Talla's Temple Ch. 25byxtorch©
Sonja was in full kit. The woman must truly enjoy the long orange robe that split at the front to bare her blouse and scant orange bottom. She wore it as often as she could, even when there were no cases before her. The iron circlet, however, was set aside on her desk as she busied herself with paperwork.
She glanced up only long enough to identify who stood before her.
"Marissa," she said. "You have a charge to file?"
"Yes, Adjudicate," Marissa replied coolly. "A charge of Monogamy."
Sonja stopped in mid scrawl to glare at Marissa and then take in the two women who flanked her.
"Are you certain?"
"I tracked a girl two days ago to a location in the woods," Marissa explained. "Where I presumed she met a man. Today, the three of us spotted the same woman at the same location and witnessed her Serving the man."
"Was it the same man?"
"I did not see the first encounter, but I judge it likely."
"Judge?" Sonja mocked lightly. "Interesting word."
"A charge of Monogamy requires two encounters," Sonja explained in a dry voice. "You did not witness the first encounter. Did they have sex the second time?"
"Oral penetration, Adjudicate."
"Sufficient for the charge," Sonja said.
She cocked her head to the side and looked up at the ceiling.
"Do we know the young man?"
"I followed him," one of the women at Marissa's side offered.
Sonja thought for a moment.
"Bring her tomorrow morning, then," she said. "Fetch him as well. It's possible I can get her to confess, in which case he may as well be here."
It would probably speed things up, the Queen of Sweetness thought, if we could simply dress the Adepts up like Initiates. Adepts of Pussy, provided they kept their genitals covered, could pass a low-ranking women of some Endowment Discipline without much trouble -- at least as long as no one recognized them.
Then the Goddess could at least have attendants who were allowed to know that she was pregnant.
In the meantime, there were several girls clad in white sitting outside the Goddess's chamber, watching the Queen of Sweetness remove her clothing.
Obedient to the last, all six of the Initiates and Virgins stripped off their own clothing out of respect for their superior's nudity.
Well, that's where it would fall apart, wouldn't it? There would be no mistaking an Adept of Pussy for an Initiate of Point once the underwear was off. They'd have to shave -- frequently -- to pull off that ruse.
She raised her arms in the air so that the fully armoured guards could assure themselves that she hid no weapons in the pits of her arms or tucked under the flesh of her breasts.
"Thank you, Highness," the lead guard said with a bow.
They hadn't laid a hand on her.
She recovered her red skirt and blouse and refastened them, watching the jealous eyes of those around her. 93 upgrades, she thought at the gathered whites. How far away are you from me?
Her blouse appropriately attached, she passed through the doors to meet her superior.
Once the doors closed, she checked the room.
Besides the Goddess, only two other women were present this particular evening.
"How fare you, Imminence?"
The woman in black looked up with a sigh as she approached.
"Well enough, I suppose," she said, patting her belly. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"You haven't heard?"
The Goddess shook her head.
Sweetness slid a folded sheet of parchment across the black desk. It was promptly opened.
She knew when the woman in black hit the important part of the sheet. That was when her eyes closed and she whispered a curse.
"With Zhair'lo, I presume? It doesn't say."
"I checked, yes."
She looks exactly like I looked when I saw it, the Queen thought. As if someone took her favourite piece of clothing and set it on fire.
"There's nothing we can do."
"There are a lot of things we could do," the Queen corrected. "Not a one of them would be a good idea."
"We'd reveal ourselves," the Goddess agreed.
She looked at the note again.
"When was this?"
"No, I mean the first encounter," she clarified distantly. "You need two for -- um - this charge."
Even a Goddess, the Queen noted, had trouble using the word Monogamy except as a curse.
"Two days ago, I believe."
"Also during the heat bell?"
The Queen nodded.
The Goddess touched her chin with the back of one finger, as if trying to probe a lost memory.
She shook her head.
"No. Couldn't be."
Zhair'lo was staring at his ceiling. There was enough moonlight that he could make out the fuzzy shapes of its beams.
What was he supposed to do now?
Every ache and pain, every twitch he felt was a sign of his impending death. Fear, in the middle of the night, was a unmanageable beast with a life of its own. It grew legs and rampaged through one's mind, pointing out every reason for its growth and not a single idea that might cause it to wane.
Should he really leave Gern? Could he?
Worse yet, he could feel Talla again. Whatever had been broken between them was forged again by their meeting. The distance was too great to get more than a general sense of her sadness, a kind of fog of misery that misted over both of them.
She pulled at him. She pushed him away. Her emotions were no more stable than his. At least she was safe. He had to content himself with that much. He was the one in danger.
Was he really in danger? He hadn't noticed anything until she'd mentioned it.
There, what was that unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach? Was that the beginning of his body falling apart?
It's nothing. It's nothing, he told himself.
Unconvinced, he rolled over. It was a long time before he fell asleep.
"I didn't think I was vague," the blonde Sorceress said.
Abundance's tone was light, but neither of the women in front of her were fooled.
"You were not, Mistress," Shanata said, her face gone to stone as she stared at the floor.
Atreya raised her eyebrows.
"Vague?" she asked.
"Our Mistress asked me to deliver a message to the girls working in a particular dorm," Shanata said. "To be clear on the dangers of Monogamy."
"And?" Atreya prodded.
"I delivered that lecture, quite thoroughly," she continued, deadpan. "I even -"
She gulped and paused.
"I even took Talla aside -- I could tell it was her -- I took her aside and warned her specifically that she'd been seen."
"Shanata -", the Sorceress scolded.
"I know, Mistress," Shanata said, her voice beginning to crack. "But I felt that I owed it to her."
"And even with that warning," Atreya put in, "she went back to him anyway."
There was silence at this statement. None of the three women could imagine what would possess a woman to take a risk like that when she knew she'd already been caught. What kind of stupidity was that? They'd had such high hopes for Talla, after her spectacular upgrade. And the poor thing had already been through so much.
"And what of Zhair'lo?" the Sorceress asked.
"What of him?" Shanata replied.
The woman in green sat down and brushed her hair back with both hands. She quickly tied it back in a sloppy ponytail.
"Why the two of them?"
"Maybe the quadruple upgrade did something to them," Shanata said. "Who knows?"
Atreya winced at this, one of her hands twitching toward the place where a whip had once traced a line across her chest.
Shanata's eyes lit up.
"I could tell her to make that argument -"
"You are forbidden to warn her in anyway," Abundance said. "You know the rules better than anyone."
"True," she said. "But I can go tomorrow, to her trial."
"Really, Shanata?" the Sorceress asked. "By what right?"
"Sisterhood," Shanata replied, adding somewhat flippantly, "the real kind."
Atreya choked indignantly.
"When did this happen?"
"When I warned her."
Abundance took a breath and stared at the ceiling a moment.
"Very well. You may go," she said. "It's not like I can stop you. But you are not to speak to her beforehand, and you won't get to say your piece until after she's been interrogated. I don't know what you hope to accomplish."
"Mistress," Shanata said with a sharp bow. She gave a half-nod to Atreya as she turned and left the room.
By breakfast, Zhair'lo was nowhere near ready to run from Gern. He'd spent most of the night wrestling with sleep. In the manner of many insomnia inducing problems, it did seem less urgent in the morning and his anxiety was further soothed by the mundane arrival of breakfast on the table in front of him.
What did he need if he were to run? His primary concerns, if he really wanted to strike out on his own, were food and shelter.
He looked at the building around him with its wooden beams and stone walls. He could build something from wood, if he could take an axe with which to chop down trees. He could build a roof if he had access to straw.
And what of food? He could live off the land, possibly. They'd never taught him how to hunt, but with a ration of wheat flour he could make bread and he was certainly capable of cooking and cleaning anything he might catch. He'd need to take a pot to cook in.
Pot. Axe. Flint. Bow? He'd never spent any time using a bow. Maybe he could take one from somewhere and learn how to use it. If seeing someone do it counted as training, then he knew how to loose an arrow.
He might even be able to hit something.
How soon could he leave? He munched on his breakfast, unaware of anything around him.
He blinked his eyes and shook his head at the boy sitting across from him.
Zo'kar gestured to the leather backpack on the floor by his feet. "Just got the assignment last night. Came over this morning."
"That's what it said," he confirmed, looking around the room. "Nice place. But pretty gods damned far from town."
"'bout half a bell from the Temple," Zhair'lo remarked idly.
"Don't catch an awful lot of long skirts out here, I imagine."
"No. No, we don't."
"How much longer are you here?"
"I don't -"
"Until he gets a new assignment," a booming voice intruded on the conversation.
Zhair'lo straightened, clearing all rebellious thought from his head lest it show on his face.
"Master Harzen," he said. "This is Zo'kar."
"Don't I know it," the large man said, settling down on the bench beside Zo'kar. "Welcome to my farm, young man."
"Thank you, sir," Zo'kar said, sitting up straight.
"What did you do in town?"
"Roofer all my life, sir."
"Zhair'lo took care of the last roofing problem we had," Harzen remarked. "But we'll get you up there if we have any problems. Meanwhile, get yourself settled in. Zhair'lo will show you to your room -- it's the empty one right across from his."
"Yes, sir," the two young men chorused.
"Have you had breakfast?"
"Before I left, sir."
"Good," Harzen remarked and stood up again. "Off you go, then. Get out to the stables as soon as you're unpacked."
Zo'kar blew out of a breath when Harzen was out of sight.
"Big guy," he remarked.
"Wait'll you see the horses," Zhair'lo warned.
Nothing had seemed right all morning. She'd long since gotten over the surprise of swallowing more than a mouthful of semen. That was furthest from her mind. She could feel Zhair'lo out there, as she'd felt him all night.
He either wasn't running or he was very calm about it if he was. There was no sign of the kind of stress she'd felt from him on other occasions. He was preparing, probably. She knew what set of skills he had to rely on but she didn't know what he would do with those skills. Could he really live off the land or would he just starve to death?
It was nearing lunch time and still no sign of his departure. There was no sense that their link was fading as it always did when the distance between them increased. That was a bit frightening, but also strangely reassuring.
If nothing else, it meant that she could find him if she had to, once he found a place to live outside the city. That brought a smile to her lips as she folded blankets for the children.
"Talla," someone whispered.
She turned to see an extremely pale faced Adria.
"Some people - at the door."
Talla felt her stomach drop. The look on Adria's face told her more than she wanted to know.
"For me?" she croaked.
Adria nodded, biting her lips.
Talla looked to the door, an unwillingness deep inside her trying to hold off the inevitable.
There they were. Two of Form's enforcers in their darkest, heaviest leathers. Even at this distance, she could see that one of them held a black scroll in her hand.
What was it Shanata had said of black scrolls? The words came back to her: "You should endeavour to avoid them in the future."
Maybe they weren't really here for her. Maybe it was just to ask her a question about something else, something that had nothing to do with Zhair'lo or Tina or anything else she'd done wrong.
They were both staring at her, waiting with the patient confidence of a stone wall very slowly tumbling down on the people beneath it.
Tina was running pointless errands, the sort that they gave to a girl when they didn't have a longer term assignment ready for her. It was a hot miserable day and she mostly kept her eyes on the ground so that fatigue didn't make her stumble and look stupid.
Some familiar noise nagged at her; that certain sound made by the all-serious marching style of women wearing heavy leather armour. It was the kind of sound that would always bring a chill to her. She stopped to look up.
Yes. There they were. Two of Form's finest with their gorgeous faces and lifeless expressions. One of them carried, most frightening of all, one of the dreaded black scrolls in her hand. Tina relaxed a bit when she noticed that they already had their victim with them. It meant that they weren't coming for her.
She froze as she met the eyes of the suspected criminal.
Pale faced and nearly as expressionless as the guards, she trotted obediently between them.
Did her eyes plead with Tina's, even for a moment? Tina couldn't say.
Talla didn't turn her head to track Tina. Maybe she didn't dare. She just kept pace with the guards and passed through into Form's triangle.
Tina watched her go.
Her shift was almost up. Chances were that Talla would leave Form after - whatever it was -- and go back to Endowment. Tina would wait for her there.
"How many upgrades you done?"
"Same as you I think," Zo'kar said. "Four."
They were walking out to the stables, where Zhair'lo had been directed to take Zo'kar. Harzen's instructions weren't complicated. "Show him what you do," the old man had said.
Zhair'lo had actually done five, counting Talla, but he wasn't concerned about that.
"How do you feel?"
Zo'kar gave a start.
Zhair'lo waved his hands in denial. He hadn't meant the question in the emotional sense.
"Y'know, overworked?" he asked. "Doing so many upgrades night after night?"
"I don't think so," Zo'kar replied. "Feels like I could do 'em forever. You?"
"Oh, fine," Zhair'lo said. "They're just giving me a break and I wondered if you were having problems."
"Not because of me," he told Zhair'lo with a smile. "I could spray those girls every night, two at a time, if they asked me to."
"I wonder if that would work."
"One source, two destinations."
It was Zo'kar's turn to laugh.
"What? Just put them side by side on the altar and try to get them both? I -"
He was making a gyrating motion with his hips to simulate his proposed technique when he was interrupted.
"Zhair'lo M'han!" a firm voice called out from behind them.
Both boys turned to look for the speaker. They found themselves facing a pair of women in heavy leather armour.
"You are Summoned to the Temple on urgent business," the same woman went on. "You are to accompany us immediately."
The two boys looked at each other a moment.
"Later, then," Zo'kar said.
"Yeah. Guess so."
Zhair'lo marched off with the women bracketing him.
Talla was standing in front of that nasty table again. The tall, narrow room was empty of other suspects, just as it had been when she'd been pulled in here along with M'lis, Adria and five other girls. Was it common for this place to be empty? Why all the benches if no one ever sat in them?
It didn't matter.
At least this time she wasn't dripping with cold rain. The shivers she tried to control were entirely those of fear.
There was the woman in the orange robe and iron circlet, sitting behind her desk. There were the two guards who had brought her here, still standing on either side of her and one step back. There were the four Virgins in knee length skirts along the back wall.
"Talla," the woman said carefully. "Do you understand how our society is held together?"
She pursed her lips.
"We are assigned men to Serve," she explained. "And we Serve those ones, and only those ones. Men are kept docile because they know it is never long before another women comes to their bed. They do their work; we do our work. We keep them entertained with sexual variety and satisfy our own needs."
"When you step out of those assignments -- when you select for yourself which men to Serve -- you do great damage to the fabric of our society. The randomness which assures each of the men that they will eventually stumble upon women whom they find greatly attractive is broken by such behaviour."
"It makes men ... restless. A situation we can ill afford if you have ever studied history."
Her eyes narrowed to meet Talla's.
"It is important that you do not lie to me, Talla," the woman said coldly. "I will know, first of all. And second, it will count against you."
Talla gulped, not daring to break eye contact. Shanata had seen right through her once. The women of Form clearly had some ability to tell lies from truth.
"Yesterday, during the heat bell, did you meet him this young man Zhair'lo in a place to the southwest of the city?"
Talla's stomach dropped. She knew!
"Yes, Mistress," she choked out.
"And performed Service upon him with mouth and tongue."
They'd been watching? How?
"Yes, Mistress," she stammered.
"Three days ago, did you also meet with the same boy at the same location?"
Dammit, dammit, dammit! They knew everything!
"Yes, Mistress," she admitted.
"And Served him on that occasion."
It was a statement. She lowered her eyes.
The Adjudicate sighed.
"This is a worse crime than merely seeking out a man of your preference. You have engaged in Monogamy, one of the worst offences known."
"It will become known among other men that Talla prefers just one of them. The others of his age will become jealous at your preference, especially with that body of yours, and wish to take his place. They will seek to injure him to achieve this goal and attain possession of you."
The Adjudicate let that sink in a moment.
"A possession, Talla," she repeated. "Is that what you wish to be? A token? A piece of clothing? A thing to be hung on a wall?"
'That's not how it would be!' she wanted to shout out. 'He's not like that!'
But she remained silent. The wall covered with coiled whips and the knowledge that this woman had the authority to use them were enough to keep her from arguing.