Home > Secondborn (Secondborn #1)

Secondborn (Secondborn #1)
Author: Amy A. Bartol

Prologue

It’s agony and relief to watch my life end.

I’m not dying, though my heart aches as if it might. Blood pounds drumbeats through my veins. My temples throb while my mother takes the podium. Spotlights shine on us, burning away the gloom of predawn light. Pausing like a seasoned conductor before an orchestra, Mother waits for the applause to die down. She’s the consummate politician, serene before the gathered crowd in the courtyard. She surveys the cameras before her, knowing the effect her stoicism has on the citizens assembled beneath the grand balcony of the Palace of the Sword. Their hearts break for her—for a mother’s sacrifice. These are her supporters, handpicked to be here, to witness history.

The cool morning air teases a wisp of silky brown hair from the elegant knot at her nape. Navy-colored banners twist in the wind, images of golden swords flapping behind her in the breeze. She holds back a smile.

“Citizens of Swords and all of the Fates,” she begins. Her melodic voice amplifies over the grounds of her estate, the sound of it falling from the balcony like a stone, crushing the crowd below into silence. “Today, our very way of life is threatened, not only from outside the Fates of the Republic, but also from within. The destiny of our once-great nation lies in the palms of our hands, and never more than today—Transition Day.”

I’m unable to suppress a shudder. Transition Day. I’ve heard the words often over the eighteen years of my life. It’s the stuff of nightmares, what people say when they want to scare you: one day soon you’ll become a stranger to the people you love. A picture in a frame. I’ve always known today would come. I thought I’d be ready for it. I’m not.

Fine beads of sweat form on the back of my neck. I clutch my hands behind me so no one can see them tremble. My long brown hair blows in the wind.

“At no other time in our history has the draft been more vital,” Mother says. “We are embroiled in a fight to the death—a bloody civil war, brought on by the lawlessness of Fate traitors who would violate our very right to exist. We, the firstborns, must rule. It is our birthright to sacrifice our own for the protection of the Fates. It is an honor for secondborns to serve as champions in this proud tradition—to give their lives to their Fate and to the call of service.”

Her arm sweeps in my direction. Every eye in the crowd shifts to me. Enormous virtual monitors project my image. I’m larger than life on the screens. I have to fight to maintain a serene expression. The cameras see everything, and my performance will be critiqued later. Loyalty to the Fates above all else.

Tiny brown holographic swords project from the lapel of my new, dirt-colored uniform. Tropo. I try not to wince. The emblem denotes the lowest secondborn rank in the military, the mark of the infantry—the expendables. My throat constricts. I swallow hard, attempting to clear it. Dune’s tall frame beside me is comforting. That my mentor, the Captain of the Guard, insisted on being here for the announcement means more to me than I can say. He cares about what happens to me, maybe more than my own family does.

The holographic swords on Dune’s lapels flicker in my peripheral vision. It had always been my hope that when I reached my Transition Day, I’d wear silver swords like Dune, even though I’m not firstborn. I’d guard a Clarity—a leader of one of the nine Fates of the Republic—protecting her from threats to her life. A leader like my mother, Othala St. Sismode, Clarity of the Fate of Swords. As commander of the military, she is one of the most powerful Clarities, second only to the Supreme Leader, the Clarity of the Fate of Virtues himself. If she had granted me the rank of Iono, made me an officer in her personal guard, I could have proved my worth to her. I could have stayed with my family and Dune. I could have protected them.

But she didn’t.

Now I know that it was only a fantasy. I’ll never be one of them. I’ll always be just a secondborn, a shadow, soon to fade from their lives.

Mother’s lips are a delicate pink in the frosty air. She lowers her voice. “I’m not immune to your suffering,” she resumes. “I have not placed my needs as a mother above those of the citizens of this embattled nation. No. I accept the sacrifice that we all make as just and necessary to our survival. Today, I give over to our cause my only daughter, Roselle. My heart. My life. My secondborn.”

Tears wet the faces of the spectators. They believe that they know me well. I’ve grown up in front of their eyes—in front of the cameras. They watched me take my first toddling steps, say my first words, lose my first fight, win my second one, and train rigorously with Dune in order to one day defend the Fates of the Republic from all threats to their sovereignty.

Mother’s eyes remain dry. “Roselle may be young,” she continues, “but you have witnessed her evolve into a soldier. She’s ready to do her duty—to join the ranks of Swords who now fight to strike the Gates of Dawn rebels from our land, from our world, and from our minds forever.” The roar of applause is deafening. Mother bites the inside of her cheek. “It is a sad day for me and for my family, but we will endure the Transition. We will flourish in the knowledge that another St. Sismode will be protecting us.”

She turns to me and joins the crowd in its applause. I don’t move. I don’t acknowledge them in any way. I’m like the banners waving behind us, a symbol, blown by forces over which I have no control.

Mother leans into the microphones. “It is my wish to have a few final moments alone with my daughter. You can follow Roselle’s journey to Transition as she leaves the estate today. Thank you for your support. Long live the Fates!”

“Long live the Fates!” Chanting begins in earnest as my indomitable mother steps away from the podium. She squares her small shoulders and breezes past without looking at me.

Chapter 1

Crown of Swords

I trail my mother, her personal assistant, and four public relations specialists as they retreat toward the beveled-glass doors of the St. Sismode Palace. Clara, the newest PR assistant, hands Othala a glass of water, waits for her to sip it, and takes it back from her. Fumbling, she spills some on herself. Clara’s sparkling moniker, the holographic symbol that projects up from the back of her hand, shines like crystal as she dabs at the water droplets with a lacy handkerchief.

She’s a Diamond, I think. She won’t last long here among the Sword aristocracy. I feel a twinge of pity. It’s not as if Clara ever had a choice. She’s secondborn. She was placed in this den of lions, and if she fails, it will be a long fall. Females who don’t make it in their secondborn Transition positions usually end up in the entertainment sector. I shudder. She’ll probably become a plaything for some firstborn officer. Clara teeters on her elegant high heels and tries to keep up with my mother’s rapid pace.

As we enter the mansion, my eyes are drawn to the stone pediment above the doors. I wonder if Clara even notices the ancient warriors carved above the frieze, or that our name, St. Sismode, is etched upon the swords of the soldiers. Does she realize that a St. Sismode has been the Clarity of the Fate of Swords since anyone can remember?

“Let them try to criticize me for the draft now!” Mother says. She paces over the midnight-blue carpet embellished with a golden fusionblade called a St. Sismode sword, after our ancestor who designed it. Pausing on the point of the carpet’s wooly blade, she hugs herself in victory. “No Clarity of any Fate has ever given more than I have!” She turns to Emmitt Stone, her personal assistant. He’s glowing with pride.

“Your Fate loves you!” Emmitt gushes, adding flamboyant applause. “All of the nine Fates love you!”

“They do, don’t they?” Othala smooths her hair back, losing herself in the moment. If she were a cat, she would purr.

Dune growls low. “You don’t have to do this,” he says bitterly. “Roselle’s still too young. She’s not ready for war!”

Othala sobers. She narrows her eyes at her assembled staff. “Leave us.” Clara and Emmitt nearly bump into each other in their hurry to the door. I turn to follow them out.

“Stay, Roselle,” Dune commands.

I hesitate, looking to Mother for confirmation. She remains silent until the others have left, closing the bronze doors behind them, then whirls to face Dune. “It’s done,” she says, sneering.

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