The red-hot heating coils winding around the eight gem furnaces radiated heat and light through the chamber, banishing the cold of the glacier. The ice walls seemed to sweat in the orange glare, and the constant drip of melt water provided the ambience of gentle rain falling in the chamber.
Ami, sitting on the elevated and roofed platform in the exact centre of the circle of furnaces, found the noise calming. With the current state of her finances, she felt that overseeing the sapphire fabrication process personally was the best way to ensure the maximum amount of gems could be produced in one production run. It was a small consolation that the other Keepers on the island were strapped for cash, too. Besides, it would be impolite to just let Jadeite's efforts to restore the factory to its former glory go to waste. With the dark general's glamour in place, the machinery looked good as new, and he had even managed to compensate for the new inclination of the iceberg. Ami glanced over to where the curly-haired blond was sitting at a desk of his own, showing no outward signs of the strain that maintaining the magic was putting on him. The grey-uniformed man was drawing up a new lesson plan for Ami, selecting spells and techniques from his repertoire that could be both useful for his employer and within her skill range. Ami didn't lick her lips, despite the sight tempting her to. Had she been asked, she wouldn't have been able to answer whether the dark general's profile or the prospect of learning more magic had triggered that urge. With flushing cheeks, she stared down on her keyboard again. She could afford the moment of distraction, since the readout on the Mercury computer's screen only occasionally required her to take action. Another benefit of Jadeite's glamour. Whenever it did, the levers on the eight separate control consoles moved, seemingly on their own. The next generation of furnaces would have a set of controls that could be linked up to a central panel, the blue-haired girl decided.
Perhaps I should downgrade to the older production process? she thought, and called up the copies of the modern books she had scanned in with the help of her friends at home. The flame-fusion method of growing gems had been developed earlier than the method she was using right now, and it produced crystals with a high internal stress factor at an up to five times slower rate than the current process. The main drawback of that was that they had to be split to reduce the stress, and smaller gems were much less valuable than large ones. However, the required infrastructure was simpler and would not even require Ami's computer to supervise. She glanced down at her left wrist, where her scrying-detection armband remained inert. She would have to incorporate copy-protection measures, too. In any case, there were only two moving parts involved: the shaker-like container for the alumina powder, and the pedestal on which the sapphire formed from molten droplets of raw materials, and which needed to be retracted as the crystal grew. The simplest option would be a screw that turned at a constant rate, withdrawing the platform independently of the size of the created bauble. Ami touched a few keys, calling up a different window on the screen. On the other hand, if she could make the retraction rate of the platform dependent on the weight of the bauble, then she could ensure that the growing gemstone would remain at the optimal altitude for most of the process, with little external regulation required. Maybe a swimming platform with the right displacement would work? With growing excitement, she started coming up with designs. Now that her rats were gobbling up territory that wouldn't melt away when exposed to too much heat, she could build as many of these devices as it took to overcome the drawbacks of a slower growth rate and cheaper end product. The teenager smiled as she started solving equations pertaining to the density of the involved materials and the geometry of the required machinery. This was fun! She almost felt as if she was studying to keep up with her school work!
The footsteps of three approaching people echoed from the thin walkway bridging the channels conducting the melt water. Cathy, Jered, and Snyder approached, protected from the rain-like precipitation by an umbrella-like shield that the redhead was projecting. The violet screen wobbled with the impact of each droplet, calling into doubt how useful the acolyte's new trick would be in a real combat. Focused on her research, Ami almost missed their approach. Upon noticing the three of them, her eyebrows rose. "Yes? Has something happened?"
"Not exactly," Cathy said, standing at the fore of the group, "but there's something we need to talk about. Snyder told us about your conversation with Marda." The tall woman put her arms akimbo. "We don't think you handled that situation well at all."
"You were too soft on her. Much too soft," Jered added. "We are going to see no end of discipline problems if that's how you handle insubordination."
"I have to agree," even Jadeite chimed in, not looking up from his writing. "It sets an unfortunate precedent, and makes you look weak in your minions' eyes."
"I needed to keep her from starting something we would all regret," Ami defended her course of action, sounding timid in the face of so much consolidated disapproval, and explained the logic behind her decisions. "If I had pressed her any harder, the volatile situation could have exploded into full-blown rebellion! We can't afford that at this point in time!"
"Oh, I'd say you have succeeded admirably, then!" Cathy said, and clapped her hands together, "she won't have to rebel if she can just walk all over you like that!"
"That's not fair, Cathy. I needed to stall for time," Ami answered. "I need the time to prepare. Now that I have a portal, I can hire more troops that are loyal to me, not Marda."
"Oh? How's that working out for you?" Cathy asked with professional interest.
"Um, I seem to attract mostly giant flies for now. They make a beeline to the larder as soon as they come in. I think the spider meat attracts them." Noting that everyone was staring at her as if she had just failed to answer a teacher's question properly in front of the class (not that she knew how that felt from personal experience), she quickly added "A few giant beetles also joined up!" She tugged at her hair in embarrassment as her advisers maintained the uncomfortable silence, then hung her head. "All right, they may not be the most powerful creatures around, but nobody intelligent wants to come work on the Avatar Islands of their own free will yet. I'm sure I'll be able to find some use for them!"
"Yeah, when the goblins run out of food again," Jered muttered.
"In any case, the trolls shouldn't be a problem," Ami said with forced cheerfulness. "Now that they know that I don't hold their religion against them, they shouldn't be feeling threatened any more, so there's no reason to oppose me."
"That," Cathy drawled, "is a hopelessly optimistic point of view. First, you don't know if Marda shared that bit of information with them. In fact, I'd bet she didn't, since it sounds like exactly the kind of thing that would undermine her authority."
"Which means you should hold an audience with them as soon as possible," Jadeite interjected.
"Indeed. Second, they might not believe you and think that you are merely biding for time until you are ready," the blonde warrior continued.
"Snyder's presence should be able to convince them that I'm speaking the truth," Ami objected. "Besides, I'm happy to have some other non-evil beings working for me."
"Ah, yes. They are not exactly happy about worshipping the Light, I gather." Snyder pointed out. "Their conversion was a matter of pragmatism, rather than personal conviction or preference. What you actually have here is a group of trolls who resent having to adhere to a code of conduct that most surface dwellers would consider basic decency. They are acting out of fear of the consequences, not out of a genuine desire to be good."
"And that's enough for the Light gods to accept them?" Ami asked. It didn't sound like what devout worshippers should be like, in her opinion.
"Regardless of their reasons, they are not committing evil deeds. Should they not reap the just rewards for their restraint?" Snyder answered.
"Theological issues aside, just because they are good," Jered's fingers formed quotation marks in the air as he said the last word, "doesn't mean that they will have a problem rising up against you. You are a Keeper, in case you have forgotten."
"Well, yes, " Ami conceded. "I was thinking about ways to gain their loyalty and support. For example, if I make their lives here more comfortable, they'll want them to stay that way. If they considered my dungeon home, they would be much less inclined to do anything that would get them kicked out."
"You want to get them hooked on luxury just so you can take it away when it pleases you?" Jered said with a grin. "That's remarkably sneaky."
"It does sound a little twisted if you put it that way," Ami said, an amused smile playing around her lips.
"It's going to be expensive," the wavy-haired man added, closing his eyes as he calculated in his head. "Just slapping the minions around would cost a lot less, but your plan could work with the greedier ones." The green-shirted man winked as he put an arm around Cathy. "I suggest you start with our rooms!"
The scar-faced blonde was not smiling, and shook her head. "It's not going to be that easy. Most of the Underworld creatures have quite the temper, and many of them aren't smart enough to think about the long term when there's a lower-hanging fruit dangling in front of their nose. The only way to keep them in line is to absolutely terrify them, because obeying the strongest is just what they are used to. You threaten their privileges? Well, then you had better be willing to enforce that, because otherwise they'll just defend them by force."
Ami's face fell as the blonde spoke. An almost missed signal from her computer prompted her to adjust the settings on one of the furnaces, and she telekinetically pulled the lever hard enough to make it clang against the control panel in her haste.
Cathy used the young Keeper's distraction to keep talking. "Also, think about what you are going to need to keep your minions happy. Nice accommodations and good food are one thing, but they'll also want entertainment and distractions. Music, booze, drugs, gambling, fights, and... well, other things. You can probably see where I'm going with this," the tall woman said, her cheeks taking on a rosy colour.
Ami nodded quickly to stave off a more detailed explanation, her blushing. She was, after all, smart enough to finish that sentence in her head.
"Anyway, most of this is just avoiding the main issue. You have to punish transgressions harshly, no matter your personal preferences."
"There just has to be a better way," the teenager sighed. "I don't want to be feared!" She had few enough friends as it was.
"If your minions do not fear you, then you are responsible for any innocent deaths they cause while defying your orders," Jadeite stated matter-of-factly, since Cathy was almost voicing his own opinion on the matter. Pampering youma in order to keep them under control? Ridiculous. He knew the gentle girl well enough by now to know what kind of argument would make an impression.
As expected, Ami flinched as if she had been slapped, and paled. For some reason, the dark general felt like an utter bastard as he noted some liquid glitter in the corners of her red-glowing eyes. "That- but- Darn it!" she voiced her frustration. Her fingers clenched tightly into fists as she closed her eyes and hung her head. She wanted to protest, she really did, but no brilliant counter-argument came to mind. She couldn't in good conscience pretend that herunderlings would not do something like that. They were evil, even if they had little opportunity to express this within her dungeon. Given the opportunity, they wouldn't think twice about hurting innocents.
"Ah, well, do not take it too hard," Snyder tried to comfort the sad-looking girl. "The creatures already consider you terrifying by default, since you are a Dungeon Keeper. All you have to do is reinforce that image. Crack down on minor defiance harshly enough that nobody will want to find out what you do to those who have truly incurred your wrath. That way, you can avoid having to do something truly distasteful to punish major infractions."
"Do you really think so?" Ami looked up at the acolyte with sudden hope, even though her body language remained glum.
"Yeah, and it's not as if you'd be arbitrarily meting out punishment," Cathy agreed, trying to cheer the blue-haired girl up. "Knowing you, if someone is punished, they did something to deserve it."
"Yep. Besides, you don't have to do it yourself," Jered added. "You could hire some dark mistresses. They are experts in the area of inflicting-"
"No!" Ami almost shouted as she rose from her chair, her eyes blazing red. "If I have to employ someone whose job it is to torture," she grimaced and swallowed, unsettled by the notion, "which I am not saying that I am going to, then it will not be someone who enjoys it!"
"F-fine," The wavy haired man said, backing down as those lamp-like crimson eyes narrowed at him. "Probably better that way, really." He gulped. "You can be quite good at this 'being scary' thing if you want to, you know."
"Right. Moving on. I take it you don't completely disagree with our points at least?" Cathy asked, drawing Ami's attention away from the weasel-featured man. Reluctantly, the teenager nodded, grimacing as if she had just swallowed something bitter. "All right. So you need to do something about Marda."
Ami shook her head. "I don't want to appear fickle, and my reasons for letting her off easy have not changed yet."
"Well, then you should see about getting more recruits. You have some currently unemployed prisoners in your cell block, and the continent is full of vampires," Cathy suggested.
"Hire the vampires you mean?" Ami scratched her head. On one hand, the monsters were undead bloodsuckers. On the other, she didn't have any problems with undead as such, once she got past the creepiness factor. What she had problems with were the reanimated victims' indefinitely prolonged suffering in the case of skeletons and ghosts, and with killing people to create these monsters in the first place. The vampires, however, didn't seem to be in a state of constant torment, and they were already around. They also knew the lay of the land, and she was awfully curious about how exactly Zarekos had managed to recover from his banishment so quickly. They'll just have to subsist on blood sucked from fresh imp corpses, she pondered as she considered the problem of care and feeding. "I suppose if I could bear having the Reaper around, vampires aren't so bad..."
"Good! Then let's go see what we can do with our prisoners once you are done here."
Ami's knowledge of methods to inflict pain and suffering as a punishment was woefully inadequate, and she would have to study up on them, she realised, letting her shoulders droop. For the first time in her short life, she was confronted with a research topic she couldn't enjoy at all. Still, there's no avoiding it. The blue-haired girl didn't think she had it in her to ever order someone tortured. Threaten with it, perhaps, but even that required her to know what she was talking about if she wanted to be taken seriously. She dearly hoped that the worst she would ever be forced to use was something humiliating and uncomfortable, like the pillory, for example. Nothing that could cause lasting harm. Unfortunately, the existence of healing magic extended that area to truly stomach-turning dimensions. Feeling queasy and repressing the urge to hide in a corner and curl up in a ball, she increased her pace toward the occupied cells, hoping to get away from her advisers' discussion about what would be fitting entry-level disciplinary measures, and the disturbing technicalities thereof.
"...flogging is used even in some surface armies," Cathy's energetic voice sounded behind her. The tall blonde was gesticulating with her hands, apparently trying to convince her boyfriend of something.
"No. Have you seen how thick those skins are? There would need to be barbs, at the very least!" Jered said, doubting the effectiveness of her proposed strategy.
"What about keelhauling? This is a ship, technically."
"No! Give it a rest you two, please. That's nothing like what I had in mind!" Ami snapped, unable to tune out their conversation any longer. The entire exasperating problem was weighing on her mind like a millstone, and each further suggestion felt as if it was eating away at her heart.
A goblin approached from a corner. Seeing the Keeper in the prison area, followed by her two chief underlings who were discussing torture methods, he jumped to the obvious but wrong conclusion. Rubbing his hands excitedly in anticipation of the expected entertainment, he asked "I can help, yes? I saw nice set of pliers and hot coal in workshop. Should I get?"
The green-skinned creature froze like a rabbit in a basilisk's stare as eyes like brightly burning coals focused on him. The crimson orbs glowed so intensely that the surrounding face framed by blue bangs appeared bathed in shadows. The goblin did not miss the subtle signs that the stressed Keeper was displeased with his suggestion - such as the deeply-furrowed brows and the angrily twitching fingers - and his ears drooped. "Eeep! Ganok be going now!" As he darted away, he was very glad that he wasn't one of the prisoners that the group was heading towards.
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