Talla's Fallen Temple Ch. 03byxtorch©
Sunlight beamed down on wide cobblestone streets, burning away the puddles left by several days of rains. It was humid, but the heat of the sun promised that it would dry up soon. A long train of horse drawn carriages exited the forest and crawled morosely through the streets, the surly guardians who walked alongside it not quite able to meet the eyes of any of city's inhabitants.
A woman in bright and clean orange clothing jogged out to meet the man at the head of the column.
"Master Gerrick," she called out with a welcoming smile. "Welcome to Beshenna."
He was a big man, even when he stood next to a woman of Form. The leathery look of his skin and the seediness of his clothing did nothing to take the edge off his manner.
"Glad to be here," Gerrick replied with a frown, giving her a once over. "My orders are to see this delivered to Binyata, Second of Iron."
Gerrick might or might not have met Binyata, but even a man would know that a woman who had attained the rank of second would be wearing clothing of blue.
"My name is Elya," the woman replied with a formal lightness. "I'm an Officer of Iron. Binyata had been waiting but was called away by an urgent matter -"
"More important than this stuff?" he asked with a jerk towards the curtained carriage at the head of the long column.
"Keep moving!" he shouted to the man guiding the carriage. "Let's get this delivered."
Gerrick continued walking alongside the caravan, forcing Elya to run to catch up to him.
"You people certainly do like your towers, don't you?" he asked, surveying the city scape.
Elya's lips firmed up. This wasn't really behaviour that was appropriate for a man to use when speaking to a woman, even if Gerrick was a Master Merchant. But then ...
"How was the journey from Turiksa?"
"Long," Gerrick sighed, darkness taking his features. "Muddy."
The caravan was over a day late. They had sent runners ahead to warn the people in Beshenna. An unexpectedly wet summer was likely to blame.
"Any injuries to report?" Elya asked.
This was her business now, collecting the most important pieces of data and taking care of such matters.
"Three men exhausted," Gerrick told her. "Otherwise we are all well."
It should have been a six day journey from Turiksa, but the weather had stretched it to over seven. Even the best of men, spending so long away from a Temple, could have difficulties.
"And your Temple contingent?"
Gerrick stretched, rotating his head to get rid of a likely fictitious crick in his neck, and sighed heavily.
"The H'rem are fine," Gerrick said. "A bit worn out. Not too unusual under the circumstances. They could use a few days rest, just like the rest of us."
That part of the report was perfunctory. During transit, the Master Merchant was responsible for all of the women and men in his retinue. It was polite therefore, to give him the impression that his report on the condition of the women -- as well as the men - was taken to heart.
"And the cargo?"
Always last. Never put things, no matter how valuable, before people.
"The wagons are secure, their cargo undamaged," he stated. "The carriage's contents were undisturbed, whatever's in there."
It was polite to pretend that he hadn't heard the clearly identifiable noises that periodically issued from that carriage.
"Excellent," Elya replied. "We'll follow a route past Sweetness gate to -"
"The cargo should go immediately to Form," Gerrick interrupted her.
Elya winced, compressing her lips. There was only so much latitude she would grant the man, no matter how difficult his journey or how long his H'rem had been out of contact with a Temple.
"Master Gerrick," she said. "I assure you, the shortest route through Beshenna to Form's gate will take us past Sweetness. It will be the briefest stop to offload your wounded."
Gerrick grimaced and closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were looking at Elya's feet. With another blink, he met her eyes.
"Sorry," he said, his tired gaze unwavering. "You're right. The wounded come first."
People, even men, came before things.
They learned that one before they even knew what all the words meant.
Mathematics was an irritating subject.
As women were natural mathematicians, Talla had enjoyed the study of numbers since childhood.
So, sitting in this engineering class, studying tensile strengths and applying the numbers to the construction of roofs, walls and towers, ought to have been enjoyable.
Why even bother studying when she could just look at the design, see the size of the timbers and the stones and tell whether it would stand or fall? Why should she bother measuring the angles, looking up a table of sines and calculating the force on each member?
Despite having this innate ability, she was still required to do the math longhand.
But at least it ended.
Their teacher, satisfied that they were doing the math correctly, dismissed them for the afternoon. There would be enough time to find dinner and Talla had plans to meet up with Tina for one of those rare evenings in which neither of them was due to Serve.
It made her happy to see that Yua was tagging along.
"What's up, Yua? Hungry?"
"Yeah, sure," Yua answered distantly. "You Serving tonight?"
"Nope," Yua replied. "Must be an Initiation or something."
It was widely understood that, given the hungry manner in which Initiation rituals chewed through young men, young women were not sent out to Serve on such nights. That way there was more fodder for the girls in their long skirts.
"Tina's supposed to be waiting for me around here somewhere," Talla said, looking around.
"You guys get together a lot?"
"Every day, if we can," Talla said, still searching the throngs of women in their many colours of clothing.
"No, I mean ... like ... 'get together', y'know?"
"Oh," Talla exhaled in realization. "Not that often. I'm Serving a lot, so ... um ... no. That really only happened after we Primed one night."
"You got to Prime?"
"Yeah. You'll probably get a chance, too. I think everybody does."
Talla watched Yua mull this over for a moment before she felt a poke in the ribs.
"Hey!" she said to Tina.
Tina tilted her head toward an unoccupied alleyway and indicated they should walk that way.
"What's up?" Talla asked casually.
Tina gave a brief glance at Yua before speaking.
"You know how Y'ris is working in the Offices?" she asked.
"Who's Y'ris?" Yua asked.
"My roommate," Tina told Yua as she turned to walk backwards in front of them.
"Go on," Talla said.
Making sure no one was within earshot, Tina continued leading them down the alley.
"That means that she gets to see the roster for tonight."
"Anyone can see that," Yua pointed out, her tone indicating that she had a degree of expertise where it came to that list.
"Nuh-uh," Tina disagreed. "Anyone can see who's getting an upgrade."
"Okay-ay," Yua agreed.
"Y'ris, however, can see who the Sources are and -" she looked directly at Talla "- who the Conduits are."
Talla's eyes widened.
"You mean ...?"
"I mean," Tina interrupted her. "that we're going to watch some upgrades tonight."
"I can come with you?" Yua asked.
"Of course," Tina said. "Let's get some dinner."
Illya was trying to contain her anxiety. It wasn't as if she hadn't been here before. This would be her fourth try. She held her hands together in her lap and bit her lips in an attempt to prevent herself from fidgeting too much. It wouldn't do to look like a complete novice in front of the older women waiting for their turns.
Arda faced Illya from a bench opposite, their knees almost touching. She winked nervously at Illya. It was a comfort to have Arda here, given the level of intimacy between them.
Gerta had been right. This was going to work. It had to.
Illya looked down at her long skirt where it nearly touched Arda's.
'Getting rid of you,' she told the offending piece of clothing. 'Getting rid of you as soon as I can.'
She closed her eyes and inhaled sharply, the acrid taste of anger hitting the back of her tongue. She felt Arda's hand coming to rest on her thigh.
"Easy," Arda whispered.
Illya nodded gratitude back to her sister. No point going in to this with the wrong attitude. There was always a nagging thought in the back of her brain that the upgrades had failed because she'd done something wrong. Maybe she had eaten the wrong kind of breakfast that day. Or it could have been that she wasn't happy or eager enough. Maybe she wasn't attractive enough to the Conduit, or she hadn't handled him properly.
She knew these things didn't matter. They told her so. But deep inside, there was a suspicion she couldn't name that some nefarious, trivial detail was the real reason she'd failed so miserably, so repeatedly.
'Positive attitude,' she told herself. 'I need a positive attitude.'
It might help. She couldn't prove it wouldn't.
She risked a glance at the older, more experienced women around her.
'Try to be like them.'
They were calm and relaxed, eager even. They betrayed no anxiety. They -- above all -- knew it was going to work for them.
'I know it's going to work, too,' she told herself resolutely.
"I wonder which one we'll get," Arda said, her voice betraying only the slightest lilt of anxiety.
"They're both perfect," Illya said. Thinking better of using the word 'perfect' to describe a man, she amended, "Perfect records at least."
"Shouldn't matter, I guess," Arda replied with a gulp.
They'd had this conversation several times already. Arda was just trying to calm her own nerves.
"You'll be fine," one of the older women said. She fixed her yellow sash before turning to face Illya. "The Temple has chosen the right Conduit for you and he will make everything all right."
Illya held back a frown.
"Yes, Mistress," she replied.
The respect she'd been taught to show her superiors kept her emotions from showing in either her face or her voice, but she deeply resented the woman's condescension. What did that woman know? Had she been stuck in a long skirt for months on end? No.
What did the Temple know, after all? How to cram its unwanted Virgins in a room apart from everyone else and treat them like outcasts? The Temple had already chosen two others to attempt to break her Seal and those had failed. The Temple, she had long since realized, didn't know what to do with its Sealed Virgins until boys like Zhair'lo and Zo'kar came along.
She inhaled sharply again, feeling Arda's still present hand pressing down more firmly on her flesh.
The door of the little waiting room swung open.
"Illya Ch'lai," the woman with the spear called out.
Arda withdrew her hand and gave her the sort of confidence-building nod that always accompanied Gerta's lectures on optimism.
"Go get 'em," Arda whispered.
Illya stood up and followed the spear-carrier into the Augmentation Chamber. She couldn't bring herself to look around the room. Instead, she locked her eyes on the muscular back of the woman in front of her, bracing herself for what was to come.
When the Officer stopped walking and turned to face the assembly of women, Illya turned at the same moment. Three times the Officer cracked the butt of her spear on the marble floor. There was silence in the Chamber.
"Whom do you present to Us?" the Queen asked..
"Highness," the Officer replied crisply, "I present Illya Ch'lai."
They were only using the creche name, leaving out the names of her parents. That was new.
"Illya Ch'lai" the Queen addressed her. "What do you seek?"
I seek a way out of this hole you've left me in. I seek membership in our society. I seek freedom from this long skirt. I seek to have this stain removed from my body. There were so many things she sought; so many things she wanted to say.
"Abundance, Highness," were the only words to come from her mouth. They came out smoothly, with the expertise of practice and the casual air only a certain amount of cynicism could give them. "My first upgrade."
The formulaic phrases went on: the Queen approving; the Sorceress of Abundance agreeing. Who would stand as the Source for Illya's fourth attempt at this upgrade? Her second and third tries had involve Officers. Who would it be this time?
"I will stand, Highness," the Sorceress of Abundance said.
Well, that was really pulling out all the stops, wasn't it?
The blonde woman stood up from her throne and walked down through several tiers to meet Illya between the pair of white marble altars.
She was beautiful and tall and, even though her breasts were covered by layers of jeweled, translucent silks, they made Illya want to die of jealousy.
The Sorceress smiled and leaned in close to Illya, the green silk of her scarf just touching Illya's shoulders.
'I can see the flecks of glitter in your hair,' Illya thought, 'and smell your fancy perfume.'
"We're going to get this right tonight," the Sorceress promised.
"Mistress," she acknowledged after a wary gulp.
Abundance nodded smartly and began removing her blouse -- a rather complicated procedure given all its layers. When she was done, Illya was awestruck. So perfect and so large ... she was breathless.
'Oh, Arda,' she thought helplessly. 'You should see her. Someday mine could look like these and you could do whatever you like with them.'
Arda loved to whisper dirty things in her ears when they were together; about how big her breasts would be; what she wanted to do to Illya; what the boys would do to Illya. Arda could really go on.
The layers of fabulous silk were handed off to an attendant -- a girl in white whose little skirt and small breasts evoked slightly less jealousy in Illya. The topless Sorceress gave a smart, parting nod to Illya and walked off to Illya's left. In the periphery of her vision, Illya noted that the Sorceress was climbing the flat marble altar on that side of the Chamber and lying on her back.
'My turn, huh?'
Her top was tied around her back. Facing the assembled women -- a Queen, two Sorceresses and an unusually large horde of variously attired women in the background, she reached behind her body and began untying the laces there. She meanwhile scanned the audience. The front rows, where women in orange were sitting, were not her concern. Back past several rows of yellow-clad women, she looked for girls in white.
There! Her friends, sisters previously Sealed in Virginity, Nadine and Anzha were here to watch. That was reassuring. Where was Yua? There, at the opposite end of the same tier ... between two other girls that Illya didn't know.
With all three ties undone, she let the fabric fall away from her chest. Holding the little top by its strings, as if it were a piece of garbage or a dead animal held by its tail, she handed it to the attendant.
'There, I'm naked,' she thought at the Officers in front of her. 'Do you see me? Me and my flat chest? This is how you left me, rotting in that room for weeks on end. No longer a child but not quite an adult despite my age. Are you happy to see me naked; to look down on me? Are you ashamed of me?'
'I'm not ashamed.'
Something was nagging for Illya's attention. She let her gaze wonder through the crowd, trying to figure out what in that gallery was waving flags in her subconscious. It only took a moment before she seized on the face, and then the eyes, of one of Yua's companions. She was either a Virgin or an Initiate -- only the skirt could tell the difference and the girl's lower body was covered by the person in front of her. Whoever she was, she was covering her mouth in nervous surprise while her widened eyes were locked on Illya in a way that burned through the bridge of Illya's nose.
'She knows,' Illya thought. 'She knows how I feel.'
It sent a screaming thrill of panic through Illya, that someone could see through her facade and sense the bitterness and sedition inside. She straightened her spine, trying to look as respectful and proper as she could, and turned to her right to mount her own marble altar.
It was a bit different from the Sorceress's. While the Sorceress would lie flat on her back, Illya's altar had an angled back so she could sit in a reclined position facing the Sorceress.
All well and good. She was ready. The stage was set. Torches were being snuffed, placing a veil of anonymity over all the spectators and leaving only the altars lit. The drums began beating as they always had.
Illya risked a sideways glance up into the gallery. There was nothing to see. Who was that girl? She was so distracted that she missed the call for the Conduit. He was already in the Chamber, entering from a door behind her and walking across the room to the prone Sorceress. Which one was he? She wouldn't have been able to tell one from the other even if she had seen his face.
He was handing off the lower part of his robe to an attendant who quickly retreated into the darkness from which she had come. Muscular guy, at least, if she was to estimate from his legs and butt. He probably did a lot of lifting, or maybe running. Did she know anything about the two Seal Breakers that would help her guess which one this muscular one might be? No. She only knew their names.
It was a sin that she couldn't see what was happening. The Conduit had climbed atop the altar opposite and was straddling the chest of the topless Sorceress. The cloth of his robe obscured all of his body but his feet. She could see his body moving back and forth as, presumably, he thrust his erection through the tunnel the Sorceress was making of her cleavage.
Everyone in the gallery could see. The guards and attendants could see -- except perhaps for the few standing in the darkness behind Illya. But not Illya. She could see the Conduit's feet and the Source's legs and that was it.
It didn't go on for nearly as long as it had on her previous attempts. Was that a good sign or a bad one? Some motion or word from the Sorceress signalled the boy to get off and be on his way.
Anxiety and eagerness welled up inside her. She wanted to beat down those emotions that rose up as she watched the Conduit turn to her. She wanted to deny that her heart was so set on the gifts that only the Temple could bring her.
'Desire makes you weak,' she told herself to no effect.
She wanted a woman's body. She wanted a woman's clothes. She wanted to be part of a woman's society, no matter what they'd done to her.
What if she just stood up and walked out of the Chamber? What would they do to her then? Could they even stop her? She tried to picture it: the guards holding her down; the Conduit looming over her; some other woman taking a hand to his penis -- or maybe he would do it himself.
But it was a ridiculous dream. She wasn't going anywhere. She saw that erection, pointing up into the folds of his robe, and knew that it contained the magical energy that she had dreamed of having for months now.
This was the way forward. If she could just climb out of this stupid hole she'd somehow gotten herself stuck in, she could be happy. Normal, even.
She managed a weak smile for the Conduit as he climbed aboard her altar and straddled her legs. Handing him the chalice full of white syrup, she risked a quick word.
"What's your name?" she whispered.
He cocked his head and twisted his lips in joy as though he was laughing at some secret joke or making some realization. Was it odd to be asking him his name?
"Zhair'lo," he said. "You?"
Not wanting to make it too obvious that they were speaking, she followed the procedure of the ritual, dipping her fingers into the chalice and spreading the Synergist in a thick layer over the entirety of her flat chest.