By the time the Princess and I parted, I to my palatial room and she to her royal suite, there was an understanding between us. She would not betray my true identity. She would, in fact, meet me in secret beneath the grat tree in her garden later that evening. I think my audacity won her over. Or perhaps it was my great leaping ability. And certainly, from her response, she had no complaints about my kisses, either.
After a scented bath presided by a palace enuch and several giggling server girls, I picked a simple outfit from the guest closets - a pair of baggy trousers and a silk tunic. Upon my head I wound a keffiya of red silk with gold threads in a simple design, and shose some sturdy shoes with good leather soles. A waist-length cape completed the ensemble. In the mirror, I presented the perfect picture - proud yet humble, simple yet elegant, deferential yet arrogant. Just enough style to gain respect, but not so much as to arouse anmity. What didn't show was my appetite, which as enormous.
As I was dressing, I managed togain the confidence of one of the servents. I learned that the Princess had been cloistered by her father, kept from sight of all, but now her imprisonment was even more dire. Jaffar kept her locked in her suites adjoining the gardens, but, unlike the Sultan, paraded her out on state occasions and make a great show of his affection for her. Some of this the Princess had told me herself.
So I was only a little surprised to find the Princess - now properly veiled so her beauty was only a suggestion - sitting to Jaffar's left, while I, as guest of honor, sat on his right hand.
I tell you truthfully, Hamza. Never in my short life had I seen such a feast - a banquet fit for an army of adventurers! Just the appetizers were enough to overwhelm a shrunken stomach like mine. There were olives of all kinds - salt, pickled, green-ripened. And therewere bite-sized delicacies made from grape leaves, and rolls and breads of all descriptions. I tried my best not to seem grateful, and so sampled some of every dish.
When the main course, a whole roasted lamb with apples and herbs, arrived, I was already more satiated than I had been in months. But I dutifully laid into the lamb without reservation.
Up to this point, all table talk had been light and concerned with weather and fashion and other stuff of no consequence. But I had the impression Jaffar was biding his time before he came around to discussing me and my claims. The time had come.
"So tell me of your land, young Prince," Jaffar aksed over a good-sized hunk of lamb, stroking his pointy beard with long, greasy fingers.
"My father is a great king in faraway Samarkand. Do you know of it, great Visier?" I asked as I attempted not to swoon from delight at the richness and subtle flavors of this royal meal. I took another sip of the Sultan's wine, may Allah forgive me.
"O Great Prince, I know little of Samarkand," answered Jaffar.
I began a story, made up in the moment, of great heroism and adventure. How my father had led his armies in battle against his enemies from the mountains, and how I had, at the tender age of 13, slain a tribal cheiftain in single combat. Perhaps I did get carried away, but Jaffar just nodded as if it all seemed quite natural. The Princess said nothing, but my eyes kept straying to hers, which was neither polite nor particularly intelligent of me. Her eyes were like twin suns blazing into mine, and her brows, like amimated crescent moons, beguiled my senses. Her hands moved like swans on a calm lake, and I longed to reach across the table and take them in mine. I feared that I would betray the trust she had given so freely, but if Jaffar noticed my lapses, he said nothing.
And so the evening moved timelessly to its conclusion. I bragged too much to Jaffer, for his part, spoke little, but made sure neither my plate or glass was ever empty. Never in my life had I eaten or drunk like this. By the time the dinner had ended with several varieties of dates and a parade of sweet morsels, I was sluggish and nearly witless. Finally, at Jaffar's suggestion, I retired to the guest rooms, mumbling my gratitude and my wishes for a long life and favor in the eyes of Allah to all.
Did I detect a hint of amusement in Jaffar's eyes? If so, it did nothing to alleviate the fog I was in.
After a few hours, when the moon had nearly risen tro its zenith, I scaled the wall and reentered the Princess's garden. My stupor had worn off and I was feeling more or less myself again. But when I arrived she was not there. I sat on the base of the great tree and waited, listening to the crickets and the soft splashes of the fish feeding in the small pool nearby. Once I thought I heard a twig break among the trees, but no other sound interrupted the peace of the moment.
Did I doze off? Or was I dreaming still? There she stood, like a vision too beautiful to be real. Caught off guard, I quickly scrambled to my feet and stood dumbly gazing at her radiance in the moonlight. I could not speak, however. What could I say to her.
"You spin some wondrous tales," she began. "You must have live a most adventurous life."
"My Princess, I have lived no life at all until this moment," I whispered. And I meant it. "My tales are nothing but fictions to amuse Jaffar. Meeting you, here... This is the greatest adventure I have had."
She smiled again. "But I enjoyed your tales as well. I have been locked away in this palace all my life. True or not, your stories took me away from here, if only for a moment. Please, tell me more."
We sat beneath the tree and I spoke to her for more than an hour, repeating tales I had heard on the streets, embellishing shamelessly. She laughed and oohed and aahed at appropriate mements, and so the time went quickly for us.
" '...and I will give you a third part of my treaure, if you but spare me.' And that's how I was able to outwit the great rogue tiger of Bengal," I said, finishing yet another story.
The Princess clapped her hands with delight. She hesitated, stood, then said, "It is time for me to leave. We will meet again. Soon." But she did not turn to leave and then I too, stood. My legs were heavy and my heart began to hammer in my chest. Slowly I reached up and lifted her veil. Again, I kissed her, and soon we were in a tight embrace.
A shout rang through the garden. "Seize him!" It was a voice I recognized, Jaffar! My knees went momentarily weak. The food and drink were still working their way through me, and I was slow to react. Before I could draw my sword, I was pinioned between two guards while a third rammed his sword hilt into my stomach, driving all of the air from my lungs. The Princess stood to the side, untouched, but shaking in fear.
Then Jaffar emerged from the darkness, as if he had not been part of it and was now only materializing.
"Did you seek to fool me, young Prince? I know your father well, and his only son is a doddering simpleton already in middle age." Jaffar walked deliberately toward me, smiling. His sour breath blew over me like a hot pestilence. "But you have served me well, whatever is is that you sought," he hissed. He ran a sharp fingernail across my cheek as he spoke, and it left a burning sensation like acid. I shuddered at the touch, which was both poisonous and caressing at the same time.
Then he stood striaght and clapped his hands. "Guards, throw this young fraud into the deepest dungeon, there to await his final sentence."
As the guards dragged me away, struggline to no avail, I heard Jaffar saying, "As for you Princess. Your punishment should not be decided upon hastily. Your dishonor is a serious matter, and I will have to consider the method of your death. For now, you will be locked away in the tower. I shall visit you soon, my dear. Guards! Take her to the tower!"
I turned to look back as the guards dragged me away and saw two more guards grab the Princess roughly by the arms.
And that is the last I saw, for one of the guards, impatient with my increased struggling, rapped me solidly in the temple with his sword butt, and I lost consciousness.