With the guards fed, Kit discovered her captors expected even more dutiful obedience. She was escorted into a large, windowless room with aisles of wood tables accompanied by wood benches. The wood bowed heavily in the centers of both the tables and their benches. It lacked finish and smoothness. The room smelled of rotting food, wet wood and wetter hay. A barn would have been nicer, for at least in a barn, the occasional draft of outside air could filter inside.
Kit’s guard led her to the serving table near a pair of heavy double doors. A black pot sat on the table with a wood handled ladle resting against the rim. Inside, it held a milky white boiling broth with flecks of unknown additives colored from orange to purple to green and black. She guessed the flecks were locally grown vegetables, but realized they could just as easily be insects or just about anything else. Either way, it smelled like month old cabbage and sour milk.
Pointing to the stack of wood carved bowls rising up from the hay covered floor, the guard said, “One scoop in each in bowl and one bowl per field hand.”
Kit followed the finger to the bowls with her eyes and said nothing.
The guard smirked. “Any deviation and your ass will be hotter than that pot.”
Kit fantasized about drowning the guard in the boiling broth. Don’t be reckless, Jade’s voice warned from inside her head.
The guard swatted her naked butt with his leather gloved hand. “Understand?”
Kit’s reflexes forced her into a low jump at the stinging impact of his hand. Her head spun toward the guard and she knew in that instant her eyes were saying all the things she couldn’t say aloud. She also knew from the fading laughter and the guard’s sudden flat lips that he read the danger lurking within her. She forced her gaze low and spoke with as much submission as she could muster. “Yes, sir.”
The double doors rumbled open with their lower edges scraping across the concrete floor. Kit looked through the opening hoping to catch a glimpse of the outside world, but all she could see was a seeming endless line of dirt covered men stretching down a stone walled hallway. Torches mounted along the side of the wall provided the only light. Her hope dwindled.
“Better get to work,” the guard said. “Those boys look hungry.”
The first in line stepped up in front of the black pot. He held his hands out in front of him and stared vacantly ahead. Unlike the guards he appeared to have no interest in Kit or her nudity. Of course his own attire consisted of nothing more than a leather loincloth. Like her, these men were slaves.
Kit grabbed a wooden bowl and filled it with a single ladle full of the soup. She placed the bowl in hands and noticed they were trembling. He turned away quickly, before she could say anything. She watched him cross the room and sit at the farthest table at its farthest corner. The next in line stood in front of the pot and held his hands out in exactly the same manner.
She studied the second man closer. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot and the lids drooped as if the muscles were failing. His hands had a tremor to them as well and the skin under his fingernails appeared gray. She poured a bowl for the man and handed it to him.
The next man stood in just the same way. He showed all the same symptoms. Kit recognized them too well. It was just like Jade. They were dying. And there was nothing she could do to change it.
Kit served up the food at a faster and faster rate as she became increasingly familiar with the repetitive movements involved. All the men showed varying signs of their addiction, but the older ones seemed the worst. Although some of the men looked well into their fifties she doubted any of them were actually much more than thirty. Hard labor combined with their drug addiction made for fast living.
The tables were half full and the line still showed no sign of ending when a noise behind Kit caught her attention. She paused in her serving duties to glance toward the door behind her, the very door she and her guard had come through.
Tara stumbled through the doorway, dressed very similar to Kit. That is to say she was wearing less than a stitch and while the two women were equally un-attired, their natural skin color and curves were enough different that they would never be confused.
Tara regained her footing and glared back at the guard following her. “I won’t be a very useful doctor if I’m dead.”
The guard shoved her again. “At least you’ll be quiet.”
Tara steadied herself with a hand on the edge of a nearby table. “I could always pop your eardrums with a needle and then you wouldn’t have to listen.”
The guard grunted and pointed at a pair of loincloth boys sitting at a table directly ahead of Tara. “Fix those boys up and maybe I’ll let you keep your tongue another day.”
Tara shrugged and raised her empty hands toward the guard. “What about supplies?”
The guard said, “What do you need?”
Tara shrugged again. “I don’t know. What’s wrong with them.”
The guard raised a threatening arm in Tara’s direction. “You’re the doctor.”
Tara laughed. “Now we’re making progress.”
The guard growled.
Tara made her way over to the indicated loincloth boys. Neither gave her any resistance as she examined them and their injuries. The guard stood nearby watching, as if she might find a way to make the loincloth boys into personal weapons.
Kit returned to serving food at the slap of a leather gloved hand on her butt. She heard Tara explain a need for bandages, thread, and a needle. Tara’s guard left, apparently to fetch the supplies.
Tara glanced in Kit’s direction, but rather than making her way over to her, she first examined a few of the other loincloth boys who were eating at the nearby tables.
Minutes later, Tara joined Kit at the serving table. “They’re all suffering from Zumena withdrawal,” she said.
Kit nodded, continuing to fill bowls with soup. “I know.”
Tara gestured at the room with a wave or her arm. “Many of them are beyond helping, but the younger ones still have a fighting chance if we stop this.”
Kit filled another bowl and handed to the next in line. “I don’t know what more we can actually do.”
Kit’s guard stepped closer. “What do you know about Zumena?”
Kit turned toward the guard and noticed his raised eyebrow. “It’s illegal.”
Tara said, “It’s deadly.”
“It’s addictive,” Kit said.
Tara stepped closer to the guard and stared boldly into his eyes. “And all of these men are well on their way to dying from it.”
The guard looked from Kit to Tara and back again. “You two were on the Griffinscape?”
Tara’s guard returned through the back door.
Kit’s guard stepped back and said, “Get back to work. This ain’t a gossip lounge.”
Tara rejoined her guard, who took the opportunity to swat her butt a half dozen times, coloring it a warm shade of pink. Satisfied that she was sufficiently chastised, he handed her the supplies and said, “Any more nonsense out of you and I’ll be introducing you to Zeller’s paddle.”
Hours later, Kit and Tara reunited in a dark hallway being escorted toward their cell for the night. Kit’s guard dismissed Tara’s guard, opting to escort them alone. The guard obviously understood they could try to escape, but with their limited knowledge of the location, they would be easily recaptured. Kit and Tara knew it as well and offered no resistance, leading the way down the torchlit corridor.
The guard stopped in his tracks. “Wait a moment.”
Kit and Tara stopped walking and turned toward the guard.
He asked. “Is the Griffinscape the ship?”
Kit asked, “The ship?”
“Bringing in the Zumena,” he said.
Tara said, “I dumped it in the ocean.”
He focused on Tara. “You were the new captain?”
Tara laughed, shaking her head. “No.”
The guard looked at Kit. “You?”
“Do you have any idea when the Griffinscape will return?” he asked.
“Why should we tell you?” Kit asked.
The guard said, “Because I can help you.”
“Can,” Tara said, “doesn’t mean will.”
The guard said, “I don’t work for Wudwerth. I’m with the RCG.”
Kit raised an eyebrow. “RCG?”
He nodded. “Rasa Central Government. I’ve been trying to link Wudwerth with illegal labor practices, but he’s too well connected to make anything I’ve learned so far stick.”
Tara said, “You need to catch him in the act.”
“Buying an illegal narcotic like Zumena and proving he’s been using it on the laborers would do it,” he said.
Kit asked, “What do you need from us?”
He looked at Tara. “Can you prove those men were definitely suffering from the effects of Zumena?”
Tara nodded. “If you want scientific evidence, I’ll need blood samples and a lab to analyze them, but the physical symptoms leave little room for doubt.”
He said, “I can take care of that, I just want to know you’re certain.”
Tara said, “I’m a doctor and I’ve treated those symptoms before. It’s Zumena, I’m positive of it.”
The guard nodded. He turned his gaze on Kit. “Wudwerth is fascinated with you for some reason.”
Kit shrugged. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Well take notice,” the guard said. “Find a way to make him want to take personal delivery of the next shipment.”
Kit said, “I can try, but what do we get out of this?”
“If you make it work,” the guard said, “and I catch Wudwerth in the act of buying Zumena, you and your friends will be free of him.”
“What about my ship?” Kit asked.
He said, “I can’t promise, but if it’s possible, I’ll return it to your ownership.”
Tara looked at Kit. “It doesn’t seem we have much choice.”
The guard said, “You don’t and you don’t have much time either. The Griffinscape is due back sooner than later.”