Sabta's shimmering greatness was particularly awful today; a pinkish glare that was harmless to the Ksreskézai themselves—but could easily burn and maim a slokdtaba if she stood in it for too long. Closer to night the sky would be a more bearable blue, but the pink tinge of high noon was truly pain embodied. After metal toxicity and childbirth, melanoma was, by far, the most common cause of death for the frail little servants.
Regsabta wound her way through the market square, cutting across it on her way back to the Tshúkoto Estate. All around her were the loud, boisterous proclivities of trade; jovial, booming, and frequently broken up by profanity-ridden challenge, generally for honour rather than to the death. Centuries of paying witness to the immensely vivid character of Ksreskézaian social life had instilled in her a great appreciation for its lively, boisterous attitude. She had once shied from its abrasiveness, like many young slokdtabasa, but she had eventually learned to appreciate it, although she never acted with such forwardness herself. Slokdtabasa simply didn't, for whatever reason.
A scream of terror erupted in her left ear, jerking her away from her thoughts. A flutter of leathery wings accompanied by shrill cries of "Don't touch me!" both drew and repelled the crowd, like charged particles of dust on an expanding bubble. Regsabta didn't recognize the voice, which was odd, for she had met nearly every slokdtaba who lived in this part of Tévopío.
But as the crowd parted, she could see the anguished source of the screams, much to her surprise. Hegrekña-Úksiñtheka Gazdattía, Gloto-Tyogía, the sole surviving servant of the Gazdatto family. Regsabta had never met Gloto-Tyogía before, but there were no shortage of illustrations of the remaining Gazdatto family members and their key employees. Immediately Regsabta was infected with the contempt of the crowd. This exiled Filth had no place here in the city of the King.
"Please!" begged Gloto-Tyogía's strangled voice. "I am only here by royal assent!" The Oksete around her began to close in, either not caring or not believing. Centuries ago, the respected merchantry (and considerable favour in the king's court) of the house of Gazdatto had declined suddenly when it became known that the family was in the business of smuggling and selling weapons. At best they were black-market criminals, utterly untouchable by respectable people. And who was there to sell weapons to, besides rebellious colonies or Wemnian insurrections? What they did—the unpatrioticness of it all—was unfathomable.
Regsabta looked on with subdued disdain as Gloto-Tyogía's pleas registered on the faces of the encroaching men, who half-acknowledged it. Perhaps now they would not kill her, but she would certainly be severely maimed.
Gloto-Tyogía's hope waned, and she began to try to justify herself. "It is not my bidding!" she begged, fallen now to her knees in the glittering, scorching sand. "I follow and have followed only my masters' commands, as any servant should! As the king's own servants do!"
This, it seemed, was a step over the line, and the fallen outcast covered her mouth immediately, her eyes surprised that she had said it. The retorts went unspoken, but Regsabta, seething with communal hatred, knew immediately what they were. Compare yourself to a loyal subject, would you! The jaws of one of the oksete opened, threateningly. Gloto-Tyogía had just chiselled her epitaph, and everyone knew it. But what Regsabta did not know was why there now rested a weight in her own chest.
"Stop," she heard herself say.
Gloto-Tyogía looked up through her tears at Regsabta, on the other side of the crowd, astonished. So too did the okse who had already sat down, picked her up, and was preparing to yank her sun-reddened arm from its shoulder.
"Do you know, fairest gentlemen of Might and Bearing, what the penalty for a slokdtaba's disobedience to her Master's will is?" Regsabta said. Her voice was now booming, as a voice must be when speaking to the Ksreskézai, for otherwise they will not take you seriously.
All of them, even those not watching her, twisted their wide, reptilian, three-eyed heads in what passed for "no."
"It is death, my gentlemen; the same fate that you propose to visit upon her now. The law is decisive and swift, as all great warriors must be, and just like a warrior's code, it acknowledges that loyalty cannot be punished. Of all the barbarians our mighty nation has faced in battle, fair gentlemen, only one denies such a basic truth."
They stared at her with that peculiar dull squint that meant they were dumbstruck but troubled. She had seen that look already today.
"It is the Hogedep! The serpents! Do you propose to blame a foot-soldier for a general's mistakes as they do? Under the punishment of death? Let her testify at the king's court and bring her masters to justice!"
With grimaces of displeasure, they shuffled off, no doubt to polish war trophies—or to tattle to some easily-incensed guard who might trump up some charges against her. Of course, she thought, those would be commuted. Like the others.
She sighed, her nerves fraught.
Perhaps that was why she had done it.
Gloto-Tyogía was a bleeding, sobbing mess. Her left shoulder was missing some flesh, and her right thigh had two substantial bite marks in it. Luckily her wings and tail had not been punctured, but this was no surprise—the most sensitive was always left for last in Ksreskézaian predation. It would have been quite a shame, too; Gloto-Tyogía was of a rare kind of slokdtaba, with a marvellous, immense wing span and a peculiar ridged tail. Regsabta had only known a few others with the same wing-shape, and none with skin so tanned. Undoubtedly her dark, burnt-looking skin had been important to her survival on the wastes.
Regsabta helped the other woman to her feet, and dragged her toward the Tshúkoto property, wordless, the cruel sunlight still pounding its fire down upon the market square. Hegrekña-Úksiñtheka was deathly silent for fear of being noticed again, and so Regsabta had to check several times to ensure the older woman hadn't passed out from blood loss. Even though her tanned skin was heavy with the grey of metal poisoning and anaemia, she remained conscious.
As it was the middle of the day, it would be a simple matter to get her home, treat her injuries, and give her somewhere to hide for the night. All of the family members and other slokdtabasa would be out, working.
In a few slow, torturous minutes they reached the gate, and were relieved to be under its broad, overhanging roof. The guard there, Glotgwemno, predictably disapproved of bringing in the outlaw slokdtaba, but once Regsabta had explained the woman had a court date (and that the King would not want it missed), he seemed more pliant.
Through the searing courtyard and into the cool mosaic-and-marble hall they continued, eventually coming to a perpendicular hallway. Above them, at the middle of the intersection, was a statue of Tshúkoto himself, a noble figure draped in a duke's robes and diadem. The life-like, bejewelled eyes stared down at them, almost disapprovingly—unsurprisingly, as Tshúkoto had been a judge in the royal court for some years. Hegrekña-Úksiñtheka trembled and stood on her own feet, confident the guard could not now hear them.
"Why do you protect me so, Merciful Regsabta of Tshúkoto? I have no way of repaying you, as surely you must be aware."
Regsabta thought for a moment, and was about to start sketching out a rationalisation for her actions, when another voice came from behind her.