1: The Glass Rod

Arlene's last customer of the day is anxious and uneasy as she sits in her chair, her arm locked into place on the worktable. Far too late to turn back, and yet—

"A-are you sure this is safe?"

She can't help but notice the customer's sweat, so laden with fear and guilty desire.

"Of course it is," she replies, her voice smoothly echoing up the throat of the body she's chosen to wear—a handsome thing, with just enough of a beard to be disarming; it dances on her strings with all the confidence it didn't in life. "I'm a professional, miss."

"Yes, but—"

"Please don't insult me. I do know what I'm doing; what you've asked isn't anything out of the ordinary, and I've already checked you for thaumaturgic allergies. Everything will be fine."

"U-um, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. Of course you do, I just ... it's a big change, right?"

"It is. But really, I promise it will be fine. It will just hurt a bit as I open up your arm and as the rod fuses with you."

"Right, um. And no painkillers, right?"

"Precisely. Now," Arlene makes her body gesture towards her customer's arm, "would you mind if I start?"

"Please do. Before I, uh," she trails off, the rest of her words abundantly clear.

Arlene nods, and favors her with a reassuring little smile as she turns her body's head towards her tools. The scalpels, the athame, the needles and crow's-gut thread; bandages and tape. Antiseptic sunshine caught in a mirrored bottle; congealed moonlight pickled in deep sea brine, a little spray bottle packed with gentle acid and lavender salts.

And, of course, the glass rod with its carefully etched surface, its first roots already starting to sprout.

The spray bottle first, Arlene thinks, then the scalpel. Her customer's skin is too taut against her muscles and tendons to begin with a cut—and oh, it reddens so prettily beneath the spray!

She gives it another few squirts as her customer squirms and whimpers.

"It will take a moment to set, miss. Do let me know if it's too much."

"N-no, I'll be f-fine."

"The next step will hurt more, I'm afraid, and the one after that."

"F-fuck, uh, no. Don't stop no matter what I say. I need this more than anything."

Arlene grins while she makes her body frown in sympathy. "Of course, miss."

A single pinch to test the skin's elasticity; it stretches so far! Hardly attached to the body beneath, at least for now. She has to remind herself not to play with it; that would be uncouth.

Skin splits like wet fabric as she runs her scalpel across it, sagging down to either side of the restrained arm. Her customer stifles a scream, her free hand twitching against the chair's leather armrest, already scratched and torn.

Probably pins would be unnecessary.

Arlene uses them anyway.

It's like spreading open a curtain, like parting the first folds of a fresh meal; newly stretchy skin peeling away from the thick reds and squishy yellows beneath, spreading open further than it should every be able to, the pins holding it in place—

She never gets tired of this part.

Perhaps she exams the freshly exposed flesh for too long; perhaps one of her fingers drifts close enough to touch a nerve. Either way her customer yelps, a barely human noise drawing her out of her reverie; a reminder that she must continue.

At least it's evident that there's no point explaining what she's doing, so she just makes some reassuring noises while her customer gnaws on her fist, eyes flicking wildly around the room in search of a distraction.

The athame is next, and a few more needles.

Unthreading muscles and tendons is delicate work, and not Arlene's forte; if she had to do it purely with physical tools she'd leave her customer's arm a mangled mess, unuseable, barely capable of sustaining its own life. The magic in her blade makes it so much easier.

It's almost like unthreading a loom at the moment of its completion: winding back time with entropy's curious touch, transforming a newly born tapestry into a mass of splayed threads—just enough to expose the bone, and the place where the rod will rest among delicate structure.

She takes her time.

Her body's fingertips are stained red when she's done, and her customer has lapsed into catatonia, her body limp and eyes rolled back; alive, perhaps even awake, but not here. She stifles an amused giggle as she splashes sunlight across the opened arm.

Almost ready, now.

Even with another body dancing to her tune taking the risk upon itself she's careful with the rod; a pair of thick nitrile gloves and new wards looped around her wrists, a moment spent double-checking whether her control threads are properly grounded.

Everything is good. Everything is in order.

... she's still careful not to breathe as she picks the rod up and, in one delicate motion, slips it into her customer's arm. It's nestled right up against the bone, in a pocket that will soon be wrapped in muscle. Its roots twitch.

A fresh pair of gloves; a fresh set of wrist-wards. What touches the rod cannot be permitted to touch anything but the carefully isolated trashcan's grounded lining, and as she carefully lays strips of squishy pickled moonlight across its exposed surface she sighs at the waste.

It's a pity she has to work with things like this, really; gloves are easy to replace but each ward represents hours of work atop the years of experimentation and cross-breeding required for the dried flowers in its pouch.

The price she charges is worth it, she reminds herself.

From there it's all careful reassembly, brushing sunlight onto surfaces and following it up with dabs of pickled moonlight as she weaves her customer's arm back together; she relaxes once the last bit of muscle closes over the rod, though she leaves the wards on. It's only when crow's-gut thread closes up skin quickly losing its unnatural elasticity that she sighs and tosses the last set away.

Her customer is still unresponsive; understandable with that thing busy getting tangled up in her own intrinsic magic, but still vexing.

She forgot to prepare the smelling salts in advance, an oversight no less embarrassing for the fact that no one sees it, and it takes several minutes to figure out which cabinet the drawer she keeps them in has found its way into—she makes a note not to make that mistake again.

But, finally, the little vial's scent breathes life back into her customer's eyes. A woozy, hazy sort of life, but that's enough for her.

"Miss," she snaps her fingers in front of her nose, "are you still with me?"

"Y-yeah, uh, w-what ..."

"We're all done, miss."

"R-really ...? Really!? It's, it's," she flexes her arm against the leather straps still holding it still, "it really is! I can feel it inside ..."

"Mmm, yes. It will probably take a few days before it's entirely set, though. Please don't try to do anything too strenuous."

"Of course! I'd hate to fuck this up, I've waited so long ... thank you! Thank you so much!"

"It's my job, miss." She shrugs, trying to be disarming; Arlene has never figured out what to do with gratefulness. "And you'll come back in three days for me to check it over."

"Yes, I—yes."

"It's mostly for peace of mind; I've never had someone truly need to, even when they've strained themselves too soon. But ... well, it's better to be sure. And come in sooner if you notice any rot. Promise that."

"I will. I promise I will, I don't—I'm so happy!"

"Mmm. Let me get you free, okay?" She takes her time with the straps, drawing the conversation out; she's a bit too manic for Arlene's tastes. "Do you have someone to take you home?"

"Yeah, I''ll call my friend," she says, fumbling through her pocket for a delicately patterned phone, "can I wait for them inside?"

"Of course you can. Here, let me help you—"

As Arlene guides her into the waiting room, just outside her workshop, the first flower has already begun to bloom deep within her wrist; a thing of delicate crystal interwoven with flesh, still unready to share itself with her even as it tangles its petals through her meat.

She doesn't feel anything, doesn't know it's there; but she still can't help but run her other hand's fingers across that little spot just above the end of the rod, that place where it will soon make itself known.

(If everything goes well).

(This story continues)