Kit began her day the same way she ended the night before; feeding the guards and then the slaves. She presumed it would take a week or so of not eating before the slave’s gruel would begin to appear edible and probably a week beyond that before she would dare shovel any of it into her mouth. With luck, she would be long gone from the dungeon of Count Wudwerth before then.
With her morning duties completed, two guards came for her and escorted her up the stairs and into her first view of the new day’s sun. The upper levels of the castle exuded wealth and elegance. The floors were covered in marble slab, green and black in color. It felt smooth and cold against her bare feet as she walked across it with her guards close behind. The cold shivered its way up her spine and reminded her, as if she could forget, that she remained naked.
The guards stepped in front of her and opened a double door motioning her through and closing the doors behind her. The echoing clap of the doors assured her there was no escape. Alone, she faced the room’s occupant with trepidation pounding in her chest. On her left, large open windows overlooked the fields where she could see the loincloth men working. Beyond the fields, a pair of tall, pointed mountains framed a “V” shaped view of blue-green ocean and a shimmering horizon above.
Wudwerth rose from his chair at the far end of the room and walked toward her. His footsteps echoed off the marble and the curved ceiling high above their heads. “Breathtaking, isn’t it?”
Kit turned her gaze to him. “I’ve seen better.”
Wudwerth smiled. “Perhaps you prefer the stone and iron of the dungeon.”
Kit forced a smile on her own lips and held his gaze with her own. “No, I was thinking of the stars and the wide open spaces between them.”
He nodded. “I should have known as much.”
“Why am I here?” Kit asked.
“Zeller informed me you’ve been most proficient in your duties,” he said. “I had to know for myself if you’d truly been tamed so easily.”
Kit glared into his eyes. “Wild animals are tamed, people cannot be.”
Wudwerth laughed. “I thought as much, but Zeller was so proud.”
Kit said, “I imagine he’s probably Rex’s inside contact.”
Wudwerth raised an eyebrow. “And what makes you think that?”
She laughed. “You trust him and that puts him in a position where he knows all the things Rex wants to know.”
“Rex,” he said, “is nothing more than a pirate.”
She nodded. “On that we agree. Unfortunately for you, he was caught smuggling and the authorities only allowed him to stay out of jail so long as he turned on his clients and helped them be brought to justice.”
“You’re lying,” Wudwerth said.
“Am I?” Kit looked out at the ocean. “How else do you think Rex could come up with the money to replace the shipment my friend dumped?”
He said, “I’m sure the man has funds set aside.”
Kit laughed again. “He’s a gambler and a scoundrel. His only asset is a lack of loyalty to anything but himself.”
Wudwerth’s brow crinkled. “What makes you think he’s in contact with someone here?”
She said, “I overheard him talking to whoever it was on the way down. My friend threw their plans into some disarray it seemed.”
“Plans?” he said.
Kit shrugged. “I gathered once you were out of the way, this other person would be taking over around here.”
“Zeller wouldn’t dare,” Wudwerth said.
Kit shrugged, “Well I don’t know for sure it’s him but I do know the signal could be traced back to the source from the Griffinscape’s communication unit. If you want to know who it is, you just have to get in there and run the trace, of course if you don’t do it yourself, you’ll never know if you got the right person or if the someone changed the name to protect themselves or a colleague.”
Wudwerth nodded. “You know how to run this trace?”
Kit said, “Yep, of course.”
He said, “Then you’ll accompany me to the landing and if you’re lying about this contact, I’ll enjoy letting Rex and Zeller teach you a lesson in deception.”
She shrugged. “I’m not worried.”
Wudwerth nodded. “In the meantime, I have something you may find interesting.”
His hand grabbed her arm and he turned, pulling her with him deeper into the room. They stopped in front of a long, rectangular table covered by a green velvet cloth. Stone tablets with pictographs carved into them were evenly spaced along the length of the table and in the middle, in front of where they stood, the necklace he had taken from her rested above a tablet. On the tablet below it, her eyes fixed on one of the pictographs. The depiction of a female appeared clear and obvious as did the shape of the jewels on her necklace. They matched her sister’s necklace.
Wudwerth let go his hold on her arm. “I see you recognize them.”
Kit kept staring at the tablet. The female depiction was posed as if running and next to her a male figure stood with the image of a shield etched into his abdomen. “What is this?”
“History,” Wudwerth said.
She reached out, brushing her fingertips over the two figures.
“The runner,” he said, “and her guardian.”
She pulled her fingers away from the stone and turned toward Wudwerth. “Who?”
“It’s a story,” he said. “Some call it a prophecy.”
Kit looked back at the tablet. “I don’t think I’ve heard of it.”
“Long ago,” Wudwerth said, “the civilized parts of our galaxy were ruled by the Jade Queen. Civilization advanced, all the worlds were at peace and the throne passed from heir to heir until one Queen violated tradition and gave birth to two daughters.”
Curiosity held Kit in its grip. “Go on,” she said.
Wudwerth nodded. “All was well until the Queen’s death. The circumstances suggested murder and the sisters came to suspect each other in the death of their mother. Each laid claim to the throne and the galaxy fell into civil war. The younger sister had a reputation for ruthlessness even before the war and it should come as no surprise that in the end, she won the war and the throne.”
Kit said, “You believe evil is more powerful than good.”
He shook his head. “Ruthlessness need not be evil, but in this case your assumption is mostly correct. The younger sister ruled without compassion and it was not long until the galaxy revolted. So came the end of the Jade Empire and the rise of our modern civilization.”
“What happened to the older sister?” Kit asked.
Wudwerth smiled as if he’d been hoping she’d ask the very question. “She was executed by her sister, but,” he said and nodded toward the tablet, “it is said she gave birth to a daughter and sent her into hiding with the protection of her loyal guardians.”
“The runner?” Kit asked.
He shook his head. “The runner is the last descendant of the true heir to the Jade Empire’s throne.”
Kit said, “The true heir being the older sister?”
Wudwerth said, “Yes.”
“So what is this runner’s story,” Kit asked. “Does she bring back the Jade Empire?”
Wudwerth chuckled. “One cannot resurrect the past in hopes of saving the future. It is told that the runner, the last of her line, will pair with the last of the guardians and together bring about a revolution from beneath a blanket of corruption. When the time comes to form a new government she will turn her back on the prospect of becoming queen and run.”
Kit nodded. “An interesting story,” she said. “I imagine the jeweler who crafted my necklace must have thought so as well.”
Wudwerth’s smile grew larger. “You are one of less than a dozen people who have seen these tablets in the last thousand years.”
She looked at the necklace. “What are you saying?”
“I thought you were a thief,” he said, “when I first saw your necklace. The stones are unique and clearly date back to the Empire, but they are not part of the last Queen’s set as I first thought. They belong to the runner.”
Kit blinked at him.
He asked, “Where did you get it?”
Kit said, “It was given to my sister by our father and she passed it to me before she died.”
Wudwerth said, “You are the last of your line.”
Kit stared at him.
He laughed. “The Jade Runner is my slave.”