A salty breeze tussled the endless dunes of fine sand stretching in every direction outside the city wall.
Daliraaq, desert capital of Draserune, pulsed with frantic energy. Shops burned. People screamed. Empire guards in full plate armor marched the streets, stabbing indiscriminately with wicked pikes.
Yildir braced his back against the wooden front door of his home, his daughter Jasra in his arms and his wife Amaani clinging to his legs. Across the street, another home burned—the home of a merchant he knew quite well.
Harsh orange light discolored Yildir’s front room. Black smoke befouled the air.
“Please,” Amaani begged, gripping his calves. “Don’t go out there. They won’t know you weren’t part of the protests.”
Jasra had dry eyes, though she clung to Yildir’s chest with a deathly grip.
“My workers will be looking for me,” Yildir said. “You think that house was burnt by accident? No, Hashan left the city when he heard the rumblings.”
“Your workers wouldn’t do that to you,” Amaani said. “You’ve never exploited them like the Iotorathi merchants—”
“They’re well past the point of distinction.” Yildir’s gaze drifted across the room, where a man stood in the archway leading to the back part of the house. “Brother, take them. Keep them safe. If the rioters try to break down this door, go out the back, through the alleys, and make for the palace.”
“Isha may be on the streets,” Kaarim said. “She never stays out of a fight.”
“No. She’ll be in the keep. And she’ll let you in. She promised me.”
Jasra didn’t resist as Yildir peeled her from his chest and handed her off to his brother. Amaani stared up at him, tears pouring down her face.
“You won’t see another dawn,” she whispered.
“That’s true of any day, ithali,” Yildir said, brushing his hand over her loose, dark hair. “There’s nothing to fear from death.”
She sat back, releasing his legs. Yildir knew he hadn’t heard the last of her objections. Kaarim touched her shoulder, coaxing her to her feet.
“You always told me our family was the most important thing,” Amaani said.
“I do this for our family,” Yildir said. “The winds are changing, ithali. Things that worked before work no longer. There’s no mercy for our kind if we don’t stand with those who fight.”
“The Empire will slaughter you.”
“Which is exactly why we must fight.”
Outside the door, Yildir could hear Empire troops marching down his street. The screams were getting closer. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
“I am a Draseruni man,” Yildir told Amaani. “I’ve always treated my workers with respect because they’re just like me. We grew up in these streets, under the boot of Empire occupation. We grew up knowing any day could be our last, because any day we could make eye contact with an Empire guard, and he could stab his sword into our hearts for no reason at all.” He shook his head. “No longer.”
“You’ll leave us with nothing,” she said. “They’ll kill you and seize all your assets.”
“And why is it that the Empire owns all I have?” he asked. “It was built with my sweat, my blood. It was built with every intention not to abuse my workers, even though the Empire would rather I beat them down. Doesn’t that seem wrong to you?”
Amaani furrowed her brow, her eyes shining. “Of course it seems wrong.”
Yildir stepped forward to cup Amaani’s jaw, and she softened to his touch more than he thought she would. “Don’t you see? This is more important than what we’ve built. Our livelihood means nothing compared to the lives of these people. You grew up in a little village the Empire had no care for exploiting. You’ve said for years that you’ve never seen such obvious injustice as what happens to workers here. Trust me when I say that this is so much deeper than what you’ve seen since we married.”
“Please,” she pleaded. “I understand, Yildir, but I don’t want you to die like this.”
“I’ll do my best not to die,” he said, smiling a little. “But it’s my duty to stand against the Empire, ithali. The other realms haven’t been equal to Iotorath since Emperor Akash Almad took the throne. The Draseruni nobility are as good as Iotorathi lap dogs. There’s no representation for the working class, or even merchants like us. We’ve tried for years to work within the Empire’s system, only to find that the system has no care for what we want. It’s time to get their attention.”
Amaani grasped his wrist when he moved to drop his hand from her face. “What will you do?”
“If the Empire fears instability, we’ll give them instability,” Yildir said. “If they fear destruction and violence, we’ll give them that too. You cannot exist as a Draseruni man and expect peace and pliancy to get you anywhere. We are slaves. We are not human to them. All that occurs tonight in these streets, the Empire has wrought.”
Kaarim placed his hand on Amaani’s shoulder when she took a shaky breath. “You have the strength of numbers, brother. But I doubt that will hold beyond dawn.”
“No,” Yildir said. “The Empire will send its legions. But there are two outcomes, and both of them will work to our advantage.”
“How can that be?” Amaani asked.
“In the first, the Empire overwhelms us with their strength. They slaughter every last one of us for daring to speak against their exploitation. But there are those who will not die this night, who will escape the Empire’s borders and tell everyone what they saw. And tyranny has a way of attracting the attention of other realms who won’t tolerate such tactics in the North.” Yildir tucked Jasra’s hair behind her ears with his free hand. “In the second, the legions eventually stay their hand, because fighting us is like fighting a many-headed beast. There is no death to these ideas. We will fight, and fight again, until true change is enacted. Until the world stops going in the same circle, expecting different results.”
Amaani squeezed the wrist she still held. “I don’t think this is the end of the circle.”
Yildir shrugged. “Perhaps not, ithali.”
The corners of her mouth upturned, though there was sorrow in it. “But?”
“But,” Yildir said softly, “the only way to know is to stand with those who fight, and find out.”