Home > Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(11)

Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(11)
Author: Amy A. Bartol

I sit up and lean against the wall. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I nod. “I sometimes dream of rainbows, too—puppies and rainbows—just like you, I’d imagine. Where am I?”

He grins. “You sleep soundly. I thought for sure that you were faking it when I first came in.”

I shrug. “Tranquilizers do that to me. It feels as if we’re underground.”

He cocks his head to the side. “As a matter of fact, we are. You are my guest in Census.” He takes off his gloves, pulling each of the black leather fingers until the wrinkles straighten. His moniker shines in a golden circlet from his left hand. Its halo denotes the Fate of Virtues—gold for firstborn or unprocessed. Because he’s around twenty-five, I know he’s firstborn. If he had a golden halo moniker, and he was eighteen or younger, he’d either be firstborn or he may not have been Transitioned to a silver halo of a Virtue-Fated secondborn. That happens on a secondborn’s Transition Day.

My eyes widen. By any stretch of the imagination he should be in the capital right now, catered to by an estate filled with secondborn servants. Most of the firstborns who possess a Virtues moniker are from the aristocracy—or else they’re the judges, legislators, ruling clergy, dignitaries, or supply-chain holders. Plenty of firstborns and secondborns reside in the Fate of Virtues, born to serve the ruling class, but they don’t possess monikers from that Fate. They have stone- or sword-shaped monikers—monikers from other Fates.

My family is Sword aristocracy, on par with firstborns from the Fate of Virtues because my mother is the Clarity, but other firstborn Swords are of lower rank than those with Virtues monikers. I can’t imagine why he’d be a Census agent. Most of them are firstborn, but they’re from lesser Fates—like the Fate of Atoms, the technology caste, or the Fate of Seas, the fishing villages—that notoriously don’t produce the kind of wealth and status as firstborn Virtues.

“What do I call you?” I ask, trying to adopt a serene mien.

“Pardon me for not introducing myself earlier. My name is Agent Kipson Crow, firstborn of the Fate of Virtues. I’m from Lenity.”

Purity is the capital city of Virtues. Lenity is its sister city where most of the largest estates exist. “What are you doing here, Agent Crow? Shouldn’t you be in the capital, passing laws for secondborns to follow and hoarding your wealth?”

The kohl-black lines around his eyes crinkle as he smiles. “I find that I have less interest in passing laws than I do in enforcing them.”

“What do you want from me, Agent Crow?”

“Please, call me Kipson. And what should I call you?”

“You can call me by my name.”

“Which is?”

“You know my name is Roselle St. Sismode.”

“Do I? I’m still trying to establish who you are.”

“No you’re not.”

“Are you calling me a liar?” He’s more incredulous and amused than indignant.

“You believe that I’m Roselle St. Sismode, so what is it that you want from me so badly that you’d keep me locked away at the bottom of the Base?”

“Maybe I want to get to know you better.”

“Why? I’m secondborn. You’re firstborn. There’s no purpose.”

“You intrigue me.”

“How so?” I ask.

“The Roselle I always watched seemed like such a little robot on virtual access,” he replies, speaking of the drone cameras that have followed me for most of my life, streaming video for anyone to view through access channels. I was given some privacy for a few hours a day, but for the most part, my life was an open book that sadistic voyeurs like Agent Kipson Crow frequently studied. “I thought I knew her, but you cannot be her. She’d never attack me. She’d yield to her superior.”

“You shot me in the heart, point-blank. Some instincts cannot be suppressed, like survival.”

“What a dangerous thing to say—even treasonous,” he replies with chilling amusement.

“Why are you here at a Swords Base, Agent Crow? You didn’t just choose to be here, did you? That doesn’t seem to fit you. Your position in Census suits you very well, but not here. It seems beneath you somehow.” I watch his face for subtle cues, as Dune taught me to do when interrogating an adversary. Agent Crow doesn’t give me much, a flicker of something in the squint of his eye. “You’re not here by choice. You enjoy your role as hunter, but you . . . you had to come here . . . because . . .” He looks down at his moniker. “Because your moniker was not always golden. It used to be silver. You were secondborn.” My heart is beating like a frightened rabbit’s.

“I had an older sister once. She died.” He sounds remorseless.

“What happened to her?”

“She had an accident. Unlike me, Sabah couldn’t swim, you see. No one ever taught her—the firstborn—poor lamb. My parents were so cautious with her, worrying that every little thing would hurt her. They found her one morning floating facedown in the duck pond.”

He killed her—it’s in his eyes. I didn’t think I could actually fear him more, but I do. “How unfortunate. So your parents—”

“Thought it would be better if I pursued my interests outside of Virtues for the time being.” They can’t condemn the murderer in their midst because he has been elevated to their only heir. The bloodline has to continue with him or it dies, too. His parents’ property and holdings would be reapportioned. A small stipend would be set aside for them. Maybe they’d reside somewhere in the Fate of Stones or the Fate of Suns, but they’d never get to stay in the Fate of Virtues without an heir or the permission and ability to have another.

“What interests did they think you should pursue elsewhere?”

“Oh, I have many passions. Hunting thirdborns is one. Torture is another, but you suspected that. I can see it in your eyes—so blue, your eyes, so vast. You see everything, don’t you? You recognized me immediately as your overlord, and it frightened you, so you reacted.”

“I see you,” I murmur. But it’s more that I feel him. He has a presence that screams cruelty. It reaches out with icy fingers and chills me to my marrow.

“My parents want me to get it all out of my system, particularly before I wed and become leader of the family. But I have a little secret.” Agent Crow leans nearer to me, whispering. “I don’t think I’ll ever lose my taste for pain.”

He gets to his feet and slowly takes off his coat, draping it over the back of the chair. He undoes the golden halo cufflinks from the eyelets of his shirt, one by one, pocketing them in his black trousers before rolling up his sleeves. His fingers go to the buckle of his belt, unfastening it with agonizing deliberateness, pulling it dramatically from his belt loops. It’s the same belt I used to strangle him.

I stand, planting my feet shoulder-width apart. My arms settle into a defensive position. The fear is harder to control. “I’m not going to let you torture me, Agent Crow. We both know you don’t have cause. My identity is no longer in question. This isn’t an interrogation.”

“You attacked me, Roselle. Your aggression is suspicious. Soldiers witnessed your reaction to being tranquilized, which is standard procedure in the event that identity cannot be verified. It gives me grounds to pursue this line of questioning.”

“You could simply verify my identity through a hair sample,” I reply and shift away from his attempt to get closer.

“I prefer a blood sample.”

I wait for his move. He winds one end of the belt around his fist, throws his arm back, and snaps it forward. The first thrash connects with my forearm, raised in a block. My coarse blue sleeve absorbs some of the sting, but it’ll leave a mark. I hardly feel it, though. I allow the lash to wind around my arm, and then I grab the strap with my other hand before he can draw it back, yanking him toward me.

Bringing my bare foot up, I kick him as hard as I can in the stomach, releasing the belt. He reels back, his face a mask of surprise and pain. I don’t wait for him to recover. As he bends at the waist, I drive my foot up, kicking him in the chin. He stumbles back. I roundhouse kick him in the head. He staggers sideways.

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