The soles of Naia's slippers might well have been strings of frail thread for all the good they did her. With each step, the fabric was further ruined, and more of Naia's foot was exposed. She was gasping for breath, shaking both from the brisk cold of the air and the exertion. She'd just... just run away. But she didn't regret it.
It had been nearly a month ago that she'd lost it. She was done. Done with the bullying and the taunting and the suffocating awareness that she was less than everyone else. She wouldn't stay still. She wouldn't just sit there and let them do this to her.
Since that month had began, she'd been planning, drawing out every meticulous step on spare paper and ink. She'd run away hours ago, though she did not know how many. It had taken her far too long to run through the abandoned streets, past the shops and little houses with shutters closed. Watching as the houses thinned and faded away. Leaving her home.
She had been standing in Elf's Ear Alley-vaguely shaped like an ear, though Naia still did not understand the name-steeling herself. But now, it was time to move. She would seek sanctuary in Mage's Meadow and be gone in the morning.
She fell against the wall, now at the point of Elf's Ear Alley. Once she turned the corner and hurried out the other side, she'd be in open air; and more importantly, she'd be outside Mage's Meadow. She was just a few steps away from freedom.
She let her breathing calm, wiped the sweat that had gathered on her forehead away. She was brave. She had chosen this.
It was dark, the world seeming to shudder as Naia straightened her sweaty hair. The little Redblood, the outcast, had run away. And she was quite alone.
Suddenly, Naia flinched against the wall, her heart screaming at her. There were two pinpricks in the darkness. Another pair of eyes that met her gaze as she stared.
They were vivid; green as fresh spring grass or the color of Naia's face once she'd had her finger pricked and sealed her fate. And they belonged to a vague figure-a boy-standing in the shadows.
Electricity surged through her body, tingles racing and skipping. This had been a terrible plan.
Elf's Ear Alley was known for its danger. It was dark, narrow and slightly more dingy than the rest of the village. Just a little, though. The air was still crisp, just not quite as fresh as it was out in Mage's Meadow, where it was safe. Stupid, stupid.
Naia had known, when she'd run, that no one would come looking for her here. Elf's Ear Alley- well, it was the stuff of horror stories. Children would talk of it around a fire and laugh, knowing they were safe. But Naia was not.
She had neglected to wonder if, perhaps, the rumors were true. She hadn't thought at all. She was so fixated on getting away, on being free, that it hadn't crossed her mind. But now those eyes-those unnaturally green eyes-were getting ever closer, creeping toward her.
There was a hideous scrape as Naia backed further into the point of the "ear," feeling her slippers wear away as they met the harsh gravel. Too late now. Her breath hitched. She just had to run. Run, Naia.
But her legs would not move. Sharp needles stabbed into the tender soles of her feet, the cold wall pressing against her gown. She was paralyzed.
Move, Naia. Now.
Naia's muscles trembled as she slowly stepped forward. But her adrenaline was kicking in. She grew faster still, until she had fled the protection of the point and was running down the other side of the alley. She heard footsteps behind her, and glanced back, heart pounding. The shadow, those two little lights in the darkness- they were retreating. Getting further away. Who was it?
She took a breath. The boy was just a bit taller than her, and looked slim. Probably not a thug. But was it a trick?
But before she could open her mouth, a terrified voice met her in the eerie silence of the alley.
The voice trembled, quivered with a note of terror and uncertainty that perfectly matched Naia's feelings.
On instinct, Naia ran. Her feet were being cut by the harsh asphalt, but she didn't care. She was supposed to be running. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. That-that person had seen her. He might tell someone. She paused, then turned, ever so slowly.
"I could ask you the same question," she said, her voice hoarse. "What are you doing in a dark alley at night?"
"I-um..." The voice sounded quite flabbergasted. "I woke up here."
"Mmm-hmmm," said Naia, in a patronizing tone. "Beg pardon, but why would you wake up here? Were you taken? Or was it by free will?"
"I-neither. Who are you?" asked the timid voice again.
Naia advanced further, nearing him in the dark.
He could not see her in the darkness. He didn't recognize her yet.
"Why are you out past curfew?" she asked.
The boy paused. "Curfew?"
"Yes, didn't you hear Governor Nalette's announcement?" The announcement in question had been made nearly a week ago, and Naia thought it was common knowledge.
Distant voices reached Naia's ear. She flinched back, but the voices passed, like she'd hoped they would.
"You cannot tell anyone I was here, alright? I don't care what you do, but do not tell a soul," she said, trying to sound stern even as her voice shook.
"Why?" he asked.
"Why," she muttered. "Because there are people after me. I need to get away."
This was half true. Naia tried to console herself, even as she shrank away from the lie that had escaped her lips.
"Oh. Well, do you know where the nearest city is? What is this, Vegas? The sketchy part of New Orleans?" he asked.
Naia was dumbfounded for a moment. Wasn't he from here?
"Don't be silly. New Orleans?" she asked.
"Are you from a neighboring town?" she asked, starting to feel uncertain at his own confusion.
"I'm from Utah," he said. "What state is this?"
"You're talking nonsense," Naia said dismissively. "But you must swear not to divulge my location."
"Swear it," she said harshly, then her voice softened. "Please. I can't be found."
"I swear," he said dryly.
"Wait," said Naia, dread creeping up inside her. "What are you?"
"What am I? A boy? An American? A living organism?" he listed.
"American? Whatever does that mean?" asked Naia, backing up a step. This boy must be delusional, or delirious, or something. Maybe he was fooling with her?
Before he could respond, she plowed on.
"No, I meant your blood type."
"Um, A, I think?" he said after a moment's deliberation. "I don't know. I didn't pay attention to Health."
"The color," groaned Naia. "I need to know."
"Red?" he asked. His tone implied that it should be obvious.
Naia froze. No. It couldn't be.
"Really? You're a Redblood?"
"Um, where I come from, we call it 'human.' But is there another kind of blood? Black, maybe? Or cerulean?" There was something in his tone. Sarcasm?
Naia laughed, something between hysteria and exhaustion clearly etched in the wild giggle.
"So, you don't know about the blood types? There are no... no Goldbloods or Bluebloods or-" She paused. "You're all Redbloods?"
"Oh... I think so? You lost me at Elf's Ear Alley," he said, sounding exhausted.
Naia laughed harder. He didn't know. He honestly didn't know.
"What?" he asked.
"You. You're so..." She couldn't think of the proper word. "Are you learned?"
"Learned? Yeah, I went to school. Why?" he asked.
Naia wondered, perhaps, if he was entirely conscious, but she dared not inquire. "What is your country like?" asked Naia without answering him. "How do you determine your superior sense?"
"Yep, you lost me again," he said. "We're just normal."
Normal. What a subjective word. Naia turned away.
"Not a word," she reminded him. No more delay. She was leaving.
"Wait!" he called, sounding absolutely desperate. "You have to help me."
Naia kept walking.
"I am sorry, but I don't have time to assist misguided...boys. I must be going."
"Please," he said, hurrying up to her. "I need someone who knows their way around. This obviously isn't America-is it Liverpool? Or St. Petersburg? Or... Timbuktu?"
"Not any of those things," she said. "You must be from a different branch- but which? This is the branch of the Mages."
"Why do all your places belong to... magical beings?" he asked. "Why isn't one of them just Neck of the Woods? Or, if you want to stick with the ownership thing, Humanville?"
"Again with the nonsense. I haven't the time, I'm awfully sorry, and I wish you-"
Suddenly, Naia paused. She had a sudden, chilling realization. What was she fighting for? Equality. Fair play. Happiness, even for the people viewed as undeserving of such a thing.
Shouldn't she be showing that to this lost boy? Shouldn't she be an example? Not that she was joining the rebellion, but... This was what she wanted. To show that she was better than that worthless village full of tight-minded people.
And, he was a Redblood, even if it sounded as though his whole village was. If he tried to move to Mage's Meadow, there would be nothing stopping the people from coming down hard on him. Naia had at least a grain of respect from her father. But this boy? He was lackluster, a nobody. He wouldn't stand a chance.
"What?" asked the boy.
She took a readying breath. If she did this-well. She would be turning away from everything she'd yearned for. They might have to go back to town. She might be trapped again.
But she needed to prove a point. Clenching her dress, Naia forced the words out.
"Where do you aim to go?"