Chapter 2

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The children sat and stared at a square board filled with sand. All except for Ivory. She lay on the ground with her right leg propped across her left knee. Whistling, she looked up at the sky—smooth and sunless as always, but full of light.

The music from her lips faltered. She sucked in a breath. "Slate?"

Her brother, who was in the process of placing a flattened marble on the board, paused.

"Aw, can't you let him finish his turn?" Wan frowned.

Ivory flopped to her side and rested a cheek on her fist. She wrinkled her nose. "This game is dull. I have a question."

Grinning, Slate flipped the marble between his fingers. "Go on."

"Unlike other worlds we learned about at Lessons, Aboreal doesn't orbit a sun. How do we know my eighth year of life has started?"

"Because of the letter Father received from the government. It states your name and year."

"But how do they know? Couldn't they have mixed me up with another Ivory of Aboreal? It's a common name."

Slate lowered his gaze to the board. Coarse, white sand wafted in streams across the marbles. He'd never questioned the system. He'd done as he'd been told, with no reason to doubt orders from his parents or the Aborealian leaders. Until now.

He lifted his head to find three pairs of eyes staring at him, expecting answers. He worked his jaw before forcing words of truth through his lips. "I don't know."

*

"Children." Coal approached with Pearl at his side. Smiles lit their faces. "We're ready to begin."

Coal brushed aside the dark locks that fell across his shoulders, pulled a band of cloth from his arm and unraveled its folds, revealing a long white sash. He held it out to Slate who, after a sideways glance at his sister, knotted one end of the sash around his wrist. Wan followed, attaching himself to the cloth before holding it out to Ebony.

Mimicking her brothers' serious expressions, Ebony lifted her chin at Ivory and repeated the task with the importance of one who has navigated an extra year of life.

Ivory laughed and held out her hands. To mark Ebony's ninth year of life, their family had practiced the same ceremony with a black sash. The dark cloth cast a stripe in the scarlet linen of Pearl's left sleeve, where it would remain until needed again.

The present moment belonged to Ivory.

Raising her voice slightly, Pearl intoned Ivory's name, together with words of thankfulness and life. As she did this, Coal tied the remaining cloth around Ivory's right wrist, and pressed her left hand into Slate's.

The children danced in a circle and joined their mother's song. The Aborealian song of life was a type of ceremonial chant, rather than the melodious "Happy Birthday" known to those of Earth. Had Ivory been born of Earth, the celebratory song would have been sung one time through. Her family sang eight times, once for each of her years of life.

Ivory stood breathless as the singing and dancing came to an end. After the children had untied themselves, Coal gathered the cloth and folded it several times. Kneeling before Ivory, he placed the sash around her eyes.

Coal lifted his fingers to his lips and nodded. He hummed the cadence of the chant as he led his family across the grass to where he'd parked Ivory's gift.

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