Home > Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(4)

Secondborn (Secondborn #1)(4)
Author: Amy A. Bartol

“Mother thought I should keep it.”

His scar is a reminder not to get too close to me. I blink back tears and force a smile. “Ah. Your sneer will be legendary.”

“I’m sorry I never came to see you after . . .”

A sharp pain slices through my heart, a black mark on my soul that mirrors Gabriel’s scar. “I know you were forbidden to see me.”

“That’s not an excuse.”

A part of me is glad he didn’t come right away. Dune had been forced to punish me—twenty lashes with a heavy cane. I couldn’t walk for weeks. But days stretched into years and not a word came to me from Gabriel. I tried to see him countless times, but my requests were always denied. I was reduced to spying on him from windows and balconies—watching reports of him on-screen while he performed ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the like. “You’re here now.”

His eyes blaze with restrained guilt. “You shouldn’t have to go away. I’ll speak to Mother. She’ll see reason—”

“I missed you, Gabriel.”

He fumbles for my hand. His skin is smooth, his palm not calloused from training with a sword. Turning my hand over, he opens my palm, running his fingers across it.

“You’re a fighter.”

“It’s my destiny.”

“I wish it were mine.” His honesty holds a note of jealousy. He turns my hand to the side, his warm fingers following the line of the implant moniker beneath my skin. When his holographic symbol is parallel to mine, our two swords glow golden. A shiver of dread quivers through me. Soon, my sword’s light will turn silver. It’ll no longer be golden after my Transition. Its radiance will pale and my life will change forever.

Gabriel traces my crown-shaped birthmark. “The Crown of Swords,” he whispers. “What do you think it means?”

“Nothing.” I try to pull my hand away, but he won’t relinquish it. His grip turns painful.

“Maybe everyone has been right about you,” he grumbles, finally letting go. His head tilts. “Maybe you are dangerous, Roselle. Do you want me dead?”

“My fate is to protect all firstborns,” I gasp. “It’s what I’m born to do.”

Gabriel suddenly unsheathes his sword. It flares golden, a glowing length of condensed fusion energy, capable of cutting diamond. It’s the shape and length of a broadsword of old, but without the heavy weight of iron or steel. I back away, wary of his intentions. Gabriel’s advisors watch us. A few appear horrified, but most, like Susteven, have malicious grins. They’re hoping for bloodshed.

“Here’s your opportunity, Roselle. If you can kill me, you can be firstborn.” Gabriel’s gaze is a silent showdown.

I stand immobile. “My sole purpose is to serve The Sword, Gabriel—to serve you.” The pop and crackle of his weapon raises the hairs on the back of my neck. I taste its energy in the air, familiar and warm.

“Do you regret not killing me when you were eleven, when it would’ve been seen as an accident?” He swings his fusionblade at me in a wide, flailing arc of dizzying light. I step back from its fiery edge, but my posture doesn’t change.

Gabriel’s eyes turn predatory. He swings again and again—the same clumsiness. I sidestep him, and he loses his balance and staggers. His midnight-blue cape sweeps forward and drifts against his sword. A swatch falls to the floor, resting on the inlaid marble map of the nine fatedoms that surround our family crest, covering the northern district, the Fate of Stars. It’s one of the regions plagued by open rebellion. Secondborn Stars have aligned with secondborns from other Fates to form the Gates of Dawn—a rebel army.

I smell burning fabric. Gabriel straightens. He swings around and grasps at his ruined hem. His advisors snicker from the gleaming stairs, and Gabriel’s hand tightens on the hilt of his weapon. “Do me the courtesy of drawing your sword!” he bellows.

“No.” My lips press together.

“No?” The sweet boy has given way to the bitter man. “I’m to be The Sword!”

“I know who you are, Gabriel.”

“Everyone here thinks you intend to kill me! Here’s your chance, Roselle! I’m attacking you. Defend yourself.” He hurls himself at me again. I step back, without drawing my sword, and realize that I’m standing on the Fate of Swords crest. A small voice inside me whispers, I could be firstborn. I could kill Gabriel, and then no one would raise a hand to me ever again. But the penance would be too much—I’d never sleep again if I murdered my brother.

Gabriel lunges. I avoid his sword and grasp his thumb, wrenching it back against his wrist. His grip on his weapon loosens and he drops it. Catching it before it hits, I angle it away from us, and I drive Gabriel to his knees with another twist of his thumb. His head bows and he winces.

Holding his thumb, I lean down and whisper. “One day, Gabriel, you’ll be a powerful Clarity. When that day comes, follow your heart. Be the leader we need, not the ruler we don’t. I love you, Brother. I’ll miss you every day for the rest of my life.” I let go and he looks up, anguish in his eyes. I nod my head in the direction of the Grand Staircase. “And get rid of your advisors. They like seeing you on your knees.”

“I know who you are, too, Roselle.” Gabriel tries to control his breathing. He wears a desolate smile. “I knew you wouldn’t kill me. It’s never been who you are—the girl who finds wounded animals and hides them away, tending them until they’re healed and she can set them free.”

My eyes widen. He has been watching me these past years. I offer him my hand, but before he has a chance to move, my mother’s shrill voice screams from the balcony above us. “Shoot her! Stop her before she murders the firstborn!”

My breath catches, and I turn to the mezzanine. Othala’s torso leans over the gilded railing, pointing at me in wild thrusts. Dune is just behind her, his expression grim and drawn. Along the railing, guards raise their fusion-powered rifles. I lose my grip on Gabriel’s fusionblade. It slips from my hand to clatter on the cold tile, extinguishing from loss of pressure on the hilt.

Gabriel springs up from the floor, spreads his arms wide, and moves to stand between me and the soldiers. “Wait, wait, wait!” His arms flail. “I was just demonstrating for everyone here that this is all a mistake. Roselle has never been a threat to me. I proved it! I attacked her, and she never even drew her weapon.”

“Move out of the way, Gabriel!” My mother leans farther over the balcony and waves her arm at him.

“She didn’t do anything!” Gabriel insists. “Roselle’s innocent!” His eyes dart from Mother to Dune, and then to his advisors. “Tell her!” he shouts at Susteven.

Light from a glistening chandelier shines off Susteven’s balding head. “Roselle drove him to his knees,” he says with a cunning look in our direction. Bile rises in my throat.

Gabriel scoffs. “It’s not what you think! She was trying to stop me.”

My mother seethes. “Gabriel, move!”

I dare not breathe. Unless Gabriel convinces them otherwise, the moment he fails to shield me, I’m dead. I open my mouth to speak, but I can’t manage even one word in my own defense. I should never have touched him. They can end my life for that infraction alone.

Dune moves from behind Othala and hurries to the Grand Staircase. He descends the stairs two at a time. As he approaches us, Gabriel’s voice cracks—a plea. “It wasn’t her fault, Dune! It was me—I did this!”

“I’ll see to her, Gabriel.” Dune moves between Gabriel and me, turning me toward the immense doors that lead to the waiting crowd outside. I take a shaky step, and then another. Dune is right behind me. No one can get off a shot without hitting him, too. Maybe Mother still holds some affection for him, because she doesn’t give the kill order.

“I’m sorry, Roselle!” Gabriel’s tortured voice strains behind us.

We make it to the doors. I push one open. Squinting in the sunlight, I stop just over the threshold. The roar of the crowd is a punch to my stomach. Dune grasps my upper arm and raises his other hand in a wave. “You can’t go back in. They’ll kill you,” he says through a false smile. “From this moment on, we go forward. We never look back.”

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