Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes
2. Risk Assessment
See spoiler tags :#exhibitionism #humiliation
Ifi couldn't help but to feel like she was making a costly mistake. Or, to be precise, she knew that she was doing something costly for sure. The exact price was easy to name: she could read it from the growing pile of discarded glass now strewn across her shop's floor. She could start that accounting with the svelte phial of death's bane, now emptied, to be priced at seven days of her labour, and then seven more to make up for the price of ingredients. Then, she could add to it the bulbous, blue bottle clattering at her feet, up until very recently filled with a potent draught of mendlesh: ten and four days, respectively. So already a month of honest work, and that was just the start of it. There was also the tiny ampoule of liquid gold-based panaceum that she was currently trying to pour down the throat of the creature bleeding out on the floor of her shop: that would be three days to make, and ten to pay for the reagents. And finally, there was also that hematite charm she was holding tightly to where the creature's carapace became a gaping wound. The star-shaped trinket burned through its magic with a sharp sizzle and the acrid stench of a smithy, even as the seven cut amethysts set into it remained cold and dead. Of course there was no toxin to be purged, and she could have instead used any of the dozen cheap coagulation charms she had in her store, instead of feeling another fortnight of her labour sizzle away in her fingers.
So that was the tally, for now: two months, give or take. That much she knew. It was whether it counted as a mistake that remained to be seen.
At the very least, though, it wasn't looking to be a total total waste. As far as she could tell, the creature that had shredded through her reinforced door and made a terrible mess of her display case, was no longer dying. To be more exact, it was no longer presently dying. Ifi had no idea how its long-term prognosis looked; she wasn't a healer, but an alchemist. She could mix potions, sell them, and, in a pinch, force it down someone's throat, hoping against hope that they, along with a stack of protective charms, would be enough for a gaping hole in a chest.
The last of the amber liquid disappeared down the creature's mouth; Ifi held its head until she felt like it swallowed, then tossed the empty ampoule aside, into the pile of broken glass. The bleeding had stopped; there was no more viscous, black gore gushing all over her shop. Even better, the creature continued breathing. Sure, the sound it was making did remind her of a steam leak, but at least the chest did move, and the pace seemed steady enough for Ifi not to worry about it, not too much. There was no way to ask it about it, anyway: it was well and truly unconscious. After what she had fed into it, it was unlikely to wake before the next week. Then again, Ifi had no idea how that applied to the below-spawn.
She had seen them before, once or twice. Distantly, as those cloaked figures at the patrician's sides, veiled in rich fabrics, occult symbols carefully painted on their faceless heads. They struck memorable figures, if somewhat eerie. Mostly, though, she knew from the stories her clients would bring, where they would be cast as all kinds of monsters. She would hear how they drank pain like wine, schemed against the people of the city, served an unseen master to purposes unknown, but surely nefarious, how they were demons in the flesh, or worse still. She had no good reason to disbelieve in all that, but truth be told, to her, those creatures mostly seemed far away, scarcely even real.
And besides, the one on the floor looked nothing like those tall, white spectres in the Good Families' halls. Unadorned, its shell caked in crusted blood and dirt, looking like broken pottery pulled out of a pile of refuse. Ifi touched its side, brushing away some of the filth; it slid easily off the cold surface, revealing the clear white beneath. It was apparently a mark of quality porcelain that it cleaned up easily. It felt nothing like flesh, nothing like skin. Maybe that's why she didn't even feel all that scummy for staring at it, even though it was so obviously naked.
Would it mind? She bit her lip. She had to admit to herself: it's shape was easy on her eyes, even dirtied and chipped. Sleek and barely human in its sexlesness, it went well with the bed of shattered glass it lay on. It was all smooth lines and slight curves; Ifi bet that if she was to polish it, she could see herself reflected in its surface as if in a mirror. Even with its wound, it still reminded her more of golems her peers would sometimes make out of dumb stone and steel, than of anything living. But unlike those plodding constructs, this one radiated a predatory aura. Carefully, Ifi grabbed its hand and raised it to the light, watching the glow of the alchemical lamp catch on its long claws. They gleamed like crystal glass, the thin coat of fresh blood glistening on their edges.
Ifi tried to imagine it not as this wounded, half-broken doll, but as it was when it was hale, imperious, commanding. She swallowed loudly; it was a strange thought, a potent thought. She then thought of how much it was going to owe her for saving its life, and for ruining her shop, and of a few other things which were, frankly, stupid, but not altogther unpleasant to think.
She batted those ideas away; if there ever was going to be a time for them, it was not now. First, she had to figure out how to get the creature out from the front of her shop, and to a bed in the back. Maybe she could just pick it up? Hopefully it wouldn't be too heavy. To give it a try, she wrapped her arm around its chest and hoisted up. Much to her surprise, it didn't even take all that much strain, only the sound the creature's arms made as they clinked against the body was nerve-wracking, as if glass about to shatter...
"Has she bled out?"
It took all of her strength not to drop the creature back down on the floor. Slightly shaking, she put it back down and turned towards the broken door, and the voice.
A man stood there, a broken, golden-tipped spear in his hand. The night hasn't treated him kindly, Ifi could tell. His tan jacket was shredded over his chest, bloodied cloth and flesh still pink from mending magic showing beneath.
Ifi glanced back at the red sheen on the claws of the creature beneath. Her mouth abruptly went dry.
"Not for your lack of trying," she mouthed, inching away from the man in the door. She looked around, through the mess of her shop; she had a defense charm left under the counter, if only she could get over towards it. "Are you here to finish the job?"
"Please," he must have noticed the taut note in her voice. "Calm down," he said, putting down his spear. "I'm not here to hurt you, I promise."
He was no longer looking at the creature, but straight at her; she had seen his face somewhere before. Long, golden hair, tired blue eyes, old scars; all soft, and kind. And yet, something about him bothered her. Old instincts shouted to not trust him. She dropped onto the stool behind the counter, fingers finding the familiar cool shape behind it. She closed her hand around the charm, feeling the budding spark inside.
"My name is Villis," he continued, trying to sound soft. "You might have heard of me."
The name did come across as vaguely familiar, but something else definitely was: the ugly, half-hidden harsh inflection to his words, as if he was speaking through a mouthful of nails. This man was low-born and raised.
Ifi's grip on the charm tightened; she knew that there had to be something wrong with this Villis. His clothes and pleasant manner almost fooled her; but those meant nothing. She had heard enough about how high low-borns could get in the city nowadays.
"And what are you doing in my shop?" she growled. "It's the middle of the night. People sleep. If you want to buy a potion, come in the morning."
He blinked, throwing another look at the mess of wood and glass strewn across the floor, then back at her.
"That's none of your business," she added, before he could ask.
She was half-expecting him to do as the low-born brutes were wont to, and just rush her here and there, but surprisingly, he kept his cool.
"Please," he repeated. This effort he was making to sound soft and mask his nature wasn't paying out at all; the barely concealed accent was all the more suspicious. "I don't think you quite understand the danger you're in."
Ifi's grip on the charm didn't relax; she was now watching Villis with full focus, ready to let the sorcery out at the slightest provocation. She had him figured out: he was one of those upstarts her clients complained about, one of those people who climbed out of the low city and tried to play pretend at something they weren't supposed to be. And, clearly, he was also a murderer of some kind, now attempting to threaten her. Her palms were sweating; her heart felt as if about to rip free from her chest. This man was probably here to kill her, and that poor wounded creature next.
She couldn't let her fear show.
"All I want to do is to make sure that this monster doesn't hurt anyone again," he said, and she almost laughed.
"Monster?" she asked with all of her venom. She wasn't sure if that was the right way to act, but she couldn't help herself. But what if it was going to provoke her? There were too many thoughts in her head, too many scenarios of violent crime unfolding before her eyes.
"I know she doesn't look the part," Villis nodded; at least he wasn't trying to come closer. "I don't think anyone does when battered and blooded. But trust me, it's…"
"Trust you?" Ifi snapped. "You come into my shop in the middle of the night, weapon in hand, looking as if fresh out of a dockside brawl, and you ask me to trust you?"
Again, she regretted those words as soon as she spoke them. Yet, he still didn't rush. It was only the charge building up in the charm she held onto that kept her from begging him for her life. It buzzed in her hands, begging to be released.
"I am asking you to trust me," he attempted a conciliatory smile, "because I have…"
"You have violated my home," she snarled, "in the middle of the night. You ask me to give up my patient so that you can slaughter it…"
"Her! Whatever! Who do you think I am?"
"I think you are panicked," he observed, "and unreasonable."
"And you are a low-born thug," she was sounding almost giddy now; she really wanted to stop, but her own words were getting away from her. "And if you don't get out right now, I will let my wards fry you like an insect."
The charm recognized her words; it throbbed in her fingers. Pale, blue sparks shot up; defensive runes lit up across the floor, and the mauled door-frame. Villis' bandit smile faded to nothing. For a moment, he looked almost sad.
"I see," he murmured, taking a step back. She was counting on getting fear out of him; it seemed more like some kind of disappointment. "I get it now. You will excuse me, then, for troubling your sleep.."
One final time, he surveyed the ruin of her shop. His eyes lingered for a time over the wounded creature, then over Ifi. She had to contend that he was concealing his aggression well. Against herself, she released the hold on the charm, then quickly strengthened it again. She was not going to get fooled at the end.
"My apologies for the disturbance, miss alchemist," the word came off his mouth like a slur, like a slap to the face.
"Are you trying to insult me?"
Once again, she bit her tongue a bit too late. But Villis merely raised his hands in an apology and shook his head, seemingly contrite.
"Who am I to insult a respectable craftswoman such as you," he said, clearly mocking her. "I will visit again. Hopefully Shard won't yet have gutted you by then."
He bowed politely, if somewhat stiffly, picked up his broken weapon, and turned to leave. Before she could figure out a way to respond to him, he had vanished into the dark.
With a deep sigh, she let go of the charm. The charge started to dissipate slowly, with a quiet, disappointed whine. She made a similar sound, resting her head on the counter for a moment.
Fear and stress drained slowly, leaving behind sheer exhaustion. As much as she would love to, however, there was no time to sleep. Morning was approaching fast, and she couldn't let her clients see the shop the way it looked right now. The rest of the night would be spent with the broom, the mop, and whatever acids it would take to scrub the foul blood from the expensive tiles she laid the floor with.
There were times when she couldn't stand her own stinginess. If only she had listened to her mother and not shirked on having servants. She could go now, get them out of their beds, and have them sort disaster of broken wood and glass themselves. But no, she wanted to be independent. So sleeping was out of the picture.
Reluctantly, she reached for a small bottle she had stored under the corner, a bit of poison-green liquid sloshing at the bottom. It tasted as foul as ever, but as it burned down her throat, she could feel an unpleasant kind of energy spread through her.
There were still a few hours left before the first clients would come rushing in, seeking remedies for their hangovers, ulcers, and faithless husbands. She would get the shop at least borderline presentable for them. Hopefully, they wouldn't mind the missing door too much.
She rubbed her temples. What in all hells was she going to do with the door? She needed one, for when that thug would invariably come again. As much as she wanted to, she just couldn't afford to get too worried about that, right now. Maybe that carpenter who still owed her for love potions, maybe he could be pressured to work something out quickly? She would get him first thing in the morning. But that would mean leaving the shop unattended and… she would just get a runner. She only wished that getting a solid door done wasn't going to take him too much time.
It probably was.
She mumbled a few ugly swears, then put the rest of the alertness elixir down. The door would wait until morning. She just had to approach it all one thing at a time, starting with moving that patient of hers to a cot in the back. And, probably, finding a length of chain.