The palace isn't at all what I expected. Granted, it's been years since I've lived in a fine house, with fancy sheets and pretty dresses, but still, nothing's wrong with my memory. Our house with mother was much nicer than this dreadful place.
I get a shiver just walking through the door.
"You're the ratcatcher, then?" the cook asks me, and she's the stereotypical type: pleasantly curvy with a sweet face and a tone that invites secrets.
I nod and point to the writing slate around my neck. On it I've written, "Mute since birth."
Not true but very useful.
She folds her arms over her ample bosom and casts me a doubtful look. "You don't look like any ratcatcher I've ever seen."
I resist rolling my eyes. The girl I used to be would have—would also have given this uppity woman a tongue lashing harsh enough to make her cry. But I've turned over a new leaf. And I don't fancy spilling trade secrets. So I just nod and make the gesture that's half shrug and half "I was hired, wasn't I?"
She gives in, as most people do, in the face of silent certainty. She points me to the larder and I tromp past her, hearing the screeches of rats even as I shut the door. "All right, my lovelies."
As I speak, a snake and several toads slither from my gullet. Even years into this, the sensation still causes bile to rise in my stomach.
"Hunt, hunt, hunt." Two more toads and another snake fall out of my mouth and to the ground. I pick all the toads up and put them in the bucket I carry—I'll let them loose once I'm back outside—but the first snake crawls into the stacked foodstuffs, and soon there's the scream of a rat as it's swallowed whole.
The other snake lies watching me, coiled and spitting, and I roll my eyes and grab it faster than a human probably should be able to. I've learned, you see. How to handle my gifts—even the hooded, poisonous ones like this marvel.
The other snake comes out with a rat-sized lump in its abdomen. I point back to the stacks, and it goes in again, and again, each time coming out with more lumps.
To send it in again would be dangerous for it, so I hold my hand out and let it climb, twining itself around my arm like an exotic piece of jewelry. It holds on tightly—but not so tightly as to crush—and goes to sleep, its huge meal making it gravid and almost affectionate.
Meanwhile the hooded monster I hold is getting agitated. I stride to the door, the hunting snake fast asleep, the toads creaking in the darkened bucket, and open the door a tiny bit, checking for guards or the cook, and seeing neither.
I know where I have to go: she is in the topmost room. That's what the people I've talked to say.
Talked to—more like threatened with snakes such as the one I carry. It's amazing what someone will let slip when faced with a spitting viper.
They probably think I want to steal her, this figure of legend, the not-quite-queen that no one ever sees. I don't want to steal her; I want to save her. She's my sister, after all. It wasn't her fault our mother hated her. Or that I did, too, until I had time alone to think about how mean mother was to me and how nice my sister could be despite how we treated her.
And we can help each other. Win, win, which she should appreciate after her time in this kingdom where money is all.
She's the young king's bride but not queen. Her husband has managed to put off the coronation, time and time again.
Can you imagine what would happen when she speaks the words of assent? What a target she would become, she who spits gems and flowers with every word.
I've heard the witnesses to the marriage and the priest have all met untimely ends. The king died of a stroke—or perhaps poison: the symptoms can be so similar. No one left to know the story but the new king—my brother–in–law.
Well and I know the story; I've been living my version of it for years now even if most think I'm dead.
And Mother knows, of course. But the king tracked her down. After she threw me out of the house. Before the wedding. It's said she's on an extended vacation in the south—I imagine she's dead or on an extended vacation in the dungeon.
Not that I plan to go look for her. In this case, she reaped what she sowed, sorry old hag.
There aren't guards in the back stairwell and miraculously I don't run into any servants. But as I turn to the hallway that will take me to the highest turret—to the room they keep my sister in—two guards block my path.
One advances with a loud, "Who goes there?" and my spitting serpent lands a wad of venom in his face.
He screams and wipes desperately at his eyes.
It won't help. I'm immune to the poison, but bites still hurt and I've still been spit at more times than I can count. Being temporarily blind is not fun.
No temporarily for this poor man. I let the snake go, and it whips up and fastens its fangs into the man's neck. He falls, leaving the other guard to me.
He doesn't advance on me the way I expect him to. "You're her. Like in the stories."
With half an eye on the snake I've let loose, I shrug. What does he want me to say? Anything, I suppose, so long as it's accompanied by snakes and toads.
"We've always been told there's two of you. The good and the bad."
I lift my eyebrows. Must we resort to such basic labels? Does he have any idea how many pests my offerings destroy? The toads eat bugs, my snakes take care of mice and rats and other pests. What does a flower do other than look pretty for a moment then die? Gems, fine, I see the value. But offer me a spitting viper or a rose, and I'll tell you which I'd rather have.
Although perhaps a rose is easier to hack up? There's the matter of thorns, though. Can't be entirely comfortable.
The serpent has finished with the first guard and begins to slither toward the one I now face down. I hold my finger up in the universal "Give me a moment" sign and grab the first guard's sword, plunging it into the head of the serpent and pinning it to the ground. It writhes for a long time, its body whipping around the sword, before it dies.
Just because they're mine, doesn't mean I like them all.
The other guard seems to sag and says, "Thank you," as if he really means it. He studies my arm, where my rat-catcher lies sleeping, and he smiles. "That one's nice, I take it?"
We stand in silence for a moment, then I point to the ceiling.
He makes an apologetic face. "They'll kill me if I let you go up."
I gesture for him to turn around and knock him hard with the pommel of the sword. I'm stronger than I look and he goes down. I touch his forehead for a moment, mouthing that I'm sorry, and then head up the stairs.
My sister is standing at the window, staring out at her not-quite kingdom. An elaborate device is strapped around her head, keeping her mouth shut. Her hands are tied behind her back, I suppose so she can't remove her gag. She turns to me with a look I've never seen on her face: hatred.
But it changes as she realizes it's me. Is that joy? She's never, ever looked at me that way. Just as I've probably never, ever looked at her with the affection I suddenly feel.
"Hello, sister," I say, and a huge constrictor comes out. Perfect. We'll leave it for her husband. I pick it up and settle it in the bed, covering it with less-than-luxurious linens. All the wealth she's spit out for them and they make her sleep on these?
I get to work on the ropes that bind my sister's hands, and as soon as she's free, she unbuckles the gag-helmet and spits, over and over.
I rub my slate clean and write, "Want to get out of here?"
She laughs, ands says, "Yes, yes, yes," and her words are accompanied by a spray of pearls.
I wipe the slate again. "Why the gag?"
"My husband realized I was in danger of spilling things where he didn't want them—like in the presence of the common people. He comes up from time to time and has me read this or that proclamation so he can collect the gems that fall out." This time tulips, gardenias, emeralds, and sapphires rain down. "It's all control with him."
Of course. Greedy bastard.
She grabs my hand. "Thank you."
"Thank me when we're out of here." I survey the toads and snakes that have joined us. Nothing venomous has slithered out, so I try again, "You up for a fight?" Finally, one of the hooded snakes falls and I capture it before it can go for her.
She doesn't appear worried. "Yes," is all she says, as an enormous diamond falls from her mouth. She gathers up the gems and gestures to my bucket. I nod and she puts all the gems in along with the rest of the toads, which she captures rather efficiently—I expected her to be too good to handle them, but she's gentle with them and blows on their faces, which they hate but still, it's sweet of her.
She studies the snakes on the ground, finds a small black one, one that can't capture anything bigger than a mouse, and lets it wind around her forearm. She holds up her hand as if she's brandishing a sword instead of a garden snake.
With a genteel wave toward the door, she seems to be asking if I'm ready. I nod, wondering what kind of sign language we'll come up with when we want to speak without words—or cumbersome slates. She starts to go first, but I hold her back, then point at the snake I'm holding and shake my head vigorously.
Bad, the snake is bad, I am saying and she gets it, holding her hands up and backing away rather theatrically. I laugh, the sound ringing through the room, and we both seem to be waiting to see if anything will drop out because of it. But nothing does.
I've had no occasion to laugh before. I was never sure if noise alone made the snakes and toads, or if it had to be combined with words. Now I know.
She laughs, too, the sound lovely and also not one I have much experience with. Our mother kept us apart, kept us at each other's throat. It wasn't fair to either of us.
But now we have each other.
"Ready?" I mouth.
"Ready," she says and catches the lily that comes out, tossing it onto her pillow.
As we slip from the castle, the only sound is the hissing of the viper I hold in front of us. The first guard's body still lies on the ground but the second guard is gone. I tense, waiting to see if he's going to attack us or if he's called others to come, but there's no one in the corridor or the stairway. I hear the cook in the kitchen, but she doesn't come to check on me.
I let the snake go once we're out clear of the building. My sister urges the toads out, whispering to them as daffodils and rubies make a trail of her words.
I pick the gems up as we go. We'll be well set for whatever comes at this rate.
"Wait," I hear from behind us, and I suddenly wish I'd kept the snake.
It's the second guard. He's rubbing his head and he's alone. He smiles at me, then at her. Of course at her.
She's the beautiful one, after all. The sweet one.
"I want to come with you. You'll need help. Someone to do the talking, right?" He's looking at me now, not at her.
"You're brave and strong and you care about family. I like that in a girl."
I decide not to mention dear old Mom possibly moldering in the dungeon. But I do point at my mouth.
He laughs. "I talk a lot. Enough for both of us—or so my last girl said before she ran off with her music teacher. You don't have to talk much. Unless you want to, I mean."
I laugh and in a charming harmony my sister laughs, too. She makes a funny face as she glances from the guard to me and, and then does something rather lewd with her finger and hand. I slap her hands.
Her little snake hisses at me, causing us all to laugh even harder.
"Do you think I could have one, too?" the guard asks. "I've always liked snakes."
I roll my eyes and give him the pursed lips/splayed hands combo that means: "Maybe."
He grins as if he expected no less.
Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia and originally hails from Seattle. She has work accepted or appearing in: Nature, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, the Murder Mayhem and Dystopia Utopia anthologies, Daily Science Fiction, Grievous Angel, Escape Pod, Grimdark, and others. She recently caught the editing bug and is preparing to edit her fourth anthology for an independent press. See more at http://www.gerrileen.com.
Art by Amanda Bergloff.
Art by Amanda Bergloff.