Tokkenoht walked wearily toward the hearth room, intent on nothing more than plopping down on her sleeping mat and letting blessed sleep take her. She stopped short when Szakhandu, who was standing beside the doorway, held up her hand.
“What is it?”
“Don’t go in yet. Hsrandtuss is mating with Ssu.”
“Yes.” She shrugged. “The king wants to mate… he needs to, and neither of us is ready. Kendra doesn’t want to and so that leaves Ssu. I wish I was ready.”
“Why is that, do you suppose?” muttered Tokkenoht.
“Why what? Why do I want to mate? Or why doesn’t Kendra?”
“No. Why are you and I not ready? This isn’t our first season.”
“I have an opinion,” said Szakhandu.
Tokkenoht motioned for her to continue.
“I think it is stress.”
“What is stressing us? We have plenty to eat and drink.”
“Mental stress. You are high priestess and I am chief diplomat. I don’t know about you, but this whole mess with the humans is worrying my tail.”
“You’re not on about that again, are you?” growled Hsrandtuss, his bulk suddenly filling the doorway. “I’ve sent a message to the human city. Either they can pay a ransom, or I will mark humans’ tails and banish them. We should hear back from them by the next bright face.”
“Great King,” said Szakhandu. “I hesitate to point it out, but the soft-skins have no tails for you to mark.”
“Well figure out a place for me to mark them!” he hissed, pushing past them. “Do I have to do everything myself?”
“The humans mark thieves here,” said Tokkenoht, pointing to the webbing between her thumb and forefinger. Then she stepped through the doorway and collapsed on her mat, asleep in seconds.
The high priestess jerked awake when someone grabbed hold of her. She thought she was being attacked for a moment, but when she opened her eyes, it was only Szakhandu.
“What? Why are you waking me?”
“You have slept late. It is past the morning meal.”
“The prisoners want to speak to you.”
“What prisoners?” wondered Tokkenoht.
“The human prisoners—the soft-skins.”
“Why do they want to talk to me?” she wondered. “How do they even know me?”
“They want to talk to the high priestess,” said Szakhandu. “You are the high priestess, aren’t you?”
“All right, all right. Paint me, and then have Kendra meet me at their cell.”
“She is already there,” said Szakhandu, pulling her toward the paint.
A few minutes later, with the smallest amount of paint acceptable, but wearing her feathered cape, Tokkenoht allowed her fellow royal wife to lead her down to the holding cells. Two large males guarded the door, but opened it for the two of them. Inside, they found another guard and Kendra, along with the four human prisoners. They looked well enough and had been allowed to clean themselves daily, but the hair on their faces had grown, making them seem much more animal-like.
“Good morning, wife of my husband,” said Tokkenoht to Kendra. “Are you gravid with eggs yet?”
“I think I might be. I have no appetite.”
“Yes, that is a sure sign.” She looked at the prisoners. “Now, what is it that they want?”
Kendra turned and spoke the lyrical language of the humans. To the lizzies, it sounded like the calls of small birds. The humans answered, sometimes talking over one another. They talked far longer than the priestess had expected, until Kendra finally raised her hand for them to stop.
“These two are eggs from the same female.” She pointed to two of the humans. “They have the same name—Tardut, that’s as close as I can pronounce it anyway. This one’s name is Neiers, and that one is Grissinski. He is the one that has much to say to you. He says that our god will not like him being imprisoned. He says that Yessonar will punish us if he is not released.”
“Tell him it is I who speak for the god here and not him. Tell them all that we have sent word about them to the human city. We will know their answer in another ten days or so.”
Kendra spoke the human tongue again and Grissinski answered, loudly, waving his arms.
“He threatens great destruction.”
Tokkenoht reached past Kendra and shoved the human. He crashed into the wall and slid down to the floor. She had heard that some of the humans were fierce warriors, but this was not one of them, she decided.
“Ask the other three if there is anything they need.”
“They say they need more food,” Kendra translated. “They say we feed them only half of what they need.”
“That is probably true,” said Tokkenoht. “They are warm-blooded and so their bodies need more fuel. Tell them we will have more food brought.”
The high priestess turned and waited for the cell door to be opened. Once it was, she stepped out, followed by the other females. The guard stepped out as well, shutting the cell door behind him. The three queens made their way up the hallway.