Jasmine stood staring at her bedroom door with her heart pounding like a drum. She was starting to sweat and her legs were shaking. Ever since she was a child, wearing her formal robe would lead her mother to call Jasmine her little China doll. Jasmine hated when her mother pointed out how Chinese she looked instead of like her Arab father, the Sultan. But her traditional Chinese dress certainly came in handy today.
Why today? Because today was the day Jasmine would finally make her escape. Her life had been torture as the princess. From the day she was born she had rules that governed every movement she made. She literally had a movement instructor who taught her how to walk like a princess.
On top of that, every day for her was the same. She woke up, her handmaidens would enter her room, guide her to the bath, bath her and dress her. Dressed, she would be lead to the breakfast room where she would eat breakfast alone. From there, she would be escorted to her daily lessons. Chinese literature, Arabic literature, art class, and music class. But even in her music class, she couldn’t choose her own instrument.
She had wanted to learn to play the pipa after seeing a woman in their royal orchestra play it. The image had reshaped her view of the world. Never in her life had she imagined that a woman would be allowed to play the pipa. And the way she held it, it was like she was holding a lover.
Jasmine was sure that no one else noticed, but she saw how the pipa player’s face contorted with pleasure. She had recognized the musician’s restrained countenance from her own when she first discovered what happened when she touched herself between her legs. The musician experienced ecstasy as she played her bulbous stringed instrument, and Jasmine had wanted that for herself.
Alas, that was not the instrument for royalty, her instructor told her. She was to play the guzheng. It was tradition, her instructor had said. And when Jasmine complained to her mother, her mother lectured her about Chinese traditions and then took her instructor’s side.
That incident, in particular, made Jasmine feel utterly helpless. Everything about her life felt that way. But worse than all of that. Worse than the fact that every moment of her life was maneuvered like a stringed puppet, was the rule that governed every princess in her line. It was that no one, not her guards, not her instructors, not even visiting emissaries, was allowed to look her in the eyes.
For the 20 years of her life, the only eyes she had looked into were those of her father, her mother, her childhood nanny, and Vizier. But, even though he could, her father hardly ever looked at her. He couldn’t because it was rare that they were in the same room at the same time. Her mother, she saw more often, but she too was busy. And, whenever she was unlucky enough to be left alone with her father’s monstrous adviser, Vizier, he always said the vilest things to her that she could imagine.
Jasmine’s heart ached to be seen by another human being. She wanted it so desperately that she had considered climbing to the top of the palace wall and throwing herself off of it. She would be seen then, the whole city would see her.
But what she instead decided to do was something greater. In one stroke she would get everything she ever wanted while also getting back at her parents for every mean thing they had ever done. Jasmine had been planning this for months. She had thought about it for years. And after putting the last preparations in place the day before, this was the day she was going to do it. She was going to run away.
However, Jasmine knew that, as a princess, escaping the palace wasn’t going to be easy. Although no one ever looked her in the eyes, she knew that everyone knew what she looked like. She wouldn’t even make it into the courtyard without a guard a few steps behind her. And, if she just put her head down and ran for it, she wouldn’t get very far.
Her wooden shoes would slow her down. If she took them off and ran in her socks, she still had the layers upon layers of clothing to deal with. She would be stopped in an instant. Perhaps then, her cage would lock even tighter. She couldn’t think of how her life could get any worse, but she was sure that it could.
No, she had long determined that no such straight-forward escape plan would work. She would need to do something that, even if she were caught, would get her out of the palace and keep her there. She would have to convince people that she shouldn’t be there and have them do the work of making sure she wasn’t returned.
With Jasmine’s heart thumping in her throat, she stretched her fingers touching her bedroom’s doorknob. The metal felt electric. Everything around her seemed more alive. Was it because this was the last time she would see all of it? Perhaps. But, with a final deep breath and all of the courage she could gather, she turned the knob of her bedroom door and stepped out into the hall.
As the light from the hallway poured upon her, she looked around. As soon as she did, the guard’s surprised eyes looked down. It wasn’t unheard of for Jasmine to leave her room after dinner, but it was rare. If the royal orchestra wasn’t playing, she would mostly lose herself in a book about faraway places. After all, in real life, she was a prisoner. In her imagination and her books, she was free.
“Follow far behind,” Jasmine ordered with unquestionable authority.
“Yes, your Highness,” the burly, bearded man said in reply.
Jasmine stepped into the hall with her head spinning. She had managed to say her words calmly, but that didn’t reflect how she felt. She was a wreck, but there was no way she could let on.
“Further,” Jasmine demanded knowing the absolute limit they were allowed to follow. “Further still,” she ordered getting the man as far from her as she could.
Part one of her plan was done. She had to enter the hall just before nightfall. That was when no one would suspect a thing. Next, she would make her way to Vizier’s laboratory. She hated him, but she was finally going to use his vulgar familiarity against him.
She knew that at exactly this time, he would be meeting with her father. It was the one meeting he dare not break. All she had to do was get from where she was to that side of the palace and, like that, she would almost be free.
As she had planned, Jasmine sped up every time she rounded a corner. It was extending the distance between her and her guard. Approaching a new corner, the guard would lose track of her. And after doing this enough times, the guard couldn’t see her at all.
That was when Jasmine took off her wooden shoes and ran. She had to take them with her unless the guard would suspect something was up. Yes, the absence of wood clicking on stone would be a clue. But she knew the guard assigned to her. He wasn’t that bright.
With her shoes in her hand and her robe hiked into her arms, Jasmine sprinted through the palace. She knew the route she had to take. It was the one least traveled. It would be longer, which would increase her likelihood of being caught, but that’s what it had to be.
Five turns, six, seven, ten. She was getting closer. The guard had to be running now too. There was a chance he had gone the wrong way. Jasmine couldn’t rely on that, though. She had to keep going. And when her exhaustion hit her and she knew she couldn’t run for much longer, she was relieved to see the door at the end of the hall come into view. The relief was almost overwhelming.
Desperately out of breath, Jasmine slowed to pull on the door. Clutching the knob, it didn’t budge. She tried it again. Nothing. How was this possible? Was it locked? Jasmine examined the knob. There was no lock so it couldn’t be. Then, why wasn’t it opening? Her father had once told her that Vizier was a sorcerer with great magic. Was that how the door remained closed? Was it magic?
Pulling and pulling, nothing happened. This had been a mistake. She could hear the guard approaching. He would come upon her and she would have to explain herself. Maybe not to the guard, but to her mother when she found out.
Jasmine’s heart ached with regret. She should never have tried this. There had been too many moving parts and she had known that. Yet, here it was, the only plan she could come up with and it was about to destroy any hope she had of getting away.
Turning to face her pursuer, Jasmine stared down the poorly lit hall waiting for the guard to round the bend. Was it worth putting her shoes back on? She couldn’t decide. She could perhaps muster up an air of authority which would last until she was escorted back to her room, but what good would that do?
The only thing left now was to plan her climb to the top of the palace wall to throw herself off. She didn’t want to do it, but that was her last resort. She was out of options. She couldn’t live her life like this, so she would end it on her terms.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted her chin and steeled her eyes. She was ready. She would not be broken. She was going to go out strong.
As she stared into the darkness waiting for the guard was when she heard it. With the sound of approaching footsteps, there was something else. It sounded like the opening of a creaky door. With a sudden wave of hope, Jasmine spun around.
It was a miracle, the locked door had opened. Had the Vizier unlocked it from the inside? It didn’t matter. Whipping herself behind its formable mass she entered an already lit room. As she did, the door closed behind her.
Startled, Jasmine stared at it. There was no one there. No one had touched it.
How? She wondered. Who? She implored, searching her mind for an answer.
Quickly Jasmine realized that it didn’t matter. Whatever force had let her in, had given her one last chance at life. She wasn’t going to waste it. So, turning around and facing Vizier’s strange sorcerer tools, she found a space for her to execute the next part of her plan.
Dropping her robe and everything she had on top of it, she felt the unusually cool air of the laboratory wash over her. It felt so good. Perhaps it was more than just the cool air that brought her relief, perhaps it was the start of her new life.
There was one important thing to do first, however. She had to check to see if something was true. Part of her plan hinged on what she had overheard. Jasmine wasn’t sure if she had overheard it in a dream or in real life, but however she had, it had felt real.
In whatever it was, she had watched Vizier talk to a man. From what she could see, he was an incredibly gorgeous man. And, in her memory, Vizier was telling him about his laboratory. They were talking about a passage Vizier wanted to be put in. Jasmine assumed the man was a palace architect but there was something about the way the gorgeous man was dressed that told her that he wasn’t.
Whoever he was, Vizier explained to him in detail about how he wanted the escape door to work. Vizier wanted a door that would open to a hall. That hall would lead to two places. One was deep below the palace. The other was to a small door that opened beyond the palace walls. Jasmine needed to make sure that she hadn’t dreamed it. Before she could engage in the next part of her plan, she had to make sure it was real.
Jasmine crossed the room sure not to touch anything. She didn’t want Vizier to know she had been there. Eventually, her disappearance would get back to him, along with her path through the halls and he would figure it out. But, until then, she would have time to get as far from the palace as possible. She didn’t know how far she could get, or even what the world was like outside the palace walls, but she wanted to find out.
Replaying Vizier’s words back in her head, she reached for a lantern attached to the wall. It looked like all of the others, but Vizier had said that it should be indistinguishable. Putting her hand on the metal stand that projected from the stone, she pulled on it. It budged, which was more than any wall lamp should move, but far less than she had expected.
An echoing bang on the door interrupted her. Her skin prickled.
“Your honor, I’m sorry to disturb you. I’m in search of the Princess. Is she with you?”
This was the moment Jasmine had thought about from the time she had come up with her plan. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Vizier’s voice had been burned into her mind. She knew the creepy way it danced up and down and its tone. She could impersonate it. At least she thought she could.
“Never disturb me when I’m working. Never disturb me!” Jasmine said in a grading tone.
“I’m sorry, your honor. I’ll look for her elsewhere, your honor,” the guard said before going silent.
Jasmine waited and listened. She didn’t hear anything else. Did that mean he was gone? Was the door again locked? Or, was she not convincing and he was going to try to enter?
As Jasmine stared at the door, nothing happened. There were no further knocks and the guard didn’t test the lock. At least for a few more moments, she was safe.
Feeling the time slip away, she went into action. With her long robe pushed aside, she looked down at her clothes. She was wearing pants. And not just the undergarments that Arab women sometimes wore, actual boy’s pants. On top of that, she was wearing a tradition collarless shirt and a vest. From the neck down, she looked like a boy. Unfortunately, there was only one thing that was sure to give her away in Chinese Muslim society. It was her hair. Her long, thick, luxurious hair.
Jasmine had considered wearing a hat as part of her disguise, but what if it was pulled off. Her disguise would be immediately blown. No, there was only one thing she could do if she truly wanted to escape the prison in which she lived.
Withdrawing the scissors from the sash around her waist, she took hold of them with one hand and the length of her hair with the other. She didn’t want to do this. The only compliment her mother had ever given her as a child had been about her hair. As far as Jasmine knew, it was the only good thing about her. But, if she was going to live, to truly live, she was going to have let go of everything she once held dear. With that, Jasmine squeezed and her ponytail came loose in her hand.
What had she done?
Jasmine had not expected tears to fill her eyes. But, her father had always said that the beauty of a Chinese girl resided in her hair. The same could be said about Chinese men. But, outside the palace gates, she wouldn’t be trying to pass as either.
The only way she could live, truly live, was as a boy. As she read in her books, free girls had barely more freedom than she did. But, a boy, he held the world in his hand like a beautiful pearl. That was what she wanted. And, to have a chance at that, she would need to get rid of more than just her ponytail.
By the time Jasmine was done, she didn’t have to cover her face to hide. Staring into one of Vizier’s copper pots, she couldn’t recognize herself. She was a boy, there was no doubt about it. Jasmine would place her age between 13, and 15. But, there was no way people were going to see her as a China doll anymore. That part of her life was over.
Gathering the hair and all of her belongings into a ball, she approached the wall lantern again. This time she yanked on it with force. If it didn’t release a door, it was going to come off the wall in her hands. It was then that a panel in the wall opened. The door wasn’t light and required another yank on the lantern to fully open. But when it was, Jasmine was washed with a sense a relief that warmed her to her core.
She was doing it. She was going to be free. She felt so good, she could’ve broken into song. She didn’t.
Staring into the passage ahead, the only thing she could tell was that it was dark. It was the darkest of the dark. Having stepped forward, she backed out. There was no way she was going to navigate it like it was. She was going to need a light.
Searching around Vizier’s laboratory was when she found something that she never expected to see. Tucked against the wall was a basket filled with golden tears. They glistened in the lanterns’ light. She knew she would need something of value in the city and she could only imagine how much one of the golden teardrops were worth.
“No, Jasmine. He’s the master of coin for the kingdom. Take even one and he will know it’s gone. Find a lantern and go.”
Reluctantly covering the basket and moving on, Jasmine found a discarded torch at the bottom of another basket. She wasn’t sure if Vizier was going to miss this, but what choice did she have? It was this or nothing.
With her arms still filled with her belongs, Jasmine lit the torch, entered the dark passageway and closed the wall panel behind her. Walking, she felt like she was walking forever. Turning left and then right, she wasn’t sure if she would end up outside or deeper into the bowels of her prison. But when her path ended at a door sustained by a metal latch, she flicked the handle, opened the door and focused her eyes on the most dazzling image that she had ever seen.
Standing before her was what could only be described as freedom. She had done it. After 20 years of imprisonment, Jasmine was finally free.
Jasmine’s eyes filled with tears once again. This time she didn’t know why. Was it the joy of her new freedom? Was it the sadness for what she was leaving behind? Was it because of the storm of emotions that had hit her at once? She didn’t know. What she did know, however, was that she was free and she had to keep moving to stay that way.
Stepping out and closing the door behind her, the cracks between the door and the wall seemed to disappear. Was that magic too? Holding her torch in one hand and her robe and hair in another, she turned back towards the illuminated city and began her new life.
Crossing the distance between the wall and the city, Jasmine was awed by the sight. She had seen it from the balcony of her bedroom, but she couldn’t have imagined what it looked like up close. The small wooden structures with their ceramic tile roofs glowed with life. The closer she got, the more she was enveloped with the smells and sounds of the city. The air smelled like a dance of spices. And the city sounded like laughter and love.
Walking between the small, warm homes, Jasmine was lost in imagination about what must be going on within. How did those families interact? Did they dance together? She had read about it in stories from foreign lands. Was that what the common people did? Not knowing, her heart hurt wanting to find out.
Although she knew that she should be running as far and as fast as she could, she didn’t run. The entire night, she crossed between all of the homes and rowdy structures wondering what it must be like to go inside. It had to be glorious.
She couldn’t get herself to do it, though. How could she? She didn’t even know how to walk when within a drinking establishment. Her movement instructor had never taught her that.
As the lights of the small wooden homes went out, Jasmine slowly realized something that she hadn’t really thought about when she was planning her escape. Now that she was free of her prison, where would she sleep?
Could she knock on someone’s door and ask for a bed? Were there inns around? If there were, how would she pay? In fact, how would she pay for anything? Jasmine thought back to the basket of golden tears she had seen in Vizier’s laboratory. How many nights would one of those have bought her?
After a while, thinking about it became too much for her. Jasmine just needed somewhere to sleep. There were many empty alleys between the homes and buildings. Coming across one where the dirt was soft, Jasmine sat with her back against the wall. Wrapping her robe around her body for privacy and warmth, she swore to only close her eyes for a moment before she fell asleep.
“Get up, you street rat,” Jasmine heard before feeling a kick that caught her squarely in the ribs.
“Ow!” she proclaimed angrily as she popped out from under her robe. “That hurt!”
“If you don’t want to be kicked, then you shouldn’t sleep in the streets.”
“There was nowhere else to go,” Jasmine proclaimed indignantly.
“You think that’s my problem? Get out of here,” he said before kicking her again.
“Ow! Ow!” Jasmine said crawling away.
“And, where did you steal that?” The man said pointing at the luxurious robe.
“I didn’t steal it. It’s mine,” Jasmine proclaimed without thinking.
“Yours? The only one who could own something as expensive as that would be a princess. Are you the Princess, boy?”
It was then that Jasmine’s eyes and mind cleared. She looked up into the pudgy man’s eyes. …She was looking into his eyes, and he was looking back at her. He was seeing her. He was the first person to truly see her. It felt incredible.
“Get out of here,” the shopkeeper said again before pulling back his foot and letting it fly against her ass.
When it connected, the blow lifted Jasmine’s small body into the air and deposited her a few inches away. The kick hurt. It hurt tremendously. She wanted to cry. And looking back into the first new set of eyes she had looked into in a decade, she finally noticed how angry they were. They scared her. She had to get out of there.
Getting up, Jasmine did everything she could to hold in her emotions. Quickly collecting her robe, she stopped when the man stepped forward and stood on the tale of it.
“No, Princess, the robe isn’t yours. I’ll return it to its rightful owner.” The look on his face shifted to a wry smile. “And, if I can’t find them, I’ll sell it for a nice profit.”
‘Wait, the robe has value. I can sell it,’ Jasmine realized.
“I can sell it to you if you want it,” Jasmine said suddenly realizing how hungry she was.
“Or, I can take it and not take your life while I’m at it.”
“You can’t just take it from me,” Jasmine said confused by the man’s suggestion.
“Oh really, just watch me,” the man said with darkness that Jasmine could never have imagined.
The shopkeeper descended on Jasmine with ferocity. He struck her as she held up her thin arms to protect herself. She wondered if she was going to die. When a blow landed against her head, she was sure that she was.
Dizzy, all she could think about was how she could get him to stop. There was only one way that came to mind. She had to yell out who she was. She had to tell him that she was the Princess.
“Hey! Hey! Leave him alone,” another voice yelled from a distance.
The blows stopped. What had happened? Jasmine wondered. Were the hits about to begin again?
“Stay out of this, street rat,” the pudgy man directed at the new voice.
That was when Jasmine unburied her head and looked up at her assailant. He was distracted. This was her time to escape. Rolling away, she tried to grab the robe as she went.
“No you don’t,” the man said again putting his foot on it.
“Leave it,” the new voice said to Jasmine.
“But it’s mine,” Jasmine said as she turned to whoever was speaking.
As she saw him, Jasmine stopped. It was a boy about her age. He was tanned and shirtless. He was the most beautiful boy Jasmine had ever seen.
It was then that he looked at her. His eyes connected to hers and in that brief instant, it was like a lifetime of loneliness was gone.
“Just, let it go. Let him have it. It’s not worth it,” the boy said with compassion.
It was upon his prompting that Jasmine loosened her grip and let the last remanence of her old life go. Getting up, the boy ushered her to him.
“Come,” he said waving his hand. “And you,” he said shifting his focus to the pudgy man. “Remember nothing belongs to you, only to Allah.” “Let’s go,” the boy said not taking his eyes off the man as the boy slowly backed away.
Jasmine’s eyes jumped between the boy she decided she would follow anywhere, and the man who had assaulted her. When the man picked up his new prize and asked, “Is this hair?” Jasmine stopped looking back.
Feeling the touch of the boy’s hand on her shoulder as he led her away, her body tingled.
“Where did you get a robe full of hair?” The boy asked her with a laugh.
He was staring at her again. The feeling of it was mesmerizing for her.
“Don’t want to say, huh? That’s fine. We all have secrets. I’m Aladdin, by the way.”
Jasmine couldn’t speak even though she wanted.
“What? Don’t have a name?”
“Of course I have a name,” she said finally spitting something out.
“He speaks,” Aladdin said with a chuckle. “So, what’s your name, kid?”
“I’m not a kid,” Jasmine protested not wanting to give him the wrong wrong impression of her. She only wanted him to have the right wrong impression.
“No, I can see that. You’re a big strong man. Look at those muscles,” he said with the most brilliant smile.
Jasmine stared at the boy unsure of what was happening. Was this the way boys talked to each other? No one had ever talked to her like this. She didn’t know what to think of it except that she wanted more.
“I’m as old as you,” Jasmine said.
“Are you now?” Aladdin said doubtfully.
“And, what’s your name.”
Jasmine thought for a moment. “My name’s… Jamar,” she said saying the first thing that came to mind.
“Jamar?” Aladdin said with a smile. “Alright, handsome,” he said playing with the meaning of the name.
“Yeah, that’s right, Jamar.”
Jasmine hadn’t meant to say that name. Aladdin was right, everyone knew that Jamar meant handsome. She didn’t know why she had said it until she again looked into the beautiful boy’s eyes.
“So, Jamar, are you hungry?” Aladdin asked with an air of confidence.
Jasmine could feel her stomach growl. “Yes, I’m very hungry.”
“Been a few days, huh?” Aladdin asked casually.
“A few days?” Jasmine asked shocked. “No.”
“Well, in any case, it feels like breakfast to me.”
“There’s food? Where do we find food?” Jasmine asked becoming excited.
“Food is everywhere. Just look around.”
They had entered the marketplace. Jasmine looked around at the many stalls, and the breads and fruits they contained.
“Do we just choose whatever we want?” She asked unsure how it worked.
Aladdin laughed. “Where are you from?”
It was then that Jasmine coughed and lowered her voice. She was blowing it. She couldn’t act so naïve.
“I’m from the next city over. Things are different there.”
“So, there you just walk through the market taking whatever you want?”
“No. Of course not. I mean, yeah!” She said with realization. “Yeah, we just walk through and steal it.”
“Like you stole the robe?”
“Like I stole the robe. I just saw it and took it.”
“Was the person wearing it when you took it?”
Aladdin’s smile dropped for the first time.
“I mean, no. It was sitting in a shop. But, I liked it and I took it. That’s why I had to come here, to escape the shopkeeper.”
Aladdin stared at her assessing her story. It took a moment but Aladdin’s smile returned. “Nothing belongs to anyone, only Allah, right?”
“Right,” Jasmine said smiling for the first time.
“So, what do you say we go get ourselves some breakfast?”
“Let’s. Lead the way.”
Aladdin stared at Jasmine and paused. “How about I let you lead the way with this one. Let’s see some of those great shoplifting skills.”
This was a test. Jasmine knew it. There was something about her story that Aladdin didn’t believe and she was being given one chance to prove herself to him. She had to do this. But how? She had never stolen anything in her life. She hadn’t even been to a marketplace before. She had no idea how any of this worked.
“Okay,” Jasmine said knowing that she had to. “Let me just decide on what.”
“How about a loaf of bread? A bit of bread is always good for breakfast.”
“It’s what I always have,” she said saying anything she had to to convince her new handsome friend.
“Good, then this will be nothing for you. I’ll just stand back and watch,” Aladdin said seeming to enjoy himself.
“Yeah. I’ll just do this all by myself,” she said feeling her heart pound thunderously.
“Nervous?” Aladdin asked amused.
“No. Why would I be nervous?”
“I don’t know. Why would you be nervous, Jamar?”
Jasmine could feel Aladdin slowly unravel her story. She had to do something fast. “I don’t know. No reason,” Jasmine said, lifting her chin and marching towards the stall.
As confident as she was trying to appear, her knees were shaking so hard she could barely walk straight. What was she doing? Never having been to a marketplace, she was about to steal something.
Although… no matter what she called herself, wasn’t she still the Princess? Wasn’t this her kingdom whether she claimed it or not. And didn’t that mean that anything in the market was hers whether the shopkeepers knew it or not?
It was with that in mind that Jasmine walked towards a cart full of bread. Every fiber in her being wanted to look at the man standing in front of it, but she didn’t. She thought of him as one of the servants that swarmed her on a daily basis. She never looked at them and they never looked at her.
With her chin still high, Jasmine walked up to the bread cart, examined the many loaves that lay there, picked one up and turned to walk away. It was just that simple… or so Jasmine thought. When she felt a vice-like grip on her shoulder, she realized it wouldn’t be that easy.
“What are you doing touching my bread?” The round man shouted. “You will lose your hand for that, you street rat. Guard! Guard!”
Jasmine couldn’t believe what she had been thinking. Had she really thought it was going to be that easy?
Jasmine turned and looked up into the baker’s eyes. Again, they were angry. She had never realized how angry eyes could look. What was she supposed to do? She could drop the bread and run, but the way the man was holding her, she didn’t think she would be able to get away.
“Guard!” The man shouted again.
It was then that Aladdin, again, came to the rescue.
“Hey!” Aladdin yelled running towards them.
The baker turned towards Aladdin frozen at the sight. Still grasping Jasmine’s shoulder, he reached out his other hand blocking his goods. That wasn’t where Aladdin was headed, however. He was headed directly at the baker. When the man realized it, he immediately released Jasmine to protect himself.
“Run!” Aladdin ordered.
Freed, Jasmine did what she was told. With the loaf locked tightly between her breasts, Jasmine took off. She didn’t look back. She knew people were looking at her now and she didn’t like it. But quickly she could feel everyone’s attention shift. A boy had run towards the baker, leaped him at the last second, and then had landed on the bread cart toppling it.
From there, the boy had leaped from cart to cart tipping each as he went. People’s goods were flying everywhere. There was a spectacle being made. People were yelling and complaining. There was even a baby crying in the background. It was chaos and exhilarating.
After running the length of the market, Jasmine cut down one alleyway then the next. She was running like her life depended on it because it did. And she clutched onto the loaf of bread like it was the most important thing in the world, because, at that moment, it was.
That loaf represented her liberation. She was no longer a prisoned princess that no one looked at. She was a boy who everyone looked at. And the only one people looked at more was her friend. As terrified as she was, she loved everything about what was happening. The only thing that truly scared her was the idea of running so far that Aladdin could find her.
Slowing down, Jasmine looked back. The marketplace was now out of sight. She had turned too many corners. What was she supposed to do now? How was Aladdin supposed to find her again?
Thinking about that, Jasmine came to a stop. Had she run too far? Jasmine, breathing hard, looked back down her path. What was going on back there? Should she go back? Aladdin was the only person she knew in the city. What if she had lost him with the others? That would be horrible. Jasmine didn’t want that.
She had to go back. She had to find him. If it meant giving back the bread, that was fine. She needed to find Aladdin. What was she thinking by running so far away? She had made a mistake.
“Wrong way!” Someone said from above her.
Jasmine, with her fear displayed on her face, looked around for the familiar voice.
“Nope, not that way,” Aladdin said teasingly.
Jasmine then looked up. She was surrounded by two-story buildings. Looking down from the building beside her was Aladdin. Her heart hurt. He was alright and had found her. Seeing him, she couldn’t help but laugh. Aladdin flashed a charming smile, then pointed in the direction that she had been running.
Jasmine was amazed by this boy. How had he gotten up there? Was he a part of a circus like the ones she had read in her books? She didn’t know but she liked him. In fact, even as she ran in pace with him, she couldn’t stop looking up at him. He was incredible and Jasmine again felt a tingle that she had rarely felt before.
The only other time she could remember feeling this way was when she thought about the man Vizier had been talking to about the escape passage. He was quite different from Aladdin, but for a long time after seeing him, she could barely get him out of her mind. It was the way the man looked at her in her dream. It was like he could see into her soul.
She had felt naked under the gaze of the beautiful dream man. And now, for the first time since then, Jasmine again felt seen. It felt exhilarating.
“Come up,” Aladdin instructed pointing to something that might have once been considered stairs.
“Just climb up.”
Jasmine again examined the collection of rotten bamboo in front of her.
“Throw up the bread,” Aladdin said grabbing her attention.
Jasmine looked up at the boy and did what she was told. Aladdin had been right to ask for it. Climbing up became a lot easier with two hands.
As she pulled her way up, the entire structure wobbled. The thing could have fallen at any moment. Jasmine couldn’t understand how it was still standing. And when she stepped into the building that the swaying stairs were once attached to, she wondered how it was still standing as well.
“You made it?” Aladdin said with a mouth full of bread and a smile.
“How did you get away?” Jasmine asked sitting next to Aladdin on the floor.
“I got moves,” Aladdin replied with more charm than Jasmine could stand.
“Am I going to some of my bread?” Jasmine asked jokingly.
“Your bread? Yeah, there was no way you were going to get away if I didn’t step up. If I didn’t do something, you were gonna lose your hand,” he said proud of himself.
“Wait, that could have actually happened?” She said touching her wrist.
Aladdin looked at Jasmine befuddled. “Where are you from?”
“I told you. I’m from the next town over,” she repeated nervously.
“And how do they punish thieves there?”
“I don’t know. They put them in jail.”
“Well, in this town, it’s…” Aladdin made the sound of a sword cutting through bone. “And that’s how you can tell I’m good. See, both hands.”
“I never realized that they did that here,” Jasmine said heartbroken.
“What? Thinking of going back home?”
Jasmine hadn’t followed her line of thought to its conclusion, but considering what she had just learned and that she had no money or a place to sleep, perhaps it wasn’t a bad idea.
“No, I’m not going home. There are some things worse than losing your hand.”
“Then you’re going to have to figure out how to get better at stealing. You can’t just walk up to the cart and take it. You have to be subtle. You have to wait until the person is distracted, then you have to grab it and go. That’s how I do it. And…” Aladdin held up his two hands again.
Jasmine didn’t respond. This was all very distressing to her. So, instead, she just looked at the bread, waited for Aladdin to break the loaf in half, and then ate.
“So, Jamar, tell me how you really got that robe? There is no way a shopkeeper would let someone who looked like you anywhere near their shop, much less in it long enough to take something.”
Jasmine stared at Aladdin not understanding what he meant. How did she look? Jasmine looked down to see. Examining her dusty clothes, she realized Aladdin was right. She looked much the way Aladdin did. Was this why the men had called her a street rat?
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. No one would ever let me in their shop looking like this. I, umm, I found the robe. I just picked it up and took it.”
“And the hair?” Aladdin asked pleased that he had seen through her lie.
“Oh wait, let me guess, you took it from a barbershop?”
“Yes, that’s it. Yes, I took it from a barbershop. It must have been owned by the barber’s wife and it was lying there in a pile of hair. I guess some of it stuck to it when I picked it up.”
“Yep, that’s what I thought. Be sure to learn that lesson. There’s no getting anything past old Aladdin here” he said beaming with confidence.
“Yeah, I guess not. I was silly to try,” Jasmine said amused.
“Yes you were, Jamar. Yes, you were.”
The two fell into silence as they continued to eat. As she ate, Jasmine would look up at Aladdin. When he caught her looking, she would quickly look away. She hoped she wasn’t blushing but she realized that she was. She couldn’t help it. He was unlike any boy she had ever met, and that wasn’t just because he was the only boy her age that she had met.
“You look at me differently?” Aladdin said after catching her staring at him one too many times.
“I do? I’m sorry.”
“No, that’s okay. I like it,” Aladdin said with a vulnerable smile. “So, tell me, was the robe the only reason you left your town?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it seems like you’re the type of guy who might be running from something.”
Jasmine recognized that in spite of missing a few obvious things, Aladdin was onto something with his last point. She was running from something.
“Yeah. I guess.”
“I see. That’s cool.”
“What about you? How did you end up here? Are you running from something?”
Aladdin’s continuous confidence vanished with Jasmine’s question. “I guess that’s two separate questions. I live on the streets because I don’t have a family. And, I might be running from the same thing you are.”
Jasmine didn’t understand what he could have meant by them running from the same thing. But she didn’t want to get into any questions that she would have a hard time answering.
“What happened to your family?” Jasmine asked sympathetically.
“I don’t know. I don’t have much memory of them. I just remember that they loved me. And I have this faint memory that my mother’s hair smelled like Jasmine.”
Jasmine’s heart stopped hearing her name. Had he said it intentionally? Did he really know who she was? But, how could he? How would he even know what the princess looked like considering Jasmine had never left the palace grounds?
“You’re giving me that look again,” Aladdin pointed out.
“I’m sorry,” Jasmine said looking away.
“That’s alright,” Aladdin said before sliding in front of her and reaching up to push his fingers through her short hair.
It was at that moment that Jasmine realized it. Aladdin didn’t recognize her as the princess. He didn’t even recognize her as a girl. Aladdin thought she was a boy and was treating her tenderly because of it.
She didn’t know what was going on. Was this the way boys treated other boys when no one else was around? The flesh between her legs throbbed from the prospect. She felt like Aladdin was about to kiss her. Could she let this happen? She wanted to. She never wanted something more in her life. But, wouldn’t it be a stolen moment, one that was never meant for someone like her.
Without thinking, Jasmine turned her head breaking the moment. Her heart ached for having done it. She regretted it instantly. It was too late now, though.
With her rejection, Aladdin withdrew. He continued to look for her eyes but she didn’t return his gaze. She was ashamed.
Aladdin leaned back awkwardly. Jasmine looked up at him wondering what he would do next. Had she just ruined everything?
“How much of the city have you seen?” Aladdin asked suddenly changing the topic.
“Not much at all. Almost nothing,” Jasmine admitted.
“Then, why don’t I show it to you? Would you like that?”
“I would,” she said drawn to him even more than before.
“Then, come,” he said getting up and holding out his hand.
Jasmine took his hand and stood. He didn’t let it go. He led her out of a window and onto the roof next door. Running across the roof with her hand in Aladdin’s, she felt free. His touch exhilarated her. She had never felt so alive. This was what she was hoping for when she escaped the palace and now she had it.
The two jumped from roof to roof seeing the wonders of one of the greatest cities in Northern China. The mosques with their golden domes sparkled in the sunlight. And when the city stopped to pray, the two did as well, although neither was a devotee.
As the day turned into night, Aladdin led her to a part of the city that Jasmine could see from her palace balcony. She had heard this referred to as the dangerous part of town. All of this excited her. She felt scared, but she also knew that Aladdin would protect her.
As they approached the door of a noisy establishment, Jasmine wished that he would wrap his arms around her. She was sure that, dressed as a boy, he would never do that. Perhaps back in the privacy of his abandoned home, but not in the open. But the thought of it made Jasmine feel warm.
“Have you ever been to a casino before?” Aladdin asked with a smile.
“A casino? What is it?”
Aladdin’s smile brightened. “You’ll see.”
Aladdin walked up to the door and knocked.
“What is it?” A gruff voice said from within.
“The desert bird squawks like the Sultan’s hat,” Aladdin said before the door opened and Aladdin ushered Jasmine in.
“Fahim, my man. This is Jamar. He’s cool,” Aladdin said pointing at Jasmine.
The burly, mustached man looked at Jasmine suspiciously. After looking him up and down, he grunted. “Don’t you cause any trouble in here tonight, Aladdin,” the man said shifting his attention.
“Me? Cause trouble? Never,” he declared shocked Fahim would ever suggest such a thing.
The man stared at Aladdin and grunted. Aladdin ushered Jasmine in past the burly man.
“And, that’s how you get in?” Aladdin declared with a victorious smirk.
Jasmine looked around examining the tables and the people sitting at them. The first thing she noticed was that there were only men. This was somewhere she would never have been able to see as the Princess.
The second thing she noticed was all of the markings on the tables.
“What’s that?” Jasmine asked drawn to everything about it.
“That is Sic Bo. It’s a game of luck. Tell me, Jamar, are you feeling lucky?”
Jasmine thought for a second. She didn’t know. Certainly, she was lucky to have met Aladdin. But did that make her lucky overall?
“Yeah,” Jasmine concluded with a smile.
“Then, how about we test that luck?”
Facing Jasmine, Aladdin backed up bumping into a very drunk man. The man stumbled and if it wasn’t for Aladdin catching him, would have fallen over.
“Watch where you’re going,” the drunk man slurred.
“I’m so sorry,” Aladdin proclaimed. “Here, let me help you,” Aladdin said reaching for his arm.
“I don’t need your help. Just, get out of my way next time.”
“Of course. Out of your way. Got it,” Aladdin said with a bow.
Taking Jasmine’s arm, Aladdin led her away. “How, you asked? With this,” he said showing her a Sic Bo chip.
“Where did you get it from?” Jasmine asked amazed.
“I might have acquired it from a drunk friend I recently ran into?”
“You stole it?” Jasmine asked unsure how she felt. Taking food was one thing. Everyone had to eat. Stealing money was another.
“Don’t worry, I’ll give it back. Your luck is gonna win us so much money that we’ll be able to buy this place when we’re done.”
“I don’t know about that,” Jasmine asked feeling her stomach grumble. She hadn’t eaten since the half loaf of bread in the morning and now it was past dark.
“Come on, Jamar. I believe in you.”
Jasmine looked around feeling the energy of the room fill her. Some men were laughing and slapping each other on the back. Some were slumped over a drink. And everywhere were signs of life that far exceeded the controlled, tedium she lived through at the palace.
“Okay. What do I do?”
“That’s the spirit. So, you are going to take this chip, head over to that table. You’re then going to place it on a number. The dealer will then roll the dice and if your number comes up, we win.”
“Is that it?” Jasmine asked nervously.
“That’s it,” Aladdin replied confidently.
“How do I choose the number?”
“Well, you just close your eyes and choose.”
“I just close my eyes and choose?”
“I believe in you,” Aladdin confirmed.
Jasmine felt her heart race as she turned from Aladdin and headed towards the table. There was only one other man there. Taking a seat, she felt the dealer stare at her. She looked at him.
“No thanks. I’ll just watch for a round.”
“The table is for players only,” the gruff man grumbled.
Jasmine looked at all of the numbers again. There were as many numbers as there was possible combination of the dealer’s three dice.
“Put down your chip or step away,” the man demanded.
“Alright, I’m deciding,” she said feeling the pressure. As the princess, she had access to more money than anyone in all the land. But, with Aladdin and their dinner depending on her, this one chip felt like the most precious fortune in the world.
Steadying herself, Jasmine moved her hand across the board. She was thinking about the number 24, but she was also thinking about 3. 17 would be the safer bet. There were many more combinations possible for that. But, still, there was something about the number 3 that spoke to her.
“Number 3,” Jasmine said placing her chip down.
As Jasmine watched the dealer slip the dice into his cup, she realized how poor of a decision she had made. The dealer would have to roll three 1s for her to win. What were the chances of that? Her instructors hadn’t taught her much math, but she imagined the chances weren’t good.
The dealer lifted the cup, shook it and slowly rolled the dice onto the table. Jasmine’s heart was beating like a jackrabbit. With a layer of moisture across her forehead, her hands sweat.
“Three,” the dealer announced to Jasmine complete shock.
“You did it,” Jasmine heard spoken behind her. “I knew you could do it. Now, choose another number and bet it all again,” Aladdin insisted.
“No!” Jasmine protested shocked. “I can’t do that again.”
“Sure you can. Just choose another number.”
Jasmine looked at the stack of chips the dealer pushed in front of her. There had to be 20 of them. There was no way she could risk them all.
“How about half?” She offered.
“Nope. It has to be all,” Aladdin said with a smile.
Jasmine felt like a wreck. She had won so much. There was no way she was going to be able to do that again.
“Come on. Just do what you did the last time. Pick a number and play,” Aladdin explained.
Jasmine turned back toward the board. What did she feel this time? 7 was looking good. Or maybe 14. She didn’t know.
Well, Aladdin had told her to simply close her eyes and choose. That was what she was going to do. So, she closed her eyes and pushed her stack of chips onto the table. When she opened them, they were again on 3.
“Ahh,” Aladdin groaned.
“What? Did I do it wrong?”
“It’s just that, you never play the same space twice. It’s bad luck.”
“Can I move it?” Jasmine said starting to panic.
“Chips are set,” the dealer said blocking Jasmine’s hand.
“But I put it on the wrong spot.”
“Chips are set!”
Jasmine withdrew her hand scared she was going to get it cut off. She had certainly made a mistake. What had she been thinking blindly pushing her chips? She had ruined everything. Aladdin was never going to forgive her for losing all of their chips and he would leave her in the streets to starve.
“Three,” the dealers said to the amazement of everyone watching.
Jasmine’s heart dropped hearing the words. The noise around her quieted. She felt a rumbling within her that started everywhere than slowly focused in one spot.