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 became a problem.
Wodec, for example. He knew her secret.
The High Mage, much to her relief, had gone on a “wizard’s sojourn.” According to her advisors, that meant he’d wander the desert for an undisclosed period of time. Initially, this had weighed heavy on her mind. She’d spend long hours on her Gortaki cot, staring up at the darkened ceiling, wondering what that wrinkled-ass bastard might be up to. But as more Indashis had fallen under her sway, Holly’s worry had dimmed and faded.
Around the six-month mark, she’d started locking barbarians in their own gaols. At first it was for egregious offenses, but then she began adding obtusely worded laws, subject to personal interpretation and vulnerable to bias. This was deliberate. So long as she picked the right justicers, her intent would be honored, and the Indashis would begin to jail themselves.
The teen queen had paid close attention to reports from Yin-Skythe, who, instead of Sword Master, now bore the title of Head Barsman. It was a fitting description. Holly had ordered each cell to 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.
Her jailers needed to be safe and secure. The guards were loyal to each other, a sentiment she wanted to encourage and amplify. She had to mold them into a unified herd, which meant they had to believe they were an undivided 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 sacrificed their lives for a singular figurehead. Once they’d gotten accustomed to unquestioning obedience, she’d be able to tighten the reigns even further. For now, though, they still needed to be allowed their nobility.
All this was playing through her mind as she rode to Reykafix, one of her newly established prisons. As her troops drew close, a watchtower guard lifted a horn to his bearded lips. When he blew it, his fellow guardsmen—stationed throughout skull-crusted towers built into the walled perimeter—straightened up.
Holly stopped her mount and scrutinized the black-armored guardsmen. A few months ago, she’d ordered a change in uniform. She’d asked her artists to provide her with sketches, reinforcing the illusion she was open to their input. She’d coached their efforts with carefully worded suggestions, doling out praise and indifference with masterful skill. As a result, Indashi armor now resembled Orcish plate mail from the Lord of the Rings movies. The artists believed they had made a contribution, and said as much to any who would listen. 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 guards 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!”
Iron pulleys creaked and clanked. A thirty-foot high, double-door entrance swung inward.
Holly rode into the prison courtyard. The inside was spare—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 clapped a fist to his heart. His four lieutenant wardens, all arrayed in a neat line behind him, followed suit. Their cloaks formed black, silky pools atop the sand.
“Rise,” Holly commanded.
“What brings you to Reykafix, my lord?” Lubbock asked in a respectful growl.
“Your latest arrivals—summon them.”
Lubbock turned to the lieutenant on his left. “Hor’glank. Muster the Orcs.”
“No,” Holly said. “Indashi only.”
“Of course.” He 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 over.
“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, their heads bowed. Draggled hair hung from their temples.
“My king,” one of them rumbled. “I wish to apologize for—”
She drew a bone-hilted knife from a leather belt-sheath. Holly lifted the weapon to eye level.
“Do you know,” she said, examining the fat, back-curving blade with a speculative gaze, “what it takes to run a kingdom?” She let the knife fall to her waist and regarded the prisoners. “It takes sacrifice, for suffering is a language understood by all. And now, it appears that we three must speak as one. If we wish to maintain our collective strength, blood must be spilt.”
“Please,” the prisoner on her left gasped. “ ’Twas a single night of drunken revelry! I’ll happily pay for—”
“Interrupt me again and you’ll pay with your tongue. 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. “I shall grant you a quick death.”
Then she stepped forward and punctured his throat. The blade 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…like a malign magic trick.
“A quick death,” Holly remarked, staring intently at 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 tried to resist, it would only make things worse.
“Yes, my king,” he whispered. “A privilege.”
“So thank me.” Holly’s voice was chillingly casual.
“Thank you, my liege.” The barbarian’s tone was equally chilling—as if his punishment was par for the course.
“You are welcome. You are most welcome.” Holly’s dagger slid in and out.
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, then his eyes glazed over.
Holly wiped her blade against her tunic. “Merciful, was I not?” Her voice had risen; the question was meant for all who were present.
The reply was unanimous: “Yes, my king.”
Holly was a little disappointed. Deep down, she’d been hoping that one of them would put up a fight—that way, she would have been able to set a sterner example.
Oh well. All in good time.