When the morning came, bright but for the fine ash falling snow-like, Ifi did not open her shop.
It wasn't that she was expecting no customers. Even on a day like that, in the shadow of the charred Glassmakers' tower, the flows of commerce would not stop. For the sake of pretense, if nothing else. Life had to go on, smiles had to be forced, and glass exchanged as an excuse to trade shreds of answers to the unspoken, shared questions. All waited for that moment when the city's bells would start ringing again, jubilant this time, to announce the victor of the struggle above. And afterwards, the future, with all of its terrifying uncertainty. New rulers, new rules, new seats at the Table, new tombstones for those who bet poorly in the games of the powerful. But until then, anxiety and anticipation. And of that, Ifi wanted no part.
Why should she drown in fear for the sake of a war waged so high above as to only reach the streets she lived on as ash? Sooner or later, the High City would resolve its struggles as it always did, and new dictates would be imposed on those below. This has happened before, and was going to happen again. There was nothing to be gained in sitting huddled on the terraces and staring up to the sky, as if one could glean the shape of the future from the grey stains of the white streets below. Her father, no doubt, was now peering through the window and demanding all the morning papers to be brought to him, as if the events written in them could ever bend the arc of his life. But his daughter knew better than that. And besides, she had work to do, a commission for an esteemed client she could dive into and forget the world; that suited her just fine. Even if the work itself could be going better.
She took her notes from the chests in the workshop and hauled them back up, to her bedroom, to make some use of the sunlight flooding through the window. It didn't take long to dig through them and find the sheet of yellowing paper where she noted down the procedure and ingredients. It was all there; unfortunately, what her densely packed scrollwork of writing didn't contain was easy solutions. Instead, it carried a hint of a suggestion that her offer to Eusi might have been premature.
The old recipe landed on the desk, right next to a stack of leather-bound notebooks she had amassed over the years. She hadn't lied about having worked on voice-altering tinctures before. But her work then was to give an actor - Ifi vaguely recalled her as a bodacious, boastful primadonna of a woman - a way to speak in a deep, rumbling basso, precisely the opposite of what Eusi's stunning wife was after. Even looking at the list of ingredients Ifi had used, she could tell that there was no easy way to reverse that action, and raise the pitch. If that was even what she was after.
It struck her there, as she gnawed on the butt of her pencil, that she wasn't even particularly sure what a feminine voice was like. Obviously, she could tell one when she heard, but to make a potion that would create it, out of the living matter of the throat and a larynx of an elixir woman? What would that even mean, or entail? Maybe a formula could be established to make it higher, but what if it resulted in Prunikos sounding like a squeaking toy, instead of the statuesque woman that she was? What should her voice be, then?
The books on her shelves were of little help. Alchemy, of the sort that Ifi preferred, never shirked from the opportunity to investigate the inner workings of the bodies male and female, but elixir women had ever only been a fringe phenomenon, drawing interest of few. The fact that Ifi had even learned of their existence was a stroke of luck years ago, and being made aware that there was good money to be made of their namesake elixirs. That alone, as it turned out, made her only a little behind the best experts in the field. And less said about the more esoteric forms of the "Noble Art", the better. She flicked through the collection of poems she had borrowed from her father, and found much there about errant womanhoods, and none of it at all useful. Forcing down a frustrated sigh, she put it back with her notes and leaned back in her chair, allowing the sun to warm her.
Sensing a familiar wave of frustration swell in her, she reminded herself that there was no need to give in to rotten thoughts just yet. Obviously, it was a difficult task, but difficult only as a technical challenge; she had solved worse in the past. There surely was a way to tackle it, and sneak her way into Eusi's good graces.
That was a dangerous notion all in itself. She bit down on the pencil, and pushed the thoughts it spawned down and into the back of her mind. Such fantasies should better go unindulged. Digging into them was a sure path to heartbreak, disappointment and pointless, bitter feeling.
No, what she had to do was figure out where to go looking for advice. Preferably, it would be a person experienced in the matters of voice and propriety, and who could be convinced to help Ifi without demanding an exorbitant consultation fee. As it happened, it wasn't hard to think of just such a person - and better yet, it was someone with whom she had recently renewed the acquaintance.
From the bottom of a drawer in her desk, Ifi dug out some stationary, and something better suited to letter-writing than a chewed-up pencil. The task ahead of her was formidable and nerve-wracking: pen a letter to Ciara Antonika. Something like If I recall correctly, you used to be acquainted with the artistic types, and I am sure you would be interested in hearing more about those patrician women, so why not meet in person and talk, only wrapped in flowing, flowery sweetnesses of phrase that politeness demanded. And probably, Ifi realized after tossing the second draft away, to be delivered only after the result of the slaughter above was revealed.
She was really glad that she did not ask Eusi for a…
Before the thought could run its full course, a faint scraping sound scratched its way into Ifi's attention, alerting her that something larger than an odd pigeon was at her window. The sun warming her back went away; a strangely familiar shadow fell on the desk. She turned around, and was rewarded by a flurry rush of conflicting feelings.
First, there was fear, just to jolt her to attention. But it didn't last long, vanishing under a swell of surprise which, too, rapidly gave way to a weary kind of frustration.
"What are you doing here?" Ifi grunted to the below-spawn named Shard that was perched on the outside of her window, her tone adding not now and perhaps not ever in worldless, tired annoyance.
But even that emotion, honest as it was, couldn't hold for long. Maybe it was because the creature looked only marginally better than when Ifi had first found her among the splinters of her ruined door and close to bleeding out. The pristine white shell was smeared with mud and dirt as if someone had dragged her through the streets of the Lower City; the ruined remnants of a long dress hung from her shoulders like a scarecrow's rags. The wound in the middle of her chest peeked from beneath the shredded cloth, black scabbing over exposed flesh. Trapped on the other side of the window, balanced precariously on the narrow parapet, she didn't look the part of the predatory beast she portrayed herself as. No, in Ifi's eyes, she seemed closer to a cat coming back home from a week of being lost.
The last simile made Ifi grimace; she didn't like that it was were her mind went. Why a cat, and not the murderous, cruel thing that could only ever show her cold indifference, and never the kind of affection she had so desperately needed. So, a cat. Only a large one.
She sighed; Shard's head turned to face her. As always, without an expression to read, Ifi couldn't tell if it was a murderous rage, or a pleasant smile that she was looking at. A smooth, white surface, splattered brown like a porcelain bowl thrown into a refuse pile. It was a struggle remembering that the below-spawn was neither trapped nor weak. Ifi had little reason to doubt that if she wanted to, Shard could punch clean through the window and the protective charms reinforcing her, and then gut her like a fish. But over the past week or two, she had managed to become so intimately familiar with the thought that it ended up losing its edge.
"What do you want?" she repeated, focusing instead on the awful things Shard had said the last time they were together. That reservoir of anger was easier to tap into, even if it too was turning out strangely limited. Unfortunately, the response that came from Shard's shark-toothed mouth punched a hole clean in its base.
Ifi blinked, then hid her face in her hands, if only to put a veil over the confusion and stifle the what that was about to drop from her mouth. That was the worst, least considered, and most unexpectedly desirable thing Shard could have said. Briefly, her mind erupted into a cacophony of very conflicting thoughts and ideas, and she just sat there, staring at the below-spawn through between her fingers. Having swallowed the what, Ifi then bit down on the why. But perhaps the most surprising part was that she couldn't actually muster a proper worry response. This was likely some kind of an attempt at manipulating her, or getting something from her. The fact that Shard was on her window-sill meant that Shard still needed her. But that, also, meant that she was in Ifi's power. However loosely.
Like a cat. Why couldn't she stop thinking of her as a cat?
"I don't believe you," she snapped back, before her doubts - or her pity - could catch up to her.
The reward was a silence, a dragged out time for Shard to hunch over her own frame, as if- no, not as if. Just sorrily. The terrifying porcelain demon, that could cut through steel with her claws, now hunched on Ifi's parapet like the world's most miserable gargoyle.
"You are not going to get to me," Ifi lied and then before Shard could actually call her bluff and leave, ripped herself up from the desk. "Wait here," she demanded, and rushed downstairs. The bottle she was looking for hadn't moved from where she had last dropped it during an argument with that damn below-spawn. Moments later, she returned upsters, carrying the milky-white potion and a small glass.
She uncorked the bottle, poured a good half of it - way more than was strictly advisable - into the glass, and opened the window.
"Before you say anything," she said, extending the glass towards Shard, "you will drink all of it. Do you understand?"
Another pang of guilt followed when Shard quaffed the contents without a moment of hesitation or a word of protest. What happened to her? Before the drug knocked the below-spawn's sense of balance out, Ifi pulled her inside.
"I need to apologize for…" Shard croaked, landing on the floor with a glassy thud. "For…"
"For tracking mud in," Ifi blurted out hurriedly; she was pretty sure that she knew why she cut her off, and she didn't know what to do with that thought. "Shut up for now, and come to the wash. You are filthy."
There was a weight to her words, an almost manic kind of forcefulness that she hadn't even been aware she was capable of. This was all, almost certainly, a huge mistake, and she knew why she was making it, and that awareness was uncomfortable enough that she did her level best to not think about it. Thankfully, she had Shard to focus on, Shard who had been hit with a large enough dose of slowmilk that it was frankly a miracle she could still move. Even if those motions, Ifi observed, were jerky and awkward, as if a rag-doll being tossed around by an invisible hand.
Once again, Shard was in her power, in more ways than one. The weight of this realization rested strangely on the alchemist's thoughts. She imagined herself carrying the below-spawn to the bath in her arms. How would that even feel? Being so weak that someone has to carry you, has to wash you?
"Can you still walk?" she muttered, covering the end-point of that notion with the sound of her own voice. "Or do I have to drag you there?"
"Do you want me to crawl?"
Ifi had no idea where this question came from, and even less what put this earnest feeblness in Shard's drugged voice. Still, it hit like someone slipping a hook through her gut, and pulling sharply. All the thoughts she had spent the day holding down threatened to burst, and only with a heroic effort of will had she managed to look away, her face very warm all out of sudden.
"Just, walk," she mouthed, grabbing Shard by the wrist and leading her to the small alcove housing her washroom.
As with everything in her life, it was sparse. A sink, a small metal bath, a few towels, some odds and ends. Last year, she had it connected to sewage; running water might have been a luxury, but it was increasingly unbecoming of the likes of her to ferry out bathwater by hand. She still hadn't fully recuperated from the costs, but the comfort was probably worth it, and definitely in this particular situation. She seated Shard at the edge of the bath and let the water cascade in.
"So…" she muttered, looking for a heating charm she had stashed somewhere. "What happened to you? Ran into that lowborn again?"
"N-no," the below-spawn stammered. "There is something I need to tell you and…"
"There it is," Ifi interrupted her again, grabbing the braided piece of red glass between her fingers; she tossed it into the bath, resulting in a loud, sharp sizzle. "Can you strip?"
Even with her fingers already going dumb from the drug, Shard managed to pull the dregs of a dress down from her; even Ifi could tell that the fabric, now stiff from dirt, used to be nice once, and probably wouldn't make a good rag. Alas.
And there it was again, Shard's porcelain body, once more completely unadorned but for all the muck and grime clinging to it. Ifi helped her into the bath, the water immediately turned dark brown. The alchemist shook her head, rolled up her sleeves, and reached for a brush. Like washing a…
"Stop," she grunted to herself, but it was too late. Pity, and a few other weird feelings, got the best of her; that meant it was only going to get worse.
Mercifully, then, giving Shard a wash was not at all like cleaning fur. If anything, it reminded Ifi of washing her workshop equipment, scraping off the gunk from expensive, alchemical glassware. Bristles rubbed the porcelain smooth, removing a layer upon layer of dust and mud; and unlike a cat, Shard seemed to relax in the water, leaning her back against the edge of the bath and allowing Ifi's hand and brush to do their work. Ifi relaxed, too. Purposefully, she went slow, her hand trailing after the brush to gather all that it didn't find, and to enjoy the texture of the shell, and careful not to accidentally dig into its gaping cracks. Perhaps this pageantry was unnecessary; like before, the stains peeled off the surface easily. Ifi had more reasons to worry about the pipes clogging than Shard not coming clean. She drained and refilled the bath, and by the second wash the water was already clear.
The idea came to her head as she ran the brush against the carapace on Shard's back, leaving it clean, but still a bit dull. It wasn't even dirt this time. Briefly, she fought a battle with her own thoughts, good reason valiantly, but futilely trying to repel all the strange and weird things that seemed to have made a camp in her stomach.
"I think I'll polish you," she announced, and before Shard could make it weirder, left for the workshop again, to bring some of the cleaning supplies she had stashed there back upstairs; she also grabbed a pair of gloves.
The polishing paste was thick, creamy-white. It smelled of the laboratory, and when Ifi rubbed some of it off the back of Shard's shoulder, it left behind a mirror sheen. Ifi caught herself smiling.
"You really let yourself go," she said, getting to work. It was slow, deliberate. Ifi regretted the gloves; Shard's shell felt pleasant under her touch, especially with the below-spawn too weak to even figure as a threat. And not just in the body.
"I had servants for that," she whispered, going completely slack under her touch. "They made me smell of sandalwood and honey."
Ifi shrugged, unsure what to say. The slow work calmed the rest of her, and let her thoughts go on a different track, one where she did end up imagining Shard in the height of her grandeur, wrapped in the most luxurious of High City's fashion, specked gold, sweet fragrances clinging to her gleaning shell. And next to her, Ifi imagined herself, wearing a different kind of a dress.
"I miss it," Shard spoke again, the voice small in its sadness.
"Servants?" Ifi asked, shaking off the pointless fantasy. Thoughts stranger still circled her mind. Why did she focus on that word, servant? Wasn't she the one in power now?
"Yes," Shard nodded. "No. It's something…" she trailed off, speech vanishing into a kind of a longing that Ifi couldn't help but to recognize. This lonesomeoness she knew, way too closely to be ready to process it from Shard.
It was tough. Each little thought she found herself having to be forbidden, lest it carry her towards awful hopes and worse ends.
"You will have to get out of the bath for me to finish you off," she said, again looking for comfort in work. "Sit on the edge?"
Shard obliged, and again in little over a day, the alchemist found herself kneeling in front of the below-spawn. It was different this time, of course, completely unlike that disaster before. It was purely functional, too, she kept telling herself as she worked the polish over the surface of Shard's shins and feet, scraping it off moments later, a cloudy mirror emerging from under the washcloth. The face Ifi saw reflected in it was red. She paused for a moment, closing her eyes, as if she could look away from the little joys of the moment. Shard was above her, but no longer that cold, cruel tower, but an object of care. And yet, still dragging on that hook looped through Ifi's insides.
"I liked being tended to," the below-spawn's voice dropped down to a low whisper, as if she was herself struggling with holding it. "I liked the power I've had over them. I miss it. But that's not at all. There was something more."
Ifi didn't have to understand the words to glean the meaning. It was tone alone that carried it; she knew it the same way you know your sadness and your hurt.
"There was also the touch," she explained, to Shard as much as to herself. She dipped her fingers in the polish and moved to spread across the below-spawn's inner thigh, forcing her legs slightly open. She wasn't certain if the gesture was indecent, but it certainly felt right.
"The touch, yes" she said, tasting the word. "I miss the touch," she declared, surprised at the realization. Her hand landed on Ifi's shoulder, heavy on it, as if she was looking for balance. The alchemist welcomed the weight. "I miss it. Even then, yours is different."
"Why?" Ifi's hand was now firmly between the below-spawn's legs. There was nothing there, but Ifi was no longer sure if it didn't actually mean something. No. She was no longer sure if it didn't actually mean something for Shard. It sure meant something for her.
"I don't know," Shard murmured; there was a plaintive note in her voice.
Ifi, for her part, had a pretty good idea. But looking at her reflection in the polished surface of Shard's inhuman flesh, to name what Shard felt seemed like too big of a commitment. There could be no unsaying certain things. She wiped the rest of the paste from the below-spawn's shell, and hung the washcloth off. Still, she remained on her knees, if only for a moment longer.
"You wanted to apologize."
"Yes," Shard straightened, loosening the weight on Ifi. "Yes! I was wrong about you!"
It was a wide you; Ifi recognized it for the same she had heard in Eusi's words last night. But there was a narrower current in it, one reaching straight for her. She held onto it; she slipped her hands from the gloves, and held onto Shard's hands, the warmth of the bath still lingering in the porcelain skin.
"I think I understand now," she continued, words trembling ever so slightly. "I understand what you have asked me for."
Ifi bit her lip; she tensed. She thought of hope, and of loneliness, of all the thoughts she had refused to entertain, and of all the words she had kept to herself. What was about to be said, she could sense latent in the air. It was the taste of a rain about to break a stifling drought. That could well mean a flood she was not built to withstand. But she would never forgive herself for giving sound to that small no building up in her mouth. So she let Shard speak. And she was right.
"I was wrong about you."
First came the rain.
"I still need your help."
Next was the flood.
"Can we try again?"
And then she was drowning.
When the morning came, bright but for the fine ash falling snow-like, Ifi did not open her shop.