Home > Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(10)

Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(10)
Author: Amy A. Bartol

“I wouldn’t waste merits on him,” I whisper back.

His eyebrow arches, and he’s about to whisper something else when one of the soldiers at the gate focuses his attention on me. His voice surrounds us. “Scan your moniker for processing.”

I hold up the back of my hand. There’s no obvious glow, just the rose-colored crown-shaped birthmark upon my skin. “It was damaged in the attack this morning. It seems to have shorted out.”

“Scan your moniker for processing or you will be tranquilized.”

I follow his orders. No image of me projects from the podium when my hand is scanned. The soldier who spoke points to another who holds a tranquilizer gun at the ready. My heart accelerates. Hawthorne’s brow furrows. “This is Roselle St. Sismode,” he calls out. “You only need to look at her to know that.”

“She could be—or she could be a surgically enhanced spy made to look like Secondborn St. Sismode.” The soldier spits on the ground.

Hawthorne gestures toward me. “You’ve probably seen her at least a thousand times! Just process her and give her a new moniker!”

“I’ve seen her more times than I’ve taken a shit, but so have our enemies. She can’t be processed without scanning her moniker. If she needs a new moniker, she can’t get it from us. She’s Census’s problem now.”

The very mention of Census sends raging fear through my blood. Hawthorne moves from the podium to block me from the soldier’s view. I’m not one to hide, so I move around him to stand next to him. He frowns and faces the gate. “Can’t we just handle this internally without Census? This is a secondborn.”

An impeccably dressed man emerges from behind the soldiers. His attire would make him the envy of even the best-dressed firstborn in Gabriel’s circle. A long black leather coat—tailored to show off his impressive physique—touches the calves of his high-polished black leather boots. His white dress shirt has the sheen of silk, and his black trousers have the same well-tailored lines as his coat.

But it’s the tattoos near his eyes that give me pause. Thin, black lines are permanently etched from the outside edges of his eyes, curving to his temples. They make him look catlike and lethal. I know what the razor-thin lines mean. Each line denotes a hunt and kill. This Census agent has successfully tracked and executed at least fifty people—probably thirdborns and their abettors.

“Whom do we have at our gates?” the agent asks, his hands behind his back. He strolls through the golden archway, chuckling. “Can it be the legendary Roselle St. Sismode? Why, my dear girl, what brings you to our lair? Why have they banished you to this hellish existence? Surely they could’ve given you a much more suitable position, considering your bloodline.” He stops in front of me and grins like a deranged harlequin.

He’s genuinely handsome, like some ancient king. In his midtwenties, he’s as tall and graceful as a Diamond ad model. His high brows and sharp jaw are appealing, but it’s his smile where things start to go wrong. His four top front teeth have been replaced with steel. So have most of his bottom teeth. I’m having a hard time not reacting to the utterly creepy look he’s giving me.

I knew Census had field agents among the Swords—among all the fatedoms. I just never thought I’d meet one. It hadn’t occurred to me that my moniker would ever fail—that my identity would ever be in question.

The agent’s mood shifts from baiting to thoughtful. “Unless”—he keeps one hand behind his back, the other smoothing back his slick blond hair—“you’re not Roselle St. Sismode. Are you the secondborn Sword—the biggest loser in all of the Fate of Swords?”

I just stare at him, absorbing his insult. He wants me to rush into some explanation—fall over myself in desperation to identify myself. I smile, even though panic is just beneath the surface, but I say nothing.

Hawthorne clears his throat. “This is Rose—”

“Quiet, you!” The agent doesn’t look away from me as he growls, “You have no idea who or what this is. You picked her up on the battlefield, did you not?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“Let’s not assume anything, shall we?” the agent barks. “Now, let’s take this slow.” The agent bends forward at his waist so that I can feel his breath on my cheek as he stares into my eyes. “Who. Are. You?”

“Roselle—”

The Census agent shoots me. I choke on pain as the steel dart cracks through my breastplate and spews venom into me. The cartridge sticks out from my chest just above my heart. He fired point-blank. I didn’t even see the gun he drew from behind his back until it was too late.

The agent grins at the sounds I make as I writhe in agony. I can see my reflection in his steel teeth. His hand goes to my shoulder to steady me. He touches my hair. “Don’t talk. Just panic.” He breathes the words near my ear as he embraces me.

My hands reach out for his waist. He thinks I’m holding myself up, but I unfasten his leather belt and slip it from his pants. In one swift motion, I have the strap wrapped around his neck and ratcheted in a noose. The leather cuts into his throat. I use all my strength to pull on it. His eyes bulge and widen. The strength of my grip slackens and I falter. Dizziness upturns me. I drop to my knees, still holding the strap. The agent drops to his knees as well, coughing and wheezing as he loosens the noose.

Soldiers yell and run toward us. The next thing I know I’m on the ground, staring up at the overcast sky. The agent waves away Hawthorne and the other soldiers. They retreat, restraining Hawthorne. On his knees beside me, the agent smiles again. A tear slips over the inky lines near one sapphire-colored eye. “You’re mine now,” he whispers in my ear, scooping me up. The steel dart is still embedded over my heart. My head bobs, and I view the world from upside down as he carries me across the golden threshold into the forest of nightmares.

Chapter 6

In Census

The room is small, rectangular, and unfamiliar—dank—a cell, not a room. The only appointments in it are a small toilet in the corner and a steel sink. A steel door is across from me. I have a strange, tinny taste in my mouth. My back aches. I shift and groan from the cold and lack of movement that have made my muscles stiff. I feel buried. I reach for my sword, but it’s gone—so is my uniform. I’m wearing a snug, midnight-blue long-sleeved shirt and loose, elastic-waisted trousers of the same color and coarse material. My feet are bare. I stretch my legs out from the fetal position. The ground is cold beneath me.

A long tube runs down my leg and out the loose pant leg at the bottom. It’s attached to a urine collection canister, nearly full. How long have I been here? I pull out the catheter tube and shove it aside. Beneath the sleeve of my right arm is an intravenous device that could be feeding me drugs or hydrating me. I don’t know which, but I want it out. I tug, and it stings as I extract it. My stomach growls and feels as if it’s gnawing away at itself. I’ve never felt this kind of hunger before.

I shove myself up to my feet. Stretching my arms, I wince. My fingers brush the area where I was shot by the dart. It’s sore. Lifting my shirt, I investigate a massive bruise above my heart, black and ugly but turning yellow—it’s not fresh. How long was I unconscious?

I move to a moniker identification scanner on a panel beside the door. I glance at my hand. My moniker is still dead. I try to scan it anyway, feeling claustrophobic and desperate to get out. The blue laser runs over it. The door doesn’t budge. I bang on it and yell for help until I’m hoarse, but no one comes.

The cold floor is brutal against my bare feet. I’m shivering. Crossing my arms, I tuck my hands in the crook of my armpits while jumping up and down. For a while, I pace the dingy cell, lunging with an imaginary sword. When I’m tired, I curl into a ball. Waiting. Occasionally, the sounds of feet outside the door make me brace myself, but each time, they keep going. I fall back to sleep at some point, and when I wake again, I’m not alone. My skin prickles.

“I was just wondering what it is you dream about,” says the raspy voice of the Census agent. “Puppies?” He sits in a metal chair, uncrosses his long legs, and leans forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. The collar of his exquisite white shirt is unbuttoned. Red, angry abrasions stand out on his throat. His steely smile is meant to intimidate, and it works.

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