Chapter 3: In A Pinch
The slam of the large, ornate doors to the judicial wing echoed loudly enough to catch the attention of the entire palace. The Royal Vizier, Jafar, looked up from his work, his mahogany desk covered in various scrolls and other documents. For such a busy desk, it was remarkably well-organized. Jafar was the type of person who liked to have everything firmly in hand, and under his control.
He was a thin, wiry man, almost frighteningly slim, somewhere in his forties. He stood a head taller than the prince, which meant he dwarfed anyone of ordinary stature. The squat little Sultan and his beanstalk of a Royal Vizier made an absolutely comical picture. Jafar's face, however, showed no humor whatsoever. He had his jet-black beard trimmed into a stylish goatee, and blackened his lids and lashes with dark kohl. He was tireless in his work, which gave him dark circles beneath his eyes, and his hooked nose looked as though it might have been broken once or twice in the past. All in all, the Royal Vizier was an imposing figure, whom very few opposed. The prince, however, had always been less-than-accepting of his father's chief advisor, and the present moment was no exception.
Prince Jasmir of Agrabah strode into the room, his expression livid. As expected of him, Jafar rose to his feet, a canny smile on his face.
"My prince," he addressed Jasmir, his deep voice slick as butter. "How may I be of service to you?"
Halting in front of Jafar's desk, Jasmir crossed his arms over his chest, brows knit in anger. "Your oh-so-proficient city guard just arrested an undeserving person from the streets, with no declaration of charges," he intoned. "I'd like an explanation."
"Undeserving person, you say?" Jafar replied, glancing down at his work. He picked up his quill, and from his standing position, continued to write on the paper he had been working on. "You must mean that boy from the-" He paused, flipping a piece of parchment to check something, and let it fall back into place, "-the pilfered produce incident. I'm sorry to inform your highness, but he was a criminal of the state and therefore warranted arrest."
"For stealing an apple?" Jasmir scoffed. "You must be joking."
"On the contrary, my prince," Jafar said, straightening up. His quill fell to the desk, forgotten. "The boy is most famous among the city's underground. My guards have had him in their sights for quite a while. He has swindled every merchant in the marketplace, and has avoided arrest each and every time. It was only a matter of time before we infiltrated his nest. You can imagine our surprise to find your fugitive highness on the premises. I assure you, it is most likely that he had marked you as his next victim."
"That boy saved my life," Jasmir growled. "He wouldn't have done anything to me. If it weren't for him, I would have been dead at some misguided merchant's hand. If that doesn't deserve a royal pardon, I don't know what does."
Jafar's beady eyes glinted dangerously.
"Of course your highness would have at the very least a persuasive argument," he said smoothly, "But I regret to inform you that said argument is too late to be of any use. The boy's sentence has already been carried out."
Jasmir's blood ran cold and his mouth went dry.
"Sentence?" he repeated, expending all of his effort to keep his expression under control. There weren't very many varieties of punishment according to Agrabah law, but as had already been proven, Jasmir didn't know all of them. The ones he did know did not leave him hopeful.
He could have sworn that Jafar looked almost pleased with himself, as he answered Jasmir's implied question.
"Death," he said softly. "Beheading, to be precise."
The sound of Jafar's oily voice echoed in the prince's ears. For a moment, the entire universe seemed to stop in its tracks. Jasmir felt like shivering from head to toe as the shock set in. The room was spinning, and unwanted flashes of Ali's face danced through his mind.
"I am exceedingly sorry, my prince," came the sickening voice of the Royal Vizier as he resumed his seat. "Had I but known- but I'm afraid there is nothing to be done now."
Jasmir clenched his fists, willing the strong ache developing in his chest to go away. His head was pounding. "Of course not," he muttered, blinking his eyes rapidly to try and banish the visions.
"Will that be all, or may I assist your highness with something else?" Jafar drawled.
Without a word- for he truly didn't think he could bring himself to speak –the prince turned on his heel and made for the door. As quickly as he could without raising suspicion, he took off for his own chambers. The sooner there was a wall and a door between him and the rest of the world, the better.
The Royal Vizier smirked to himself as Jasmir vanished out of sight, the large doors swinging closed behind him once more.
The haunting thoughts that plagued the prince's mind almost paled in comparison to those that drifted through Ali's. Surprisingly still in one piece, the street rat was at that moment shackled to a wall in the palace dungeon. It was a cold, dark tower, with solid stone walls to keep its prisoners inside. The only light came from a single barred window, which was so high on the stony wall that even the tallest man could not have reached it. The walls beneath it were scratched and worn from constant attempts to scale it, but the iron bars that were still in place indicated that none had succeeded. Pale moonlight shone through the window, casting the depressing shadows of its bars across the dungeon (for added ambience).
Alone at the base of the tower, Ali fought to find a semi-comfortable position, as her hands had been yanked up above her head and shackled there, locking her in a sitting position on the cold stone floor. Her backside was sore and her wrists were chafing horribly. I suppose there really isn't a point to keeping prisoners comfortable, she thought wryly. Not for the little while they'll actually be here.
Unlike Jasmir, Alidah had a fairly clear idea of what lay in store for her. There were stories of those who had been taken up by the guard. A prison sentence was usually only the first act, leading up to the second: an appointment with the executioner. The fact that she seemed to be the only prisoner currently being held made that possibility all the more likely.
Bitter and angry memories danced through Ali's head, reminding her why and how she had come to be here, from the days before she had ever become Ali the street rat to the moment they slammed the dungeon door.
"I'm trying, mama," Ali mumbled to herself, trying to quiet the voices in her head. "I'm trying to do what you said, to make you proud. I guess this one's just too big for us." Her eyes stung, but Ali refused to cry. It just wasn't her style. Her mother had wanted her to be strong and support herself with her own power, and becoming a crying mess at the first sign of trouble would not help anything. However, that didn't mean she was any less upset.
"I'm such an idiot," Ali shouted, slamming her heels against the stone floor. Pain blossomed in her feet, but she didn't care. "I really thought I had a chance to make things better, and then...I just blew it like that...he was the prince..."
Her not-so-inner monologue was suddenly interrupted by a familiar chittering sound from above. Despite her situation, a grim smile set in on Ali's face. Perhaps no man could reach the barred window overhead...but a monkey, it seemed, could.
"Down here, Abu," she called softly. The shadow of the little monkey bounced from wall to wall as he made his way down to his partner's side. The chinks and grooves in the wall provided him handholds where a man could never find one. Within minutes, Abu was on the ground, and busily working at the shackles on Ali's wrists with a small metal pick. While he worked, he used his vocabulary of squeaks and screeches to let Ali know just what he thought of the new 'friend' that had gotten her captured here.
"It wasn't his fault, Abu," Ali answered sharply. "He wouldn't have tried to help if he'd wanted us caught." Her breath hitched in her throat as she remembered the look on his face- not when he'd looked at her, but when he faced down Captain Razoul. The naïve 'new kid' she had rescued from the marketplace had, in less than a second, become the prince of Agrabah. Not just any old boy with a title, but he had really felt like a prince. He was powerful and strong on the inside, the kind of person who willingly faced injustice without fear. Those people were so rare in Agrabah. It was the kind of authority Ali could only dream of.
Why then, was he on the run? Was he an idiot who couldn't see what kind of person he truly was?
"It's my father. He's got this crazy idea that if I don't get married soon, he'll die and the...family business...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's head jerked up when she figured it out. He wasn't running because he was scared, she realized. He was running to find another way.
It was the only explanation that made sense. If the Sultan refused to let him rule without finding a wife, and he truly didn't want to marry a stranger, then there was nothing else for him to do at the palace- any solution would have to be found elsewhere. He almost had no choice but to leave. He couldn't gain anything by staying, the status quo had to change. Perhaps Jasmir thought there was something in the city that could help him, some other option. Or quite honestly, Ali couldn't have blamed him if he chose to leave rather than be ignored and forgotten. That, at least, was a choice that left him his dignity.
"Poor guy," Ali rasped, chuckling to herself. "He's in a bit of a pinch, isn't he."
Abu screeched at her, beating his little fist against the top of her head as the shackle bar swung open. "What, Abu?" Ali ask grumpily as he arms fell back to her sides. She rubbed at her wrists as the blood rushed back to her arms and hands. "It's not like we're ever going to see him again or anything. We're street rats. He doesn't need help from a couple of fools like us."
"You're only a fool if you give up, boy..."
Both Ali and Abu jumped a mile at the sound of a third hissing, eerie voice from the shadows. Until now, Ali had been convinced that she was alone in this dungeon, but it sounded like that wasn't the case at all. She was on her feet in a moment, wary as a startled cat.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "Show yourself."
Out of the darkness came a hobbling elder man. He was skin and bones, as most prisoners are, and his white hair and beard had grown long in age. His back was hunched, and he had a twisted and bent wooden walking stick in one hand. He looked like a living skeleton, with dark circles under his eyes and mottled skin. His snaggly teeth stuck out at all angles, some of them false and made of gold. Just a look at him left Ali shivering.
"I'm just a lowly prisoner like yourself," the wizened old man cackled, pointing at her with his walking stick. "But together..." His creepy eyes widened. "We could be more."
Not seeing any other immediate options, Ali crossed her arms and cocked her hip. Abu jumped up to her shoulder, eyeing the old man suspiciously. "I'm listening," Ali said cautiously.
The old man inched closer. "There is a cave, boy," he hissed. "A Cave of Wonders, filled with treasures beyond your wildest dreams."
Ali opened her mouth to scoff at him, but found herself silenced when he reached into his filthy prisoner's shirt and withdrew a small handful of red gemstones. They sparkled like rubies, or garnets. In his hand was treasure enough to capture the attention of any street rat in Agrabah...and he said there was a cave with more?
It had to be the most suspicious thing Ali had ever heard. Unfortunately, she had no alternate way of getting out of the prison, which put her between a rock and a dead place. She and Abu traded very, very apprehensive glances, before turning back to the creepy man.
"Why would you just offer to share all of this treasure with me?" Ali said, raising a brow. "I can't get you out of this cell if that's what you think."
The old man shook his head, his leering smile firmly in place as he stowed the gemstones back in his shirt. "I just need a young pair of legs and a strong back to go in after it," he said. "These old bones just aren't what they used to be."
"Did you have a plan for getting us out of here then?" Ali demanded.
Shivers drifted up her spine as the walking skeleton grinned toothily at her. "But of course," he said oozily. He lifted his walking stick and tapped it lightly against the prison wall. The sound of grating rock echoed through the dungeon. Where the old geezer had touched it, the stone shivered, and then slid aside to reveal a worn set of stone steps, leading off into the darkness. Ali's eyes went wide. A hidden passage? How could he possibly have known such a thing was there?
"Things aren't always what they seem," the old man chided her. "Sometimes, if you play your cards right, you'll find a diamond in the rough."
He winked, then turned on his knobbly little legs and hobbled into the passage. Abu chattered nervously. "I know," Ali said, reaching up to pet the little monkey on the head. This didn't necessarily sit well with either of them, but they didn't have much of a choice. The only other option was to stay here and wait for death. Still, this conniving old man probably didn't know that he was attempting to fool one of Agrabah's brightest urchins.
"We'll just have to keep both eyes open on this one," Ali muttered.
Eyes determined, she ducked into the passageway and down the stone stairs after her new companion. Behind her, rocks grated once more. The mystical moving stone slid back into place.
As surely as if they had been whisked away by magic, the two prisoners vanished into the night.
After Jasmir's little 'disappearing act' earned him the unending watchful gaze of the entire palace staff, it was understandable that he would be somewhat irritated. At first, that was all anyone thought it was. It took six whole hours of silence from Jasmir's room before the Sultan seemed to realize that his son was in one of his 'moods' again. Might be a record, Jasmir thought wryly to himself. His father was knocking incessantly on the door, calling his name.
The prince himself was languidly draped across the chaise lounge in his room, with his faithful pet Rajah curled up on the floor at his feet. The entire room was done up in green and gold, with plush rugs and down pillows scattered around. Calla lilies in pots decorated the large writing table, and their light scent drifted through the air in lieu of an incense burner. It was a very comfortable space, in Jasmir's mind. He had spent years getting rid of the things he didn't like, leaving only the simplistic beauty he enjoyed.
Jasmir let a hand fall down to absently scratch behind Rajah's ears. His eyes, however, were miles away.
"Jasmir!" came his father's voice from the other side of the door. "Jasmir, what's going on? You haven't come out for hours, what on earth are you doing?"
"Holler all you want," the prince muttered rebelliously to himself.
"I know you're there, Jasmir," his father called more insistently. "Now you can either come out or let me in. I'll stand here all night if I have to!"
For a moment, silence ruled. The royal house of Agrabah was well-known for its stubborn nature- the question was, between the two of them, who would hold out longer? Neither Sultan nor prince cared for being uncomfortable.
Rajah picked up his head and whined pointedly. He, it seemed, wasn't interested in waiting around for the stubbornness contest to end. Growling, Jasmir got his feet. "Traitor," he accused the cat as he crossed to the door.
Jasmir eased open the door, knowing his father's tendency to barrel in where he wasn't necessarily wanted. "You know, usually when someone refuses to come to the door, it means they aren't interested in talking," he said, his tone falsely amicable.
"What in Allah's name is the matter, Jasmir?" the Sultan asked, avoiding his son's snark. The little man's dark eyebrows were creased with worry. "First you disappear, and then they tell me you've been found running around in the city, and now this!" He placed a hand on Jasmir's arm. The prince didn't pull away as he usually would have done.
"I'm concerned," the Sultan said, his tone softening.
Now you're concerned? Jasmir's mind screamed. "I don't understand what argument you can possibly have with my wanting to see the city I'm intended to rule," he said calmly. The Sultan pushed his way into the room, searching about for some obvious explanation for his son's behavior. He saw only the same old ordinary room.
"Of course I think you should see it," the Sultan agreed slowly, "But you could have simply asked." He turned his warm gaze on Jasmir, who shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
"I know you better than you think, my boy," the Sultan said knowingly. "There's more to this. Now tell me what's upset you, and we'll go about setting it right."
Jasmir sighed. It was so hard dealing with his father when he was being like this. Try as he might to be annoyed and hate him, the Sultan was a good man, and a good father. He really did want what was best for his son, and his good intentions often made it difficult to paint him as a villain.
The prince dropped back onto his couch, resuming his petting of the tiger at its feet. "There's nothing you can do about it," he said resignedly. "I did something incredibly stupid, and there's no fixing it. Jafar's made sure of that."
"Jafar?" the Sultan asked, confused. He took a seat next to his son, carefully avoiding stepping on Rajah's tail. "What's he got to do with this?"
"Ask him," Jasmir said bitterly. "Ask him what business he's got with sentencing people to death for less than petty crimes. I see all too well why the city is so corrupt now. That snake may not be responsible alone, but it's people like him at the root of the problem."
"What on earth are you talking about?" the Sultan asked. "Who's sentenced to death?"
Before Jasmir knew it, the entire story had come out. He told his father the (almost) whole truth- how he had met Ali, and how the street rat had come to his unfortunate demise at the hand of the Royal Vizier himself. He did keep Ali's critical words about Agrabah to himself.
"You should have seen him, Father," Jasmir said, drawing his knees in close to his chest. "He didn't even have food to eat, but he was still so alive. Of course stealing is wrong, we all know it- but he was arrested and killed just for wanting food. How does anyone deserve that?"
The Sultan sighed. "You know as well as I do that the world isn't fair, Jasmir," he said quietly. He placed a hand on his son's back, tracing comforting circles with his palm. "We have to uphold the law, even when it hurts to do it."
"But it was my fault he was caught," Jasmir said resentfully. "If I hadn't been there, if the guards hadn't been looking for me, he would still be alive. Am I supposed to just go on like normal now?" His hands clenched themselves into fists. Rajah's tail began switching back and forth restlessly. "He didn't even get a trial. One man with power decided he needed to die. One man, who had never even seen his face before. Tell me why we allow this sort of thing to happen."
"It wasn't your fault, Jasmir," the Sultan reprimanded him. "It's just how the law works. It's how it's always been. You can't just change an entire kingdom overnight. The royal house is meant to follow the written law, that's our purpose."
The prince's brows twitched, and his eyes took on a glassy sheen. "It's not my purpose," he whispered. "It can't be."
"What?" his father asked.
Jasmir sat up, swinging his legs off the couch. His mouth was set in a determined line. "I said, it's not my purpose," he repeated. His voice was a low rumble in his chest. "If that's the way this city works...then I don't know if I want to be a prince anymore."
The very air between them went quiet. "Be serious, Jasmir," the Sultan said with a nervous chuckle.
"Father, I am serious," Jasmir said sharply. "I have always been serious, it's you who chooses when my words mean nothing to you. Now, if you'll excuse me, it seems I have much to think about." He stood, and crossed to the door, indicating that his father should leave.
Too stunned to speak, the Sultan got to his feet. He swayed for a moment, then tottered from the room.
"I will let you know my decision by my birthday," Jasmir said quietly, and closed the door.
He didn't emerge for the rest of the night.
For the first twenty minutes or so, Ali reveled in the fact that the creepy old man's secret passage had indeed led them to freedom. For some reason, the sky looked so different now. It was dotted with the stars that the street rat thought she would never see again. It was actually somewhat beautiful.
The next two hours spent dragging their feet through half a sandstorm out in the desert were not beautiful at all. Abu took to hiding himself in the safety of Ali's shirt, out of the harsh wind, but Ali herself had nowhere to hide. The old man had from somewhere produced a ragged-looking horse, and was perched upon its back, calling directions. Ali held the horse's reins tightly in her fist, and pulled it along as she trudged through the sand. At least it was night, and they didn't have to fear the exposure of the sun- though the wind was cold this late in the desert.
Eventually, the wind died down a little. Shortly after, the old man called out for Ali to stop. He slithered down from the horse's back, and grinned toothily at her. "We're here," he said gleefully.
Ali blinked. She glanced around, and saw nothing but sand in all directions. "And where exactly is 'here'?" she asked coldly. "I don't see anything."
He raised a wizened finger and gestured for her to wait. With his other hand, from inside his ratty shirt he drew a pair of small brassy figurines. Closer inspection revealed that they were actually two halves of a figurine, a little gold and jeweled beetle. When the two halves were pressed together, Ali saw what she was supposed to wait for.
The little beetle glowed golden, and launched itself into the air. With the speed of a real flying insect, it zoomed off of its own accord. Midair, it split itself once more, and buried its two glowing halves into a nearby sand dune. The ground began to quake. As Ali watched in awe, the sand dune grew, rising out of the desert. The two glowing jewels became eyes, as the sand flowed and stuck, forming itself into the shape of an enormous tiger's head. It had to have been the size of a building, towering over the humans like a mythical beast of legend.
In the back of her shirt, Abu shivered, as Ali gulped. The giant thing opened its massive jaws in a yawn, then narrowed its beady eyes at her.
"Who disturbs my slumber?" it thundered, its mystical voice reverberating through the air.
"Tell it your name," hissed the old man.
Ali swallowed nervously. It wasn't very day one introduced themselves to a giant magic tiger made of sand. Still, she gathered together her bravado, and approached.
"It is I," she called, the strange formal words feeling alien on her tongue. "Ali. Street thief of Agrabah."
The tiger breathed heavily. "Proceed," it rumbled, and opened its maw wide. There between its teeth, where rightfully a tongue should have been, lay a set of stone steps. From inside the tiger's mouth came a golden glow, from the treasure-filled cave that lay beyond.
"Touch nothing but the lamp," the tiger-cave added darkly.
The lamp. The purpose of this entire ridiculous mission. Still, Ali had bargained that lamp for her life. The old man had gotten her out of prison...now it was time to make good on her end of the deal. With resolve in her mind and a monkey shivering with fear on her shoulder, Alidah stepped toward the cave.
"Remember, boy," the old man shouted after her. "First, fetch me the lamp. And then you shall have your reward!"
Ali turned back. "A deal's a deal!" she called firmly.
"Come on, Abu," she hissed out of the corner of her mouth. "Let's go."
Thief and monkey disappeared into the maw of the tiger-beast, down to the Cave of Wonders. The creepy old man grinned to himself, and settled in to wait.
Everything was going according to plan.
Did you enjoy my ongoing story so far? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, AurynReiEvrorenWrite a Review