There are stories, of course, about the Sisters of Mercy. The disappearing bodies, the unmarked graves, but the way I figure it, Mercy is right there in the title. Honestly, what it comes down to is they provide a much-needed service in the Slags. If that means that every now and then some girl gets in the family way that doesn’t want to be or some thief goes about robbing the wrong girl, well, who am I to complain when another waste of skin ends up floating up north to the Hollow Sea? It ain’t too much to ask that we swell their numbers enough to get more patrols out there on the streets, is it? Sometimes, and I guess by “sometimes” I’m meaning “always”, it can get hairy out there for a single lady without an armed escort. I do my damndest to stay in the lamplight, or in my little apartment when I’m not on duty, but there’s only so much a body can do before it needs a good stretch in the out-of-doors. Certainly can’t be expected to stay cooped up like some unthinking hen all day and night without going a bit soft in the head.
It’s a short walk from the wharf to the Sister’s main HQ, if you can call it that. Ostensibly, it’s a cathedral to Zay, all gleaming purple and gold, but it seems to more of a shrine to the Lady’s Shadow than her green-glowing light. But that’s the thing about light, isn’t it? It just makes the shadows at the edges all that darker, and it ruins the night vision. To walk in shadows here, at the fringe of the Empire’s heart, well, that’s a luxury I know I couldn’t afford if I wanted it. And I do want it, now and then, when it’s a long day over the sheets and there seems to be no shortage of girls getting off first or second or third watch and your jaw is sore and your thighs are cramping and you just can’t bring yourself to bite one more hairy cunt, well hells, that’s just about when a girl wants to call it a life and be done with it. Don’t get me wrong, the money is good and the work is usually a blessing, what with the nonstop fucking, but sometimes, I wonder. I wonder what else I might have aptitude at that doesn’t involve how deeply I can shove my tongue without choking, or how hard I can swing the chastening rod without spraining my shoulder. I love my god and my country, but I hear tell that the Mad God out in the Forsaken wastes has pretty good taste in ladies, Himself. They say the city is all volcanic glass and the fog is like incense, driving anyone who breathes it to vice and worse. It’d be a good vacation, at least.
But there’s the cathedral, Mater Noster, in all her shiny glory. And here I am, another penitent climbing the three hundred thirty-three steps to seek aide at the great doors. I’ve only scoped the place in passing, never bothered to investigate it much aside from the cursory glance now and then on my way to and from the market square. I never realized the great doors were living wood. Even now, on this slow, and let’s be honest, wind-taking approach up the great staircase, it’s possible to make out the writhing vines and beating heartwood. There’s always rumours, you know, about the gods and their magics, but this one seems legit enough. It’s said that the doors only open for those with a true need, and the Lady knows I have need of it now. But does it cancel out, I wonder, if your need runs contrary to whatever inner workings of the Empire have ended my slow day with a corpse in my bed, well, will She still send you aide? Isn’t the Empire working at Her will? I thought the Greatmothers all gathered in that inner council chamber whateveritis and received the goddess Herself. Then again, I ain’t seen her, so it could be a scam for all I know. It doesn’t pay to be an anti-theist in these parts, but then again, it doesn’t seem much good comes to the holier-than-thous either. Least not as I seen it.
I have to catch my breath at the top with the rest of these grubby fucks. I’ve taken my ease on one of the looming emerald columns, and get a chance to survey my competitioners. A flock of thirty seem to be all together here, or that’s what the matching robes say. Pilgrims, probably, from outside the Greatwood. For all the shady goings on, Mater Noster is still one of the prime destinations for anyone trying to suck up to Zay. They sell relics beside the huge doors for those who can’t make it inside. A good scam, if not a bit transparent. But these holy types have more cents than sense and you know what they say about money and the foolish. They’ll probably get a finger bone or hair clipping from Sancta Agathe or one of the other Matron saints. By the smell wafting downwind of that lot, they wouldn’t be amiss stopping by Sancta Therma’s baths down the main way. That’s the thing with pilgrims. So caught up in winning holiness points they lose track of how to be human, or at least, a human you want to be around.
There’s a few others waiting their turn, but nothing like that gaggle of glassy eyed women, begging favour. There’s a commotion, isn’t there always, and what I figure must be the leader of the pack starts her rambling in tongues. Hue and cry. Hue and cry. The lot of them fan out, calling up to the great World Tree, begging for alms from heaven. And here’s me, cutting in line past the hysterics, and rolling up sideways to the great ash doorway. There’s a Mother here, in some fine purple robes that must have set the coffers back a bit in tax revenue. She smiles pleasantly enough, or at least she bares her soot-black teeth in a friendly way. But her eyes, black as they are, they’re anything but smiling. It’s a front, like the rest of this reeking city, a pretty face and a rotting brain. But I do my best curtsy and indicate that I am very much not with the freakshow going on arrears.
“Welcome, Child Lovelace.” She speaks my name, and I am frozen, rigid with a touch of moonstroke. She looks like she’s used to this kind of response, face calm as a dreamer, and places a freezing cold hand on my bare right shoulder. “The Mother speaks, and we obey. Come, enter here, and find the needful things you seek.”
And just like that I can move again, and she leads me inside, through a smaller door, hidden beside the massive woodwork, and does her best to prove my point. Give the people enough pomp and they won’t notice the knothole that’s the real thing. You have to sell the glamour. That’s what us smallfolk crave, isn’t it? Of course, a glamour is just the thing I need. And here’s hoping Zay put in a good word for me with the Sisters, or this day is going to get even worse in a hurry.