Water Serpents

 

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Chapter 1

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."

"My lord-"

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.

"Ah, okay."

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.

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Chapter 2

Sleep didn't come peacefully, any moment of discomfort was an easy disruption. As such, an alarm wasn't needed in the morning. Breakfast hadn't been explained, nor how life more thoroughly worked in the palace. So I got changed into the uniform and waited outside Sebastian’s door, hoping he would come out and not leave via the balcony. Otherwise, I would be in a little bit of a pickle. 

Each second that ticked by caused more anxiety, until the door opened. Sebastian was genuinely surprised, but then looked me up and down and his expression hardened with displeasure.

"Glasses?"

A subtle roll of my eyes and a small sigh were the only resistance, yet I produced them from the pants pocket.

"Good, don't take them off."

"But I don't need glasses.”

"Doesn't matter." He grabbed them and not so subtly shoved them on my face. "Can't do much about the hair," he muttered to himself.

"What?" 

"Come on, you will get lost if you try to find the training grounds on your own."

He grabbed my hand but then let go as we started walking. His thoughts were a mystery, some moments he would treat me like his mate, then others simply as an assistant. But the assistant role is a ruse, if he is trying to convince me to marry him he is doing a poor job. And I'm hungry.

Our destination took us through the palace and out into a private courtyard, of which there are several. I tried to memorise the way, little landmarks that stood out in my memory. Staff would stop and bow as we passed, then observe me as we walked off. Imagine if they knew I was his mate.

"There is a main training courtyard used for the soldiers, and two others; one I mainly use as no one else does, and another is used for certain exercises. The one I use is more secluded, it helps me think to be away from the rush of the palace,” Sebastian explained as we walked, he was striding along and I was having to power walk to keep up. Slow down dammit.

The palace got quieter as we walked, going into a less ventured part of the palace and down an outside staircase, to see Thomas waiting. The courtyard was rather plain but surrounded by tall bushes and fairly few windows opened out onto it. A peaceful and secluded place to think quietly.

"I see you are being a faithful assistant getting up this early to come with him." Thomas smiled at me.

I forced a little smile in response. Honestly buddy, I am just exhausted and have no clue, so simply following whatever I am told to.

"We can go for a while, so better get yourself comfortable."

"Only when you put up a fight,” Sebastian chided and put his coat around my shoulders, "don't get cold."

It is autumn now and getting colder. While I appreciated the care he was showing, it is not how you would generally act towards an assistant. This whole ruse won't work if he acts like this in front of others.

"Bring it on young one," Thomas provoked and ignored the little gesture, but he was clearly observing us with interest.

The steps were as good a place as any to sit and half-heartedly watch them. Knees up to prop my elbows up, for my hands to support my chin.

Sebastian has gotten quick and nimble, we used to fight when we were a lot younger and got on each other's nerves more often than not, but there was always a good bond between us as friends from the beginning. Thomas is a good fighter, matching Sebastian, it's clear they could go for a long time. But Thomas appeared to be getting the upper hand today. They appear to be chatting as they sparred but it wasn’t audible over the sound of clanging metal. Thomas said something that caught Sebastian off-guard, causing him to lose the match. They both looked towards me and Thomas spoke again. 

I wish I knew what was being said. 

Sebastian walked over without another word, appearing quite unhappy. "Come on let's go."

What did Thomas say to him? Thomas only offered a smile in response to my gaze.

Sebastian seemed a bit annoyed so I said nothing, but we were getting back into a more populated part of the palace.

"Sebastian," I called his name quietly so I didn't attract attention in case someone was near.

He stopped and looked back at me with a troubled expression.

"Your coat, people will talk if they see it on me.”

Rather than grabbing his coat, he pulled me into a hug, causing me to tense in surprise. "God I can't think straight when you are near me, I can't get my mind off you."

I blushed at his words and contact, his smell and warmth enveloped me. A part of me said to hell with it, just marry him! But a sound caused me to jump back out of his arms. Sebastian had a sad smile, but didn't say anything and took his coat back. This situation isn't as smooth and straightforward as it should be, we should happily be engaged and spending all our time together, loving each other. He walked on ahead, but my thoughts kept my feet firmly planted.

"Sebastian," but he didn’t hear me, "Sebastian," I called louder and ran after him. He stopped and looked back at me. "I -"

Emily and a girl appeared at an inopportune moment. "Prince Sebastian,” Emily inclined her head, “Mina, I have been wanting to introduce you to Ali.”

"Emily why don't you look after Mina for a bit. I have a boring meeting to attend, and Mina should learn more about the palace.” Sebastian took the opportunity to quickly leave.

I wanted to run after him, to drag him away and let us be alone, but I was dragged back to the present.

"Mina this is Ali. She is near your age so I thought it would be good for you two to become friends. She is a pharmacist apprentice.”

Ali is the same height as Emily, and has apple red hair cut into a bob with startling green eyes. She was like me, but different colours making her striking. I felt an instant connection with her. She wore a long sleeve collared dress, light blue with dark blue trimming and button embellishments down the front.

"I was planning to help her with a job, but why don't you help? Is that okay Ali?"

Ali nodded. "Sure, I can show you around the gardens and pharmacy. You wouldn't have been shown around there yet."

"Perfect, I will see you later." Emily left us to go attend to her own jobs.

"Emily was just telling me about you when we ran into you and the Prince. I have to go get herbs from the garden so let's go." She smiled brightly. She gives the impression of a sprightly little pixie. Happily chatting away as we walked, putting a lot of animation into what she was saying.

"How are you adjusting to life out of the whirlpool?" she asked after finishing her story.

"Badly. I didn't know how to sleep last night, and I am really hungry." My stomach grumbled as I said it.

"Have you eaten?" she asked with wide eyes.

I shook my head.

"Some master the Prince is, not making sure his assistant gets breakfast! Come on, we'll swipe some food for you." She grabbed my hand and ran. I was surprised by her tenaciousness, but I settled quickly and fed off her bubbly attitude. We burst straight into the kitchen, this girl appears to have no boundaries.

"The Prince didn't let his assistant get breakfast," she exclaimed as she walked over to a homely looking large woman cooking.

No, it is not like that. Sebastian is probably going to get in trouble over it, as everyone in the kitchen heard and exclaimed about it. Oh, Ali...

"The Prince! What terrible manners. Here sweetheart, take as much as you want." The lady pushed a tray of newly baked pastries towards me. Ali helped herself too.

"Thanks, Marianne." Ali kissed her on the cheek and dragged me out of the kitchen, at what must be her normal speed.

The food is incredibly good and made me feel much better. We walked out of the palace and through the gardens, Ali danced ahead as I strolled behind eating.

"I love being outside in the gardens,” she said happily, "we have a massive herb garden. See." She stopped and looked triumphantly with her hand on her hips over a massive immaculately tended garden.

"This is all herbs?" Disbelief clear in my voice.

"Yep, the biggest in the world.”

She trotted down the steps in front. I slowly walked along behind her, taking in all the different herbs and the smells that were flooding my senses. She crouched down and became serious as she carefully picked herbs and put them in different bags that she produced from her pockets.

"My parents are pharmacists, my earliest memory is of my mother tending to her herb garden.”

So she knows her parents. It is not like it is forbidden to find your parents when you re-enter society. Everyone is completely free to reconnect with their family, not all choose to. I would like to find my parents though.

We moved along through the garden for each herb she needed. I crouched in front of an interesting looking plant when a face suddenly appeared out of it. I let out a little scream and fell back on my ass. Ali rushed back in worry but then sighed.

"Souta, you shouldn't scare people like that."

It is a young water serpent. "Who is this?" he inspected me.

"Her name is Mina, she is Prince Sebastian’s assistant."

Souta blinked a few times and then crawled up me till he was right in my face. "I like you."

It was all so unexpected I ended up laughing.

Ali grinned. "Come on, I'm done, and your mum will be wondering where you are."

"Mum knows," he replied simply, grabbing my glasses. He pulled them down enough to see my eyes clearly and stopped.

Ali also looked unsure about what he was doing. "Come on. He will follow if we go."

Souta pushed my glasses back on and crawled over my shoulder. As I got up he lost balance and clung onto my hair, dangling off it. Thankfully he isn’t particularly heavy.

"Don't worry about him. He is four and in an adventurous stage.”

Souta happily swung around on my plaited hair before crawling up onto my head and peering down to gaze at me. He appeared enthralled with me.

"Who is his mum?"

"Gillian, she is the head pharmacist. You will meet her in a minute."

Ali danced back with the herbs in her arms. Souta must be used to Ali as he paid no attention to her and instead spent his time inspecting and smelling me. He kept losing his grip as he crawled over me so I held him in my arms. With me supporting him he reached up and grabbed my lip with his little claw to inspect at my teeth.

"Souta!" A woman yelled. She wore a long coat, which obviously matched the rest of the palace outfits. Long blonde hair that curled and sprawled, and murky blue eyes. "That is very rude," she admonished.

Souta released my lip and curled around the back of my neck to hide, peeking his head out. "Mumma she is so pure.” That made all of us stop in our tracks. Young ones always speak their mind without much prior thought.

"She is new out of the whirlpool," Gillian said dismissively, but she still gave me a long stare. "Come on inside."

Ali trotted off with her herbs.

"So you are Prince Sebastian’s assistant. That is a big job." Gillian smiled.

I nodded. "He is in a meeting right now, but wanted me to spend time with Ali."

"Ali is a good girl." Gillian watched her with a proud smile. "She will surpass me one day as a pharmacist... But you will become a pharmacist too won't you Souta." She peered at him still hiding around my neck.

"I wanna explore the world!" 

"When you are older little one. For now, you need to go back to the others." She shooed him off me and he flew away, back out into the garden. "All the kids from palace workers and officials play together," Gillian said as she watched him till he was out of sight. "We have to make batches of medicine, you can help out if you want."

With no experience I wasn't too much help, but they were both patient with me and explained everything. Ali turned into a different person as she worked, calm and precise. When we finished we all sat down and Gillian told us stories of her days as a young apprentice. She had travelled to many different towns in our world, to all the pharmacies.

"I would love to travel," I said wistfully listening to her stories.

"Prince Sebastian travels a lot to visit other towns, as his assistant he would bring you along."

"You are not being much of an assistant right now." Ali laughed.

We were silent for a moment before I laughed as well. Time passed by unnoticed until the light became dull outside.

"Oh my, look at the time. You had better get back to Prince Sebastian, he will be wondering where you are. Ali, help her back so she doesn't get lost."

"Thank you for a wonderful day."

"You are welcome anytime my dear." She smiled warmly.

"I hope you don't get in trouble for staying all day," Ali worried as she almost ran me back to the main section of the palace.

"Don't worry, he won't be mad." Because I am not his assistant anyway.

She was going to walk me straight back to my door but I assured her I could get back on my own, so after a bit of persuasion, she left with a worried expression on her face. Actually, I hope I do know my way back. The big staircase outside was familiar, then a left turn… another left down the first hallway…I stopped midway and looked back. I am lost... Well, I will figure it out eventually. I will go on an adventure through the palace. I wandered down hallways, through doors, back through doors and along a long outdoor corridor. Which I shouldn't have done because I don't recall this corridor. An outside corridor doesn’t lead to my room anyway. Ugh, dammit this place is big. I headed back and set off down a different direction. Well... this painting seems slightly familiar. I stopped and inspected the ancient painting of the city. The sound of hurried footsteps travelled down the corridor, and I saw Sebastian as the culprit. He appeared almost distraught. Oh no, I think I have got him worked up. He rushed over, but I had no idea what he was going to do until he stopped in front of me and bowed deeply.

"I am deeply sorry. I didn't even think that you would not have gotten breakfast. You are my bride and I haven't cared for you at all."

I was taken back by his gesture. "Sebastian, please. It is okay." I pulled on his shirt to get him up from the bow.

"It is not okay, I need to treat you better than that." His anguish was clear on his face.

"Don't worry. You are the Prince, you have a lot on your mind," I tried to placate him, but it was apparent that nothing I could say would make him feel any better.

"I will treat you tonight. Come." He gingerly took my hand, but let go quickly again. He consciously matched his pace to mine, walking beside me. "We will quickly stop by the kitchen."

When we reached the kitchen door he scanned around for anyone before peeking his head in, his hand grabbed mine and I stared down at them. Hands…

"Jeff, I am extremely hungry tonight so can you make my dinner double?"

There was a faint, “Yes My Lord”. Sebastian had a little grin and kept a hold of my hand as he quickly snuck us back down the hallway and to his bedroom.

"What if we get caught?"

"It is alright, don't worry about it." He smiled. "Do you want to change into different clothes? Or have a shower?" He is making sure he is being attentive to my needs.

"A shower would be nice actually."

"You can go in mine. But you would probably be more comfortable in your room," he worried.

"I will go in my room, I have a change of clothes in there too."

"I will wait here for you then." He gave such an impression of nervousness, like he didn't know what to do.

Going back to my room and having a shower gave me the opportunity to have a breath and gather my thoughts, they go in disarray when I am close to Sebastian. I didn't take long in case dinner would arrive quickly. My change of clothes were only the pyjamas provided, but I figured it would be okay to go over dressed like that. I quietly and quickly snuck from my room to his, where I walked in on him as he got out of the bathroom and only a towel around his hips.

"Oh! I’m so sorry," I stammered and stumbled, shooting back out the door. But I was pulled back in only a moment later. He was still dressed the same and the close contact had my heart racing. Bare chest. Bare chest. He is naked under that towel isn’t he?

"You might be seen,” he said seriously, but then noticed my fluster.

I could sense the red on my cheeks, and his own heart pounding louder. He inched closer, my back pressed firmly against the door.

"Sebastian…" It came out a whisper.

He leaned closer and my eyes started to flutter shut on their own, but the moment was broken by a knock on the door.

"My lord, dinner is here."

The door knob suddenly turned and Sebastian quickly pulled me aside and behind him, so I was hiding in the gap behind the open door. Luckily it was a butler who brought the food in.

"Oh, please forgive me. I should not have barged in," he apologised sincerely after seeing Sebastian’s attire.

"It is okay, do not do it again." I could sense Sebastian’s heart was racing.

When the butler left the room a moment passed before we burst out laughing.

"Oh my god, that was so close!"

"They are terrible," he chided and shook his head. "I'll get changed. You can start eating."

He ducked back into the bathroom. I was still inspecting the food when he came back in dressed in plain pants and top. He then appeared to only just realise my clothes. "Is that all you have?” he said with a hint of shock.

I looked down at the pyjamas. "Well I didn't bring anything out of the whirlpool with me," I retorted with satire.

"I will have to take you shopping tomorrow. It will also be a good opportunity to show you the city." He sat down on the floor with his back against the bed and started eating. He patted the ground next to him. "Sit."

I didn't sit right next to him, but close enough to eat off his plate.

"They like to boast that the palace has the best food, but I have to take you to a little noodle place. It is my favourite, I always sneak out to eat there. I'll take you there too. There is a lot I want to show you actually." His mind appeared to be going fast pace.

"Plenty of time.” I wanted to calm him.

He looked at me but didn't say anything, I suppose he was thinking that he only had a month to convince me to marry him.

"You know I see Callum occasionally," he deftly changed the subject. Callum is a guy around our age that we played with a lot. "He was assigned to be a messenger."

We chatted away about people we knew and what they were doing now. Somehow chatting well into the night despite me being exhausted. Eventually, we reached the end of a conversation and I took the long pause to leave.

"I'm very tired, I had better go to bed." I yawned and stood up.

"Of course." But he appeared sad I was leaving. "Don't worry about getting up early. I can fetch breakfast for you," he offered eagerly.

"It's okay, I can go to the kitchen and pick something up."

"Then I will get you at ten and go to the city."

"Sounds good, good night."

"Goodnight,” he said breathlessly as I shut the door behind me

It is lonely back in my room, dark and cold.

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Chapter 3

I fell asleep quickly but only got about an hours sleep, tossing and turning, unable to sleep. So by morning I desperately didn't want to go out. Still in my serpent, I slithered across the floor to the door, I can't be bothered to change but I definitely need to. I haven't seen anyone in their serpent form since coming out of the whirlpool, I still wasn't sure how everything worked, even though we are taught a lot of the world as we grew up. There were no sounds coming from Sebastian’s room as I walked past, he might still be asleep or already awake and out. Finding my way to the kitchen was thankfully easily, the smell of food helped guide my way.

"Ah Mina, I see you are working out how things work." Marianne smiled at me, and I greeted the other workers.

I sighed. "Slowly."

"These." She pointed out what food I could take. She appeared to notice see my troubled expression. "Give it time, you will settle in.”

The problem is the situation is so much more than anyone realises. I wish I could talk to someone about it. "Thank you."

With time to waste until Sebastian was going to come get me, and no idea where he was, I wondered around the castle, trying to find that courtyard actually. As I walked along an outside corridor I caught sight of the main training courtyard. Those stupid glasses got in the way of my good eye sight, and with them off it became as clear as day. There is someone who looks like Sebastian from behind. I rested against the railing, twirling the glasses between my fingers. Sebastian, if it is Sebastian, appears to be talking with higher ranking soldiers, chatting and laughing. With a sigh the glasses slipped between my fingers. Shit. I looked down and saw them fall in a bush below. This corridor is two-stories up, and there is no nearby way to get down. Although I don't know why I am worried about those glasses anyway, but Sebastian wants me to wear them. A quick glance around to check for anyone nearby, before crawling over the railing and dropping. It is no problem, a drop of that height is nothing. It is all in how you control the landing. I landed without incident and rummaged through the bush, the glasses were stuck midway. Now to find my way out of here.

"It may have been a quick way down, but it is not a conventional way," a stern voice said behind me, startling me.

I spun around to see a high ranking soldier. As startled as I was to see him, he became startled by me as well. The glasses appear to dull the sparkle of my eyes and changed how I appeared, without the glasses on it appeared to entrance serpents for a few moments. The soldier was taller than Sebastian and broad, no. 4 cut brown hair, and a strong stern aura about him. But it appears that I have stumped him, as he stared at me for a long time.

"I am sorry. I am new and didn't know the way down. My glasses dropped in this bush." I put them back on and twirled my hair back into a bun, which appeared to take him out of the trance he was in.

"Well, it is not the proper way. Learn how this palace works and how to get around. Get back to work,” he said sternly.

My eyes were wide and my body stiff, I hadn't come across someone like him before. "Yes," I squeaked and ran back into the palace.

As I ran back through I came across the kitchen, so I knew where I was luckily. Slowing down to little trots through the main lobby and up the big staircase, running into Emily.

"Mina. Are you alright dear? Have you lost Prince Sebastian?" she appeared concerned with my fluster.

I shook my head. "I ran into this stern soldier."

Something clicked for Emily. "Ah, that would most like be Elroy. I would stay clear of him, he is a hard man.”

I nodded and kept trotting up the steps, and back towards my room. Although rather than going into my room, I made a last-minute decision to duck into Sebastian’s room. With the soft click of the door, my body instantly relaxed. I can't mistake the relaxation I feel when I'm surrounded by his smell, tension instantly left my body. I walked around his room, able to take my time to inspect it. Mostly clean, with some clothes thrown over chairs and the sheets still ruffled. The maids must not have been in yet. What if they come while I am in here? Oh, the trouble... I was about to leave when I heard footsteps coming. Shit, shit! I dove over the bed in panic to hide on the other side of it. The door softly clicked open and shut. My heart was pounding in my ears, this is a terrible hiding place, maybe I can crawl over to his dresser.

"Mina?"

I froze in position, crawling next to the bed. I looked back to see Sebastian with a quizzical look. "What are you doing?"

I let out a big sigh and relaxed. "I thought you were a maid."

He watched me for a moment, I thought he would question more as to why I was in his room at all, which I wouldn't be able to answer with a straight answer. I don’t know why I entered his room instead of mine.

"Saves me looking for you at least. Although the purpose of today is to get you new clothes, I swiped some plain clothes about your size." He produced them from a bag.

"I'll change now."

I ran into his bathroom, which took him by surprise, as I am sure he would have assumed I would go back to my own room to change. But today appears to be a day for me doing rash and unusual things. He had gotten me plain dark pants and a loose-fitting plain top. It must have been all he could find that didn't have the palace colour and embellishments. Although surely the palace outfit would be okay. When I stepped back out Sebastian had changed to plain clothes but looked far more attractive in them than I did. His hair was all tousled, wearing dark pants and a cream loose renaissance style top. He looked more like the boy from my memories, and it stopped me, but catching me staring at him wistfully stopped me and my thoughts from going any further.

"Come on,” he said gently with a soft expression and held his hand out.

I strode over and took his hand, looking up at him smiling down at me before he led me over to the balcony and pulled me into his arms. We appeared a moment later at a portal on the edge of a jetty that was at the end of, what appeared to be, a large market place. Still holding my hand he pulled me along.

"Won't people recognise you?"

"I do it so often that those who do, don't care much anymore. And after all," he stopped and turn to me, "this is a date." He kissed my hand, making me blush. "But if it worries you then I will restrain myself," he let go of my hand, "and you won't need these today. I will let others see you shine." He took off the glasses and the look he was giving me was pure love and adoration.

I was about to talk but he broke away and started walking off. Sebastian… When will I get the opportunity to talk to you properly... 

"I have walked past some shops that seemed to have nice clothes. Buy whatever you want, my treat.”

I had on a defeated smile. Very well. The whole marketplace was over the water, after all, we are water serpents and connected with water. It was mostly all little shops bustled in together. The hustle and bustle reminded me of the whirlpool, and it was relaxing. Sebastian would point out shops, telling me good ones and bad ones. Obviously I have never had to go clothes shopping so I simply entered the first store that had clothes which caught my eye. Sebastian contently wandered along behind me as I inspected clothes.

"You can try on any clothes you like, there are changing rooms,” he informed me.

Looking through the racks nothing particularly took my eye so we left that shop and wandered further along to another shop. Sebastian inspected clothes in the men's section as I picked out various items of clothing I wanted to try. It was time-consuming trying on all the clothes, and when I came out I was worried that Sebastian was getting tired of it, but he happily smiled at me. The girl at the counter couldn't take her eyes off Sebastian and gave me a look. I didn't plan on buying any more but one piece caught my eye as we walked along.

"That's pretty.”

Sebastian looked at it and then pulled me inside to find it. It is a one piece, cut as shorts and mid sleeve with wrap around front belt. The fabric was so soft.

"Go try it on,” Sebastian encouraged.

It felt fantastic against my skin, but would I even wear it often? When I came out I expressed that same thought to Sebastian. He grabbed it out of my hand and bought it, handing the bag to me.

“I’m not poor. Buy it and enjoy yourself,” he said nonchalantly.

I had to laugh, which made Sebastian happy. I told myself this is all I will buy, but Sebastian had a different idea. He suddenly dragged me into a fancy and expensive looking shop.

"We need something plain but elegant, and a more formal dress," he told the lady who greeted us.

Hang on a minute! But I was led away by another lady to the change rooms and Sebastian wandered around the shop. I was taken into a massive dressing room.

"Strip down to bra and underwear and put this robe on. We will bring in the selection of dresses," the lady said kindly and left.

It will simply be easier to go with it. Both ladies entered after a little while with a selection of dresses each. There was a massive difference between the plain and formal dresses. There were a few I knew straight away I didn't like.

"Not those." I pointed them out.

It was not surprising when they stayed in to help me change. It was a formal dress first, and honestly magnificent. I liked it a lot more than the kimono I was forced to wear the other day. Red tulle long sleeve floor length with court train, v-neck and open v back. Red tulle flowers and beading covering the bodice, back, upper sleeve and top of the skirt. They pushed me out the door to where Sebastian was contently sitting on a couch waiting. He looked me up and down, and with a giggle I twirled around, making adoration appear in his eyes. 
"Perfect."

With the kimono I already had I refused any more formal dresses. The plain ones were more me. One was a beautiful floor length, layered frilly skirt, thin strap with a v-neckline, white with purple flowers dress. But Sebastian didn't stop there as he insisted on matching shoes and accessories, I quickly added a pair of plain comfortable shoes myself.

"This is enough Sebastian," I pleaded after we left the shop and the bags were split between us.

"Whatever makes you happy Mina." He smiled at me. He is a truly mischievous guy. "Are you hungry?"

"Yes.”

"I'll take you to that noodle place I told you about."

It was a bit more of a walk from where we were, so it showed me more of the market. Some people appeared to recognise Sebastian and whispered to each other, but didn't do anything. The noodle place is a rather small shop but had plenty of customers and a wonderful smell that filtered through the surrounding market place.

"Sebastian," an older man exclaimed with a thick accent.

"Hi Cho, two today.”

Sebastian ducked in, and I squeezed in behind him to peek around.

"Oh, Mr. Sebastian you have a friend today." Cho came across as a joyful and exuberant man. Short black hair and dark eyes. He appears to be in his 50’s, and just smaller than me.

"This is Mina. She is an old friend of mine who got out of the whirlpool the other day, so I'm helping her with some shopping." He lifted the bag in his hand.

"Chellaray! That is some expensive clothing. You are a very lucky girl. But," with his long ladle spoon in hand, "he has brought you to the best place for noodles." He grinned. "Come. I make you best dish you ever tasted."

Sebastian took us out behind the markets to a quiet part of the wharf to sit and eat. We sat on the edge, our legs dangling over the edge as we ate.

"Mmm. You’re right, this is mouth-watering."

Sebastian smiled, and we ate quietly till we finished.

"Have you had a good time today?” Sebastian asked.

I looked over at him, he was staring out over the horizon of the water. "I truly have. Thank you." I put my hand over his.

"My pleasure." He turned his hand over and entwined his fingers with mine. "I'm glad I got to treat you today." He was still looking out over the water. "I have always wanted to bring you here since we were teenagers. There is so much I want to show you."

I had to gather my thoughts and couldn't look at him as I spoke either. "I will go anywhere, so long as you are with me." I peeked a look at him after a moment and caught him staring at me, like he was staring deep inside.

He released my hand to touch my face, stroking my cheek, making my breath hitch. "You look like the Life Star."

The Life Star is essentially as it is called. It is a sparkling ball of pure energy that balances life in our world, it floats above the Vortex. The Vortex is a fiery dark tumbling tunnel to the underworld. Our Yin and Yang.

I couldn't break away, I was lost in him. He dropped his hand away from my cheek and grabbed my hand again.

"Let's go for a walk."

We wandered along the wharf, idly chatting about the weather and water, slowly heading back to the portal. Most of the day had passed us by in no time at all. It was sad to be back at the palace, it meant today had to end. He walked me back to my room, making our splendid day together end.

"Sleep well." He kissed my hand and walked back to his room.

I stayed out in the hallway, hearing the door click behind him. I hit my forehead lightly against the wall, Sebastian... With a deep sigh I entered my room. 

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