Water serpents grow up in the whirlpool. It is like an endless water ride, snaking around our underwater realm just outside the main kingdom, Aleria. The water in the whirlpool is different to outside, it is cleaner and crystal clear. It nourishes and helps us grow.
Serpents are with their parents until they are five, and then they join the whirlpool and are taken care of by the older serpents. They all grow up like siblings.
I love it here and never want to leave. When we come of age, nineteen, we are taken out of the whirlpool to join the adult society in whatever role has been assigned to us. Not all are taken out of the whirlpool though, some have the job of being the adult carers in the whirlpool, and the rest have health problems that leave them out of adult society and not given a role. I became of age almost two years ago. I am still in the whirlpool, but I enjoy it here.
"Mina! Mina!" The kids called after me as I ducked and weaved through the whirlpool in human form.
Being older and still in the whirlpool I help out caring for the young ones. Some adults whisper about me still being in the whirlpool.
"What is wrong with her?"
"She must have a defect."
It does place a worry at the back of my mind, is there something wrong with me? But the children always cheer me up.
"You are perfect Mina." One young girl smiled up at me with glee. "We never want you to leave," another would say, starting the others up, "don't leave us Mina!"
I turned around to watch the children, letting them catch up. My breath hitched in my throat as I saw an object fly into the whirlpool. A large hook. It hooked around my waist, not embedding into me, and reefed me out. My world being ripped away from me in an instant. Panic gripped me, as well as the children who watched the rather unorthodox sight. Serpents are not generally hooked and pulled out like this. Despite being well overdue to be removed from the whirlpool, it wasn't something I wanted anymore. Two years ago, yes, I would have given anything to leave. Now, it is the last thing I want. For there is someone out in the wide world, that I'm not sure I want to face again.
Landing with a thud on a hard floor, in a rather plain looking room with two men, was not reassuring. One man is tall and looks middle age, shortcut dark hair, dressed in practical looking clothes for fishing people out of the whirlpool. The other an older wise looking man, slightly hunched with old age. A prickle became rather uncomfortable in the back of my mind, as to why the old man is here - but I don't want to stick around to discover the reason. Water dripping off me made my footing slip while scrambling up. Quick whispers floated after me and as I reach out to the door my hand was changed into a claw. My serpent form was forced upon me; body elongating, arms and legs changing, nose turning into a snout.
Scales lined my body, softer larger scales covering the underside of my belly. Long horns grew out of my skull near my ears that had shifted up and elongated. Long, thick, whiskers grew out - one on each side of my nose. Thick hair like a mane grew along my neck and at the tip of my tail. Five fingers changed to three thick, sharp claws and strong short limbs.
As I grew taller with my transformation my body was pulled back to the ground. Pegs and chains dropping from above from the tail up, until the restraints held firm in the ground right up to the back of my head. Screeching and thrashing was futile, but an automatic reaction regardless. The taller man knelt on my snout, and I puffed out steam in anger as he wrapped a serpent hair cord around my snout to keep it shut. Serpent hair cord is incredibly strong, our hair is relatively strong but it is mainly how it is weaved that gives it this strength. All I could do was puff out steam from my nostrils once fully restrained.
"That went pretty well, I was expecting worse," the taller man said with audible relief.
The old man chuckled. "We haven't finished yet so don't speak too soon."
The tall man knelt down in front of me and cautiously lifted my upper lip to expose my teeth. "You've got some good pearlers there young one.”
A harsh noise from deep in my throat incurred a stern look from the man, but then he patted my nose.
"Let's get started."
They approached my nose and started scrubbing. I thrashed in instinct at first, unaware what they were doing.
"We are only cleaning your scales, don't worry. We are not going to hurt you," the tall man reassured me.
I huffed and puffed as I watched them till I was comfortable he was telling the truth. I settled down and they finished on my head, moving back out of sight to scrub the rest of me. It felt like an eternity that they were scrubbing but eventually, they finally finished. Both men sighed and sat back.
"I'm too old for this," the old man complained and struggled up, his joints cracking as he did.
"But it was worth it, she is magnificent," the tall man said with exhaustion and awe.
Unable to see what they meant I struggled in vain. The old man stepped into view, appearing rather ragged and fatigued. "Want to see yourself? You had better behave."
I blew out a small puff of steam. Very well. The chains gradually broke, and I shook myself once I was free, before looking back at myself.
I was shining.
Scales shimmered in the light, as well as glinting off sharp claws.
The old man opened a wardrobe door to reveal a full-length mirror. Scales changed to pale skin. Mane receding to a head full off silver hair like starlight. Crystal clear water eyes reflecting back.
"Does everyone transform like this?" I asked the old man, who I had figured out is a Master.
Master’s are as their name suggests, they are masters of their job or craft. It is a very revered title as it is relatively hard to attain. "Everyone polishes up nicely, but you are a rare beauty.”
"He is one lucky guy," the tall man remarked before leaving through the door I had tried to escape through.
An uncomfortable feeling prickled at the back of my head. "Why was I brought out?"
He didn't answer my question and instead opened a sliding door to a connecting room. "You will need to get changed, a lady will help you."
I hesitated. I didn't trust this whole situation, but he gave me a look that said you can do it of your own free will, or I will make you. It is not a challenge I feel up to.
The soft thud of the door sliding shut behind me felt like being shutting me off from my past life.
A homely looking lady was standing patiently in the room. Middle age, soft brown curls and matching warm brown eyes.
"My name is Chloe. I will help you get ready." She smiled fondly, the smile reaching her eyes.
"Ready for what?" Tension filled my body, ready to spring away.
She smiled but avoided the question by pulling out a kimono. "You will need to change into this."
Despite firm protests, she stripped me off and into this new kimono. It brings back memories of the whirlpool - light blue like the water and silver embellishments all over. Even shoes like glass to match. She sat me down to brush my hair, which is now impractically long, long enough to sit on.
"Is this your role?"
"Yes. My husband fishes serpents out, cleans them up and then I get them dressed," she replied happily.
"Your husband wouldn't be..." that guy?
She chuckled to herself. "Yes, the tall one is my husband. His name is Noel."
I didn't keep up the conversation, and she was content with the silence as she happily put my hair up and pushed in matching hair ornaments. A knock on wood drifted into the room as she uncomfortably shoved in the last ornament.
"All ready," Chloe called out.
The master entered the room. "Please follow me, My Lady.”
My Lady?! What is going on? I looked at Chloe with worry, and she squeezed my hand to reassure me. "It is okay.”
There's not much of a choice is there? Leaving the room and stepping out onto the outside corridor, revealed the first look at the city from outside the whirlpool, although only from afar.
This building is on the edge of the kingdom boundary, right on the barrier edge, but high up in the air near the barrier top. The villa is suspended up here, it was specially built into the barrier for support, and hangs rather precariously. Very few memories of the city remained from my childhood. It is massive, with portals for the further reaches of the kingdom. It me stopped in my tracks as I took it all in.
"You will get to explore all of it, but we must not delay," he hurried.
I assumed that he is taking me to wherever I will find out my role. Which is still eluding me.. He stopped at a door further down and gently slid it open.
"If you will wait in here, please. I will not be long."
The door quietly sliding shut causing the same feelings as when he closed the other one earlier.
A very old traditional style room with tatami mats and shoji sliding doors, like the previous room. Seated in the middle of the room was a sitting table and two adjacent seat cushions. A young man, neatly dressed, stood to attention in the corner. His face is familiar, I remember him from the whirlpool. Elijah... We knew each other but weren't close friends. He is still in the tall lanky stage, a year younger than me. He appeared to be desperately trying to avoid eye contact.
"Do you know what role I have been assigned?" Trying to be amicable to begin with.
He kept his mouth shut and didn’t move his gaze from the wall. I narrowed my eyes and slowly stalked towards him. "You do know don't you."
He sneaked a glance my way and tensed up, probably sensing the impending danger. Some intelligible noise escape his mouth.
"Hmm?" I provoked and raised an eyebrow.
"M.. Marr.. Marriage," he mumbled.
It stopped me and my eyes widened. It took a moment for that word and associated meanings to sink in. "Marriage?" My voice coming out as low hiss.
He shuffled away in worry.
"My purpose in life is to just get married and have kids?!" I shrieked and pounced on him.
He tried to duck away and I only managed to grab hold of his feet. It brought us both to the ground and I scrambled over the top of him - with not very good intentions towards his health.
"I don't have anything to do with it," he cried as I growled threateningly at him.
I was suddenly lifted up effortlessly off him, arms under my shoulders like I was a child. Elijah took the opportunity to scramble up and dash out of the room.
"You haven't changed much," a voice chuckled behind me.
It made my ears prick up. That voice... That familiar voice I haven't forgotten even in all this time. Part of me didn’t want to look back, it wasn't necessary to. Every fibre inside tingled with recognition.
"Sebastian?" My voice came out a whisper.
He grinned at me. "Been a while, Mina." The Master step out from behind him.
This can’t be. "Can't be…"
"You two were matched as partners.”
"No no no." I struggled until I dropped out of Sebastian's hands. My chest tightened painfully. "I refuse." The same door Elijah escape through looked like a mighty fine option.
"Do you hate me that much?” Sebastian asked, sadness clear in his voice.
No, it's not like that...
You see... Sebastian is our Prince. He is the same age as me, only a few months older, and we grew up together. Royalty is still sent to grow up in the whirlpool but go back to their parents each night. We got along rather well. Actually, very well... But we haven't seen or spoken to each other in years, and now I am suddenly going to be his wife?
"A month,” he said with a hint of desperation. I looked back at him and saw it in his face as well. "Give me a month, if you still don't want to marry me at the end then you won't."
Sebastian put a hand up to stop the Master, he didn’t turn his gaze away. "I can't be forced to marry, and neither can she.”
I sighed and turned around. "Alright, I agree. One month." But inside me was turmoil.
"This is to be kept a secret. You will pretend to be my assistant. Make sure anyone else who knows is told this,” Sebastian said the last bit to the Master.
"My lord." He bowed and left the room, leaving Sebastian and I alone.
He is still appears like the same boy from my memories, but much more mature. His dark hair is longer now but combed back nicely to make him neater. Maybe taller as well, certainly more toned, it is obvious even with his uniform on. Dressed in full royal uniform - coloured black with gold trims. Those striking gold eyes and expression are the only things that haven't changed - that expression which makes my heart ache.
"You've changed.” Leaving as much emotion out of my voice as possible.
"So have you," he replied in a kinder way.
"A lot has happened." I broke eye contact, I wasn’t holding out well against him. "These shoes are uncomfortable, I would really like to change."
"I'll take you to the palace, get you a change of clothes and settled in a room."
His attitude quickly changed to mature and regal - a new unknown side. The prospects of what will happen when we leave the room suddenly hit fever pitch, and anchored my feet to the ground. Stepping out of the room will change everything, nothing will be able to go back the way it was. It is terrifying, and my hands clutched at the kimono. But Sebastian looked at me... Like he used to.
Sebastian led along the outside corridor to the end where a portal shone brightly. Portals appear as circular beams of loose blue shining energy. Generally only the size of a human form, but they transport those in serpent forms just as easily. The size of the portals was decided for space reasons, it didn't matter as the strength wasn't affected. In truth not many know exactly how portals work. The transport between portals happen so quickly that you don't feel, or are aware, of what happens. For some reason the mechanics behind it is not taught.
Sebastian gently grabbed my hand and pulled me into the portal with him, landing us on a balcony at the palace. Portals generally don't go straight to the palace...
"Only royalty can take portals into the palace,” he said like he had read my mind. He opened the doors to reveal a massive bedroom. "It won't fit, but I can't let the maids see you like that..."
He walked over to a huge wardrobe, and I trepidatiously stepped inside after him.
The room is simply magnificent. Many paintings of serpents and plants hung around the room. An intricate design of a garden was painted on the ceiling, details painstaking added in.
Sebastian was rifling through the wardrobe, throwing clothes out.
"Is this your bedroom?" It suddenly occurred to me.
"Of course,” he said without looking back.
Oh geez boy.
"Here,” he said triumphantly and presented clothes. "While I think you look beautiful, I can't show it to anyone else."
I thought he was saying it jokingly, but he was totally serious, and a slight tremble came to my hands as I grabbed the clothes off him.
"You can get changed in the bathroom if you like, I will step outside. The bathroom is through that door." He pointed to a door opened ajar behind me before stepping back out onto the balcony.
Even the bathroom was overly magnificent. This is ridiculous. What is with the size of the bath tub?!
Getting out of the glass shoes was heaven, but getting the kimono off was an effort without help. My hair ended up tangled everywhere and the ornaments caught in knots. The pants and shirt he gave me were definitely too big, but are enormously more comfortable than the kimono. His scent wafted off the clothes and my eyelids fluttered shut. The scent comforted me and awoke something deep inside. My heart raced, but I don't know why… I quickly bundled up the ornaments, shoes, and kimono, and stepped back into the bedroom.
"Sebastian," I called quietly.
He stepped back in and stopped short at the sight he saw. The same look appeared in his eyes that the mirror had reflected of mine. As he walked towards me the tremble return to my hands. What is this feeling?
He gently brushed a lock of hair away behind my ear. "Beautiful," he let out with a quiet breath.
Oh, Sebastian... I broke eye contact first. I can't do this. "What should I do with these?" Meaning the outfit in my arms.
He took them and hid them in his wardrobe. "I'll keep them hidden." I was about to protest, surely maids would find it and question it. "So if you do turn me down, you will always have something beautiful to wear.” I averted my eyes so I didn't have to see the expression on his face when he turned around, or he see mine. "We will go find someone to help settle you in." He strode out of the room in Prince mode, and I meekly followed behind.
Even the hallways were grand. Dark blue carpet rolled along the length of the hallway, paintings, and tapestries, high ceilings with candle chandeliers. None of this was being mentally processed, but the grandeur provided a distraction to the mind.
He suddenly stopped, hiding both of us in a room, while he rummaged through draws. Dim light escaping through closed curtains lit up dust particles floating the air from items being displaced by Sebastian.
"What are you doing?"
He spun around and shoved something towards my face, it wasn't pretty as we struggled, but it ended up being a large pair glasses.
"What are -" I frowned and was interrupted by him ruffling my hair up. He ended up scrunching up as much hair as he could underneath a hat, pissing me off. "What are you doing?!"
He shoved me back out the door in front of him. Not a moment after we were back in the hallway two people appeared around the corner. Perhaps Sebastian had sensed them coming, but why he thought a disguise was necessary wasn't clear.
"Prince Sebastian?" The maid’s eyebrows raised high.
She is older than me, and a bit shorter. Her chocolate brown hair neatly done up in a bun. Palace maid outfits are blue pants, a blue under shirt that is either long sleeve or short, and an embellished tunic type long tank top over the top. The man next to her appeared to be about the same age and was the same height as Sebastian. Neat shortcut light brown hair. He appeared to be a guard, from his clothing.
"Who is this?" he questioned and his eyes gave me a quick up and down.
"This is Mina. Master Aemon assigned her as my assistant. She needs clothes, and I want her bedroom set up in that old nanny room down from mine.” Sebastian sounded truly like a royal. It was my first glimpse at seeing who he had now become. The maid and guard glanced at each other.
"That is no problem, I will find her some clothes,” the maid said.
Sebastian appeared to relax slightly, before turning back to me. "Mina this is Emily and Thomas."
I was still vastly far behind everything that was happening, I was playing with the kids in the whirlpool only a moment ago… Emily, appearing to see my loss, came and took my hand.
"Come, I will find you some clothes." She smiled kindly and led me away.
A sharp gaze from Sebastian pierced into my back as we walked away.
"You must be bewildered. Was much explained to you?" Emily asked. She led into a light and airy room, rifling through the cupboards.
"No," I replied quietly.
She gave me a sympathetic look and passed over a maid uniform. "Get changed and I will explain as much as I can."
A plain cream privacy screen stood in the corner. Perhaps this is the newbie room. When I stepped out Emily looked unimpressed at the hat, which had tendrils of hair escaping from. She pulled it off and my hair unravelled in all its glory and length. It surprised her, and it appeared to click what the purpose of the hat was, but she also showed envy.
"I should just cut it," I mumbled, becoming self-conscious.
"Nonsense!" She snapped out of it. "Sit. I will do it up." It was incredibly calming as she brushed my hair. "Your job is different from mine. You are only expected to do whatever he asks of you, you do not need to do housekeeping unless he asks. You will follow him everywhere unless he tells you otherwise, and you will have to learn to be one step ahead of him, which is hard," she laughed at the end.
Maybe marrying him will be easier.
Emily gave a tour of the palace so I knew a little bit about my surroundings, she assured that everyone gets lost often in the beginning. Any workers we came across she would give introductions. I forgot names almost as soon as I was told. Honestly, I am awfully tired, which Emily may have sensed as she walked us back through the palace and into a bedroom.
"This is your bedroom." She pushed the door open and stood out of the way. It appeared like it had been cleaned up and dusted out recently, which would have been in the time Emily gave the tour of the palace. "Sebastian’s room is three doors down on the left. He is very busy so you will have to learn his schedule and where to go. As for dinner, I can bring it and accompany you tonight if you like." She smiled sweetly.
"That would be nice, thank you," I replied automatically. The offer was nice, but alone time was the most important need at this moment.
"I will let you rest then, and see you tonight."
The soft click of the door released tension in my body, a sigh escaping my lips. The stupid glasses can go too. Emily had done the hair bun so tight and with so many hair pins that it caused a headache. A good scratch where the worst of the pulling had been eased the discomfort, and a simply plait worked to keep the hair at bay.
So this is my bedroom? How does everyone make this adjustment? It is so different from the whirlpool. I stood by one of the large windows facing out over the city, the edge of the whirlpool in the distance.
I have never felt this alone…
In an effort to comfort myself I filled up the bathtub in the bathroom attached to the room and submerged myself. Obviously not big enough to be in serpent form, but a half transformation fitted with the tail flopped over the edge of the tub. The scales shimmered and changed colour moving in the light.
When Emily knocked on my door that night it was a relief to have company by then. She held two plates of food and smiled brightly.
"Wow, your eyes sparkle without those glasses on,” she remarked with amazement, "can you see well without them?"
Well, I don't need them at all... "Only for reading.” It would be strange if I said I don't need them at all and that Sebastian suddenly put them on.
Dinner was a traditional water serpent dish, essentially a seafood salad. It made provided a sense of comfort deep inside.
"How old are you?" she asked.
"I will be twenty-one on the first full moon of spring."
"Oh, they kept you in the whirlpool for a fair bit longer. They like to do that sometimes to let you mature more in the whirlpool. Maybe that is why your eyes and hair are so stunning." She seemed to have no ill-will and genuinely friendly.
"How old are you? If you don't mind me asking."
"Not at all, I turned twenty-nine last new moon. Thomas treated me to a candlelight dinner,” she said blissfully.
"Are… Are you two mates?"
"No. We were matched a few months ago," she blushed and averted her eyes down, "I always liked him. When I was called out and entered the room to see him, my heart..."
Serpents are matched on genetic compatibility, so we have more than one potential mate. Personality compatibility is then also taken into account. After being matched with someone either party is allowed to refuse if it doesn't work between them. Generally, that doesn't happen as they are careful with matches. In saying that about being mates, there are also 'soul mates' - you are compatible with only one other.
"It is getting late, and you must be exhausted. Sebastian gets up early to train in the mornings, he is very forgiving so don't worry if you are late, get lost, or mess things up in the beginning," she reassured and left with the plates.
Exhausted was temporarily kept at bay by the sight of the bed. How am I going to be able to sleep like this? How do you even sleep in a bed? There was a pair of blue pyjamas on the bed. Trying the pyjamas for added comfort did not work, they probably had the opposite effect in this instance. Laying down on the bed didn't work either. No, no no no, this isn’t working. Changing into serpent was much more comfortable, but not the right size to fit on the bed.
Sheets and rugs bundled up on the floor made a nest. It was the best and most comfortable I could manage.