would concentrate phosfoz in their fur and nails instead of their other organs, which is what taught us how to do the same with goats so that now they don’t get sick.”
Ya’kinem gives an exaggerated yawn. “Or I could let you worry about all that because…oh wait…you already did. Like I said, your presentation is going to be fine. You’ve got this.”
“You really think so?”
He grins wickedly. “As long as you don’t get tongue-tied every time your coauthor’s name comes up. Oooooh, Nareeeeeeeeen…”
I rub my beard-roughened cheek, feeling the rising heat. “We’re just colleagues,” I protest. “We had to work together; they’re her family’s goats. Improving them is the whole reason they apprenticed her with us in the first place.”
Ya’kinem snickers. I retaliate with a brotherly knuckle rub to the scalp until he squirms away, laughing.
“You’re just colleagues for now.” He waggles his eyebrows.
“Oh, would you look at that.” I nod to the wooden platform that branches off from the stairs at our feet. “We’re almost home.”
I shoo him across the platform and toward the deep ledge in the red and gold rock that forms the entrance to our family’s caves. On normal days, the ledge would be filled with zomen talking with visitors or conducting business, but today there’s only one elderly man sitting and watching the entrance while U’kylay clings to his arm. The child joins us as we enter the main antechamber and turn into the children’s common room, where my presentation materials are stored on an upper shelf. I gather them up, pausing to take a last look around. I’d thought I’d feel only joy to leave these rooms behind, but now the cheerful carvings on the stone walls make a lump rise in my throat. The sun shines comfortingly through windows high in the wall where the rock has been carved translucently thin, glowing golden with accents of orange and white and red. Other windows stand open, letting in the breeze. The common room for adults on the other side of the antechamber is even finer, but it’s not home in the same way.
Ya’kinem seems to absorb the solemnity of the moment. Quietly, he comes to stand next to me and offers to take part of my bundle. Having the strength to carry large loads is such a key marker of manliness that giving him a portion of my burden, especially materials for my manhood presentation, feels intimate. I want to hug him like we used to do when he was younger, when he would run up and throw his arms around me with so much enthusiasm that I’d have to brace myself not to be knocked over. We’re too old for that now, though, so I just hand him my box of specimens with a grateful smile.
On our way out the door, he looks around. “Where’s U’kylay?”
I cock my head, listening, then bite back a curse. Now of all times for the child to sneak off.
“You search the common areas, and I’ll search the sleeping areas. Message me if you have any luck.” As we tuck my materials back inside the door, I waggle my synthaglove, then reach over to feel its battery monitor. Unfolding the crank, I start winding the battery back toward full charge while we split up to search.
The family cave system is not that large. Our family may be a branch of a wealthy clan, but carving enough chambers into solid rock to house an eventual hundred and fifty people is not cheap. The sleeping chambers are communal and quick to search, but fruitless.
As I hurry down the stairs to the dining and bathing areas, voices and clattering at the entrance announce the arrival of the other members of our family who will present today. I hesitate. More people searching would get us out of here faster, but it would shame Ya’kinem to have lost his charge.
I tiptoe downstairs. The kitchen and dining areas on the middle floor are likewise empty, as are the bathing areas on the lowest. Emerging back up into the dining room, I meet Ya’kinem coming down from above. The dim light filtering through the windows highlights every crease of his frown.
“I asked at the entrance,” he murmurs in a low voice. “U’kylay hasn’t left the cave, at least.”
I scratch my beard. Together, we contemplate the one place we haven’t searched: the lightless tunnel where the zomen who rule the family have their private areas. I’m almost certain none of them would be home right now.
A soft giggle gives away our quarry. I listen at the first curtained doorway, then cautiously push the draped fabric aside. The luminescent outline of a child’s festival clothing is bouncing up and down on the cushion seat behind Marin-lun’s low desk. Behind me, Ya’kinem inhales sharply.
“U’kylay!” I hiss. “Get out of there! We don’t have time for this.”
The bouncing stills, and the arms of the outfit cross belligerently. “No.”
How did U’kylay’s clothing end up covered in luminescent paint? We don’t even have any. That I know about, at least. Goddess, that had better not get on Marin-lun’s cushions.
“Only zomen are allowed in here!”
“I’m going to be a zoman, after…after puberty and—and men…men uh…men-uh-pause. I belong here!”
“Yesterday’s lesson from Teacher was on the four genders and their responsibilities,” Ya’kinem whispers in my ear. “U’kylay’s been going on and on about eventually becoming a woman and then a zoman and then getting to tell everyone else what to do.”
I cover my face with my hand. “That’s not what ‘a zoman has the right and duty to guide the family they gave life to’ means.”
“I want a gender!” U’kylay whines. “Everyone else has one. I don’t want to be just ‘en’ anymore!”
“You do have a gender,” I tell the child. Children may be hairless, immature, and unable to reproduce, but they still count as the fourth gender. “And ‘en’ is a perfectly respectable pronoun.”
“I want a real gender!”
“When you’re older,” my brother soothes. “At puberty. You’ll grow, and your hormones will change, and your brain will change, and your menstrual cycle will start, and you’ll get your adult pronouns. You just have to be patient.”
Truculent silence greets this statement.
I run a hand through my hair. “Come out, U’kylay. You’re not a zoman, yet. You’re not even a woman.”
“You’re not even a full man. So there.”
“I am, too—” I snap my teeth shut. Almost. All I need to do is get back up there and present to the community, and I’ll be done.
“Here,” my brother says in a low voice. “I’ll handle this. You go catch up with the rest of the family.”
I squeeze his shoulder in thanks and hurry up the stairs.
I’m too late. By the time I collect my materials and emerge blinking into the sunlight at the cave entrance, my family is nowhere in sight. Even the man who was watching the entrance has gone inside, leaving me alone among the lacework of wooden walkways and stairs.
Should I wait for Ya’kinem? The time tingling against my hand decides me, and I lug the boxes along the walkway. Marin-lun will never know that I was wandering around unchaperoned. It’s a ridiculous expectation, anyway.
I struggle up the stairs, almost bumping into a tall man. He steps aside with an apologetic murmur and edges past me as I rest my load on the railing. The sun has barely risen, but already sweat is trickling down my back. I turn to call after him, but his quick footfalls are already retreating into the distance.
“Need a ride?” a lazy voice asks.
Ahead of me, the stairs broaden into a landing next to the wooden tracks that run straight up the cliff. A mechanical lift is parked there, its upper deck crowded with boxes and struts for booths, and a well-dressed woman lounges against a control panel watching me. She’s maybe half a head shorter than I am, built of sculpted muscle that she shows off as she pushes herself upright and strides across the deck. She pulls the gate of the lift open and steps aside, her posture an invitation. A peppery, floral scent wafts from her. I recognize it—her family head comes by to consult my grandmother often enough—but the woman herself is unfamiliar.
I hesitate, and she makes a little beckoning motion. I shouldn’t be getting into a lift with a woman I don’t know, but the lift has an open deck, and we’re in full view of everyone on the cliff face. A burst of masculine laughter rises from the lower deck, and the whole thing rocks slightly. Her family’s men must be on the other side, loading the lower deck. I should be fine. And I need to hurry.
“Yes, thank you,” I tell her, juggling my materials as I navigate the gap from the stairs to the deck. Our families are well acquainted, at least. A call from below announces that the men are onboard and ready to push the winch that powers the lift.
A heavy-lidded smile broadens her lightly tanned face as she secures the gate behind me.
“Would you like me to help below deck?” I offer.
“No need.” She indicates a gap in the pile of boxes where I might stand. I arrange my belongings and tuck myself into the nook as she secures a few bundles more tightly, then squeezes past me to release the anchoring clamps. Her arm brushes against my chest, and I press back as far as I can into the boxes that are roped down behind me.
As she returns to the control panel, she brushes against me again more firmly. I plaster myself against the sharp corners of the boxes at my back. The aisle between me and the next pile of struts is narrow, but not that narrow. Surely I left enough space?
The lift shudders into motion, and she turns back to me, settling once more into a languid pose. “You wanted a ride?” She packs innuendo into the last word as she looks me over, her gaze lingering at my groin where my too-tight pants are designed to create an artificial bulge. My breath catches.
Shit. I knew not to do this.
She advances on me and draws a finger down my chest, flicking one of the bells attached to my festival clothing. I try to nudge her hand aside, but she entwines her fingers in mine.
“What’s a handsome man like you doing out all alone today, hmm?” Her other hand takes over, tracing a path down my chest until she nears the laces at my waist. I recoil as far as I can, but my pants’ fashionable tailoring refuses to signal that I am the opposite of interested. She smiles lazily.
Excuses die in my throat. We’re in full view of everyone on the cliff and just above her family. If I struggle, if I make a scene, everyone will look, and they won’t blame her. Everyone knows men are always panting for sex, and no one expects a woman to resist temptation all the time. A respectable man makes sure not to do anything, like having an erection or getting into a lift alone with a strange woman, that could be construed as an offer. I imagine my grandmother’s reaction when she finds out that I was seen unchaperoned and being pawed over before the festival is even fully started. Breath going shallow, I clutch at the cargo behind me. Shit. A rope digs into my palm.
She steps back just enough to run lingering eyes up and down my body. Her smile widens.
My synthaglove buzzes. A message taps itself against the back of my hand. Where are you? It’s from Nareen.
Lifts. Help. Without taking my eyes off the woman in front of me, I form the commands for the message, then freeze. What will Nareen think?
The woman leans in and murmurs in my ear. “Too bad it’s such a short trip up the cliff. Maybe next time.” She tweaks my nipple.
I gasp, but she’s stepping away, attention already turning to the controls. As soon as the lift stops, I grab my boxes and tumble out of the gate, shaking and nearly crashing into Nareen. Her firm grip steadies me.
“Are you all right?” She frowns, eyes searching my face. Without letting go of my arm, she shifts to give the woman in the lift a narrow-eyed look.
Words stick in my throat. The lift operator’s bland gaze crosses mine. I can imagine what comes next: Nareen’s face flushing with outraged protectiveness, her immediate confrontation, the attention it would draw. I swallow. She can’t protect me from the gossip that would result. Or from the judgment of our settlement’s elders.
“I’m—I’m fine.” My words come out broken by a little gasp.
The lift operator’s lips twitch in a tiny smirk. I turn away, bile rising in my throat.
With a final suspicious look, Nareen steers me away from the cliff edge, hand steadying my elbow. “What happened?” she asks when we’re out of earshot. “Jamerol’s not the type I’d trust around men.”
“Nothing.” The word comes out too quickly, and I grimace. Nareen’s too loyal to let go if she thinks someone she cares about might need protection. “I just—I’m just nervous about the presentation.” The lie tastes like ashes in my mouth.
I make myself nod. That’s all it is. Nothing else happened. I force my trembling to subside.
Nareen presses gently on my back, guiding me and my load of boxes through the maze of stone buildings between the cliff’s edge and the fairground. “Do you want to talk about it?”
No. But there’s still a line creasing her forehead. “It’s nothing,” I repeat. “It’s just… I need everything to go right. My grandmother—your family head—I can’t afford any embarrassments.” Can she hear the apology in my voice? I need this to go away. On any other day, I’d tell her. “It’s rare enough that a man who has just debuted gets picked for a pledge. Everything needs to be perfect.”
She nods slowly, and I let out a breath. I feel for one of the shallow stone stairs with my foot and take a firmer hold on the boxes I’m carrying. Their weight reminds me of their contents: weightlifting and speed cleaning trophies, testimonials about how well I take care of children, worker-of-the-month certificate from the compost piles, a scale model of the lab extension I helped build, my prize for winning the 100% recycling challenge—all the accomplishments that show I deserve manhood. That’s what this day is really about: presenting what I can do for the community. I can do this.
Nareen runs her teeth along her lower lip. “Perfect, yes.”
Something in her tone makes me glance over at her. She catches my look and shakes her head. “It’ll be fine,” she says.
“What will be fine?”
She hesitates. “You’ve been working so hard on getting your presentation together, I wasn’t going to say anything.”
My arms prickle even in the growing heat. “Say anything about what?”
For a moment, I think she’s not going to answer, but finally she swallows. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to boast to everyone that you gave birth to a new scientific discovery?”
I stop dead in the middle of the street. Everything I’m carrying is a sideshow compared to my real work.
“What are you saying?” The words come out sharp.
“Nothing,” she says quickly. “You just—you were talking about how important it is that your presentation is perfect. You don’t want people to think you’re exaggerating.”
My breath hisses out between my teeth. “I’m not exaggerating!”
“I know, I know.” She makes a soothing gesture with her hands. “I was there, remember? I know. But other people? Think about it. People are astonished that I pulled it off by twenty-two, and you’re only nineteen. You know what they say: The more a man puffs, the less there is to him.”
“I would never—” I know as well as she does that exaggeration spoils a man’s attractiveness. “I’m presenting what I did. I discovered the gene. I did all the trial and error to figure out how to splice it in. I know the discovery wasn’t entirely mine, and I was careful to give you credit, but the part I’m presenting is the part I did genuinely discover!” How could she think I would—
“I know. I wouldn’t have said anything. It’s just that my family head is being ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous?” My voice sounds flat to my ears.
“The alliances. Ever since they decided our family should make a serious bid for the council seat that’s coming open, they’ve been renegotiating almost all of them.”
My breath goes shallow. “Not the one with my family, surely.” They can’t be. Not when I have so much riding on it.
She says nothing for a long moment. “Not the major points, but which man from your family will be sent to guarantee the pledge was never officially decided. Orzea-lun could ask for anyone.”
Breathe. “You’ve been asking for me, though.” I fight down the rise in my voice. My family head is supposed to promise Nareen’s family support as they establish her new lab. Whoever gets sent to guarantee it won’t just be symbolically sealing the deal, he’ll be her assistant for the foreseeable future. Orzea-lun and Marin-lun are only altering our families’ alliance now because of Nareen’s transition to full womanhood. It could be years before they feel the need to change anything again.
“I’ve been asking, that doesn’t mean they’ll do it.”
I’m not going to hyperventilate. I’m not. The boxes shift in my suddenly sweaty palms.
“You think—” I can’t say the words.
She shrugs. “I don’t know. The thing is, giving life to a new idea yourself instead of just assisting with it…it’s one of the most feminine things you can do. Normally, it wouldn’t do more than raise a few eyebrows, but it’s not just my family head. Your grandmother is the one who ultimately decides if you’re available for pledging at all. And weren’t you complaining to me last week that they’ve been ridiculous lately about ‘how men are supposed to behave’? Is it worth the risk? You have so many other accomplishments.”
I pace forward, unable to stand still. “None of those come anywhere even close to this discovery.” I thought you admired what I could do. “Besides, why did Grandmother delay my presentation if not so I could present this?” Women get longer to debut, but almost all men do so by seventeen. My brother somehow finagled sixteen. I’ve had to grit my teeth until nineteen, pretending not to hear the increasingly snide speculation about what’s wrong with me.
She opens her mouth, then closes it again. “Are you sure that’s why Marin-lun did it?” she asks softly.
A chill of doubt creeps up my spine. “Of—of course.” This is the day that was supposed to vindicate me, to show all of them that the reason that I took longer was because I was doing extraordinary work. Marin-lun’s voice echoes back to me. Make your family proud.
Nareen says nothing.
“Grandmother ought to be happy to have me present something like this,” I say. “Isn’t this one of the ways we’re better than the Wanderers?” Marin-lun has been insistent on showing them up ever since they moved their settlement here. “They’re so sexist that they don’t allow men to fly pteradons at all. We’re better than that. Here, men can follow their talents.”
She raises one shoulder. “There’s a difference between what’s okay to do and what’s attractive to boast about. Family heads want men who will be helpful and supportive, not ones whose egos will be difficult to manage.”
Every word strikes me like a blow. “This is my proudest accomplishment.” I scrabble for my mental footing as everything I thought was true dissolves under me. “I’m not going to just not mention it.”
“No, no.” She waves the thought away. “I’m not saying you need to take it out entirely, just make it more…you know, helpful.”
My carefully prepared materials feel like they’ve doubled in weight.
“It’s not fair, I know,” Nareen presses, “but I also know how much you’ve had your heart set on the alliances turning out the way we wanted.” She glances away. “How much we both have.”
I barely manage to swallow past the tightness in my throat. I’d thought the future was certain. Nareen would debut and return to her family to head a new lab, and my family would send me as a guarantee of our ongoing support and the closeness between our families. Surely—surely that’s still what’s going to happen.
“What if I just read over what you’re going to say,” she coaxes. “Suggest some edits if it seems like something might not work. You can decide later.” Her voice lowers to a whisper as we come within earshot of my family. “I’ll have time while you’re busy with the opening dance.”
Centimeter by painful centimeter, my fingers curl into the command that sends my presentation from my ’glove to hers. She gives a tiny wave of farewell and strides off, ’glove already twitching.
At the pile of unassembled booths, I finally deposit my boxes and scrub my hands over my face. My newly grown beard scratches against my palm. I’m not sure I can even force food down right now. The dance. Just focus on getting through the dance.