Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes
See spoiler tags :#exhibitionism #humiliation
Cold, seaward wind scattered the clouds and opened up the vastness of the sky. Through the cool air, the sun shone with sharp clarity, drawing hard, rainbow-edged brilliance from the remnants of the rain. Ifi imagined the brightness as glistening fire, pooling on the terraces and in the winding streets of the Middle City, but even without that fancy, the sight from the window was enough to set the soul alight. Was this a new beauty, or had she just not taken notice of it before?
"Ifigenia?" a man called out to her. "Are you listening? Is there something wrong?"
The alchemist strained to look away from the window, and the brilliant vista opening beyond. The office was dark; she had to blink a few times to let her eyes adjust again.
"All is well," she smiled, "I just got distracted."
The man – a wholesale dealer in rare ingredients by the name of Papadoul – nodded, before adjusting his glasses and looking down at the file before him. In the years Ifi had known him, he had managed to only grow thinner and more bird-like, hooked nose and graying hair giving him a hawk's look. She wondered if he dreamed of flying, of the blue sky and roaring wind?
"Distracted," he muttered. "Do you want me to give you the prices again?"
"Have they changed much since the last time?" she asked. The attention she would normally give to matters of her business was now hard to hold onto, replaced instead by other, sweeter concerns. Still, she had to try, didn't she?
The High City loomed outside of the window, the tall towers rising serenely into the blue. Which one would hold the ball? Would the weather hold, to give Ifi a view of all this beauty from high above?
"As I've said," Papadoul sighed, shaking a mote of invisible dust from his papers, "not yet, but they may well soon. Things are in flux, as you are no doubt aware," he followed her eyes towards the city's skyline. "The new order is worrying, which brings me to the issue…"
Before he could explain what that issue was, the screeching hinges of his office's door interrupted him. A young, plain-looking woman in a slightly scuffed uniform of a house-maid entered, a tray of refreshments in her hands. Compared to Prunikos' luxurious outfit, hers was nothing alluring nor expensive, and yet Ifi struggled not to imagine herself in it, delivering a plate of snacks to Shard, and herself along with them. She bit her tongue not to chuckle at the intrusive, strange thought; it was hardly the first she has had over the last few days.
"Thank you," Papadoul nodded at the servant. "Do make sure that dinner is ready early tonight."
"Yes, sir," she replied, leaving without a further word.
Ifi paused; the unmistakable lowborn slur in the maid's voice was a clear reminder of just how inappropriate her fantasies were. And yet, she couldn't help herself but to entertain them – and enjoy them too.
"As I was saying," the dealer said, blowing on his cup of coffee. "The new order is an issue. If it is true what they are saying, the labor costs will go up, then I may have to hike the price unfortunately high."
"But why would they?" Ifi asked, mostly to just take her mind off the untowards things; she was going to have time to think on them on the way back to her workshop. "It's High Table's strife, not ours."
Papadoul frowned, the cup freezing at his lips. It was fine china, blood-red scrollwork over pearl white. The alchemist imagined those colors in a tangled swirl across Shard's body; she would look well in them.
"Have you not heard?" he asked, an incredulous note to his voice. "It's been all the talk of the terraces. And in the papers, too," he sipped, before adding. "You read them, don't you?"
Usually, the question would rip at something sore in Ifi, but shame came hard on a day as beautiful as this one. She just shook her head, reaching for her own coffee. The dealer sighed, taking a moment to think through this uncomfortable revelation.
"Well," he explained after a moment, "to give you the quick idea – the word is that the new Master Glassmaker owes much to the support of lowborn allies. They'll call it a reform, but what they will really call is a debt," he sneered. "I didn't believe it at first either, but the evidence is mounting."
The coffee was far better than anything Ifi would make for herself – sweet and clear, carrying a delicate nutty note. Distantly, she noted she should be more concerned about what Papdoul was saying, but such notions also struggled to make their way into her attention.
"There is still hope that the High Table won't allow it," he continued, still frowning at Ifi's visible distraction, "but the rumor is that they have already agreed to throw the radicals some meat. An idiotic move only likely to make them more ravenous, but what do we know of the games of the High Families?" he flicked through the papers. "We only bear the price. So my advice is that you buy now, and fill your stores."
Her father mentioned something similar the last she had seen him, and with a similar frustration. It only made Ifi more thankful that she didn't have to pay any lowborns for their work, even if that did draw odd comments from her guild peers. And made her miss out on such fancy, delicious coffee.
"Right," she declared. "So I will take twice the usual. Should last me a while."
Papadoul grabbed a pencil and scrawled something on the fire before him. He waited, as if expecting Ifi to say something, or bargain. She should, but really couldn't bring herself to.
"I see," he tapped the butt of the pencil against the desk. "Are you sure you are alright, Ifigenia? You seem really distracted to me. I hope the business is going well?"
The truth was that she hadn't had as much time to spend in the workshop over the last few days as she should have – and there were orders piling up on her workbench that would take days to sort out. A sobering thought occurred to her that the man wasn't as much worried about her, as about her credit. Thankfully, she had an answer ready for that.
"I will be in the High City soon," she declared. "My work impressed a Glassmaker."
Papadoul shut his mouth. He put down the pencil, and from his pocket, drew an embroidered handkerchief. With a careful motion, he folded his glasses in hand, and started to wipe the lenses; Ifi couldn't spot the dirt that was bothering.
"I should not have doubted your talents, Ifigenia Juno," he smiled, only slightly perplexed. "I will see to your order as a priority. But do remember old Papadoul when you are presented at the High Table. I have always enjoyed working with your family."
The first instinct Ifi had to overcome was to instantly deny this suggestion. She was not headed above to deal in politics, or to do business; she had a different role to play there. And yet, she stopped herself from telling that particular truth, instead choosing the sweet taste of coffee and a satisfied smirk. There was a kind of a pleasure in the way the dealer suddenly looked at her, all the little displays of disappointment erased in the smallest deployment of an innocent, white lie. The meeting with her father reminded her well that honesty was not always a virtue.
They shook on a deal soon after, but Papadoul didn't let leave immediately, insisting that she stay for more coffee and – as it became clear as soon as they moved to his salon – also liqueurs. To her shock – and not a little of pride – she managed to hold a conversation with him; he had recently invested in establishing links with western gem mines. Under the gently reprimanding eyes of Papadoul's pregnant wife, they clinked imitation crystal glasses and sipped on thick, creamy advocaat and exchanged observations on the use of jewels in both alchemy and trade.
At some point, she found herself in Papadoul's bathroom. Without meaning to, she caught a glance of her own reflection in the great, old oak-framed mirror; the sight made her stop. The last few weeks were clearly painted across her face in the bruise-like circles under her eyes and the blue palor of her already pale skin. She expected to see as much, if not worse. It was only the alchemy blowing through her veins that kept her on her legs; the pile of empty phials left stacked by her workbench attested to that. A tonic for wakefulness, another for calm, and for focus, and more than that – she had no right to look hale. But in the mirror she saw more than an overused body: she also saw a smile. Her own warm, happy smile. Against all odds, the day rested easily on her shoulders. Biting her lip, she opened her robe and rolled her shirt up just enough to see the pale webbing of recently-mended skin drawn across her stomach. Back in the salon, she drank the last of the liquor quickly and politely refused the dinner. She had something to come back to waiting back in her workshop, and couldn't stay.
Wind and rain cleared the miasma from the city; the air outside was fresh and crisp, free from the suffocating anxiety that had choked it just days before. Drenched in the rose gold of a beautiful sunset, even the scorch marks high above faded from view. The High City lights shone again, as if nothing had happened. On the street corner, a paper boy was declaring peace and order come again, urging guildspeople to get their evening news from him. The hum of excited voices carried down from the terraces above. The idea crossed Ifi's mind that she could climb to one of them and join the life and reverie of her class; strangely, it didn't even pluck at her nerves to consider it. Still, it made her stop – she couldn't recall ever stepping so lightly over the white pavements of her city. Was this what happiness felt like? Or – as an uneasy voice whispered into her ear – was she in love?
Her hand was on the flat of her stomach; her mind on the hard strength and unshakable commands of Shard. The below-spawn made a home in Ifi's workshop, and her body in Ifi's thoughts. The alchemist was rushing ahead through the lovely dusk, hurrying just to see her again, just to once more have a chance for the harsh touch, and all else that it brought. She longed for it so bad – but was that it actually Shard, or just the services she was obliged to provide? There was another voice speaking to her, calm and collected, reminding her that there was a gulf of difference between being in love, and in lust.
Shard was not on the floor of her shop; only the mail awated Ifi there. She picked through it quickly, sorting orders from checks and bills. The last category included an invoice from the tailor; Ifi opened it and frowned at the listed sum. It was a good thing she had savings ready. Even with them, it looked like she would have to work herself to the bone soon – but only after the Feast, and not before. She folded the sheet back into the envelope, wiping the concern clean from her attention, helped by what waited at the bottom of the pile of mail.
The invitation was a charm-glass card, shimmering with inner power. With the tip of her finger, Ifi traced the blue lines coiling across its cool surface. There was little written on it; there needn't not be. Just the fact she carried this piece of glass would be enough for the High City to recognize her and welcome her, the layered curtains of security charms parting before her – even if only for a single night. Holding it in her hands, feeling its weight and inner charge, was an odd sensation. Years had passed since she had given up on ever sitting at the High Table – and now, here was an opportunity to be present before them, and she was not even going there for her own sake. No – that wasn't true. It was sobering to think, but she was not doing this out of the kindness of her heart. She was attending to help someone who would then help her in turn, letting her live out all the dreams she had all but given up on. So was she in love, or was it just a transaction? This was a barbed notion, and she did not like at all the way it left a chink in her newly-found good mood.
She found Shard upstairs, picking boredly at the wound in her chest. The below-spawn livened up at her entrance, jumping down from her window-perch.
"Here you are," she smiled, approaching the alchemist; Ifi couldn't help but to have heart skip a beat as Shard straightened to her full height. "It's been an awfully uneventful day without you."
"So you just sat there?" Ifi asked, throwing down her robe and removing the wig. Her mood was still excellent, but the unfortunate question lodged itself somewhere in her, a familiar thorn in the simple happiness at seeing Shard again. "Are you worried about those hunters?"
Shard stiffened; Ifi had learned to associate this reaction with confusion, or perhaps even worry.
"I have assured you," she said, "they are unlikely to come for me just yet. We have time, and you are safe. It is only that there are few entertainments available here."
"And what sort of entertainment would you like?" Ifi asked, dropping to her chair. A notable part of her despaired that the answer would be something other than a desirous 'you'.
Shard did not respond; she turned around and climbed back up, her unseen eyes set on the horizon.
"Books?" the alchemist offered to the below-spawn's back. "Drinks? Song and dance?"
The silence extended; Ifi had to wonder if she had not asked a wrong question. It was a cold reminder how little she really knew about this creature that was the locus of all of her lusts and hopes, as well as many of her fears.
"Prowl," Shard spoke suddenly, still watching the city spread before her. "Through the roofs and back-alleys, unheard and unseen, until it was too late."
The claws at the tips of her fingers extended ever so slightly, scratching against the window-frame. Her posture tensed; Ifi knew well what Shard reminded her of in that very moment.
"I am a predator," the below-spawn hissed, the words heavy and firm. "I exist to hunt, to overpower, to feed. This is what brings me joy. This is what I miss. Have I not told you? To my kind, you are meat."
Although sometimes she wished she was, Ifi wasn't stupid. She connected the dots, the obvious things she knew, only refused to consider in full. What was it that the lowborn thug had said, demanding that Ifi let him finish the dying Shard? All I want to do is to make sure that this monster doesn't hurt anyone again. She couldn't even be surprised. The thorn dug deeper; the happiness paled and dissolved into a worry that, for once, was not about herself.
"So why not today? Why didn't you go on a hunt when I was away?"
"It's harder to do here. Your blood is better accounted for," Shard explained, hunching slightly. "Worth more."
"Ours?" Ifi asked with a sinking feeling.
Of course, she was aware of that too. It just didn't occur to her. She couldn't throw away the thought of Villis, and his clear frustration as she accused him of being a violent thug. Maybe he really was just defending himself? Well, there was no room for a 'maybe' there, as much as she would like there to be some. But this only led to more questions. Why did he, in the end, let Shard go? And also…
"The Lower City isn't far," Ifi noted, feeling fear seep into her words. "You could have gone there and back again easily. If you wanted to."
Shard's hunch deepened, her head drooping forwards.
"It is a bad idea," she said, something tinny and empty scratching in her voice. "I can feed on you if I want to."
Those words drew a burst of gentle warmth out of Ifi – almost enough to make her not notice that there was something off about that answer, something dull and false. But she didn't know what thread to pull on to unravel it, and more importantly, she was hardly certain if she wanted to. Shard was her impossible happiness, and she wasn't killing people right now. Maybe there was no need to dig into it any deeper. Maybe those lowborns deserved it and-
"So what do you want to do after you are safe?" she asked, changing the subject before the wretchedness of her own idea could fully unfurl in her mind. "After you are done with your plan?"
Shard uncurled a bit, her claws melding back into the porcelain of her fingers.
"I have not considered it that far," she shrugged. "There is much that I have lost and would want to recover."
"And should I keep you company even then?" Ifi pressed on, letting her hunger distract her from her worries. "In case you need to feed? So that you no longer have to-" she paused just shy of saying 'kill anyone'.
The sound that Shard gave out was somewhere between a cough and a chuckle. She looked at Ifi over her shoulder, the wry, sharp-toothed smile the only expression on her empty face. To the alchemist, it somehow managed to look friendly.
"You are a very strange one, for a mortal," she opined.
"I know," Ifi nodded; this was hardly news to her. It was only the calm with which she took it all that troubled her.
Stuffed in the back of Ifi's meager bookshelf, there was a thin volume in beige covers. Though according to the title printed across them, they should contain "The Chymysters' Enumeration of Metals", that was a lie. The alchemist had committed that memory early into her apprenticeship, and instead bound into the covers a different kind of text. She had first found a copy of How Sofia Lost Her Innocence, written by one Southern Teacher, in an antique bookstore, left by accident among the lives of old saints. The storekeeper was mortified to see it in her hands, but his warnings fell on deaf ears. Ifi paid him in glass, and then some that he would not mention to anyone; she ate little for the next few weeks. However, the sustenance the text provided made it easily worth the sacrifice.
She read during nights, with a light-charm in hand and a scarlett blush on her cheeks. Although the story pretended to be a moral tale of warning, claiming to alert maidens of the dangers of trust, strangers, and desire, it was only truly a piece of awful and revulsive pornography. It told the story of a pious woman in a covenant who ended up abducted by a devilish cult, to then be subjected to every depravity imaginable, until at the end she was so ruined as to come to enjoy it. Having lost her virtue, she took on the sacraments of the cult and helped it seduce a fellow nun, starting the grisly tale anew. It was the worst reading she had done in her life, and the first time she had felt anything close to arousal, one that was impossible to disentangle from the sea of shame she was drowning in.
That book inside the beige bindings was not that copy; she had thrown it into a fire soon after she had finished reading it, and dumped the ashes down the storm-drain. Instead, it was one she bought from another, more specialist bookstore, a little time after becoming a journeywoman. It was an extended version, with added chapters describing the defilement of Sofia's sister, and illustrated with woodcuts that never stopped haunting Ifi's imagination. It was her most hated and cherished possession. She even added to it – a few loose sheets of paper stuffed between the text and the back cover contained the procedure she developed to brew the "mystickal elixir of dumb whoredom" that the devil-worshiping chymysters had to resort to to break through the last of Sofia's resistance – and the antidote, of course. The one bottle of it she had brewed up, she ended up pouring into the mud outside of her workshop, having never worked up the courage to try it. And besides, it would not be the same without the throng of cultists around. It would not be the same alone.
Besides, she was nothing like Sofia, who didn't need much dumbing down in the first place. Her character could be summed up by the gasps she gave out at the size of objects being inserted into her various orifices. In fact, all the women in this story were like that, which as the narrator readily explained, was a point in their favor, distinguishing them from them from the rising depreciation of natural femininity as evidenced by the opening of the guilds to women. Such females – among which Ifi had to count herself – were lost to carnal purposes, their intellectual work causing the shriveling and drying up in the womanly parts and causing other, untold ruination. She had to wonder if that was how Shard saw her: cattle that grew too smart for its intended use. She also had to wonder what it would feel like to be hunted by the below-spawn, reduced to base animal idiocy by a potent alchemical tonic, knowing only fear, and flight, and sheer arousal.
So maybe the Southern Teacher had the right of it, Ifi considered, stumbling around her laboratory and trying to put in some work before sleep. Maybe she should have taken the warnings on the opening pages of the book seriously, and read it as a cautionary tale instead of a fuel for deranged fantasies. After all, the moral was that all the evils suffered by Sofia were, according to the Southern Teacher, nothing but her own fault. She had not turned the demon-worshippers immediately away, allowing her curiosity to seduce her. To rebuke the devil half-heartedly, he wrote, is to desire him, and to desire him is to deserve his cruel ministrations.
The laboratory she had built for herself was a shelter against the world; here she was powerful and knowing. Here, she could take the basic blood and bone of earth and turn them into the many wonders of alchemy. This all made it all too easy to forget that it was, ultimately, a basement, thick-walled and thick-roofed, closed from the sight and touch of others. It offered safety, because it enforced seclusion. Shard's empty cot still lay in the corner, along with the heavy chain Ifi tried to bind her with. There was some poetry to be found in the fact that the below-spawn was the first to see this crypt that Ifi called her life: because this is where it had been buried. Ifigenia Juno, a master alchemist before thirty and already interred in a tomb entirely of her own making. It was a thought she was well acquainted with, and not just because of her father, but also because it was the unvarnished truth of her life. To leave her basement laboratory, she would have to become a respected member of her social circle – which meant something completely different from becoming a respected alchemist. The latter she already was; the former should at most pretend to be. No matter how many professional conversations she managed to hold with her business partners or how many deals she managed to shake on, there would always be the book in the back of her shelf, and the handwritten notes she added to it as a testament to what really went on in her head.
That, in the end, was the reason why she did not rebuke the devil when she came knocking.
If only she could convince herself that it was down to some kind of a self-sacrifice, that she was only giving herself freely to the murderous predator so that it wouldn't harm anyone else! But she knew her lust well enough, and that was the long and short of it. Lust that not even the undeniable awareness that the devil was, in fact, a devil, could dampen. Lust which said some very troubling things about Ifi's innermost character, and ones that she had to concede as the unvarnished, awful truth.
At first, it only brought a sense of guilt so crushing that she threw herself into the work until the sky outside turned gray in anticipation of the coming day. But when the time finally came to turn off the burners and disable the heating charms, instead she found herself feeling mostly empty. Before she slipped into bed by Shard's side, she took to the bathroom again, and once more examined the fading webbing of words cut into her flesh. The sight lost little of its potency; just seeing her made her happier than she had been in years. But with her shirt rolled up and the desire fully exposed, she had to concede to an unfortunate fact: what she felt for Shard was not, and could not, be love. This was only lust for the monster's touch, just as the monster could only see her as meat. But those were the devil's ministrations that Ifi desired, and so also deserved.
There was a kind of peace in that notion, and it cradled her to sleep.