Early on Geglok'hogrekño morning, vessels of the Righteous King Zetemptobo confirmed that the last of the cowardly serpents had been driven from the fair domain of Yorlamë, home to millions of loyal colonists and twenty lesser species. General Hrídlatzlo Korakto of the Ninth Fleet at Arms declared the victory a significant blow to the Hogedep Empire, if not a particularly challenging test of his armada's abilities. Today is a great day for the Ksreskézai. — REGSABTA TSHÚKOTÍA, TÉVOPÍO SCABBARD.
"What in the world is this?" Regsabta demanded, the short blurb held in her fist. She was gripping it so hard that the thick printers' papyrus was starting to crease.
The man who wrote it—a nine foot-long quadruped covered in chitinous armour, hunched over in a small pit in front of what might be called a desk—looked at her pitifully, his three large eyes unblinking.
"It is exactly what it appears to be, Merciful Regsabta. It is the news we are to print."
The words came out of his slithering, three-tongued mouth a syllable at a time, but she understood them effortlessly.
"They didn't even get the name right," she sighed.
"Is your name misspelled? I am sorry for my trespass; please, I shall get the copyist to engrave another..."
"No, my name is fine. Printing all of these rubbish propaganda stories has finally taught him how to spell it properly. What I'm worried about, Dzetzo, is that Yorlamë only has one indigenous race in it, not twenty. That's Pzúghamë."
Dzetzo's posture tensed at hearing his superior call the King's word "rubbish," but then slackened, crestfallen, as he realised the mistake was his.
"There was a time when you detested their misuse of your name, Merciful Regsabta." The topic thus changed, his gaze wandered to her strange little face and its tiny upswept horns, barely more than a finger in length. No Ksreskézaian female would be seen in public with such modest endowments. Of course, he reminded himself, the slokdtabasa were so very much unlike the Ksreskézai. Perhaps that was why he was comfortable around them and their odd, muted expressions; as an example of his species, he was downright emotionless.
"That was before Kotshantko retired and left me in charge without telling anyone," she said, her curved, pinkish lips a grim line. The broad night-traveller wings that sprouted from her shoulders quivered, and she soon wrapped herself up in their thin, bony membranes, sighing. "Back when I thought—foolishly, to be sure—that this publication had a shred of honesty to it. The King must be scared if he's telling the people that the battle lines are closer than they really are. What do you think, Dzetzo? Hobala, perhaps? Maybe even Mürsto?"
"Certainly not so far out if we are speaking of Yorlamë—er, or Pzúghamë. We must be in a much greater danger, Merciful Regsabta."
"I would rather be stripped of my titles than be called 'Merciful' another time." Out of all the titles available to her recently-awarded honours, it had seemed the least offensive. Now, she was not so sure.
"Yes, Mer... Regsabta."
"Correct it to Pzúghamë."
"But what if the other newspapers simply correct the number of species?"
"Then it will just have to be a very glorious day for the Empire. I have a headache. I am leaving now."
"Very well, Slokdtaba Regsabta."
Regsabta winced. It was hard to hold a conversation when you were constantly being addressed as 'servant.'
She paused, looking up at the beast across the room. "Maybe 'Merciful' is not entirely bad."
Ksreskézo was a nation used to war. For almost twenty four thousand years of its recorded history, the sparkling, sun-kissed planet had been ruled in whole by a series of empires, which in turn rose out of the barbaric nothingness of countless puny tribes. This empire, the Ninth, had existed for almost half that span. There had only been three changes of power on Ksreskézo since the development of space-faring technology and the strange breach-drives that could fold the sky and puncture it, to permit travel between the tiny bubbles of space that isolated the Sabta system and her neighbours.
The largest pocket yet discovered had hundreds of star systems in it; traders whispered of places where there were so many stars they tugged on each other and formed massive swirls, like whirlpools in the heavens. Wherever such places were, they must surely lay beyond the boundaries of the Enemy's territory.
All that time and they were still at war with the Hogedep. There was another battlefront, with the Tletketti, but no one had seen their ships in centuries—and that was all. No other known powers. Every other race the Ksreskézai had encountered was either subject to the Ksreskézaian Empire or the Hogedepi Empire. If the Tletketti had ever conquered anyone, they had been eradicated long ago. Yes, indeed, this was a nation of war.
Regsabta sighed, looking again at the propaganda story she held in her delicate, pale five-fingered hands. Officially the punishment for publishing lies was death, but as Property of the Noble House of Tshúkoto, the king would invariably be moved to pardon her if someone pointed out that the story was clearly bunk. All it would take is one officer on medical leave, and she would be stuck scrubbing her way through a commuted sentence on the floors of the palace for a month. Again.
She had been told she had this secret job title as chief editor in compensation for that risk, and quite honestly it was more freedom than any other slokdtaba on the planet could claim, but the promise of compensation was unconvincing. While an okso like Dzetzo would probably not be put to death for such an act of mandatory treason, no one else at the Scabbard could expect a royal pardon like a servant of a noble house.
Her headache gradually worsening and her heart once more strangely wistful, she went down-ramp to head home.