The Amalgamation Survey Ship Interloper moved in a synchronous orbit above the third planet of star C299776. Two women entered the Captainís office. "Lieutenant Erig and Junior Lieutenant Mahoon reporting as ordered, Captain."
Captain Goda returned their salute. "At ease, ladies. This ship has been ordered to carry out another search and rescue mission."
Erig interrupted, "Why does the Survey Service keep getting these missions, Captain? Have the Space Marines been disbanded?"
"Itís just that the civilians have been so touchy about the First Directive lately. We're the only ones they trust not to contaminate some innocent young culture."
Mahoon snorted, "Hah! If they only knew."
Captain Goda's lips twitched in a cynical smile, but she didn't acknowledge Mahoon's comment. She continued the briefing: "For several years the University of Azoz has had a team of xenoanthropologists working in the Sarex Empire, which is an Iron Age nation that has nominal control over most of a large continent on this planet. About a week ago two of their female graduate students were traveling with a mercenary escort from the universityís base station to Sar, the capitol of the empire. They never arrived, and we received a brief distress call from a personal communicator that one of them was carrying. Sarex law doesn't extend very far outside of the towns, and we believe they were attacked by bandits. Slavery is common in the empire, and the women would bring a good price."
Erig asked, "What are we supposed to do, Captain?"
"Find out what happened to the students, and if they are still alive rescue them. We've minted some gold coins that you can use to buy them out of slavery, which is their likely fate."
"How will we be disguised, Captain?"
"Sarex is unusual in that much of the fighting is done by women, so you two will be posing as mercenary warriors. The Xenologist is off on another mission, but he left instructions with his assistant to prepare your costumes and equipment. Collect it from the Survey Supply compartment. The language transplant is based on a lot of data, so it should be high quality. Get holograms and descriptions of the missing women from the net. The shuttle will launch in two hours. Dismissed."
Erig and Mahoon saluted and left the Captain's office. Mahoon said, "So Thar, your beloved Xenologist, is off on a mission. What's he doing?"
"He's gathering basic data on a newly discovered planet so the language transplant can be prepared. He has to pose as a mentally deficient mute. He has a talent for it."
"Do you know anything about his new assistant, Ensign Latour?"
"No, we've never met, and for some reason Thar hasn't said anything either."
Erig and Mahoon entered the Bio-computer Lab, and while they waited for the technician to start the language transplant Erig downloaded the data on the missing students. The transplant took only a few minutes, and when it was complete they were fluent in the Sarex language. This transplant also provided data on the written language, so Erig and Mahoon were able to read and write, too.
When they entered the Survey Supply compartment Erig and Mahoon were met by a stunningly beautiful woman. She was wearing an Ensign's working uniform, but it looked like it had been sprayed on her voluptuous body. She said, "Hi, I'm Zoe Latour. You must be Ms. Erig and Ms. Mahoon. Thar gave me instructions to prepare what you needed for the mission."
Erig glared. "You call Lieutenant Breg by his first name?"
Latour simpered, "Oh, sorry. I call him Thar when we're alone together, and it just slipped out." She handed Mahoon a large bag. "Here's your costume, and this one with the bigger hips and waist is for Ms. Erig."
Latour put their equipment on a counter and moved away. Mahoon saw the expression on Erig's face and was alarmed. She had seen the same expression before, usually just before people got killed. Talking rapidly, she got Erig involved in the examination of the equipment and kept her distracted until Latour was out of sight. She didn't relax until they were in the shuttle and strapped in for the flight.
* * *
Erig and Mahoon walked along a steep and narrow track. The shuttle had landed them just before dawn, but what was supposed to be a half-day journey on a level road had turned out to be an all-day trek over bare and rocky hills.
Mahoon griped, "If I find out who it was that picked that landing spot I'll slice his guts out. Didn't anyone think to investigate the terrain? And just once I'd like to be on a planet that has horses. I'm tired of being the only beast of burden."
Erig commiserated, "I can relate to that. But it shouldn't be much farther. This trail leads to the main road in the next valley, and that's close to where the distress call came from."
Both Survey Service officers were dressed as mercenary warriors. They wore boiled leather armor and knee-high boots. Each was armed with a sword and a dagger sheathed at her waist, and each had a quiver of arrows and a short, recurved bow attached to her backpack.
The sun was hot on the bare hill, and they were sweating in their armor. They reached the crest and looked out over a green valley with a small river meandering through it. There were a few trees close to the river, but most of the valley was covered with grass. A road passed close to the base of the hill. Some people on foot along with two large, canvas-covered wagons, each pulled by four oxen, were moving slowly along the road.
Mahoon said, "That looks like a merchant's caravan."
Erig pointed at some men concealed at the base of the hill. "That looks like an ambush." They ran down the trail towards the caravan.
Erig and Mahoon reached the valley floor and were about a hundred meters from the caravan just as the last caravan guard was struck down by the bandits. They dropped their packs, strung their bows, and started shooting. The bandits were taken by surprise; they weren't armed with bows, so they charged their two attackers. Four of the nine bandits were hit by arrows before they could get close to the warriors, and when the survivors did get close Erig and Mahoon dropped their bows and drew their swords.
It was no contest. The bandits were armed with axes or broadswords, and Erig and Mahoon had straight sabers with very sharp points. This weapon was unknown to the bandits, and when one raised his ax or sword for a cut he left himself open to a fatal thrust. In a few minutes all of them were down.
Erig and Mahoon stood motionless for a few minutes. When their breathing and heartbeats had slowed Erig ordered, "See if you can find any bandits who are still alive. We have some questions that need to be answered. I'll check the caravan."
Erig sheathed her sword and walked over to the caravan, where a middle-aged woman was guarding six young women chained together by the neck. The woman was holding a short sword and she looked like she knew how to use it.
The woman said, "Hail, Warrior. My name is Elna, and I'm the factotum for this caravan."
Erig replied, "Hail, Warrior. My name is Zana, and my comrade is Arabella. We are mercenaries, unemployed at present."
Elna smiled. "It has been a long time since I was a warrior. Today I am a factotum, and lucky to be so. Few warriors live to reach my age."
"How many of you survived the attack?"
"Only two of our escort are still alive, and both are badly wounded. Maro, who owns this caravan, is also wounded. Our cook and three of the ox drivers are unharmed, and the other driver is slightly hurt. The slaves are undamaged, of course."
"Is Maro a slave trader?"
"No, his main business is buying goods in Sar and selling them in the provinces. These slaves are peasant girls who were sold by their fathers or taken in trade for merchandise; they aren't worth much. Our main homebound cargo is wine, which is in great demand in Sar."
Erig directed, "Camp here for the night. My comrade and I will stay with you, but for now we need to get some information, if any of the bandits are still alive. I'll be back soon."
Mahoon had found two living bandits; one had an arrow in his thigh and the other had a sword thrust in his chest. She had stripped the men and tied their wrists and ankles, and she and Erig moved them about 50 meters apart. They tied the ankles of the one with the thigh wound to a tree branch so his head was just above the ground. He groaned as his weight was supported by his injured leg. Mahoon stayed with this bandit while Erig went to the other one.
Mahoon said, "We have some questions, and we're going to keep asking them until both of you give us the same answers, so don't bother to lie." There was an agonized scream from the other bandit. Mahoon sighed, "That Zana. Sheís so impatient."
Mahoon put the sharp edge of her knife to the base of the banditís penis. "Did you use this much? Tell me about the two women who were here about five days ago." The bandit begged and babbled. He was encouraged by more screams from the other bandit.
When the bandits started to repeat themselves Erig and Mahoon stopped the questioning and met and compared the information they had obtained. Erig said, "Well, they both say that their crew ambushed and killed the escort and gang raped the women for several days, and then sold them to a slave dealer in Pune, so thatís probably what happened."
"Itís amazing that the women survived to be sold. They're just young graduate students, aren't they? Being raped for so long by a gang that large may have permanently traumatized them."
"You're right, they're likely to be in bad shape both mentally and physically."
Mahoon asked, "Now we have to decide how to dispose of these two bandits. What would a cultured member of an advanced civilization do with this murdering scum?"
"She would deliver them to the judicial authorities so that they could receive the rehabilitation therapy that might some day turn them into productive members of society."
"But to do that here on this planet would undoubtedly be a violation of the First Directive. What would a mercenary warrior of a primitive and violent civilization do?"
"Slit their throats."
* * *
It was sunset when Erig and Mahoon met with the surviving members of the caravan. One guard had his right arm broken between the elbow and the shoulder, and the other had a deep ax cut in her thigh. Maro had a long cut in his left side, just below the ribs. Elna had treated their wounds with considerable skill, and with luck they would all live.
Maro said, "My thanks to you, warriors. If you hadn't been here the bandits would have killed us all. I will reward you generously once I return to my home in Sar. For now, will you accept employment as guards at twice the standard pay, and stay with us at least until we reach Pune?"
Erig replied, "Yes, we will accept your offer."
Mahoon inquired, "How far is it from Pune to Sar?
"About two days of travel for a caravan such as this."
Erig said, "We had better keep watch during the night. I'll take the first watch."
Elna interrupted, "And I'll take the second watch. I may be past my prime fighting days, but I can still give an alarm."
Everyone bedded down for the night. Maro, Elna, the cook, and the wounded guards slept in the first wagon, and the slaves huddled together on the ground underneath it. The ox drivers slept in the other wagon.
Mahoon spread a thin piece of oiled leather on the ground in a sheltered location a short distance from the wagons. She removed her armor, but didn't take off her linen shift or her boots. She wrapped herself in a woolen cloak, stretched out on the leather, and quickly fell asleep.
Mahoon awoke abruptly when she felt somebody pressing against her. She reached for her dagger, and then realized that it was Erig. She whispered, "What are you doing this close? I'm not bi, and I didn't think you were either."
"You and I may not be bi, but people like Zana and Arabella are always really close friends. Elna would be suspicious if she found us sleeping apart."
Mahoon accepted this reasoning and relaxed. It did feel good to be next to a warm body. She slept until it was her turn to take the watch.
The camp awoke at first light. The cook built a fire and prepared breakfast while the ox drivers rounded up and yoked the animals, which had been hobbled and turned loose to graze during the night. Erig and Mahoon had been up and scouting the area even earlier, alert to the possibility of a dawn attack, but they found only scavengers feasting on the dead bandits. The dead guards had been buried last night in a shallow grave the ox drivers dug by the river.
The caravan was on the move just after dawn. Erig walked in the point position and Mahoon stayed near the wagons. Both women carried their bows and had an arrow nocked and ready. They were tense and very alert. This caravan was a valuable prize and two guards just weren't enough to adequately protect it.
It was almost noon when Erig changed places with Mahoon so she could talk to Maro. She announced, "I'm going to keep the caravan moving without a noon break. I don't want to be out here any longer than we have to be." When word of this decision spread to the others there was some grumbling, but everyone knew what had happened to the bandits and nobody was willing to argue with Zana.
A short time later the caravan came to an abrupt halt. Erig heard Elna cursing and followed the sound to the back of the first wagon. All of the slaves were sitting on the ground, and the third from the end of the chain was holding her right ankle.
Erig demanded, "Why have we stopped?"
Elna replied, "This stupid slave stepped in a rut and managed to sprain her ankle. I ought to get her out of the chain by cutting her head off."
The slave girl turned gray and begged, "Please, Mistress. Don't kill me."
"All right, I'll spare you this time. But if you think you'll be riding in comfort in the wagon you're wrong."
While Elna was getting tools from the wagon Erig examined the coffle. Each girl was attached to the next by a length of chain about a meter and a half long and made up of only three links. Each link was an iron bar with loops forged in the ends. The slave girls had loose iron collars riveted around their necks, and the chain loop was attached to the collar by a large iron ring.
Elna returned carrying a hammer and a block of iron with a groove in one side. She made the slave girl lie on the ground, and then put one of the iron rings attached to the her collar halfway into the groove in the iron block. The slave squeezed her eyes shut and put her fingers in her ears while Elna pounded on the exposed part of the ring. Erig saw that the iron ring wasn't solid, but had a split in it that opened up under the hammer blows. Elna opened it far enough to remove it from the girl's collar and then repeated the operation on the other ring. She connected the ends of the chains with one of the rings and hammered it closed.
The unchained slave girl had a smug expression that quickly vanished when Elna produced a coil of thin rope and tied her wrists and elbows together behind her back. Elna helped her climb into the wagon and forced her to stand on the wine barrels. She tied a rope from the girl's wrists to the wooden arch that supported the canvas cover and pulled her arms up. The girl groaned when she realized that she would have to stand on her uninjured leg for the rest of the day.
The caravan reached Pune in the late afternoon. Erig and Mahoon were very glad to see the walls of the town. They were both weary from the strain of anticipating a possible attack, but fortunately there had been no hostile action. Apparently they had thinned out the bandit population the previous day and no other gang had yet moved into the area.
When the caravan moved through the town gate the captain of the municipal guards saw them and called out, "Elna, what happened to the rest of your guards?"
"Bandits ambushed us a day's journey west of here. All but two of our guards were killed."
"Are the bandits following you?"
"No, they're all dead." She indicated Erig and Mahoon. " These two warriors arrived in time to save us."
Once inside Pune, the caravan moved down narrow streets until it entered the courtyard of a large inn. Maro was well known there, and when the innkeeper recognized the caravan he came out to greet them. He shouted, "Maro, is all well with you?"
"No, old friend. We were attacked by bandits and I and two of my guards are wounded."
The innkeeper shouted at a servant, "You! Tell the factotum to get litters to carry the wounded. Then prepare rooms." It took only a few minutes before litter bearers arrived to carry Maro and the wounded guards into the building.
Elna detached the slave's chain from the wagon and led them to the slave pen behind the inn. The drivers moved the wagons into a parking area and unyoked the oxen. Two drivers stayed with the wagons and the other two drove the oxen into a corral. The drivers found the slave girl with the sprained ankle, and soon grunts and moans were coming from the wagon.
Mahoon got her and Erig's packs from the other wagon and went to the inn. She rented a room and deposited the packs in it, and then entered the tavern and headed for the bar.
A man standing there called to her, "Hi, Beautiful. Can I buy you a drink?"
Just then Erig walked up next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. The man turned pale and quickly turned his back and hunched over his drink. Erig noticed his reaction and smiled.
Erig and Mahoon bought beer at the bar and took it to a table that was out of earshot of the other patrons. Erig said, "I talked to Maro and he plans to leave here tomorrow if he can hire more guards. Elna knows all the local slave dealers and she agreed to guide us around today. She'll meet us here."
Mahoon looked over to the door. "Here she is now." She waved her arm, and Elna joined them at their table.
Erig asked, "Can we buy you a drink, Elna?"
"Maybe later. Let's get moving. All of the dealers close up shop at sundown. But tell me, why do you two want to buy slaves?"
"We don't want slaves. Two days before we met you Arabella and I happened to meet the agent of a rich merchant who is searching for his two missing daughters. He gave us a description of the girls, and told us there's a nice reward if we can return them to their father, or even if we can prove they're dead. We want to visit the dealers to see if they have the girls, or if they've sold them."
Erig and Mahoon finished their beer and the three women left the tavern. Elna said, "We'll try Peticus first. He's the largest dealer in town, and he never asks any questions about where the merchandise comes from. Let me do the talking. He'd think it strange for you to be buying slaves and would gouge you. Nudge me if you see a slave that might be one of the missing girls."
They hadn't walked far when Elna stopped at a house. Like all of the other residences in town it showed only bare whitewashed walls to the street. The only indication that this was not a private dwelling was a small picture of a woman in chains painted on the massive wooden door. Elna pounded on the door until a peephole opened. The peephole closed and the door opened to reveal a burly man with a club and a whip attached to his belt.
Elna said, "Hail, Dino. I'd like to look over your stock. A brothel in Sar is trying to fill a special order and asked me to see what is available here in Pune. Is Peticus around?"
"Hail, Elna. Peticus is busy right now, but you can come in and see what we've got. Who are your friends?"
"This is Zana and this is Arabella. They're guarding Maro's caravan."
Dino nodded and let them into the building. He locked the door. "You know where we keep the women. Go and take a look. I've got to stay by the door."
Elna led the way to another door. The woman guarding it nodded to Elna and unbolted and opened the door. The three women entered an anteroom that fronted a large cell. Three of the cell's walls were made of stone, but the side facing the anteroom was a grillwork made of iron bars.
Erig and Mahoon looked closely at each of the women in the cell. Two young women were sitting on the floor near the back wall and having a quiet conversation. Their clothes were stained and torn and they had bruises on their arms and faces, but Erig recognized them. They were the missing students.
Erig shouted, "Ho!" When the women looked at her she pointed at them and commanded, "You two. Come over here."
The women got up and walked to the grillwork. Erig was surprised by their good condition. They weren't crying and they weren't catatonic, and they were moving normally. Erig asked, "Are you two the daughters of Azoz the merchant?"
The women reacted with startled expressions and one asked, "How do you know about Azoz."
"Azoz has offered a reward for your return."
Erig turned to Elna. "These seem to be the missing girls. Let's find Peticus and buy them."
Just then a man entered the anteroom. He was dressed in black clothing and had a black, pointed beard flecked with gray. He strode over to Elna, enveloped her in a hug and exclaimed, "Elna, my beloved! Dino told me you were here. Does this mean you've quit Maro and will live with me? We can play some amusing games."
Elna pried herself out of his grip. "No, Peticus. I'm here for business only. Besides, I've heard about your games. Sometimes your playmate ends up on the other side of those bars."
"Just in fun. I've never actually sold anyone. I certainly wouldn't let you go."
"That's something else I'd be concerned about. But on to business." She pointed at the students. "A brothel in Sar asked me to look for girls of this type. How much do you want for those two?"
"They do look exotic, and they're very valuable." Peticus named a price.
Elna scoffed, "Exotic? They look beat up to me." She countered with an offer less than half the price Peticus had quoted.
The bargaining continued for some minutes until Peticus finally said, "Sold! Ah, Elna. If all of my customers bargained like you I'd be bankrupt in a month."
"I bet." She turned to Erig, who handed her a heavy leather pouch. She removed some gold coins and gave them to Peticus, who used a key from a ring on his belt to open the cell door. He beckoned to the students, and when they had left the cell Peticus locked the door. He used some thin rope to tie the girls' hands behind their backs.
"This will hold them for now, but if you want collars or shackles riveted on my smithy is available for a nominal fee."
"Not right now, thanks. We've got to go."
Erig held one student by the arm and Mahoon held the other, and they followed Elna and Peticus to the entrance hall. Peticus gave Elna one more hug, and then they were on the street and walking back to the inn.
When they reached the inn Erig gave Elna a gold coin. "Thank you for your help. The coin is your commission for handling the purchase. When we get the reward we'll give you a share."
"Thank you. You're very generous."
"You know how it is with mercenaries. Spend it if you've got it. We don't have to save for our old age."
Elna went into the tavern and Erig and Mahoon took the students to their room. Once inside, one of the girls asked, "Who are you and how do you know about Azoz?"
"I'm Lieutenant Pami Erig and this is Junior Lieutenant Swamka Mahoon, Star Fleet Survey Service. Who are you?"
"I'm Mayi Onona and this is Yoki Zukia. What are you doing here?"
Erig was puzzled by the question. Maybe this girl had been addled by her ordeal. "Your university reported that you were missing and we were detailed to find you. We questioned the bandits who captured you and we know what you experienced, but you seem to be in very good condition, all things considered. Do either of you need immediate medical or psychological assistance?"
Yoki answered, "Except for some bruises we're fine. We expected to be raped, so before we came to this planet we got neuro-psychological conditioning that would make us enjoy rough sex."
Mayi elaborated, "The reason the bandits sold us was that they were embarrassed that they couldn't keep us satisfied."
While they were talking Mahoon had untied the students. Erig said, "I'll call and arrange for a shuttle to pick us up. We can't leave Pune until the gates open in the morning, so it'll be tomorrow night before we can get back to the ship."
Yoki said, "We won't go back to the ship." Mayi nodded her agreement.
"What! Why not?"
Mayi stated, "Slavery is evil, and we've decided to stamp it out, starting with the Sarex Empire."
Erig was puzzled by Mayi's statement. "Slavery is evil all right, but it is also present in every primitive culture. It never really disappears until it becomes uneconomic, and that requires industrial development. What makes you two think that you can change that?"
"We have developed a theory that will guide us. The details are far beyond your powers of comprehension, but we will do it by working from within. When you took us away from the slave dealer you set back our program."
Mahoon said to Erig, "This sounds crazy to me. Can you make any sense out of it?"
"No, but I don't have to. I'm going to buck this up the line and let the Captain decide what to do."
Erig activated her communicator and when Captain Goda was listening she explained the problem. "We found the students, Captain, but the twits are refusing to return to the ship. They say they have a plan to eliminate slavery and they want to start implementing it by becoming slaves themselves. What do you want us to do?"
Even over the communicator they could hear the Captain groan. "I wish we got the easy ones. I'll check with the admiralty and Azoz University and see what they say. Stand by until I call you."
Erig made another attempt to convince the students that their plan was lunacy. "You two are young enough and pretty enough to be sold as concubines or to a brothel, but even that can be dangerous. Suppose you are bought by somebody who enjoys torturing women? Or somebody who will chain you to the bed and keep you there? Don't you understand that as slaves you can't do as you wish?"
"Our theory takes all of that into consideration. Nothing can go wrong."
After that statement there was nothing more Erig could say. There was a strained silence until the Captain called.
Everyone could hear the disbelief in Captain Goda's voice as she said, "The university backs up the students. It isn't their theory, it was developed by the whole xenopsychology department, and the girls are just the zealots who volunteered to implement it. The admiralty says to give the university what it wants."
Erig asked, "What are our specific orders, Captain?"
"Take the girls to Sar and sell them."
Erig said to Mahoon, "Well, you heard the order. You take the twits to the slave pen, and I'll see if we can hire on with Maro's caravan." Erig finished tying a student's hands behind her back. She was pissed, and the girl winced as Erig cinched the cords.
When Mahoon returned to the room she found that Erig was already there. Erig was standing naked in a basin and giving herself a sponge bath. Mahoon stripped down to her shift. "I supposed you noticed that there is just the one bed."
"I don't want to sleep on the floor."
"I suppose we can share, but remember that I'm not bi."
"Of course you're not."
Mahoon removed her shift and got into bed. She looked over Erig's naked body. "You've got an impressive collection of scars. Is that deep one on your butt where you were branded? It must have hurt."
"Yes, but you can kiss it and make it better." Erig snuffed the candles and slid into bed in the dark.
* * *
The next morning Maro's caravan left the city soon after the gate opened. There were now six guards in addition to Erig and Mahoon, so Erig felt secure enough to walk with Elna behind the first wagon.
Elna indicated Yoki and Mayi, who were connected to the end of the slave chain by a rope around their necks. "So they weren't the merchant's daughters after all?"
"No, they were maids in the merchant's household for a while and knew something about it, but when I asked the identifying questions they didn't know the answers."
"So you're going to sell them in Sar?"
"Yes. I can probably make a profit, thanks to the way you bargained with Peticus." Erig pointed at Yoki. "Why did you tie her hands behind her back?"
"I told her not to touch the neck rope, but she grabbed it anyway. I'll leave her like that until we stop at noon, unless you want me to untie her sooner."
"No, leave her like that. I noticed that neither one of them seems to understand what it means to be a slave. Watch them closely, and if they give you any excuse at all use your whip. Better that they learn from you instead of from somebody brutal."
As the caravan got closer to Sar the road got better, and there were no more incidents. They stopped for the night at a campground near the river. A herd of cattle was grazing nearby, and the drovers had already set up their camp, but there was plenty of space left for the caravan.
Erig made a tour of the camp just after sunset. The six chained slaves were huddled together under the first wagon, but Yoki and Mayi weren't with them. She walked over to the second wagon and met Elna. Erig asked, "Where are the other two slaves?"
Elna pointed under the second wagon. Yoki and Mayi were lying on their backs, with their arms spread above their heads and their wrists tied to wheel spokes. Yoki was tied to a front wheel and Mayi was tied to a back wheel. "I can't have them with the other slaves because they're not chained. They won't be comfortable, but it's only for tonight."
As soon as it was completely dark the men of the caravan started to crawl under the second wagon. The cries of passion attracted the drovers, and they joined the crowd. After several hours of this Erig got tired of the noise. She went over to the wagon and announced, "The brothel is closed. All of you clear out."
One of the drovers growled, "Oh, yeah? What if I don't want to?" He moved to challenge Erig, but two of the wagon drivers stopped him. One driver whispered something to him, and he abruptly turned and left. Some of the the others grumbled, but no one else dared to defy her order.
Yoki loudly complained, "Don't make them go. We were having fun." Mayi echoed the complaint at greater length and louder volume.
Erig threated, "You two shut up or I'll gag you until morning."
They knew that she would do it, so they shut up. Neither wanted to be more uncomfortable than she already was.
The next afternoon the caravan reached Sar. Maro's establishment was close to the gate, so it took less than an hour to reach it, even though the streets were crowded. As soon as the caravan entered the courtyard it was disbanded. The drivers stopped the wagons under a roof extending from a large warehouse and unyoked the oxen and led them away. Laborers brought hand trucks and started wheeling the barrels of wine into the warehouse. Elna took the slaves to the pen.
Erig, Mahoon, and the other guards went to Maro's office. He was still suffering from his wound, but he looked much more cheerful now that he had safely returned home. He paid the guards their wages and they left. He took a heavy leather purse from his strongbox and gave it to Erig. "Here is your pay and the reward I promised you. You also have my thanks and my gratitude. We would all be dead if not for you two. Up to now I have hired new guards for each journey, but maybe it would be better if I had a permanent force. Would you accept such employment?"
Erig replied, "Thank you for the reward and for the offer, but it is not for us. We are warriors, and we would grow stale while we were not on the road."
"I expected you might feel that way. Then I must say farewell, and may fortune bless you."
"Farewell to you, Maro, and may you prosper."
They left the office and found Elna waiting in the courtyard with Yoki and Mayi. They were still roped together at the neck, and Elna had also tied their wrists and elbows. Erig engaged Elna in conversation while Mahoon took the rope and led the students away from them.
Mahoon whispered in Galactic, "This is your last chance. You know now what slavery can mean. Do you want to return with us to the ship?"
The students looked at each other, and then Mayi said, "We know what we are doing. We are determined to demonstrate the validity of our theory by eliminating slavery in the empire."
Mahoon held out a communicator disguised as a religious medallion. "At least take this, so you can call for help if you need it."
Yoki shook her head. "No, we don't want it. We'll return to the university outpost when we're no longer slaves."
Mahoon frowned and shook her head. Erig saw this and said to Elna, "I feel sorry for these girls. It would be best for them if we could sell them to a brothel. You know the city. Could you help us find a place that would buy them?"
"My cousin owns one of the best brothels in Sar. After I tell him what I witnessed at our camp last night I'm sure he'll pay top price for these girls."
"Arabella and I want to be out of the city before the gates close. Take the girls to your cousin and sell them. Hold the money for us until the next time we're in Sar. If you don't see us in a year you can keep it."
Erig and Mahoon shouldered their packs and prepared to leave. Elna said, "Farewell, Warriors. May your deaths be glorious."
"Farewell, Warrior. May you prosper."
Erig and Mahoon left the city and walked down the road to Pune with the setting sun at their backs. Mahoon shook her head. "Those naive children. A year from now they'll probably be dead."
"Yeah. Those professors at the university are scum, to take advantage of the girls' idealism and zeal just to test their crackpot theory. I'd like to have Zana and Arabella pay them a visit."
Three years later the world of xenoanthropology was stunned by the news of the slave revolt in the Sarex Empire. This was not the first slave uprising, but the previous revolts had been spontaneous, disorganized, and easily crushed. This one was meticulously planned and highly organized, and it was more like a coup d'etat than a revolt. The Empire was overthrown and a Republic was established. One of the most unusual features of the new Republic was that it was led by two co-consuls, both of whom were young women.
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