Atem hovered outside the door to Yugi's cabin, feeling perverse. He hated himself for doing this. He couldn't believe he was even considering it. But his desire overwhelmed his embarrassment, and he snatched at the door handle, bursting inside.
The petite cottage was warm, clean as a whistle, dotted with patches of sunlight that streamed through the cloudy windows. Four benches flanked the entrance, and in the center of the room, a vase of wildflowers adorned a round wood table. In the far left corner of the room was a small nook, its walls covered in shelves heavy-leaden with bottled potions. A banner hung above the alcove. It read, somewhat ominously, "THIEVES WILL BE PUNISHED."
Atem shut the door behind him, letting out a short breath of relief when he confirmed he was alone; this was a conversation he was desperate to keep private. Stomach aching with anxiety, he took a seat on one of the benches and fidgeted while he waited for Yugi to return.
It was only a few seconds before he heard the soft padding of tiny feet coming up the stairs beyond the cellar door. Even after all their years of friendship, Atem was still startled by how short Yugi was, barely five feet even including his wild hair. His slight build and wide eyes gave him a childish appearance, an impression reinforced by his high-pitched voice. Despite Yugi's insistence that he was nearly twenty, Atem often wondered if he lied about his age. After all, he'd lied about other things before.
"Atem, hi!" Yugi said, a smile blossoming on his face though there was confusion in his eyes. "You don't usually come over during business hours; what's up?"
"Um…" Atem rose from his seat and felt a sudden wave of awkwardness. He slipped his hands into the pockets of his trousers, unsure what else to do with them.
Yugi frowned. "Everything okay?" he asked.
"Fine. Fine," Atem replied, although he was anything but.
Another terrible moment of silence passed. "Was there something you needed?" Yugi asked finally, after the pause had stretched on.
"I, um…" Atem cleared his throat. "I was hoping I might benefit from your expertise."
"Oh!" Yugi said, brightening. Then he recoiled, his brow furrowing. "Oh."
"I see," Yugi murmured, but it was easy to see his hesitancy was feigned. Try as he might to hide it, excitement lit up his eyes like a star, the way it always did when someone brought him work. "Did you want to go into my office?"
"Yes, please," Atem answered, feeling very exposed in the lobby, where anyone could walk in at any time. So Yugi beckoned for him to follow and led him into a tight back room, unfurnished but for an elegant desk and three hard wooden chairs.
"Have a seat," Yugi said, taking a seat of his own across from Atem. As Atem hesitantly lowered himself down into the nearest chair, Yugi rummaged around in one of the desk drawers, withdrawing a gold fountain pen and a stack of papers as fat as a brick.
"Standard forms and releases," Yugi explained, when he caught Atem staring down the documents with an expression of dread. "Here," he said, passing over the pen. It was surprisingly heavy when Atem took it up, and frigid like ice to the touch. Enchanted, in all likelihood. But enchanted to do what? "So I'll need you to state some things, for the record. I don't want to be nosey; it's just…"
"No, it's quite all right," Atem said, waving a hand.
"Atem, son of Aknamkanon."
"Eighteen." But Yugi know all this already. Atem shifted in his seat as Yugi scratched out his answers with a long white quill, knowing the most mortifying question was still to come.
"Okay, so now I need to ask… what kind of product was it, that you were interested in, specifically?" Yugi asked, glancing up from his papers and giving Atem an apologetic smile. Atem murmured a reply, far too quietly for Yugi to hear. "What was that? Sorry…"
Atem cleared his throat a second time, bouncing his leg in an attempt to dispel his nerves. "Male to female transformation?" he croaked.
"Aha," Yugi said, nodding evenly, his face an expressionless mask. But a grin escaped him for an instant, like a ray of sunshine peeking through a heavy layer of cloud.
Atem scowled at him. "It's not funny."
"Of course not."
"I wasn't!" Yugi said. "It's just the way you were acting—I expected something weirder, is all," he said, smiling as he jotted down Atem's request.
"You don't even know what I intend to use it for yet," Atem protested.
"Well," Yugi began, "you don't believe in sex before marriage, so that rules out a lot. .And you don't like men, so… I'm guessing it's for work? Politzer, you have to go undercover and everything."
"Not quite." Though it would have been the perfect lie, if Yugi hadn't had ways to detect deception. Perhaps that was the magic pen's purpose—the enchantment kept the user from writing anything untrue.
Yugi's face went blank as the gears in his mind began to turn. He liked puzzles, riddles, mysteries, and Atem loved to see his brain at work; he had long since come to terms with the fact that Yugi was smarter than he was. Less than a minute went by before Yugi's eyes widened in realized. "Do you have the answer?" Atem asked.
"I think so." Yugi grinned. "This wouldn't have anything to do with the Sea Gardens, would it?"
Atem flushed, and this was all the answer Yugi needed. "Don't feel bad," Yugi told him. "It's actually pretty common."
"I don't know why they don't just make one for men. A bathhouse, I mean," Yugi said. "How did you even hear about it?"
"I didn't. A case took me there, actually." Yugi raised an eyebrow. "I was chasing a thief—he ran inside. I suppose he was hoping I'd value the girls' modesty too much to follow him, but I pursued him, tackled him; we fought. And at some point during the struggle I ended up falling into one of the pools." Atem would never forget the sensation; the hot water and fragrant oils had sucked every ounce of tension out of his body. It had taken all his willpower just to get out to arrest the culprit.
"So I will need you to sign these," Yugi said, pushing the paper stack across the desk. "For the record. Just in case."
"In case of what?" Atem picked up the first piece of paper and gave it a cursory read. A form absolving Yugi of liability if the client was ravished while transfigured. Became pregnant while transfigured. Menstruated. Lactated. Developed breast cancer. Developed vaginal sores. The list of potential mishaps went on and on until Atem's hand was cramped and sore from writing. "Has all of this actually happened?" Atem demanded, massaging his palm.
"Yeah," Yugi sighed, shoulders sinking. "If you think that's bad, you should see the forms for animal transformations…"
"How do we go about this, then?" Atem asked, as he put his signature down on the final few papers. "I drink one of those… pink potion things… whenever I want to visit the bathhouse?"
"Not necessarily," Yugi answered. "I don't generally offer them to the public, but there are plenty of other ways of getting from one body to another—enchanted objects, spells…" Suddenly he hesitated, as if were debating something. "Actually, you know what? Why don't you come with me down to the cellar? I can show you what you have to chose from."
Atem blinked, taken aback. He'd never seen Yugi's cellar, the secret place where the young man lived and conducted all his experiments. As far as he was aware, no human being had ever set a foot down there. A twinge of guilt made his stomach contract. A part of him had always suspected that the cellar had held some despicable invention, and it pained him that he hadn't put more faith in his friend. Despite his many eccentricities, despite the vast power at his disposal, Yugi had never hurt anyone, and Atem should have put more trust in him.
Binding the signed release forms in a stiff leather cover, Yugi tucked the packet under his arm and headed for the cellar door. "It's not because I don't trust you. That I've never let you down here," Yugi said, as he fumbled around in his pocket and removed a fat brass key. "I guess I always thought you thought this stuff was kind of… perverse."
"Perverse? No," Atem replied, though he had to admit, Yugi's consuming preoccupation with transformative magic was a little bizarre. Of all the genres and subgenres of sorcery, why specialize exclusively in metamorphosis? Why not set things on fire or learn how to fly?
They descended a staircase so long that Atem had to wonder if Yugi had made his home at the center of the earth. "I should probably warn you," Yugi said, casting Atem an uneasy glance over his shoulder. "There might be some stuff down here that looks a little… strange. But they're just experiments; they're not, um… for me." Atem frowned at him, and he cringed, looking like someone was holding a hot flame to his fingers. "You'll understand when we get there…"
At long last they reached the bottom of the stairwell, where a second door awaited them, forged from steel and covered in short spikes. "And I thought my house was secure," Atem said, mostly to ease the apprehension that was building in his gut. Yugi acknowledged his attempt at levity with a quiet, perfunctory chortle.
Atem didn't know what he expected to see when Yugi eased the door open—a stone cave full of arcane artifacts, spell books, air thick with dust and the smell of witch's herbs. Instead he was confronted with a rather mundane little living space hewn out of solid rock. A small bed with a thin mattress sat in the corner, made up neatly, next to a countertop and stove. On the opposite side of the room was a writing desk drowned in papers, and beside it, a bookshelf, water barrel, cage—
Atem stopped short. Cage!?
Yes, and more than one, in fact, each filled with a gaggle of small white rabbits. A young woman sat on the floor before them, watching them with a dull but contented expression. Aside from a flimsy robe she'd neglected to tie up, she was quite naked.
"Rachel," Yugi said. The girl turned her head, and the movement of her hair was mesmerizing. The thick red tresses shown in the light of the nearby lantern like burnished copper. "This is Atem. He's my friend." She gave Atem an uninterested glance and greeted him with a twitch of her nose before turning back to the caged bunnies. "Rachel doesn't like being a rabbit anymore," Yugi said, setting the papers down and pulling off his jacket. "So I let her stay like this when we're not testing."
"You test your products on animals?" Atem asked.
"Yeah. If you start when they're young they're not scared of it. Sometimes like Rachel they'll even prefer a different body," Yugi explained. Atem pressed his lips together, and Yugi wrung his hands. "You think it's awful, don't you?"
"You don't think it would be better to experiment on someone who could give you their content?" Atem asked.
"If you find any volunteers, feel free to point them in my direction," Yugi replied. "Until then, I'd rather someone go wrong with one of them than one of you." Atem shrugged a shoulder. Now that he was a client of Yugi's, he supposed he was in no position to judge. "So anyway—there are lots of different ways we could do this—"
"Right," Atem said, eager to return to the primary subject.
"There are the potions, which I sell to most of my customers. But I wouldn't recommend it, in this case," Yugi said. "The transformations are painful and wear off after a set time. So if you fall asleep in the hot water—"
"They'll be digging my grave the following morning. Understood," Atem said. "What else?"
"I'm working on something special for married couples," Yugi told him. Atem did his best not to give that statement too much thought. "But it's untested, and besides, you'd need a woman who would kiss you—uh, no offense."
"I'm sure there are plenty."
"Don't worry about it," Atem said, but the comment had stung more than he would have expected. The women of Ivrolyn didn't care much for foreigners like himself. Those who did just expected him to ravish them and move on, like some sort of savage. "Are there others?"
"Sure. But they're permanent. and by permanent I mean you wouldn't be able to change back without my help. And I obviously I would; I would be happy to. I just don't think you want to have to come all the way over here each time you want to take a bath," Yugi said. "Except… there is one other thing," Yugi continued, rocking back and forth on his feet. "A ring."
He turned and opened the large chest at the foot of his bed. Atem craned his neck but could only make out a few of its contents—a handful of masks carved in the shape of animal faces, and a black cloak that looked like it had been sewn out of some sort of hide. Yugi gingerly sifted through the odd items, surfacing a bit later with the ring in tow. It was gold, with an opaque green stone reminiscent of jade but without the patterning.
Yugi held the ring up and looked Atem dead in the eye. "This ring cost me fifteen hundred korona. All right? I am loaning it to you. You can keep it as long as you want, but please, please don't lose it, okay?"
"I won't. You have my word," Atem said, plucking the precious piece of jewelry from Yugi's outstretched hand. "Am I supposed to wear it?" he asked.
"No, actually; you have to lick the stone," Yugi answered. Atem grimaced, but was about to do as Yugi had said when Yugi batted his hand away from his mouth. "I was kidding!"
"If you don't mind my saying so, Yugi, your sarcastic tone could stand some improvement," Ate said. "I don't think this is going to fit."
"It will; just put it on," Yugi encouraged. Atem let out a sigh, held the tiny ornament at the tip of his middle finger.
"Should I be wearing different clothes?" he asked suddenly, glancing down at his shirt.
"No, it'll be fine."
"It's just that I'm not sure a female body will be completely, uh… contained…"
"Atem," Yugi chided. "There's a reason the ring cost fifteen hundred korona. It'll be fine." But again Atem found himself hesitating, brain scrambling for excuses to postpone his metamorphosis.
"It seems I'm a bit nervous," Atem said, laughing faintly. It was comical, almost; a politzer scared of a woman's ring. A politzer, who wasn't supposed to be afraid of anything.
Yugi smiled sympathetically. "Most people are, the first time," he said.
"I wouldn't know. I've never actually done it," Yugi answered.
"Never turned into a woman?"
"Never turned into anything, actually."
Atem's mouth fell open. Yugi Muto, arguably the most skilled transformative magician in all of Ivrolyn, had never changed his own shape? "What? Why?" Atem asked.
"Well, when other people get stuck in some other form, they come to me, right? But who am I going to go to if I get stuck?" Yugi explained.
"There must be other magicians who would help you—"
"No," Yugi said, his tone so curt that Atem flinched back as if he'd been struck. Immediately Yugi shut his eyes and let out a sigh of regret. "Sorry," he said quietly. "There just… really isn't anyone…"
"Of course," Atem murmured. "Of course, I wasn't thinking." He swallowed, wondering if he should say anything more, and ultimately deciding against it.
He turned his gaze to the ring, which was still lurking at the end of his finger. Female. Female. Was a bath really worth losing such a large piece of his identity, losing his manhood, even if only for a time? Would he make an ugly girl, or a fat one? Or worse, would be turn into some kind of beauty that men couldn't take their eyes off of? He felt sickened at the thought, and he hoped that he was ugly, or at least too foreign-looking to attract anyone's leers.
"Here goes," he said, and before he could talk himself out of it, he shoved the ring onto his finger. To his shock, the tiny band slipped on without any difficulty. He looked down at his hands to see if the ring had expanded—only to find that, instead, his finger had shrunk.
It was slender now, tapered, but still brown and calloused as it had been before. His fingernails had grown a little but retained all the tears and dirt. He turned his head; something tickled his neck, and he reached up to touch it. His eyes widened his fingers sank deep into a cascade of wavy black locks.
"Do you have a mirror?" Atem asked. His voice! Deep like his normal one, deeper than was common for a woman, but undeniably feminine. He rubbed at his throat, feeling more self-conscious every second, while Yugi retrieved a hand mirror from a drawer and held it up before Atem's face.
His features had narrowed, eyes and lips enlarged. Even his eyebrows had become less wild and more slim. He glanced down at his body, confronted immediately with a pair of small breasts; he reddened. His slender waits and swollen hips were readily revealed by a floor-length brown and white peasant's dress.
Atem passed the hand mirror back to Yugi. "Damn it," he muttered.
"I'm attractive," he said. Then he paused. Was he still "he"? Or was he technically a "she," now? He had the appearance of a she, and the equipment—according to Yugi, he could even bear children if he wished. But no, he was still a guy on the inside; he felt like a guy. That was what counted. He hoped.
"Yeah, about that, um… Probably you should try not to go out, like this, too often?" Yugi said, pressing his fingers together into a steeple shape. "Maybe transform right before you get to the bathhouse, especially if you're… going at night…"
"Yes. Yes, you're right, of course," Atem said. He'd have to take care not to transform in front of anyone, either. If it got out that he, a politzer of Ivrolyn, had turned himself into a female to go bathe with naked women, he'd never live down the shame.
"Other men have done this?" Atem asked, to soothe his uneasy conscience.
"Plenty," Yugi said. "It's actually sort of funny—usually when men come to be turned into women, it's for something pleasure-related. To find out what sex is like for women, or to use the bathhouse, or to seduce another guy they love. But when women want to be turned into men, ninety percent of the time it has something to do with work—they want to be trained as a politzer or a warrior or something."
"Understandable. I'd imagine not every girl wants to have to choose between barmaid, courtesan, and housewife," Atem said, running his fingers through his hair. It was terribly soft. He wanted to stop touching it, but he wasn't sure he could. "But it does make one wonder, doesn't it? How many of the people out there used to be something else. Well, not you, I suppose." Yugi could tell on sight who was transformed and who was not.
Anxious to return to his normal form, Atem tugged at the ring—panicking when he realized just how tightly the band was affixed to his finger. "Rather—rather snug, isn't it?" Atem asked, pulling at the ring with ever-increasing desperation.
"You should have seen it before I fixed it. It was cursed, so it was designed to become too tight to remove," Yugi said.
"You—you paid fifteen hundred korona—" Atem gave the ring one great final tug, gasping when the item slipped free and the transformation washed over him. "You paid fifteen hundred korona for a cursed ring?" he asked, shaking out his hand, which felt raw and was red with pain. Good grief, this magic business was expensive. No wonder Yugi was richer than the king. "How much is it worth now?"
"Maybe five, six thousand. Not worth selling, not until I can duplicate it," Yugi said. Atem blanched. He couldn't have earned that kind of money if he worked every day for the rest of his life.
"I won't lose it," he promised again. He couldn't afford to lose it. He'd have to sell his very soul to pay back his debt.