“Lord Ravadh already knows I’m one of the Gray One’s tourists, and it doesn’t matter to him — he thinks I should stay here and pretend to be the princess until she gets back. And he told me to warn you that he’s got his own mage ready to stop the Gray One if he tries getting me out by magic.”
The Family that Plays Together
Part 6 of 10
This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in his Travel Agency universe. Thanks to Morpheus for his feedback on the first draft.
If you don't want to wait for the serial chapters as they're posted, the whole novella is available as part of The Weight of Silence and Other Stories. It also contains thirteen other stories (over 219,000 words), including several that haven't previously appeared online.
The next morning was much more relaxing, or it would have been if the lack of occupation didn’t give me more time to worry. We didn’t have anywhere to go, and though Bhavalikha told me we’d be hosting a party at the embassy that evening, we had a lot more time to get ready for it. So I could sleep late and eat a leisurely breakfast and lunch before starting to bathe and dress for the party.
About an hour before noon, the Patient One came back, with Bhavalikha to chaperon, and tried again to send me back to my body and bring Serenikha back to hers; I think he tried to break the enchantment on my bracelet too, but he didn’t tell me much. It didn’t work, and he went away looking puzzled and frustrated.
A little after that, some of the embassy servants carried a number of things in to my quarters. “Gifts for your highness,” they said, and there were little gift tags or cards attached to most of them. There was a little statuette of a dragon from Pientao, a painted fan depicting sunrise (or sunset?) over a mountain range from Wushao, a stained-glass bottle of perfume from the kappa nobleman who’d apologized for the attack in the park, several silk sari-camisoles from the local naga merchants' guild, and a few other things from people I vaguely remembered meeting at the banquet.
And then there was a bonsai cherry tree, with a card that said it was from Lord Tsurihano, a kitsune nobleman I’d met the evening before. It looked familiar, and it should have; I’d spent hours the day before yesterday carrying it around. My heart pounded when I saw it, but I managed not to show any reaction in front of Bhavalikha or the servants. I noticed a little gold band around the trunk of the tree, which was mostly but not completely hidden by a fresh later of mulch.
Not long after those gifts arrived, I told Bhavalikha and the servants that I’d like to be alone for a while, and maybe take a nap or at least rest until it was time to get ready for the party. When they were gone, I slithered over to the table Dad’s tree was sitting on, leaned close, and whispered:
“We’re alone... can you hear me?”
Dad emerged from the tree, the gold band around the tree-trunk transferring itself to her wrist as she did so; she looked up at me. “Leslie! Are you okay?”
“Keep your voice down,” I said. “There are servants in the next room, and they think I’m taking a nap. Do you have a plan for getting me out of here?”
“Kinuko’s working on it. She’s trying to get a friend of hers, a kitsune nobleman, to introduce her to the people in charge here — how much do you know about where you are and what’s going on?” She hopped down from the table the tree was sitting on and clambered up onto the bed; I slithered onto the bed beside her and coiled up my tail.
“This body belongs to a princess, and she’s supposed to get married to one of the emperor’s sons — no, not right away,” I added hastily at Dad’s panicked look, “they said it would be in the spring. But I need to get swapped back before the princess in my body finds a way to make it permanent.”
“I don’t think she can,” Dad said. “And why do you think she wants to?”
“Um, she’s being forced into an arranged marriage. That’s probably reason enough right there, even though the guy she’s supposed to marry seems okay from the little I’ve seen of him.”
“Well — I don’t think you’ll need to worry. I don’t remember if we already told you, but we don’t need to be back at Kinuko’s house or go through a special procedure when our vacation ends. The Gray One’s spell will swap you back wherever you are; your mom and I have swapped back sometimes after traveling a hundred miles or more from where we first arrived, though we try to put our host’s bodies back where we found them if possible, as a courtesy... But we don’t want you to spend your vacation cooped up here, forced to pretend to be this princess, so we’re trying to get you out — Kinuko’s going to get her friend to introduce her to the ambassador, and explain who you really are and —”
“He already knows. So do the princess’s chaperon, and their wizard, and some of the servants. But they insist I need to pretend to be the princess until they can get the real princess back, and I’m going to have to make nice at an embassy party tonight, and participate in some kind of betrothal ceremony in four days, and I don’t know what else.”
“Oh. That’s a problem... Well, we’ll try to figure something else out, but don’t worry too much; it’ll be over in five more days even if you have to stay here the whole time.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said. “Actually, it might be kind of neat... I mean, I’m seeing the inside of the palace and the royal family’s private gardens and stuff that the rest of you won’t get to see. So it’s not all bad. But talk to Kinuko and make sure there’s no possible way Serenikha can stay in my body!”
“Will do. I’ll sneak out of the embassy and go talk to Kinuko and your mom and Taylor — they’re in a tea-house just down the street — and come back later in the day.”
“What are we going to do about your host’s tree? I mean, it would suck for her to come back and find out her tree is now the property of this nagini princess...”
“We’ve got a plan for that too. You’ll send it as a gift to a noblewoman Kinuko knows, and she’ll pass it on to Kinuko. These nobles are always passing gifts around.”
“I’ll see what I can do. What’s her name and where does she live?”
She told me, but said I should wait until they’d tried some other things to get me out; Dad might need the tree here to help her get in again to pass me messages.
“I’ve found out I can do another cool thing as a kodama that I couldn’t as a western dryad. Look!” And she vanished from where she was sitting beside me, and a moment later emerged from her tree over on the table.
“I can use that to get back here as soon as I’ve talked to Kinuko and the others.”
“Cool. Good luck sneaking out, then.”
“I think I’ll go out that window —” And a few moments later, she was gone.
I curled up in bed and tried to relax. Everything was going to be okay.
I woke to find Talarikha shaking me gently. “My lady, it’s time to get ready.”
“Hmm? Sure. Bath and stuff.”
The preparations for the party hosted by the embassy were maybe not quite as elaborate as the preparations for my audience with the emperor, but that’s not saying much. Bhavalikha came in soon after my bath, and coached me further on how I was to conduct myself at the party, who I was supposed to talk to and who I wasn’t, and what to say and how. We had a light early supper, and then she led me out of my quarters into a large hall. There were several tables spread with dishes, pots of tea, and bottles of wine, and chairs along one wall; over in one corner the musicians were tuning their instruments, mostly string instruments I didn’t recognize. There were only a few people there yet, most of them naga.
Serenikha’s uncle stood on his coiled tail near the far door, looking around; when he saw me and Bhavalikha enter, he uncoiled and slithered over to us.
“How are you doing?” he asked me in a low voice. “I thank you again for the way you helped us yesterday. A few more days of this, and I will ask no more.”
“It’s okay,” I said, feeling embarrassed. “It was interesting... I’d never been to an emperor’s court before.”
Just then one of the servants announced the arrival of the first guests. Lord Ravadh took my arm and led me over toward the door to greet them.
“Lord Terunobu! It’s good to see you again... And is this your wife?... Allow me to introduce you to my niece, Princess Serenikha...”
The guests kept coming in a steady stream for an hour or more. One of the early arrivals was Lady Hanuseri, the kitsune noblewoman Dad had told me about; she greeted me and said:
“I believe we have an acquaintance in common — do we not? Kinuko of Chrysanthemum Street?”
“Yes,” I said, though I wondered if I should be so open in front of Lord Ravadh. “I hope we can talk later. Maybe you’ve heard from her more recently than I have.”
“I believe I have. Lord Ravadh, if we could speak privately at some point this evening it may be to our mutual advantage.”
“I will be honored,” he said to her. As soon as she had disappeared into the growing crowd, he threw me a frown — but didn’t say anything, and wiped it off his face immediately as the footman introduced the next guest.
Among the later arrivals were Pientao and two of his brothers, including Tiensai, the one who’d met with Lord Ravadh about the treaty, and Tiensai’s wife, whose name I’ve forgotten — she looked small and kind of lost in the elaborate puffy dress she was wearing — and their sister Wushao. After Dad’s reassurances, I was no longer so worried about getting stuck here and having to marry Pientao, and so I found I actually welcomed his presence, and Wushao’s; they were familiar and friendly faces in a sea of strangers.
When the stream of arriving guests slowed to a trickle, Lord Ravadh took me aside and said: “You can relax now — but after you rest a few minutes, you should circulate and talk to people. Including Prince Pientao, but don’t feel you have to spend a lot of time with him — indeed it would not be decorous if you did, though I suppose you will prefer to spend as little time with him as possible.”
I didn’t correct his impression. He went on: “This Kinuko that Lady Hanuseri mentioned — is she the Gray One’s servant?”
“Well, the guards have orders to be sure that you do not leave with anyone except Bhavalikha, and then, only to go to the privy or return to your quarters. And if the Gray One or his associates have some thought of abducting with you by magic, the Patient One will thwart it. Tell Lady Hanuseri that you are helping us with our little problem, and will pay this Kinuko a visit after the betrothal ceremony.”
I went and got a cup of tea and a plate of sliced peaches and cookies from one of the refreshment tables, and then looked around for Lady Hanuseri. But before I found her, Pientao found me.
“Good evening, my lady,” he said. “You look well.”
“Um, thanks,” I said. “I’m glad you could come... That was a nice banquet your family gave at the palace yesterday. And, um, thank you for that statuette you sent me — it’s really pretty.”
“It was carved by the best craftsman of the Rensai province — from jade imported from your own homeland.”
“Oh. Um, I thought it looked sort of familiar,” I lied. I kept looking around for Lady Hanuseri, and spotted her over near the musicians, talking with a couple of other women. I chatted with Pientao for a few moments longer, and then said: “I’ve spotted someone else who sent me a gift I need to thank them for — I’d better go talk to her while I have a chance. I hope we can talk some more before the evening is over.” I realized that I meant it.
“You’re much more interesting to talk with than the old folks here,” he said. “I will look for you again soon.”
I slithered over toward Lady Hanuseri, who’d been talking with two elf women; I couldn’t remember their names, though I’d greeted them along with nearly all the other guests. “Is it true that you’re to marry Prince Pientao?” one of them asked in a low voice.
“We’re not actually betrothed yet,” I said, coiling my tail. “But Uncle Ravadh is working on arranging it... Lady Hanuseri, I wanted to thank you for your beautiful gift of that bonsai cherry. It reminds me of home.” I gave her a significant look.
“I did not realize that you grew bonsai in the Naga Kingdom,” the other elf woman said.
“It was the workmanship of the pot that Princess Serenikha alluded to,” Lady Hanuseri improvised. “The merchant assured me that it was imported from her homeland — if not, it was certainly made here by naga craftsmen who immigrated from thence.”
“Yes, that’s right. Thank you again.” But we had to go on making small talk for some minutes, and the elves made increasingly unsubtle attempts to fish for information about what Prince Pientao was like and whether I was happy about the prospect of marrying him, before they got bored and wandered off. When they were gone, Lady Hanuseri said in a low voice:
“Did your father speak with you?”
“Yes — and I told her what was going with me here, and she left to go talk to my mom and sister. If you haven’t heard yet, Lord Ravadh already knows I’m one of the Gray One’s tourists, and it doesn’t matter to him — he thinks I should stay here and pretend to be the princess until she gets back. He said I can go visit Kinuko after the betrothal ceremony, but until then I have to stay. And he told me to warn you that he’s got his own mage ready to stop the Gray One if he tries getting me out by magic.”
“Oh... we shall see. The Gray One is more skilled and powerful than most mages; I am sure he can get you out given time. But we would prefer to do it in a way that does not antagonize the emperor, who is making an alliance with the naga. Can you be patient for a few more days? They are not mistreating you, are they?”
“No, they’re pretty cool about it except for not letting me go. The food’s great and the bed’s softer than any other I’ve ever slept on, and... well, don’t get yourself in trouble with the emperor on my account. Dad said the Gray One could swap us back even if I’m here when the eight days are over. I wish I could see Mom and Taylor sooner, but it’s not like I’ve never been away from them before.”
“Perhaps I can arrange a visit. Please be patient.”
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