Flori and the Snakes
Flori slithered behind the ivy and climbed the back of the trellis, pleased it was both wrought iron and well anchored to the wall. At the top, she flattened herself against the roof. Here, she was exposed to anyone looking down, but there weren’t any dragons in sight. She crept along on all fours, following the magical red line that connected her to her great-grandfather. Of necessity, she used no magic of her own. To do so this close to the heart of the Yilan compound would have been to advertise her presence.
When the line stopped pulling her forward and started, instead, to tug her gently down, she had reached the other side of the roof and the inner compound proper. She smiled and climbed back out behind the ivy. She had only descended a story before she found the right window.
“I wouldn’t.” A sibilant voice interrupted Flori’s attempt to slide in through the top. She froze. “Look around you,” the voice went on. “Do you really think I cover my buildings with ivy so intruders can attack me at will? No, no.” The plants around Flori began to sway and twist together, and she suddenly found herself looking at a large number of snakes.
None of the snakes were large, but all of them gave off the faintly noxious odor that Flori had learned to associate with venom and Lady Medusa, who led the Yilan, and some said the entire continent.
“Luster invited me,” Flori said through gritted teeth.
“He invited you to come in through the gate like everyone else.” The snakes shifted and wound themselves around Flori’s wrists and torso.
“So he I could meet with him and … you? No, thank you. I was hoping to speak with him alone.” Now, they bore her quite publicly inside the window she had planned to enter in secret. She squirmed, but her living bonds only tightened.
“Let her go.” As quickly as they had captured her, the snakes turned Flori free, depositing her in an ungainly heap at Lady Medusa’s feet. Where Flori was small in stature, Aurelia Medusa of the House of Yilan was large. The Lady towered over even grown men. Her white face and chalky hair stood out against golden clothing as she glowered down at her prisoner. The last time Flori had seen Aurelia, that hair had been bound up in a crown, and she knew better than to mistake it for human locks. Aurelia’s hair was made of as many snakes as the vines that had carried Flori into the chamber.
Flori dusted her pants as she rose, trying to rid herself of the snakes’ malodor. “I don’t appreciate being ordered to your court,” she snapped.
“The Lady did not ask for your opinion,” said a new voice. Flori darted a glance to the right and saw Luster Anguis, Lady Medusa’s First in Command, stretched along a canopied sofa, his copper brown hair coiled around his neck.
“And I did not ask to be dumped…”
“Be quiet,” Luster hissed. “The Lady and I have devoted a goodly portion of our morning to your one-person invasion. I will tell you that you have exploited our weaknesses and given us new areas to cover. We could not have followed someone who was not in my family. Nonetheless, we have wasted half a day on it when The Trade demands our attention.”
The lartë trade fueled the city of Hiria’s economy. The drug was an expensive way for wizards to transform into animals. Though Flori used it herself, she steered away from the snake lartë that Lady Medusa controlled and used instead the product as it was distilled from dragon’s blood. She needed to take far less of the dragon than the snake lartë to achieve the same goals.
“Then, please, waste no more of your time on me. I won’t hold you from the snakes.”
Luster chuckled. “Sit down, Flori,” he said.
“I prefer to stand.”
“I did not ask what you preferred.” Three chairs scooted out from a table in the center of the room, and Lady Medusa and Luster Anguis took two of them, leaving the third for their unwilling guest.
After a long silence, Flori joined them. “What do you want?”
“Your company, naturally.” There was a teapot in the middle of the table. Luster poured three cups.
Though he and Lady Medusa drank, Flori left hers alone. “You did not send me a formal invitation to have me over for tea.” She pushed the cup away.
“No,” he agreed. “I did not. I asked you here because I need your company on a rather long journey.”
“No. The last time I left Hiria…”
“He wasn’t asking you.” Lady Medusa’s hair sprang to life, and the angry snakes swiveled unblinking gazes towards Flori.
“Flori, look at her,” said Luster. Was Flori imagining it, or did his voice contain a note of appeal? “The Lady is greatly changed since you last saw her.”
“Yes?” She wasn’t imagining it. Luster was entreating her to study those snakes. The last time Flori had laid eyes on Lady Medusa, those white snakes had all been golden. “Is she unfit for travel?”
“She is dying.”
“She is not.” Flori couldn’t understand why Luster’s statement produced a lurch of dismay in her own chest.
“Look at her,” Luster commanded. Flori obeyed, forcing her eyes to meet those of the unblinking snakes. “You have seen her with golden hair. But her face used to be golden as well. When her first Sentient Snake died a quarter of a century ago, she entered a long dormancy. She lay with the rest of the snakes for nearly a year before she rose again, and her face never regained its color. She was more prepared for the second Sentient Snake to die last month. She had braced herself for its severance. She did not go dormant. But she has been losing her color bit by bit ever since.
“The Sentient Snakes are like the dragons, one of the old races, and there are few left. There is only one small colony remaining, and I must cross an ocean to reach it and appeal to at least one of them to come with us. The Lady cannot be spared from The Trade for so long, even to save her own life, but the Sentient Snakes will not tolerate many of the other races. So I need a companion who can finish the job if I am unable.
“Your mother is off with her gnomes, and frankly I doubt she would be anything but a hindrance. Your uncle cannot be spared from his own family. And your cousins are both too young. That leaves me with you. I need your company on a long trip to save The Lady’s life. Think of it as a lengthy family vacation.”
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.