Hsrandtuss stopped halfway up the hillside and leaned wearily on his staff. Glancing behind him, he saw that his six wives and twenty warriors were not having nearly as difficult a time with the climb as he was. Looking up the other direction he saw the massive fortress at the top of the hill. It was covered with wooden scaffolding for renovation and hundreds of small square wooden houses surrounded it. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to his first wife Sszaxxanna. She pointed off to the right.
Hsrandtuss, his wives, and his warriors were all members of the cold-blooded reptilian native race of the continent of Birmisia. The humans called them lizzies. Ranging in color from light olive to deep forest green, they gave the appearance of an alligator crossed with an iguana, if either had been able to walk around on their hind legs. Thick tails followed behind them, the tips a few inches off the ground.
“That is the road of supplicants, my king,” she said.
He nodded and started off in that direction, leading his small column along.
As they neared the road, they could see that literally thousands of people were upon it, making their way to the fortress and to the god who lived within. They were not all walking though. About one mile from the great gate, there was an arch over the road. Upon reaching the arch, travelers dropped down onto their bellies, crawling the rest of the way, dragging their tales behind them. Hsrandtuss stopped at the archway. He was torn. He needed to go on, but it was unseemly for a king to crawl.
“Hsrandtuss,” called a voice, just as he had decided that he had better get down on his belly.
He looked up to see an ornately painted male, wearing a bright red cape. He started when he noticed that the cape was made not of feathers, but of the smooth cloth woven by the soft-skins to the north. He nodded at the male.
“You need not enter through this gate. Bring your people and follow me.”
The red-caped male led them up a path paved with shiny river stones. It wound up the hill, sometimes approaching the main road and sometimes veering farther away. Finally it led to a small but beautiful gate in the cyclopean fortress wall. It was not as large as the main gate, but was lined with two beautifully carved statues of the god.
Close up, it was easy to see that the fortress was more than undergoing a simple renovation. One entire wall in the rear of the structure was gone and another had just been rebuilt. Buildings inside the walls were being remade. Every brick was being replaced. Thousands of males and females were laying bricks, hauling stones, or pushing wheelbarrows. Hsrandtuss hadn’t seen so many people since he had visited Suusthek as a child.
Tokkenoht, the king’s third wife, gave a low hiss and Hsrandtuss turned to see what had drawn her attention.
The body of a huge creature lay on its back, rotting in the sun. It was over fifty feet long, easily as large as a tyrannosaurus, though it was obviously a quadruped. A thick armadillo-like armor that had once protected the mighty back, now seemed to weigh the body down to the ground, and the gigantic head, attached with almost no neck, now gazed at the sky with empty eye sockets.
“What is it?” asked Sszaxxanna.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Hsrandtuss replied.
“It was a magic beast,” said the red-caped envoy. “The god killed it.”
“Come with me,” said the envoy.
He led them to a one of the few completed structures near the newly rebuilt wall. Tall and boxy, the building was covered on all sides by hanging pots, from which grew flowering vines. Beneath the windows were more flowers growing in heavy stone window boxes.
“This is the style popular in the south,” said Sszaxxanna.
Hsrandtuss nodded. He didn’t ask her how she knew such a thing.
“Make yourself at home,” came the order, before the caped one left.
Seconds later four females entered through the same door that both the party and the envoy had used. They carried huge platters of food—raw meat, cut into fist-sized pieces, and fresh fruit. As the females placed the platters on the floor, the warriors all looked at their king, waiting for him to choose the best for himself.
“Remember your bowels,” whispered Sszaxxanna, leaning her long snout near his earhole. “Just have some fruit.”
“I’m too tired to eat,” he sighed, and then turned to his warriors. “Feast my friends.”
The warriors went right after the slabs of meat. Two of his wives did too, but Sszaxxanna quickly put an end to that.
“Get over here,” she hissed. “The king needs to be rubbed with oil while he relaxes.”
Tokkenoht and Sirris both looked suitably chastened.
“Oh, let them eat,” said Hsrandtuss. “I just want to go lie down for a bit.”
He opened the tiny pouch on his belt and pulled out a golden pocket watch that he had purchased from the soft-skin city trader for 2,500 copper bits. He held it in front of his first wife’s face and pointed to it.
“The little hand is on the river and the big hand is on the tree by the river. I want to get up when the little hand is on the claw and the big hand is on the ladle.” He handed her the watch.
“It will be done, Great King,” she said, and then snapped her fingers, calling his second wife. “Ssu will sleep with you and make sure you are comfortable.”
Hsrandtuss nodded. Ssu was good for little else, but she did a good job of seeing to his comfort.
“The sleeping room will be through there,” Ssaxxanna pointed.
Hsrandtuss found a large, well appointed chamber set up in the usual style. A fire pit burned in the center of the floor, surrounded by comfortable sleeping mats. The king climbed down onto one of the mats, pausing to appreciate its craftsmanship. Then descending to his stomach, he put his snout near the burning fire. Ssu settled next to him, on the same mat, placing her snout over his, and pressing her stomach to his side. He scratched her belly idly before drifting off to sleep. When he woke Ssu was gone, but Tokkenoht was in her place, in exactly the same position.