Excerpt: Stone Rose
Chapter One: The Basilisk Prince
Culebra woke with his breath lodged in his throat, tense and afraid—then he registered the smooth, warm feel of Ruisenor’s scales all around him. He’d fallen asleep lying with Ruisenor beside the fire. Whatever, or whoever, had woken him would not get past Ruisenor. No one did; those actually brave enough to try would feel her great fangs and die a very slow, very painful death.
He listened, keeping his breathing low and even, heart thudding too fast in his chest. There. Footsteps on the rug, trying hard to remain silent but no match for a man who relied heavily on his hearing to make up for his lack of sight. He heard the intruder stopped at the threshold, hesitated, and then padded further into the room. Heard the hiss of steel drawn from leather.
Culebra could taste the acrid flavor of his fear. Whoever the intruder was he wasn’t very good at his job. Assassins must be getting increasingly difficult to find. No wonder, given that Culebra could no longer count the number that had died trying.
He waited until he heard the man rifling around in the bedding, the muffled thump of blankets hitting the floor, waited until he knew the man finally realized the bed was empty. “Looking for me?” Culebra asked, rolling away as Ruisenor stirred, unwound her heavy coils and slithered toward the intruder.
The stench of fear grew sharper, mingled now with the bittersweet taste of death. Culebra could not see it, but Dario had described to him any number of times the way Ruisenor moved forward slowly, her eyes glowing, striking forward at the last moment, nearly too fast to follow.
Her victims never protested, paralyzed by fear. Like all the would-be assassins before him, the intruder cried out in pain and died whimpering. Culebra felt him die, flicked his own tongue out to taste it, bitter and sweet on his tongue. It was the part he most hated about himself: that he could feel the moment when a death was coming, that he loathed it and yet did not. Some part of him was comfortable with death, drew … something … from every death he tasted.
The whisper of scales across carpet drew closer, and Culebra stretched out a hand to stroke and pet Ruisenor as she twined around him. She hissed softly, rubbed her head against his cheek before resting it on his shoulder. “Thank you, beautiful,” Culebra whispered, stroking her smooth, warm scales over and over. His beautiful Ruisenor: her scales and eyes were a perfect, gleaming black. Her venom turned the blood of her victims black. Culebra had no idea what that color meant, had no concept of colors at all, but he knew she was an unusual snake.
She terrified all who saw her, minus a precious few. Culebra had been told often that he would do better to get rid of her before she turned on him or least keep her locked up with the other snakes. Culebra ignored all of them. Ruisenor had found him as a boy when he’d had not a single friendly person in his life. His father and brother were polite at best, his mother refused to have anything to do with him. No one else would associate with him, either scared of him or scared of being caught in the crossfire. His life had only gotten colder when illness took his parents and put his brother, Pruebas, on the throne.
Ruisenor was all he’d had until he was assigned two permanent bodyguards at the age of sixteen: Granito and Dario. But thinking about them still hurt too much.
As Ruisenor slid away again, no doubt off to inspect her kill, Culebra took the seven steps from one side of the space in front of the fireplace to the other. He reached out, touched the armchair he’d sought and, after a moment, found the dressing robe he’d left there. Pulling it on, he tied the belt and left his bedroom.
He walked through his private sitting and out into the receiving room, the smell of death that had teased him getting stronger. The door to his private chambers was closed, and he pulled it open slowly in case someone living lingered there still. But all he tasted was death. He flicked his tongue out and breathed it in deeply. Three bodies, two of them the guards assigned to his room for the night. The third did not smell familiar, but he did smell dirty and faintly of cheap alcohol. So the intruder had actually been a pair, but one of them had been felled by the guards.
Strange that the guards had not managed to raise a cry, but had managed to kill one of the assassins. But, he had no way of knowing what had transpired.
Culebra frowned and closed the door again, and then walked the fifteen steps to the bell pull in the corner of his receiving room. He pulled it once, the signal that something was wrong, and then walked the ten paces to one of the two sofas. Sitting down, he folded his hands in his lap and waited.
Helplessly, his thoughts went to Dario. He would give anything to have Dario at his side again. But he didn’t deserve it, not when Granito was dead because of Culebra. Dario and Granito were inseparable, two halves of a whole. They might have been born a few years apart, but anyone could see the brothers had shared a soul. Culebra had loved them so much. Still loved them, more than anything in the world. But protecting him had cost Granito his life, and losing Granito had shattered Dario.
What right did Culebra have to the pieces? He didn’t, and so he’d set Dario free. But that didn’t stop the constant ache, the feeling that a part of him was missing. He still could not even sleep in his own bed. It felt unbearably large and lonely after spending every night sandwiched between his bodyguards—his lovers.
Just sixteen when he had been assigned the pair, and he’d already gone through so many bodyguards by then. Most simply could not endure the stress of so many attacks. Attacks on royalty were not unusual, but back in those early days the Brotherhood of the Black Rose had tried much harder to kill him. That he’d only been a child had not mattered at all to the Order—indeed, it was better, because as a child he was much weaker and not yet a true threat.
The Brotherhood had not anticipated Ruisenor, who had found him when he was only six. Neither had it anticipated the two men who walked into his life and, for once, remained a part of it.
For three years they had been his bodyguards, and more slowly, his friends. It was as his twentieth birthday approached that they began to make the three of them so much more.
The memories were like knives, but like the taste of death on his tongue, Culebra loved and hated them in equal measure.
The door opened after a cursory knock, and Culebra gratefully focused on his visitor, shoving the memories aside for the moment. The new arrival smelled like cheap sangria and cheaper cigarettes, a hint of the rough soap used to clean the palace uniforms—and like the clothes were cleaned more often than the person who wore them. “Thank you for coming. Who are the three dead men in the hallway?”
“Two guards, and the intruder they stopped,” the man said.
Culebra ignored the undercurrent of accusation in his mostly deferential tone. He was tired of being treated like he was to blame for all the deaths, but knew there was nothing he could do about it. People tried frequently to kill him and more people died defending him, and practically everyone saw that as his fault. “One of the intruders,” he corrected. “The second one is in my bedroom. Be careful when you go to examine him; Ruisenor is still in there and she is rather possessive of her kills.”
The guard made a noise like he’d cut off words just before voicing them, and obediently went to look at the body in Culebra’s bedroom. The stench of fear and unwashed skin lingered, and Culebra grimaced.
A brief time later the guard reemerged, the smell of his fear stronger than ever. Only Granito and Dario had learned to stop fearing Ruisenor. “Highness, I apologize for the failure of my guards to protect you.”
“No,” Culebra said. “The apology is mine, as ever. Your men did not deserve to die, and I am sorry they did.”
“I will send men to collect the bodies. Shall I summon your brother, Highness? He will want to know there has been another attack.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Neither will new guards. I cannot imagine that assassins would strike twice in one night. Let the guards and my brother sleep. Ruisenor will be enough to guard me the rest of the night. Thank you.”
“Highness,” the guard replied, and Culebra listened to the rustle of fabric, the muffled clomp of his boots on the carpet, the soft closing of the door. He sighed, reaching up to touch the heavy black bandages wrapped around his eyes. They worked better than ribbon or scarves or any of the other items used by past Basilisk Princes. Culebra wished it were possible to find something that made him stand out less, but he would gain sight sooner than he would gain acceptance.
He listened to the ticking from the clock behind him, counting off several minutes before he heard four guards coming down the hall. They burst into his room without knocking—and fell into a sudden, sharp silence as they saw him sitting there.
What had they thought? That they would not see him in his own rooms? Old, bitter anger and sadness writhed in his gut. Culebra ignored it. “Thank you for coming,” he said quietly. “The last body is in the room. Have a care for Ruisenor.”
“Y-y-yes, Highness,” one of the guards managed, before they hastened to do their job and go.
Culebra sat up straight, feigning indifference as they worked, thanking them again as they announced the job was finished, listened to the slamming of the door as they hastily departed.
He missed being cared about, and didn’t know if that was selfish or not. He missed Granito’s fingers sliding across his cheek, the playful way Dario had ruffled his hair. The way they had always asked ‘Are you all right?’
No one ever asked how he was, anymore. Only those two ever had. If Culebra still had the ability to cry about anything, he would.
He wanted to hear laughter, jokes, the easy conversation of people who rarely completed sentences because they always anticipated each other. The way he had fit into that, had fit between them. Until Granito and Dario had slid into his life, he had not realized just how lonely he had been. The only thing better than becoming their friend was becoming their lover. He would give anything to have that again.
Bones and blood, he would give anything just to have a friend.
Culebra sighed and stood up, walking back to his bed chamber. When he reached it, he walked to his bed. Removing his dressing robe, he left it at the foot of bed, followed quickly by his sleeping pants. Naked, he padded the twelve steps to his closet. In his closet, he felt his way through his various outfits, feeling the marks carved into the wooden rods from which they hung. Pulling the clothes on, he found shoes and accessories with the matching markings.
Hopefully, he was properly dressed and did not look like an idiot. Not, he thought bitterly, that anyone would tell him. He fussed over his clothes a few minutes more, then just gave up and hoped for the best.
Ruisenor hissed in greeting as he left his closet, and he stroked her scales as she rubbed up against him. “I do not think I will be getting anymore sleep tonight, beauty. Shall we spend what remains of the night visiting our brothers and sisters?” Culebra asked, smiling when Ruisenor hissed in reply.
Culebra left his private chambers, tongue flicking out to taste the lingering hint of blood and death in the hallway, the special soap used to remove the blood as much as possible, and the smell of the oil used in the wall sconces. The feel of the flickering torch light faded away as he left the lonely wing where his rooms were located, replaced only by the smells and flavors of a sleeping palace. Lingering hints of expensive cologne mingled with cigar smoke, incense, hair powder, and the musk and sweat of people.
He paused as he passed an open door and caught the whiff of recent sex, wondering who had been having a late night affair in the Lady Delia parlor. It was a good location for such illicit activities, but thinking about that just stirred more memories that still hurt too much. He hoped someday he could remember such moments with more fondness than pain, but he was beginning to doubt it.
Continuing on, Culebra made his way through the palace, counting steps until he finally reached a door at the very back of the palace. He reached up to remove the key kept on a silver chain around his neck along with a couple of other baubles, and unlocked the door.
Slipping the necklace back on, he opened the door and slipped inside. The palace had been cool, but the room into which he stepped was hot and humid. Culebra shrugged out of his jacket and felt out the hooks by the door, hanging the jacket from one of them. He walked farther into the room, shoes clicking on the smooth stone path that looped around the entirety of the enormous space.
Dario and Granito had once described the room to him at length: half the size of the grand ballroom, which was a hundred and thirteen paces long and just over half that in width. The room was filled with plants and trees from all around the world, growing in harmony from the hard work of gardeners and a touch of magic. The walls and ceiling were made entirely of glass, and magic sustained the necessary heat at night and during the colder parts of the year.
The greenroom had been built two centuries ago as a wedding gift to Queen Adelia, but had fallen into disuse after her death. It had fallen into neglect until Culebra had begun using it as a place to house the hundreds, possibly even thousands, of snakes that came to him.
They filled the greenroom: every imaginable shape, size, and color of snake could be found. Nearly all were deadly, and those that lacked venom could squeeze the breath from their prey before they were even able to draw breath to scream.
Culebra walked until he reached the deep, curved stone that formed a natural seat. For years as a child it had been his favorite place in the palace. After Granito and Dario had become his lovers, it had been relegated to secret favorite after being tangled up in bed with them. Returning to the solitary stone seat after they were gone had been hard; it was there that the return of his lonely, isolated life had really struck him.
But eventually it had become his sanctuary again. Snakes, after all, did not judge. Did not hate. On the contrary, he knew very well they loved him.
It wasn’t long before the snakes slithered to join him, hissing softly at him, rubbing against him, twining and coiling, until he was practically covered in snakes. Settling back comfortably, Culebra stroked and pet all of them, smiling, content there in a way he never was in the rest of the palace. The way he had not been since he lost Granito and then Dario.
He could feel the faint hum of contentment and warmth at the back of his mind. The snakes did not have thoughts for him to read, exactly, but he could feel when they were happy, hungry, angry. He could feel their affection and devotion.
Surrounded by them, in the only place where he never felt alone or judged, Culebra fell asleep again.
Ruisenor’s hissing woke him, and as he stirred and sat up groggily, Culebra could hear a voice calling for him from the door at the far end of the room.
“You can come in,” he called, knowing full well it was futile. Nobody ever entered what they all privately called the Hall of Snakes. It did not matter how many times he told them the snakes would never hurt anyone unless he said otherwise, nobody would step foot inside. He was always somewhat surprised his brother did not simply order him to remain there, since not even the most desperate assassin would risk himself to reach Culebra through the mass of snakes.
Culebra had often wondered if he would be more afraid himself if he could see them. Apparently the snakes were quite frightening to look upon, especially en masse, but he was unable to understand why. They felt beautiful, both to the touch and in the warmth buzzing in his mind. He just wished he could convey all of that to someone who would actually listen.
Sighing softly, he slid off his rock and returned to the door. “Yes?”
“Highness, your brother requests your presence in the blue breakfast room.”
“Very well,” Culebra said. “Help me tidy myself up, please, and escort me to him.” He could make his way alone, but if his brother wanted to see him in the breakfast room then it was late morning and the halls would be crowded.
“Of course, your Highness.” He listened to the click of her heels, the rustle of fabric, as she fetched his jacket and helped him into it, smoothing the sleeves and collar, fastening the buttons with quick, easy movements. She adjusted his neck cloth, then after a brief pause reached up to run her fingers through his hair. A couple more minutes of fussing she stepped back. “You are ready, Highness.”
Culebra smiled. “Thank you for your help. He offered his arm. “If you would so kindly lead me to my brother?”
Taking his arm, she murmured another, “Yes, Highness,” and carefully led him through the halls, speaking up to tell him when they approached stairs or a turn, or had to move out of the way of something. While his peers largely ignored him and the guards mostly despised him, the servants were almost always kind to him. Why they were not as afraid of him as everyone else Culebra did not know, but he was always grateful.
“You’re very expert,” Culebra said as she stopped in front of the breakfast room. “Thank you for your kind assistance.” Slipping a hand into the pocket of his jacket, he pulled out a coin and pressed it into her hand. “What’s your name?”
“I hope I may call upon your services again, Maria. Good day to you.”
“T-thank you, Highness,” Maria said, and after a moment where he assumed she curtsied, he heard her walk off.
Stifling a sigh at the coming meeting, Culebra pushed open the door and counted steps to his seat at the table. His fingers wrapped around the back of his chair after the appropriate five steps, and he smoothly sat down.
He could smell his brother’s cologne, a heavy woodsy with hints of blood rose that he imported from Verde. There was also the smell of wax and velum, the costly ink used for important documents. So his brother was drafting something, but none of his secretaries—
The door opened behind him, and Culebra could smell fresh food and tea, a much cheaper perfume that smelled like watery tea roses. Velvet and starching, wax and paper: a secretary. To judge by that perfume, he knew which one. “Good Morning, Toribio.”
“Good Morning, Highness,” Toribio greeted, and after a moment of clacking and pouring, he set something in front of Culebra and guided his hand to it. “Spiced tea for you, Highness.”
“Thank you. Good morning, brother.”
“Why must you always go hide with those accursed snakes?” Pruebas demanded. “You know the servants hate fetching you there, and you are already unapproachable as it is.”
Culebra stifled a sigh. “I thought that after the attempted assassination that it was the safest place for me to be until morning.”
“You would be safest with another full time bodyguard.”
“No,” Culebra said flatly. “I am not discussing the matter again. Ruisenor keeps me safe. I would prefer to leave off the guards entirely; I am tired of seeing them die.”
He could practically feel Pruebas’ irritation, but instead of continuing the old argument Pruebas only said, “We have a new delegation from Kundou arriving in a few days. I want you to take charge of them, since you likely already know many of them. I have a list of names here. The delegation head is Lord Midori Kawa, which sounded familiar to me.”
“Lord Midori?” Culebra said, the words immediately bringing to mind the quiet, gentle man who had cared for him after he’d left the Kumiko. He’d met Lord Midori before on previous trips, and he’d always been cordial. But he had not really gotten to know him until after that terrible voyage when the mermaids destroyed his ship, killing everyone but himself and Lord Krasny.
Midori’s presence had been all that kept Culebra from losing his mind. Even Krasny, one of his few true friends, had not been as reassuring a presence as Captain Midori. He had a warm voice, slightly husky. He always smelled like rough soap and the sea. Calloused hands, strong and sure. Culebra barely remembered the journey, he’d been so lost in grief and remembered fear. He would never forget those awful screams, the blood and the fear. The rest was a haze, but he remembered that—and Midori’s calm, steady presence. “Shouldn’t it be Captain Midori? He’s head of Kundou’s royal navy. He’s no diplomat.”
“If he is part of the delegation, then I suppose he had changed occupations. I see no notations about him being a captain. They were expected to arrive at the end of the month, so I expect them in the next week or two.”
Culebra nodded. “I’m happy to help, brother. I will do my best.”
“See that you do,” Pruebas said. “As to a bodyguard, if you are to do this, then I am afraid that one will have to be appointed. I cannot have our guests put at risk, or anyone thinking I do not properly take care of you.”
That, Culebra conceded bitterly, had been very well-played. He should have anticipated it—but of course he was happy simply to be of real use, and Pruebas had counted on that.
Well, no matter. The bodyguard would not last long. Being with him on a near-constant basis required being comfortable with Ruisenor and all his other snakes. Only Granito and Dario had been comfortable with the snakes.
“Of course, brother,” Culebra murmured. “I suggest you find men of fortitude, however. They are quite useless to me if they are terrified of Ruisenor. Will that be all?”
“For now, but do not wander far, we may discuss the matter more at lunch or dinner.”
Culebra nodded and rose, swept his brother a polite bow. “Until later then, brother. Good day.” He left as his brother gave an absent reply, slowly making his way back to his room on his own, emotions a tangle: he did not want a bodyguard, but he liked having something to do, and he was definitely looking forward to seeing Midori again.
He only hoped Midori would be happy to see him. It would not be the first time that he had mistaken mere duty for friendship.
Reaching his room, Culebra smiled as Ruisenor immediately wrapped around him greeting, hissing softly against his ear. “Hello, beautiful. We’re going to have guests, soon. I think you’ll like him.”
Ruisenor hissed again in reply, warmth and affection pulsing in Culebra’s mind. Slowly unwrapping, she slithered away in a soft hush across the floor, and Culebra followed, silently hoping that the days until Midori arrived passed quickly.