But why did my tail feel so weird? I looked down and saw it was split — that’s how it felt at the time. I wasn’t thinking of them as legs, but as something that had gone wrong with my tail. And when I tried to slither forward, my tail impossibly went in two directions at once, and I fell and hit the floor with a painful thud —
The Family that Plays Together
Part 8 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.
Early the next morning, Dad whispered to me that she was going to sneak out and visit with Mom and the others for a while before she teleported back into her tree. I dozed off again and woke when Tiaopai brought tea, and then breakfast. We played another game of sientsu and another game of checkers, and then Bhavalikha came in.
“Would you like to go for a walk?” she asked.
Four big naga guards and the Patient One accompanied me and Bhavalikha, even though we didn’t leave the embassy grounds; she showed me around several parts of the embassy I hadn’t seen before, and then led me out into a walled garden. It was smaller than the east garden at the palace, but still pretty extensive, and had trees and shrubbery dense enough that you couldn’t see all of it at once. We slithered around the winding path and came to a pool and fountain.
“Guaranteed to be free of kappa,” Bhavalikha said with a smile, coiling her tail and looking into it. I coiled my tail and rested beside her, though I wasn’t tired; I was bursting with energy after being cooped up in my quarters all day yesterday. Two of the guards paused up ahead of us on the path; the other two, with the Patient One, were behind us, barely in sight just around a turn. After a few moments Bhavalikha went on:
“I asked your uncle — I’m sorry, Serenikha’s uncle — if he could find a way to postpone the betrothal until after you and Serenikha return to your proper bodies. He said no, unless the Patient One manages to reverse the spell early. He’s going to try again today, as soon as we return to your quarters.”
“Great.” I wasn’t looking forward to more of that dizzy feeling, and maybe worse, while the Patient One tried to figure out the Gray One’s spell and undo it. I didn’t think he could. And if he did, would it undo the spell on Mom, Dad, and Taylor and the people who’d swapped with them as well? The Gray One had said it was easier to cast the spell on a whole group at once than on each person individually. “What about if I ask Kinuko to ask the Gray One to undo it early? That would be safer than letting the Patient One mess with a spell he doesn’t understand.”
“Lord Ravadh already requested that, through Lady Hanuseri. She said she would pass the message on, but doubted that the Gray One would agree; you and Serenikha had paid for eight days in each other’s bodies, and he was determined to always deliver what he promised. But coming from you, he may grant the request. If Kinuko returns again today, you should certainly ask her. But I don’t think I can persuade Lord Ravadh to procrastinate — if Kinuko doesn’t visit until this evening, and it takes her until tomorrow to contact the Gray One, there may not be time for him to reverse the spell before the betrothal.”
So we slithered around the garden for a while longer — I was hoping someone would come and tell us Mom and the others had arrived, and I could tell them before the Patient One started messing with me again. But no such luck. Bhavalikha said we had to go, and as soon as we returned to my quarters, the Patient One cast another paralysis spell on me, and then started working other spells. I got a cramp in my tail and an itch in my side pretty soon, but of course I couldn’t move or scratch.
I started feeling dizzy again after a while, and the feeling got worse instead of passing as before. A few minutes later, I blacked out for a moment, and when I came to, I was somewhere else. And I felt weird all over, but especially in my tail.
It was a lot darker than my room at the embassy, but there was a dim light source behind me; I cast a big shadow over a room in which I could just make out two beds with someone sleeping or at least lying down in them, and some chairs, and — was that a TV?
I realized I must be back in my own body, and this was the hotel room that Chad had arranged for the people in our bodies. But why did my tail feel so weird? I looked down and saw it was split — that’s how it felt at the time. I wasn’t thinking of them as legs, but as something that had gone wrong with my tail. And when I tried to slither forward, my tail impossibly went in two directions at once, and I fell and hit the floor with a painful thud —
And then I was back in Serenikha’s body, and paralyzed again. The Patient One droned on with his spell, not seeming to notice that anything had happened. I thought about it, and decided not to tell him what had happened when the paralysis wore off.
He finally stopped and went away. Bhavalikha gave me a sympathetic smile and stroked my hair, then left me alone as well. When the paralysis wore off I worked the kinks out of my back and tail, and finally scratched that crazy-annoying itch, and then called Tiaopai to ask her if I could get some lunch. I was worried about Serenikha — and about my body. What if I’d gotten seriously hurt when I fell over? And it looked like he was the only one awake; had he been trying to sneak out and get away from Chad and the rest?
When Tiaopai asked if I wanted to play checkers or sientsu, I told her I wanted to eat alone, and as soon as she was gone I whispered to Dad’s tree. But she didn’t come out, so I called for Tiaopai again when I’d done eating, and we played games for the rest of the afternoon, until Talarikha came in about sunset and said that I had visitors. This time Tiaopai hurried out before Talarikha showed in Kinuko, Mom and Taylor.
“How are you doing?” Mom asked.
“Pretty okay,” I said. Talarikha left, and a moment latter Dad emerged from her tree. “That naga mage, the Patient One, did something to me this morning...” I told them about how I’d briefly found myself back in my own body, in a hotel room somewhere.
“This is not good,” Kinuko said, and Taylor exclaimed: “That’s probably just when we all felt dizzy for a moment!”
“So it affected all of you too? Were you in your own bodies again?”
“No — we just felt dizzy for a second or two,” Mom said.
“I didn’t feel dizzy, exactly, but for a moment it felt like there was a wind blowing through the boughs of my tree,” Dad said.
Kinuko added: “Since all four of you — all eight of you — were transferred by the same spell, it is difficult to undo or alter the spell on one without affecting the others. The Gray One could probably do it with sufficient time to prepare, I’m sure, but the Patient One cannot — I doubt he understands what he is meddling with. I must speak with Lord Ravadh at once.” She started to leave.
“Wait,” I said. “Before the Patient One messed with me, Bhavalikha told me what he was going to do, and I said I’d ask you if the Gray One could swap us back early, before the betrothal tomorrow. She said if he could do that, they wouldn’t need the Patient One to do it.”
“I will tell Lord Ravadh that you have agreed to swap back early... Ray, Stephanie, Taylor: I apologize, but this may mean all of you swapping back early. The Gray One may not be able to reverse the spell only on Leslie and Serenikha with so little notice.”
“We’d want a partial refund,” Dad said. “Even if it’s just Leslie who swaps back early.”
“I am sure the Gray One will deal fairly with you. I will pass on your request... But I must hurry and speak with Lord Ravadh.” She left the room.
“This isn’t turning out as we hoped, I’m afraid,” Mom said. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Even with everything that’s gone wrong, it’s still the coolest vacation ever.”
“You’re not just saying that?” Dad asked.
“We’ll come back later in the year — there are more interesting places in this world to see, and more interesting people to be. It’s not always like this — almost never.”
“Sure,” Taylor said. “I can’t wait to come back and be a pixie or mermaid or something.”
“Oh — I almost forgot,” I put in. “Did Kinuko find out anything about the naga and garuda, and who started the war, and stuff?”
“Nothing definite,” Mom said. “I know she asked the Gray One, but she hadn’t heard back from him yet. And we went to the neighborhood where most of the naga live, and went shopping, and asked a few people about the garuda. Some of them said they’d come here after their villages in their home country were destroyed by the garuda. But we haven’t heard anything from the garuda themselves yet — Kinuko was going to take us to look for them tomorrow.”
And probably by the time they returned from interviewing a few garuda immigrants, I’d have already left the embassy to go to the betrothal ceremony.
Just then Bhavalikha came in, and Dad vanished just in time. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.”
“But we just got here,” Mom said.
“I know; I apologize, but it can’t be helped. Come along, I’ll show you to the vestibule where Kinuko is waiting, and we’ll get you some refreshments before you leave if you like...”
They’d hardly been gone a minute when the Patient One came in.
“You can’t do this now,” I said. “Kinuko was going to talk to Lord Ravadh about it — she said if you mess with the Gray One’s spell it could have unpredictable consequences. It’ll probably affect everybody he swapped, not just me and Serenikha.”
“That is not my concern,” he said. “Lord Ravadh is still at the palace; he has been in meetings with the princes and ministers all day, and before he left he instructed me to keep attempting the reversal.”
“At least wait till Bhavalikha gets back,” I insisted, playing for time. “You know you’re not supposed to be alone with me without a chaperon. I’ll scream rape.”
He glared at me, and rang the bell to summon Talarikha, ordering her to coil quietly in the corner and not make a sound. Then he turned back to me and said “Now get into a comfortable position, because you will be holding it for an hour or so...”
I lay back on the bed, fuming, and felt my muscles lock into place. The dizziness came on sooner than it had that morning, and after a while, I suddenly found myself back in my own body again.
It was daylight, and I was on a city street. Serenikha had been walking a moment before, apparently, but the moment I swapped into the body I couldn’t make my tail slither right and I fell over, throwing out my hands to catch myself. I skinned my hands on the sidewalk, but managed to avoid hitting my head.
As I clumsily sat up, finding it hard to make my split tail do what I wanted, I saw Dad — or the kodama in Dad’s body — leaning against a lamp-post, and whoever was in Mom and Taylor’s bodies looking at me in concern. There was another man there, who knelt beside me and spoke, taking my skint hands in his — it took me a moment to recognize Chad, because I’d only met him for a few minutes and so much had happened since then.
His voice was full of obvious concern, but I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Maella popped her head out of his shirt pocket and said something in her clear high voice which made no more sense than what Chad had said.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
The people in Dad’s and Mom’s bodies said something then, and I tried to stand up — Chad supported me, and I got to my feet, leaning against him.
“Tell the Gray One,” I said. “The Patient One’s messing with the spell and it’s put me and Serenikha back, but I still feel like I have a snake tail —” They didn’t seem to understand what I was saying either. And a moment later, I was back in Serenikha’s paralyzed body.
I lay there, still feeling dizzy, while the Patient One kept on with his work. Several minutes later I was back in my body again, but for no more than a second this time — not long enough to say anything or hear more than a couple of words of the conversation going on around me. I was sitting down that time, at a table in a restaurant next to Taylor and Chad.
Back in Serenikha’s body, I waited for it to happen again, but it didn’t. The Patient One finally fell silent and sat back on his coiled tail and watched me. When the paralysis wore off, I said:
“It’s not going to work. Even if you get Serenikha back before the betrothal ceremony, the other part of the spell’s going to last a couple more days — maybe longer, if you mess it up. She’ll still feel like she has human legs, and she won’t be able to slither or coil her tail or anything, and she’ll be speaking the language we use in my country, and won’t understand what anybody’s saying here.”
“You know nothing of magic... You told us that you have no magic in your world, and that the Gray One’s spell was the first magic you had ever seen or known of.”
“I know what I saw,” I said, and I told him what had happened. In retrospect, that was a mistake.
“Then I have almost done it! I must rest now, but I will try again before the betrothal, and this time I will succeed.”
“Talk to Kinuko first,” I said, but he was already on his way out.
Even though I’d been laying still for a while, the spell had taken a lot out of me, and I felt exhausted. I stayed in bed. Dad popped her head out of the tree as soon as Talarikha left, and snuggled in beside me, hiding under the covers rather than vanishing into her tree when Tiaopai came in to check on me.
“No, I don’t need anything more tonight. I don’t feel hungry... Good night.”
“I came back as soon as I felt wind in my branches,” Dad said. “And I saw him working that spell on you, but I didn’t understand what you said to each other...”
I summarized our conversation. “The Gray One had better get us out before he tries again,” I said. “I don’t know what will happen next time.”
Later on, I found myself slithering through a garden, very different from the ones I’d seen in the last few days. There were more tropical plants of various kinds, things I mostly didn’t recognize, and no pines or cherry trees or peach trees, which featured largely in the Dragon Empire’s gardens. The little bridge over the stream was built of stone rather than wood, and didn’t slope so steeply in the middle. No one else was around at first, but then, taking a sharp turn where the path ahead was hidden by a dense grove of vine-covered trees, I met a human boy in strangely familiar dress. It took me a moment to recognize him as myself.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I can’t remember how I got here either,” I said. “Are you Serenikha in my body, or are you another version of me, or what?”
“I’m Serenikha,” he said. “And you’re Leslie, right? Something weird’s going on — look over here.” And he led me down the path.
“Did you find yourself back in your own body for a few moments, a while ago?” I asked. “The Patient One did something to me and I was back in my body, but I still felt like I had a tail instead of legs, so I couldn’t walk and could hardly stand up —” I stopped suddenly when we turned another corner and saw what he’d brought me to see.
There was my back yard at home: the eucalyptus, the tree house, the barbecue grill, the swing set that Taylor and I hadn’t played on in years but which Dad kept around, he said, for our children to play on. “That’s yours, isn’t it?” Serenikha asked.
“Yes, that’s my yard — you haven’t been there before, have you? Chad said he was going to take you to San Francisco —”
“Yes, that’s where we’ve been, mostly, after a day in the forest and a day at the beach. I’ve never been here until now, but somehow I knew it was yours.”
“And — that place we were just now, that was your garden back home, wasn’t it? Not at the embassy, but —”
“The garden behind Daddy’s palace, right. I’ll probably never see it again. Uncle Ravadh says I’m going to live in the Dragon Empire with my husband.”
“So you decided to run away and leave me to marry him instead?”
“No! Well, I guess you might have to make small talk with him at a couple of banquets, but I’ll be back before the betrothal —”
“No, the betrothal’s... I’m not sure. What day is it now? I think it’s today or tomorrow.”
“Oh. I must have lost track of time — I thought I’d be back before then, but I didn’t count on sitting around Kinuko’s house for so many days before swapping into your body. Sorry.”
“So why’d you tell Kinuko your name was Nenikha?”
He shrugged. “I didn’t want her figuring out who I was and telling Uncle Ravadh about me. And I figured you’d be safe from him once Kinuko took you up the river into the countryside; there’d be nobody that knows me there, like there’s nobody who knows you in San Francisco. This is my last chance to have an adventure before I get married.”
“Yeah, we kind of got delayed by the weather. Not your fault. But what are we going to do about the Patient One messing with the Gray One’s spell?”
“I don’t know. I told Chad after it happened, and he said he’d talk to the Gray One about it.”
“Where is he, anyway? If we’re here and he’s in San Francisco with the people in Mom and Dad and Taylor’s bodies — hey, what are you doing so far from them?”
“Haven’t you figured it out? I think we’re dreaming.”
“Oh.” I felt foolish; it was pretty obvious once he pointed it out, but somehow I hadn’t noticed. You almost never do, when you’re dreaming. “Maybe we can find our way into other people’s dreams, if we look around? Probably Mom and Dad and Taylor and whoever’s in their bodies, and maybe other people too.”
“It’s worth a try.” We went through the gate at the back of the yard that should have led into the Beekmans' yard, but led instead to a twisty trail through a dense forest. A little later Serenikha and I got separated, and a little after that I woke up.
If you've enjoyed this and the other free stories I've posted here, you may also enjoy these novels and short fiction collection -- available from Smashwords in ePub format and from Amazon in Kindle format.
|Wine Can't be Pressed into Grapes||Smashwords||Amazon|
|When Wasps Make Honey||Smashwords||Amazon|
|A Notional Treason||Smashwords||Amazon|
|The Weight of Silence and Other Stories||Smashwords||Amazon|
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