Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes

11. Propriety

by gargulec

Tags: #cw:gore #D/s #dom:female #pov:bottom #pov:top #sub:female #bondage #fantasy #sadomasochism
See spoiler tags : #exhibitionism #humiliation

Rested in Ifi's narrow bed, rocked between the waters of dream and the shores of wakefulness by the drug coursing through her veins, Shard watched the alchemist work. The woman hunched over her desk, her nose buried in a stack, surrounded on all sides by stacks of books and recipes. She made for an awkward sight; free from the voluminous robes Shard associated her with, her proportions appeared all the more stretched, a bit too gangly, a bit too thin. Maybe with better rearing, with sterner tutors to guide her posture and step, she could make for an elfin beauty, but it was far too late for those habits of the flesh and skin to be formed in her. No, there was very little about Ifi that recalled the kind of women Shard would surround herself with up in the towers.

Her maids were all modestly beautiful, perfectly well trained, with ample flesh to draw from. They all feared her, in their muted little ways – and that made for another difference. There were no hints of worry coming from Ifi; her work occuppied her completely, Shard's presence in her bedroom either failed to register, or just no longer worked to evoke the kind of background of terror that the Lair-Mother's child was accustomed to. And even before, the alchemist's fear was all high peaks of panic or valleys of gnawing unease, but never the plane of bone-deep dread that her previous servants carried.

She missed time when at a command, she could surround herself with perfectly-fitted bodies made just to her needs; she missed their careful touch and their bent heads. She missed their quiet ways of accepting punishment, so that no matter what she did, she was always free to sate herself on a whim. She missed having power over life.

At the end of that litany, she also found herself yearning for the ignorant bliss of not knowing how it is to have your life held in someone else's hand.

Faces of the many girls that went through her service were a blur. It was only their bodies stuck in her memory, in all of their perfect shapes and little flaws to be worked out of the flesh – Shard recalled that one, pale-skinned nymph that had once spilled a full bottle of wine over an expensive, western rug that had been gifted to Shard. The woman's screams, shrill and thin, glass and brass wire, carried far, and for as long as she could only carry them. And, though that voice stayed with Shard, it was all that remained of the nymph in her memory. Only now, when she thought of it again, she also recalled thin lips, blue lipstick smudged and stained with blood, twisting out a single word: mercy.

What she felt next was novel, and not at all pleasantly so. For a split of a moment, a wish sparked in the back of her head so that she could turn back time, and spare the nymph the scourge, even if her pain was a rare delicacy. Especially because it was. The ruined rug had never bothered her as much as a momentary hunger. It was hardly a revelation to remember that; she had known what her real motifs were from the moment she left the battered ruin of her maid in the middle of her saloon and demanded that all the other servants get up from their knees and clean up the mess.

But that was knowledge; guilt joined it only now. It didn't have a bitter taste; it did not leave a taste at all, and only an infuriating emptiness that Shard had no idea how to fill. So instead, she tried to think of something else.

"Has the war ended?" she croaked, backing up to a half-sit.

Ifi put the pencil down for a moment, but did not look away from her notes.

"I have no idea," she replied, seemingly annoyed at being pulled out of her work. "The fire has, so it is probably drawing to a close."

"Don't you want to know?" Shard pushed. "Isn't this important to you?"

"No," Ifi sighed, mouthing a few angry words under her breath before continuing. "We'll know when it's done, and until then, what good is thinking about? It's not like we're going to change anything."

Shard looked out of the window, at the sky beyond. The alchemist wasn't wrong; she was in no position to influence the course of the struggle in any way. All they could do was wait. Though Ifi's window did not give a view of the High City, there was no more ashfall to be seen. No smoke marred the pristine blue. So whatever the stage the conflict was in, it was probably late. Soon enough, one branch of the family or another would claim ascendancy, and another be cut at the trunk. Who was it who would control over the Glassmakers' Guild? Makedon, most likely, or one of his sons. Or maybe Palla? What if the conspiracy – because there had to be one – was something Shard wasn't even aware of, what if she completely failed in her task of protecting Master Glassmaker's power? Of course, there could be no "what if" to this, no question. She had failed, and whatever the course the struggle was taking, it was one in which she had no more role to play. Unless, of course, that of the old regime's detritus, to be swept clean by the coming new. Though she had ample time to accustom herself to that thought, it still felt like a freshly opened wound, yet another final humiliation at the end of a long chain of defeats, eachi which was supposed to be the last one.

"You are right," she admitted. "We're not."

In the silence that followed, the only sound in the bedroom was the scratching of pencil against paper; Shard drifted close to sleep a few times, but never fully succumbing to it before Ifi tore her back to lucidity with leaning back in her chair and groaning loudly.

"Actually," she said, turning to Shard, "I've been wondering. Do you know a High City woman that goes by the Eusi? And who has a wife that goes by Prunikos?"

The face emerged from Shard's memories easily. Or two faces, to be precise. Neither of them were the kind of people that Shard involved herself with, for better or worse. The two women stood at the sides of the family and its politics, not quite black sheep, but not far from that status either. Especially considering the scope of the scandal that their marriage was.

"Eusebia Koina and Prunikos Koina," she explained, again bringing herself a bit higher. "Side branch of the Glassmakers. She writes for the papers. That wife is just a trophy."

A flash of something – surprise and maybe amusement, or even excitement – went through Ifi's face. She pushed her chair back, and paced across the room.

"I'll have a question, then," she said. "But tea first. Do you want some?"

Ifi took her time in the kitchen, leaving Shard to enjoy the diversion from her own descent into the particulars of guilt. It was such a strange thing to ask, all out of the blue. Eusi and Prunikos – how did that alchemist learn about them? Did she run into them as they were slumming it out? And why would they draw her attention enough to mention, considering Ifi's blatant disinterest in the matters of the High City?

When Ifi brought the tea, in a pair of thick mugs, hand-painted with roses and violets, a fresh set of memories interrupted Shard's musing. It was the smell, and then the taste, that thrust her back into the High City, to the suppers at the High Table, and the fine taste of thin tea served in dainty cups. What the alchemist had to offer was anything but that – robust in taste, bitter and unpleasant on the tongue. Shard barely drank as Ifi fiddled with her mug, delivering an explanation of her previous question.

It came in the form of an extended anecdote, at places rambling, and frequently interrupted by nervous sips of the slowly-cooling tea. A faint blush stuck to Ifi's sunken cheeks throughout, at times flushing brighter pink, especially as she lingered lovingly on the details of Prunikos' torture dress. The more she dwelt on, the more flustered she ended up looking, head bowed ever lower, the glances she shot in Shard's way more indicative. Even through the haze of the drug muffling her hunger, the Lair-Mother's Children had to fight not to take advantage of that wriggling. Unfortunately, the dress turned out not to be the point, or at least not directly. As the story came winding to close, Ifi related the last few details. The gag, in particular, drew out a mix of pressing need and troubled amusement from her voice – but afterwards, finally came the question that she had been keeping hidden under the surface of her entire lurid story.

"Did you know that they were like that?"

A hook waited in those words, Shard no doubt, ready to be drawn through her. Ifi watched her intently, and there was more than curiosity in her eyes, more than love of gossip in her voice. But what that trap was exactly, the Lair-Mother's child could only guess.

"Why do you want to know?" she responded, trying to step softly. "Why does it matter?"

Ifi put her mug down on the bed stand; her hand brushed across her cheek, where a thin red scratch had not yet fully faded.

"They didn't act like it was something they had to hide," she explained, her words painted with old hurt, "like it was something to be ashamed of. Like there was nothing pathetic about it, about the wife…"

Her voice broke abruptly. Shard understood why, and was returned to the nothing-taste of guilt. At least this time, she had a good explanation to offer to assuage it.

"Eusebia," she started, wondering if a smile would help, "needs a way to keep the High Table reminded that though she had married a dreg from the mud, she knows what the proper order demands."

"Those being?" Ifi asked; she stood up and paced the room as Shard continued to explain.

"That the hierarchy is maintained at the table, and that which is low is not made equal to that which is high," Shard recited. "And so that they feel safer, too, in their power. That is why they leash us."

Ifi stopped her circuit, grabbed the cup and finished the last of her tea. The look she gave Shard carried another question, once more hidden; the Lair-Mother's child paused.

"So what was wrong with me?"

The question had to come eventually.

"What surprised me… back then," Shard replied, trying her best to find a conciliatory tone, "was that you have asked for all those… things yourself, when you had power over me. That's what… struck me."

Each pause she made, each word she stumbled over, tasted slimy and gross on her tongue. Ifi's face tensed imperceptibly, and Shard felt increasingly convinced that she did not, in the end, manage to dodge the trap that had been set for her. The alchemist returned to her seat, eyes half-closed.

"You don't do tact well," Ifi chuckled, without much amusement. "But I get what you mean. It's only pathetic when it's improper."

"Yes," Shard agreed, realizing only after the word had already resounded that it was probably a mistake.

Ifi's finger dug deeper into the old scratch; then she laughed again, this time almost cheerful. She picked up Shard's hand at the wrist, leaned in to get a better look at the retracted claws. The heat of the living flesh drained into the cold porcelain shell.

"It's a good thing, then," she whispered with a velvet softness covering the edges of each carefully pronounced syllable, "that you see me as little more than meat."

Was that true? She tried to protest, but for once lies did not come readily to her lips.

"I said I'm sorry," she mewled instead.

"Oh," Ifi put the hand down; again Shard found herself strangely sad to feel her touch withdraw, "don't be. I almost liked it. That feeling that you are about to disembowel me for something. And back there, when you made me kneel? I almost pissed myself."

"I'm sorry," Shard repeated, hitting on that helpless note. All it achieved was to make Ifi's face harden.

"No!" a harsher sound came out of Ifi's voice. "That is not what you should have apologized for! I wanted to be on my knees! I want to piss myself at your command! I want to be brought among people like an ornament, blind and deaf to the way they see me! But it needs to matter. It needs," she leaned in, tense with desire and bitter frustration, "it needs to matter to you like it does to me."


I don't understand, Shard wanted to say, but she was not given a chance to. Ifi brought a finger up to her lip, the gesture forceful and leaving no room for protest.

"Shhh," she commanded. "Don't talk. Don't ruin it. Think about it. I need to work now."

And for the time being, Shard obeyed. Guided by the scratching of the pencil, the quiet tapping of Ifi's feet, and the rustle of paper, she lowered herself into her own thoughts and dreams, and regrets, and memories. Once again, she thought of the life she had, and the power she lost, and of Ifi's offer, unstated but so very clear. But she had never been taught how to bargain – her life has only ever been one of taking, or being taken from. Her lessons have only even been one-sided.

When the evening came, Ifi vanished into her bathroom, to return after a moment wearing a night-shift. She sat at the edge of the bed for a moment, watching the dim lights of the city spread over Shard's freshly polished shell, and then she slipped between the wall and the Lair-Mother's child, nesting her small body in the bend of Shard.

"Goodnight," she murmured, pulling a blanket over them both.

The alchemist's warmth spread quickly into Shard's shell, and stayed there, permeating into the flesh beneath. As novel as the experience was, she couldn't deny that it also just felt good; it had never occurred to her before to take one of her servants to bed like that. But with Ifi nested in her, it seemed like a missed opportunity, like a mistake. She wrapped an arm across the woman's chest, pulling her closer. Ifi mumbled incoherently, but did not rebel against the hold.

Shard didn't even notice when her mouth dropped open, and her tongue slipped free, its tip slowly working its way towards the nape of Ifi's neck; there was no fear or pain to taste in her sweat, and though there was a part of her that wanted to pull closer and just bite, draw some blood or maybe an anguished yelp. Or maybe more? The fog of the drug was lifting, and behind it came a hunger; she had been through a lot of stress and humiliation, and the plans she had called for more. Why wouldn't she relax a bit, with that woman who clearly wanted to be mistreated? It wouldn't take much just to smooth the edge of Shard's own stress. Yet, with the sleeping Ifi in her arms, it didn't seem appropriate. Her tongue withdrew, Shard surprised at her own restraint. She really missed having those servants to do with as she only pleased. But somehow, she knew she would never have this sort of power again, and the best she would ever get instead was that woman warming her carapace. And the touch she called for was not the same. She went to sleep working on memorizing Ifi's face, with its each little detail.

"Hey," a soft, drowsy voice woke her up with the sky still grey outside, "I need to be out of the bed."

Ifi still lay bent into her, her own hand trying to pry herself from under Shard's arm. She released it immediately, and immediately regretted not holding her for a little longer, just for a little bit of play, just for a little bit of a display of dominance.

Some time later, when they were both in the kitchen, Ifi bringing herself up to her feet with a tar-black coffee, and Shard doing her best to sate the other kind of hunger eating at her, the alchemist finally asked the other question that somehow managed to go unspoken the entire previous day.

"So what kind of help did you need me for again?"

As it turned out, the answer didn't make her happy at all.

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