Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes

6. Lucky Break

by gargulec

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

The precipitate started to fall out of the solution, tiny flakes dancing suspended in the murky blue of the mixture. Ifi breathed out in relief. She would still have to leave the flask in the warm bath for an hour or two more, and then filter the precursor thoroughly, but with the reaction started; the tricky part was behind her.

She made sure that the mask fit snugly around her face, and returned to check on the distillation still. There, too, the process seemed to be going well. The honey of philosophers wasn't boiling too vigorously, and the first droplets of the final product were starting to collect in the receiving flask. Even though she had gone through with this procedure at least a dozen times before, it still left her satisfied to see it work, and more than a little bit proud. The flask, once filled, would make up for what she had wasted on Shard, if not more.

It also pleased to note that the accomplishment was in a violation of the Noble Art's principles; instead of refining the honey of philosophers into the liquid wisdom of the Work, she was decomposing it into a base vinegar and a potent poison which, once diluted, made for a reliable and safe abortifacient. Turns out that to do on purpose what great Zesan the Easterner considered a complete butchery of a process paid extremely well. Certainly better than reuniting her spirit with the Truth would.

Ifi allowed herself a moment longer to admire her work; she needed to feel good about something tonight. The product in the flask was viscous and clear, not a trace of impurity - a good batch, she could tell at a glance. Any idiot with a still could probably make some quantity of it, and anyone with a skillet could definitely whip out crude honey of philosophers, no matter how lofty its name sounded. But what she was making was clean and concentrated. That's why she was never short on clients, or on orders. And what then of the fact that her approach didn't please the tastes of the self-obsessed masters of the Noble Art? Why should she care about it?

It was hers, and the demand it met was all the validation it needed. She had reasons to be proud, and she had reasons to spit on those who would command her to shame.

The elixir of wakefulness buzzed in her veins, stretching a fragile veil between her and the crashing exhaustion of the day. How much longer it was going to hold, she could not say. The alchemical lamps above shone sharp enough to cut; the burner under the still crackled with a metallic echo. Vertigo accompanied each step she made, the workshop blurring and stretching out of proportion. She needed to sleep, and she dreaded sleeping. She was intimately familiar with the kind of a hangover she was going to wake up to; but also to sleep meant to stop, and to stop meant to let the day catch up to her.

Her eyes darted across the workshop, looking for something to put her hands to. There would be no avoiding the devastation in the morning, but there was a delaying action to fight, and she was going to fight it to the last.

This was the real alchemy, she concurred, grabbing jars of eastern salts from the ingredient cabinet. Work by which all the pain and worry could be pushed to the back of the head, reduced to a gnawing, but inept tension. When she was younger, it made for a refuge from her father; when she grew, it made for a home in her loneliness. Now, in the mixing of salts, in the burner flames, in the bubbling of mixtures and air so heavy it clung to her shoulders like a second coat, she sought shelter from that porcelain demon she accepted into her home. Or, perhaps, from her own thoughts, from her own shame, from the filthy slag of desire crusting over in the pit of her stomach.

But holes riddled the walls of this hideaway, letting the wind blow through and the rain leak in. No matter what she turned herself to, the shadow of Shard followed after her. If only there hadn't been a moment of pleasure before the rejection, if only for a moment Ifi hadn't felt hope before having it dashed, if only her hope didn't come from being hit on the face and told to stay on her fours…

But the wish for it to be different left her just the same, now certain of what she has already suspected: that to chase after what she wanted was a mistake. Others might have wanted her alchemy, but no one desired after her desire.

And it hurt. No matter what she did, it hurt, and it would keep on hurting until she would manage again to force it into the recesses of her thought, to make it once more the domain of half-formed dreams she didn't even believe in. Then, at last, it could scab over and leave her if not happier, then calmer, and maybe even at some kind of empty peace.

That was the loneliness she knew, the one she grew into, and one she would never leave behind. This absurd deal she had concocted with Shard was not going to save her from it, no more than its failure could cure her of her wants. They would drag on her until the end of her days.

Bubbles were starting to form in the main flask, sending golden droplets splashing. Ifi grabbed a pair of tongs and removed one of the heating charms from underneath, the small glass cube glowing cherry red; she put it back on a tray to let it cool down. As bitter as it was to acknowledge, the wise thing to do was to cut the false hopes out of her life; she didn't wish for the rest of it to be made from circles of anxious excitement followed by heartbreaking disappointments. Twice enough. Making sure that the mixture wouldn't start boiling too much again, she resolved to let Shard know that they were through.

Tomorrow, though. Until then, there was work, and getting her body worn down so that she couldn't stand upright. When she finally went to sleep, she did it on Shard's cot, so exhausted that she didn't even think much about it. For the small blessing, she could only be thankful.


Dry heaving into a bucket wasn't Ifi's preferred way of starting a morning, but it was also not unexpected. The wakefulness elixir was a mix of three different potent venoms, and in higher concentrations it was reputed to eat through steel. She deserved it, really.

If there were words to describe the subtle ways her body ached, they were known only to the true poets of the gutter. For women like Ifi, inchoate, stilted groans would have to do. But it was not all bad; the feeling was so encompassingly wretched, that she could hardly move on from it to relieving yesterday's failures.

In the kitchen, she managed to force some stale bread into herself, and follow it up with pungent herbal tea; neither helped much with general misery, but at least they put a stop to wanting to throw her insides out, which meant that she was on the right track for getting ready for work. Thankfully, she didn't have a mirror at hand to see reflected in her face; she had to look little better than a freshly buried corpse. Shard was absent from both the kitchen and the front of the shop, which meant she was probably still in Ifi's bedroom; on one hand it allowed the alchemist to avoid facing her. On the other, it meant she couldn't go and get herself a fresh change of clothes.

Her clients would have to deal with her disheveled, she decided. No doubt that would lead to rumours and jokes spreading around the terraces later, but she would rather deal with a stain on her reputation rather than with the below-spawn. Which, in all likelihood, suggested that she was in no mental state for either. Then again, as she had learned over the years, the kind of people who rushed into her shop in the mornings tended not to be overly discerning, either.

It was difficult not to think of Shard while servicing them. She haggled no more than it was absolutely necessary and responded to the small chat with spaced-out nods; much to her chagrin, the progress of the day didn't bring any clarity. The cutting-off she promised herself she would make seemed obvious and straightforward in the night, but she had to remember that Shard was clearly desperate, and her claws were sharp indeed.

It was a mistake to think about the claws. She touched her cheek; her heart fluttered. Was the thin red line still there?

"Excuse me?" the woman in front of the counter demanded. "Are you listening?"

"Oh," Ifi mumbled, hand dropping down like a stone. "I'm sorry. Can you repeat the last thing?"

"As I was saying, I need…"

What if she just went through with Shard's scheme anyway? Money and prestige were good, for sure, but it was hard not to be suspicious whether the below-spawn could actually deliver them, instead of only promising them. And that was all assuming that this lowborn thug wasn't going to get the best of the both of them. It was not like Ifi was an expert assassin. What sort of help did Shard even expect, her to brew up a really strong poison and ask Villis nicely to drink it all up? The entire idea reeked of powerless desperation; she could tell, given how familiar she was with that feeling.

"Are you sure this is my order?"

Ifi blinked, then looked more closely at the fat bottle she put in front of the familiar tailor. Then with a half-panicked apology, she skipped down to the workshop, returning moments later with another, much smaller flask, this time actually filled with medicine, not incendiary slime.

"I'm so sorry," she smiled, or at least tried. "Should be good now."

"Rough night?" the tailor asked, pocketing it. "I found that nothing helps as much as…"

She made an honest attempt at not thinking about how much more simple it all would be if she had only allowed the below-spawn to bleed out on her floor. But such was the truth and perhaps the big lesson of all that: neither kindness, nor sticking her fingers into the affairs of others, was likely to pay well. Still, none of that hard-won knowledge was bringing Ifi any closer to figuring a way of telling Shard no without risking ending up bleeding out of the floor herself.

"Miss alchemist?"

The shrill voice didn't belong to any of her usual clients, but rather to a young girl in a loosely fitting runner's tunic.

"A message to you!" she announced from the door, waving a piece of paper excitedly in her hand. "From the High City!"

Judging by how alight with pride her round face was, it seemed that it was the first time she was delivering something from that high up. And fair: it was also the first time Ifi was receiving missives from there, either.

"What?" she blurted out, momentarily distracted from all of her torturous thoughts. "What's going on? Give it to me!"

The girl skipped closer, putting the message down on the counter, but not releasing it from her hand just yet. Ifi looked at the somewhat crumpled envelope - definitely not how Ifi imagined the High Families to conduct their correspondence - then into the girl's expectant eyes.

"Right," she looked from a coin, then tossed it to the youth.

The runner grabbed it gracefully without letting go of the envelope. She brought it up to light, letting the day shine through the glass shilling.

"It's from the High City, miss alchemist!" she repeated, slightly insistent.

Ifi frowned; it took her a moment to figure out what the girl meant. She gritted her teeth, but also was in no mood to argue. Another shilling landed in the runner's hand.

"So kind!" she beamed and rushed off, wasting not a second longer in the shop.

Ifi held the letter in her fingers, curious. Cheap, brown paper, without any seal or an emblem. It was hard to believe it really came from someone at the Table. Chances were she was just conned by an enterprising youth, like a complete rube. But she opened it anyway, read the short note inside, then locked the door to her shop and went to find Shard.

It was about time for her to get a lucky break.


As expected, the below-spawn was still in her bed-chamber. Somewhat less expectantly, Ifi found Shard perched on the windowsill, hands and feet holding tightly onto the frame, looking like one of those ancient gargoyles. The sound of Ifi entering didn't get her attention; she remained fully focused on the view of the lowest strata of the Middle City opening ahead of her, or maybe on the silhouettes of the monolithic towers beyond.

"Hey," Ifi tried, as neutrally as she could. "We need to talk."

At first, she got no reaction, the below-spawn still as a statue.

"You there?" she asked again.

This time, Shard reacted. Without a word, she hopped down from the window, her feet barely making a sound as they touched the floor. Something clenched in Ifi's throat; it was always a pleasure to watch the fluidity of her motions. And then, she noticed that Shard painted herself a face.

Or a kind of one, at least.

A tangle of black lines roped around the blank slate of Shard's head, once skillfully woven together into an image of a slender insect. But it was ruined now, half-erased at places, the outlines of the wasp blurred into long, ugly smears. Not all was uniformly destroyed: the tip of the sting needle-sharp, gossamer wings that looked so fine as if about to peel off the porcelain surface and wisp away in the wind. The few surviving details marked the loss of the whole even more apparent. The tips of Shard's fingers were stained black.

Feelings, conflicting and cacophonous, flurried down Ifi's mind. She took a deep breath to reign them in.

"I'll wait in the front," she said, "if you need to clean yourself up."

Shard nodded; Ifi rushed back downstairs.

She didn't have to wait long; Shard followed her moments later, her head mostly cleaned but for a few stranded stains. Ifi did her best to ignore them; she motioned at the below-spawn to come closer to the counter she sat behind.

"Villis sent me a message," she announced. Maybe she should have started with some kind of small talk, but more than anything, she just wanted to be done with this, while she was still holding onto her own wits. "I think, at least. It's a bit suspicious; it looks like something a low-born would write, but it came from the High City, so..."

"It's him," Shard said, in a dull, almost uninterested voice. "He is not without allies there."

Ifi blinked in surprise. A low-born, with friends at the Table? That made very little sense. Maybe Shard was lying? But really, did it matter? All she needed her to do was to trust the message.

"Right," she said, then took the piece of paper and started to read from it aloud. "Dear craftswoman," it said, "I hope this message finds you alive, and not yet gutted by Shard. I must apologize to you: I have hoped to visit you and provide help, but another matter now has to take the full of my attention. I will not be able to assist you until it is resolved, in one way or another."

She looked up from the letter to see Shard with her head bowed low. And still, the below-spawn kept her quiet.

"Until then, I can only advise you," she continued reading, "to encourage your 'patient' go. I have little doubt she will love the opportunity to disappear from my sight, which means that hopefully, she will trouble you no longer."

Ifi paused. There was more in the letter, but there was no need to let it out loud.

"Have you heard that, Shard?" she asked. "He is not coming back. He is not hunting you now."

Again, she said nothing, just standing before her, silent and still. A few pinpricks of worry skittered down Ifi's back. Just to make sure, her hand found the familiar nub for the warding charm below the counter, and felt it buzz to life under her fingers.

"So," she added, straining herself into a light tone, "I won't be able to help you get to him. But also you are free to go. We don't need each other anymore."

"It may be a trap," Shard said.

"If it is, there is nothing I can do to help you with it, other than keep you here forever," Ifi forced an idle shrug. "Would you rather have that?"

With her arms dropped loosely to her sides, head bent, Shard appeared strangely fragile. It hurt to see, Ifi had to admit, so she tried not to look. It was just like lancing a boil; she had to go through it and go through with it fast, before self-doubt would get her to make some costly mistake.

She knew this was never going to work. She had to know that, and in her heart too.

"You are right," Shard hissed out finally, the sound like air wheezing from a broken bellows. "I would rather go free than suffer your whims. I will leave."

The feeling that shot through Ifi's chest definitely wasn't relief, even if it was some kind of a release. Perhaps it was just that boil draining. It was all going to be over soon.

"You can keep the shawl," Ifi added. She bit her tongue, but what else was she going to do with that cloth the below-spawn fashioned into a bandage for herself?, "I never liked it much."

And it would remind me of you too much. But she didn't say that part out loud.

Another protracted silence followed. Ifi started to drum her fingers against the old wood of the counter, more to do something with her hands than out of any tangible sense of impatience. As always, Shard's blank face was impossible to read, but her posture alone said enough. If only it could all be over quicker.

"It is funny," Shard shook her head, turning towards the door, "to think. No one has ever drugged me, chained me, refused me, and made it out with as few scars as you did."

In any other tone, perhaps the words would have come out as threatening. But in Shard's mouth, they were just ash. It hurt to hear; Ifi just wanted it over. The difficult part was behind her, was it not?

"You should be proud," the below-spawn added. "Or maybe I should be ashamed."

"Is this your way of thanking me for saving your life?" Ifi snapped back; her voice came out like a whip-crack, impatient and cruel. She just wanted this to end. She had to end it.

"I think so, yes," Shard said. "I hope you find a way to soothe your pain."

She lingered for a while longer, half-way between Ifi and the door, and then walked away, into the day and into the streets, and she was in Ifi's shop no longer. The alchemist waited out a moment, then locked the door behind her. Hopefully, dreadfully, for good.

And if she promised you anything, the final few lines of VIllis' message read, know that she has nothing left to give, and no allies to call on. Have mercy on yourself and don't let her drag you into the end she deserves.

She wondered who taught that low-born write that well; and maybe she would have preferred the missive to be riddled with mistakes and slurs, to make it seem less trustworthy. Not that she trusted it, but it did make sense. It really was a mercy on herself to make Shard leave, even if it was a cruel one. And there was no doubt it was good for Shard too. Probably. Probably. In any case, the matter was over, and resolved, and Ifi could return her life to its usual rails.

It didn't even hurt that badly. She would wash now, and get some sleep, and then in the evening, she could put on her best dress, and walk up to one of the terraces where her peers congregated. She promised herself that she would do that, finally start behaving like she was meant to. Maybe among her fellows, all those merchants and guildsmen, she could find some antidote for herself? That was the best she could hope for. Wisdom, it seemed, was coming to terms with the fact that it was all she could ask for.

It wasn't exactly comforting. Just true. And there was no point in crying over it, no matter how much she wanted to.

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