“What’s it like to share a birthday with the dragon?”
I almost dropped the bicycle I was carrying to the repair rack. Mr. Brunswick rarely spoke to me beyond work-related topics, and never about the dragon. And how did he even know my birthday?
I lifted the bike onto the rack and shrugged. “It’s never made a difference in my life,” I lied.
I couldn’t tell him the truth: that more than anything else in this world, I wanted to kill the dragon. I hated all the dragons, but mostly I hated Viridia, the green dragon that ruled our city and controlled our lives. Just thinking about him made me want to damage something.
Mr. Brunswick wiped his greasy hands on a dirty cloth and eyed me. “I just thought maybe something special happened, what with you being named after him and all.”
I gritted my teeth and spun the bike’s pedals. My parents named me Beryl, one of the popular “green” names used to honor the dragon. Their generation did stuff like that. I can only imagine what they would think of me now… if they were still alive. They would be appalled, I’m sure.
“Well, you may as well take the rest of the afternoon off,” Mr. Brunswick said. “With all the celebratin’ going on, I doubt anyone else will come in.”
I gestured at the bike on the rack. “Shouldn’t I finish this one?”
“It can wait until tomorrow.”
I nodded. I began putting away my tools.
“How old are you today?”
This had to be a new record. My boss hadn’t spoken this much to me since I took this job seven months ago.
Mr. Brunswick nodded. He scratched at his face, his fingers stretching out his chromark, the green facial tattoo that marked him, like all of us, as the dragon’s property. “I wonder how old Viridia is today?” he said, not even looking at me anymore.
Too old. If the history they taught us in school were true, Viridia had to be somewhere around a thousand years old. Nothing should live that long.
Once cleaned up, I left the bike shop. I waited in the doorway as a small group of exuberant teens moved up the street, heading for one of the many ongoing celebrations. None of them looked more than two or three years younger than me, yet I felt so separated from them. They chatted and laughed with each other, shoving one another in fun, all without a care in the world.
Had I ever felt that way? Maybe. Three years ago? Before my parents died? No. I had kept to myself most of the time. Even then, I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t hate the dragon like I did. Now at least, I was old enough to understand that not everyone had seen the things I had seen. Not everyone had lost what I had lost.
Across the street, some of the green ribbons decorating a clothing store came loose and drifted down the street with the breeze. I rolled my eyes. As if some ribbons could make a difference on any building around here. Every single building looked the same: concrete. Square. Boring. Viridia, both the city and the dragon, had no sense of style.
I pulled my jacket on and moved down the street in the opposite direction. I kept my head down, trying not to be noticed. A few others passed me, walking or biking. When I did glance around, I saw downcast faces, each decorated with the green chromark, the sole markings anyone was allowed to have here. Teens would celebrate, and the elite citizens who lived in the nicer parts of the city would have a good time. But those of us who held jobs knew how things worked. We had nothing to celebrate.
I might have been halfway home when I heard a yell. Looking up, I caught a brief glimpse of dark hair and a black leather jacket before someone plowed right into me. Both of us went sprawling onto the sidewalk.
I scrambled to my feet prepared to unleash some choice words at the stranger when I saw several other figures hurrying toward us from the same direction. Tall and muscular, they wore brilliant green jumpsuits decked out with all kinds of accessories, and carried shockspears. Wonderful. The Viridian Guard.
The stranger jumped up, and I faced a split-second decision. For all I knew, this guy could be some kind of thief or something. But the Viridian Guard represented the dragon. They deserved my hatred and in a moment like this… my resistance.
“This way!” I grabbed the stranger’s arm and yanked him down the alley to my right. I had no clear plan in mind, other than to help this guy, whatever it took. The choice of this particular alley might not have been the best way to start. Dead end.
I checked the nearest door. Locked. Deadbolt, most likely. No time to run back to the next door; the Guard would be rounding the corner any second now. “I’m going to regret this,” I muttered. I concentrated and mentally triggered a boost in my right leg.
“What—” the stranger began. He broke off as I kicked. The lock shattered, and the door exploded open.
“Come on, come on!” We hurried through the door and found ourselves in the kitchen of some fancy restaurant, one of those reserved for the most elite of the dragon’s servants. They must be closed: I didn’t see any signs of activity.
Unfortunately, the way across the kitchen led through a maze of tables and workstations. We almost reached the doors into the dining room when one of the Viridian Guard burst in behind us and threw his shockspear.
The spear narrowly slashed the stranger’s left thigh, but it was enough to trigger the electric charge it contained. His body contorted as the electricity arced through his central nervous system. Without thinking, I grabbed the nearest pan and hurled it back at the Guard. He ducked, giving me the moment I needed.
I seized the back of the stranger’s jacket and half-pulled him to his feet. I yanked him forward through the swinging doors into the dining room.
Then I understood why the restaurant was closed. They were remodeling the entire dining area. Tables and chairs were piled in several unorganized groups, plastic tarps hid the front windows and glass doors from outside onlookers, piles of new ceramic tile waited by the back wall, and the entire stairway to the second-floor balcony area had been torn out.
Time for more split-second decisions. My new friend needed time to recover from the shockspear before he could do any more running, but a quick hiding place wasn’t feasible, unless…
I half-dragged him out into the dining area. The chairs and tables were solid wood. Perfect. I let my companion slip to the ground again. I took a deep breath, grabbed one of the chairs, and threw it as hard as I could at the front doors. The result was better than I expected: the chair turned in mid-air and all four legs impacted the glass door at the same time, shattering it and tearing into the outdoor tarp. I guess the owners cheaped out when buying the glass.
Even as the glass shattered, I bent over and began hauling the stranger up onto my back. I looked up at what I needed to do and winced. My legs would kill me in the morning.
I channeled all the boost energy I could into both legs as I clambered up onto the nearest table. Gritting my teeth, I leaped with everything I had. We barely cleared the balcony’s railing and tumbled onto the floor beyond it.
Just in time. The Viridian Guard exploded from the kitchen into the dining room below us. The stranger started to roll over, and his dark eyes locked onto mine. I made a shushing motion. We both lay still. Below us, I could hear quick commands being yelled. The Guards, four of them, seemed to take my bait and hurried to the front door.
I eased myself to the balcony’s edge and peered over. The Guards pushed their way through the tarps and started to spread out. Then a second group emerged from the kitchen and stopped almost right below me.
One figure in this new group, surrounded by four more Guards, dominated the entire room. Clad in dark green robes with purple edging, it stood at least seven feet tall, bulkier than most men. It reached up and pulled back the hood obscuring its face.
I stifled a gasp. Under the hood, the tall figure was not a man. A reptilian snout with iridescent jade scales turned left and right, peering into the shadows.
I pulled back from the edge. “Fewmets!” I cursed under my breath. I looked at the stranger. “Who are you?” I wanted to demand. How did he attract the attention of a draconic? And on the dragon’s birthday! The draconics should all be honored guests at the celebrations. For the first time since the collision on the sidewalk, I felt a stab of absolute fear. Running from the Viridian Guard was one thing, but this…
“He can’t have gone far,” I heard from below.
Fighting the trembling, I inched forward and looked over the edge again. The draconic moved toward the front door, urged on by the soldiers around him. At the entrance, it paused, and its gaze examined the chair. As if tracing the trajectory, it turned and looked back. Its eyes rested on the pile of furniture and seemed to settle on the very table I had jumped from. To my horror, its head began to rise, looking upward. I jerked back, heart pounding, body shaking.
A shout came from further outside, followed by another. Quick steps echoed below and then silence. Something or someone else had attracted their attention, and we had been overlooked, for now. I checked to confirm no one remained below and then tried to relax. What was wrong with me? My hands still trembled. I had trouble taking in a full breath. Fear. I had never experienced it so strong. Then again, I had never seen a draconic up close.
“Thank you,” my new companion whispered. He pulled himself to his hands and knees. I turned to him, about to demand answers, when a beam of daylight from the setting sun pierced one of the upper floor windows and shone full on his face. I rolled over and sat up. He—I—what? This couldn’t be right.
Dark black hair with some brown highlights hung low over deep-set dark eyes, no facial hair. But in a curving line down the left side of his face, beginning above his left eyebrow and continuing down to his neck, a series of jet-black tiny dots reflected the sun, flaring out then fading along with the light.
My hand went to my own face. I knew he saw the same pattern there, but in green, not black. Green, like every single person I knew. The stranger wasn’t from this city. He didn’t belong to the green dragon.
On to Chapter Two