The Suzerain of the Sthenites was a monstrous snake creature, and Zack initially mistook her for one of the guards. She wore the same gold-colored armor that the guards wore around their torsos, and featured the same red and orange scales and cobra-like hood that he saw on the guards, menial workers, and others who relied on strength. She slithered around a fire that was the focus of an amphitheater, hissing and rattling and yawning strange words that reminded Zack of a grizzled police chief he once knew.
The Suzerain stopped on the far side of the fire and stared down at Zack. He stood on the slope that led up to the gigantic gourd that had been carved into the stage in the center of the city, and a crowd of other Sthenites watched curiously.
“Kneel,” said Chala, quietly speaking behind him.
“Kneel,” said Chala. “Ordinarily you’d fall onto the ground, but they let me just kneel, so here’s where you kneel.”
Zack awkwardly looked into the emerald, predatory eyes of the Suzerain. He dropped to one knee and looked at the ground leading up to the fire. The Suzerain resumed speaking and, judging by the sudden appearance of orange and red scales between him and the flames, she resumed slithering as well. Soon she was out of view again, her oddly bird-like voice the only sign that she was still present.
“Now stand,” said Chala.
Zack rose and the Sthenites behind him began whispering rapidly to each other, creating a tense skirring of voices and feathers.
“Say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”
“It means ‘I agree and await judgement, Suzerain.’”
“You didn’t say Suzerain.”
“They don’t speak English. You need to say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”
Zack stared into the eyes of the Suzerain. They seemed predatory, but not cruel.
“Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala?”
The Suzerain growled with a purring rumble. Soon she began circling the fire again.
“She accepted it,” said Chala. “We need to work on your pronunciation for later, though.”
“What did I agree to?”
“Not important right now,” Chala whispered.
The Suzerain continued finished a circuit around the fire, coughed twice, and began speaking again. As she spoke the voices of the Sthenites behind them became louder and more scattered.
“What’re they concerned about?”
“They’re just debating the decision the Suzerain reached. Some feel she’s made the right call, some feel that she’s being too merciful. Others feel that she’s been too harsh.”
Chala’s voice was distant, further away and no longer whispering. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw Chala no longer standing just behind him. Instead, she stood on the ground near the other Sthenites.
“I can’t help you in the next part. You’ll be fine.”
A large, cobra-like guard surged from the crowd and grabbed Zack by the arm, trilling angrily in Zack’s face.
“Don’t fight him,” said Chala. “Yell or scream if it’ll make you feel better, but don’t resist it. He’s following the Suzerain’s orders.”
Zack was already being slithered down the ramp and through the crowd, but listened to Chala’s instructions. The guard pulled Zack through the gathered Sthenites and across the village to a small building made of stone. Some smaller, green-scaled Sthenites chirped excitedly at the approaching guard and worked together to open the heavy stone door.
Zack saw torchlight through the door, a green fire burning from the alien tree branches within. Something about the scenario felt off to Zack, but it was too late to avoid being pushed into the enclosure. He landed on a surprisingly soft bedding of leaves and branches.
“Good luck in there,” said Chala, peering from behind the other Sthenites.
“I thought you said I’d be in for some kind of… trial pit?”
Before Chala could respond, the bed of leaves and branches shuddered and started to descend into a hole carved in the floor. Zack saw four winches controlling ropes on the platform as it began descending into darkness. He instinctively moved to step off, but Chala held up a hand, warning him to stay on.
Zack watched the floor rise up and looked back at Chala, locking eyes with her until the ropes lowered him out of sight.