“You’re not from Viridia!” The city or the dragon.
“Yeah, well, you’ve got some explaining to do too,” the stranger said. He shifted to a sitting position and examined his thigh wound. “Last time I checked, cyb implants are forbidden tech for ordinary guys like us.”
A defense rose up in my throat, but I pushed it down. This guy didn’t deserve to know anything about me. I saved him, not the other way around. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Rick. Richard Onyx. From Atramentous.”
Atramentous, ruled by the black dragon. The nearest of the five other cities within The Circle. I almost blurted out that travel between cities without express permission was forbidden, but I suppose we were way beyond “forbidden” now.
I got a better look at Rick now. He appeared to be near my age, maybe a bit older. Those dark eyes aged him, though, almost as if they didn’t belong with the rest of the face. He wore black leather gloves, a similar jacket over a dark green shirt, and grayish pants.
“I’m Beryl,” I answered. “What are you doing here?”
Rick held out his hand. I stared at him. “What?” he asked. “Don’t they shake hands here in your green city?” I blinked and took his hand. His firm grip gave me an immediate respect for his strength.
“There we go. Thanks for the help. Um, things grew too… hot for me in Atramentous, so I decided to try my luck elsewhere.” He chuckled and then felt his lip with his tongue. It looked to be swelling, probably from a blow he took in one of our falls. “Looks like green isn’t my lucky color.”
At that, he started to get to his feet, slipped, and collapsed again. He winced and reached for his thigh. “Ah. I hadn’t considered that… I don’t suppose your green guardians use poison on their shockspears, do they?”
I pushed his hands away and ripped the hole in his pants wider. The wound showed signs of… something unusual. I could see a bit of green splaying outward through the nearest blood veins. I’m not a doctor, but I did know the Viridian Guard and their tools.
“Yeah, they’re poisoned. I was hoping they didn’t get a direct enough hit on you, but…”
“Pretty sure it’s direct enough.” His voice sounded strained.
I thought fast. “Come on.” I stood and reached for his hand. “We’ve got to get you somewhere safe and find a treatment. I could take you to my place, but Kelly’s is closer.”
Rick allowed me to pull him to his feet. “Okay, but how are we getting down from here? You gonna carry me again, cyber boy?”
“It’s not—Never mind.” I looked over the balcony edge. “We should be able to hang down and drop easily enough. I’ll go first and help break your fall to protect your leg.”
Twenty minutes later, after ducking through several alleys and always looking over our shoulders, we made it to the apartment complex where Kelly lived. Like most buildings in Viridia, the complex was a rough concrete-walled building with little outward adornment. By that time, Rick was almost unconscious and leaning on me pretty hard. If the building hadn’t had an elevator, I don’t think we could have made it to the third floor.
In the hallway, I eased Rick down to the floor and then knocked on Kelly’s door. I heard movement inside and figured she might be looking through the peephole. I waved. The deadbolt slid back, and Kelly opened the door.
Kelly was my friend and co-worker, but… I was kind of hoping she would soon become something more. Okay, I hadn’t asked her out yet, but I think we both recognized where things were going. I did, anyway. Kelly actually paid attention to me and seemed to enjoy my company, unlike most girls I had been around in my life.
Gorgeous. That’s how I saw her. Some people might have thought her somewhat short, and maybe not as thin as current fashion dictated, but her proportions looked good to me. And her hair: soft brown that went on and on, with a few green highlights as her one nod to fashion. She had it pulled back into a ponytail when she opened the door. The shorts and tank top were far more attractive on her than the work clothes I usually saw.
“Beryl? What are you doing here? My—” She interrupted herself with a sharp gasp as she caught sight of Rick.
“Hey, good to see you, too, honey! You don’t mind if I drop by with a wounded fugitive from justice, do you?” Actually, I didn’t say that. Except in my head. What came out was more like: “Uh… hey.”
Kelly glanced up and down the hallway. “Quick, get him inside.” She hurried to Rick’s side, and together we got him through the doorway and into the apartment. As Kelly shut the door, I eased our fugitive onto her parents’ couch. The apartment wasn’t spacious by any means, but still larger than mine. Their kitchen was a separate room from the living area; how awesome was that?
“The couch is okay for now, I guess.” Kelly turned around and gave a sharp look at the newcomer. “My parents are working tonight because of the parties, but they’ll be back in the morning. What in the holy name of Viridia is going on?”
Kelly had been raised by parents who, like my own and many more, revered the dragons as gods. Though neither of us believed it anymore, Kelly’s language still sometimes reflected her upbringing.
“Short answer,” I said, finding my voice. “I met this guy running from the Guard, I helped him escape, but he got hit with a shockspear. Got any anti-tox?”
She was cute when she twisted her eyebrows. It almost made her chromark look attractive.
“Gods, Beryl. What have you gotten yourself into?” She got a good look at Rick’s face. “He’s from the black city!”
“Shhh. Yes, I know. Anti-tox?”
With another look at the stranger lying on her couch, Kelly hurried off to search her family’s medicine stores. Both her parents worked in the bio-hospital, so I had no doubt she would find what Rick needed. They probably had all kinds of sample drugs lying around here, not that it would be exactly “legal.” But everyone had their own tiny acts of defiance, whether they revered the dragon or not. It’s basic human nature, right?
“She seems nice…” Rick mumbled.
“You’re not allowed to notice that, Onyx.” I shot a look to see if Kelly heard any of this. I leaned in closer. “I still have no idea who you are or whether I can trust you, but if you go near Kelly, I swear I’ll—”
“I hear ya…” I think he passed out at that point, because his eyes rolled back, and he stopped talking.
Kelly returned with a tube of ointment. “I think this should work,” she said, and knelt beside the couch. I helped position Rick’s leg so she could see his wound. It had grown uglier since the restaurant, and the greenish tint to the blood vessels appeared more distinct. Kelly frowned and opened the tube.
A few moments later, Kelly and I moved into the kitchen, out of Rick’s earshot, even though he seemed to be asleep. As crazy as this whole situation was, I couldn’t get over how I was standing there, with her, in her apartment. Before today, we had never interacted outside the bicycle shop. I told her all that had happened, with the exception of the draconic. No need to make things even scarier.
“I guess he can stay here tonight,” she said, though I could tell the idea didn’t appeal to her. “But what do we do in the morning?”
“I’ll stay too,” I offered. “Keep an eye on him, just in case. Then, in the morning, I’ll drop him off at my place before heading back to work.”
Kelly hesitated only a moment before she agreed. Her eyebrows drew together, and she stared off at the couch. “Beryl, I know you hate Viridia, but… actively thwarting the Guard? Isn’t that taking things a bit far?” She looked up into my eyes, probably searching for some acknowledgement that I was quite sane, after all.
I closed my own eyes. “No,” I said firmly. “It’s not enough. If I could figure out how to do it, I would kill him tomorrow.”
Kelly’s whole face seemed to widen in shock. “But—”
“I know, I know. It’s ridiculous and insane. But we weren’t meant to live like this, Kelly. It’s just… not right.”
“Then what is?” When I hesitated, she moved away and poured herself a glass of water.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Freedom. Whatever that means.”
After Kelly went back to her room, I stretched myself out as best I could on a large easy chair near the couch. It was far nicer than the one chair I owned. I guess hospital work paid better than the bike shop, though nowhere close to the dragon’s elite, of course.
I tried not to think about Kelly getting ready for bed just down the hall. Instead, I looked at Rick and pondered what his arrival meant. The dragon’s forces were after him, and that made him my ally. The dragon controlled every part of our lives. People like Kelly might be willing to pretend there was nothing wrong with that arrangement. I wasn’t.
Viridia’s birthday. What a joke. The dragon had ruled this city for around a thousand years. It was just the way things were. Nothing would ever change that. Nothing could.
And no matter how hard I tried not to think about it, the image of dripping blood forced its way into my mind. It was the image I would never forget, the image that always brought my rage to the surface.
Rage is not conducive to sleep. For the next few hours, I struggled to control my thoughts and emotions. It didn’t help that Richard Onyx snored. And sleep would have been a very good thing, considering how fast things fell apart the next day.
On to Chapter Three…