Talla's Fallen Temple Ch. 06byxtorch©
Amid the tall, torch-lit pillars and flickering fire pits of Endowment Hall, Illya was hoisted up on to a waist high table as the women around her cheered and laughed.
Watching from a distance, Talla noted that Illya didn't look nearly as surprised as Talla had the night she'd lost her virginity; the night they'd done this to her.
"Ren hana," someone shouted, as if reminders were needed these days with all the double upgrades going around.
The shears were handed forward so one of the older women could cut Illya's long skirt down not just to knee length but all the way to the skimpiest of mini-skirts. It was a quick thing, done by a woman with enthusiasm if not any particular skill in the matter.
Illya somehow managed to blush and sneer at the discarded remnants of her clothes at the same time, before she hopped down off the table and grabbed her drink, disappearing into the crowd.
"Now what?" Tina asked.
"Wait for her to come to us," Talla said. "It's her first night. We shouldn't take that away from her if she doesn't want to talk."
Tina nodded agreeably, sipping her own drink. She and Talla had arranged that they would hammer their assignments for the night into the ground as quickly as possible. That guaranteed that they would be back in Endowment Hall long before Illya could be done with Zhair'lo.
So here they stood having waited by the side of one of the many crackling fires throughout the giant hall. And here they would continue to wait
"You trusted her with a lot," Tina remarked quietly, her eyes trying to track Illya's movements.
"I'm sure I'm right."
"Can you be sure we'll be right with everyone we take in?" Tina asked. "We're going to need a lot on our side."
Talla gulped nervously.
"We'll have to be careful," she admitted. "But it's a long, long game we're playing here."
"It's years between chances," Tina reminded her.
Goddesses tended to last about five years or so. That gave them about two years before the current leader died of natural causes. It was, they felt, to their credit that they did not contemplate speeding along the demise of the Goddess in any way – never mind the sheer impracticality of getting anywhere near a Goddess with a weapon.
Their plan was to wait for the natural weakening of old age to take the life of their glorious leader. At that point, all they had to do was prevent another from taking her place.
There were probably a lot of ways to prevent the ascension of a new Goddess and only three of them were murder. Or rather: one of the ways involved three murders.
Time was in good supply. Ideas weren't.
Tina hadn't been inside the Temple the last time a new Goddess had been made, but she knew people who had. The amount of security around the Queens for those scant couple of days was nothing short of insane. No amount of fortune would get through that many of Form's determined enforcers, especially considering the pool of women they would be working with.
Whom would they be recruiting?
Sealed Virgins, for starters. They were the most likely to be bitter. Not all of them had it as bad as Illya did, but they were still the best shot. After that, it was a matter of finding all of the other women who had been punished for Monogamy and seeing if they still felt the same way.
"Whatever we do," Tina said, "we have to be ready. Between the first signs of weakening and – y'know – can be months or days. And sometimes Goddesses can burn out real fast."
"You two should be more careful," Illya said, popping up next to them with a grin. "You shouldn't talk without having a look around."
"Could you really understand us with all this noise?"
"A little, since I knew what your were talking about anyway."
Illya embraced first Talla, then Tina.
"How was it?" Talla asked, observing courtesy.
"Brilliant, really," Illya said. "You have no idea how good a cock feels after using fingers for months on end."
She inhaled, heaving her new breasts at them.
"Love the skirt," Tina remarked of her unevenly cut garment.
"Could you see, uh, me from down here?"
"Not much," Talla said. "Well, kind of."
There was no 'kind of'. Illya hadn't been wearing underwear and, after the crude snip job on her long skirt, everyone in the place knew that now.
The new Initiate looked around the room to make sure no one was in earshot.
"You have nothing to fear in him," she told Talla very quietly, continuing to scan the crowd. "We shouldn't talk here, though."
"No one's nearby," Talla insisted.
Tina looked nervous.
"We can talk in the baths, tomorrow," Tina said.
"That's no better than here," Talla said. "Just keep an eye out."
Tina twisted her lips, but took a position so the three girls formed a circle and could watch over each others' shoulders.
"Now spill it," Talla told Illya.
Illya shrugged and went on.
"He barely remembers fucking whoever that girl was. He says they gave him a potion of some kind – and I can tell you that they do have potions like that – that aroused him against his will."
Talla inhaled, fresh cold air clearing a great, dark burden away from her heart.
So Zhair'lo hadn't betrayed her.
She didn't trust herself to speak, so Tina spoke for her.
"What is he doing now?"
"Gathering friends," she said. "From what he tells me, there are other men who have been through that, uh - " she looked around the room - "Monogamy thing. Some of them are pretty upset, too."
"I don't know how much good they'll be out there," Tina said, jerking her head in the general direction of the Temple's main gate.
"We don't even know what we're going to do," Illya pointed out. "Allies can't be bad."
Talla regained control of her voice. She had to be sure ...
"How do you know?" she asked Illya. "How do you know he was telling you the truth about – about fucking that girl."
"I meshed with him," Illya said. "Right after he told me. Can you imagine being forced to have sex when you don't want to? I can't. But believe me, it was a horrible experience for him. I could feel it."
"The mesh told you?"
Talla missed the meshes she'd had with Zhair'lo, the ones that went on even after orgasm, even over great distances. Now she only got the little meshes that came with her nightly assignments, boys whose names she couldn't remember thrusting their penises into her and depositing their seed. It was good, but it wasn't the same.
A nearby fire hissed and spat ashes on the floor next to them.
"All right," Talla said. "We'll figure out how many of the other Sealed Virgins feel like you do and we'll try to bring them in. Then we have to somehow find the ones in Form and Sweetness. They must have some locked up, too."
"I don't think you'll have any luck with Gerta or Malin," Illya said. "Malin just doesn't take anything seriously and Gerta is so eternally optimistic ..."
Illya trailed off with a shake of her head.
Tina nodded sadly and took another glance around the room.
"Then we look for other Monogamists," Tina added. "I think I can get us a lead on that."
"Time for bed, then?" Talla asked, downing her drink in one swift motion.
"Hard work requires rest," Tina put in.
Training with the Hunters wasn't anything like working at the Farm. At Harzen's Farm, you had duties to attend to. You got those duties done, then you went and did whatever you wanted. At a Camp, at least at Lyric's Camp, you had a schedule. You observed that schedule and showed up on time for each part of your training.
So it came to pass that there was a gap in Zhair'lo's schedule in the early afternoon. It was meant for the recruits to rest up for their late afternoon activities, but Zhair'lo had other things on his mind. There was one person he really trusted; a friend he had had since early childhood. No matter how many times Zhair'lo had been reassigned and moved across the city, he could always find Plin back at the bakery, prepared to lend an ear. And as he couldn't talk to anyone else, he knew that he could trust Plin.
The advantage of Lyric's Camp was that it was actually on the border of the town instead of out at the end of a bunch of farmland. It put him much closer to Plin's bakery, even if he had to circumnavigate the Temple to get there. He was there in minutes. Plin always said that he could find his way home completely drunk. All he had to do was follow his nose.
Zhair'lo stuck his head in the deliciously scented, sweltering heat of the bakery.
"Master O'nosh," Zhair'lo called to the head baker. "Plin around?"
"Sorry, Zhai," the old man said, never taking a pause in the kneading of the dough before him. "I sent your buddy out on a delivery circuit with the carters. He'll be back in a bell or so."
"Thanks," Zhair'lo said, turning in chagrin.
Now what? He couldn't afford to wait an entire bell – not with his schedule. The only thing he could say about the trip was that it hadn't been a large waste of time, just a small one.
Well, as long as he was in town, there was always Marek. A short jog brought him a few blocks away to the water mill that was powered off the same aqueduct that fed many of the cisterns around town.
Marek probably had the least interesting duty of anyone Zhair'lo knew. Zhair'lo had even done flour milling in his rotation through all duties masculine. He could say from first hand experience that grinding grains into flour, or rather "watching grains being ground into flour" was the most boring task to which a man could ever be assigned.
When water was scarce, the mill was designed to be operated by men, oxen or horses.
At that point, the miller's job became both excruciating and boring.
Marek never seemed to mind. He merely leaned on his shovel and stared at the mill, as he was doing when Zhair'lo came through the arched stone entrance.
"Hey, Zhai, what's up?" he asked, sparing only a glance toward his friend.
"Not much, you?"
"Milling," he said, indicating the large rock wheel that rolled through the circular trough where the grain was mashed.
"I had some free time," Zhair'lo said. "Thought I'd drop by."
"Yeah," Marek said somewhat dimly, apparently hypnotized by the monotonous treading of the stone wheel.
"Hey," he jerked awake suddenly. "Have you played Kuntala lately? I won a tournament last night. It should get me master ranking."
Zhair'lo remembered the game. He'd been a clever player, once, collecting the gems in the right proportions and delivering them to the Temple gates for his reward. It was a complicated exercise in timing and combinations. He had once cared about things like city-wide rankings, tournaments and the like. Then he'd gotten his blue ribbon, met Talla and ...
Zhair'lo eyed Marek carefully.
"Seen any nice girls around here?" he asked.
"You shoulda seen it," he went on. "Imagine this. Zigra - you remember him? The guy with the scar from that time he tried to jump over the creek? - Zigra's got six amethysts, figuring to zone them all out and win by Goddess's Pride. But at the last minute, I -"
Marek went on, describing in detail how he had outwitted his opponent in the final round of the board game tournament.
Zhair'lo interrupted him.
"I met this really great girl," he said, peering directly into Marek's eyes. "Tits like you wouldn't believe."
It was as if he hadn't spoken. Marek paused long enough to let Zhair'lo finish his sentence and went right back to his play by play description of his game.
"So I moved my cart – the empty one – in behind his and grabbed off one of his amethysts. Some said it was luck, but no, I planned it that way. I saw what he was doing. Next ..."
Zhair'lo shook his head in amazement. Having been warned about this by Plin, he wasn't the least bit upset by Marek's refusal to acknowledge the existence of women. But he was still shocked to see it up close and personal.
'This is what they do,' he realized. 'They have potions to make us have sex. Potions to make us forget. Potions to make us want them or not want them. To stop us from coming. To stop the mesh. What else can they do?'
He let Marek finish his glowing tribute to himself. Admittedly, it had been a brilliant victory. Kuntala wasn't a complicated game, rules-wise, but the strategy got very deep very quickly.
"Best of luck on that master ranking," Zhair'lo wished his friend. "I gotta get back to work."
"Where are you now?" Marek asked. "Last time I saw Plin, he said you were out farming."
"I'm with the Hunters now," Zhair'lo said. "Lyric's Camp."
"Nice!" Marek admired. "Bow and arrows?"
When Zhair'lo nodded, he went on.
"I gotta try that some day, if they'll let me."
"Milling getting too boring?"
"No," Marek squinted his eyes as if the question was ridiculous. "Why?"
"Nothing," Zhair'lo said with a bewildered shake of his head. "See ya later."
Marek returned his blank gaze to the wheel, preparing to shovel off the milled flour as soon it was suitably crushed.
Zhair'lo made off with a light jog back towards the Camp. He didn't really think of Marek as useful if it ever came to some kind of revolt against the Temple. Marek was simply a reliable, decent friend – and it didn't hurt that the guy was clever when it came to board games. There was no point playing against people who were easy to beat. What fun was that?
Plin, on the other hand, was wise. He had a way of looking at things that took confusing situations and made them simple. After a short talk with Plin, Zhair'lo usually came away with a different way of looking at this problems.
Actually, as he thought about it, Plin hadn't always been that way. He'd only developed the habit after turning eighteen. Zhair'lo had found him distant and odd only in the last few months, as if he'd moved on to better things than board games and running around in fields at play time. He recognized it now as adulthood and the sudden awareness of women, sex and the mesh.
Looked at that way, Plin only had a few months head start on Zhair'lo, as far as that kind of wisdom went, and Zhair'lo's experiences – good and bad - clearly brought him up to par.
What he really ought to be doing with his time was talking to Kenji and making friends with the other Hunters. It was tricky with that stoic lot, but he could get an inkling as to which ones were tinged with bitterness. The short chats he'd had with some of them hinted at others who'd been caught at Monogamy. At least they had that dark look of recognition in their eyes when Zhair'lo mentioned visiting the halls in Form.
Those were the ones he was after, potential allies in his fight against the Temple. Were there others, like him, who had been forced to hurt the women they liked best? He was betting so. Kenji vaguely hinted that he knew about such things, so either he'd been through it or he knew people who had. Either way, he was the guy to talk to.
Aside from physicians and their assistants, women didn't often travel into one another's Divisions. Maksa always felt as if she were visiting a foreign land whenever she did it. There were subtleties of architecture and decor, differences in the way people walked and talked, and hundreds of other things that were a tiny bit off.
Form always gave her the creeps. She'd never been a victim of the lash; never been tied down to that wooden table. Others had, though, and she'd been witness to that. Once she entered Form, the smell of that polished wood was in the air. That was always good for at least half of the icicles in her blood.
On top of that, there was the way that those muscular, intimidating Form women looked at her when she visited their triangle, as if they were all constantly judging her. There was an endless litany going through her head: 'Am I walking properly? Is my back straight? Do I look like I have a right to be here? Am I on the shortest path to my destination? Will someone stop and interrogate me?'
She didn't like coming here, even back when it was for the official business of signing off her Virgins to their new homes.
Maksa was glad that the path to the Offices of Form was so straight and simple. But then, so was every other path in Form. These women liked their roads perfectly aligned and their corners square. There were no curtains flapping in the breeze. What banners there were did not hang, but were tightly strung.
Aside from the strip search room used for rare audiences or assignments to the Goddess's chamber, Form had to be the most oppressive place in the entire city. Even the balconies and window ledges seemed to overhang in a menacing way.
Form didn't put their socializing Hall in front of their Offices like Endowment and Sweetness did. Did Form women even socialize? Maksa got the feeling that there was a strong disapproval attached to socializing. And smiling.
Keeping a stern look on her face, Maksa let her eyes adjust to the darkness of Form's Offices. They might not be located like the other Offices, but the layout was identical; clearly designed for optimal efficiency. She considered, not for the first time, the perfect, methodical way in which work flowed through any of the Offices. It wouldn't surprise her to learn that Form had led the way in mapping out the ideal Office and everyone else had followed suit.
She passed the guards, women who had seen her here enough times that they didn't feel the need to question her. It was presumed that she knew where she was going.
Up the stairs on the left and straight past another pair of stoic, hyper alert guards. When she stepped through the double doors to Principia Facial, she breathed a sigh of relief.
This place was the antithesis of everything else in Form. Desks curved. Fabric draped. One workspace flowed into another. Fruit scented perfumes, absent elsewhere in the Division, floated through the air. Women in beautifully tailored clothing moved about with intentional, exaggerated grace. Many of them, Nine Gods, even smiled occasionally.
A young girl in a knee length skirt stood up as she entered. The Virgin had light brown hair streaked with red.
"Hello, Adept," she said very softly. "How can I help you?"
"Maksa Ayella," she told the girl, perhaps too abruptly. "I'm here to see H'reena."
The girl titled her head very warmly.
"Just one moment," she said and bowed before turning away to fetch H'reena.
She walked further into the large room and disappeared behind a curtain. A moment passed before a strikingly beautiful woman with wavy auburn hair strutted into view.
It wasn't just the hair, though it glistened in the sunlight that shone through a window behind her. It was also the cheekbones, sharp and refined, and the eyes gone some strange topaz shade of brown with long eyelashes - and never forget the elegant yet sharp nose.
She looked over at Maksa, alone in the entrance foyer.
"Adept Maksa Ayella?" she asked, her voice sweet, calm and welcoming.
"Yes, Mistress," Maksa said.
The woman waved her off.
"Please just call me H'reena," the woman said. Maksa felt the last of her tension melt away. "I am an Officer of Facial."
Her rank was obvious from her mode of dress, though Maksa had never seen an Officer's blouse as well tailored as this one. It was a simple cut: open to the navel with a small tie across her ample cleavage. Metal rings joined the two sides of the blouse below that point, keeping it tight around the woman's small waist while not actually covering the skin down the centre of her torso. At the shoulders, there were – instead of sleeves – bands of fabric with gaps between them that allowed Maksa to see the fine details of muscle underneath.
She'd always felt much more welcome here than elsewhere in Form. The Domain of the Sorceress of a Discipline set the standard for all her Disciples. Here were the finest paintings and portraits, the most beautiful statues, the most intricately carved desks and the finest clothes. Each woman seemed to have a slightly different shade of clothing that suited her hair and complexion. The overall aesthetic was soothing, avoiding the short tempered judgemental attitude of the rest of the Division.