The River of Blood
A webbing of red lace poured out from every slit in the black skirt, swaying to and fro with each of the queen's strides. Everything she did seemed to carry such an elegance, even the way her littlest finger toyed with the length of chain she held over her shoulder. Her prisoner in tow on the other end of the chain was less than taken with the queen's poise and grace.
She was a thief of notorious repute despite her age. This had bolstered her hubris into making an attempt on the queen's jewels, kept on her person at all times, even to bed. The risk would bear no reward. The hand that clamped down on the thief's wrist seemed almost to have a mind of its own, the queen only opening her eyes at the thief's startled gasp. Her majesty did not scream, instead tightening her grip as a grin crept across her face, bringing with it an amused chuckle. Fear pierced the thief to her very core, leaving her frozen in place. It was only an instant before she snapped out of it and remembered her knife, only to glance down to see it twirling in the queen's fingers. The chuckle had become a hysterical laugh. This alerted the guards, who promptly stormed into the room, surrounding the bed. The queen sighed, slackening her grip as she fell back against the pillows in mock disappointment.
The thief found herself scrambling into the arms of a guard. The guard was startled by this and found himself putting a hand on her shoulder, as he might have for a lost child. By the time the thief came to her senses, she felt her arms pulled behind her, secured with heavy chain by another of the queen's men. The hand on her shoulder tightened, forcing her back round to see the queen slide off the other side of the bed and make her way to an armoire. A guard opened it as she approached, revealing an accumulation of knives buried in the wood, their points only just breaking the surface of the door. With a sweeping gesture of the queen's arm and nary a break in her stride, the thief's knife was added to the collection. A snap of fingers sent the guard holding the door out of the room with two other men following right behind. This was all so surreal for the thief. Everything from scaling of the wall to the sound of her own knife embedding itself in an armoire was running through her mind over and over again. She had been so careful, so meticulous, considered every possible failure, but all for naught. The thief stared daggers into the queen's back as she took her time slipping on a black robe over her red, lacy evening gown, reaching down to pull parts of the gown through slits in the robe, turning the whole ensemble into a performance. The queen glanced over her shoulder to smile at the thief before resuming her fitting, unphased by the stare. The thief looked on in silence.
She expected to get some sort of lecture from her royal highness before being carted off to the dungeon, or at least some gloating. What she did not expect was for the queen to turn away from the armoire dangling a heavy, iron collar from a length of chain.
"Shall we go for a walk?"
The spikes that lined the inside of the collar were not sharp enough to draw blood. Rather, they were to give incentive against not keeping pace or speaking out of turn by way of a firm pull. Still, she couldn't help but wonder if what she felt rolling down her back was merely a bead of sweat. The party walked at a leisurely pace set by the queen, the last two guards from the bedchamber marching in silence behind the thief the entirety of the seemingly endless trek from the high tower into the depths of the castle.
As they went further, the plastered masonry gave way to earthen clay with tiles of red marble arranged in a flowing mosaic. It was a simple beauty the thief had never given much thought to, always too transfixed on the opulent. The queen explained that the castle was built upon a spring which served as irrigation for the garden. The flowing warmth allowed roses to stave off withering well past the first snowfall, a spectacle beheld by only a select few. Unfortunately, her highness sighed, the spring dried up years ago. The fountain atop the source was knocked down, the entire chamber altered to serve a different purpose, one the queen insisted would be as spectacular as before. As if on cue, the end of the hallway was in sight. The thief leaned to one side to see over the queen's shoulder a fairly small door in front of which were the three guards the queen had dismissed earlier. One held out an ornate key to the queen, asking quietly if she needed them further. Her majesty held up her hand and took the key. The guards passed, the two escorts following. The thief looked back over her shoulder at them walking away, immediately regretting it, not just for the spikes scraping along her neck, but the thought of the queen pulling on the chain. She winced in anticipation, turning slowly back toward the door to find the queen patiently standing beside the open door, politely gesturing the thief to enter. It was hard to find relief in any of her majesty's shifts in manner, each act of courtesy carrying the scent of a trap. After a brief hesitation, testing to see if the queen would tighten her grip on the chain, the thief cautiously walked through the door, the queen closing it behind them.
The chamber resembled a place of worship with its domed ceiling and columns along the walls. However, there were no statues or icons, doubtless removed in favor of the queen's machinations. The columns had been methodically chiseled in places to remove their engravings. All had been adorned with iron rings through which were strewn lengths of chain. In the center was the culmination of the queen's master plan, the ultimate defacing. It was the base of the fountain that once channeled the spring. A pair of grated spouts along the edge fed into small canals that ran parallel toward the door, leading out to the garden. If there had been a statue in its center, there was no sign of it. Instead, the base had been filled in to serve as a platform for a monstrosity of engineering, a guillotine built for eight, same as the number of columns encircling the room. The thief suddenly felt sick to her stomach with the revelation of the queen's grand spectacle.
She recalled seeing one in the town square as a child, though not as elaborate as this one. It was eventually taken down, having never been used so far as she could recall, replaced with a statue of the queen. Her highness led her guest up a short flight of crude, wooden stairs. She stopped in the center and spun round on the thief, directing her attention to the array of stocks, four on each side, all occupied. Man and woman, boy and girl, young and old, it was an eclectic assortment of prisoners. The queen explained that after the spring dried up, tourism to the town declined, and stricter laws were needed to keep the rising crime rate in check. Of course, the queen chuckled, strict laws were nothing without severe punishments behind them. For a time, there was no shortage of criminals to maintain the steady flow. Prisoners from neighboring countries looking to save face were brought in under the guise of exile for a price. Still, it was never enough to match the flow of the spring, and eventually the laws worked too well. Fewer and fewer were brought to justice, slowing the new spring down to a trickle.
The thief looked around at the device, trying to work out what her part in all this was meant to be, or if this was simply the lecture and gloating she'd been anticipating from the start.The crimes of the eight were rattled off with an air of ambiguity, one a murderer, others thieves, another an artist who tried to incite a revolt, two that refused to pay taxes on their businesses, and another who merely stood in the way of the guards' pursuit of a child caught swiping apples from a cart in the market. As the queen read off these convictions, none of them said so much as a word or tried to look up. No doubt they'd been tortured, starved, or otherwise rendered broken in light of their impending fate. Rather than supporting themselves on hands and knees, the prisoners were laid on benches, wrapped in canvas and secured with straps tight enough to squeeze the life out of them. There were no baskets to catch the severed heads, only a pair of deep grooves chiseled into the brickwork that ended in rusty grates before spilling over the edge of the old fountain and out of the room. The ceiling was a mess of pulleys and gears, most of it hardly appearing necessary for a device regarded so highly for its simplicity. Even the blades themselves were atypical, perforated with several small holes instead of a clean, metallic shine.
A tug on the leash brought the thief back to attention.
"I am not telling you all this merely so I can throw you in a cell to rot, much less execute you. I am telling you this because you have a decision to make, and it is important you have context." The last word carried a biting sharpness rivaling the twin blades hanging overhead. The thief straightened up, putting her shoulders back and her head up. Impressed, the queen smiled, continuing her ominous proposal.
"You will receive a full pardon for your trespass, leaving here with a perfectly clean slate. However, if you defy my word within my kingdom or its borders again, however minuscule, you will find yourself in their position, awaiting the fall of a blade." There was a stifled sob from one of the prisoners. The queen waited patiently for silence, a delighted smile creeping across her face. It remained while she carried on. "If you decide not to do as I ask, your leave of this place becomes more complicated." With that, the queen pulled the leash taut and began waving her arm left to right, causing the thief to sway gently with it for the sake of the spikes. "So brave of you," she cooed, "Never before have I had a visitor come calling in the night like that. Despite your intent, I found the whole affair rather amusing." The thief took a step forward to put some slack in the leash. The queen mockingly pouted at having her fun ruined, only to laugh and shake her head, "A rare gem such as you belongs among my treasures. You will be my servant, my pet, and my personal plaything for whatever whims may come to mind. You shan't come to any real harm, but your life will be solely for my amusement, so long as I wish it. It could be the rest of your life, or on the morrow."
The queen reached up and pulled down on a chain, setting a few of the pulleys in motion. There was a mechanical clicking sound of gears locking into place as some of the ropes and chains above tightened.
"Either way, I'll have no need for this room anymore." The queen held out the end of the chain to the thief at eye level.
On the end of the chain was a wooden handle wrapped in leather. There were teeth marks on it.
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