Bride of the Sun God

by Zack

The Amalgamation Survey Ship Interloper moved in a synchronous orbit above the third planet of star U1256637. Far below on the planet's surface Lieutenant Thar Breg, the ship's Xenologist, sauntered through the streets of Lanudu, the capitol of Bridium, the island nation that improbably dominated the planet. It was late spring in this northern hemisphere, and for once the sunshine wasn't blocked by clouds. He entered the cobblestoned square that surrounded the Temple of the Sun God, a massive granite structure that dwarfed all of the other buildings in the city.

He walked across the square and joined a line of men that were waiting to enter a side door of the temple. He asked the man in front of him, "Say, mate, is this the way to the Sun Priestesses?"

Thar was disguised as a Galuvian seaman. Galuvia and Bridium were commercial rivals, but there hadn't been open warfare for more than forty years, so the man nodded yes without any overt display of hostility. The line was moving steadily forward, and in a few minutes Thar was able to make his substantial 'donation' and enter the temple. The room he entered was vast, with a vaulted ceiling at least twenty meters high. Many oil lamps mounted on a double row of massive chandeliers dimly lit the room. This may have been a temple, but it wasn't quiet. Thar had no trouble guessing the source of the chorus of moans, grunts, and cries.

Rows of three-sided cubicles filled the floor. Some of the cubicles had the unwalled fourth side closed off by a curtain, but there were plenty of open cubicles to choose from; Thar picked one at random and stepped up to the opening. Most of the cubicle's floor space was occupied by a bed, and a very pretty blonde woman was sitting on it, her long hair cascading down her back. She was naked, and the bronze collar locked around her neck was connected by a bronze chain to a ring set into the stone floor.

When she noticed Thar she smiled. "Hi, sailor. Come on in." She wiggled her shoulders and made her spherical breasts jiggle.

Thar entered the cubicle and closed the curtain. The sides of the cubicle were higher than his head; this provided some privacy. "You're a Sun Priestess?" he asked.

"No, I'm the Emperor's daughter. I just do this because it's the only way I can meet men."

Thar flushed. "I'm not as stupid as I sometimes sound. It's just that this is the first time that I've been here and I'm finding the temple hard to believe. Could we talk? I'd like to know more about all this."

The woman jingled her chain. "I'm not going anywhere, and talking is easier than fucking. Ask your questions. My name is Kepa."

"My name is Thar. How did you become a Sun Priestess?"

"Every year each district in the Empire has to provide a woman for the contest that selects the Bride of the Sun God. The winner, if you can call her that, is sacrificed to the Sun God at the solstice. The five runners-up become the high priests' concubines. The losers become sex slaves here in the temple, although they call us priestesses. The donations we bring in are a major source of income for the temple."

"Are you a slave for life?"

"Oh, no. After three years we're released and given enough money to live on for a while. Usually a former priestess has her pick of men who want to marry her. We know a lot about sex."

"Are you chained to this same bed all the time for three years?"

"No, it's three weeks working and then one week off. We can do what we want in the off week, except leave the temple."

"How is the Bride selected? Is there some sort of test, or what?"

"Beauty is all that matters. The high priests select the six most beautiful contestants, and then the Bride is chosen by lot from that group. Almost everyone in the contest would like to be one of the six finalists, except for the risk of being the Bride. The runners-up only have to serve a year, and they don't have to fuck every yarp who can pay the donation."

"Why doesn't a district just send some orphan, no matter what she looks like? I wouldn't expect a man would want to risk his daughter."

"The district that provides the Bride is given a five year exemption from the contest and the runners-up get a three year exemption. During that time they don't have to tithe or provide contestants, so every district wants to win. Some districts will even hire an exceptionally beautiful woman to be their entry, but in most districts the contestant is chosen from among the residents; that's how I got here. It's supposed to be an honor to serve the Sun God, and it's not like the contestant is going to be gone forever; except for the Bride, of course."

"That's all the questions I have for now. Let's have sex. What's allowed?"

"You can use any opening and do anything you want as long as you don't hurt me. If you want to whip a girl or do something like that there's another room with priestesses who are being punished, or who like being hurt. A large donation is needed to get into that room."

"Can I tie you up?"

"Oh, sure. There's some rope in the drawer under the bed. You can't gag me, though. Did you know that if I have an orgasm you get a coupon that gives you a discount on your next donation?"

'I'll keep that in mind." Thar got some soft rope out of the drawer. "Cross your wrists behind your back."

Kepa smiled, turned around, and crossed her wrists. Thar tied them together with diagonal wrappings, and finished with a cinch. He was careful to tie the knots so they were out of reach of questing fingers. Kepa struggled for a few minutes and then commented, "This tie is conventional, but well executed. I can't get loose, but it's not so tight that I'll be damaged; you know what you're doing."

"Thanks for the critique. Once you're tied up, what keeps you from being hurt by somebody who likes to do that, but doesn't want to pay the extra donation?"

"There are guards with crossbows on overhead catwalks. You can't see them very easily because everything is painted black, but they watch us and anybody who tries to hurt us gets a quarrel in the back if we say the secret word. That's why gags aren't permitted."

"Oh." Thar paused a moment and then put Kepa on her back on the bed. He took another piece of rope, doubled it, and looped it around Kepa's right ankle. He bent her knee and tied the ankle to her thigh; then he repeated the process with her left leg. He noticed that her body hair hadn't been shaved and both her bush and her pits were shaggy. That was fine with him; he liked furry women.

Kepa squirmed on the bed. "This tie makes me very helpless and totally exposed. It's a favorite of men who like their women to be tightly controlled."

"I'm tired of the running commentary; maybe I can get special permission to gag you. Until then, I want you to shut up unless I ask you a question. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Much better." Thar stripped off his clothes and climbed on the bed. He kissed Kepa deeply and fondled her breasts. When he stroked and probed her slit she gasped and stifled a moan.

Thar said, "You can moan and scream all you want. It turns me on if you're aroused."

He moved his right thumb in a circular motion on her nipple and used his other hand to tweak her clit until she screamed and spasmed; and while she was still at the peak of her orgasm he entered her and rode her to another high. He marvelled how she could use her bound body in subtle ways that increased his arousal; soon they climaxed together in massive orgasms.

Thar held Kepa as they cooled down; then he used his hands and tongue to give her another crashing orgasm that caused her to swoon with ecstasy. He gently disengaged and left the bed. There was a small table in the corner of the cubicle that contained a basin and towels; he cleaned off his sweat covered body.

After Thar dressed he returned to Kepa and kissed her. "You certainly do know a lot about sex, and if I'm in town when you're released I'll be sure to propose."

She smiled at his compliment. Once more he enjoyed the sight of her bound body and the way the lamplight reflected off her sweaty skin. "I'll untie you now."

When she was free of the ropes Kepa rubbed her wrists and the marks on her thighs. "I had a good time with you, and that doesn't happen often enough. With all too many of these oafs it's just thrust, squirt, and skip."

She raised a yellow semaphore attached to a back corner of the cube. She explained, "Pushing this up tells an attendant to stop by and help me clean up." She opened a box mounted below the semaphore and handed Thar a small piece of paper. "Here's your discount coupon. You deserve it."

"Thanks. One more question. Why is the Sun God Bridium's national deity? You hardly see the sun. Even in the summer it's overcast for at least one day out of three, and in the winter sometimes the sun doesn't appear for weeks at a time."

"I guess that people just treasure scarce items more than common items. And if we didn't worship the Sun God, May He Shine Forever, it might be cloudy here all of the time."

Thar thanked her and left the cubicle. As he was leaving the temple he thought, 'I definitely prefer submissive women. So why is Pami my lover?'

Pami Erig was a fellow Star Fleet officer and a field surveyor renowned for her bravery and aggressiveness. He remembered that on one of Pami's surveys she had been branded with a red-hot iron, but she didn't scream until after she decided that it would compromise her disguise if she didn't. Anybody who got in her way when she was working was likely to become suddenly dead. Thar had proved his bravery on many dangerous field surveys, but he admitted to himself that he didn't have the nerve to break up with Pami.

* * *

In the city of Manufru, 120 kilometers from Lanudu, another Amalgamation field surveyor was sitting in her room in an inexpensive boarding house. Sonji Regan was disguised as an Espian, a disguise that for her required no makeup because she had naturally tan skin and black hair. Women from Espia were reputed to be especially skilled in all of the possible sexual permutations, and perhaps because of this reputation they were also prized as governesses, especially if the children to be supervised were young ladies who needed discipline.

Sonji was looking through the 'Situations Offered' columns of the local newspaper. An employment agency advertisement caught her attention; it stated that they had numerous openings for governesses. Her assignment was to survey the domestic life of the upper classes of Bridium, and this would be an excellent cover. The agency was located close by; she decided to walk there and inquire in person. She picked up her cloak and bonnet and left her room. The weather was clear for a change, and Sonji welcomed the chance to be out in the sunshine.

It took less than half an hour for Sonji to walk to the address given in the advertisement. The agency was located above a small restaurant that specialized in sweet cakes and cha, the Bridium national beverage. Access to the agency was by way of a street level door that opened onto a narrow and dirty hallway that led to a steep staircase.

As soon as Sonji was in the hall and out of sight she contacted the Interloper and explained her intentions. Her communicator was disguised as a jade pendant suspended on a fine silver chain worn around her neck. To activate it she pulled the pendant against the chain; it buzzed to show that contact was established, and it would remain active as long as she held it in her hand. The ship could use the communicator signal to determine her location to within a few meters.

Sonji entered the agency office and approached a middle-aged woman seated at a desk, who said, "I am Miss Withur, the proprietor of this agency. Can I help you?"

"My name is Sonji. I saw your advertisement and I would like to apply for a position as a governess."

"Have you done this kind of work before? Do you have references?"

Sonji dug into her reticule and pulled out some letters. She offered them to the woman. "Here are my references; I'm afraid they're written in Espian."

"Do you have any Bridium references? Do you have friends or relatives living here who can vouch for you?"

"No, I have only recently arrived in this country and I don't know anyone living here."

Miss Withur stared at Sonji for several minutes. "There may be an opening for you. I'll have to check with my client to see if an Espian woman would be acceptable. He is located close by so you can sit over there and wait."

She opened a door and called out; a large woman entered the room. "This is Glida, my assistant. I'll return shortly."

Miss Withur was gone almost an hour. Sonji tried to engage Glida in conversation, but her attempts were met by grunts, and she soon desisted. She was relieved when Miss Withur returned.

Miss Withur said, "My client wants to see you. He is a busy man and we will be interrupting a meeting with his associates, so don't speak unless he asks you a question."

Miss Withur opened the office door and gestured to Sonji to precede her. A ten minute walk brought them to an impressive granite building, and they waited inside for another ten minutes until they were shown into an opulent boardroom where six men were seated along one side of large table. Sonji stood in an open space in front of the table where she was illuminated by the light from double windows. She stood there in silence as the men stared at her. Finally, one of the men spoke. "Yes, Miss Withur, she is all you say she is. She is very acceptable."

Miss Withur pulled Sonji out of the room and hustled her out of the building. Sonji protested, "That was the strangest interview I've ever been to. It seemed that all he cared about was my appearance."

"The interview was just a formality. My client trusts me to evaluate prospective staff members."

Back in the agency office Miss Withur said to Glida, "Sonji has been accepted by our client. Go get some of the special cha so we can celebrate."

She took some papers out of her desk and gave them to Sonji. "Fill out these forms. There is a pen and a bottle of ink on that table."

The forms required her to write an essay, and Sonji was glad to pause when Glida returned with the cha. Sonji was thirsty, and she gulped down a cup of the sweet liquid. She picked up the pen and lost consciousness.

When Sonji rejoined the world she found herself on a narrow couch, stretched out on her back. She propped her head up enough to find out that she was wearing a white gown that reached almost to her ankles. It had a square-cut bodice supported by two narrow shoulder straps and the tops of her breasts were exposed. The waist was constricted by a bronze chain that was fastened to the wide bronze bracelets locked on her wrists. An iron chain connected her ankle to a ring set in the wall. Sonji was fairly certain that this was not the usual costume worn by Bridium governesses.

Miss Withur was seated at a table, closely examining the clothes that Sonji had been wearing. She commented, "These are fine clothes; I've never seen stitches so small and even. Espian seamstresses are far better than any in this country."

There were two other women in the room. One was dressed in a gown similar to Sonji's except that it was bright yellow; she had a blowsy look and was slumped in a chair. Glida was the other woman and she was wearing a fantastic costume; bronze cuirass, helmet, and greaves, and a pleated leather kilt. She had a short sword and a pouch belted at her waist.

Sonji was relieved to see that her communicator was still in place. The waist chain was loose enough to allow her to reach it; she pulled the pendant and was rewarded by the buzz that meant communication had been established. She shouted, "Miss Withur! Why am I chained like this?"

"You have just been entered in the Bride of the Sun God contest. Some districts prefer to hire a beautiful woman as their contestant. As you might imagine, the fee for such a service is rather high; after all, the best you can expect is a year as a concubine. Since you won't share in the fee the rest of us will do rather well."

"Why is Glida wearing that bronze armor?"

"That is the traditional costume of the Guard of the Bride. Firpa is wearing the yellow dress of the Attendant of the Bride. You, of course, are wearing the white gown of a contestant. Sometimes the chains are just symbolic, but we can't take any chances with you."

"But why did you kidnap me?"

"Don't be so modest. You're a beautiful woman; besides, there's a rumor that some of the high priests that judge the contest are partial to Espians." She rummaged through the pile of clothing. "I can't find the pendant. Oh, you're still wearing it. Hand it over!"

"No, please don't take it. This was my mother's pendant."

"All right, you can keep it, but you can't wear it with that costume. Give it to me and I'll hold it for you until you get to the temple."

Sonji didn't want to give up the pendant, but she knew that Miss Withur and Glida could take by force, so she handed it over; when it left her hand the communication stopped. Miss Withur packed it in a cloth bag with Sonji's clothes.

She commanded, "Glida, the carriage will be here soon. Get her downstairs and watch her. Firpa, you come with me and collect the luggage." She left the room and Firpa staggered after her.

Glida took a key from her pouch and unlocked the iron cuff that held Sonji chained to the wall, but she replaced it with bronze cuffs connected by a short bronze chain. She helped Sonji stand up. Sonji was still dizzy from the drug and the chain between her ankles was so short that she couldn't walk; Glida had to carry her from the room and down the stairs.

They reached the street door just as a two-horse carriage pulled up. Miss Withur was waiting outside, and she supervised as the driver stowed the luggage in the boot and then helped her into the carriage. Firpa climbed in awkwardly, and Glida lifted in Sonji.

The driver examined Sonji and expressed his approval. "So she's our contestant this year, eh? She's a beauty; I hope she wins, because the tithe is crushing us poor folk." Then he remembered what that would mean to Sonji. He dropped his gaze and hurriedly climbed onto the seat. Glida got in and closed the door; the driver cracked his whip, and they moved off.

Sonji had expected to ride in the carriage all the way to Lanudu, so she was surprised when, after traveling only a few kilometers, it stopped next to a moored canal boat. This boat was over twenty meters long and only three meters wide; it had a small cabin near the stern, an open space heaped with crates, and a larger cabin in the bow. The helmsman was standing in a open area right at the stern next to the tiller; another man was harnessing a team of horses to a line tied near the bow. When the helmsman saw them he shouted, "We're ready to leave! Get aboard at once."

The driver helped Miss Withur out and loaded the luggage on the boat while the other three women were getting out of the carriage. Miss Withur took her carpetbag and the cloth bag containing Sonji's clothes into the small first class cabin near the stern. Glida carried Sonji into the larger second class cabin near the bow, and Firpa followed with two carpetbags. When they were all aboard the mooring lines were cast off and the man with the horses mounted the one nearest the boat and cracked his whip. The horses moved out at a trot and the boat glided through the water.

The three women were the only passengers in the second class cabin. The sun had set soon after they were aboard and now the only light in the cabin was provided by a small oil lamp. Glida removed her armor with a groan of relief and put on a linen shift. All of the women sat quietly; there was no conversation.

About thirty minutes later Miss Withur entered the cabin and addressed Glida, "I have business near the outskirts of Lanudu and will be getting off the boat before you do, so you'll have to go alone when you take our Bride-to-be to the temple. After the contest return to Manufru and I'll give you and Firpa your share of the money, once I collect it from the committee."

After Miss Withur left the cabin Firpa got a black bottle out of her bag and started drinking. It wasn't long before she was passed out and sprawled on a bunk, snoring noisily. Glida got some bread and cheese from her bag and she and Sonji shared it and a bottle of wine. Glida drank most of the wine, and when the bottle was empty she seated herself next to Sonji and put an arm around her shoulders.

Sonji didn't like this, and her fears were confirmed when Glida kissed her on the lips. She struggled against the chains on her wrists and felt a wave of arousal. She kissed back and then murmured, "I can do more for you if you take these chains off."

Glida replied, "I like you the way you are, so they stay on."

"At least take the chain off my ankles, I can't spread my legs at all. You're not afraid of me, are you?"

Glida chuckled, "Of course not."

She got the keys from her pouch and removed the cuffs from Sonji's ankles. Sonji stood up and hiked her gown up to her thighs. She smiled at Glida, took a step, and delivered a flying kick that broke Glida's neck.

Sonji retrieved the keys and freed her wrists from the cuffs and removed the chain from around her waist. Then she had to sit quietly while a wave of reaction overwhelmed her. Sonji wasn't used to killing people, and the empathy that enabled her to easily blend into other cultures kept her from being a detached outsider, casually disposing of the inhabitants of a backwater planet as if they were inanimate props in a theatrical performance.

Then she brought herself back to reality. These people had kidnapped her for money and were delivering her to possible death as a human sacrifice. This was self defense, and Glida had it coming. Sonji never considered killing Firpa; Firpa couldn't harm her. Sonji wished she had her communicator, but getting it would require her to kill Miss Withur and the boatmen, and a mass killing would create a possible violation of the First Directive. This was her rationalization, but Sonji knew she couldn't kill two innocent men just to avoid an inconvenience.

Sonji started to organize her escape. She needed clothes that weren't as conspicuous as this gown. She rummaged through the baggage and found Firpa's dress and cloak. She ripped off the bottom of the white gown to convert it to a slip; Firpa's clothes were ill-fitting and smelly and she couldn't stand the thought of putting them next to her skin. She took off her white sandals and put on Firpa's black shoes; luckily, the fit wasn't too bad.

Now for the cleanup. She put the cuirass and greaves on Glida's body and wrapped the remains of the white dress around the chains and stuffed it, Glida's kilt, and the sandals into the helmet.

Sonji blew out the lamp and waited in the dark until the boat glided to a stop and the horses were changed. She waited some more until the routine of the journey had resumed; then she dragged Glida's body to the cabin door on the canal side of the boat. It was a struggle, but Sonji was able to hoist the body onto the narrow deck and roll it into the water. The splash seemed terribly loud to her, but the boatmen didn't seem to notice. The weight of the armor pulled the body below the surface, and Sonji dropped the helmet and the sword into the water.

She crawled out on the deck, slid the cabin door closed, and crept to the open cargo area in the center of the boat. She waited for a interminable time until the horses were changed again. When the helmsman looked down for a moment she dashed across the towpath and hid in some bushes until the boat moved on.

* * *

The canal boat traveled through the night and by morning it had reached Lanudu. Miss Withur left it near the edge of the city and took a cab to a shop that sold ready-made clothing. She had done business with them before.

The proprietor greeted her as she entered. "Miss Withur! Good to see you again."

"I have some clothing to sell. It is top quality."

The proprietor examined Sonji's clothes and marvelled at the quality of the materials and workmanship. "Yes, it is good quality. This stitching is unlike anything I have seen and the cloth is so smooth and uniform." She offered a good price.

Miss Withur counter-offered and they bargained amiably until an agreement was reached. The proprietor noticed the communicator and asked, "What do you want for the pendant?"

Miss Withur named a price without hesitation and they bickered to an agreement. The proprietor was happy with her purchase. It was her favorite niece's birthday, and the jade pendant would be a nice present. The girl had just gotten a job as a servant in the temple, and she needed better jewelry than the trashy stuff she had now.

* * *

When the canal boat reached it's terminus Firpa was still asleep; the boatman finally had to douse her with a bucket of water to wake her up. She didn't know where she was or remember why she was barefoot and wearing a yellow gown. When she was thrown off the canal boat she wandered a short distance down an alley until she found a sheltered corner behind a trash bin where she could sleep.

* * *

When the AI monitoring the communicator traffic on the Interloper received Sonji's transmission and heard 'Why am I chained like this?', it immediately alerted the communications watch officer. He listened to the complete transmission and called Captain Goda, the commanding officer, and she summoned the available field surveyors to an emergency meeting.

After the assembled officers had heard Sonji's last communication Captain Goda said, "We haven't received any more communications from Lieutenant Regan. Mr. Breg, you have more planet-side experience than anyone else here. What do you recommend?"

"I recommend that we rescue Sonji as soon as possible. Once she's in the temple it will be hard to get her out, both before and after the contest, and if she is chosen as the Bride she'll be sacrificed. Where did the communication originate?

"The center of Manufru."

"There's a good chance that she's still there. The roads in Bridium are in poor condition and nobody likes to travel at night."

"Very well. Ms. Erig, you and Ms. Mahoon will land in Manufru and effect the rescue of Lieutenant Regan if she is still there. You are authorized to use whatever force is required and to carry any equipment you wish. You will be inserted as soon as possible. Mr. Breg, you return to Lanudu and obtain more information about the temple and where the contestants are housed. Dismissed."

Pami Erig turned to Swamka Mahoon. "Action at last, Swa! And a free hand with no First Directive shit to worry about! I think we should be disguised as Espians, like we were Sonji's cousins or something; we may have to interrogate some of the locals. That reminds me, I've got to sharpen my knife."

Erig and Mahoon worked as quickly as possible to prepare for their mission, but there was a lot to do and it was several hours before the shuttle left the Interloper. They were going to use parasails; a new, experimental method of insertion. The normal practice on a civilized planet was to land the shuttle in some remote area, but this often forced the surveyors to trek a long way on foot. With the parasails they could land closer to their destination.

They launched from the shuttle at an altitude of 4000 meters; it would take them over half an hour to glide to the ground. Erig and Mahoon were wearing night-vision equipment and they located a park not far from their destination. They used the IR mode to confirm that the only warm bodies present belonged to small animals, and they glided to a smooth landing. They disassembled the parasails and bundled them together with their coveralls and the other gliding equipment. They attached everything to a balloon and inflated it with hydrogen from a small cylinder. The balloon lifted into the night; the shuttle would recover it after it reached high altitude.

All of this took a while, so by the time they had changed into their disguises and hiked to the site of Sonji's last transmission the first signs of dawn were lighting the horizon. Erig had no trouble with the door locks and soon they were inside the agency offices. A quick search was all that was needed to determine that the office was empty. In a back room they found an iron chain attached to the wall.

Mahoon said, "Not many normal employment agencies need to chain up their prospects. Let's look around in here some more. There are files in the inner office."

"Right. Get started while I call the ship."

Mahoon searched the files. "I've found a contract from the district contest committee to supply a Bride contestant. There is also an employment application filled out by Sonji; she was applying for a job as a governess. The writing ends suddenly, and there's a smear of ink."

"Captain Goda says to ask around and try to trace Sonji's movements. That cha shop downstairs will be open soon. We can start there."

Erig and Mahoon were waiting at the door of the cha shop when a old woman arrived to open it for the day. Mahoon said, "Excuse me, but we're looking for our cousin. She was here yesterday afternoon, and we think she was a Bride contestant. Have you seen her?"

"Yes, that must have been the Espian girl I saw just as I was closing up yesterday. She was with that Miss Withur. Glida was the Guard and some woman I don't know was the Attendant. Did your cousin know what she was letting herself in for?

"Why do you say that?"

"Well, she was chained very securely. Usually the chains are just a symbolic part of the costume, but they were tight on her. She couldn't walk; Glida had to lift her into Rul's carriage."

"Where can we find this Rul?"

"He's probably waiting for the Ax and Shield to open. That's a tavern three blocks over and two blocks down. It's a slimy place, I wouldn't go in it if I were you."

"Thank you, you've been very helpful." Erig and Mahoon walked three blocks over and two blocks down. There was a carriage parked outside the tavern; the swaybacked horses were hitched to a rail in front of the door.

A half dozen scuzzy men were lounging around the tavern door, and when it opened they entered with a flurry of pushing and elbowing. Erig and Mahoon were about to follow when they heard snores emanating from the carriage. Erig opened the door and a man who had been leaning up against it fell out and landed on the muddy street.

She asked, "Are you Rul?" The man gave a nod, and she continued, "You picked up Miss Withur and a Bride yesterday. Where did you take them?"

"To the canal port. They took the evening packet boat to Lanudu; they should be there by now."

While Erig was questioning Rul, Mahoon was watching what was happening around them. A young woman carrying a package stopped outside the tavern, hesitated, and then went inside. The woman looked like she was in her late teens, and she wasn't dressed like a bar girl. Mahoon had dropped her carpetbag and was moving towards the door before she heard the scream.

Inside the tavern two men held the girl pinned against the bar while two others tied her hands behind her back. When she was secured they turned her around and one ripped off her bodice and exposed her small, pointed breasts. The crowd erupted in hands that mauled her until a burly man pushed them back. "Don't crowd, boys. There's enough for everyone. Line up behind me."

"Yeah, do that. Then whip it out and bugger the asshole ahead of you. You at the front, you could screw yourself, except that you're not long enough."

Mahoon made her suggestions from just inside the door. She had pulled up the front of her skirt and tucked it in her waistband. The significance of this was lost on the men, who forgot the helpless girl and surged towards Mahoon. Three kicks later the survivors backed off to regroup.

The burly man shouted, "All together now! Get the bitch!" He led a charge that produced the same result. Mahoon sensed movement to the side and turned to see the barman swinging a cudgel. She braced to block the blow, but before it could land Erig kicked his knee and he fell down, screaming.

The sobbing girl was crouched against the bar; Mahoon helped her up and led her outside. Inside, the barman with the ruined leg was still screaming. There was a meaty thud and the sound stopped in mid-scream.

Rul was looking dazed; Mahoon shook him and ordered, "Get ready to move." He unhitched the horses and climbed onto the seat.

Mahoon took out the knife strapped to her thigh, freed the girl's hands, and helped her into the carriage. Erig emerged from the tavern and got into the carriage and yelled an order to get moving. Rul cracked his whip and they plodded off.

The girl was covering her breasts with the ripped bodice. She said through her tears, "Oh, thank you. I would have died if you hadn't saved me." She looked at her tattered clothing. "My dress is ruined."

Erig dropped a handful of gold and silver coins into her lap. "Here, take this. I took up a collection in the tavern."

After they took the girl to her rooming house Erig contacted the ship and reported what they had learned. Erig and Mahoon felt like children let out of school; there was nothing more to do in Manufru, and the shuttle couldn't pick them up until after dark. Erig told Rul to drive them out into the countryside; the pickup point would have to be in a rural area, and there was no need to walk if they could ride.

Erig commented, "I didn't know that you liked to rescue damsels in distress, Swa."

"Well, usually I can't. If I'm doing a field survey I have to blend in and keep my head down. But this isn't a survey, and I wasn't going to let those animals rape that girl. I see too much of that when I can't do anything about it. And thanks for taking out that barman."

"My pleasure. You might call me a sentimental fool, but I don't like rape either. I've taken a lot of abuse doing surveys but I knew that it was part of the job, and although I don't like it I only get physical damage. That girl would have been devastated."

They sat in silence as the carriage left Manufru and lurched thorough the countryside. As the kilometers scrolled past the agriculture changed from gardens and orchards to pastures and scrubland. They were traveling down a dusty road that ran through a village when Erig yawned. "This should be far enough from the city. I see an inn over there; let's get a room and sleep until it's time for the pickup. Both of us were up all night."

"Fine with me." Mahoon yelled at Rul to stop, and they dismounted from the carriage in front of the inn. She gave Rul a handsome payment. "Forget you ever saw us. Your friends in the tavern will want to forget, too." He nodded, cracked his whip, and the carriage moved on.

Erig and Mahoon pushed through the door and entered the main room of the inn, which had a bar and a scattering of tables, a few of them occupied by farmers or peasants. A plump, middle-aged woman was behind the bar. "Welcome, travelers. You're a long way from Espia. How can I help you?"

Erig replied, "We'd like a room for the night. Is one available now?"

"Yes, I do have one." They moved to the bar and the woman handed Erig a key. Erig paid in advance, and the innkeeper put the money into a box under the bar.

Mahoon asked, "Where's the privy?" The woman pointed to a side door.

Erig picked up both of the carpetbags and headed towards the stairs, and Mahoon went outside and walked the short distance to the privy. She dumped and was heading back to the inn, thinking that a handful of leaves was not a good substitute for a sonic cleaner, and musing that it was the small things that made life so much harder on backward planets.

She was being so introspective that she didn't pay attention to her surroundings until a cry of pain attracted her attention. Next to the inn was a side road perpendicular to the main road they had used earlier, and it was now filled by five men on horseback. They wore swords and steel helmets and had cocked crossbows slung on their saddles.

Two of the men had ropes tied to their saddles; the other end of each rope was tied to the wrists of a young woman. The women were panting and sweating, and one had fallen and was being dragged. The leader spotted Mahoon and signaled for the troop to halt. He exclaimed, "Look! An Espian; she must be a spy. Arrest her."

One of the men dismounted and took some rope from his pouch. Three others aimed their crossbows at Mahoon. She had gone into her fighting stance, but she decided that the crossbows made the odds too long. She cursed under her breath; she had body armor in her carpetbag, where it was absolutely useless. As penance for her stupidity she stood still while the man wrapped thin rope around her wrists and cinched it. He dragged her over to the road and took a coil of rope from his saddle and tied an end around the binding on her wrists. He mounted and the leader ordered them into motion. The pause had given the fallen woman a chance to get up, and the three women staggered along behind the mounted men.

As the horses turned onto the main road in front of the inn Mahoon whistled so loudly that the horse she was attached to shied. She was almost jerked off her feet, and she nearly fell again when the rider yanked on the rope. She watched the door of the inn and was cheered when the innkeeper opened it and looked out. Then she had to watch the road as the pace was increased and she was forced to jog.

Erig was naked when she heard Mahoon's whistle. She looked out of the window of her second floor room and watched Mahoon being dragged down the road. She muttered, "What has that girl gotten herself into this time?" and started to dress.

Erig was met in the main room of the inn by the sad-faced innkeeper. "I have some bad news. Your companion has been taken by Sir Jalnu."

"Who's Sir Jalnu?"

"He's the baron who bought the castle and the surrounding lands last winter. Since then he and those thugs of his have been seizing young women and taking them to the castle. None of the women have been seen since."

"How can he get away with that? Isn't there any law in this land?"

"Here he is the law. He's the Justicar for this district, and he has been careful to make everything look legal. All of the women were charged with some petty offense, and Sir Jalnu tried them himself and sentenced them to a year's imprisonment in the castle. Everyone hopes he will release them when their time is up, but we all fear the worst."

"Why don't you do something? Hasn't anyone appealed to the Emperor?"

"One man did. One of his daughters was taken, and he went all the way to Lanudu and appealed to the Imperial Chancellor. They said they would 'investigate'. When he returned to his farm he found that his other daughter was gone and his wife was hanging in the barn. She supposedly left a note that said that she couldn't bear the shame of having two criminal daughters, but she couldn't read or write. The man went to the castle, and he was found at the base of the wall the next day. The official verdict was that he had fallen accidentally. Since then everyone has been too afraid to act."

"Where is this castle?"

"Just down the road. You can see it when you get beyond the trees. But don't go there! You'll be taken too. Get out before they come for you."

"Yes, I think I will be going." Erig returned to her room and put on her armor. She strapped on a couple of phasors, and made sure they were set to 'kill'. Other equipment went into a pouch at her waist and she put on a cloak and bonnet to hide all of the hardware. She picked up the two carpetbags and left the inn.

Mahoon was breathing fast when she had jogged the kilometer or so to the castle, but the other two women were ready to collapse. The horses clattered across a drawbridge and through a gate and stopped in the bailey of the small, rundown castle. The leader dismounted and ordered, "Bring them to the courtroom."

The other men dismounted and untied the ropes from their saddles. They dragged the women into the castle and down a short corridor to a large room that was empty of all furniture except for a high bench with an ornate chair behind it. They all waited for some time until the leader entered and seated himself in the chair and opened a ledger. He announced, "I am Sir Jalnu, the Justicar for this district, and you have all committed crimes. This is your trial." He pointed to a woman and her guard shoved her in front of the bench.

"What is your name, girl?" The woman whispered her name and Sir Jalnu wrote it in the ledger. "You are charged with, ah, trespassing. You are found guilty and sentenced to one year of imprisonment." He wrote this information in the ledger and signaled the guard for the next woman, who was sentenced to a year's imprisonment for poaching.

Then it was Mahoon's turn. "What is your name, girl?"

"Malunusometon Hulapoinarkeluiosjax."

"How do you spell that?"

"Just the way it sounds."

"I'll teach you the price of insolence! Fifty lashes! String her up." Sir Jalnu reached under the bench and found his horsewhip.

The guard started to force Mahoon over to a hook extending from the wall. She kneed him in the groin and when he bent over kneed him on the chin. He went down, but the other three guards were on her, and one managed to grab the rope attached to her wrists and pull her to the floor. One guard sat on her legs while another tied her ankles together. She was carried to the wall, the rope attached to her wrists was flipped over the hook, and she was hoisted up until she was on tiptoe. The guard she had kneed recovered enough to punch her in the stomach. Sir Jalnu turned her to face the wall and grasped the collar of her dress.

Meanwhile, Erig had reached the castle. Before anyone spotted her she ducked into the woods and used a cable through the carpetbags' handles to secure them to a tree. They were locked and secure against any tools on this planet.

She crossed the drawbridge and spoke to the guard at the gate. "Please, sir. My sister was just brought here, but there must have been some mistake. Can I speak to Sir Jalnu?"

The guard chuckled evilly. "Of course you can. Sir Jalnu will be very pleased to see you." He seized Erig's elbow and led her into the courtroom.

Sir Jalnu paused before he ripped off Mahoon's dress. He fingered the fabric. "This dress is too good to tear up. Untie her hands, but be careful." One of the guards untied the rope that went over the hook and lowered Mahoon's arms, and the other three aimed their crossbows at her.

The gate guard shoved Erig into the courtroom. "Here's someone to see you, Sir Jalnu."

Erig proclaimed, "Sir Jalnu, I'm an Imperial Inspector. You are under arrest for treason and murder."

Sir Jalnu sneered, "This woman is an impostor. Shoot her!"

As the guards swung their crossbows towards Erig she drew her phasor and fired three times. The guards died, but one managed to fire his crossbow and the quarrel hit Erig in the stomach. The armor kept it from penetrating, but it forced her to step back. Sir Jalnu and the guard reached for the crossbows on the floor. Mahoon hit the guard's neck with her bound hands and the blow stunned him. The gate guard grabbed Erig from behind just as Sir Jalnu came up with a crossbow. She shot again, but the guard spoiled her aim and her shot hit Sir Jalnu in the mouth instead of between the eyes. He died anyway.

Erig stomped the foot of the guard that held her and he loosened his grip. She brought around her phasor and killed him. She used her knife to free Mahoon and then gave her a phasor. "This is exciting. And all because you had to use the privy."

The two other captive women had dropped to the floor when the action started; Erig beckoned them to her and freed their hands. She ordered, "Get out of here. Go back to your homes." The women ran out of the room.

The guard Mahoon hit was recovering; she put him in an armlock and he screamed. Erig asked him, "Where are all the women that have been arrested?"

Mahoon tightened the armlock and the guard gasped out, "Most of them are upstairs. In the workroom."

"Lead on." The guard led them up some stairs and down a corridor to an iron-bound wooden door. A guard holding a crossbow was dozing on a bench; he awoke with a start and raised the crossbow. Erig killed him. She took a key from his belt and unlocked the door. A burly overseer holding a whip swung it towards her; she killed him too.

The room was noisy with the whirring of spinning wheels. There were about thirty partially naked women in the room; all were spinning flax. Each had her right ankle chained to a ring in the floor; most of the women had welts, some old, some fresh. Mahoon whistled, and they all looked up. The noise diminished as the wheels slowed to a stop. Erig announced, "I am an Imperial Inspector. Sir Jalnu's crimes have been discovered and you are free." Some of the women cheered, others started to cry.

Erig unchained one of the women and gave her the key. "Unchain everyone. When you are released from the chains stay in this room. We'll return to escort you out of the castle."

Erig and Mahoon organized a quick but through search of the castle, enlisting the help of every servant they found. All seemed to be glad that Sir Jalnu was dead. Two more of the arrested women were found naked and chained to the bed in an opulently furnished bedroom. Both of them had fresh whipmarks on their backs, and they were fainting with relief when they learned that Sir Jalnu was dead.

When everyone above ground level had left the castle Erig escorted the captive women from the workroom to the bailey while Mahoon and the guard searched the dungeon. Only Mahoon came back upstairs.

Erig asked, "Where's the guard?"

"He tried to escape and I was forced to kill him."

"He looked like he was too stupid to live."

The sun was setting by the time the last of the castle's inhabitants, loaded down with their possessions, had crossed the drawbridge. As soon as everyone was clear three intense fires broke out in the castle. The outer walls were stone, but the floors and inner walls were old wood that burned fiercely, and flames were soon shooting up over a hundred meters into the sky.

Erig and Mahoon trudged away from the castle. Even from a distance of several kilometers the fire was visible.

Erig said, "The shuttle is on its way. I told them to look for the bonfire."

"Good. I enjoyed our day in the country, but now I need sleep."

* * *

It was almost noon before Thar arrived at the Xenology office. He had questioned three Sun Priestesses the previous day and this had been so strenuous that he slept late. When he got to his office he found his assistant, Ensign Zoe Latour, working at her computer. He paused to admire her. Zoe was wearing the regulation uniform, but she must have had it custom made because it looked like it had been sprayed on her voluptuous body. She also had a stunningly beautiful face, and this combination never failed to arouse him. So far questions of military propriety had kept him from making any advances, but his resolve grew weaker every day.

"Good morning, Thar."

Thar broke out of his erotic trance and replied, "Oh, good morning, Zoe. What are you doing?"

"I'm checking the list of equipment that Ms. Erig requisitioned for her visit to the planet yesterday. She had enough weaponry to conquer the place. I expect that she was disappointed that she didn't get to use all of it, but why did she expend three incendiary devices?"

"I don't know. All she was supposed to do was look around a bit and ask a few questions."

"I've heard whispers about some of the things she's done, especially on the more primitive planets. 'Ruthless' doesn't come close to describing it. 'Vicious' is closer, but that's still not strong enough. Of course, she's paid a price; once I saw her naked in the medical office, and her body is a mass of scars. It's marked her face too; she looks so hard and cruel. I'm surprised that you and she have a relationship, because I've heard that you prefer softer, more compliant women." Zoe clasped her hands behind her neck and pushed out her chest.

Thar gulped and quickly sat down behind his desk. He tried to keep his mind on his work, but thoughts of Zoe kept interfering. He was glad when it was time to break for lunch; he wanted to go to his quarters and change his underwear.

Thar had just entered his quarters when there was a knock and Zoe entered the compartment and casually locked the door. "Thar, I have a question about something I saw when I accidentally activated a scenario on the holodeck the other night. It featured a woman who was captured by desert raiders. They tie her hands and feet and leave her in a tent, and she squirms and wiggles until she comes. This seemed so phony. I don't believe a grown woman could be kept immobilized by some rope, and it's not possible that it could be arousing. You've been to many places and seen a lot of strange things; do you think that holodeck scenario was realistic?

"Well, ah, it could be. I've heard that some women find restraint arousing, and it may be possible to tie someone so that they can't release themselves."

"I don't believe it. I'll bet that I could get loose no matter how tightly I was tied, and it wouldn't be a turn-on. Let's try an experiment; here's some rope, use it to tie my hands." She handed Thar a large coil of soft rope. "Wait a minute, I don't want to muss my uniform." With a few deft movements Zoe stripped down to her panties.

Zoe's story didn't fool Thar for a second, but he was not a bit reluctant to play along. He turned her around and tied her hands palm-to-palm. He tied her elbows and pulled them together until Zoe gasped. She wasn't thin, so Thar's ropes put plenty of strain on her arms even though her elbows wouldn't meet. If she were truly a beginner this was rough treatment, but he suspected that she was not nearly as naive as she pretended.

He sat her on the edge of his bunk and crossed and tied her ankles. Then he rolled her onto her stomach and looped a doubled rope around her bound ankles and forced them towards her head. He ran an end of the rope under each armpit, over the shoulder, and tied them together at the back of her neck as he pushed on her legs. When he finished her back was arched and she was starting to moan. "There you are, Zoe. See if you can get loose from that."

Thar was right; Zoe did have previous experience with bondage. When she was at the Academy her boyfriend liked to tie her up, but he was so afraid of hurting her that she was always able to escape. This was the first time that she had been tied by somebody who knew how to do it, and she knew in a flash that she wasn't going to free herself. She squirmed on the bunk, and the friction on her nipples caused them to harden.

Thar said, "Here's something to help with the arousal". He looped a rope around Zoe's waist and tied a taut-line hitch. He rolled her onto her side and tightened the loop around her waist so the knot was in her navel; the hitch kept it from loosening. He put the end of the rope between her legs, around the wrist ropes, and back to the front where he pulled it tight and tied it off after centering it in her slit. After a moment's thought he rolled her back onto her stomach. Zoe squirmed, gasped, and moaned. She could feel her panties getting damp.

Pami Erig tried to open Thar's door but it was locked. She knew the lock code, so she punched it in and entered the compartment. When she heard the gasps and moans her face hardened into an expression that would have been recognized by many of her previous opponents, if they had still been alive. She looked at Thar's groin, where his erection tented his trousers, and snarled, "If your prick was soft and wet you'd be a dead man right now."

"Wait, Pami! Zoe just wanted to find out if she could escape if she was tied up. That's all there was to it." This explanation sounded implausible to Thar even while he was saying it, and he glanced around furtively to see if any weapons were handy.

Violence was postponed when the ship's annunciator called all field survey officers to an emergency meeting in the wardroom. Thar was careful to stay between Zoe and Pami as he urged Pami out the door. She gave Zoe another glare, but let herself be crowded out into the passageway. Thar followed and locked the door behind him. He heard a cry of protest from Zoe, but that was a minor problem right now. He stayed close to Pami until they reached the wardroom.

When all of the available field survey officers had assembled Captain Goda spoke: "You all know that we haven't been able to contact Sonji Regan since she reported that she was at the employment agency in Manufru, and information obtained by Erig and Mahoon indicates that she was forced to become a Bride contestant. A few minutes ago we received a transmission from her communicator, and we now have a confirmation that she is in the Temple of the Sun God in Lanudu."

"Did she say anything, Captain?"

"No, the transmission only lasted for a few seconds, and nothing was said." Captain Goda declared, "We are going to rescue Sonji, no matter what it takes. The First Directive regularly gets bent if it interferes with an operation, and if we have to trash it now we will. I've alerted the Space Marines, and they will be ready if we need them."

Thar objected, "The temple is huge and we don't know where she is. If we have to search room-by-room the population will become alarmed, and it is also possible that the priests will kill the contestants. We have to put somebody into the temple to locate Sonji before we can attack."

"You reported that only the contestants and their attendants can enter that part of the temple. How do we get around that?"

Erig spoke up, "We have to impersonate a contestant and her entourage. We need a Guard, an Attendant, and the Bride. I'll be the Guard, Mahoon can be the Attendant, and I have a perfect candidate to be the Bride. But we don't have much time, and there are problems: We don't have the costumes we need and we don't know what they look like in detail. Also, Brides are from specific districts, so we can't just show up at the door of the temple as an anonymous entry. What we have to do to get around these problems is find a real contestant group and persuade them to let us take their place. I checked the surface surveillance scans and the AI is still tracking several contestants; those costumes make them easy to locate. We were hoping that one of them would be Sonji, but it does mean that we know where to find somebody to switch with."

Captain Goda ordered, "Very well, Ms. Erig, that is what we'll do. You and Ms. Mahoon enter the temple and find Sonji. You'll also decide the optimum time to effect the rescue, since this is so dependent on unknown conditions. Carry what weapons and equipment you need, and you are authorized to use as much force as you think is necessary. Who's the Bride?"

"Ensign Latour. The Bride has to be beautiful, and she is at least that."

Thar protested, "But Zoe isn't a qualified field surveyor yet! She's hasn't had field training and she won't know what to do."

Erig replied, "Don't worry, she has a very passive role. I'll take good care of her."

Thar was afraid he knew what that meant, so he pleaded with Captain Goda, "Let me go with them, at least until they enter the temple."

"No, I need you for other duties. I'm sure Erig and Mahoon can cope with any crisis."

Captain Goda continued, "This meeting is over. Thar, you stay here for the briefing of the Space Marine officers. The rest of you are dismissed."

Erig and Mahoon left together, and when they were in the passageway Mahoon said, "This sounds like fun, Pami, and I'm glad you asked for me. But what's happening between you and Thar? The last person who received that scowl was that bandit you were torturing."

"That scum has been two-timing me with that Zoe slut, Swa." Erig appeared to be, and was, self-sufficent and sure of herself, but not too many men were attracted to her, and she was easily wounded by rejection. She had really loved Thar, so his betrayal was worse. She swore to herself that this would be the last time she would let a man hurt her.

Then she had a pleasant thought. "Thar is going to be in that meeting for some time, isn't he?"

"Yeah, those meetings with the Marines can drag on for hours. Why do you ask?"

"No reason." Erig smiled. Mahoon was glad that something had cheered her up.

* * *

Time was running short. The contestants had to be in the temple by sundown tomorrow, which meant that the exchange would have to be made tonight. Bridium's surface had been continually scanned and the AI was programmed to search the images for the costumes worn by a Bride and her attendants. Erig and Mahoon entered the surveillance compartment, and Erig asked, "See anything that looks good, Hal?"

The surveillance technician replied, "Yes, Ms. Erig. There's a group on a canal boat to the southwest of Lanudu. They've been easy to track because they spend a lot of time on top of the cabin. I guess they want the sunshine; this is the only time of year that there's more sun than clouds, which is lucky for us."

"Those boats travel all night. It's going to be hard to make an unobtrusive switch on a moving boat. We'd have to take out the boatmen and any other passengers, and then there'd be a mysteriously abandoned boat left behind."

"Most boats do travel all night, but this one will have to stop. The canal merges with a river, and the river is blocked by a low dam. There's an opening the boats go through, but it's like a rapids, and the helmsman needs daylight to run it. This boat won't get there until after dark, so the passengers will spend the night at an inn and take another boat in the morning."

"This sounds good. Is there any other group that looks better?"

"No, ma'am. All of the other groups are traveling by coach, and we don't have an exact fix on their location."

"How built-up is the area? We're going to have to land the shuttle close by."

"It's sparsely populated. The area is mostly marshland and there isn't much agriculture."

"All right, we'll go with this one. Map out a place where the shuttle can land and all the routes we'll have to take; we don't want to end up floundering in a swamp. Swa, you round up a crew and I'll get the equipment assembled. Find some Marines who'll do as we tell them."

The shuttle launched from the Interloper after sunset. Erig and Mahoon again used the parasails; they would land first and check out the shuttle landing zone to be sure that no locals were around when the shuttle touched down. They launched from the shuttle and on the glide down they circled over the landing zone, a high spot in the marsh, and continued on to land a few hundred meters from the inn. They didn't detect any hidden observers and the shuttle landing proceeded as planned, almost a kilometer from the inn. The support team was six Space Marines; if all went as planned they would never be seen by the local inhabitants.

Erig and Mahoon were again disguised as Espians. They concealed themselves outside the entrance to the inn until the canal boat arrived, and then entered just before the passengers and found seats in the main room. Their timing was perfect; the passengers thought that they had been there all along, and the innkeeper thought they arrived on the canal boat.

The passengers entered the inn and most of them ordered food. The Bride group was among these, and when they had finished their meal Erig and Mahoon approached them. Erig said, "Excuse me, but I noticed your costumes. We heard about the choosing of the Bride, but we are recently arrived in this country, and this is unusual to us. Could you explain what it means?

The Guard answered, "Of course. Please sit down."

Erig and Mahoon sat down and Erig said, "Thank you. We are enjoying our tour of your country, but talking to people we meet is the best part. Can we buy you drinks? She beckoned to the serving wench and ordered a round of beers. She asked, "What part of Bridium do you hail from?"

The Guard answered, "We're from Exaihu, a city southwest of here."

"Does every city have a Bride in the contest?"

"Some cities have more than one; the contestants come from districts. Our district is Exaihu 3."

Erig said to herself, 'Thank you! That's what I needed to know.' To the Guard she said, "I suppose no one wants to be Bride. Is that why your contestant is chained?"

"That's the way it started, but now most contestants consider it a civic duty, and the chains are just a traditional part of the costume. She's not really restrained; show her, Cala." The Bride's wrists were in bronze cuffs attached to the front of a bronze chain around her waist; she pressed a button on a cuff and it opened.

The beer arrived and there was casual conversation while it was consumed. The Guard bought a round and the talk continued. Finally Erig said, "Thank you so much for talking with us. We're going to bed now. See you in morning."

"We'd better do the same." Everyone went to the desk and rented rooms. Erig and Mahoon followed the Bride group all the way into their room. The Guard opened her mouth to protest the intrusion, but before she could say anything Erig and Mahoon used their phasors to stun all three. Once they were stunned they were injected with drugs to keep them unconscious. Erig contacted the support team and directed them to the window of the room, which was located on a secluded side of the inn. Four of the Marines watched for intruders and the other two caught the Bride group as Erig and Mahoon dropped them and their luggage from the window. They would be kept sedated on the ship until the contest was over.

Erig and Mahoon managed to sleep until two hours before dawn when the shuttle landed and the support team contacted them. They were bringing some equipment and the costumes, modified to fit. Zoe was with them. She moved stiffly and had trouble climbing the ladder to the window; she held her arms like she was in pain.

Mahoon noticed that Zoe's wrists were red and chafed. She asked, "Why are your wrists all chewed up, Zoe? Have you been playing tie-up games?"

Zoe glared at Erig. "I don't want to talk about it."

Mahoon shrugged. "Whatever. Here's your costume."

The three women dressed in their costumes. Erig, as the Guard, had the most to put on. The bronze armor had been copied in plastic, as she had instructed. She hoped her other instructions had also been carried out.

Zoe put on the gown and sandals of the Bride and she liked the way she looked; the bodice displayed her breasts to maximum advantage. When Erig moved to put the chains on her she said, "No way!"

"It's part of the costume, Zoe. The chains are just symbolic; you can open them by pressing these buttons." She demonstrated by closing them on her own wrists; when she pressed the buttons the cuffs opened.

Zoe was mollified; she allowed Erig to cuff her hands in front and lock the chain around her waist. She wasn't happy with the chain connecting her ankles, but she decided it was too late to object. She made Erig demonstrate that those cuffs could also be opened by pressing the buttons.

The three Star Fleet officers were waiting at the canal port when the boat arrived. The tickets had been found when the real Guard's effects had been searched, and the boatman let the group on board after only a glance at them. They took seats in the cabin; there were other passengers so they didn't talk. Erig unobtrusively activated her communicator from time to time so the ship could track them.

There were a few minutes of excitement when the boat went through the opening in the dam, but the rest of the trip was uneventful, and Erig and Mahoon took turns sleeping; Zoe slept for almost all of the trip. When the boat arrived in Lanudu they hired a carriage and a short ride took them to the temple. The driver knew which of the many doors was the correct one; they went through it and found themselves in front of a desk occupied by a middle-aged woman in the red gown of a temple official.

The official demanded, "Show me your certificate."

Erig handed it over; this document had also been found in the Guard's effects. The woman said, "Exaihu 3, huh." She checked the name off a list and used her pen to mark the certificate and the back of Erig's hand with a cryptic symbol. "Here's your receipt, and you now have the custodial obligation for your district's contestant. Do you know what that means?"

"No, this is the first time I've been a Guard."

"You are now personally responsible for your contestant. You have to be with her any time she isn't chained in her room and you have to make sure she gets to where she should be. The judging takes place in the Tabernacle, and you stay with your contestant from when it starts until she has been disposed of; either to a cubicle, the high priests' quarters, or the sacrificial altar. And remember this: If you do anything wrong you will be executed. Understand?"

Erig nodded. The official said, "Good. This woman will show you to your quarters."

Their equipment was contained in a carpetbag. Erig picked it up, but before they moved the official called out sharply, "Wait! The Guard must always be ready to defend the Bride, so she cannot carry anything except weapons. The Attendant must take the bag."

With a smile, Erig passed the bag to Mahoon. Mahoon accepted it with a grimace; the bag was small, but the equipment it contained was heavy.

They followed another woman in a red gown up one corridor and down another until they were deep inside the temple. It would have been a long walk for Zoe's chained ankles, but the official pushed her along in a small, two-wheeled cart; she had to sit in it with her knees against her chest. Finally they reached a corridor that was dimly lit by oil lamps mounted on wall brackets. The corridor had many doors on both sides; most of the doors were open, and small groups of Guards and Attendants were scattered around.

The official opened a door, lit a lamp mounted on the wall of the room, and waved them inside. They entered a room about three meters on a side that contained a bed, a couple of chairs, a small table, and a washstand. A door in one corner led to a smaller room, one meter by three, that had a pallet on the floor and a bronze collar attached by a bronze chain to a knee-high ring set in the wall. "You two share the outer room and the Bride goes in here."

She wheeled Zoe into the closet-like room, dumped her on the pallet, and locked the collar around her neck. The length of the chain was just long enough to let Zoe stand up. The official took a key from a hook and gave it to Erig. "Here's the collar key."

Zoe protested this crude treatment, but the official ignored her and said to Mahoon, "Come with me and I'll show you where to get food and where to dump the chamber pot. You got here just in time for the midday meal."

Zoe struggled to a sitting position and pushed the buttons on her wrist cuffs. They moved freely, but nothing happened. She pushed in a button and tried to pull the cuff open. It was still locked on her wrist. She shouted, "Hey! I can't get these cuffs off."

Erig strolled to the door and calmly viewed the distraught woman. "They won't open? Something must have broken inside." She made a mental note to give a bonus to the technician who had rigged the buttons so they would only work once, just like she asked him to. "We can work on them later. In the meantime, just relax and enjoy. I know how this turns you on."

Yesterday Zoe had spent a very long time hogtied on Thar's bed. It had been fun for the first couple of hours, but after that pain had swamped pleasure. Right now her enthusiasm for bondage was at a low ebb. She pleaded, "At least take this chain off my waist."

"Sorry, Mahoon has the key. You'll have to wait until she gets back."

"You've got the key to the collar. Surely you can take it off."

"I could, but I won't. You heard what that official said; a Guard would be executed if something went wrong, so she would never risk letting the Bride loose. If I let you go now it would compromise the disguise. Stop whining. If you want to be a field surveyor you have to learn to take the pain with the pleasure; it's not all fun stuff like looting and burning."

Zoe continued to plead and argue, so Erig closed the door to the closet and bolted it shut. Zoe screamed and yelled when she found herself locked in the dark, but Erig had no trouble ignoring her.

Mahoon returned to the room carrying a tray loaded with food and drink. "Here's our lunch, Pami. They have a good selection, so I only took things I recognized." She put the tray on the table and asked, "Why is Zoe yelling like that?"

Erig piled some food on a plate and started to eat. Between bites she explained, "She wanted me to let her run around loose. I told her that it would compromise the disguise, but she didn't like hearing that at all; I got tired of the noise so I shut the door. When I finish eating I'm going to scout around the temple. You can feed her after I'm gone."

Mahoon ate her lunch, and when Erig left she unbolted the closet door and took the leftovers in to Zoe. "Here's your lunch, Zoe."

"How can I eat while I'm chained up like this?"

"I'll feed you."

"This is so degrading. Erig is responsible, and I'll see to it that she pays for all this."

"Zoe, were you born stupid or has your brain atrophied because beauty has greased your slide through life?"

"That's not fair! I didn't do anything wrong."

"Zoe, Erig loved Thar, and she was deeply hurt by what you did. You are in her power and she has good cause to hate you. Is it smart to antagonize her further? Also, she is the ranking officer here and you do call yourself a Star Fleet officer, so don't you think you should obey her orders? Those are two excellent reasons for you to shut up and do as you are told."

Zoe didn't say anything, but it was obvious to Mahoon that she still believed herself to be grievously wronged. When Mahoon offered her a spoonful of food she ate it, but she was not happy. She pouted, "Being fed like this is so humiliating."

"I can put the food in a bowl on the floor and you can root for it. Is that your preference?"

The expression on Zoe's face made it obvious that she had added Mahoon to her enemies list. In her thoughts Mahoon lamented the decline in the quality of Star Fleet officers, but she didn't say anything, because she knew it was impossible to shake Zoe's faith that Zoe was the center of the universe. When Zoe had been fed Mahoon bolted the door to the corridor and stretched out on the bed. All this strife was making her tired.

Mahoon was awakened by pounding on the outside door. She got up and admitted Erig, who said, "I had quite a tour of the temple. I even got to see the sacrificial altar. It's very ingenious, in a gruesome sort of way."

"What do they do? Rip out the Bride's heart and offer it to the Sun God while it's still beating?"

"Nothing as crude as that. The sacrifice takes place on the roof of the Tabernacle. They have this giant mirror, it must be over two meters by three meters, and it's made from hundreds of little squares of polished silver. All of them are set so they reflect to the same spot. The whole thing is mounted on trunnions and counterbalanced so that it's easy to rotate. It's flipped into position exactly at noon, and the sunlight is concentrated on the Bride. The priest who gave me the tour has seen a lot of sacrifices. He said that the mirror produces enough heat to burn a hole in the Bride's chest and kill her in just a few minutes."

"Ugh. What do they do if it's cloudy? Give the Bride a raincheck?"

"No, if the Bride isn't sacrificed exactly at noon on the day of the solstice it doesn't count. The high priest declares that the Bride has been rejected by the Sun God, and they have to do some penitential ritual. Naturally, the Bride is declared to be impure and she is taken to a quarry outside the city and put to death by stoning. This is rare though, because this time of year is a brief interval between the end of the winter storms and the start of the summer storms. According to the priest, there hasn't been a rejected Bride in the last twenty years."

"Did you find Sonji?"

"No. But I saw only a few Brides. Most of them must be kept chained in their room; this is even more likely for Sonji, because she was kidnapped."

"So what do we do?"

"We're going to have to wait until after the contest and get her out then."

"We can wait until then to get Zoe out, too."

"Yeah, if we wanted to get Zoe out we'd do it then."

Zoe was listening to all of this. She was beginning to believe that she might be in trouble.

It wasn't long before an official moved down the corridor announcing that it was time for the evening meal. Mahoon went off to collect their food and perform her other tasks. Erig sat in the room and enjoyed the silence; Mahoon must have convinced Zoe to behave herself.

When Erig and Mahoon had finished their meal and Zoe had been fed there wasn't much to do in the dimly lit room. Mahoon left to attend to Attendant duties and Erig prepared for sleep; she sighed with relief when she took off the armor. She was surprised that the complaints from Zoe had stopped; maybe she had finally realized that they wouldn't do her any good. She looked into the closet and asked, "Do you need anything?"

Zoe just shook her head, no. "Good night, then." Erig closed the closet door and bolted it.

Erig stripped and washed; there wasn't enough water to do more than clean her face and hands. She got into bed and pulled the blanket over her naked body. A few minutes later Mahoon returned to the room. Erig said, "Be sure to bolt the door."

"Got it." Mahoon bolted the door and stripped to her shift. "If we have to share a bed I'm glad it's as big as this one. I'm not bi."

"Of course you're not. And I'm definitely not bi."

Mahoon blew out the lamp and the room became totally dark. She removed her shift and slid into bed. Her bare hip collided with Erig's bare hip and she recoiled from the contact.

Erig said, "Don't worry about casual contact. If I wanted to have sex with you I'd do something like this..." Erig rolled Mahoon onto her back and climbed on top of her.

Mahoon opened her mouth to protest but the words were blocked by Erig's lips and tongue. When the kiss was finally broken off she managed to croak, "I thought you said you weren't bi."

"I'm not. I'm finished with men." Erig accompanied the words with fingers; one hand gently stroked Mahoon's right breast while the other explored between Mahoon's thighs.

Mahoon struggled, but then she realized that Erig's touch felt good; then it felt more than good as Erig's finger caressed the magic spot. She thought, 'Why am I fighting this when it's so arousing?' She returned the kiss and her hands mimicked Erig's hands. Erig started the action, but Mahoon caught up at the climax.

After several encores both women slept. It was some time later that Erig was awakened by a buzzing from the valley between her breasts where her communicator was nestled. She activated it and listened to the message. Then she shook Mahoon until she was awake. "Guess what, Swa? The ship just called to tell us that the shuttle picked up Sonji a few minutes ago. It seems that she escaped while she was on the boat, but she lost her communicator so no one knew about it."

"You mean we put out all this effort to worm our way into the temple and Sonji was never here?"

"Yeah, but it's not a total waste. Now we have a chance to get rid of Zoe."

"You're joking, of course."

"Oh, of course."

* * *

Sonji dashed across the towpath and hid in some bushes until the boat moved on. She could hear the tired horses clopping down a road not far from where she was hiding as the hostler led them away. She had no better idea, so she made her way to the road and trailed along after the horses until they were put into a barn on the outskirts of a small village. The road she was on was more than a farm track and it seemed to continue beyond the village, so she decided to walk on for a while; getting away from the canal was probably a good idea.

Sonji was regretting that she hadn't tried to recover her communicator. There were several methods of contacting the ship without using it, but they all took time to prepare and she didn't have the equipment she would need.

As she walked along the road she went through Glida's pouch. There was enough money to buy food for several days if she was careful. She was surprised but pleased to discover a tinder box. There was also a thin, very sharp knife in an arm scabbard. She strapped it to the inside of her left forearm. Sonji wasn't a born warrior, but she felt a surge of confidence now that she had a weapon close at hand.

After an hour or so of brisk walking Sonji found a haystack close to the road and burrowed into it and slept until she was awakened by the morning sun. Sonji brushed off as much hay as she could as she walked for another couple of hours.

She entered another, larger village where a main road crossed the one that she was on. A large coaching inn stood at the crossroads and Sonji entered the uncrowded main room and found a seat at an empty table. The serving wench came over to her, and after a careful enquiry about prices Sonji ordered a bowl of porridge.

"May I join you?" The language was Espian, and the speaker was an Espian woman in her mid-thirties, elegantly dressed in a brocaded gown and a fur-trimmed cloak. She carried a large, ornate carpetbag.

Sonji had a moment of panic. Had this woman detected her disguise? But there was nothing to do but play it out. She replied in the same language, "Certainly, please do."

The woman sat across from Sonji and shrugged off her cloak. "It's good to find a compatriot so far from home. My name is Lucina, and I'm from Carunda. Where do you hail from?"

Carunda was the capitol and largest city of Espia. Before Sonji could answer the serving wench appeared at the table and Lucina ordered a lavish meal.

"My name is Sonji, and I'm from a little village in the north that no one has ever heard of."

"I don't mean to offend you, but you seem to be having bad luck."

Sonji had prepared a story to account for her circumstances, and she tried it out. "Yes, I had accepted a position as a governess, but when I arrived I found the family had made other arrangements. Then to make things worse all of my belongings were stolen and I had to spend most of my money just to obtain these ill-fitting garments."

"Oh, that's too bad. I hope you have other resources. Bridium can be a cruel country if you don't have any money."

"I hope to contact some friends who can help me get back home."

There was a pause as the serving wench delivered Sonji's bowl of porridge and a large tray containing Lucina's food. Lucina paid for everything and exclaimed, "I didn't realize I had ordered so much. You'll have to help me eat some of this."

Sonji tried to object, but Lucina insisted that she share the food. After they had eaten Lucina said, "I have an idea that will solve both of our problems. Some time ago I accepted a position as a governess to a family with special requirements. The children are actually the wards of my employer, and their trustees insist that a governess be present in the home. I took a large bonus and agreed to be there by tomorrow because the trustees are making an inspection in a few days."

Lucina paused to drink some cha. "Unfortunately, my new gentleman friend doesn't want me to be away from him at all. I don't want to disappoint him, but if I don't appear to take up the position it will reflect badly on my cousin's employment agency and cause problems for me with my family. I propose that you take my place as governess."

"But how can I do that? Won't your employer object when he sees that I'm not you?"

"No, we've never met; my cousin arranged everything by correspondence. All he expects is an Espian. I'll give you the letters, and I also have a coach ticket that you can use. It's almost a day's journey from here to Herfru, the town nearest the estate."

Sonji considered the offer. This would give her a place to stay until she contacted the ship, and it might even be suitable for her survey assignment. She smiled. "I accept your offer. It was good of you to make it."

"I'm happy that it helps us both." Lucina pulled a bundle of papers out of her reticule and gave them to Sonji. "Here are the letters. Read them to see what is expected. And here is some money to pay your expenses." There was the sound of horses on the road at the front of the inn. "That's the coach back to Manufru, so I must be going." Lucina gave Sonji a hug, picked up her cloak and bag, and hurried out of the room.

Sonji inquired and was told that the coach to Herfru would arrive in about an hour. While she waited she read the papers that Lucina had given her. The employer's name was Nurfo, and he was the stepfather and legal guardian of twin girls, Lila and Reni. In his letters Nurfo said the employment agency had been recommended to him, and he wished to engage a strict governess for the girls, whom he described as disobedient and insolent, and uncontrollable since the death of their mother half a year ago. The agency replied that they had just the person, who was experienced in dealing with the special requirements of this type of situation. Lucina's name was mentioned, but there was no physical description.

In other letters Nurfo and the agency came to an agreement on the governess' wages. The amount seemed to be much higher than the going rate. And why did he send all the way to Espia for a governess when there were many available locally?

Sonji was pondering this when her coach arrived. She was still tired and she tried to sleep during the journey but it was impossible because of the lurching and jolting when the coach hit every pothole in the road. It was so uncomfortable that she understood why most people traveled on the canal boats if they were available.

Sonji arrived in Herfru just before sunset. One letter had included directions to the estate, so she hired a carriage and began what she hoped would be a short journey. She was disappointed in this; her destination was another hour away along country lanes, and twilight was fading when she reached the gate in the high stone wall surrounding the house and grounds. She spoke to the gatekeeper, a gnarled old man, and was relieved when he told her Lucina was expected. He unlocked the massive iron gate and the carriage proceeded up a graveled drive to a large, ugly house.

Sonji left the coach and paid the driver, and climbed a flight of stairs to reach the massive front door. She used the cast iron knocker and waited several minutes until the door was opened by an old man. Sonji said, "Good evening. My name is Lucina, and I am the new governess."

He invited her inside and closed the door. "Please wait here, Miss. I'll tell Mrs. Durna you have arrived."

"Who is Mrs. Durna? I was hired by Mr. Nurfo."

"She is the housekeeper, Miss. She is in charge when the master is absent." The butler tottered away.

Ten minutes later a middle-aged woman with steel-gray hair and a steely expression arrived and said disapprovingly, "So you're Lucina. It's about time you got here."

"I had some misfortunes on my journey. But I have arrived on the day specified in the contract."

"Those clothes you are wearing are unsuitable. Do you have any others?"

"No, my belongings were stolen."

"Humph. Cori, your predecessor, left some clothing here and you are about the same size. There may be something you can use. Come. I will show you to your room." Durna lit a candle from the oil lamp and led the way to a narrow stairway concealed by a door.

Sonji was taken aback by this brusque treatment, but then she realized that she didn't have any experience in this milieu, and this may be the normal way that governesses were treated here. She followed Durna up two flights of stairs and down an uncarpeted hallway to a small, bare room that contained a narrow bed, a washstand, and a massive wardrobe made of some dark wood.

Durna said, "This is your room. The nursery is next door."

"Can I meet the children?"

"Tomorrow, they are in bed now."

"Can I have some food?"

Durna paused, then said grudgingly, "Very well. I will send up a maid with something."

"When can I meet Mr. Nufro?"

"He will return soon. I will summon you when he wishes to see you. Breakfast is an hour after sunrise."

Durna walked away without another word, leaving behind a bemused Sonji, who shrugged and sat on the bed. It had been a long day, and she wanted to sleep. A few minutes later a maid arrived with a tray containing a cup of weak cha and a chunk of slightly stale bread. Stale or not, Sonji ate it.

Preparation for bed didn't take long, and Sonji was soon trying to get comfortable on a hard, lumpy mattress covered by a smelly blanket. Fatigue was stronger than discomfort, and she was soon asleep.

The next morning a maid carrying a pail of cold water woke Sonji at dawn. She washed as best she could in the cold water and without soap, and then rummaged through the wardrobe. She felt uneasy when she discovered that her predecessor had apparently left behind all of the clothing that she owned; not only a cloak and several dresses, but also nightclothes, stockings, and underwear. Clothing was very expensive in this pre-industrial society, and she couldn't think of any innocent reason for abandoning it.

Sonji put on a dress that almost fit and made her way downstairs. She found food laid out in a small dining room and was just finishing a bowl of lumpy porridge when Durna entered the room and selected food for her meal.

Durna pointedly didn't sit next to Sonji. She silently ate her food, and when she had finished she ordered, "Come with me and I'll take you to the children. They've had a slack morning so far and it is time to start their lessons."

They trudged back up the stairs, and when they reached Sonji's room Durna went past it to the next door. She took a key from her pocket, unlocked the door, and gave the key to Sonji. "The door is to be kept locked anytime the girls are unsupervised. Mr. Nufro insists on this."

Before she opened the door Durna picked up a cane that was leaning on the wall next to it and gave it to Sonji. "Take this. It is the symbol of your authority, and you are to use it freely. But I don't have to tell you that."

The room was brightly lit by sunlight streaming through a barred window, so Sonji could see clearly; believing what she saw was another matter. The room was similar to hers, except that two iron-framed cots replaced the bed. Each cot supported a supine young woman, and each woman's wrists and ankles were strapped to the frame of her cot.

Sonji blurted out, "Are they always strapped down at night?"

"Yes. They can't be trusted not to engage in some disgusting sexual activity if they are free and unsupervised."

Each woman's wrists were strapped to the sides of the cot near her hips, and their ankles were strapped to the bottom corners of the cot. Durna moved to release one of the women and Sonji freed the other. When they were unstrapped each woman immediately moved to the head of her cot and stood at attention. Sonji could easily tell that they were sisters, but they weren't identical twins. They were clearly adults, and they would have been pretty except for their fearful expressions.

Durna said, "They are finally starting to shape up. Cori was much too lenient with them, but in the three weeks since she left I have managed to correct some of the slack behavior she allowed. But it has taken me from my other duties, so they will be in your charge from now on. I'll go through the routine with you today, and you are to follow it until you receive further instructions from Mr. Nurfo."

She turned to the twins and announced, "This is Lucina and she is your new governess. She was hired because of her experience in correcting recalcitrant girls, so your easy days are over."

The girls' eyes moved to Sonji and then snapped back to a straight-ahead, blank stare. Durna ordered, "We can't stand around all day, girls. Perform your ablutions and dress so we can get started with your lessons."

The twins scrambled to use the chamberpot and wash, and each put on a drab, sleeveless dress that barely reached her knees. Underwear and shoes were not part of the ensemble. Without being told they went to the wardrobe and each took out a heavy wooden bar with straps riveted to it along its length.

Durna took one of the bars explained, "This backbar is used for posture training. Watch how I put it on Lila. This short strap on the end goes around the neck; don't overtighten it. This long strap goes around the waist; make it as tight as you can." She pulled hard and Lila gasped as her waist was constricted. "Use these straps to secure the wrists and elbows, so." Lila groaned as her elbows were squeezed together. "See how it stiffens the spine and keeps the shoulders back? Now you put the other one on Reni. Notice how cooperative they are? If they ever resist call me, and if we need more help Lurt the footman is available."

Sonji was torn. She didn't want to hurt Reni, but she didn't have a clear idea of all that was going on here, so she decided to go along with the program for now. She strapped Reni to the backbar, and she pulled all the straps tight.

Durna nodded her approval. "Now all that is lacking are the hobbles." She strapped leather cuffs separated by a thin chain to the ankles of the twins. "This length of chain was found to be the best. It's amusing to watch them when the chain is short, but then it is too easy for them to trip on the stairs."

Sonji was appalled. A fall down stairs could be fatal to someone trussed up like the twins, but Durna seemed to be serious.

Durna said, "Now that they are outfitted the posture training can start."

She put a book on the top of each twin's head. "Forward, girls! You know the route." The twins shuffled out the door, along the hallway and down the stairs.

Durna and Sonji followed to the top of the stairs, where Durna stopped. "You don't need to go up and down the stairs yourself. Just be sure to keep them moving, and that the books don't fall off. If a girl drops her book the penalty is five stripes on her bottom with the cane. Watch that they go all the way to the ground floor; they are tempted to cheat near the end of the lesson."

"How long do they have to keep this up?"

"Until lunch is announced. That's about three hours from now."

"Three hours! That's torture; how can they stand it?" Once on a survey Sonji herself had been tied like that, and her arms hurt for days afterwards.

"It was difficult at first, but now they're used to it."

"Don't you get bored, just watching them for three hours?"

"No, I could watch them all day."

As the hours went by Sonji was both bored and upset as the twins' ordeal continued and their suffering became more visible. They were both crying and stifling moans as they dragged their aching legs up each step, and their arms had turned that red color that meant they were numb now, but would be excruciatingly painful once circulation returned.

So far the twins had managed to hold their heads steady and no book had fallen, but finally fatigue caused Lila to stumble on the top step and her book fell off her head. Durna was obviously pleased as she commanded, "Stop there Lila! You have a penalty due. Lucina, give her five strokes with your cane. Across the back of her thighs is the best place."

Sonji had a moment of panic when she realized that she was being ordered to beat Lila. Lila didn't bother to plead or protest; she bent over as far as she could and leaned her head against the wall. Durna lifted her dress and tucked it under the end of the backbar. Sonji had never caned anyone, but she pretended that it was routine for her. She thought, 'Better too hard than too soft', and swung the cane. Lila screamed as a red line sprang up across her thighs.

Durna was delighted. "Well hit, Lucina! Do it again."

It was all Sonji could do to hold onto the cane; she was shocked by what she had done. Then her training asserted itself and she got back into her character, the sadistic governess. The next four strokes were just as hard, and Lila screamed just as loudly.

A maid arrived to announce that lunch was ready, to the relief of three of the four participants in the training session. The twins were returned to their room and strapped to their cots. Durna and Sonji could hear their screams even when they were downstairs.

Durna said, "I let them carry on like that; I enjoy it. When they stop screaming a maid will release them and feed them."

Sonji was dreading the afternoon, when the torture of the twins would resume, but she and they were pleasantly surprised when Durna announced that the twins would have a free afternoon in the garden. They were tied, of course, each with her back to a tree and her arms pulled back and connected by a rope around the wrists. This was their only restraint, and the twins considered it to be insignificant. The trees were about three meters apart, and they carried on a low-voiced conversation whenever no one else was close enough to hear them.

After the twins had been secured Durna explained. "They are having a free afternoon because the trustees will be here tomorrow and they must look presentable if the trustees want to meet with them. Keep them here until dinner, and then bring them inside."

Sonji spent the afternoon walking in the garden and thinking about what she should do. She was anxious to make contact with the ship, but she would need some time to herself in order to prepare the emergency signal, which was four precisely spaced fires. She had to find some wood and some string or rope to locate the fire positions. She rationalized that she could do this tomorrow; she would probably have some free time then. She was undecided as to what action she should take to help the twins. This was too brutal a regime to be normal Bridium child-rearing, and she felt guilty about her part in the morning's torture, especially Lila's beating.

That night when it was time to sleep Sonji tossed restlessly. She was torn by the conflict between her decent instincts that wanted to help the twins and her Survey training that told her not to interfere in non-Amalgamation cultures. Eventually she decided to put off making a decision until she had more information, and then she was able to sleep.

At dawn Sonji was again awakened by the maid, but this morning she was accompanied by Durna, who said, "The trustees will be here in a few hours. Get the girls decently dressed and then bring them down to the kitchen. You will wait there until you are called."

Sonji hurriedly dressed and went to the twins' room. Lila and Reni were strapped to their cots, and Sonji felt pity for them as she was unbuckling the straps. When they were free she ordered, "Get dressed in decent clothes. The trustees will be here this morning."

The twins used the chamberpot and the washbasin and then put on obviously expensive dresses. This morning they also wore shoes and underwear. When Sonji told them to go to the kitchen they scrambled to obey; their faces showed fright bordering on terror when they looked at Sonji. Sonji was puzzled, until she realized that she had picked up the cane from the floor and was idly swinging it.

While they waited in the kitchen Sonji told the cook to provide her and the twins with a meal. The cook looked at the cane and hurried to obey. This made it clear to Sonji that is was not only the twins who received harsh discipline in this household. When the food was ready the twins hesitated; they didn't start to eat until Sonji signaled that it was acceptable.

After an interminable wait Durna entered the kitchen. "The trustees want to meet you, Lucina. They're in the library, go right in. I'll watch the girls."

Sonji went to the entrance hall and got directions to the library from the butler. She entered and found herself facing a long table with four men seated behind it. One of the men said, "You must be Lucina. I am Mr. Nurfo, and these gentlemen are the trustees of my stepdaughters' estate. Gentlemen, this is the governess that I've engaged to guide the twins."

Two of the trustees were elderly, and they didn't seem to be paying much attention. The other man was much younger, and he was definitely paying attention. He asked, "Why is there a new governess? What happened to Cori?"

Nurfo answered, "She had a family emergency; I believe her mother is gravely ill. She requested leave and I gave it to her."

The trustee asked Sonji, "You are from Espia, are you not? Have you much experience as a governess?"

"Yes, sir."

Nurfo interrupted before more questions could be asked. "Lucina has excellent references, and she has my every confidence, Mr. Trel. If there are no further questions for her I would like to move on to the financial matters. None? Then you may go, Lucina."

Sonji returned to the kitchen and Durna left. There was another long wait, and Sonji was made uncomfortable by the fearful glances that she received from the twins; she wasn't accustomed to being an object of terror.

Finally Durna returned. "Mr. Nurfo wants to see you in his study, Lucina. I'll wait here with the girls. We'll have to skip the morning lesson because the trustees are still here."

Nurfo was seated behind a desk in the study. When Sonji entered he ordered, "Close the door and sit down, Lucina. I want to make sure you understand what I expect from you. I am paying a lot of money, and I want results."

Sonji didn't know what he was talking about, but she played along. "Of course you do. I'm sure I can do what you want."

"What I want is for the twins to sign their estate over to me. They will be twenty in half a year, and that's when they legally become adults and gain control of their money. Before then I want them broken so that they will do exactly as I tell them, even when they are out of my physical control. I can't just forge or extort a signature; the girls have to sign in front of a notary. But they must be broken without leaving any scars on their bodies."

"Why do you need me? Durna is brutal enough to do it."

"She is brutal, but she has no finesse. She only knows how to inflict physical pain; you were brought here because of your reputation for altering the way your subjects think. Also, if questions are asked it would be hard to explain why a housekeeper is disciplining the girls, but that's what a governess is supposed to do."

"What happens to the twins once they sign away their money?"

"Nothing can happen to them before they are twenty, because then the estate goes to someone else. After that, who knows? But why do you care?"

"I don't care. I was just curious."

"Mind your own business and do what you've been hired to do. Get back to work, and tell Durna I want to see her now."

Sonji returned to the kitchen and told Durna that Nurfo wanted her. Once again the twins' fear intensified; they seemed to be more afraid of her than they were of Durna. This was the final nudge that made Sonji decide that Nurfo's scheme was going to be foiled. She confided, "Please don't be afraid, I'm here to help you. Is there any safe place you can go when I get you out of here?"

Reni asked, "Why should we believe you?"

Lina interrupted, "What have we got to lose, Reni? I'd rather be dead than go on like this." She answered Sonji, "The Justicar was a friend of our parents. He would help us if we could ask him. But how can you get us out? We aren't allowed outside the wall."

"Leave that to me. I'll get you out." Sonji didn't voice the rest of her thought, 'as soon as I figure out a way to do it'.

About ten minutes later a maid appeared. She told Sonji, "Durna says for you to take the girls to their room and then go to the study."

A short time later Sonji knocked on the study door. She had locked the twins in their room, but she hadn't strapped them to their cots. The study door opened and Nurfo and Durna emerged. Nurfo ordered, "Follow me, Lucina."

Sonji followed him, and Durna followed Sonji. The procession entered the kitchen and paused while Durna lit a lamp at the stove. Then Nurfo unlocked a door and they descended a flight of stone steps into a dank cellar.

Nurfo said, "This cellar is much older than the house; at least two other buildings have occupied this site." He pointed to a low stone coping around a seemingly bottomless pit. "That's an old well and it's at least five hundred years old; it goes down over fifty meters. Now I want to show you something I'm sure you'll find even more interesting."

They went through another doorway and Durna lit lamps attached to wall brackets. Now there was enough light to let Sonji see a woman tied to a post near the cellar wall. She was naked, and had welts on her back from her neck to her knees. She was alive, because she moaned when the door was closed with a thud. Lurt, the massive footman, stood with his back to the closed door.

Nurfo said, "It was careless of you to offer to help my wards while Durna was still close enough to hear you." He pointed at the post, "That is Cori, your predecessor, who also tried to help the girls. I've had a lot of fun with her, but now she needs time to recover. How fortunate that you are available to replace her. Durna, put Cori back in the cell."

Nurfo turned to Sonji. "We don't want to spoil Cori's dress, so I want you to take it and everything else off. If you can't do it yourself Lurt will help you. Do it now!"

Sonji hesitated until Nurfo gestured to Lurt; then she slowly removed the dress. By the time she was naked Durna had returned from dragging Cori to the cell. She took Sonji's elbow and pulled her towards the whipping post. Sonji spun away and then spun back and hit Durna's throat with the edge of her hand. Her slip was in her other hand and she tossed it over Nurfo's head. While his vision was obscured she kicked him in the groin, and when he bent over she delivered a double-handed blow to the back of his neck.

Lurt momentarily froze with disbelief; then he roared and charged Sonji with his giant hands reaching out to seize her. She side-stepped at the last instant and tripped him as he went past. Before Lurt could get up she jumped on his back and used Glida's knife to slit his throat. He gurgled for a few minutes and then was still.

Sonji checked Nurfo and Durna and was not surprised to find that they were dead; she would have been surprised if they weren't. She had spent a lot of time recently practicing unarmed combat, and Erig had shown her some deathblows that weren't in the textbooks. Still, Lurt was very big, and she was glad that she had the knife when she needed it. She cleaned off the blood on Lurt's shirt and resheathed it. She stopped when she realized that she felt none of the reaction she had when she killed Glida. After some thought she decided that it was partly because this time she had been in immediate peril, but mostly it was because these villains really needed killing.

Sonji now had to clean up the mess. If it wasn't for Cori she would have just faded away, but Cori needed medical help. She looked around the cellar and noted the equipment, and then decided what to do. She dragged Durna to the old well and dropped her in. It was a lot harder, but she was able to drop Lurt in too. Before she dropped him she tore off his clothes and used the rags to mop up the blood as best she could.

She had decided to make it appear that Nurfo, overcome with remorse over what he had done to Cori, had committed suicide. She tied a noose around his neck and a loop in the other end of the rope. She lifted Nurfo in a fireman's carry and used a crate, a low stool, and a high stool to climb high enough to put the loop over a hook in the ceiling. When she let him go his feet just brushed the floor. She kicked over the high stool and put the others against the wall.

Sonji put her clothes back on and climbed the cellar steps. She paused on the stairs to listen, but she didn't hear anybody in the kitchen so she climbed out of the cellar and closed the door. She waited in the library until she heard the cook arrive to start preparing the evening meal.

A few minutes later she entered the kitchen and asked the cook, "Can you tell me how to get to the cellar? Mr. Nurfo asked me to meet him there."

"Well, Miss, that's the door over there, but it's kept locked."

"It's open now, and I can see a light down there. Mr. Nurfo? Are you there?" Sonji descended the steps until she could see Nurfo's body; then she screamed and ran back into the kitchen. "Mr. Nufro is hanging down there! Help, somebody!"

Sonji shrieked and screamed until a crowd gathered. The butler and two footmen went down and hurriedly returned, gray-faced. The butler said, "He's dead, all right. And Cori was down there too, badly hurt." The footmen had carried Cori up the stairs and into the kitchen.

Sonji took charge. She braced the butler and asked, "Can you find the Justicar and a doctor?" When he nodded she ordered, "Take the carriage and get them at once. You two, find a bed for Cori and cover her up." The footmen carried the naked woman out of the kitchen.

Sonji climbed upstairs to the twins' room and unlocked the door. "Nurfo's dead. I've sent for the Justicar." She watched the twins' faces register fear, then disbelief, and then joy. They hugged each other, laughing and crying. Sonji went back downstairs. She left the twins' door open.

Sonji told the Justicar that she had confronted Nurfo with her belief that Cori would not have voluntarily left her clothes behind, and he had told her to meet him in the cellar in an hour. He had seemed to be upset. The Justicar accepted this; the twins had told him of their ordeal and he felt Nurfo had got what he deserved. Everyone assumed that Durna and Lurt had fled to avoid arrest.

It was after midnight before the house had quieted down enough to let Sonji slip outside. Yesterday she had located the woodpile and found a wheelbarrow and a ball of string in a gardener's shed. Now she loaded the barrow and wheeled the large load of wood out of a postern gate in the wall and down a lane until she reached a fallow field a kilometer or so from the house. She had an oil lamp, and it gave barely enough light to let her locate the fire positions.

Once the four fires were burning she watched the place in the sky where she knew the ship was in orbit. It took a while, but finally she saw a streak of light; it looked like a meteor, but she knew it was a flare. She extinguished one fire; and was rewarded by two more flares. She put out another fire and saw three flares. She put out the last two fires and waited for the shuttle. Two hours later she was back on the ship.

* * *

At sunrise officials woke up all of the Bridal parties and told them to prepare for the contest. There was a flurry of activity as the Attendants went off to collect the morning meal and the officials had each Guard remove the chains from her Bride. For most this was easily done, but in a few cases they wouldn't release and a smith had to cut them off.

After a while the officials moved everybody along to the Tabernacle. The temple was built in the shape of a hollow square, and the Tabernacle was a separate building, located in the center of this square. It was another large building, with the long sides built as two rows of stone columns, thirty meters apart and twenty meters tall. The roof was supported by massive triangular wooden trusses that spanned the space between the two rows of columns. The curtain walls between the columns were stone at the bottom, but the top five meters were windows made of milky glass. When sunlight hit the windows the interior of the Tabernacle was brilliantly lit.

Everyone was herded onto a raised stage at one end of the Tabernacle and a priest addressed the milling crowd. "Listen, everybody! The Attendants are dismissed. You can leave the temple, but if you want to watch the contest you can sit in the balcony at the other end of the Tabernacle."

He waited until the Attendants had left and the crowd had calmed back down. "Now when I call the name of your district get in line. Each Guard will get a number cloth; tie the string around your neck so the number is on your back, and make sure it's right-side out." There was another period of chaos until the officials had all 167 contestants lined up in the proper order, in a line that doubled back and forth across the stage.

"There is an extension of the stage built half-way down the center of the Tabernacle. The contestants will walk out on the right side and back on the left side. The Guard will hold the contestant's left elbow so the contestant is always on the outside. Is there anyone who doesn't understand that? Nobody? Amazing! Who said brains and beauty don't go together?"

"Contestants, I want you to walk slowly, with your chin up and your back straight. The High Priests are seated around the circular end of the extension, and since they do the judging that's when you want to look your best. And remember, most of you contestants will be here for three years, and if you screw up now a lot of that time will be spent working in the punishment room. Any Guard who screws up will be executed right after the sacrifice."

"The contest has several phases, and most of the contestants will be eliminated at each stage. Guards, if your contestant is eliminated take her immediately to the Sun Priestess room. As soon as she is chained in a cubicle you can leave the temple. Those of you who aren't eliminated will parade again until we have the six finalists."

The priest waited until it was quiet and then said with a smirk, "One more thing. All of the contestants have to be naked, so take off your gowns." There were cries of dismay, but eventually all of the contestants were bare.

"Contestants, put your arms behind your back so your fingers touch the opposite elbow. Everyone done that? Next, you Guards each take a strap from one of the boxes held by the officials, and buckle it around your contestant's wrists. Make it tight, because it will be checked." There were more cries of dismay, this time mingling with groans of pain. "Don't whine, contestants, that's not so bad. And see how it makes your tits look bigger. It might hurt a little, but you've got to suffer for your art."

All this time the invited guests had been filling the Tabernacle. Gongs crashed as the High Priests entered. There was a rumble of feet as the audience stood and bowed. When the High Priests were on their thrones the audience could sit, and the contest began. Each contestant just walked out and back, but it was still almost an hour and a half before the last contestant had paraded. As each contestant left the stage she went to the back of the line, so it formed an endless loop.

Everyone stood in place as the High Priests' score sheets were tallied. Finally, the sixty three contestants for the next round were announced and the losers were taken away by their Guards. Many looked forward to being chained in a cubicle, if it meant they could have their arms back.

The next round of judging took an hour, and then the six finalists were announced. Zoe was one of the six.

The finalists waited backstage until the High Priests left and the guests had filed out of the Tabernacle. Then they and their Guards were taken up a stairway and out onto a wooden platform built over the north end of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle roof was steeply pitched and covered with wooden shingles, and the platform, about ten meters square, was perched above it.

The mirror was in the center of the platform. It's structure was a complex wooden latticework that supported the silver squares that reflected and concentrated the sunlight. The reflective side was facing down now, but the mirror could be rotated around its long east-west axis; bearings were mounted at the top of a pair of vertical timbers. Spoked wheels were attached to the ends of the mirror's trunnions on the outside of the bearings.

At the north end of the platform was a raised box that held the five thrones for the High Priests. At the south end were two vertical posts, two meters tall and spaced two meters apart, with bronze rings at the top and bottom. This was where the Bride would be tied when she was sacrificed.

The six finalists and their Guards were lined up across the south end of the platform, facing the mirror. Erig took a casual but close look at the back of the mirror.

Before the start of the lottery that would choose the Bride the priest took Erig aside and whispered, "I don't have your exemption payment."

"What's an exemption payment?"

"It's the payment that keeps your contestant from being chosen as the Bride. Isn't she a professional contestant? The exemption payment is provided by the district that hires her; otherwise, who'd take the job if there was a one-in-six chance of dying?"

"She's not a professional. But what if all six finalists make payments?"

"Then the one that paid the smallest amount is chosen, of course." The priest smirked, "Good luck in the lottery." He joined a group of priests clustered around the stairway. Erig had disliked him before; now she hated him.

Gongs clashed, and the High Priests entered their box and sat on the thrones. They were accompanied by ten temple guards armed with crossbows. The priest stepped in front of the box, bowed, and then announced the result of the 'lottery': Zoe was the Bride.

Four priests immediately took her to the posts, unstrapped her arms, and tied her wrists and ankles to the bronze rings. They did this so quickly that they had obviously practiced it. The priests formed into pairs, and while one priest held Zoe's forearm in place the other took thin rope, doubled it, and formed a loop that he put around her wrist. Then the ends of the rope were threaded through the bronze ring, separated, and tied together on the opposite side of the post. The priests had pulled in unison; Zoe was tightly stretched and centered between the posts. Next they tied her ankles the same way. When they separated her legs the tension on Zoe's arms increased and she couldn't move at all.

The other contestants and Guards, including Erig, moved to the sides of the platform. The pairs of priests each took hold of one of the wheels that rotated the mirror. Another priest watched a sundial; he would signal when it was exactly noon.

Zoe was surprised that she wasn't afraid; she had accepted that she was going to die and there was nothing that could be done. Even if Erig wanted to help she couldn't; two of the temple guards were pointing their crossbows at her, and at this range the bronze armor would be easily penetrated. She knew that the last few minutes of her life were going to be very painful, but she resolved that she wasn't going to give these barbarians the satisfaction of hearing her scream.

The priest at the sundial raised his arm. The four priests turned the wheels, and the mirror started to rotate. The motion was detected by the fuzes connected to the concealed explosives that Erig had placed on the mirror during her tour. The trunnions were blown apart and the mirror crashed down onto the platform. The shock set off smoke bombs and the platform was engulfed in white smoke.

The shock also set off five small explosive charges attached to the thrones; these blew messy holes through the High Priests. Erig really disliked men who used women as human sacrifices.

Erig leaped to the posts and cut Zoe loose. She pulled a red gown out from under her armor and gave it to Zoe. "Put this on. We've got to get out of here before the place burns down."

Zoe protested, "There's no fire, those are just smoke bombs."

Erig set the timer on an incendiary device and put it on the roof under the platform. "There's going to be a very big fire in three minutes. Move!"

Everyone else thought there already was a fire and they crowded around the stairway. Erig noticed the lottery priest was at the back of the crowd; she punched him in the kidney and pitched him over the platform railing. He slid down the shingles and off the roof. The crowd had sorted itself out and people were running down the stairs. Erig yelled fire and others echoed it. Soon people in the temple picked up the alarm and joined the exodus. Erig and Zoe were swept outside; Mahoon was waiting with a carriage and they drove out into the country.

Zoe said, "I didn't think you were going to rescue me."

Erig replied, "You're part of the Survey Service, Zoe; we never abandon our comrades. You were very brave up there on the platform."

"I wasn't brave; I just wasn't afraid."

"Not everybody knows there's a difference."

They changed into civilian clothes as they traveled, and after they were well out of the city they stopped at an inn to wait until dark. To pass the time Erig and Zoe related what had happened after Mahoon left them.

Mahoon said, "You had all the fun while I had the boring part. But I don't understand how you managed to plant those explosives."

"I did it during my tour."

"But wasn't a priest with you all the time?"

"Yeah, but I stunned him. He was an old guy, so I convinced him he had a fainting spell."

"This adventure certainly proved that a lot more can be accomplished if we ignore the First Directive."


The early alarm let everyone (who wasn't already dead) escape from the Tabernacle before its roof collapsed. Bucket brigades and the absence of wind kept the fire from spreading to the temple, but the Tabernacle was totally destroyed. When the fire was finally out only a few broken columns stood above a pile of ashes.

The Emperor saw his chance to get control of the Sun God religion. He appointed his own men as the new High Priests, and the temple revenues were diverted to the Imperial coffers. There was still a yearly contest to choose the Bride, but now it was held in the Imperial Palace and the Emperor just picked the six contestants that he liked the best. After a week the one that had pleased him the most became the Bride. The human sacrifice was ended; when some of the priests complained that this would offend the Sun God the Emperor replied that the Sun God was satisfied with a ritual in the cloudy years; now they would perform that ritual every year. Nobody noticed any change in the weather.

Zoe dumped Thar and requested training at the Field Survey School. The other students were very impressed when they learned that she had already been on a survey with the legendary Erig and Mahoon. Zoe enjoyed using her brain at the school and she decided to use it more often in the future.

The fires that Erig started had destroyed all evidence of Amalgamation interference in the local culture. The Survey Service gave Erig and Mahoon special commendations for carrying out their operations without violating the First Directive.

The End

Copyright© 2001, 2002 by Zack. All rights reserved.
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