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The snake people peered at them through unblinking yellow eyes, their tongues flicking in the air. One of them was about Zogzhesh’s height with a long, thick tail and vivid red tint to some of his scales. The other stood at least three feet taller, with an olive and brown banded pattern that reminded Jen of a rattlesnake.

“Who’s there?” said the taller snake person.

Mrs. Sharma took a wary step forward.

“My name is Mona Sharma. Who are you?”

“We’ll ask the questions here if you don’t mind,” said the shorter snake person.

“I do mind, actually,” said Mrs. Sharma.

“We’re trying to find our friends,” said Angelina. “Have you seen them?”

The shorter snake person stepped forward, rearing his head up, spreading his hood like a cobra, and letting out a loud hiss.

“I said we’ll ask the questions,” he said.

Jen stepped backward. She’d always been a little creeped out by snakes.

“Settle down, Toxzhesh,” said the taller snake person. “They haven’t done anything yet.”

Toxzhesh turned his hiss on his companion.

“Don’t tell me to settle down!”

The taller snake person ignored him.

“My name is Zarquozi,” said the taller snake person. “We’re the guardians of Bath–“

“Don’t tell them your name!” hissed Toxzhesh.

Zarquozi hissed something at Toxzhesh in the strange snake language, and Toxzhesh hissed back. This went on for a minute, then the snake people turned back to the group.

“You were going to say Bathsheba just then,” said Sam. “You’re the guardians of Bathsheba?”

“That’s no concern of yours,” said Toxzhesh.

“We know her, though,” said Sam. “We just met her. You’re her personal guards or something?”

“No,” said Zarquozi. “We’re the guardians of her garden. Garden guardians.” Zarquozi let out an annoyed hiss. “It sounds ridiculous in your language. Garden guardians. Guardians of the garden.”

“In Italian, it’s guardiani del giardino,” said Angelina.

“That’s just as bad,” said Zarquozi. “In our language, it’s a beautiful, noble-sounding title.” She let out a series of bizarre, guttural hisses. “See? Much better than ‘garden guardians’.”

“Yes. Beautiful,” said Mrs. Sharma dryly.

“Would you consider maybe letting us into the garden?” said Lachlan.

Jen rolled her eyes. Of course they weren’t going to consider that. Why would he even ask? Not only was the answer definitely going to be ‘no’, but it would be harder to sneak into the garden if they needed to later.

Sure enough, Toxzhesh flared his hood out and let out another hiss.

“We are the protectors of Bathsheba’s garden! No one goes in!”

“Nice work, Mr. so-called-smart-guy,” Jen murmered.

Lachlan turned to look at her. Oops. She’d meant to say that under her breath.

“Did I do something to you?” he said. “Ever since we got dropped in this weird forest you keep looking at me like I kicked your mum in the face or something. I understand that I evidently somehow broke up your relationship whilst I was completely unconscious, but–“

Mrs. Sharma whipped around to face them.

“Can. You. Not. Have. Annoying. Teenage. Drama. For. Two. Seconds.”

Jen sighed. Mrs. Sharma had a point.

“Right. Yes, ma’am. Sorry. Not the time.”

“No,” said Mrs. Sharma. “It isn’t.”

“I guess you’re right,” said Lachlan. “It isn’t. Sorry.”

“I don’t know what you humans are arguing about, and I don’t care,” said Toxzhesh. “All I care about is keeping you out of the garden.”

“We do know Bathsheba, though,” said Sam. “I’m sure if you just asked her, she’d tell you it was fine to–“

Toxzhesh hissed again.

“Ask? You think we would dare disturb the wife of She-Who-Wears-The-Stellar-Crown?”

“So there’s no way you’ll let us in. Fine,” said Mrs. Sharma. “Can you at least tell us if you’ve seen any other humans around here?”

“Just one,” said Zarquozi.

“Who?” said Mrs. Sharma.

“The one they call ‘the Gatherer’.”

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