The Family that Plays Together, part 10 of 10

“It would give more credence to the rumors if Serenikha shows up and can’t control her tail because it feels like a pair of human legs, or can’t talk sense because she’s still speaking my native language.”

The Family that Plays Together

Part 10 of 10

by Trismegistus Shandy

This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in his Travel Agency universe. Thanks to Morpheus for his feedback on the first draft.

This and my previous Travel Agency story, "Scouts", are included in The Weight of Silence and Other Stories, along with twelve other stories, several of which haven't previously appeared online.

When we got to the temple, I was surprised to find the Patient One waiting for us; I’d thought he was resting at the embassy. Apparently Lord Ravadh had called him somehow and told him what was going on, and he had some way of getting around fast when he needed to — I never did find out if he’d flown or teleported or what, or what energy reserves he’d called on to do that when he’d said he was exhausted after the morning’s spellcasting.

We greeted the delegation that met us — Pientao wasn’t there, but several of his brothers and sisters were, including Tiensai and Wushao, and several acolytes and lower-ranking priests. Then Lord Ravadh said: “Serenikha felt some momentary symptoms of her recent illness during the carriage drive. I fear we must have our physician examine her before the ceremony, but I hope we may still bring it off with no great delay.”

“Of course,” Prince Tiensai said. “Omisu will show you to a private chamber you may use.” One of the acolytes led us off down a side corridor, and into a private room a little smaller than my bedroom at the embassy. The Patient One asked me about my spontaneous swap-backs, and I told him everything I could remember.

“They’re getting shorter, then?”

“Um, maybe — the first two were about the same, the third was definitely shorter.”

“And at longer intervals?”

I thought about it. “Yes.”

He nodded and started working spells on me. I didn’t get the dizzy or nauseous feeling I’d gotten earlier, and I didn’t swap back with Serenikha. After a few minutes he said to Lord Ravadh: “It is a brief after-effect of the spell I worked earlier, and may be played out already. If it recurs, it will probably just be once or twice, and certainly for much shorter intervals — barely long enough to cause her to hesitate over a word, still less to stumble and fall, as she reports that she did during some of those intervals in her own body.”

“Are you sure?” I said. “Three data points isn’t much of a trend. Why not wait a couple of days, until the Gray One reverses the swap himself and you can have the ceremony with the real Serenikha?”

“No,” Lord Ravadh said. “The garuda ambassador has been spreading rumors about you, that your illness is much worse than we pretend and that you will be a barren wife... We cannot give credence to the rumors by asking for another delay.”

“It would give more credence to the rumors if Serenikha shows up and can’t control her tail because it feels like a pair of human legs, or can’t talk sense because she’s still speaking my native language.”

“If the Patient One is confident that you are well enough to go on, you must go on.”

So we returned to the vestibule of the temple, and the ceremony began. Lord Ravadh escorted me into the main sanctuary, and handed me over to a couple of nagini around Bhavalikha age, who escorted me to a place near the altar. The high priest — a human or maybe a human-dragon hybrid, I wasn’t sure — said some things, and I said the things I’d memorized to say in response, and then I sat back on my coiled tail and waited for Pientao to arrive. More than an hour had gone by since the last time I’d swapped back with Serenikha, and I hoped the Patient One’s diagnosis was right — but I didn’t trust him to know his way around the Gray One’s transfer spell, and I was afraid I might swap back for a longer time at any moment.

And I did, but maybe not because the Patient One’s diagnosis was wrong. I’d known that Chad had taken the people in our bodies back to the Gray One’s office in the middle of the night, and I should have figured out why, but I was so worried about the Patient One’s meddling and the stress of preparing for the betrothal ceremony that I didn’t think about it enough.

There were several more exchanges, the priest saying something long and me saying something shorter in response, usually “Yes” or “I will,” but sometimes something that seemed to have nothing to do with betrothal or marriage — “The snow may be beautiful even when it arrives unseasonably,” for instance? What was that about?

I had time in between those responses to look at the people watching the ceremony. There in a specially fenced-off section of seats were the Emperor and all of his children and sons- and daughters-in-law, except for Pientao, and Minister Aopin and several others I’d met at court. In the other seats and the standing room beside and behind the seating there were a lot of humans, elves and kitsune, with a few kappa and even tengu, but no garuda — not surprisingly. And there were more naga than I’d ever seen in one place, even at the embassy during the party. Judging from their clothes, some of them were less well-off than the rich and noble naga who’d come to the embassy party, though maybe not really poor, and there were more than a few children, including one really cute little tot who was lying in her mommy’s coiled tail like a bassinet.

Then a female acolyte approached me carrying a narrow wooden stick, and I braced myself as she struck me on the hip, just where my scales met my human flesh. She didn’t hit hard enough to hurt, but it startled me even though Bhavalikha had warned me about it. Then a a moment later — I don’t know if the shock triggered it or not — I was back in my own body.

I was sitting cross-legged, which felt sort of like having my tail coiled in two directions at once, and sitting facing Taylor a few feet away, with Mom to my left and Dad to my right. I heard Mr. G.'s voice chanting, but I couldn’t see him; maybe he was behind me? I had only a moment longer to take in the fact that we were sitting in the blue chalk circle in the back room at his office when I found myself back in Serenikha’s body.

And it felt like everyone was staring at me. Of course, I’d already been the center of attention before, so it was hard to be sure whether that was just paranoia; but maybe Serenikha had twitched her tail or blurted out something in English during the moment she was in her body. The priests and acolytes did seem to be giving me funny looks. But after a moment they went on with the ceremony.

We exchanged several more calls and responses, and then Pientao entered the sanctuary, flanked by two older men, one of whom I’d met at the banquet but whose name I couldn’t remember. When he was about twenty or thirty paces off from me and the high priest, I jumped back into my own body.

I was still sitting cross-legged in the circle with Mom, Dad and Taylor — or whoever was in their bodies — and the Gray One was walking around the circle, holding his staff, and chanting; as I arrived he passed Dad going counterclockwise and approached Taylor’s position, then tapped the floor behind Taylor. Even as he did, I was saying: “I’m Leslie — can you wait on this and put us back after the betrothal ceremony? It might mess it up if Serenikha arrives in the middle and doesn’t know what we’ve already —”

And I was back in her body; Pientao and his escorts were still approaching. They got within six or eight paces of me and stopped, and then the high priest started asking him things and he responded. I could relax for a while, theoretically, because I didn’t have anything to say for another ten or fifteen minutes; but I couldn’t relax because I knew I’d be swapping back any moment.

And I did, not long after that. The Gray One was still walking in circles, tapping his staff behind each of us in turn, and chanting steadily. I started to say: “At least, if you can’t postpone putting us back, tell Serenikha what she needs to know — we’ve gotten past the first section...”

“I don’t think he can interrupt the spell once he’s started,” Mom said, “or interrupt his chanting to talk to Serenikha. Better let him concentrate, honey. We’ll be all right soon enough.”

I nodded silently, and waited to return to Serenikha’s body — or for the feeling of wrongness in my tail to go away.

The Gray One circled us twice more before I went back to Serenikha’s body. Pientao still had five or six more responses to go, I was pretty sure. I swapped back again before he got to the end of them, but only for two or three seconds this time. A couple of minutes later Pientao’s interrogation was over, and the high priest gave a nod. Pientao took a couple of steps closer to me, and I uncoiled my tail and slithered over toward him as the high priest said: “Pientao and Serenikha, you have shown that you understand what marriage is as well as it can be understood from the outside. Is it your will that —”

And then I was back in my own body again, but I knew something was different. My legs felt like legs, not like a broken, twisted tail, and the Gray One’s chanting had stopped.

“Is it over?” Dad asked. “Can we leave the circle?” I realized he was speaking in English.

“You may,” the Gray One said. “I need to rest. Please wait in the outer office, make yourselves comfortable — Chad will get you coffee or tea if you like — and I will join you presently.”

We all got up. My legs felt a little stiff from sitting cross-legged for so long, but that passed in a few moments. Mom hugged me tight, and then Dad was hugging me while Mom hugged Taylor, and I saw over Dad’s shoulder the Gray One leaning back against the wall, looking tired but satisfied.

“Let’s go,” Dad said, and we filed out into the waiting room. Chad was sitting there, and he jumped up when we came out; Maella zoomed over and hovered near my face.

“Did it work?” Chad asked.

“It feels about right,” Dad said, rubbing the stubble on his cheek. “What about you, Leslie?”

“My legs feel like legs,” I said. “I can walk. I can understand English. Is there anything else we need to check for?”

“That’s all I know of,” Chad said, “but Mr. G. said you should wait until he talks to you before you leave.”

“Sure. He said something about coffee?” Mom asked, yawning.

“Sure,” Chad said. “Anyone else?”

Dad and Taylor asked for coffee, and I said I’d have tea. Chad showed us to a small kitchen or break room, where we got ourselves cups of tea and coffee. Chad got a carton of pineapple juice out of the refrigerator and poured a little into a tiny cup for Maella.

The sun had risen outside by the time Mr. G. came out of the back room and sat down beside Dad. “I’m sorry your vacation was curtailed like that, and I’m sorry that it was disrupted in the first place. A couple of times before I’ve had rival mages trying to interfere with or reverse-engineer my spells, and each time I’ve increased my precautions against it, but this Patient One was clever, powerful and persistent. If he’d had more time to work, I think he might have accomplished what he aimed at... but being in a hurry, he managed only to disrupt my spell in ways I still don’t fully understand.”

“What does that mean?” Dad asked.

“It means that though I will be giving you a full refund, and I would like to offer you another vacation at no charge in compensation, I don’t feel it’s safe to send you to host bodies in my world again until I am perfectly certain that all the after-effects of the Patient One’s meddling are gone. And there’s no way to be sure of that except to wait and see — though I recommend that you all come to see me for a sort of magical checkup once a month for the next year. Probably there will be after-effects, though I can’t be sure what they will be — hopefully no more swaps, but you may have more of the shared dreams that Serenikha told me about, or suffer a form of aphasia where you try to think of an English word and can only think of a word in the language your hosts spoke, or have moments when your body feels strange. I expect those will fade in time, and within six months to a year it will be safe for you to travel again.”

“Thanks for being so open about all this,” Mom said. “But what was that about shared dreams?”

I told them about the dream I’d shared with Serenikha. As I spoke, Taylor’s eyes opened wide, and when I finished she said:

“I’d forgotten until now, but I just remembered — I think I shared a dream that night with Tisicho, the kitsune who borrowed my body. I dreamed about him, anyway. I can’t remember much of the dream.”

Mr. G. nodded. “It may happen again, but hopefully not often. Keep a dream journal and bring it with you to your next checkup — not just dreams you think you shared with your host, but any others that might be influenced by shared memories.”

We talked for a few minutes, and then left. Chad and Maella got into a blue Civic, not the minivan he’d driven us here in, and the rest of us got into our car.

“Where to?” Dad asked. “We’ve still got two more days until your mother and I have to be back at work, or until your friends expect to see you.”

“Let’s go home for now,” Mom said. “I feel like my body hasn’t had enough sleep.”

“Yeah,” Taylor and I agreed. I was the only one who hadn’t had any coffee at Mr. G.'s office, and I fell asleep on the way home; Taylor shook me awake as we pulled into our driveway. We all brought our things in, and Mom and I made breakfast. They told me more about what they’d seen and done while I was cooped up in the embassy, and how they’d first started swapping back into their own bodies for a few moments, and I told them about the betrothal ceremony and the Patient One’s last couple of spells after Dad left the embassy for the last time.

“Oh, no!” Dad exclaimed. “Did you get my host’s tree out of the embassy? — give it to Lady Hanuseri?”

I groaned. “No — so much stuff was going on I forgot.”

“I’ll call Mr. G. and tell him he needs to get her out,” he said, picking up his phone. A few minutes later he told us: “She’ll be fine — Mr. G. told Serenikha she’d need to take care of that when she got back. But apparently she and the kodama really hit it off while they were here, and they’re pretty good friends now, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she decides to stay with Serenikha for a while.”

We all straggled to bed after that, and I slept until late afternoon. It took us until Monday to get our sleep schedules turned around again.

I went over to Daniel’s house for a couple of hours Sunday afternoon. I wasn’t sure what I should tell him about the trip — I knew he was going to ask, and what could I tell him that he’d believe?

“So where’d you go?” he asked, very first thing. “What was the big surprise?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” I replied, still not sure whether to tell him — and then what, try to convince him? Laugh it off as a joke if he didn’t believe me, which he probably wouldn’t?

“Come on, you can tell me.” He looked around; his dad was out running errands, but his mom was in the kitchen. “Maybe not here though,” he added in a lower voice.

We went up to his room, and he said: “Is it something my parents wouldn’t let me hang out with you any more if they knew?”

“No, I don’t think so. Not any more than what they already know about my parents and the reasons they won’t let you come over to my house.”

“So, another nudist camp?”

“Naturist resort,” I corrected automatically, and then: “No, that wasn’t it. I’d like to tell you, but I’m not sure you’d believe me... it was really weird, and mostly really cool except for the scary bits, but we couldn’t bring home any souvenirs to prove anything.”

“Did you take any pictures?”

“We couldn’t bring any electronics.” Or anything else.

We went back and forth like that for a while, and finally I said: “Look, I’m sorry, but I just don’t want to tell you until and unless I can prove it. Let’s talk about something else. Didn’t the new issue of Justice League come out while I was away...?”

That night I met Serenikha again, this time in the garden on the grounds of the naga embassy. She looked like herself, and it was strange to see that body from outside, to see her slithering along toward me and remember what it had felt like to have a tail instead of legs, to have those breasts wobbling on my chest...

“How have you been?” I asked. “I guess we’re not quite disentangled yet; Mr. G. said it might take a while.”

“That stupid Patient One! I could just strangle him... Yeah, the Gray One said he couldn’t be sure the spell would come off cleanly all at once, after the Patient One had tinkered with it so much. I’m doing okay, though. I had a nervous moment when I plopped back in my body in the middle of the betrothal, but I still remembered most of my lines, and now I’m betrothed and we have a treaty, so it’s all good.”

“Is it? Are you happy to be marrying Pientao?”

She shrugged. “He’s all right. It’s not like I could marry whoever I wanted, even if I got out of marrying him somehow. But I’ll miss living at home. Uncle Ravadh says more naga are going to be coming over here soon, though, now that we have a connection with the court and all, so I’ll have more naga my age to talk to.”

“How did you like San Francisco?”

She broke into a wide grin. “Wow, it’s the most amazing place I’ve ever been! They’ve got better gardens here, but the houses, the huge buildings, the streets and the cars and the streetcars... and those bridges! I thought the capital here was big compared to back home, but San Francisco...! Maybe I can talk Pientao into coming there with me sometime, after this entanglement wears off.”

“I know, right? You got lucky; any big city in my world would have skyscrapers and cars and stuff, but San Francisco’s the only one I know of that’s more beautiful than the capital of the Dragon Empire.”

We talked for I don’t know how long before I woke up; as soon as I realized I was lying in bed awake, I wrote as much as I could remember in my dream journal. At breakfast, I found out that Mom had shared a dream with Altimeth, the elf who’d swapped with her during our trip; he had shown her the island where he grew up, and she’d shown him some of her favorite places in our world. Dad and Taylor couldn’t remember any dreams like that just then, but over the next few days both of them shared one or two dreams with the person they’d swapped with.

Those dream-meetings got less frequent over the next few weeks, and stopped entirely within two months — for everyone except me. I kept meeting Serenikha in my dreams about one night in three. We got better at consciously manipulating the dream environment to show each other our memories of favorite places and things; Serenikha had more talent for it than me, but I got the hang of it soon enough. I told her I was sorry I’d distrusted her motives so, thinking she was planning to steal my body permanently and leave me to marry Pientao, and how frustrated I was about not feeling able to tell Daniel where I’d been. She told me about the progress of the treaty and how the Empire was supposed to send a fleet of troop ships to the Naga Kingdom as soon as the stormy season passed, to help them against the garuda, and about meeting Pientao again in more intimate settings (though still with a chaperon a little way off) and getting to know him better. She seemed happy, and I was happy to see how happy she was — though a little worried about what it meant that we were still sharing dreams so often.

And I was the only one of the family who had the other lingering effects Mr. G. had warned us about. Sometimes I found myself wanting to use a word from the languages they spoke in the Dragon Empire or the Naga Kingdom — either because I couldn’t think of the English word at the moment, or because it seemed more precise and fitting than the English word. I managed to avoid embarrassing myself that way with Daniel and his parents, but I sometimes used those words in conversation with Mom and Dad or Taylor. After the first couple of weeks, they didn’t understand me anymore — they’d forgotten the language we spoke in the other world.

And one morning near the end of our first week back home, I woke up after dreaming with Serenikha and tried to slither out of bed. I sprained my hip and left ankle and had to go to the emergency room. I never had any more serious accidents like that, but there were a number of times when my legs felt a little weird, or my penis felt wrong and out of place, usually for just a few moments. I talked to Serenikha about that, and she confessed she had the same problem occasionally, feeling a phantom penis or legs, though it never caused her real problems controlling her tail or made her forget how to pee.

When we went back to Mr. G. for our first monthly checkup, he listened to our stories and read our dream-journals, and cast some kind of spell on us — we didn’t feel anything. Then he told us what he thought was happening.

“I’m afraid Leslie and Serenikha may be inextricably linked,” he said. “It’s too early to be sure — his problems may fade with time like the rest of you, but just take longer. I need to examine Serenikha; I’ve met with each of the others you swapped with, but I’m having a hard time getting the naga embassy to allow me to visit her.”

He also told me what he’d learned about the Garuda Empire; they were clearly the aggressors in their current war with the Naga Kingdom; though they claimed they’d invaded just take back a province the naga had robbed them of in the previous war... you’d have to go back a long, long time to figure out who really started it.

Another month went by; I still saw Serenikha a couple of times a week, and the aphasia was just as bad though the dysphoria was getting better. I told Serenikha what Mr. G. had said, and she said she’d try to get her uncle to let her meet with the Gray One, but she wasn’t hopeful. “If that doesn’t work, I can ask Pientao for permission after we’re married.”

“But that will be six months from now, right?”

“Five months... Are you in a hurry to get rid of me?” she teased.

“No, you’re my best friend.” (Daniel had grown distant, hurt that I didn’t trust him with the story of where I’d gone on vacation, but I still couldn’t figure out how to tell him. It wasn’t like I could take him to Mr. G.'s travel agency for a demonstration — not until we were old enough to drive, at least.) “I’d hate to never see you again. But I’d like to visit your world again someday, too, and see you in person, wearing a kitsune or dragon-human body maybe.”

“You’d better come as a girl of whatever race; Pientao might be jealous otherwise.”

“I’ll ask Mr. G. about it.”

But Lord Ravadh was obdurate; he blamed the Gray One for nearly botching the betrothal and the defense treaty, and wouldn’t let him near Serenikha. The Patient One went to talk to the Gray One, and said if he taught him all about the spells he’d used on us, he could maybe fix the problem from Serenikha’s end. But apparently the Patient One (whoever gave him that name, anyway? he totally doesn’t deserve it) and the Gray One couldn’t agree on terms — I don’t think the Gray One trusted him, not surprisingly — and that broke down.

The following spring, after Pientao and Serenikha were married, she finally told him everything — how she’d run off and swapped with me, and how her trip to my world had been delayed so I was there for the banquet, the party and the first half of the betrothal, and how we’d been mystically linked ever since. He immediately sent for the Gray One, and the mage was finally able to study the tangled spell on me and Serenikha from both ends at once.

“It’s permanent,” he said when Mom took me to his office for my next checkup. “Perhaps I could have repaired it if I’d been able to act more quickly — but perhaps not. You and Serenikha will be linked for the rest of your lives, and will probably go on sharing dreams, bits of memories, and body images as long as you live. It wouldn’t be safe to try to swap either of you with another person — the results would be unpredictable. For instance, if I were to try to swap you with a pixie, it might be that the pixie would end up in Serenikha’s body and Serenikha in yours — and putting you all back in the right bodies would be as difficult as it was to partially undo the Patient One’s spells; you might end up with a permanent three-way link.”

“What about...” I swallowed. “If one of us dies, does that break the link? Or would both of us die whenever something kills either of us?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “More likely, the soul of the dying person will snap back to the other end of the link — into the body of the survivor. I don’t know if they would end up as a passenger in the other person’s body, take control from the other person, or share control of the body alternately; probably the latter.”

Mom broke down and cried when she heard all that. I sat quiet, thinking. Barring murder or accident, Serenikha was going to outlive me by centuries, and I’d live out the rest of that time in her body — and in her world. I’d never find out what it was like to be a mermaid, like Taylor and Jarrod became on their trip to the Gray One’s world that spring, or all the things Mom and Dad had become over the years. But being friends with Serenikha, seeing her and sharing news and memories with her a couple of times a week — that was a deep, strong connection to the other world that Mom, Dad and Taylor would never have, if they visited the other world a hundred times in as many bodies. It was enough magic for me.



Thanks for reading; I hope you've enjoyed it.

I'm working on the fourth draft of "Twisted Throwback", and I expect I'll start serializing it here just after I finish. I also have a science fiction novella finished in first draft, which will need a lot of work on second and third drafts, but may be finished by the time I'm done serializing "Twisted Throwback". Works in progress in first draft include a new Valentine Divergence story and a stand-alone secondary world fantasy.

I have a couple more possible Travel Agency stories outlined, but they probably won't be among the next couple of things I write. One is a sequel to "Scouts", involving Tariq and ul-Kalsim hiring engineers from our world to come swap bodies with people in their world and help them build steam engines and printing presses. (If someone out there knows a lot about steam engines and/or printing presses and wants to collaborate on this one, let me know.) Another is a sequel to "The Family that Plays Together", set several years later when Leslie and Taylor are in college. Other stories I might write soon include the third novel in the Launuru & Kazmina sequence, another Twisted story, and several stand-alone stories.



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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