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The sky darkened as Lord Lairetam stared out of the wide window of his room in the royal palace. The king of Kapara had graciously welcomed Lairtam into his home without a second thought as to what the stranger from across the water had come for, or what he might be up to. The most Lairetam saw of the man was at mealtimes, and even then the king didn't say much. Though the king was quiet, he ruled Kapara with a steady hand and the city and the kingdom flourished in his powerful rule. Lairetam's excuse as an explorer had been plenty enough for the king. Little did he know that the stranger from the east was staring out the window of his lavishly decorated room, plotting the downfall of Kapara and the capture of the heart of it's prosperity.

Lairetam had arrived in the city of Kapara two months ago and still nothing had happened, he needed to get things moving before someone became suspicious. Lairetam surveyed the city spread out before him with a scowl of utter distaste. Once he was in power the first thing he was going to do was burn this bloody city to the ground.

Despite Lairetam's sour opinion, Kapara was a lavishly beautiful city. The houses and shops were neatly spaced and showed the devoted care of their owners over the centuries. The streets of Kapara were free of the garbage and general mess that plagued most cities at the time and they reflected the ruddy glow of the sun off the thin film of water after their late afternoon scrubbing. Had it not been so late there would have been children running about, laughing and playing as their mothers carried out their daily shopping in the town square. The sound of the townsfolk laughing and talking freely reached the castle as they went about their nightly chores of closing and tidying up their shops for the next busy day. Beyond the immediate city, a rich expanse of farmland reached out in all directions, at the height of the growing season the fields were green and prosperous. Lairetam could see the minuscule blotches of farmers coming in from a hard days work in the field to tend their animals in the barn and share supper with their wives and children. The sight made the scowl deepen on Lairetam's face. Any one of those wretched, disgusting people might have what he wanted, five of them did in fact and he intended to find out who. And the more people that died in the search the better. The sky tinged a bloody red as the sun sank slowly into the horizon, like a tomato being lowered slowly, agonizingly into a pot of water. Once it was dark Lairtam could make his move.

Lairetam turned from the open window and crossed the room to the large hand carved, four poster bed that occupied the entirety of that half. He opened the worn, brown leather saddlebags and laid their contents on the soft linen bedspread. From the large array of items from throwing knives to apples, Lairetam selected a small vile of purplish liquid that sloshed viscously inside. This was the pulped bark of an Otamot tree that only grew in Lairetam's homeland, it was pulverized and then boiled until it came down to this gruesome, gelatinous, illegal substance. It had an interesting effect on people to say the least. Once administered, the recipient would go into a dazed sort of shock and could do nothing of their own free will. The Otamot potion would act upon a certain part of the recipient's brain so they would dazedly obey every whim of whomever they were with at the time the potion took effect, believing that person or persons were divine gods to be worshiped and served. In other words it induced sort of a controlled insanity until the antidote was administered. Lairetam hadn't brought the antidote, he had no intention of using it. He thought of the effects of this gruesome jelly with concealed glee. When you didn't play withing the legal boundaries, gaining control of a kingdom was easy work.

After two months of solid vigilance, hardly leaving the castle, Lairetam knew the king's entire schedule. In the morning the king woke, dressed, and dined in the great hall with all of the inhabitants of the castle, then disappeared into his study for the long hours until midday. This aspect of the king spending quite a bit of time in his study thoroughly frustrated Lairetam, he had no way of seeing what the king did during these seemingly endless hours. When the sun was high overhead, the king would descend from his chambers and have a midday meal with some of the higher nobles of the palace, all of which Lairetam knew their names. After this the king would take a short walk around the grounds, or through the castle in bad weather then return to his study until supper. Supper was a grand affair every evening which everyone attended and feasted. Lairetam was at wonder over how the inhabitants and even the king managed not to be exceedingly large, no one would ever know they feasted on the rich prospers of their land nightly. Once supper was concluded with a toast to the long life of the king, he returned once again to his study, then at seven o clock a housemaid brought wine to the king before he retired to bed for the night.

Over the months Lairetam had assessed his choices as to when he could slip the Otamot to the king. He had ruled out breakfast, midday and supper, there were too many people around for the king to get accidentally attached to. So, he decided that there were only two possible occasions, when the king took his walk, or when he drank his wine.

It would be much easier for Lairetam to be present when the king was touring the grounds but he had heard stories of past squabbles over Otamot where the target had been given the potion outdoors, and had spent the rest of their life swooning over a tree, waiting for a divine command. Lairetam had no intention of pulling a blunder like that, so the only option left was in the king's evening wine.

By the time Lairetam had reached the corridor of the king's chambers he had come up with a plan. For him it was not particularly devious or cunning, but he had higher standards of evil than most. He would simply wait in the corridor for the maid and tell her that the king had asked to see him, then he would offer to take the wine himself. The maids were always busy and had a million other things to do, there was no doubt that she was needed in the kitchen for the cleaning up after the feast and would be only too eager to be done quickly and leave. Then it was a simple matter for Lairetam to plop the glob of purple Otamot into the wine, watch it dissolve, and be standing there when the king ingested the foul stuff. Lairetam thought this a fairly easy and minimally dubious plan and concealed himself in a doorway several feet down the hall to wait patiently for the maid to arrive.

Lairetam's vigilance was not disappointed as the maid turned the corner several minutes after he settled down to wait. He stood quickly and strode down the hallway, looking as though he had just arrived. The maid started as they met in front of the king's grand oak doorway, she had been walking with her eyes on the floor, careful not to trip on an uneven stone and spill the wine. Lairetam made a gracious bow and smiled toothily at the young maid. She couldn't be more than sixteen and already had a job at the palace, probably like her mother and grandmother before her. "I'm terribly sorry sir," the maid muttered, her eyes still downcast.

"No trouble at all" Lairetam replied, almost startled that his voice could sound so forgiving when he had stopped offering forgiveness years ago. The girl finally looked up at him with gleaming eyes. "I was just on my way to see the king, could I offer to take that from you and deliver it myself?" She was a bit more reluctant than Lairetam had expected, no doubt thinking of the amount of work she would have to do when she returned to the kitchen. Lairetam gave her another toothy smile and she handed over the silver tray without a word. He watched her walk to the end of the corridor, throwing a furtive glance over her shoulder as she turned the corner and slipped out of sight.

Lairetam turned back to the task at hand and set the tray on one of the conveniently large decorative vases that lined the castle walls as he fished the small vile of Otamot from the inside of his jacket. Lairetam prized the wooden cork from the neck of the vile and inverted it over the king's chalice of wine. The purple ooze gushed slowly from the vile in a long sticky strand. He would have said that Otamot had the constancy of molasses but it was quite a bit thicker, it was more like, well, purple snot. The last of the Otamot released itself from the container and it plopped noisily into the gilded, silver goblet of wine leaving the vile entirely empty, Otamot usually stuck in one piece. Luckily the Otamot also had the convenient ability to dissolve almost instantly into liquid of any sort, and despite it's ghastly raw appearance, not alter the flavor or color of the drink. So, after placing the vile back into his jacket, Lairetam turned and walked confidently through the heavy, oak door and into the king's chamber.

60 years later

"Close your eyes and no peeking," Xathandra's mother said as her slender hands covered Xathandra's face. The farmer's wife was a slim woman, with sinuous muscles in her arms from kneading bread and carding wool. Xathandra shared her long dark hair, though the older woman pinned hers up to keep it out of her work. Both had a golden tan from tending the animals and working in the small herb garden next to their tiny house. Xathandra lifted the long red skirt of her thin summer dress as they crossed the lawn.Xathandra's mother led her into their small farmer's hut on the outskirts of Kapara and sat her down on the only chair they possessed. "Now Xathandra," her mother began "I know we don't have much and that you aren't expecting anything but it is your birthday..."

"Mom," Xathandra teased, her eyes still closed "you're prattling on again, just tell me!"

"Be patient Xathandra." her father had been standing silently in one corner of the one small room of their house and she jumped. Why wasn't he working in the fields? It was midday and there were crops to be sewn, even though they had little hope of sprouting.

Times had been hard in Kapara ever since their king, Noclaf, had gone into seclusion sixty years ago and began issuing orders by way of his messenger and adviser, Lairetam. As time passed the orders became more demanding, more ruthless, and the city and kingdom of Kapara began to wither and die. The weather seemed to be grieving king's decisions along with the Kaparans as year after year it became harder to grow crops. Everything from drought to snow had plagued Kapara during the summer growing season which before the king's withdrawal had been prosperous and joyful. People said that Lairetam was a foreigner and that shortly after his arrival the king appointed him his adviser. Some people said that Lairetam had forced the king to give him the position, others said that the king had simply gone mad, and others still believed that the king was no longer alive at all, and Lairetam was running the country of his own accord. Xathandra herself believed that the king was mad. It certainly seemed so from the orders he had been giving. She had heard that the month after Lairetam's appointment as adviser, the king had issued that all jewels and fine metals in the kingdom be sent to the palace. Lairetam told the people that King Noclaf was trying to protect them from the greed of wealth but no one believed, and no one sent so much as a speck of gold dust to the king. In supposed anger, Noclaf had sent all of the castle's troops to root out every gem in the entire kingdom. It was gruesome, the way people described the raid, if they could bear to talk about it at all. Things had gone downhill from there, the crops turned bad and Kapara lost most of it's former glory. Now no one was allowed a break from work, especially farmers who needed to provide food for Kapara, and most importantly for the king.

Xathandra heard the jingle of tack as a wagon trundled towards their house on the nearby road and snapped back to the present. This must be really important for her father to risk getting in trouble with the king of Kapara. More important than just her birthday. All of the farmers were supposed to be working in the fields, unless they were too ill to move from bed, and her father surely didn't look ill this morning.

Her father cleared his throat, bringing her attention back to the task at hand. Seeing Xathandra's frown, her mother continued "You're a young lady now, just turning sixteen. Your father and I think it is time to trust you with the family's only treasure."

At this she produced a small wooden box and Xathandra opened her eyes. The box was open and a gorgeous necklace lay inside. A richly colored green jewel cut and polished to a perfect teardrop hung on an incredibly fine silver chain. The whole thing glimmered in the dusty light of their hut as if it glowed from within. Xathandra was entranced. How could anyone have cut a gem like that? Who could possibly create a chain that fine? Why did it glimmer so? As Xathandra reached out to touch it all of these questions were chased out of her mind by one important, daunting thought. How did her family get it? Most people living in the kingdom now had never even seen a jewel, let alone owned one this spectacular. Not even the nobles. Some people thought that the king was genuinely trying to protect them from greed, other more skeptical souls thought that Lairetam had sent them back to his homeland or was using them to fund his fancies from the palace. On either occasion, no one was supposed to possess anything that even looked like a gem, and this, this was treason.

Xathandra snatched her hand away, afraid to touch the beautiful chink of glowing stone. She looked questioningly at her parents, hoping for an answer to her doubts, but neither of them said a word. They must have guessed what she was thinking though because after a moment her mother reached out and took her hand. Xathandra looked up "Where did it come from?" she whispered.

With a look and a nod of encouragement from her husband, Xathandra's mother sighed and began to speak softly, as though she was telling a secret that she was not allowed to speak of. "For thousands of years this gem has been handed down from mother to daughter, and occasionally to a niece when none has been available. No one knows why anymore, we just know that when a woman named Melena lived in ancient times when there was still peace and prosperity in the land of Kapara, long before the rule of king Noclaf, she possessed this jewel. She treasured it beyond her life. When she died giving birth to her daughter, your grandmother, her last wish was for it to be given to to her daughter, and her daughter after that. Melena's few possessions never gave any hint as to why, neither did she say before she died, she only conveyed that it was a matter of great importance and must be done. The jewel, The Emerald, has been given to the eldest daughter on her sixteenth birthday since that time, from your grandmother, to me, and now to you and your first daughter." She looked up at this point to see if Xathandra was still listening. When she saw her look of enraptured curiosity, she continued. " When I was four King Noclaf ordered his soldiers to collect all of the gems in the kingdom, my mother had hidden this away. Being the peasant that she was, no one suspected her of concealing it. I remember homes were torn apart and things were destroyed and burned , forcing people to give up their treasures to the king. The soldiers did not challenge us though. I was terrified as they entered our ramshackle hut, seeing that the sudden turn of weather had taken it's toll. Upon seeing that we barely had anything in the house at all, they only searched halfheartedly, then turned and left. I didn't understand why at the time, but my mother seemed relieved. Then on my own sixteenth birthday, she secretly entrusted the Emerald to me as I am now giving it to you." She looked deep into Xathandra's eyes "You must take care of it, and no one must find it. You know the consequences if they do."

Xathandra was terrified. How could her parents ask her to do this? She'd be put to death if someone even saw her looking at this beautiful, Emerald masterpiece. And she didn't even know why she had to keep it. Her father took in her worried expression "I know it's a lot to ask, but this jewel is important. Maybe it is the key to saving our kingdom someday, and changing the luck of this dreaded farm."

Xathandra hesitated, she wanted to refuse, to leave this beautiful, dangerous thing in its box for all eternity and deny any knowledge of it. But its surface glinted in the dying light of the afternoon and its beauty overcame her.

"Ok," she whispered, then reached out and touched it. It was warm and smooth to the touch. She never wanted to let it out of her sight. But at the same time she wanted to hide it from the sight of others. Xathandra felt as though someone had physically place the weight of this enormous secret on her shoulders. So far her birthday had been less than normal.

Her mother gently closed the box, and the soft light of the Emerald went out. She placed the box in Xathandra's hands and closed them around it. "I know it's hard but we have faith in you." Her mother smiled "Take care of it," she whispered once again. Her father hugged her shoulders encouragingly, then they both left her to think.

Xathandra sat in the chair for hours, listening to things going on in the house, her mother bustling around making diner, her father outside the window, pulling the plow hopelessly through the barren fields. The sun moved around her, casting her stationary shadow on the floor. When it reached the eastern wall Xathandra stood, she stowed the Emerald in her chest that contained her mattress, and wandered out of the house, across the field and into the small grove of trees that grew by the dry stream bed. Now she knew the big secret in her parents' simple lives. The one that they would always be talking about in low, worried voices and stop suddenly when she entered the room, the one that no one ever told her about. The secret that could get them all killed. Xathandra sat and pondered the matter as the sun went down, easing the dusty heat of the dry day. Why did the king need every jewel in the kingdom? No one could possibly have use for so many. And to make jewelery illegal, what kind of ludicrous law was that? The more she thought about it, the more defiant Xathandra became, why should she obey the laws of an insane king and his lurking servant? As dusk settled and the fireflies came out, blinking here and there in the darkness, the air cooled. A voice drifted faintly across the lawn "Xathandra! Xathandra!" her mother calling her in to supper.

"I'm going to keep it," Xathandra announced during supper. "Not that I have much choice."

"Of course you have a choice," Xathandra's father said "you can keep the Emerald or you can leave and find another family to raise you that will love you and care for you and wont give you illegal things to hide in your room." He said this seriously with a completely straight face then he smiled and burst out laughing at the horrified look on Xathandra's face. Xathandra began to laugh too, she couldn't help it, when her father smiled it was like a stone statue breaking into a grin. He was so stern and serious around other people, but when they were home or in the fields he couldn't help but crack a joke. Her mother tossed them both a disapproving glance.

"You really should take this more seriously"

"I am," her father said innocently "I just find it funny that Xathandra actually thought we would throw her out." Xathandra's mother scowled reluctantly, they could tell she was trying her hardest to suppress a grin. Her father had that effect on people. They had no more discussion about the Emerald over supper, they washed up after the meal and finished the last few evening chores that needed to be done then retired for the night.

Xathandra found herself mentally and physically exhausted as she pulled the straw mattress out of the chest in one corner of the small one room house. She laid it out on the floor next to her parents' and covered herself with the soft woolen blanket, spun and woven from their own thin sheep. Xathandra was lulled to sleep in a matter of minutes by her father's rhythmic breathing.

When Xathandra awoke she didn't realize that she had opened her eyes. It was just as dark with her eyes open as it was with them closed. She laid still for a moment, wondering what had woke her when she heard the hushed voices of her mother and father and the gravelly tones of someone she didn't know . "Someone saw a light through your window from the road this afternoon,"

"We were probably burning candles." that was her mother.

"Green candles?" the unknown voice.

"We have nothing here to make a green light. Now would you please let us go back to our beds. We have a hard day of work tomorrow for our king." Xathandra's father strained this last word as if in regret or disgust.

"My men and I have orders to search the... house" the man said, apparently surveying their meager lodgings with disapproval." At this point it occurred to Xathandra that this man, and whoever else was with him were soldiers of Kapara. She began to shiver as she realized what would happen if they gained access and found the Emerald.

"I am a law abiding citizen of Kapara and I see no reason why you have to disturb my family and search our home." her father said a little heatedly. Xathandra rolled over and saw her parents standing in the doorway, her mother clutching her father's arm, his fists clenched. The soldier was standing just outside the doorway. He was a big burly man with bulging muscles and a sword hanging at his waist. Given, Xathandra's father was strong from farming, but he would never be able to defeat this man hand to hand. There were at least four men behind him and they were all trained fighters for the king.

"If you do not allow us entry willingly we will use force." the soldier warned again. Seeing that her husband was about to protest, Xathandra's mother tugged his arm and pulled him gently from the doorway.

"Now dear," she said gently "There is nothing here for them to find, lets not make trouble, they can have their search and leave us in peace." Reluctantly, Xathandra's father silently agreed and stood aside to let the men through. When the men's backs were turned, Xathandra's mother threw her a desperate glance, pleading that she had had enough sense to hide the stone where it would not be easily found. Xathandra thought it was almost too much to hope that the soldiers would not search her trunk, but with luck they would miss the ornate wooden box wrapped in her meager supply of clothes.

Luck was not with her that night. As the soldiers neared the cubbord where her trunk lay, Xathandra began to quake violently, terrified of the wrath of the soldiers and the king when they found the solitary Emerald on its silver chain among her possessions. Noticing her unease a soldier, younger and thinner than the first man with chestnut brown hair, followed her gaze to the closed doors. He gravitated towards it, watching her eyes widen helplessly with fear. Her mother tried to console her but the damage had already been done. The man threw open the doors and dragged the heavy trunk out. He had no trouble opening it, since they had sold the handmade lock several years ago, among other things, to buy enough food survive the winter. He rummaged through Xathandra's things, then, finding nothing, dumped the entire contents of the chest onto the floor. The clothes landed on the floor with a soft flump. To Xathandra and her parents' horror the ancient, polished box tumbled from the small pile of clothing and skittered across the scrubbed wooden floor, its precious contents rattling inside. Xathandra silently closed her eyes and cringed. The remaining four soldiers gathered around, and the first man with the gravelly voice bent and picked up the box "What have we here?" The man prized the little box open and the Emerald shone with even more radiance than it had in the dim afternoon light. "It seems that you did have something to hide after all despite your wife's reassurances," the soldier chuckled cruelly. "Who's is it?" he asked abruptly. Xathandra's one thought was to save her parents.

"It's mine," she blurted before her mother could say anything. She had no idea why, they had thrown this danger at her, now they were all in trouble and she was taking the blame.

"It's yours?" the soldier sneered in her face. "And how would a child come to own a trinket such as that?" The soldier grinned revealing yellowing teeth "Family heirloom perhaps?"

"I didn't steal it if that's what you mean. My parents had nothing to do with it." Out of the corner of her eye Xathandra saw her mother's eyes widen with fear. The soldier looked to them questioningly, when neither of them replied he took it as a conformation. She was a little hurt that they said nothing to protect her even though it would have destroyed her cause. The burly man turned back to Xathandra and snatched her up by her long dark hair, hauling her up from the ground, where she was still sitting on her mattress and wheeled her around to face her parents.

"Now you filthy traitors will find out what happens to people who don't abide by the king's commandments." This was too much for Xathandra's father and he hurled himself at the man, fists flailing. The man flung Xathandra aside and she landed heavily on the floor, jarring her wrists as she landed. Her father managed to land a few good punches before the soldier kicked him in the stomach and he fell gasping to the ground. "I was going to kill you, but for that I have thought of something considerably more agonizing." He shut the box with a snap and stroked it gently "I'll take care of this, and I'll make sure it is taken directly to Lairetam" The soldier continued to sneer as he ordered his men to tie Xathandra's father up and put the women in the wagon. Both Xathandra and her mother were slung unceremoniously over the soldiers' shoulders and dumped heavily into the wagon waiting outside. The large horse looked back dolefully as his harness jingled with the weight of three extra passengers, he snorted and turned around again as the captain marched out of the open doorway. "Search for anything more, then burn it to the ground." he ordered three of his men. Then he turned and leaped into the wagon, the last remaining soldier in his wake. He snapped the horse cruelly with the reigns and the cart jerked into motion, trundling down the old dusty road towards the city of Kapara and the Castle.