Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes
16. Midnight Blue
See spoiler tags :#exhibitionism #humiliation
The kind of excitement that was building up in Ifi was indistinguishable from anxiety. There was a gentle pressure settling onto her from all sides, at once warm and reassuring, but also thick with only barely contained worry. Empty-headedly, she flipped the page of the book on the pillow before her, trying in vain to focus on the ornate poetry encoding the processes by which beauty and strength could be drawn from dust and sand. Her thoughts were elsewhere.
She ran her fingers across her scalp again, feeling the silken smoothness of the damp skin. Shard ate well during the beautifician's visit, but there was no way Ifi could argue with the results of his wax and pincets. She sniffed, trying to catch the scent of the aloe balm, but it had been washed thoroughly away. For the first time in months, she could not smell alchemy on herself. That, too, was as novel as it was disquieting. She brought her hand up, letting herself admire her lacquered nails. With a file in hand and a battery of varnishes arrayed around him, the beautician complained about how little he had to work with, to which Ifi could only smile apologetically and shrug inside; her hands were her tools, not an object of beauty. And yet! Shades of blue swirled on the tips of her fingers, tiny vortices of a cold sea, warmed by the specks of gold dust scattered across their surface. After the masque, she would have to strip all of this before returning to her laboratory, and her heart already bled at the notion.
But that was not really what set her heart aflutter. She gave up on the book and turned around, eyes sweeping her bedroom. For a moment, they lingered on the desk, where, spread across clean cloth, some of the more terrifying and exciting parts of her outfit waited. If she only could, she would skip towards them to get a better view, but Shard had categorically forbidden her from leaving the bed – on the pain of having to go through the entire toilette again. She couldn't even hope to sneak by the below-spawn attention; Shard was just nearby, perched in front of the dressing table again, a brush in hand. Ifi propped her head up on the pillow, and watched.
Surrounded by a bright glow of stacked lighting charms, the below-spawn worked in what Ifi imagined a trance to look like. She hadn't turned her head away from the mirror in over an hour, her whole body statue-still apart from the precise motion of hand on porcelain. The brush left behind cinnabar-red lines, climbing from the tips of Shard's fingers up her shoulders, to spread out across the flat of her chest into a spiderweb pattern. Each stroke came down with fast and with confidence, with Shard only rarely having to reach for a sponge to erase a stray line. Though her back was turned to Ifi, the alchemist could see the below-spawn's smile reflected in the mirror.
"So what does all of this mean?" she asked, straining to make out shapes from the red bramble.
The brush froze in Shard's hand; for a moment, the alchemist felt guilty for distracting her, but the below-spawn quickly dispelled her worries. She raised a hand up, the flat of it turned towards Ifi, letting her see clearly the segmented coils of a centipede wound around the fingers.
"Vermin of the soil," she explained. "Spawn from dirt. Spiders and scorpions. All that dwells in the dark."
Guided by her voice, Ifi slowly resolved the chaotic sprawl into images, abstract and spread out across the body, as if a map of constellations, stars aligned into patterns only after you learn to see them. So there it was, a swarm of insects, their pincers, claws, and jaws interlocked in a chain across all of Shard. They were spread across a web, and a web themselves, a great skittering horde crawling up towards Shard's neck. But none reached there – as they came close, they became fluid lines again, only to be rewoven above.
"And above it all," the below-spawn continued, the brush dancing in her fingers, "prowls that which is like them, and yet nothing like them."
The filament wing wound across the side of Shard's cheek; the shape of the thorax and of the stinger following suit. Ifi had seen this pattern once before, rendered in black pencil. Now, the lines were finer, the strokes bolder, the wasp almost regal.
"The spiderhawk," Shard whispered, dipping the brush in paint, "which hunts its own kind, but flies free of its filth."
This time, the shape did not encompass the whole of the below-spawn's blank face; Shard drew only a half of it, bisected through the middle of her face, leaving the other half empty. Ifi watched her hesitate for a moment, the tip of the brush swaying an inch from the porcelain surface. When she touched it again, she drew out a different pattern, sparks and flames shooting to the side, a conflagration to stand for the tarantula hawk's other wing. She gave herself a long look in the mirror, nodded to it slightly, and turned around.
"It's almost time," she declared, her voice carrying a vibrant note stronger than anything Ifi had remembered. "Time to get dressed."
The alchemist exhaled, glancing at the dresses that had been waiting patiently since yesterday. There was a sucking feeling in the pit of her stomach, and strange warmth around. With a clenched throat, she slid to the edge of the bed, bare feet touching the cold, stone floor.
"Come," Shard beckoned with a tip of her hand. "You will need to help me."
The alchemist stepped lightly, fighting the urge to kneel before Shard; they would have time for games soon enough. With the predatory confidence already emanating from her, it was difficult to keep such images away from her mind's eye. Anxiety and excitement stoked each other into a high, hot flame. At first, she wasn't sure what assistance Shard was going to need exactly. In fact, the below-spawn needed no help at all with the burgundy petticoat, and Ifi's hands shook so much when she was trying to tie the back of the tight bodice that Shard had to take the laces in her own hands, the flexibility of her porcelain limbs never ceasing to surprise.
But that was the dress, but just the base. Ifi berated herself quietly for not realizing that sooner. Mostly without losing her patience, Shard guided Ifi in what to do next and how to help her drape herself in an impossibly long roll of embroidered silk. The alchemist didn't initially understand how the below-spawn would even carry such length, but then it folded so smoothly and easily around the whole of her body, head, shoulders, and legs, that by the time she wrapped the last of it around her waist, it was only a perfect, if loose, fit. Ifi took a step back, and took the sight in.
Shard shone red and gold, the cloth dazzling across her form like a smoldering flame. Golden threads ran the edge of the drape, folding one onto another into a cascading network of broken patterns. In a way, there was little in the way of extravagance to this – merely fine silk, careful embroidery, and the way it all suited Shard's imposing stature. And yet, it was more than enough; the below-spawn appeared to Ifi as if a priestess of some ancient cult, shrouded in fire, ready to command the faithful.
Shard moved her arm around, the half-spiderhawk of her face following the play of light in the folds of silk. The smile on her face was proud and full of sharp teeth.
"Good enough," she said, turning back to Ifi. "And now, the jewelry. Get ready."
The voice grabbed her by the throat; she looked once more at the table and what waited for her there. There was a part of her that erupted in terror that what was happening was real; but the rest of her was too hungry to mind. She swallowed loudly and pulled down the shift she had been wearing. There were a few things that had to be done first before she could get dressed.
Shard didn't really have to command her; she had been fantasizing about this moment ever since the below-spawn proposed to take her to the masque as an ornament. Before the crushing reality of the fact that it was really happening could drive a wedge between her hunger and her hope, she hurried over to the table, right in time to see Shard take into her hands a pair of leather straps, linked by a small, steel ring. They slipped above Ifi's knees, cinched tight, forcing her legs together.
She gave them a try, felt leather and metal hold easily against her efforts. She breathed deeply to calm herself, but her thoughts were rapidly becoming a mess, fracturing along the lines of dreams she had never hoped to live to see. Shard's hand was on her thighs, cold – but its touch burned. Then, it went slowly up, sliding gently across the smooth clean skin; the alchemist squeezed her mouth shut not to beg for something that was not yet due. She managed a low, modulated moan.
"Already?" Shard whispered, the words finding its way under Ifi's skin and reeling her towards the light.
Then, the porcelain fingers went further up; Ifi felt the tips press into her small buttocks, squeezing them apart. A few drips of a thick, viscous liquid dripped between them; Shard reached for the other implement. Ifi tried to relax, as she had been told she was supposed to. It didn't, exactly, work. Shard's push was gentle and firm, but mostly firm.
It hurt when the slick, blunt tip of the hook went inside her; she shuddered and cried out as it lodged in place. Her legs buckled slightly, the body trying to make sense of the metal now impaling it. For a moment, she didn't move, focused entirely on the cold metal pressed against the small of her back, and the scarlett shame on her cheeks. Shard attached the other piece, a long rigid rod reaching all the way to the base of Ifi's neck.
"You will hold your posture for me," she promised possessively into Ifi's ear. "Let's get you dressed."
Years ago, Ifi's father ordered a dress for her, one that would suit the needs of a woman taking the Challenge. She never did, and fashion had moved on since then, leaving the vestment little more than a reminder of a bitter past, locked in the back of a wardrobe in the Lower Heights. A waste. For all the bitter memories seemingly woven into its very fabric, Ifi relished the chance to finally put it on. It had always been a good dress: midnight velvet lightly brocaded with gold that was woven thicker and thicker towards the sunburst pattern stretched across the shoulder. All as the motto of the guild said: with the dawning of the Art, broken is the night of ignorance. Shard helped her slip into it; just as she remembered, it ran from the top of her throat all the way to her ankles with all the modesty expected of an aspiring guildswoman. Well – it used to be modest, once. After the adjustments, no one would describe it as such. Not that it bared skin, or clung improperly to the frame.
"Sleeve up," Shard commanded, starting to lace the dress on Ifi's back, and pressing the metal rod closet between her shoulders. The girl nodded, her arms already in the long sleeves. Once, they used to terminate in delicately ornamental cuffs, to match with the perfect pair of gloves. Now, they extended longer than Ifi could even reach, her hands disappearing in them. Not that they could emerge, anyway – the ends of the elongated sleeves had been sewn closed, and outfitted with straps and buckles. Ifi didn't stop smiling as Shard had her fold her arms on her chest, and then locked them in place, pressed tightly together just below her breasts. Once again, she strained the fabric; once again, it turned out pleasantly stronger than she was. A few more ingenious hidden straps secured everything firmly in place.
"Wonderful," Shard said, reaching for what became of the dress' collar.
Ifi made herself moan again as she felt the fingers on her neck; it was fun to make this noise, and then to feel the porcelain close around the steel band that clasped around her neck. With a half-extended claw, Shard turned the screw holding the collar together, until it closed snugly around Ifi's neck. The steel had been blued blacked, letting the inlaid golden pattern shimmer in turn to the brocade across the rest of the dress. The next moan was unforced – it came as Shard pulled on the hook and linked the end of the rod with the back of the collar. Whatever fears floated across Ifi's thoughts subsided, because her thoughts mostly did. She looked into a mirror and saw herself as sapphire cameo about to be set against red silk.
"You will fit me well," Shard's promise was sweet and genuine.
Ifi opened her mouth to match her, but what words did she have? Her reflection stared back at her, light-eyed.
"Are you ready?" the below-spawn asked. "The golems are waiting."
The alchemist's yes was more of an eager nod rather than a word; her throat was clenched, and not just by steel.
"Then let us put our masks on."
The halved spiderhawk vanished under a smooth bronze plate, the full half of Shard's face obscured by its polished surface. It was no less featureless than the porcelain below, but for the cabochon ruby set into it in the manner of an eye. Even now, even with everything else on her head, the sheer extravagance of this gemstone struck Ifi – but she didn't have much time to consider that. Her own mask waited, no less impressive, and far more involved.
"Anything you want to say?" Shard asked, taking the final accessor into her hands. "While you still can?"
Ifi shook her head. Her mind was a cacophony of breaking, hissing machinery; that music of a laboratory full of work. The noise soothed all that lurked beneath, setting a veil between the alchemist, and all the rest of her self. Shard grabbed her by her chin, and forced her mouth open.
The muzzle fit across her jaw, pressing a soft ball between her teeth, large enough to fill the mouth. Shard pushed it deep, pulling the network of braided steel cables that supported it taut around Ifi's head. The metal bit into flesh, but not too deep – just enough to be keenly felt. In the mirror, Ifi saw a deformed face, the mouth covered by a plate adorned with more of the same golden scrollwork as her collar, the entire contraption held together by a metal webbing enclosing her like a net, like a cage. With the clean-shaven head, she could almost imagine herself as some kind of a monster that needed to be restrained, some alien creature belonging to a world of slavering cruelty. Sapphires woven into the steel braids blinked back at her, a testament to her value.
A braided cord clipped to the front of her collar. Ifi looked down and followed the lead all the way to Shard's hand.
"Now let all the High City gawk in envy."
Very little remained of Ifi as she walked carefully downstairs, her heels clicking quietly across the floor of her shop. A luxury carriage, drawn by slender marble golems waited outside, the valet bowed down as he held the door open to them. She had to stop at the step; it was too tall for her to make it. Face burning, she turned to Shard, who hoisted her into the plush cabin up as if she weighed nothing.
The coachman whistled a command; the golems stirred, and started to pull. Through the darkened windows, Ifi watched the Middle City roll by, conscious less of the white winding streets, and more of the hook, the gag, her bound arms and legs, her collared neck. Her body already felt compromised, and she could only imagine how weak it would be at the end of what was shaping up to be a long night. She couldn't wait; she rested her head on Shard's shoulder, and the below-spawn wrapped hers around her arms. Lonely days dissolved into a mist of distant memories; Ifi was no longer excited, or anxious. Knocked out of the world she had never loved to inhabit, she swam the surface of a great, empty ocean, beneath a welcoming sky. The weight of her self retreated somewhere below the waves, into an abyssal depth the monsters of its kind tended to enjoy. She had no need for it now; now was the time to let rest, and be nourished in the light. And to be beautiful – so very beautiful.
The High City loomed above, but nearer than before.