Prologue: The Embraced

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Fier watched his father's gold eyes dart between the slow-moving ohm. He himself couldn't quite look at the things; ten years ago, an ohm had absorbed his mother, and the massive greatshell abominations had haunted his dreams ever since.

But he had to be here today, because that long wait would be over. His mother was coming back.

"You're sure it'll be here?" said his elder sister, Adhi, from the other side of their father. She was using her imperious voice, which, more and more, was the only one she ever used. At age sixteen, Fier already understood that she deserved this; he was only a rhat, the lowest class of the low. Adhi was saran, the low-middle class, and she had once been their family's only hope for redemption—even if she was just one year older.

But now that his mother was coming back, the once-glorious Baadal family would have another way out of their shame.

"The ohm will be here," their father said, his dark hands in eager fists as he turned constantly, glancing from one ohm to the next and back again. "Eight years and eight days and eight hours. You can always count on the ohm."

Adhi rolled her silver eyes. "It's hard to believe an ohm can eternally travel at the same exact rate. It's just a dumb animal–"

"Where is the archaia?" Fier said, turning away from the long track of towering ohm to stare out across the vast outer mantle of the Shell. This part of the planet belonged to the ohm and no one else; desolate and windless and made mostly of rough white marble, it gave him the shivers. It was like standing on the bleached skull of a god, and without a tether on his ankle, he was afraid that he might fly up into the deep blue space overhead. It should have been nice, to walk without a tether, to see the sky and not the Singularity overhead... but his mother used to tell him that Difference is hardest. It applied to surroundings as well as to people.

Adhi waved a hand. "Who knows? It's not like the archon actually care about us. Mom may have been the first to offer herself for a Tenure, but she is still a Baadal'rhat. The archon can't appear too eager to elevate the family of one of their Fallen."

"But that's why she did it," Fier said, clenching his fists. "When she gets out, we'll be saran."

"If she even wants to leave,"Adhi said.

Fier turned away from his sister, gritting his teeth. With his right hand he gripped his tattooed left arm. The white markings were hidden under his sackcloth tunic, but he could feel them, every line and curve set into his midnight skin. In his mind's eye, he could see the meanings of each tattooed line. The legacy that his mother had left him. The legacy that would live on, today.

The plucking strand of a sitar blew across the plains, and he turned. An entourage of devas were rising from the closest elevator line, a round hole in the ground with a metal sphere affixed to tracks on each side. Of course they would come through an elevator line. In a sphere, it was much easier to become acclimated to the changing poles of gravity. He and his family had had to use a paired stairwell, where the ceiling and floor both functioned as stairs. A bruise still pulsed on his forehead from the ascent; he'd hit his head when the ground started pushing up, instead of pulling down.

The devas spread out on an even line, silent and smiling and astoundingly beautiful—as all of the upperclass were, whenever one of the archon was around. He could see the amalgam of almost universal gold and silver eyes from here—one pair of blue eyes startled him, but he realized they didn't belong to a deva, but to a brahman, one of the servant class. Even that was surprising, however; Fier had blue eyes as well, rhat eyes. The woman must have climbed the ranks well, to be in this place with her master.

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