Traitor Born – Amy A. Bartol

I’m a Fate traitor. I’ve betrayed everything I once believed in. The starry sky outside the window of our airship blurs with streaks of midnight. Maybe I’d be sorry for what I’ve done tonight if my brother hadn’t tried to murder me. I don’t know. My thoughts are chaotic. Savage fear constricts my throat and chokes my breath. I shouldn’t blame Gabriel for wanting me dead. It’s self-preservation. Plenty of powerful people are conspiring to slaughter him— replace the firstborn with his secondborn sister. They view me as the stronger St. Sismode. The one who will crush their enemies for them. My family never expected me to live this long. Mother has been trying to have me executed since I became a soldier in the secondborn military.

She wants to protect her firstborn son from all threats to his ascension to the Sword. In Othala’s mind, I must die to save Gabriel. Secondborns like me are nothing more than pawns. Chattel. To be bartered away or killed without thought. I’m beginning to hate her for that. I rest my forehead against the cool glass of the airship’s window. My warm breath hides the night behind a small circle of white fog. I wouldn’t be alive if not for Hawthorne. He’s been lying to me since the day we met.

Goose bumps rise on my arms. I try to rub them away. Hawthorne is firstborn now, but he still has the heart of a secondborn soldier. Saving me has become a thing for him—from Census and psychotic Agent Crow, from war and the horrific battlefield in the Fate of Stars . from loneliness. But he lied to me. He’s been my brother’s spy. How can I ever trust him again? A painful ache brutalizes my hollow chest. Hawthorne has risked everything to help me. He warned me about Gabriel’s plan to assassinate me.

Our escape through the Tyburn Fountain will be discovered. The bloodthirsty maginot that tried to eviscerate me will be exhumed. Even though we crushed the cyborg wolfhound in the belly of a rubbish collector, I fear the secrets it could reveal if it’s recovered. To be fair, I haven’t told Hawthorne everything I’ve done either. He doesn’t know about my pact with our enemies, the Gates of Dawn, or that I’ve stolen monikers and traded the identification processors for the lives of Edgerton and Hammon, our two best friends. I have no plans to tell him either. Sitting up straight in my seat, I glance at The Virtue, Fabian Bowie. He paces in circles around the exquisite apartment of his luxurious Verringer aircraft. Strong and cunning, he emanates ruthless aggression. I’ve personally witnessed him order the assassination of some of his closest allies for little more than an affront to his considerable ego.

What makes him most dangerous is his insatiable appetite for power. And now he has taken a disturbing interest in me. In the soft interior light of the airship, the golden rose-shaped pin on his uniform’s lapel winks at me. Our ruler has joined the Rose Garden Society, the secret purpose of which is to see me one day take my mother’s place as The Sword. I’m the “rose” they want in power. Fabian’s wearing of the symbol seals Gabriel’s death warrant. Even after my brother and mother’s attempt to have me assassinated, I still don’t want my brother to die. Gabriel’s addiction to Rush, a powerful drug, doesn’t allow him to think clearly. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s scared—and he should be.

Chewing on my bottom lip, I pluck dirt and grass from the tattered sleeve of my gown. Clifton Salloway is responsible for Clarity Bowie’s personal interference in my life. The firstborn arms dealer and owner of Salloway Munitions has left nothing to chance in his desire to place me in power. He has been my constant ally over the past year. Unlike Reykin and the Gates of Dawn, who want to use me to take down the Fates of the Republic, Clifton is very much interested in maintaining the status quo. The only thing he wants to change is my status, from secondborn to firstborn. Well, that, and he’d like to be more than just my commanding officer. My hands wring. My knees tremble. By now, the malware that I uploaded into my favorite maginot should be infiltrating the industrial systems of the Fate of Swords.

Unless someone detects the worm, Reykin and the Gates of Dawn will be able to access everything they need—from within the intelligence centers of the Fate of Swords—to operate their network of spies. I should feel some shame or remorse, not only for forsaking my family but for committing treason. This isn’t what I was raised to do. But I don’t feel guilty. What I feel is terror . and maybe . maybe somewhere beneath fear, a purpose. Chapter 1 Pain Pain. It’s the one thing that reminds me I’m alive. The unfortunate part about relying on pain is the disturbing lack of it in the Fate of Virtues.

The firstborn residents of the Halo Palace pursue only pleasure and beauty and avoid any discomfort. With so little pain to go around, I no longer know if I’m real. Maybe everything is fantasy. Maybe only this shell of a world exists. My opponent’s eyes shine with burning shafts of golden light, reflecting my fusionblade. The lightweight silver hilt of my sword in my grip spits molten energy from its strike port. The man facing me wants to cut my heart out with his equally lethal sword. But I’m like a seek-and-destroy algorithm that he doesn’t understand. Firstborn Malcolm Burton’s dark hair tangles in wet clumps on his brow. He raises the back of his left hand to his tense jaw.

Golden light from Malcolm’s sword-shaped moniker quivers over his flushed cheek. I bet Malcolm never saw this coming when he awoke this morning. He’s been mentor to Grisholm Wenn-Bowie, the heir to the Fate of Virtues, for years, and as the firstborn son of Edmund Burton, my mother’s military arms dealer, he has never had to fight for the position. The Burtons are part of the Sword aristocracy. It’s beneath Malcolm’s status to spar with me, a secondborn, but The Virtue insisted. The tips of Malcolm’s ears turn red, and he hisses when my weapon burns the flesh of his upper arm. Lucky for him I switched my fusionblade to training mode. He gets to keep his appendage, but the black fabric of his Exo uniform ignites where I struck him, curling at the edges with orange embers. “It’s time for me . ” Malcolm says between panting breaths, “to stop .

going . easy on you.” His pride is shaken. His free hand pats out the small flame. Tendrils of smoke and the scent of singed skin assail me. I’m used to it. With my ex-mentor, Dune, it was usually my flesh that burned. “By all means,” I reply, “stop.” I pause to allow Malcolm to recover and reset. Using my thumb, I dial the energy output of my fusionblade back up to the most lethal setting.

Malcolm’s sword never left kill mode. I should keep that in mind. “I normally don’t fight women,” he growls, his dark eyebrows drawing together scornfully. “Or secondborns.” I show no emotion. “A fusionblade is a great equalizer. It doesn’t care about gender, size, strength, or birth order.” Dune used to say this to me whenever I complained about losing to him. When Malcolm’s ready, I half-heartedly block his lopsided strike with my own assault, beating him back several feet. A part of me longs to feel the scorching heat of his blade, any pain to replace the hollowness in my chest.

My ego, however, won’t allow it. Losing even an inch of ground to Malcolm is more than I can bear. I’m isolated in the gilded cage of the Halo Palace—cut off. Everything could use a restart. Especially Grisholm. I glance at the twenty-two-year-old Firstborn Commander. He’s above us on the observation balcony, overlooking our sparring circle. A shaft of sunlight kisses his skin. His elbow leans on the arm of a throne of gold, and he rests his chin on his fist, his halo-shaped moniker projecting a glow onto his sultry smile, as if to encircle and highlight it. A steep flight of gleaming gold steps separates him from us.

Golden Gothic pillars support the balcony, fanning out at the high ceiling like ribs. Near each pillar, a hovering stinger drone buzzes. The automated, black-armored assault guards resemble wasps that emit a hum as they ping the monikers in the room, ensuring that no unauthorized person gets too close to the heir to the Fates Republic. Grisholm lifts his head from his hand and swipes the holographic screen of his moniker. The glass wall behind him opens, allowing a soft breeze from the roiling sea to tussle his hair. The long golden curtains decorating the royal sparring circle flap and billow in the wind. At Grisholm’s back, over two thousand stone steps descend to the ocean. I run them a few times a day. “Here’s some sea air for you, Malcolm,” Grisholm calls from above. “You’re looking a little overheated.

” “I’m just getting”—Malcolm pants—“warmed up.” He tries to avoid my fusionblade, but he’s too slow. I dial down the weapon so that I only burn him with the searing tip across his thigh. He winces and lurches away. I let him put some space between us while I glance up at Grisholm again. Grisholm should be training, not lazing around watching us. He’s weak with Malcolm as a mentor and military attaché. Privilege, not merit, must have played a part in the decision to employ Malcolm in that role. Or caution. Fear of Grisholm being hurt has risen to a level I haven’t encountered before—not even my brother, Gabriel, has been this sheltered from pain.

At the other end of the gallery, Clarity Bowie observes the sparring match. He summoned me today to Grisholm’s training facility, sending his personal valet with a handwritten note. In it, The Virtue hinted that I might be an improvement in the role of Grisholm’s mentor. I peer up. The leader leans against the railing, his elbows resting on the marble. He’s well built for a middle-aged man. The strength of his stare bores into us. I wonder if he knows I’m only playing with Firstborn Malcolm —prolonging this battle—hoping his son’s mentor will do something amazing so he can keep his job. Beside Clarity Bowie, Dune watches me silently. My heartbeat drums harder.

I haven’t had a private moment with my former mentor since coming here. He greeted me when I arrived two nights ago, and we walked together from the airship across the butterfly sanctuary in the south lawn. We talked only of trivialities because The Virtue had been present. Dune’s look, at the time, demanded discretion, but I already knew this lavish fortress would be infested with hidden-camera drones and listening devices, just like the Sword Palace. I’d hoped that we’d be able to meet alone at some point, but Dune’s duties with the demanding ruler of Virtue are such that it hasn’t been possible. Malcolm trips when I sidestep his advance. He tries to right himself. I give him a shove in the back with my foot to send him farther from me. He huffs and puffs, winded by the exertion. I haven’t broken a sweat.

Dune’s appearance hasn’t changed. Even standing a few steps behind his sovereign at the railing, he’s the taller, more powerful-looking figure. His long dark hair is swept from his face in a knot at the back of his head. The length of his hair hangs to his shoulders, not a bit of gray in it or in his beard. The intensity of his sand-colored eyes weighs on me. He stares, unblinking. Malcolm barrels at me with his sword aloft, exposing every inch of himself for me to carve up. I duck under his downward swing, raising my fusionblade and angling it just short of the firstborn’s ear. Several locks of his stylish hair float to the floor. His cheeks burn with fury.

Guffaws from Grisholm fill the air. The firstborn claps and shouts, “I was just saying how your hair needed a new style, ol’ boy!” Grisholm’s voice booms through the automated voice amplification in the room, making him sound like a god on high. Malcolm says nothing. He grits his teeth and lowers his head, careening toward me again, overwrought-gorilla style. Wrapping the fabric of the banner hanging from the ceiling around my wrist, I clutch it in my fist and swing away. My feet touch down in the center of the sparring circle. I release the drape. It floats backward, covering Malcolm’s face in a swath of gold. He snarls, snatching it away from his eyes. “Roselle!” Dune barks.

I flinch. Immediately, I attack Malcolm, swinging my fusionblade with blurring speed. It whirls, making shadows bleed with golden light. Malcolm lurches back until he stumbles and falls at the edge of the circle. His sword tumbles out of reach. Chin pointing at the ceiling, he cowers at my feet. The deadly point of my sword singes the hairs on his throat. Sweat slides down his cheeks, and his Adam’s apple bobs in silent agony. We wait, neither of us moving. Cold fear whistles through me.

Malcolm feels it, too, if his shudder is any indication. Will The Virtue order Malcolm’s death? My stomach curls and knots, but my hands stay steady. Patience is power in its truest form. If I must kill him, his pain ends. Mine lives on. Malcolm’s eyes stare up—the color of November moons. “Roselle, you may”—The Virtue pauses; Malcolm holds his breath—“execute him.” Malcolm emits a strangled sob. Grisholm jumps to his feet. “Wait! Hold, Roselle! Father!” I remain still, awaiting confirmation of the kill order.

“He’s Edmund Burton’s firstborn!” Grisholm pleads. “Burton Weapons Manufacturing supplies all of the munitions to our military.” The Virtue glowers at his son from across the open air of the balcony level. “Not anymore. We have new contracts. Salloway Munitions will supply our weapons, as well as new armor for our Sword soldiers. Clifton has developed secret military vehicles—ones that won’t drop out of the sky if fusion power is disrupted.” “Well, that’s good news,” Grisholm replies with a note of desperation, “but why kill Malcolm? He has nothing to do with the military contracts. He has been my loyal friend for years.” Gripping the marble railing, The Virtue’s knuckles turn bloodless.

“Edmund Burton is Othala’s man.” Grisholm raises his shoulders in confusion. “So?” “So, he’d be the one to supply The Sword with the kind of support she’d need for a military coup.” Grisholm chuckles in derision. “That’s absurd. Othala St. Sismode can barely look you in the eyes, let alone overthrow you.” “You’re blind,” The Virtue snarls. “I’ve raised a fool!” “Then enlighten me.” “Othala will do anything to protect her firstborn.

” “Protect Gabriel from whom?” “From us,” Grisholm’s father replies. “Because of her!” Grisholm points to me. “Because you brought her here!” “Roselle’s a much better choice to stand by your side and defend you from our enemies than Gabriel. He’s weak. Your enemies will destroy you with him running the Fate of Swords. Roselle will make them cower at your feet.” The Virtue tips his head in my direction. Malcolm trembles in fear. “Malcolm isn’t my enemy!” Grisholm retorts. “He has taught you nothing!” his father says scornfully.

“You can barely hold a sword!” “No one’s allowed to hurt me!” Exasperation drips from Grisholm’s tone. “That changes today!” The Virtue replies. “You cannot kill Malcolm for following the rules you yourself set forth!” A part of me feels a grudging respect for Grisholm as he points out his father’s hypocrisy. He knows loyalty. “I can do whatever I like. I’m The Virtue.” “She’s not firstborn. This goes against everything we believe in!” “Exceptions have to be made from time to time to maintain power,” The Virtue replies. “Malcolm is more valuable to you alive,” Dune interjects, the low resonance of his voice bolstered by the amplifiers. “Burton won’t help Othala if you hold his firstborn and secondborn sons.

Keeping Malcolm close and detaining his secondborn brother, Kendrick, would serve to collar Edmund’s ambitions, instead of giving him a reason to strike.” “You really expect a coup?” Grisholm asks. The Firstborn Commander’s arrogant smirk is absent now. “I expect nothing less.” The Virtue’s attention drifts to me. He waves two fingers in dismissal. “Malcolm lives . for now.” I withdraw my fusionblade from Malcolm’s throat. With a flick of my wrist, the surging energy of my sword dies.

The firstborn Exo slumps in a serpentine sprawl, panting on the floor, hissing curses under his breath. I move to the center of the circle and face The Virtue. Malcolm stays where he is, staring at the mat. Our ruthless leader calls in Exo soldiers to take Malcolm away, and the thick, muscular men in the ebony uniforms and capes of the royal guard approach. Malcolm gets to his feet, and they drag him away by his arms. His black boots skate along the cold floor before disappearing behind golden doors. “Well done, Dune.” The Virtue beams. “She’s everything I’d hoped for when I sent you to be her mentor.” I suppress a gasp.

I had no idea that Clarity Bowie had played a part in selecting my mentor. Both The Virtue and Grisholm stare at me with such intensity that they miss the cold-blooded hatred in the shifting sand of Dune’s gaze. They misread my mentor—I don’t even think they can see the dark rage dawning behind the gates of his exquisite control. I shiver. “Roselle”—The Virtue gestures to his son—“you will immediately begin instructing Grisholm in the art of combat and strategy.” I knew this was coming the moment they told me I had to fight Grisholm’s mentor, but even so, an uneasiness creeps through me. “Father, please!” Grisholm snarls. “She’s secondborn.” “A secondborn with uncanny skill.” “She’s a woman!” “Then you should have no problem besting her,” his father taunts.

“She’s strange and unpredictable.” “Exactly what you need. Roselle, you have my permission to use your own discretion in training my son.” I nod, hiding my supreme irritation with this turn of events. The Virtue turns to leave. “My moniker’s communications have been blocked,” I call to him. “My access to messaging has been restricted.” The Virtue pauses, facing me once more. “I’m aware of that.” “I want full access restored.

” “Why? Whom do you wish to contact?” Hawthorne, I think, but his question feels dangerous. Instead, I reply, “Commander Salloway.” “Ah. Clifton.” He smirks. “He’s insisted upon seeing you, Roselle. He’s adamant that we discuss your work schedule at Salloway Munitions.” “Grant me access to my moniker’s communicator, and I’ll arrange everything now.” “I’m sorry. That’s just not possible.

” “Why not?” I frown. “It’s for your own protection.” “I can protect myself.” His bottom lip pushes out in a dubious look. “I’m sure it’s no secret to you that your mother and your brother want you dead. They have ways of getting to you.” “It’s a family matter.” “Your welfare concerns me, Roselle. Your moniker could be tracked through those you contact. I’ve restricted access to your locator.

You may thank me now for protecting you.” I want to argue with him, but the stern set of his jaw tells me that now is not the time. “Thank you,” I mutter. The Virtue dismisses me, turns, and leaves. An almost-imperceptible lowering of Dune’s chin is enough of an acknowledgment to say, “You did well.” He follows The Virtue out. Moving to the golden stairs, I slowly climb to where Grisholm stands with his hands on his hips, glaring at me. His nostrils flare in anger. I stop beside him. The view of the sea beyond the cliff at his back is breathtaking.

The salty breeze stirs my brown hair, blowing unsecured wisps that have slipped from my ponytail to batter my cheeks. Grisholm’s hot breath assaults my earlobe. “Let me make something very clear, Roselle. You are nothing. The moment I’m The Virtue, you’ll be dealt with.” My eyes don’t stray from the sea. It takes all my strength not to cut him down with my fusionblade. He leaves through the private doors to his personal wing of the Halo Palace, followed closely by a swarm of hovering stingers. I stand motionless, contemplating the precariousness of my new position as hated mentor to the future ruler of the world.



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