Home > Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(17)

Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(17)
Author: Amy A. Bartol

Gilad settles on the champion profiles, as the Diamond-Fated commentators discuss our fifty or so Sword representatives, among them Tilo Sword, 61-924501. They rattle off his statistics, strengths, and attributes. Tilo, a veritable giant of a man on the screen, has an insolent smile, as if he fears nothing. I study his sword work, knowing that a fusionblade is the great equalizer between us. I wouldn’t need the kind of power he possesses to defeat him. He’s slow and my fusionblade is quick, but now, my weapon of choice can be rendered obsolete with a push of a button—the right kind of pulse—an FSP. If I had to fight someone like Tilo with a steel blade, mine would have to be small and light, giving him the advantage because he could wield a broadsword with ease.

I walk away as Gilad and Hammon debate the weaknesses of the next set of champions from the Fate of Seas. Edgerton uses an airstick to blast billiard balls around the obstacle-laden, air-powered table. Emmitt and Clara converge in front of a conference wall unit, haggling with the glass Tree staff about the rations we need to see us through until morning. Emmitt, as always, is winning the argument.

Slipping out onto the balcony, I find we’re not in one of the docked ships on the branches; rather we’re in the trunk, with balconies that jet out over the lake beneath us. This Treetop view of the stone-and-glass forest must only seem commonplace to avian and Firstborn Exo officers. The moon illuminates flat landing pads that cover some of the tops of the Trees along the canopy, but not ours. We’re so high up, nestling between the clouds.

The unfamiliarity of it all is almost as frightening as being in Census. Goose bumps rise on my skin, and I try not to think about the scorn on Mother’s face. What happens if the Gates of Dawn use the FSP again, and I fail to warn everyone? Will those deaths be on me? Tears prick my eyes and slide down my cheeks. My hair, long and loose, tangles in the breeze.

“I’ve never been in a Treetop apartment before,” Hawthorne says as he joins me at the railing. I quickly wipe the tears from my face with my sleeve. He pretends not to notice. “I’ve only ever seen this kind of luxury on the virtual screens.” I don’t comment because to me, this isn’t luxury. “I bet you’re used to this.”

I clear my throat, but my voice is still thick. “This is all new to me as well.”


“Yeah. I’m used to a more lavish cage than this one.” I cross my arms and rub my hands over them. The breeze is cold, but I don’t want to go inside and watch the other soldiers debate the merits of champions who will almost certainly die in agonizing ways in the next couple of days. I glance at Hawthorne and see him frown. He has taken off his helmet. His hair is sandy blond, a little longer in the front than I’d expect from a soldier. It suits his roguish nature. “Forget I said anything,” I mumble.

“You always looked so focused.”

“When?” I ask. I’ve felt off-kilter since I’ve known him.

“When I watched you on-screen. You always seemed so grateful to be a secondborn and to serve our Fate.”

Another voyeur. “What makes you think I’m ungrateful?”

“I wouldn’t have expected you, of all people, to call your home a ‘lavish cage.’”

“It’s not my home any longer, and please, forget I said anything.”

Hawthorne moves away from my side. He descends a few stairs into a sunken seating area and lights a fire table in the center. Simulated flames rise up from its core, illuminating his face with a golden glow. I move to the fusion-made heat, stretching my hands out to it.

Hawthorne faces me across the table. “Did Agent Crow hurt you?” The simulated firelight reflects in his eyes. “You were there for days.”

“I only remember the last dozen hours. I don’t know. He tried to, but I wouldn’t let him. It would’ve been worse if you hadn’t—thank you.”

Hawthorne’s jaw tightens as he grits his teeth. “I wouldn’t leave a drone down there with him.” My heart sinks. A part of me was hoping he’d come to help me because it was me down there. “You seemed to be holding your own when we got there.”

“Agent Crow underestimated me. He won’t make that mistake again.”

“No, he won’t,” Hawthorne agrees with a frown. “Men like that don’t stop, Roselle.”

“Maybe, if I’m lucky, a city will fall on him.” I’m so tired that I’m forgetting to be cautious about what I’m saying—or maybe I trust Hawthorne, even though I hardly know him.

“We can hope,” Hawthorne replies. My eyes widen at his treasonous agreement.

Attempting to change the subject, I ask, “Are you okay?” His stare shifts away from the flames to me. “About Agnes. You said good-bye to her. It looked . . . permanent.”

He shrugs. “We had a date night once.”

“That was much more than a date night,” I reply. “That looked like a relationship.”

He scowls at me and gazes around to see if we’re being overheard. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” he growls. “You know it’s forbidden for us to have relationships—casual encounters only.”

“I would never tell,” I murmur. “Did you two meet in secret?”

“It’s over, Roselle! Whatever we had is finished now. We can’t be seen together, not with Agent Crow’s threats. I won’t risk her further.”

“I’m sorry,” I offer, and I mean it. He acknowledges me with a curt nod.

Clara opens the balcony doors and beckons us inside. “The rations are here. You’d better come in before everything is gone. Honestly, do they not feed you soldiers?”

I cross the balcony and enter the suite. The soldiers have shed their weapons and body armor, resting them against walls and sofas. Hawthorne follows suit and takes off his rifle and chest armor, depositing them in a neat pile in a corner. I thought his armor was the reason for the breadth of his chest, but I was wrong. The armor is thin and lightweight. All of the bulk is Hawthorne’s muscles. My face flushes, and I look away.

A servant has set us a table in the dining area, and a buffet has been laid out on the lavish side table. Large trays display selections of meats and cheeses, bread and pastries, vegetables and fruit. The soldiers load food onto their plates. Hawthorne hands me a porcelain dish and insists that I serve myself before he takes anything. He sits next to me at the long table. Emmitt sits on my other side.

Gilad, Hammon, Hawthorne, and Edgerton attack their food as if they’ve never tasted anything quite as good. I eat at a sedate pace, trying not to gag. It’s not that it’s entirely bad, but the meat is salty, the cheese isn’t very creamy, and the fruit isn’t as fresh as I’m used to. Emmitt pronounces his meal inedible and pushes it away. Gilad looks up from his plate and stabs Emmitt’s steak with his knife, confiscating it.

Emmitt scowls at him. “Must you?” he asks.

Gilad doesn’t answer, just keeps chewing while staring at Emmitt like he’s next to be stabbed. By the end of the meal, I can barely keep my eyes open. After stifling several yawns, I give up trying to be polite. “I wish everyone a good evening,” I say, pushing away from the table and standing. Hawthorne stands, too, but the other soldiers choke on laughter.

Gilad catches his breath for a second. “Good evening to you, too.” I can tell when someone is mocking me, I just don’t know why. Apparently, neither Clara nor Emmitt knows either, because they’re as baffled as I am.

“Don’t be savages,” Hawthorne says with a scowl at his team. “You could all use some manners.”

“What good are manners in a battle?” Gilad asks.

Not waiting to hear the answer, I walk away to the farthest door at the back of the suite, and Hawthorne follows. “Who is Walther Petes?” Hawthorne asks, his voice low enough not to be overheard.

Hesitating, I turn back from the doorway and stare at him blankly. How does he know that name? “I’m sorry, who?”

“Walther Sword—his last name was Petes until his secondborn processing—I don’t know his number.” He has an intense look, as if he sees right through me.

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