Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes

12. Invitation

by gargulec

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

Thick sheets of rain shattered against the Middle City's white pavement, turning its winding streets into rapid creeks. Water foamed and frothed, flurrying all the way down to the muddy cesspool of the slum below. Wind tore at Ifi's umbrella as she struggled to present it to the torrent – a useless gesture. Her robe had long since soaked, letting windchill bite deep into the bone beneath. The morbid drumbeat her teeth shivered out was all that remained of the hope that a brief shower and a trek up to the middle heights wouldn't just let her get an important task done, but also help to clear her mind of all of her recent mistakes. Instead, it merely added to the list.

If not for the lights flickering in the windows she passed by, the city could pass for deserted; the alchemist couldn't recall the last time she had seen it this empty. Not just of people; even with the weather forcing everyone to shelter inside, there should be a steady stream of golems marching the streets, their stone bodies indifferent to rain. But instead of dozens that she had come to expect, barely a handful continued their supply routes. Whatever it was that plagued Ifi's thoughts – and many things did – the Middle City as a whole was holding its breath, eyes anxiously turned upwards, to the cloud-covered skyline. Even trade ground to almost a halt, everyone waiting for the new order to finally break. Everyone, Ifi observed bitterly, but not her. She brushed aside a damp clump of her wig from her face; other worries gnawed at her.

For example, like the fact that she was not the only one out in the streets. Around her, hiding in the doorways and under overhanging roofs, she spotted lowborns in their drab grab and street-sweeper caps. The weather was dealing away with ash and soot they were meant to clean, so they lazed about instead. Their brooms and brushes discarded, Ifi watched them drink and smoke stubby cigarettes. Their dark eyes followed her, she could swear, reaching out and grasping at the lone guildswoman out in the streets at the wrong time. She picked up her pace, her boots starting to slide across the slick pavement.

Though the downpour's clatter deafened her, she was sure she could hear them snicker and chuckle at the sight of her, marching face-first into the rain. An unpleasant sensation skittered up the back of her spine. Her head swung around as she tried to catch them gawking; all she saw were faces looking immediately away. Were they afraid she would notice them staring? The sturdy carrier bag swung across her shoulder weighed like a brick; have they noticed it? Had they realized how valuable the contents could be?

The fear made its way down her throat, lodging itself like a familiar clump. If she was to scream, would anyone come to help? Would anyone even pay attention? There was this one lowborn so close to her, a terrifying hulk of a man barely able to fit himself under the eaves of a shuttered shrine. She passed him close enough to catch the stench of his tobacco, to notice the wriggling, braiding mess of scars running the length of his brutish shoulders. She tried not to look at him; she prayed he didn't notice the badge of rank pinned to her chest, that he didn't make a connection that she was carrying rare and expensive elixirs, and…

Her boot slipped on a wet stone. She yelped, stumbling wildly forward, barely able to catch her balance before tumbling all the way to the hard ground. This time, there was a laugh, she heard it clearly! Carried by a burst of panic, she threw herself around to face the assault, already expecting to find the lowborn's hands clawing at her. A shout of alarm started to build up in her throat.

"Are you alright there, lady alchemist?" the man slurred, head respectfully bowed so as not to meet her eyes. He budged not an inch from his spot under the overhang. "It's slippery out there."

He shook the ash off his cigarette, little motes of gray flowing away with the rest of the city's filth. Dumbstruck, Ifi paused, until a gust of wind threw rain into her rapidly reddening face. She stomped off without a word.

The embarrassment that flowed to where the brief panic drained was nothing short of rancid. No more than a couple of hours separated her from the time when she was sleeping like a newborn in a tight embrace of a creature that could not only rend her limb from limb, but would also enjoy every moment of it. And now, a single thuggish lowborn was enough to get to the verge of shrieking? What was going on with her?

That was hardly a difficult question, she thought to herself, trying to not let the wind rip the umbrella from her hands. It was Shard, all Shard.

If not for the rain, she would have to struggle not to slip a hand under the damp robe, just to try to feel at traces left by the below-spawn's touch. Of course, there were no indentations to be found lingering that way, no ridges and cuts impressed into the surface of her by that hard, porcelain shell. But what good came of knowing that it was just a memory, if she could no more shake it than she could magically step between the raindrops battering into her? Shard stayed on her, tactile and present. And just below the surface of Ifi's thoughts, there lurked the slender white arm wrapped around her chest, pushing her back tight to a carapace as warm as a stone left out in the summer sun. Ifi swallowed as the memory unreeled in her head, pulling at all the little hooks that had been driven through her gut. It was the way she had been held, the way that hold grew ever more possessive with each minute, as the drug she forced into Shared weakened its own hold.

Once, she had let her hunger be buried under the loam of lonesome years, and grew for herself a sad little life on top. But now, someone had dug out the mound, and let all the want hidden inside be laid bare, all over again. In a twisted little way, Shard really did end up gutting her open, and though only a metaphor, it was in all likelihood still going to get Ifi killed.

The more lucid parts of her couldn't help but be impressed by the below-spawn. If Shard had mentioned being on the run from her siblings before leaving the mark of her touch on Ifi, the alchemist would have just thrown her out. But instead, she waited until the morning, until there was no way left in the world that Ifi could give up what she had been just offered. And at that point, there was no choice left to her but to agree to contribute to Shard's deranged scheme, without doubt a regret. Not without anger, obviously – she had been tricked and manipulated. Bile boiled in her stomach in fury as sharp as it was mute and irrelevant. The sheer weight of her want overpowered everything else. And that was all that there was to it; there was no pretending otherwise. Sure enough, Shard could rip out Ifi's innards if the alchemist didn't agree to help her, but that threat was so low on the list of reasons why Ifi did that it was a struggle not to feel kind of silly about herself. Her father had to have been right, all the way back then: there really was something broken with her priorities.

Which is why the thing she was doing right now had to be added to the roll of her mistakes. For all the pretense about having to clear her mind, and put some space between herself and Shard, the real reason for why she chose to brave the weather was that she just couldn't wait to try to make the below-spawn's plan work. For better – but probably for worse – she wasn't just going along with it; she was actively trying to improve on it.

Which brought her through the torrent, and to an unremarkable villa in the middle-heights, the only thing setting it apart from the neighbors being the small fenced garden surrounding it. As far as Ifi could tell – a green thumb was not among her qualities – it seemed well tended, flower-beds and rose-bushes arranged into a display of the kind of luxury that was hard to come by in this part of the City. Above the door, a pair of stucco serpents coiled; another snakehead glared from the middle of the door itself, clutching an alarm charm in its sprawled jaw. Not giving herself time for second thoughts, Ifi rubbed it. It chimed quietly at the touch, followed by a louder bell ringing somewhere deeper in the building. When the door opened, a statuesque maid greeted her; it took Ifi an embarrassingly long moment to realize it was no servant, but Prunikos Koina herself.

She cut no less of an impressive figure when freed from her torture dress – not that the uniform she was was any less wonderful. Only at a glance could it be mistaken for one of an actual maid; it was a costume instead, the dress rich, black brocade, the apron pristine white and trimmed with luxurious lace. Pearls glistened in the headdress crowning her head, and on the silver collar clasped tightly around her neck. It didn't matter, Ifi realized, that she could clearly tell now that she was looking at an elixir woman, broad in shoulders and rough in features. It really didn't matter at all; not with the way Prunikos towered above her. The alchemist exhaled awkwardly.

"I'm here with your order," she uttered, her teeth clattering in a wholly undignified way.

"Good graces," the tall woman boomed, looking down at her. There was no hint of obeisance in her voice, and only the slightest trace of a lowborn's slur. "You look like a damp cat. Come in. I can't let Eusi see you like that."

A quarter of an hour later, Ifi sat by a coffee-table in a small, tastefully furnished salon, stripped of all of her vestments and instead wrapped tightly in a warm and wonderfully soft bathrobe. A gentle scent of lilacs filled her as she sniffed at it; a hefty heating charm whirred under her chair, radiating gentle warmth directly into her bones. It was almost enough to make the alchemist feel comfortable; almost, because what it did instead was let the collected weight of all the worry and all the desire, and all the madcap resolve melt down into a kind of a numbing slag, currently covering all of her thoughts. She reclined in the chair, fighting the oncoming drowsiness; the stress of having to actually move plan along was the one solid help in the struggle.

Morning papers and crumpled letters littered the table; her bag lay next to them, clasped shut, tiny droplets of water still drying off the leather case. A cushioned chair waited opposite of Ifi, but Prunikos did not take it, instead content to just kneel on a pillow next to it, back ruler-straight. There was something so solemn in her posture – a thought occurred to Ifi that it was a result of a long and harsh discipline teaching the woman how to keep the proper stance in the household. The alchemist's eyes zeroed in on the collar, a piece of metal no less solid for all that it was ornate; her mind wandered to the moment when someone's hands clasped it around that neck, and to the tug on it, the leash and the crop. With her dress, it was not hard to imagine at all; and there was such a wonderful contrast between the delicate fabric, and the harsh contours of Prunikos' face. It was not unlike the torture dress, restraining and constricting her, only more subtly, more elegantly. Just like back on the terrace, Ifi could take the sight in for hours. Prunikos appeared either indifferent, or welcoming of this attention.

"You really are incorrigible, miss alchemist," Eusi's voice snapped Ifi of her imaginative fugue.

She ripped her eyes away from Prunikos to greet the master of the house herself, sauntering into the salon with a plate of tea cups and cocktail glasses.The plain linen shirt she wore was nothing like her wife's treasure dress; only a hint of a silver trim suggested the wealth and status of that slight woman.

"I'm sorry?" Ifi muttered blearily.

Prunikos leaned in over the table, gathering the papers to the side and making room for the drinks; Eusi placed the platter carefully between them, and slid into her seat, a tall glass in one hand, the other quickly finding the back of her wife's neck.

"A tea to warm you," she offered, "and an afternoon entertainment for me."

Ifi stared at the scene, noticing the delicate finger slip under the silver collar, and the playful smile flitter through Eusi's bright face. It was difficult to believe the scene was real, and not just a vision taken straight from the pages of those unfortunate books that had once and forever poisoned the alchemist with that accursed hunger. She swallowed, perhaps a bit too audibly; the two women had to notice. For a moment, they were both quiet, watching Ifi as if expecting her to say something. But she only froze, a familiar awkward sense making its way through all the haze around her head. In a stilted motion, she grabbed the offered tea-cup, raising it to her lips as if it could hide whatever it was that was budding on her cheeks.

Eusi stifled a chuckle; Ifi scalded her tongue with the drink.

"I hope she wasn't too rude to you," Eusi said, lightly stroking the nape of Prunikos's neck. "This made thing is only a pose. Alas.."

Prunikos laughed earnestly; Ifi followed the example, far more nervously.

"No, no, it's fine, I…" she mumbled, continuing to hide herself behind the tea-cup. The task she sat ahead of herself for this visit seemed so very distant now, a concern for someone who could actually know how to not make a fool or a creep out of herself. So someone who was not her.

"I think you should see some of her other outfits," Eusi continued, her smirk a little bit sharp, and a little bit vicious. "She has three chests full of them, and every morning it's just the constant begging for me to pick one. There is that one that is nothing but chains and belts. Just try to imagine what a sight it is!"

Ifi did as instructed; it only made something tighten in her gut in a very suspiciously pleasant way.

"You are torturing her," Prunikos observed, deep voice tinged with amusement.

"A bit. I do enjoy a bite of shame from time to time," Eusi replied lightly. "And you no longer provide."

They laughed again; Ifi pulled her shoulders closer together, seeing just how small she could become. She sunk deeper into the chair, and into the robe.

"I'm sorry," she managed to get out the one thing she would always say in times like these.

"Are you?" Eusi chortled. "I mean, you didn't do anything wrong, miss alchemist. Aside from blatantly ogling my wife. Again."

Ifi stared at her in mute horror for a second, before setting her eyes firmly on the paneled floor.

"I didn't…"

"Please," Eusi uttered, as if short on breath. "Please, don't tell me you didn't mean to. Please."

Before that panic rapidly blooming in Ifi's throat could overpower her and made her do something actually stupid, Prunikos raised a gloved hand, a conciliatory frown on her face.

"What my lady wife wishes to say," she said, calm and clear, "is that she appreciates the way you admire me, and…"

"…how desperately you wish to be her right now," Eusi finished.

The undeniable fact that it was true did little to shield Ifi from the shock of realizing that it was also precisely what she had been thinking. After an anguishing stretch of silence, Eusi sipped from her glass, audibly in a way that didn't even try to hide how deliberate it was. Ifi's tea was back on the plate; she wound herself in the bathrobe, as if she could disappear into the fabric, and off the face of the world.

"It really is sweet how you fluster," Eusi noted, and in the moment, her voice was almost like Shard's, in all the best, worst ways. "And don't worry. I'm sure Pris continues to be more than happy for your famished attention. But enough fun. I see you've mixed the elixir as requested?"

Ifi nodded shortly, still trying to find room for words in her mouth.

"It's a bit experimental," she tried, her eyes continuing to drill holes through the floor. "Which is why I needed to deliver it in person, yes."

That was almost true, and technically not a lie.

"Experimental how?" Prunikos asked, shedding amusement for curiosity.

Awkwardly, Ifi reached for the bag and undid the clasp, sliding out a green bottle and a smaller phial.

"It's a complicated formula," she muttered. "I am not sure if you are interested in specifics…"

"I am supposed to be drinking it. I'd better be interested."

"Well," Ifi turned the bottle in her hands; the potion inside shimmered deep blue, "it's a sulfur of tin based tincture, reinforced with the labile silver…"

"You mean mercury?" Eusi asked.

A kind of professional annoyance cut through the veil of shame; Ifi shook her head vigorously.

"No, of course not, labile silver is just a livelier form of common silver, properly rendered," she explained, vigor quickly returning to her voice. "Which is why it is also called the Cry of the Moon by some alchemists. The theory is that from this, it could be a basis of sympathetic resonance, especially taking into consideration the feminine lunar essence…"

Words, formulas, and processes started to flow freely; she spared the two no detail and with each attentive nod she received in turn, she left the miasma of shame farther behind. Soon enough, she was hunched over the table, tapping at the bottle as she explained each and every feasible side-effect the elixir could have, and all the elaborate ways one could counteract them. For their part, Eusi and Prunikos made for a captive audience, the taller woman listening with rapt attention, while Eusi smiled and sipped her drink like a proper patron of the crafts. Ever so often, they would break her lecture with a question of their own, and Ifi would answer it with full certainty of someone confident in her abilities. In those moments, even the memory of Shard's possessive hold paled before the sheer, professional pride.

"So, a followup in two weeks, yes?" Prunikos asked, still maintaining her perfect posture, half an hour on. "Will we be able to visit?" she glanced at her wife.

"Probably," Eusi swirled the last of the liquor in her glass, then noticed the confusion across Ifi's face. "Oh, you probably haven't heard yet, have you?"

"Heard what?" Ifi asked, blinking; the question yanked her back to the living world.

"It looks like the situation back home is about to clear up," Eusi explained, "and in our favor, if you know what I mean. So I don't think we will be staying in this lovely stretch of the lower city for much longer."

The alchemist nodded, as if she understood more of the implications that she did. It was valuable information – or at least could be such, in the hands of someone who knew what to do with it. For Ifi, it was just a distant sense of relief that the civil war was coming to close so quickly.

"In any case," Eusi continued, "we'll of course have to wait for the results. But if they are satisfying, then I promise you miss alchemist – you will be compensated to the High Table's standards."

And there it was – the opening she came here for. The opening to put her own plan in motion. Ifi grabbed the half-empty cup, quaffing the rest of the cold tea as if it could add to her courage, then opened her mouth and spoke a quiet and insecure plea.

"There is a different sort of a reward I would prefer," she whispered, voice ever so slightly trembling.

Eusi pursed her lips, squinting at Ifi. She glanced at Prunikos, who gave an imperceptible shrug, then back at the alchemist.

"If it is what I am thinking it is," she said slowly and carefully, "it's a very bold proposition and I think I would need to have a longer conversation with Pris before…"

"I just need you to help me arrange a meeting between a man in the towers and a friend of mine!" Ifi spat the tea out, words coming out in a burst before Eusi could ruin her mind even worse than she already did. "Quickly and without attracting notice!"

For the first time since she had met her, a kind of confusion took to Eusi's face. She closed her eyes and hid her face in her hands for a moment.

"Right," she said, and each word she let out got Ifi's heart to flutter like a snared animal. "Right. That's more conventional than what I thought you had in mind, I suppose. How very clandestine. So who is the man that you need met? Please tell me it is not the new Master Glassmaker."

"No," Ifi shook her head again. "Not at all."


"It's a lowborn thug-"

Prunikos hissed sharply; Ifi didn't quite realize why.

"-who calls himself Villis."

Eusi looked down at the glass in her hand; she rolled her eyes slightly, bringing a new, and altogether less pleasant kind of shame out of Ifi.

"And here I was thinking you care not a whiff about politics," she sighed deeply, her hand withdrawing from Prunikos' back.

The alchemist contorted her face into a pained expression. It was one of those messes her father wanted her to put herself into, and she just waded into by simple, awful accident. All she knew was that Shard, for some reason, was insistent on meeting the man who had almost killed her, because she apparently believed that he was the only one who could help her defend herself from the "Lair Mother", whoever that was. And Eusi was right – Ifi barely cared about politics. Whatever the context was to this name, she neither knew, nor wanted to. Her entire plan was to just assist Shard, not try to decipher what the scheme was all about.

"I don't," she tried to defend herself, "it's not for me. It's just for a friend. I'm just trying to help."

"Your friend," Eusi's voice dropped a pitch, and a good half a dozen degrees, "is looking to deal with the man at the center of the entire mess above. That lowborn thug," the words grated in her mouth, "is someone they call the Glassmaker's bane. And you, in your cluelessness, know not a whiff about any of that, but instead just thrust yourself straight into the a serpent's pit."

Ifi knew nothing about anything that Eusi mentioned, but to be honest, it didn't surprise her at all. She came to expect something like that.

"I'm not thrusting myself into anything," Ifi protested weakly. "I'm just trying to help a cherished friend. Can you?"

"No," Eusi declared, and Ifi's heart sank. "I made a conscious decision not to involve myself with this mess, and I am not going to back on it because…" but before she could finish, and Ifi fell into despair, Prunikos cut in.

"The Feast of Indulgence," she suggested. "He will be there, won't he?"

"Huh, you are right," Eusi nodded; Ifi looked up hopefully. "Of course he will. That's an idea," she sighed again, squinting at the alchemist. "Do you know what my wife is talking about?"

"Not exactly," Ifi admitted, too stressed for proper shame. The name wasn't unfamiliar; she had heard it once or twice before – from her father, so she couldn't remember a thing about it.

"Well, if the war ends – and it looks to be ending – there will be a celebration. A masque, actually," Eusi explained. "The break between the old order and new, when the seats at the High Table are mixed and no face is familiar," she recited. "At the end, the new Master Glassmaker will be announced, but before then, the families will have an opportunity for the last bit of negotiating and truce-making on a ground of shared neutrality… and anonymity."

"No one is allowed to recognize anyone during the masque, nor harm them. Not in any official capacity," Prunikos added. "For as long as the masks are on, all are nameless, and all are equal, and all are friends. Whatever happens during the Masque stays within it. And Villis will be there."

Ifi breathed out. She could already tell where this was going. Her plan, against all odds, was going to work.

"I can provide you and your friend an invitation," Eusi stated. "And you can have your meetings, without me or my wife getting involved."

"Thank you," Ifi whispered, relief and gratitude hitting like a wave. "Thank you. This is all I could have asked for."

"There is only one wrinkle, however," Eusi added, the shadow passing from her face. "How good is your wardrobe?"

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