A full month and seven days after he's escaped, Alibaba still wakes up expecting chains around his ankles.
As consciousness comes to him, his muscles tense in expectation of a foot stepping on his leg, kicking his head or his stomach. Perhaps sea water splashing him from the window that was left open, stinging at his open wounds and making his skin red and swollen like he has an infection. Or maybe even another prisoner being thrown towards him—whether they are a gentle soul or a devil incarnate, not the problem of his captors.
In Sindria, there is no such thing.
A full month and seven days after he's escaped, even with the phantom pains remaining, Alibaba does not truly expect for anyone to hurt him.
Life in Sindria is— simple and hard.
A land of paradise, of promise. In the Tales of Sinbad of the Seven Seas, Sindria is presented as an idyllic island, full of kind people, all managing to live together in peace and harmony, no place for misery. Here, there is no need for slums. There is no starved family discovered days later from the putrid smell, no mourning of a paper-thin baby wrapped so tightly in gauze by a grieving mother, no sickness that brings piles of bodies to be burned harshly until the scent never disappears.
Even living in the Royal Palace cannot compare.
In Sindria, people are immensely kind. They do not hit children playing, barely yell at them to scamper off. They rarely scream in anger, preferring to share fruity alcohol and smoked meat. Often, organized open parties send waves of cheers and music in the streets, keeping Alibaba awake and offering him an artificial warmth—and much needed food. They offer free samples of their cooked products, attempting to coax people into buying—even give some to Alibaba, who is so obviously too poor to buy anything, too thin not to be starving. They present their works with pleasure, thick rugs decorated with rich embroideries, spices that hail from all over the world. In this, it is so familiar to the rich paths of Balbadd, those that Alibaba only got to see from afar, rarely walk.
Living here is comfortable, even when in the streets. You cannot starve here, cannot suffer. The children who are discovered living in the streets are taken in by large institutions, where they are housed, fed, and educated all for free, nothing expected of them except to participate in Sindria's growth. Alibaba wishes it could have been possible for Kassim and Mariam, if not all the children of the slums.
Life in Sindria is—
It seems so simple.
Alibaba cannot let go.
His days are wrought with anxiousness. When someone raises their hand too fast, when someone shouts (in surprise, joy), when someone watches him with a too careful eye. Even just the physical resemblances—that crooked nose, that blind eye, those missing teeth, that limp from an unbalanced leg... Sometimes, there will be metal chains holding merchandise together. The jingle of it will either send him running or make him lose consciousness of his actions, coming back to himself hiding outside the city hours later.
He spends his days at the docks, watching the ships come and go.
Why is it that he cannot heal?
The gentle lull of the waves foaming onto the sand, the cries of the merchants hurrying to discharge their cargoes, the salty scent filling the air, all used to bring him such joy. Hours upon hours spent sitting under the shade of a building, Kassim by his side, blabbering about how many adventures they would go on, how many sights, how many treasures.
Now, all those memories deeply stained by those days inside the cold prison, metal around his ankles and wrists. The smell of wet wood, the sound of seagulls, even the sweet dance of the ships upon the water, it all makes his head spin.
His days are spent at the docks, the ships coming and going. He doesn't heal.
"Are you waiting for someone?"
The question takes him by surprise, not having heard anyone approach. Already anxious from being so close to the ships, Alibaba can't help the way he startles, curling upon himself and flinching away at the same time. He peers up at the speaker, eyes partially hidden by his ink-black hair.
It's a young man; hair long and very purple, clothes colorful and well-made, eyes just as golden as Alibaba's. His face is not particularly kind, but rather charismatic and full of an almost youthful vigor. Gaze on the ships, he does not even once glance down at him. The way he holds himself makes Alibaba nervous. It's too confident, hands on his hips, looking over the docks proudly, as though he had been the one to build them.
Alibaba doesn't answer, uncurling a little. He pretends to be a normal child. The people around here are so weird, they react badly to children who are afraid. Their pestering is kindhearted, if unnecessary.
"Or perhaps you just want to travel?" The young man's voice picks up with interest. Their eyes finally meet, but his pose changes. He leans forward, with a smile as though they were sharing a secret. "I was the same when young, spent hours fantasizing about what would await me outside… At least, until I went onto my own adventures. Then, I didn't have to imagine anymore."
Having said his piece, the young man straightens. His arms cross, chest puffed up. He looks ridiculously proud, but perhaps for a good reason.
Indeed, his already colorful clothes are accompanied with rich golden accessories: a heavy necklace, heavy earrings, a heavy top hat, a heavy sword... It's to be wondered how he can still look as though he is as light as a feather.
Alibaba cannot say his interest is not piqued. He adverts his gaze, considers pretending to be mute, but his eyes keep trailing back up curiously.
Stories of adventures, Alibaba has read so many: from the Tales of Sinbad of the Seven Seas that he knows by heart, to the less known tales of Lady Scheherazade and her previous Kings, and even the travel logs of adventurers going to undiscovered lands...
The old teacher at the Palace would be biting his nails, would scold him for hours about etiquette and unneeded curiosity. The young man's expression stays almost unchanged, but the corners of his eyes are curling merrily. Perhaps he is amused by Alibaba's childishness, rather than annoyed at his lack of composure.
Finally, Alibaba can take no more. His mouth opens, but having spent so many days without saying a word, it takes a moment before his voice can come out: "...Big brother, what adventures?"
The big brother smiles down at him with open amusement. "Would you like to hear? I feel that I've told this tale a thousand times, I fear that people around here have gotten bored of it. You must be new, to be so willing to listen." Is he a famous figure then? Tall and strong, golden eyed and with a determined expression, perhaps he's even King Sinbad himself—ha! As if King Sinbad would entertain a street rat. "It's been quite a time since I last went onto a great adventure, but in my youth I spent quite a few years out at sea."
He pauses, then. Waits for Alibaba to say something, he's sure.
He doesn't resist for long, "...Where? Where did you go?"
The man beams down at him, before he plops down on the ground with a careful yet nonchalant movement. “Glad you asked! Just about everywhere, I think. How about I start with my first adventure? I’m sure you’ll like it, you have the soul of an adventurer, don’t you?” Then, he begins weaving his tale.
Alibaba can’t say whether he’s being sincere about his story—whether he genuinely went on such an adventure or not. He listens with half an ear, his heart pumping too nervously from the sudden closeness with someone unknown, eyes set on the faraway ships yet always straying to anxiously check whether the man has gotten closer.
Yet, as the adventure continues, as the characters face more and more danger, at every twist and turn, every fight, every victory, Alibaba leans in closer by his own accord, both unconsciously and consciously, straining to hear more yet scared to death. Before he realizes it, he reacts accordingly to every events, mirroring the reactions of the characters.
It is such a tale that, for a brief moment, lulled by the promises of happiness and the growing bonds between the characters, Alibaba forgets.
For a brief, brief moment, Alibaba is alright.
By the time the man finishes his tale, the sky has grown darker, the evening having just begun. More than five ships have come and go, but he can’t tell for sure, his eyes having focused exclusively on the tale-teller after some time. Alibaba has tired from holding his tensed pose, and has by then relaxed enough that his head is leaning against his folded knees, arms only loosely holding them against his chest.
The man himself doesn’t look tired in the slightest. In fact, a satisfied smile curls his lips. With his crossed legs and slouched back, he seems more like an everyday man than the fierce adventurer of his tale. “What’s your name, kid?”
Alibaba is too tired to think about why he would ask that. He blinks slowly, watching the man’s features heavily. “…Ali.” It’s far enough from Alibaba, while close enough that he will react to being called such. Still, a nervous shudder makes his scalp go numb. “Brother, what is your name?”
There’s a bit of a startled look on his face at the question, but it quickly transforms into an easy smile. “You can call me Sin. It’s nice to meet you, little Ali. Can I hope to see you here tomorrow?”
Alibaba is unable to keep the surprise from appearing on his face. “I… Yes… I suppose…” Then, because he knows that the inhabitants of Sindria would react if Sin tried to hurt him in public, he dares to say: “I come here every day.”
A strange expression crosses Sin’s face. It looks bitter, a bit sad, disappointed. “Then, it’s a promise. You should head home. I’m sure your parents are worried.”
Although Alibaba doesn’t quite understand why the people of Sindria behave this way, after having faced this kind of conversation more than once with well-meaning inhabitants before, Alibaba immediately understands what Sin is hinting at. That expression, too.
Child, why do you come here every day? Where are your parents? Do they not take care of you?
Alibaba’s body trembles. Distrust grows in him. Why is it, these people pretend to be so well-meaning!? With a cold voice he can’t help but adopt, he says: “Indeed. They must be.”
Ah, did his voice shake just now? Has he fallen sick? It must be the sea wind.
He gets up and flees before Sin can say anything more.
Even then, he comes back the next day and obediently stays seated when Sin approaches him again.
Alibaba has had a long night and day to think over what happened the previous day. Remembering his actions, he can’t help but grow flustered, feeling like he behaved more like a child throwing a tantrum than a disciplined young prince. The people of Sindria are so kind, to care and worry for children like him, yet Alibaba always feels uncomfortable in front of their worry—it doesn’t feel right for them to worry about him, like he is illegitimate as just a street child.
Sin doesn’t seem like a bad man. In the streets of Balbadd, story tellers were treasured by the children who had access to neither education nor books. He remembers spending hours laying down in the dirt with his brother and sister, lulled by the tales of a resident old man or woman who seemed to always have some new story to tell. In the Palace, Alibaba talked to no one except his tutors, and found his necessary dose of hope for the future in the library. He wonders how many hours he spent fleeing his responsibilities and hiding under an alcove of the library, head in a book. Just for this, enduring his strict literature teacher was worth it.
Sin would have been very popular in the streets of his childhood.
At the same time excited to hear more adventures, nervous about having someone so close to him, and guilty about his behavior from the previous day, Alibaba trembles in place as he peeks at Sin sitting down next to him.
“Hey kid,” the man greets easily, no grudge in his voice. “Seen any interesting ship so far?”
Alibaba doesn’t dare take his eyes off him. He doesn’t answer.
It seems like it doesn’t bother Sin that much. He sits down lightly, and says: “Want me to continue where I left off?”
The silence answers him, but he takes it as an agreement and continues anyway. Alibaba rests his head on his knees and listens.
This trend continues for quite a few days, long enough that Alibaba gets caught in a daze, growing comfortable with this strange yet kind man who comes to the docks everyday only to tell a dirty and aggressive kid stories of his own youth.
A few times, as the days drag on and the man hits a calm passage of the adventure, Alibaba’s head grows heavy, his eyelids tired. He almost dozes off a few times, to the sound of this voice that has become a synonym of safety. Then it really does happen. He wakes up leaning on Sin’s side, who has gone quiet. Alibaba is so flustered that he flees before he can ask for the rest of the story.
One time, Sin’s stomach growls as soon as he arrives, so he leads Alibaba to the huge and bustling marketplace of Sindria.
The stand they stop at has fruits and vegetables of so many different colors that Alibaba can’t help but compare it to the pile of riches he remembers the Queen Consort having. Red, yellow, orange, purple, green, blue… They all seem to gleam under the sunlight.
Sin sees him looking and buys a handful of almost see-through round red fruits with green shells.
Alibaba looks at the exchange with growing dread. “No… Please… I don’t want to owe you,” he protests, even though his stomach clenches meanly at the thought of refusing food. He’d had the same problem in the Palace: his body had wanted to collect and store away every piece of food he had access to in case of another famine, while his mind had tried to reassure him that it wouldn’t be taken away.
Sin waves away his worry. “I have more than enough money, this much won’t harm me at all. Instead, it’s a pleasure to be able to feed you. You look too skinny, kid.”
Alibaba is flustered and pleased and offended all at once. It’s not his fault that he has so little to eat! Even so, Sin has no real reason to offer him this much kindness, especially over such a long period of time… Could it be that he really… really thinks of Alibaba as…
Instead of saying anything, Alibaba swallows down a bite. The sweet flavor explodes in his mouth, yet it almost seems bitter.
After this, Sin sometimes finds him on the dock with a basket of fruits in hand. He gives them all the Alibaba like he wants to fatten him up, yet never mentions any repayment.
Alibaba is horrified to find out that the feelings in his chest are overwhelming, whenever he starts to think about Sin and everything he does for him. This man has no reason to be so helpful and kind, and yet he continues to be so consistently. He’s almost afraid to ask if there’s really no reason—but even if he has a nefarious reasoning behind his kindness, Alibaba finds that he doesn’t mind all that much, as long as he continues to talk with him and offer him free food.
Then, one day, Sin sits down next to him and asks: “Do you want to work for me?”
And foolish, stupid Alibaba, so lonely and so desperate, opens his mouth and says: “Yes.”
Sin leads him to a grand, lavish place that he immediately recognizes as the Palace.
However, as fear grows inside of Alibaba and makes his limbs tremble, Sin does not take him to the White Capricorn Tower—the place wherein King Sinbad and his officials hold meetings everyday, inviting the citizens to come and say their worries. The further they get away from that place, the more Alibaba feels his whole body sag with relief. If Sin had lead him there, then it would have meant that… that he knew that…
“Why are you dragging your feet?” Sin asks playfully. “Did you change your mind?”
Alibaba doesn’t answer with anything other than a head shake. It’s not like he can do anything other than trust Sin. He can’t go to an orphanage—what if they realize that he’s the bastard third prince?
Yet, he also can’t trust Sin entirely—what if he knows that he’s the bastard, and is only trying to gain his trust, lead him into a trap, and then… Who knows what he’ll do! Show him to King Sinbad! Send him back to Balbadd! Use him as a bargaining tool with Balbadd (as if the King or his officials would care about the bastard…)! Think him a spy and kill him instantly! Capture him and throw him into the dungeons!
Their pace falters, and Sin stops to peer down at him with a concerned frown. “Are you tired? Do you want me to carry you? It’s no trouble at all.” He flexes his arms to show his strength.
Alibaba has no doubt that Sin can carry him with one arm and run the rest of the way easily. It’s that strength that scares him even more. He’s completely helpless here.
“No, sorry,” he says shortly, and begins walking again, careful to keep Sin in his field of view.
“This is the Black Libra Tower,” Sin explains finally, as they draw closer. In the courtyard, a nice field of grass and white flowers dances in the light wind. The lands of Sindria are so green and lively, compared to Balbadd and the surrounding desert. “It includes a library and a school. Ali, tell me, truthfully, you are an orphan, aren’t you?”
Alibaba can’t help the surge of dread that coils in his stomach. He stops walking immediately, then actually takes three steps back. “...You know? I won’t go to an orphanage.”
His hearing takes a sharp dive, the world around him sounding both extremely loud and muted at once. Sin’s gaze is cool, so refreshing compared to the immediately worried glances of the other inhabitants yet also intimidating in its clearheadedness. “Alright, then you won’t go.” He pauses. “I won’t ask you why you don’t want to go to an orphanage, or what happened to your parents. You don’t have to tell me anything. Truthfully, I…”
…know you are that bastard third prince, son of a whore, brat from the streets, raised by scum.
He’ll send him back! He’ll be sent back! Back to that place, to those people, to that pain, to that person with her hateful gaze and her sharp nails and her biting voice ordering the guards to throw him away—
“…just want you to have a roof over your head and some food. There are many kids in the orphanage, but I am also aware that not all can live peacefully in its walls. Some children feel too restless and have to work in order to continue living, so I— Ali?!”
Sin’s face has gone from neutral and almost cold to shocked and worried in a fraction of second, as soon as he turns back around and faces Alibaba. Somehow, he’s fast enough to catch him just as his knees fold.
…? He’s not…? Alibaba is trembling all over, lightheaded and cold from the sudden rush of panic.
“Calm down, I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do.” Strange, just a moment ago, his voice was so cold and perfunctory, yet now it’s gone back to being warm and reassuring, just like when he spins his tales. He carefully holds Alibaba’s trembling body, then seems to remember where they are, and gives a short laugh. It sounds a bit panicked. “Alright, let’s just sit down for a while, okay? It’s my bad, I must have shocked you a lot.”
With that said, he hurriedly picks Alibaba up in bridal style, and runs off into another direction from where they were going. He’s carrying him effortlessly, as though he weighs nothing, and the hold he has on him allows for his face (and most of his body) to be hidden.
Alibaba can barely understand what he’s saying, and can only focus on the tone of his voice. He doesn’t seem angry by any margin, a bit stressed perhaps, and quite shocked. Alibaba is shocked, too. He’s biting back tears of frustration at himself.
He’s so weak! So weak! So damn weak! Just the thought of coming back— the faintest threat of being forced back— was enough to make him collapse!
But… he can’t help it. He’s so alone here, and to think for one second that the only person he’s trusted so far would immediately betray him as soon as he put all his trust in him—is simply too heartbreaking. He doesn’t want Sin to betray him. He wants Sin to like him. He wants Sin to be trustworthy. He wants so many things, yet it seems they all escape his grasp within seconds.
Alibaba squeezes his eyes shut.
When he regains consciousness, the Great Bell of Sindria is ringing.
He is clinging to someone, whom he realizes with a jolt is Sin, sitting down somewhere and letting him sit on his lap. The black ink in his hair seems to have rubbed off just the lightest bit onto his white robes. His eyes are puffy and no doubt red, and his whole face and head hurt. His hands are still clenching tightly at Sin’s shoulders, arms almost slung around his neck.
He must have thought… In the past, when he was still very little, when Mom was still alive and strong enough to carry him, Alibaba liked to cling around her neck like this. He’d bury his nose into her neck, and listen as she moved around. This was where he’d feel the safest.
Had he… had he done this? With Sin?
Alibaba doesn’t have the face to move away from Sin yet. This is so embarrassing! Sin must think him one brat now, clinging and crying onto the first person who’s kind to him since… that happened.
“...Sorry,” he mutters, shock and disbelief coloring his voice. It comes out sounding pathetic, weakened by emotion. His throat hurts…
Sin takes a nerve-wracking moment to answer. His breathing is regular, comforting, moving Alibaba just the lightest bit. One of his arm is still supporting Alibaba’s back, to keep him at least a bit upright, sitting on his lap. The other is… stroking his back. Comfortingly. Reassuringly. His voice comes out clear: “Don’t worry about it. Are you more conscious now?”
Alibaba is certainly conscious, but he wishes he weren’t. His face is no doubt all red. Thankfully, from what he can hear, there is no one around right now. Although, that doesn’t mean no one saw them… Aaah! So embarrassing!
His ears feel hot to the touch. He nods against Sin’s chest. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize for that,” Sin scolds lightly. “It’s my fault. I should have told you in another place, later, after you’d already taken your place here. I should have known you would panic.”
“It’s, I,” Alibaba unsticks himself off his chest just enough to peer up at Sin’s face, his two hands slide down to stay against his upper chest, in loose fists. “I’m sorry, I don’t know why I— I didn’t think that I would— I’m sorry.”
Sin looks down at him with an expression he can’t place, and swallows heavily. Is he nervous? Suddenly, his eyes seem quite shifty, like he can’t look Alibaba in the face. Oh no, is his face really this embarrassing!? Alibaba hides himself back in his chest before he can think twice, then flushes an even deeper shade. Aaah!!
Sin’s hand stutters on his back. “Alright, let’s say the blame is on both of us then,” he says agreeably, although he doesn’t sound convinced by his own words. “How are you feeling? You can rest for today. I will lead you to the rooms I… the rooms that were prepared for you. Of course, if this place really doesn’t suit you and you want to leave, then I won’t force you.”
“...but I’ll have to go to an orphanage then,” Alibaba finishes for him. He doesn’t know how to react, since he can’t read Sin’s reaction. His voice is very strange, sounding a bit strangled. Alibaba isn’t strangling him. Why is he sounding strangled? Did he strangle him while his arms were looped around his neck? “…Is it alright for me to rest today?”
Sin nods empathically, almost comically fast. “Yes! Yes, you can rest today!” His voice sounds a bit pained. “You can rest as long as you need to. Are you hungry? Thirsty? I’ll ask for someone to bring you something to eat and drink, along with some water to wash yourself. Some clothes too. If you need anything, you can ask them. Or me. I’m available if you need anything, just ask someone the directions to my office, alright?”
The delivering of so much information in one go makes his head spin, but Alibaba still nods like he understands. Apart from the absolutely necessary, he probably won’t ask for anything else. He doesn’t want to feel indebted to these people more than he does right now, or else he will feel guilty if he has to leave Sindria.
Sin gently and slowly says in a coaxing voice: “I’ll carry you to your room. It’s just a short walk away, but your legs still seem unsteady. Please rely on me for a bit longer, alright?”
Alibaba has to swallow down his embarrassment, because Sin’s judgment of his current state is not bad. Indeed, if he were to attempt standing up right now, he would just end up on the floor again… But that does not mean he should say it aloud! “…Alright. Sorry for the trouble, and thank you.”
Sin pats his back sympathetically. “Don’t worry about it.”
The room he gets is nicely furnished, has a window that gives onto another plane of the Palace, and has a bed large enough to let Alibaba pretend he’s a starfish and not end up with fingers just over the edge. It’s also very, very soft and mellow, looking a bit like the eldest prince’s tummy and cheeks.
Sin cautiously places him on the bed, then steps back.
They look at each other in silence.
Finally, Sin sighs with a helpless smile. “I suppose our visit of the Tower will have to wait tomorrow. Ali, I’m sure you must be exhausted. Do you want me to stay and explain some more to you?”
Alibaba would really like to be alone and explore this new space peacefully, but he also can’t relax unless he knows what Sin wants from him. “You said you had work for me… but earlier you treated me like… like the orphans at the orphanage. Is the work you want me to do… my own education? Do you want me to go to school?”
Sin gives him a long look, and crosses his arms as he leans back against the bedside table. “It seems to me like you have already had access to an education in the past.”
Alibaba can’t help but look away guiltily.
Sin continues regardless of his silence. “I’d like for you to continue that education. However, it’s not like the classes taking place in the Tower are appropriate for children your age… And going from the Palace to the orphanage every day would be too tiring for you. Ali, you know how to read, right? Do you know how to study on your own?”
It shouldn’t be too hard, so Alibaba nods hesitantly.
“Then, how about this? I won’t force you to go to the orphanage, I won’t force you to explain anything. I will house and feed you, and give you the rest of your education. In exchange, you can work at the library, and help the bookkeeper there. She is quite grumpy but sweet with children. If you prove your worth through hard work, she will have no complaint, and you’ll have access to any book you need.”
That seems like such a good deal, Alibaba can’t fathom why Sin would let him do that. “…I don’t understand.”
“Why… why would you go this far…” Alibaba doesn’t dare go in the details of just how much he isn’t worth so much trouble. He doesn’t want Sin to suddenly realize that he doesn’t actually want him here before he can even get a taste of what this life would be like.
Sin smiles and it makes his eyes curl. “Why? Who knows, it’s because I want to.” His gaze goes distant, on the scenery outside the window. One can only imagine what he is seeing. “Children your age should be carefree, and not have to worry about food or shelter. Do I need any motivation other than that? Ali, haven’t we had our bonding moments, too?”
Alibaba’s mind goes blank, and no answer comes from. His gaze lowers down to his lap, where his hands and lightly going over the embroidered patterns of those new clothes Sin has given him and—
His frame is so small, reclusive, curled up.
This kid. Sinbad doesn’t know what to do about him.
Each word should be chosen carefully, yet Sinbad always manages to make a blunder and say something that throws the kid off. Just earlier, when he collapsed so suddenly… he must have lost 10 years of life expectancy just with the amount of panic that gripped him in that one moment. How do parents deal with their kids?
Ah, damn, he’s not answering again.
Should he let it be? Should he press him for an answer? Sinbad can only helplessly say in the softest voice possible, “Ali, do you agree? Are you alright with living here in exchange for work at the library?”
Ali’s eyes fly all over the place, with a nervous cadence that makes Sinbad’s heart pump in a loud and terrifying way. Damn. This kid has managed to get such a grip on him.
His robes are stained by the ink in the kid’s hair, and there remains a bit of a wet stop on his collarbone. His legs and arms still remember the weight of carrying that shaking and curled up body. He can still see the horrified expression on his face, can still hear the terrifyingly silent whimpers and sobs let out in that pained voice. The passing-by servants and officials’ confused and worried murmurs and looks. Ja’far waiting for him just a corridor away and leading him to a quiet corner, then leaving with a disappointed and worried tilt to his eyebrows.
Sinbad’s mind went blank the moment Ali collapsed. From that point onward, everything seemed more like a dream than anything else. When he came back to himself, he was sitting on a bench with Ali curled up in his lap. Small, bruised. Bony hands gripping him with fervor. Panicked yet hushed breathing against his neck. He’d only been able to gather himself as much as possible and try to rub comforting circles on his back.
Sinbad can’t let him go anymore.
There are many orphan children in Sindria. There are even more orphan children in the rest of the world. Parents die, disappear, abandon them. Children are left to fend for themselves, find shelter and food and anything they’d ever need.
There is scum in this world, and Sinbad does not have the purest morals that exist. However, children are innocent.
Sinbad himself is an orphan, although he was already quite old when his mother died. Even before then, because of how sick she’d gotten, he’d had to work for the both of them to survive. At the time, it didn’t bother him at all, but now… for all children, he wishes for the world to be a bit kinder. Maybe, then, they wouldn’t grow up to be scum.
The orphanage helps the orphans of Sindria, but there still exist a few children who refuse to go to the orphanage, for whatever reason they have. Either they are forced to go anyway and grow to like living there, or they are offered a job against a shelter and food.
Sinbad has met some of those children in the past, but never before has he reacted like that. Never before had he been this taken with a child, grown so affectionate of a kid—at least, not since he himself was younger and had taken Ja’far under his wing. Ali is different, not as young as Ja’far had been and not as trained to be resilient to all kinds of pain.
Ali, who is so wary and so afraid, who directs such trusting eyes up at Sinbad.
“Ali?” he coaxes again.
The kid’s hands are clenching on his lap. “…I agree.”
Sinbad’s shoulders sag in relief. A large smile breaks out on his face. “That’s great. I’m sure you’ll enjoy life here. Everyone is quite kind, even if they hide it behind a tough exterior. If anyone dares try to hurt or abuse you, come to me immediately, alright? I’ll take care of it. I’ll come visit you often, how about a few meals together? You enjoyed the melon so much last time, I can get you some more of those fruits if you want.” Ali is starting to look overwhelmed, so Sinbad stops short. “Of course, if you don’t want to meet me, then I won’t force you.”
“That’s not… No, it’s just that…” He is looking a bit flushed—with pleasure? Children always enjoy the attention of people they look up to. “I don’t want to bother you. If you don’t have the time, then… I can survive on my own…”
Sinbad can’t even begin to imagine how another abandonment would impact Ali’s already fragile psyche. He crouches down to meet Ali’s fleeing gaze. “Ali, don’t worry about it. You will never be a bother.” Or at least, he won’t be a bother in any way that matters (—Sinbad doubts Ali would want to hurt Sindria, what with the sparkles in his eyes and the hushed tone of his voice whenever he talks about living in Sindria).
There’s a pleased tilt to Ali’s eyes, a bit shocked and unconvinced yet also willing to trust, but he doesn’t answer.
Sinbad continues for him, “Alright. Ali, let’s rest for tonight. I’ll send someone for food. Do you want me to stay with you for dinner?”
Of course, Ali doesn’t give a straight answer, and instead tries to assure him a thousand or so times that he would be fine alone. Sinbad assures him right back that he wants to stay, and it makes Ali’s mouth wobble like he wants to smile but isn’t sure whether it’s allowed.
When he steps out of the room in order to ask for dinner, Ja’far catches him.
“Sorry,” Sinbad says empathically. “I’ll be busy tonight. Can you take care of things for me?”
Ja’far’s gaze is strange, glancing towards Ali’s new room. “You… really care about him,” he says slowly, with awe. Then, he sighs. “There are whispers of what happened already. I’ll make them stop shortly, but it might still reach some more ears. We’re not used to seeing you care this much so suddenly.” He looks up and down at Sinbad, eyes stopping on the ink stains and still faintly wet patches. “Sin… are you sure of what you’re doing?”
“Not a single bit,” he answers with false cheer. “But… I can’t abandon him. Probably, right now, I’m all he has.”
“Would he be happy, to know you only help him out of pity?”
The question is rhetorical. “It’s not pity. Ja’far, you have to meet him, he’s really— This kid is great. I want him to be happy.” He sighs, and puts a hand through his hair dramatically. “It’s hard to explain, but I do genuinely care for him. I don’t think I could even try to do otherwise.”
Ja’far’s expression is filled with something akin to pity. “Sin, do you even realize what you’ve put yourself into? We know nothing about this kid, or why he’s been so hurt in the past. And… does the kid realize who you are…?”
Sinbad winces. “I don’t think so. I’m not sure.”
Ja’far closes his eyes like the sight of him is painful. “Sin… be careful, else you will break his heart.”
With that truth pointed out, he turns away and leaves, not even waiting for a dismissal.
Sinbad swallows back the anxiety that’s just surfaced, and hurries to find a servant.
Sin accompanies him to the library the next day, and introduces him to the bookkeeper.
The bookkeeper is an elder lady with a mean glare, long hair pulled into an intricate hairstyle, wearing simple clothes yet with expensive and finely-crafted jewelry. During her explanation of everything he will have to do from now on, Alibaba stumbles on a nook of the carpet in front of her and she catches him and continues on her speech before he can even murmur an apology. Sin sends him thumbs ups at that with that foolish smile he sometimes shows.
The tasks given to him are actually quite simple: he has to help her classify all the new incoming books and scrolls, help clean up the library grounds every day, help any visitors find the books they need—this kind of complicated yet simple task. In exchange of only this much, he will be allowed shelter, food, water, warmth, and an education…?
Alibaba is so amazed by everything Sin has brought him so far that he can’t even put it into words.
The bookkeeper returns to her desk while Sin insists on Alibaba seeing him off.
“I have to go back to work unfortunately.” Sin pouts like it’s supposed to make Ali pity him, but it only looks ridiculous on his refined and strong face. “Ali, will you be alright? It’s a lot of work to take on suddenly, so it’s alright if you falter a bit at the beginning. You only need to learn the ropes, then it’ll all become easy as can be.”
A man this kind shouldn’t exist. Although he still feels wary and still fears that there is something hidden to this deal, Alibaba is grateful enough that he pushes through his fears to say: “Sin, I… Thank you so much. You’ve… I really appreciate this.”
His eyes are lowered when he says this, so he startles a bit when Sin’s hand ruffles his hair suddenly.
Sin’s hand has a comforting weight. He lingers a bit before removing his hand. “You’re welcome. Repay me well by being happy here, alright? I’ll come see you soon.”
Alibaba agrees easily, and watches him leave with wide eyes. Then, he turns around, and begins working.
Alibaba is confused to see Sin come back to the Library only a few hours later, just as his (excessively long) lunch break begins. He’s just come out the door to see that Sin is leaning on a wall just outside.
“Sin? Are you here for the library?” Alibaba asks, walking up to Sin by reflex. He would have jogged if his legs allowed it. “It just closed for lunch, but I think Mrs Bookkeeper will stay there anyway…” He trails off when he sees that Sin is starting to show a large smile.
“Well aren’t you excited?” His voice has taken a light, airy tone that makes the whole sentence sound like a joke. “Did it go well? I thought we could eat lunch together. There are so many good things prepared here, I want to show it off to you.”
Alibaba is hesitant, if only because he doesn’t want to bother Sin too much. Then again, he has been staying with Alibaba for hours on end every day for quite some time now, surely one more meal together would not cause trouble…? Alibaba is not anticipating finding himself alone in this place again. He does not even know where he’s supposed to find food, actually.
He wants to agree immediately, but instead he asks: “Don’t you have work to do?”
“It’s fine,” Sin is already turning around and beginning to walk away. “Come on, follow me, I’ll show you where you can get your food.”
Alibaba doesn’t protest any more and follows silently.
In the bright shine of the sun, the Palace is even more magnificent. As they walk, Alibaba admires the finely sculpted walls, the colorful paintings and tapestries, the smooth sound each step makes on the floor, the wafting smell of copper and gold and hints of the flowers outside. The room Sin has given him is also wonderful, and he has already spent quite a few hours observing it from every angle. Although he has spent a couple of years at Balbadd’s Palace, he is still a street rat at heart, and the sight of such riches always makes his heart tremble with want.
Sin makes a running commentary all the while. He observes Alibaba’s every reaction and explains each painting and tapestry, and even knows why such and such sculpture looks that way. He even tells Alibaba about the types of flowers that grow on Sindria.
“You really know a lot,” Alibaba comments idly, then finds that his voice is louder than he anticipated. He stumbles a bit on his next step.
Sin doesn’t even seem to notice. “I love Sindria,” he says easily, yet there’s a weight to his voice. “I’ve been here since its very beginnings.”
The way Sin looks and sounds in that moment makes—something crazy is created in Alibaba’s head. A theory that doesn’t make sense. It can’t make sense. He shuts up the thought before it can form fully.
Instead, he only looks up at Sin in amazement, then flushes and looks downwards again. Maybe the familiarity he finds in that gaze is because his father used to look like that, too, when talking about Balbadd. He wonders how Balbadd is going.
“Do you know the Adventures of Sinbad then?” Alibaba asks excitedly before he can stop himself. “I was only able to read the latest ones, with the foundation of Sindria. Were you there even before?”
Sin’s gaze becomes strange. He peers down at him, even stopping in his walk for a moment, then starts up again like nothing happened. He even smiles cheerily. “I sure was. I’ll tell you some more over our food, alright?”
They finally reach their destination. Sin enters the cuisines while Alibaba waits outside. He doesn’t see anyone else waiting for their food, so maybe they all have different lunch break periods? Or perhaps not everyone goes into the cuisine this way…
Although Alibaba stays outside and can’t quite hear clearly what happens inside, there is a sudden silence when Sin enters the cuisine, then followed with surprised and cheery exclamations of Sin’s name. Then, Alibaba loses track of what they’re saying completely, and only knows that they all sound joyful and excited.
Before long, Sin comes back out to the many goodbyes of the cooks inside. His face is sunny, and he’s carrying a large plate of food. “Alright. Ali, let’s go.”
Ali stares at the amount of food on the plate as they go. Are they going to eat with other people? There’s so much food.
Sin leads him to a room not too far away. Inside, there indeed are people: a pale man in green who seems to be suffering over a letter, and another man in golden armor with an intimidating glare. They both look up when Sin and Alibaba enter, but their gazes are neutral enough that Alibaba only twitches and doesn’t actually jump to hide behind Sin.
“Sin, you’re finally here,” the man in green gets up, and makes a strange motion like he wants to bow. Although he shows a neutral face to Sin, his expression softens into a smile when his eyes land on Alibaba. “You must be Ali. Sin has been blabbering about you for weeks now. Come on here, sit down.”
Alibaba is intimidated enough to die, but he accepts the suggestion and sits down next to the man in green. He suddenly feels like there’s a lot at stake with just this meal. What if Sin decides that he’s not good enough to keep, and sends him back to the streets? And why is he so nervous about that? He’s lived for so long on the streets, it’s fine if he has to go back there… It’s just that this is a good opportunity for more, nothing else.
“My name is Ja’far,” the man in green says gently. “Sin, you only got one plate?”
“I asked for them to send us another plate later. I think I got them by surprise.” He sits down next to Alibaba. “Ali, Ja’far looks scary but he’s actually kind. It’s just that his face grew up wrong—ow, ow, ow, Ja’far, stop pinching me.”
Indeed, Ja’far has reached over Ali to pinch Sin’s shoulder. His face remains angelic throughout the terrible pinching. “Sin, do you want me to cut off your tongue? You’re clearly the one with a face which is wrong.”
“What!” Sin pretends to be offended. “That’s not true! My face is handsome, many women have said so! Masrur, don’t you agree?” He turns to the man in golden armor.
Masrur gives Sin a placid stare, then very obviously looks at his face very carefully. After a long moment of silence as he comes to a decision, he turns his eyes away noncommittally.
While Sin lets out a pathetic, mournful wail about betrayal, Ja’far makes a small noise of victory. Alibaba finds himself dragged along the moment and a smile arises. Before he can think twice, he’s patting Sin gently on the forearm.
Sin turns to him with hopeful eyes.
With a soft and friendly voice, Alibaba employs all his features to look as childishly sincere and naive as possible, and says: “Saying you’re handsome is only to not hurt your feelings.”
Sin’s eyes shine with unshed dramatic tears, while Ja’far lets out a surprised laugh and Masrur a small huff of amusement.
They end up with so much food that it makes Alibaba’s head spins, but it seems that Masrur eats a lot. Sin explains to him that he has a fast and demanding metabolism, and so “has to be fed a lot.” Ja’far eyes him meanly and says that Sin also “has to be taken care of a lot,” especially in matters of “everything that concerns actually doing your work.”
Sin only smiles beatifically in response and says: “It’s because I can count on you so much!”
Masrur has to restrain Ja’far from jumping on Sin again. Alibaba silently cheers Ja’far on.
At the end of the meal, Alibaba stands at the doorway waiting for Sin to accompany him back (he insisted! Although… it’s not like Alibaba really knows the way back perfectly yet), while Sin and Ja’far talk in hushed voices. Masrur comes to stand next to Alibaba.
His height is intimidating, but Alibaba is starting to understand that he’s not truly that bad a guy. However, for someone who can fit in Sin and Ja’far’s dynamic so easily, he’s surprisingly silent. He compensates for that by being sincere and straightforward.
As the discussion between Ja’far and Sin starts to sound a bit heated again, Masrur looks down at Alibaba and asks simply: “Would you like to eat with us again? Next time.”
The question makes Ja’far and Sin whirl around to face them.
Alibaba looks in between all of them awkwardly. “That is… If it’s not too much trouble… I don’t really know where I’m supposed to eat otherwise.”
Sin explains quickly, “The cuisines we stopped at. If you need anything, even if it’s not during lunch or dinner hours, you can stop by there and they will give you something. I told them about you.”
...Alibaba looks away. Truthfully, he had suspected something like that. Even if he truly did not know at all where to find food, he could always have asked the Bookkeeper. That excuse was only an excuse to justify wanting to eat with them again. He can’t help it—so far, Sin is the only person he can truly rely on, and Ja’far and Masrur have been very friendly (and are Sin’s friends, which means he can trust them at least a little). “No… I meant…”
The atmosphere has become strange. Suddenly, Ja’far’s kind gaze, Masrur’s placid and neutral stare, and Sin’s friendly and reliable presence all feel oppressive. Even his breathing sounds too loud.
They’re all waiting for him to continue talking. The silence becomes unbearable. Alibaba ducks his head, thinks of all the way this could go wrong and all the consequences this could possibly have, and just runs out the door. “Thank you for the meal! See you later!”
“You don’t say.” Ja’far collapses back into his chair with grace. “It was going well, too.”
“My bad, my bad. Ja’far, Masrur, thank you. I’m glad you got along so well with him.” Sinbad does his best to offer them his best smile. Although it didn’t end the way he wished, in the end this is still a success.
“To think you would even invite us to meet him…” Ja’far’s gaze is insistent. “Sin, is the kid truly that important to you?”
Sinbad grows pensive. It’s truly odd for him to want his generals to meet some kid he met on the streets… “I don’t know how to explain it. He’s just… Ali is important. To me. I can’t really explain why. I think, maybe… this feeling I hold toward him will even grow stronger in the future.” He’s even afraid that he will one day love Ali just as much as he loves his generals, like he’s family. Can he really afford to love someone so young and vulnerable?
Masrur comes to stand closer. “He is not bad.”
“You think so?” Sinbad almost feels like slumping with relief. “Ja’far, what do you think?”
Ja’far takes a moment to answer. “He’s certainly traumatized about something. He expects to be hit, especially with Masrur and I. It’s not as bad with you, but he did have moments when he looked at you like you were a threat. I don’t think he himself is a threat. Maybe he will bring one with him, someday, if the person who has hurt him in the past truly is that powerful…”
Having noticed this already, Sinbad nods along. “But…?”
Ja’far’s face relaxes. “But he is, indeed, not bad. I can see why you like him—it is easy to do so. He seems sincere, even if a bit awkward, and holds you in high regard even when he’s so wary. He fits in very nicely with our established dynamic, and I think the others will also like him. Sin, he doesn’t know who you are, right?”
“No, I really don’t think so.”
“He might be purposefully hiding every hint from himself,” Ja’far analyzes quickly. “He looked wary at every mention of your job or your position here. Maybe he fears that you are very powerful.” The fact that Ja’far is already spending so much effort on figuring out who hurt Ali in the past is a sign of how much he cares already—or maybe, how much he cares about Sinbad’s well-being.
“You think the person who hurt him in the past held a lot of power? That might become a problem…”
Masrur shifts, catching their eyes. His quiet gaze makes Sinbad huff a laugh.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t lose sight of what’s important.”
…Now, which is more important in the end… Ali, or the diplomatic relationship with whoever hurt him?
The next day (and the following days), Sin once again comes to the Library to invite him to lunch together. Although Alibaba has since learned how to find food on his own, since he eats dinner alone in his room, he still accepts every time. Masrur and Ja’far are not always both there, but Masrur accompanies Sin more often than not. One time, he is even the one to invite Alibaba to eat with him instead of Sin who is “paying for his laziness,” according to Masrur himself, and is thus too busy to even eat.
This continues on for a week or two, before something changes.
It begins as usual. Sin waits for him outside the library, and they begin on their way towards the cuisines. However, instead of explaining yet another side of Sindria’s history to him, Sin immediately tells him: “Some more people are joining us this time. They’re quite rowdy, but I promise they’re kind.”
Alibaba immediately grows tense, but he nods along silently. He wonders if these people used to eat with Sin and Ja’far and Masrur before he arrived here, and if they resent him for it. He thinks, if he were in their place, he would resent himself too.
Surprisingly, they don’t actually go to the cuisines, and instead head towards the lunch room directly. Even from outside with the door closed, Alibaba can hear rowdiness going on inside.
Sin opens the door.
“Try anything and I’ll throw you out the window.”
“Oh, come on! You’re too sensitive. I was just saying that if you let me play with it a little, I’m sure I could do something interesting…”
“As if someone like you could do anything! No! You’ll just break my equipment.”
“Alright, alright,” Sin exclaims brightly. “No more fighting, children.”
The man and woman who had been arguing both turn towards him with unwilling faces. “We’re not children,” they say in a mutual cold voice. Then, they notice Alibaba’s shy form behind Sin.
“Oh? Is that the kid you’ve been seeing?” the man, who has a tan skin and clothes that only vaguely look like those worn in Balbadd, asks as he shifts forward to get a closer look. “He doesn’t look like much.”
He’s immediately hit over the head by the woman, who has exotic blue hair and only wears seashells for a bra. Her face is reddened with anger. “You’re the one who doesn’t look like much.” Her expression when she turns towards Alibaba is certainly kinder. “You’re Ali, right? Don’t listen to this idiot,” she pinches the man’s ear and twists it to make him cry out dramatically. “I’m Yamuraiha. This idiot is Sharrkan. If he bothers you, come to me.”
Alibaba has never been addressed so kindly by a woman who was so beautiful and wasn’t his mother. He does his best not to flush or to appear shy.
“Why are you acting like you’re so great!” Sharrkan manages to escape the hold over his ear. “And why’d you have to introduce me like this! Hey kid, I’m Sharrkan. If you need anything, you come to me, alright?”
They begin squabbling again. Alibaba turns inquisitive eyes up towards Sin, who only looks amused.
“They’re actually quite smart when apart,” he says without even trying to be quiet. “But whenever they’re together in the same room, they become like children.”
Yamuraiha and Sharrkan don’t even protest the idea that they’re like children. They seem lost in their own little world.
Eventually, Ja’far and Masrur arrive, followed by two maids with flood platters. Yamuraiha and Sharrkan quiet down obediently with only one innocent look from Ja’far. They all sit down, and Ja’far gently starts asking his usual questions about how Alibaba’s day has gone so far, with occasional interjections from Sin.
“You work in the library?” Yamuraiha visibly perks up at the idea. “That’s great! We’ll see each other sometimes, then. I often come there, although recently I haven’t really found the time. It’s a great place to be though, right?”
When Alibaba agrees with Yamuraiha, Sharrkan’s face sours just the slightest.
“Yeah, yeah, sure, being book-smart is great and all, but true intelligence comes from strategy and training,” he says with false nonchalance. “Kid, you interested in swordplay?”
Alibaba, who has long since learned the swordplay of Balbadd’s royalty, takes a moment to remember his classes. They seem like they were long ago, yet in truth it has been less than a year. He nods to Sharrkan. The classes were fun, and the teacher never tried to belittle him in any way.
Sharrkan looks proud at Alibaba’s agreement. He turns a smug expression towards Yamuraiha.
Yamuraiha is more mature. She shows an unimpressed face. “Do you really need other people’s validation in order to convince me that swordplay is better than magic?”
Predictably, Sharrkan gets offended. Yamuraiha’s maturity ends here, and they begin squabbling again.
Truthfully, Alibaba would never have thought he could handle this. People fighting in front of him? He thought it would have sent him into the worst episode he could possibly have. But… in the end, Yamuraiha and Sharrkan have a way of fighting that is fundamentally friendly and trusting. They don’t come to blows, and only resort to pinching at the last resort. They speak loudly, but it’s always in mock offense and with some sort of hidden joy in there.
Plus, they are the farthest away from him possible. Sin and Ja’far are at his sides as usual.
In the end, they spend a nice time together. As Sin is accompanying him back to the Library, Alibaba finds the courage to tell him: “If there are other people you want to eat lunch with… please don’t refuse to do it just because of me.”
Sin seems to understand everything he means immediately. His hand ruffles his hair gently. “I got it. Ali, have fun, alright? I’ll come back tomorrow and tell you if we have more people with us.”
Alibaba pretends he’s not flushed with pleasure as he hurries inside.
He does meet more people: a timid man named Spartos, a cheerful and excitable girl-who-is-actually-a-woman named Pisti, a scary but kind large man named Hinahoho, and a dragon-like man named Drakon.
Spartos is a quiet man not unlike Masrur, except with a face that tells his feelings quite easily. He greets Alibaba with a few short words, but his expression is so open and kind that no sense of threat is conveyed by him.
Pisti is cheerful and has the deceptive appearance of someone just a bit older than him, which makes him believe she’s another kid Sin befriended until he notices that Spartos calls her respectfully. Even then, he’s not exactly sure how old she is, or if she’s really a child or not. Her character is also not bad, and she seems to take great pleasure in bothering and teasing everyone she can. She even teases Alibaba a few times: about the confused look on his face, about his attempts not to hurt either Sharrkan’s or Yamuraiha’s feelings, etc.
Hinahoho is a giant who tells him he’s from the Imuchakk tribe. When Alibaba expresses some curiosity about that, he begins to excitedly tell him all about his culture, then badgers Alibaba about how his living accommodations are, then starts again about his culture, then scold Sin about not giving Alibaba enough, then continues about the Imuchakk, then tells Alibaba about his own family, then… It’s an endless cycle, and Alibaba even has to resort to sending wide eyes at Sin and Ja’far in order to be saved.
Drakon is… a dragon-human hybrid? Alibaba never asks outright out of politeness, but Drakon still soon tells him that he himself isn’t sure why his body became like this. He’s a rather quiet person, but not in the same sense as Masrur (who simply doesn’t like to talk) or Spartos (who isn’t used to talking). Although it’s hard to read his facial features, his body language quickly becomes awkward when Alibaba comes near him, and sometimes his mouth opens and closes multiple times without anything coming our in the end. Is he unused to children?
All the while, Sin always stays by his side.
This merry band of people is intimidating at first, especially when he notices how full the room has gotten. However, with time, Alibaba realizes that they are not truly bad, although the wariness still remains (and doubles every time he stands behind the doors and has not yet seen or heard their simple joy at seeing him again).
…Of course, Alibaba is not dumb.
He realizes very quickly that these people are Sindria’s Eight Generals. The thought never fails to make his scalp tingle with uneasiness. Why are these people so close to Sin?
Could it be that… that Sin is…
…No way. Alibaba willfully shuts the thought away.
He can hardly believe how much his life has changed since he met Sin and accepted his offer. He no longer hungers for days on end, no longer shivers from lack of shelter, no longer fears some madman will kill him in his sleep. Instead, he’s warm and content, and even has the privilege of forming close relationships with people who are kind and don’t hurt him.
He’s still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Truthfully, with how much joy he’s been able to save up till now, he wouldn’t mind too much if Sin decided that he needed to suffer to repay him.
The Palaces are big and surprisingly welcoming, and before long Alibaba begins to think of his room as home. Sin is kind, the Generals are kind, the Bookkeeper is kind.
He even manages to befriend a young maid who’s just a few years older than him. Her name is Suha, and she is also kind in a simple way, like there’s not even a question of being kind or not. She gives Alibaba tips on how to clean up the library, then shows him around their Tower and even invites him to her favorite spots. Although it’s impossible to eat lunch together, they once or twice eat dinner together. Sharrkan somehow learns about it and teases him about his “girlfriend” until Alibaba snaps and asks him when he and Yamuraiha are getting married.
His days in Sindria’s Palace are peaceful and joyful: mornings and afternoons spent working in the library, noon time with Sin’s group of friends, evenings spent chatting with Suha…
Alibaba prays, against fate itself, that it will never change.
It’s Suha who first tells him about it.
“The Harvest Festival is coming soon!” she explains. “A few times a year, there are some really big fish that try to attack Sindria, but our Generals save us and give us their meat to organize a big feast instead! We’re never sure when it actually happens, but there’s been talk of some disturbances not too far away, so I think it will be soon!”
Alibaba is curious and Suha is a blabbermouth, so she spends the evening telling him all about it.
The next day, as he is walking with Sin towards the usual lunch room, he mentions the Harvest Festival and what Suha told him about it.
“...I heard the King will be here.”
The words come out without his will, and he finds his eyes stuck on Sin’s face, waiting for his reaction. Anticipation and hope make his heart beat a thousand times too fast, and his hands have been clammy ever since he heard about the King’s possible presence.
Sin only hums, not even glancing at him. His face does not change. “Is that so?”
Something horrible and not unlike disappointment and betrayal curls in Alibaba’s stomach. He looks ahead too. “That’s what Suha told me. She also said…” He continues talking about some more nonsense, but in truth he’s not listening to his own words anymore.
Sin can’t be King Sinbad. He would have told him, right? Right then, Alibaba gave him the opportunity to say it. He would have… He would have…
Alibaba says, with a voice that sounds normal but feels like is not his own: “I won’t go, I can’t handle crowds like that.”
He can’t quite explain Sin’s reaction to that. He looks both relieved and disappointed, before everything is masked by his usual smile. “That’s too bad. I wish I could have showed you around.” He doesn’t fight his decision any more, like he would have usually.
Alibaba goes silent.
He does his best to continue acting as usual during lunch, but by Ja’far’s quick glances, he thinks perhaps he has not managed to act entirely unbothered. Sin acts the same as usual, and so do the others. Somehow, he feels wrong, like he’s not supposed to be there. These people are too strong, too important to spend time with him. Has he been bothering them this whole time?
At the end of the meal, Alibaba has reached a decision. He idly mentions Suha again to Ja’far and how she asked him if they could eat lunch together. Ja’far kindly tells him that he can invite her with him next time, but Alibaba refuses and claims it’s because they’re too intimidating for her.
Ja’far pauses, at that. “If you’re sure.”
There’s something a bit strange in his voice. Maybe he’s relieved that they won’t have to bear his presence anymore, maybe he feels that Alibaba is being ungrateful. He can’t tell. He can’t remember how he allowed himself to grow so comfortable with these people.
Sin is being bothered by Pisti, so Alibaba quickly slips out before he can offer to accompany back to the library. The walk back is silent and lonely.
That evening, he pretends to not be hungry and keeps some food on the side. Suha teases him about being stick-like.
The next day, at lunch, he slips out of the library just a bit earlier than usual, and is relieved to find that Sin is not here yet—he’s not sure if Ja’far told him about eating lunch with Suha instead, and he doesn’t want to find out. He goes to his room and eats the leftovers.
When he slips back into the library, the Bookkeeper sends him a cool look. “You just missed him. He waited for a while.”
The guilt makes him slink behind a bookshelf. Ja’far must not have told him, then. Alibaba doesn’t think he has the stomach to face any of them right now. He wonders if he could bring lunch inside the library instead and slip out the window if need be.
He does eventually come back to eat lunch with them again, a few times a week.
Every time, without fail, there’s someone to whine and complain about how lonely they are without him there, and that Sin looked like a “kicked puppy” or a “deflated pufferfish” (whatever that means). Then, they continue on like nothing ever changed.
Alibaba feels out of place everywhere now. Even his room, which he considered “home” for a moment, is beginning to feel like a waiting room until he’s thrown back out. Thinking back of how he felt not too long ago, so comfortable and warm, he wonders if there was something wrong with his brain. Someone like him will never belong here, just like he never belonged in Balbadd’s Palace.
Sin tries a few times to make him talk about what bothers him, but Alibaba always finds an excuse to run away.
The day of the Harvest Festival comes quick. Alibaba hears about it through the Bookkeeper, who tells him not to wait for Sin today as he and his group will be busy with preparations. Alibaba is only a bit bothered by that, as his leftover from dinner last night are not too great, but he complies easily.
Suha comes to the library at the end of his work hours to badger him into going to the central place with her, as it is where the Festival mainly takes place. “I’ll show you where King Sinbad is, too! You know, he’s really close to us citizens, especially when he’s in Sindria and not abroad.” Then, she gives him a small list of everything great about King Sinbad.
Alibaba smiles and nods at all appropriate places, and is indeed genuinely amazed by how good King Sinbad is, but he feels sick with dread and anticipation, and can barely remember how to place one foot in front of the other.
It’s already starting to darken outside, but the streets are lively and lit with fierce fires. The inhabitants cry and shout in joy, not a place is without some drunk dancing or making a spectacle of themselves. The smell of food and alcohol permeates the whole city, and stands of fruits and vegetables and meat and fish line up the sides of the central place.
In one corner, Suha shows him a theater where the actors reproduce one of King Sinbad’s many adventures. In another corner, another scene where lively and beautiful women (and some men too!) dance to the cheers of spectators. He thinks he can see one of Pisti’s animal roaring at amazed and cooing citizens while Pisti’s voice loudly explains how awesome her little baby is. Yamuraiha and Sharrkan are fighting again, showing off their skills. Hinahoho is with his many children and his sister, who is pestering Spartos into drinking alcohol. Drakon is with a woman whom he thinks might be the wife he mentioned a few times. Masrur is showing off his muscles to excited children. Ja’far is talking to someone who might be a diplomat from another country.
“Oh! Oh! Ali, look!” Suha is tugging on his arm. “That’s him! Our King Sinbad!”
Alibaba turns to look, slowly.
A man. Purple hair and golden eyes, dressed in simple yet refined clothes. A mountain of jewelry around his neck and his head and his arms and fingers.
A man who spent days after days sitting down next to some terrified street rat by the sea, who offered slices of fruit to a brat who couldn’t even thank him properly, who gave so much to a random kid and expected nothing in exchange.
He has to know. Why else would he spend so much time and effort and money on a random street rat he found? Even simple kindness has a limit.
Why do you help me? Alibaba had wanted to ask so many times, but had bitten his tongue in fear that it would make him decide not to help anymore. But now, it’s so obvious.
He knows. He knows. He knows.
He barely hears Suha’s startled cry after him, as he runs away as fast as he can.
So stupid! So stupid! How could he ever expect something to be so good without consequences? Without a good reason? Damn it! Damn it! Damn him and his stupidity! He didn’t want to believe. He wished that Sin truly had no relation with King Sinbad. Look at where this idiocy got him!
Is King Sinbad planning on using him as a bargaining chip? Or maybe, raise him and endear himself to him, and then slip him back into a position of power in Balbadd in order to subtly take over Balbadd? Maybe he wants to sell him back to… or to some slave traders who’ll pay big for a King’s son?
So stupid! So stupid!
And the Generals, oh what they must think of him. Some foolish kid who smiled and laughed with them, unknowing that he was just some tool used by their King. How they must have laughed when they saw him look up at Sin with such obvious admiration and—love.
There’s no one more at fault than him in this matter. He realized that this scenario was more than possible, yet he still allowed himself to… to grow to love Sin. Someone he thought as a protector, a caregiver. Someone he thought his mother would have loved as well. Someone his father would have approved of. Someone Kassim and Mariam could have relied on, too. Someone he could have… he could have called…
It doesn’t matter. None of it does.
Sin… King Sinbad… he…
Alibaba obviously can’t escape. He doesn’t think he wants to, even. In the end, whether he’s been thoroughly betrayed or not, he still loves Sin. He loves the Generals, too. He likes Suha, and the Bookkeeper. He loves Sindria. He doesn’t want to leave, even if it means closing his eyes over everything Sin might be planning for him.
He will just have to pretend that…
Alibaba finally manages to get his breathing under control to realize that he’s back in the room given to him. He collapses on the bed, but it feels too open so he opens the wardrobe and curls up inside instead.
There, in the darkness, he whispers the same words until he can almost convince himself they’re true: “Sin is not King Sinbad. Sin is not King Sinbad. Sin is not…”