Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes

20. Reckoning

by gargulec

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

20. Reckoning

"Wake up."

Immediately the last night reasserted itself, exploding out into a tangled, thorny mess of images, impressions, and feelings. They were all chokingly bitter, aside from those that really hurt, which tasted sweet instead. No matter how much she tried, there was no holding onto the dissipating remnants of sleep; she tried to screw her eyes shut and refuse the rush of consciousness. Instead, she only immersed herself in it.

She remembered hands, careful and attentive, ushering her out of the feast, freeing her from that damn dress, holding her as she sobbed unconscionably and aimlessly. They helped her wash herself, they led her through a thick fog of words, and promises and explanations that could find no purchase in the miasma of her mind, and finally, they laid her down on a bed, under a warm blanket, in a room so far above the ground, and so far away from home. She remembered the names and faces that those hands were attached to. Eusebia. Prunikos. She even remembered the immense, guilt-shot sense of relief of having them take care of her, having them save her from the inevitable consequences of her own mistakes.

But most of all, she remembered the dull, directionless anger swelling with each moment parting her from that fucking below-spawn.

"Wake up!"

Grudgingly, Ifi opened her eyes, to see Pris lean over her, hair tied into a neat bun, face severe. She cut a dark figure against the golden daylight filling the room behind her. The alchemist mumbled half-coherently, and dug herself up, blinking rapidly to get the last dregs of sleep away from her eyes. There was so much charm glass around her, veining up the walls and to the ceiling, slowly pulsing out the High City's intimate heartbeat.

"My lady wife apologizes for waking you up," Pris added, stepping back from the bed. "But there is someone…"

The elixir woman's voice had changed, Ifi realized, a pinprick of professional pride puncturing through the haze surrounding her. She leaned forward, just to make sure.

"...someone here to see you. So please, get dressed and join us. This really can't wait. There are fresh clothes on the dresser."

There could be no mistake. Of course, the alchemist knew, it was probably rude to try to listen for the remains of the tell-tale masculine timbre in Pris' voice, and of course, she could just about pick a note or two of it in that rich contralto, but only because she knew where to look. Anyone else would surely be fooled, especially under the remains of Pris' lowborn slur. The tincture worked far better than expected.

"Right," she nodded, grasping the fleeting sense of accomplishment like a lifeline. "Wait," she realized belatedly. "Someone is waiting for me?"

The span between a burst of hope, and its rapid receding, hurt.

"Master Glassmaker wants to have a chat."

It hurt a lot – enough to make her miss the hook so blatantly present in those words.

"So please hurry," Pris finished, face pulled into a deep frown. "You've tested her patience enough already."

Ifi nodded, watching the other woman walk out of the room to give her privacy. Strangely, as much as she should be worrying about a visit from the City's most powerful, something else pinned her attention. Though Pris wore a plain, neck-high dress, a corset still cinched her waist and chest, laced high and tight. The alchemist stared at the row of knots lining the woman's back, a sick kind of longing blooming in the corset's afterimages.

Her own blue dress lay neatly folded on the dresser, right next to the clothes prepared for her for today – and right next to the rest of last night's accessories. The hook gleaned, polished to mirror sheen; Ifi swallowed, realizing her jaw still felt stiff, and her throat crushed. The impressions of the Feast lingered on the body. The heels – the absurd heels she barely managed to walk in – waited nearby. Her feet still hurt from them.

If she could find it in her to cry right there, she would. But her eyes were dry; though bile swelled at the sight, what followed was no great outpouring of sadness. Just that anger, that cold, indistinct feeling seizing her up and refusing to allow anything else in. With shaking hands, she reached for the clothes offered to her by the lady of the house, and started to change.

Her feet hurt her, her legs were shaking. Her back felt stretched and sore, and she could barely move her neck and her jaw. Last night would not wash away with just a single night of sleep – nor would yearning leave. As she struggled to put on the plain dress, all she could do was to have her mind wander. And what images it reached! Cold, porcelain hands taking this soreness as an offering, squeezing and rubbing it in; insatiable, but loving hunger feeding on the last dregs of night's pain; a cruelly caring voice praising her, for she did well, she had been brave, she made it through-

"Fuck," Ifi exhaled, grabbing the dresser's edge and staring at the exhausted battlefield of her face. Even there, the feast remained visible, its mark left in scratches and indents impressed into her skin by the gag's jeweled harness. "How could you?"

The question helped – it provided focus for the mounting anger. It clung to the idea of Shard, of that stupid, awful creature who had to break every promise, who had to make every mistake, who was too stupid to notice how much she was hurting others, or worse yet – refused to care. Who gave Ifi every hope under the sun, and – for a scant few hours – the taste of happiness. Who, in the end, only reminded the alchemist of that very happiness' impossibility.

"I hate you," Ifi spat into the mirror, her voice a trebling mess.

That was an obvious lie, and its obviousness was the reason why the alchemist wanted nothing more but to shatter the mirror, break the dresser into splinters, and howl in numb fury at how she could not rid herself of longing for that dumb, demonic, duplicitous beast named Shard. But such fantasies have a course that seldom leads through enactment. She exhaled, and made herself a promise she instantly knew she was never going to keep. Still, to her own reflection she pledged that this time, she would give up and forget. For real. For good. Again. Forever.

If that was meant to get the anger to recede, it only pulled up more bile up her throat. But at least she finished dressing, splashed some water over her face from a charm-refilled basin, and left the room. She let Pris guide her down a spiraling staircase, through a modest living room, and then through a glass door onto the sun-drenched apartment's balcony.

"Remember that we've helped you," the elixir woman stated coldly, letting her outside. "Be mindful of what you say to her."

Whatever that remark was meant to imply fled from Ifi's attention at the first breath of the air outside. It tasted nothing like Ifi was used to. Clear, sharp, fresh – it carried no hint of smoke, of sweat, of the effusions of the city, of its industry, of soot and smog that legions of workers scrubbed daily from the white facades of the Middle City. She inhaled sharply, letting the icy wind in, the cold instantly drawn out by the bright-burning day – and by the spiraling glass pattern embedded into the balcony's floor, emanating warmth and turning away gales. And beyond the balcony's edge, there opened a view onto a forest of slender towers, charm-studded and linked by a cat's cradle of walkways and hanging gardens. So far above the world, the HIgh City appeared nothing short of a skyward archipelago.

"Not now," Pris whispered, leading her towards a low table, and expectant faces.

Not without effort, Ifi peeled her eyes away from the stunning vista, and towards her host – and Master Glassmaker seated next to her, currently stirring sugar into a coffee cup. Ifi recalled her from the feast as a distant, small figure with a ringing voice; what she didn't realize was just how massacred a full half of that woman's face was. At some point, it burned until it melted, sloughing off before solidifying into a disfigured topography of hills and valleys rendered in scar tissue. Ifi had seen older alchemists who had lived through laboratories going up in their faces; none of that compared. It was a miracle that Master Glassmaker was still alive, let alone smiling at her.

Though, it had to be said, with the glacial-blue jewel set into the woman's eye-socket, the smile could hardly come across as warm, or inviting.

"And there she is," she announced, raising her cup in a mock-toast. "Come, sit. Now is the time for your trial."

Far too belatedly, Ifi realized – with an awful lurch of her stomach – that she should have been holding onto worries far larger than just the mute anger at what Shard did to her. Escorted by the stare of the lifeless, jewel eye, she shuffled into a wicker chair, right next to taut-faced Eusi.

"Master Glassmaker," Pris' wife announced, affecting a tone so formal as to make Ifi's back straighten on sheer reflex, "let me introduce you to Ifigenia Juno of the Subtle Fellowship of Brewers, presently a guest of my house. Ifigenia, this is Master Glassmaker. She wishes to ask you about last night's events."

A light meal waited on the table – forest fruit and yogurt, fresh bread and excellent coffee. But aside from Master Glassmaker herself, no one seemed to be eating. Pris held herself straight as an arrow, hands folded on her lap, face blank. Eusi kept frowning, nervously playing with a silver spoon in her hands shooting furtive glances at the burned woman, who only continued to smile.

"It's an honour," Ifi bowed her head, "of which I am unworthy."

Words – distant and distorted memories of Master Glassmaker's speech from the Feast – echoed in her head, foretelling murder. And yet, that same fury she woke up to continued to expand and bloom into new, choking forms.

"I'd ask what happened to you last night," Master Glassmaker said, tone playfully cruel, "that you look so dogshit today. But I think I know – conspiracy to overthrow the rightful hierarchy of the High Table, wasn't it?"

Eusi started to protest; Master Glassmaker didn't let her. With a slasher grin, the burned woman watched as the alchemist curled down on herself, stewing in the notion that perhaps the bigger threat than getting gutted by Shard was what the below-spawn's real enemies could do to her.

"For that the punishment would be too obvious to merit mentioning," Master Glassmaker continued, "though it certainly will be quite a sight to behold."

She let her voice hang, passing the silence that followed by grabbing a handful of berries and popping them into her mouth, letting the juice stain her lips blue. Somewhere far below, the bells of the Middle City rang, reaching to the heights as little more than a series tinny chimes.

"Unless, of course, this is all a big misunderstanding," Master Glassmaker added, finally swallowing. She flashed Ifi another mirthless smile. "After all, my good friend Villis tells me that you were not an accessory to that conspiracy, but just an… accessory."

She chuckled lightly. But it was not a joke, Ifi realized – without even having to see the imploring stare Eusi directed her way. It was a lifeline.

"It's true," Pris said suddenly, voice no less firm than the form her body was held to. "The demon seduced her, and used her. She bears no responsibility for the conspiracy, and-"

"Dear," Master Glassmaker raised a finger, "I want to hear it from her, not you."

Ifi had made a virtue for herself out of paying no heed to politics, to the games of the mighty, and the fates of the High Table. But for all of her recent, foolish mistakes, she understood well enough what was expected of her right now, and how she was going to save her life. And against that knowledge, she could only feel powerless, and so very angry. It was all Shard's fault; all the result of the below-spawn's idiotic machinations which had to terminate in Ifi denouncing–

–of all the ways to realize it and to put a name on it, this one had to be among the worst. The name and the word should bring joy, but instead they bore with them nothing other than a promise of a long life lived in misery and longing, in waking up to an absence, and going to sleep in fear of dreams of what could have been–

–which had to terminate in Ifi denouncing the monster she could not stop loving. In defiance of reason, and everything else. And to know that – to recognize that necessity – was to make her feel like the weakest creature under the sun. And to know that – to recognize the injustice – was to let her anger finally find a voice.

"She used me," Ifi said, meeting Master Glassmaker's dead stare head on. "I saved her life. I nursed her back to health. I offered myself to her. And she used me, anyway. She dragged me all the way up here and broke every promise she had made. I trusted her over, and over again, and every time it turned out to be a mistake."

All of this was true, after a fashion. None of it was given as a lie. But it tasted so rancid to say. Each word cut Ifi up; and there were more coming, the ones that bore the real burden of her fury. She tried to bite on all of them, and still some got out.

"I would have been good to her," she finished, the little fragile testament to how it all felt, and to where the real seat of Shard's treachery stood.

Master Glassmaker listened to all of it carefully, the smile gradually warming up with each word Ifi cried out. In the end, it came close to being without malice.

"Well," she declared oh-so-very carefree, "I'm glad to hear. And, just to make sure, it was also her manipulation that led to Eusebia providing her with an invitation to the Feast of Indulgence? My distant cousin had no way of knowing who was puppetting you, yes?"

"Yes," she lied with as much conviction as she could muster. Eusi and Pris exhaled audibly.

"Perfect!" Master Glassmaker clapped her hands, beaming. "So there's that, all resolved, and not a single hanging to be had! I'll be going now. You are a terrific host, Eusebia. I should visit more often."

"The pleasure is all mine," Eusi replied, stilted and dry. "Our doors are always open.”

Wicker scraped against the floor; Master Glassmaker straightened to her full, meager height, Pris, strangely tense, standing up to escort her to the door. Ifi sat in silence; after the surge of anger, what remained was a sinking kind of emptiness, no longer held aloft by the quick-burning fury.

"Is she dead?"

The question slipped from her mouth without passing through thought first. Eusi turned rapidly, twisting herself in fear; Pris shot her a hateful glare. But Master Glassmaker didn't seem to notice – or care – for the pleading note so very apparent in the alchemist's voice.

"Shard?" she shrugged, from the balcony's door. "Not yet. But don't you worry your little broken heart, miss alchemist. Right now, she is certainly wishing to be."

Afterwards, silence stretched, hostile to words. Master Glassmaker left, and for a time, Ifi and Eusi sat alone on the balcony, looking away from each other, and from the city. The view was really incredible; even through the fog of loss surrounding her, the alchemist could not hold back wonder. But however spectacular the slender white towers of High City were, or the hanging gardens linking them together with long strings of verdant green, it was what stretched beyond that she could not look away from.

With the bright sun and sharp winds keeping the sky empty and clear, she could see, far alongside the horizon's edge, the jagged gray line, a vast outline that could only be the Northern Limit. At first, Ifi couldn't believe it and thought it was some trick of the light, but no matter how much she squinted and rubbed her eyes, the image refused to go away. Tucked into a wicker chair on Eusi's balcony, the alchemist saw, for the first time in her life, the vast mountain chain that ringed the City's world. Past those impassible, snow-capped peaks the world ended, turning into a churn of monster kings and barbarous tribes. It was enough to keep her attention pinned, and for a moment, away from all the other thoughts poisoning her. After all, she had never imagined she would get as much as a glimpse of that faraway wall. It was her brother who called to adventure, to travel; she had always expected to spend her entire life without leaving the Middle City, let alone the City itself.

It was one thing knowing how vast the world could get, and the other seeing it. Though she knew she would never leave – there was little point left to dreaming – it still comforted her to imagine that somewhere past the mountains, there might exist a land where she could hide from memories, and from longing.

Pris returned eventually, carrying a bottle of dark-red liquor and three small glasses. Eusi downed hers in one gulp, and only then let herself look back at Ifi. She looked drained.

"I really should have been more careful with you," she sighed, but without reproach. "I should have realized just how dangerously clueless you really were."

Pris settled into a chair next to her, holding her glass without drinking. She let her wife speak, staring idly at some point in space. Eusi filled the air with exasperated, exhausted apologies for failing to notice that there was someone manipulating Ifi. If only she and Pris had managed to get the full story out before, then this could have been avoided, all this fear and all the hurt. If only Shard had been stopped from her abortive attempt at restarting the strife at the Table. Of course, Eusi couldn't really begrudge the alchemist for falling for the Lair-Mother child's lies; she was, after all, just a junior alchemist, too caught up in the petty world of the Middle City to know better. Ifi listened, half-attentively. On any other day, she would easily find in herself the indignation to rebuke being treated like an errant, stupid child, all her mistakes excused by small-mindedness of craftsmen. But in anger's wake, today had left her with little but piercing guilt.

So she tried to drape herself in Eusi's patronizing sympathies, and assume them as the truth of what happened. She tried to focus on Shard's betrayal, on being left and abandoned, but what came instead was the ringing cry of "I'm sorry". And love. Love, that monstrous, cruel feeling; love, the evidence of the failure of her reason.

"She was good to me," she tried to justify herself with a feeble lie. "She was lovely, and I needed her," she explained, a bit more sincerely.

"I know," Eusi nodded. "Which is why I have a… proposition for you."

Next to her, Pris abruptly pulled herself back from the table, as if stung. Hastily, she stepped to the balcony's edge and leaned against it, still refusing to look at either her wife, or the alchemist. Eusi glanced at her, confusion flashing through her face, before returning to Ifi.

"Your tinctures worked wonders," she said. "And I've been thinking if there is more you could do for Pris?"

Again, the golden-haired Glassmaker threw a glance at her wife; the elixir woman kept her quiet, seemingly focused on some point in space, beyond the scope of the conversation, or Eusi's praise.

"As in?" Ifi asked, for a moment distracted from the crush of the day.

"As in we could take you as a servant," Eusi explained. "Our own captive alchemist, so to speak."

Captive. The word was a lightning strike. It flashed Ifi's memory back to when she first met Eusi and Pris, and to all the playful hints that the Glassmaker woman left for her. And that – that even aside becoming a High Family's retainer. The alchemist could only gasp. Maybe there was going to be more to her life than yearning, maybe-

She imagined herself in one of Pris' torture dresses. She then imagined porcelain hands holding her in it. She winced, shame cutting through the daydream like a knife. But no, she was not going to let it strangle her again. She made herself a promise to forget that monstrous below-spawn, and this was the first step.

"I…" she began, trying to find the correct words to express the magnitude of her gratitude.

"Lady wife," Pris interrupted, turning back to face them. "I am sorry, but I must object."

The golden-haired Glassmaker recoiled, as if slapped.

"Pris, what?" was all she could get out, clearly shocked. "What's this all about?"

"This is my home, too. And I object to taking this woman into our service."

Eusi hid her face in her hands, exhaling in frustration. Pris kept herself still, imperious, impervious. And Ifi – again – found herself thinking about that wretched moment between being given hope, and having it ruined. It was a rhythm she really should have gotten used to long ago, and yet, it still hurt all the same.

"Pris, I beg you," Eusi uttered finally, "we've talked about it! This very morning! And you were fine with it. Why do you have to be difficult all of sudden?"

"Because I am your wife," Pris hissed. "Not your servant. And things have changed since this very morning."

Eusi glanced at Ifi, as if trying to offer her a wordless apology, then exhaled again. The alchemist just smiled desperately, the familiar pattern repeating itself in a perfectly predictable fashion.

"What has changed? Can you at least tell us what is this new objection of yours?"

"Gladly, lady wife," there was rage – barely restrained and vibrating like a string pulled close to snapping – in Pris' voice. "Up until moments ago, I wasn't fully aware of what kind of person she," she chomped down on the word, lacing it with enough callous contempt as to make Ifi flinch, "she is."

And when the flinch had passed, Ifi caught a flint-like hardness glinting in Pris' eyes; if before, the elixir woman had looked at her with distant sympathy, now it was something far more proximal – and far keenly felt.

"The one reason we are not being hanged for the kindness of your heart towards guild strays," Pris continued, "is because Villis, of all people, put a word in her favour."

"He only told Alisa the truth!"

"He covered for her," the elixir woman snarled back. "He lied on her behalf."

There was no hesitation and no doubt in that – and finally, the alchemist realized why. She sagged in her chair, the wave of anger returning as fetid, depleted resignation. For Pris, alone of them all, saw the love that lurked behind Ifi's words, hopes, and desires. She saw it, she understood it, and she found it worthy of nothing short of contempt. Ifi couldn't meet her stare anymore. She turned her eyes away, back towards the distant mountains. There was something reassuring about their faraway indifference.

"She was manipulated! You said so yourself!" she heard Eusi protest.

"You know damn well why I said it, lady wife," Pris' voice grew quiet, glacially cold. "But Alisa's not here anymore, so you don't have to pretend. You've heard what she said, haven't you? 'She was lovely to me'?"

It didn't matter that the alchemist didn't know what it was, exactly, that set Pris off. Why she could only meet Ifi’s love for Shard with cold contempt. It felt unfair. But it almost certainly wasn't. Loving a monster does not undo what it did to others.

Around her, the argument continued, tuning into the distantly familiar cadences of a lover's spat.

"So what of that?"

"Do you seriously not understand? Do I have to remind you?"

"Sure, remind away!"

"I grew up in the fuck mud! In the Glassmakers Ward!"

"So what?"

"So your politics, your demonic alliances and dalliances? They were our fear and our death! We bled for your every little triumph, and cursed the hand that held the leash! And Villis-"

Hungrily, desperately, Ifi tried not to listen – she so wanted to believe that Eusi and Pris were above it all. That their love would never cut. That they were beyond hurting each other over past mistakes and present missteps. That she was not a party to any of it.

"Villis clearly didn't mind!"

"Then he is a better man than any of us, because there is no way in the world I will ever forget what those claws meant to us, back then! And she – he saves her life, and she still talks about her lost, lovely Shard?"

"Can I go?" Ifi asked, chuckling nervously, panickedly. She just wanted to leave. Forget. Just as she had promised herself. "I'll just-"

"Don't you fucking dare!" Pris howled, the chord finally snapping in her voice; it bounced and echoed off the High City's towards. "I'm not done with you!"

Absurdly, Ifi noted – with the same pride as in the guest-room – that even in a full shout, her tinctures held. Only the lowborn slur reasserted itself in full force, years of sliding off words and vowels. She shut up, and stood still. And quietly wondered if there was out.

She lost Shard already. She didn't want to lose Pris, too.

"You," Pris pointed her finger like a claw, straight at Ifi's chest, "will haul your demon-lover ass to Villis, and you will tell him how good that monster was for you and beg him to forgive you!"

"Pris, enough!" Eusi's shout too joined the booming echoes.

"And," the elixir woman didn't let it knock her off-course, "and if is really over it all, if he really forgives you for kissing those blood-stained hands, then fuck it, you can stay here for all I care. But until then, get out of my house!"

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