Getting measured up by another man while wearing little more than a loincloth was a new sensation to Aladdin, and he wasn't sure he particularly liked it, but Maram would expect him to wear nice clothes to their wedding, and probably afterwards, too, so he resigned himself to getting used to spending more time at the tailor shop. Besides, wishing for clothes from the djinn seemed even stranger, for Aladdin had no idea where the clothing came from. He hoped the djinn used magic to create it, but what if he stole it from someone? The Sultan or some other rich man might not notice a few missing tunics, but if he'd taken things from a merchant or tailor, that made Aladdin himself little better than a common thief. The two djinn had given him riches enough that he could afford to buy such things, so he should do so.
Not to mention he was certain the tradesmen and merchants who had been his father's friends before he died had provided charity to himself and his mother – a kindness he needed to repay. So if he'd ordered more tunics than he normally wore in a year...so what? He had the coin, and they wanted the business. He hadn't ordered anything but his wedding clothes made in silk, though, remembering the indecent way it had clung to him, especially when his desire for Maram had made him lose control. It would not happen again on their wedding day, he swore – he would be the picture of modest decorum.
Though he was finding it increasingly hard to stay away from her, in every sense of the word. He might not have shared her bed yet, but she certainly shared his – dominating his dreams every night. Aladdin knew he would pay her a visit today, and this time, he wasn't sure he could refuse her invitation to stay the night. Maram was intoxicating, in all the best ways.
Perhaps he would bring her a gift. He stopped in the bazaar to examine the caged birds, wondering which one she'd like. The jewelled garden would be better with some life in it. He wanted to get her a bird that would sing beautifully, but the only sound any of them seemed to want to make was a distressed peeping right now.
A streak of gold shot between the cages and pounced on a loose thread that hung from the hem of his tunic. A cat – the tiniest he'd ever seen. Aladdin caught the kitten and held it up to better inspect it. The little creature batted at his turban until a fold came loose, then sank its needle-like teeth into the corner.
"How much for this ferocious beast?" Aladdin asked the merchant who owned the menagerie.
"If you can keep the little menace from killing my exotic birds, you may have it as a gift," the man said. "I keep the mother for the mice, but she has so many babies, I fear the city will soon be overrun."
Aladdin tossed him a coin anyway, then tucked the kitten inside his tunic, where it promptly curled up and went to sleep.
Now he had to go to see Maram – before her present woke up and clawed through his clothes. Unable to wipe the grin from his face, Aladdin set off for the palace.
"Stop! Are you Prince Aladdin?" a voice demanded.
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the truth and deny it, but Aladdin knew he had little to fear from the Sultan's guards now. Why, he would soon marry the man's daughter.
"I am he," he said grandly.
Two guards took his arms. "Then you must come with us. The Sultan commands it." They marched him the shortest way to the Sultan's palace, away from Maram.
Aladdin sighed. She would understand, surely.
The guards released him without warning, dropping him on the tiles of the Sultan's audience chamber. Instead of getting up, Aladdin merely bowed deeply. "How may I serve Your Majesty?"
"You can tell me where my daughter and her palace are!"
Aladdin wanted to laugh, but he restrained himself. "Her palace is beside your own, and no doubt Her Highness Princess Maram is inside it."
The Sultan made an exasperated sound. "Show him!"
Aladdin's guards hauled him to his feet and half carried him out of the hall to the gates of his palace. Or where the gates of his palace should be. Where the palace had stood only yesterday, now there was only bare earth, compressed under the weight of the absent palace.
One of the djinn had turned it invisible, Aladdin decided, reaching for the gate he knew had to be there. But his fingers closed around nothing but air.
He didn't resist as the guards dragged him back to the Sultan and left him on the floor.
"Her servants tell hysterical tales of giants and magicians and blazes that smoke and do not burn. Complete nonsense, for something has driven them all mad and made them run from my daughter's service. But they all agree on one thing: she was in the palace when they left, and now there is no sign of the princess or her palace. Tell me where they are!" the Sultan demanded.
Aladdin raised his head. "I do not know."
"Tell me, or I shall instruct my guards to cut off your head. Last night, I bade good night to my daughter in that very palace you caused to be built overnight. Today, the palace is gone. My daughter is gone. And so is the Vizier's son, Hasan. No one else can tell my how a palace can appear in a night – and disappear just as quickly. Can you?"
"Magic," Aladdin croaked. He swallowed, attempting to moisten his suddenly dry throat, then said it again. "No one could do such a thing without magic."
Was Hasan some sort of magician, who'd somehow stolen both the palace and Maram? If he had, Aladdin had to find her. The palace didn't matter, but Maram...she could not be left to the mercies of the man who had none.
"Are you a magician?" the Sultan thundered.
"No," Aladdin admitted.
"Do you know what the punishment is for stealing from your sovereign?"
Aladdin did not, but he was sure he wouldn't like it. "Your Majesty, I have stolen nothing from you. In fact, I am as incensed as you. Someone has stolen my palace and the woman I love. I ask for your leave to hunt down this thief, so that I may bring him to justice. Give me a month, and if I cannot find him, you may do as you wish with me."
"Why should I trust you? If I release you now, what assurance do I have that you will return in a month, or at all?"
Aladdin met the Sultan's eyes steadily. "Because, Your Majesty, if I do not find her in that time, then I fear Princess Maram will be dead, and I will beg you to die so that I might join her."
The Sultan was silent for a long moment before he finally said, "Very well. But if you fail to return my daughter to me, you will not need to beg. Your death will be painful, I promise you."
"Thank you, Your Majesty." The words came out of his mouth, but Aladdin's thoughts were not in the Sultan's palace at all. Instead, they were with Maram, wherever she might be. He prayed Hasan had not hurt her yet, and that Aladdin would be in time to save her from him.
He had to be.