To enact her plans, Holly needed sadists with a modicum of intelligence. Pawns were easy. Knights, rooks, bishops…those were rare. Along the way, she had to keep an eye out for kings and queens, and kill them quickly, before they could become a problem.
Wodec, for example. He knew her secret.
The High Magician, much to her relief, had taken a “wizard’s sojourn.” According to her advisors, that meant he’d stay in the desert for an undisclosed period of time. Which meant he might be up to some underhanded sneakiness, waiting for the perfect moment to spring a trap. Initially, this had weighed heavy on her mind. She’d spent long hours lying on her Gortaki cot, staring up at the darkened ceiling. But as more Indashis had fallen in line, Holly’s worry had steadily faded. Around the six-month mark, she’d started locking barbarians in their own gaols. At first it was for major offenses, but then she began adding laws that were obtusely worded, making them subject to open-ended interpretation. This was deliberate. So long as she picked the right justicers, her intent would be honored, and the Indashi would begin to jail themselves. All she had to do was pave the way with sweetly worded platitudes.
Holly didn’t know it, but the time differential between Earth and Elithia was becoming increasingly erratic. She’d been on Elithia for almost a year—ten months, to be exact—but only a few weeks had passed on her home planet.
The teen queen had paid close attention to the reports filtering in from Yin-Skythe, who, instead of Sword Master, now bore the title of Head Barsman. It was a fitting description; Holly had insisted that the cells in her prisons be equipped with a double row of bars. If an inmate managed to reach through the first one, their mobility would be severely limited by the second. Holly wanted to make sure her jailers were safe. The guards were still loyal to each other, and that wasn’t something she wanted to discourage. She wanted to fashion them into a herd, then tap into their mob mentality; the same mindset exhibited by rabid chimps and FBI-listed hate groups. They had to believe they were a singular team, serving a purpose greater than themselves. If they simply acted out of adoration for Holly, it would filter out the smart ones—only dumbasses would sacrifice their lives for a singular figurehead. She needed sheep, yes, but wolves too.
Currently, Holly was riding out to Reykafix, a newly established prison. As her troop drew close, a watchtower guard lifted a conch-shell horn to his bearded lips. When he blew it, his fellow guardsmen—stationed throughout the skull-crusted towers built into the walled perimeter—straightened up.
Holly stopped her mount and scrutinized the black-armored guardsmen.
A few months back, she’d ordered a change in uniform. She’d ordered her royal artists to provide her with sketches, reinforcing the illusion that she was open to their input. She’d coached them along with carefully worded suggestions, doling out praise and indifference with masterful skill.
As a result, Indashi armor now resembled Orcish armor from the Lord of the Rings movies. The artists believed they had made a contribution, and said as much to anyone who asked. Holly was pleased; she wanted them to think they were willing participants.
She wanted them to think it was their own idea.
What she now saw made her happy. The guardsmen looked like something Dick Cheney would heartily approve of, if he were made ruler of a fantasy-world hellscape.
The barbarian in the gate-tower cupped his mouth. “HO!” he called. “THE KING APPROACHES!”
In response to his call, iron pulleys creaked and clanked. A thirty-foot high, double-door entrance folded inward.
Holly rode past it into the prison courtyard. The interior was spare—a guard shack, prisoner hall (a large, squarish building in the middle of the compound) and equipment hut attached to its righthand side. The local warden—Lubbock Icewind—sank to a knee and clasped his fist to his heart. His four lieutenant wardens—all arrayed in a neat line behind him—followed suit. Their guardsmen’s cloaks formed black, silky pools atop the sand.
“Rise,” Holly commanded.
They did as she bade. “What brings you to Reykafix, my lord?” Lubbock asked in a respectful growl.
“Routine inspection. Your latest arrivals—bring them out.”
Lubbock turned to the lieutenant on his left. “Hor’glank. Bring out the Orcs.”
“No,” Holly said. “Indashi only.”
“Of course.” He nodded curtly, then turned back to Hor’glank. “The humans, lieutenant.”
Hor’glank jogged toward the guard shack. He waved aside the entry flap and disappeared inside. A second later he emerged from the entrance and jogged back toward them.
“They are coming, senior warden.”
Two guardsmen led a pair of rope-bound Indashi out from the prison hall prodding them forward with spike-tipped poleaxes. Both prisoners halted before Holly, heads bowed. Draggles of hair hung down from their temples.
“My king,” one of them rumbled. “I wish to apologize for—”
Slowly, ceremoniously, she drew a bone-hilted knife from a leather sheath affixed to her belt. Its fat blade curved backward into a glimmer-tipped point. Holly lifted the weapon to eye level.
“Do you know,” she said, examining it with a speculative gaze, “what it takes to run a kingdom?” She let the knife fall to her waist and stared at the prisoners. “It takes sacrifice, for suffering is a language understood by all. And now, it appears that we three must speak as one. In order to maintain our kingdom’s strength, blood must be spilt.”
“Please,” the prisoner on her left gasped. “ ’Twas a single night of drunken revelry! I’ll happily pay for—”
“You’ll pay with your tongue, if you interrupt me again,” Holly snapped. “Say another word, and I shall cut it from your mouth.”
The barbarian fell silent. All color drained from his face.
“Since I am merciful, I shall excuse your mishap,” Holly said. “Just this once.”
She stepped forward and pushed her dagger into his throat. It made a wet, sliding whisper as it slipped in and out.
Holly’s victim fell to the ground, gasping and sputtering. The hole in his throat gushed and bubbled, welling with dark, arterial blood. Quiet shock rippled through the bystanders. The movement had been so businesslike, so blasé…it was like a malign magic trick.
“A quick death,” Holly remarked, locking eyes with the other prisoner. “ ’Tis a privilege, is it not?”
Terror flashed across his face. Not just terror, but desperate calculation: if he fought or ran…
His chin sagged down to his chest. If he resisted his fate, it would make things worse.
“Yes, my king,” he whispered. “ ’Tis a privilege.”
“So thank me,” Holly said. Her tone was chillingly casual.
“Thank you.” The barbarian’s response was equally chilling—as if his punishment was par for the course.
“You are welcome. You are most welcome.” Holly slid her dagger in and out of the center of his throat.
The barbarian gasped and fell onto his side, twitching and jerking as freshets of red poured from his neck. They dwindled into weak, rhythmic licks, and his eyes glazed over.
Holly wiped her blade on the bottom of her tunic. “Merciful, was I not?” Her voice had risen; the question was meant for all who were watching.
The reply was unanimous: “Yes, my king.”
Holly was a little disappointed. Deep down, she’d been hoping that one of the prisoners would put up a fight—that way, she would have been justified in setting a sterner example.
Oh well. All in good time.