Sancia stood in the shadow near the corner of an alley, watching patrons come and go from the shop across the way. She didn't have any real reason to be hiding like this—in fact, with Berenice's clever scrived mask which obscured her identity she could come and go as she pleased on the Dandolo campo—but keeping to the shadows had been second nature for so long that it was hard to break the habit.
A woman came toward the shop, a servant burdened down with packages trailing in her wake. The woman stopped in front of the display window to browse the wares, and her mouth twisted into a thoughtful purse. Sancia's mouth twisted as well, for a different reason. Display cases were so risky. Even with glass scrived to be unbreakable, the practice advertised what items were available to steal.
With a tilt of her head, the woman decided to go inside the shop, and that was enough to make Sancia turn and start to walk away. "There are plenty of places to buy clothes in the Commons," she muttered.
A hand at her back stopped her. "But there are no clothes so fine as the ones from this shop, I promise you."
Sancia paused, and then she looked over her shoulder at Berenice. She didn't look like Berenice, the scrived mask showing a face much older and pinched than Berenice's youthful one, but she could imagine Berenice making the same expression. "I could hire a seamstress."
"There's a seamstress in there," Berenice pointed out. "And every girl deserves to have beautiful clothes that fit her at least once in her life. Plus," she added with a cheeky smile, “You need something to wear for our date next week."
Sancia looked down at the clothes she was wearing, pulling at the hems to adjust them now that she was reminded how badly they fit. They belonged to Berenice, and since they were quite different in body shape and height, this dress was rather looser here, tighter there than it had looked when Berenice had it on. "All right, you win." After all, there was no reason now that she couldn't buy a whole wardrobe full of beautiful clothes that fit, since she no longer suffered from constantly sensing the nature of every item she touched. "I do have the money now." And Berenice had promised to show her all the things she had been missing, now that the plate in Sancia's head was transformed and under her own control.
A bell tinkled as they entered the shop, and the owner, who was showing fabric to the woman who had entered the shop before them, looked up. After glancing between them, she addressed Berenice. "How may I help you?" Sancia understood why; her own mask made her appear slightly younger than she actually was, a shy and proper ward at that.
"We're here for a new dress," Berenice said, even her voice sounding different in the character she was playing. "Something sturdy yet still fashionable."
"For the young lady?"
"Yes, of course." Berenice looked over the other customer and her overworked servant with disdain. "And we'd like to be seen to right away."
The woman straightened herself with a huff. "Excuse me, she is assisting me at the moment!"
"Oh, that's too bad," Berenice said, lifting her coin purse, then dropping it so that all could hear the weight of the coins within. "I suppose we'll have to go to Sophia's instead." Berenice took Sancia by the elbow and led her a few steps to the door. "Come, dear."
The shopkeeper called out, "I will be done very soon, or—please wait, just one moment!" Her tone changed from desperation to obsequiousness. "Perhaps you could return when you have made a decision. You have seen every fabric I have. But I am expecting a new shipment next week. Many fine exotic silks. I could send word?"
With Berenice's back to the counter, the shopkeeper didn't see Berenice's satisfied smile.
The other customer sniffed. "Yes, I think that would be best. Perhaps one of the new fabrics will be more to my taste."
When they were alone with the shopkeeper, Sancia immediately felt in over her head. There were too many colors, styles, weights, weaves to choose from. And none of these bolts of cloth were scrived, so there was little to be gained by turning on her new power. She had never done more than choose an ensemble that would help her blend in and do the job. She sighed and pleaded with Berenice, "Help me choose... Auntie."
Berenice smirked. They hadn't decided on cover stories. Why would they, just to go clothes shopping? "I think blue would suit your coloring well. Maybe this print," she held out one of the choices, something extremely soft to the touch under Sancia’s fingers, "with a darker shade for contrast." She also chose a couple of fabrics in shades of green for a second dress.
The shopkeeper nodded then showed them a book of drawings of various styles. Sancia gave Berenice a helpless look. She'd never really paid any attention to what women wore. What she preferred to wear was comfortable and functional—she'd never had a thought for style. Berenice pointed to a couple of drawings that were far more elegant than anything Sancia would have chosen for herself.
"Excellent choices," the shopkeeper said. "Now let's get your measurements, miss."
She was led back behind a screen and asked if she needed help to strip down to her undergarments. Sancia shot Berenice a look of panic. "Don't be so skittish," Berenice admonished. "You act as if you've never been fitted for a dress before."
She hadn't, and Berenice knew that, but she was right, they should be protecting their cover, not standing out in any way. As new Founders of Foundryside Limited, Tevanne's latest House, they weren't on the best terms with any of the established Houses. Being on the Dandolo campo was a definite risk.
However, despite Berenice having seen her in all states of wear and tear, bloodied or not, having her watch Sancia remove her clothes felt... intimate. It was only a few days ago that they had kissed for the first time. Her face began to heat. But a niece would not balk in the same situation, would she? So she straightened and looked Berenice directly in the eyes—or really, the eyes of the mask—as she allowed the shopkeeper to begin undoing the row of buttons down the back of her dress. If she had been wearing her own face, Sancia wasn't sure she could have been as strong.
This time, Berenice blushed.
The shopkeeper noticed none of this, which was just fine by Sancia. She finished the buttons and peeled the bodice from Sancia's chest and arms. She should have been focusing on how strange it felt to have another person so close and not be overwhelmed by that hot cloud of impulses and neuroses from another person’s mind, or the light touches as the nimble fingers brushed her skin, but all she could see was Berenice and the way she was slowly beginning to squirm as she watched. It felt like a game of who-will-look-away-first.
The shopkeeper started on the skirt, unhooking and pulling it down her legs, which was not a smooth process—the smaller waist caught on her larger hips. Then the shopkeeper got it over with a firm tug, and she was left with only her breeches on.
Berenice blushed harder, coughed and then turned away. "I think I will peruse the other articles for sale," she said, voice a little hoarse. "Call me if you need me, dear."
"Yes, Auntie." Sancia smiled, pleased and proud that she had won, not only the game-that-was-not-a-game, but the interest and affection of someone as clever as Berenice.
She tried to act nonchalant as the measuring tape circled her chest, her waist, her hips, the length of her arm and the breadth of her shoulders. She tried not to yelp when her inseam was measured. "There," the shopkeeper said when it was finally done. She pitched her voice to carry. "The dresses should be ready in ten days. I trust that will be all right?"
"Can they be done in five?" Berenice asked, authority creeping into her voice. The sound was rather... thrilling. "I can make it worth your while."
Five days. Only five days until she would wear something made just for her. Something that would likely feel smooth and lovely on the skin, not layered with the history of all the hands that had touched it. Five days until the fine dinner Berenice had promised. She could still feel Berenice's breath in her ear. "A meal fit for a Founder and her beloved." She shivered at the memory.
She redressed with the help of the shopkeeper, and the two were mostly silent on the way back to the Commons. They crossed through the gate with a touch of her hand and mental instructions to the lock—this one was used to her commands, and barely needed coaxing. Once on the other side, they picked their way through the muddy streets and around the corner, out of sight of the tall campo walls. With a long release of held-in breath, Sancia removed her mask. The Commons was home. This is where she felt comfortable, where she belonged. And one day, with Foundryside Limited's help, it would rise to the prosperity of the campos.
Berenice dropped her mask, too, and all of the haughtiness that went with it. She gave Sancia a quick kiss on the cheek. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
"No," Sancia agreed. "But I still think we could have had dresses made here, and for a fraction of the cost."
Sancia leaned over to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. "It wouldn't have been as much fun, though." Then she led Sancia back toward their compound, their fingers entwined. As she walked, Sancia wasn't sure if the hot spot on her cheek or the smooth fingers between hers were more distracting.
Sancia regarded the contraption with an unsure glance. "You’re positive I need one of these?"
"Yes." Berenice was firm.
"But I'm clean enough now, aren't I?" She'd had several sponge baths, even washed her hair with soap and rinsed it out by pouring a bucket of water over her head. Once she'd worked up the nerve to just... let water pour all over her, she found the results afterward were pleasant. But this? This didn't seem necessary at all.
"Yes, you're clean enough, Sancia. This... isn't just to get clean. it's..." She put an arm around Sancia's shoulders. "You'll see."
She trusted Berenice, trusted her implicitly. But she hesitated a moment and tensed the muscle in her forehead that activated her power. Scrivings blazed to life all along the edges of the porcelain basin, instructions for heating and cooling and agitating (she wasn't sure why that was needed). She knew what it was supposed to do, but still. All that water. Just for sitting in.
Berenice led her over to the tub and started to pick up several bottles which were placed along the edge. "This one is for cleaning, this one is to soften your skin, this one makes the water smell nice, and you, too," she added with a wink, "and this one makes the water all foamy."
"Foamy?" Sancia wrinkled her nose. "Like the sea?" That didn't sound pleasant.
"Sort of. You don't have to use that one, if you don't want to. Or any of them. Just soaking in the hot water is nice on its own."
"If you say so," Sancia said.
Berenice walked over to the side and pointed to dials which activated different scrivings. "I've already heated it up to a temperature I like, but if you need it warmer or cooler, you can just—" She stopped, then grimaced self-consciously. "Why am I explaining this to you? You can already see what the scrivings do."
Sancia nudged her with an elbow. "I don’t mind. I like it when you explain things." With a grin, she added, "I like the sound of your voice, even if I sometimes tune out the words."
Berenice let out a laugh and gave her a playful slap on the shoulder. "I'll leave you alone so you can bathe in peace." She glanced at the water enviously, then tossed Sancia a cheeky look. "This time."
Before Sancia could react, Berenice was gone, closing the door behind her with a gentle click. She stared at the water and the scrivings around the controls for a few minutes. She knew she was stalling, but all... that... water. The only times she'd been immersed in water were really scrumming unpleasant. Like the times she'd had to swim from the dock to a ship she was robbing and she felt every living creature for yards around her, including ones too tiny to see, and all the waste that got dumped into the water, human or otherwise. Or the times she'd crawled through the sewers, which was a million times worse.
This water looked clean, clear to the eye, though she was sure the tiny creatures were probably still inhabiting it, unless they'd been boiled away by the heat.
But she trusted Berenice. She owed it to her to at least try it. She relaxed the muscle in her head to make the scrivings fade and dipped her fingers just under the water. Warm, not too warm, and... just wet. No other sensations or images assaulting her. She took a deep breath and untied the soft robe she'd borrowed from Berenice, letting it fall to the floor.
She stepped in slowly, first with just her toes, then her whole foot. She almost drew it out again, because it felt much warmer than it had on her fingers. But she held it there, adjusting to the warmth. And only the warmth. Just as before, there were no other sensations. After years of suffering, she still wasn't used to this new status quo. So she took it carefully, inch by inch, until she was sitting fully inside the tub. She couldn't stretch out her legs, but the water came nearly to her neck. She leaned backward, as she had seen others do when skulking through their houses at night, and closed her eyes.
The warmth seeped into her muscles, relaxing them in a way she'd never experienced before. It wasn't really like sleep, since she'd always slept lightly due to the nature of her old senses and her job. This was better than sleep, because she was fully alert and aware of the sounds of the house around her, but she just... didn't... care.
Ohhh. This was nice.
She didn't know how long she lay there, letting the warmth relax her muscles and her swirling thoughts. At one point, she felt that the water was a little too cool, and somehow the tub sensed that and warmed up again. She hadn't even spoken to it directly. Was that a feature? She stroked a hand along the porcelain. I wonder what "agitate" is for? Suddenly the water began to bubble all around her, and it felt... nice. How strange. Even stranger was that she hadn't touched the dials at all. The tub was responding to her without having to negotiate with it.
she thought, testing her theory. The water agitated faster, making her skin tingle. Oh, this she really liked. Maybe she should try putting the foamy liquid in to see what that was for.
Berenice came running to shouts of "Scrumming bubbles! Stop! Stop!" to find Sancia in shoulder-high foam. She took one look and burst into peals of laughter. Sancia gestured around herself helplessly. "It keeps growing!"
Berenice tried to stop laughing, but failed, as she asked, "How much did you use?" She picked up the bottle from the edge of the tub and swished it around. "Oh, no, not half the bottle, no wonder. You only need a few capfuls. Did you turn off the agitator?"
"Is that what...?" Sancia dipped down inside the bubbles to touch the side of the tub. Then, "Um. How long until they dissipate?"
"Not long." Sancia could still hear the amusement in her voice.
"Can I just stay down here until they go away?"
The door closed quietly behind Berenice, but she heard Berenice chuckling all the way down the hall.
Sancia stood just outside the doorway and took a deep calming breath. This was it. This was her and Berenice's first... well, not a date exactly. They'd been out to a tavern or two, had a tankard or three of cane wine, and Sancia had tried ale and put it right back down again. Just the smell of whiskey made her whole face twist with disgust. "That smells like warm piss."
"It tastes a lot better," Berenice had promised with a laugh. "It's especially good for when you want to get drunk quickly but still keep your wits about you. Until you pass out."
"If you say so." With the rival Houses still out for Foundryside Limited blood, she wasn't going to test that theory any time soon.
Those little outings had been fun, but nothing serious. This? This was their first special meal together. She peeked around the corner at the table set with food, glistening tableware, a bottle of wine in a scrived chiller, and real candles burning gently. Everything, or at least what she could see, looked beautiful. She could hear someone humming as they worked, just out of sight. Berenice.
Sancia smoothed down the front of her dress, the new blue one that she'd just picked up from the seamstress today. Berenice hadn't seen her in it yet. This would be the first time. She'd had to ask Claudia for help doing up the buttons in the back—what nonsense! With plainer clothes, she'd never needed any help to get dressed before, even when she was pushing through the pain. But once she looked at herself in the mirror—the way the color made her skin seem to glow—she decided it was worth it. Every once in a while.
"Sancia? Is that you?" Berenice asked.
Caught like a second-rate thief. She stepped into view. "I couldn't wait."
Berenice smiled. "Neither could I, to be honest. Come sit." She gestured to a chair on the right.
Sancia settled herself in the chair and pulled it close. "What is—" She gestured at one of the many dishes on the table, then another, then... "—everything?"
"Some of my favorites. Things my mother used to cook when I was growing up." Berenice lifted covers off of various dishes, naming them. "This is fettuccine with garlic cream sauce. This is filet of beef. These are vegetables: eggplant, green beans and onions. There's fresh bread with olive oil and herbs and a nice pinot grigio. Ooh, and panna cotta, you'll like that."
"What if I..." She grimaced, because she knew that Berenice must have put a lot of work into this meal. "What if I don't?"
"Well, then. I guess... Berenice lifted off one last cover. "There's always rice and beans."
Sancia smiled widely. Not because she adored rice and beans, but because Berenice had thought of everything. She clapped her hands together. "What do I start with first?"
Berenice dipped a slice of bread in her oil and took a small bite. "I always start with the bread. You can try it without the oil first, then see how you like it with the oil."
Sancia reached out to take a piece, hesitating before handling it. It was an involuntary reflex, honed after so many years. There were just so many ingredients in bread that just a brush against a loaf hanging out of a baker's stall before had almost dumbfounded her, the assault on her senses was so strong—the wheat's journey from waving in the sun as it grew, the hands that harvested it, the churning of the mill—and that was just the wheat! Add in the yeast and salt and... well, needless to say she'd never eaten it before. That she could remember. She'd blocked out so much of her time as a slave on Silicio. Never enough food, for sure. Looking around again at all these lovingly prepared dishes, with their combinations and their spices.... Just the thought was a little overwhelming.
How long would it be until she was able to pick up anything without having to push past her old fears?
"Is everything okay?" Berenice asked, her eyebrows drawing down into a concerned frown. "Want the rice and beans instead?"
"No. No!" she said, more strongly than she’d intended. "Sorry. I'm just... still getting used to this." She lifted the slice of bread from the basket and quickly bit off a piece before she could second-guess herself. It was soft, chewy, a little bit tangy, and dissolved in the mouth a little. When she swallowed, it went down in a little lump. It tasted... nice. But that was all. No sensations, no images, no history. The rational part of her had known there wouldn't be any, but still.
"Well?" Berenice asked.
"I liked it. Maybe a bit bland?"
"Bread is meant to pair with other things. Sauces, meats, that kind of thing, though lots of people like it plain." She dipped a second piece into her dish. "Try it with the oil."
Sancia did. This bite was very different—the oil had a rich flavor and it coated the tongue in a pleasant way. "Ooh, that's better."
The rest of the meal went much the same way. Sancia would try something, Berenice would suggest other ways to eat it, Sancia would test it for herself. Most things tasted pretty good to her uncultured palate—the pasta was chewy and creamy but the garlic taste filled the mouth in a pleasant way, the meat was chewier and hard to get down unless she took very small bites but did not taste of rot as she remembered, and the vegetables were...
Sancia spit her mouthful back onto the plate. "That tastes scrumming awful!" It was crispy and slimy and spicy—all at the same time.
"Don't hold back on my account." Berenice laughed. "And don't tell my mother!"
Sancia grabbed a glass of water and chugged half of it but she could still taste it. "Ugh ugh ugh. And you say these are some of your favorites?" She swished around another mouthful of water and spit it back out.
"We don't have to like the same things, you know!" She pulled the terrine of disgusting vegetables over beside her and scooped out a large helping onto her plate. Then she took a forkful into her mouth and hummed with pleasure as she chewed and swallowed. "It's natural that you wouldn't like everything. But did you like... anything?" She tilted her head in curiosity.
"The pasta was... nice? I would eat that again."
Berenice shrugged. "That's a start. You ready for dessert?"
Sancia thought about all the dishes still on the table, and how her stomach felt more than satisfied. She'd never eaten this much food in one sitting before. "Eh. No. Will it keep?"
"A few hours, if you want to come back to it."
"That doesn't give us much time."
Berenice's smile grew as she realized Sancia's meaning. "To hell with the panna cotta."
Sancia shivered at the touch of Berenice's lips behind her earlobe. "Do you like this?" Sancia nodded, a small movement. She didn't want Berenice's mouth to lose contact with her skin. "And this?" She kissed down the curve of Sancia's throat.
"Yes," Sancia whispered.
She didn't have to whisper, but it fit with the quiet of the building. She didn't know how Berenice had managed it, but Sancia hadn't heard another person the whole evening. It was just the two of them, on their own little island of calm.
Berenice's mouth reached the edge of the neckline of her dress, and she followed it around, placing light kisses in a half-circle on her skin. Sancia tilted her head back to give her more access, letting out a sigh of pleasure. So far, her only touches had been light ones. And the way they made her felt, little jolts of electricity, Sancia wasn't sure how she was going to handle more.
Maybe the touch of another person felt different than it had before, but her mind was swirling all the same.
The mouth made its way around to the back of the neck, Berenice climbed onto the bed behind her as she kissed her way to the top button in the back. "These are really tough to put on by yourself, aren't they?" she said.
"Uh huh." On a normal day, she might have said, 'Scrumming stupid buttons,' but Berenice was trailing one finger across her skin and her world was narrowing to only that.
"They're a pain in the ass to take off, too." She could feel a pull at the fabric and a pop. One button loosened. Berenice kissed the patch of skin now uncovered. "Without help." She loosened another and added another light kiss.
"Oh my God," Sancia breathed. By now, she should be used to her new status quo. That she could touch, taste, drink, wear anything she wanted to now, without the discomfort she used to feel. And Berenice had been with her all the way. So why was this so different? Why was this overwhelming her senses so much? Each touch seemed to radiate outward from the point of contact. Each loosened button, each new patch of skin, each kiss...
With the final button, Berenice reached the small of her back and added a small lick of her tongue to the kiss. Sancia gasped.
Berenice stopped immediately. "What's wrong?" She sat up and put her hand on Sancia's shoulder, on the fabric-covered part. "Did you... feel that?"
"Yes," she began, then quickly said, "No. Not feel like I used to feel, but the sensations are just so... strong."
"Too strong?" There was a touch of worry in Berenice's voice.
"Bad strong?" Now it was insecurity.
She turned to look her in the eyes. "No." Placing her hand on top of Berenice's, she gave it a squeeze. "It feels amazing. I've never experienced anything like this before, I've never let anyone touch me like this. Is it supposed to tingle all over and make your insides clench and sort of, glow? Maybe I wasn't ready after all—"
"I think what you're feeling is arousal."
"Is that what it is?" If that feeling was why men were always trying to find places to stick their candle, it was a wonder anything in the world ever got done at all.
"I hope so, anyway." Berenice used her hand to slide the fabric from Sancia's shoulder, then kissed the exposed skin. "I can go slower if you like."
"O-okay." It was getting difficult to speak again.
Berenice's hands slowly pulled down the bodice, kissing and caressing each inch of bared skin. She helped remove Sancia's arms from the sleeves, kissing her elbows, even the tender skin in the inside of her elbows. Berenice removed her hands and mouth for a moment and the ghost of their touch lingered on the surface of Sancia’s skin. When they faded she almost called out in loss, but then Berenice’s hands were back, fingers coated in something warm and liquid.
"Scented oil. Kept warm in a scrived bottle. It works similarly to the bath."
She had a stray thought that she wanted turn her head to read the scrivings, to see how they were formulated...
But the sensation of Berenice's fingers massaging and caressing made the thought fly away for another time. "Wow. I would pay for this. Do people pay for this?"
"Mm hmm," Berenice said. And then her fingers began to trace patterns on Sancia’s back, swirling loops and curves. Her muscles relaxed and the warmed and the feeling spread throughout her body.
"What... are you... doing...?"
"Do you like it?"
Speech didn't really communicate what she wanted to say, so Sancia just moaned.
"I'm drawing the scrivings for relaxation on your back. Just for a lark, really. I know it doesn't work that way, but..."
"Oh, it's working, believe me."
"Really?" Berenice's fingers stopped moving, and her voice got the tone it often had when she was testing out a new theory in the workshop. "But it's just oil. Not molten metal. I suppose that by drawing scrivings on an already scrived human, it might not matter what is us—"
"Berenice?" Sancia interrupted.
She turned toward Berenice to see that some time since they began, Berenice had also loosened her bodice. It pooled in her lap, leaving her breasts bare. Sancia's mouth went dry, and the warmth inside her stoked higher. "Not now."
Sancia placed her hands on Berenice's waist and pulled her close, her mouth capturing Berenice's in a deep kiss. Berenice's hands came up to tangle in her hair. "I wondered when you were going to join in the fun," Berenice said when Sancia gave her a chance to breathe.
The sunlight filtering through the curtains woke Sancia, and it took a moment for her to recognize where she was. For one, her room had no curtains. Two, she was completely nude, rather than in her well-worn clothing. Three, she was nestled between sheets so soft she was sure they were scrived to be so, instead of her plain pallet. And four, a warm body pressed against her from behind, one arm thrown across her stomach, the feeling and sound of regular breathing almost lulling Sancia back to sleep.
She closed her eyes to enjoy it, the sated feeling of her muscles, the comfort of the quiet room, the company of the woman she loved.
Her eyes shot open. She hadn't said that aloud, hadn't even thought that intentionally. They'd really only known each other a matter of days, and she was in love?
And then she thought about the past week, the way Berenice had held her hand, showed her all the things she'd been missing, all the feelings she had avoided, all the experiences yet to come. Like last night. She hoped there would be many more nights like that one.
Berenice stirred beside her. "Nnnn. Sancia, are you awake?"
"Just a little." She was a light sleeper, but last night she'd slept better than she ever remembered. "Maybe we should get up. Didn't you want to test that—"
Berenice pulled her closer, wrapping both arms around her. "No. The world can wait for us a little longer, love."
Love? Sancia smiled and snuggled in closer. "Okay." She hoped there would be many more mornings like this one, too.