His name was Rubin, and he hated love. ---Prequel to Free---


8. Arriving

The city walls were taller than Rubin had expected, and the sheer size of it was enough to steal his breath. His eyes devoured the sight of it: cold grey walls, standing as constant sentinels to guard the city - and the palace within it. It stretched skywards in infinite sheets of stone, each turret alone enough to accommodate an entire village - perhaps more. From each one flew the Arsenio flag, bearing the seal of the famously powerful royal family. The colours seemed to defy the grey, as though they were making a statement that the Arsenio family would never falter, would always be the brightness in an ocean of dull.

Rubin clicked his tongue, digging his heels into the horse's flanks and urging it onwards. Tossing its head, it sped up and carried him faster to the city. He would be safe here. There were walls, and soldiers, and weapons. Equally importantly, there were people. People from whom he could steal.

As he drew closer to the city gates, Rubin could make out the intricate design woven into the heavy oak. Dragons, warriors, magic. Too entranced to tear away his eyes, he marvelled at the scenes it depicted; he awed at the glorious stories told between each metal bar of reinforcement. Such detail was seen as pointless in his village, but Rubin decided he liked it. He made a mental note to steal something of equal intricacy.

His horse stopped at the gates. Finally, Rubin's eyes fell from the gates to the guards. Their suspicious gazes tried to penetrate his confidence, but he did not buckle.

"I'm seeking refuge in the city," he declared, studying the guards.

"The city is full of refugees. You're only a boy. You do not offer anything to its survival," said one of them. Rubin looked at the five of them, and noted the marriage ring on the tallest's finger - worn, old, marked. A softening expression plastered his face.

"Please," he said, turning his attention to the one with the ring. "I can help out with anything. I'm strong from work. I... My parents were killed," he said, trying to keep the hatred and the bitterness from his voice. Sorrow. Desperation. He needed to sound more emotional - with a guard more human than the others, this could be his only way in. "Please," he said again.

The guard succumbed.

"Open the gates," he called out. Rubin shot him a false smile and thanked him. And then he spurred his horse forwards, and not once did he look back to the guard who had saved his life.



An hour later, he'd already sold the horse and stolen enough food to keep him going a few days. The next thing to do was to rent somewhere to stay. He'd seen the other homeless refugees - huddled hopelessly in the slums, their faces haggard and their eyes empty; Rubin would not fall that low. He refused to submit, no matter the hardship, no matter the troubles stacked against him. Besides, he had money - the horse had sold for more than he'd hoped.

All he needed to do, really, was to pick a place, and that was probably the hardest part about it.

He wanted to go everywhere. The city was so intriguing and full and bustling and exciting; he'd walked through its streets for only an hour, and yet he could not turn away from the market stalls or the towering buildings or the hurrying people. He loved the sense that everything was moving, and he loved that he was even a tiny part of the movement.

First, he decided to get newer clothes. His were stained with dirt and mud; to be accepted in the cleaner, taller streets, he'd need to look presentable, at least. First, he purchased boots - and then a silken tunic, and then comfortable breeches and a cloak. He loved it all. The finery, the feeling of the soft material across his skin.

With the newer attire, he ventured into the streets nearer to the palace. Here, the stones beneath his feet were cleaner; there were not so many people lining the streets with their wails and sobs. Here, there were people to chase away the refugees - but not him, because now he was one of them, another well-dressed member of the city with enough money to make it through in comfort.

He found every distraction that he could. The statues, the water features, the people as they brushed past those around them, as though the entire city revolved around them and others must move to allow them passage. Everything to occupy his mind - because everything had to be better than remembering his old life. He'd left all of that behind, and maybe that was the reason he loved the city so much - because it was different, new, could in no way spark any memories of his home. His real home.

He found an inn as the rays of sunset had started to taint the stone of the city with red. It was beautiful, really - more beautiful than it ever had been before. And the food at the inn was glorious, and the people were polite and they asked him nothing of parents, because they cared only for the coins he poured into their hands. And that, he decided, was an incredibly respectable trait. Money before all else - because with people, money was important, and money could get you anything.

And as he finally retreated to his room, he sunk into the feathery embrace of the bed, and he smiled.

Life was good, here.

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