Home > Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(5)

Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(5)
Author: Amy A. Bartol

Chapter 3

Fate Traitors

Dune ushers me to the waiting hovercar. Fine mist from the Warrior Fountain settles on my skin. Bronze statues tower fifty feet or more above our heads. I lift my eyes to their vicious-looking swords. Their snarls are ferocious even on the best of days, but this is the worst day of my life. In a daze, I duck my head and climb into the back of the driverless vehicle, a Vicolt. This model hasn’t been manufactured for hundreds of years. The rear of the hovercar is made of chrome and glass. It reminds me of an overturned fishbowl, and me, the beta fish on display.

Dune gets in beside me, his shoulder brushing mine. The doors seal shut, trapping us inside. I wring my hands and attempt to explain. “I wasn’t trying to kill him—I swear! Gabriel drew his sword and—”

“The Fate of Swords would be better off if you had killed him, Roselle.”

“What?” I was expecting reprisals, not disappointment.

“Smile, Roselle,” Dune orders. His tone snaps with anger. “Let them all know they can’t break you.” My lips move into a grin that’s mere muscle memory. I grip the rounded edge of the seat. It’s hard to breathe. Mother ordered them to kill me. I’m never coming home again. It takes every ounce of will to refrain from retching.

“Mother thinks I was going to murder Gabriel.”

“She doesn’t know you at all.”

“Will you tell her that I’m not a monster—that I’d never—”

The windscreen illuminates. It’s a heads-up display, literally; the image of a Palace guard’s head fills the screen. The female face merges with the landscape outside. She has gray eyes that match her Iono uniform. “We’re ready for departure, Patrøn,” she says, addressing Dune as a superior officer. “The route is programmed through the city of Forge and has not deviated from the plan we discussed.”

“Thank you, Seville,” Dune replies. He settles back in his seat.

“Is there anything you need before we begin?”

“No.” Dune glances at me. “Er, yes. Water.” Two pear-shaped glasses of ice water emerge from the console between us. “Thank you. We’re ready now.”

“Very well, Patrøn.” Seville’s image fades. The Vicolt glides forward, driven remotely by a team that has been practicing for this day for weeks. The stone façade of the Fate of Swords Palace fades as we move away. I lift my water to my mouth, drain it, and set the empty glass back in the console, where it descends out of sight.

The hovercar creeps along the fence and passes through the gate. Smiling well-wishers swarm us, anxious to get a good look at me. The long tails of their brightly colored woolen coats sway in the cold breeze. Stylish high collars protect them against the autumn chill. They touch the chrome veneer of the Vicolt and wave blood-red roses in adulation. The metal pavers of the road move the magnetized hovercar forward. Because this vintage vehicle is only used in ceremonial processions, we slink along so that everyone gets a good view. I try to hide my turmoil.

An enthusiastic man about my age presses forward from the crowd and runs alongside the hovercar. The head of a red flower bounces in his clutched fist. “Wave, Roselle.” I lift my hand, complying with Dune’s order. The man presses his hand on the window, crushing the rose against it and leaving a smear of petals and fog from his sweaty palm.

I study the buildings, which I’ve only seen before from the rooftop of the Palace or in on-screen images. I’ve missed a lot by being tethered to the estate. The structures rise to the sky, their details coming alive. I spot the iconic Heritage Building where the annual firstborn selections are held—an event in which the elite firstborns are sworn into service as leaders of our fatedom. One day, Gabriel will go there and vow to protect the Fate of Swords, and all the Fates.

Massive streams of golden energy flow down the walls of the Heritage Building’s sword-shaped tower. The source of the energy is hidden high above our heads, tucked away in the clouds, at the hilt. The base of the building resembles a mountainous rock. A channel of energy runs along the blade into the base. It’s a sword lodged in stone—a metaphor depicting the Fate of Swords’ supremacy over the Fate of Stones.

The Heritage Building fades behind us. My real-time image is splashed upon the next group of towers, every move I make reflected back at me. I’m tiny next to Dune, though that’s not at all how I see myself. A vast world exists inside of me. I have a hard time comprehending how it all fits. Being secondborn in a world ruled by firstborns has often forced me to retreat into my imagination, to avoid the constant shame and innuendos flung at me for my inferior birth. I’ve filled my mind with dreams. In them, I’m not beneath notice. I’m not so low that it’s impossible for my family to love me. A small tear rolls down my cheek. I should be throwing kisses and saying good-bye to all of it.

A round drone camera outside the hovercar shimmies closer to me, obstructing my view. Its eyes never blink as it attempts to catch my mood, my movement, any reaction that can be shared, pulled apart, and overanalyzed by a violently bored society of firstborns. I stare back blankly, giving the Diamond-Fated media nothing to gossip about.

“When we arrive at the secondborn Stone Forest Base, at the Golden Transition Circle,” Dune says, “there will be more cameras. You’re to make your speech there before processing.” I’ve come to recognize Dune’s brooding tone. The first time I recall hearing it, I was no more than six or seven. We were training with fusionblades on the pristine lawn behind the estate. It was dawn, and the fresh dew had turned the blades of grass silver. A pack of wolfhounds, giant beasts with vicious jaws and claws that patrol the grounds at night, was being called back to its pens for feeding. Fleet and ferocious, they raced across the wet lawn—black canines streaking like phantom shadows.

As I sparred with Dune, matching his strikes with sizzling strokes from my own much smaller sword, I stepped back, down the slope of a small hill, and stumbled over a lump in my path. Falling, I rolled away and sprang up, but what I saw brought bile to my mouth. Nightfall had resulted in the slaughter of one wolfhound, left in pieces but still breathing shallowly. Its mandible was broken. Its pink tongue hung out of its mouth. Sparking circuitry bristled beneath its organic exterior.

“Someone has slaughtered a maginot!”

I knelt by its side and reached to stroke its ebony fur, but Dune stayed my hand. He crouched next to me. “It wasn’t a someone that did this, Roselle. Its own pack tore it to pieces.” Carrion circled above our heads, waiting to move in on the carcass.

“Why would they do that?” I watched the shallow rise and fall of the wounded cyborg’s torso.

“It must have displayed a weakness—a limp, a tic, an uncharacteristic frequency—something that they perceived as threatening to the pack.”

I placed a childish hand on its flank, feeling its thready breathing. “But if it was broken, it could’ve been repaired.”

“It outlived its usefulness, so it was killed. There’s something to be learned in that.”

“Never outlive my usefulness?”

“Never, ever trust the pack.” With that, he raised his sword and sliced open the whirling brain of the canine, extinguishing its operating system. The smell of burning dog flesh rose from its corpse.

The memory fades as the drone camera veers upward from my window to get an aerial shot. I return to watching the buildings lining the thoroughfare, trying to lose my thoughts in their beauty. A golden face flashes in the crowd, distracts me from the architecture. Its featureless mask shines from beneath a shrouded hood, dazzling with rays of simulated sunlight. In a blink, he’s behind us. I look back, but he has melted into the crowd. “Did you see that?” I ask Dune.

He gazes out my window. “See what?” We turn another corner. The street grows narrower.

“I thought I saw something bright.” The crowd closes in, the whack of red roses growing louder with their nearness.

Dune clears his throat, touching a switch on the console that turns off the monitors and microphones. “After your speech, there won’t be time for us to say good-bye, Roselle. We should do that here. Now.”

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