Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes

15. Obligations

by gargulec

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

Afternoon sun caught in the cut glass before sinking into the many-colored perfumes. Shard looked through the old wood cabinets and the carefully arranged bottles displayed inside. In a way, the perfumier's shop was like her alchemist's. But where Ifi left her floor bare, the cold white tiles exposed for ease of cleaning, here Shard's feet sank into thick southern carpet. Cushioned chairs surrounded her, inviting customers to sit down and sample rock candy from large jars. It all made Ifi's shop look sparse in comparison, if not outright poor. For all that ostentatious luxury, however, there was something vulgar about it. It was meant to entice and impress those who still had to look up to see their betters – which, in fairness, now included Shard as well. The High City had no need for such displays. In better times, Shard would have simply sent a maid for such purchases, and then punish them accordingly if they disappointed her with their selection. But Ifi was busy with her work (too busy, in truth), and besides Shard had no doubt that the task of picking perfumes for the masque would overwhelm the alchemist, ending in bitter failure – even though she actually shared the guild with the master of shop, if the heraldry of the Subtle Fellowship of Brewers' above the door was of any indication. And so, Shard had to do it herself – but in all honesty, she didn't mind all that much. However demeaning it was for a Lair-Mother's child to shop around like a common guildsperson, it made for a welcome break from the stifling boredom of Ifi's bedroom.

Being in the world of common guildspeople, however, came with many benefits. The moment she walked into the shop and let the clerk catch a glance of her porcelain shell, the immaculately dressed man called for his boss, before shutting the door so that no ordinary customer would interrupt the visit of what clearly had to be an emissary of the Lair-Mother herself. The master perfumier showed no hint of frustration at being torn away from her work, instead devoting all of her attention and helpful advice to Shard. Of course, she couldn't follow it all immediately, instead having to first make a general fuss, but ultimately the guidance was more than welcome.

"This will have to do, I suppose," she declared, holding a pear-shaped flacon to light and watching the azure inside splash around fancifully. Though the perfumier promised her 'boreal, oceanic notes', for her it was just a refreshing, pleasant smell – easily satisfying enough. She put it down next to the other flask, that one slender and fiery red in its contents. "Have it packed and delivered to master Juno's workshop."

That address raised their eyebrows, the clerk hiding it better than his master. Clearly, though, both would soon add to what had to be a pretty robust body of rumors circulating about Ifi.

"You heard her," the perfumier ordered the clerk after a brief pause, before smiling at Shard. "Please, accept those samples as our heartfelt gift. To serve you was reward enough for us."

Considering how little remained of Ifi's savings, and how much was still left to do ahead of the Feast of Indulgence, Shard could only smile – there really were some benefits to being stuck in the world of common guildspeople.

"Of course," she declared. "I will be sure to remember you fondly."

The smiles with which they walked her out of the shop had to be genuine; they really thought they stood to benefit from Shard's attention. The Lair-Mother's child couldn't deny that it was plainly satisfying – the Middle City respected her, even only because they had no way of knowing who she really was, and how low she had fallen. But maybe, she thought, looking past the cascading terraces and up towards the High City above, maybe this misfortune really was only temporary. With the fragrances of luxury still close to her shell, she had no choice but to think back to her ambitions.

Of course, survival had to come first. She had to meet Villis and convince him to help protect from her own kind. But if that could be accomplished, there would be so much left to recover, such great heights to climb back to. And she would climb them back – the bleakness of the past few days parted, and she could only laugh at how she had almost managed to convince herself that there would be no rising from this rock bottom, that it was ambition that had ultimately brought her so low. Such fanciful notions felt remote now, sickly dreams and little more. There was still a great future ahead of her.

The fear with which she had first left Ifi's workshop to visit the Middle City's bustling shopping lanes was gone now. She no longer kept glancing over her shoulder, expecting to see the likes of Cuts on the hunt for her. If leaving the four walls and suffocating smallness of the alchemist's home was putting her in danger, it was minimal. The Lair-Mother resided far below, days away from the mortal world. It would take her time to send out orders and minions, to declare Shard prey. Until then, she was as safe as she could be, especially as long as she was keeping a mostly low profile. It did her good to go outside. She couldn't let herself live like a trapped animal, peering fearfully out of the window, on the lookout for predators to come to rip her from her den. She was a predator herself, and she should never let herself forget that!

The notion made her hunger stir. Not the physical one – she had dealt with that earlier, with the help of a great, bloody steak. The other kind, the one that was the truth of what she was. She bit down on her tongue, keeping the old instincts from seizing her. Her plan was originally to spend some more time wandering through the streets, maybe finding a few more outfits for herself and Ifi, just so that they could look respectable together. But there was no rush to that, and thinking about the alchemist also whetted Shard's appetite, in fresh ways she had not yet grown fully familiar with. The day was drawing to a close anyway; soon the susurrus of terraces would fill the emptying streets. There was hope that Ifi would be done with her work by now, and available for other use.

Shard had to keep reminding herself that the arrangement she had with that girl was only a substitute for true sustenance. It was an ersatz she was forced to rely on until she could return to her proper place and once more hold the lives of others without any worry or concern for them. Yes, she missed that. But until then, there was no denying that feeding on Ifi, however complicated and tiresome it could get, had its own unexpected charms. Maybe she was even going to miss them, some day? Maybe after her return to power, she would hold onto the alchemist, as a different kind of a servant than the ones she used to employ? Such notions were still too far beyond the immediate need to properly consider, but they could be entertained.

One of the little things that Shard had discovered in her visits to the more representative parts of the Middle City was just how off the beaten path Ifi's workshop was – almost an hour of a brisk march from the brightly-lit terraces of the Goldsmiths' Alley, even farther away from the circling storefronts of the Brewers' Plaza. In a way, it was fitting – though Shard had managed to see enough of the alchemist's practice to wonder why she didn't move higher in the hierarchy of her guild. Though Ifi clearly wanted for many things, talent and dedication were not on the list.

Unfortunately, those very same qualities were not always to the alchemist's benefit. When Shard returned, Ifi was nowhere to be found either in the shopfront, or in the bedroom upstairs. This could really only mean one thing; the Lair-Mother's child checked the kitchen without much hope, and then descended into the warm, suffocating depth of the workshop.

"Do you realize it's already dark outside?" she asked, coming inside.

If Ifi heard her, she made no indication of it. She sat at her workbench – or, to be precise, hung above it, back bent and black-ringed eyes set on a large beaker of mily green liquid. She was chewing on her lips; a fresh reddish mark on her cheek anointed with a dash of stinky poultice explained the burnt smell hanging above the laboratory. A half-emptied flask of liquid wakefulness lay next to her, the sparkle of the blue potion indicating it had been brewed to double strength. Shard felt her claws extend unbidden, scraping against the surface of her wrists; it occurred to her that she was going to go to sleep with her hunger unsated tonight.

"This bloody thing," Ifi blurted out with a furious note to her tired voice, not moving her eyes away from the dish, "is refusing to crystallize."

That told Shard absolutely nothing; it was just one of those things she would sometimes hear from the girl when she found her in the workshop in the middle of night. The Lair-Mother's child hissed out in annoyance, then dropped onto a stool next to the alchemist. Ifi smelled of sweat, frustration, and scorched hair; worse feelings were painted across her face.

"I asked you to take care of yourself," she kept up with the hiss. "Look at you. You look like a cadaver."

And there is so much alchemy in your blood right now that if I tried to do something with you, you would probably just faint and feel nothing, she thought, but kept that to herself.

"The masque is in four days," she continued, the alchemist seemingly barely paying attention. "You need to be presentable."

Finally, Ifi looked away from the beaker, giving Shard a blink.

"I'm sorry," she said, "but I'm trying to focus. This is for a really important order."

In that moment, Shard wished for nothing more than to be allowed to grab Ifi by the throat and tell her to obey next time. But the alchemist knew fully well that the Lair-Mother's child was not going to harm her, that she needed her, that there were limits to what Shard could demand of her. The brief elation of being recognized as important and powerful melted down into idle frustration. And besides, it was an ugly feeling, looking at Ifi like that – Shard hated seeing her run herself ragged at all; she would much prefer her hale, and happy. As consistently perplexing as the alchemist was, she was also a constant spring of experiences that Shard found novel and refreshing, and she would loathe to have that well dry up.

"Actually," Ifi perked up abruptly, throwing Shard off that particular trail of introspection. "Give me your claw."

Shard froze, too surprised to protest when the alchemist grabbed her by her wrist.

"What?" she got out.

"Extend your claw," Ifi demanded, a forceful note in her tired voice.

With mounting curiosity, Shard allowed one of her claws into full length, the edge of it catching the dim lights of the laboratory. Ifi did not pause to admire the sight; she guided Shard's hand by the wrist into the beaker, the claw piercing the surface of the mixture.

"Just hold it there."

For a fleeting moment, Shard was expecting to feel something eat into the surface of her body – but the liquid just lapped at the edges of the claw, quickly coming to rest. Ifi's eyes drilled into it, as if the act of watching alone could stir a reaction into happening. And then, without a warning, it did just that. Shard looked fascinated as the mixture settled into a lattice of pale white flakes, extending from her finger like roots, like rhizomes.

"Steady," Ifi whispered, her grip tightening on Shard's wrist. "There we go. Perfect."

Her voice was laden with satisfaction, with the kind of relief that only comes at the end of a long struggle. Shard looked away from the alchemy and at the alchemist, and saw tension drain from her. She exhaled from the bottom of her lungs and leaned back from the bench.

"What are you even made of…" she mumbled, so very tired. Her hand slipped from Shard's; the Lair-Mother's child carefully withdrew the claw from the beaker. "I'll think on that later. What was that about the ball? Is something wrong?"

The mixture clung to the surface of the claw, drawing a red sheen out of it. Shard looked around, searching for something to wipe it clean, finally settling on a piece of a rag. All she could do at Ifi's question was to click her tongue. At least the burst of frustration she felt for the girl muted her hunger somewhat.

"You need to rest before the masque," she repeated.

"Right," Ifi shrugged. Jerkily, she drew herself up from the workbench, and grabbed one of the large, glass plates from the rack behind her. She slipped it under the beaker, and with a touch set to a gentle heat. "But it's still a few days away, isn't it? I am really behind with work lately. I'll catch some sleep."

She turned around on her soles, hand aiming for what remained of the liquid wakefulness. Hands closing into fists, Shard stepped in her path, straightened to her full height.

"You need to be presentable," she bared her teeth. "You need to be in a good condition. Not a wrung-out dish rag," she threw the cloth from her claw, and onto the bench.

"I'm just going as an ornament," Ifi muttered, frowning at the cloth. "How much do you expect of me?"

The frustration bloomed into a well-developed anger. Had the alchemist not listened to her at all?

"That you will visit a beautician," Shard snarled putting a hand on Ifi's shoulder, tips of her claws squeezing through the alchemist's work clothes. "That you will put in effort to look excellent, to be clean and bright and a pleasure to show around. That you will represent me well!"

The words rang off the thick laboratory walls. Ifi's head slumped; she breathed out a wave of that thick and rotten fear Shard had the displeasure of sampling a few days earlier.

"I thought…" she said, staring at the wall. "I must have misunderstood something."

Of course she had. Shard had to restrain herself from driving her claws into Ifi's shoulder here and there – not that it would help any with the problem they apparently were having. A problem that Shard realized she should have seen coming.

"Can you explain?" she asked, trying to keep her bile from tinting her voice too much. All she wanted was to feed.

Soon, they were sitting in Ifi's tiny kitchen, the alchemist digging in a bowl of a thick stew that had been thickening over the past few days. Shard watched her eat, her fingers drumming an impatient tune on the oil-stained table. The wait did little to cool down her frustration – only let her remember her hunger better. But – and that was a bitter notion to concede – such unpleasantries were the price she had to pay not just for Ifi's continued participation in her plans, but also for the chance to continue feeding off her. In a way, this framing made the situation marginally more bearable.

When Ifi finally spoke – and it took her a good while to get there – she didn't look directly at Shard at all. Her voice was meek and apologetic, eyes pinned to the pattern of bricks on the kitchen wall.

"I thought that what you proposed would be easier than playing your handler," she said.

Shard's finger froze mid-motion. Her mind spun up for a moment, trying to figure out what the alchemist tried to mean by that. The answer, as it turned out, wasn't that difficult to imagine.

"So you just assumed," she stated cooly, "that I would just take you before the High Families like one would a pet? That you wouldn't have to do anything?"

Ifi said nothing to that. She hunched over the table, a pained expression on her exhausted face. But Shard didn't need her speech to know she was right – the potent, sharp hit of shame she got was enough of a response. She sucked it in, her mouth watering; it wasn't the meal she had intended, but it wasn't entirely unwelcome either.

"Even pets need to take care of themselves," she hissed. "Let alone mortal ones. I am not taking you to the masque to amuse your fantasies…"

Shard paused, surprised at a strange thought circling somewhere in her head. Ifi looked small, as if about to break.

"I am not taking you to the masque only to amuse your fantasies," Shard repeated. "I also need you to make me look good. That's the use of an ornament. That's its function. And you will try to fill it well."

The command came out of her mouth like a snap of a whip; it hit Ifi straight on the face. Shard tasted the shame intensifying, turning sweet and burning hot. Whatever it was that she was saying consisted of the right words.

"Do you understand?" she asked in a tone that brooked no denial.

"Yes," Ifi mewled out, weak and needy.

"You will rest," Shard commanded, standing up to tower above the alchemist. "You will take a break from your work. You will not trouble your pretty little head with anything ahead of the masque, but for how to best make yourself into the ornament I need. And then, you will hang from my hand, a mute, beautiful thing that I will show to others with pride. Again," she threw the question at her once more, "tell me: do you understand?"

"Yes," Ifi hid her head in her arms. "But…"

"So what is the issue?" Shard pressed. "Don't you want it? Are you having second thoughts?"

Words died in Ifi's throat.

"Spit out!" Shard demanded, but to no avail.

Ifi couldn't speak; her hurt seized up inside of her, like some kind of a barb grown into the flesh. It was hurting her in ways that even Shard could never enjoy. Silence swelled between them, bubbling up with the same nauseating fear that had risen up from shwere deep within the alchemist. Shard watched her, first with impatience, then with anger, but then with concern. Ifi lay mute, entirely drained and Shard was responsible; was responsible for her.

"I don't understand you," she whispered, but her words made no sound: they were not true at all. She only had to think.

There was this perplexing mortal who lived on the fringes of her own world, forever hungry. Who could never speak of her own desires without choking with shame, and enjoying that too. Who dreamed about being seen as much as it made her tremble with fear. Who loved being called a thing, and slept easily when held in Shard's monstrous embrace. Who was fragile not because she was only a mortal, soft flesh and brittle bones, but because of how much it took from her to keep herself together, every day and every night. How much she wanted someone to lessen that burden.

Weakness lay ahead of Shard, weakness in quavering flesh and broken spirit. Weakness she had been taught to disdain. Awful memories rose up from the bottom of Shard's memory, buzzing up locust-like. She couldn't face them, so she had to run away from them.

She reached out for the girl again, but this time not to hold her in place, but rather to hold her close. Ifi went slack in her embrace, a rag doll finally free of the pressure of having to pretend to be a real woman.

"Don't worry," Shard whispered, as truthfully as she could manage, before herself and Ifi alike, "I will keep you close. I will keep you safe."

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