Shahrazad left Izdihar’s tower room with a troubled frown. Deep in thought, she made her way along the walkways between towers and stairs round the outside of buildings that formed a network around the upper city.
Here, height was everything. The higher up you lived, the more important you were. At ground level lived the farmers and the peasants. Only the king and his adviser had towers of their own, with servants inhabiting the lower levels. The other buildings and towers were made up of flats.
The lower down Shahrazad climbed, the more people she passed, the richer the smells that surrounded her, the more vivid the colours. Sometimes she preferred the lower city. It bustled with life. She waved to a woman singing while hanging out her washing on a balcony near hers, greeted a young neighbour as he passed with a pretty girl on his arm, watched a couple of children running down some steps nearby. She reached her home, an apartment on the fifth floor, went out onto her balcony and looked down at a teeming noisy market square below, stalls selling everything from fresh fruit to earthenware dishes. Vendors’ cries and the smell of smoked meat floated up to her.
Then she thought of Izdihar, alone and anxious in her room. The King would be back soon... wouldn’t he? She wished she could feel as confident as she’d made out to her friend. She had always refused to consider any other possibility, but now she was worried.
Deep in thought, her brow creased in a frown, she only broke out of her thoughts when she caught sight of two big burly figures near her neighbour Shihab’s door, opposite and one floor below.
Shihab was standing still facing them, at a loss, his girlfriend looking scared behind him.
“Just go, Amani,” he said to her.
“No!” she breathed, and clutched his arm.
“Oy! Enough of this!” The nearest man grabbed hold of Shihab. “We want that money.”
“I just need until tomorrow,” said Shihab.
“You’ve had your chance. The money. Now!”
Shihab said something quietly. Shahrazad thought it was “I don’t have it.”
“Well then, we don’t have a choice, do we? Open the door.”
“Open the door!”
Shihab was looking scared but held his ground. Amani was clutching his sleeve, terrified. Shahrazad was barely breathing, watching from above, rooted to the spot.
“Right, that’s it!” said the other man. He stepped forward and kicked Shihab’s front door. Shihab wrenched his arm away from his girlfriend and threw himself at the man, but the first man grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and heaved him away. With a second tremendous kick, the door flew open and banged right back against the wall. No sooner had Shihab righted himself than he was punched hard in the face.
Shahrazad tore her eyes away and started to run, hearing Amani scream. Across a bridge, down some stairs, round a corner... Shihab was sprawled on the ground, his girlfriend kneeling beside him. They heard something smash inside the house. Then the two men came out, one holding a sack which Shahrazad knew must be filled with Shihab’s possessions.
“No...” said Shihab, trying to pull himself up, but one of the men kicked him viciously in the stomach and he fell back, winded. Laughing, they left, disappearing along the walkway, and all three of them watched them helplessly.
Between them, she and Amani pulled Shihab to his feet. He had a black eye and a cut lip. Amani looked at Shahrazad, her face tearstained. “Thank you,” she said.
They helped Shihab inside, and he groaned. Shahrazad’s stomach lurched. The main room they were in had been completely overturned. Two chairs were upended, a dish was in pieces on the floor, a cabinet was open, its contents a mess spilling out onto the floor. Shihab went straight to a table in the corner, where a small drawer was open. It was empty. “My grandmother’s ring...” he moaned, and sank onto the floor. Shahrazad felt awful.
Amani came back from the bathroom with a wet cloth. Shahrazad picked up one of the chairs and brought it over. They got Shihab to sit down while she dabbed at his cut.
“Amani. The ring... I was going to...” he mumbled.
“It doesn’t matter...” she said soothingly.
Feeling that she was intruding, Shahrazad pressed some coins into Shihab’s hand and left. Night was falling as she walked slowly home, feeling sickened and worried.
Things were getting worse. Everyone below the sixth floor was struggling for money these days, with taxes creeping steadily up. But Sayyid’s thuggish tax collectors weren’t usually seen this far up. Shahrazad herself wasn’t doing too well; she made jewellery, which she sold at a small covered market on the fourth floor, and it was getting harder and harder to sell anything.
It took her a long time to get to sleep. She couldn’t forget what she’d seen.