Don't go looking for snakes
“What does it even matter? You’re the best I’ve ever seen at extracting poison. Surely they can see it as well?”
“I am, but that won’t help me at all if I can’t make a bomb to save my life!”
The prince smiled. “It’s simply a matter of finding the perfect amount.” He made a gesture with his hands. “Too much and you burn yourself, too little and you burn no one.” He grabbed Seld’s shoulder, a firm yet loving grip. “You’ll really kick them where it hurts next time, I’m sure of it!”
“How can you be so sure? You haven’t even seen me there!” Seld sounded angrier than he was. In truth, he was glad Iben hadn’t been to the chapterhouse for the last month.
“I saw you once, Seld, and I haven’t seen anyone else since.” Iben leaned over and kissed him. “You stole my heart.” He placed his palm on his chest.
“You know, sometimes you’re more of a princess than a prince.” Seld grabbed Iben’s hand and forced it over his head. “I wouldn’t worry about it, though.”
Iben gave him a sly smile. “And why is that?” He squirmed under Seld’s grip, but he didn’t want to break free. Not at all.
“Because I’m gonna make a man out of you.” He turned Iben over and gently bit his neck, working his way down, kissing the giant eagle resting between Iben’s shoulders. Seld absolutely loved that tattoo. He'd seen many a man with similar concepts, but Iben’s was special. So perfectly placed on his soft, muscular back.
"It’s like your wings are one with his." Seld mused, kissing it. He could lick that tattoo straight off his body.
“Who’s the princess now?” Iben laughed into the pillow.
“Shut your gorgeous mouth!”
The sun bathed the two of them as they rolled around between the sheets. Casting its rays down from high up in the sky, scorching the entire valley. It was late afternoon, and most people were indoors or hiding underneath thick awnings. No matter how tan, brown or black the colour of their skin, most of the valley’s denizens kept out of the afternoon sun this time of year.
The Valley of a Thousand Snakes was known for two things; being a frying-pan during most of the summer, and – as its namesake hinted at – housing many snakes. The snakes came slithering into the valley every spring, roasting themselves on the hot, red stones.
Contrary to most people, Alyssha, Iben’s betrothed, had braved the afternoon heat this very day. Though with an entourage the size of half the valley.
Prince Iben and Alyssha was to be joined underneath the sun no more than four weeks hence, and there was a lot to be done. “How are we to be joined underneath the sun if I can’t even face it?” Alyssha would say to her handmaidens. “This magical ceremony won’t simply arrange itself.”
It would, though. Alyssha’s role was merely that of a consultant. Prince Iben’s family, who ruled almost all of Tirmas and The Great Dry, would see to everything. Nothing was left to chance, not even the amount of apple-pieces on each platter, or their exact colour. Alyssha had no power over this.
But she was good at pretending.
She smiled and bobbed back and forth under the tightly weaved parasols, the sun casting eerie shadows across her face.
The princess-to-be was a magnificent creature, eyes like honey and hazel, able to pierce even the sturdiest soul. She was dressed in a light, eggshell gown with a thin veil to keep the worst of the sun out. A teal shade covered her eyelids and branched out from the corner of her eyes, making her gaze even more intense. Her lips were the same pink as the desert rose, captivating and inviting. On her tan wrists, a dozen bracelets rattled in unison as she stepped across the searing desert sand.
“She looks like a bronze goddess.” Iben’s father had told him.
Iben hadn’t dared told him he preferred gods.
"I love you!" Seld whimpered, placing his lips back on Iben’s neck. The smell was wonderful. He always smelled so wonderful. Seld gently bit him below the ear and allowed his tongue to work its way up to the apex. Judging from the laboured moans and shortness of breath, it was working.
Iben clutched Seld’s thigh, holding on for dear life. His world was spinning, Seld knew.
So was his.
A loud knock on the door quickly cut through Iben’s playful moans, sending Seld’s heart up his throat.
“Princess Alyssha is returning, your highness.” A man’s voice announced through the door.
“I count nine hundred and ninety-five!” Seld whispered.
“That’s not funny! She’s a nice girl.” Iben pushed Seld off, the magic gone.
“I know, and you like neither.” Seld threw his robe on; the yellow uniform all acolytes of the Brotherhood wore.
“That doesn’t make her a snake, Seld!” Iben quickly gave the white sheets a shake, making the bed appear less disturbed. He placed his palms on the warm windowsill and stuck his head into the vibrating air.
“Doesn’t it?” Seld equipped his belt, half a dozen satchels and pouches rattling. “Don’t worry;” he patted a small bag of orange powder. “I’m not going to coat her with orange paint, but you have to admit the timing is a little too perfect.”
“My father will pull through. I know he will! He just got better, Seld. And no, you won’t coat her in orange, because there is no poison to extract.” He turned around, his flawless skin wrinkled by a deep frown. “She’s a nice girl. That’s all there is to it!”
“So you’re just going to marry her? Live a lie for the rest of your life, like a coward?”
Iben took a step forward. A man of his stature needed no words, no weapons. Seld knew what that step meant, the threat was clear as day. He pointed at Seld. “Careful, boy!” He said, taking a deep breath. As he lowered his hand again. “I’m living a lie now. What’s the difference?”
“The difference is what you’ll feel going to bed every night! For the rest of your life. The difference is the pain you place on your own shoulders.” Seld didn’t allow the threat to sidetrack him. He stepped forward and grabbed Iben’s shoulders. “Those perfectly sculpted shoulders.” He gave him a quick peck on the cheek and rushed towards the door. “Just be careful, that’s all I’m saying.” He stepped into the much cooler stairwell, beads of sweat sending shivers down his spine as they crawled down his back. There wasn’t another person in sight, so Seld blew a kiss. I’m with a prince, after all. In a bedroom in a tower. Might as well play the part.
“Seld!” Iben threw after him just as the door closed. “I love you, too!”
The sun was about to vanish behind the red cliffs, giving the entire valley room to breathe again. Seld walked towards the outskirts of the city, climbing a small, narrow path up the hillside. The locals were afraid to leave the valley after nightfall. (Some of them during the day, as well). The city contained two districts, separated by The Divide, a deep crevice cutting right through the entire valley. Deep below, a thunderous river roared, carrying an endless supply of water, branching and stretching all throughout The Great Dry. One side of the divide housed the palace, where Prince Iben and the soon-to-be Princess Alyssha lived, alongside a dozen or so villas and royal quarters. The beautiful structures loomed over the rest of the city, clearly visible from both sides of the divide.
The view from the palace was quite different. From the top floors, one could see above the hillside; endless sand and badlands stretching on for miles. One could also see the entire valley, the Brotherhood Chapterhouse visible in the hills straight across. Arranged in a semi-circle below the chapterhouse were markets, booths and carts in all shapes and sizes, bustling with life all day and night. Further down, towards the divide, the commoners lived, some fancier than others.
There were few poor people living in the valley, it offered few jobs, and mostly attracted rich people who were ready to spend the rest of their lives entrenched in paradise. A handful of poor locals were granted shelter on huge coffee plantations located around the valley, on the warm plateaus above. From this red soil, the best coffee beans in the world grew. Locals who had fallen on hard times, or who had wandered from their homes, could work for shelter here. For many of them, it became a sanctuary, as most of the valleys residents seemed to believe there was no world outside.
For all intents and purposes, Seld was an outsider. A man from the central continents, accepted into the Brotherhood of Akash, Akash being the local word for Alchemy, and all adjacent crafts. This was an honour, to be sure, but it was hard for Seld to see it that way. Being an outsider, he had to work twice as hard as the rest of them.
Seld also saw the plantations as a sanctuary. A place to be on his own, smoke and relax. A place where he didn’t have to gaze up at the bloody palace every time he looked out a window.
Then of course, there was Lyonel and Sephala.
“Well, well. If it isn’t the acolyte who can’t make things go boom!” A familiar voice laughed as he approached the top of the valley. “Here to steal my man, are you?”
Seld gasped for air, too tired to be insulted. “As you’re the first thing he sees every morning, I don’t think I’ll have to. At this point, he’ll pretty much come willing-“
Seld stopped dead in his tracks.
“What?” Sephala placed her hands on her hips.
“I’m still in the valley, aren’t I?”
She squinted and tilted her head. “For about fifty or so meters, yes.”
“Perfect!” Seld dropped down on one knee and grabbed a glass jar from his belt. The jar had a thick hide instead of a lid, and gave away a strong thrum as Seld tapped it. He reached behind some rocks next to the path and found a branch.
“This again? I thought you only needed one hundred or so?”
“Fifty, actually. This is more of a side project.” He placed his tongue on his upper lip in concentration, leaning into the shrub on the other side of the path.
Suddenly, a loud hiss came at him, followed by a lunging snake. The Tirmas Cobra, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. A picture of Iben flashed before Seld’s eyes as he fell back, closing his eyes, covering his face. He didn’t know why. The poison would kill him either way, it would just be more agonizing if he was bitten in the arm.
He felt nothing.
As he opened his eyes again, he could see the snake scurrying down the road, slithering from side to side in the sand. Seld didn’t waste a second, bolting after it, pressing the branch down on its neck.
“For heaven’s sake, Seld! You’re going to get yourself killed!”
Seld grinned as he forced the snake’s head down on the skin covering the jar. A thick, honey-like essence pouring into the jar in big, thick globs. He placed the jar back in his belt and grabbed a pinch of orange powder from a bag, he licked his finger and painted a thick, orange stripe on the cobra’s head. “I count nine hundred and ninety-five!” He exclaimed as the snake vanished into the brush.
“It’s called The Valley of a Thousand Snakes, right? I have to see whether it’s true or not!”
“My point stands.”
Lyonel appeared behind Sephala with a tray of lemonade, coffee cups and earthen spirits.
Lemonade to cool off, coffee to sharpen the senses and spirits to soothe. The red soil made for excellent alcohol with a thick, dark taste. The couple had made a good business by selling some on the side.
“You know me too well, Lyonel.” Seld smiled.
“I heard some noise down here, should I bring the antidote as well?”
“No, you’ve got all the antidote I need right there on that tray.”
Lyonel smiled and kissed Sephala on the cheek. “I thought so.” He vanished inside a blue structure balancing on top of the rocky plateau. It looked more like a shed than a house, but it was a warm and inviting home, and Seld always felt at peace there.
“New blend?” Seld asked as he tasted the coffee. It was more bitter than he was used to, but carried with it an explosion of tastes. There were dark tones, of chocolate and nuts, mostly, but a strong acidic taste compromised the rich atmosphere on which it was built.
“Yes, we tried a darker roast than usual this time, but I’m afraid it’s a little-“
“Bitter?” Seld finished.
“It is. But I don’t know if it’s a problem with the ingredients or with the roasting process?”
Lyonel started laughing. “If you learned as much at that chapterhouse as you did here, you would’ve been a full-fledged Akash a long time ago, braham.” Lyonel got up and took the cup from Seld’s hands. “You’ve got to be careful with salts when you’re making coffee; a bitter cup is horrible, yes, but a salty cup will kill you.” He brought Seld another cup from the kitchen. “Sephala here thinks we’re using the wrong grind-size.”
Seld looked at Sephala and smiled. “Are you?” He asked?
Lyonel looked at Sephala as well. “No.” He answered.
“Then what’s the problem?” Seld took a sip from the new cup. “Oh!” He exclaimed. “Noman, sun and the heavens all rolled into one; that’s what I call a cup of coffee!”
“And that’s the problem,” Lyonel continued. “That’s the same blend.”
Sephala leaned forward and lowered her voice. “This is the best damn coffee we’ve ever made up here! It has the potential to make us all rich, braham. But we can’t make more!”
Seld barely listened, completely lost in all the flavours dancing around on his tongue. “Why can’t you make more?”
“Because we didn’t make it in the first place.”
Seld stopped drinking and put the cup down on the table. “Then who did?”
Lyonel sighed. “There is a worker here, on the plantation. He’s a braham, like you.”
“What? I didn’t think you had any outsiders here on the plantation.”
“We didn’t. This man just arrived two days ago.”
“And he’s from the central continent as well? Like me?”
“Yes, he claims to hail from Steadwic. Says his name is Alfred.” Sephala leaned even closer. “He scares us, braham. There’s something about him.”
“Like what?” Suddenly, Seld forgot all about the coffee. He’d never met anyone else from the central continents the two months he’d been in the valley, and he didn’t think he ever would.
“Well, for starters he’s wearing an Akash robe.”
“I’m wearing an Akash robe, that doesn’t-“
“He’s wearing a black one.” Sephala interrupted.
“A black one? But that’s the highest rank! No braham has ever-“
“Which means he probably killed someone for it.” Lyonel said. “We know there’s a lot going on outside in the lands surrounding this valley, and the road from city to city is long and hard out here. Maybe he even picked it off a corpse.” He emptied a long, thin glass of spirits. “But there’s something about the way he looks at you.” Lyonel’s voice turned into a whisper. “It’s like he can see your soul.”
Seld sighed and did the same. “Is it at all possible you’re reading into things? There’s lots of talk and stories in a place like this. Hell, most of the people living here are scared to leave their little hole-in-the-ground!”
“This isn’t a ghost story, braham! I’m not reading into things. I’m just saying something is not right with that man.”
“Don’t get upset now, Lyonel. You’re the one who always told me; ‘don’t go looking for snakes, you might find them.’ Remember?”
“Yes, and you’re the one who always answered; ‘isn’t that the point?’”
Seld raised his hands. “Yes. I was thinking more of actual snakes though.”
Lyonel laughed. “And how fares the snake hunt, if I may ask?”
“Nine hundred and ninety-five.” Sephala said unenthusiastically.
Seld smiled and nodded.
“Only five more to go.” Lyonel shrugged his shoulders. “Huh, maybe this is the Valley of a Thousand Snakes after all.” He grabbed a cane that leaned against his chair. Sitting for too long made his back ache, the cane made it easier to stand up again.
“Well, it sure has a better ring than ‘The Valley of Nine Hundred and Ninety-five Snakes.’” Seld smiled and got up as well.
Seld met Lyonel and Sephala shortly after coming to the valley. Curious about the outskirts of the city, and tired of all the local gossip, he decided to hike up the hillside and see for himself. The first thing that met him was Lyonel and Sephala, tending to their crops. The second thing was the best cup of coffee he’d ever tasted, until today.
The couple were both in their 56th year, though the warm sand and unyielding sun had made their skin leathery and coarse. They still looked good though, Seld thought, and made for an adorable couple. Lyonel was tall and slim, and had a face that radiated kindness and wisdom. His grey hair and beard only accentuated this, though the sand-coloured hat he always wore gave him the look of a tired plantation worker.
Sephala had hair as black as the night, and must’ve been one hell of a dame in her time. She still had the curves and the slim waist, but her breasts seemed slightly too big for her body, Seld always thought. Her black eyes could also be a little off-putting at first, but her kind voice and loving character more than weighed up for it.
“Might I have a talk with him, then?” Seld asked, smiling as broad as he dared.
“By all means.” Lyonel said. “Just head north. You’ll spot him a mile away. But don’t you come back here and say I didn’t warn you!”
It was completely dark now; the sun vanished behind the giant bluffs in the distance. Two out of three moons were visible in the sky, one of them red, the other blue, casting an eerie purple light across the plantation.
The coffee beans almost seem to glow blue in the dim haze. Hot afternoons makes for cold nights, Seld suddenly remembered, wishing he had some more clothes on underneath. Then his mind wandered to Iben again.
At once, he felt warm.
He kept walking for a few more yards, until sleeping workers started popping up between the beanstalks. Eventually, he wound up next to a red tent, crudely put together by tattered old clothes and fabric. Flickering light poured out, no doubt created by a rusty old lantern. There were huddled voices coming from inside, accompanied by the sound of cards being dealt.
Seld ducked under the opening and presented himself with a brief “excuse me, good sirs.”
There was no answer.
“Excuse me!” He repeated.
There was no answer.
Three skinny old men were sitting around a rickety wicker table, far past its prime. They were mechanically playing some kind of card game. It was impossible to tell which, and who was winning, the cards too worn to have symbols on them.
“I’m looking for Alfred!” Seld barked. “Scary man in a black robe, I’m told.”
One of the men turned towards him, revealing a dead eye on the left side of his face. Plenty of them to go around, it seems...
“The braham?” He asked. “He’s further north. Outside the plantation.”
“Thank you.” Seld answered, hurrying away from the tent.
Seld hadn’t really talked much to the plantation workers before, and he suspected he wouldn’t after today, either.
Outside the plantation? Who the hell sleeps outside the plantation? Even though most of the stories the bored, rich people told each other were hokum, there were still dangers lurking out on in the badlands. Prairie wolves, coyotes, lions. And worse.
It wasn’t until Seld had reached the outskirts he realized he might’ve been fooled. Suddenly, he realized how dark it had become, and how quiet everything was.
He gazed into the darkness for a few seconds, and it dawned on him how little he’d been up here. He’d never bought the stories, never thought the world ended at the top of the cliff. He’d spent night after night naked next to Iben, carefully stroking his back as he laughed at all the ghost stories.
Now, they didn’t seem so farfetched.
He could hear the familiar hiss of a cobra a few feet into the darkness, but there was no point. This isn’t the valley, which means that’s not number nine hundred and ninety-six.
He didn’t know where anything was past that darkness, not Tirmas, not Aevon, not the rest of the dry. A few more steps, and I won’t even find my way back here. A coyote laughed in the distance, sending shivers down his spine. He couldn’t see a damn thing but his breath, misting in the air in front of his face. He didn’t want to be here anymore. He didn’t want to see Alfred, he didn’t want to know how he made the best coffee in the world. He didn’t even want to find the remaining five snakes. He just wanted to go home. To gaze up at the palace from his window like always, wondering what Iben was doing, what he was wearing.
Then a thought struck him. If those creepy old workers lured me out here for a laugh, they could’ve followed me.
A twig snapped behind him.
He turned around.
He saw nothing.
“You shouldn’t be out here.” A dark voice said.
“He’s an acolyte at the Brotherhood chapterhouse, I don’t see why you’re making such a big case out of this!” Iben leaned against the window, the night air cold on his naked back. He wondered where Seld was. He wasn’t at home, Iben could see that from the window. There was no light. He had a small spyglass next to an ornate snake figurine by the window. It didn’t allow him to see Seld, it was too far off in the distance. It did, however, allow him to see whether or not there was any light.
“He’s a nobody! A braham from the other side of the divide!” Alyssha removed her teal and silver earrings and threw them on the nightstand. She was completely naked, her raven hair flowing down her shoulders, draping her round, full breasts. Her dark brown nipples were barely visible between the strands of hair. She was perfect, in every sense of the word, and she was standing there, right in front of him, as naked as the day she was born.
“Yes, a nobody! What does it matter then?” He felt nothing, not even a tingle. He studied her caramel skin, trying to imagine what it would taste like.
“A prince doesn’t concern himself with the affairs of nobodies.” She took a few steps towards him. Her nails were the same colour as her eyeshade, on both hands and toes. She had toe-rings on four toes, and on twice as many fingers. He could catch a small glimpse of her sex, just between her legs. A small strip of black hair pointed the way; not at all like a man, with unruly, curly hair all over.
“Maybe this prince does.” He said. “Maybe this prince takes an interest in his people.”
“His people?! That’s exactly it, Iben! He’s not your people! He’s not my people, he’s not our people. He’s a braham!” She looked intense when she was angry. It made her eyes even blacker, her brows more prominent, and her appearance more magical. Her breasts gently bobbed up and down.
Iben sighed. “Don’t worry about it, okay?” He looked down at his member, dull and pointing down.
She was bound to notice eventually.
“Oh, I’m not worried, she answered, taking a swift step towards him.” She grabbed him hard, whispering, “I know there’s somebody else.”