"It is written, oh auspicious king and queen –"
"'Auspicious king and queen?'" Jasmine asked as she sat on a large pillow in the palace's master bedroom, her legs crossed and Rajah's head in her lap. "Genie, are you feeling okay?"
The moon was rising over the desert, a thin crescent in the windows, and the residents of the Palace of Agrabah had gathered together to tell stories on the first night of Ramadan. Genie "ahem"-ed, continued to read in a bombastic voice from the scroll he had just manifested out of thin air a few minutes ago. "It is written, oh auspicious king and queen, that there is no end to any story."
"Oh that's just great," Iago complained from his own spot on the edge of a table. "We're gonna be here all freakin' night!"
"It goes on forever," the Genie's voice suddenly sped up, black sunglasses appeared over his eyes and a hat with big mouse ears appeared on his head, "spawning sequels and TV shows and video games! Act now, kids, before the Disney Vault closes!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hey, Mr. Break-the-Fourth-Wall," Iago spread his wings, flapped them with irritation, "tell us something we don't know for once!"
Abu jabbered in agreement, jumping up and down on Aladdin's shoulder. Carpet, who was lying in front of them, front tassels crossed and the front edge of its fabric raised, shook the edge of itself up and down as if it was nodding.
"Jeez, you're a tough crowd." Genie crossed his arms. The scroll, sunglasses and hat vanished in a puff of smoke, replaced by a pink-colored woman's outfit and veil. "'Oh beloved sister, please tell us a story. But not that one. Or that one.'" The outfit disappeared. "Well, Roger Ebert, if you don't like my story, why don't you tell one?"
"I like these stories," Jasmine said. "Well, maybe not the ones where I turned into a rat or a hideous snake creature."
Aladdin, who sat on a pillow next to Jasmine's, piped up. "I actually thought you looked pretty hot as a …"
Jasmine shot him a dirty look.
"Hey, I got an idea!" he said. "Why don't I tell a story?"
"Like we really want to hear about you fighting crazy disembodied heads again," Iago said.
"This isn't a story like that," Aladdin said. "This story takes place before I even met Jasmine."
"Great," Iago said. "So I'm not in it."
"You'd be surprised."
In desert city-states like Agrabah, the bright sun and miles of surrounding sand create mirages – images of water and oases where none exist. It's easy to see things if you're hot and hungry, so thieves, tricksters and magicians flourish, trusting the people of the city not to see what's in front of them.
Or so most adults say. Children are smart enough to know that magic is real.
On the day our story began, the magician, Isfahan, had a crowd all around him: little boys and girls, watching as he turned gold into a dove, as fire burned in his hands, as he levitated off the ground. Among the crowd, a little ten-year-old street rat boy watched with fascination. This man, dressed in white and green, with white hair and a white beard that made his skin look slightly darker than most in the city, was the first great magician the boy would ever meet, although he would not be the most powerful, nor the last.
Isfahan caught the boy's eye in the crowd, and smiled.
"Not all tricks involve magic," he told the children. "I have a riddle for you all."
He said "you all," but he looked at the boy.
"I am small and invisible, yet larger and more powerful than a sandstorm. I am lighter than a feather, yet cut like a sword. I destroy nations and break hearts, but can be defeated with mere words. What am I?"
The children hummed with confusion. A girl called out, "the wind." ("You can't defeat the wind with words.") Another boy called out, "love." ("But true love is never light or small.") Then the street rat called out the right answer.
"You're a lie!"
Ugly words for most magicians to hear, but Isfahan was old and wise, and he laughed.
As he left the square, Isfahan asked the boy to follow him, stuck something in the boy's hand and closed the boy's fingers around it.
"This is your reward," Isfahan said. "It will lead you to a variety of riches."
After Isfahan walked away, walked down the central street of Agrabah and out toward the desert, the boy opened his hand.
What he found inside didn't look that impressive. It was at one point a scarab, but it had been cut in half. It didn't even have a head. Still, it was gold, and there were places in the city where gold could be exchanged with no questions asked. To a street rat, no gold was greater than bread.
On the way there, however, the boy passed a tall, thin man with a red parrot on his shoulder. While the man was younger, not dressed in the royal robes and turban that the boy would associate with him in later years, he still had thin lips that spread around his white teeth like a snake's, and the boy couldn't stop staring at his dark, twisted beard.
Still, his voice was sweet when talked to the boy.
"Hello, little one," he said, ruffling a skeletal hand through the boy's hair. "Where are you going?"
The boy wanted to scrunch his face into a scowl, but he figured out pretty early in life that adults like it better when you smile.
"Oh, nowhere," the boy said. "Just looking for something to eat."
He also knew they liked it better when you didn't lie, but leaving stuff out was okay. Besides, sometimes when he said he was looking for something to eat, adults gave him food.
This one didn't, though. "I'm looking for a magician who was supposed to have passed this way. Rather old, not very talented, but an extremely good friend of mine. Have you seen him? He was holding on to something that belonged to me."
Something about this didn't feel right to the boy, so he shrugged. "I don't know. He was here before, but he's long gone now."
The snake's smile disappeared. "Hmmm, well. I suppose I'll have to find him elsewhere. I have my ways."
"That's good," said the boy. He flipped the piece of gold in the air and caught it again, knowing it made him look like he was just having fun. "See you later, sir."
As soon as he walked past the man, the boy heard a squawk and saw red as the bird on the man's shoulder flew into his face. It startled him, and he dropped the gold piece, allowing the man to snatch it up.
"Hey!" the boy yelled, "Give that back!" He rushed for the man, but the man sent him sprawling on the ground with a quick kick to the stomach.
The man held up the gold piece between his finger and thumb. His dark brows curled around his eyes.
"Word to the unwise, boy. Cleverness only gets you so far," the man said, beginning to walk away. "In the end, the one who has the power wins the day."
The parrot squawked again, repeated, "wins the day" as they left.
The boy pulled himself off the street, sandy dust in his mouth. Although his lip trembled, he was a brave little boy, and did not cry.
He walked along the side streets of Agrabah, his stomach growling, for an hour. Then he came upon a group of palace guards, standing in a circle and laughing.
The boy flattened himself against a nearby wall, crept closer to the guards. He heard the high-pitched shrieking of an animal, peered through a gap between the two guards to see a brown monkey, his fur matted and covered with fruit. The monkey made angry sounds at one of the guards, shook his tiny fist. The guard threw an apple at his head.
The boy felt sad and hopeless for the little monkey until he felt the patter of soft, miniature feet upon his own. He looked down to see a gray, furry street rat, and he grinned.
The biggest, burliest guard jerked and swayed like a veil dancer after the boy dropped the rat down the back of his pants. It surprised the other guards enough to allow the monkey a chance to escape.
The boy scurried away, still hungry but much happier. After a few minutes, he realized the monkey was following him.
He kept telling the monkey to go away, told him he had no food, that he couldn't take care of him, but the monkey wouldn't leave. When the boy settled down in the corner of an alley for the night, the monkey curled up next to him, batted his eyes with eyelashes that somehow looked much longer, gave the boy a smile that showed all his teeth.
"You little sweet-talker," the boy said to the monkey. The monkey made a chattering laugh.
It was only until the cycle of the moon had passed that the boy was able to realize the monkey was the treasure the gold had led him to that day. While he would for a long time forget much about that fateful day, even some of the lessons he had learned, that part he remembered forever.