If there was one lesson Warren’s parents had taught him in his seventeen years, it was never to show weakness. They lived by that rule. Mum was a teacher and Dad was a farmer. Ordinary jobs for town dwellers, but they never took any shit from anyone and were both highly respected in their fields. Warren thought not being a pushover was a good way to live his own life. He just hadn’t figured out how to do it yet.
When he’d bumped into Anya in Southwest Essention, he’d seen it as a prime opportunity to strengthen his position in Arcis by cementing their friendship of convenience. Because of his age and orphan status, Warren had been forced to join Arcis’ education programme. Except his parents weren’t dead. They’d abandoned him. But Arcis didn’t seem to care about that one small fact.
He was done with everybody’s trying to teach him something. He would have preferred a job in one of the factories; his whole life had been one long lesson. His parents were always at him to better himself, to stand up for what he believed in, to become a man.
But his parents were gone and Warren was forced to find his own way in life, starting with the quickest route out of Arcis and Essention. He was still on the ground floor, doing stupid cleaning jobs while being watched by those creepy wolves.
That night in Southwest, he’d felt his blood boil when Anya had glanced at him and said, ‘Um, Tahlia told me your parents joined the rebellion.’
But he’d kept a lid on his rising anger. Instead, he’d kicked a stone ahead of him.
‘I didn’t know Tahlia was so interested in my life. What else did she say?’ Anya didn’t respond. ‘That’s what I thought. Some bullshit about me in school, no doubt.’
‘Um, Jerome and Frank are nice.’
She was trying to change the subject. He couldn’t bear her pity.
Warren shrugged. ‘I think sometimes they’d rather I wasn’t around.’
He shot Anya a surprised look. ‘It’s a guy thing. I’m not into fighting as much as they are, despite what people say.’
‘Well, that shouldn’t matter. You’re part of the group. Tahlia and June like you.’
‘June, maybe. Tahlia’s never been my number one fan.’
‘She seems to think of me as this dick who goes around beating people up.’
‘Because of the girl and the race?’
Warren grimaced. ‘She told you about that? It was one time. God, she doesn’t forget anything. She’s labelled me this over-competitive freak who will do anything to get ahead.’ He stopped walking. ‘I’m just trying to survive, like everyone else.’
It was true. His parents had abandoned him for some stupid rebel cause they refused to tell him anything about.
At the end of their shift the next day, he waited for Tahlia outside the changing room. She gave him a strange look when she came out.
‘What do you want, Warren? You know it’s creepy to hang around the female changing room like that.’ She walked on and he stuck with her. ‘Stop following me.’
‘I need to talk to you.’
She kept walking until she was through the force field. She stopped and turned. ‘What about?’
‘About what you’re saying to people about me. You need to stop it.’
Tahlia folded her arms. ‘Or what? You gonna tell on me? You gonna beat me up? I may be small, but I’m not afraid of you.’
Warren stepped closer. He towered over her by at least six inches. Tahlia flinched, but recovered her steel.
He grabbed her arm and pulled her off the street and under the stilts of the Monorail. ‘I want to talk to you. I want to know what your problem is with me.’
Tahlia laughed. ‘What’s my problem? You were a little shit to me in school. Or don’t you remember?’
He frowned. ‘When?’
‘When I was trying to impress Billy Swanson and you told him the reason I was so small was because I was deformed. Or when I tried to get in with a bunch of girls who were more popular than me, and you told them I had a rare disease that was transmitted through touch. They called me “Scabby Skin” for the rest of the year.’
Warren smiled. ‘Oh yeah, I remember now. That was funny. The looks on their faces when you touched Francesca’s arm! She scrubbed her skin raw until it bled.’
Tahlia folded her arms. ‘I didn’t think it was funny.’
‘Well, maybe you don’t remember why I started all those rumours.’
‘I certainly don’t, Warren. I didn’t do anything to you.’
It was Warren’s turn to laugh. ‘So it wasn’t you who told Coach Dewson about my bed-wetting? He said I couldn’t run track because he was afraid I’d pee myself.’
‘I didn’t know you had trouble with bed-wetting.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
Warren grabbed clumps of his hair. ‘Are we seriously going around in circles here? You told lies about me.’
‘So did you!’
‘And now you’re telling Anya about me tripping up that girl in school? She thinks I’m a dick.’
Tahlia uncrossed her arms and took a step back. ‘Ah, that’s what this is about. You like Anya.’
He didn’t like her in the way Tahlia was suggesting, but if he mentioned his proposition of an alliance with Anya, it would surely send Tahlia off to undo all his good work.
‘No, I just don’t appreciate you telling strangers things about me that aren’t true.’
Tahlia lifted a brow. ‘So you didn’t trip up that girl then?’
Warren paused. ‘Well, yeah I did, but I didn’t mean it.’
Tahlia let out a long sigh. ‘I still don’t know why you needed to talk to me about this. Why do you care so much about what people think of you in Arcis? You don’t mix with anyone. You’re a loner.’
‘I don’t mix because I’ve got better things to be doing than listening to you and June waffle on about your stupid town lives.’
‘And what’s so stupid about them? You’re from the same town as me. Oakenfield has been good to us.’
‘Like Praesidium has been good to you and your family?’
Tahlia stared at him for a moment. He’d hit a nerve. She stormed out from under the stilts and headed down a road leading away from the Monorail station. Warren followed. ‘What, you didn’t think I knew you were there? Half the town knew. You know what the townspeople said? That your parents were kicked out of Praesidium because you couldn’t cut it as an artist. That was the only reason you were there. Praesidium wanted to study you, study your skills.’
Tahlia stopped walking and turned round. ‘We weren’t kicked out. We left of our own free will.’
‘My father said nobody ever leaves Praesidium of their own free will. They stay there forever or they get kicked out.’
‘Well, we didn’t get kicked out, if you must know. Dad needed to return to Oakenfield to take care of some business. It was a mutual agreement.’
‘I don’t know. He didn’t say.’
Warren folded his arms, feeling smug.
Tahlia narrowed her gaze at him then lowered her voice. ‘Don’t think I don’t know your parents abandoned you. They joined the rebellion. They left you behind because you were weak. You’ve always been weak. You bully people to get your own way, but that’s not power. That’s fear.’
Warren’s anger surfaced and his chest heaved. How dare Tahlia say that about him? His parents had taught him how to be strong.
So why did they leave you behind?
‘I’m not afraid of you, Warren,’ said Tahlia.
Warren stepped into her space once more. ‘You should be. You’re not going to get away with saying that to me.’
‘But it’s okay if you say hurtful things to me?’
‘Yes, if they’re true.’ He tried to control his breathing.
Tahlia looked at Arcis and its dual majestic black towers. ‘So what are you gonna do to me in Arcis, Warren? We’re surrounded by cameras. There are giant mechanical wolves patrolling the ground floor.’
Warren stood back and turned to leave. ‘Just wait, Tahlia. It will happen when you least expect it.’