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Lying on his thin straw pallet, Aladdin could not sleep. Maram and her melancholy haunted him. The perfect princess, whose kiss had awoken a longing he'd never known before.
When day dawned, Aladdin was no closer to getting the girl out of his mind. He trudged to the alley where he and the other labourers waited for work that never came. Day after day, he made the journey there, then home, in a dreamy haze that wouldn't lift. Hunger gnawed at his insides, but he ignored it.
"I can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. The Sultan's daughters will mistake you for a prince, you will be so wealthy, and you may have your pick of them!"
Gwandoya's boasting burst through the haze in Aladdin's mind, as though he heard it for the first time.
Aladdin rose to his feet. Yes, he wanted to pick one of the Sultan's daughters. Because he dreamed of nothing else but Princess Maram.
"What about Bugra? Did you make him rich, so he married some princess?" Berk asked. "Is that why you need someone new?"
Gwandoya shrugged. "The boy made his fortune so quickly, he now has more gold than he can carry. He has no desire to work for me any more. Will you be next?"
Berk spat on the ground at Gwandoya's feet. "Not me. I'm not crazy."
"What about you?" Gwandoya looked Aladdin up and down, no doubt seeing what the other men did – that Aladdin was not strong enough for hard labour. Too many years with too little to eat had seen to that. "You will be able to eat like a king for the rest of your life if you come and work for me."
Aladdin would settle for sharing his meals with Maram. "What would you have me do?"
"Come with me and I will show you," Gwandoya said.
Berk caught Aladdin's shoulder. "Don't, man. Bugra's likely dead in the gutter somewhere, and if you go with him, you will be next."
If he didn't find work soon, Aladdin knew he'd be dead in a gutter anyway. He hadn't eaten in two days, and his mother was too tired to spin. A quick death was better than starving to death, and if there was a chance he might be able to free Maram…
"So be it. I shall take my chances," Aladdin said. He dropped his voice to a whisper that he hoped only Berk would hear. "If I survive, I swear I will return here, if only to tell you the truth of what happened to Bugra and the others. If I do not…please tell my mother that I love her, and my last thoughts were of her." Whatever happened, he would no longer be a burden on his mother, for her spinning was enough to support her alone without him.
Berk looked like he wanted to say more, but he pressed his lips together and nodded. "May you have better fortune than the rest of us."
Gwandoya clapped Aladdin on the shoulder. "Good boy! You will be rich, you shall see!"
Aladdin wanted to believe him, so he hoped, but in his heart, he dreaded what would come next. Anything that made a starving boy rich had to be unpleasant. Otherwise, why would Gwandoya share such riches with anyone?
* * *
By the time Gwandoya called a halt, Aladdin was ready to leap off the camel with the sincere wish never to ride one again. Whatever flesh he'd had on his backside had been bounced off by the crazy animal's gait between the oasis and what looked like a pile of boulders.
Gwandoya grinned, his teeth surprisingly white in the afternoon light. "We are here, yes?"
Aladdin wasn't sure how to answer, so he didn't bother.
Gwandoya led Aladdin to a rock that didn't appear any different to the others, then knelt beside an old fire pit. He took a leather flask from his belt and poured the contents over the half-charred timbers. Then Gwandoya pulled out a tinderbox and set about rekindling the fire.
Aladdin considered telling the man it was pointless to attempt such a thing with damp wood, but nothing this man did would surprise him any more, so Aladdin sat down on a nearby stone instead.
The fire flared to life faster than any Aladdin had seen before. The liquid must have been lamp oil, Aladdin realised. Gwandoya spread his arms wide and began to chant in a language Aladdin didn't recognise as he danced about the fire.
For a moment, Aladdin thought he saw wisps of smoke rising from the man's hands, but he shook his head. He must be imagining it. Except the smoke was thickening until he couldn't deny it was real. Sparks jumped between the smoke clouds, like nothing he'd ever seen before. And still Gwandoya chanted.
The man was a magician, Aladdin realised, dread clenching at his stomach. Aladdin had heard stories about dark magicians who used blood to cast spells. Was that why he needed Aladdin – to provide the blood in this unholy ritual? Is this how the other men had died?
The smoke cloud surrounding Gwandoya streamed toward the stone, taking the vague shape of a man, though a giant man. The smoky figure grabbed the stone and pushed it to the side, revealing the dark entrance to…what? The underworld?
Gwandoya didn't look surprised. He had done this many times, Aladdin guessed. But not enough to succeed in his dark purpose, which was why he needed Aladdin.
"We're going in there?" Aladdin asked.
"No, we are not."
Aladdin breathed a sigh of relief.
Gwandoya continued, "You are entering alone. You will journey through the underground city to the treasury. Touch nothing on the way. Once you reach the treasury, and this is very important, tuck your robes up around you so that not even the hem touches the gold in there, for if you touch it, you will surely die."
"You are looking for a lamp. An old, brass lamp that will appear out of place amid such treasure."
"So why is it there, then?" Aladdin asked before he could stop himself.
Gwandoya glared at him. "It has great personal value to me."
Aladdin didn't believe a word. He might be a street rat, but he'd been raised to be a merchant, who had to know the difference between truth and lies as much as he needed to be able to sort brass from gold. "So I find this old lamp of yours, and then what? Where's the wealth you said I'd find?" Aladdin asked.
Gwandoya lifted his chin proudly. "Bring the lamp to me, and I shall richly reward you."
Another lie. But Aladdin merely lowered his eyes and nodded.
Gwandoya pulled a ring from his finger and held it out. "You will need this. This magic ring will allow you to open doors in the city."
Aladdin took the ring gingerly. It seemed real enough, the blackened silver speaking of its great age. "Do I have to do the dancing and chanting thing like you did?"
"The inner doors are not as stubborn as the city gates. You will only need to command them to open, and they will."
No chanting, then.
"Do I get a torch?" Aladdin asked hopefully. The city gates really did look like the gates to the underworld.
"There are torches inside. They will allow you to reach the treasury," Gwandoya said. "Find the lamp, and it will light your way back to me."
The lamp that wasn't his, but Gwandoya wanted so badly he was willing to kill as many men as it took to bring the thing to him. But not enough to venture into the city himself.
"Right. Here I go, then," Aladdin said with forced cheer.
Wishing he'd stayed in his own city, where he belonged, Aladdin stepped into the dark.
Would you like to read more?
A sultan’s daughter. A pretend prince. Can a genie make all their wishes come true?
Once upon a time…
When Princess Maram and street rat Aladdin meet in the marketplace, sparks fly, and Aladdin swears to move heaven and earth in order to make the lovely courtesan his wife.
He steals a magic lamp with a genie inside, thinking all his troubles are over…only to find they have barely begun.
Can Aladdin win the princess’s hand without losing his head?
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