The Descent – A Short Story
After a few moments’ consideration, Lucas decided to trust to his luck and eat the food that was set before him. True, the meat looked as far from appetizing as he could imagine. It was very rare and all but unseasoned On the other hand, to leave it untouched would be a slight to his hosts. He would just have to hope that the flesh wasn’t human.
He leant forward, plunged his knife and fork into the steak, cut off a small chunk and placed it confidently into his mouth. Never show any trepidation in company, he reminded himself. The meat was salty and moist but not entirely unpleasant.
Sitting beside him, Quinn wrinkled his wizened face. He hadn’t touched his food yet. This was unusual. He hadn’t seemed to stop eating during the long flight here. He’d left crumbs and wrappers strewn all over his seat when they’d disembarked.
‘You’re braver than me’ Quinn whispered ingratiatingly.
Lucas nodded to Quinn but didn’t reply. It was bad enough having to endure Quinn’s company without encouraging him to talk unnecessarily. Lucas noticed that sweat was already streaming down the other man’s face from beneath his grey fringe. Lucas’ own red hair was tied into a tight pony tail and his skin was dry. The more comfortable he was, the easier it was to accurately observe. Every detail here was important.
The Court of the Serpentine Empire was in full sitting. The orange brick walls had been decorated with elegant tapestries of red and gold, patterned with abstract designs. Thick brown carpets covered the stone floors, for which Lucas was grateful as there were no chairs or tables. He and Quinn were forced to sit cross-legged with their plates laid out on the ground before them. In each corner of the room, copper vases were set above burning fires. From the tops of the vases there rose a sweet smelling vapour that made the air heavy and slightly intoxicating. High above the room, a glass ceiling intensified the evening heat. Fog swirled in the darkness, obscuring the night sky.
The Serpentine Lords and Ladies moved slowly about the court, singularly or in conversing groups. Their skins were vivid scarlet and black in colour. Some of them had diamonds implanted in their scales. The bodies of the enormous snakes were coiled around the shoulders of their individual bearers who moved at their unspoken commands. The bearers were all human. They were clad in simple brown leather tunics which Lucas found quite attractive. Many of the bearers had pleasing figures. It would, of course, be out of the question to breach etiquette by trying to bed one of them. At least for now.
Reptile servants moved amongst the serpents. They were huge – at least two metres from snout to tail – but surprisingly nimble on their four legs. The crowns of their heads were topped with knobby discs of bone into which tiny jewels had been set. Silver plates were secured to their backs by velvet ropes. Every so often they would hurry forward to stop before one of the serpents whose head would swoop downwards and snatch the food from the plates. The servants showed no sign of alarm at this. Indeed, Lucas thought he detected an air of pride whenever one was forced to depart for the kitchens to collect more food, the plates on its back having been emptied.
One of the bearers came to a graceful halt before Lucas and Quinn. She was a slight, pale girl in her twenties. It amazed him that her shoulders could support the coiled weight of the serpent whose head hovered above hers.
The serpent’s black eyes stared down at their plates. Its wide jaws opened and a soft voice emerged. ‘How do you find the food? Does it please you?’
Although he was fluent in their different languages, Lucas found it difficult to distinguish female and male serpent voices. He hazarded a guess that this was one was a Lord and responded in the appropriate dialect.
‘Yes, it’s very good. I don’t think I’ve tasted it before’
‘Most likely not’
The serpent’s head cocked to one side. The eyes seemed to glitter.
‘You’re very young. Do your people always select the young to be their ambassadors?’
Lucas replied evenly, choosing to ignore any implied slight. ‘I was chosen for my ability not my age’
This wasn’t a boast. From his earliest years, Lucas Hamarake had been marked for success. He did everything well, be it intellectual or physical. Others had always flocked round him in the hope that some of his prestige might rub off on them. This combination of ability and popularity had made it all but inevitable that he would be headhunted for political service. By twenty, he had already negotiated three treaties in regions of civil war. Lucas therefore didn’t doubt that he would succeed here as he had everywhere else. Sometimes he wished that his life had presented him with more challenging difficulties, just for a sense of variety. Failure repelled him but easy triumphs bored him.
The serpent nodded two times in succession. The forked tongue darted in and out. As a rule, the reptiles were never in any great hurry to reply. They had waited millennia to establish their empire. The passing of time did not concern them.
‘I see you’ve suffered some illness in the past’
‘My face? That’s right’
A pattern of dark brown moles lined the right side of Lucas’ face, forming an irregular triangle above and below his eye. Each one had been cancerous. The moles had been removed, treated and re-attached in their new positions. As such diseases was almost inescapable now, it seemed only right to try to make something beautiful of them. Reports of the high incidence of skin cancers, caused by the changing climate, must have reached the Serpentine Empire
‘They’re quite benign now’ he said.
‘And put to decorous use. More of your afflicted should do this’.
Lucas was careful to smile.
The snake’s attention shifted to Quinn.
‘And you’re not eating at all?’
Quinn shook his head.
‘I thought I would wait for their Highnesses to join us’ he said solemnly.
Lucas felt the familiar pang of loathing. Quinn had risen through the diplomatic ranks partly through his knowledge of seemingly every single petty rule and regulation and partly through his unerring ability to point out when others were in error. Always with expressions of upmost regret, he had ended careers while advancing his own. As Quinn had progressed, he had been passed from department to department, each preferring inefficiency to his particular brand of efficiency. No wonder they had chosen him to accompany Lucas here.
Lucas glanced at the pale girl on whose shoulders the serpent sat. He was certain that he saw the same dislike for Quinn flickering in her eyes. He wondered briefly what her story was. For the most part, the human servants here were criminals and exiles who had sought sanctuary in the Serpentine Empire. The reduced human population had allowed for the rise of several highly liberal societies, but some districts had fallen under the sway of aggressively reactionary regimes. Many of the bearers would be young men and women who had escaped death sentences for the crime of refusing to conceive children.
‘You’ll not have long to wait’ said the serpent. ‘The Emperor and Empress shall soon be here’
The girl suddenly began to move, bearing the Lord away from them. The audience was, it seemed, at an end.
Quinn let out a sigh of relief.
‘Well’ he said. ‘That was a strange conversation’
Lucas smiled, though not for Quinn’s benefit.
‘They like to be enigmatic’ he said. ‘By Serpentine standards, he was being almost over-friendly’
Quinn’s face crinkled in puzzlement.
‘I thought it was a she. She was using a female dialect, I’m sure’
If Quinn was right, then he had just betrayed a lack of sophistication that was sure to be carried on forked tongues around the whole court. Lucas deliberately kept his face blank, showing no sign of concern. Quinn would like nothing better than for him to start making mistakes. He was probably already dreaming of opportunities to report a diplomatic disaster.
A deafening roar filled the air. Every head turned in the direction from which the sound had come: The heavy double doors, inlaid with gold panels, which stood at one end of the room. Another roar, deeper and louder, came from behind the doors. They were finally here, thought Lucas. The Emperor and Empress of the Serpentine Empire. He felt an unexpected prickle of fear. Both of them had been notorious killers in their time.
The doors were pushed open. A squad of human attendants, clad in black armour and orange helmets, entered the room. They formed two lines on either side of the open doorway.
The Empress entered first. She was an old snake, near five metres in length. Her red scales had lost some of their lustre but the muscles could still be seen working vigorously beneath them. It was rumoured that she had once devoured a rival and his entire family in a single night.
One of her eyes had been replaced by a green diamond. The other eye rapidly scanned the room. Lucas was certain that, for a fleeting second, her gaze settled on him and the Empress’ tongue flicked in his direction.
She was carried by a giant of a man. He had long grey hair that reached almost to the floor. Jewels had been set into the bare skin of his chest. Showing no sign of effort, he bore the Empress to the centre of the room. For a moment, all attention was focussed on her. She was famous for her intelligence. It was her mind that burned at the heart of the Serpentine Empire, the light that had guided its rise to power.
Then she spoke. The voice was unmistakably feminine. It made Lucas burn with fear and desire.
Three men carried in the Emperor. Unlike the others, he was not red but a light brown flecked with yellow. He was enormous, his girth three times that of the Empress. His head was held high, in an attitude of relaxed disdain for all around him. A single band of silver, the mark of his position, encircled his middle.
Lucas felt an almost overpowering urge to fall to his knees. He could sense the strength of the Emperor’s will. It filled the room. This was an old and powerful warrior who demanded obedience. For the first time in his life, Lucas felt impressed by someone other than himself. He chanced a look at Quinn. The other man’s eyes were wide with fear. His jaw hung slack. Somehow, Quinn’s awe made him feel better about his own.
The court was on the move. Every Lord and Lady was borne towards the centre of the room to form a coiling circle around the Emperor and Empress. The servants, meanwhile, were moving outwards, to line the walls in silent ranks. Lucas shook his head to clear it and moved to join the outer part of the circle, dimly aware of Quinn at his feet. He had a job to do, he reminded himself. An important one.
When the court had settled into its new position, the Emperor flung back his great head and opened his jaws so wide that it seemed that his skull must surely split open. He roared. The sound reverberated across the room, making the glass ceiling tremble so that, for one moment, Lucas feared it would shatter.
As one, the Lords and Ladies of the court responded with a hissing chorus. As the last echoes of the sound faded away, it was the Empress who spoke.
‘Let the human ambassador and his aide approach us’
Lucas found his legs moving without his willing them to do so. The Lords and Ladies shifted to allow the human visitors within a few feet of the great serpents.
Lucas forced himself to smile and to appear calm. It all still came down to confidence, even here.
The Emperor studied them both in silence for a few moments. When he finally spoke, his voice was surprisingly high pitched.
‘We welcome you to the Serpentine Empire, Lucas Hamarake and Justin Quinn’
Lucas inclined his head three times in the traditional ceremonial greeting. He assumed that Quinn was doing the same.
‘Thank you for your kind hospitality’ said Lucas. ‘You have honoured us’
There was a distinct trace of amusement in the Emperor’s voice. They both knew that this was a game.
Quinn spoke. His suddenly warm voice oozed humility.
‘We look forward to hearing your gracious words of wisdom with respect to the matters that have brought us here to your noble presence’
It was said that snakes couldn’t smile but Lucas saw the Emperor’s mouth widening.
‘Ah yes’ said the Emperor. ‘The matter of the disputed lands. Mostly desert, I understand? Of little use to any mammal, I would have thought’
Lucas registered the use of the word ‘mammal’ and knew that he was being goaded. His calm under pressure was being tested. It was a quality highly valued by the serpents.
‘There are several oases located in the North. They’d be very useful to us, especially in the summer months’
The Empress spoke now.
‘The summer can be a difficult season for you, can it not?’ she asked.
Quinn tried to make his presence felt once more. ‘Well, up to a point…’ he began.
Lucas cut him off. ‘Yes. Very. Especially now that it’s so much hotter. Without water, we would eventually have to look… elsewhere to settle’
The Empress was silent for a minute or so. She was interested, thought Lucas. Keen to avoid conflict. All he had to do was seal the deal.
‘And what will you give us in return for the territory?’ she finally asked. ‘It’s rightfully ours you know. Millennia ago, it was amongst our ancestors’ finest hunting lands’
‘We’ll halt any expansion into Serpentine lands. And we’ll help repel anyone else from trying to take land from you’
The Emperor nodded.
‘A sound offer. I’m inclined to accept. But what about now? What gift can you give us now, in return for the land?’
Lucas took a deep breath. He’d rehearsed this moment so many times on the flight here.
Quinn spoke before he could. Revenge, no doubt, for being cutting off before.
‘Oh I must apologise! We’ve neglected to bring a gift. A terrible oversight but I hadn’t been informed that one was required. We can only beg your forgiveness’
Lucas looked at the Empress. Deep into her beautiful, single eye that excited and terrified him more than he could have thought possible. How much better these creatures were than the dull people at home. How much harder to impress.
‘Him’ said Lucas.
And this time both serpents undeniably smiled.
‘Good’ said the Empress. Her great head lunged down and she tore out Quinn’s throat. His body flopped gracelessly to the carpet.
The Empress’ bearer lowered her gently to the ground. Her jaws spread as she prepared to devour the body whole. Lucas thought that Quinn would probably taste quite sickly.
‘My thanks’ hissed the Emperor. ‘The chefs try their best but nothing quite compares to fresh prey. My beloved Empress has been a long time without such a feast. I’m sure if her mouth wasn’t full at the moment, she would express her gratitude too’
‘My pleasure’ said Lucas. ‘I’m glad we’re able to brings the negotiations to such a happy outcome’
A pause in which Lucas knew that there was something he hadn’t allowed for.
‘The questions now is, what shall we do with you?’
‘With me?’ he echoed.
‘We will have word sent to your leaders that the Serpentine Empire will relinquish its demand on the disputed area. But I think you should stay here’
Lucas felt powerless to shape where this was going. It was a very new feeling. He wondered for a fleeting moment whether he was to be eaten. He dismissed the thought. He was no-one’s dessert.
‘For low long?’ he asked.
‘I think you know the answer to that’
Of course he did.
‘For what reason?’
The Emperor’s voice was almost kindly.
‘It’s a matter of history. Our ancestors once ruled the lands before chance gave the mammals opportunity to supplant them. What if the world should turn against us again? If that should happen and mammals dominate the land once more, it would be in our interests to have some allies among their descendants. You will be an ambassador for the Serpentine Empire in the future. You’ve already proven your skill here’
Realization dawned. Everything had been arranged and agreed before he even left home.
‘Quinn wasn’t the gift’ Lucas said. ‘I was’
The Emperor nodded three times.
‘Though he was an added bonus. Your leaders certainly seemed to think so. They have assured us of your abilities. By sacrificing him, you demonstrated the pragmatism we want’
Lucas wasn’t scared. That perhaps the strangest thing. He wanted to serve these powerful and noble creatures.
‘How will it happen?’ he asked.
‘You will enjoy your own ice age. We have excellent cold storage facilities. You will be frozen until a time comes when our descendants need you to speak on their behalf’
For now, there was nothing more to say. Two of the armoured attendants appeared to either side of him. He allowed them to guide him towards the door. The ice would be waiting for him. Perhaps it would be like sleeping?
Lucas thought of the future he had once taken for granted. All those inevitable successes and triumphs. A story that had been written for him since birth but would never happen. Now his future was unknown. It was almost a relief.
Damian Mark Whittle