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Today is the Ritual of Purity.

The thought nervously circles in my head as I hurry toward the barn, gathering my cloak to ward off the cold. It’s early morning, and the sun hasn’t yet begun its climb above the snow-dusted trees encircling our small farmhouse. Shadows gather in the darkness, crowding the weak pool of light cast by my lamp. An ominous tingling builds under my skin. It’s almost as if there’s something there, at the edge of my vision… .

It’s just nerves, I tell myself. I’ve felt the tingling many times before and never once seen anything strange.

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The barn door is open when I arrive, a lantern hung at the post. Father is already inside, spreading hay. He’s a frail figure in the darkness, his tall body sunken into itself. Just three months ago, he was hearty and robust, his blond hair untouched by gray. Then the red pox came, sickening him and Mother. Now he’s stooped and faded, with the rheumy eyes and wispy hair of someone decades older.

“You’re already awake,” he says softly, gray eyes flitting over me.

“I couldn’t sleep any longer,” I reply, grabbing a milk pail and heading toward Norla, our largest cow.

I’m supposed to be resting in isolation, like all the other girls preparing for the Ritual, but there’s too much work to do around the farm and not enough hands. There hasn’t been since Mother died three months ago. The thought brings tears to my eyes, and I blink them away.

Father forks more hay into the stalls. “ ‘Blessings to he who waketh to witness the glory of the Infinite Father,’ ” he grunts, quoting from the Infinite Wisdoms. “So, are you prepared for today?”

I nod. “Yes, I am.”

Later this afternoon, Elder Durkas will test me and all the other sixteen-year-old girls during the Ritual of Purity. Once we’re proven pure, we’ll officially belong here in the village. I’ll finally be a woman—eligible to marry, have a family of my own.

The thought sends another wave of anxiety across my mind.

I glance at Father from the corner of my eye. His body is tense; his movements are labored. He’s worried too. “I had a thought, Father,” I begin. “What if… what if…” I stop there, the unfinished question lingering heavily in the air. An unspeakable dread, unfurling in the gloom of the barn.

Father gives me what he thinks is a reassuring smile, but the edges of his mouth are tight. “What if what?” he asks. “You can tell me, Deka.”

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“What if my blood doesn’t run pure?” I whisper, the horrible words rushing out of me. “What if I’m taken away by the priests—banished?”

I have nightmares about it, terrors that merge with my other dreams, the ones where I’m in a dark ocean, Mother’s voice calling out to me.

“Is that what you’re worried about?”

I nod.

Even though it’s rare, everyone knows of someone’s sister or relative who was found to be impure. The last time it happened in Irfut was decades ago—to one of Father’s cousins. The villagers still whisper about the day she was dragged away by the priests, never to be seen again. Father’s family has been shadowed by it ever since.

That’s why they’re always acting so holy—always the first in temple, my aunts masked so even their mouths are hidden from view. The Infinite Wisdoms caution, “Only the impure, blaspheming, and unchaste woman remains revealed under the eyes of Oyomo,” but this warning refers to the top half of the face: forehead to the tip of the nose. My aunts, however, even have little squares of sheer cloth covering their eyes.

When Father returned from his army post with Mother at his side, the entire family disowned him immediately. It was too risky, accepting a woman of unknown purity, and a foreigner at that, into the family.

Then I came along—a child dark enough to be a full Southerner but with Father’s gray eyes, cleft chin, and softly curled hair to say otherwise.

I’ve been in Irfut my entire life, born and raised, and I’m still treated like a stranger—still stared and pointed at, still excluded. I wouldn’t even be allowed in the temple if some of Father’s relatives had their way. My face may be the spitting image of his, but that’s not enough. I need to be proven for the village to accept me, for Father’s family to accept us. Once my blood runs pure, I’ll finally belong.

Father walks over, smiles reassuringly at me. “Do you know what being pure means, Deka?” he asks.

I reply with a passage from the Infinite Wisdoms. “ ‘Blessed are the meek and subservient, the humble and true daughters of man, for they are unsullied in the face of the Infinite Father.’ ”

Every girl knows it by heart. We recite it whenever we enter a temple—a constant reminder that women were created to be helpmeets to men, subservient to their desires and commands.

“Are you humble and all the other things, Deka?” Father asks.

I nod. “I think so,” I say.

Uncertainty flickers in his eyes, but he smiles and kisses my forehead. “Then all will be well.”

He returns to his hay. I take my seat before Norla, that worry still niggling at me. After all, there are other ways I resemble Mother that Father does not know about—ways that would make the villagers despise me even more if they ever found out.

I have to make sure I keep them secret. The villagers must never find out.

Never.

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