Chapter 2: Don't You Trust Me?
Alidah's back ached from the incredibly difficult position she had to hold in order to avoid the fruit vendor's wary gaze. She hung dangerously from her knees over one of the stall's support beams, in the shadowy back corner, with her ankles crossed overhead. From there, she arched her back as much as she could, so she could see the target of her acrobatics. The large stack of fresh red apples almost shone in the sunlight. It made for a tantalizing picture, which was certainly a mistake in a city full of this many thieves.
The vendor himself, currently occupied in an argument with the owner of the brassware stall next door, was a large and burly man who was known for his watchful eye. He feared no thief, and more than one unfortunate soul had lost a pilfering hand to his blade. His wares were the best in the marketplace, and the intimidating man knew it. It was common knowledge that to steal from him, one had to possess innate skill- or a death wish. Ali was one of the only street rats in Agrabah brave enough to give it a try.
As she stretched her thin arm down toward the apple pile, Ali fervently prayed that the pair of marketplace sellers would continue their argument long enough for her to not only retrieve her prize, but also make a decent escape. If she had to make a mad dash for freedom this early in the afternoon, it would mean that the guards would be much more watchful all evening long, reducing her chances of further acquisitions.
The smooth skin of the apple was almost slippery against her rough palm. Ali breathed a sigh of relief, and made to pull herself back up to the support beam, when a flash of movement caught her eye. She turned to look, and the blood drained from her face.
A small street boy, obviously one of the many young orphans that wandered freely around the city, had noticed the enticing apple pile as well. He huddled in the shadows to the side of the stall, staring longingly at the fruit with wide eyes. He couldn't have been more than five or six years old, but the lack of serious tears or tatters in his clothes indicated that he hadn't been on the streets long. The way he looked at those apples, Ali could tell that he was planning to try and steal one too. He'll never manage it, she thought, panicked.
Painstakingly carefully, Ali raised her free hand and waved it, hoping to catch the boy's attention. When his puppy-dog eyes looked her way, she gestured for him to hold up his hands. Mystified, he did so, cupping them together. A moment later, the shiny red apple that had been in Alidah's hand thumped into his waiting palms. When the little boy looked up again, Ali gave him a wink, and shooed him away, lest he get caught with the stolen goods. Her eyes closed, relieved, when he scampered away into the distance.
Now twice as pressed for time, Ali returned her attention to the pile of apples. She had scant seconds, probably, to retrieve another one and vanish before the vendor realized she was there. Stretching her arm out once more, Ali reached for the next closest apple. Her fingers brushed across its skin, but she couldn't quite reach it. If she could just stretch a little farther...
"Hey! You there!"
Ali's blood ran cold at the sound of the phrase she hated most of all.
A rough hand wrapped itself around her slender wrist, dragging her forcefully down from her hanging place. She hit the ground hard, adding a possible strained shoulder to her list of cons for the day. Ali twisted and turned, frantically trying to free herself from the vendor's iron grip, to no avail. The man was a beast; his bulk alone gave him all of the advantage he needed over someone as small in stature as Ali.
"How dare you," he hissed, pulling her close to his face. His hot, foul breath sent shivers up her spine. "No one steals from my cart!"
Glaring as menacingly as she could, Ali let out a feral screech as she fought against his hold. She knew she had only seconds to make her escape, lest the worst should happen. The marketplace's attendees certainly thought it would, for they had begun to gather when they heard the commotion. This was one of the most entertaining parts of coming to the marketplace, after all.
Ali's heart sank when the vendor reached behind his cart with his free hand, drawing out a short silver curved sword.
"You know what the penalty is for stealing, street rat?" the vendor growled. He lifted the blade and brandished it at her bare wrist, ready to strike.
"Stop right there!" came a commanding voice from the crowd.
The street went silent. The vendor froze in place, glaring around for the source of the noise. An unfamiliar young man pushed his way to the front of the crowd, a stony expression on his face. He was tall, standing eye-to-eye with the fruit seller, though his build was much slimmer. Once she found the intense depth of his charcoal eyes, Ali found that she couldn't look away.
The young man crossed his arms over his chest.
"You can't possibly believe that this is the fairest way to deal with a petty thief," his said firmly. "Release him at once, and let the city guard do their job."
"This doesn't concern you, boy," the vendor sneered. "This street rat stole from me, and I will give him the punishment he deserves."
"But this is madness," the young man protested.
Angrily, the vendor jerked at Ali's arm, causing her yelp in pain. If she made it out of this with an attached hand, it was going to be covered in bruises. Her heart was beating fast. Out of the corner of her eye, Ali caught a flash of movement, a streak of brown fur. Her brows narrowed in concentration, as the cool kiss of metal touched her ankle.
"Begone, boy," the vendor snarled. "Go bother someone else. Either I take his hand or the guard does, but it's no business of yours."
Without another word, he raised his sword, and brought it down with brutelike strength.
The crowd gasped as one, as the vendor raised his blade. Jasmir opened his mouth to protest yet again, but before he could even so much as cry out, the chaos had broken loose in a loud clang of metal against metal.
Blinking quickly, Jasmir tried to discern what had just happened. The thief suddenly held a large brass stewpot in one hand, and had managed to stave off the fruit vendor's initial attack. Immediately, the marketplace was an explosion of sound and motion. The thief dived past the vendor, coming up on his other side. He threw up his pot just in time, as the now very angry man struck again. The vendor attacked again and again, swinging his black and hollering like a madman. His face was bright red with rage.
In contrast, the look in the thief's eyes was wary and calculating. He moved quickly, dodging more strikes than he blocked, but he was running out of space. The crowd of people was yelling, pressing themselves in on all sides. Soon, he would be trapped.
Hastily, Jasmir turned from side to side, searching for some way to help. Fortune favored him, and the woman who stood next to him had just purchased what appeared to be a large bag of flour. The incognito prince thrust his hands into the bag (ignoring all protest from the woman), and, gathering as much of it as he could, threw a cloud of flour at the fruit vendor.
For a moment, no one could see. The vendor screamed in anger as the white cloud obscured his vision completely. Somewhere in the crowd, children shrieked their displeasure. When the flour-fog cleared, the vendor was covered in white splotches, and the thief was nowhere to be found. As Jasmir had hoped, he had used the distraction to make his escape.
"Cursed street rat!" the vender howled. He scowled, searching the crowd for a single turned back, but found none. His bloodshot eyes settled on a very uncomfortable Jasmir.
"You!" he barked, lumbering toward the prince. "You meddlesome, filthy brat-"
Before he could get another word out, a small brown mop of fur appeared, launching itself from the fruit stall's canvas roof, landing on the vendor's head. Looking closer, Jasmir realized that the little mop was actually a monkey, one of the little rhesus type that rich people tended to have imported for pets. There were more than one in the palace menagerie. It screeched wildly, shoving its little fingers at the vendor's eyes. He yelled and writhed, waving wildly as he tried to shake the little monkey off.
A warm hand circled around Jasmir's wrist.
"This way," a soft voice whispered in his ear.
And then he was running, faster than he had ever run before in his life. The apple thief kept a strong grip on his hand, pulling him along as fast as he could go.
"Come on, Abu!" the thief called over his shoulder. As the fruit stall fell out of sight, the angered hollering of the stall's vendor faded into the distance.
The streets of Agrabah raced past in a blur of sandy tan, but neither thief nor prince dared to slow down. They turned a sharp corner, panting with effort, and the little monkey came leaping down from the rooftop. The thief didn't slow even a little bit as the monkey landed gracefully on his shoulder.
"Where are we going?" Jasmir called, coughing into his free hand.
"Anywhere but here!" the thief responded. He released Jasmir's hand, apparently now confident that he could keep up. He slowed a little, but kept up a steady pace. With Jasmir in his wake, the thief switched from speed to agility and confusion. He began taking more turns, cutting through alleys and little-used streets, to throw off anyone who might have followed. He even had them climb over a chest-high fence at one point. Still, Jasmir followed him, keeping his questions to himself...for a while.
Eventually, he gave up.
"Hey," he called, as the thief ducked into yet another darkened alley. "Who are you, anyway?"
The thief paused, tossing a cautious look over his shoulder. He met the gaze of his monkey friend, and after a moment, the pair of them shrugged in unison.
"Ali," he said lightly. "My name's Ali."
He turned back and kept moving, but at a slower pace. "This is Abu," he called, pointing at the monkey on his shoulder, who chittered his own greeting.
"Abu," Jasmir said, turning over the name on his tongue. "That's interesting."
"And who're you, new kid?" Ali asked.
"New kid?" Jasmir repeated, confused.
"You have to be new to Agrabah, if you thought you could stop that man just by talking to him," Ali clarified. He finally turned off of the street, into what appeared to be an abandoned building. The walls had large chunks torn out of them, and the whole place looked about ready to collapse, but Ali didn't even pause. He just took off up the old stone stairs, to what remained of a second floor. Jasmir followed, eyes glued to Ali's back.
"What was I supposed to do, just let him cut off your hand?" he said, a hint of bitterness in his voice. "He had to have been mad."
"It's the law," Ali replied absently. "In case you didn't notice, I was breaking it."
"Don't tell me anyone takes that punishment seriously, though," countered Jasmir.
Ali stopped in his tracks, halfway up the steps. Surprised, Jasmir ran straight into him. As he stepped back to get his bearings, he realized that Ali was suddenly looking at him very seriously. His eyes had instantly become shadowed, nearly scowling.
"You really don't know anything, do you?" he said darkly. "Everyone takes it seriously. That's just how this city works. That vendor was right, either he would have taken my hand or the guards would have."
"No way," Jasmir breathed. "But that's..."
"Mad, I know," Ali replied, turning back and continuing on up the steps. "Welcome to Agrabah."
From that point on, Jasmir followed in silence. This afternoon had been a shock, to be sure, but this was the hardest part yet. Father always made that sound like such a petty law, like it was just ceremonial, he mused. I had no idea that anyone would actually maim someone so seriously for such a little thing. It was just an apple.
They reached the top of the stairs. There were tattered pillows and torn rugs everywhere, and even a cracked oil lamp in the corner. Glancing around, Jasmir deduced that this must be where Ali lived. His thoughts sank even further, as he realized what it must be like, to be a- what was that charming term the fruit vendor had used? 'Street rat'?
"Hey," Ali said, falling back to nudge his new acquaintance. "Quit brooding over it, it's just a marketplace scuffle."
"You could have lost your hand," Jasmir said seriously.
"Just like any other day of the week," Ali shot back, a mischievous grin spreading across his face. "You just do what you've gotta do to survive around here, and try not to let it get to you." Chuckling, the thief flopped onto a pile of pillows on the far side of the 'room', next to a makeshift window (the result of a wall cave-in, which Ali had tastefully covered with a ragged curtain).
"So, this is where you live?" Jasmir asked, in the interest of starting conversation.
"Yep," Ali said brightly. "Just me and Abu. It's not much, but it's ours. We come and go as we please. Plus it's got a great view." He signaled to Abu, who chattered excitedly and pulled back the curtain on the window. Where Jasmir expected to be blown away, he found his heart sinking quickly.
The view that Ali seemed to like so much was a skyline of Agrabah, with the grand splendor of the royal palace rising up in the glow of sunset. From here, you couldn't see very far down into the scum of the city, which was most likely was Ali liked about it. Had it been anyone other than the runaway prince of Agrabah, they might have found it as amazing as Ali indicated. As it was, Jasmir honestly thought he might be sick. Keeping his face as schooled as possible, the prince tried to nod appreciatively.
"It's wonderful, I'm sure," he murmured.
"Don't sound so excited," Ali teased. He propped himself up on his hands so he could see, a warm smile on his face. "It's incredible. This way, there's always something better on the horizon, you know?"
"Oh, sure," Jasmir quipped, unable to stop himself. "Being told what to do, when and where to go, how to dress, how to act- not being able to make a single choice of your own sounds just incredible."
"It's got to be better than here," Ali said with a sigh. "True, going to sleep at night wondering how long it is before you lose a functioning hand has it's own charm, but I for one could live without it."
They fell into an uncomfortable silence, neither sure what was appropriate to say. Jasmir feared he might have offended Ali by voicing his opinion, but it was something he just didn't want to keep to himself any more. I left home so I could be myself, he reasoned mentally. It wouldn't have been worth it if I kept lying now.
Ali eventually cleared his throat.
"I meant to thank you, by the way," he said softly. "I was in real trouble back there. If you hadn't shown up, I probably would have one less hand now."
"Oh," Jasmir replied, blushing slightly. "It was nothing. I mean, I don't think I really helped. It seemed like I was just making it worse."
"But you said something," Ali said. His expression softened. "Not many people would even try to look out for someone like me. Street rats don't usually have very many friends."
At that, Jasmir couldn't help but smile. "Well, now you can count one more," he said, holding out his hand. Ali grinned, and held up his hand. They firmly grasped forearms, as Abu leaped about the small room to show off his excitement. Jasmir took a seat on the ground next to Ali, already feeling better than he had in a long time.
"So, where you from?" Ali asked.
"Nowhere," Jasmir answered instantly. "At least, nowhere that matters."
Ali nodded. "Runaway, then," he said shrewdly. "There's more than a few of those around here. I'm guessing something's not great at home?"
"It's my father," Jasmir explained. "He's got this crazy idea that if I don't get married soon, he'll die and the...family business," he lied quickly, "-will fall to pieces. Allah forbid I be a competent person on my own. I don't know what he thinks a wife would do for me that I don't already do myself."
Ali snorted. "You've got enough of a conscience to save a street rat like me from certain maiming, just because it seemed unfair," he said, clapping Jasmir on the back. "I think that makes you about good enough for anything. It puts you a step ahead of the Sultan, that's for sure."
Jasmir cocked his head to the side, confused. "The Sultan?" he asked.
Ali waved a hand, dismissing the thought. "Ignore me, I just have problems with a leader who lets the city get this bad without ever doing anything about it," he muttered. "This place is a sinkhole, there's nothing but corruption and hate here. The high-level crime lords rule in all but name, driving the middle classes poorer and poorer. The marketplace vendors are all in someone's pocket. The prices for decent goods rise faster than folks can keep up with, so they have to make do with less and less."
The aura in the room went cold. Jasmir's eyes grew wide, listening to Ali's account of Agrabah. It was one thing to know in his mind that they were from two different worlds, but another entirely to hear just how different those worlds were. It hurt like a dagger to the chest, that such a person suffered so much in the city that Jasmir and his father were charged with protecting and ruling.
"Every day there get to be more people like me in this city," Ali murmured. "And the guards don't give a damn. As long as they meet their arrest quota, they don't care who gets hurt, or whether or not its fair."
"It sounds horrible," Jasmir whispered. "No one should have to live like that."
Ali let out a barking laugh. "So just run away," he joked hollowly. "You're doing so well at it already."
"Come with me, then," Jasmir challenged, giving his new friend a playful punch. "We could join a caravan tonight, vanish into the desert and never look back. After a million miles or so we might start really feeling free of it."
Ali smiled, and shook his head. "I couldn't leave this place," he admitted. "It may be a little corner of hell, but it's still my home."
Jasmir's smile disappeared. He cast his charcoal gaze to the floor.
"I'm sure you'll find a way to make it better," he offered. "It sounds like you're the kind of person who really cares about others. For example, not just anyone would risk their life just to give a child an apple."
Ali jerked upright, an astounded look on his face.
"You saw that?" he asked, surprised. When Jasmir nodded, Ali had to stifle a laugh. He raked his fingers through his short, clumsily shorn hair. "I just knew he was going to try it," the thief said with a shrug. "I couldn't have stopped him, but if someone was going to get caught, better me than him."
"That's fair," Jasmir conceded. "It's-"
A loud, crashing sound interrupted the prince's next sentence, followed by a booming shout.
"Here you are!"
Instantly, Ali was on his feet, Abu leaping onto his shoulder. As Jasmir frantically followed suit, he found that the staircase was blocked by no less than five of Agrabah's city guards. His face paled.
Father must have sent them looking for me, Jasmir thought, panicked.
"They found us," Ali growled. He reached over and grasped Jasmir's arm, pulling him away, toward the window, as the guards advanced. He spun the prince around, bracing his hands on his shoulders. His deep eyes were deadly serious.
"Now or never, new kid," he said roughly. "Get ready to jump."
"What?" Jasmir stammered.
Ali laughed and pushed him onto the broken wall's edge. The city streets seemed to spin below him.
"What's the matter, don't you trust me?" he said wickedly, and shoved the prince out the window.
The wind whistled in Ali's ears as they fell, and she threw a quick prayer to Allah that they would make it out of this alive. Next to her, the new boy was shaking like a leaf as the ground sped closer and closer.
Just before the expected splat, Ali reached out and caught her companion's arm. Next, she threw out her other hand and snagged a nearby clothesline to slow their fall. The resulting jerk sent a bloom of pain jolting up the thief's arm, but it did achieve the desired outcome. Using the clothesline as a fulcrum, the pair were able to swing to the side, landing in a clumsy tuck-and-roll that probably left both of them with some impressive bruises.
Ali staggered to her feet, dragging her friend with her. They raced toward the end of the street, hoping to start a rat race just like before, but the moment they turned the corner, Ali found herself running straight into the captain of the guard himself. She collided with his barrel chest head-on. A second later, his meaty fist had a chunk of her hair, and was forcing her still.
"Run!" she hollered to her friend, as Captain Razoul threw her mercilessly to the ground. From there, many more hands grabbed at her arms, her legs, her shoulders. They hauled her back to a standing position, forcing her hands behind her back. It took two guards to hold her still, as Ali fought tooth and nail to get away.
"It's the dungeon for you, boy," Razoul hissed, grinning like a madman.
Ali whipped her head back and forth, searching for her companion. When she found him, her eyes went wide as saucers.
He had thrown off his tattered brown shirt, revealing the beaded and jeweled vest of the incredibly rich. On his head had appeared, as though by magic, a simple golden circlet.
He strode forward, grasping the captain by the shoulder.
"Unhand him," he said coldly, applying enough pressure to force Razoul to face him. "By order of the prince."
When the captain saw who his quarry really was, his mouth fell open.
"Prince Jasmir," he stammered, aghast. Immediately, he dropped to one knee. The guards who held Ali followed suit, forcing their prisoner to bow with them. Ali trembled with complete and utter shock, as she struggled to comprehend that the boy who had saved her life today was, in actuality, the son of the ruler of the city. Her blood almost froze in her veins when she realized the gravity of everything she had said about the Sultan and the rule of the city. Suddenly, it wasn't just friendly chatter anymore.
"What are you doing outside the palace, my prince?" Captain Razoul was saying. "If the Sultan knew-"
"That is none of your concern, captain," Jasmir intoned, drawing himself up to his full height. His voice resonated with hidden power, enough to make Ali gulp. "Now, do as I command. Release him."
Razoul rose to his feet, a smirking sneer on his face. "I would, my prince," he replied with a humble bow, "But my orders come from the Royal Vizier. I'm afraid you'll have to take it up with him."
The last thing Ali saw of Prince Jasmir was the burning rage in his ebony eyes, before the guards gruffly wrenched her away. As they dragged her off down the street, toward the palace dungeons, she could have sworn she heard the echo of Jasmir's voice.
"Oh, believe me, captain...I will do just that."