The Star Fleet Series
Bride of the Sun God
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 and said to Sonji, "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 said, "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?"
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; 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 handed 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.
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