Returning to London from the North hardly feels like a homecoming. You linger on the ship, letting your zailors disembark in their cloud of half-nervous, half-relieved chatter; they hate the North, as you do not (will not, cannot), and as a kindness, you will give them a few more days than normal to find cheer and oblivion in the lights of Wolfstack Docks. What you will do for those days, you have not determined. There are many options, both business and pleasure, and yet London seems cold and hollow after your time in the Chapel of Lights.
By the time you reach your townhouse, the imp on your doorstep is almost a pleasant surprise. At first, you think the slumping figure is human -- an unusually portly urchin, say, or the shabby child of shabbier costermongers -- but the lingering scent of brimstone gives away the game. The imp stands up, squinting at you behind his dark spectacles. "It's you, innit? The zee-captain?"
You are not the zee-captain. The zee-captain is dead, and you are but the inheritor of her skin and her mind -- but such points would be lost on imps, and he doesn't wait for an answer in any case. "Lady sent me to find yer. Said t' meet her in her room at the Embassy 'at yer earliest convenience.' She means now. Y'know the way to the Embassy, don't you? I don't have time t' walk yer there." Before you can answer, he's off your steps and down into the street, a child-sized engine of wretchedness on the way to his next errand.
You only know one lady at the Brass Embassy, and when last you spoke, she had seemed quite finished with your company. Perhaps she has business for you, or perhaps she's had a fit of caprice and desires amusement. Perhaps she's been thinking. Perhaps she's reconsidered.
It won't do to hope. No doubt it's business or amusement, but even that is more inviting than an evening in your silent townhouse, applying fruitless revision to unpublishable monographs. You step inside only long enough to deposit your bag in the dusty hallway, and then you begin to trace the Stolen River west, towards the Embassy.
The gleaming warmth of the Brass Embassy is welcoming in a way it could not have been before the Chapel, and the Urbane Devil's smile is bright as he leads you past the foyer and into the tight corridors of the devils' quarters. "You have the glow of the North on you, captain. What a delightfully unorthodox choice our friend has made in you!" When you ask what 'choice,' precisely, she has made, he merely smiles wider. "Oh, you'll see. You'll have a fine appetite for it, I believe. Here we are, then." He raps four times, in precise rhythm, on one of the many anonymous doors. Before it has opened, he is gone.
In the doorway, of course, is the Wistful Deviless. She looks precisely as she did when she left your home all those months ago, time-worn but unaging, and she wears the simple tea-gown from your first meeting on Mount Palmerston. "Captain," she says, her voice as sweet as you remember -- a voice that could almost convince you that she is kind. "My jocular captain. Do come in." Never in your life have you been jocular, and the tiny shard of hope that began to crystallize in your chest is quickly melting, but you step inside anyway.
The chamber beyond is scarcely smaller than her cottage on Mount Palmerston, and she has furnished it with similar comforts: a tea set in black porcelain, a pot of armarillia mushrooms, a dish of writhing snakes. Along her bright brass mantelpiece are decorative bottles in colored glass, each glowing with the light of the soul within. You suppose the collection cheers her. The Wistful Deviless gestures to the table, set for two. "We have so much to talk about! Your journeys, for one. You've taken the final sacrament of the Chapel of Lights, haven't you?"
When you demur, she laughs, a laugh too light and beautiful for something infernal. "Oh, don't be bashful! I can smell the wax, you know. It suits you. There's a lovely clarity in your eyes now, and if you're like the rest of the Drowned Man's celebrants, there's a hunger to match it. You'll be a fantastic moulting-partner."
In all your years at Benthic, studying natural philosophy under the Neath's rather liberal definition of "natural," you have never heard of devils moulting. You ask her what precisely she means, and she guides you to a chair at the table. The wine she pours is human-potable, you realize: Broken Giant, pre-Fall, born from grapes and sunshine. "It's natural you don't know," she begins, "because we don't speak of it. We'd rather humans believe that our bodies are eternal; the thought makes them much more obliging." She uses "they" for humans, you realize, and not "you." Your apotheosis, perhaps, has elevated you in her eyes -- into some sort of equal?
"These bodies don't last forever, though," she continues, "and they shouldn't. I've worn this one since before the revolution, and it's made me restless. Nowhere quite feels like home when you're in a body you should be well rid of. Don't you agree?"
You do. Terribly, you do. Ever since the final sacrament -- the beheading, the casting off of excess flesh, the resurrection in celebrant's wax -- what remains of the captain has lost a very old weariness. She is dead, and what is left of her is alive, is you. If the devils can enact something similar, perhaps this explains their eternal whimsy. Emboldened by epiphany, you say as much, and you suggest, delicately, that perhaps the Wistful Deviless has the right idea. You do not remind her of her moment of melancholy vulnerability, all those months ago, but you allow a few insinuations of the depths of your understanding.
"You're too clever," the Wistful Deviless says, sipping her wine and carefully hiding a wince. "And you're not wrong. The devils of London moult often, by necessity and for fashion, and no doubt they enjoy it. I'm a bit too old for their sport, but I'm not old enough to give up bodies entirely, like the Convention. I'm hopeful one good moult will see me through... but it'll require a thorough ruining of this body to set me free. I need a proper partner for it. It's a bit like undressing; one can do it alone, of course, but it's better with a friend. An intimate friend, if you understand me. Such a friend must be hungry, ideally should be passionate, and can add a delightful frisson if they are angry. I knew you were hungry, captain, well before you gave yourself to the Drowned Man. I saw your passion in your proposal, the last time we spoke, although I laughed then. Is that anger in your eyes now? I do hope so."
You are everything she desires, and somehow, that only makes your growing anger burn brighter. You'd tried to put the marriage proposal behind you as an idiotic impulse, the desperate call of someone whose loneliness had not yet been eaten by the zee, and you had hoped she might forget it and you in turn. Why does she remember? Why did she tease you then, when your desire was earnest, and not now, when it is cut with resentment and smoldering shame? You push yourself away from the table, with a force that shakes the wineglasses, and stand to leave; the Wistful Deviless only watches you, her eyes like embers, her faint smile sliding towards a frown. She's disappointed, and she's beautiful. You can't go.
You still want her, just as you did when you proposed all those months ago, a foolish creature of mortal flesh in love with the unknowable. You want her, and she wants you, if only for a night of what sounds more like murder than romance -- but she wants you. You entertain no hope of love, but you will take your night. You step forward and murmur your agreement like an endearment, and she rises to take your hands in hers. Her grip is firm and hot. "Wonderful. You'll destroy this wretched old thing for me, won't you? Unmake it. I am at your mercy."
You have rarely been accused of mercy, at zee or on land. There have been mentions of diligence, at times even caution, and one of your Benthic lecturers praised your enthusiasm for messy work. This work is likely to be messy, and you are enthusiastic. The Deviless's tea-gown, simple and sturdy, falls readily to the floor, revealing a simple set of chemise and drawers of brilliant blue silk, nigh-apocyanic. You place your hands on the contours of the Deviless's hips, firm flesh under soft silk, as you guide her back towards the wall. "Oh, be gentle with those, will you?" she says, with a smile that would be bashful on any face but a devil's. "They cost me the soul of a rather charming poisoner. I was trying to cheer myself up." You manage a small, appreciative noise as you obey, easing the drawers down her legs before lending a hand with the chemise. There's no need to sully her pretty things.
Exposed at last, the Wistful Deviless's skin is smooth but not soft, the texture of old paper. The shape of her body is human enough, but the details are not; her breasts are featureless, like a dress form's, and they are unyielding to your touch. There must be some note of hesitance in your caresses, for she answers it. "This body wasn't built for seduction. When I served in Hell, we hardly needed such things. Now... well, it's another reason to be rid of it." Even as she speaks, you are reaching between her legs, and the smoothness you find bears out her words. This was not a body built to love.
You are diligent, though, and you are resourceful.
You force the Deviless against the wall, kneel down for a proper working angle, and stroke the smoothness between her legs in a slow, regular rhythm. She half-whimpers, half-yelps, and her face contorts in surprised pleasure. Your fingers quicken, and then you press them in at the center of her cleft, where an entrance might have been on a more obliging body. Her skin parts like paper; beyond it is searing heat and something waxy, like honeycomb. The Wistful Deviless reaches out to take a firm grip on your shoulder. "Yes, darling! Tear me open!"
You press harder, widening the gap to force your hand into her. The wax structures are firm but yielding enough, with persistence; the heat inside her is enough to soften the wax-flesh of your hand and send melting tendrils of warmth up your arm. Will you melt inside her, you half-wonder -- but you ball your hand into a fist and thrust hard. Honeycomb-structures inside her rupture. You are inside her to the elbow, fist unbunching to grab and feel. The Deviless howls, bestial, and digs her nails into your shoulder, searing, scorching --
Hunger flares inside you. Your lean in and kiss the hollow of her stomach, then bite and tear a chunk away. The Deviless tastes like parchment and wax, with a sweetness like honey, but fresher, somehow familiar. A moment later, you realize: honeysuckle. You think of the cottage on Mount Palmerston, the honeysuckle clinging to basalt, the Deviless in the doorway with her parasol. You have loved her from that first meeting, you know. You withdraw your forearm from her depths, the better to grab her and force her back, and take a ravenous bite out of her shoulder. You want to crack her open, devour all the sweetness inside, the honeycombs, the heat. Warming wax pumps through you like blood.
The Deviless lets you go, pushing you gently away from the wall, and smiles. She is composed again, somehow, and you are reminded that she was a guardian of Hell, once. Her delicate hands could undo you easily, if her face and skin and taste had not already done the work. "Don't be greedy, dear," she says. "I want to taste you with this tongue, before I'm free of this body." Her hands, never idle, are unfastening your trousers. "To the bed with you, darling." She guides you, gently but firmly, leading the dance. Her heat is overwhelming, and more of you is softening as you fall onto the Deviless's bed.
The bed is rock-hard, but you hardly care. She's done away with your trousers, now, unbuttoning your blouse; "brass buttons," she purrs. "Always in fine taste." She nudges you down onto your back, sprawled and near-naked, and she descends to your sex. She strokes your inner lips with an inquisitive finger, sending pinpoint bursts of heat and pleasure wherever her fingertip rests, and then she leans in and begins to lick. This is not the soft, gentle pleasure you remember from your few fumbling encounters at Benthic; her tongue is rough, strong and nimble at once, an agile branding-iron leaving its mark upon your skin. The liquid sensation of melting is suffusing your hips, trickling down your legs and up into your abdomen. Hot wax, thin and slick, seeps from you in a memory of human arousal, sending the Deviless into yet stronger ministrations. One sharp fang brushes against your clitoris, sending a jolt of pleasure up what was once your spine, and then the Deviless's tongue delves inside you. Impossibly strong, impossibly dextrous, its every tiny motion liquefies you to the core. Ecstasy rushes through your flesh on the river of melted wax that you are becoming, raw pleasure wicked into your mind, and you shudder. You are in flames, erupting, a brilliant beacon of joy, a candle burning as it was meant to burn. You will melt into the bedclothes, solidify, amalgamate, and care not, for a second apotheosis has come --
And then your vision clears, slowly, and you are limp on the Deviless's bed, still wrapped in the captain's skin. You try, halfheartedly, to move, but the sloshing liquid of your flesh refuses. The Deviless sits upright, hardening wax smearing her face, her smile delicious and predatory. "Oh, my darling. You're molten, aren't you? This won't do." She rises and strides to her mushroom-table, taking up a small pruning knife you hadn't noticed before. It is a delicate instrument, but sharp, gleaming brassily in the light. She places the knife-tip just above her breastbone, only a few inches away from the wound your teeth left, and slices down, between her breasts and down to where a human body would have a navel. Her fingers peel away the skin of her torso, just enough for one hand to reach in and emerge with a lump of brass-golden honeycomb. She returns to the bed and kneels down to stroke your head, teasing the stub of wick at your crown. "Open wide. I still have need of you, and devil's wax will give you the strength to continue. You do want to continue, of course? There is so much left of me to ruin."
You open your mouth obligingly, and she feeds you the honeycomb, the honeysuckle sweetness tempered by a smoky, metallic taste: some deeper ichor of hers, perhaps? Another secret to be discovered? You have barely swallowed when you feel her wax mingling with your own, sending solid tendrils through the melted rivers of your core, rebuilding and fortifying. You try to sit up, and the Deviless gestures for you to stay still, feeding you another chunk of herself. There is another, and another, and soon you can sit properly. Heat still rages inside you, but devil's wax is a sterner thing than the Drowned Man's formulation, and it can bear the flames of a deviless's ardor.
The Deviless kisses you, warm lips still smeared with you. "You're as delicious as I hoped. There are the obvious notes of the North, of course -- void-dust, glim, marsh-water, blood -- but it's mostly old books, solacefruit, and you. Your soul cures the wax most delightfully, my dear."
Your soul? Your soul was departed, you assumed, as part of your transformation in the Chapel. When you say as much, a touch befuddled as you recover your strength, the Deviless shakes her head. "No, I'm afraid it's still there. Were you glad to think yourself free of it?"
In truth, you'd never cared. Even at Benthic, when discussion of abstraction and the properties of the soul was accepted, you'd always preferred more corporeal specimens, and now, what use is such a thing to you? It is an old, vestigial thing, something the Executioner forgot to remove in its departure. You tell the Wistful Deviless that it is neither a pleasant nor unpleasant surprise to have it still... and if she wants it, she might have it. Terribly, impossibly, you trust her.
"Oh!" She beams now, her hand on your head stroking your hair, very nearly tender. "I shall treasure it, my dear, and guard it. But now is not the time. Abstraction will be much more enjoyable once I'm free, I promise you. Shall we resume?"
You shall resume. You rise from the bed, guide her to take your place upon it, and spread open the incision in her chest. Underneath it are the innermost structures of her body: elaborate constructions of delicate wax, gleaming with honey and ichor, studded with tiny ivory-white nodules that might be chunks of devilbone. Were you still the shabbily-dressed Benthic student of your youth, you could have spent hours sketching and documenting the organs and cavities that lay at the heart of a devil, but now you only gauge the damage you've done with fist and teeth. She's right. There's a great deal left of her to ruin, and you are still, eternally, hungry.
You waste no time on tact or delicacy. Urged on by the Deviless's cries of delight and strident encouragements, you tear away glistening handfuls of her innards, feasting with the fury and need of the Drowned Man. The devilbone nodules are firmly inedible ("oh, those," says the Deviless when you try), but the rest slides down your throat and is dissolved within you, a spectrum of flavors and sensation. One ichor, silvery-black, has the taste of sand and armarillia; another, nearly blood-red but flecked with sparkling green particulate, is salt and something tart and stinging. ("Snake-venom," she says. "An acquired taste, I think? But do acquire it, if you like.") You leave her arms, but you delve down into her abdomen and even the thick, dry waxworks of her thighs, toughened by long usage. When you rise at last, sated, her body is flayed and revealed, hollowed and devoured. You are covered in her. The Deviless looks up from from her admiration of your handiwork, her eyes meeting yours before her gaze moves to her clever little knife. "Fantastic," she says. "You've done such marvelous work... but you need to end this, darling. The throat. Cut me free of this husk."
You hardly pause. You take the knife in your hand, thinking of your own ending-beginning, and lean in close to slice through her throat. Her neck is hollow, parting easily under the blade, and soon the Deviless's body is neatly beheaded. There is a shudder of motion from the severed head, and a dark shape emerges from the wound, unfurling zee-black membraneous wings. You remember Mount Palmerston again, and you understand. This is the Deviless free, the Deviless as she truly is: a bee a bit longer than your palm, black iridescent chitin shimmering in tones of gold and red, the vast facets of her eyes searching as she ascends to meet your gaze again.
You had not expected her to speak, let alone speak as she does: in a voice that, however droning, is very much her own. "My darling, my darling, my darling," says the bee-Deviless, voice echoing in the brass. "You've done it. At lazzt, at lazzt, at lazzt. To be free of encumbranze... the new body'll be lighter, I think. Ah, but I digrezz. There is still, of course, the matter of your zoul. Open your mouth, dear."
A rational woman would run screaming, but a rational woman would never have done the things you have done. You open wide, and your beloved buzzes into your mouth and down your throat. The thrashing of wings in the still-soft wax of your core sends tremors of impossible pleasure through you, mad thoughts saturating your mind of the Deviless living within you, carving a home out of you, a communion to last until the captain's skin is ruined, or longer... but too soon, the fluttering and thrashing moves into your throat again, and the Deviless emerges. She is coated in you, and wrapped around her clever stinger is a faintly glowing, wax-encrusted shape. You had never expected to see your soul, and now it seems a sad thing, an anticlimax. Who was to know?
"In my dezzk drawer," says the Deviless. "There's a proper bottle there. I was zzzaving it for you." She leads you there, and you retrieve the bottle, a fine specimen of blown ruby glass with a golden stopper. You unstopper it, and she deposits your sodden soul there, where it leaves streaks of wax along the sides of its enclosure. "Zet it on the desk," the Deviless says, and you obey. "Ah, yes. Thizz one was worth the wait. I may clean it... but there iz much to be done. Pray, my darling, leave me to my work."
You are dismissed, and even in the smoldering warmth of your satisfaction, that dismissal has the power to sting. You dress as quickly as your fumbling, half-cooled fingers will allow, and you see yourself to the door. The Deviless does not say goodbye, and there is no Urbane Devil to see you out of the Embassy. You walk home, inevitably, alone.
The remainder of your time ashore is spent in your study, designing an anatomical cabinet and trying not to let your mind linger. You told yourself you would accept only a single night of passion -- and what passion! Why do you still feel disappointed? Is it the absence of your soul? A day of research at the University library is inconclusive. Abstraction can come with remorse, of course, but you suspect your grief is an older and simpler thing.
Once your zailors are ready, you return to the zee, as you always will. This trip will be simple business, and if the Sigil-Eaten Navigator smiles at you knowingly from time to time, you do not acknowledge it. Trade is profitable along the southern coast of the Unterzee, and a relaxed pace keeps your zailors content. The only disruption in your trade circuit comes when, after a night in Port Carnelian, one zailor announces his intent to stay. A night of drinking with a widowed shipwright has led to an engagement, it would seem. You are not such a cruel captain as to refuse his release, and if something twinges in your chest when you and your crew toast the health of their ex-shipmate and his groom, you would never admit such a thing. May they be happy, as you will never be.
As you watch the zee at night, you tell yourself that the Deviless was another brief encounter, nothing more. Even before you were wax and skin and hunger, you were not meant for real love. You thought you'd learned that at school, with the few kind girls who'd taken you home out of pity and how they were less kind when they received your paper flowers and dance invitations later on. The Wistful Deviless could not possibly have pitied you, but you were a night's diversion for her, a useful servant. No doubt your soul has already been spent on another set of silk undergarments. You dared to hope, and to give a gift, and you were once again fooled. You have little left to give, and you will not be fooled again.
At last, you can delay return to London no further. Your sailors have full pockets and strong spirits, and you expect there might be a few more engagements declared before your next voyage. No matter. Zailors will always replace them, and you will return to the oblivion of the zee, the oblivion that has never rejected you. You return, with slow funereal steps, to your townhouse.
There is a brass-edged invitation on the hall table. It's from her.
You know you shouldn't go, and yet your curiosity drives you there, as fatal as ever. This time you wave away the Urbane Devil and follow the path to her door from memory. You replicate the devil's knock and wait. The door opens.
The Wistful Deviless's new body is very much like her old one, but there is a newfound vibrancy to her features, a shockingly human-like gloss to her skin. She looks replete, you think, remembering the Elder Continent and the glowing good health of its cannibal-feasters. "Darling," she says, and takes your hand with surprising gentleness. "You've returned."
You let her lead you inside. The table is set, once again, with wine for two; her bedclothes have changed, but very little else has. Your eyes search the mantelpiece, where your soul conspicuously does not sit. Your face slips, and when you realize she's staring at you, her face slips too. "... no," she says, softly, hesitantly. "It's not like that. It's..." She lets your hand drop and steps to her bed, sliding her man-skin valise out from underneath it. You remember that silly little man-skin valise, from more hopeful times, and you watch her open the latches with a touch of wistfulness of your own.
Inside, glowing in its ruby-glass prison, is your soul. True to her word, the Deviless has cleaned it of its wax; it's bright, now, and oddly pleasant to look upon. "I don't dare keep it on the mantel," the Deviless says. "Visitors might make offers, and some of them find it terribly rude if you tell them you're intending to keep one to yourself. It's safe with me, darling. You'll always be safe here."
You are without words. Hope has returned, unbidden, undaunted. It could be a trick, a particularly long confidence game, but why would she? There's nothing else the Deviless could want to take from you. Can devils even be sincere? Have you, somehow, found one?
You thank her. You thank her in too many words, letting your own sincerity bubble to the surface in long sentences of anguished hope, and when she offers you a glass of wine, you drink it to silence yourself. It's Broken Giant. Next time, you think, you'll ask for a sample of amanita sherry. You don't have anything to fear.
"Darling," the Deviless says, "I won't ask you to trust me. I know you're not a fool. Simply stay a while with me and enjoy my company. I'd hoped to show you this new body. I've made some much-needed improvements, and I hope you might enjoy them. Although, ah... this time, I'd prefer something a bit less destructive. My captain, can you be gentle with me?"
You don't know, truly, but you take the Deviless in your arm and kiss the soft newness of her neck. For her, you'll try anything, even gentleness. In her sanctum and her embrace, you are safe at last.