"And who do you want me to hurt?"
Even hours later, Ifi couldn't stop thinking of the below-spawn's answer, and the sting of disappointment it provoked. She lay in her bed, blanket pulled over her chin, and tried not to curse herself for her own stupidity. What else was she expecting? The creature - the creature apparently named Shard - was a sleek instrument of killing, and killing was apparently all it understood or was interested in. Why would Ifi be surprised it took her question that way, and didn't pick at the implication she desperately wanted her to seize on?
It was her own desperation, so palpable in all of this, that in its ineptness and inevitable futility left the bitterest taste. She just couldn't help to keep imagining it, in all the weightless vividity of a fantasy: the claws sinking into the small of her back, the porcelain hand closing around her throat, the chains in Shard's hands, not on them… Try as she might, she couldn't shove them aside, couldn't bury them alongside all the ones before. So she agreed to everything, to scheming and murder, just to ask "do you enjoy the pain of others" and be reminded that for everyone else but her, the answer to the question was "and who do you want me to hurt?"
And still, Ifi failed to do the smart thing and back off. And still, she pushed herself deeper into this mess, just for the sake of a chance she really shouldn't even be thinking of having, a chance with a creature who she had to dope full of slowmilk just to make sure she didn't get gutted for the kind act of saving a life.
"What the fuck is wrong with me?" she whispered into the dark of her bedchamber, listening back to the flat, empty tone of a voice well acquainted with defeat.
Nights like this, she really wanted to be different, and really couldn't help but to be her frustrating self. Waves of antipathy and disappointment slowly rocked her to sleep, and when she woke up, only idle dregs remained of that anger, like an awful aftertaste she couldn't quite wash away.
Or so she had hoped until she found herself standing over a beaker of restorative precursor, the sharp stench of rotten eggs and a filthy film at the pale-blue surface alerting her that she had just soured it. Sure enough, the flame under burned too pale, and too high. She set it that way herself, hoping to rush through the procedure: a mistake that a teenage apprentice could be excused for, but not a seasoned alchemist. And the first thing she did when she noticed was glance at the white figure sitting at her cot, worried that Shard saw her blunder.
"This can't go on like that," she mouthed, killing the flame. She was of half mind to just dump the soured batch, but she really couldn't afford to let the ingredients go to waste. Not with the recent expenses. So cleaning it up it was, a procedure as laborious as it was disgusting.
"You seem distressed."
Somehow, it didn't surprise Ifi that Shard had hearing good enough to pick at her frustrated groans even through the buzz of the workshop.
"Just distracted," she replied, looking at the below-spawn tapping its claws against the chains still anchoring her to the floor. She really ought to sedate her again.
A small smile opened on Shard's mouth; she flashed those sharp teeth of hers. Ifi liked the shape, and hated the idea of trying to force a potion down that mouth while the below-spawn was awake.
"You must be excited for what is to come," Shard suggested, leaning forward ever so slightly. Was she being sincere? Mocking? The fact she didn't have a face made it so much more difficult. It struck Ifi again just how little she understood what Shard even was.
"I would be more excited," she put the beaker aside, and shuffled to the ingredients cabinet. She would fix a new batch now, and leave the cleanup for the evening, "if I had any proof of your honesty."
"Is the fact that I am in your power," Shard leaned back, stroking the chain around her waist, "not enough? Why would I lie to someone who could snuff me out if she only wanted to?"
"To save yourself, for starters," Ifi grabbed a handful of delicate, lazuli crystals. Even with all the distractions going through her head, she still felt the familiar pang of sadness that she was about to ruin them in a mortar. "Desperate people tend to lie a lot."
She would know that. She poured the handful of crystals down the mortar, grabbed the pestle off the shelf, and sat down on her stool, not far from where Shard crouched.
"And besides," she added, crystals grinding with a low, brittle whine, "I think you have just lied."
"Oh?" again, what was it in Shard's voice? Curiosity? Frustration? Without eyes, how was Ifi supposed to tell what the curl of her mouth meant?
"If I wanted to sedate you more," she asked, "would you allow me to?"
"Of course," Shard said, this time clearly trying to sound amenable. There was a sort of relief in being able to catch her on that dishonesty. "I am in your power."
"Well," Ifi put the mortar away for a moment, and grabbed the bottle of slowmilk she had left on the bench the night before, "let's test that."
This time, reading Shard's body language was no challenge at all. The below-spawn pulled its shoulders back, pushed herself away from the alchemist, mouth shut, but clearly alert. It still kept one of its hands over where its wound was, but the other was no longer idly playing with the chain, but rather thrown to the side, as if to make room for a swipe. Ifi was right: she could see the effects of the sedative wearing off already.
She didn't come close. She put the bottle down within Shard's reach, and stepped back, watching her point her head towards it, clearly starting with whatever invisible organ she had instead of eyes.
"What happens if I order you to drink it now?" she asked, and for a moment, genuinely felt in power. Shard said nothing, and made no move. "Right."
She picked up the mortar again, and went back to pulverizing beautiful crystals into a wholly unappealing grey powder.
"I would rather not accidentally overdose myself," the below-spawn finally said, voice taut. Annoyance, maybe? Or some kind of frustration?
"And I would rather not risk it with your claws, or your teeth, or whatever else that you have that you are hiding from me," Ifi shrugged.
"You are smarter than I thought, mortal."
"You must've thought me really dumb then."
In response, Shard made a sound that Ifi could clearly identify: a sharp, short chuckle.
"So what will you do now?" she asked. "Sell me to Villis, while I remain bound and weak? I warn you: his patrons pay significantly worse than mine."
Were those really the terms this below-spawn thought in? That if Ifi realized she couldn't fully control her, then obviously she had to think about betraying her? Maybe what there was more merit than she knew to the tall-tales of the paranoia in the High City.
"What will you do if I unchain you?" she replied with a question, still crunching at the crystals. It was calming, after a fashion.
Shard took a longer while to consider; a good sign in Ifi's eyes.
"Take a look around," she finally said, "lounge. What else is for me to do, if his agents are watching?"
"Right," Ifi poured the contents of the mortar into a new flask, then returned to the ingredients cabinet. She was running low on morning vitriol, but there still should be some left. "And what then if I leave you alone in the shop?"
"Well," she replied after another lengthy silence, "I will first ask where you're going."
Ifi dropped a few chunks of the yellow vitriol into a flask of fire water, and started to stir; they dissolved quickly.
"You like being in control, it seems," she observed, words rich in double-meaning on her lips, double-meanings she was sure Shard wasn't going to pick up on. "I have some affairs I have to see that do not relate to you or your schemes."
"What affairs?" Shard demanded, clear urgency in her voice. "With who?"
Ifi picked up a new heating charm from the pile at the bench and put it under the bottle. When squeezed, it sparked, then shot up a gout of yellow flame.
"Look," she said, moving to prepare the third solution. At least she was still good on alchemists' salt. "If you are as trapped here as you say, then what choice do you have but to trust me? I'm sure there are many ways you can hurt me, but if I don't help you get to Villis, I don't think you're living past the end of the week, right? So you can demand what you want, but at the end of the day, I am your only option, am I not?"
The silence that followed was evidence enough that her words hit; she didn't even have to look at the below-spawn to know that.
"Do you still want me to drink that weakening poison?"
Miraculously, Ifi kept herself from ruining yet another mixture by letting too much salt in at Shard's voice. There was something in it, cutting through all the layers of harsh, dry tone, a brittle, sharp note that, for all the differences, sounded so intimately familiar. What the fuck is wrong with me?
She looked over to Shard, one hand on the slowmilk bottle, the other clutched where the spear went through her chest. She bit her lip. Somehow, it hurt to see.
"No, no need," she returned to her solution. "I'll unchain you once I'm done. But hush now. I really need to focus."
Obviously, Ifi lied. Sure enough, some of the business she had outside of the shop really had nothing to do with Shard and her plans. There was, in fact, a kind of comfort to be found for the alchemist in the quotidian. She spent half an hour arguing with the glassmakers' representative about replenishing her stock of glassware, and as usual left with empty pockets, but also a vague sense of satisfaction she at least managed to keep her coat. She made a few deliveries that were almost overdue, apologized profusely about the not-quite delays, and made sure that the local mineralist would restock her ahead of the Richt brothers, come next week. Finally, she also dropped a little gift at her carpenter's shop, to thank for the prompt service with her new door, and barely escaped from having to sample his own back-room moonshine alchemy. The rest of her business out in the city, however, was all about Shard. In Ifi's defense, she wasn't looking forward to it, either.
In fact, it was damn near close to the last thing she wanted to do, and unlikely to work at that.
Rain drizzled around her, buffeted around by bursts of wind; she hoped that her parasol would be enough to keep it from ruining her wig and face. If she only could, she would rather avoid showing up in the Low Towers with her face all smudged up; she was going to have enough to be ashamed of there without that.
She walked along an empty street, her only company the pink granite golems pulling wagons up the cobbled road. Sometimes, a runner or a courier would dart past her, rushing to secure the late-day trades and deals, but other than that all of her peers seemed to have moved on to the coffeehouse part of the working day. She could see them longuing on innumerable verandahs and terraces that made up the layers of the Middle City; she could feel their eyes on her, as if questioning what she was doing pushing on in a weather like this. Couldn't she have done like a respectable woman should, and delegated?
In the distance, obscured by the rain, the towers of the High City raised tall above, the canopy and crown so far detached from the concerns of the cobbled streets and stucco facades of the Middle City as if to stand for a different world in entirety. And were they not just that? The spires silver and red, hundreds of light charms burning day and night to remind everyone below of the undeniable difference between the families that lived on high, and the families that were irrelevant. To Ifi it came as less impressive and more of a sheer waste, but then again, as the people on the terraces would be quick to point out to her, in the breaks between their discussions of pork deliveries and golem production, she never aimed high enough.
Unlike the people living in the homes around her. The Low Towers appeared in every part as the obsessions of the upper edge of the Middle City rendered in brick and architectural posturing. They built their homes as tall as the people with no seat at the Table were allowed to, and not an inch shorter. Nothing in the permissed space could go unfilled, resulting in universally ungainly buildings, either squat even when tall, or, worse yet, knife-thin, as if some giant had taken a normal home into their fist and squeezed it out both ends, and all out of proportion.
That's what she liked to imagine was the origin story of the building she found herself in front of, barely wide enough for two men to stand shoulder-to-shoulder inside, and yet reaching just as high up into the sky as the over-built mansions it was squashed between.
She checked herself in a pocket-mirror one last time, and then took a deep breath and stepped towards the door. Honourable Alistar Juno the brass plate on them read, master merchant. She touched the weather metal, hearing the bell charms ring sharply on the other side. She didn't have to wait long. Thankfully, she didn't have to wait long.
"Young miss!" the servant at the door exclaimed in surprise, a broad smile on her old face. "What a joy! Please, come in!"
"Hello, Tilda," Ifi tried to return the smile, and squeeze past the portly woman, and inside her old home. "Where's father?"
"In the study," she reached for Ifi's coat. She allowed her to take it, the parasol in the rack.
"And how is he?" she asked.
"Old, miss," Tilda's smile shortened, then faded. "You should visit more often. He speaks of you often."
Ifi snorted. All those years, and Tilda couldn't stop lying. Her father wasn't known for gossiping with the help. But, she supposed, the family servant couldn't bear the hostility in her world. It was good to be reminded why she didn't want to come here. But of all the lies she had heard today, this one was strangely endearing.
"Mercy, Tilda," the smile she got out was quite genuine, "I don't know what we would have done without you. And I'm sure my father misses me so very sorely."
"He does," she said with an enthusiastic nod. "He really does, I'm certain of it. Are you hungry? Some tea perhaps? Such awful weather to be outside! You must be so very cold!"
Grudgingly, Ifi allowed herself to be serviced, struggling not to allow Tilda to squash her into the oaken wardrobes still inexplicably cluttering the hall. She managed to convince her that she wasn't hungry, weathered a storm of very concerned mentions of how slight she looked, the danger this was to her health, was forced into a blanket-like shawl to warm her up, and then finally allowed the arduous climb up to her father's beloved pigeon-hole of a spire.
By the time she made her way to the study, the spiral staircase had left her panting, clutching at the jewel holding her robe at the neck as if to tear it all away.
"I am not going to make a mess," she promised herself before knocking on a door that barely left any room for the house to its sides.
"Come in," a familiar voice beckoned.
The thick stench of tobacco surrounded her immediately, same as always. It seemed to saturate everything in the room, from the green carpet at her feet, through the stacked bookshelves to her sides, all the way to the narrow desk at the far window. His tobacco, her brother used to call it, the smell of home and hearth. Ifi could never imagine being so sentimental about something that odorous.
Then again, as her father's withering glare was quick to remind her, she has never been the best daughter.
She wasn't sure if it was the years that wore him down, or just the house stretching him into its own likeness, all too thin, all too long. The old dusty shirt hung loosely from his narrow shoulders, and where the skin showed, it was wrapped tautly enough around the bones for Ifi to pick out each individual vein pulsing beneath. As if with most of him, it reminded her of some kind of a wight or a mummy, although the frown on his face was too severe for any necromantic art to replicate.
"What an unexpected pleasure," he rasped, knocking ash off his pipe. "And here I was, thinking…"
"You needed your potions refilled," Ifi didn't let him finish.
"You didn't have to trouble yourself, my beloved daughter," he hissed, folding down the morning issue of The City Bell spread on his lap. "You could have sent a runner. Isn't that how you prefer to handle family?"
She tensed, shoulders pressed together, back straight. A dozen angry retortsformed in her brain, but she managed to catch all of them before they made it to her lips. Carefully poised, she pushed herself past his chair and placed her stachel between the stacks of books and correspondence cluttering the desk.
"Death's bane," she pulled the fist bottle out. "Should be good for ten doses. Green Lion, also ten. A phial of panacea."
"Silver?" he asked, picking it up, his hold on the dainty thing steadier than in years. A small sense of pride in her craft made Ifi relax a bit. Not for long, though. "So you are back to shirking on me?"
"I am all out of liquid gold," Ifi muttered. "It will have to do. I will get you some when I get the next delivery."
"Hopefully," he nodded, putting the phial back down. "It would be such bad luck for an old man to catch something severe while you are all out."
There was one more bottle in her sack, the elixir inside pitch-black. This one, she didn't have to name; she could hear her father gulping at the mere sight of it.
"The royal tar! So you do come bearing gifts," he whistled, for once in a softer tone. His long, skeletal fingers closed around the slender neck of the bottle. "What happened to it being a poison?"
"It still is," Ifi said, only a bit curtly. "And you shouldn't drink it. It's nothing but brimstone, asphalt and seven deadly venoms"
"But it gets the old blood pumping, does it not? Would you be so kind as to pour a round for your father?" he replied. "I'll accept it as an apology."
She found the crystal glass as its usual place under his desk, slammed it down, let a finger of the oily mixture pour down the side of it, leaving behind a viscous trail. For a moment, the tobacco stench gave way to the heady odour of rust. Her father didn't even wait for her to let go of the drink before seizing it.
"Ah," he said, sniffing at it in obvious satisfaction. "And to think that this is but the smallest of rewards of the Noble Art. If only you pursued it more."
She pretended not to hear that, and not to see her father save a week off his life in a single sip. Instead, she looked around, hoping to maybe find a spare chair. But of course, it couldn't fit inside. As expected, there were none. Maybe if the study was built less like a corridor, her father could have made room for others in it. But that was a childish dream she had long since given up on. She propped herself against a bookshelf instead.
The glass had her father's full focus for a minute or two, clicking his tongue at the drink as if it was the finest of wines and not a drug favoured by necromancers and people needing to clean copper piping.
"So how is your business," he asked, the royal tar's agitation already a ringing note in his voice. "Still making good money?"
"More than ever," she said. Truthfully, even, just as long as the part about her recent expenses was left out of the account.
"So glad to hear," he said, not glad at all. "For those of us not at the Table, money really is all that there is to life."
All those years, and she caught herself looking away at the mention. All those years, and she still felt her cheeks flush. His hooks slid under her flesh so effortlessly as if he wasn't even trying. But she knew him well enough to know that he definitely was.
"So," he took another sip; the batch must have been good, because even he couldn't keep the frown up. "Your unlikely appearance, the even more unlikely gift... You must want something. But clearly not money, since you are so very well off on that road to nowhere of yours?"
And there was the guilt, the shriveled spectre's favourite weapon. And she was doing so well, earlier today, getting Shard in line and business sorted out. Only to be reminded to whom it didn't matter.
"Don't make this face," he waved the glass at her, other hand picking at his beard in a masterful display of exasperated annoyance. "We both know you do not come seeking your father's advice!. So just say what it is that you want?"
"The books," Ifi muttered, bracing for the worst. "The alchemy books."
He paused his display, the glass freezing in the air. Then, in a comically exaggerated way, he raised an eyebrow, reminding Ifi that should have pursued comedy, not trade. He would be a better man for that."
"I need to make sure I understand correctly," he said, understanding perfectly. "You mean those books that I have brought to you from the High City, at a great personal expense?" he said, voice crackling with false confusion. "The books of secret alchemical knowledge?"
"Those very same books, father."
She knew where this was going. She grabbed the hem of her robe, reminding herself not to explode when it would arrive at the destination.
"The ones that you have returned to me," he pulled himself up in the chair, long neck stretching towards her, an ugly grin on his corpse-doll of a face, "because you prefer not to dabble in useless esoterica that a woman can't make an honest penny from? Those books? Are you sure?"
"Yes," she hissed, not sure if the bile in her throat was more guilt or anger. Probably some mixture of those.
"So," he still wasn't finished, "you want to look again into the books that I gave you so that you could earn your place at the Table, to which you preferred becoming a coin-counter?"
And just like that, Ifi's fervent wish to not make a scene came to an abrupt and unpleasant end.
"Oh, there you go!" she snapped, voice two pitches higher than she wanted it to. "You just can't bear that, can you? Your daughter wanting her own life instead of playing in your deranged plots!"
His face darkened, the illusion of good mood erased in an instant.
"Some of us," he heaved off, his voice like a vampire's death-rattle, "think about others. About the future their children can have. Some of us lay foundations, and others…"
"Don't!" Ifi jabbed a finger at the air, feeling her own face tighten into an ugly scowl. "Don't!"
"And others piss into their foundations because they are cowards!"
"Oh, f-" she managed to stop that one, even if he clearly realized what she was going to say. "Maybe I should just take it all away," she waved her arm towards the mixtures on the desk, "see how long it would take for you to come begging, you parody of a father!"
"You know," he smiled back. He had always had something of a viper in him, "every time you insult me, I just remind myself how much your life is an insult to you."
This took the wind off her. She wasn't even supposed to care. She hadn't cared in years. And yet, somehow, through the obscure sorcery of family, she was small again, and he was right. For a moment, she really believed her life was a mistake.
"You are not going to drag me there," she spat out finally. She was no longer fifteen. He wouldn't get her that easily.
"You need something from me," he reached for the glass again, this time not stopping to savour the mixture. "So I am going to drag you through wherever I want. We're not the Table. There is no need for courtesy here."
"What do you want from me?" she said instead of the far more reasonable and that's she left you or that's why Fer no longer writes. But she was way too deep into sunk costs to relent now.
"You know what," he shrugged. "To prepare the Work. Take the Challenge. Finally make all the effort I put into this family pay off. So yes," he glanced at the shelf above Ifi's head, "you can have the books. They are yours, after all. You're welcome."
She breathed out. As far as successes went, this one tasted particularly bitter.
"The Challenge is a sham," also, she just couldn't help herself. "You know that. The High Families don't want strangers at the Table! When will you accept that?"
"When your claims cause the Strenis and the Markios to disappear from the Table," he poured himself some more; Ifi wondered if the fumes of the royal tar didn't get to her too, "and when you fail the Challenge, instead of running away from it. But that would require you to be capable of taking risks, wouldn't it?"
And that was it. The words punched a hole in Ifi, and she deflated, hunched down. What was she even to say to that? What was she to say to the fact that her father, that wizened corpse of a parent, was right? If she had been made of braver stock, she wouldn't have to bend her head and listen to him. She wouldn't have a place at the Table, either - he was delusional to think that it was ever a possibility. But at least she would not have to ask him for help, or drink up his poison.
With an incoherent, sad grunt, she turned to the shelves instead, to wrap up her stupid plan. The rustle of paper behind her indicated that her father finally lost interest, and returned to his paper, and to the matters of the High City that concerned him so.
The book wasn't hard to find; its blood red spine stood out from the blacks and browns of the shelf. She picked it up, years of dust rubbing grey stains on her fingers. The Telluric Fragments the frontispiece announced in an elegant hand, above hand-drawn depiction of a lion and a spear-holder flanking a crumbling tower. As with all proper alchemy, the rest of the book was likewise written by hand, on fine, sturdy parchment. It felt inappropriate to hold in her hand; this small, useless thing was worth a month of Ifi's work, if not more.
Of course it wasn't really useless, just useless to her. She flicked to the half-remembered page, where a warm-orange tiger vanished between two tall trees, strands of writing hazing around the miniature. The Descent into the Depths of Solitude, and the Triumphant Return Into the Light of Truth. The fragment from the neo-telluric canon, teaching the alchemist the secret of producing the essence of attraction, which binds souls together and makes their love pure. One of the greatest achievements of the Noble Art.
But there was no recipe. Instead, Ifi read through a rambling poem about a man chasing after a tiger in a deep jungle, and there suffering many horrible indignations, avoiding each narrowly until finally finding the tiger's den and there wrestling it into submission. A few of the allusions, Ifi could still pick apart; the green-hearted serpent chasing the man through the canopies was probably some representation of a particular vitriol, and the constant mentions of the "rising morning mist" indicated repeated vacuum distillations. Maybe, if Ifi had the library entirely to herself and two weeks of time, she could decode the procedure fully. And then, of course, move onto trying to figure out the parts that were purposefully left out of the recipe, so that each aspirant on the path to the Noble Art could re-learn it by themselves, and in that process, master themselves. Or, failing that, succumb to a horrible, fast-acting poison punishing them for trying to rush through the Work.
She didn't know what else she was expecting, other than being reminded of the nature of the so-called respectable side of her craft. She closed the book, and let her head hang. Would it be too much to ask for a simple recipe for the truth-stone? Mix this and that at such and such flame, keep at a boil for an hour, cool down slowly? Then, she could dope that damn below-spawn with it and be done fearing it. She could ask it for everything she wanted, and receive all that, and more. But instead her reward was being reminded that she was not a real alchemist, and that real alchemists were all obscurantist pricks.
Knowing that, however, didn't help all that much, or at all. And she knew that already, anyway.
"I can't read this," she muttered, closing the book on the recipe, and all the other futures she had never pursued.
"You don't want to," her father corrected, and again truth be told, he wasn't even wrong. "It's still not too late, you know. It soon will be, but not yet."
He had worn her too raw, too tender. Without even wanting to, Ifi considered tossing all of her life's work aside, secluding herself for two years to prepare a Work, and then presenting it to a gaggle of geriatric men from the High Families, just so that they could toss her back into the Middle City with a reprimand for profaning the Noble Art. The idea made following up on her below-spawn's murder-plan far more appealing. And still, the warning lingered in her mind. She didn't put the book back on the shelf, and instead in her bag. The fact that her father nodded in approval was, probably, the worst part.
"Right," she grasped for the first excuse she could conjure. "Father, it was a pleasure seeing you again, but I have to go now and make sure the glassmakers don't deliver to the wrong shop again."
"Are you dealing with them now?" he looked up from the paper. "Bad choice."
"I'm not dealing with them," Ifi sighed. It was always about politics with him, and not even their politics. "I'm buying glass from them."
"Well, better go and buy it quick then," he frowned, nose buried in the broadsheet. "It looks like there are rough days ahead for them."
"Right. Until next time, father," she glanced at him and the black bottle one last time. "Don't drink it all in a week again, please."
And with that, she left him to his disappointments, and his politics.
The first thing Ifi wanted to do after coming back home was to lay down and nurse all of her raw places. Maybe cry it all out, or just stare at the ceiling for a moment. Her father barbs stuck into her thorn-like, and it would take her days to pick them out. And all of that, for nothing.
Shard, apparently, had a different plan.
The below-spawn was waiting on her in the front of the shop, perched on the counter like a porcelain raptor. In Ifi's absence, she clearly rummaged through her things. One of her black shawls was wrapped around Shard's chest like a sash, tied over the wound with an elaborate knot.
"You're back," she said, jumping down the floor; her feet barely made a sound as they touched the tiles. Ifi used to imagine that she would move like a puppet of sorts. And maybe she wasn't even wrong: there was something off. But nothing stilted or sudden: all sinuous, arachnid grace instead. "You've been gone for long."
The other suspicion proved far more correct; upright, the below-spawn towered over her, the top of her head barely reaching Shard's chin. And just as she had already suspected, it made an impression. She took a reflexive step back, almost tripping. She just didn't expect the impression to be that strong. And Shard saw that, and followed it up.
Her hand reached up to Ifi's head and for a split-second the alchemist thought that all of her doubts would be resolved in a single swipe. But the porcelain fingers merely brushed through the thick curls of her wig, holding a few strands to light.
"I almost didn't recognize you," Shard said, lips again curled into something that could be either a smile or a scowl and Ifi had no way of telling. All she knew is that she was feeling her heart hammer in her chest. "You're quite a chameleon."
The way she said that, and the way she held her did something to Ifi. She stopped, dumbstruck, and for a blissful moment, there was no more failure weighing on her with the full burden of the day. Did Shard like her that way? Did Shard like her? She wanted to ask, so very much.
"You seem relaxed," she said instead.
"I'm no longer in chains," Shard said, a bright note in her voice, finally removing the hand from Ifi's hair, a few cut strands trailing behind. She raised it up, touching one of the claws to her lips. "And my body is no longer slow. If I wanted to, I could splay you apart between the strikes of your heart, little alchemist."
Ifi breathed out. the words a cold shower on her head. Everything crashed again. She needed that. She took another step to the back, only to notice the tip of Shard's tongue peek from between the tips of her teeth. It seemed no less sharp than they were.
"You are afraid," she observed, and snorted.
"You have just threatened to kill me," Ifi replied, actually quite surprised that she wasn't afraid more. Maybe it was the fact that she knew Shard needed her alive. Maybe it was the fact that after the last few days she just didn't have all that much of an emotional range left. "After putting your claws near my face."
Shard pecked her head. Again, Ifi found herself wishing there was a face there to understand.
"Oh," she said, "haven't you said it yourself that I won't? And besides, you didn't send anyone in to drag me out while you were away. I trusted you not to, and I didn't."
"I see," Ifi nodded, making her way around Shard and towards the counter. She put her bag down, and started to fumble with the cloak. "So I can trust you not to gut me."
"Precisely," Shard said. "We have a great future ahead of us, you and I. But I must ask you a few questions first. I have taken a look around and-"
"Right," the alchemist cut in, her head a swirl of thoughts so conflicting that it took her a good minute to be finally done with the simple clasp on her neck. She exhaled again. "It can wait for a moment, can't it? I need to wash myself, and get changed."
To Shard's credit, she managed to not leave a trace of her rummaging. If not for the shawl absent from her chest, Ifi would have never figured out someone went through her things. But she was quite sure that someone did, and thoroughly at that. Thankfully, though, there was nothing there for Shard to find that she could easily use against her, and most of her clothes were the wrong size either. So as much as it should have bothered Ifi, it didn't make that much of an impression.
Unlike the lingering sensation of that porcelain hand so near her face. The alchemist found herself staring in the mirror, touching the side of her head as if hoping to find some kind of a cut, or other impression that would explain why she could still feel it. But there was nothing there, just another pang of old hunger.
She wanted for hands touching her.
Hesitantly, she washed away the make-up, then fought off the urge to put it on again. She didn't even know if Shard liked it. Did it matter if she did? A new, fresh kind of exhaustion started compounding itself in the turns of Ifi's thinking, the same arguments running around in circles minute by minute.
"You can't be serious," she said to her reflection, and heard her father's voice speak back from the mirror: It soon will be, but not yet.
No matter how imposing the below-spawn looked, no matter how dangerous she seemed, Ifi still had leverage on her. She could just ask. No, more than ask: she could demand. Name a price. Of course it was stupid. But could she forgive herself for not trying?
In a different life, she would have friends and peers waiting for her on the terraces of the Middle City, where with a glass of wine and an alchemical lamp above, she would confess to them her struggles, and her doubts. But she was never one for reaching out to others, and so all she had now was a prospering shop, a wounded below-spawn waiting for her on the counter, and an ache she struggled to name, but couldn't dull.
And she was hurt, and tired, and one bad word away from crying, and she needed something to make it stop. And she could either take the risk, or wallow in that misery until that low-born thug came back to rid her of the awful, beautiful killer she was hosting.
There was, of course, nothing fancy in her wardrobe. She could try putting on the dress she wore to formal gatherings of guilds and craftsmen, but it was respectable, not desirable. And the rest was night shirts and underwear and workshop overalls. She really should start selling more to tailors.
Disappointed in herself, she picked the plain lilac robe that seemed least baggy on her, tied it loosely with a braided, colourful belt she had received from a sailor client some years ago, and reached into the small silver chest she hasn't opened in months, if not years. There it was, a small teardrop of a brooch, lilac and silver, one of the three or four pieces of her youth that managed to survive the shortages of precious metals in her workshop. She pinned it where she thought it would be visible. She checked herself in the mirror again, once again decided not to put on make-up, immediately regretted the choice, reminded herself that the only kind of it she knew how to apply probably wouldn't work under the circumstances, regretted not trying anyway, and finally made her way back to the shop's front.
If Shard appreciated, or didn't appreciate her efforts, it didn't show.
"Do you want something to drink?" she tested the waters with a question. She probably should have asked that earlier.
"I don't think so," Shard shrugged. "The contents of your kitchen didn't impress. You should get a servant."
"I know," Ifi sighed, sitting behind the counter. She didn't quite realize how tired she was; she has been on her feet all day long.
"You clearly can afford it," Shard propped herself against the other side of it, looking around the room, at all the display cabinets that survived her arrival days before. "You do not seem to be hurting for money."
"The business is going well," Ifi reached below for one of her special drinks. She probably shouldn't be going for it again so soon, but the day has really wrung her out. "I have a good reputation."
"Deservedly so," Shard said, sending pinpricks of pride down Ifi's spine. "You run a wonderful shop."
She needed to hear that. She needed to have it said to her five years ago. That's why Shard was saying that in the first place, but for once Ifi just couldn't be bothered by the lie. Not after the day.
"But that actually makes me wonder," Shard continued, the wistful note slowly fading from voice, "you are clearly not as desperate as I thought you were. You didn't have to save, and you don't need my wealth to survive. But you risk a lot in helping me."
The elixir of wakefulness burned its way down Ifi's throat; it didn't make her thoughts any clearer, but it whet all of her needs. She probably should have eaten before.
"I have said that I do not wish to be known for letting my patients die," she said, tone as neutral as she could get; something in Shard's voice was grabbing her again.
"But you do not run a hospital. You run a business. You had to find a cot for me by your distillator. It wasn't the kindness of heart that made you do it, was it?"
If people could stop asking her questions she didn't have an answer to, Ifi would be very thankful to them. She made a vague sound, as if to indicate disagreement without actually stating it. Because there was a bit of that kindness at work those few nights ago?
Was there not?
"And for an alchemist intent on being recognized in the High City, you seem so strangely unconcerned with the finer side of the Noble Art," Shard let her hand trace a line across the display cabinets, and all the bulk potions inside. "The rewards I have promised you must have appeal even so, but I don't think they are enough for you to risk it all and not sell me out. So there must be something more that you want from me, is there not?"
This time the smile on her lips was clear and obvious. The brittle note of defeat, the voice of longing: no trace remained of them, as if Shard was again in power over Ifi. And in truth, was she not?
The alchemist nodded shortly, saying nothing. Her mouth was dry, and her heart still. The elixir buzzed in her veins; waves of hot and cold pushing through her blood. She shouldn't have taken it.
"So, tell me," Shard stretched each word with palpable delight, "what it is. Who do you want me to hurt?"
The word escaped her throat before she could stop it, half-formed and weak. She immediately cursed herself, fear bit into her hard enough for the bottle to slip from her hands and into her lap. And for a split-second, the worst of her terrors came to pass. The smile vanished from Shard's face.
"Say it again," she demanded, harsh or maybe sweet: the sound made no sense to Ifi. But she had already taken the plunge, and she couldn't walk it back.
"Me," she repeated, this time louder and clearer.
A heavy silence sat around the two of them. Shard froze in place; Ifi opened her mouth again and again to apologize, and let out only an abject silence. It was going to hurt, and in all the wrong ways. She braced for the familiar, she braced for laughter.
She received it, but not in the way she feared.
"I do love the taste of your fear," Shard exclaimed, pushing herself away from the counter and into the open of the floor. "Stand up," she commanded, "come to me."
Ifi's legs carried her before her brain could ask them to stop; not that it wanted to.
She bent her knees, head raised up, the porcelain beauty towering over her, a wide, wonderfully cruel smile on her face.
"Tell me how."
"And who do you want me to hurt?"