There was no reason I should have to put up with all this nonsense just because I was female; Mom and Taylor never took half this long to get ready, even on fancy occasions. (Mom wore her hair short, I reflected, which might be a factor.)
The Family that Plays Together
Part 5 of 10
This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in his Travel Agency universe. Thanks to Morpheus for his feedback on the first draft.
I'll be serializing it here over the next few weeks, but if you don't want to wait, the whole novella is available as part of The Weight of Silence and Other Stories, along with thirteen other stories, including several that haven't previously appeared online.
When I woke up the next morning, Tiaopai had a pot of tea ready. By the time I’d drunk a couple of cups, Bhavalikha came in.
“We have a lot to do to get you ready,” she said. “We must be in the emperor’s audience room in less than four hours... Talarikha and the human maidservants will bathe you and do your hair, while I coach you on what you need to know.”
She insisted on calling me Serenikha, though she knew that wasn’t my name, saying that I’d need to learn to respond to it by reflex. She crammed me full of facts about Serenikha’s family, their home country, the war with the garuda, and what had happened during Serenikha’s previous audiences with the emperor. Now and then she’d pause and quiz me, and I’d try to repeat back what I’d managed to memorize — a list of Serenikha’s older brothers and sisters, or of the Dragon Emperor’s sons and daughters, or of battles, their dates and locations and who’d won them. Meanwhile the servants were scrubbing me, and applying makeup, and pulling my hair as they re-braided it — apparently Serenikha had loosened her hair when she ran away, as part of a not very effective disguise — and dressing me in the most elaborate sari-camisole I’d worn yet, along with a headdress, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. They covered the Gray One’s tracking-bracelet with a larger, gaudier bracelet encrusted with jewels, in case anyone at the emperor’s court might recognize it and know I wasn’t really Serenikha.
“What did that guy figure out last night?” I asked. “That guy with the long beard — he didn’t tell me his name and he wouldn’t answer my questions, but I figured he was a mage or wizard —”
“The Patient One,” Bhavalikha said. “He was not able to remove the enchantments on your bracelet, or discover how to undo the spell that keeps you in Serenikha’s body and her in yours. He will try again tomorrow.”
I wondered if I should maybe “accidentally” let the over-bracelet slip down my arm at some point during the audience or the banquet that was to follow, and hope someone saw the Gray One’s bracelet and rescued me... But even if they knew what it meant, they might not realize I needed rescuing; maybe they’d think I was a deliberate impostor, and I’d suffer along with all the other naga for Serenikha’s escape attempt.
After several hours of this, Bhavalikha declared I was as ready as I could get in the time available, which was good, because I was getting fed up. There was no reason I should have to put up with all this nonsense just because I was female; Mom and Taylor never took half this long to get ready, even on fancy occasions. (Mom wore her hair short, I reflected, which might be a factor.) Just then another naga came in, the older man who’d come into my quarters with the Patient One and the security chief last night.
“Good day,” he said. “I apologize that I did not introduce myself last night — things were so confused... I am Serenikha’s uncle, Lord Ravadh. When we are in public, among people who think you are Serenikha, you must call me Uncle Ravadh; in private, in your own persona, call me Lord Ravadh.”
“Um, pleased to meet you, Lord Ravadh. I’m Leslie Kendricks.”
“Do you think she’s ready?” he asked Bhavalikha.
“As ready as I can make her without further delay. If she does not speak more than necessary, she will not give anything away.”
He looked straight at me again. “I am sorry that my niece has gotten us all into this mess,” he said. “Bhavalikha tells me that this was not your fault. Thank you for agreeing to help us.”
Nobody’d really asked me if I was willing, but I just said “You’re welcome.”
They escorted me from my quarters, going through several smaller rooms to the carriage yard I’d come in by the day before. We got into a carriage and drove off a few minutes later.
The drive to the palace was longer than the drive from the gardens to the embassy. I looked out the window a lot, half-listening to Bhavalikha as she crammed me with more information about Serenikha, the diplomatic situation and the prince Serenikha was supposed to marry. At one point we boarded a ferry and were taken across the river without ever getting out of our carriage, though I think the creatures that drew the carriage were unharnessed and stabled on the embassy side of the river, because when we got out of the carriage at the palace, it was being drawn by six horses instead of the four quasi-unicorns that had drawn it when we left the embassy.
I’d thought the embassy was palatial, but the Dragon Emperor’s palace had rooms that could have held the whole embassy. After passing through several of those, we were shown into a room bigger than the vestibule or my bedroom at the embassy, lined with cushioned chairs and sofas of various kinds, and told to wait there. There were a few other people waiting for audiences with the emperor, mostly human plus one distinguished-looking kitsune with white hair and at least seven tails (I kept losing count) and a kappa who was taller and better dressed than any of the ones I’d seen in the street. (The one who’d tried to drown me — or just to give me a scare, if I could believe him — was naked, if I haven’t mentioned it before.) Bhavalikha warned me in a low voice not to speak to any of them, and then didn’t say much herself after that; most of them didn’t say much either, nothing to us and not much more to each other.
We waited there for what seemed like a couple of hours, until I’d mentally reviewed everything I could remember of what Bhavalikha had told me, and counted the tiles in the ceiling, and tried four times to count the kitsune’s tails, which kept waving this way and that, ducking under his kimono and peeking out again. Now and then a human man would come and summon someone by name, and one or two of the people who’d been waiting longer than us — and once, someone who’d come in after us — got up and left. Finally, he called out: “The honored representatives from the court of the Naga King.”
We rose and followed him down a zig-zagging corridor to a much larger room, hung with tapestries and lit by dozens of high, wide windows. There was a dais at the other end of the room, and an old but healthy-looking man with a trim white beard was sitting on a canopied throne; there were no other chairs in the room, but a dozen or more people were standing to either side of him, mostly human or human-looking men with a few women, one elf and two kitsune. I followed the others' lead, remembering how Bhavalikha had coached me to kneel and bow, and I kept my mouth shut until the emperor spoke to me — which he did pretty soon: “I am pleased to hear that you have recovered from your recent illness, Princess Serenikha. I trust you are suffering no lingering effects?”
“No, your majesty, I’m quite well now.”
“Then I hope you will honor us with your presence at the banquet this evening.”
I hesitated a moment, and Lord Ravadh said: “Yes, your majesty.”
“I believe we have still some business to transact, with regard to the relations between our realms. My son Tiensai and my minister Aopin will meet with you directly; they speak with my voice. In the meantime, my daughter Wushao will accompany your niece and your cousin; there is much beauty to be seen in the east garden at this time of year.”
Serenikha’s uncle thanked the emperor, and bowed again, backing up. Bhavalikha and I followed his lead; as we left the audience chamber, two of the men and one of the women who’d been standing on either side of the emperor left their places and followed us, pausing to bow to the emperor before backing out of the chamber.
Once we were in the antechamber, the woman who’d followed us — Wushao, the emperor’s daughter — said: “I’m glad to hear you’re better. I was worried when your uncle sent word you’d fallen ill.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m really feeling much better.”
“The east garden is this way — the leaves are marvelous this time of year —”
Bhavalikha and I followed her down one hallway, while Lord Ravadh went with the men down another; he gave me a searching glance over his shoulder just before we parted, as if pleading with me not to mess this up. Wushao was a few years older than me, about Serenikha’s age — or at least, she looked to be in her late teens or early twenties; she was part dragon, according to Kinuko, and maybe her family aged slower than normal humans. She was chatty, and told us all about what had been going on in the palace since the last time Serenikha was there; I nodded and said, “I see,” and “Oh!” a lot, and once in a while asked a question when I thought I could do it without seeming more ignorant than Serenikha would be. We soon came to the east garden, which was even prettier than the public garden Kinuko had taken us to; there was a circular path around the perimeter of it, lined by maples and firs, and twisty paths branching off into the interior. We wandered down one of those paths and came to the center of the garden, set on a little rise of ground, where there was a large statue of a dragon coiled around the base of a peach tree twice as big around as the oak in Grandma and Grandpa’s back yard. Wushao said: “This is my great-great-grandmother — a statue of her, I mean.”
“She’s beautiful,” I said, and she was, as a statue, though if she were alive I think I’d have been too scared to appreciate her beauty.
“She flew away toward the mountains after my great-grandfather died,” Wushao continued. “That was when my father was a baby. She’s probably still alive, but she hasn’t come back since.”
“All my great-grandparents died before I was born, too,” I said, remembering what Bhavalikha had told me about Serenikha’s family; it was true of my real self, too. “I remember my grandfather, though. I was just forty-eight when he died.” From what I’d gathered, that was equivalent to four or five years old for a human.
Just then another person came walking toward us by another path. “Pientao! I was just telling Serenikha about our ancestors,” Wushao said. I glanced nervously from the newcomer to Bhavalikha and back again; this was Wushao’s older brother, the man Serenikha was supposed to marry. The one I would have to marry if she found a way to stay in my body.
I’d seen him at a distance in the audience chamber, but now as he approached us and bowed, I got a better look. He was tall and good-looking, not much older than Serenikha — or maybe a lot younger, if dragon-human hybrids aged faster than naga — with long black hair, wearing a loose red robe cinched tight at the waist.
“Good day, Princess Serenikha. I was pleased to hear of your recovery.”
He attached himself to our party and walked with us through the garden for the next hour or more. I was nervous around him at first, and I don’t think he guessed anything was wrong just from that; I thought Serenikha must have been nervous about him too if she ran away rather than stay and get betrothed to him and marry him. But he was open and friendly, and from the way he acted there, and later that evening at the banquet, I didn’t see an obvious reason why she didn’t want to marry him. I mean, obviously having your father marry you off to somebody you barely know is nobody’s idea of a fun time, but I suppose princes and princesses grow up knowing they have to marry somebody else from a royal family, and won’t be able to marry just whoever they like. And Pientao seemed like a reasonably okay guy, if you had to marry a stranger. By the time Bhavalikha looked at the sundial and said we had better go get ready for the banquet, and we went our separate ways, he and his sister had cheered me up; I was laughing at his jokes and trying to respond in kind, though most of my own favorite jokes depended too much on American culture to translate easily.
Wushao showed me and Bhavalikha to the women’s privy, and pointed out the women’s bath across the hall. We weren’t expected to bathe again, having done so that morning at the embassy, but we washed our hands and faces after relieving ourselves. There were other women present, both human and kitsune, some of whom were taking full baths and some of whom were just washing up a bit like us. So I still didn’t have a chance to talk to Bhavalikha privately.
The banquet hall was only a little smaller than the throne room, though it was so full of furniture and people that it seemed a lot smaller. It had large windows, but as it got dark outside I noticed the light from dozens of little glowing white spheres; there were none of the candles or oil lamps that I’d seen in Kinuko’s house and the naga embassy. If I were back home I’d have thought they were small light bulbs, but the light they gave was softer than an incandescent bulb and they didn’t make the aggravating humming noise that fluorescent bulbs make.
The banquet lasted several hours, and I ate too much of the first couple of courses and didn’t have any appetite left for the later ones. I was seated between Bhavalikha and Ravadh, across from Pientao; we didn’t speak as freely during the banquet as we had in the garden, but it wasn’t as tedious as I’d feared such a long, formal meal might be either. After the first three courses, during which several people recited poems (surprisingly good ones) in honor of the emperor and various guests, musicians played, and then during the last couple of dessert courses some of those glowing pearls were covered to dim the lights and there was a shadow-puppet show, telling a story about a woman who found a large peach floating in the river. When she took it home, and her husband cut it open, a little boy popped out, and they adopted him, and then in the next scene he was grown up and having adventures.
Most of the guests at the banquet were human, or at least looked human like the part-dragons of the royal family, but there were more than a few kitsune and elves, and even a couple of kappa. The kappa came up to me during the socializing after the meal and apologized for the attack on me in the park. The kappa responsible would be hung upside down until he drowned, they said; I was horrified, because Mom and Dad taught me that capital punishment is wrong, but I tried not to show it. (I was also puzzled by the reference to hanging him until he drowned. I found out later that kappa have a kind of water-reservoir in their head — their brains are down in their chests — that lets them breathe when they’re out of the water. If they get turned upside down, the water drains out and they drown.)
And then there were the men with feathery wings and beaky noses. I never got a close look at them; they were sitting at a different table from us, and Bhavalikha kept me away from them during the mixer after the banquet. There were two kinds of winged people there at the banquet: the tengu, who were taller and leaner and had lighter skin, and were native to the Dragon Empire, and the garuda, who were stockier and darker-skinned. The tengu tended to laugh a lot more; the garuda seemed more serious. Apparently the tengu were encouraging the emperor to make an alliance with the garuda, but Lord Ravadh told me that they had less influence than the kitsune and human factions who favored the naga.
Once we were in the carriage on the way back to the embassy, Bhavalikha and Ravadh seemed angry and worried about the emperor inviting the garuda to the same banquet with us. Was it a deliberate insult?
“Or maybe he was insulting the garuda by inviting us to the same banquet as them?” I asked, and that seemed to cheer them up slightly, though they were still worried.
“What did you talk about with the prince and the minister?” I asked, when there was a lull in the conversation. Our carriage had boarded the ferry and was crossing the river.
“About the terms of the treaty, and the plans for the betrothal ceremony. It seemed then to be going well — until the banquet, and those arrogant garuda —”
I dozed off after that, and they had to wake me when we got to the embassy. My servants helped me take the earrings out and unfasten the necklaces and so forth, and I went to bed right away, falling asleep again almost at once.
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