Hsrandtuss opened his eyes and stretched. He had to push both Ssu and Tokkenoht off of him before he could roll off his sleeping mat. Only the latter female woke up. He stretched again. He felt better than he had in months, better than he had in years. A lot of it had to do with the fact that he was sleeping much better. He didn’t know if it was the proximity of the young god or the fact that for a change, things seemed to be going his way.
The other chiefs had all gone home. The last to leave had been Tistakha. Before Tistakha had left for Tuustutu, Hsrandtuss had managed a brief meeting. To say they had formed an alliance would have been too much, but they did seem to have an understanding. The two would work together to see that their trade with the soft-skins increased and that the plans of the God of the Sky were not disrupted by the likes of Szisz and his band of broken yokes in Suusiss.
“Your morning meal, Great King,” said Sszaxxanna, handing him a pomegranate.
“I don’t want another fruit,” said Hsrandtuss. “Where is my meat?”
“Your bowels, Great King.”
“Never mind my bowels. Find me a bird, or at the very least a nice fish.”
“The fish are not very plentiful here in the mountains, Great King,” said Sszaxxanna, with entirely too much sass.
He glared at her.
“I will try to find you a fish,” she said, scurrying off.
“See that you do. And send Sirris in here!” he called after her.
Sirris hurried into the room.
“Paint me,” Hsrandtuss ordered.
“If you wish, Great King, but the God of the Sky is gone.”
“Gone? What do you mean gone?”
“He flew north. Kendra says he has gone to visit the soft-skins in their city.”
“Yes, I see. That is good. What else does Kendra say? What about Szisz? Is he being watched?”
“Shouldn’t you wait and ask Sszaxxanna?” she asked quietly.
“You will never be first wife with an attitude like that,” he said.
“Kendra has trackers following him and his people. They are halfway back to Suusiss. She also says that there is a way for you to rise high in the esteem of the young god. She says you should do it, but Sszaxxanna won’t…”
Suddenly Sszaxxanna was there, striking Sirris repeatedly with her clawed hands, driving her from the room. Tokkenoht jumped up and hurried after her. Ssu continued to snooze on the sleeping mat.
“I have a bird for you, Great King,” said wife number one, thrusting the charred carcass of a bambiraptor toward him.
“It will be easier on your stomach.”
“What was it that Kendra suggested?” he asked, taking the bird and biting off the top half.
“It is nothing. It is ill conceived.”
“Would I not be a better judge of that than you?”
“Of course, Great King. But the god already favors you. You don’t need to risk yourself unnecessarily.”
“Bring her in here. I want to hear it.”
“But Great King…”
“As you wish,” said Sszaxxanna, stomping sulkily through the doorway. Hsrandtuss had no doubt that both Kendra and Sirris would be on the receiving end of Sszaxxanna’s claws later, but what was it to him how the females settled their differences?
Kendra entered and stepped very close to him. She placed one hand, palm outward, on her dewlap in a sign of respect and reached out familiarly to touch him on the shoulder with the other. She and Ssu were the youngest of his wives, and Kendra was very tiny, barely reaching up to Hsrandtuss’s shoulder.
“All right, what is this about improving my esteem?”
“There is a creature living beneath this fortress—a horrible creature.”
“Like the dead monster we saw when we arrived?”
“Much smaller than that one, but much more horrible. It lives in a place the young god cannot reach. One must pass through a narrow hallway and down a long flight of stairs. The red-caped one has sent five groups of warriors to kill it and they have all been unsuccessful. Most of them died.”
“So I am supposed to go down there and get myself killed too? Is that what you want?”
“No, no, my husband. You know that is not what I want. You must know how proud I am to be your wife.” She pressed her chin against his chest. “You are a great warrior and Tokkenoht and I will go with you, in addition to your warriors.”
“I am supposed to take two females into battle?”
“I have been on many hunts, and Tokkenoht has great magic. We can both aid you.”
Realizing that he still had half a bambiraptor in his hand, Hsrandtuss tossed it in his mouth and chewed. He did want to show Yessonar his worth, and Kendra was right that this might do so. And he was feeling better since he had been here. Maybe this was just what he needed to get back to his old self—a good battle. Yes, he decided. He would do it.
The entire fortress was a whirlwind of activity. The wall that had been completely disassembled when the group from Hiissiera had arrived was now almost completely rebuilt. Now a pair of high towers was being constructed just inside the walls. Wooden ladders and braces acted as an exoskeleton for the stone spires that when completed would house spiral staircases. Hsrandtuss found the god’s red-caped envoy easily enough. He had learned the important lizzie went by the name of Khastla.
“I hear that you have a problem beast.”
Khastla hissed slowly and eyed the king. “You speak of the vile creature below ground.”