Here is the first chapter of Freedom in Arbin, the final instalment of the Arbin Trilogy.
Freedom in Arbin will be available in the coming days. Stay tuned for links and updates!
Bone white ice capped Arbin like a prison. If I closed my eyes, I could pretend it wasn’t there, that the city was but a figment of my dreams, and I floated weightless in a void, bodiless, just the sum of all my memories and pain.
Were it not for the infernal cold.
I shivered, hunched almost double as I looked out of the small waist-high window of the loft apartment down to the dead street below. Snow lay thick on the ground, though it had stopped falling. Undulations streetside under eaves where drifts occasionally fell from nearby roofs, no longer able to bear its own weight, with the frequent noise invariably shattering my sleep. A lone stagger of bootprints in the pearly carpet had been filled in over hours, now just a dim outline. Windows and doors across were tightly shuttered, and I had yet to see them any other way. The busier streets and, I assumed, those north of the rivers, were regularly cleared by the few city employees that could be roused from hibernation. But here all was forgotten. Well, we tried.
Countless times in recent months I’d gazed down at the street and planned my escape. This window remained unlatched, the ledge I kept free of ice, the eaves across the narrow street were intact. And just a few blocks away the river flowed, refusing to freeze, its ceaseless slurry a defiance of nature’s imposition, an exertion of will that pulsed, unheeding, in the city’s heart. It wasn’t a pleasant smell when the wind blew in off the water, but I wasn’t planning to stay for summer when, I had heard, it just gets worse.
I glanced back at the door, expecting it to shatter and explode open any moment, cursing my foolish paranoia as I did.
My eyes began to sting and I had to blink away smoke. I opened the window a little and sucked in a lungful of the cold dry air, then gathered my cloak and accoutrements, looked around at the small cot and empty bottles and lifeless fireplace then stepped through the door and left the tiny room behind.
Nobody stirred as I strode the creaky landing. Sometimes I heard them—dull, distant through the walls—but everybody kept to themselves. The street was just as quiet. The air still, but the cold an assault. I stood a moment adjusting to it, breathing the frozen air.
As I passed beneath my window I didn’t look up. I realised then that the faded path on the snow was my own.
The sun broke through shifting cloud, but held little warmth. I squinted as its glare stabbed back off every surface. The brightness evoked a cry from a winging gull by the river, and perhaps it was my imagination but I thought I heard the lapping of the Gyre against its swollen timber walls.
The city’s true face was hidden beneath this glittering death mask. And how that façade shone, like a jewel too keenly polished to be of any real worth. Frosted windows appeared like webbed surfaces, and reflected nothing back at me. Trickles become solid hung bladelike from overhangs. Somewhere in the city the sun cracked sheets of ice that sounded like axes slowly splitting timber. Falls from roofs sifted to the street in a crazy music that was its own applause. Only the soft press of my boots lent a steady cadence. It felt as though Arbin was reluctant to reveal what was behind the glistening cage.
But its grip was slipping.
I walked the streets alone and silent but for my footsteps echoing back at me off the frozen walls, made louder either by the echo or the surrounding silence. The city slumbered. Yet beneath, it roiled. Its heart beat fast, waiting, frightened, pumping the lifeblood of the people to all corners.
Cling as it might, I was reminded, as an icy droplet struck my neck and trailed down my back sending a shiver all the way to my feet, that the ice must eventually melt. And when winter relinquished its grasp, then would blood break its frozen shell and run freely in the streets. For Arbin was a city at war. At war with itself. Even if it knew not why, or for what it fought, what was at stake, it would fight until its last pitiful gasp, for it knew no other way.
I used to think that things couldn’t change. Or rather that they wouldn’t—that fear and comfort and suspicion were stronger motives than any potentially productive force; that the thoroughly buried darkness in our minds and hearts shifted the grounded on which we stood. The city would be as it always was, with all the shit that comes with it. Perhaps there really was nothing worth fighting for here. All of it was just one small battle in a meaningless struggle that played out like fools cavorting for the amusement of the gods. Perhaps the world would be a better place, should some crashing fist make it disappear. Yet there had to be something.
I stepped out into the open space of the riverside, and the wind hit me with its full force. It wasn’t strong, but it snuck in through all the shadowed and unexpected places, chilling me to my depths. Sensation reminded me I was still there. I turned north—as was my habit, it seemed—and shambled along the bank, gazing down into the muddy ripples as I went.
It was as quiet there as everywhere else, but it seemed even more so with the trader ships and smaller fishing vessels bobbling empty at their moorings. A few scraggly faces, young and old, stared out at me from the dark side streets. Many here would struggle to survive the rest of the winter. Some may have already died; their sightless stares were little different from those of the living.
Hushed voices and the slap of the river against its wall were the only sounds, and the occasional creak of swollen timbers shifting in the breeze. Everything was at a standstill in the city, frozen—everything but the river.
I’d sucked up my pride and rented the apartment here by the Gyre. I had needed to get away, in more ways than one. Paid three months upfront, and another month’s worth for the landlord to forget I existed. Near the river there was the illusion of motion: the sound of it, the sight these occasional strolls bestowed. But even that was artificial—like the rest of the world was moving through Arbin, but not taking us with it. Still, it was distracting enough.
Up ahead a heavily cloaked figure was doing a poor impression of a man who wanted to be there. He shifted irritably in the cold, stared out over the river though there was nothing to see. My walks usually didn’t take me that far upriver. I stopped when I found a sheltered awning unlived in and scowled downriver so the wind wasn’t in my face.
After months of worry in the city, everything had pretty much halted completely. Rather than the open panic and outrage we had all expected, people had instead just gone into hiding. Probably encouraged by the soldiers wandering the streets in bands. Perhaps after so long talking about war and chaos, waiting for it, it didn’t really bother us any more. Eventually the river gates had been closed off to incoming and outgoing trade, portcullises rusted with generations of saltwater splashing them were lowered with what I imagined were noisy groans of protest. Again, nobody was much bothered. There was a murmur of complaint for a time, sure, but given that nothing much was moving in and out of Arbin anyway, there was little resistance from the waterbound traders and merchants. Word was that all goods were being diverted to the army on its campaign west.
Across the river a fisherman’s bell swung noisily on its pole, lonely like a church at midnight. Nice thing about being next to the river, if someone wanted to find me I could always jump in and swim across. Sure, I’d had to overcome my own fear of the water to resign myself to that, but I was comforted by the knowledge that everyone else was just as reluctant to have that stinking sludge lapping at their ankles as I was. The far side looked just as miserable: stalled vessels and iced-over structures, an absence of life.
The cloaked man was watching me, I noticed, probably wondering the same things as me. I turned and began making my way back.
My apartment window looked westward. There wasn’t much of a view, but I often pictured the King’s men journeying that way, following the sun. They’d be well into the desert by now, probably skirmishing with western tribes right now, hot sun beaming down. There was no news of the war, needless to say. The fervour had died down, or rather been quashed by the snow, but the soldiery’s ambition hadn’t. They were still recruiting, by all accounts. Occasional tussles broke out on the streets between detractors and the soldiery, but as yet there was no great crackdown. If they wanted to use us as spear-fodder, they’d have to be quick about it. Other than churning bad blood between the army and the citizenry, little seemed to be changing. And I was doing my best to avoid it all.
It was good to get away from everything. From everybody. But sometimes I found I just needed to take a walk, see some faces to remind me there were others around, hear some voices—I had to get news from somewhere. A few times out I even passed by old haunts, but I never went in. Everybody had their own problems. Probably all hiding out anyway.
But some days I just had a restlessness that could not be eased by walking. I had that now. My body was urging me to escape the icy wind, my feet were telling me to keep moving. My gut spun.
I stood at the junction to a main street that was all too familiar. One quick glance behind me confirmed there was still a brown cloaked man making a none-too-casual route of the river.
The brown cloak dredged some nasty memories. Though the cheap rough-weave cloaks were everywhere, especially down here, I couldn’t help flinching every time I caught sight of one. I had no trouble inventing scenarios for myself—the most common being where the nobles decided I knew too much and my time should come to an end, sending their bully boys down to help me on my way. I took little comfort in knowing they seemed to travel in packs.
I hunched my shoulders and headed to old haunts. I didn’t look back. Didn’t need to.
Despite the city’s attempts at hiding itself, my feet found the Hand with barely a stumble. I took some heart in the fact that I wasn’t pulled to it like before—this was a conscious decision.
I stood on the stoop and listened to the dull sounds from within—merely a mumble. The cold door handle stung my palm. I needed to get some new gloves.
Barely a look was cast my way as I crossed the taproom floor, but those that found me were centred about scowls devoid of any real feeling or recognition. Even Harald’s trademark disappointment didn’t linger long. I shook off the collar of my cloak and asked him to draw me something to warm the bones, then found a corner table where I could survey the morose crowd.
It was probably optimistic to think I’d been forgotten. I didn’t really believe in forgetting, anyway. Most of our memories just hide away in deeper parts of the mind, waiting for the right trigger to dredge them back up. All of which made the plight of these men and women, deep in their ales, pretty much futile.
I took a seat by the fireplace, facing the door, and settled in.
My mug was halfway to getting refilled when the door opened with a gust and my head turned scowling like the old-timers to glare at the newcomer. I was unsurprised to see the same brown-cloaked figure who’d promenaded so recently riverside. His glum stare made a circuit of the room as he shook snow from his cloak, not lingering over me any longer than the rest. It was a face I would have remembered, what with the ragged angry scar spilling down his left cheek. Still, I watched him carefully as he crossed the room and took a seat at the bar.
My belief in coincidences had undergone a crisis of faith in recent months, so I was under no illusion that he was just here for a drink. He had one, though. I could have just walked out the front door and headed home, but I wasn’t in the mood for games. And then he just would have followed me home. He didn’t look like a bruiser, didn’t look the sort of man that would have friends waiting outside, either. I would have noticed them for sure.
I drained my mug and sat back to wait it out. Sure enough, here came my buddy with not one but two frothing mugs at hand. He sat across from me without invitation and clapped one mug beneath my nose.
I tasted it. Ale. Well, he couldn’t be all bad.
“Don’t know that name,” I said. I took a long draught and leaned back. The man’s scar made him look meaner than I reckoned he was. His eyes betrayed a weariness, and I figured he wanted, as much as me, to just sit all this out in a warm room.
“Name I was told you go by.”
I met his eyes again. I didn’t sense a threat in his manner, but beneath the weariness there was an earnestness, almost a desperation. That should have alarmed me. I needed to practice looking at people again.
“Say I know him.”
The man puffed a laugh of disbelief. If he knew me so well, why bother waiting around while I finished my drink? I glanced down into its amber depths.
“Say you do. Got a job for you.”
Right down to business, then. He didn’t even give me a chance to say I already have a job. The man lifted a clinking cloth purse from below the table—it must have been in his hand already. Immediately my head almost turned to look around, see who else was sniffing the hanging coin, but I held it firm, looking past the purse at the fellow’s glum face.
I scowled at him but my attention was soon hooked by the dangling sack. I’m not what you might call a learned man, but I can tell when a proffered purse is weighed down by a large amount of silver. Silver that I didn’t even need.
Silver I couldn’t stop looking at, like it was hypnotising me.
I shook my head and scrunched my eyes. “I’m not looking for work.”
“I had noticed that,” the man said, cocking an eyebrow.
I let the purse sit dangling between us a while. He didn’t lower it. Maybe he really was trying to hypnotise me.
Bet the mugs came out of the retainer, I thought, and drank quickly.
Gods, this was why I hadn’t been coming here. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I do, who comes shoving itself in my face but trouble?
I also knew there was a lot of money in that purse for a good reason. My instincts cried no.
After a few moments of watching me deliberate, the man obviously made up his mind and dropped the purse to the table. My eyes followed its fall, which seemed longer than the weight of coin should have allowed. It seemed to deflate as it struck the tabletop with a muted clatter.
“Why me?” I asked.
He shrugged and looked wide-eyed at the table and its adorning purse. He had clearly been wondering the same thing himself. “Only man for the job, it seems.”
“Only one stupid enough,” I mumbled, forcing my hands to my knees.
“Why am I the only man?”
He shrugged. “They don’t tell me nothing more than that.”
Of course they don’t.
“’Cept that’s only the half of it,” he said, nodding down at the purse.
So. A good deal of silver indeed.
“How long you been following me?” I asked.
“Just over half a bell.”
I blinked. He blinked.
“How long you been looking?”
“Just on a month.”
Lady’s tits. Only man for the job indeed. I was popular, it seemed. I’d have to have word with the Boss about that. He was getting too friendly.
I reached over and palmed the purse, disappeared it in my cloak. The man nodded, visibly relieved. Probably he wasn’t getting paid to chase me around.
He gave me a name. Anselmo Vorgas. Used to be names meant nothing to me. I was happier in those days.
Maybe I was just too skeptical now.
I rested my hand on the shifting bulk of the purse through the layers of my cloak, watched the scarred man slip out of the Hand, then signalled to Harald for a meal. There were some things I needed to chew on.