Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes

13. Discipline

by gargulec

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

Back from her mysterious venture out into the city, Ifi dried herself off, and then did something that caught Shard by surprise. From her windowsill perch, the Lair-Mother's errant child watched as the alchemist took a small cushion from her desk chair and placed it down on the beneath, before proceeding to kneel, her face at the level of Shard's dangling feet.

"I do not demand this," she noted, looking down at the mortal girl.

"I know," Ifi replied, her back already slightly bent. "I just want to see how this feels."

Pretending that she understood, Shard nodded. It was not that the sight was an unfamiliar one. Such displays were demanded of her servants, though she would never allow them a posture as buckled as Ifi's. But that was not what set her ill at ease; there was something about the sight that bothered her, a wrinkle she couldn't quite name. It was like being offered a favored treat, only to find it spiced ever so slightly differently, and then being unable to tell if she liked it anymore. It made her remember, and that dredged the gnawing sense of loss, and all the other bitter thoughts. She didn't catch when her hand wandered up her chest, to cover up the gaping hole pierced through her shell.

"I see," she said neutrally. The reaction was no less puzzling: a shadow of disappointment flashing through Ifi's face. What other kind of a reaction was this girl expecting? Did it bring her pleasure to keep on finding news to confound Shard and violate one after another all the expectations she had of mortals and their little minds.

"Did I presume too much?" Ifi asked, shifting nervously. She was looking up at Shard, likely trying to read something from her face. "Should I stop?"

Shard hesitated. Should she? Why would she ever want to tell a mortal not to kneel before her? It was only then that it dawned on her what was wrong about the sight. Servants who prostrated themselves before her trembled, and she feasted on their fear. Never had she considered a possibility that one could kneel before fully at ease. And that made it feel hollow – if it felt hollow, and not just different.

"No," the decision was a snap one, brushing away a swarm of nagging thoughts. Thankfully, no immediate regret followed. "Stay."

Ifi lightened up noticeably; she pulled her shoulders back up, though not nearly enough for Shard's liking. She couldn't help but to find it distracting. It reminded her of the perfectly broken faces of well-disciplined maids she surrounded herself with, bodies that existed to serve, and feed her. Nothing like Ifi, no matter how much she tried, and failed, to appear like them. But it did lead Shard's thoughts down the hunger's route. She almost scowled, fresh ideas crowding in her head. But before she could act on any of them, Ifi spoke again, and what she said scattered all the doubts, and focused Shard's attention on something far more important.

"I can get you to that man."

As the alchemist proceeded with her explanation, Shard seized, her body freezing motionless. That was not the plan, that was not the idea. She had only intended to pass a message to Villis, not to meet him in person. Her fingers dug into the thin crust of blacks scabs covering the exposed flesh; though the pain there had stopped, a memory of it lingered, and of the spear, and of death so very close to her. Fear, that loathsome fact of powerlessness, reared its ugly head again. And yet, this was not something Shard could just refuse. That Eusebia was not wrong at all. No harm would come to Shard during the Feast of Indulgence, especially not from the likes of Villis. He was the kind of a man who would die sooner than to break the peace and custom – and that made for an opportunity she hadn't considered. Opportunity, which was another word for "risk". Then again, did she have any choice but to take those?

"Excellent," she said, summoning a sharp-toothed smile to hide her uncertainty. "This can work. You will, of course, play my handler."

On the floor, Ifi blinked, face tensing in confusion,

"What is it?" Shard leaned back. "Don't you know? Even a mere guildswoman should be aware," she added, slightly surprised by how smoothly that 'mere' from her tongue, and how it made the alchemist flinch in a jolt of sweet shame.

"Why would I care for the customs of the High Table?" Ifi replied.

Shard stifled a shrug. The alchemist had to know how silly the question was. If anything, the curious question was why she was so wilfully unaware. But that could wait. Carried by sheer reflex, Shard swayed her feet over to Ifi's shoulder, putting just the littlest bit of her weight behind it; the girl didn't look up again. Her shame thickened; it was not a feeling she could ever hope to hide from Shard.

"Mortals like to pretend that they are the masters of my kin," she explained, adopting a lighter tone, while pushing delicately down on the kneeling woman. "And we like to allow them that little pantomime. If they think they are in power, they also think they are safe from our claws. Do you understand?"

There was an edge to the question, and it cut right as it was supposed to; Ifi bled a sweet pinprick of fear.

"I do," she whimpered.

Maybe it wasn't that different from her servants back above, Shard thought.

"You would take me on a leash and lead me around," she explained, "to all eyes, a rising star of the Middle City guilds. And then…"

Her voice carried through the bedroom, low and full of promises. She had expected the girl to light up at the promise, because there was a promise to this pretense: the two would make for such a perfect masquerade. A masked guildswoman with a Lair Mother's blessing? All would crowd around to figure out her identity, to unwind the web of secrets surely surrounding her, and with all the attention securely on Ifi, Shard could slip unnoticed and find Villis, there to present him her own offer. Though the masque would surely be filled with her enemies past and present, not to mention all kinds of her siblings, with this little ruse, chances were no one would figure Shard for who she really was. It really seemed a perfect approach, not to mention mutually beneficial. What paltry guildswoman wouldn't go mad for the chance to make herself present before the scions of the High Families.

But as she spoke, the sweet shame and electric fear that Ifi exhaled changed, thickened and burned. The room reeked of it, and it clung to Shard like an oily sheen. But it did not nourish; it gave off a rancid note. She looked at the girl at her feet, head hung low, back ungainly hunched.

"What is it?" she finally thought to ask, leaning in.

"I…" Ifi mumbled, her voice trailing off.

Or maybe really there wasn't anything like her handmaidens to Ifi. The mortal was simply incomprehensible. She hissed lightly, her head swinging from her shoulder; she didn't straighten back up.

"I don't want to get involved in politics," the alchemist blurted out, words coming out of her mouth in a tense clump. "Please."

"What a…" stupid thing to say, Shard wanted to snap back at her. She was already getting involved just by sheltering her! What was that even supposed to mean? But she bit her tongue. There was no need to antagonize her lifeline. "I don't think that's a possibility," she tried instead, struggling to keep her voice level. "Not anymore."

The rancid note bloomed into an overwhelming rot; this was the ugliest shame Shard had ever tasted, old and festering. It was nearly enough to knock her from her perch; she held to the window frame.

"But…" Ifi squirmed, voice gushing from her like pus from lanced boil. "No. I can't help you that way. I can't. You don't know me. I don't know those people. I don't know how to behave. I don't know how to speak. I'm an alchemist, not a socialite. It'll just all be-"

Ifi's rapid-fire voice cut quiet. For a time, all that Shard could figure to do was to stare her down. The decay in the air was nearly unbearable, and in better times, it would be an excuse enough to split the girl open and be done with it. The idea felt flat, of course. No part of her truly wanted Ifi dead.

"So, you are unable to take on that role," Shard struggled out, trying to make some sense of this mortal absurdity. Maybe she owed Ifi as much – she had saved her life, after all. And even managed to find a way to reach Villis within less than a day. She couldn't blame her for not trying – it was just that there had to be something wrong with her, and Shard had no idea what it was exactly, only that it made her plans all that much harder.

"I can't," Ifi nodded, trying to gather herself up a bit. "Is there no way we can do it differently?"

Shard gave out another hiss. The plan she had was good, for both of them. Why couldn't Ifi see that?

"I'm helping you get there," Ifi gathered the last of her resolve, and pleaded one more time. "But I'll fail you if I have to pretend to be-"

"Be what?" this time, there was no way Shard could veil the frustration; her voice grated and growled.

"Adjusted," Ifi let out.

It took Shard a long while to figure out what that was supposed to mean, and even then, she was still unsure. But looking at the crumpled mess of an alchemist at her feet, a terrible thought occurred to her that maybe she really couldn't play the part she had imagined for her. And maybe that was her own responsibility to put Ifi in a position where she couldn't collapse like that. Smoothly, she jumped down to the floor and crouched by Ifi. Then, reminding herself that risk was just another word for "opportunity", she suggested an alternate approach.


Any doubts that Shard might have harbored regarding Ifi's tailor – and she had plenty, considering the contents of the alchemist's wardrobe – were promptly dispelled as soon as they entered his workshop. Not that it could be compared to the ateliers where the High Table clothed itself – but it was obviously professional. The man didn't bat an eyelash at the sight of a Lair-Mother's child, or the nature of the request Ifi presented to him.

"So, a masque?" he muttered, letting his cherubic apprentice take Shard's measurements.

The boy was quick and handy with the tape, although he approached Shard as if she was a fine piece of china that could shatter under the slightest touch. The Middle City continued to baffle her. But it also confirmed some of her suspicions. The room they were all in was small and modestly furnished, compared to the tiled interior of Ifi's shop, but also far more lived in. Most guildspeople probably did not live, or work alone. The thought seemed pretty obvious once she had it formulated, but it also did explain something about her unexpected savior.

"Yes," Ifi nodded, seated to the side. A faint smell of spearmint clung to her – Shard knew it came from a fuming bottle of what the alchemist referred to as a "calming tonic", and which she had half-emptied before leaving her workshop.

"How very curious," the man plucked at his red beard, in what Shard realized was the beginning of a rumor about to sweep through the streets. "And on such short notice. Hm."

"I'm paying with good glass and favors owed," Ifi insisted.

"Oh, it's not the matter of that," the tailor looked down at his notes, then back again at Shard. "Let's not talk about anything as crass as money," he declared with a light reprimand. "It's mostly a matter of time, you see. I should be able to be done with her order quickly," he indicated Shard, before looking at the stacked drawers behind him.

She greeted the words with intense relief. Although it was not the chief of her concerns, it would be simply humiliating to attend the Feast of Indulgence in something not purpose-made for it. Nothing would spell "fall" like draping herself in an off-the-shelf dress.

"Your outfit however," he addressed Ifi, pursing his lips, "is more complicated. Especially working from scratch. To do it discreetly and quickly is a tall ask indeed.

Ifi shuffled awkwardly.

"Of course, considering the nature of your request, this is perfectly understandable" the tailor flicked through the notes ahead of him, "But I can't guarantee it'll be done in time.."

Shard suppressed a frustrated sigh; Ifi paled.

"But I can extra, for haste," she offered, prompting a dry, and ever so slightly disapproving chuckle.

"I would have thought that your father had taught better than that, Ifigenia," he said, his hand dancing as he directed the apprentice around, admirably adept at multitasking. "Don't you know that you can buy time with glass, but never make it? I can't promise you that this interesting outfit will be ready for your mysterious ball."

"Of course," Ifi muttered; Shard could tell the words hurt her. She kept glancing at Shard, as if expecting some kind of support. The Lair-Mother's child shrugged imperceptibly. These were guildspeople, and she had no interest in dealing with them. "I should have known better."

"I do want to help you, make no mistake," the man continued. "This is such an interesting idea for an outfit, and says so much about the way the world's going."

The rumor, Shard realized, was going to set the Middle City ablaze before the night was done.

"But to get it done in time, I would have to start with something already in hand. Actually," he frowned, "what happened with that dress your father had me make for you all those years ago, for the-"

"I never wore it," Ifi interrupted very sharply. "He's decided to hold onto it."

"He did?" the tailor sighed. "Such a stubborn man. What a shame. It was a good piece of work, even if he insisted on a somewhat antiquated fashion. But that would make it better for your current needs, amusingly enough," he smiled.

The apprentice finished with the measurements, retreating to a desk by the window to write them all down.

"But assuming I could get it to you soon" Ifi muttered after a moment, clearly frustrated by something, "could those adjustments be done in time?"

"I doubt they would take more than a few days. A few days at most, I think," he nodded. "Of course the result wouldn't have much use outside of your unexpected masque, but I don't think that's a problem for you or your strange partner?" he glanced at Shard.

The Lair-Mother's child startled – there was another burst of that awful, rotten fear suddenly seeping off the alchemist, however brief and muted by all the elixirs she had dosed herself with.

"Right," the alchemist grunted, coming to a decision. Her face was still, and very unhappy. "I should be back soon."

"I'll wait," the tailor didn't share any of her sudden gluminess. "It is always a pleasure to work with a Juno."

Outside, at the shore of a small lake pooling after rain in the crook of the street, Ifi stuffed a key in Shard's hands and curtly asked her to wait back at the workshop. The air of worry hazing around her had the by-now familiar rotten sweetness to it, so in truth Shard was happy to part ways with her for a time. She had buried her hands enough in the girls' emotional guts for the day.

They parted, leaving Shard alone in the Middle City's streets, hidden within one of Ifi's spacious, formless black robes. She decided to take a circuitous route back to the workshop, resisting the urge to climb the roofs and loiter there. Outside of the slums, this would likely bring too much attention to her, even if she missed stretching her limbs like that. Still, the walk was hardly unpleasant. A delicate nervousness floated suspended in the air, the collective anxiety of all the common guilds giving it a fresh charge. It was a nice change of pace from the fermented panic that Ifi drowned in; it cleared Shard's head, though also whetted an appetite she didn't have much of an opportunity to sate.

Or, to be more precise, that she probably should be trying to sate. Of course, she could easily break into any of the homes and workshops that surrounded her, and there find some of that sustenance, but she had to think ahead – her plan was to convince Villis to help, and so limiting wanton feeding was probably wise. People in the Middle City didn't go missing as easily, and that damn mortal had ears everywhere. There was no proper way to hunt safely in here. All she had to do was to wait for the better times to come; then, she would eat to her heart's leisure. Thankfully, her kind was not meant to starve.

Then again, she had never been that good at delaying gratification. She paused, her attention drawn to a group of men working at cleaning windows above. They were obviously low-born. Would they be missed here, in the Middle City? Or maybe she could just take just a bit of fear and pain, enough to take the edge off without burying her hands in dying flesh-

Or she could just wait for Ifi, couldn't she? They had an arrangement, after all.

That idea was enough to make her return to the workshop, and the empty bedroom above. The hunger wouldn't go away on its own, but there were distractions available even here. Shard found the alchemist's oversized chest of cosmetics, dug out some of her kohl, and began to trace out the myrmidon ant's silhouette across the smooth surface of her head.

Hours passed in the pleasure of art; by the time Ifi came back, Shard had covered herself to the waist in swarming strings of insects. In all of that, her want dimmed and again faded from attention, at least until she heard the alchemist step behind her.

"I've been waiting for you," she whispered, before turning around and facing a ghost of a woman.

Ifi's face was a mask of misery. She shook her head at Shard in wordless acknowledgement, and before the Lair-Mother's child got to even say or ask anything, she disappeared into the bathroom. For the next quarter of an hour, Shard got to listen to the roar of rushing water, and the faint sobs it tried to muffle. She put down kohl, shut the cosmetics case close, and waited, tense. Did something go wrong? Was their plan jeopardized?

When the alchemist finally emerged, she looked only a bit better. Damp and hunched, she wrapped her gangly arms in a thick shirt; she tried to force a smile, then grabbed the cushion from where she had left it by the window earlier in the day, and dropped it at Shard's feet. When she knelt this time, she didn't even try to keep herself upright.

"The dress will be ready in time," she muttered, before looking at the Lair-Mother's child's lap. "May I?" she asked.

Shard wasn't sure what the girl meant, but nodded nonetheless. If there were no issues with the outfit, then why was Ifi like that? She looked as if someone had just tortured her, and not in the ways she apparently enjoyed. Again, Shard considered asking, and again decided against it, even as the decision itself rubbed her the wrong way.

Slowly, the alchemist laid her head on Shard's lap, then propped the rest of her slight body against her. This was, by now, getting recognizable – clearly, Ifi enjoyed the touch of Shard's carapace, the feel of it on her skin, and maybe even more than that.

"Thank you," the alchemist muttered, closing her eyes.

For a moment, Shard waited, unsure what to do; then, she remembered. Apprehensively, she put her hand on the alchemist's freshly shaven head; the girl murmured in approval. Her skin smelled of soap, of exhaustion, of yearning. Not fear, not despair; again, that made Shard feel a bit lost. It shouldn't be in the nature of cattle to seek a predator's embrace.

"I needed this," Ifi nuzzled. They remained like that for a time long enough for the hunger to return with full force. Shard could feel the blood pulse under Ifi's skin, and it was hard not to reach for it, not sink her claws into the flesh and tear pleasure from it. But she couldn't – that wasn't what the girl expected from her, was it not? Shard tried to dismiss the want, to overpower it with a promise of future ravenous feeding. But it gnawed on her; Ifi was in her hand, so fragile, so vulnerable, so easy to hurt.
What came next surprised her.

"May I feed?" Shard heard herself saying; she wasn't sure where the question was coming from. It sounded so stupid when spoken out loud, and she opened her mouth again just to take it back but before she could, she looked into Ifi's face, and saw in it the same want reflected back.

"I thought you'd never ask," the alchemist whimpered.

The Lair-Mother's child did not hesitate.

"Find a roll of bandage," she ordered, pushing, "and soak it in saltwater. Then come back here and kneel again."

The alchemist stood up, curiosity and need painted clear across her face. She bowed, and skipped downstairs, only to return within moments with bowl and cloth in hand. She put them on the floor, returned herself to the cushion, and to Shard's grasp.

"If you want to play my servant," Shard declared, sharpening her voice. Her hand closed over the alchemist's head, "then you will have to be taught what it means."

She held her for a minute or two, allowing the anticipation to build into the seed of fear. And then, without a warning, she moved, straightening to her full height, grabbing Ifi by the back of her neck and lifting her to her feet, a sharp and harsh motion. The yelp of pain bloomed red and gold in the pit of Shard's stomach. There was no turning back: she was going to feed. The fear that followed was fresh and young, nothing like that rancid waste the alchemist would soak in before.

Her claws extended; not fully, but enough for Ifi to feel them dig into her skin and threaten to rip at the slightest provocation. With a slow, deliberate twist, Shard let them rest across the girl's throat.

"Hold your shirt up," she demanded. "And do not even think to twitch."

With bated breath, Ifi grabbed the sides of the shift in her palms and dragged it up, revealing the still-damp mound and stomach. The blush on her face turned into a paind wince as Shard reached down with her free hand, a claw extended to neelde-point. She pressed it to the surface of the alchemist's skin, feeling it grow taut and thin under pressure. She held it there for a moment, watching Ifi try not to breathe, lest it cut. Then, with a flick of the wrist, Shard made the cut herself.

Ifi yelped, more in shock than in pain. It was just a scratch, a thin line drawn in the skin. Tiny red droplets begin to well, but not enough to flow. The fear, however, was heady. Shard paused, making sure her hands didn't twitch. The alchemist froze; Shard smiled, and followed with another cut. And then another, and another.

Tiny red drops dripped to the floor. The alchemist managed to keep quiet and still for the first few cuts; and only after trilled in beautiful hurt, enticing Shard to slash slower. The girl was so afraid to move; with the claw at her throat, she couldn't even look down at the work opening on her stomach. In all honesty, Shard impressed herself with how she managed to keep at it, even as every single line she drew only whetted her appetite further. The rewards, however, were worth it – a slow bloom opening inside. A far cry from the deep satisfaction of evisceration, maybe – but also a kind of a pleasure Shard had almost forgotten how to indulge. She flicked the last cuts into the skin, then threw the blood off her claws. The mirror waited on the table ahead, ready for the next step. She dragged Ifi towards it, until the girl could see the red arabesque calligraphed out in her living flesh.

"Read it," she commanded.

"I," Ifi said, her breath so short and slight that she had to struggle for each word, "will keep my back straight when kneeling."

"Good," Shard commanded; humiliation was the perfect spice for this little cruelty. "Now, bandage it."

In the end, the Lair-Mother's child did not go hungry. Every little thing that followed was a delight – from the moment of hesitation as Ifi weighed the damp cloth in her hands, to the weak cries and shooting pain, to the ruler-straight line of her back when she finally managed to return to her place at Shard's feet. Line that both of them knew Ifi wasn't yet ready to hold as well as was expected of her.

"Now," Shard said, catching a tear welling up in the alchemist's eye on the tip of her claw, "thank me for the lesson."

It was all supposed to be familiar, and pleasing – and it was. Ifi looked up at Shard, still wincing in pain, and terrified of failing her expectations. That fear laced her words she spoke, begging: "I thank you for disciplining me". For a moment, Shard felt a rush of power, and forgot just how low she had fallen. But quickly, she noticed that there was something off.

For the first time, those words of gratitude were wholly genuine.

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