Chapter 1: Invisible
The trading city of Agrabah was one of the busiest and most crowded cities within hundreds of leagues. It was noisy, with traders and businessmen shouting to be heard as they peddled their wares, from fish and meat to jewelry and clothing. The sun beat down overhead, sinking into the sand that covered the city. The heat made the entire marketplace feel like a baker's oven, but that hardly deterred its residents. They bustled about making their purchases, covered in scarves to shield them from the sun. Camels, mules, and sheep added to the noise (and the smell) as they waited in pens to become someone's transport or dinner.
In all the hustle and bustle, it was usually quite easy for a person of small stature to wind their way in and out of the throng unnoticed. However, recently, the Agrabah palace and city guards had become somewhat more vigilant in their rounds. They knew who to look for, which people were likely to cause trouble.
The most troublesome of these was Ali. He caused trouble wherever he went, and today was no exception.
"There he is!" came the shouts of the guards, as a slender figure disappeared up a ladder and over a rooftop.
"After him!" hollered Captain Razoul, brandishing his sword. His henchmen scrambled up the ladder as well, though none with such grace as their quarry. Still, they managed. Fumbling and bumbling, the three or four guards made it to the roof...only to find themselves entirely alone.
One of them cursed, another spat. "Lost him again," they growled. "That street rat better watch his back."
Three rooftops over, their prey breathed a sigh of relief. Still, wary eyes darted back and forth, fully aware that the danger had not fully passed. Fingers clenched around the stolen loaf of bread that had caused all of this ruckus. It would be another half hour or so before the guards really gave up. Best to lay low until then.
Sighing, the thief took up his race once again. With bare feet toughened by life without shoes, he leaped from one rooftop to the next, dodging clotheslines and roof gardens, headed eastward.
An incense burner hung in a window in one of the buildings toward the edge of the marketplace. The thief ducked inside that window, careful not to disturb the burner. He sank to the floor with his back to the wall, clutching his stolen meal with pride. His eyes closed in a momentary thanks to Allah for his escape.
"Getting into trouble a bit early today, aren't we?" came a smooth voice from across the room. The shrouded woman who sat there amidst a pile of decorative pillows did not seem in the slightest bit disturbed by the sudden appearance of a bread thief in her room.
Ali cracked an eyelid, his signature smirk already spreading across his face.
"You're only in trouble if you get caught," he quipped. "And I never get caught."
The lady laughed, the corners of her eyes crinkling with mirth.
"Of course, I should have known," she said lightly, her musical voice the low, enticing tone of a woman who lived her life to please men. "No one could ever catch the daring Ali, the greatest thief in all Agrabah."
She stood and removed her headscarf, revealing a beautiful young lady, somewhere in her early twenties. Her long black hair hung loosely down her back, where it would usually be hidden with the scarf.
"You look so thin," she commented, her caramel eyes concerned. "Have you been eating at all lately?"
"That's why I have this, Isra," Ali groaned, rolling his eyes and holding up the bread. "Besides, I'm always thin, you say it every time. I'm fine."
"Don't take that tone with me, Alidah," Isra shot back.
At the sound of her real name, Ali flinched. She- for he was, in fact, a she -held her precious bread close to her chest, eyes downcast and moody.
"I thought I asked you not to call me that," she mumbled, a shamed blush dusting her olive cheeks.
Isra clicked her tongue as she busied herself straightening up the room.
"And I thought you were done hiding here," she replied, entirely unfazed by Alidah's behavior. "Where's Abu?"
"It can't be helped," Ali said, turning to glance out the window. "We got separated, and we hadn't worked out a new rendezvous yet. We'll be gone as soon as he shows up, don't worry."
The two women sank into silence as they waited. Isra watched Ali closely from beneath lowered lashes, checking her over for injuries or ill health. Though they were the same age, Isra was the one who took care of Ali (when she could). Her life at one of Agrabah's several houses of ill-repute left her without the resources to do much more than keep herself from being out on the street like Ali. Still, Isra had always been willing to help in any small way that she could.
Isra sighed. "Are you sure about all this?" she asked softly. "I know it's not the best situation, but a job like mine at least pays for food. Is it so much better to be stealing and running from the guards?
Ali shrugged, not meeting her friend's eyes.
"I couldn't stand this," she explained. "It's not for me. I'd rather be free and starve."
"Besides," Ali added with a wink. "Alidah alone on the street is a recipe for disaster, but as we both know, Ali gets by just fine."
Isra shook her head. She had heard the litany many times, and knew that Alidah was probably right. The streets of Agrabah were no place for a single young girl. When the problems had begun, and Alidah found herself without a home, she had been much younger. Slavers and con men would have found her easy pickings, and more likely than not, she would have found herself at the mercy of those who dealt in pleasure slaves. Some chose that life, as Isra had done, but Isra felt strongly that it should never be forced upon anyone. Still, that didn't mean she had to like the life Ali had woven for herself.
On the surface, she was a plain street rat like any other. There were more than a few in Agrabah. With her ebony hair clumsily cut short and her face smeared with dirt, it was impossible to tell Alidah from the next starving orphan. She bound her chest, for safety, and wore a loose violet shirt with the sleeves torn off. Her dirty, once-white harem pants, red fez, and red waist sash could have belonged to anyone. She blended into the scenery like a chameleon. She was invisible.
And thus, Alidah had become Ali, the fastest and most bothersome of the Agrabah street rats. For the moment, she successfully lived day-to-day...but what would become of her, Isra wondered, when she could no longer run? It was this thought that troubled her most.
A loud screeching sound from the window yanked Isra out of her own thoughts and back to her bedroom. Casting her eyes about, she found a small brown monkey sitting on the sill, chattering noisily. He wore a small violet vest and a red fez that matched Ali's clothes, an outward symbol of their inner partnership. The monkey raised his fist and shook it at Ali, clearly irritated with her.
"I get it, I'm sorry Abu!" Ali said, exasperated. She got to her feet, breaking off a small piece of her bread loaf for Abu. "If I'd known there would be that many, we wouldn't have had to split up." She rolled her eyes and dug in to her part of the bread, eating as though she'd never even seen food before.
Isra reached out a hand and petted Abu smoothly on his head. The little monkey grinned, used to her kind treatment.
"There are more guards about than usual, today," she commented off-hand. "It only gets like this on important days. The prince must be returning from his journey to Sharaj."
"Wha's wif all da comin' an goin'?" Ali asked through a mouthful of food.
"Manners, Alidah," Isra reprimanded, returning to her seat across the room. "I assume the prince is courting princesses across the lands, otherwise the Sultan would go with him. He must be looking to marry."
Ali snorted at the thought of something so trivial as marriage.
"I hope he finds a spoiled brat just like him," she said sardonically. "They'll have a perfect wedding, rich, spoiled lives, and rich, spoiled children. They probably won't care any more about this city than the Sultan does."
Isra chuckled. She knew well Ali's opinion on how the city functioned. The number of poor and desolate citizens was growing by the day. The guards wasted their time running after those like Ali, who were forced into stealing just so they could survive, while the real criminals drew the city farther and farther into the shadows every day.
"Who would you have running Agrabah, then?" Isra quipped lightly. "You?"
Ali snorted again. "Oh sure," she said, sarcasm dripping from her tongue. "Let me just waltz right on up to the palace and say, 'Hey there, Your Majesty Sultan Sir, how about making me your princess instead?'"
"Of course my dear," Isra answered, putting on her best 'Sultan' voice, "All you have to do is marry my son, the prince!"
Grinning, Ali threw up her hands. "Well, I guess it's a no-go then," she said, laughing. "Good luck with that whole city-spiraling-into-despair thing."
Still chuckling, she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand, and signaled to Abu that was time to go. Her trusty sidekick hopped up onto her shoulder, stuffing the rest of his bread into his mouth. Ali crossed to the window, and took a quick look around for any guards before leaning out.
"Be careful," Isra called after her.
"Always am," Ali replied, a grin on her face. Then, in a flash of white and violet, she was gone.
Isra settled back into her pillows, smiling to herself. She lay back to take nap before her evening customers arrived, hoping that her dreams would be filled with Ali's daring adventures.
The loud heat of the marketplace stood in stark contrast to the peaceful serenity encompassed in the royal palace of Agrabah. Rough sand and brass were replaced by green trees, cool fountains, and fixtures of marble and gold. The Sultan spared no expense; the air was thick with the scents of expensive sandalwood and jasmine. Still, for all its beauty, the royal palace held one particular trait that many in Agrabah would almost kill for: silence.
There was very little noise at the palace. One generally heard only the sound of water trickling through the various fountains, or occasionally the wind through imported bells and chimes. There were no raised voices here. The residents of the palace were considered above such frivolity.
In the courtyard, however, a sound reverberated through the air that very few people wanted to deal with: The deep growl of a tiger.
Prince Jasmir of Agrabah lay on his back on the edge of the large courtyard fountain, staring up at the endless sky above him. His caramel skin gleamed in the sunlight, a result of many varieties of scented oil. He was dressed in the standard turquoise pants and vest of his station as prince, accented with gold bangles and earrings. His dark eyes were deadened and dissatisfied, as a result of his most recent courting mission.
The prince's loyal pet, the Bengal tiger Rajah, paced back and forth across the courtyard entryway, growling his own frustration. His tail switched back and forth, and his ears were flattened. Between his sharp ivory teeth rested the ragged, torn remains of what must have once been a sheer purple veil. Neither prince nor pet enjoyed the responsibility of courting princesses.
"Diamlah, Rajah," Jasmir muttered, running his fingers through his charcoal black hair. "I know you don't like it."
The tiger narrowed his brows at his master, unconvinced by his order of silence, but he lay down on his stomach and ceased his growling, lest someone come to find them. Unfortunately, Rajah's noise seemed to have attracted the one person who would not be deterred even by an angry tiger.
"Jasmir!" came the almost amusingly high voice of the Sultan. It sounded close by. "Jasmir! Oh, where has he gone off to this time? Jasmir!"
The prince rolled his eyes. "Now you've done it," he mumbled to his striped companion.
Seconds later, the Sultan appeared in the doorway. He was a squat, plump little man, made only the more comical in appearance by his large Sultan's turban. He wore all cream and turquoise, as befit the ruler of Agrabah. His beard and mustache were white as snow, though he colored his eyebrows with kohl. At his full height, the Sultan only stood up to Jasmir's chest, but that didn't deter him from bothering his son one bit.
Tugging the sheer fabric in Rajah's mouth, the Sultan adopted a grumpy expression. "So this is where you disappeared to," he observed grouchily. "The princess of Sharaj is telling everyone that you told your ferocious pet to eat her, and stormed off." He pulled harder on the fabric, but Rajah did not want to let it go.
Sighing, Jasmir sat up. "Rajah," he called. "Biarlah."
Instantly, the once-veil was released, sending the poor Sultan reeling backward. He fell on his royal behind, leaving the prince to come help him up.
"Why your mother let you have a pet that only you can control I will never know," the Sultan declared, as Jasmir pulled him to his feet. He threw up his hands in exasperation.
"Father, you like Rajah and you know it," Jasmir said stonily. "And I did not tell him to eat anyone. I simply took my leave when I felt it was appropriate."
"You did what?" The Sultan exclaimed.
"Apparently the princess and I have differing opinions about when it was appropriate," Jasmir clarified with a shrug. He returned to his spot at the fountain's edge, trailing his fingers through the clear blue water. "We weren't getting anywhere anyway," he mumbled.
"Jasmir," his father whined, tottering over until they stood face to face. "You were supposed to have found your bride months ago! The law is very specific, you've only got until your birthday to marry, or you forfeit your right to the throne!"
The prince ignored him. This was a conversation that had passed between them countless times, and it went the same way every time.
"Father," Jasmir said patiently, "Even if I don't marry in the next three days, who do you think is going to refuse me the throne? We don't even have distant relatives that could come to claim it. No one actually cares. I'm not going to marry someone I can't stand just to please a scroll of parchment."
"But the law says-" the Sultan protested.
Jasmir turned away, hiding his face from his father.
"I do not care what the law says, Father," he said. His voice was soft, but firm. "If I marry at all, I'll do it for someone I truly love. My right to control this city should not be based on whether or not I have a wife."
Sensing his son's discomfort, the Sultan's gaze softened. He took a seat next to Jasmir, placing a small hand on his arm. The prince still refused to meet his eyes.
"It's not just this law, you know," the Sultan said softly. "I just want...I want to know that you're taken care of."
"What am I, a sniveling princess?" he said cynically, pulling his arm out of his father's grasp.
The Sultan rolled his eyes, but kept his sharper commentary to himself. Jasmir was a good enough sort as boys go, but he was not always the strong, sure-minded person he often pretended to be.
"You know what I mean, Jasmir," his father said, exasperated. "I'm not going to be around forever, and I'd like to know that you've got everything in hand. Don't you think a wise and caring Queen would serve you well?"
"Not if I don't actually like her, Father," Jasmir replied with a sigh. He was weary of this argument, it was so royally useless. "I do not want to have this discussion again, can we please let it go?"
The Sultan sniffed.
"You've been on a long journey, of course you're tired and need to rest," he said diplomatically. The scowl on his face, however, made it clear that this conversation was not over. "I'll expect you at dinner, perhaps we can speak more about it then. Is that agreeable?"
"Not in the slightest," Jasmir grumbled.
Frustrated, the Sultan got to his feet. His face turned a fascinating shade of plum. "Allah forbid you should have such a troublesome child," he said under his breath. Then he turned on his tiny heel and marched off, muttering all the way.
Jasmir exhaled heavily, and fell back onto the fountain's edge on his back. He let his hand fall limply to his side. "Rajah," he called softly. "Kemari. Come here."
Moments later, the warm fuzz of the tiger's head butted against his free hand. The deep rumble of a large cat's purr emanated from Rajah's chest.
"I know," Jasmir whispered, answering the silent question that hung in the air. "We can't keep this up, I can't be this...invisible...much longer."
His mind overburdened, the prince of Agrabah lay awake for half the night, hoping that by sheer willpower alone he could make his problems disappear. However, that was just not how the world worked. By the tenth bell, he had been through his wallowing and his discomfort, and had moved on to practical thought. By the eleventh, the mechanisms in his mind were turning furiously, sorting out the best course of action. By the twelfth, he had a plan.
The moon rose high overhead, casting a blue-white glow over the marble palace walls. The nocturnal animals of menagerie chattered as usual, but otherwise, there was no sound to be heard. The palace residents were all abed, for which the prince was very thankful. It was going to make his grand escape all the easier.
He had thrown the plain brown garb of a commoner over his jewel-toned royal clothes. In this simple dirty shirt and pants, he could have been anyone. He made his way quietly and carefully across the courtyard, his familiar striped shadow right behind him, as usual. Jasmir had thusfar tried every trick he knew to get Rajah to stay behind, but the tiger seemed insistent on being with his master.
When they reached the palace wall near the great olive tree, the prince turned and dropped to one knee. Rajah padded over to him, head-butting his master in the chest.
"I know, Rajah," Jasmir murmured, stroking the tiger's head gently. "But as long as they refuse to let me really act like the prince, I might as well not be one." He cast his searching gaze up at the moon overhead. "Perhaps I'll find a better way out there."
Rajah whined softly, but when Jasmir went to stand, the cat made no attempt to stop him.
The prince braced his hands on the lowest branch of the olive tree, pulling himself up among its leaves. This tree was particularly old, and its twists and bends would provide him fairly easy access across the palace wall.
As he reached for the next branch, however, a noise stopped Jasmir in his tracks. He turned, and saw the light of an oil lamp growing across the courtyard. The midnight rounds, he thought, panicked. If the guards see anything...
"Rajah," he hissed. The tiger's ears perked up. "Maji!"
Instantly, a low growl erupted from the tiger's open jaws. Ever loyal to his master's commands, he broke into a run, racing across the courtyard as though in pursuit of something, until the tip of his orange striped tail disappeared into the lamplight. Seconds later, the sounds of multiple thuds and muffled cursing told the prince that his diversion had worked.
"Thank you," he whispered after his feral friend. Then, without a moment to lose, Prince Jasmir of Agrabah vanished over the wall, and away from everything he knew. He did not know what lay in store...only that it had to be better than staying here.