The Herb Plot

by Zack

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© Copyright 2004 - Zack - Used by permission

Storycodes: MF; bondage; cons; X

The Star Fleet Series
The Herb Plot - Chapter 1
by Zack
The Herb Plot by Zack

Chapter 1

Carin wondered if Jani was still alive.  Rudln, her customer, had left the tavern almost an hour ago, and Jani was still upstairs.  Of course, Rudln was a middle-aged master goldsmith, not some violent young bravo, but Jani had a way of bringing out the beast in a man.  Carin dithered.  Would checking on Jani be in character? Jani was an independent businesswoman, and supposedly her only connection to Carin was that Carin rented her a room in the tavern.  She made sure that no one was watching her, and then pressed her left wrist.  The dial of the watch planted in her skin glowed briefly.  It was almost time for the weekly staff meeting.

An elderly man with a long white beard entered the tavern and walked to the bar.  He was dressed in the standard clothing of members of the merchant class;  gray stockings, knee breeches, and a thigh-length coat, both black.  Because it was a warm summer day he had unbuttoned his coat, revealing a high-collared white linen shirt.  Carin recognized him as a recently retired member of the Cabinetmakers Guild, but she couldn't remember his name.  She gave him a warm smile and a cheerful greeting, using the form of address that implied they were social equals, and he smiled and responded using the same form.  The scholar in Carin noted this acknowledgement of her status.  She was the owner of this prosperous business, (even if it had been purchased with university gold), and not just a barmaid.   Carin felt a surge of irrational pride.  On her last field trip she had to pose as a rag picker, on the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Without being asked Carin poured the customer a cup of imported red wine. She accepted the silver coin he proffered as payment with a word of thanks, and he joined some of his fellow guildsmen at a table.  She spoke to her bartender, "Tradlo, I've got to be away for a while.  Take over for me."

"No problem, Carin.  It's kind of slow today.  I can handle it until the barmaids get here."

Carin nodded.  Even though Smade's Tavern (Smade had died a hundred years ago) was the most popular drinking establishment in the entire city of Varnin,  early afternoons, especially in summer, were never busy.  (Smade's was the most popular upscale establishment.  Some of the sailor's bars down by the docks had a larger trade, if measured by the volume of alcohol sold).  Right now there were less than a dozen patrons scattered among the worn wooden tables. Most were somberly dressed merchants or guildsmen, but a table in the corner was occupied by three officers of Queen Narona's ceremonial guard,  resplendent in polished steel breastplates.

Tradlo watched with carefully concealed lust as Carin walked to the stairs.  She was taller than most women, and had a slim but shapely body and a dark-eyed, pretty face framed by short black hair.  She was wearing the clothes appropriate to a female merchant, a brown wool dress with a high neck and long sleeves, but this did not make her less attractive. She had told him that she was a widow from Piconia, way up in the north.  Good looking, in her mid-thirties, and she owned the tavern too.  He wondered if he had a chance with her.  Probably not.  Rich widows were cautious around hungry ex-soldiers.

Carin's climb to the second floor was accompanied by loud creaks from the wooden stairs.  The building's timber construction and shingled roof showed it was one of the oldest buildings in Varnin, and one of the few that escaped destruction when the city was burned during the civil war.  This just added to its charm as far as Carin was concerned.  On her home world wood was far too valuable to use in construction.  She felt a glow of proprietary pride.  This was her building.  So what if it was a tavern with a brothel on the second floor?  In Avorna these were both respected trades.

She walked quietly when she reached the second floor.  The door to Wulfot's small room was open a crack and a growling snore was coming from inside.  Carin peeked in at the massive bouncer asleep on his cot, then shut the door.  Most of the prostitutes who lived and worked here were still sleeping at this hour, and she didn't want them to be disturbed.  Only Jani had let it be known that she was always available.  Carin knocked softly on her door.  "Jani! Are you all right?"

No answer.  Carin pressed her ear to the door and heard moans inside the room.  The door wasn't locked; she opened it and went in.  Jani was naked and face-down on the double bed.  Her arms were tied behind her back, palms crushed together and her forearms and elbows tied with many strands of thin rope.  Her legs were spread, with her ankles bound to the corner posts of the bed.  A rope was tied around her waist, with the knot in front.  A double strand was pulled between her legs and tied to her wrists.

Jani was rocking up and down, sawing on the crotch rope and rubbing her hard nipples on the blanket.  What Carin had mistaken for cries of pain were actually moans of ecstasy, and she watched as Jani shuddered with an orgasm that lasted several minutes.

Carin waited until Jani was quiet, except for her heavy breathing.  "Time for the staff meeting, Jani."

"Oh, hello, Carin.  Is it that late?  I was kind of distracted."

"So I noticed.  You seemed to be enjoying it, but how did you get in that position?"

"Rudln tied me up.  He likes to do it now."

"Didn't that rope between your legs make it... awkward... for him?"

"He added that for me after he was finished.  He's a sweety.  I wouldn't charge him, except it would be out of character not to."

Carin started to untie Jani.  "I always meant to ask you.  Why did you get the neuro-psychological conditioning that lets you enjoy rough sex?  You didn't know until you got here that you would be able to pose as a prostitute."

"I didn't get any conditioning. I've always liked bondage and rough sex." Jani giggled. "My family was sure glad when I got this fellowship, far from any Amalgamation world. You're from Zarn too, so you know how narrow-minded they are there." She giggled again. "Actually, I think my uncle may have arranged for me to come here. I know I wasn't chosen because I had the best academic record at the university."

Carin agreed. She had been very surprised when Jani arrived last month, and more than a little annoyed that she hadn't been consulted in advance by the university. It really undercut her authority, and she didn't have much of that to begin with. Jani had good grades, but she was inexperienced and wouldn't even have made the short list if Carin had been doing the vetting.  But, she had to admit, it had  worked out well. Jani was getting unique insights into the socio-psychology of her customers. This was valuable data, and Carin knew she certainly wouldn't have done this kind of research. And there hadn't been any money in Carin's budget for another graduate assistant, so it hadn't been a choice between Jani and someone more qualified; it had been Jani or nobody.

"Maybe your family is embarrassed because you like sex.  Most people aren't that prudish.  I don't think a woman in my class at good old Zarn U was a virgin by the time we graduated.  That was fifteen years ago, but attitudes haven't changed all that much since then.  But you are something else!   If you include all of the details of your life here in your dissertation you might have a steamy best-seller."

Carin untied Jani's ankles and helped her stand up.  She stood behind her and started to work on the ropes holding Jani's arms.  The thin rope had embedded itself, making purple grooves in Jani's pale skin.

Jani groaned when Carin removed the last of the ropes.  "That was really tight.  Rudln is a quick study. The first time he visited me he didn't know anything about bondage."

"Are you injured?"

"Oh, no.  It's just that tight ropes really hurt after a while. Without sex, pain is just pain."  Jani rubbed the rope marks on her arms and pushed her sweat-soaked blonde hair back from her face. She had sky-blue eyes and a voluptuous figure, and wasn't much taller than the average woman in this kingdom.  Jani wasn't classically beautiful, but she exuded a sexuality that even affected Carin.  It obviously drove men wild.

"Jani, you are taking a big risk.  What would you have done if I hadn't checked on you because of the staff meeting?  You could have stayed tied up for hours."

"No, Elia, the girl next door, always checks on me when she gets up.  But that's much later.  You made me miss a couple of hours of orgasms."  Jani pretended to pout.

"I'm so, so sorry."  Carin checked the time.  "I've got to get to the meeting.  See you there."

Carin went down the back stairs, remembering just in time to lift her full, floor length skirt.  She reproached herself, 'Two years here and I still forget how I'm dressed'.

She entered  the malodorous alley behind the tavern and carefully skirted the contents of a chamber pot that had been dumped out of a window.  Carin had warned the inhabitants of the second floor not to do this, and she made a mental note to threaten the prostitute who made the mess.  Maybe it was futile to expect the inhabitants of a medieval city to follow the same rules of hygiene that prevailed in an advanced culture, but there was a city bylaw that prohibited throwing sewage into a street or alley, and she'd be the one who had to pay the fine.  If Elia did this again she was out of here, friend of Jani's or not.

Carin slipped in the back door of the building across the alley.  This building was almost new, two stories built of brick and with a steep tile roof.  Queen Narona had decreed that the city be rebuilt using fire resistant materials instead of the timber construction that had been almost universal in the old city.  Ostensibly, the ground floor of this building was the warehouse and living quarters of Athel, a wool broker selling fleece and yarn to the neighboring kingdom of Bartomy and the other countries that shared the coastline of the Southern Ocean.   Actually, Athel was another member of Carin's team of anthropologists, and the building was the headquarters for all of the University of Zarn's field studies in the Kingdom of Avorna.   Some of the staff, including Carin, lived in 'rented' rooms on the second floor.  Carin walked a short distance down the hallway.  She released a hidden lock, a concealed door opened, and she entered the conference room.

The conference room was the administrative center for the team.  All of the furniture was obtained locally, and all of the computers and other technical equipment was kept hidden in locked cupboards, so if a native somehow got into the room a casual glance wouldn't reveal any secrets.  The windows were secured by grillwork of iron straps, and covered with thin parchment that let in light but prevented any view into the room from outside.

The interstellar communications equipment and the power generator were concealed in the attic, fully rigged with self-destruct incendiaries that would prevent any of it from falling into local hands.  In fact, activating these self-destructs would burn down the whole building.  Smaller pieces of technical equipment had smaller charges, and theoretically the fire couldn't escape if the equipment's case was closed.

Carin was dismayed to see Hovat seated in her place at the head of the conference table.  Typical of Hovat.  He felt that he should have been placed in charge of the team, and he was always trying to undercut her authority.  Hovat was ten years older than Carin, although he appeared to be even older than that because of his white beard, gray hair, and lined face.  He had an aura of failure that made it obvious to astute observers that he had progressed as far in his profession as he ever would, and that he had given up trying.

Carin thought, 'Another challenge.  Why did I ever agree to be the team leader?  Now what did I learn in that management course?  Oh, yeah, lead the team by consensus.  Very helpful, but how does it apply in this situation?'  Carin was frustrated. She didn't have much authority, she disliked exerting what little she had, and she didn't want to start another argument now.  So she only glared at Hovat until he reluctantly moved to another chair.  Carin chortled to herself over this unexpected victory.  She had guessed right this time; Hovat was reluctant to defy her in front of the rest of the team.

She did a quick count of the people present.  "There are only eight of us here.  Jani will be along in a minute.  Who else is missing?"

Athel answered.  "Aedre.  She's on a pilgrimage to Mida's Shrine."

"That's right, I forgot.  She won't be back until next week, will she?  And speaking of Mida, I have some exciting news.  Queen Narona has finally agreed to become Arch-Priestess.  The Synod of Priestesses will sanctify her at the Harvest Festival."

Hovat exclaimed, "What!  She can't do that!  That would make Mida-worship the state religion.  You must be mistaken."

"No,  I was at Narona's audience this morning, and she said so herself.  And it won't really designate an official religion.  Everybody can still worship as they please."

Hovat scoffed, "That's what she says now.  But the precedent is for the monarch's religion to be everyone's religion."

Carin disagreed.  "That was only partially true even during the reign of the last king.  And Queen Narona is unlikely to follow any policy of her late and unlamented uncle.   She hates everything he did."

"Favoring Mida will enrage the other sects' clergy, especially Mavolo.  He already resents his sect's loss of influence.  He was close to the late king."

"I don't think Narona really cares about his feelings.  She loathes the Sigur sect and its misogynist doctrines, and she really hates Mavolo.  She is determined to improve the status of women and Mavolo has fought her every step of the way.  He even denounced her when she issued the decree prohibiting slavery."

"Mavolo had to do that.  Sect doctrine holds that women are inferior and unclean, and exist only to serve men, preferably as slaves.  He's the Arch-Priest of Sigur, so he has to support the doctrine.  If he didn't he would be contradicting Sigur's revealed word."

Carin grimaced.  "What a revolting doctrine.  I know we're supposed to be detached observers, but that foul creed makes my skin crawl."

Jani entered the room.  "Hi, everybody.  Sorry I'm late.  I was tied up."  She was wearing her favorite blue dress, the one with long, full sleeves that concealed rope burns.

Hovat sneered, "Well, our little zlit finally got here."

Carin turned on him with a furious expression.  "Hovat, I will not permit that kind of language, especially when directed at a staff member.  You will apologize at once!"

Hovat glowered for a long moment before he muttered, "Sorry."

Jani was confused.  She whispered to Athel, "What was that all about?"

"A zlit is a dirty, promiscuous rodent.  Hovat insulted you."

"I know what a zlit is," Jani whispered back, "but it's not a common city pejorative."

"The Tome of Sigur, Book of the Tree," Athel lectured.  "The evil female slave demon is referred to as 'the zlit without kha.'  Didn't you read Hovat's summaries?"

"All two thousand pages?  Uh... not yet.  Insult, huh?"  She glared at Hovat.

Hovat said, "It may make you uncomfortable, Carin, but the priests of Sigur truly believe in their doctrine and it governs their lives.  For example, they believe women are impure, so they refuse to have intercourse with women.  If they're not homosexual they're celibate."

Jani interrupted.  "Not all of them.  One of my regular customers is a priest."

Hovat was incredulous.  "Impossible!  What makes you think he's a priest?  Was he wearing a priest's robe?"

"No, he was dressed like a merchant.  But he said he was a priest, and he didn't have a beard.  From what I've seen the priests of Sigur are just about the only men in this kingdom who shave.  He also had Sigur's glyph tattooed on his chest.  The stylized phallus superimposed on a seven-pointed leaf, right?"

"He's probably an ex-priest who was defrocked for just this kind of misbehavior."

"Could be, but he boasted he was a member of Sigur's Inner Council.  He seems to know what Mavolo is going to do before it's publicly announced."  Jani shuddered.  "He really knows how to degrade a woman.  None of the other girls will have anything to do with him."

"What's his name?"

"That's the only thing he wouldn't tell me.  He's really afraid Mavolo might find out he visits me."

Carin said, "That seems like a reasonable fear.  Sigur's priesthood inspires terror in the general population, mainly because of their skill with poisons.  If they didn't also sell rather effective herbal remedies I doubt they'd be tolerated at all."

Jani giggled.  "They also supply some nifty recreational drugs."

Carin was shocked.  "Jani, you know it's against policy to use drugs."

"Hey, all the girls use them.  If I didn't it'd be out of character.  I don't use them much."  She pasted an innocent expression on her face.

Carin gave Jani a look that said, 'We'll discuss this later', but for now she continued with the business of the meeting.  "Time to bring everyone up to date on our activities.  You start, Hovat."

Carin didn't expect much from Hovat.  All of the other members of the team had found positions in this society that enhanced their studies, but Hovat spent most of his time on team administrative matters, and rarely appeared in his nominal job as Athel's clerk. He had produced nothing of academic value except his summaries of the Sigur holy texts, and even those didn't really require creative scholarship.

His words confirmed her expectations.  "Not much progress, I'm afraid.  As most of you know, I've been trying to investigate Sigurla, the holy place of the Sigur sect.  It is quite different from the shrines of the other sects, both because it's so inaccessible and because it's also forbidden to everyone except priests.  I've spent almost all of my limited amount of free time in the Temple of Sigur, and I've even made the acquaintance of Mavolo, but he won't give me permission to visit."

Athel was puzzled.  "What kind of a shrine is it, if the faithful aren't allowed to visit?"

"Actually, I don't think it's a shrine in the usual sense.  As far as I can tell it's just the place where the sect grows their herbs and distills their potions.  The next time our supply ship is here I want it to overfly the island and get some aerial photos."

Carin said, "I'm surprised no one looted the place during the civil war.  There was anarchy for quite a while and Sigurla is an isolated island.  What is it, about fifty kilometers off the coast?  That's easy sailing distance for even amateur pirates, and everyone believes the sect is rich."

"From what I've heard Sigurla is naturally fortified.  The island is bounded by sheer cliffs; thirty, forty meters high. The only access to the top of the cliffs is by a rope ladder."

"If Mavolo won't give you permission to visit, what do you plan to do?"

"I'm going to continue my investigation of the Sigur sect.  You may not approve of their doctrines, Carin, but the sect is still worthy of study.  Mavolo himself is a dynamic character, very charismatic.  I'm going to keep in contact with him.  He may change his mind about my visit."

"Maybe." Carin turned to the next anthropologist.  "Tell us about your activities, Athel.  Are you making any money in the wool trade?"

The meeting droned on, with the staff members describing their pet projects.  Most of the attendees surreptitiously used their terminals; several dozed in their chairs.  The audience only paid close attention when Jani described some of her activities.

Carin was the last person to give a report.  She concluded with, "As I mentioned, I was at Narona's audience this morning.  She's forming a Merchant's Council to advise her, and she's asked me to be a member.  I have accepted the appointment."

Hovat objected, "Is that wise, Carin?  You're supposed to be a disinterested observer of this society, not taking part in the government.  Accepting the appointment compromises your objectivity."

"I disagree, Hovat.  This offers me a splendid opportunity to observe Narona up close.  She is the main reason I chose to study this culture.  She is an exemplar!  Think of her accomplishments.  Six years ago she was a fugitive, barely dodging her uncle's assassins. In less than two years she gathered support, built an army, and personally led it to victory.  Now she is Narona IV, Queen of Avorna!  And she did it all before she was twenty!  The people love her, and her only opposition comes from a few reactionary barons and degenerate priests."

"Some accomplishments!  Killing the anointed king, overthrowing the lawful government, and plunging the nation into war and chaos.  And incidentally, destroying the capitol city."

"She had no choice!  Her uncle was a tyrant!  He almost certainly murdered Narona's father so he could usurp the throne.  And now Narona is using her power for good.  Already she has freed the serfs and abolished slavery. Her goal is to remove all of the impediments women have been burdened with in this patriarchal society!"

Hovat sneered, "You seem to think she's a goddess.  Is that Narona's next step, forming a sect to worship her?"

"She doesn't want that.  In fact, I think one of the reasons Narona agreed to be the Arch-Priestess of Mida was to keep a sect from forming.  If she didn't demonstrate her subservience to an established goddess the people might start to worship her."

"You have totally lost your objectivity, Carin.  Narona just happened to be available when some revolutionaries needed a figurehead to seize the throne.  No woman could do all that on her own."

"What are you saying, Hovat?  That women aren't capable of performing manly tasks, such as leading armies or ruling a nation?  Perhaps it is you who has lost his objectivity.  How much have you been influenced by the Sigur cult?  You sound like Mavolo."

Hovat realized this was an argument he could not win, so he shut up.  The meeting was adjourned.

End of Chapter 1

Copyright © 2004 by Zack. All rights reserved.
I welcome your comments. Email me at [email protected] or [email protected]



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