“Speed and efficiency.”
“Yes but –”
“Your complaints are neither expeditious nor efficacious,” I said. “So, shut the hell up.”
“But sir, we do not have the money to make an order of this size. We’re already behind on payments to the Earth kingdom, and the LeAgua company threatened to cut off trade with the Dark Kingdom if we didn’t start paying off our debts soon. If we make this order, we won’t be able to service the debt and –”
I raised a hand to silence the silky-haired minister of finance. He stopped mid-sentence and stared at me with a dissatisfied look in his eyes. He was probably still complaining inside his head.
“Speed and efficiency. Those are my priorities for now; not servicing the debt, not pleasing a company, and certainly not explaining myself to a disgruntled bureaucrat. You do as I say and you do it as fast and as efficiently as possible. Understand?” I turned around, my robe flicking sharply. Someone grumbled about big government and ignorant rulers, and then an angry set of footsteps accompanied the grumbling until, eventually, they both died out.
“Sire!” A young woman walked out of a door to the side.
“Walk with me,” I said, quickly making my way down another corridor. I called into another room, “Someone tell Azoth to meet me in the main dining hall, immediately.” I turned to the woman. “What is it.”
“The citizen’s council is demanding that we open up the castle. Trade is at a standstill because no one can get any permits from the government. The mobile unit you setup outside the interior walls can’t handle so many requests. Black market trade is also at an all-time high. At this rate, we’ll –”
“Speed and efficiency, Margery. I’m streamlining the government, cutting off some loose ends, removing red tape, that sort of thing. It’ll take some time and it’ll be painful, but it must be done. Now go tell that to the council,” I said. Margery nodded and scurried off.
Note to self: Streamline political decisions by removing the citizen’s council.
“Brekhart!” I shouted.
“Sire!” said the stocky, middle aged man working on some documents in the room I had just passed. I walked past the room without breaking stride. The sounds of papers being shuffled, a desk being pushed, and someone groaning and heaving preceded Brekhart’s arrival by my side.
“Status report,” I said, tersely.
“Sire, my aides have drafted all of the policy decisions you requested. They will be ready to be put into effect by next month,” said Brekhart, a satisfied smile stretching up to the bags under his eyes.
“Not good enough. I need to implement them today,” I said, picking up my pace.
Brekhart blinked, and had to jog to keep up. “But sire, these are all first drafts. We still need to proofread them, check for loopholes, get them approved by the various departments they will be affecting, and –”
“Send all the drafts to my office in two hours. I don’t care if you mix your you’res with your yours, but stamp out all the loopholes or I’ll dissolve your department for being useless,” I said. Brekhart slowed down, grabbed his knees, and panted for breath. I left him behind without a second glance.
I met several aides and ministers along the way, admonished them for being slow and gave out a few more orders, until finally flinging open the doors to the dining hall. The room fell silent at my arrival, as dozens of gazes fell on me; some clearly dissatisfied and others outright enraged. I ignored them and went up to the front of the table. I nodded to Azoth, who ignored me completely.
Fuck you too.
I sat on my seat, signaled to the staff to close the doors, and had a sip of wine.
“Speed and efficiency. That’s the only thing I’ve asked from you all, isn’t it?” I surveyed the men and women sitting around the table. Some bore old, wrinkly faces, while others had young, springy cheeks. Some had gnarled, stubby fingers, others had perfectly manicured pencils sticking out of their hands. They came from all sorts of backgrounds, all types of professions and had very different areas of expertise. The only things that united them were the glares they directed towards me, and the clothes they were wearing. Perfectly ironed, beautifully crafted, and probably worth a fortune. Their garments were the finest in the land, but that was to be expected. These were some of the most powerful people in the Dark kingdom.
And not so long ago, most of them had been looking down on me from atop the walls of a giant pit. Oh, how time flies.
“Speed and efficiency, speed and efficiency. You’ve been blathering about that for days now,” complained a balding old man with a bristly mustache. “You’ve tanked the economy, destroyed trade, cut us off from our allies, fired half the government, and caused three people to faint from overworking. And to top it all off, you won’t tell us why we need to do any of this at all.”
“Yes,” chimed a young woman with rosy cheeks and a perfect smile. “You’ve brushed off our every attempt to understand what you’re trying to do. Worse, you’ve been telling the citizen’s council, the ministries, and the guilds different things! Cutting red-tape? Fixing the system? Renovating the castle? Which one is it? Either way, none of that makes any sense!”
“You’re ordering tons of resources on credit, locking up artisans, alienating our allies, and nationalizing factories. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re trying to destroy the country. Is this some personal vendetta against us? Mad about what we did to you, kid?” snarled a large middle aged man. “If it wasn’t for Azoth we’d have chucked you out long ago, and don’t you forget it!”
I closed my eyes and let the cacophony of complaints and threats carry on. Eventually, just as the sea of voices was at its loudest, I opened my eyes and slammed the table, hard.
It exploded into pieces, slamming everyone against the walls. They stared wide-eyed, some of them with blood gushing out of fresh wounds and cuts. Finally, their faces twisted with rage and they began preparing spells, but someone cut them off before they could attack.
“Enough,” said Azoth, completely unharmed by my attack. “Let the Demon Lord speak. You will get your answers soon enough.”
They unwillingly canceled their attacks and looked at me ferociously, as if trying to stab me with their glares. I leaned back against my chair – the only one still intact – and began to speak.
“We’ve amassed a stockpile of ores and rare stones from the Earth kingdom, built new factories and workshops using Air kingdom technology, filled our silos and food reserves to the brim with imports from the Light kingdom, and acquired many other essential resources from the LeAgua company. The imprisoned artisans and nationalized factories are hard at work building machinery, vehicles, and certain instruments and tools that will be vital for the months to come. I have, in fact, been culling unnecessary departments and cutting off red-tape to facilitate the implementation of my plans, and have made the governmental machinery and state apparatus more effective than ever,” I said, my gaze slowly traveling across the room. “Now when I say something, the plans are drawn up in a few hours, the feasibility report written in half a day, and my instructions are disseminated to the appropriate state agencies in a matter of minutes via communications prisms.”
“But this model is unsustainable, we’re already chin-deep in debt, and although you may be able to communicate via prism, the rest of us can’t send out any messages because of the Disruptor spell you made the court magicians cast all over the castle! At least open the castle!” said the old man.
“The castle is closed because we cannot allow anyone to know what we’re doing,” I said.
“And why not?” asked a young man with perfect hair and a smile that made me want to punch him in the face.
“Nationalized factories. Stockpiling of resources. Shortening the chain of command. If you can’t see what’s going on, then you’re either blind, stupid, or both,” I said. “I don’t want any of this to leak out, you see. Because the longer your enemy doesn’t know what you’re doing, the larger your advantage becomes. We need to get as far ahead as we can before they know what’s happening.”
Several mouths opened wordlessly as realization dawned on some of the people present. The rest had the brains to think about what I’d said, but one of them was dumb enough to speak.
“And what is happening?” said the young man with the punchable face.
“War,” I said. “We’re going to war.”
Who let this moron into the government?
“Fuck it, I’m done explaining shit to you imbeciles. Who’s the general of the army again?”
“That would be Cronk,” said Azoth, pointing to the dumb guy who still didn’t have a clue what was going on.
“So, you run the army yourself,” I said, turning to Azoth.
He nodded. I knocked out Cronk with a burst of magic, before he could open his dumb mouth again.
“Send that idiot to the dungeons, you’re officially in charge of the army now, Azoth. Bring me a summary of all the resources at our army’s disposal, the size of the infantry, cavalry, special corps, everything,” I said. “And as for the rest of you.” I glared at them. “You will carry out my orders without question. The army will not make any significant moves and to most outsiders, it should seem as if I’m simply trying to establish my power in the castle. The Union will be wary, but since news of my return has already spread, they should assume that we’re too busy with infighting to prepare for war. I want to wait until the last possible moment before the army is mobilized. If any of you slow down my plans, you will be replaced immediately. Now get to work!”
I used magic to open the doors and everyone but Azoth rushed out of the room.
“And remember,” I shouted after them. “Speed and efficiency. Speed and efficiency!”
I closed the doors again.
“Azoth,” I said.
“Yes?” he answered, conjuring up a seat for himself on the other side of the broken remnant of the table.
“You have the list I gave you, correct?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good,” I said. “As soon as the Union begins preparing for war, I want you to take out those targets with the sleeper cells you planted in the Union.”
“Understood,” he said, unperturbed by my knowledge of his sleeper cells. “It won’t stop them for long, though.”
“Doesn’t have to,” I said. “Every second it buys us is another set of armor prepared and another infantryman trained. Once the war machine is setup, we’ll begin the propaganda campaign. The people need to want to be conscripted once the war starts.”
“Any ideas?” asked Azoth. “Propaganda is not my strongest suit.”
“First you manufacture the enemy’s image. Dehumanize them, blame our problems on them, and concoct stories of rape and pillage. They’re monsters who can’t be reasoned with. Villains who exist solely to bring pain upon the ordinary people of the Alliance. Blame the deaths of the Demon Lords on them. Make sure our people know how oppressed the people in the Union are. How ignorant they are of their own suffering and the blessings and bounties enjoyed by those in the Alliance. How they are exploited savages that we need to free from tyranny and oppression. Remember they believe in different Goddesses. Call them heathens and infidels. They will be doomed to eternal damnation unless we free them from their ignorant ways immediately.”
“Then you build up our own image. How we’re fighting for the people. How we help them survive in a cold, cruel world, and work hard day in and day out, so that our people can live a better life. How much our Goddesses love us, and how much we love them.
And then you get even more specific. Demonize the Hero. Tell them how she murders Alliance children, and bathes in their blood. Tell them the Hero perpetrated the fall of the Air kingdom’s floating island. The Hero desecrated the Holy Twilight forest. The Hero caused the collapse of dozens of mines in the Earth kingdom, burying poor workers and letting them suffocate to death under the rubble. In fact, change the name. Don’t call her the Hero. Call her something else. A pig, a monster, a devil, be creative.
Make them hate her, the other goddesses, the Union. Make them hate it all! Manipulate their anger and frustrations!
And then reach out to the people who still aren’t convinced or who don’t care about politics. Promise the slaves they’ll be freed after the war. Tell the poor they’ll be rewarded handsomely for their efforts. Tell the rich they’ll get a cut of the war booty, and maybe even some land. Tap into their greed. Use their aspirations to our benefit!”
Azoth stared at me for a long time, before nodding slowly. His expression was imperceptible as always, but his eyes told me that he was either impressed or frightened.
In either case, I was flattered.
I took a deep breath. “You know, I wasn’t very confident in this plan of ours but, it just might work.”
Azoth stood up and made to leave the room.
“I have worked with Demon Lords for centuries. Trust me, I’ve heard that before. Don’t get cocky just yet. Fate works in mysterious ways.”
The door shut and I went back to revising the plan.
I’d failed once before but this time was different. I was different.
I was more aggressive. I knew who the pieces were. I knew how they would react. And I knew exactly what I had to do.
This time my plan would work for sure.
This time I wouldn’t fail.
This time, I was going to win.