As Shahrazad made her way down to ground level she saw few people for a market day, but then everything had changed. It had been ten days since Sayyid had taken over the city, and since then it was like a dark cloud had enveloped the city. Crippling taxes meant that all but the richest were barely scraping by, with the poorest going hungry, and it seemed that it was all going towards the elaborate construction of the two extra floors Sayyid had added to his tower. All the servants from the royal tower had been left without a job. And the only job that was paying well these days was Sayyid’s guard. Most of the former royal tower guards that weren’t in prison had accepted jobs in Sayyid’s guard, along with many others. Shahrazad herself was finding it impossible to make a living. No one wanted to buy jewellery or any kind of art at times like these. Small riots and rebellions had started up at first, but had been quashed ruthlessly by Sayyid’s men, who now patrolled the city daily looking for any excuse to beat someone up. Several leaders of these rebellions had been executed to provide an example to the others, and since then no one had dared protest. Proclamations had appeared throughout the city, laying out new laws. It was now forbidden to even speak against King Sayyid.
And there had been no sign of Tommy. The day after Basir’s exile, two guards had come to look for him at her flat but she had not seen him in that first day or any day since. She hoped that he was still out there somewhere, keeping himself hidden, but she was worried that no one had come looking for him at hers since then. Did that mean they had found him? What would they do to him if they had? And if he was out there on his own, how was he managing to get enough food? Izdihar engaged to Sayyid again, at his mercy in his tower, and Tommy who knew where... It was almost more than she could bear.
Beggars gazed pleadingly at her as she passed, and she hated that she could do nothing to help them. She had barely enough money for food herself. One of Sayyid’s men coming the other way shooed the nearest one away. Shahrazad kept her head down helplessly. She was starting to lose all hope. What could anyone do? Basir had left them well and truly in Sayyid’s power and they were trapped.
The heat was fierce and Shahrazad was glad to pass the black-clad guard at the entrance to Central Square and reach the shaded market place. The atmosphere here was subdued; though the market was filled with people, it was relatively quiet. Unlike before, no one shouted to cheerfully greet acquaintances they spotted in the throng, and there was no laughter or sounds of children playing. Most people went quietly and hurriedly about their business, and if they did stop to talk, they spoke in hushed, grave voices.
Shahrazad used the last of her money to buy some food and left the market. She passed the former royal tower, with the new, high fence that now surrounded it. Last week, when all the children of the city had gone to school, they had not been allowed to return home but instead were taken to the tower. An announcement on the locked gates of the fence that had been erected the previous night stated that the school had become a boarding school, and that it was compulsory for all the children of the city. It had been besieged that evening by angry and hysterical parents, but the new school was now guarded by Sayyid’s men. No one knew why Sayyid had done this. Some claimed he intended to brainwash them or train them up for an army.
She couldn’t help but watch as a couple of guards marched lines of children around the makeshift schoolyard that was the area enclosed by the fence. These children were all around the same age – about Tommy’s age. They weren’t running playfully as children should do, but forced to plod along in the guards’ wake, mostly silent. Shahrazad tensed looking at all their scared, dejected little faces. She couldn’t seem to drag herself away. Then, just as the front of the line disappeared behind the huge tower, she spotted something that made her gasp in shock and joy. The boy at the end of one of the lines had turned around and was running towards her, out of view of the guards. He was browner than when he’d first arrived, but it was unmistakeably Tommy. He reached her and for a second they just stared at each other, both clinging to the fence. Shahrazad was unbelievably relieved to see that he didn’t seem to be hurt in any way.
“Tommy!” she whispered. “How did you end up in there?” Had he sneaked in, finding it a good place to get food and shelter? Or had he been captured and sent there by Sayyid?
“Bad men caught me. Asked questions. I just pretended to not understand. Then I was brought here.”
“Oh Tommy... What’s it like there? What’s it all about?”
Tommy ignored her questions. “Listen,” he said. “I’m going to escape.”
“What? But how? All the guards...” She gestured helplessly at the tower, from behind which the guards would reappear at any minute.
“Don’t worry,” said Tommy. “I’ve got a plan.”
“Then you’ll come straight to mine, yeah?”
Tommy shook his head. “I know what I have to do. I going.”
“Going where? Tommy, it’s not safe here now, listen to me -”
Shahrazad didn’t get a chance to finish. The guards had come round to their side of the tower and spotted them.
“Oy, you boy! Get here!”
Tommy touched Shahrazad’s hand and retreated, rejoining the line of boys.
One of the guards was coming towards her. “Clear off!” he said. “You’ll be told when you can see your little darlings. Until then, stay away!”
Shahrazad left, turning to see Tommy start marching along once more. She was almost as anxious as before. At least Sayyid appeared to have lost interest in him and he was in a place of relative safety. But she couldn’t help wondering what the punishment would be for Tommy if he was caught trying to escape. And even if he succeeded, what was he going to do? She thought back to the determined look on his face, and had a horrible feeling that wherever he was planning to go, it might be even more dangerous than where he was now.