Nobody in the bottom-city had the coin to give to beggars, as they were beggars themselves. There was an infuriating saying—’beggars cannot be choosers’. I huffed. If I heard that slip from the lips of another entitled high-city tourist exploring the glorified ruins of an earth tremor, I would have no reservations about choosing to clear their silk pockets. Though pocket-picking was an infrequent occurrence here, as rarely did high-city tourists wander this area. Only bottom-city dwellers walked these charred streets, and we all knew what we had in common—empty pockets.
Gravel pathways laden with dirt twisted between the decrepit market stalls and faded buildings. The stone was ash-covered, and the buildings were short and stout, with slits for windows and flat roofs—domed ceilings were reserved for the high-city. My boots kicked dust into the air. A large pile of ash in the middle of the street was diminishing with the wind. I could smell burnt paper, leather, and hair. Embers flickered in the soil. It was another book-burning. Another riot. Another loss.
I strayed from the main path and ventured into an alley.
Alleyways branched from the main streets and expanded like cobwebs into a labyrinthine maze. High-city tourists dared not to enter lest they get lost and spend their wealth on sketchy guides to lead them out. The narrow crevasses between stone buildings were lined with dark, hunched creatures with capes over their backs and hoods hiding their starved lips. I called them people; the guards called them shit under their boots.
The beggars that clogged the entrance shrunk away in my presence, drawing in their legs and shoeless toes to allow me room to slip by. I noticed the stringy silver hair that hung from under a beggar’s cloak, and next to them, a child with dirt-stained cheeks and glistening tear streaks from their eyes to their chest. I could sense a mutual understanding between us — one day, I could be one of them.
The uniform stomping of multiple feet warned me to withdraw further into the shadows. I pressed my back to the grimy wall and lifted my hood from my shoulders. It shrouded my face in even darker shades.
I waited with quiet breaths as a band of guards entered view and marched past the alleyway. I flinched when two splintered from the group and approached. The beggars did not move their outstretched legs, and as the two guards stopped by the entrance, I averted my gaze and turned my head away.
‘You there. You don’t look like a beggar,’ one of the guards said.
My mouth twitched, and I pushed a wavering breath through my lips. ‘No. But I will be.’
‘And that is why you stand among them? Or to avoid us?’
I closed my eyes and mumbled a curse.
‘I don’t like to walk through the markets. They always smell like burnt books or food I cannot afford.’
I glanced down the alleyway to watch the writhing bodies; they slinked deeper, remaining hidden and faceless. Though I wished I had no attention on me, I knew it would be better to have someone who could run as the target of a guard’s impromptu aggression. My body jerked as the talking guard stepped over the beggars’ legs and ventured deeper into the alleyway. With each step, my head lowered until my chin rested against my chest. He halted in front of me, and I remembered Darian’s words: Don’t run, don’t make a move until you absolutely must.
‘How old are you?’ My throat tightened, and I failed to respond. ‘Take your hood off. Look at me,’ he ordered.
Follow their orders until it’s clear they mean you harm or arrest.
I raised my head and met his eyes – they were steely-grey and intimidating. My hands trembled as I gripped my hood and left it limp on my shoulders.
‘You look young.’ His gaze manoeuvred downwards to inspect my body. ‘And you have no physical ailments.’
I held my breath, but it did not stop my heart from racing.
‘You do not belong in these beggars’ alleys.’ I remained silent. His gaze fixated on mine. ‘Give me your hand.’
Don’t ever steal, because if you do, and you get caught, they’ll cut off your hand.
The guard held his hand out, and I pressed my back against the wall. My lips trembled, ‘I-I haven’t done anything—’
He grabbed my hand, and I yanked it back. He refused to let go as he reached for his belt.
With a few tugs, I managed to escape his vice grip and run.
‘Stop!’ he yelled as I scurried down the sodden alleyway. The ground was slick with muddy sludge, and as I turned a sharp corner, I slipped and went careening into the soil. My head bounced against a rock wall, and I lay immobile for a moment before pushing myself to my knees. The guard was close behind, and as he rounded the corner, he slipped just as I had and landed alongside me.
I scrambled to stand, but he was quick to push my shoulders deep into the mud. I reached to claw at his face, but the other guard turned the corner and assisted in pinning me. ‘Let go of me! I didn’t do anything!’ I shrilled, and the second guard scowled.
‘Who runs from the law but a lawbreaker?’
‘A scared young girl who believes a guard much stronger and faster than her is going to cut her hand off,’ the other snapped. I huffed at his hubris, and his brows creased. ‘I wasn’t going to cut your hand off, girl,’ he reiterated gruffly, and a shaky breath passed my lips.
His hands gripped at mine, and as he stood, he pulled me with him. He made no move to keep hold as I tugged them away. The other guard watched in silence.
‘Can I have your hand now?’ he asked simply, and held his palm out again. I had little option but to obey, with the guards standing close and cornering me. I extended my right arm, knowing I would still have my dominant hand. He turned my palm to face the sky. Though I willed myself to remain calm as his other hand reached for his belt, my fingers only shook more. ‘It’s okay,’ he whispered. I hyperventilated as his other hand gripped my wrist.
The hand that ventured to his belt and behind his back returned balled in a fist.
I watched apprehensively as it halted above my palm and lowered to hold my hand. Now, my right hand was sandwiched between his, and though the gesture was oddly warm, the cool sting against my palm startled me.
I immediately recognised the shape of coins, and a heavier coin-shaped object. My gaze shifted to meet the guard’s stormy eyes.
‘Before I escort you to the food markets, I ask two things of you,’ he said. ‘What is your name?’
‘Siren,’ I whispered, and his brows lifted. A small smile played at the corner of his lips.
‘Now, tell me this.’ His face fell as he came closer. ‘I need an eavesdropper, someone who’ll take some coin for some rumours.’
‘Rumours about what?’
‘Rumours about revolution, weapons…’ His brow lifted, as did the corner of his lips. ‘And sirens.’
Mud sloshed beneath my boots, and it slathered a new coating over the old, encrusted earth from the day before. I felt the faint patter of droplets landing on the tip of my nose, falling to touch my lips. Thunder rumbled in the darkened clouds above, the vibrations shaking my frayed nerves. The informer badge stung my palm, and I slipped it into my pocket, clutching the paper bag of food close to my chest.
The alleyway grew narrower, and in the faint sunlight of dusk, I could see the concrete between the stone bricks of the walls, and how the crevasses grew deeper each time it rained. The water had its way of slow destruction that eroded the weakest points of a structure—whittling away at its integrity. I observed it over the years in my home, and despite how many times Darian had tried to repair or prevent it, the erosion rot always came back.
As I rounded the corner, I expected to see my brother leaning casually against the wall, careless of the wetness seeping into his clothes as he turned and unfolded his arms to wave. But instead, Derek stood alone and did not turn to greet me. As I stopped to wait for Darian, I could feel the drumming of my heart in my throat.
‘He’s not coming,’ Derek spoke. A constellation of water decorated my lashes, and as I redirected my gaze to meet his, some droplets came loose and slipped into my eyes. His lips were tightly pressed, as were his folded arms. ‘I haven’t seen Darian come this way.’
‘I don’t want to deal with your shit right now, Derek,’ I retorted, irritated at the monotone drawl in which he spoke to me. ‘I’m going home; tell Darian I didn’t want to wait in the rain.’ I moved slower than I wanted as my boots sunk deep into the mud. As I walked past Derek, his arm reached outwards to grasp my bicep.
‘Darian usually comes this way.’
My heart lurched. I did not want to think of the implications of Darian not returning home, especially after being absent for three days already. I clenched my fists and snapped, ‘And?’
‘You know you’re welcome here. I’ll hire you the minute you ask.’ Derek began, and I scoffed. He sighed. ‘Siren, I know it’s a last resort, okay? This could be good for you and your family, and you’re—’
‘I’d rather die.’ I croaked.
He stared at me with a seriousness that unnerved me. ‘Would you?’
‘I want to go home,’ I stressed, and the frown across Derek’s features deepened.
I turned away from him, paced down the alley, and disappeared behind a corner shrouded in shadows. I thought of nothing but Darian and his whereabouts, and I knew what I feared was coming to fruition—that my options would narrow until I had no choice but to resort to brothel work, or the work in which I could easily lose a hand.
At nightfall, I slinked out of my bedroom window. I hoped to be enveloped by the darkness, but the cloud coverage was sparse, and the moon’s light illuminated the dingy streets of the inner bottom-city. But that wasn’t what I was worried about. I lifted my gaze and scanned the line of domed buildings in the far distance.
The wall loomed behind me, and when it would typically cast a large shadow across the entire bottom-city, now it bore none as the moon hung high above. The waves lapped against the other side of the wall, and my skin felt encrusted from the spray. A few weeks ago, I noticed a droplet seeping between the bricks, and tasted it out of curiosity—hoping for a new source of water. I withdrew at the alien saltiness of it, and Darian told me I had tasted the ocean. My eyes lifted to the towering wall—it had sections separated by a clear line of grout, and I remembered Darian’s observations: When I was your age, the wall was almost half the size it is now, and even smaller when mum and dad were young—they keep adding to it.
Suppressing the memory, I slipped into the beggar’s alleys. I rarely ventured onto the main road as I headed towards the gradual slope. No guard patrols passed by, and I feared they were hiding and stalking me. My hand reached for the informer badge in my pocket, and I clutched it in my fist. I didn’t know why I was going, only that I had two options: go to where the guard told me and swap information for coin, or steal from the wretched high-city dwellers.
The further I travelled the slope, the more moonlight reflected off grandiose surfaces of smooth copper and steel and into my eyes. The dirt and loose gravel roads turned into smooth bricks of sandstone. Beggars were noticeably absent from the alleyways of the higher-city, and I shivered as the cool breeze brushed through the holes in my jacket.
My eyes wandered down an empty alley; a metal landing stuck out of the side of the building, a ladder dropping from it. The cold sting of the surface distracted me from my nerves, and as I pulled myself onto the landing and then onto its roof, I had still failed to register the weight of my plans.
My fingertips stung as I clasped the edge of the domed roof, and my arms shook as I lifted my weight and slung a foot over the slight edge. The roof was slippery from rain, and I was glad that I chose a building with a gradually sloped dome as I crawled across the slick copper-coloured metal to reach the flattened centre. A long, thin metal column rose from the epicentre, and I wrapped my fists around it to stand steady on my feet.
A swift breath of air escaped my lips and clouded in front of my eyes. The city sprawled upwards and hugged the hilly slopes that climbed to the island’s peak. As I looked higher, the buildings turned into marble and gold, and the streets were filled with artificial light and distantly patrolling guards. I noticed that the lower the city, the lesser the guard patrol.
A distant rumble reached my ears, and I peered up at the sky. There were no clouds, and I creased my brows before looking down at the bottom-city. I watched in despair as the great stone wall cracked and splintered at the centre and let out a low bellowing sound. For a few seconds it was silent, and distant lantern lights flickered as bottom-dwellers exited their homes and walked onto the streets. The wall groaned again, and the cracks burst, spraying a wild flurry of water. My body turned numb as my knees buckled, and my eyes fixated on the wall as it tilted forward and buckled beneath its own weight. I could see my home in the far distance as the wall loomed over and hid it from my view. The screams of terror were distant, and just as swiftly as they had begun, they were silenced. The ocean rushed in to fill the gaps between the buildings and eventually carried them along with the current.
I stared at the glistening water for a long time, and as a tear met my lips, it tasted salty like the waves rushing below me.