Xanabar lays across the Spiral Arm, a sprawling sphere of influence vast, mighty, solid at the core. Only the far-flung boundary shows the slight ebb and flow of contingent cultures that may win a system or two today and lose them back tomorrow or a hundred years from now. Xanabar is the trading post of the galaxy, for only Xanabar is strong enough to stand over the trading table when belligerents meet and offer to take them both at once if they do not sheathe their swords. For this service Xanabar assesses her percentage, therefore Xanabar is rich. Her riches buy her mercenaries to enforce her doctrines. Therefore Xanabar is rotten at the under-core, for mercenaries have no god but gold.
The clatter of a hundred tongues mingled with the clink of glasses and floated through strata of smoke from the burning weeds of a hundred planets. From one of the tables, voices rise in mild disagreement. There is a jeering laugh from one side and a roar of anger from the other. Two men rise and face one another ready to follow their insults with violence. Before the eruption can start, a mercenary steps forward on lithe feet and lightly catches the back-swung arm, a quick hand removes the poised glass before it can be thrown into the adversary's face.
"Sit!" says the mercenary in a cold voice, and they sit still glaring at one another.
"Now," says the mercenary, "settle your differences by talk. Or depart in opposite directions. This is Xanabar!"
"He lies! He brags!"
"I do not lie. They are barbarians. I do not brag. I can bring you one."
"A wager," said the mercenary. "A wager. Xanabar can take no tax in blood." He faces one. "You claim you can do that which he says you can not." Then not waiting for a reply he faces the other, "And if he does, how much are you willing to pay?"
"How much is his life worth?"
"How much are you willing to pay?" demands the mercenary coldly.
"Five hundredweight in crystal-cut."
"An honorable sum. Do you agree?"
"For a task as easy as you claim it to be," said the mercenary, "Five hundredweight of crystal-cut seems honorable."
"But it means--"
"We in Xanabar are not interested in the details. Only in the tax. An honest wager-contract, outlanders. Otherwise I rule that your eruption here disturbed the peace."
The two outlanders look at one another; schoolboys caught fighting in the alley by a monitor who demands a bite of their apple in lieu of a visit to the principal. As if loath to touch one another they reach forward hesitantly and handshake in a quick light grip.
"Good!" glows the mercenary. He waves a hand and his fellows converge with contract-platen and etching stylus. "Now, gentlemen, please state the terms for Xanabar."
Peter Hawley strolled down a side street with a dog at his heel. It was a dog of many breeds, but not a mixture of careless parentage. Peter paused at a cross-street and looked uncertainly to left and right. "What do you make, Buregarde?"
"The noble dog says right," replied Buregarde.
"Right," said Peter turning up the street. "And stop this 'Noble dog' routine."
"Man is dog's best friend," said Buregarde. "If you'd called me something sensible, I wouldn't have looked it up. There is a statue to me in the Okeefenokee back on Earth. I am the noble dog. Pogo says so."
"Easy Peter!" said the dog in a near-whisper.
"All right. Do we play down the chatter?"
Buregarde sat, lifted his nose and sniffed. His natural voice gave a faint whine of discontent. "I'm supposed to have a nose," he complained. "This is like trying to smell out a lone mouse in a zoological garden in midsummer."
"Why the warning?" asked Peter.
"All races smell the same when they are poised for violence," said the dog. "Trouble is that man-smell isn't pointed the way it's going, only where it's coming from."
Peter grunted. "Catch any woman-smell?"
"Just the usual whiff. Stale scent. She was here; she passed this way. But which way?"
"We can guess they made it away from the spaceport."
"Unless," said the dog taking another sniff of the air, "they're taking her back to some other spacecraft." Buregarde looked up at Peter. "Do you catch anything?"
"Just the usual mingled fright and danger, frantic despair."
Peter shook his head. "No," he said. "The source is too close."
"Let's stroll up this street to the end and come back on the other side," said the dog. "Quietly."
In a saunter they went, alert and poised. A man and his dog from all appearances. But in Xanabar, the principal city of Xanabar the Empire they were huntsman and companion.
Like all cities of more than ten million souls, Xanabar had its glistening and lofty area and its slums--and what would have been a waterfront region in a seafaring city. The conditions were the same as they'd been everywhere for a few decades of thousands of years. Only the technology changes. Man's cave is stainless steel and synthetic plastic; the cave's man is swinging a better axe, and his hide is protected from the weather by stuff far more durable than his awn skin. But he's the same man with the same hackles; they just rise for a few more thousand reasons than the hackles of his ancestors.
"Got it!" said Buregarde coming to a brief point at a closed door.
"Let's go in!"
Buregarde's reply was half-snarl and half, "Look out!"
Peter whirled to catch a glimpse of a man upon him with pencil-ray coming to point. He faded down and toward the other, almost in a fall out of the path of the pencil-ray that flicked on and began a sweep upward and in. Peter caught his balance at the same time he clutched the wrist in his right hand. Then he went on down around and over, rising on his knees to flip the other man heels high in an arc that ended with a full-length, spine-thudding body smash on the pavement. Buregarde leaped in and slashed at the hand clutching the pencil-ray, snapped his head back and forth thrice and sent the weapon flying. Then with a savage growl he set a soft mouth against the other's throat and let the man feel the pressure of his fangs.
"Easy," said Peter.
Buregarde backed away a few inches. "Easy nothing," he snapped. "This man is the noble dog's worst enemy. He wanted your blood."
"Take it easy. I want his information."
The man looked up. "Barbarian Terrestrial!" he snarled.
Peter sneered. "And this is the capital city of the glorious civilization called Xanabar? Marble palaces with nobles of the blood, and stinking alleys with human rats. Where is she?"
The stranger spat.
"Buregarde, want some red meat?"
"He'd make me upchuck. Only rodents eat their own kind."
"Just a bite?"
"Do I have to swallow?"
"No. Just slash--"
"Barbarian Terrestrial, am I? You were maybe going to invite me for tea and cakes with that pencil-ray?"
"Talk!" snapped Peter. "Where is she?"
"Yes, boss. The throat or the other hand?"
"All right--for the good it'll do you. She's in there. Go on in--and we'll have two of you!"
Buregarde growled, "Three of us. And we might be hard to handle."
Peter stood up and hauled the stranger to his feet. His right hand dripped blood from the dog's teeth. Peter looked for, and found the pencil-ray smashed against the stone front of the building. He cuffed the stranger across the face, turned him around, and pointed him toward the far corner.
"I count three," he said. "If you're not out of sight by three--"
"It'll be a pleasure, Peter," said Buregarde.
The stranger loped away on a crazy run. As he turned the corner he ran face on to one of the uniformed mercenaries of Xanabar. The mercenary collared the stranger and took a quick inventory of the slashed right hand, the ripped clothing, and adding those to the frightened gallop he came back with the stranger's left arm held in a backlock.
Haughtily he demanded, "What goes on in Xanabar?"
Peter eyed the mercenary sourly. "Kidnaping and attempted murder."
"Who says such lawlessness runs rife in Xanabar?"
"I say so. Peter Hawley of the Extraterrestrial Service. I say so."
"You are mistaken, barbarian."
"I say so," said Buregarde.
"You're an animal."
"I am--and so are you."
"I'll not be insulted by an animal! I am--"
"Take it easy, Buregarde."
"Take it easy nothing. This mercenary foot-soldier forgets one thing--or maybe he doesn't know about it."
"Don't call His Excellency's Peacekeepers 'mercenaries'!" snapped the mercenary.
"Peacekeeper," chuckled the dog. "Well listen and become wise. Dog and man, man and dog, have been together for about a half-million years. Once dog helped man in war and peace, and man gave dog food and shelter. Dog helped man rise above the level of the savage, and man has helped dog rise to the level of intelligence. But dog has one advantage. None of us has been intelligent long enough to really believe that dog has a soul, and those of us who do believe that also know that dog's soul is devoted to man. Do you know about dog, Xanabian--Peacekeeper?"
"Then don't force me to show you what kind of adversary intelligent dog can be. Mere man is a pushover!"
Buregarde loped in a mad circle around the mercenary. His Excellency's Peacekeeper turned to stay facing the dog but found himself turning his back on Peter. He stepped back and to one side and reached for his heavy-duty pencil--the dog gave a low growl of warning and crouched for a leap.
"He means it--Peacekeeper," said Peter Hawley quietly. "Draw that pencil and he'll have your hand in ribbons before you can level it."
The mercenary drew in his breath.
"Whistle for help and he'll have your throat."
"I shall not permit this high handed--"
"Then stop sounding off and listen to us!" snapped Peter. "I charge the Empire of Xanabar with the crime of being indifferent to the welfare of the stranger within her gate. I charge kidnaping and attempted murder, and I charge the latter against the specimen you hold in your hand."
"Does he bring his own law to Xanabar? If he does, then so do I!"
"I arrest you all for breaking the Peace of Xanabar."
"Me, too?" asked Buregarde.
The mercenary ignored the dog's eager sally. "You are armed, Terrestrial."
"So was he."