The shears he uses to cut open her linen shift are made of gold. All she can think of while he does it is that they won't hold their edge for very long, just as she's about to lose hers.
She's worn a brand new set of clothes every day since she came to the temple, and she's been there since she was just a few days old. She's forbidden to know how old she is, and when she's tried to mark the days on the wall of her room or the edge of a door, the acolytes have been sure to erase them as soon as they're found out. She understands: it's because they believe she'll fear time, because her time is limited. At the age of thirty-seven, the high priestess of the god with two names is sacrificed at his stone altar, and a new one takes her place. Thirty-seven years is how long it took to shackle their god all those centuries ago; now, every thirty-seven years, they make that sacrifice to keep those shackles in place.
They knew it should be her because she was the first girl born in Korentis on Korentan's Day in the old priestess' final year. So they took her from her family and they took her to the temple and they gave her to the acolytes, and that's where she's been ever since: she's spent very nearly her whole life within the temple walls. She mustn't leave. She must not be spoken to, or touched, or even looked at, at least not without there being one of a very small number of prescribed reasons for it. No mortal has spoken to her in what she believes must be twenty years by now, until today, because the only way their god stays shackled is by way of her perfect purity.
She's not scared of death, though. She's the high priestess of Korentan, the great god, the god with two names, who makes all the lands of Korentis fair and bright and prosperous. She's not scared of death because she knows what waits for her after it, because her god has told her. What she's scared of is the man with the gold shears in his hand.
He cuts her shift from neckline down to hem in one swift, tearing stroke. She feels it almost as much as she hears it, the way the force he applies tugs her toward him, the give as the fabric is sheared apart, the warmth of his rough hand by her throat where he holds the shift and almost but not quite touches skin. She can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she remembers being touched: she fell ill once when she was young, and a doctor pressed the back of his hand to her forehead to ascertain her temperature; the piercer had to use his fingers as much as his needles when it was time for her to have her rings; an acolyte brushed against her in a corridor, accidentally, and she never saw her again. Everyone she sees keeps their distance, but not him. Of course, there's no need for him to be reverent. He's come here for precisely the opposite of that.
Underneath her ruined shift, there are strips of linen wrapped around her, everywhere, like bandages, from neck to toe. She wraps them herself each morning. She wakes in her chamber to the sound of the bell and she steps down into the freshly filled hot bath to bathe and shave, the razor first and then the cloth against her soft, smooth skin. She towels her hair then twists it up into a neat, high bun that she keeps in place with long gold pins. She ties the threads of the gold ribbons between her thighs, and then she wraps herself with the strips of white linen that she pins together to make longer still. She repeats this three times daily - morning when she wakes, afternoon before her visit with the god, night before she retires to bed - and the acolytes dispose of the linens and the ribbons when she's done with them. They leave her new ones in the night, once she's returned from the god's garden and drifted off to sleep, so they're ready for the next day, and the next, and the next. But now there are no acolytes, and these linens will be her last.
The man with the shears puts their blades to her wraps. They won't be sharp for long but they're sharp enough now and they slice through the linen quickly, down one arm and then the other, down one leg and then the other, down from her throat to the mound between her thighs. He brushes their remains away with his big, tanned hands and he leaves her bare for everyone to see, and though there aren't many people gathered there it's more eyes that have seen her skin since she was old enough to dress herself. Eight other men are watching them. One wears a crown on his head that's made of silver, not gold. She knows he's Atis, King of Ferra, and she knows precisely why he's here; she's the nineteenth priestess of Korentan, and he's come to ensure there's never a twentieth. He's come to unshackle her god, and be the ruin of her country.
She's been expecting this for days, because the acolytes' panicked eyes told her to expect it. They couldn't tell her - she's never been taught to read, in case she reads something she shouldn't and it blemishes her perfect purity, and they can't speak to her. The acolytes all wear three gold rings that run through holes the piercer put in them, three holes above their top lip and three below the lower one, so they can't say a word to her. They're likely clipped open so that they can eat and then sealed again each day, she thinks, when they start their daily duties; some of their rings look like they've been resoldered several times, for years, until they're almost fit to break, but they still remind her of her own between her thighs. She can't take them out, but she's never had a reason to.
The man with the shears puts them down on the edge of the altar. Its stone is stained with the blood of the eighteen priestesses who went before her, and no one should touch it except for her, but he does. His fingers trail over it, and then he looks at her like no one ever has before; he looks her in the eye, and her skin seems to prickle with it, like the air in the god's garden before the thunder comes.
He's tall. She has to tilt her neck to meet his eye and he's broad, thick with muscle in a way that none of the acolytes she's seen have ever been. His long, dark hair is peppered with grey and tied back in a long, thick braid that trails down the length of his large back. Unlike their bearded king, his face is shaved, but he must not have shaved it for a number of days because stubble stands out across his jaw, thick and coarse. And where the king is pale, and his nobles are pale, this man is ruddy from the sun. His hands are large and rough from work, though his work is likely the sword. She thinks there's blood under his fingernails, and she wonders if he's the one who killed the acolytes as they rushed in to protect her. But it wasn't really her they were protecting, she supposes: it was their connection to their god.
When he kisses her and she bites his lip, he pulls back and he laughs out loud. He spits blood onto the altar, and the profanity of it makes her scowl. When he kisses her again, he grips her neck with one big hand, and she doesn't bite this time. She's not scared of death but he's not going to kill her and they both know that, clearly and completely; if she dies by violence, a new priestess will just be raised to take her place. When he pushes her back against the altar, she could take the shears from the top of it and put an end to her own life, but that's also forbidden; if she dies by her own hand, or by the acolytes, the god's earthly shackles break. Her chastity, her virtue, they're Korentan's tether to Korentis. She knows what that means he has to do.
He lifts her. He's so large that it seems to take him no effort at all, and he sits her there on the edge of the altar, he pushes her back, and she lies flat where the old priestess' blood stains the stone. He pulls her to the edge, so her legs dangle freely, so her coccyx rests awkwardly against the stone, but she doesn't fall; he holds her there, and she'd feel precarious if it weren't for his hands against her skin. She's never felt anything like it, not even her own hands, because touching herself more than their laws find strictly necessary is also forbidden. And he kneels. She frowns. He nips at the inside of one thigh with his teeth and makes her yelp aloud. He chuckles. The men laugh. Then he nuzzles in between her thighs, against her rings and against her ribbons. He kisses her there, at the bare shaved skin of her mound, where his stubble prickles and makes her shiver. Then he hooks both of her legs over his shoulders and he brings his hands to the neat little gold bow that's tied between her thighs.
His fingers are surprisingly deft for how large they are, she thinks. They make short work of unknotting the bow and unthreading the ribbons and he pulls them away with a flourish that makes the soft gold satin rub against her skin. No one has looked at her down there since the piercer did, and no one had looked at her down there before that, really, once she was old enough to take care of herself. Now there's a huge Ferrian warrior kneeling in between her legs and she feels him toy with one of her gold rings, the larger outer ones she uses to tie her slit closed tight. He turns it around, spins it in its hole, and she stretches out her arms to grip the edges of the altar as she squeezes her eyes closed. She feels him use his thumbs to part her lips and find the inner rings, the smaller ones, from which he's just removed the ribbons, too. Then he leans in. He licks her there, hot and wet against her entrance, against her small gold rings.
She was never meant to have this, and she doesn't want it. She's the priestess of the great god, his earthly tether, and she can't be what she was raised to be with a man's tongue lapping there between her thighs. She feels his stubble against her smooth skin, feels his lips and his tongue and the heat of his mouth, the heat of his breath, and it makes her insides clench and roil. His fingertips tease her entrance and she hates him for how warm it makes her feel. She hates that when he slips the tip of one finger inside her, she knows she's wet. She hates that he feels it.
Then he stands again, between her thighs. His face is red, his lips are red, and his lips are wet, with his own saliva and with her own slickness that she knows she shouldn't feel but does. She feels his fingers move between her thighs, toying with her rings again, but then he seems to change his mind. He turns her, presses her down face-first over the altar, presses her cheek to the stain of her predecessors' blood.
What she expects is for him to take her like that, face-down, in front of the king and his noblemen. She expects him to free his manhood from his trousers and thrust into her, but that's not what he does. When his palm strikes her bare backside, it's the sound of it that makes her flinch almost as much as the feeling of it, the bright crack that makes one of the nobles laugh and makes her face burn shamefully. He does it again, just one cheek, hard enough that she almost thinks it must hurt him, too. It stings even more when he rubs the place that he's just struck with his hot palm and then does it again, rubs, does it again, squeezes, and she can feel her eyes filling with hot, angry tears that she's so thoroughly determined not to cry. She's determined of that until the moment that his fingers dip down between her thighs and she realises in one terrible instant that she's so wet she's almost dripping with it. He chuckles lowly, and rubs her there, then he strikes her there with the flat of his hand, against her soaking slit, between her thighs. She bites her lip, and blinks, and hot tears hit the altar.
He traces her slit with the tip of one finger, then he hits her again; it's an oddly moist sound, she thinks, with how wet she is, and they must all know how wet she is, even the ones who can't feel it. She wonders if they'll all take turns with her afterwards, wonders if he might step back and let them run their fingers there between her thighs to see how much her body wants this even as her spirit so very clearly doesn't. But no one else moves toward her. It's just him, with his big, rough fingers, slapping her cunt, rubbing her slit, making her throb and ache and hate. But then his hand moves, and she frowns until she understands what he's decided is next. Her cheeks burn with shame and he spreads her other cheeks, spreads her arse wide with his big palms, exposing her hole to everyone's view.
He uses his fingers, slick with her wetness. He trails his fingertips around her rim. He pushes at the pucker, bluntly, then he pushes one thick finger in. He cunt throbs and she feels her hole pull tight around his forefinger, and he clucks his tongue at her as if he disapproves somehow. Perhaps he finds it funny that the arsehole of Korentan's virgin priestess wants his fingers in it, but if so then he seems happy to oblige despite that; he removes that first finger then pushes in with a second beside it, slow and deep. It feels like there's no room for it, and like there's no air for her to breathe, and her face is so hot with shame and tears and anger that she finds she's entirely impotent with it. She stands there, naked, with her hole twitching tight around his thick fingers, until he pulls them out right to the tips then thrusts them both back in, knuckles-deep inside her. He uses his thumb to stroke her rim. He twists his wrist and his fingers turn inside her and she sobs against the stone, feels her cunt throb, feels her knees go weak, and she understands what he's done to her. So does he. He laughs and pulls his fingers out and wipes them on scraps of her shorn linens.
She turns. She lies back on the altar and she pushes up a little, propping herself up onto her forearms.
"Who are you?" she asks, as if it might throw him off his purpose, as if her voice might shake his confidence and make him leave her be, though her slit that shines with her gold rings and her wetness is so completely on display to him. "Are you one of the king's lieutenants?"
"I'm nobody," he replies. And he's not shaken, that much is obvious. His voice sounds harsh, not like her god's. It sounds low and rough and full of want, and Korentan has never wanted her.
"Then why you?" she asks.
He smiles wryly. "I've got the biggest dick in the king's whole army," he says, and gives his bulging trouser front a pat. "We measured. The king thought we'd best be sure."
When he unbuckles his sword belt and sets it aside, when he unties his trousers and pushes them down, she understands. His manhood is huge, long and thick and flushed and leaking at the tip. She's never seen one before but she has no reason to doubt that he's telling the truth and she doesn't know how it will fit inside her, but she understands he'll make it fit.
He comes back in close and he rubs the tip between her thighs. He rubs it up against her rings, the outer ones, then the inner ones, and she wishes her god would come to her, and save her from this, but the truth is she knows she's already lost. The truth is, for all of her devotion, her god does not want her to be saved. He wants her defiled. He wants to be free, because he always has, because he fought to not be taken. He's told her so, so many times, before she's made him bring another perfect harvest.
He pushes in. He holds her thighs and he pushes in, opens her cunt on the length of his cock, makes her take a sharp breath that she holds because perhaps that way the tears in her eyes won't keep rolling down her cheeks, over her neck and her ears and into her hair. He pushes in, right to the root, till his pelvis rocks against her, till he's in her just as deep as he can go; he fits after all, though it's a sharp kind of strain for her to take him. Then he moves one hand. He spreads it on her abdomen and rubs his thumb against her clitoris. She cries out, she shivers, she comes against his touch, around his cock, but he keeps on rubbing, makes her tremble, makes her sob, makes her come again, and again, and again. The king and his men laugh. Her face feels hot. She closes her eyes. She hates them all.
When he comes just from the force of what he's doing to her, he comes inside her, bucking deep and emptying completely. When he pulls out, she feels him leaking from her, dripping, spattering against the altar. He pats her there between her thighs, wet as she is with his come, sore as she is from the slaps of his hand and the girth of his cock. She sobs, and he licks his fingers clean of her cunt and his come with a chuckle.
"This wasn't personal, priestess," he tells her, as if that makes a difference. "You know I had to do it."
And she understands him, even now. She didn't expect to. She'd never heard a man's voice before today; she's only ever heard her god's.
"You speak Korenti?" she says, like saying words will make her feel less angry or less used. It doesn't, but she's nonetheless emboldened by it.
He smiles wryly. "I speak Ferrian," he replies. "Sounds like so do you."
"I don't understand."
He holds out his hand as the king and his nobles are leaving the temple, and she doesn't know why but she takes it. He pulls her up. He turns her to the statue of the god that rises high above the altar. It looks like him, she thinks; it's daytime now, and she sees him only by night as he's too radiant for the sunlight, but it looks like him. She wonders which priestess it was that gave his likeness to the sculptors, or if the sculptors knew him, too.
"He was ours before he was yours," he says, with his bare hands and her bare hips, leaning down beside her ear. "You call him the god with two names. He's Korentan in Korentis and he's Fentan in Ferra, but he still speaks our language. No wonder they didn't want you to know."
He slips his hands over her breasts, squeezes there then runs his hands down lower. His bare cock rests against her back as he plays with her rings with his fingertips, in front of her god's statue, and all that she can think about is golden rings sealing acolytes' lips, so they couldn't speak Korrenti to her. Then he lets her go. He tucks himself back in. And when he walks away, she's still dripping with his come.
Tonight, when she goes to the garden, past the bodies of the acolytes, she knows her god won't be there. She's lost him. Her country has.
But, as she kneels at the altar, she think maybe their god was never theirs at all.