A day as the outsider

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The room was small, bare and noisy. The northern winds whistled outside the single window and the tavern punters could be heard through the floorboards. It contained a creaky, sunken bed and an absurdly tiny table with a single drawer, too shallow to store anything within. Fortunately the cool, dry Bruckin climate kept insect at bay and the room was shelter despite its sparseness - and was considerably more comfortable than the makeshift burrows and snowy, shielded overhangs Tranton Seldon had sought out atop the Barrier Mountains.

Most importantly the room was cheap, and conserving his funds was all the mattered. North had seemed like as good a direction as any after he'd slipped away from the festival in Treydolain: he'd never had any intention of returning to the coast, so pressing further into the continent made a kind of sense. He had initially expected to explore the valley but had swiftly abandoned that notion after encountering the locals - getting out was his entire focus. What he didn't know until reaching the city was that the Bruckin gate was closed to all and would only open on orders of the city's leaders. To gain such approval required the acquisition of a gate pass, which required either dealing with the city's criminal underbelly or raising significant funds.

The arena paid well and he was only one or two events away from having enough to buy his route out of the valley, depending on the audience turn-out. Then he'd be back in the mountains, alone, away from the broken, insane Lagonian cultural experiment.

Of all the eventualities, he hadn't anticipated this one. The Headland's history books remembered the valley as a focal point and a trade route, where people from the far north, Safast to the south and everywhere in-between met and worked and lived together. That information was several centuries out-of-date, of course, and the population had evidently been forcibly whitewashed in the intervening period. That it had taken him so long to fully recognise it was embarrassing, in retrospect. He'd assumed any discomfort in his presence was due to his status as an outsider, and the cultural shock of someone coming down off the glacier. It wasn't until the street battle during the festival that he'd finally understood the depth of the valley's problem with him - as if the steely glares, awkward handshakes and stiff, overly-polite conversation aboard the king's transport hadn't been enough indication.

Perhaps he'd simply been away from people for too long to pick up on the signs. Either way, he was done being a fool.

Sitting on the edge of the rickety bed, he rubbed his temples then brushed a hand over the stubble on his close-cropped head. Holding his hands in front of his face, he turned them over one way, then the other. The missing finger had healed up well in the end, the tiny stump neat and without pain. He still had phantom responses from it, as if it were still there in his mind. Perhaps the finger was still up on the mountains, wriggling its way slowly towards him in hopeless pursuit.

First he pulled on his boots and fastened his jacket. Then he placed the flat cap on his head, pulling it down low so that it covered his forehead and most of the back of his head. The face mask he tied around his neck, and tugged it into position, concealing his mouth and jaw. Then he took the glasses he'd acquired on his way out of Treydolain and wrapped their strap around his ears. None of it made fighting in the arena any easier but it was necessary if he was to avoid being identified immediately. Then came the gloves, one finger of which hung flaccidly at an odd angle. Finally was the coat, which he still needed to replace: it was holed and now useless as any form of protection. He was a cocooned man, shielded from the colder elements of Bruckin and insulated from the vagaries of the valley's prejudices. At least the wolves in the mountains hadn't cared for his skin: his flesh tasted the same as anyone else's.

One more fight. Then he'd be gone.

Bruckin felt always on the verge of snowing. The city was in a constant state of shifting between being naturally frozen and warmed by the fires of its industry. Even when the air was frigid, the streets retained a warmth from furnaces both evident and unseen, as if the city's heart beat somewhere behind the facade of the buildings, pumping life along its veins and arteries.

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