NOTE: This is fresh out of the note-pad and only lightly edited, but it should give you an idea of where my thoughts have been for the last couple of weeks.
The boy sleeps.
Sybille watches the shadows of his limbs under the thin sheet, the sweat on his brow, the tangled mess of hair. An expression of desperation is set on his damp face, as though he’s clinging to the solace of sleep, determined not to let go. Narrow fingers are clenched on the edge of the sheet, which is drawn tightly around all of his angles.
She turns to Jax, her high priest, and nods. “This one,” she says under her breath.
He bows, “As you say, Lady.” He squints at the number cut into the leather band around the boy’s upper arm; Sybille sees him make a mental mark for tomorrow. Temple slaves don’t have names; she knows the boys name each other, for fondness of for convenience, but she pretends not to notice them taking this liberty. Her chosen one’s number is seventeen.
She throws a glance around the long hall, the many straw pallets there: all young men, all asleep. She suddenly wants to change her mind: to place the burden on some other shoulders, not these. Let some other boy weep and break. Yet, the trial is not only his, but hers also: what she admires, she must give away.
She exchanges another glance with Jax and walks away. Let the boy sleep, even if she can not.
A lad brings her milk and honey in the morning; another lights the incense. Feigning sleep, she watches them through her lashes. Her world is full of men: slaves, novices, priests. There are only two women in the temple: Sybille and the goddess who, it is said, speaks through her. It is also said the goddess is fond of men, but none who say this know of the discipline, the work, the trials. What the goddess likes is to see men struggle in her service.
The two lads return with hot water for Sybille’s bath, and she decides that her fake sleep has lasted for long enough. She slides into lilac-scented water. One of the slave boys swallows hard and looks away; he must be new, not yet accustomed to the sight of her nudity. She smirks and arranges herself in the bath so that the water curves gently around the underside of her breasts.
“Hand me the milk,” she says to the shy one. His hand trembles when he approaches with the pitcher and the earthenware mug, but he doesn’t spill any, and she is disappointed. She would have liked to sink her nails into his skin, or to send him to beg a whipping from a passing priest. She hates him for being safe from the trial today. She should have chosen him. Should have chosen any other boy.
“Fetch me Jax,” she says, and hesitates. She shouldn’t. She really shouldn’t. But she wants to. “No, don’t, no Jax. The pair of you, get out, and fetch me number seventeen.”
The boy arrives in minutes: temple slaves travel everywhere at a run, particularly at her word. He smoothly sinks onto his knees by the door, eyes fixed on the flagstones. Daylight has washed the rawness from his features, leaving behind a guarded, learned expression of subservience. There are smudges of soot on his bare arms; soot stains on his tunic. He has been fetched away from his daily work; he doesn’t know yet what has been prepared for him. Even now, Jax’s priests will be erecting the platform in the temple square, making announcements in the four corners of the city, oiling the leather whips. She should help him prepare.
She opens her mouth to give him the news, but instead she says, “Scrub my back.”
He flows into action without a word, and his motions are confident, though she is certain she hasn’t used him at her bath before. He has training; a pleasure house, perhaps. The temple gets its slaves in place of tax from the city’s richer quarters, and Sybille can picture number seventeen draped across cushions by the side of a rose-water fountain somewhere, greedy hands in his hair.
His thumbs find a knot between her shoulder-blades; she sighs and closes her eyes.
She should have had this boy attend her long ago – when she had first noticed him at his work, as he knelt by a fireplace elbow-deep in soot. Focussed entirely on the task at hand, he hadn’t seen her glide past, and so she watched him sweep out the ashes, pile in fresh firewood and kindling, beat out a spark. He had sang as he worked, a jaunty tune she didn’t know: as though the tedium of his labours was only a stop on the way to other, more exciting pastimes. It was the only time she had ever heard his voice, though she often wondered what he would sound like in the grip of pleasure. Instead, she pretended not to notice him burn his way through the temple life. Was she trying to fool the goddess, to turn her gaze towards one of the others?
What she admires, she must give away.
“My bath is cold,” she says. “Towels and lavender oil, boy.”
Her mentor and predecessor, old Lanna, gone into the ground seven months past, would send a boy through the trial unflinching, as soon as she saw the darkened sun and heard the goddess whisper in her ear. Sybille is new to the mantle, for all she’s been raised to wear it; for all she can pretend. Perhaps, in time she will become as jaded as Lanna had been; perhaps, the goddess will grant her this peace.
Number seventeen dries her shoulders, then each arm in turn: careful motions, full of unexpected timidity. Not a pleasure slave, she decides – simply a house boy from a villa somewhere in the city. A deep flush on his cheeks as he kneels to dry her legs entertains her, and she spoils herself by playing with his hair. To her intense surprise and pleasure, he responds by rubbing his head against her hand, like a pet. He catches himself, starts and begins to pull away, but she whispers,
“Stay,” – and for a long minute they are frozen together, her hand against his flushed cheek.
It’s then Sybille swears to herself that she will carry him through the trial, and claw him back from the goddess’s grip, and keep him.
“Never mind the towels,” she tells him. “Onto the bed. On your back.”
For an instant it looks as though he might forget himself and speak, but she arches a brow, and he is all smooth obedience again. If she hadn’t watched him from the shadows, hadn’t spied on him at his tasks, she might be fooled into thinking that this obedience now flows inside his veins instead of blood, but she knows that there’s a stubborn spark lurking still somewhere inside. One day she may decide to beat it out of him, or take pleasure in failing, but not today: not yet.
When he’s spread out on his back, she dips her hands in oil and sweeps his tunic out of the way, where it’s tenting at his groin. He is pleasingly erect, and she runs her oiled palms over him with proprietary efficiency, her eyes fastened intently on his face.
At the first touch his mouth falls open and he gives a loud gasp, eyes wide and full of wonder.
“There’s a good boy,” she purrs, continuing to stroke up and down, oil warming against his skin. “You may speak. Is this good?”
“Ahh… ah, Lady, yes.”
Sybille may be mistaken, but it doesn’t seem like anybody has attended to his pleasure for a while and longer. She wouldn’t have begrudged him a fumble with one of the other lads, but it suits her that he has arrived in her bed greedy for touch. She plays with him, ignoring for now an ache of desire that wells up from her own depth in response to the boy’s eager thrusts and moans. Within minutes, he is hers: his whole being is centred in her warm, oiled hands.
She gathers her thoughts, and wills her voice to become a soothing flow. “Now listen carefully, boy, and mark what I say.” Her palm glides up and down, and he strains to meet the strokes, but she can tell he is paying attention. “Have you attended a sun trial before?”
He tenses and stops moving his hips. She can tell he has got her meaning; she can feel him start to wilt in her hand. He’s still only a young man, though, and she strokes him back to attention with a few deft moves. Although his eyes are now covered with a film of fear, his desire still won’t be denied.
“That’s right,” she murmurs. “It is to be your trial today. I have chosen you myself.” She underlines this last with a wicked caress around his exposed tip, as though she speaks of a reward and not of condemnation. “You are my chosen, because I know you can take it. You will walk out into the square, and take a hundred lashes from my priests, and you won’t make a sound. I know you won’t. Will you?”
She strokes him faster and he arches and groans. His eyes are full of lust, and hurt, and betrayal.
“I could have picked any boy,” she lies. “But they are not you. Another boy might be weak, and scream, and if he screams, he dies. The goddess wishes the whole world to know the strength of her servants, and so she casts away the unworthy. You are worthy. I rely on you. Survive for me, and it’s not just my hands you’ll feel on you. Do you understand?”
He closes his eyes. She can see tears leak from under his lashes, even as he thrusts into her fist. “I understand,” he chokes out.
“Good.” She stops caressing him, and slides along the bed to gather his head in her lap, to stroke his brow. “There will be pain, but what’s pain to you? I know how strong you are.”
She is lying: she knows nothing of him, but that he sings when the going is hard, and that in the depth of sleep he looks as though he’s fighting, and that he desires her even as she hurts him. She hopes this is enough.
She places a careful kiss on his brow, and tastes salt. “Cry now if you like,” she whispers against his skin. “Howl now, here.”
“No,” Seventeen grinds out, his eyes closed. “If I must suffer pain in silence, I would rather get some practice.”
“Good,” she says again: lies again.
Then she throws on the first cloak her fingers can find by the side of the bed, and rings for Jax.
As the crowd gathers beneath her balcony, Sybille breathes the incense and speaks to her goddess, but the goddess is silent: she’d made her will known through the darkening of the sun, and for now will speak no more, until the trial is done. Two novices arrive to dress her in ceremonial veils and jewels, but she slaps at their hands and dresses herself; she can do that much. Then she grits her teeth and goes out onto the balcony.
The trial has only been announced a few hours before, but the temple square is full: an anthill of colour, greedy for the spectacle. There hasn’t been a sun trial for some years. Sybille remembers one when she was a girl of ten, newly chosen into Lanna’s succession. That slave boy had broken the silence, and the goddess had struck him down with a single flash of light no sooner than the scream escaped his lips.
The last trial before that had been Jax’s, when Lanna herself was still young.
The slaves have dragged a whipping horse into the square. It is used daily for the discipline of young men, and its wood has been polished with squirming bodies to a smooth sheen. Sybille has never enquired whether the temple owns just the one horse, or whether more are dotted around the grounds, wherever boys might require punishing. She never bothers with such contraptions when she has a cause to use the leather riding whip she keeps for the purpose, but she can see how it might be useful sometimes to tie a boy in place. Her thoughts turn to Seventeen: the way he writhed under her hands. If ever he is returned to her, she is going to tie him to the bed with her own ceremonial veils, and make him scream with pleasure for the whole temple to hear.
She clenches her fists, pressing the fingernails into her skin until she gasps in pain: thus she makes herself breathe again.
Two masked priests wait on the raised platform with the whipping horse: Jax and one other, she doesn’t see who. She doesn’t want to know; she will be able to fight down her resentment towards Jax, the man who raised her in the service of the goddess, and who had, moreover, gone through the trial himself. Who wouldn’t be the high priest, else. The other one, she would rather not struggle to forgive.
She sees Seventeen walk slowly to the podium from the temple door. There are no guards to compel him: this is no execution, but a trial, and he must go willingly to his fate. She wishes she could read his mind, and then is glad she cannot, because she couldn’t bear glimpsing into his thoughts only to find hatred towards her. That he must hate her now, she doesn’t doubt: for all that the trial is the will of the goddess, it is Sybille who makes that will known. She hopes that somewhere deep, beneath the tempest of his soul, there lies still a spark of desire that she has planted, a wish to please her.
The boy walks up to the whipping horse and leans forward without prompting, resting his torso on the polished wood. The priests swiftly secure him with the leather straps: one at each ankle, one at each thigh, one around each arm, just beneath the band that bears his number. Sybille considers that she has never seen him completely nude before: even in her bed, there was a soot-stained tunic twisted around his chest. Now he is not only bare, but also clean, all traces of soot and ash wiped away. His skin is milky-pale, for he works indoors. She can’t see it, but can imagine he is covered with a film of sweat.
Jax and the other priest take up the whips: two wide strips of leather tied to wooden grips. She prepares to count to a hundred, and swears she won’t look away.
The whips crack down one after the other. The slap of leather against skin rings out in the clear air, bounces from the four sides of the temple square and falls at Sybille’s feet. The many-coloured crowd hushes as one, straining to see and hear the boy. She wonders if they wish him strength, or whether they hope for the spectacle of the goddess’s ire.
Sybille wishes that instead of his buttocks – still pale, with a single band of red where the traces of the two straps have blended together – she could see his face; read the torment in his features.
The straps fall time after time, but the boy makes no sound. There’s no especial viciousness in the rise and fall of the priests’ arms. Sybille has seen Jax deliver just such a flogging to a novice not two days before, and many times before that – to different young men, for many different faults. But never so many strokes at once, and never were the boys forbidden to scream. They always try to bite back their reactions; some are proud, and some are naturally strong, but in the end, everybody screams.
Not today: not her boy. Sybille counts the strokes, her whole body tense, only her lips moving. They are coming up to thirty. There will be a break half-way: a gulp of water for the priests, and one for the boy also. Jax had argued against it: there had never been breaks before.
“I meditated. The goddess had no objection,” Sybille had told him.
“Only if you’re sure, my lamb,” Jax had said.
Not since she had risen to be the voice of the goddess, had Jax slipped into using the pet name of her childhood. He is clearly out of sorts. She wonders if now, some forty years after his trial, Jax still feels the ghost burn of the leather whips.
The priests drink and give water to the boy. The goddess doesn’t object. Sybille watches Jax lean down and speak to the boy: an encouragement, she hopes.
The flogging continues at the same slow pace, one crack after the other. The boy strains against the bonds, throws back his head each time the straps land. The crowd is still entranced: nobody wants to miss a stroke that may break him.
She wonders if Seventeen is also counting, or whether he has given up all thought but the will to endure. She wonders how the two priests can bear to carry on, used though they are to beating young men. Seventeen isn’t special to them the way he is to her, but the temple’s priests don’t indulge in casual cruelty.
Yet she knows that if the ritual dictated that she delivered the strokes with her own hand, she would do so, even if her heart were dying. What the goddess demands, she will have.
As the trial nears the end, the crowd grows complacent: there is now a steady hum of conversation rising towards the balcony; they think, perhaps, that if the boy hasn’t broken before now, he would not break at all. Sybille wishes she had their ease of mind. She can see how he suffers; the red rawness of his buttocks and upper thighs will not subside for many days. She makes no guess about the dreams that would come to him this night, but she intends to lie next to him, seeing away the demons.
Shaking with the tears she can’t shed, Sybille counts the final stroke of the hundred. The priests throw their whips onto the ground.
Jax turns to her and bows.
“Is the goddess satisfied?”
Sybille inclines her head, and takes off one of her veils: a blue one, to signify the goddess’s pleasure. This she drops from the balcony into the priest’s waiting hands. This is pure ceremony now: she can’t hear the goddess, doesn’t know her mind – barely knows her own mind. She turns from the balcony and strides blindly to her rooms, leaving the attending novices to scurry after her.
It’s Jax himself who delivers number seventeen to her quarters, guiding the still naked boy with a paternal arm around his shoulders. Sybille’s insides are twisting in anxiety, but she has wept her tears, and washed her face, and she is now the goddess’s companion again: the queen the boy must see. She is wearing a serene smile, and only Jax knows the cost of this serenity.
The old man can tell she doesn’t know what to say, and breaks ceremony by speaking first.
“The lad has done well,” he says.
“As I knew he would,” she responds lightly. She prays for Seventeen’s mask of bewilderment to melt into pride, or gratitude, or lust – anything but resentment, much as she deserves it. “You know I chose him for his strength.”
Although Jax knows nothing of the sort, he nods. “Would you have him freed and made a novice, Lady? It’s a tradition.”
A twitch of the boy’s brow: he hasn’t expected this. She wants to laugh and throw her arms around him: you will be high priest one day, boy, and you will have a name, and I will call it out in the dark.
“Let me,” she says.
She picks up a dagger off a side table, and carefully slices at the ties of the leather band that bears the number seventeen. With a whisper it falls onto the floor, and now, finally, the boy lets out a sob, and folds to her feet.
Jax shakes his head, and gives her shoulder a discreet squeeze. “With your permission, Lady,” he says, withdrawing from the room.
Sybille looks at the nameless boy weeping at her feet, and winds her fingers through sweat-soaked hair.
“Your place is in my bed, not on the floor,” she says with jubilant severity. “Up, up, no dawdling. You may be free, but you still belong to me.”
Also, I tried my writing skills and wrote down a 90-page 5 series book story: Love with every strike. It is a book about BDSM, and domestic discipline – basically, my relationship with Mark…
If you have any thoughts, write me a comment and I’ll get back at you!