2. In Which a Lesson is Rendered
"And where do you think you're going, young lady?"
The Hofmeisterin crossed into Miria's path before the door to the Lady Governor's study even managed to shut. In spite of the fact that it was her duty to oversee all the dozens of servants who provided for the household, she’d apparently made time to lurk in wait at her mistress' doorstep. Miria shot her a dour look, but ground to a halt.
"I have been dismissed," she replied, trying to affect a steady voice, while still shifting into the higher pitch that the Hofmeisterin demanded. "I was going to find Agnes, and then return to my room."
The expression on the old woman's face turned from stern to severe—expectedly so. She shook her head in open disapproval, yet again reminding Miria of how it seemed to make no difference whether she was being honest or not. The presumption was always the same: the duplicitous lowlander, looking to shirk from her wifely duties.
"And why were you intending on seeking Agnes?" she asked, the set-up blatantly obvious in the question.
Miria fixed her eyes on a yellowed oil painting visible above and past the Hofmeisterin's shoulder. Some baby-faced aristocrat of the old kingdom sat pensive in it, focusing on the inevitable passing of the golden age. As with most decorations that the Lady Governor inherited after the previous owners of the palace, it buckled under the weight of overaffected, sentimental detail. The mannerist style damned the entire work to remain little more than a testament to history's bad taste.
"To return the plug to her?" she tried an answer that felt least likely to confirm prior biases. "For cleaning."
"Hm. Absolutely not."
On any other day—well, on most other days, at least—this response, spat at her with lightly disdainful fury, would likely make Miria squirm with excitement. She would think of being forced to wear that metal bulb up her ass as she hid in her own boy-toy wife's bedroom, one hand gripping the medicine-shrunk dick, the other pushing on the plug to feel it press against the innermost parts of her pleasure. Moments like these were why she offered herself for marriage, were they not? Why else would she accept it if not for the want of this heady mix of lust, shame, and subservience? But today, she was just tired and sore, and wanted that damn lump out of her, so that she could eat a normal meal, take a normal shit, and then lock herself in her room and cry a little bit into a trusted comfort pillow.
"That the Lady Governor dismissed you does not liberate you from the duty to prepare your body for servicing her, should she ever…"
Miria's lips twitched at the mention of that ever. A bitter smile flashed through her face, before she suppressed it lest the Hofmeisterin notice. Fortunately, she was too caught up in her own tirade to pay sufficient attention.
"...decide to make use out of you. At that point, you need to be able to receive the fullness of her attention, without a whimper of a complaint! This is the sole duty you have in this house, the core of your vows, and you will not neglect it, even if the Lady Governor is otherwise occupied. Are we understood?"
"You will stay as you are until dinner," the old servant continued, spitting out each word like a whip-strike, "and until then, do you know what you will be doing?"
Miria did not know, although she could suspect. She peeled her eyes away from that terrible painting to meet the Hofmeisterin's merciless stare. The joke was, of course, that technically, she was not supposed to take orders here; even as a sixth-wife, and a boy-toy one at that, she still stood above servants in the hierarchy of this household. But the Hofmeisterin, though pure human, was of the infernal lands, five decades of service impressing the wrinkled, taut face with an authority that a lowlander girlthing would not be allowed to gainsay. Assuming, that is, she would even want to: on any other day, it would be exactly the kind of a subjugation she not-so-secretly longed for. But today hurt differently.
"Remind me," the Hofmeisterin continued, "what should a boy-toy wife do, if she has failed to satisfy her wife?"
The pronouns, so clearly uttered, were a barb, meant to cut, to remind the lowlander of what she was being made to be. This time, however, even Miria couldn't help herself from giving a pale smile. The books she read long ago—the books directly responsible for spoiling her once-innocent mind—articulated that in stark clarity: in the infernal heartlands, a boy-toy wife who failed in her duties would be addressed as a he, to remind her of the precarity of her status. But the Hofmeisterin could never allow herself to do that, lest the boy-toy wife think disobedience an escape route.
"Your smirks do you no service," she boomed, "though your silence speaks to a degree of reason. You will take incense and go to the shrine to meditate on how better you can please. And if I hear of you fiddling…"
The gardens surrounding the Lady Governor's palace had changed little from their original design. They were a gift, once, delivered by the old king's uncle to his favourite niece, a decade or so before the kingdom of Leshia was dissolved on the negotiation table in the distant Tall Pyres. Expensive marbles and mildly tasteless follies dotted the expansive greenery. So much work went into growing an actual forest among the gently-rolling landscape, into planting exotic flowers and arranging winding, gravel paths, perfectly attuned to the then-latest trends. Miria's father had loved to complain about it, saying that if the king had cared as much about his real subjects as his family cared for its landscaping, then perhaps Leshia would still stand firm. Now the kingdom was no more, and the garden remained, folly-strewn testament to folly itself. Among the wives, the rumour was that the Lady Governor let it remain as it was out of a certain, shameful appreciation for kitsch.
But some changes had been made, if only for formal reasons. Miria took a left turn at an intersection of gravel paths, disappearing into a dense birch grove. With the season still early, leaves were yet to bud, letting the sixth wife glimpse the shrine before she crossed past the tree-line.
Erected out of basalt, squat and unostentatious, it was a fair cry from the grand, bleak basilicas to Want that dominated the skyline of the infernal cities. But these were still the lowlands, and the shrine meant to serve only the Lady Governor's house. She had it hidden from view for that reason, unwilling to wage yet another war with the local temple episcopacy, so violently opposed to everything the cult of Want was meant to represent. Perhaps it was cowardice to not uproot them root-and-branch, as the first wife kept claiming, but the Lady Governor had more taste for stability than proselytism.
Miria folded her parasol and propped it against the metal door before squeezing into the empty inside. Vermillion hellfire overflowed from the brazier in the middle, radiating labile light and inviting heat. As inappropriate as it was, Miria could not help herself but to shift closer to warm her hands by the fire. Tongues of red and pink extended up from the fire-bowl to lick at the tips of her fingers, the infernal essence reaching out to those who would accept it. It was as in the opening lines of that little sacrament book she received upon rendering her marriage vows:
The flames of Want are ever burning, and all-accepting.
Shadows played around her, writhing amidst the bas-relief mass of writhing bodies knotted together into a braid of entwined limbs and orifices. None of those depictions seemed entirely real, and in the unsteady light, none could be clearly read, nor easily described—not even the human-sized sculpture dominating the wall opposite to the door, towering over the metal pillory from which it was to be rendered worship. As the fire shifted and shadows bent, the effigy appeared at once a woman, or a man, vested in silks, or bountifully nude. Sometimes, its horns bent demon-like, but then one could see it as a statue of a plain man. The temple episcopacy warned that the infernal realm worshiped a great devil of all lusts, but they were wrong; the statue stood for no single being, mortal or divine, but for Want itself. That was, perhaps, the reason why when Miria looked at its face, it seemed to be the Lady Governor's.
The hellfire caught on the tip of the incense stick; Miria withdrew it from the brazier, briefly giving in to the child-like wonder of watching a single point of light dance through the dark. Truth be told, she did not exactly understand this cult, nor the reason why demons would solemnly light fires in celebration of their want. But the ritual was easier to perform than faith was to internalize, so she set the incense stick in the holder at the statue's feet, then bowed to it thrice, as was proper. The rest was a matter of waiting. She retreated to the pews, trying to sit down so that neither plug nor corset would poke too much at her insides or her outsides. It took some shifting around and wriggling, but finally she managed to settle into a kind of comfort, head rested on folded hands. Outside, the rain picked up, drumming steadily at the bronze-tiled roof; but the fire kept all cold at bay, and the visages of lust surrounding Miria dissolved into an indistinct movement of light and dark, meaningless, and therefore soothing.
At some point she dozed off into indistinct dreams. Before she got to enjoy them, or let them pass into more familiar nightmares, something sharp poked her into her cheek. She startled like an uncoiling spring, shooting up from the pew and almost slipping on the edge of her own dress.
"Silly girlthing." A familiar voice reached from the side. "This is no place for napping!"
Forgetting not to rub her eyes, Miria turned to where it was coming for; once there, she faced Luna, the first wife, immaculate as always. Of all the Lady Governor's wives, she alone carried demonic blood, only minutely altered by intermarriage with the fey courts of the Lily Isles. To them she owed her horns, spreading antler-like from her temples, their twisting branches ornamented with gold talismans chiming with each motion of her head. Though shorter than her wife, she still towered above petty humans; the tip of Miria's wig could brush Luna's chin; maybe nose, if the sixth wife was to climb to her toes. But where the Lady Governor was sturdy and strong in her build, army muscle braided around a warrior's frame, Luna stood lithe under her layered muslin dress, the pale lilac tint of her skin peering through the fabric like a dream behind a fog. As Miria cleared the daze from her eyes, she watched the needle-point of Luna's tail disappear into the folded cloth.
"I'm sorry," she murmured, unsure what to do with her hands, or her body.
"Don't be," Luna shrugged, passing by her and towards the brazier. She too held a handful of incense sticks in her slender fingers. "This is also no place for judging."
As far as Miria could remember, this was the first time she and Luna had shared a private moment like this. The first wife lived apart from the rest. Oh, of course, they ate at the same table, and showed up to the same functions, but aside from household formalities, the lilac-skinned demoness kept her distance, spending days in her suite of rooms in the palace's upper floors. The third and fourth, in particular, loved to gossip about her; but for Miria, she was even less tangible of a presence than the Lady Governor had turned out to be. No less beautiful, though. An unfortunate tug of desire pulled at her heart, finally managing to divert her thoughts from the bitter morning she had just endured.
"If I had to guess," Luna continued, lighting each incense stick in turn, but not yet placing them in their stands, "Agatha sent you here, didn't she?"
It took Miria a second to remember that Agatha was the Hofmeisterin's secret, forbidden name. As it turned out, the Lady Governor was not the only one to use it. Eagerly, she nodded.
"Typical," the demoness shared the nod, then offered the incense to the statue. Once she was done with the necessary oblations, she turned back to Miria, sliding into a pew in front of her, making sure to sit so that she could face both Want and the sixth wife at the same time. From up close, she carried an ozone fragrance; whether a perfume, or a demoness’ natural musk, Miria could not tell.
"She has a good hand for breaking boy-toys in," Luna said, "which is why Asha keeps her. But she's only human, and doesn't really get why we come to stand before Them and make our offerings."
There was a small golden ring threaded through her nostril. It drank the red hellfire's light, glimmering as if itself molten, and Miria could not bring herself to look away from it. Old dreams stirred once more, reminding her how much she would love the same, how much she…
"She probably made a point out of you having to meditate on your failures or something like that, no?"
She smiled as she asked, briefly letting her rows of pointed teeth show; again, Miria only nodded, her imagination caught elsewhere. It was a good thing she had come here, to this warmth and quiet.
"This is what happens when humans get to talk about Want too much," Luna scoffed. "You make a temple out of this place, and some wrathful goddess out of Them, who punishes those who fail to embody the perfect desire. But, I suppose that in this dull country of overcast skies and principled men, sin is easier to believe in than imperfection."
The smile did not fade from Luna's lips as she said that, but nonetheless something seemed to shift in her tone and stance; perhaps it was a flicker in the back of her eyes that hinted at frustration, maybe rage. Or maybe, and Miria preferred to believe this, it was how longing had to sound, it was the shape the yearning took. Ultimately, it didn't matter all that much: the voice alone was sweet enough for the sixth wife to listen to it gladly, whether she could follow the argument's course or not.
"You probably don't understand," Luna sighed. "I wouldn't hold it against you. Ignorance is preferable to obstinance, anyway. Especially in boy-toys."
Once more, her tail peeked from under the dress. It climbed the side of the pew, before delicately wrapping itself around Miria's wrist. The sixth wife inhaled sharply, but made no protest against the touch.
"Do you even know what the purpose of this thing is?" she asked, pointing at the pillory. "I suppose no one was there to teach you."
In truth, Miria did know—or at least knew a variant of the explanation, described in a language of lurid horror by the episcopalian missionaries relaying the revolting tales of what happened in the infernal temples of Want. She’d grown up with those stories; they remained close to her heart. But she kept her mouth shut, and let a twist of Luna's tail guide her up from her seat. Besides, to hear her own voice right now would be just unpleasant—like catching her own reflection at the wrong time.
"It should have been my duty, really," Luna continued, leading Miria between the pews and towards the statue. "Am I not the first wife, and so the shrine-keeper, and so the priestess of Want? But alas, we have gotten far from home and tradition."
A small padlock secured the pillory shut; the key to it hung like a charm from the first wife's antlers, both to ornament, and to mark her duties. Cupping it in hand as if a sacred relic, she unlocked the restraint, then hinged it open. In the back of Miria's head, she quickly reviewed her marriage vows, and the education that preceded them: but no, wives were allowed to be together, if they so desired. This was not wrong, if it was what she was now hoping it was going to be.
"In the old country, there is a custom," her voice dropped a pitch, and in so, grew stronger, "for what should be done the night before a boy-toy is wed and made a wife."
The tail pulled at Miria's wrist, making her turn around and face away from Luna, so that the demoness could reach the tight laces on the sixth wife's back. Miria's mouth moved wordlessly as they were one by one undone; she was ready to complain, to ask so the corset could stay, so that she could remain true to the Hofmeisterin's commands, and so that her waist could remain cinched and shaped.
She made no voice.
"The he that is soon to be made she," Luna explained, folding the corset on a pew, "is stripped of all pretense."
The dress came down next; through the haze of desire Miria could hardly tell if the priestess of Want unlaced it too, or simply tore it from her body. The warmth of the shrine intoxicated, seeping past skin and into flesh; if the sixth wife's body quavered, it was not for cold.
"Is laid bare to see for what he really is."
Distantly, Miria knew she probably ought to say something; not when her useless bra (what was it really holding up? those little jokes?) was piled with the crumpled dress, but rather when Luna's hand slipped underneath the choker on neck and squeezed the clump cartilage hidden beneath. She didn't speak then; neither did she speak when her wig was pulled down. She stayed silent even as her face was being wiped with her dress, smearing the makeup away. Her eyes were looking down now, at another part of her body attesting to the fact that she was enjoying it, so it had to be right.
"And then, he is made to face Want…"
The plug came out last, popped out one sharp motion; the gasp of pain died on Miria's lips as Luna pulled her now-limp body down into the ready embrace of the pillory. No discomfort awaited her there. Velvet lined the insides of the shackle, so comfortable, so curiously absent of wear. The restraint locked around her wrist and neck, leaving her bent, legs already quaking under the weight of the body, and the desire. The tail unspooled from her arm; instead, she felt the long, lilac fingers crawl towards her mouth and prop it open.
"...and offer himself to it wholesale."
A metal ring came between her teeth, forcing the jaw open as a strap secured the device behind her neck. Drool began to pool in the bottom of her mouth almost instantly, and dripped out in long strings after. Ahead of her, the grand statue stood, and shifted, and danced between forms and shapes. Even closing her eyes did not take the sight away. Maybe the day wasn't going to be so bad after all. Her groin burned.
"Anyone can then use him," the keeper of this shrine carried on preaching, now hidden somewhere outside of Miria's restrained field of view. "They make an offering to the shrine…"
A small golden thaler thunked to the basalt floor, showing the mounted portrait of Her Infernal Majesty's atop her draconic steed.
"...and then do with the flesh as they please."
A sharp wheezing sound was all the warning Miria got before a clawed hand raked her across her buttocks. She screamed out in pain and surprise, and something else, deeper still. Her legs buckled, so Luna had to pull her up by hand before the next blow. Because there was a next blow coming.
"Do you know why?" the priestess of Want repeated her favourite pedagogical question.
Even if she’d wanted to speak, Miria could only moan, and sink deeper into the embrace of the statue ahead of her, her face now both the Lady Governor's and Luna's. She was about to start crying, and welcomed that—even as she also wanted so much for the demoness behind her to stop striking, and instead…
"First and foremost," Luna said, her voice now a far-away rolling sea, "so that they never forget what they really are. What they exist to be."
The sixth wife braced herself for more strikes; and there was one or two, but nowhere near as fierce. They stung more for how tender the flesh already was, rather than for their force.
"But alas, this is the old country's custom. Not fit for the lowlands, and for the lowlanders. The Lady Governor said so, and it is our duty, as her wives, to treat it as law. A shame, isn't it? Wouldn't you want to be given to a whole basilica, hm?"
That she could not scream an audible yes! and was only allowed to groan some ugly half-sound in the shape of that word made her burn, and want. The statue's shadow-hands extended to embrace her and accept her into the fold.
"Well then, have a taste!"
There was a rustle of muslin, and then the sound of cloven feet shifting closer, of warm flesh pressing against her own exposed skin. Miria inhaled and exhaled, excited and terrified, waiting to be made open by force and to scream—
The sound was of a hand slipping around something wet; it went on for a few ragged breaths, and then a spurt of hot liquid sprinkled over Miria's bare back. She whimpered in protest; Luna wiped her sticky hand on the girl's thigh, and took a step back.
"This is why I like you," the priestess of Want laughed. "You know what you are, and make no attempt to pass yourself as anything but that."
This much was true, without a doubt. Miria tried to imagine how she looked now, a half-formed boy-wife body, dripping from mouth and shallow cuts, and from her own dick, and from Luna's filth slowly making its way to the side of the chest to also follow to the basalt floor. The image was revolting, and she was glad for it, even as she had to stifle a sob.
"If only the others were the same…" the demoness whispered, words no longer directed at the sixth wife. "But you must be right, Asha, this is a country of temples, not shrines."
As if to underscore her point, a distant booming of bells broke through the silence of the shrine, announcing a moment of high prayer in the many holy houses of the city below the hill. Absurdly, Miria wondered if her parents were in one, right now, asking the many faces of the Holy for grace and forgiveness for their son who sins for their sake. Maybe this was why the tolling was so intense and so loud today; maybe the enormity of the boy's sacrifice moved the city's thousand bells to an unison wail.
"As for you," Luna picked up after a quiet moment, "you do as Agatha asked, and meditate on want. I'll pick you up later."
Before the full ramification of that statement could make its way through Miria's clouded mind, the sound of the steel door shutting announced that Luna was not staying to listen to any further complaints.
In a way, it was everything the sixth wife could have asked for on this day. She sagged, dropping into a kneeling position, and stopped holding the unfulfilled sobs back.
2. In Which a Lesson is Rendered