“Please, Alp, reconsider. This isn’t wise.”
“You worry needlessly,” he replied with the laugh in his voice that Deniz hadn’t appreciated since they were small children. “It’s a petition, not a revolution.”
“But you know how the Serdar deals with threats. He’ll have you silenced for sure!”
“Me, Deniz? The Serdar and I have been long been friends. We cut through the mercenaries of Gelenek and the tribesmen of Karma to carve out a life here. We shared a common goal for Fert. Once.” His voice trailed as the Tower’s sagging imperial dome broke into view, dominating the flat, awkwardly asymmetrical construction of the streets below. The heavy gold finial slouched to the east over the marble parapets that had been known to slide free in great slabs. One block had even crushed a man, once. The sight of it terrified Deniz, but Alp had never shared her common sense.
“Alp please, think of what happened to Kųs. All he did was question the Serdar’s leadership and the next thing you know the bagum surrounded him in the streets, beat him senseless, and burnt down his shop.”
“I do think of Kųs. And all the others the Serdar has sent his secret police after. But as long as there’s still someone left to raise a voice for the people—“
“They cut out his tongue, Alp.”
“—there is still a chance to speak as reasonable men.”
Deniz wasn’t so sure.
“Could you not just send them a letter? Anything but going into that tower? People don’t come out of there… whole.” Bile rose against her tongue, but she swallowed it down again.
Her brother paused and turned, and took both of her shoulders in his hands.
“No, Deniz. I will meet the Serdar and the council on their own floor. I am not a coward, and I am not weak. Every man is equal in Fert, from the one-legged beggar to the Serdar’s seat on the council. I will have him remember that.”
“Please, Alp. You’re all I have,” she begged. His eyes swam over her face, while hers remained fixed on his brow. If only she could just penetrate that thick skull of his, make him see that a live brother under the shadow of the Tower was worth more to her than a dead one aside of it.
“Fear nothing,” he told her at last, then kissed her forehead and turned away to disappear between two sleepy looking sentries who were tilted forward against their spears, as wilted as the Tower itself.
She’d had to return to the market. As much as her heart bled for her brother, they couldn’t afford a day’s lost income. Trust in him and his words was the only thing that kept the tears at bay as she sat behind their radishes. They were small, hearty things, engineered by their own hard work to a vivid blue gloss that drew customers from all over Fert.
Great marvels of Fercian achievement, the Sedar had praised. An achievement they could all be proud of, he lauded. Proof that even the people of Fert, cast aside by Galenek and its like along the coast could produce greatness, he boasted. They tasted just the same as any other radish grown in Fert, Deniz thought, but it was all they had; if her countrymen liked them, the pride and income was welcome, if modest.
Besides, it wasn’t as though they had much of a choice. The soil in Fert was poor and not much grew there. The fields of Gelenek could grow many different kinds of fruits and vegetables, or so she’d heard in the Undermarket. Not that it mattered much anyway. Estates in Gelenek were hereditary, and they didn’t open their doors to begging refugees. She had about as much chance of walking the fields of Gelenek as her radishes did of turning into apples.
A bronze hand reached into her stall and startled her from her thoughts. The color wasn’t common in Fert where the people were pale and uniform. Even the infrequent travelers tended to adopt the same color, if they stayed long enough; this man must be new.
The hand was attached to an arm, naturally, and the arm to a man who was not young, but neither was he grey. He had a kind smile though, and intelligent eyes which drew up her curiosity. He didn’t have the look of a farmer, but he didn’t wear the beads of a priest of the collars of a scholar.
“Miss,” he said, pronouncing all his final letters with a determined clarity, “do you sell anything else? Can I buy anything other than radishes here?”
She couldn’t place the accent. It was northern, for sure. Karma, perhaps, though in Karma the people tended to be caramel in color. This man was practically metallic. He was, in short, difficult to pin to a particular region.
“No, I’m sorry. We only have radishes. But these are Blue Nuggets,” she plucked the largest radish from its box, “they’re like no other in Fert. Slow cooked for a few hours in water, they have the sweetest flavor, like plum-”
The stranger shook his head. “I’ll pass. A man down the lane tried to sell me a radish he swore tasted like candied lemon. I don’t think he’s ever tasted a lemon in his life.”
Deniz set the radish down again and wiped the dirt off her fingers with her apron. “You’re probably right about that. Not many people here have tasted anything but radish.”
“Why don’t you grow something else?”
She shook her head. “We take what the land gives us. The soil is poor here. It’s hard enough to grow people, but food even moreso.”
He gave her a long, dubious look. “So you’ve never, in your whole life, eaten anything that wasn’t a radish?”
Deniz hesitated and glanced over her shoulder. It was hard to tell who was friend or foe in Fert. Neighbours she had thought for years were sympathetic to the fears of the people turned out to have their ears and hands turned to the Serdar for his support in exchange for information. The only thing she could be certain of was that this man, with his robust complexion and open, inquisitive eyes, was safe. Foreigners could be trusted. It was her countrymen she feared. She pulled her voice cautiously now.
“We… do have another market. An Undermarket, that the Council doesn’t know about. You can buy other things there.”
Both his eyebrows lifted. “What sorts of things?” he whispered.
Deniz leaned in closer. “Lettuce. Carrots. Broccoli. Fruit.” And wasn’t fruit the sweetest sin in Fert?
The stranger leaned back and treated her with a loud, mocking laugh. “Really? Fruit is what you have to keep secret from your Council?”
Panic welled up in Deniz and she looked around her quickly again. “Not so loud! Someone will hear.”
Thank the god of the earth that he quieted, though his grin remained.
“Alright. We’ll play it safe. How does one get to this ‘Undermarket’?”
“I’ll take you,” she hissed. “But you have to stay quiet.”
“You have my solemn vow,” he said, placing a hand over his heart. She gave him a long searching look, but couldn’t find anything false about him. Nodding her head once, she threw a tattered tarp over her wares and gestured him closer.
The Undermarket wasn’t really under anywhere. It existed in the back rooms of several establishments throughout Fert—some created for the purpose of hiding from the Serdar, and some that had popped up in existing businesses. It all depended on what one wanted to buy, or who one wanted to see. The more punishable the contraband, the more people one had to go through—the further ’under’ one had to go.
Deniz led the stranger to a cooper who sold five gallon barrels in the open market for radish pickling. He sold mangoes and cherries and the occasional jar of kumquat marmalade in the Undermarket. The stranger gave the cooper’s sign a dubious look, but Deniz ignored him and stepped cautiously inside.
She caught the shopkeeper’s eye, and nodded her head to the three fingers he laid on the table in answer.
“Over here,” she instructed to the stranger, and sat at one of the benches near the window. He followed, but as soon as they were seated, asked,
“What’s all this about?”
“The cooper is serving other customers,” she answered, her eyes focused on the large iron hoops hanging from nails in the rafters.
“Other…” the stranger trailed, but thankfully said nothing more.
Presently, the three other people in the shop drifted out without buying anything, though they made a large show of how much they appreciated the cooper’s craftsmanship. He thanked them politely, watched them leave, and then approached Deniz.
“Who’s your new friend?” he asked.
“Zeki,” the stranger said, and offered his hand. The cooper grunted but didn’t take it.
“Is he safe?”
Deniz nodded, though there was no way to tell for sure. He could have been a spy bought by the Serdar from outside their borders. Given the Serdar’s paranoid xenophobia it seemed unlikely but the possibility remained. Perhaps Alp’s carelessness was rubbing off on her.
The cooper turned a scrutinizing look on Zeki. “You’ve come to a hard land, friend. You’d best turn tail and go back the way you came.”
Zeki smiled affably. “You’ve got some strange ways, sure, but I like the freshness of it. I think I’ll stay a while all the same.”
“Suit yourself. Where do you come from? Gelenek?”
“I’ve spent time there, yes, but it’s not my home.”
Spent time in Gelenek? What was he doing here, then? Did he have an estate there? Why on earth would he leave?
“Where is?” the cooper continued.
“Truth is, I don’t have one. I enjoy the road. A few years here, a couple months there. There’s something to be enjoyed wherever I end up.”
The cooper grunted again. “What can I get for you?”
“Mangoes, if you have any,” Deniz answered.
“Might be that I do.” The cooper turned and left through the door in the back that led to his home above the shop.
“What was that all about?” Zeki asked when they were alone again.
“The customers, thing. He wasn’t serving anybody. They were just standing around.”
“Oh. They likely didn’t have any money.”
“So why browse in a cooper, of all places?”
“To show their interest. The Serdar encourages it for morale. Visit a few shops a day to perk up the keeps’ spirits. People get perks for doing it. Sometimes it’s just a nod of approval from the Council. These days though, that nod can mean the difference between living another day, and a shady disappearance,” she answered grimly.
“All right, so why did we have to wait if they weren’t real customers anyhow?”
“Because they aren’t part of the Undermarket. We have signs. Hand signs or small, casual gestures that we all recognize, so we know who’s safe and who isn’t. They must not have given the cooper a sign. Thus, caution.”
“I see,” Zeki answered, and fell into momentary silence. “If morale is so low, why doesn’t everybody take part in this Undermarket?”
She turned to look at him. “Because some of them believe the Serdar when he tells them that this is a land of prosperity. They believe that our rainbow of radishes is a miracle, and that window shopping and empty compliments are as good as cold coin.”
Zeki looked incredulous. “Why?”
“Because they’re scared. Fert isn’t paradise, but everyone has food on the table, and a neighbour to rely on, more or less. Radishes and smiles in Fert are better than starvation and scorn out there.”
After a moment of silence, Zeki asked, “so what are you afraid of?”
“Failure,” she said, looking forward again. Fortunately, Zeki seemed to know when to remain silent.
They left with a hand-barrel of mangoes each.
“So where is it that you live?” Zeki asked.
“Is that an appropriate question to ask an unmarried woman?”
“Only if one knows beforehand that she is unmarried. My apologies.”
Demiz lifted a shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. I live with my brother on the fourth street.”
“The fourth street? The fourth street from what?”
“From the Tower.” She pointed out the structure, though Zeki hardly could have missed it when he entered Fert.
“Huh,” he said as he gave it a look over. “I’m surprised you haven’t stripped it down for building materials yet, from the look of all the rest of these dilapidated houses. Is it a historic site?”
Deniz chose to ignore the insult. “No. It’s the seat of the Council. The Serdar and the Vizier and the others live there.”
“People live there? It looks as though a strong wind could knock it over.”
“I never said that wise people lived there.” She turned the corner on the fifth street, took a short cut through an alley to the fourth street, hopped the muddy foot deep rut in the center of the street, and finally stood at her doorstep.
“Why do you allow unwise people to lead you?”
“Because they brought us here,” she answered gently. “The Serdar, the Vizier, the Vali. My brother,” she added the last more gently. “They claimed this land for the free peoples of Fert, back when it was just rock and dirt. They envisioned a land where everyone was welcome, no matter of creed or color. Where everyone was equal.”
“So what happened?”
“They built the Tower. Well, the Serdar did. My brother wanted no part of it. Towers, he said,” Deniz turned the key in her lock and pushed open the door. “Separate people. And he was right. The Tower went up and then people were no longer equal. How can everyone have the same worth when five look down on all the rest?”
Zeki had no reply to give, and so Deniz led him inside, careful to lock the door behind her. “Make yourself at home.”
“Who’s this?” Alp leaned out of the kitchen.
“Alp! You’re safe.” What was more surprising, she wondered: that he was safe and well back in their home, or that he greeted her with such nonchalance as though he’d done nothing more dangerous than pick radishes that afternoon? The latter, of course, She would never be done with the surprise her brother’s too casual nature produced in her.
“Of course I am. I told you nothing would happen.”
“But what about the Serdar?”
“Oh, he wasn’t in attendance. It was just the Vizier and the Vali, as usual.”
“They were quite moved it seemed. They were ignorant to the fact that the Serdar has been using the bagum as his own private police corps. Or that there even was a bagum to begin with. Seems there’s a lot going on in Fert that they’re ignorant to. They plan to take the matter to the Serdar immediately.”
Deniz heard herself groan. “Let’s pray they don’t mention your name.”
“The Vizeir assured me confidentiality.” He passed a smile to her, and crossed the room to where Zeki was standing politely silent.
“I’m Alp. It’s good to meet you.” He extended his hand.
“Zeki,” the stranger answered, and touched a knuckle to his brow.
“He’s not from around here,” Deniz said needlessly. “And since he followed me home, I suppose he’s staying with us.”
“A guest from the outside, huh? I guess we can accommodate. Where are you from, Zeki? You have a Karma accent, but your red hues suggest you’re from Dışarı.”
“You know an awful lot about the outside, for one who lives caged up in isolation,” Zeki answered. He was almost as carefree as her brother. They’d make quite the pair of dancing fools on the gallows one day.
“Don’t let Fert’s isolation fool you. Some of us are quite well-travelled. I’m not as afraid of the outside as the Serdar is.”
“I’ve heard a lot about this Serdar you have. He sounds a frightful dictator.”
“He is, but it wasn’t always this way. The both of us were at Gelenek, you see, the day they closed their gates.”
“When they refused any more refugees, you mean,” Zeki supplied.
“Precisely. They closed the gates in our faces. We had no homeland. Nowhere to return to. All we could do was create our own, but it wasn’t to be ruled without mercy like Gelenek.”
“I understand it was to be governed by the will of the people?” Zeki asked, and Alp nodded.
“That was how it was supposed to be, but those with the biggest and brightest ideas sort of congealed together, and once the ground work for a functioning nation state had been laid, well, together they came up with bigger, better ideas until it seemed to the rest of Fert that a council was indispensable.”
“I can see how that might be,” Zeki said. “And not altogether unreasonable, either. It’s been my experience that more things get done the less people there are making decisions.”
“Oh, things are getting done all right. But they aren’t in the interest of Fert, anymore. The Tower is just one example. The Serdar denies the citizens the right to export trade while at the same time squandering what resources we have on useless bells and whistles that are supposed to make the people feel as though they’re living in Gelenek, even though they scarcely have enough food to fill their bellies.”
“And the rest of the Council is just as corrupt?”
“In idleness, yes. So long as the Serdar keeps them well fed, they hardly make an utterance against him.”
“Well, you seem to have control of your own goods, at least. What’s stopping you from trading freely on your own?”
“Exile,” Deniz answered. “It’s true that every citizen of Fert has complete control of what they can produce out of the earth, but if the Serdar catches wind that you’re trading on your own, your loyalty to Fert is brought into question. Tribunals are called. Questions about your past are brought up. Any time you ever had a disagreement with another free citizen of Fert is used against you until everyone in the country is convinced you’re a traitor.”
“Surely not everyone? That sort of slander couldn’t reach so very far as to ostracize someone out of the country.”
“Sure it can. I told you the people are afraid. If you throw your lot in with an accused traitor, you’re practically a traitor yourself. Neighbours point fingers, friends turn their backs. Before long, you’re completely on your own. And that’s to say nothing of the people who genuinely believe that the Serdar is working in their interest. They are the most dangerous of all. They will believe anything the Council says, regardless of whether or not it is complete lunacy.” She shook her head. “This is why we live quietly. We buy small things from the Undermarket, keep our heads down and live our lives day by day.”
“But one day, things will change,” Alp added, with an excited light in his eyes. “The Serdar has grown too bold. He employs outright violence against the people now, not just subtle manipulation. Property damage, bagum strong-arming stubborn shop keeps, public mutilations. The people can’t stay silent for much longer, not when the danger of living in Fert begins to exceed that of living outside of it.”
When Alp had finished, Zeki was quiet. Deniz understood. If Zeki had entertained ideas of spending any appreciable amount of time in Fert before, he surely wasn’t now. More for the better. If he had options, he ought to use them to put as much distance between here and him as possible. God of the earth knew Deniz would, if she could.
“It’s not so bad,” she said at last into the silence, and gave his shoulder a pat as she stood. “We have a warm fire and tern feather beds, at least. Come, I’ll show you to yours.”
By the time Deniz woke up the next morning, the men were gone. It was just as well. She had the last of her spring radishes to pickle, and seeing how Alp didn’t know vinegar from beet juice but still liked to pretend like he was helping, she always got more done when he was out of the house.
It gave her time to think about, among other things, Zeki, and some of the strange ideas he had about farming. Flooding a field, for example, to grow grain. Deniz couldn’t imagine any plant growing out of a foot of water and mud, but Zeki swore he’d seen it, and she was inclined to believe him.
They’d stayed up late into the night listening to his stories as a traveller—from his short stint in Gelenek to the long years he’d spent in far away Konger. (The latter where he had raised sheep, which he insisted where a miracle animal for the amount of product that could be collected from them.)
More than once Deniz had felt the temptation to ask if they might go away with Zeki once he grew tired of Fert, but she knew Alp wouldn’t go. He couldn’t leave Fert, its people, and its dream behind any more than she could leave him behind. Her place was with her brother, though from the excited optimism of their conversation the night before, flooded grain and mutton in Fert didn’t seem so much an impossibility as it had before she’d met Zeki. Even for all of his worldliness, the man still seemed to feel there was hope to be had in Fert, a sentiment that Alp had hungered after for a long time now.
At just before four, her pickling was finished and the men still had not returned. If they were going to stay out to eat at one of the public houses, she at least needed to know not to waste food they weren’t going to eat.
She left the house with a small jar of mango chutney as thanks for the cooper stored in the lining of her coat, and set out to find her brother and their house guest.
She didn’t have to search far. In fact, it seemed like everyone north of the fourth street had found Alp and Zeki. It certainly felt like the entire neighbourhood was gathered around the dry well in the sixth street square. The chutney forgotten, she pushed her way through the muttering, restless crowd until she could see the two rabble rousers for herself.
“Deniz!” Alp called, and waved her closer.
“What are you doing?” she hissed.
“Enlightening the people. It was Zeki’s idea. Did you know that you can apply for citizenship in Gelenek after three years of working there? Hell, if you have five years of relevant experience in a place like Dışarı they will consider you. All these years the Serdar had us believe that if you weren’t Gelenek born, no one there would spare you a pot to piss in.” He shook his head in disbelief, and gestured to the crowd. “They could hardly believe it either, but Zeki still had his citizenship card.”
“Alp, please tell me you’re not spreading dissent. The Serdar’s ears are everywhere. God of the earth but you’re anxious lately to return to the ground!”
“It’s not dissent, Deniz, it’s ideas. Fresh, new ideas that Fert desperately needs. We need new people and new ways if we’re going to survive. If the people can be convinced of the benefit, then so can the Council. The Serdar doesn’t have the power to arrest everyone in Fert. Who then would he rule?” There was logic in what he had to say, but if Fert ran on logic then they wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.
“Alp, please. If we go home now, maybe this will disappear before it reaches the Tower.”
“Excuse me, Alp.” A man cut in front of her before she could plead further. “If I wanted to raise sheep, could they eat radishes? Would I have to buy them special food?”
“If radishes are good enough for the people of Fert, I can’t see why a sheep couldn’t eat them,” he answered.
Behind her, a woman’s voice asked, “And if I spend a few years working in Dışarı, I could apply for an apprenticeship in Konger? And from there citizenship in Gelenek?”
“Of course,” Zeki answered. “There are many different paths into Gelenek, or even around it, if you’re interested.”
Around her, the people began to shuffle closer. Question after question floated past her. Could they arrange trade agreements with Karma? Would Dışarı universities accept Fercian citizens? Could Zeki be convinced to take a group of people to Konger some time?
She saw a flash of her brother’s grin through the crowd between the answers he and Zeki gave. The excitement around them was growing, as was the number of people and for a brief moment, Deniz’s fears ebbed. Truly, what would happen if all of Fert demanded a change in policy? Was it really as simple as that? Would the Serdar listen to their demands?
She shouldered her way back to Zeki and took his wrist. “Can it be done?” She asked him, when she had his full attention.
His warm honey eyes shone down on her with a light she was well familiar with in Alp’s own.
“It isn’t impossible. Stranger things have happened.”
It wasn’t a lot to go on, the risks were still high. But the people around her seemed to believe it was worth it, and if they could put their faith so strongly in her brother and this stranger, she supposed she could as well.
The pounding roused her at a quarter to five the next morning. Ever a light sleeper in anticipation of a visit from the bagum, she sat up in bed, pulse racing at the first beat that echoed through their home. She waited. The pounding came again, insisting, but it was a knock. Just a knock. They were safe. The bagum didn’t knock, they kicked the door in.
She rose quickly and dressed, cautiously moving toward the front of the house, she pulled open the shutter to see who was on the other side.
A pair of brown eyes and a frantic voice greeted her back.
“Come quickly! The bagum are marching through the streets, torching buildings and arresting whole families! Grab what you can, we’ll fight them off!” The eyes disappeared, and footsteps ran down through the street.
Deniz turned away from the door, and ran back to the bedroom to rouse Alp.
“Where’s Zeki?” She asked, throwing a coat over her shoulders.
“Zeki? He didn’t come back last night. He and a handful of others were arranging a trip to Konger. Why? What’s going on?”
“The Serdar has mobilized the bagum. They’re terrorizing people in the streets. Come, we have to help.”
She could hear the shouts more clearly now, the angry squawks of the people, and the whistles of the bagum that followed them. This was undoubtedly their doing—hers and Alp’s and Zeki’s. Why she’d allowed herself to get swept up in their excitement and optimism she couldn’t understand now. She should have stopped it as soon as Zeki started asking his questions. She shouldn’t have ever brought the damned trouble-making stranger home! If they didn’t all end up in a cell under the Tower or worse after this it would be a miracle.
“Wait,” Alp called as she set her hand on the door handle. He had a cutlass in hand, an old weapon he’d used in the wars before there was a Fert, before they’d even pounded on Gelenek’s walls. She hadn’t seen it in years, but it still shone. She didn’t have a weapon herself; she’d been much too young then to fight, but tonight was different. There would be blood tonight, and she’d be damned if any of it was hers. In the kitchen she selected a paring knife. It was small and mean, but it had a good point, and a sharp edge.
“I’m ready,” she said, and together they left the house.
The air was thick with smoke. The skyline burned orange and shouts and exchanged blows rose in a cacophony of anger throughout the Fercian night. Deniz and Alp ran for the city square, where their peaceful rally had been held less than twelve hours before. It was anything but peaceful now.
Men and women churned around the dry well as an angry sea of humanity. Some were bloody in the face where they’d taken fists or clubs. Others fought with rudimentary farm equipment. Others still lay motionless on the cobbles, but the bagum had taken the worse damage by far. They hadn’t expected such riot. Deniz wouldn’t have expected it either, until she saw what had undoubtedly caused it. Until she saw Zeki.
They’d hanged him—bagum had—from a flag pole behind the well where he still swung. His mouth hung open unnaturally and Deniz covered her own mouth at the sudden realization that they had cut out his tongue. From the amount of blood on his shirt and the painful expression frozen in death on his face, he’d been alive for the torture.
Beside her, Alp’s voice rose up in alarm. He climbed over the bodies of those who had already tried to cut Zeki down and those who’d tried to keep him up, but he was shoved out of the way before he could reach the man’s feet. The crowd caught him, and recognizing Alp, surged forward against what remained of the bagum. A brick was thrown and caught one of them just under his temple. The bagum stumbled and went down to a knee before he fell face first in the dirt. Those who remained considered their position a moment longer before they turned and in haste retreated back toward to Tower.
Alp mounted the stone edge of the well he’d occupied that afternoon.
“Friends! What we witness here tonight is an attack on everything that Fert has ever stood for! Freedom from persecution! A free and open choice of the path of our lives! Safety and harmony! The Serdar has forgotten who he is. He serves only his own interests now. Not a one of us is free under him. Today, we march on the Tower. We remind the Serdar and his Council that Fert is a free land where the people are able to live how they choose, where they choose. Today, we demand justice!”
The crowd thundered around him as Alp leapt from the well stones. His voice was swallowed up in their howling, but his gestures and the red in his face spurned them forward. To the Tower. To their victory.
Security around the Tower was lax. Much of the strength of the bagum was committed to quelling the riots in the street. Or burning buildings and harrowing innocent civilians, depending on what side one observed from.
The Vizier was there to greet them, pale in the face and dark around the eyes with his own personal guard.
“What goes on here?” he asked, voice as anemic as his face.
“Lord Vizier, we’re here for the Serdar!” Alp cried. “His crimes against Fert and its people will go unpunished no longer. Tonight he has hanged an honoured guest. The bagum ravage the city and arrest honest citizens. The Serdar has declared war against Fert, and now Fert demands he surrender, or we shall burn his Tower to the ground!”
The Vizier’s mouth fell open. “The Serdar has done this?” he said, and cast his eyes upward, toward the cracks in the Tower’s great dome. “Justice,” he murmured and nodded his head. “You, Alp. You came before us earlier to speak of the Serdar’s amoral activities. Now you bring us proof. Go you with me, and we will speak to the Serdar together. This way now,” he said, and gestured inside, to the stairway that wound up along the inner wall of the Tower to the second floor and beyond.
Alp nodded and went straight away. This time, Deniz followed without asking, with much of the mob behind her.
Inside the tower the air was thick with the dust of crumbling mortar. Shafts of sunlight bled in through the cracks in the weakened walls. Deniz got the impression that they had just as much to fear from the building itself, as from the man who ruled it.
The Serdar stood in the middle of the central balcony, flanked by bagum with pikes and swords drawn to face the angry mob in the chamber.
“Alp, you disappoint me,” he called down. “I thought your loyalties were stronger than this. Didn’t we build this country from the ground up? Weren’t we as brothers once, as one with a common goal of freedom and hope to those who have none? Why has your friendship strayed so far?”
“So we were, Serdar, but only one of us kept that oath. The other took a seat of power above his equals and betrayed us. We were supposed to have freedom in all things, Serdar! Freedom of choice! Real choice, not just the choices you let the people have. Freedom from persecution, including yours. What cause did you have to murder Zeki? He gave the people hope and direction and you took that away from them. For what? To hold the chains around the throat of the people for a day longer? You must step down now, Serdar.”
“I owe no man an explanation, Alp. The people need me to guide them. They accept my rule because it is simple. They do not question and I do not explain. My word is absolute. The man was a dissident, spreading lies and false hopes of kindness and opportunity in the lands beyond our own.” He sneered down at them. “There is nothing of the kind out there. Not for people like us. All that we have is each other, and I will not allow an outsider to spread such dangerous thoughts through the populace.”
“Change will come, Serdar. The people boil for it now. Your ways are too violent. We will not stand for it any longer. Change must follow.”
“Must it? You forget yourself, Alp. For every one malcontent in this city there are ten roamers outside our walls, looking for safe haven. Fert will live on—my Fert will live on—whether or not you and your band of rioters are in it.” He leaned further out over the railing. “You have long been a good friend to me, Alp, so I will spare your life, but this rebellion ends now. For the good of Fert you will order the people back to their homes, back to their fields and back to their complacency or by the god of the earth I will bury each and every one of you.”
The Tower groaned around them, and a torrent of mortar fell from the upper chambers. The soldiers, already ill at ease with the number and ferocity of the rioters in the streets, parted out of their ranks and threw nervous glances at the walls around them. Deniz didn’t blame them. The Tower had never been a particularly strong structure. The clamour and violence around it did nothing to help its integrity.
“Alp—“ She took his wrist, but he was far from hearing her.
“If that is your final command, Serdar, then we refuse it. Fert is our land. All of ours, and we have the right to live in it how we choose. If it is your choice to stand in the way of that then it is to us to bring you down!”
Around him, the people cheered. Hoes and picks and shovels clanged together in the air. The ranks of the bagum dissolved further, and it seemed to Deniz that they weighed their chances of escaping with their lives this morning. Well that they felt what she had felt for too many years now.
The Serdar took a step back and narrowly avoided being struck by a stone the size of his head. “Why wait? They are peasants, by the god of the earth, arrest them!” The bagum nearest him exchanged glances and reluctantly brought their rough-shod iron swords to the ready before them.
“The Serdar declares war on the wishes and lives of the people of Fert,” Alp cried to the crowd around him. “If we lay down our arms now, then we forfeit everything we hold sacred. Better to give our lives this day than to live tomorrow as his dogs. Ho—!”
The mass of humanity surged forward toward the wall of iron before he could finish. It would have been the death of them all had the Tower not chosen that moment to give itself back to the earth.
The entire east facing wall sagged inward at once and rained a deadly barrage of stone and timber down on the bagum flanking the Serdar’s left side with a crash louder than anything else Deniz had ever heard. She pressed her hands to her ears and shut her eyes as dust exploded through the air. If there were screams, she couldn’t hear them. She could scarcely hear her own thoughts under the roar of stone. When the avalanche calmed and fresh dawn light spilled down on the nightmare around them, Deniz finally opened her eyes.
Of the bagum who had been buried there was no sign. No limb or sword poked out from under the cold tomb of stone that had taken them. Only the shock and terror on the faces of the remaining bagum gave any sign that there had been a second column at all.
Beside Deniz, Alp bled from a wound under his ear. It seemed to her that it bled an awful lot. She thought she said something, but she didn’t hear it. Alp was shouting, but she didn’t hear it either. The echoes of the fallen wall continued to beat through her ears, drowning out all other sound.
The mob heard, however, or perhaps they didn’t need to hear. At Alp’s passionate gesture they crawled over the mound of fallen stone and countrymen like an angry nest of ants, and threw themselves on the remaining bagum. Deniz was carried forward with them, and in a moment of panic she lost sight of Alp. A man appeared in front of her, his face smeared with grime, and a bagum’s sigil half torn away from his right shoulder. He hesitated, but she did not. The point of her paring knife took him under the jaw and he jerked it out of her hands as he thrashed down to the ground.
Weaponless, deaf, and oriented only by the gaping hole in the east side of the Tower, Deniz was at the mercy of the two opposing throngs of angry, confused bodies, hacking and clawing at each other. She stumbled back on a loose stone, and realized too late that she stood on the throat of a man trampled under the feet of the mob. She couldn’t tell if he was bagum or not—likely, she wouldn’t want to know. There wasn’t any difference between them at the moment. Everything was dust and blood and fear.
Above her stone and metal squealed in agony. The maw of the Tower opened wider, and its great dome rained blue shingles down on the combatants, who broke from stabbing each other with iron to instead crush their fellows underfoot in a chaotic stampede for the safety of the open door.
Deniz pressed herself to the wall and was nearly thrown from the terrible void in it as she fought the current and pressed on upwards. The Serdar was up there. She could see flashes of his red robe in between the holes in the landings. Her brother would be there with him, fighting for a tomorrow none of them would live to see if they didn’t escape the Tower now.
“Alp!” She screamed her voice raw but heard none of it under the twisted metallic death cries of the Tower around her. The finial was coming down. Twice the height of a man, the elaborate golden rod no longer had any dome left to stand on. Supported now by only timber and chain, it dangled like a heavy golden sword from the west side of the Tower.
“Alp!” She forced her exhaustion-laden legs to climb the uneven stairs, using as much strength in her arms to pull herself up by the railings where chunks of wall had demolished the walkway.
On the fourth floor landing where the ground sloped inward at a dangerous angle, she finally saw her brother. As if ignorant that they were missing half the ground beneath their feet, Alp and the Serdar traded cutlass blows. There had been little cause for either man to use his blade in these past years, but they fought as though they’d never put the weapons down. Every slash was deflected, and every feign anticipated. It seemed that only exhaustion would determine the outcome of the duel. Or at least it would have, had the Tower the stamina of the men fighting within it.
What remained of the dome gave a final, screeching cry of torn wood and shattered stone before it released its finial at last.
Deniz opened her mouth to shout a warning, but it was already too late. The base of the finial struck the sixth floor landing and twisted, tangled in rope and chain toward the two men. Whatever god looked over her brother that day flashed the glint of gold death before his eyes, seconds before it struck. He took a step back and dropped his guard. The Serdar stepped forward to fill the void with hard iron, but the point of the finial pierced him first and knocked him from the landing. The Serdar and the golden crown of the Tower crashed down together through the remaining balconies and landings before being driven with a resounding final ring into the rubble below.
The Tower heaved once to the side, shuddered and lost what remained of the parapets around the dome. Heavy marble dropped from the roof onto the twisted wreckage of flesh and gold before finally, all was still.
Brother and sister locked gazes across the open pit between the two sides of the landing. Neither drew a breath for fear that it would unset the equilibrium the Tower seemed to have finally come to. When no fresh catastrophe brought the remaining walls down, Alp began to pick his way carefully over the fallen stones to embrace his sister.
“You’re alive,” she breathed.
“Of course I am. Was there ever any doubt?” The Tower groaned once in answer, and neither Alp nor Deniz thought it wise to continue to test its charity.
The landscape outside was alien to Deniz. The Tower which had for so long impressed itself over the streets of Fert was nothing now but a hollow shell of pride and power. The bagum and citizenry both stared in uncertain silence. Without clear reason to fight, they stood huddled in their respective camps, the Vizier between them—he had evidently been among the first to flee.
“The Serdar?” The Vizier asked Alp in his water thin voice.
“I see. The Tower, I suppose—“
“Best left as a tomb for those who’ve died today.”
“But the seat of government. I mean, there is no place for the Council to meet.”
“There is no Council, Vizier. The Serdar is dead. Unless you feel you can or should lead these people yourself, I think it’s time that they chose their own path.” Alp slapped the dust from his pant leg and wiped the blood on his neck away with a wince. “We led them out here, Vizier, and we told them to scrape a life out in the dirt. Might be that a few of them want to head back the way we came, and as far as I can see, that’s fine with me. Every man has a right to his own autonomy. I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way.”
The Vizier was silent for a long while as his fingers worried holes in his fine, dirty sleeves. “What happens now?”
“Now? Progress is what happens now, Vizier. Progress, as every man envisions it.”