“I am so close,” he said, hissing with frustration. “I could feel Serenikha’s soul returning — but it would not lodge securely in her body, your own was still tethered there.”
The Family that Plays Together
Part 9 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.
“Wake up, my lady,” Talarikha was saying. “The Patient One will be here in a few moments... you need to get dressed.”
I put on the sari-camisole she handed me and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. Dad was gone, probably having vanished back into her tree when Talarikha entered the room, or maybe having snuck out during the night to talk to Mom and the others. I barely had time for a cup of tea, and for Talarikha to brush my hair, before the Patient One arrived.
“Don’t,” I pleaded. “You don’t know the Gray One’s spell and you’re just going to mess it up... I’m sure you could figure it out in time, but you aren’t doing yourself any favors by working in such a hurry.”
“You understand nothing,” he said, and proceeded to paralyze me. I lay there feeling increasingly dizzy for a while, and then seemed to fall asleep.
When I woke up, it was dark and from the weird feeling in my tail, I knew I was back in my own body, and lying in bed. I sat up, mostly using my arms rather than the tail muscles I couldn’t trust, and then, leaning against the headboard, felt around for a lamp. I found one, and turned it on.
I wasn’t in the same hotel room I’d been in yesterday morning — last night, San Francisco time. In fact, I didn’t think I was in a hotel room at all; it looked more like a guest bedroom in someone’s house, with its eclectic furnishings, particularly the bookshelf; there wasn’t any TV.
“Chad?” I called out. “Anybody?” I tried to stand up, but couldn’t get my tail to work right, and fell right back onto the bed. Then I scooted my butt off the bed and lowered myself to the floor, and started crawling toward the door.
I’d gotten it open and started down the hall, calling out for Chad and Maella as I did. Another door on the hall opened, and Mom — or the elf in Mom’s body — opened it.
“Leslie?” she asked. “Or is it Serenikha? Are you okay?” She knelt beside me.
“I’m Leslie,” I said. “I can’t walk — my legs feel like —”
And then I was back in Serenikha’s body, lying paralyzed on her bed, feeling not only dizzy but nauseous. I hoped I wouldn’t throw up; being paralyzed like that I was afraid I might choke on it.
I didn’t, though I felt like I was going to several times. And then I was back in my own body again, back in the bed I’d woken up in before. Mom, or someone in her body, was sitting in a chair by the bed; I heard Chad’s voice somewhere nearby, talking — but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Before I could look around or say anything, I was back in Serenikha’s body, and I stayed there until the Patient One stopped working on me and the dizziness, nausea, and paralysis faded.
“I am so close,” he said, hissing with frustration. “I could feel Serenikha’s soul returning — but it would not lodge securely in her body, your own was still tethered there. I will rest and try again before the betrothal.”
He slithered out, and Talarikha and Tiaopai came in right afterward with breakfast. As soon as I finished eating, they started getting me ready for the betrothal ceremony; they bathed me, and dressed me in the most elaborate sari-camisole I’d worn yet, with three or four necklaces, huge pendulous earrings, large bracelets, and a jeweled belt. They did my hair, tying ribbons and flowers into it, and perfumed me until I started coughing. While they were still working on all that, Bhavalikha and Lord Ravadh came in.
“Hopefully this won’t be necessary,” Lord Ravadh said. “The Patient One will try again to put you and Serenikha back in your right bodies just before we leave for the betrothal ceremony. He seems very hopeful that it will work this time. But in case it doesn’t, we need to coach you more on the ceremony...”
“Why not leave well enough alone?” I said. “Go ahead and coach me, but don’t let the Patient One mess with the spell anymore. Suppose you get Serenikha back but she doesn’t remember what to do during the ceremony because it’s been over a week since you coached her on it?”
“That is a risk we must take,” Lord Ravadh said. “Having you personate her at a banquet or reception is one thing. Having you personate her during the betrothal ceremony — it would verge on sacrilege. It would be licit if there is no alternative, but we must exhaust all other options. Now, when we enter the temple sanctuary you will make this gesture of respect,” demonstrating, “and bow as low as possible...”
They continued coaching me, reminding me of things they’d taught me over the last few days, while Talarikha and Tiaopai finished gussying me up. By the time they were done with that, I was getting a little hungry again; but I didn’t get a chance to eat. The Patient One came in and asked Lord Ravadh, “Are you ready?”
“Yes — she’s as ready as she ever will be. And if you swap them back now, we’ll have a few minutes to refresh Serenikha’s memory before we have to leave for the temple.”
So he started working his spells on me. Sooner than last time, I found myself in my body again; it was sitting down, but in motion, and there was something pressing against my lap and chest...? It took me a few moments to realize I was in the back seat of a minivan. It was night, and there weren’t a lot of other cars on the road. I looked around and saw Taylor’s body sitting next to me, and what I thought were probably Mom and Dad’s bodies in the seat in front of us, and Chad in the driver’s seat, though it was hard to be sure in the dark.
Dad’s voice said: “Well, here I am again — what about the rest of you?”
“Dad?” I asked, and Chad said something incomprehensible.
“It’s me — is that you, Leslie?” Dad asked.
“For the moment...”
Taylor and Mom spoke up too, but I couldn’t make any more sense of what they were saying than what Chad had said. And then in mid-sentence, it seemed, Taylor abruptly stopped, and said: “Where are we?”
“In a van — Chad’s driving,” Dad said. “Chad, you can’t understand us, can you?”
He didn’t reply. Dad went on: “It looks like the Patient One’s made the three of us swap back, but not —” And then he was quiet for a moment, and said something in that incomprehensible language that I was pretty sure must be English.
“Looks like it’s just you and me now, Taylor,” I said. “Where do you think Chad’s taking us in the middle of the night?”
“Probably to —”
And then I was back in Serenikha’s body. The Patient One was chanting, and Lord Ravadh and Bhavalikha were looking on anxiously, and I was dizzy and nauseous. It was hard to judge the passage of time when I was feeling so bad, but I think it was just a few minutes later that I was in my own body again, still in that minivan. We were sitting at a stop light, and Chad had turned around to talk to us — he was in the middle of an incomprehensible sentence when I arrived.
“I’m back again,” I said quietly, as soon as he paused. “It’s me, Leslie.” I hoped he’d understand my name even if he didn’t understand the language I was speaking.
“Leslie?” Mom’s voice asked.
“Is that you, Mom? Are Dad and Taylor here?”
“Taylor was here a little while ago, but I think she’s back in the kitsune’s body again. I’m not sure where we’re going — probably to the Gray One’s office, but I haven’t been able to understand anything Chad or the others have said.”
“That makes sense. Do you recognize any landmarks?”
“Not many. I think we’re coming into Turnerville from the north, though; that would make sense if —”
But then I was back in Serenikha’s body, feeling a little less dizzy than before. And a little after that, the Patient One let me go, bowed low to Lord Ravadh, and said:
“I regret that I am unable to reverse the spell fully as yet. If I had more time — but I have exhausted my strength, and by the time I am rested enough to try again, the betrothal must have already taken place.”
“I honor you for your valiant attempt,” Lord Ravadh said. “Go, take your well-earned repose. Leslie, are you ready to play the part of Serenikha one last time?”
“I’ll need to rest a few minutes,” I said. “That spell took a lot out of me, too.”
So they left me alone for a little while, and I dragged my tail over to Dad’s tree. But the gold band wasn’t around the base of it; she must be somewhere nearby with Mom and Taylor and Kinuko. I laid down again and fell into a light doze until Bhavalikha woke me; then she and Talarikha had to fix my hair again, because it had gotten messed up while I slept. Finally Bhavalikha escorted me to the carriage drive and into a carriage, where Lord Ravadh joined us a few moments later, and we headed toward the ferry.
En route, Bhavalikha and Lord Ravadh kept coaching me and quizzing me on the betrothal ceremony. I felt about as prepared for it as I’d ever been for a test in school. Problem was, this wasn’t a written test; I’d never seen the temple where the ceremony would take place, and I’d had limited opportunities to really rehearse all the gestures and movements.
We were halfway across the river when I felt dizzy for a few moments, and found myself in my body again. It was still dark, but there was light coming from the windows of the building in front of me. Serenikha had just been stepping out of the van into a parking lot, and I stumbled, of course, skinning my knees and hands on the asphalt. Before I could assess the damage, or ask someone where we were, I was back in Serenikha’s body.
“You’ve got to call it off,” I exclaimed, interrupting whatever Lord Ravadh was reminding me about. I told him and Bhavalikha what had just happened.
“The Patient One’s messed it up big time — if that happened when he’s not working the spell on us, it could happen again during the ceremony.”
“If it is just for a moment or two, it won’t hurt —” Lord Ravadh began, but I interrupted again.
“If it’s while I’m sitting quiet on my coiled tail, which is going to be most of the time, maybe so. But if it happens when I’m supposed to be saying or doing something? Big trouble. And there’s no guarantee it will last for just a moment, next time.”
“I will consider what you say.” And there was no more rehearsing and coaching for a while. I looked out the window and watched what I could see of the ferryboatmen unloading our carriage.
The next time it happened, I was sitting down, and I recognized the reception area at Mr. G.'s office. Mom, Dad and Taylor — or whoever was in their bodies at the moment — were sitting in other chairs, and Chad was rubbing some peroxide or something on my skinned knees, while Maella hovered nearby looking anxious. I didn’t see Mr. G. nearby. I started to say “I’m Leslie again —” but I don’t think I got my entire name out before I was back in Serenikha’s body.
“What was that?” Bhavalikha asked me.
“Serenikha was here — I’m assuming she was, because I was back in my body again — and I guess she started to say something.”
But it was a longer interval before the next swap; we were almost to the temple when I found myself standing in front of a toilet, peeing. My penis felt just as weird and wrong as my split tail — I mean my legs — and if I’d stayed in my own body for more than a fraction of a second, I probably would have stumbled and splattered pee all over the floor. But I was back in Serenikha’s body almost before I’d realized I was in my own.
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