Inevitably, the elixirs took their toll. Once the work was complete, Ifi stumbled out of the bathroom, her grip on Shard's wrist going slack, and tried to mumble some new command. No words formed on her lips, however; she gurgled something incoherent, and then finally her legs gave in. The Lair-Mother's child rushed forward, caught her before she smashed all the way to the floor, and lifted the alchemist to the nearby bed.
There was so little of her, lost in the folds of her voluminous robe. In Shard's arms, she may as well have weighed nothing at all; as with all mortal life, it bore a mark of profound fragility. It could be torn apart so easily, splayed open and bled dry. A single twist of the claw would end it, in a gush of scarlet, intoxicating pain. And as always, the temptation remained; that little pull of tension at the tip of her fingers, ready to extend and sharpen with just a thought.
She lay Ifi in bed, and put a pillow under her head, took a step back. Was she ever going to fully unlearn the ways of looking at that girl as if she was nothing but meat? The old hunger gnawed at the back of her soul. Which was not to say that there was a threat; other, stronger desires held it in check. And those desires expanded in Shard's mind, eclipsing visions of evisceration and slaughter. She ran her fingers around her wrist, where the last motes of Ifi's heat lingered. No, she would not allow the girl to think she had her fully tamed.
No, no, no. Ifi was going to suffer for her dominant pretense. The Lair-Mother's child smiled at that notion. It was going to be a maddeningly impatient wait for the alchemist to wake up.
It was a surprising kind of lust, at once intimately familiar, while also unlike anything Shard had felt before. It spread from the gold-joined cracks in her shell, expanding into the flesh below, digging its little roots in the black veins and metal bones. Once, she would have reacted to it as if to an alien body, seeking to tear this parasite away; but if this was Ifi's spell, then she welcomed it gladly. The alchemist was owed as much, and infinitely more.
The air downstairs reeked of Ifi's alchemy, of her sweat, of her exhaustion, of her toil. Shard threw the windows wide open, hoping that this at least would mute the want; it certainly made breathing easier. Another kind of pleasure accompanied this busywork; the budding realisation that she was where she wanted to be.
The thought had crept up on her, and when it hit in full, Shard found herself forced to pause and sit down. For a moment, she was reduced to admiring the golden web now adorning her shell, trying to make sense of everything she could no longer feel. The great hunger that had been driving her for as long as her memories could reach was nowhere to be found. She tried to imagine climbing back to the pinnacles of power, and the idea carried no taste, brooked no fascination. What would have once propelled her ever forwards was now still, and at peace.
Alas, it too was interrupted.
The door to the shop swung open. Shard jumped up, instincts already extending her claws as she dropped to the floor, ready to face the intruders. Her old enemies were back.
"Hello there, Shard," Master Glassmaker threw down the hood of her capacious cloak, old hate glinting in her grey eyes. "I was under the impression you were supposed to be dead."
Behind her, there was Villis, face tense, a striking charm held securely in the palm of his hand. He did not let it extend yet, however, though he watched Shard's hands carefully. The Lair-Mother's child straightened, doing her best to not let the urge to kill—or sheer panic—cloud her judgment. It was an uphill struggle.
"Alisa," she hissed.
"That's Master Glassmaker for you, thank you," the woman smiled back, striding inside, Villis following close behind.
She looked around, surveying the emptied display cases, and the general mess left by Ifi's hasty work. At Shard, she did not look, though she made sure to keep her burned profile turned towards her all the time. The meaning behind the gesture couldn't be more clear.
"What do you want?" Shard asked, trying not to think about the way their last meeting went; those details would not help either of them in the conversation.
"Is there a chair somewhere?" Alisa ignored her, quickly turning around before spotting the seat behind the counter. "Perfect."
Somehow, Shard ended up staring down at Master Glassmaker leisurely slouched in Ifi's chair, hands playing with the underside of the old wooden counter.
"So, to answer your question," she said, "I am here to inform the owner of this shop of her impending arraignment for royally fucking up my plans…"
Muscles tensed underneath Shard's shell, her body drawing itself tight and taut; her fingers ground against each other as she hid the extending claws in balled fists.
"...not to mention her absolutely rancid taste in women. A hanging offense, in my city."
Villis sighed wordlessly; Shard dropped into a lower hunch, head trained on Master Glassmaker and her extending smile.
"Look at her," Alisa chuckled dryly, waving Shard away as she spoke to Villis. "You weren't kidding! So protective. You were going to try to gut me, huh?" she turned to the Lair-Mother's child. "Just because I threatened to hang that Ifigenia? Honest answers only, please."
Shard exhaled, glancing at Villis; his face remained inscrutable. But she knew Alisa enough, or at least she knew enough about her to recognize what this all was: a game. And one she was in no position to try to interrupt.
"Yes," she nodded, trying to keep her tone neutral. Her claws withdrew back; she opened her hands and demonstrated them to Villis.
"Incredible," Alisa snorted. "You're not only honest, but also domesticated! Wonderful, really. Villis, be a dear and fetch coffee. I don't think this little creature will be trouble."
With another heavy sigh, he nodded, and left for the kitchen, constantly looking back, as if expecting Shard to try something; she couldn't blame him for that. Looking at Master Glassmaker, she was sorely tempted. She froze in place instead, staring at the woman and trying to imagine what she was after.
"Just to clarify," Alisa continued, "you will not be trouble because if you so much as twitch, I will let this wonderful charm fry you…"
Her hand was below the counter; the slight electric charge in the air reminded Shard of the security system Ifi had threatened her with, all those weeks ago.
"...something you should be familiar with," the grin on Master Glassmaker's face turned positively murderous; she ran her hand on the deformed side of her head, letting her fingers mark out a bumpy trail across all the knotted scar tissue.
For a moment, there was silence, marred only by the wheeze of the kettle in the kitchen.
"Not even a word snapped back, huh?" Master Glassmaker shook her head. "You surprise me, Shard. What happened to you? Aside from the obvious."
"I don't want you to hurt Ifi," she replied.
"Which means I should have her skinned alive," Alisashrugged back. "Just as a matter of principle."
Only a few feet separated Alisa from Shard, and Master Glassmaker was old and life-weary; her reflexes should not be the sharpest. If the Lair-Mother's child was to take a lunge, she could probably sink her claws into her throat before the shocking charm erupted. And then, of course, Villis would storm inside and kill her. Which, as she was beginning to suspect, could be the point.
"Are you trying to provoke me?"
"Yes, obviously," Alisa snorted. "Shard, sweetheart, do you have any idea how disappointed I was to hear you somehow made it out alive? And that it was that little miss alchemist, who swore up and down that she was nothing but your victim, who bailed you out?"
Villis returned from the kitchen, a steaming mug in hand; he left it in front of Master Glassmaker, withdrawing to her side. If anything, he looked bitterly exhausted. The disfigured woman blew the steam away, then tasted the coffee. This, finally, managed to wipe the smile from her face. She reached under her cloak, to find a small hip-flask inside. A strong stench of Lower City moonshine hit the air as she poured the contents into the mug. She screwed the bottle back, leaving it on the counter.
"But, apparently, I can't have nice things. Where is she?"
"What do you want from her?" Shard repeated her question, straining to not let her voice rise.
"To have an honest heart to heart about what she did, and to explore potential ways of moving forward," Alisa replied, sipping. "But no. Don't worry. Villis talked me out of having her hang. As for you, however…"
Again, she sipped; Shard felt the power she held press down on her life, and on her future. Once again, as ever, all her dreams of freedom had to concede to the fact that there would always be someone whom she belonged to. Without meaning to, she put her hand to the golden pool where the spear had once pierced her.
"I am sorry for what I did," she whispered, and she was genuine; or at least tried to. Somehow, she couldn't stay certain if the regret she was experiencing was the one expected of her.
"As I have already explained to you," Alisa's voice dropped a pitch, "it's long past time for that. Do you remember what I promised you, when you left me to die?"
It was night then; an ugly autumnal one. Shard dragged a weeping body, half its face bleeding blood and pus, and left it hooked hanging from the Mason's Bridge, so that others would get the message that not even Glassmakers were safe, if their treachery ran deep enough. And of course, that body was screaming and shouting things back at her, as they all did in their terminal moments. The words slid off her shell that night, right into oblivion; why commit to memory the refuse of history?
"Do you?" the question sounded again, this time serrated at the edges.
Gold marked Shard's body where she had been restored; gold, love, hope. It remade where she had been destroyed, and dredged her up from the bottom of despair to a new life, and a new peace. But it seemed that there were limits to what alchemy could transmute, and the past was beyond its reach.
"No," the Lair-Mother's once-favoured child admitted, finding in herself a new kind of shame.
The air crackled as the charge gathered in the shocking charm in tune to the abruptly tensing expression on Alisa's face. Shard braced herself for pain. None came. Villis' hand landed on Allisa's shoulder, gripping lightly.
"And maybe that is for the better."
A sense of betrayal flashed through Master Glassmaker's face, followed by sharp anger. In an instant it was gone, leaving in its wake the wreckage of years of unanswerable rage. But that too drained away, disappearing into apast whichcould neither be altered, nor relieved. The older woman breathed out, shrugging away the unbearable weight of history, and took a sizeable gulp from her mug. Coffee and booze splashed out as she smashed it back to the counter.
"You will leave the city," she passed her judgment, not a shred of humour left in her voice. "You will scurry far enough that not even from the highest tower will I be able to spot you. You will never return, not in a year, and not in ten generation's time, because if you do, every promise I have made will be fulfilled, to the last drop of your blood. This is all the mercy you can expect from me, Shard, and far more than you have ever deserved. Now, where is the alchemist?"
Villis stepped in before Shard could give voice to her shock.
"Probably upstairs, and asleep," he pointed.
"Well," Master Glassmaker lifted herself forcefully up, the mug in her hand. "I will be waking her up, then. You two stay here."
When she left, Shard slumped; the future that had, just moments ago, felt clear and at peace was again a dark churn. Everything she had thought she gained slipped like sand between her fingers, vanishing into nothing, and…
"She will follow you, you know," Villis shifted a step closer; there was something akin to pity on his tired face. "She will not let you leave alone."
Again, there was a stab of shame; how could she ask that of Ifi, how could she demand that the alchemist give up her life just to follow her into exile, far beyond the civilized city, where barbarian tribes dwelt? How could she expect her to follow? Even if she did, even if Villis' calm assertion was a lifeline tethering her back to hope.
"How do you know?"
Villis eyed the hip-flask Alisa had left, and after the briefest hesitation, opened it again, taking a long swig. He wiped his mouth with the flat of his hand, and chuckled dryly.
"Shit, Shard, what sort of an answer do you expect?" he gave her an askew look. "She is madly in love with you, and wouldn't hesitate to sell the world just to stay at your side. Please tell me you noticed as much."
In the silence that followed, Shard could almost hear the conversation happening upstairs; but the walls and the floors were thick, and whatever words seeped through them, they could reach her only as general impressions. She felt small, and guilty, but also knew that Villis was right. There could be no doubt; the gold that marked her stood in testament to that. And, really, it wasn't even that much of an ugly feeling; quite the contrary. If it terrified her, then not because she wanted to escape from it, but because she knew it was not a responsibility she had ever expected to bear. But then again, that made no reason to refuse it.
"Just be good to her," Villis murmured, emptying the flask. "She deserves better."
"I will try," Shard promised, meaning it with all of her being. "I will do my best."
The tones reaching from above were measured, calm; Shard could not sense despair, nor surprise there, but rather something else—a timbre of quiet resolve, and maybe, almost, relief. Villis was no longer looking at Shard, his eyes staring through the window, and out into the night's sky. An unspoken question waited between the two of them.
"Why?" even if she could only approach it, she tried to put it into words.
"Why everything. If not for you, then me and Ifi…"
He cut her off, harshly, as if he couldn't bear to hear the rest of it. But she got honesty out of him.
"Because I wanted to see if I could get myself to forgive you."
"And?" Shard asked, though she already knew the answer.
"No. Of course not."
At first, when Alisa condemned her to an exile and called it a mercy, Shard had to take it for a mockery; now that Villis' words sank in, she understood how genuine it was, and how enormous. There was nothing left in the city she could return to, and the world beyond was open and vast beyond the wildest imagination.
"Thank you all the same," she whispered to Villis, who said nothing.
Some time later, Ifi descended in Alisa's company, face like stained parchment, eyes blood-shot. Shard startled, already on her feet to search for signs of distress in her lover; she found none, only the familiar exhaustion that the interrupted sleep could have barely dented.
"Hey Shard," the alchemist waved at her as Master Glassmaker motioned to Villis to leave. "I've got some bad news for you. We'll be leaving soon."
Even though she expected to hear regret in those words, to find in them a bitter resignation and protest, Shard couldn't help but to feel that they were feather-light.
"Where to?" she asked sheepishly.
"Wherever. I'm fucking done with this city."