Talla's Temple Ch. 07byxtorch©
Zhair'lo hadn't known that there were places for men to sleep within the Temple. He'd been led to one such place the night before. Lost in a daze, he'd simply followed where Ella and Renia led. He must have passed hundreds of Temple women and failed to take any note of them. Talla wasn't among them. Why should he have cared?
Presently, he found himself blinking awake in a room that sported the same beige sandstone as much of the Temple and most of the city around it. There was nothing really remarkable about the room. Plain. Spartan, even. You wouldn't know you were inside the Temple except that it was so clean.
He surveyed the room. Nothing but empty beds and empty clothing racks if you didn't count his bed and the rack next to it.
Someone had laundered his clothes.
Oh, and he was naked.
Someone had done that, too.
He was pulling on his pants when he heard a female voice call in, "Are you dressed?"
"Um, yeah," he said. "I am now."
The wooden door swung open to admit a girl in an ankle length white skirt and the tiny top that seemed all the rage in the Temple now that he'd started noticing. The skinny girl looked him over.
"You look pretty good," she remarked. "I'm Natta."
"Zhair'lo," he replied dimly. She seemed unnaturally bright and cheery. What time was it?
"I know," she said. "I heard."
"Heard?" he wondered. "Heard what?"
"About what an amazing job you did last night," she replied.
Amazing? His jaw dropped. This crazy girl was giving him credit for what he had done to Talla? What was amazing about that?
"Don't be shy," she said. "I hope you can upgrade me some day."
What sort of rumours had been spreading about what had happened? The look in her eyes was some kind of hero worship.
"I -- I hadn't thought that it had gone that well."
"Are you kidding?" she asked, her eyes alight. "It went great!"
This floored him. He didn't mind the idea of adoring throngs of girls. But he didn't want to arrive at it like this.
Natta turned her head just slightly toward the door in a way that indicated someone was just outside.
"I have to get you some food and escort you out though," she said. "You're not really supposed to hang around longer than you have to."
"Anything particular you like?"
"Uh, whatever you usually have."
And with a flare of skirt she was gone.
There was nothing for him to do except, perhaps, take a piss. In the town, you went outside to take care of such things. Outhouses were the order of the day. What did women do when the whole place was inside a building?
There was another door in the room. He tried that. Yep. Indoor plumbing. Must be nice.
That taken care of, he had a moment to consider Natta's attitude. She clearly didn't have an accurate story if she wanted him to be a Conduit for her. So what story did she have? What had he done that could be viewed in a positive light?
"It is possible that you took on too much," the guard had said in the departure room.
Ella had said something similar, that he'd 'taken on a lot'.
Was that what this was about? Did Natta have some weird version of last night's events which held that he'd done Talla some kind of service by overwhelming her? Obviously a huge chunk of that story was missing. What was he to do? Should he be correcting her?
He was struck by a sudden flash of memory: an image of dozens of women behind the four thrones. They must have thought themselves well cloaked in that darkness, but it couldn't protect them from the strange super-aware state the blue-skirted woman had put him in. That meant there were a lot of women who could easily dispel this rumour. That was a lot of women who weren't dispelling the rumour. It took a lot of power to keep that many people silent. Would it be wise for a boy, only days in to his adult life, to cross such a force? He was afraid, suddenly.
Natta was back very quickly with a tray containing an absurdly vast quantity of food: fruit, bread, scrambled eggs, a few pieces of ham.
"I told them it was for a man who worked on a farm," she said. She giggled when she saw the look of surprise on his face. "That's right, isn't it? You work on a farm?"
How had that gotten around so quickly?
"I've been working with a blacksmith for a year or so," he said. "Just started at the farm."
Natta seemed to hang on every word he spoke. Her attention bothered him.
"What about you?" he asked. "What do you do?"
"I just got my first upgrade," she said. "Joined the Temple last week."
Last week? The same time as Talla?
"I'm in Within."
That meant nothing to him. Abundance was Talla's Discipline. He'd learned what Point was from Renia. Within? Hadn't Renia said something about "making Within happy"? He'd taken that for the name or title of the woman who had so coldly examined him. But Within was the name of a Discipline?
"So what do they do in Within?" he asked, prodding her to talk so as to both avoid her questions and dampen the blindness of her adoration.
"Medicine," she said. "Science. Administration. Stuff like that."
"You're going to be a doctor?"
If she could talk more, he could eat more.
"Maybe, maybe not," she replied. "At the moment I do a lot of boring stuff. Laundry and cooking. Cleaning. Fetching things for people. Running errands. Bringing you breakfast is the only nice thing on my list today."
So the youngest ones got the worst jobs. They must have to work their way up. It wasn't really much different with men.
"When do you start doing something interesting?"
"Hard to say," she said, looking up at the ceiling. "We take a lot of classes when we aren't working. Maybe around fourth rank, when we go yellow, we start an apprenticeship."
Someone rapped sharply at the door. Natta straightened suddenly.
"Um, just a second."
She disappeared out the door.
Well, that was good. At least he had a chance to eat. He was starving. He didn't know if it was his nerves, a general result of ejaculating twice in one evening or some effect of taking part in an upgrade, but he had no problem downing the entire ridiculous meal that Natta had brought him.
She returned in good order, but slightly muted.
"If you're done, I'll escort you out," she said quietly.
The adoring look was still in her eyes, but she managed to look simultaneously sheepish. He nodded, wiped his mouth with the provided napkin and followed her out of the room. Outside the room there stood a guard, fully armoured, keeping watch. How fortunate he hadn't decided to go for a walk.
There were women everywhere. He was in the middle of some thoroughfare. White, yellow and orange clad women were traveling in every direction across a wide, cobblestone plaza. He had never seen the Temple like this. The brief glimpses of it he had seen last night, from the mostly underground path joining the small circle gate to the Augmentation Chamber, had shown him a nearly deserted Temple. Suddenly, in daytime, the full impact of some twelve thousand women crammed in to the area of the Temple hit him.
This place was full.
"This way," Natta said. "You came in by Endowment's lower gate, didn't you?"
"I can't take you back that way," she said. "Not my Division. Not proper without special reason. I can take you out the main gate. If you walk -"
"To the left," he said. "I know. I've lived here my entire life."
"Right," she said as they ploughed through the crowd.
She stopped quite quickly as they turned a corner. It was a narrow alley; deserted. It was not, he realized, a part of any route to the main gate.
"Listen", she said seriously and quietly, "Back there ... I said some things ..."
"About wanting me for your upgrade."
"Well, yes, but that's not what I'm talking about," she explained. "I shouldn't have told you about -- about how things work here. It's not something men should know, okay? I'm new, so I didn't know what you shouldn't know."
She ran a hand nervously through her hair as she looked at the foot traffic passing by. No one was paying them any attention.
"Look, just, uh, just don't tell anyone, okay? I know it doesn't make much sense anyway, but, just don't, okay?"
"Okay," he promised. What was there to say? That Within specialized in science and medicine? That girls new to the Temple were assigned crappy jobs? She hadn't told him anything ...
"Okay," she said with a deep breath, and smiled then congenially, "Okay. But I still hope I get to be upgraded by you someday. Let's go, then."
What was he to make of that?
He followed her out.
Shadows of pain.
Creeping across her body.
Burning out of her heart.
Triumphant ecstasy and relief, so brief, swallowed by a sea of agony.
But these were memories. Hazy memories. They traced across her chest whenever she thought about it.
She laid on her back on a soft bed. She had been elsewhere. A hard marble altar. She shuddered thinking about it. Her body felt wrong when she shivered.
Someone was holding her hand.
She opened her eyes.
Though she felt rested, she knew it hadn't been an easy sleep. There was a lot of sunlight in the room around her, but curtains had been let down at the nearest window. The curtains waved in a light breeze, casting waves of filtered green light over her.
It felt close to noon.
She pictured the sun, high in the sky. Then she thought of the flickering light of torches and another shudder went through her.
Something was wrong. Her shoulders tightened involuntarily when she thought of what had happened. But it felt wrong. Her body felt wrong. Damaged, perhaps.
"Talla," she heard someone say.
She blinked her eyes a few times.
"Where am I?" she asked hoarsely.
"Principia Abundance," was the reply.
That explained the green curtains, at least. She was in a Sorceress's offices.
Who was holding her hand?
She attempted to sit up, rolling over on her side. Her breasts shifted sideways as she did so, painfully pulling her skin. Her flesh ached. It was at that point that she realized exactly and without doubt why her body felt wrong when she shivered.
"Easy, easy," her companion warned her. "You may still be in shock."
"Atreya," she said in surprise. "I mean, ah, Mistress."
"It's okay," Atreya said, supporting her back. "Just sit up slowly."
"I have breasts," she said, perplexed.
It occurred to her that this was a stupid thing to say. There was also a stupid thing to do, and she did that next. Someone had wrapped her in a body length white robe with a tie at the waist. She pulled the fabric of it away from her chest so she could look down at her body.
Atreya let out a breath in a way that might have signaled humour.
"Yes, you do. And you should be careful. They will be tender for some time."
She was still looking down, thinking of Meena, who held one upgrade in Abundance. Meena didn't look like this.
"They're ... bigger than I thought they'd be."
"Yes, they are."
Silence then. She stopped examining herself. Surely Atreya wouldn't be impressed, given her considerable assets.
"That is my fault," Atreya said, chagrined, "and I must apologize."
"Apologize?" Talla said. It was embarrassing to see her senior say such a thing. "For these? I should be grateful."
"No, Talla," Atreya said. "I failed in my duty. I did not realize how quickly Zhair'lo could take from me. He took too much, and it was my responsibility to notice. It was my responsibility to halt the Rite. I was afraid to do so. I was not brave enough to interrupt the Rite."
She paused then, choked up. Talla looked in her eyes and saw redness there. Had she been awake all night, sitting here? What had she been thinking all that time?
She'd been writing this speech in her head, Talla knew. Part of her wanted to stop her mistress from going on. But she didn't have the will to do that.
"Because I didn't stop it and - and because I was afraid, I let it proceed. The overload was extraordinary. It could have killed you -- both of you. Even now I don't know how much was delivered. It is my duty to care for those under me, especially the newest ones like you. Instead, I failed. I caused you so much pain and for that I am deeply, deeply sorry."
At least it was over. Talla was distinctly uncomfortable. Where could she go from here?
"I -- I feel okay now," she said. "I -- thank you."
Was that sufficient? Was that how one accepted such a humbling apology?
"Am I okay?"
"The doctors say so," Atreya said, her voice still weak. "Within herself was here twice in the night."
A Sorceress's office for sleeping quarters and another Sorceress to examine her. She wasn't sure how much reassurance to take from that. Was it good to have the best care or a bad sign that she needed it?
"Zhair'lo," she snapped out suddenly. "What happened to him?"
Atreya was taken aback by this outburst.
"I believe he was fine," she said. "Although I'm surprised by what I heard of his recovery. Mind that he had to carry what you were given. Men are not as well equipped to transfer as we are to hold permanently. If the measurements are correct, the load he carried is more than any man has ever lived to tell about."
"Can I see him?"
That was apparently outrageous, regardless of her state.
"No," was the firm response. "He'll be long gone back to his work."
She sighed. Another time, then.
Then she remembered something else. Another time soon, then.
A thought came back to her.
"Measurements?" she asked.
With some Disciplines, like Iron, it was very easy to quantify the number of upgrades a woman had received. A simple strength test and a couple of calculations relating to body mass and height told the story. With Lips, for example, it was considerably harder. But the Temple had its ways whenever there was dispute.
Abundance, clearly, ranked among the easily quantifiable.
"Within measured you while you slept."
That seemed vaguely creepy, but she supposed a medical examination was appropriate. She was too concerned about the results to dwell on it.
"It's hard to tell," Atreya said, "because of the swelling and the stretching of your skin. But -"
She trailed off.
"It is likely that the most appropriate thing to do is dress you in yellow."
"A bit late this morning, lad," Harzen observed amicably when he showed up at the farm.
"How'd you like it?" the older man asked. "Haven't done one myself in years."
He wasn't sure how to respond. "It wasn't what I thought," he started.
"I mean -- I don't think it went as planned."
The old man suddenly became more serious. "You didn't -- ah -- mess things up somehow?"
Zhair'lo knew exactly what that meant.
"No", he said hurriedly. "I did it right. They said I did it right."
"Good!" he exclaimed and slapped him on the back. "Everything is right, then. Get your ass out to the stables."
"Yes, sir," he said
It was back to work. In a way, he'd wanted to talk to Harzen. He'd only been working the stables for a day and didn't know anyone else yet. He wished he could talk to a couple of his old friends back in town. Maybe Marek would know something. He hadn't had his blue ribbon yet, but he was far better at sneaking around and listening to gossip. Or Plin. Plin would know. He was almost half a year older than Zhair'lo. He'd probably done several Initiations and a few upgrades and just not bothered to tell Zhair'lo about it. Hell, he'd no doubt been Served by now.
All Zhair'lo wanted to know was what "normal" was for this sort of thing. Was it normal for there to be pain? For whom? Was it just a little more than usual? Did most men nearly pass out when they acted as Conduits? Was there something wrong with him? Had he hurt Talla? Was it supposed to hurt her, even a little?
There was no one to ask. Marek and Plin were a good distance away. If he had enough energy at the end of today, he could walk in to town and find them.
Energy. "Not up to standard" is what they said when you started a new job and that new job had found new muscles to hurt. It meant weak. That was him today. Not up to standard.
Regardless, there were stables to be maintained. Horses had to be cleaned and run. Hay had to be pitched and stalls had to be cleaned out.
He would go in to town tonight, if he could. If not, then the next day. Maybe someone in the Temple could tell him if Talla was okay.
Atreya had given Talla instructions to sleep and was no longer present. She had drifted off, still exhausted. She awoke only when someone disturbed her bed by sitting on it.
"Talla," a familiar voice whispered, "I brought you some lunch."
Talla blinked awake once more. She was lying on her back, staring at the green fabric adorning the ceiling over her head. There was a column just behind her head and to her left that was part of the outside wall. She eyed the grooves on the column for a moment before realizing they were superfluous. That column supported two arches that she could see. She idly traced their shapes. One arch went along the wall, while the other arced in to the room off to the left side of her bed. There was no wall under that arch but instead a green curtain hung there to give her privacy.
"Meena," she said, shaking herself from her reverie. She should have been surprised but she was well beyond being surprised. On top of that, the smell of the food struck her nose, seizing control of her will and overriding all other thoughts.
In her hunger, she pulled in her legs and sat up too quickly. For this, she was punished with a wave of dizziness that forced her to brace herself on her knees.
"Gods!" Meena exclaimed.
After steadying herself, she recovered her wits and looked at the other girl. Meena was staring, completely unabashed, at Talla's chest. Compelled by the stunned looked on her sister's face, Talla looked down, too. She hadn't tightened her robe before she slept. Her sudden motion had loosened it further. She wasn't quite topless -- the fabric of the light gown still covered most of her newly grown breasts -- but leaning over as she was now, her cleavage was quite visible.
More importantly: she had cleavage.
"Whoa," Meena whispered. "I'd heard a rumour but -"
Meena paused a moment and gulped as she turned her head down to look at her own bikini-clad chest. Her single upgrade, which had looked so dazzling to Talla only a day ago, now seemed insignificant. She then looked back at Talla. Slowly, she reached over and pushed Talla's robe open. Talla did not resist.
"Just don't touch them," she begged quietly. "They're really sore."
"I can imagine," Meena said, still wide-eyed. "I remember from my upgrade and that was just -" She waved at her own chest but stared at Talla's unnaturally reddened breasts.
"I can't believe it. Yours are bigger than mine. That must be three upgrades you got, all at once."
"Atreya said that Within had a look," Talla said softly. "They think maybe four."
Meena shook her head and hastily closed Talla's gown.
"Four ... you're a Keeper, then?"
Talla shrugged and dove in to the food Meena had brought. Her hunger was an uncompromising beast. She was vaguely aware that her frenzy might appear inhuman. She looked up guiltily at Meena.
"Sorry," she mumbled through a mouthful of food. "Bad manners."
"Very normal," Meena explained confidently. "Even after a normal upgrade."
Talla chewed her food slowly as she surveyed what she could see of Principia Abundance. Her view to the left was blocked by the privacy curtain, her right by a wall. Over Meena's shoulder, though, she could see that the two lines of columns that started behind her head continued for quite a way Were those all really necessary? The ones in the middle were shorter with taller arches. That made sense, if they had to support the floor above. The central columns would have to be stronger, wouldn't they? Maybe not. Whoever built this structure had thought so.