Part 99: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 6The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 6
"I love you, Deionarra."
The words had been chosen with surgical precision, pressed into the back of the pale woman he now holds. He slides the false confession in firmly, and the flesh gives way so that he might carve his name across her soul.
If only he had one.
She sighs as her arms twine around a body bedizened with scars, her limbs serpentine and draped in diaphanous blue like the crests of the ocean. She murmurs warm thanks into his ear, hot tears of relief and joy press against his skin. She doesn't notice the chill of his heart, or how his icy blood pours sluggishly through his veins.
The dagger slides deeper through flesh and parting sinew, and she embraces the gesture, clinging to him, fingers digging deep into his flesh.
"I love you, Deionarra."
The barbed words snag her heart like the end of a hook.
Ashen time rains down on us in gray-white flakes, and the desolate ground rumbles in its repose. They clamber from the pale wasteland: rotting shades with skin of black smoke, talons thirsty for vengeance. Around us the forms rise, arrayed in cloaks of ash and claws clicking with sharp corporeality. Deionarra grows cold and light, fading in my embrace. Pallid skin and azure gown brush against me one last time and vanish, like the touch of a fickle breeze.
Somehow, that terrifies me even more.
"I will wait for you in death's halls, my love..."
The claws of the once-human beasts rattle against one another. Muted footsteps drum to life their approach with cold, unyielding purpose.
The horror writhes inside me. My legs turn stiff, my belly churns and boils. I do not want them to touch me.
Somewhere in the distance, I hear the cackling of an old crone as the shades edge closer.
My eyes open to dull, brazier-lit room.
It had been one of those nightmares that would've had anyone bolting from their sheets, gulping down air as the cold sweat clings to their skin. I just lay back, staring at the ceiling in cold apathy until a familiar rattle of teeth was at my side.
"Well there you are, chief. We've been ready for an hour now."
"Bad timing, Morte."
"What? You said to wake you up at first light. Just, you know... you haven't been sleeping right lately."
"No, not you. I was talking about dreams."
Morte was already tugging the blankets off with his teeth, but he muttered through the cloth nonetheless, "Hrmph. You make less sense than the gith sometimes, ya know?"
In a half an hour the forges would be ringing with the clangor of the newly initiated Godsmen's toil, and the toxic scent of searing metal would be dancing in the air. It had been two weeks since I came across that sensory stone, and I hadn't been to the Festhall since. It was afterward that I realized that the amnesia was, in some ways, a blessing... scars across the skin might be of little consequence, but the raking wounds across the soul piled over one another would've bled out my sanity long ago.
"I hate sleep."
"Hey if I had a body I'd be on my back for well over eight hours a day, chief. Speaking of which, the succubus must've been waiting for us for a while now."
Dak'kon was at my side like always, and a pallet had been set up in my quarters. It was a simple matter to collect Ignus... the old mage was easily entranced by the fires blazing around crucibles and within kilns in the forge. Annah preferred renting out an attic, a different one every few nights. Perhaps she had picked up on my mood, but she had always been more comfortable in a little squalor, and with the freedom to move from place to place so no one could find her unless she wanted to be found.
It was thief's habits, or an alley-runner's.
Grace, however, merely smiled politely and maintained that she would be staying at the Festhall. A way to coax me back, I suppose, saying she would always be there for me. No Sensate would be put off by any experience, and it was with some chagrin that I needed this much time to myself.
I idly knocked a fist against the stone buildings as I continued up through the Clerk's Ward.
Once the last vestiges of the dream faded from memory though, the workings of the day snagged my attention. In particular, a woman decked in red who strode down the street. She walked with a failed attempt to turn her drunken steps into a graceful sashay, and the smell of alcohol wafted heavily from her. Despite her dark skin, the woman's face - beautiful, but cruel-looking - was flushed. She was slender but well-muscled, adorned in exotic jewelry and translucent silk clothing. Numerous scars crisscrossed her thighs and forearms; they looked to be from battle-wounds.
With a purse of her lips she stopped, hands on her waist and nose upturned as her eyes crawled along Annah, up from her tail to her eyes.
"Well, well... what have we here? A little tiefling gutter-queen, come crawling out of the Hive?" The woman pouted, talking as one would to a small child. "Are you lost, little tiefling? Oh, look! It has a tail! How...cute!"
Annah flushed, and with a snarl, blades sprouted from her fists.
"Now, fiend-kin, don't do that," The woman seemed unconcerned as Annah drew her weapons, and clucked disapprovingly with her tongue. "Careful now, or I'll remove that tail of your and feed it to my dogs."
I was not about to get between the two of them.
"Yeh have a sharp tongue on yeh, wee lass." Annah spat and sharpened her blades against each other. "I wonder how sweet yer tacky jewels an' harlot's clothes'll look on yeh when ye're dead in the street!"
"You filthy spawn of the Lower Planes, a bitch-bastard that not even a tanar'ri would keep in its pen!" the drunken woman drew her blade, and the two men with her, rugged if a little too rich-looking for pub-crawlers, placed hands on the hilts of their swords.
I put a hand on Annah's shoulder, and her gaze snapped to mine in a way that said she wanted to plunge one of those daggers into me if I got into her business. She would've done it, too, but by the look of the four of us we would be standing together. Ignus merely floated, watching.
I stepped forward, my voice a low growl. "Sheathe that blade, girl, or I'll sheathe it in your body."
"What foul thing gave birth to you, sirrah?" She grimaced in disgust, then laughed harshly. "And such a stench! Be you one of death's bastards?"
Morte looked to me hopefully, "Want me to slap this barmy chit down, chief?"
"Show no mercy, Morte."
This was going to be beautiful.
Morte winked at me and called to the woman: "Hey, you! That's right, you there, you saucy little tart... look at me when I talk to you! What's got you so bitter, hmm?"
The woman, caught off guard, didn't reply. She only stared at the floating skull that suddenly popped out to dance around her and jeer.
"Aw, does the little Desert Princess have her britches in a bunch because the Sultan wanted another son? Tell me, 'Desert Princess,' do you spend most of your nights drunken and belligerent, followed about by a handful of leering sycophants, looking in your own pathetic way to justify your existence to a disapproving father?"
"What... who... how dare-" she sputtered, the blood draining from her face.
The two men flanking her glanced at each other and turned pale.
"Do you really think your petty brawling will finally make you feel better about yourself? Feel like you're worth something? Because IT WON'T! If this is your sad little path to feeling better about who you are, I suggest you just give up, go home, and marry off into some courtier's harem!"
Morte turned to me as if she was no longer there. "See, chief, I know what's going to happen here. We all know Morte's right on the ball with this one. But oh, no, proud little Desert Princess, cut down in public, humiliat-"
The woman drew her blade and, snarling like an enraged animal, lunged at Morte.
I caught her hand just as a soft, melodious voice pierced the snarling.
"Young Sarhava? Sarhava Vhjul, could it be you?"
The young woman appeared confused for a moment, then recognized Fall-from-Grace as she stepped down from the entrance to the Festhall, a porcealain cup of tea in one hand and a saucer in the other. Sarhava stepped back and sheathed her blade immediately, startled and abashed. "Mistress Grace! I had not noticed you... only shamefully do I admit this, for your noble appearance would be obvious to even a dullard."
Fall-From-Grace gave the barest of nods and set the cup down on a tray held by one of the servers. Folding her hands in front of her she held herself, statuesque. "Your words are most skillfully chosen, unlike those heard so recently."
"Yes, Mistress... I regret that such words were spoken in your presence." Sarhava bowed her head in shame.
"I regret they were spoken at all." Grace's tone barely changed, but the subtle reprimand seemed to crack the young woman's face like a whip. "It pains to see an old student of mine behaving so..."
"Eh..." She frowned, then regained her composure. "In any event, Mistress, what brings you out of the establishment? Some errand?"
"These are my companions that I am traveling with. I would expect the same courtesy given to them as you have given to me. Such is a hallmark and the responsibility of those... noble-born."
Annah glared at Grace and Sarhava furiously.
Sarhava bowed low. "Then allow me to excuse myself with an apology, Mistress Grace, to you and your companions. My words were ill-chosen. 'Tis the drink that caused me to speak such rubbish, and I am filled with shame for having belittled myself so before my teacher of old." She bowed, turned, and left.
"Wow..." Morte said, ogling, "That was great."
Grace sighed, giving one last glance at her old student. She really did seem disappointed, "The trick is knowing when to prod and when to nudge, Morte, but you did well. As did you, Annah. The individual experiences she had with us will remain with her for a long time, and if she is the Sensate I had hoped she would be... she will learn much from today."
"Well now..." I cleared my throat, "How about we do some shopping to put this behind us?"
Grace smiled. "I would appreciate that very much," she glanced at Annah, who was still glaring at her and looking as if she were ready to chew glass, "In fact, I know just the place.
I walked slowly among the racks and cubbyholes, heavy with silks and satin gowns. This wasn't what I had in mind, but I was more than willing to indulge Fall-From-Grace.
I couldn't see myself in any of these clothes: some were more embroidery than they were cloth, so rich that if I wore one of these coats I would've been gutted for my coin the moment I stepped into the Hive. Even the plainest shirt was good silk, and smelled faintly of sweet cologne. I draped one shirt over my arm, and the light cloth, so comfortable and smooth for anyone else, dragged gently at my puckered scars with an odd tickling sensation.
I didn't think I could ever wear a shirt comfortably. Even if I could, it'd just serve to contrast and enhance the mass of ugly above the collar.
The tailor, a short, heavy-set, middle-aged man was wearing clothes that seemed to be spun of glittering gold. In his hands he held a bolt of cloth strung taught across a wooden frame; embroidering some pattern into the fabric.
The man didn't seem to acknowledge my presence. He continued to work at his embroidery, muttering under his breath... as he sewed, shimmering motes of light sparkled and dropped from the tip of the needle.
"Good sir; did you hear me?"
"Greetings, Master Goncalves," Grace said, accenting her approach with a light flutter of her wings.
Goncalves immediately turned from his work, blinking, and bowed politely to Fall-from-Grace, a gesture she then returned. "Greetings, Lady Grace. How is it that I can help you today? That order is almost complete..."
"There is no need for haste in my request, Master Goncalves; your skill demands time, and no doubt what comes from your hands will be pleasing. I am not here regarding that matter, however. This man here..." Fall-from-Grace bowed to me. "...wished to speak with you for a moment..."
"Of course!" Goncalves turned from her. "And so, sir... what was it you were here to see me about?"
"I had questions..."
"Hmm? I hope 'tis about garments and the like. I shan't answer anything not concerning myself or the store, you know."
I pointed to the bolt of cloth he held, "What were those lights while you were embroidering?"
"That? Nothing, sir, but a bit of the Art, which I at times weave into fabric when the fancy strikes me. Those items which I lavish enchantments upon are my most special creations, and are rarely sold."
"What sort of magical clothes do you have available?"
Goncalves looked me over, frowning. "Nothing that would fit you, that is for certain."
"Nonetheless, I'm curious as to what you have."
Goncalves' stood up and reached under the counter, "It should be understood, good sir, that many of the nobility feel the need to protect themselves. Danger can be found anywhere in the planes, and wealth and influence often is of little use against it. I have shirts of light silk that are as tough as cured leather against blade or hammer, gowns for sorceresses that enhance their spells..."
"And what of- er... chastity bodices?"
Goncalves looked over to Grace, who was feigning interest in a silken scarf, "Ah yes. I've designed near all of Mistress Grace's wardrobe, with no small amount of pride, good sir, though this is one of the few times I've seen her wear that particular piece. It is tough as chain armor, but commissioned so long ago," he frowned at me, "I do hope that this doesn't mean that the Mistress shall be cavorting off to muck about in some forsaken abyss or another."
"I'm afraid we know little of where we shall be going next, Master Goncalves," she said absently.
I nodded, "I don't suppose we could commission you for something with a little more potency to it? Aside from protection, I mean."
Goncalves nodded, "Certainly, good sir. My skills have improved significantly since I completed that particular commission for the Mistress."
"Ah, no need to act the gentleman," Grace said with a smile as I placed my hand on my coin pouch, "I have enough gold for my own pieces. Perhaps everyone else could browse the store for anything that might interest them?"
I blinked. Morte had no body, anything Dak'kon wore would be covered by his armor, and Ignus would have incinerated any cloth wrapped around him. All that remained was...
Fall-From-Grace's coy glance at Annah sealed the deal.
Goncalves glanced up and seemed to see Annah for the first time. Tutting softly, he shook his head. "Lass, what in the maddening winds of Pandemonium has possessed you to dress in such a way?"
Annah looks surprised. "Eh?" Her surprise quickly fell into a frown. "What d'yeh mean?"
He gestured at Annah's outfit. "The leather, miss. The sheer impracticality of it. The emphasis on the bust-line, especially the oh-so-convenient cross-slash across the bodice. Your outfit was obviously designed to placate someone's hormonal urges rather than to keep you comfortable. Even if you are trying to make a statement against authority and decorum like you tieflings tend to do, the message is really harming you in the long run..."
Morte floated close and whispered, "Not me. I can deal. Eh, Chief? Wink-wink, nudge-nudge..."
Goncalves continued to scold Annah. "I mean really, you look more ready for a session at the Festhall than..." He frowned. "By the way, you aren't a Sensate, are you?"
Annah seemed confused. "Nay. Nay, I'm not a Sensate..."
The tailor nodded. "I didn't think so. Not at all. Why don't you let me attire you in something else a little more modest..."
Horrified, Morte leapt into the fray. "No!!! Man, are you mad?! That's barmy talk!"
"Nay, I like these. I donnae need ta worry about th'cold or heat, it's me blood, I think. An' watch th' talk about th' tieflings, aye?"
"As you wish, then, my lady," he shrugged.
Again Grace gave me one of those soft looks, lips slightly pursed, as if expecting a little more.
"Could you perhaps make something for Annah then? In her own style, that is."
Annah furrowed her brow at me skeptically.
I expected the tailor to balk at the suggestion, but he took it in stride, "Perhaps. Enchanted as well, I presume?"
"Of course. She's a skilled... acrobat. Something she could move freely in. That sound good, Annah?"
Annah looked abashed, "Well... aye. Aye, that could fit."
"And armored. I'd hate to see her hurt."
"And make her mams look bigger. But not too top-heavy unless you can do something about her legs too."
"Stow it, skull!" she looked at me with a growl, but beneath her acerbic tone I could tell she was blushing, "I don' need yeh ta tell me what I want, I don't."
I put my hands, "Sure, sure. You tell the man, we'll talk prices afterwards."
Goncalves was a fast worker, and by the time we returned from our afternoon meal he had them laid out on the counter.
"Aren't you going to try it on?" Morte waggled his tongue as he floated around Fall-From-Grace.
She merely smiled, and Dak'kon folded up the chastity bodices in the crook of one arm. The woman had a presence about her, a way of lifting an eyebrow or pursing her lips that made you want to do things for her. You begin to think that a lady like her shouldn't be carrying any burdens.
"I have more than enough faith in Master Goncalves' abilities," Grace said simply, "I trust that they are more than satisfactory."
Annah stepped out from the changing room, posing this way and that, swaying her hips and testing the way the cloth held to her in any way she could. The blue was a nice contrast to her rust-red hair, even if it did seem a little garish.
"Ach, it moves well, it does," Annah said in surprise, "holds nice. Loads o' freedom in this one."
Goncalves nodded, "Oh yes, miss. I can tell you're an... artful one. The freedom of movement should enhance your ability to ply your trade."
She stared at him. Hard. "Aye, and wozzat s'pposed to mean?"
"The other one is more suitable for combat. Stronger protective enchantments had been laid in the cloth, and it should lend some quickness to your wrists."
"I prefer this color, meself," Annah held it up in her hands, turning to look at me. She would never admit that she was fond of pretty things, but I think that was the most gratitude I'd be getting out of her.