This is a short story that’s been kicking around my head for a while, and I finally finished it the day before Valentine’s Day. It involves serpentoids – humanoid snakes – discussing human mating rituals.
The serpentoids first showed up as mercenaries or bounty hunters in an earlier piece, hunting
an elf a banshee. They’re partly inspired by the Vipers in XCOM 2, though mine will not include any breasts – they’re constrictors, and I cannot think of a sensible reason why constrictors would need them. I had originally intended them to just be generic bad guys, but reading that snakes apparently aren’t capable of affection and then wondering they just might not show it in a manner we can interpret, I decided to make them the viewpoint characters for this.
The terrace on the southern side of the Sheefries had once been used for farming. Channels cut into the rock had diverted the frequent rain of Connemara into running past precisely-planted rows of oats or potato plants on its journey down to Lough Tawnyard. Small tunnels dug into the side led into storage caves, carefully sealed off from the main tunnels by a network of stout hatches and firing ports or simply not being connected in the first place.
The new owners of the terrace had little use for plants of any kind, and had decided to simply let them grow wild. It felt vaguely similar to the home they had left four generations ago and couldn’t reach from this new world. Some of the older ones still held fond memories of the reeds around the spinetrees in which they had taken shelter and from which they had hired themselves out to the long-ears on a contract basis.
But for now, such concerns were laid aside as they stretched out or curled up in the sun. Even the sentries had stretched out, eyes and tongues flickering from left to right for signs of a long-ear or the greenskins. Or, even worse, one of those aerial machines that the other two-legs from across the lakes used.
Kaa stared forwards and downhill, not really seeing the valley that stretched west towards the hill referred to as Mweelrea. Had it really been sixty-three years since he’d first entered the portal as a hatchling on his first major contract? He still remembered the sense of excitement he’d felt and smelt coming from everyone else at the thought of entering a new world. He hadn’t felt that in a very long time. What had happened?
It died with the rest of them, he mused. Dragoo – died from an airgun. Bariga – charging the shortlegs that had killed Dragoo with a reek and snarl of blind anger, only to be impaled on a spear. Adrego and Paroa, ever the jokers, blown up by artillery from Mweelrea after conquering the upper reaches of the west Sheefries. Lorga had just slithered off her post one day after months of constant olfactory emissions of dissatisfaction, never to be seen again. Countless more had died, either in battle or outside…and for what?
He idly stroked the tip of his chin with his right claw. Somehow, he and Anoris had survived and mated. Not only that, their hatchlings had done so as well…and on that note, he smelt two of them approaching from behind. It was…
“Grampa?” Ah, it was Braa. And the other one with him had to be Missa.
“Hatchlings,” he hissed in greeting. Both of them slithered over to lie next to him. Braa’s rapidly-flickering tongued betokened the smell of excitement that surrounded him. “How was your first excursion?”
“An easy one,” Missa replied, emitting a hint of pride and eagerness. “Nothing came near the caravan.”
“If I remember correctly, the caravan was over to the Blue Hills.” He waved a claw at the hills facing them. “I don’t know anything else. Can you enlighten me?”
Braa nodded. “We left eight days ago, following the cartway track down to…Glendalough?” He looked over at his sister.
“Glendavock,” she supplied, pointing towards a long spur to the southwest. “We ran into one break along the way. A woolback got stuck in a gravity patch and was floating in mid-air. We were about to use it for target practice, but Papa told us not to.” She sounded and smelt a little put out by this.
“Was it painted in any way?”
She hesitated. “I think so…a mix of blue and red stripes on one flank.”
Kaa hissed approvingly. “If any livestock are painted in such a manner, it marks them as somebody’s property. You were not contracted to attack it. But if that was all that happened on the way, then it sounds like a good fish run to start with.”
“Well…” Braa hesitantly scratched his snout. “There was something odd about when we arrived at the marketplace. Off to one side, there was an alley lined with red lights, and…”
“Go on.” Kaa found it difficult to hide his sudden amusement. Such a quaint custom.
“Well…it was filled with greenskins. They were…hunting each other…” Braa continued confusedly. “Wrapping themselves around each other. I could have sworn I saw coin changing hands. What were they doing?”
Kaa lasted only a few seconds before he couldn’t hold in the belly hiss and waft of amusement. Both of them stared at him for a long moment.
“What? Grampa, what’s so funny?” Missa eventually asked. He wasn’t immediately able to answer. Eventually, he managed to get his amusement under control long enough to ask if their parents had discussed mating with them yet.
“Yeees…” she hissed, tilting her head to one side. There was a hint of unease about her scent that suggested she was about to make the connection. Beside her, Braa nodded hesitantly.
“Well…wrapping themselves around each other is one of the greenskins’ mating rituals. It is strange,” he allowed, with the unfazed tone and whiff of someone who had given up trying to figure out the logic behind it, “but that is how they work. They don’t have our sense of smell, so they have developed other means of communicating.”
“So were they…” Braa began, still not quite understanding. Missa almost groaned, having worked it out for herself.
“Most likely contracting for temporary mates,” Kaa replied. “An odd custom, but the long-ears have a similar one. Tell me, there was once a bar at the Glendavock marketplace called the Surface Canal. Is it still present?”
“Yes. It was right next to the alley,” Missa gave a slight shudder.
“The last time I was there, I came across some of their other peculiar mating customs, on the single day they set aside for this. One of their ways of expressing their…attraction is to press their lips against each other.”
“You mean, to sniff at each other?” Braa tilted his head, flickering his tongue twice to betoken his confusion.
“Possibly, though I suspect they don’t use their tongues to smell. I believe it is the protrusion from their face that they use instead,” Kaa replied, tracing a rough triangular shape forward from the tip of his snout. “A different and less precise mechanism than ours, perhaps, but it seems good enough for them.”
“So apart from constricting and sniffing at each other, what else do they do?” the younger hatchling continued. Beside him, to Kaa’s further amusement, Missa dragged a claw down in front of her eyes and wafted exasperation at her brother’s inappropriate curiosity.
“Buying each other plants.”
“Plants.” Somehow, Missa managed to pronounce the absence of any punctuation. A second later, she emitted a sharp, sceptical smell that was as clear as a two-legs rolling their eyes. “You can’t eat them,” she continued.
“We can’t, but they can. But these plants tend to be less edible and more…decorative. The purpose seems to be to impress a potential mate by showing that they can afford such frivolous displays, but it works for them. Perhaps, ” Kaa yawned, “you should try it.”
“I’m not looking for a mate, Grampa!” she hissed, emitting a sharp whiff of embarrassment. He glanced at her, emitting his own whiff of amused disbelief. Of course she wasn’t. Nobody her age would ever consider emitting the availability pheromone in a crowded dormitory to let everyone know she was looking. Probably just a late bloomer, like Paroa…
With a jolt, he realised that Paroa had never emitted that or even actually had a mate. Any time somebody had asked, the clown had made a typically whimsical comment about having better things to do, like sleep or stand on his head.
A cold, wet splatter to the back of his head broke his concentration. Lifting his head and looking over his shoulders, he saw his fellow serpentoids beginning to stir with irritated hisses as the spatters of rain turned to something heavier.
“It’s raining,” Braa announced with the obvious-stating powers of the young as he began to slither after Missa into the nearest overhang. Kaa’s tongue flickered in the rain, smelling the change in the air. Yes, definitely a cold shower coming. Time to get inside and wait for it to pass, however long that took.