Queen Haldri Paxmer escorted her guests into an interrogation chamber the size of gladiatorial arena.
“We afford you a rare honor today,” Haldri said to her three visitors from Gallagrin. “It is not often that we take a personal hand in the dispensation of our court’s justice.”
In the center of the grand, dark stone room, a man lay strapped to an inclined table. To his left, a pit of coals glowed bright orange. Various implements were heating in the fire, but from the burns on the man’s body it looks as though he was already well acquainted with them.
“And what has this poor wretch done to deserve your royal attention?” Baron Gedli asked.
The Baron was a simple man. He aspired to be a wise commander, but his wisdom was born out of fear. He feared for his family. He feared for the people he commanded and the people he was sworn to protect. He feared for them so much that he walked willingly into the stronghold of his enemy and offered his surrender without ever being aware of what he was doing.
It helped sustain his delusion that he was entering into a peaceful covenant with Paxmer rather than betraying Gallagrin when Haldri invited him to attend her as an honored guest rather than demanding his supplication and surrender in the face of her undeniable might. The truth was that both parties knew the fate which awaited Gedli’s garrison keep on the day when Paxmer found it expedient to move against Gallagrin in force. Since the Baron was capable of swallowing wildly blatant lies however, Haldri felt the need to impress upon him in a visceral manner what happened to those who invoked her wrath.
The man strapped to the table, the bandit who had earned the queen’s displeasure, didn’t move or react as the interrogation party drew near, but his labored breathing gave away the fact that he was still alive. Haldri made a note to have her Chief Interrogator brought up for review. The prisoner’s case had been escalated to her attention but there was still basic work that could have been done on him. Even a cursory glance revealed that the subject still possessed all of his digits and that suggested other techniques had been abbreviated or skipped entirely.
Haldri expected better workmanship when it came to dealing with those who gave offense to her or her realm than what she saw before her. She could grant that her method of interrogation was more certain than anything the Chief Interrogator could manage but her time was too precious to be squandered on cleaning up his half performed duties.
“This one was accused of banditry,” Haldri said, drawing a red hot poker from the fire beside the man. It had been used but only sparingly so far, as though that were some form of mercy?
“I take it you don’t have many bandits in Paxmer?” Master Merrin Quick asked. As the head of a Gallagrin-based transportation guild, Merrin was drawn to focus on the elements in Paxmer that could impact the safety or viability of moving goods through the country. Particularly, goods that were illicit in Gallagrin. Haldri smiled at that. Of the queen’s three guests, Merrin was the most blatantly mercenary. It was refreshing. The woman had levers to pull, and she didn’t try to hide them. Instead she put a price tag on each one and made no attempt at pretending to be anything except what she was.
“You will find our highways and tolls free of the perils which plague your country’s thoroughfares,” Haldri said. “The harshness of the punishments we inflict serve as a shield to all of those who abide by our rule.”
“And yet you don’t make a spectacle of the punishment?” Duchess Sanli asked. She watched the Paxmer queen with unfeigned interest. Haldri saw in Sanli’s eyes a hunger for the sort of definitive power which a queen wielded. Sanli was, from everything Haldri could see, a kindred soul. The two of them, duchess and queen, had minds which sought power before all else and security of that power second. All of the rest of life was either an amusement or a means to discover exploitable weaknesses in others.
On a personal level, the Duchess of San was the guest Haldri most enjoyed entertaining. The two women could speak for hours at length with little in terms of fundamental disagreements to come between them.
That was why Haldri trusted the Duchess of San the least of any person present, and that included the bandit who had sworn a life oath to destroy the Paxmer Queen.
Haldri was willing to work with the Duchess of San, but Gallagrin was a pit of scorpions, as her brother Halrek’s fate had proven. Even scorpions could be useful tools when properly employed but careful handling was always required.
“The spectacle comes during the trial and after the interrogation is concluded,” Haldri said. “Our techniques are not for anyone to see, only their results.”
“People see a lot of dead bodies,” Merrin said. “Anyone with the guts to rob a queen isn’t going to let a little thing like a full body mauling slow them down.”
“Those who are found guilty of stealing from the crown of Paxmer or its people are not slain,” Haldri said. “That would be a waste of a perfectly good resource.”
“What do you do with them?” Baron Gedli asked.
“We let them go,” Haldri said. The Duchess of San smiled, understanding the implications of that, but Merrin frowned. The guildmaster was clever enough to see where the queen’s words were leading them but she lacked a frame of reference to judge the impact the queen’s interrogation could have on a subject.
“That doesn’t seem like it would dissuade further banditry,” Baron Gedli said. He was struggling to understand how showing what he assumed to be mercy could stand in for making the hard calls that were required to keep lawlessness in check. Haldri was more than willing to let that misconception stand until Gedli saw the final results of the interrogation.
“Are you not dissuaded?” the queen asked the bandit.
Predictably, the man didn’t answer. His will was unbroken and he had nothing to gain by answering questions the queen posed to him. Or rather he had nothing to gain until she casually traced the glowing poker up the inside of his bare leg.
Haldri didn’t watch the man’s reaction to the pain. It was too predictable. Instead, she glanced at her guests and measured their appetites for tableau before them.
Gedli scowled, his jaw rigid in suppressed empathy with the captive.
Merrin’s gaze by contrast showed only a clinical sort of interest. What was happening held neither profit nor loss for her. The uniqueness of the event lent the act of observing it interest but given enough time that would wane and Haldri guessed that Merrin would find the affair nothing more than dull.
It was Sanli’s attention that surprised the queen though. Haldri had expected the Duchess to be delighted by the occasion. The queen didn’t indulge in torture as a general recreation but when her duties called for it, she’d always found a certain thrill in taking a personal role in meting out her kingdom’s justice. For a moment it struck Haldri as odd that Sanli would disdain corporal punishment, but then the Duchess flashed Haldri a small smile and gestured with her eyes for the queen to continue.
Haldri applied the poker again, and saw another smile light across Sanli’s face. Haldri’s lips parted in appreciative understanding a moment later. Sanli’s frown hadn’t been one of disapproval for the proceedings but rather disapproval of the lazy technique the queen employed.
The man rambled off some pain addled diatribe against Haldri’s reign to which she paid little attention. “You are the true bandit” and other ridiculous claims tumbled out between the man’s screams as though he was hoping to goad the queen into killing him in a rage and ending his misery.
A younger Haldri might have fallen prey to that strategy. Even with more than a decade behind her on the throne, the Haldri who held the poker felt surges of bloodlust tremble down to her fingertips with each word the man spoke. Age brought self control though. What lay in store for the man was far worse than anything Haldri could do even if she was given every tool and toxin she could imagine.
“You are right good Baron,” Haldri said, pausing from her work. “This one’s will is intact. If we release him now, he will grow to be as terrible a thorn in our side as he can manage to be. Worse still, he will inspire others in his revolt.”
“Then you will end him?” Baron Gedli asked.
“No,” Haldri said. “He will depart this chamber alive and free.”
“How can you allow that? Is it because even at his worse he’ll have so little power to affect you and yours?” Gedli asked.
“Only a fool would think that an enemy could never harm them,” Duchess Sanli said. “And the Queen of Paxmer is no fool at all.”
“I’m noticing how big this chamber is,” Merrin said. “Interesting given that I only see one interrogation table in here.”
“You are very observant guildmaster,” Haldri said. “But now we are afraid we must bid you leave. The next stage of the interrogation is not one you would survive observing.”
All three guests were caught off guard by that.
“Exit through the south door,” Haldri said. “One of our retainers will be waiting for you and will see you to our banquet hall.”
“Will you have an appetite after this work?” Gedli asked.
“Of course,” Haldri said. “It will be noontime.”
“And will we see the results of your interrogation?” the Duchess Sanli asked.
“We shall present our findings and release our prisoner following tea,” Haldri said.
From the north end of the great chamber, a deep rumbling of stone on stone arose. That, as much as the queen’s direction, motivated the Gallagrin guests to move towards the south door. All three counted themselves fortunate to reach the safety of the room beyond before the next phase of the interrogation began.
Haldri on the other hand was glad to stay. Her royal duties kept her awash in the problems of the kingdom. She spent nearly every waking hour dealing with her people and their problems. That was right and proper for a queen, but it meant Haldri didn’t get to spend anywhere near as much time as she wanted to with her other half.
“Hello Haldraxan,” Haldri said as a beast of scale, and claw, and fire, and smoke pushed himself into the room. Despite the vast size of the interrogation chamber, Haldraxan’s presence made it feel full to the bursting point.
“Hello Haldri,” the dragon said and lowered his head to be beside her.
Between them there were no titles and no honorifics. Haldri ruled Paxmer’s people. Haldraxan ruled Paxmer’s spirits. Together they ruled its land and wealth and all was as it should be.
“What have we today?” Haldraxan asked.
“A bandit,” Haldri said. “One who has stolen from us.”
“I smell the blood of Paxmer within his veins,” Haldraxan said.
“I know,” Haldri said. “I shall remedy that.”
“You will never make me forswear my country!” the man said.
“We do not need to,” Haldri said. “We are you country and by our judgment we forswear you and yours. You and those descended from you are no more children of Paxmer. We cast you out of our circle. We strip you of name and hearth and home. Though your body may linger here, you spirit is unwelcome and you shall not enjoy the solace or protection of our reign.”
“You use and destroy us at every turn! You offer no protection at all!” the man said.
“You shall discover just how wrong you are about that,” Haldri said.
Haldri watched her dragon focus on the trapped man. She watched the dragon fear roll out like a wave through the bandits flesh.
“What does he have that we wish?” Haldraxan asked over the inhuman screams that filled the gargantuan chamber.
“He and his compatriots stole one of our tax shipments,” Haldri said. “There was gold there. Not much in the grand scheme of things perhaps, but it was our gold.”
The queen and the dragon breathed as one in anticipation of reclaiming their plunder and in their hearts there was a song of joy.