QSFer Lyra Alice Schneider has a new queer sci-fi book out (lesbian, non-binary, trans MTF): The Serpent’s Tongue.
Kelistris, 15 in Earth years, has just been selected to be the new Serpent’s Tongue: speaker for the alien serpents that govern her people in the city of Shuttlefall. But when she is presented to the Hand – the ghostly god of the Serpents – she begins to discover the secrets of the Serpents’ origins. Secrets that some would kill to keep hidden…
Warnings: Threat of death, kidnapping, servitude, snakes, spirits/ghosts, out-of-body-experience.
I was in the middle of my first kiss with another girl when the Serpents came to take me for my Ascendance Rite.
Her name was Inara. I helped her decide on the name, just like she helped me pick mine – Kelistris. We were always helping each other make big decisions like that, ever since we met as first year apprentices in the arthouse. She helped me decide to focus on acrobatics, and I helped her decide to develop her singing, and we spent most of our free time helping each other practice, or trying to keep each other out of trouble. And, well, when two people do so much together, and have their bodies growing and changing, sometimes, they eventually want to touch each other.
We touched each other. I kissed her mouth under the shade of a spiral tree, and she kissed me back, and I sang silent praises to the Hand. But as I leaned in to kiss her deeper, a Serpent wrapped its coils around my waist and pulled me away.
I didn’t think I’d be surprised when the Serpents came, but it’s not something you can really be ready for. They have no sense of propriety or timing and they won’t hear any excuses. And of course I knew that, but I didn’t really understand what it meant until it was my turn.
I turned, staring into yellow eyes in a spade-shaped head, wide enough to comfortably swallow me. It was at the end of a long, arched neck, with a triple-forked tongue flitting out to taste the air around me. Its body curled upward into the foliage, its length impossible to tell, as always. But there were two others behind it, watching intently. This was no mistake, then – it was my time to face the Claw.
“Please,” I protested, too shocked to remember how futile that was. In Earth years, I was 15, plenty old enough for my Ascendance Rite, but it still felt impossibly sudden and unexpected. “Please, not yet. Just a little more time!”
I looked over my shoulder back at Inara, who was sitting frozen between the roots of the spiral tree. I could see in her eyes that she wanted to fight for me, to try to stop them from taking me. It wasn’t hard to imagine why: all six of her older siblings had been taken for their Ascendance Rites already, and none of them had come back. Most people didn’t. And she was stubborn and proud enough to try to keep them from taking me, next.
I loved her for that, but openly resisting an Ascendance Rite would have been suicide. I gave a subtle shake of my head, and she closed her eyes against the forming tears.
The Serpent in front of me wrapped another coil around my waist and started pulling me deeper into the woods.
“Inara!” I cried, straining my neck to see her as the Serpent forced my body along. “I love you!”
“I love you too, Kelis,” she said, quickly swiping at her eyes to put on a brave face for me. “Don’t worry – I know you can do this!”
I wanted to take confidence from her, but really, you can’t imagine what it feels like to have those cold, smooth scales rippling over your clothes, forcing you to go when you want nothing more than to stay – marching you towards very probable death – until the time comes. I must have practiced it a thousand times in my head, but somehow I always imagined it differently. I’d be ready. I would see it coming and hold my head high, proudly facing my destiny and emerging not only alive, but the new Serpent’s Tongue.
Wrong. I was scared to death. I was barely able to keep from sobbing. But even as tears began to trickle down my cheeks, still flushed from Inara’s kiss, I told myself I’d do my best. If I couldn’t face my destiny proudly, I could at least keep myself standing.
So, as the Serpent pushed me further into the woods, I set my own pace, striding forward on my bare feet. They hadn’t even given me time to put my sandals back on, but I wouldn’t let that stop me. If I was going to die today, I sure wasn’t going to be carried into it like some catch of the day.
And, once I started moving fast enough, the Serpent released me. It knew I wasn’t going to try to go back, or maybe it didn’t care either way. But I wasn’t about to die for doing something stupid, either. Oh, sure, people tell stories about times when some brave explorer outsmarted a Serpent, but I’ve never been reckless enough to take those stories seriously.
If I was going to survive this, I’d have to be smart. Show them how useful I could be. Remember everything I’d practiced.
But most of all, I’d have to do what they wanted.
So I walked on, deeper into the woods, past any landmarks I recognized, following the lead of the two Serpents in front. Their heads dangled from the foliage, swaying in unison to an inaudible melody as they moved us around boulders, outcroppings, lightning scars and other obstacles. Some were obstacles only to them, others only to me, but they avoided both with equal care. As promised by those who’d survived this before me, the Serpents were deliberate and delicate with their…
My mind stumbled on the word. Trophy? Offering? Prisoner?
Candidate, I finally settled on. That was the polite word for it. I didn’t know if politeness counted with the Serpents, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try. I was a candidate: for survival, and, if I was truly lucky, for the position of Serpent’s Tongue.
Lyra Alice Schneider is a Seattle-based author of queer- and trans-centered sci fi, inspired by esoterica and the occult. She has a B.A. in Theatre from Macalester College and currently works as a tutor.
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