But my wound has slowed me down. Someone grabs my leg and yanks hard. I lose my grip, scrape myself against the wall, and crash to the ground. I hit my head hard enough to send the world spinning. Then they’re on me, dragging me to my feet and back to the screaming crowd. I fight to clear my head. Spots explode across my vision. I try to click my microphone on, but my tongue feels slow and covered with sand. Thomas, I whisper, but it comes out as Metias. I blindly reach out a hand for my brother, and then I remember that he’s no longer there to take it.
Suddenly I hear a pop and a few shrieks, and in the next instant they release me. I fall back to the ground. I try scrambling to my feet, but stumble and fall again. Where did all this dust come from? I squint, trying to see through it. I can still hear the noise and chaos from the onlookers. Someone must’ve set off a dust bomb.
Then there’s a voice telling me to get up. When I look to my side, I see a boy holding out his hand to me. He has bright blue eyes, dirt on his face, and a beat-up old cap on, and at this moment, I think he might be the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen.
“Come on,” he urges. I take his hand.
In the dust and chaos, we hurry down the street and disappear into the afternoon’s lengthening shadows.
SHE WON’T TELL ME HER NAME.
I can understand that well enough. Lots of kids on the streets of Lake try to keep their identities a secret, especially after participating in something illegal like a Skiz fight. Besides, I don’t want to know her name. I’m still upset about losing the bet. Kaede’s defeat cost me a thousand Notes. That was money toward a vial of cure. Time is running out, and it’s all this girl’s fault. Stupid me. If she hadn’t been responsible for getting Tess out of the ring, I would’ve left her to fend for herself.
But I know Tess would’ve given me sad puppy eyes for the rest of the day. So I didn’t.
Tess continues to ask questions as she helps the Girl—that’s what I’ll call her, I guess—clean the wound in her side as best as she can. I stay quiet for the most part. I’m on guard. After the Skiz fight and my dust bomb, the three of us ended up camping out on the balcony of an old library. (Does it still count as a balcony if the whole wall has collapsed and left this floor open to the air?) In fact, almost all the floors have collapsed walls. The library is part of an ancient high-rise that now lies almost entirely in the water several hundred feet from the lake’s eastern edge, completely overgrown with wild grasses. It’s a good place for people like us to find some shelter. I watch the streets along the banks for angry gamblers who might still be searching for the Girl. I look over my shoulder from where I sit on the balcony’s edge. The Girl says something to Tess, and Tess smiles cautiously in return.
“My name’s Tess,” I hear her say. She knows better than to say mine, but she keeps on talking. “What part of Lake are you from? Are you from another sector?” She studies the Girl’s wound. “That’s a nasty one, but nothing that can’t heal. I’ll try to find some goat milk for you in the morning. It’s good for you. Until then you’ll just have to spit on it. It’ll help with infections.”
I can tell from the Girl’s face that she knows this already. “Thank you,” she murmurs to Tess. She glances in my direction. “I’m grateful for your help.”
Tess smiles again, but I can tell even she feels a little uncomfortable with this newcomer.
“I’m grateful for yours.”
I tighten my jaw. Night will fall in about an hour or so, and I have a wounded stranger added to my duties.
After a while, I rise and join Tess and the Girl. Somewhere in the distance the Republic’s pledge has started blaring from the city’s speakers. “We’ll stay here for the night.” I look at the Girl. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay,” she replies. But it’s obvious she’s in pain. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands, so she keeps reaching for her wound, then stopping herself. I have a sudden urge to comfort her. “Why did you save me?” she asks.
I snort. “No goddy clue. You cost me a thousand Notes.”
The Girl smiles for the first time, but there’s something eternally cautious about her eyes. She seems to take in and analyze my every word. She doesn’t trust me. “You bet big, don’t you? Sorry about that. She made me angry.” She shifts. “I’m guessing Kaede was no friend of yours.”
“She’s a bartender from the rim of Alta and Winter. Just a recent acquaintance.”
Tess laughs and gives me a look that I can’t quite read. “He likes to be acquainted with cute girls.”
I scowl at her. “Bite your tongue, cousin. Haven’t you had enough brushes with death for one day?”
Tess nods, a small smile on her face. “I’ll go get us some water.” She jumps up and heads down the open stairwell to the water’s edge.
When she’s gone, I sit down next to the Girl, and my hand accidentally brushes past her waist. She takes a small breath—I move away, afraid that I’ve hurt her.
“That should heal soon, if it doesn’t get infected. But you might want to rest a couple of days. You can stay with us.”
The Girl shrugs. “Thanks. When I feel better, I’m tracking Kaede down.”
I lean back and study the Girl’s face. She’s a little paler than other girls I see in the sector, and has large dark eyes that shine with flecks of gold in the waning light. I can’t tell what she is, which isn’t unusual around here—Native, maybe, or Caucasian. Or something. She’s pretty in a way that distracts me just like she did in the Skiz ring. No, pretty’s not the right word. Beautiful. And not only that, but she reminds me of someone. Maybe it’s the expression in her eyes, something at once coolly logical and fiercely defiant. . . . I feel my cheeks growing warm and suddenly look away, glad for the coming darkness. Maybe I shouldn’t have helped her. Way too distracting. At this moment all I’m thinking about is what I’d give up for the chance to kiss her or to run my fingers through her dark hair.