[personal profile] hat_writes_stuff
Title: To Be Free, Part One: Lucky Bird, Inside a Gilded Cage
Author: Almighty Hat
Fandom: Aladdin (film, series, & sequels)
Characters: Jasmine, Mozenrath, Jafar, Sultan, Rajah, Xerxes, Destane
Word Count: 14,041
Rating: PG (read fanfiction with your kids, folks)
Pairing(s): None, but with discarded consideration of Jasmine/Mozenrath (thus tagged 'het technically')
Warnings: Implications of child abuse and abandonment, discussion of child marriage, age difference just wide enough to feel not-okay, and I'm gonna say 'Jafar' counts as a warning, even though he doesn't appear frequently in this part.

Author's Notes: This one has been in my head for a LONG time. The title is taken from a deleted song from the movie ultimately used in the Aladdin Musical Spectacular stage show in California Adventure; the subtitles for each part are snipped from the lyrics. This first part is packed full of adolescence, foreshadowing, Chekov's Guns, and occasional flashes of deep, deep irony.

PLEASE NOTE the presence of a NEW TAG, '!check warnings before reading!' Usually if you can handle the canon I'm writing for, the fic should have nothing terribly upsetting. To Be Free, however, includes some heavy stuff. The first part is the lightest.

Summary: It was a lovely day in young Princess Jasmine's garden, and then the boy sorcerer fell out of the air.

Act one of a three-act canon divergence story where Mozenrath and Jasmine meet at seventeen and thirteen, respectively, and strike up a clandestine friendship because they're both bored and lonely. Covers almost three years.




It was a nice enough day to be out in the gardens; Jasmine had managed to excuse herself from her lessons by saying that Rajah had seemed restless that morning, as though he needed exercise or something to chase.

He’d been meant for the royal menagerie, a diplomatic gift in Jasmine’s name not actually meant to be hers, certainly never meant to be a pet, but at eleven years old she’d absolutely refused to let the tiger cub out of her sight for a moment. “Oh, don’t worry, we’ll move him to the menagerie before he gets big enough to cause problems,” her father had assured the eastern diplomats.

It had been two years. The worst problems Rajah had caused were on the order of shredded curtains and upholstery, and Jasmine had it on good authority that aside from the one time he’d chewed the leg off her divan (and his adult teeth had been coming in, so it was hardly his fault that he needed to chew on things), it was no worse than having a housecat, a parrot, and a toddler around. And, not or.

So. It was a nice day, and Jasmine bint Ahmed, Princess of Agrabah and future Queen Consort, had deftly escaped her tutors to make sure her pet tiger, currently napping on sun-washed paving stones like a grossly oversized housecat, wasn’t restless.

Effectively, she had the afternoon free, and intended to make the most of it.

Naturally, that was when the air erupted in a rip of blue-black flames, which coalesced into and then disappeared around a man who was obviously a sorcerer.

Jasmine had exactly enough time to be proud of herself for not screaming, to wonder if she should scream, and to wonder if Rajah would actually attack someone if she told him to, when the sorcerer’s eyes rolled back in his head and his knees wobbled out from underneath him and Jasmine’s reflexes finally started working-- she darted forward to catch him before he struck the pavement, but he was already unconscious.

Could magic exhaust someone? Was he hurt, was he dying? Was he sick? “Rajah, come help,” she pleaded, and the tiger at least got to his feet to inspect the strange goings-on. The sorcerer might have been tall, but he wasn’t terribly heavy (even if Jasmine prided herself a little on being athletic and strong), and she got him draped over Rajah’s back almost easily, then convinced Rajah to follow her into a patch of shade.

A patch of hidden shade, because it was possible he was a good sorcerer, or just lost, or needed help, but he was definitely a male sorcerer and he’d burst into the harem gardens and that just wasn’t done. The guards would have his head if he was lucky.

When Jasmine finally got the sorcerer laid out in a way that looked comfortable, she realized he might actually have been a boy, not a man. He was taller than her, and his chest was thin in a way that reminded her of Jafar, and his skin was sickly-pale-- but his cheeks were as smooth as Jasmine’s own, no trace of beard or stubble. Unruly black curls escaped his turban-- which was, like his clothes, dyed dark indigo blue, a color even Jasmine knew was expensive. She didn’t touch the gold embroidery to find out if it was real, but she was tempted.

Maybe he was a sorcerer-prince. Maybe he’d come to ask for her hand and had just misjudged where his spell would take him.

Maybe he’d come to kidnap her.

Maybe he knew of some great and terrible danger and had come to warn them all.

“Mmh…”

Maybe he was waking. Jasmine stared for a moment, then hurried to lean against Rajah. When the sorcerer opened his eyes and started to sit up, looking confused, Jasmine was very proud of how confident she sounded. “My name is Jasmine, and this is Rajah. I’ve taken care of him since he was a cub, and I don’t know what he’ll do if I scream.”

“… Understood,” the boy-sorcerer answered, slowly pulling himself upright. “If you’ll tell me where I am, I’ll leave you to your tiger, Jasmine.”

He was really very tall. His clothes were made to make his shoulders look broader-- like Jafar again-- but the height was more intimidating than the manufactured breadth. “I want you to answer two questions first.”

“Ask them,” he said.

Jasmine knew that wasn’t a promise to answer them.

“Who are you?”

“I am Mozenrath,” and he bowed, stiffly-- no, carefully. He wasn’t well yet, Jasmine guessed, “apprentice to the sorcerer Destane.”

She’d guessed he was a sorcerer and didn’t know who Destane was, so Jasmine kept herself from looking impressed with Mozenrath’s introduction. “Thank you. What are you doing here?”

Mozenrath scowled. He had a generous, expressive mouth, and his scowl made him look like he’d taken a long sip of vinegar. “I’m here by mistake,” he very nearly spat. “It seems I haven’t yet mastered teleportation. I will.

But he hadn’t yet, obviously. Well, fair was fair. “You teleported into the Royal Palace of Agrabah,” Jasmine told him, “but you teleported into the harem gardens, so if you aren’t well enough to teleport back out again, you might want to wait quietly until you are.”

For a moment he looked scared, but then his face turned sly. “Aren’t you a little young for a concubine?”

“I’m thirteen,” Jasmine protested, “and I’m not a concubine.”

“Lady-in-waiting and tiger-keeper?” he asked, and if his smile had a wry edge, it was still a smile. Jasmine couldn’t help smiling back, partly because he hadn’t guessed that she was a daughter, not simply a woman who lived in the harem.

Not every daughter was a princess, but that didn’t matter too much. “Something like that. Is magic hard to learn?” He might’ve been a boy, but he was still older than she was, and Jasmine knew plenty of her own lessons were to keep her busy, whether or not they were actually interesting lessons-- but when they went wrong, she didn’t faint.

Mozenrath tilted his head a little. “Some of it is. Some of it is easy. But I’ve been Destane’s apprentice for a long time.”

She got the feeling he was oversimplifying for her, but that was all right. Sometimes people let things slip when they did that, and just because Jasmine didn’t like being treated as though she were simpleminded didn’t mean she couldn’t use it. “How long?”

“I was four.” There was more than that, something bitter, but Jasmine nodded.

“How old are you now?”

“Sixteen or seventeen. Probably closer to seventeen.”

“You don’t know for sure?”

“My natural parents didn’t leave Destane with a lot of information about me,” he said, shrugging, looking distant.

“Did they die?” That surprised him, and brought him back to looking at Jasmine.

“They were either poor or greedy,” Mozenrath said, “because they took my bond-price and left. Did your parents die?”

“My mother died when I was two,” she told him, and it felt good to be able to claim that, in a way-- to tell someone who didn’t know. To have that be part of her history, not just Agrabah’s.

“… And your father left you in the harem to raise tigers?” There was something unreadable on Mozenrath’s face at that, and Jasmine laughed.

“Rajah is the only tiger here-- a diplomatic gift to the princess. He just happens to love me almost unreasonably.” She rubbed at Rajah’s shoulder, and for his part, Rajah nuzzled at Jasmine’s neck, licking once. His tongue was rougher than a heavy fall onto the sand, but Jasmine didn’t mind getting tiger kisses unless she got so many she started to bleed. “Yes, I love you too, Rajah.”

“Why didn’t you raise the alarm while I was unconscious?” he asked. “I could have been here to do anything.”

“I thought you might have been sick, or hurt,” Jasmine said. “I wanted to know for myself why you were here, first-- and if I scream, the guards will come at a run.”

“And you don’t know what your tiger might do if you scream,” he agreed, nodding. “You yet have me at your mercy.”

“You didn’t disappear after I told you where you were,” Jasmine pointed out.

“I went further than I intended. That or landing in the wrong place… Well, I’m not ready to disappear yet, and I can’t just walk out of here unmolested, can I?”

“… Maybe if you were disguised as a servant-woman and didn’t say anything,” Jasmine allowed, “but not dressed as you are.”

His laugh at that was surprised and not bitter at all-- Jasmine liked it. “I’ll keep that in mind. I think I have strength enough to alter my clothes.”

“Do you want something to eat or drink?” she asked him. “Would that help?”

“It should,” he agreed. “Water would be best, or fruit.”

There was an arrangement of fruit on a footed platter in her room, meant to be more decorative than anything. Jasmine ate out of it all the time, to the disappointment of her etiquette tutors. “I can do that. Rajah, stay here with Mozenrath. … Mozenrath? Please don’t wander off.”

“You have my word.”

So Jasmine stood, and dashed off.

~*~


Mozenrath let himself settle back against a tree trunk, eyes closed but ears focused on the tiger, just in case. Obviously, it couldn’t be a man-eating tiger, or they wouldn’t let some servant girl or servant’s daughter (maybe a courtier’s daughter, she was well-dressed) be its keeper, but he wasn’t sure how far he could push his luck. Mozenrath knew nothing of the body language of cats, and couldn’t guess what the beast would want even with his eyes wide open.

Still, he was tired, as he’d only meant to take himself beyond the citadel’s walls-- not a whole kingdom away, into some mundane sultan’s garden, to be amused and protected by a half-grown girl. It would work out, even if Destane was displeased with him when he got home; he’d claim he hid himself, waited out the worst of his exhaustion, stole a handful of-- whatever Jasmine brought him to eat, and returned home as soon as he was able. It would even be the truth. He’d just leave out the girl and the tiger, and let the girl be kind (if forthright) while he had the opportunity.

She obviously had no idea who Destane was, or she would have been shrieking for the guards as soon as Mozenrath mentioned him. It wouldn’t have been an issue, he could teleport away from a dungeon as easily as a garden-- but it might take longer to recover from the misaimed teleport if he were in chains somewhere. No, odd as it was to be tended by anyone, let alone a living girl, Mozenrath would let Jasmine look after him. Hadn’t he entertained the odd fantasy of helping some mysterious stranger and being rewarded for it when he was thirteen?

… Though the girl probably didn’t harbor hopes of her mysterious stranger being her late mother come to claim her, or an escape from her current life. Or maybe just the escape-- who knew what she thought of living in a harem? Pity he couldn’t provide an escape for her, if she wanted one. He couldn’t take her to the Land of the Black Sands, and simply depositing her outside the palace walls would just put her in danger, not repay her hospitality.

He’d find some other way to repay her for her ignorant kindness, just so it couldn’t be so much as implied that he would leave a debt behind in Agrabah.

There were hurrying footsteps on the pavement, then on the grass-- light footsteps, but he opened his eyes anyway. It was Jasmine, carrying a small pitcher (beautifully made, all blue and green enamel work) in one hand and a bundle wrapped in either a large handkerchief or a small scarf in the other. When she was within arm’s reach, she offered him the pitcher-- which he accepted, gratefully, and drank from without waiting to see if she could produce a cup. Agrabah was warmer than the Land of the Black Sands. The breach in manners didn’t seem to bother the girl all that much; she just spread out her cloth on the grass.

It turned out to have an assortment of fruit; grapes, a small melon, a pear, a peach. “Do you like peaches?” he asked, reaching for the pear.

“I do. Don’t you?”

The pear was perfect; in another few hours it would be overripe. “Not particularly. Why don’t you eat that?”

She nodded, and smiled warmly before biting into the peach. They ate in silence for a little while. “I’m surprised you aren’t afraid of me,” Mozenrath said, eventually.

“I am, a little,” she admitted, “but the worst thing you’ve done is end up in someone else’s harem by accident. … So far.”

“That’s probably enough trouble for me to get into for one day,” he agreed, amused. “And you’ll get in trouble, too, if anyone finds me here. You didn’t call the guards.”

“I could tell them I thought you were a sorcerer-prince who got lost on your way to the throne room. I did think that, for a little while.”

“… Why?” What?

“Your clothes are expensive. I’ve seen princes before, and you could look like a prince.”

“Or a rich merchant, or a sorcerer who uses magic to make fine clothes out of rags. Why a prince, specifically?” He knew he didn’t look like royalty or nobility-- he was too thin, too pale, he worked too hard.

“Oh. That’s… it made sense to me,” she explained, “because the Sultan doesn’t have any sons, so his oldest daughter-- she’s my age exactly-- has to marry a prince by her sixteenth birthday. There has to be a male heir to be the next sultan.”

“Why can’t the Princess take the throne herself?” It would streamline the process.

“The law says only a widow can be Sultana of Agrabah,” Jasmine said, shrugging.

“Hm.” Strange law. If the Sultan died without his daughter married off, what happened to the throne then? “You know, I might technically be eligible to marry the Princess,” he mused, mostly to see what Jasmine would do.

“… No, you said you didn’t know your parents.”

“But I am Destane’s apprentice and heir,” he countered, “and Destane is Lord of the Land of the Black Sands. Does the prince have to be of royal blood, or just heir to a kingdom?”

“… I don’t know,” Jasmine admitted. “Everyone who’s come has been royalty but not heir to anything, and that’s why they come to Agrabah. They can’t have their own kingdom’s throne because there are older brothers in the way, so they want Agrabah’s throne, instead.”

“You don’t sound like you approve.”

“It doesn’t seem right to want to marry someone you don’t even know just so you can be sultan of a kingdom you’ve never visited before.”

“Plenty of men like power more than anything else,” Mozenrath told her. It would be a good lesson for a young girl to learn.

“Even if they don’t know what they’re getting?” Jasmine asked. “From the Princess or the city. Letters and gifts come from all over, not just the Seven Deserts.”

“Oh? Would the Princess make a bad wife?” Not that Mozenrath had any basis for comparison, but maybe Jasmine did, living in a harem.

“… I don’t think so. Not to a husband who… was friends with her. But I know she wants to be in love.”

Maybe she was more of a lady-in-waiting than a tiger wrangler. “You know the Princess that well?”

“We are the same age,” Jasmine pointed out. “And Rajah is technically her tiger.” So they doubtless saw a lot of one another. Probably spent their childhoods tossed together to play at whatever girls played at.

“So, are you technically Lady Jasmine? I’d guessed you were a courtier’s daughter, not a servant’s…”

“… My father is… pretty highly-placed,” Jasmine agreed, reluctantly, “but it can be just Jasmine, if you want. Unless you want to be Lord Mozenrath, or Prince Mozenrath.” He wondered if it was only girls who were like this, or if Mozenrath at thirteen had known his own will but been uncertain if he were truly allowed to work his will.

“I’ll call you whatever you like if you’ll tell me your real title,” he offered, half teasing.

“… And I’ll tell you my real title,” Jasmine said, sly as a serpent, “if you come back and visit me again.”

He had to laugh, for all he tried to keep it quiet. (His voice had long since changed; it wouldn’t do for anyone to overhear a man laughing in the harem.) In a year or two, once Jasmine finished growing into her figure (and her wide child’s eyes), the Princess would discover her little tiger-maid had turned into an impressive rival. “I’d like that,” he agreed, easily, “but I’ll need something of yours first, so it’s easier to find you deliberately. And so I can look before I leap, and not arrive in the middle of a whole gaggle of concubines and ladies’ maids.”

“… Something of mine like what?” She worried at a bracelet on her wrist-- probably gold, possibly a well-polished brass. “Does it have to be valuable?”

“No. It just has to be yours. A ring made for your finger alone, a hair ornament only you have ever worn…” She still hesitated. “These aren’t things you could just say you lost, are they?”

“Not without getting lectured on taking better care of my things,” Jasmine agreed.

“What about a few strands of your hair? It would work even better,” particularly if she didn’t know enough about magic to understand just what she was trusting him with, “and no one would ever notice. Just a few loose strands tugged free, like you’d find in your comb.”

“… Could anything bad happen to me if I do?”

She was cannier than Mozenrath gave her credit for, and he already thought she was clever enough to be amusing. “In the hands of an unscrupulous sorcerer, yes. I won’t do anything worse than check in on you from time to time.”

“Can you promise me you won’t let any other sorcerers use the hairs?”

He did have a few ways he could hide something as small as a few strands of hair from Destane. Besides, he didn’t really want to think of what Destane might do with control of a thirteen-year-old girl. “I can, and I so promise, Jasmine. I won’t even let my own master near your hair.” And with that much protection, he could call the debt of hospitality paid, even overpaid.

“Thank you.” Jasmine ran a hand through her loose hair a few times, fingers coming away with a few single strands. Mozenrath helped her unwind them from her fingers, carefully looping them into a coil.

He didn’t think too closely about her motives, or his own. He was apprentice to one of the most powerful and ruthless sorcerers in the Seven Deserts, if not the world. If he wanted to amuse himself with a lonely young girl’s attentions, why shouldn’t he? Particularly if the girl welcomed such associations.

Besides, she was interesting, and that was rare.

~*~


Mozenrath disappeared in the same blue-black flames that had carried him into the gardens, and Jasmine was left with plenty of time to wonder.

She had plenty of time to miss him, too-- he was interesting, and didn’t treat her like a princess (probably because he didn’t know she was one, but she couldn’t really regret that), and it was easy to wake up in the morning and hope he’d come back that day.

Those days turned into weeks, and there was no sign of the apprentice sorcerer, and Jasmine started to get frustrated. She turned her mind to books, but not in the way her tutors might have hoped.

Her map of the Seven Deserts showed the position of the Land of the Black Sand, but only marked its borders. It wasn’t far from Agrabah, but it was terribly isolated; not a single caravan route came anywhere near it. She asked her diplomacy tutor why that was.

“Perhaps the caravans that serve that kingdom don’t serve near enough to Agrabah to be of any notice,” he suggested.

She accepted it, but it sounded too much like an answer designed to stop further questions, particularly since the map showed all the regular caravan routes, not just the ones that visited Agrabah or Agrabah’s allies.

So she asked Jafar.

First he tried to shoo her off by asking if she didn’t have well-paid tutors to help her with her geography. “I do, and I asked, but I don’t think he told me the truth.” Jasmine spread out her map, pointing to the Land of the Black Sands. “I don’t understand why no caravan routes pass anywhere near this kingdom-- and I know the map doesn’t just show Agrabah’s caravan routes, either.” She hadn’t fallen for that the first time.

So Jafar looked, and his expression went from disdainfully indulgent to thoughtful-- and it looked like Iago copied it. The parrot did that sometimes; Jasmine’s father found it adorable and fed the poor bird those horrible crackers when he noticed it.

“Princess, this kingdom-- the Land of the Black Sand-- have you any particular interest in it?” Jafar asked, all oiled silk, heavy on the oil.

“I’d like to know how it gets its supplies, anyway.” A half-truth, because Mozenrath would be eating those supplies.

“Likely by magic,” Jafar said with a shrug. “Barely two generations ago, the Land of the Black Sand was home to a populace as thriving as Agrabah’s own, with a strong tendency to produce necromancers. Sorcerers,” he explained, “who specialize in death, and the undead. It is empty of all living things now but for its ruler, the sorcerer Destane, who seized control in his youth and is far too powerful to be usurped by any non-magical army. Now that his rule over his own kingdom is absolute, Destane is content, and has been for more than twenty years. He does not seek to expand his borders or treat with other kingdoms, and the other kingdoms of the Seven Deserts are more than happy to leave him be, master of an empty house.”

… And this was Mozenrath’s master? But Jafar hadn’t mentioned Destane’s apprentice… “Is he an evil sorcerer?” She must have looked frightened as a lost kitten, because Jafar was smiling again-- he liked to scare her, now and then, when he could get away with it, and Jasmine had asked.

“That would depend, Princess, on what he did to the citizens of his country-- and no one outside the Land of the Black Sand is truly certain of that. If I were you, I would put Destane’s supplies out of my head. Caravan routes are important, but perhaps you have something more pleasant to study?”

“I-- I’ll find something. Thank you, Jafar, for being honest with me.”

He inclined his head, graciously, and Jasmine took her leave.

Mozenrath had not seemed like an evil sorcerer, or an evil sorcerer’s apprentice, to her. Not that she’d ever met an evil sorcerer, but she had met more than a few princes who had set out for her hand a little earlier than her father might have liked. She at least knew how to spot meanness and pettiness, and she hadn’t seen that in Mozenrath, just a tendency to tease a little. He’d also listened to her, talked with her like she was a real person, not a prize he hoped to win, or a child who couldn’t understand what was said around her, or an awkward piece of furniture that had to be worked around. Jasmine had always assumed if she met someone who was truly evil, she’d know it immediately.

Maybe that was why she hadn’t known what to think of Mozenrath at first. He’d been in Destane’s care since he was four, after all, and that was a long time to learn to be evil. Then again, if he had been raised by an evil man in an evil kingdom, would Mozenrath know how to hide being evil? Wouldn’t evil be as natural to him as saying please and thank you was to Jasmine?

There wasn’t anything she could do about it but wonder, and make mental lists of questions to ask him, and meet the occasional suitor, as weeks turned into months.

One night, after her father had sent away a hopeful suitor who was nearer to his age than Jasmine’s, the air in front of her burst into blue and black flame-- and Jasmine squeaked in completely undignified surprise and fell off her divan.

Mozenrath towered over her, glared down at her-- for a moment. Then he spluttered out a laugh he couldn’t hold in anymore and offered Jasmine his hands. “Come on, get up.”

“You scared the daylights out of me!” but she put her hands in his, and let herself be helped to her feet again.

“Oh, I’d say we’re even. I found out a few things about the Sultan of Agrabah’s daughter, Lady Jasmine.”

“I told you I’d tell you if you came back,” she countered, smoothing her clothes. “And… since you came back, I am Princess Jasmine bint Ahmed.” It was an admission. “And you really shouldn’t be in my bedroom, particularly at night.”

“No? Where else are you alone enough to meet in secret with foreign sorcerers?”

He had her there. So Jasmine diverted. “… I found out a few things about the Land of the Black Sand,” Jasmine told him, as boldly as she could. “I have questions.”

Mozenrath’s eyebrows shot up-- and he sat on the end of her divan. Where she slept. Really, he was terribly impertinent. (Or, possibly, he expected a princess to have a bed.) “Only questions, Princess?”

“Call me Jasmine,” she said. “Please. Nobody I like calls me Princess.”

“You’d better ask your questions before you give me permission, then,” Mozenrath told her.

So she nodded, and went to collect the stool from her vanity so she could sit facing Mozenrath. “What happened to all the people who used to live in the Land of the Black Sand?”

She’d surprised him, she could tell. Well, you couldn’t just start off with ‘are you really an evil sorcerer?’ after all. “I don’t know,” Mozenrath admitted. “They were gone long before I was old enough to notice their absence. I’ve never asked Destane about them directly-- and I don’t think he’d tell me if I did.”

“Is Lord Destane really a… necromancer?” The word was unfamiliar, and Jasmine stumbled over it a little.

“He is,” Mozenrath said, “and so am I, but I study more kinds of magic than necromancy. It’s all fascinating, to me.”

“Do the two of you kill people?” That was important.

“Sometimes we have to.”

“Why?”

“Why do your city guards execute criminals?” he countered. “People come to the Land of the Black Sand trying to steal from us or destroy us-- and if Destane really killed all his citizens, they might be right to try. But we’re still right to fight for our lives, Jasmine, and we are frequently better prepared than the people who attack us.”

“Does it happen often?”

“No. It’s been years.”

“Good.” Jasmine had more questions, but somehow they’d dried up.

“You’re worried I’m some kind of monster, aren’t you?” Mozenrath asked, leaning forward, arms on his knees.

“A little,” she agreed, “or that Destane might turn you into one. I don’t want you to be any kind of monster.”

“Neither do I,” Mozenrath said, quietly, “but we don’t always get what we want.”

That couldn’t be right. “But you’re a boy. You can choose things.”

“I’m an apprentice,” he corrected. “I have as many choices as my master offers me.”

“He doesn’t know you’re here, does he?” Jasmine couldn’t help sounding a little afraid. Destane had either killed a kingdom’s worth of people, or disappeared a kingdom’s worth of people, and she wasn’t sure which was more frightening.

“No, of course not,” and it was the kind of hasty reassurance her father used to use when Jasmine suspected there were monsters hiding behind the curtains or unkbuut clinging under her balcony. “He doesn’t know I have any interest in you-- he’d forbid me from coming here, if he knew.”

“… Why are you interested in me? Why did you come back?”

“Mm. A little bit because I wanted to scare you. You might not have lied to me, Princess, but you told some spectacular half-truths.”

Jasmine felt her cheeks flush. “You didn’t tell me about your empty kingdom,” she countered.

“It never came up-- and I told you I was from the Land of the Black Sand. It’s not my fault you didn’t know anything about the place.”

“… You’re right, but I don’t have to like it,” Jasmine admitted-- and Mozenrath laughed, happy and amused, even if he was amused at Jasmine’s sulk.

“You’ll learn,” he promised her. “You’re young. Lie as little as you can, and don’t make up details. It’s much easier to leave things out.”

“Does that work better than just lying?”

“It does for me,” Mozenrath said with a shrug.

“But you don’t have servants everywhere, and maids, and guards,” Jasmine told him. “There are people all over the palace-- you know that, if you were watching.” He’d already mentioned he knew how seldom she was alone, so he should know most of her life was witnessed by somebody.

“You do seem surrounded most of the time. How do you handle it? I’d end up turning someone into something unpleasant.”

“… You… get used to it?” she offered, uncertain. “It’s been this way all my life. Parts of it are frustrating-- I hate being told where I’m allowed to go and what I’m allowed to wear there-- and parts of it can be… lonely,” and maybe it was a risk, telling him that much, but he’d watched, “but I honestly don’t know anything else. I’ve never even been outside the palace walls.”

“… Would you like to?” Mozenrath asked. Jasmine must have stared, or looked terrifyingly eager, because he amended, “Not tonight, and maybe not for a while-- I’ve been working at teleportation, but I don’t think I’m good enough to carry myself and someone else, not yet-- but. Would you like to?”

“Yes, absolutely,” because… yes, absolutely, “as long as nobody misses me, so it can’t be for long.”

“Not ready to run away forever, then?” Mozenrath asked, chuckling.

“No,” Jasmine said. “Why, are you?”

That stopped the laughter and made him stare at her. “It isn’t that simple, Princess.”

“Not for either of us,” she agreed. “You have a master and I have a duty. We’re… we’re stuck, aren’t we? Trapped.”

“Mm. Well, maybe someday, when you’re Queen of Agrabah and I’m Lord of the Land of Black Sand, we’ll make a treaty between our kingdoms that will shock everyone,” he suggested-- trying to distract her a little, she thought.

“Only if my husband likes you,” Jasmine told him, smiling a little. “The Queen of Agrabah has a lot of power-- over the household staff, not over peace treaties.”

“I’ll threaten to turn your husband into a Mamluk if he tries to decline,” Mozenrath said, and like that, it had turned into a game.

“Maybe I’d better know what a Mamluk is before I decide if that’s a good idea or a bad idea.”

“A necromantic creation,” he explained, “made from the desiccated body of a man and a lot of magic. They’re strong, they follow simple orders, they can’t disobey or betray their masters, they never tire, and they never need food or water, only rest now and then. They’re useful servants, and we use them for nearly everything.”

“… Is that what happened to all the living people?” It seemed plausible to Jasmine, and was apparently something Mozenrath hadn’t considered before-- he blinked, over wide eyes.

Then he shook his head. “No-- at least, not all of them. All the Mamluks I’ve ever seen have been adult men. … They might be the old standing army,” Mozenrath mused. “Their clothes match.”

“That still leaves questions.” What happened to everyone who wasn’t a soldier?

“I know.” Mozenrath looked down at his hands for a moment. “It’s not something I try to think about, often. Destane has what he wants, he doesn’t want to bend anything else to his will or rule anywhere but the Land of the Black Sand. … I’m not sure why that’s all he wants, but that’s all he wants.”

“What do you want?” Maybe that was a better question than ‘are you evil’ or ‘do you think you’ll become evil?’

“… Power,” Mozenrath admitted, and Jasmine thought that might be a problem. “Power leads to respect, and I do want that-- I’ll need that. I’ll need to be feared-- fear is what keeps attacks on the Land of the Black Sand so seldom, and when Destane dies, it will be me alone in that kingdom.”

“You could let people in,” Jasmine suggested. “Merchants and farmers and things-- brave ones, who aren’t afraid to live there.”

“Or desperate ones, who have nowhere else to turn. It’s worth considering,” he allowed. “… Why, do you think it will make me less evil?”

He was teasing again, but Jasmine shrugged. “It would at least be something to fight for, if you had to fight-- more than empty buildings and undead soldiers. If you have to be fearsome, being fearsome for your people would make you a strong ruler. I don’t know what being fearsome just for yourself makes you.” But she didn’t think it was anything good.

“Are you preparing for the day you become a widow, Princess? Because that sounded like a sultana speaking.”

It was more teasing (teasing she didn‘t mind, somehow), but Jasmine couldn’t help smiling. “Do you think so?”

Mozenrath laughed again, even if he did stifle it quickly. “You want power as badly as I do, Jasmine.”

“… Well, maybe-- I know I want to be able to do more than decide which servants I want to keep. I don’t want to rule the world or anything, but even if I get to pick the next sultan of Agrabah, I won’t be able to take credit for it if he turns out to be a good sultan.”

“Your father is letting you choose?”

“So far, he says we both have to agree. He sent a suitor away tonight because he’s forty, and Father wouldn’t hear of it.”

“You’d have a better chance of ending up a widowed Sultana with an older husband,” Mozenrath pointed out.

“Don’t be terrible. Besides, if he died without giving me a son, I’d have to do the same thing all over again.”

“… Is having a male heir really that important? Granted, I ask that speaking as a male heir…”

Jasmine shrugged. “It is in Agrabah, anyway, so there’s stability for the people. Father says they don’t like not knowing who their next sultan will be.”

“An argument in favor of a kingdom of Mamluks,” Mozenrath said, teasing again-- or maybe half-teasing. “They don’t grow restless or rebel against their masters.”

“… Do they do the things that commoners do?” Jasmine asked. “Grow food, carry water, make cloth? There isn’t a single caravan route that visits your kingdom.”

“Some of those things, Mamluks can do. For the rest, well, that’s why I need to keep working on teleportation spells. When we need something complicated to produce-- or just something specific, a book, an artifact, an ingredient-- we go get it ourselves. … Besides, you can’t really send a servant into the marketplace for griffin’s toenails, can you?”

Jasmine giggled, hiding her mouth behind her hands. Griffin’s toenails! As though anything that sounded that silly could be a real magical… anything. “No, I don’t think so. Not in Agrabah’s marketplace, anyway.”

“I thought not. So if we have to leave for the exotic, we may as well pick up the mundane while we’re out.” It made sense to Jasmine, put that way. If it was only the two of them-- well, how much could they eat? “I’d like to ask you a few questions-- I think that’s fair, don’t you?”

“That’s fair,” she had to agree. “What do you want to know?”

“Why did you let me think you were a lady-in-waiting?” Mozenrath asked. “There are plenty of reasons that might have been clever, and you should remember that trick, but-- why with me?”

“… At first because I didn’t want you to know who you’d found. I didn’t know for sure what you wanted, and I didn’t want to give you a princess to ransom. Then…” All he’d wanted was to leave. “A couple of reasons. I don’t always like how people treat me, once they know I’m a princess.”

“So it’s a trick you’ve played before?”

“Only a few times. It’s getting harder to get away with it. But what I mean is-- when you thought I was Jasmine, the… tiger-minder, or Jasmine the lady-in-waiting, or even Jasmine the courtier’s daughter, it felt… I felt like you were talking to Jasmine. And now that you know, you keep calling me Princess. Usually just when you’re teasing,” but she’d noticed. And even if he might be an evil sorcerer someday, she wanted to be Jasmine when he talked to her.

“Is that why you’re lonely? Because the people in the palace don’t talk to Jasmine?”

Jasmine had to wonder what Mozenrath was learning from all this. “Sometimes. I don’t get to really make friends with anyone-- the closest I have to a friend I can talk to is Rajah, and he doesn’t answer back as clearly as I might like.”

“… You want me for a friend, don’t you?” He might’ve been amused, but Mozenrath was also wary.

“Only if you want,” Jasmine assured him.

“Did you want that even when you thought I was an evil monster?” Now he was teasing again. Jasmine rolled her eyes.

“I thought you might be an evil sorcerer. Now I think you’re probably just a little wicked.” Wicked could be bad enough, but it wasn’t evil and it always had a reason. “But-- yes. I still hoped you’d come back and talk to me. I wasn’t ever sure you’d want to be friends. … You’re almost a man, for one thing, and I’m just barely marriageable.”

“… You’re thirteen,” Mozenrath said, brows raised. “Your father really intends to marry you off at thirteen?”

“He wants to hold off until I’m at least fourteen-- but it’s only two and a half years until my sixteenth birthday, and I have to be married by then, remember.”

“The only thirteen-year-old I’ve ever known, besides you, was me,” Mozenrath told her. “And it wasn’t that long ago. I remember being… pretty childish, still.”

“Everyone tells me girls are ready to marry a lot younger than boys. A man needs an income and a home to take a wife, and a woman just needs to be able to bear children.” Jasmine had never liked that. It didn’t sound wrong, exactly, but from the woman’s point of view, it sounded boring. Jasmine might love having children of her own, but she was going to be a queen, and it seemed like having at least one son and managing the palace’s staff would be all she’d ever really get to aim for. She’d been born too high to get much higher.

“You’re too young and too clever to resign yourself to being somebody’s brood mare, Jasmine. I wish I could…” But he trailed off, shaking his head.

“What?”

“I wish I could teach you a little magic. Something to help you influence the world. But I can’t visit often enough to do it right, I don’t know if you have the ability to learn, and even if you did… I’m told the older you start learning, the less power you can hope to wield.”

“… So you couldn’t even teach me a little bit?” Because that, at least, sounded interesting.

“I could try, but having to coordinate lessons between when I can sneak away and you’re alone? It could take us years to cover the basics. If you have the ability. It’s rare.”

“How do you know if you have the ability?”

“… In someone untrained, who couldn’t use their magic? It would… probably take some other form,” Mozenrath said, thoughtful. “Musical talent, strength, agility, mastery of languages, even just luck, good or bad-- but whatever it was, it would be extreme, completely beyond what any ordinary talent or skill could produce, and present since childhood. Early childhood.”

Jasmine tried to think of any remarkable qualities she might have. She could sing, but not so well people flocked to hear her; she could read and speak several languages, but she had to work hard to learn them. “I’m very stubborn,” she offered, “but I don’t think I’m magically stubborn. Could you still teach me about magic? I don’t know anything about how it works, and I’m curious.”

“I could be persuaded,” Mozenrath allowed, smiling a little. “Still want me to come back, despite the possibility of evil?”

“You’re not evil now,” Jasmine informed him. “You might not ever be evil, or only a little bit evil. I don’t think you’d hurt me…”

“I can’t think of any reason I’d need to.” Jasmine chose to believe that, and to put her trust in it

“So yes. If I’m safe with you, then I want you to come back, when you can.” Maybe having a friend who wasn’t evil could help keep Mozenrath from advancing from ‘wicked’ to ‘evil,’ at least any farther than he had to, in order to stay safe around Destane-- who probably was outright evil. Probably.

“… A word of warning,” Mozenrath said. “If Destane catches me, I won’t be able to come back.”

Which would have her worrying if he didn’t come by for months and months again. “I understand,” even if she wished she didn’t. “Could you send word if that happens? So I know… so I know you’re alive, but that you won’t be coming back?”

“Maybe. I can’t promise-- but I might be able to think of something.”

~*~


Mozenrath forced himself to keep scrupulously few illusions about his association with Princess Jasmine. She was, after all, still a child-- just barely by her kingdom’s standards, but to him, still a child-- and as the elder of the two of them, as the more powerful, he’d need to be the one to face the consequences if they were found out.

Yes, he kept visiting Jasmine when possible, and intended to keep visiting. As time moved on, it became more regular-- once a fortnight, if not more frequently.

Yes, he wanted to keep visiting Jasmine. Mozenrath didn’t consider himself unduly selfish, but as Jasmine had very few confidants of her own, her companionship was something that was his and his alone, and it was easy to feel greedy for that, possessive of it.

No, despite eligibility, he didn’t entertain any serious thoughts of proposing to Jasmine. Idle thoughts, certainly, the odd daydream when he checked in on her and found her frustrated by the search, by her father, by the vizier, by the latest suitor-- pretending that he could do it, could put himself between Jasmine and the inevitable consequences of Agrabah’s ridiculous laws, could slip into line for the throne of Agrabah, play the hero and rescue her from becoming the living seal on a treaty between herself and the best politician to sue for her hand-- but Destane would never have allowed it. Mozenrath was his apprentice, and Mozenrath was years, even a decade, away from becoming a master sorcerer. The most he could do to protect her from her future faceless husband was to offer her revenge if that husband mistreated her at all, and continue their friendship.

Yes, Jasmine had become his friend, and he considered himself to be hers. It was insidious how quickly what might have been a brief or purely manipulative association had turned into a friendship, and Mozenrath had to be aware that it was a friendship to keep it from distracting him. If Destane thought he was lagging behind in his studies, or caught on that his nighttime teleportation practices had a regular destination…

For all his necessary clarity, that was something Mozenrath didn’t dare think about. He could weather whatever punishment Destane decided to rain down on him, if he were caught, but he wouldn’t allow Jasmine to catch Destane’s attention. She was too young, too untouched, her troubles refreshingly safe in so many ways.

She was his, and Destane couldn’t have her.

She was a weakness for Mozenrath, and as such he had to both protect her and pretend she didn’t exist.

She was also intelligent, sly, and determined. She lacked any spark of magic whatsoever, but she was quick to pick up theory when they discussed it, and eager to learn more even if she couldn’t actually use it. For her part, Jasmine shared as much as she knew of how Agrabah was run-- plenty of it observed from the sidelines of diplomatic visits or her father’s study, because what books she could get hold of were slightly pilfered. For some reason-- possibly the bizarre law restricting Jasmine’s right to the throne-- the royal tutors weren’t inclined to give her much more political information than would let her navigate a dinner party successfully.

Fortunately, a little advice on how to sit quietly and placidly and listen, a skill Mozenrath had honed over thirteen years with Destane, was turning Jasmine into quite an accomplished spy. She couldn’t do it suddenly, of course, because no one would believe Jasmine, the viciously independent princess who treated a tiger like a tabby, had suddenly become demure and quiet overnight. The first time it had really worked, Jasmine had excitedly thrown her arms around him when he appeared in her chambers, announcing, “Guess who got to hear all about Agrabah’s new treaty with Paramoor!”

And then she’d plopped onto the floor, collected a scroll and a stylus, and taught Mozenrath about the treaty and the economic benefits it would bring both kingdoms.

And somehow, it was fascinating.

No, it wasn’t the same thrill as finally mastering a spell, or the triumph of getting past all of an artifact’s safeguards to finally claim it for yourself, but it was new. New, and useful, and they spent the next handful of visits discussing economics, caravan routes, official protection for caravans, and the sorts of things Agrabah exported in exchange for other kingdoms’ imported goods.

It was part of how to run a kingdom, something Mozenrath had never thought about, at least not particularly hard. He knew how to defend the Land of the Black Sands from a handful of well-prepared adventurers, but not how to set up an exchange that would keep him fed without depleting the treasury. (The treasury was, of course, significant, but it wasn’t infinite. It could keep Mozenrath fed and clothed even if he lived to be a hundred and fifty, but if he tried to repopulate the Land of the Black Sands after Destane died, he might need a way to replenish it. And it would never do for Mozenrath’s own apprentice, or his apprentice’s apprentice, to run out of money.) Likewise, if an army descended, he’d have no idea how to fend them off besides sending waves of Mamluks after them.

When he happened on a mundane tome of military tactics and practical strategic thinking, he adopted it, and he and Jasmine spent a great deal of time going through it, taking notes-- he couldn’t leave the book with her, in case it was missed-- and arraying Jasmine’s Army of Tiny Floral Sculptures against Mozenrath’s Forces of the Jewelry Chest in mock battles across the treacherous terrain of Jasmine’s bedroom floor. A scarf made a river, a blanket a sea, various sizes of pillows for hills and mountains, and they worked at out-thinking each other.

They were fairly evenly matched; Jasmine hated for any of her pieces to be ‘killed’ or captured, her losses due to being overcautious, and Mozenrath often lost a fair portion of his army even when he did win.

He wasn’t, he told himself, trying to play kingmaker. Jasmine couldn’t rule her own kingdom unless her future husband first gave her a son and then conveniently died (he was, occasionally, tempted to offer to arrange that for Jasmine). Mozenrath was aware he was probably turning Jasmine into a force to be reckoned with-- she was naturally determined, but the last thing she’d had to which she could truly apply herself was tiger care.

Truth be told, the tiger seemed to require less maintenance than horses did, and Jasmine’s mind would be wasted if it were restricted to managing a palace and arranging diplomatic dinners.

When he felt ready, he did fulfill his promise to take her outside the palace walls-- to the beach a few miles past the lights of Paramoor, somewhere too secluded for them to be caught and not so far away it taxed his abilities. They spent a happy few hours there under the full moon, Jasmine unafraid of the surf, and eventually both of them reclined on his cloak, comparing their knowledge of the stars.

Five or six months after Jasmine’s fourteenth birthday (where they began a tradition; she saved him a little of the celebratory feast, he brought her a handful of gold coins and magically reshaped them into delicate bangles while she watched), she began to lose the coltish quality of girlhood, her figure finally maturing to match her height. The quality of her suitors began to change as word of her blooming beauty began to spread. Before, the princes had been either too young to marry by Jasmine’s deadline, their parents hoping for an arranged match, or older spare sons, old enough to be Jasmine’s father and fed up with being denied their own countries’ thrones by accident of birth.

A year and a half before the deadline, the princes who came to woo were closer to Mozenrath’s age, nineteen, twenty-two, twenty-four, generally considered handsome, and all hoping to impress the Sultan and his daughter, to be first in line for a throne won by charm or guile rather than conquest or diplomacy.

Jasmine hated them to a man, and Mozenrath was desperately proud of her for that.

“What do I do?” she begged him one night, when she’d sent some fool away with his tail between his legs. The worst of the louts kept discovering a Princess who had hand-reared a nine-hundred-pound tiger from a cub-- starting when she was eleven, a child by anyone’s standards-- was not a girl to be trifled with. This particular suitor’s visit had ended with a vicious snap of Rajah’s jaws… witnessed by several attendants to both parties who agreed that whether or not the almost-bite had been a threat display or a near miss, it was prompted by his heinous highness’s inability to stop touching Jasmine when she shrugged him off or asked him to keep his distance. “How do I find someone-- who-- ugh!”

She pitched forward onto her divan, face smothered in pillows, frustrated. Rajah nudged her foot, and Mozenrath chuckled and tossed her hair onto the divan from where it trailed on the floor. “Well, what do you want?”

Jasmine sat up enough to keep from muffling her words. “To end this parade of overblown egos wrapped up in overpriced fabric and enough jewels to feed a garrison of soldiers for a year,” she said, and that was obvious bare honesty. “To-- to…”

“Come on. To… find a husband who…?” He’d heard it before-- to find a husband who would be a good sultan for Agrabah and a good husband to Jasmine herself.

“I’m tired,” she told him instead, “of looking for a good husband. For a good future sultan. I don’t think a prince exists who knows how to be both those things-- or if he does, he stayed at home to become a vizier. I want-- I want that stupid law to disappear,” she declared. “I want to be free to choose who I marry, if I marry, in my own time-- to decide for myself if I want to marry for politics or for love. … I want to be allowed to sit on my father’s throne myself. I know I couldn’t do a worse job than some of these… peacocks.”

“… You know, I think on some level I expected that,” Mozenrath told her, smiling. He liked her best when she was on fire with something. “You should be Sultana; you’re the Sultan’s oldest child, and you’d be formidable in your own right. It’s a pity the Sultan of Paramoor doesn’t need a bride-- you could unite your kingdoms and start an empire.”

“Oh, stop teasing. Father would never change the law just because…”

“Because it’s wrong,” he supplied, “and stupid, and needlessly stifling, and an unnecessary complication to the royal line?”

“Sometimes I think you want me on the throne just so you can play at being the power behind it.” But she sat up, leaning against the head of the divan, shooting him a wry look.

“I wouldn’t dare. You don’t need a power behind you. You could pick whichever one of these posturing buffoons you think is prettiest and be the power behind his throne, you know.”

“I know. I’ve tried to want to. … I’d rather run away and… try to learn to herd goats.”

He couldn’t help laughing at the image, and after a moment Jasmine laughed along with him. “All right. So, start convincing your father the law is wrong. He got a wonderful example today, didn’t he?”

“… Rajah wasn’t trying to eat him right then,” Jasmine protested.

“I know. If he’d meant business, there would have been a lot more screaming.” Rajah butted up against Mozenrath’s thigh, sensing an ally, and Mozenrath rubbed the back of the tiger’s ear. “We’re lucky your pet is so restrained, Princess.”

“You’re terrible.”

“I am. But-- all you have to do is arrange for the worst of the suitors to display the worst of themselves to your father. Now, I don’t know him, except through you; I know he loves you dearly. If he’s wise--”

“He’s kinder than he is wise,” Jasmine admitted-- which Mozenrath had honestly suspected. Jafar seemed to manage a lot of the more difficult details of running a kingdom.

“Then appeal to his kindness. Show him when you’re hurt, when you’re frustrated. Tell him you want to marry someone who loves you, not someone you can only hope will treat you decently. Even if you can only convince him to push the deadline back until you’re eighteen or twenty, that gives you years to keep working at it.”

For a moment, for a long moment, he was sure she’d agree to it. Her mind was working, and there was fire in her eyes.

Then she sighed and flopped over the divan again. “I could do so much more with my life than this…”

“You deserve to,” he assured her. “The world would be a poorer place without you living up to your full potential.”

“You’re terrible,” she told him, again.

“I am. But you could be great and terrible.”

“Stop it,” Jasmine laughed.

“A sultana to make the history books,” he went on, grinning.

“Mozenrath!”

“An iron lady, a steel-willed beauty, to lead Agrabah into a new Golden Age,” and that was when Jasmine reached out and pulled his turban down over his eyes, laughing all the time. “Going to pull my pigtails next, Princess?”

“Are you wearing pigtails under there?”

“Try it, Jasmine. Try convincing your father this isn’t right. He may not see your potential to advise him, but he loves you-- he’ll listen to you if you’re unhappy, won’t he?”

“… It’ll take time…”

“You have… where are we now, a year and a half?”

“A year and four months.”

“It will be enough time,” he assured her.

“I hope you’re right.”

~*~


There were times it was intensely frustrating, being friends with Mozenrath.

She loved that he urged her to do more, be more, to study everything she could and read voraciously, to tell her father that she’d be a better ruler for Agrabah than any of the princes-- too young, too old, or too stupid-- who had paid suit so far (even if she knew full well she never would), she loved to sit together and learn troop deployment tactics, the economic and diplomatic pitfalls of running a kingdom. She loved that he knew she was intelligent, and saw that intelligence as a useful thing much more than an amusing thing. She knew, for certain, as well as she knew her own name, that they were good for each other, that they made each other better, more well-rounded, more thoughtful.

Jasmine also knew that Mozenrath was in the so-far unique position of being eligible to propose marriage while also being someone Jasmine wouldn’t loathe being married to.

Then there were the nights he came to her moving stiffly, assuring her that he was fine, only over-extended. That it was nothing, that he had fallen, that she didn’t need to concern herself with it. She was careful about touching him, those nights. He’d had to learn how to react to her hugging him now and then, when they were first getting to know each other; he’d stiffen up before awkwardly putting an arm around her shoulders, even the innocent hugs of a lanky thirteen-year-old. By the time Jasmine’s fifteenth birthday started looming, Mozenrath was comfortable enough with friendly, platonic touches that now and then, he’d even offer an arm himself.

But on the nights when he moved like an old man, Jasmine didn’t touch Mozenrath at all-- because she couldn’t tell where she could touch him and not draw a hiss of pain he’d try to downplay.

Only rarely would he admit something like “Destane wasn’t pleased with me,” or with his mastery of a spell, or with his concentration.

She was trapped by her duty to Agrabah; if she couldn’t find at least a prince who would make a decent husband and a pliable future sultan, it was on her shoulders to find another way to keep the kingdom stable, but Mozenrath was trapped by a contract that had been sealed by nothing but money, probably before he’d even learned to read. No matter how difficult he made it sometimes, Jasmine couldn’t simply punch him in the shoulder and insist he propose to her and solve her problems for her.

And he did make it difficult sometimes. When he went on about what a remarkable ruler she’d be, what an unstoppable force for Agrabah, a Sultana little girls would play at being across the Seven Deserts, it was so very, very hard not to smile up at him and say, “I could do it, with you by my side.”

She could just picture it, and it made for a wonderful, frightening thing-- the two of them free to learn all the rules, and finding as many ways to bend them as they could. They were smart enough, they were bold enough, and they hadn’t yet stumbled across a subject that both of them failed to grasp, or that one of them couldn’t manage to explain it to the other.

There were days she worried she hadn’t yet chosen a suitor because they compared unfavorably to Mozenrath.

Those days, lately, were rare, especially if Jasmine made herself take a step back and see that it wasn’t precisely Mozenrath she was comparing her suitors to, but to reasonable standards of intelligence and politeness. The princes were Mozenrath’s age or a little older, but they preened, they leered, they sometimes pinched. They seemed to think it was necessary to shower her in so much flattery their meaning was completely obscured, or speak to her in words small enough it might have been Iago paying court. (The parrot had a more impressive vocabulary than some of the hopeful princes, too.) Occasionally, there would be a prince who seemed to think just riding up to the palace bedecked in all his finery would secure the throne for him, and talked to Jasmine as though she were already his to bed.

Jasmine had no patience for those princes; Rajah had less, tending to growl, snarl, and threat-snap at suitors who had trouble with ‘don’t touch me’ as non-negotiable. It wasn’t long at all before he pounced one of them, growling down at the prince as he lay flat on his back, helpless. Jasmine had been proud of him for quieting with just a sharp word from her.

Her father complained, of course.

“Dearest, you really must control Rajah better. I know you don’t want him moved to the menagerie…” It wasn’t much of a threat anymore; Rajah had gotten used to having free run of the palace. He’d never stay in the menagerie.

“He hasn’t seriously harmed anyone,” Jasmine argued, “he always stops when I tell him to stop, and every time he has…”

“Attacked, Jasmine.” The way he said it, she knew she’d have to think quickly-- Father was so rarely stern.

“Defended. Every time he’s struck out against someone, it’s because they touched me when I made it clear that I didn’t want to be touched.” It was a little bit better, at least as far as keeping up appearances went, than having to strike out against them herself. (None of them ever realized her clothing was a warning, not an offer. Rajah was always mentioned with pride when Jasmine was described to a hopeful suitor, because a girl who could raise a male tiger from a cub into a healthy, obedient nine-hundred-pound housecat would surely make a good mother someday. Jasmine bared her arms, her shoulders, her torso to the navel not because she was proud of her body, not to entice men, but to show that she had no scars. Four years with a tiger as her constant companion, and she still had all her limbs, both her eyes, all her fingers and toes, and not a single injury that had left a lasting mark on her skin.)

“Jasmine, there will be moments in any courtship where you can expect to be touched,” her father pointed out.

“… Shouldn’t those moments come after I say I’d like to get to know someone better? After I invite touch? Father,” she pleaded, “I don’t want to marry anyone who puts his hands on me after I tell him to take his hands away. I couldn’t trust him. Those suitors don’t leave because Rajah scares them away-- Rajah defends me because those suitors are… unsuitable.”

“I understand, dearest, I do-- but first, you must tell me these things, not simply trust that I know Rajah’s mind as well as you do. All right?”

“All right.” Easy enough.

“And, Jasmine? I worry if this keeps up, we’ll run out of princes.”

And what would happen then? No one had been straightforward with her. “I worry about that, too. I know what the law says-- but I also know… what kind of man… Father,” and she could see him softening, a little, with her worried and letting it show, “I’m not asking for some paragon, for trumpets to blare and a dashing, devastatingly handsome young prince to appear and sweep me off my feet. All I want,” it wasn’t, now, but it was all she’d wanted for a long time, “is someone who will be a good sultan for Agrabah, and a kind husband to me. … I wish…” It was worth a try…

“Dearest?”

“I wish I had the luxury of falling in love,” she said, “before I marry. I know the law doesn’t really leave enough time for that…”

“Jasmine.” Her father smiled at her, warmly, and took her hands in his. “Love comes, in time. Less time than you’d expect, I think. I don’t want you to marry anyone you don’t like, or feel uncomfortable around. We’ll just have to widen the search a bit, won’t we?”

“If you think that’s best,” she offered, cautiously.

It was a process, really. She wasn’t sure it was working-- her father tended to think of Agrabah’s oldest laws as a tradition he had no business changing, given how long they’d served well-- but there was still time, and at least he knew Jasmine was unhappy. … And that the quality and restraint of Jasmine’s suitors had gone downhill.

Jasmine’s fifteenth birthday passed with a celebration full of thinly-veiled worry-- she was down to her last year-- and was commemorated over second helpings of honeyed sweets and table wine with Mozenrath reshaping a gold coin that floated between his hands. Not simple, smooth bangles this time, but a ring, engraved around the band with a twining jasmine vine (if one could call it engraving if it was worked with magic rather than tools and fire), and a star jasmine blossom in full bloom, flanked by perfect leaves, on the escutcheon-- a signet ring she wore proudly, and immediately pressed into service for writing thank-you letters for her other gifts.

When Jafar remarked on it in front of her father, Jasmine called it a birthday present to herself. Technically, it was-- it just wasn’t from herself. (Her father told Jafar there was nothing remarkable about Jasmine wanting her own signet; she was fifteen now and more than capable of handling her own correspondence.)

After Jasmine’s fifteenth birthday, she didn’t see Mozenrath for a month and a half, and had started to worry. What if even table wine had been too strong for him and he’d teleported himself somewhere hostile or unstable instead of home? He’d explained the redundancies worked into the spell to keep him from appearing in the middle of something like a wall or a stone, but what if those didn’t work properly if the spell-caster was tipsy?

He finally appeared, with two surprises-- a vibrant bruise blooming across his face, thickening his lower lip and shadowing his eye, and a flying… thing.

It moved through the air like a fish, swimming without water, the body a cross between an eel and a goldfish, but all in dull gray. It had vicious teeth, mismatched eyes, and a disconcerting parody of a full-lipped human mouth.

It followed Mozenrath like a puppy, and Rajah watched it with what was probably an unhealthy interest.

“This is Xerxes,” Mozenrath informed her, proudly, his smile lopsided because of the bruise.

“He’s charming,” Jasmine offered, but was already moving to soak a handkerchief in water, ordering Mozenrath, “Chill this. It’s going on your face, it will help the bruising-- and the swelling. What happened?” He was so pale that every little mark showed. Nothing she could do would stop that bruise from being a livid mess that would last a week at least, but maybe she could keep it from being too terrible.

Mozenrath magically cooled the handkerchief to the point where it nearly frosted over. “I overstepped my bounds. I don’t care, though-- look at him. No matter what Destane says, he’s a masterwork.”

“… Are you really,” but it wasn’t really asked of Xerxes, more the way she’d say ‘aren’t you?’ to Rajah. He couldn’t answer and mostly understood the attention.

But the thing had a surprise for her.

“Xerxes masterwork,” he agreed, air-slithering around Mozenrath’s shoulders. “Mozenrath master.”

“Only your master,” Mozenrath told Xerxes.

“… Come sit,” Jasmine said, drawing Mozenrath over to the divan. “Here.” She folded the handkerchief over a little, then pressed it carefully against Mozenrath’s cheek and lip. His eye would look terrible, but the swelling on his lip would hurt worse if it wasn’t tended.

… And Mozenrath, seeking the cold relief, pushed his cheek against her hand. He made things so difficult, sometimes.

“Hold that there, especially against your lip, and keep it cold. It will help the swelling, and that will be the worst part tomorrow morning. Now,” she said, sitting beside him, “why do you have a black eye, a fat lip, and a flying…”

“Eel. I started with an eel.”

“Go on,” Jasmine prompted, keeping an eye on Mozenrath and Xerxes both, as the sorcerer absently stroked his thing-that-started-with-an-eel.

“I’ve told you that sorcerers sometimes create… not familiars, that’s witches, and can be dangerous, but a sort of… animal minion…”

She knew this, and cut him off, nodding. “An uplifted, intelligent… animal… companion…”

Oh.

“Hi,” Xerxes offered, gravelly but shy-- almost as though hoping for her approval.

“… Hi,” Jasmine returned, much more gobsmacked than uncertain.

“I wanted one,” Mozenrath said. “I wanted to prove I was powerful enough. And I wanted to take it beyond the impossible,” and oh, damn his pride, what had he done? “Usually, a sorcerer starts with an animal that’s already intelligent. A raven, a parrot, a simian of some kind. It’s easier, for one thing-- they don’t have as far to go. A sorcerer who starts with a raven could end up with a minion smarter than he is, if he’s any good with magic at all.”

“But that’s not what you wanted to do.”

“I poured so much magic into Xerxes,” he agreed, eyes bright. “First I had to alter the body, so he could breathe air instead of water, then add enough sustainable magic for him to swim through the air as he would through water, then the head, the face had to be reshaped, so he had the parts to speak at all. That’s why certain birds are so popular,” Mozenrath told her. “Lyrebirds, parrots, mynah birds, ravens-- they’re all excellent mimics, and don’t need much work to be granted human speech. Then I had to give him a mind-- a mind worth calling a mind, eels aren’t particularly bright, by human standards.”

“… You do seem to have a mind of your own,” Jasmine offered Xerxes, where he lurked nestled up against Mozenrath’s collarbone.

“I think,” he agreed, favoring her with a broken-glass smile.

Ergo sum,” Jasmine agreed.

“… I haven’t had time to teach him Latin yet,” Mozenrath admonished. “I haven’t had time to teach him much at all-- this is his first day.”

“Welcome to the world,” she told Xerxes, then looked up to Mozenrath. “Did he see what happened to your face?”

“… Yes.”

“That might be why he’s a little shy right now. Keep going. Let’s get from where you finished Xerxes to you being black and blue all over.”

“Destane was… less than pleased,” he started-- and Jasmine couldn’t help the frown. “He said I’d been too ambitious-- that a minion like Xerxes is…” He hesitated a moment too long-- his free hand going to stroke Xerxes’s back.

“I can’t help if I don’t know,” Jasmine said, gently.

“Apparently, the choice of an… already-intelligent air-breathing animal isn’t just… to allow the spells to work more efficiently,” Mozenrath said. “It’s a way to hide how much power the sorcerer actually has. According to Destane, Xerxes is… both an embarrassment by not being quite bright enough for correct grammar, and he… marks me as having more power than sense.”

“… What a horrible thing to say.” Especially since Xerxes had been there to hear it.

“And then he threw a book at me when I tried to defend my actions.”

“… This is from a book?” No wonder it covered so much of his face.

Mozenrath just shrugged. “The cover hit me.”

“Well.” Damage control. “Xerxes, I’m very sorry that you had to witness all that on your first day… uplifted.”

“Xerxes saw.”

“Mm. Then at least you’ve learned an important lesson today-- when someone resorts to violence to win an argument, they may win the fight-- but they’ve lost the debate.” Jasmine stifled a yelp as Xerxes shot from Mozenrath’s shoulders to wrap around her shoulders, instead.

And eel scales felt odd against bare skin.

“Nice lady,” Xerxes concluded.

“Thank you.” Jasmine hoped it wouldn’t take long to convince Rajah that Xerxes was a friend, and not food. “I’m Princess Jasmine, of Agrabah.”

“And you and I have to keep Jasmine a secret from Destane, no matter what we do,” Mozenrath told Xerxes. It was the first time any man had stared at her chest with the intent to make eye contact. “Jasmine is…” His gaze briefly flicked up to hers. “Very nice. Destane is intelligent, and powerful, and still in charge of my education, but he… is not nice at all. If Destane ever learns anything about these visits…”

“Destane mad?” Xerxes guessed.

“You have a talent for understatement,” Mozenrath agreed. “Very, very mad. Dangerously mad. But it’s better to do the things we want to do when it’s safe and keep very quiet about them than to never do anything but what we’re told because we’re afraid of getting Destane mad.”

If not for Destane, if not for his power and his wrath, Jasmine would beg Mozenrath to propose, to meet her father-- to take the easy way out and save her from the law. But marrying Jasmine wouldn’t put Mozenrath out of Destane’s reach. Marrying Jasmine would only give Destane more targets, more ways to hurt Mozenrath without ever laying a hand on him. No matter what they could accomplish if they were free to openly associate-- even just to ally, not marry-- they were bound and caged by duty and circumstance. The world outside their gilded cages was vast, dizzyingly beautiful, and would, if they were caught setting foot out of line, destroy them.

“You’re only in trouble,” Jasmine told Xerxes, gently, “if you get caught.”

~*~


Xerxes, Mozenrath knew, was not and would never be the most intelligent companion. (He didn’t need to be and hadn’t ever been meant to be intelligent. If Mozenrath wanted intelligent company, he’d visit Jasmine.) He was learning, and that was a fascinating thing to participate in. Xerxes liked to repeat short phrases in a loop if he found them fun to say, and would cheerfully inform Jasmine or Mozenrath himself that ‘Mozenrath clever!’ or ‘Mozenrath smart!’

He was less vocal around Destane, because when Destane noticed Xerxes, he tended to scowl. With enough of his good humor worn away (somehow Xerxes just eroded it), Destane would order Mozenrath to “Take that thing and get out of my sight.”

And although that tended to tie up some of Mozenrath’s time in soothing Xerxes, it gave the two of them hours at a stretch where Destane didn’t want to see either of them. That meant more time to pursue avenues of study that interested Mozenrath whether or not Destane found them particularly worthwhile, more time to work on his own projects, and more opportunities to visit Jasmine.

It took Jasmine a while to get used to Xerxes-- which Mozenrath supposed was fair, he thought eels looked interesting, but he had no idea what sort of animals Jasmine might find charming, beyond tigers-- but the Princess never shied away from him if he slithered up to her looking for attention. She spoke plainly and fondly to him, worked with Rajah to keep him from treating Xerxes as a challenging snack, and advised Xerxes that if Rajah ever forgot he wasn’t food, to fly straight up as fast as he could.

Xerxes adored her.

So Mozenrath taught Xerxes the overland route to Agrabah. If anything fatal ever happened to him, Xerxes was to seek out Jasmine immediately. He didn’t know how she’d explain suddenly adopting a flying eel, but there was no safer place for Xerxes, if Mozenrath wasn’t around to protect him.

But Destane managed to ignore Xerxes well enough while examining his latest magical artifact. Mozenrath found it fascinating-- a simple leather gauntlet, made for the right hand, edged in black, but it absolutely radiated power. According to Destane, the gauntlet would provide any mage who wore it with vast amounts of power, and an increase in control to match.

However, Destane had no interest in wearing it. He had only obtained it to prevent anyone who might become a rival from making use of it, but as far as increasing his own power went? “No, Mozenrath. The gauntlet extracts a heavy price from its wearers; very few live more than a handful of years after first claiming the gauntlet.”

“Even those wise enough to take it off between uses?”

“It… dislikes that. The gauntlet is a determined artifact, and may be a parasitic artifact. Once used, its wearers rarely remove it-- until they die, and a new wearer claims it. I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if the gauntlet extends some manner of call or influence on an occasional wearer, drawing them back to it. Obviously, more study is needed.”

But between careful spell casting and observation, Destane kept the gauntlet locked in an iron chest lined with silk and rock salt, very basic protections against magic that likely didn’t have any effect on an artifact so powerful, but Destane didn’t want to risk things like enchanted locks, or hiring imps to secure the gauntlet.

Mozenrath thought the gauntlet’s most intriguing quality was its anonymity. It wasn’t the gauntlet Of anyone or anything, attached to no well-known wizard or elemental, not even a pagan god. It had no title, no known history carried with it from one owner to the next. It was simply the gauntlet, an unassuming glove that granted power and ensured an early death, somehow.

Mozenrath longed to know how it caused those early deaths, and if the effects could be subverted.

The idea of the thing was tempting-- power great enough to usurp Destane, to free himself, to protect Jasmine and Xerxes and to literally do anything he wanted. Becoming the most powerful sorcerer in the Seven Deserts at the age of probably-twenty was a lure of its own, he had to admit, but power was so meaningless if you weren’t using it for anything. Destane collected artifacts of power, magical trinkets that he simply stockpiled and sat on, never turning them into assets or looking for situations where they might be useful. It was like hoarding coins because they gleamed or gems because of their sparkle. There was a point where a stockpile went from being a useful resource to a hoard, added to for its own sake, to further increase the hoard.

But there was no urgency. Jasmine still had a few months to either convince her father to push back her deadline or find a tolerable suitor.

~*~


Jafar bowed, respectfully if not deeply, on stepping into the Sultan’s study. “You summoned me, Your Majesty?”

“Ah, Jafar. I did, yes. I’ve been seriously considering something, and I want your thoughts on the matter.”

“I shall serve as best I can,” and it was an easy thing to say. Sultan Ahmed was readily distracted; it had taken only the lightest of steering to keep him focused on his little mechanical toys and the search for a suitable husband for the Princess. Jafar ran Agrabah in all but ceremony, the Sultan trusting his reports implicitly.

Whatever the Sultan had to say couldn’t possibly upset Jafar’s plans.

“I believe it might be necessary to alter the marriage law.”

… Well, there was that.

“Alter it to what degree, Majesty, and to what end? Precisely.” Details were important.

“We both know Jasmine hasn’t been remotely satisfied with the suitors who come to call lately,” he began. “But she’s only just become a woman; the boys aren’t truly seeing her, I don’t think-- they come to woo a young beauty whose dowry includes a throne. Now, of course, Jasmine must marry. I’m afraid if I simply repealed the law entirely, she’d never choose a husband and we’d find ourselves without a sultan when I can no longer rule.”

As soon as Jafar found that lamp, Agrabah would truly have the sultan it deserved-- not to mention the sultan who had actually been doing the ruling for the last few years. “So the bones of the law would remain. The Princess must marry-- a prince?”

“That’s where the change needs to begin, I think. If the law expands to allow nobility to pay court, there may be less of those avaricious young men who only see the throne-- and if the deadline is extended, perhaps to eighteen, in… oh, a year or so, when Jasmine’s beauty has become accepted fact instead of enticing rumor, we should see less of the sort of prince… let’s say, the sort of prince most likely to be eaten by Rajah.”

Well, the old fool hadn’t held onto his throne by starting off as a young fool, after all. “I see.” Jafar let himself look thoughtful, toying with the head of his staff, appearing to be considering the Sultan’s words from every angle. It was an easy enough illusion to maintain-- it was true. But the legal implications mattered far, far less than the personal ones, for Jafar-- he had his plans, and he had to consider whether extending Princess Jasmine’s deadline would upset his own timetable.

He had half the scarab, and the approximate location of the Cave of Wonders. Gazeem, he was certain, would find the other half soon, and be an excellent test subject to see if the rumors of the Cave only allowing certain questers were true.

When the lamp was in Jafar’s hands, his first wish would be to become Sultan of Agrabah, and after that, Jasmine and Ahmed could go hang, or become beggars, or merchants, or whatever they could manage to do to feed themselves. Perhaps the girl could exhibit her tiger for money; certainly Jafar had no interest in keeping that beast around.

“Hm…”

But the search for a suitable prince kept the Sultan occupied, as did trying to convince Jasmine to give at least one of the current crop of inbred idiots a second chance. Everything could be covered in the last hectic weeks of the search, the Sultan’s attention on the Princess and the Princess’s attention on escaping her marriage. Jafar might need that diversion. Hypnotic magic could only go so far-- the Sultan best obeyed orders he truly wanted to follow, sounding dull and hollow if Jafar pressed him to do something contrary to his nature.

“Your Majesty,” and if the Sultan looked up into the staff’s ruby eyes before meeting Jafar’s, well, that was a mere matter of height.

The staff just happened to lock his gaze where it rested.

“Better not change the law,” Jafar advised, tone gentle and urgent.

“Better not…” The control wobbled. “Jasmine’s hated all her suitors…”

“But you want to see her taken care of,” Jafar urged. “Married and safe. Protected.”

“… protected…” Yes. That was the right tactic.

“The law is for Jasmine’s own good.”

“… Jasmine’s good,” and Jafar felt a touch of relief at the more decisive tone. These thoughts would sound like the Sultan’s own to him.

“You must find her a husband who will take care of her as well as you do.”

“… he’ll take care of her…”

“You won’t live forever. Jasmine must have a husband.”

The Sultan’s expression set, and Jafar slipped the staff out of his line of sight. “That settles it, then-- the law remains,” the fat fool decided. “Jasmine must have a husband who’ll look after her when I’m gone. I won’t be around forever, after all.”

“We are all of us only human, sire,” Jafar agreed, bowing again.

Excellent.

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