Soft locks of blonde hair fall onto my face, delicate and soft. But they aren’t mine. “Aro?” a voice whispers, sounding anxious. My eyelids open as the hair disappears. Alene. She smiles, lighting up her face. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I say, smiling back at her in return. I look around at my surroundings and, taking in the pungent odour and dirt-covered street, realise that I don’t recognise the place. “Um, where are we? And why are you here?”
Alene sighs, her piercing eyes staring deep into my soul. “Jar.” She calls over another girl a girl who, this time, I recognise. “You two have met, right?” The two of us nod as she leaves, probably to scavenge food somewhere. I don’t know if we actually have any food or not, but given the Peasants around us, I’m guessing the latter.
Jarmina smiles slightly as she begins to speak, although it seems a little forced. Then again, it probably always has been. “So,” she begins awkwardly, “now you know how most of us live. Beside the sewage works – well, one of them – living off of Privates’ leftovers. Delicious.” Her sarcasm is intended to sound bitter, but I somehow feel the urge to laugh. I can’t though. Even here, I’m so accustomed to hiding my emotions, I can’t display them, show even a little bit of laughter.
To cover up what probably seems to Jarmina as teasing at a bad joke, I say, with a small attempt at a laugh, “I bet she’s not enjoying it too much,” jerking my head towards Alene.
Jarmina laughs with me, sneaking an almost sneering look at Alene. It’s a little odd: why would she act like that? “No, I don’t think she is.” Alene looks over at us, slightly warily. “God, those Privates are so nippy.”
I frown. I’m not sure what ‘nippy’ means, but it doesn’t sound exactly like a compliment. I’ll have to ask about that later. Now, Alene is coming over to us, grim-faced. I wonder if she heard our conversation. “You’d better come with me, Aro,” she says.
I follow Alene to a small, dark alley, slight suspicion falling over me. Why are we here? “What is it?” I ask.
Alene’s face is blank, almost as blank as mine is supposed to be. Then the calm façade is gone, and she glares directly at me. “I think you know.” When I shake my head, still confused about what the answers to my three questions actually are, she adds, “Jarmina hates me. I need to know why.”
“You know you really shouldn’t answer questions with questions, Aro,” she mocks, reciting an old Public saying. We don’t ask: We just do.
I feel slightly resentful towards her now: That’s what she did! “Yes, because you never did that.” I begin to see why I was put in that jail. I’m really not obeying her, and she is technically still one of my mistresses.
“Exactly. I never did that. But, please, Aro, just find out for me.” There should be a threat of some sort at the end, but there isn’t. A slightly unnerving silence hangs in the air for a few moments, before Alene leaves. “Wake up early.”
I’m not sure what that means: one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock? I know I shouldn’t be surprised: Publics are supposed to wake up early. Midnight would be early for me. The thing is, I have absolutely no idea what ‘early’ is for a Private.
Groaning, I return to our makeshift campsite, questioning the sanity of my two companions. Jarmina is defying the system even more than me, by not offering to serve either of us, and not even treating Alene with respect. Maybe she doesn’t need respect. Maybe she doesn’t want it. If she did want to be treated like a normal Private, she’d act like one and actually bother to tell me what I’m supposed to do.
The two girls are in a heated conversation as I approach them, but look up sheepishly as I near them. Alene casts me a dark look, before moving away to sleep. “Well,” Jarmina says. “Are you going to sleep or not?”
I nod, but suspicion hits me from the urgent-sounding tone in her voice. I lay down, though with no intention of sleeping. Jarmina smiles to herself, and steals away into the darkness.
Curious, I follow.