Mercy, and Other Costly Mistakes

8. Torture Dress

by gargulec

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

Long before Ifi’s father moved out of his old home to the knife-wide mansion in the Lower Heights, a print used to hang above his desk, depicting the Middle City as if it was a living body. Trade, of course, was its blood, and so the streets its veins. Guilds, of all kinds, made the rest: the Honourable Society of Merchants the heart, the Lower Lodge of Animated Clay the bones, the Laborious League of Printers the tongue – and so on, and so on. He was greatly fond of it; Ifi remembered sitting on his lap and hearing him ask, hand ruffling her hair, “and where do you think the soul is, my little sweet?”

When she struggled to come up with an answer, he would smile knowingly and say: “it’s the terraces that house it”. Because it wasn’t on the streets that the wheels of commerce were put into motion, and it wasn’t the guildhalls where the pen signed the contract that deals were made. Daily labours of trade and common occurrences of ordinary work, no matter how key, could only ever be a sad facade if not backed by the camaraderie of the coffee-cup and the wine-glass, drawn over leisurely evening hours of conversations, gossiping, and negotiating. High above the streets and their banal demands, in the company of their peers, the real Middle City folk found their sanctuary and true workshop. In the end, it did not matter if one’s occupation was an alchemist or a merchant, a golem-mason or a dress-maker; becoming known was the real trade, and it was on the terraces that it could be plied. And besides, even absent the matters of business, who wouldn’t enjoy the freshness of the open sky, the comfort of good service, and the friendship of their like?

More than his lessons, she remembered the sincerity and love with which he spoke of them. When his age and health finally took their toll, and took away from him those evening gatherings, he mourned and pushed Ifi to attend them in his stead. But as with many other things, Ifi failed to see eye to eye on this matter. Unlike him, she could never convince herself that she belonged.

It was the fashion, she decided, lingering at the top of the stairwell leading from the shop below to the open roof. White, beige, cream: those were the colours that her putative peers wore, only modestly specked with hints of blue and gold. Few traces remained of the taste for lace trims and embroidered patterns that seemed to have been the order of the night the last time Ifi had paid them a visit; simplicity now ruled. The alchemist spent a moment searching for words to describe what she was looking at: straight-cut? Tight? Men and women alike showed little skin, but instead let the fabrics cling closer to their bodies and draw out their shapes. There had to be some name for this trend, but Ifi’s lexicon had never been well-equipped for dealing with fashion.

But she didn’t have to describe the style in detail to know that she wasn’t it; not remotely. With the familiar anxiety already building up in her stomach, she picked at the edge of her robe the spacious, complicated mark of her position as a master in the Subtle Fellowship of Brewers. As far as she could see, she was alone on the terrace to show up wearing her guild insignia like that, clearly more fit for a ceremony than a friendly coffee.

The urge to turn back and leave hit with all of its familiar intensity. She wanted to feel normal for once and not…


A black-haired, long-faced woman exclaimed from a nearby table; as quickly as her dress would allow her, she scrambled up and approached Ifi; her smile was warm, if somewhat surprised.

“Ciara?” she mumbled, momentarily torn from the familiar train of thought. “Oh, I haven’t seen you in so long!”

“Must have been two years now?” Ciara Antonika, who used to be a frequent customer at Ifi’s shop before a very well-arranged marriage put an end to her needs, leaned in to kiss her cheeks. “Come, sit with us!”

Tiny sapphires glinted before Ifi’s eyes and she awkwardly kissed the air by Ciara’s face; set into pale gold earrings, they suited the other woman beautifully, drawing out the deep blue of her eyes and the carmine of her lips. It didn’t take much to make Ciara a sight to behold, Ifi decided, especially not with how well the current fashion worked for her figure.

“You look spectacular,” she mumbled, admiring the dress. She was wrong before; there was still some embroidery there, if that was the word she was supposed to use the silver thread carefully woven into the fabric, so that it shimmered like moonlight on water. Ifi felt small.

“Thank you,” Ciara smiled, extending a chair. “You look very tired. This,” she indicated the crow-faced gentleman that Ifi had completely missed before, “is Makarios, my husband. Makarios, this is Ifigenia. She is an alchemist.”

“I can see that,” he smiled too, extending a hand. Ifi shook it, perhaps a bit too firmly. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

She settled into the cushioned chair; within seconds, a waiter appeared silently at her side.

“What will you have?” Ciara asked politely.

“Coffee?” Ifi muttered; suddenly, it occurred to her that she may not even have a tab open here anymore. Anxiety climbed a few inches up her throat before she shoved it back down again. “No. Not coffee. Uh…”

“Herbal tea, for relaxation?” the server suggested, stone-faced.

“Yes, thank you!” she blurted out, genuinely grateful. “That.”

He disappeared as quietly as he approached, the idle rustle of an evening in progress masking whatever sounds he would otherwise make; Ifi sunk a bit deeper into the cushions. Ciara wasn’t wrong. The nap she took in the afternoon wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the last night, and the potions she took to keep herself going were starting to take their expected toll. Her body felt stiff, barely responsive.

The chair, at least, was comfortable; maybe she should get one like that for her shop? Her clients would probably appreciate it. She shook the thought away; she didn’t come here to think about work, but to make herself back at home among her peers. And they were all here, sitting by the tables ringed by the terrace’s lattice-work balustrades. The next table over, Kleon the carpenter was going over some papers with a young woman who had to be his apprentice Mea; behind them Ifi recognized the familiar, broad frame of Mereos, the dressmaker. He was a frequent customer, ordering dyes in bulk and hangover cures by the bottle. She should ask him to fill out her wardrobe; he would know how. Then, further back, she could hear the booming voice of Kassandra the golem-mason. Between the tables, she even caught a glimpse of her, towering in high heels, even more than usual. It was the first time Ifi saw her in a dress, anthracite curls held together with an ornate silver pin. Her muscle showed clearly under the fabric but – Ifi turned her head to get a better look – she no longer had that rough-hewn look she used to associate with her. She would usually see Kassandra sweat-drenched and foul-mouthed, demanding a quick delivery of solvents, but here? Here she was every inch a lady, moving with easy grace, specks of metallic dust shining from her cheeks.

Didn’t she try that once? She ended up looking as if she had splashed her cheeks with silver paint. A thoroughly unpleasant shudder went through her; she remembered a friend looking at her and saying, with that genuine pity in her voice, but this really isn’t difficult, here, let me show you…

She looked away from Kassandra, quickly. Who was that at the next table, that…

“Ifigenia!” Ciara’s voice was high, almost amused. “Your tea is here.”

The alchemist snapped to attention, her head swinging wildly back to the table she was at. Her tea was, in fact, waiting in front of her, steaming from a dainty porcelain cup.

“Uh, thank you?” she aid, hunching slightly.

“Is she alright?” Makarios asked his wife, looking at Ifi with a frown.

“Oh, she’s just like that,” Ciara replied with a slight shrug. “That’s our Ifigenia.”

There wasn’t a hint of malice in those words, Ifi could tell. But it really didn’t have to be there to remind her just what she was like. She exhaled, trying not to let the budding something out of her chest. Because whatever it was, she didn’t want to vent it before her peers, or ever.

“I was just telling my husband,” Ciara continued after a moment, “how you are among the youngest masters in your guild.”

“You must be really talented,” he nodded.

That was actually nice to hear. Ifi gave a pale smile, leaned back somewhat. The tea smelled comforting, too. Cistus and lemon balm, a dash of honey, and just a hint of mint, probably to mask the unpleasant odour of the salts of the resting moon. It could actually help her with her nerves.

“Thank you,” she repeated.

“So what are you doing with this,” Makarios gave her a curious look. “Do you have any apprentices?”

“Well…” the question made her wince. She turned the cup a few times in the saucer, eyes away. “No, not really,” she said, trying not to let the guilt show.

“Really?” he lifted an eyebrow. “I must say that this is quite surprising. I can see that you’re proud of your work,” he looked at her robe as if to underscore the point, “and if what my wife tells me, then clearly you have the means to. It’s really a shame to hoard one’s talents. I hope you will find someone to pass your knowledge to, and soon.”

“Uh, I just...” she bit her lip, feeling her fingers close on the hem of her robe again. “I’m not sure,” she decided to try honesty. “I don’t think I would make a good teacher,” she tried.

“Hmm,” Makarios paused, scratching his chin. “So, what then? Marriage?”

Ciara giggled at the mention, too late to cover her mouth with a hand; Ifi felt a terrible tightness in her chest.

“I’m sorry,” the other woman whispered dramatically, “it’s just, I think that Ifigenia isn’t really a marrying type.”

Makarios frowned. His wife looked to the side, where Kassandra’s deep laugh rose above the gathering, clear in its sound, strong and comforting.

“Well, not in the old-fashioned sense,” Ciara added.

“Oh,” her husband nodded, still frowning, “I see.”

An unpleasant, sticky silence fell over the table. Shame, the other part of anxiety, crawled from its pit in the back of Ifi’s head. Nights like these, it seemed like the expectations of others existed for her only to stumble over; her cheeks flushed red.

“Oh, it’s nothing. It doesn’t speak poorly of you” Ciara smiled softly in response; there was something disarming in the gesture, and Ifi almost believed her. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Maybe she could tell us about her recent work? Alchemy is fascinating,” Makarios suggested.

Ifi perked up, momentarily knocked off her spiral of annoyance and disappointment. Before that below-spawn took a week out of her life, she was hard at work to master some rather interesting processes and…

“Oh, no, anything but that!” Ciara interrupted again; Ifi deflated instantly. “The last time someone asked her about that, she spent an hour lecturing poor Kleon about salts!”

That was true. It was yet another of the things Ifi was supposed to be ashamed of, and a prominent point on the list of reasons for why she stopped attending the terraces in the first place. Another sharp urge stabbed at her, demanding that she just stand up and walk away and end up looking like a freak again. She did her best to quash it. No. Ciara was right, she couldn’t be trusted to speak about alchemy without boring everyone at the table.

She really felt small, and irrelevant.

“Kleon?” her husband asked. “Kleon Kleoros? Funny how you mention him. You know, me and his brother had our apprenticeship under the same master, old Tokas, the one who...”

Ifi tried her best to follow the story, to keep her attention through the long and complicated network of connections, patronages, and friendships that made the world of credit-letters that Makarios lived in. But she was too tired to hold track of who was who, and soon enough old Tokas and young Tokas, and the deplorable cousin Klepht blended together in her ears, dissolving into the overall chatter that ruled the terrace. She started to look around again; there was something that almost drew her attention the last time.

When she found it, she could only berate herself for not looking sooner.

At a table at the opposite end of the terrace, right by the balustrade's edge, with a wide view of the city’s sprawl below, two women sat. Sat – and stood out, immediately and sharply. Again, it was the fashion. The taller of the two – a broad-shouldered hulk of a woman that could easily pass for a man if not for her cascading black hair, and her clothes – especially so, and not just because she wore lustrous black. If the fashion of tonight’s was tight, the manner of her dress was openly restraining. Her skirt bound her legs together so closely that Ifi could scarcely imagine walking in it. Higher up, a tall corset cinched her waist and chest cruelly small; she sat stiffly, her back ruler-straight, probably unable to actually bend. In fact, judging by how the collar of her dress extended up her neck, all the way up to a mask of sorts covering her jaw, Ifi wasn’t sure if the woman could still turn her head. Even her arms appeared completely still; as Ifi watched her, she couldn’t see move them once, from where they were folded together on her lap, hands hidden in long, flared sleeves. A large, metal ring rested attached on her jugular, polished steel gleaming in the terrace’s lights; crossing stitches ornamenting the fabric of her gown, pulling it closer together, as if ropes wound across the whole body.

For a moment, Ifi lost herself in gawking. No matter how strong the woman appeared, her dress had to be stronger, nothing like the sheer fabrics others wore. No, it was firm, sturdy, holding her frozen in place. It had to feel like a prison in there, barely able to move or to breathe, each little motion of the body a calculated struggle against this restraint. Unthinkingly, the alchemist felt her cheek, brushing her fingers against the fading cut. It didn’t really matter that the woman in black could hardly be called beautiful, that her features seemed rough and body contorted. Looking at her, Ifi could only put herself in her place, her mind serving her an image after image of herself being locked and looked at in this absurd, no longer able to even run away, no matter how much shame built up in her. Staring at the woman, Ifi tasted a kind of envy at the edge of hunger. She looked, and looked, and kept on daydreaming.

But there had to be a bitter note in all that. There was another woman at a table, shorter, with an unruly mess of golden hair crowning her head. She too flaunted fashion in a way, boyishly slender in her two-piece suit. As Ifi watched, she looped her finger around the ring on the taller woman’s neck, and lifted herself up to whisper something into her ear, a sly smile on her pale pink lips. There was a confidence in this gesture, a possessive note not unlike the moment that below-spawn held Ifi’s head between her claws.

She came to the terrace to wipe her mind clean of the aftertaste of her own depravity; what she found instead was yet more reason to yearn.

“Who are they?” she asked, giving up on pretending she didn’t care. It was enough of a struggle to look away from the quick kiss that followed the whisper.

“And then, Kleph says… excuse me?” Makarios blinked.

“Those women,” Ifi indicated the direction. “I don’t recognize them.”

“Oh,” the merchant sighed, openly annoyed. “Them.”

“They are from the High City,” Ciara explained, shooting Ifi a frustrated look. “Showed up a few days ago. Mostly kept to themselves since. Judging by the way they look or act, they must be some errant patrician kids...” she pinched the bridge of her nose, a deep scowl on her face. “I know how they look, but Ifigenia, please” she stressed the name, “please. At least pretend to listen.”

Another pang of guilt, followed by one more hit of shame went through Ifi. But that didn’t really seem right – the women did not really look like the young, bored children of the High Families that would sometimes descend down from their towers to look for trouble.

“Sorry,” she mumbled anyway, lowering her head in shame.

“They’re clearly looking to scandalize with that torture dress,” Ciara shrugged, “so the best we can do is pretend they’re not there.”

“It keeps on happening,” Makarios added, now himself staring at the two women. “We keep bending our knee before the High Table, and that’s how they pay their respects back. Don’t they know where they are?”

“They probably do,” his wife shook her head, just as annoyed. “We may only hope that the big one faints and they have to cut her from that dress with a knife.”

Ifi kept herself turned away, cheeks burning red. Of course the “torture dress” was highly inappropriate; she knew that already. Of course it was one of the High City provocations; that’s why they could do it, and not Ifi. But knowing it was wrong did not help to make the longing go away.

“So, where was I?” Makarios said after a pause, turning back to his table.

“Kleph’s fifth wife,” Ciara helped.

“Ah, yes! So, everyone says he poisoned her, but I don’t think he had it in him, and besides it wouldn’t be worth it, considering the prenups. This time, anyway. However, he’s told me that...”

“Excuse me, sirs?”

“What is it this time?” Makarios grunted. This time, there was not even an attempt at hiding the frustration there.

A waiter, the same as before, appeared at the table, carrying a tray with a single glass of an amber-colored liquor Ifi didn’t recognize.

“My apologies, but I’ve been asked to serve this to miss alchemist here,” he said with a polite bow, placing the glass before confused Ifi. There was a piece of paper folded underneath.

“Oh my,” Ciara was the first to notice; she covered her mouth with her hand in an exaggerated gesture. “Ifigenia, you’ve got yourself a secret admirer!”

Almost panicked, the alchemist’s head darted around, trying to see who it was.

“Well,” Ciara continued, a hint of cruelty in her words, “it looks like some gentleman is going to be disappointed tonight.”

Ifi looked back at her, and there had to be something desperate enough in her face that even Ciara’s annoyance couldn’t hold. Her expression softened; she chuckled again.

“There, there,” she said, as if to a child; honestly, at the moment Ifi felt the part. “I’m just teasing you. So…,” she looked expectantly at the glass.

The alchemist hesitated for a while; she wasn’t even sure what she was afraid of. Wasn’t this exactly the reason why she wanted to start attending the terraces again? But she didn’t expect the courtship to begin that fast. If it was courtship, of course, and not just business; honestly, she would have preferred business.

To her side, Makarios dropped his story altogether; he ordered himself another drink, and then leaned back, chatting up a passing merchant about some mutual deals. Ciara and Ifi remained alone for a moment, both waiting. Slowly, Ifi lifted the glass to her lips and sipped; the drink was stronger than what she was used to, burning down her throat. She coughed.

“Just go for the note,” Ciara urged her on, annoyance fully flushed from her voice by the sheer power of curiosity. “I feel like it’s going to be good.”

“Right,” Ifi nodded, and picked up the card. The handwriting was all sharp edges and pointed columns.

I’m bored out of my mind, and you don’t seem like you’re having any fun over there either. If you would rather go on a walk instead, meet us downstairs in fifteen minutes.
-the wife of the woman you’ve been ogling

Ifi looked up from the note and at the two women; the shorter one raised a glass to her in a salute, visibly amused. The racing of her thoughts paused for, and for a time her head was filled with nothing but confused buzz.

“So...” Ciara asked, her voice thick with morbid curiosity. “What is it? Are you alright there?”

The alchemist kept reading the note over and over again, her heart racing, and cheeks completely flushed. But when she looked up, she was smiling, even if with terror. She passed the note to Ciara, who gave it one look, before an expression of utter shock seized her face.

“Well,” she giggled nervously, pushing it back to Ifi, “well, well.”

“Do you think…” Ifi started, but the woman just waved her hand at her to shut up.

“I think,” she declared, “that one should never miss an opportunity to mingle with patricians, don’t you think? And, well,” where cruelty laced her voice, now there was an almost manic edge, “you must promise me you will tell me everything later," she leaned in, nearly grabbing Ifi by the lapels of her robe. "Everything.


There was a horrifying moment when Ifi waited in the street, the rustle of the terrace reaching down to her as distant, indistinct noise, already sure that was going to get stood up, that the note was a joke to which she was supposed to play the punchline. Scenarios of abandonment played out in her head in gruesome series, each more grotesque than the last. People filled past her, her peers passing her with concerned looks on their faces, and all that was left for her to do was smile nervously and swore to herself that she wouldn’t allow herself to be fooled like that ever again. Just like she promised she wouldn’t think of that below-spawn again, and of all the disappointments she had brought.

Mercifully, before the engines of her fear could fully rev up and reduce her to a babbling wreck sobbing her disappointments out on Ciara’s shoulders, the door inside opened, letting the High City women out, the golden-haired one guiding her wife with an arm firmly wound around her cinched waist.

“There you are, my little ogler!” she exclaimed, approaching. With a sudden tightness in her stomach, Ifi noticed that she wasn’t wrong about the dress: the wife’s steps were hobbled, tiny.

“Thank you for the honour of your invitation,” the alchemist blurted out in response, throat clenched, rapidly trying to remember the proper form of address. “It gladdens the laborious heart to be noticed by the exalted family. I am Ifigenia Juno, master in the Subtle Fellowship of Brewers, ever your humble and dedicated...”

“None of that,” the woman rolled her eyes. “We are not here on a guild business, no matter how much you may look the part. We are here to go on a walk, to a park. Know any parks nearby?”

Ifi’s brain stumbled; for a moment, the layout of the streets around, ones that she should know like the back of her head, could only appear to her as a confused tangle. She breathed out, trying to clear her mind. She knew this. At least she could know this much.

“The Charmcutters’ Gardens are near,” she remembered finally. “But they will be closed for the night, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, they’ll open for us, I’m sure,” the woman replied. “Lead on, miss alchemist. I’m Eusi, and this is my bodyguard and wife Prunikos. I would ask if you like what you see on her, but I think you’ve made it abundantly clear by now.”

The night hid Ifi’s shame, or so she hoped. The crisp, cool air also helped; for the first time in the evening, Ifi was glad to be in her robe. The thick wool kept the cold at bay. Behind her, the High City women seemed concerned. Eusi draped a thin coat over shoulders, and Prunikos stayed just as she was above, hands still folded over stomach.

The park wasn’t far – a mere street away – but it still took them a long time to get there. They walked in silence, and slowly, Eusi never once leaving her wife’s side, guiding her every step. Ifi kept glancing back, taking in the sight of the tall woman, head locked forwards, each movement a small struggle. The tightness in the alchemist’s stomach only increased; but she said nothing, even as Eusi smiled to her hungry stares.

The streets around were emptying, even as the terraces above shone bright and loud. Those were the golden hours of the night, before the big quiet of sleep, before the per-morning rush when golems would swarm out with their wagons to stock up the city for the day. Alchemical lamps burned on their posts, sharp white light drawing long shadows, and painting the streets in monochrome.

“So,” Ifi asked half-way through, the silence wearing down on her, “how long have you been here?”

It was hard not to append an honorific at the end, but she managed.

“Three days,” Eusi replied, “but we will be staying longer. Until the situation back home breaks one way or another.”

Ifi remembered her father’s advice at the end of their meeting.

“It’s that glassmakers business, isn’t it?” she said, trying to seem informed.

“It is," a shadow went through her face. "But let's not talk about politics. We’ll have more than enough of those soon enough, I’m sure.”

The park emerged from the criss-crossing of streets, bounded by a tall, wrought-iron fence. There was a guard at a gate; he lifted his eyebrow at Eusi, but she flashed him a signet ring, and he didn’t ask any questions. With a flowery bow, he opened the gates inside, and let all three in, promising all manner of assistance, if needed.

It was dark inside; the lights of the city didn’t reach this far. Gravel crunched under their feet; night birds played in the canopies of the old ash trees. Through the twisting branches, the night’s sky appeared a patchwork of midnight and silver; water rustled nearby. The deeper they went, at their little pace, the deeper the silence that surrounded them, and fuller the sky. It was calming, in a way, and in the dark Ifi could almost forget the captivating sight behind her, and let all the worries and the stresses of the evening flow away. The air was damp here, and heavy with earthy, woodland smells. It was easy to imagine getting lost if they were to stray from the path.

But they didn’t, walking the wide alley between the ash trees all the way to the edge of a pond; the wind roughed up its mirror of a surface, so that it reflected nothing, but a flittering summer. It was a benefit of the dark that it obscured all those hideous statues that the Charmcutters’ put out around; Ifi had never been here after dark, but it felt better at this hour. Prettier. They found a bench overlooking the water and sat down.

“A charming little spot you’ve found for us,” Eusi noted, finally releasing the hold on her wife. Though Ifi sat some a polite distance apart from them, she could still smell their perfume and notice when night’s light caught in their jewelry. She liked it, too, those two half-hidden figures, so unreal, and so close. It let her imagination fill in the details, and that it did, generously so.

“I’m glad I could help,” she said, wondering if that was it, if the two invited her over just to have a guide through an unfamiliar part of the city. “It’s an honour to...”

“You keep this formal thing up as if I can’t see the eyes you give my wife,” Eusi snorted, “and your blush, too. Relax a bit, girl, I wouldn’t have asked for you if I minded.”

That seemed like a tall order to Ifi, but she tried, and failed; but she could now feel Eusi’s eyes on her. Prunikos, for her part, turned towards her only briefly; the alchemist seemed to be in the blind spot of her dress. Again, that grip on the insides: to think that one could wear a dress with blind spots, where she couldn’t even turn her head fully around to look at someone nearby. Ifi bit her lip.

“I’m sorry,” she muttered.

“You look sorry,” Eusi laughed. She had a sweet voice, and a well-practiced one. The sound was clear, clean. “Up there on this terrace of yours, I couldn’t tell you from a rabbit in a snare.”

Prunikos chortled at a mention, a muffled, guttural sound; the first one she’s made all night. Ifi didn’t know what to say, or what to make of the mix of emotions bubbling inside of her. Shame, of course, and longing, and- annoyance, apparently? Yet another woman telling her how sorry she looked, how much she didn’t fit. She sighed. There was something ugly brewing inside of her.

“So you took pity?” she asked, with a barb.

“So I took pity,” the woman admitted freely. “I tend to like adorable animals, and all manners of freaks.”

“Freaks?” it was the annoyance that started to rise up through the thick mixture of her feelings, floating to the top. Annoyance, or more – something thick, sour on the tongue: maybe anger. Ifi spoke with a bitter note now. “Is that what I am now?”

Eusi raised an eyebrow, but did not respond.

“Or maybe you think I don’t know?” and then, just like that, completely unexpectedly, and yet absolutely unsurprisingly, whatever it was that kept on bubbling inside of her came to a sudden boil. Bile rushed up the apparatus of her body, and the dams she had built, already cracked by the hellish week, gave up, finally letting the mess outside. “That I have to be actively reminded?”

She has had enough of that for this night, of this feeling like nothing, like a child let by mistake into the adult’s room. Hasn't she earned more? Days ago, she stood her ground against a lowborn brute and wrangled a murderous creature into submission, and now what? A few side glances and veiled insults, and she was already breaking down? She didn’t have to take it. She didn’t want to take it.

And what exactly that “it” was didn’t, exactly, matter. The dams were down, the vitriol spill long overdue.

“So what am I to you? Some kind of joke, no?” she heard herself say, or rather wheeze through clenched teeth. She was on her feet now, standing above Eusi, the heat of the rising tantrum beating back the cold of the night. “That clueless girl in an ugly robe, looking oh so very sorry, like she’s about to start apologizing for even daring to breathe. Makes one's heart bleed, doesn't it?”

The two women listened to her quietly. A silver cigarette case flashed in Eusi's hand; she popped the engraved cover open and drew one from inside; an ember charm flickered between her hands. In the dark of the park, Ifi felt like an actor, like reciting an old litany. Or maybe she just felt pissed. Or maybe both.

“So that's the deal I'm offered? I settle for your pity, and then what,” no, it wasn’t either. Not even anger. It was just bitterness, flat and dry. “I can have a thing or two? A stolen glance, a loving slap to the face? Just as long I never get to forget what it makes: a pathetic freak. So thank you for letting me gawk at your wife, the dress is really nice!”

The lit cigarette drew a half-circle through the dark. Ifi turned away, leaned, picked a pebble from the gravel, skipped it across the surface of the pond.

“You know what is the problem with you?” Eusi said, her voice cool. “And no, I don’t mean you specifically, miss alchemist, I’m talking about this place as a whole.”

Ifi shrugged petulantly, but listened.

“You don't know how it is to have nothing but dirt under your feet, or nothing but the open sky above your heads," she explained, the words well rehearsed, delivered with reserved certainty. "You live here as if suspended, each step up an exercise in not falling down. But mostly you just end up walking in circles."

"And what does it have to do with anything?" one more stone went across the water, skipping once, twice, thrice, before disappearing beneath.

"I grew up with everything to lose," Eusi took a drag from her cigarette, lingered on the words and smoke. "My wife with nothing. And hunger, too. It was absurd of her to propose to me, and unheard of me to accept."

"If you have everything to lose," Ifi said slowly, the breadth of the scandal clear even to her, "it's not that hard to pay most of it."

"You aren't even wrong. But the way I see it, there is a different moral here. That the world,” she punctuated the cold words with a jab of her cigarette, “doesn’t stop for fucked up status games.”

Ifi didn't like that; bile rose back up her throat.

“Easy wisdom," she snapped, "from someone who doesn't have to play them.”

“As if you care about them,” Eusi threw a harsh laugh in her face. “Girl, I may be new here, but I am not a moron. That woman you’ve sat with, the one with a horse’s face, you know what she asked me when I arrived? She pointed at Pris here, and said ‘Is this a provocation?’. Bitch, my home may well go down in flames within a week, and all I want is to have some fun with my wife. It’s not about you, or those idiotic little gatherings you call your world. And it’s not about you either, Ifigenia Juno.”

She smothered the cigarette against the gravel and then pulled her wife closer, resting her head on her chest.

“But you know what's different about you, you exactly? Unlike everyone else up there, you at least didn’t, or couldn’t, pretend to glare with disgust. I saw the way you looked at this,” she tapped the side of Prunikos' corset, drawing a dry, hard sound off it, “this close to actually drooling all over the floor. And you clearly weren’t having fun with your dreadful friend over there, so...”

She left her voice hang. Ifi crouched some distance away from the bench, looking at the pool, calm now after the ripples. The acid that rushed through her moments ago withdrew, remaining only as a dull, sour aftertaste, and an acute awareness of just how tired she was. And shame. That, apparently, wasn’t going to wash off in one petty outburst.

“It’s a really nice dress,” she muttered. “I love the way it looks on her. It must feel wonderful to wear.”

Again, Prunikos reacted with that strange, muffled laughter of hers. It made Ifi feel some way.

“She loves it too,” Eusi said, with pride. “And it makes me so happy to see. It was a gift, you know? For our anniversary.”

And there it was again, Ifi’s longing. Longing that she could now name, with absolute precision: those two women sitting close together, one in the other’s hand, bound by care and trust. She skipped another stone, just to keep her hands busy. All her mind could provide now were countless arguments for why she would never have that. They hurt, but mostly just exhausted her.

“I was told it’s pathetic. To want that.”

“Maybe it is,” Eusi shrugged. “Mind, this outfit is based on sketches by sad perverts, itself based on a fashion that rightly went into the landfill of history.”

Hazily, Ifi recalled hearing about that once; those times when the High City’s women quietly revolted against what they were told to wear. It was supposed to be old history now. Yet another reason to add to the long list of her shame.

“But even if it is, then so what?” she added; there was now a warmer note to her words, an almost caring quality to them. Or maybe not almost? Maybe it just was caring after all. "Tell me so, what if it is?"

"Then it's wrong. Then I shouldn't want it."

“So you would rather live play-acting something you're not, just so that others mistake you for not yourself?" Eusia shook her head, hand tenderly stroking her wife's side. "You can go far on pretending, but mostly to an unhappy grave. If Pris could talk right now, she’d tell you a thing or two about it.”

The last point made Ifi pause. She turned around on suspicion, but in the dark it was difficult to tell, especially with the taller woman’s neck being completely covered. Still, the hunch made a lot of sense, between her rough features and masculine frame. She exhaled, calming her nerves a bit; it was worth the risk. Being right about things made her feel big.

“If it is her voice,” she said, trying to keep her own level, “I’ve worked with elixir women before. There are some little-known formulas that will work even on such larynxes,” it was always a dangerous ground, talking about those things. Hopefully, she wouldn’t trip any traps like that. “They should easily make her sound feminine, and with barely any side-effects. I could mix you up an elixir like that, and...”

In the dim light, she saw Eusi smile, for the first time in the evening more awkwardly than confidently.

“First of all,” she said, voice at the edge of a giggle, constantly glancing at her stoically-still wife, “no, she can’t talk not because she is that conscious of her ‘unfeminized’ voice, but because there is a gag stuffed all the way to her throat.”

Ifi gulped, the mental image was almost too much to handle.

“Second,” Eusi continued, “it’s really rude to point it out like that, unprompted. And third,” she added quickly, before the alchemist could apologize, “yes, I think we’ll take you on that offer. What do you think, Pris?”

The tall woman leaned forward, giving her wife a nod with her entire upper body. Ifi breathed out, a little bit relieved. She stood up from the gravel, to sit back down on the bench. Cool or not, it was a pleasant night after all.

Up until the flame opened the sky, and the looming shadow of the High City above was wreathed in a corona red flame.

“Ah,” Eusie whispered with terrifying softness as the bells of the city rang the alarm. “There it goes."

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