“I like being a nagini well enough, just on the physical level, but — well, I don’t know how other people in my country will react.... Even if people are getting used to seeing magical stuff happen, they might stare at me a lot.”
The Other Half of My Soul
Part 5 of 11
Taylor wanted to stay in and rest after that, and asked the servant to bring her some lunch. “I’ve got another spell I need to cast in the evening,” she said. “Give Serenikha my apologies about dinner.” I went back to Serenikha’s chambers, and found she wasn’t there, but she’d left a servant with orders to show me to Wushao’s section of the women’s quarters, where she was visiting.
I’ve spoken so far, perhaps, as if Serenikha and the ladies of her court were the only residents of the women’s quarters. No; they had their own little neighborhood of rooms within it, but there were other neighborhoods (they were way too big and complex to call suites or apartments) where the other princesses lived, the emperor’s wives, sisters, daughters and daughters-in-law, each with their own little circle of companions. Some of these neighborhoods were practically deserted at the moment, because the princess who occupied them was away from the capital, living with her husband in the provincial town he was governor of or the foreign capital he was ambassador to.
The servant led me through one of these empty, poorly-lit sections of the palace on the way to Wushao’s quarters. “Are you sure we’re going the right way?” I asked.
“This is the shortest way,” she said, and with an apologetic glance at me: “Perhaps my lady would prefer a longer way that is more beautiful to behold?”
“No, the shortest is fine with me.” We came to a pair of double doors, which she unlatched to let me through, and into a brighter-lit corridor, down which a couple of other servants were rolling a cart full of pitchers, bowls and dishes. The servant led me back the way they had come, and paused outside a wide door.
“Wait here and I will announce you,” she said, and went in. I sat back on my coiled tail and waited, but not for long; she emerged from the door gestured me forward, and I slithered in.
“Oh my, she does look exactly like you!” Wushao had been sitting on a sofa in the middle of the room, surrounded by other women mostly near her age with a few older; she stood up when she saw me come in.
“Hello,” I said. “We’ve met before, but —”
“Yes, I know; Serenikha told me. And she told me how you came here and turned into her twin but I could hardly believe it...”
Serenikha gestured to the empty seat beside her, and I joined her as Wushao sat back down too. “Where is your sister?” Serenikha asked.
“Resting; she said not to expect her at dinner either.”
“What did she find out about the spell?”
I hesitated, not wanting to talk about our link there in front of all those other people. “I’ll tell you when we’re alone.”
Her face fell; she could figure out that meant it was bad news. I tried to change the subject. “So, Wushao... Serenikha told me that you were going to be married?”
“Yes; to Lord Tirishu. A tengu nobleman from the northeastern province.”
“What is he like?”
“He’s not a bad sort for a tengu, I suppose. He’s not much older than me, and reasonably good-looking, and not as silly as some other tengu I’ve met, even if he does insist on wearing that ridiculous little hat.”
I supposed it was an arranged marriage to cement an alliance between Wushao’s father, the Emperor, and Lord Tirishu’s people — like Serenikha’s marriage to Pientao. Serenikha seemed to be happier in her arranged marriage than I would have expected, but she and Pientao didn’t get on so well as Mom and Dad, either; they hadn’t slept together since Sakhi was conceived, and weren’t planning to share a bed again until she was weaned and it was time to try again for a son. The whole arranged marriage thing seemed weird to me, but I didn’t want to make a big deal of it if Wushao was okay with it, as she seemed to be.
“So what do you have planned for the next month?”
They told me about the parties, picnics and expeditions into the countryside they had planned; they had to be worked in around the banquets Lord Tirishu was invited to, which Wushao would have to attend and where Pientao and Serenikha, though sometimes invited, were usually not seated close to Wushao and Lord Tirishu.
“Since you’re staying for a while longer, I’ll have Pientao try to get you invitations to them too; you can sit with us.”
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sit through a lot of banquets like the one I’d attended during my last visit, even if I was sitting close to Serenikha and could talk with her. But I didn’t tell Serenikha I didn’t want to go.
After lunch, Serenikha and I went over to the nursery, which was near Wushao’s quarters. There were several small children running around, mostly humans or elves plus one adorable kitsune girl who only had one tail yet. Dhamarikha and a couple of human nurses were taking care of the little babies in another room; we found Osalikha and a human baby lying on a big blanket over cushions in the floor. The human was just starting to crawl a little, lifting his head and pushing along though his arms and legs weren’t really coordinated yet. Osalikha was propped up on her arms, but not slithering yet; she smiled and babbled when we slithered into the room. Serenikha scooped her up and swooped her through the air, making her giggle and Dhamarikha frown disapprovingly.
“You’ll have her vomiting all over,” she warned.
“Will you, Sakhi? No, you have a strong stomach like Mommy.” And Sakhi didn’t vomit while Serenikha was playing with her. No, she waited and did that after her mommy handed her to me to hold.
My disgust at the baby-vomit running down my left side was ameliorated by the spillover from Serenikha’s amusement. She was valiantly trying not to laugh, but I didn’t have any reason not to, and once I started she couldn’t hold it in any longer either; Dhamarikha looked at us like we were crazy. After she and the other servants helped me get cleaned up, we sprawled on the floor and played with Sakhi and the little boy, whose name was Tenshi; he was Sakhi’s cousin, the youngest son of one of Pientao and Wushao’s older brothers. I’d flick the tip of my tail this way and that and let him try to catch it in his tiny hand; he was so determined I finally had to let him “get” me.
After we’d nursed Sakhi again, and seen her settled down for her afternoon nap, we returned to our rooms to get ready for dinner. I found Taylor reading a book she’d brought from home, and snacking on some sweetbread the servants had brought her.
“Are you feeling better? Want to join us for dinner?”
“Yes and no. I had a note from the Knowing One, inviting me to dine with him and a couple of other mages, so I’ll be meeting them over in the north wing in a couple of hours. And you need to keep tomorrow morning free: the Gray One’s going to visit then and take a look at your transformation spell, if I can arrange it. And we’re going to talk to Mom and Dad then, too.”
“What do you mean, if you can arrange it?”
“I talked to him earlier today, and he’s agreed to come if I can find him a host body. I was going to ask the Knowing One when I see him. I figure we’ll swap me with Mom, and the Knowing One with the Gray One. Then you can visit with Mom and the Gray One can figure out what’s up with your spell, and then I can swap with Dad and you can hang out with him for a while. The Gray One telephoned them after I talked to him last night, and they’re going to come to his office tomorrow evening — which will be late morning here — so he can swap them with me one at a time.”
None of them could swap with me, because my link with Serenikha made it too dangerous to cast the body-swapping spell on either of us. Maybe I’d wind up in Dad’s body, Serenikha in mine, and Dad in Serenikha’s; or maybe Serenikha and I would share Dad’s body and one of our bodies would be vacant... the Gray One couldn’t predict what would happen.
So we got ready for dinner, and I joined Serenikha, Wushao and others a little later. Taylor still wasn’t back from her dinner when I returned to the room after dining and playing with Sakhi some more.
Serenikha and I dreamed that night of Yosemite Park; I met her slithering along one of the trails overlooking a small canyon. I told her what Taylor had said about the transformation spell. “I didn’t want to tell you in front of all those courtiers and servants,” I explained. “I don’t see how you can stand to have them around all the time.”
“It’s what we’re used to, I suppose. I was surprised when you first told me how you live without servants, nobody around but your parents and sister, and them usually in other rooms. But — what about this transformation? It’s going to make you into my twin permanently, once the magic levels in your world rise high enough?”
“That’s what Taylor thinks. Tomorrow the Gray One’s going to take a look for himself and maybe he’ll have a solution. Or a different diagnosis.”
“Does that bother you?”
“I like being a nagini well enough, just on the physical level, but — well, I don’t know how other people in my country will react. Probably by the time the levels are high enough for me to turn into a nagini again, magic won’t be a secret anymore, so it should be okay. But even if people are getting used to seeing magical stuff happen, they might stare at me a lot... I guess I’ll wait and see how it works out. If things get too hot for me back home, can I come back here?”
“Of course... I don’t understand how magic is still such a secret in your world even now, though. Kinuko tells me that magic has been possible over there for over thirty years, and the Gray One’s sent thousands of people between worlds... how can that many people keep a secret?”
I shrugged. “It’s not the secret it used to be, but most people who hear about it third-hand dismiss it as a crazy urban legend. People who’ve experienced the magic first hand don’t often talk about it openly, because they can’t prove it or demonstrate it; they just give their friends a strong but vague recommendation for the Gray One’s agency. His reputation spreads by word of mouth, and then the repeat customers get together on the forum and talk about what they saw in your world and what bodies they had and what they want to see next time. And the forum’s not hidden, but when strangers stumble across it they just assume the forumites are talking about some obscure game they aren’t familiar with.”
“Maybe when your sister opens another portal, I’ll come through with you — just for a quick look around before the portal closes again.”
“Let’s ask Taylor if that will work.”
“So where are we meeting the Knowing One?” I asked Taylor the next morning after breakfast.
“There’s a room in the north wing we can use. The Knowing One agreed to swap bodies with the Gray One — he’s eager to see our world, even if it’s just for a couple of hours — but he didn’t want to come to the women’s quarters again if it wasn’t necessary.”
Taylor grinned back at me. “Not everybody’s as gender-blind as you and me.”
“It’s not like he’d even suffer dysphoria from turning himself into a girl. He was just using an illusion, and even that was too threatening to his masculinity!”
She looked sharply at me. “How’d you know?”
“The way he walked, and how fast he changed — just a few seconds, not like the fifteen or twenty minutes it took when you transformed me.”
“It wouldn’t have taken as long to transform you into a human girl as a nagini. And a more experienced mage could transform somebody faster than me. But — yeah, I think you’re right. He is kind of a wuss, but he’s doing us a favor, so don’t tell him that to his face.”
It took us half an hour to slither through the women’s quarters and the central part of the palace to the north wing, where the Knowing One was waiting. Taylor seemed to mostly know her way around, though she hesitated a couple of times and had to ask passing servants for directions. Each time they offered to escort us, but Taylor declined.
We arrived at a curtained door just off one of the gardens, and Taylor pulled the bell-rope outside. The Knowing One parted the curtains a few moments later.
“Come in, O Tenacious One. I have prepared the space as you requested.”
He led us through a small parlor crowded with furniture, with a window onto the garden, into a larger windowless room that was nearly bare except for some calligraphy banners hanging from the walls, and a couple of chairs designed for naga over by the door. There were three large semicircles of blue chalk laid out on the floor.
“Looks good,” Taylor said. She pulled her cell phone out of her fanny pack — we’d adjusted all the power saving options and still had a little bit of battery power left, more on hers than on mine — and checked the time. “It’s nearly six-thirty back home. Time to begin. Get into your circle, close it up, and follow my lead... Leslie, you can rest over there for now,” gesturing to the naga-chair. I settled down and watched.
They closed up the circles around them with more chalk, and then Taylor began chanting; every little while the Knowing One echoed something she’d said. She waved her staff in complex motions, and the Knowing One waved his pearl in similar but not, I thought, identical patterns; and then Taylor struck the edge of her circle with her staff.
Then she blinked and looked around in momentary confusion, glancing around the room and back at her coiled tail.
“Ms. G. told me Taylor had turned herself into a nagini. So does this count as my twelfth distinct species, because I’ve never been a naga before, or not, because Taylor’s really human under this enchantment?”
The Knowing One, or rather the Gray One, I realized, smiled in amusement. “You can count it however you like. But however you count it, Ray will soon be tied with you again.”
(Mom and Dad had this thing going where they kept a running count of the number of distinct species they’d been members of during their thirty-plus visits to this world. They’d been tied at eleven for two or three years, and every year before their anniversary trip they’d tease each other about pulling ahead; but they kept ending up wearing bodies of the same kinds they’d worn several times before, usually elf, dwarf or centaur.)
“Hi, Mom. Hi, Mr. G.” I got up and slithered over close to the circle where Mom was coiled up in Taylor’s body.
“Is that you, Leslie? Tell me what’s been going on! Ms. G. told me some of what Taylor had told her, but it wasn’t very clear...”
So I explained as best I could, though I didn’t understand all the technical details of the magic. The Gray One listened and nodded, and asked a couple of questions — he asked me to repeat what I’d said to Taylor about the sensations I felt during the diagnostic spell, for instance.
“Oh, Leslie!,” Mom said, “I’m sorry about all this. I wish I could hug you, but Ms. G. said we weren’t to break the circles, because we need to swap a couple more times so your dad can visit as well.”
“Air hug?” I suggested, and we did that.
“If you’re ready,” the Gray One said, “I’ll work another diagnostic spell.”
“Go ahead and get into your circle and close it up.”
I slithered into the third semicircle and completed it with chalk, then waited while the Gray One cast his spell. I could tell it was different from the one he’d given Leslie to cast; the gestures he made with the Knowing One’s pearl were different, and the sensations I got from it were different too. My vision went dim for a minute or so and I heard soft rustling noises all around me, which faded as I started smelling something rancid — fortunately that didn’t last long before it gave way to a sweeter smell and sharper vision. I gave the Gray One a running commentary on all this, and finally he said: “You can break your circle.”
“What did you figure out?”
“Taylor was right,” he said, “your transformation is definitely entangled with your link to Serenikha. That will make it very hard, and perhaps dangerous, to try to remove it. But there’s some good news too.”
“Yes. It can’t safely be removed, but it can be tweaked; your sister or I could adjust the target form part of the spell, and you’d change into that form, whatever it might be. And then over the course of one to three days, probably, you’d change into Serenikha’s twin again. I think most forms would probably last several days, because the first form the Tenacious One gave you was already a nagini, and the synchronization with Serenikha’s form didn’t have so far to go.”
“So...” I remembered the idea I’d had earlier, and hadn’t mentioned to Taylor until it was too late. “If you changed me into a pixie, I’d stay a pixie for several days?”
“Hmm... you’d start growing to Serenikha’s size right away, and probably within a day your legs would start fusing into a naga-tail, and your wings would shrink. But you’d probably remain small enough for your wings to support you for several hours, at least.”
“Long enough to fly through a little portal, like you used for Maella?”
He smiled. “That’s a clever idea. I’ll have to mention that to the Tenacious One. If you and your sister change into pixies, you’d be able to use a small portal and wouldn’t have to wait for a peak magic surge.”
“I thought of it earlier, when Taylor was trying to open the portal and couldn’t get it open more than a few inches. But I didn’t want to interrupt her while she was working, and then the portal collapsed, and not long after that we realized my transformation wasn’t working like it was supposed to... so I didn’t mention it.”
“Well, let that be a lesson — share your ideas even if you are afraid they might be stupid.”
We hashed out some more details, and then he kept quiet while Mom and I talked for a while longer. She asked me what else had been going on, and I told her something about the formal dinners, but mostly I spent the rest of our visit squeeing over how adorable Osalikha was, and showing her the photos I’d taken on my cellphone (whose battery died while I was showing them to her, so I didn’t get to show them to Dad).
Then Taylor and the Gray One swapped back with Mom and the Knowing One, and then Taylor swapped herself with Dad. She asked me some of the same questions Mom had, though not quite as many, because Taylor had been explaining things while she was in Mom’s body. And I told Dad what the Gray One had just figured out.
“So we’ll probably be home sooner than we thought, if Taylor can just turn us into pixies and open a little bitty portal. She won’t have to wait months for that; maybe within in a week or so. The Gray One said he’d keep us posted about magic levels near your house and near our campsite at Yosemite.”
“How long did you pay for your camping spot ahead of time?” Dad asked.
“Oh!... um, just a few days. We expected we’d be back through the portal on Tuesday, and we’d probably go home that night.”
“Tell me how to find your camping spot. Your mother and I will go to Yosemite, retrieve the camping equipment and shuttle your cars home.”
“Oh... won’t you miss work? You don’t have to do that. Just pay for a few days extra on our camping spot and we can pay you back.”
We argued about that but Dad was firm. I told her where our camping spot was.
“This is an interesting body,” Dad said, looking back at her tail. “I’ve never been a naga before, of either sex. Too bad I’m stuck in this little circle.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. Taylor said it would make it easier to do the swaps that way, and she needed to conserve energy what with doing so many spells in a few hours.”
“So... do you think this really counts as another species? Or is it just another human body, even if it’s transformed into a naga at the moment?”
“Not this again,” I groaned.
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. (Smashwords pays its authors more than other retailers.)
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|When Wasps Make Honey||Smashwords||Amazon|
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|The Weight of Silence and Other Stories||Smashwords||Amazon|
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