chapter seven: a whole new world
I woke up with my face against hot sand. Distorted whispers echoed through my head, along with a throbbing pain. I could feel scorching sun beating on my flesh. I tried opening my eyes, but the harsh sun was too bright to allow it. My head swam as I tried to remember what had happened. Perhaps I had fallen asleep on the beach again, I mused, and everything had been nothing more than a dream.
I struggled to sit up, barely opening my eyes and pushing against the sand with my tired hands. I seemed to have no strength in me at all. Even the slightest movement caused my body to ache with pain I'd never experienced before. I lifted my hand to my forehead to shield my eyes as I looked around. I was frightened to see that all that surrounded me was miles and miles of barren desert.
There wasn't a single sign of life in sight. I was completely alone, and all I could hear was my own shallow breathing. I tried standing up but the strength to do so did not come to me. I fell back down to the ground and laid there, clutching the pain in my sides. Every part of me ached. I didn't have the energy to even begin to wonder where I was, or what had happened to Sora and Kairi. All I could think about was the hurt coursing through me. I felt as though there was poison in me, draining the life out of me. Eating away at my insides. I'm going to die, I thought. I'm going to die here in the desert, all alone.
Sweat began to saturate my thick hair and clothing as I laid for hours beneath the sun. I nodded off every so often, but I was always awakened by haunting screams that invaded my sleep. I felt certain that I was doomed to suffer until my last breath, but by some stroke of luck, salvation managed to come my way. I do not know how in that endless, sprawling desert anyone managed to spot my lifeless body, but after I had long resigned myself to a miserable death, one of my heat-exhausted slumbers was ended by droplets of water on my face.
I was startled to see a tiny, turban-wearing man hovering over me. "Salaam, traveler!" he chirped when he saw that I had awaken. I could only moan in reply as I tried sitting up. "Oh, dear, you are in not so good of shape! Here, drink this." He placed a jug of water to my lips and helped pour it into my mouth. "Ah, ah, ah, not too fast. You'll make yourself sick."
When I had quenched my thirst, he helped me into his small caravan, where I was laid against rolls of tapestry, among a strange assortment of artifacts. The air was heavy with exotic perfumes and spices. It was hot and uncomfortable, but just being out of the sun and having water replenished to my body was enough to relieve some of the aching.
"Just rest," said the man. "You are quite ill. We will reach the city in a few hours time, and there we can find you some aide."
He sang as we journeyed, cutting through the chilling silence of the desert. It was the song of a homesick traveler who had seen the wonders of many lands, but still longed only to watch the sunrise in his hometown. Again I slept, but this time there were no nightmares or screams. I was lulled into a gentle, soothing sleep by the caravan's scent and the warm voice of the stranger who'd saved my life. It was a dreamless sleep, the first I'd had in weeks.
I was still sore when I awoke, but I was alive. Without the fear of death or the delirium of the desert, I was able to think clearly and soak in my situation. I had traveled far. There was no way for me to know the actual distance, but the fact that I had no idea where home was was a beautiful thought. It was like Destiny Islands had been erased completely. I almost thought that I, myself, had been erased and recreated in this new world. I would make a new home. The only way I could go was forward.
I then realized what I had lost along the way. My two best friends, the only things I really cherished, had not made it with me. The strange black storm ripped all my life away, taking Sora and Kairi as well. I exhaled, thinking of them sadly.
Where are you? I asked them silently, taking a deep breath. In my mind, I saw an image of Sora, fast asleep. The scope of this image grew wider and I could see that he was curled up behind a stack of boxes in a cobblestone alley. Observing broader still, I could see brick buildings and electric lights; smoke was rising from chimneys to an endless night sky. The picture was so clear and colorful that I could nearly touch and smell it. It felt almost like a real place.
I tried to think of Kairi, too, and imagine where she had gone. But all I could visualize was her face. I could create no concrete surroundings for her. Instead she floated through emptiness and silence.
I exhaled, lost in my own imagination. I had to find them. We were supposed to go on this journey together, and already we had lost our way from one another. I knew I had to bring us together again, no matter what the cost.
I stuck my head out through the canvas of the caravan. Night had fallen. I climbed out of the back and into the driver's seat, where the man in the turban held the reigns that controlled a large camel.
"Ah, you are awake," he greeted in his strange but friendly accent.
"Yes," I said. "Thank you for helping me."
"Think nothing of it, young man. But tell me, how did you come to be so far in the desert all by yourself?"
"It's a long story," was all I answered.
He paused, then nodded as though he understood. "A long story, yes. A story you clearly do not wish to tell, I see." He laughed softly. "That is all right. I know far too many long stories already, I'm sure. Many, many stories in this desert... many that one should not know." He shift the reigns into one hand and held his free one out to me. "My name is Hashim."
I shook his hand. "Riku."
"I am pleased to meet you then, Riku. Ah! Here we have Agrabah. A sinful but splendid city."
Not far in the distance I would see the stone wall of the city he spoke of. We were soon at its gates, and then inside the city itself. It was a maze of sandy narrow streets and stone buildings stacked closely together. We reached the center of the city, its market, where most shops were closed or in the process of closing for the night. It was in this part of the city that Hashim found a nook for his caravan. The tiny merchant dashed around quickly, adjusting flaps and posts, and in only a few minutes he had converted the caravan into a small market booth. His eyes were vibrant as he adjusted the exotic knick-knacks along the shelves, a salesman in his element. As he struggled to drag out rolls of tapestry, I jumped in and assisted in leaning them against the booth.
"Oh, dear!" he said with a tender chuckle. "Look what poor aide I have been to you. I offered to help you, and here you are helping me instead. Come, we will find someone who can perhaps heal your sun-sickness."
"It's no big deal," I said. "I'm actually feeling much better already." I was much too alive with the excitement of new surroundings to be bothered with the tedium of a doctor.
"Still, though, I would feel much better if someone had a look at you. One so young as you, lost in the desert, it is better to be safe than... Oh, hello there! How can I help you?" The direction of his speaking was quickly shifted upon the presence of a woman, heavily wrapped in beige robes.
"You have just come from the East, yes?" said the woman from behind her veil. Only her eyes were visible.
The merchant grinned and moved inside his booth, yanking a few items from the shelves and presenting them with a flourish to the interested customer. "Why, yes! These are some of the things found exclusively on the far side of the Marsai Desert***. You won't find many shops carrying such treasures, for it is a place few travelers dare go! But for you, I have it all at a special price! I can tell you have a certain appreciation for..."
Hashim continued to smooth-talk the woman. The two were both clearly very good at what they did, as shrewd haggling sparked between them. Hashim was so occupied that he'd forgotten all about me, and didn't notice when I slipped away to explore Agrabah on my own.
Though it was fairly late in the evening, I still passed several people along my way. Like Hashim, all the cityfolk that I saw had rich olive skin and dark hair. They were dressed in earth-colored robes and wraps of which I'd never seen before. It did not take me long to realize that with my pale skin, eyes, and hair, and my sharply contrasting attire, I was very noticeably different from everyone around me. I was aware of strange glances cast my way as I passed, and it made me incredibly unsettled. However, I was surprised to find that they were all content to ignore me. They were too occupied with their own shady dealings to wonder about me.
It was such a change from everything I knew on Destiny Islands. There, an outsider wandering aimlessly down the street would have been cause for the entire community to shut down and investigate. There, it was unheard of to conduct business in the streets at night. Agrabah was different. It was a city that rose towards the sky and sprawled outward for miles in any given direction. A sinful but splendid city, Hashim had told me. I could feel its treachery and enchantment in the air. It reeked of secrets. Not the kind of secrets that composed the usual petty town gossip I was accustomed to, but real secrets about dark and amazing things.
I reached what was apparently the end of the market district and the beginning of a run-down residential area. I marveled at how the buildings were stacked so high and packed so tightly. I wondered how many people lived in Agrabah. From what I could see, dozens of homes were squeezed into a single, small stretch of neighborhood. Moreover, I could see that some people didn't live in houses at all, but rather slept in the streets and alleys. How interesting it must be, I thought, to live in a place where you could pass people on the street each day that you had never seen before.
Suddenly, a high-pitched shriek cut through the quiet of the night.
"Look out!" someone screamed. There was no time to act before a girl, cascading from overhead, landed on top of me. The two of us went sprawling to the ground, hard, and I momentarily lost my grasp on up from down. I struggled to crawl out from under her as she tried getting back on her feet. As we did, someone else jumped and landed, far more gracefully, beside us.
"Jasmine! Are you all right?" the teenage boy asked urgently.
The girl who had fallen stood up and regained her balance. "Yes, I'm fine," she panted as she readjusted the hood of her bulky robes. She glanced over at me and opened her mouth to speak, but her words were cut off by the commotion of a large group of approaching men.
The boy and girl shared a fearful glance at on another. "Run!" the boy commanded. As soon as they took off, a thundering cluster of uniform-clad men came around the corner, shouting and waving swords. My eyes widened in fear and confusion as my feet propelled me to escape. I followed closely behind the mysterious boy and girl through alleys and shady corners as the angry guards chased us in fierce pursuit.
While the teenage boy in front managed to weave through the neighborhood seamlessly, dodging into corners and jumping from rooftops, the girl and I were not nearly so nimble or well-acquainted with the streets. My eyes alone were straining to keep up with him as he flew like a shadow in the dark. After only a few minutes, the strength I'd regained thanks to Hashim was all but gone. A heaviness filled my chest and it was hard to breathe. Sickness swam inside me and weighed me down. I could see nothing but blurs. I managed my way around by following the sounds of footsteps, but I didn't even know where I was going. The pain was so great I could hardly will myself to go on.
I lost my balance and tumbled to the ground. I heard the girl scream, and her footsteps moved toward me. The world was spinning a hundred miles an hour, as I lie on the ground. The guards swooped over me and bound my hands in rope while the girl screamed for them to let me go. They gagged her and tied her up as well. In the distance, I could see the boy, still running, with no sign of turning back.
We were dragged through the city to its very core, a grand palace. It was a magnificent sight, with towers the width of several houses, and reaching so far into the sky that I could not see the top of them from the gates. I might have even been impressed at the sight, if I was not already familiar with the place. I realized, of course, that I had never been here before. But I could not deny the fact that this palace was etched in my mind from somewhere before.
Jasmine continued to squeal and squirm as we approached the palace. She bit the meaty hand that gagged her mouth. "Stop this!" she screamed. "Stop this at once! I am the Princess!"
The guards chuckled to themselves and continued shoving us along. Jasmine wrenched one of her arms free and pulled down her hood, revealing her lovely face and a bright blue jewel atop her head. In that moment, Jasmine, like the palace, had an inexplicable familiarity about her too. The guards gasped, and fell to their knees.
"Our humblest apologies, your highness!" said one of the guards. Similar pleas were called out. Jasmine simply held up a hand to silence them.
The leader of the guards stepped forward. "We are very sorry for the misunderstanding, Princess Jasmine." He snapped his fingers and another guard was immediately at Jasmine's side, placing his hand gently on her shoulder. "Here, let us escort you into the palace." She resisted as she was led toward the gate.
"Wait! What about the boy?" she cried. The remaining guards still held a tight grip on me and were already leading me away from Jasmine. "You cannot take him! He is innocent!"
"Innocent?" the leader said, faking sympathy. "Well, if he is innocent, then he has nothing to fear. Jafar will of course be just. Go on back to the castle, Princess. You have nothing to worry about." He snapped his fingers again. He and the others began to take me away, and Jasmine was taken through the gates, somewhat forcefully, her screams being completely ignored.
We did not enter through the gates. Instead, I was taken around to the far side of the palace, and led down a dark hall into the dungeon. I could barely see in the dark, moldy chamber. The smell of stale urine and unclean flesh wafted over me and left me with hair-raising nausea. The bulky guards led me to a corner, where I was forced against a cold stone wall. My screams and struggling did nothing to faze them. They merely retaliated with shoves and slaps until I became aware of severe bruises forming all over me. My wrists were thrown into shackles that were chained to the wall. The guards took a few more swings at me, guffawing stupidly to one another, until the sound of the door abruptly swinging open subdued them.
From the entrance I saw the bright glow of a torch, accompanied by ominous footsteps moving in my direction. The holder of the torch was a tall, slender man, cloaked in black and red silk. In his other hand he held a metal staff, topped by a jeweled cobra's head. His cold, bronze eyes glared at me as he groped the head of his staff.
"What is this?" he hissed, in a rich, stoic voice.
"This is the boy you asked for, sir," one of the guards barked obediently, stepping forward into a slight bow.
The dark man made a dissatisfied click with his tongue as he eyed me icily. "This is not Aladdin. Not by a long shot. Congratulations, all of you, for proving to me yet again that you are hopeless buffoons."
"Raah! Hopeless buffoons!" echoed the pudgy red bird perched on the dark man's shoulder.
The guards shrugged cluelessly, some of them muttering dim-witted apologies.
"Go, now, and fetch me Aladdin. And get it right this time!" His harsh final command echoed coldly within the dungeon walls. He turned swiftly to leave.
"Yes, sir!" replied the apparent leader of the guards. He looked in my direction. "Uhh... what should we do with him?"
The man sighed impatiently. "Add him to the execution queue," he suggested nonchalantly before slamming the door and exiting as brilliantly as he had entered.
The guards let out a collective snicker and smacked me a few more times before filing out. I was left alone in my shackles, feeling my muscles ache in the awkward position I was forced to stay in. My heart felt heavy as I replayed the dark man's words in my mind. The execution queue. So I was to be killed. This, apparently, is what you get in Agrabah for taking an innocent stroll through the neighborhood. Only hours ago I had been celebrating the good fortune of my rescue, and here I was again facing certain death.
"This is some shitty luck," I spat bitterly to myself.
"Hey, don't be so quick to complain," said a voice. A young man slipped out of the shadows and took a seat on the floor directly across from me. He glanced at me with a coy smile. He was pale and square-faced, with striking eyes that reminded me faintly of Sora. His scraggly brown hair was cut unevenly everywhere, with a braided rattail sticking out of the back. I could immediately tell by his dress and demeanor that he was not like the others I'd seen in Agrabah. He was an outsider, like myself. "There are some guys in here who'd give anything to be in your shoes."
I scowled at him. "What, you'd like to be in line for execution?"
He laughed so softly that it came out a sigh as he stretched out his legs. "Me? No. But I've only been in here for a week or two, and I've spent the greater part of the past two years on the run, so it hasn't gotten to me yet. My morale's still fairly high. There are some guys who've been in here for years, though. Death starts to look pretty good when you spend five or ten years in a dungeon with dirty water, constant sickness, and never knowing when next you'll eat."
"Well, that's touching and all, but you'll have to forgive me if I'm not exactly looking forward to getting hanged."
He pulled his knees in and rested his hands on them, looking over at me with an intensely curious glance. "They use a sword here, actually. They cut off your head in one clean swipe."
I glanced him over once more. I never imagined anyone could look so completely at-home when sitting in a dungeon discussing death. I had the strong desire to slap the cocky smirk right off his face. But somehow, his calmness made me feel relaxed. I lowered my head. "That's not very comforting, you know."
"I'm sorry," he said, and though he didn't sound any less carefree, he seemed to mean it. His eyes met mine intensely for a moment, and it sent another pain through my chest. "So where are you from?"
"Destiny Islands," I said, struggling with the words. The sickness was building inside me again. I exhaled slowly as drops of sweat formed on my forehead.
There was a blank look on his face. "Hmmm. The name escapes me. I must never have made it to your neck of the galaxy." He stood up and moved right beside me, standing close over me, and continued speaking. "Tell me about this Destiny Islands place. Exciting world? Maybe I'll check it out once I get out of here." He pulled something out of his shoe and started busying himself with my cuffs.
I looked at the floor and took a heavy breath. "Destiny is the last place on Earth you'd ever want to find yourself. If you're looking for excitement, anyway."
"Ouch. That bad, huh?"
"Nothing ever happens there. No one ever thinks about anything new. They just keep doing the same things they've always done. As far as they're concerned, there is no outside world. Just suggesting such a thing is enough to be labeled a nutcase."
There was a loud clicking noise, and my wrists were free. The boy tossed the cuffs to the side and returned to his seat. I looked at him but he didn't seem to require any thanks. I rubbed my sore arms and sat down. He looked at the ground. "That doesn't sound like so bad a place. I could use a little time in a place like that… some of the places I've been were a little too exciting, you know?"
I touched my wrists. "Just how do you plan on getting out of here, anyway?" I tried to mask the desperation in my voice. There just had to be a way out of this. I couldn't swallow the thought of dying just yet.
But he felt it. He knew. He kept staring at the ground. "I don't know yet. I'll think of something. Then all I have to do is get my ship back from Mr. Tall, Dark, and Sadistic and I'm outta this place." At last he looked up at me again with a forced indifference. I nodded vaguely, feeling a harsh prickle through my abdomen.
Our silence was broken by the creaking of the dungeon door. Reflexively, the two of us scurried into the shadow. A petite figure strolled through the darkness of the dungeon. We stayed still as possible, hoping not to be seen. But our visitor, it seemed, was intent on seeing me.
"You there, boy!" said a girl's voice. I recognized it. "Are you there? Is that you?"
I moved out of the shadow and stood before her. "Jasmine?" I asked, with combined fear and curiosity.
When she saw that it was me, her face was stricken by a wave of relief and urgency. "You must come with me at once," she said, turning quickly and leaving me no time to say anything in response. I looked back at the boy, who was still hunching down in the shadows. I swallowed with uncertainty and followed the princess.