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 embarked 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 spent 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 Indashi fell under her sway, her worry had dimmed and faded.
Around the six-month mark, she began imprisoning barbarians. At first it was for egregious offenses, but then she added 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 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, their mobility would be limited by the second.
She wanted her jailers safe and secure. The guards were loyal to each other, a sentiment she needed to encourage and amplify. They had to become they a unified herd, serving a purpose greater than themselves. If they simply acted out of adoration for Holly, it would filter out the smart ones—only a dumbass would give their life for a singular figurehead. Once they were accustomed to unquestioning obedience, she would tighten the reigns even further. For now, though, they needed to believe in their own nobility.
All this played through her mind as she rode to Reykafix, one of her newly established prison camps. As her troop drew close, a watchtower guard lifted a horn to his lips. When he blew it, his fellow guardsmen—stationed throughout skull-crusted towers built in the walled perimeter—straightened up.
Holly 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 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. Dick Cheney would heartily approve, 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.
They rose. “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, 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 her leather belt sheath, and lifted the weapon to eye level. “Do you know,” she mused, 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.”
The prisoner 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 eyes dropped. If he tried to resist, it would 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. His dying sigh sounded lost and quiet.
Holly wiped her blade against her tunic. “Merciful, was I not?” Her voice had risen; the question was meant for all who bore witness.
The reply was unanimous: “Yes, my king.”
Holly was a little disappointed. Deep down, she’d been hoping one of them would protest. That way, she could set a sterner example.
Oh well. All in good time.