"And that was my first encounter with Shard."
Although Eusi had directed Ifi to Villis' office – the Permanent Representative of the Fellowship of Glassworkers at the High Table – the man himself refused to meet her there. Instead, he had her wait until he was done with a throng of severe-looking patricians before taking her to a place where, he claimed, no prying eyes would spy on them. That meant a flying ruin.
Before a fire consumed it, the platform they were on used to be one of the many High City's hanging gardens – a domed enclosure suspended between towers. Exotic flowers filled it, coaxed by alchemy into permanent bloom. Their carbonized remains littered the floor, tear-drop spikes of melted glass poking between them. They were what remained of the dome – only the steel frame continued to stand, bent by sheer heat into a twisted canopy of winding metal branches. Ash piled in the places where wind couldn't sweep it out into the void, piling in the cracked ceramic pots. Only charm glass survived apparently untouched, long tendrils of braided glass snaking through the rubble, shining bright blue. They kept the whole platform aloft, preventing it from snapping free of its moorings and tumbling to the bottom of the City. It wasn't enough to prevent it from creaking and groaning with each seaward gust. To call that noise unnerving would be an understatement – which is why Villis maintained that there, alone, they could converse privately, and at length. The alchemist quickly came to regret it.
"Why are you telling me this?" she asked, images of cackling Shard drenched in human blood dancing in her mind, each death dripping merrily from the tips of her rending claws.
"Perspective, I guess?" he said, shifting awkwardly, seeming almost embarrassed by the entire situation.
Perspective. Ifi shuffled closer to the platform's edge. Between the twisted ribs of the shattered dome, the City filled the view far towards the horizon. The dark haze of the Glassworkers' Ward wasn't that hard to find, now that she wanted to take a look. Not that there was much to see: only smog, and a hint of orange light within, where the greatest foundries spread. Heaps of slag, tall as hills, ringed it; smoke climbed their slopes reluctantly, rarely getting to crest them and flow down into the rest of the City. Distantly, Ifi recalled learning of the great expenses that went into ensuring that the Glassworks wouldn't pollute with their fumes. It was a feat of urbanistic ingenuity that the waste of the foundries was what ended up keeping their malign influence away from the heights and powers. It had always felt like something to be proud of.
"So, what happened next?"
Behind her, Villis shrugged.
"I went to Meos' father to ask for forgiveness."
He had grown used to telling this story, Ifi could tell. It wasn't so much as picking at open wounds, not anymore. Everything he said, he delivered with a delicate, nearly apologetic smile that made him appear younger than he was, like a boy narrating his first heartbreak. But there was scar tissue there, there had to be. The alchemist couldn't believe wounds like that to be capable of healing in full.
"Did you get it?" she asked, sensing hesitation.
"No," Villis sighed. "He threw me out."
Ifi nodded slowly, surprised at how well she was taking the implication. No, there could be no forgiveness – not for Shard, and probably not for her. Especially since she couldn't even bring herself to feel guilty, only sad.
"But it wasn't your fault," she tried anyway, mostly for her own sake.
"So he shouldn't have treated you like that."
"I kept telling myself that, yeah," he chuckled. "Waste of time. I shouldn't have bothered him. He had nothing to offer to me, and really, I have nothing to give to you, either."
"So your answer is no?" she asked, almost glad to be past hope.
"My answer, miss alchemist," old exhaustion weighed on his voice; he spoke quietly, as if to a child, "is that I don't care, and neither should you."
"You can pass to Pris," he cut her in, "that if she wanted to stay on that high horse, she shouldn't have married a Glassmaker."
The alchemist pursed her lips; this was as close as Villis came to telling her she was free to stay with Eusi and her wife, and it didn't seem like she was going to get anything more definitive than that. The realization did little to release the anxiety cinching her innards and twisting her guts into ornate knots, but it was probably better than the flat no she had been expecting.
"The reason I am telling you all of this," Villis sighed again, letting go of that brief flash of annoyance, "is that I hope you can get your head around what Shard was. Thank whatever you craftspeople worship you're still alive, and move on. Most people who cross her kind don't get that luxury."
Ifi looked up from the city below, trying to spot the Northern Limit on the horizon again. It vanished, hidden by the flaky clouds now strewn across the sky. The absence stung; it could help her to see something past the City that surrounded her, past its complexity and merciless logic. More and more, she came to understand her brother, and his dreams of escape.
"She was getting better," she protested, in spite of herself.
To her side, Villis groaned, rubbing his temples in mounting fatigue.
"Was she?" he asked, close to exasperated. "Was she really?"
Images flicked before Ifi's eyes in rapid succession. Her body tucked into Shard's, a porcelain hand holding her possessively close. The below-spawn's whined apologies coming at the heels of a mistake after a mistake. The sweet promise of keeping Ifi safe. The immediate breaking of that promise. And yet, the more she dwelt in those memories, the more they managed to burrow themselves into her, not bitter, not enraging, but marked by a profound, unbeatable sense of loss. There were tears in her eyes again.
"She abandoned you at the first opportunity," Villis continued. "She abandoned you for the most remote chance at regaining her status, after her previous idiotic plot came undone. Do you really think your life mattered to her more than mine, or Meos', or anyone else's? Because of what, because you're not from the wards? Who do you think gave Alissa her scars? To her, we're all meat."
Did Shard hold her like a slab of meat? Did Shard see her as nothing more but a stepping stone? There was a part of Ifi that wanted nothing more but to turn to Villis and slap him for the insinuation, to knock this disgusting slur out of his mouth. What did he know? What did he understand? He was a thug who had made it to the top of the world because he was that good at killing, and now he was acting like he was any better than-
"I love her," she whined, as if a confession could change anything, or turn Villis' heart.
"And you will never see her alive again," he responded, cool but not unsympathetic.
There was a part of her that could recognize the truth, no matter how much it hurt. Precisely because of how much it hurt. Something had to give in the way she held herself up; or maybe some muscle twisted her face into a mask of misery. Villis offered his arm in a gesture of comfort; Ifi flinched away, perilously close to the ledge.
"I tried to warn you, so many times," he said, keeping close, hand still extended. Was he expecting her to try to jump? "This was only ever going to end this way, or with you dead. Monsters like her don't change. They only grow desperate."
There was no denying anything he said, only escaping from it, and Ifi, frankly, couldn't find it in herself to keep on running.
"So what would you have me do?"
He looked away, ashamed.
"Give it up. Move on," he suggested, a small crack audible in his voice. "The world doesn't stop for anyone's grief. Didn't for mine, and won't for yours."
How can I, she thought of asking, like an accusation. I'm too weak, she thought of pleading. Go take a dive to the bottom, she thought of demanding. All those words swarmed around her, screaming into her ears the plain, undeniable fact: there was no other advice to be had. It was only ever going to end this way, or with her dead. And she wanted for too many things for the latter to enter consideration. She withdrew into the scorched garden, Villis exhaling audibly.
"Why are you telling me this?" she repeated her question. It was easier to push it out of her mouth than what was really gnawing at her: the cold realization that he was doing more to help her than she had given him any reason to.
"Not sure," he kicked some ash around, scattering it into the wind. "Seemed the right thing, I suppose."
There was much left to say, so when she couldn't find a response, he excused himself and left. She listened to his footsteps crunch against the debris, and then slowly fade into the whine of the erstwhile garden slowly swaying in its cradle chains. Then, that too started to dissolve, in time becoming one with the idle hum of the City that Ifi decided to try to lose herself in.
For a time, Ifi could almost believe in it working out.
Pris withdrew her objections. Apparently, Villis sent her a message; she tossed it angrily off the balcony and swore at him, but made no remark against Ifi's presence afterwards. In fact, she treated her like air, which Eusi claimed the alchemist would pass in no time at all.
"Unlike me," she assured, "my wife doesn't know how to hold a grudge."
For what it was worth, the Glassmaker seemed genuinely enthused to enter Ifi into her service, promising that correct papers would soon be drafted and the alchemist given a formal right to residency in the High City. She even showed her the room that she would be lodged in – smaller than the one she occupied in the below, but incomparable in luxury and amenities.
Between showing her around, Eusi kept making jokes. Ever so often, she would allude to Ifi's impending "captivity", warning her that a "thorough examination" would be necessary first. It took Ifi some time to warm to it, but between the suggestive winks, the excellent curry she had been for a late lunch, and the warm pleasure of a long bath that Eusi offered, the alchemist felt some of the pent up pressure of the past few weeks start to release. In its place came the unavoidable crash, and a dream-like wonder at the impossible change about to turn her life around.
Another virtue of the situation was that she found herself far too fatigued to think much, or worry, or remember. Eusi didn't mind her staying for a night longer; in fact, she even tried to convince Ifi to hire someone out to move what little possessions she had to the towers, instead of handling it alone.
"What equipment do you need?" she would ask. "Just make a list. I'll have it assembled within a week."
The idea was tempting, but having slept on it, Ifi decided that it would probably be smarter to wrap up her affairs below, first. Then, she laughed at herself in the mirror, realizing that she was already imagining this contract to be some kind of raunchy sexual servitude, of the kind she would read in books of smut, and then fantasise about when no one could see.
It was a struggle to believe that maybe, just maybe, she wasn't that far off the mark.
"Don't you mind her," Eusi suggested over the breakfast, when Pris again made a display of sulking when Ifi came into view. "Though maybe she will have to beat her frustrations out on you? What do you think, my beloved?"
The elixir woman cracked a smile at that, despite herself. It vanished no sooner than it had appeared on her severe face, but Ifi caught a glimpse of it, and with it, the promise that things were going to work out in the end.
On the slow elevator ride down, she kept thinking back to Villis – and to his scars. Whatever he had lost, whatever he could not be forgiven for, whatever he could not forgive himself; he let it all scab over, thick skin over old hurt. She thought of Shard, too, Shard who was probably already dead, and the thought was such a punch in the gut that she vowed, once more, to never allow it back into her head. The promise broke as soon as she had made it, but she kept assuring herself, and the empty elevator, that it was a matter of time. A matter of enduring. A matter of letting distance open between herself, and yesterday.
She also thought about her father; daydreamed telling him she was going to become a sex-slave at the foot of the High Table's. Oh, how would he love the idea – all his life, pushing her to try to make it to the towers, and receiving this in turn. Of course, she was not going to do it, out of respect for family, if nothing else. Besides, she admonished herself for making too much of Eusi's jokes. It was going to be a work thing, a retainer alchemist for a High Family. Maybe with some benefits, but those benefits were hardly central to the offer, even if they were the main draw.
Still, an odd sort of melancholy kept her company as she made the familiar travel down from the Lower Heights to her shop, sleepwalking through the bustle of the Middle City, the lights of terraces, the tolling of bells, the ceaseless flow of commerce from the roots of the world to its charm-studded canopy above. The closer to home that she got, the lighter her steps were; at the end, she felt like her feet were barely touching the white cobblestone. The terrifying idea of leaving – of throwing her life out – now could not only be glimpsed and touched, but also carried in itself a promise of a release. The alchemist couldn't tell from what, exactly, but freedom seemed at hand.
Between lurid fantasies and discarded woes – the world didn't stop for her grief, and she wouldn't, either – she composed the letter she would write to her father, or considered whether to rent her workshop out, or keep it as a retreat for when the High City got too exhausting. What were her peers going to say? How was Ciara going to react? Questions buzzed around her head, but distantly, as if separated from Ifi's thoughts by an opaque membrane.
When she came close to her doorstep, a worry came over her – there were traces of Shard all over her workshop. They would have to be swept away quickly, hidden or thrown out. Ahead of time, she urged herself not to allow even a single keepsake. The past few weeks were a nightmare, and she was waking to a better life.
The work was hard, but eventually, with enough tears and dull punches against stone walls, she numbed herself enough to stuff all the reminders of her big mistake into some chest, and then throw it in the corner of the kitchen, to remain unopened forevermore. She almost set fire to it, but ultimately couldn't bring herself to. In any case, it was enough, and then there was time to sleep once more, and in the morning begin the arduous process of dismantling her workshop for transport.
She woke up to a runner banging on the door of her shop, clutching a short letter sealed with ebon black lacquer carrying the sign of a wedge bursting into a block. She cracked it open on her kitchen table, right next to her morning cup of coffee. But there was no letter inside. Instead, rolled into the paper there was a piece of white porcelain shell. A few words were scrawled on it in a jagged-edge script.
She is crying out to see you. The Temple of Our Deprived Mother, Lower City.
The underside of the shard was wet with fresh, tar-like blood.