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To lie as all who love have lied

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She waits until evening to knock upon the door of the Ninth House. She leans forward on her crutches and listens for sound from within. Part of her is waiting for a corpse.

Of course there are many corpses outside, because the Reverend Daughter has decorated it with skulls, and bones. For all that thick black veiling, the Reverend Daughter gives herself away in ten thousand reveals. The Reverend Daughter behaves as frightened animals do. The skulls and bones perform the same office as scat left outside a den, to repel intruders. The woman known as Dulcinea Septimus considers it much the same thing as a mammal squatting outside to mark its space.

Just hours ago, Dulcinea watched an ordinary human being perform the impossible.

The truth is that she expected Harrowhark Nonagesimus to get all the way to the box and the key at the end of Laboratory Eight. The Reverend Daughter Nonagesimus is not an ordinary human being. There is a whole question about whether or not she knows what she is. Dulcinea thinks she probably does. She has the hot eyes of an abused animal. A walk to the box was a conservative estimate on Dulcinea’s part. She was anticipating the moment when the Ninth necromancer made it to the box and worked out the trial, and held the key in her hands before the connection broke and she died. Dissolved away, leaving nothing but a ruined cavalier in Dulcinea’s arms.

And how sad it would have all been. The ambition of the young Reverend Daughter, ending in black sparks that flew upward. Dulcinea Septimus would have cried her way into a coughing spasm, and everyone would have been sympathetic. Nobody would have said it was her fault.

Nobody out loud. Nobody, except maybe the Master Warden. Such seeing eyes, in that Sixth House face. He is so gentle. He is so suspicious, and he does not even know it. Sixth House boys are like books with bad indexing. All facts, and inaccessible.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus should have died as Dulcinea watched. Everyone would have been only halfway upset, because the Reverend Daughter is not very lovable, at least not measurably so. The trick is in being lovable, which is one of the reasons Dulcinea is now standing outside this door.

The corpse opens it wide. She’s holding a towel. She’s washed her face recently. The water is making drips on the collar of her shirt. It’s still dirty from the paint. No long black gothic robe here. Just vest and trousers, and bare muscles. Her amber eyes focus on Dulcinea and she freezes like she’s been shot, so obviously expecting to see someone else. She is uncertain. She is surprised. She is failing not to blush.

She is, more to the point, alive. An ordinary human being might have lasted to the end of the laboratory, attempted under such conditions. Perhaps the Eighth’s genetic doll might have lasted, on a good day with a prevailing wind, there and back and only come away with blood on the brain and a life-impacting seizure.

Yet here Gideon is.

Dulcinea wonders about who made that trial and what they were thinking. So hard. So cruel. The noble cavalier suffering and dying for the necromancer. Tragedy at its most intense, if not elegant.

Gideon Nav crossed that floor both ways and stands in front of Dulcinea now. She is alive. She is bare-faced. There is no blood on the brain within that skull. And as usual, she is so beautiful. She is so handsome and warm. So alive. Dulcinea beholds all that cool brown skin, like earth in some far off planet’s springtime, turned by the plough. The easy musculature of arms honed in swordplay. Very white teeth in an easy smile, neat tight lines of a cavalier frame. The kind of smile that could break your heart. The kind of smile that could get the owner’s heart broken for them, if they walked into a dark room and did not notice the gleam of a knife, waiting for the door to shut.

"I came to see how you were," says Dulcinea, with deliberately pretty confusion.

"Hey," says the cavalier’s lips, a few seconds before they catch up with the brain and the memory of the vow of silence that Dulcinea knows Gideon never took on purpose. They’re nice lips. Gideon leans into the doorway, then says, as an afterthought, "Damn."

"Ninth!" she says, delighted, "I wanted to hear your voice again."

Gideon winces. "Voice? Pfft, no way. This is my new ventriloquism act."

"Which would... still involve you talking," suggests Dulcinea.

"Okay, okay. I call uncle. I’ve been awake for half an hour and I feel like a truck made of bones hit me, so have mercy."

"If you let me come inside," she suggests sweetly, "I promise I won’t ever ever mention that you just broke your vow... especially not to your mistress."

Gideon’s smile tightens. "If you could never say ‘mistress’ meaning her again, that would be just peachy."

"I won’t. I promise," says Dulcinea. She balances her crutches and leans in. "After all... I think it would take a very special woman to be your mistress."

Gideon does not hide swallowing very well. It is right there, on her good-looking throat. "If you’ve seen the decor," she says, straightening up, "you’ll know this isn’t a great place for, uh, swordplay and chill. If you get my meaning."

"Is that the only reason?"

The swordswoman hesitates. Her vision flicks from side to side at the doorway. Dulcinea guesses, "Wards?"

"Let’s just say I don’t think you’re on her guest list."

When Gideon speaks her voice is still rusty, low, rough, injured. Her throat would have broken from the screaming. It was such loud screaming. Or maybe she’s just shy. Dulcinea loves that idea.

"Then come back to my quarters," says Dulcinea, and Gideon hesitates so much that she has to quickly follow up with, "Oh, please... just for a little bit... Pro’s off making preparations for the duel, and I want to show you how sorry I am, about the trial..."

Dulcinea drops her eyes down a little and looks at Gideon from underneath her eyelashes. She knows full well that wars have been fought, and lost, for much less. Especially if the eyes are pretty. Her eyes are very pretty.

"I have food," she adds, and there, that’s the mistletoe spar, because Gideon’s stomach rumbles. Wars have been lost for pretty eyes, but won on account of hungry girls.

"Yeah. Sure. Fuck it," says Gideon, recklessly. That smile again. Like sunrise. Like the first blossom on a fruit tree. She really can’t get this attached. "Let’s go to your place. We won’t be that long, right?"

Dulcinea congratulates herself, though she knows that she is only part of the victory. The eyes did most of it. And her eyes are nothing to do with her.

_____

By the time that Gideon Nav eats her way through four bananas, a bag of dried apple chips and a pomegranate, Dulcinea is not sure how to proceed. She curls up in the over-stuffed arm chair and watches in awe. At least the fruit is gone. The Master Warden keeps bringing it, out of some chivalry. She doesn’t know what to do with it. Her cavalier Protesilaus doesn’t eat... fruit. But as soon as she drops one banana out of the window, another one is brought.

Of course the Master Warden doesn’t know that she isn’t eating his gift, and what he does not know will not hurt him.

So many other things could hurt him. But not this.

Dulcinea is not hungry for apples. Dulcinea is not even hungry for pomegranates. Why is her tongue moist now? Because she is watching this golden-eyed creature before her scoop pomegranate seeds out with her fingers, totally unconscious of the action. If Gideon was showing off, or ready to make a joke, it would not hurt her. This lack of understanding the innuendo does. Despite the wicked spark in those eyes this Ninth House cavalier is as pure as a drift of snow, or salt.

A purity which confuses her. It makes her whole being flicker, with something that feels too much like the memory of starvation. The seeds are slippery and red at Gideon’s mouth. Tiny wet rubies. She lowers her head to eat from the fruit, and Dulcinea is shocked to find her stomach doing a tiny flip.

Something in her face makes Gideon turn, and color. Much harder to hide an expression without the mask of Locked Tomb nun paint. And she is so much more handsome without it. Dulcinea shamelessly admires the deepset eyes, the mobile brows. The mouth that looks perpetually as though it wants to smile, or swear. There are a few healing pimples around the temples, but that’s charming too, on this burly pretty young thing, on this attractive boisterous idiot who does not even know how to politely eat a pomegranate. Doesn’t know enough, not to bury her face in the moist chambered flesh, not in the company of a woman she’s been flirting with.

"Left my skull at home," says Gideon, as though she’s trying to explain and not question.

Dulcinea does not fake her smile. "I like you much better this way."

"Unpainted?"

"Naked."

The Ninth House cavalier chokes on a mouthful. Dulcinea does not fake the laugh either, but lets it out in peals. Now Gideon’s cheeks are a dark cinnamon-hued flame, trying and failing to hide it, trying to choke in a way that might still maintain her cool. "Yeah," she says after a moment, "yeah, you and every other girl here, right?"

"I can’t speak for every other girl here," says Dulcinea, "I can’t even guess... at the end of the day, I only speak for Dulcinea Septimus."

Gideon gives herself a hard thump on the chest, and wipes her mouth, trying to be civilised. There is a soft sheeny glow of ripe pomegranate seeds on her mouth. Dulcinea remembers a story about pomegranate seeds that she heard, somewhere, once upon a time. Of a laughing girl who was tricked into eating them, and spent half each year in hell. Half a year spent in Death’s bed. In reality, she knows that kind of death costs more than a few ruby seeds on the lips of a girl.

But isn’t it a fun story?

After a pause, the cavalier says, "So, I should probably go."

Dulcinea says sweetly, "Will you take me to bed first?"

There is no hope for the strangled sound that leaves Gideon’s mouth this time. The yellow eyes are part closed, as though in pain. Dulcinea says, "You know, now that I’m sitting, it’s so hard for me to get up again... my legs go dead. If you take me through to the bedroom and pass me my nightgown, I can put myself to bed without needing Pro... if you don’t mind playing at being my cavalier."

It is the first misstep. But it is delicious too. When Gideon scoops Dulcinea from out of the chair, some of the confusion and embarrassment and flirtatious awareness is gone and there is toughness at the mouth instead. The arms are warm and strong. They always are.

"I’m not your cavalier, Lady Septimus," she says, seriously.

Such loyalty to the skull-faced Ninth House monster. Dulcinea puts one arm around Gideon’s neck to steady herself. It is not hard to smile. It is not hard to look up to that strong, vulnerable face as though she were drinking her in. Dulcinea says playfully, "But we could pretend."

Another blush. This is not the exact same thing as the blushes of before. It is uncertain, a denial. She has deliberately called Gideon’s loyalty into question. Gideon is so totally a cavalier, so truly a cavalier from the top of her head to the tips of her toes, that by instinct she knows that Dulcinea is speaking heresy. So easy, to push here. So enticing to see where the line is drawn.

"I’m not sure I’d want to be your cavalier," says Gideon. Quick flash of the astonishing smile. "You drive me completely fucking crazy."

And Dulcinea laughs, and Gideon laughs with her, and the fortification that Gideon had put up is broken again. All it takes is laughter, with Gideon Nav. As though there has been very little laughter in her life. Of course there hasn’t been. Laughter is embalmed in the Ninth House mausoleums. She lets her fingers rasp against the fuzz of hair at the back of Gideon’s neck where it is cut closest to the skin, and is carried with a terrifying amount of care into the bedroom.

She is set down on the four-poster bed with its ancient pond green comforter, and Gideon steps back and hesitates. Dulcinea stretches out langorously, and says, not bothering to keep the command out of her voice, "The nightgown is over the back of the chair."

Gideon retrieves the garment and it takes everything in Dulcinea not to laugh at her. It’s frilly, and looks ridiculous and wispy held within those callused swordswoman’s hands. She hands it to Dulcinea in the way you would a sword, a weapon, extending forward with both hands. Dulcinea takes it, then tucks her knees forward on the bed, and twists to offer Gideon her back.

Nothing happens. When she glances up and over her shoulder, her curls falling into her face, she sees Gideon standing unsure and confused. So she hasn’t done this for anyone else before. That’s another fact to archive about the Reverend Daughter. Her cavalier does not disrobe her.

Is she a prude, or afraid of Gideon’s hands?

"I can’t get these buttons by myself, you know," suggests Dulcinea. She smiles.

And feels Gideon break. The first rush of rain heralding a storm. That indrawn breath, like the first roll of thunder.

"Lady Septimus," she says, and her voice is very low now. Dulcinea’s stomach does another tiny flip. Gideon doesn’t sound this way on purpose. It wouldn’t be so wonderful if Gideon was trying to sound this way on purpose. This is someone struggling to keep her cool.

She answers with total innocence, "Yes?"

"Are you asking me to undress you?"

"Have I said something wrong?"

"Yeah. I’m calling bullshit," Gideon says. "A beautiful girl asks me to take her to bed, and then asks me to take her clothes off? This doesn’t happen. This is a compliance test. The moment I say happy birthday to me, your cavalier is going to burst out the closet and sock me in the face, so...."

This makes Dulcinea collapse down on the bed and laugh and laugh until the cancer reminds her that it is still there, not on vacation, and it turns into a cough that isn’t feigned or forced. Her hand comes away with blood in the saliva. She rolls on to her back. Laughter doesn’t save her this time. Gideon’s face is more serious than ever before, maybe from the blood. Dulcinea lays herself back in the pillows and says, charmed beyond anything, "Ninth, do you really think I’m beautiful?"

Gideon says wearily, "I mean it. Just tell me what you want. Don’t tease me."

"You really don’t help to dress your necromancer, do you?"

"No, because my hands aren’t bone stumps, which they would be if I helped dress my necromancer. Tell me what you actually want."

Dulcinea says,

"I want you to kiss me."

The cavalier of the Ninth House looks at her, and sees that she is in total earnest. She exhales. She comes to sit at the end of the four-poster bed, which makes the rusty springs in the mattress squeak.

Gideon puts her head in her hands and says, "God I’m in trouble," but she’s grinning, like she can’t not be amazed, like part of her wants this very much to be real. But she’s also grinning like she just got slapped and doesn’t know what to do now. To hit back, or to walk away.

"I want you to tell me I’m beautiful again, and kiss me," says Dulcinea. What is fascinating is that she really means it. "I want to be kissed... Don’t go," she says, when Gideon gets up again, makes the springs squeak a second time as she folds those long brown arms. Dulcinea is distracted by her biceps. She says "Gideon. You don’t have to go."

Gideon doesn’t look at her. "I really do have to go."

Has she gotten this wrong? "Do you... not want to kiss me?"

"I’m leaving because if you ask me again I am going to kiss you," says the cavalier. "And then everything’s going to go to hell. It’s going to... It’s going to fuck things up pretty bad? People are dead right now, and we’ll add romantic drama as a cherry on the top of that shit sundae. Which actually might end with more people dead. Who knows. So... don’t say it, okay? Because I might be hot and stupid and great with a sword. But I’m not that stupid."

"Just hot and great with a sword," says Dulcinea.

Gideon agrees, "Just hot and great with a sword."

"Gideon..."

"Don’t say it, Lady Septimus."

"Call me Dulcinea."

The cavalier exhales again. After a moment she says "Don’t say it, Dulcinea." In quieter tones, reverent ones, like a prayer. Ninth House girls are so good at prayers. "You know what happens if you do. You know how bad it screws everything up. You know that it’s a one-way ticket to drama town so, do me a solid and..."

"Kiss me."

Gideon goes very still.

"Please. I’ve wanted you to kiss me from the moment I saw you," says Dulcinea, and is disgusted with herself to realize that it is true. She adds, "I wanted you to kiss me every time you came to me... wanted to kiss you when I had you in my arms, in the trial. And I want you to kiss me right now, so please..."

Gideon turns around, marches towards her, sits down on the bed. She leans in and tangles her hand beneath Dulcinea’s head on the pillows, cupping her skull gently, like her skull is so very breakable, like Dulcinea might die if handled roughly. Gideon closes the distance between them, and she kisses her as though this is her one shot.

The Reverend Daughter’s cavalier tastes a lot like pomegranate seeds, and a little bit like toothpaste. Clean and new. Like recycled thanergy too, left over from the siphoning trial. Dulcinea shamelessly lifts her mouth up to be kissed, responds hungrily, amazed that she still wants kissing. But the way Gideon kisses her desperately, having so obviously never kissed anyone in her life, makes something warm and soft inside her. There’s too much teeth until Dulcinea murmurs, "Slow down," and Gideon, instinctive about what to do with her body always if not her brain, slows in response.

The bed groans as Gideon puts her full weight on it, swings up her legs to the mattress, shoulders up against the pillows. Dulcinea curves inside the warmth of her body and lets herself be kissed, lets herself kiss this cavalier girl in return. She can relax into it for once. The heart inside Gideon’s chest is pounding so loudly that she can move her hand to the center of her chest and laugh into Gideon’s mouth at the rate of her pulse.

"I’m doing this wrong," says Gideon, in muffled embarrassment.

"You’re perfect," Dulcinea says, ecstatic. "You’re wonderful. Don’t stop."

Gideon doesn’t stop. She kisses Dulcinea with the puppylike enthusiasm of a girl who has imagined plenty of kissing in the middle of the night even if none of it has been practiced on a live human. When Dulcinea encourages her lips to part, slides her tongue in just enough to touch it to Gideon’s, she jerks as though she’s been bitten instead. Then she draws Dulcinea tight and close like they weren’t close already, their bodies flush and Dulcinea’s fingers trapped between them. They’re mindlessly making out like teenagers.

That’s... not wise, her heart tells her. Her brain chimes in. Her body drowns them out. Her body is an expert in that.

Her fingers stroke the space above Gideon’s heart, covered in warm black fabric. Gideon shivers into her mouth. Their bodies align in the warm nest of old blankets and pillows in the darkened room and Dulcinea breaks the kiss, just to breathe, just to enjoy another living person. It’s been such a long time. Protesilaus certainly doesn’t count.

She squeezes her hand out from between the press of their bodies and guides Gideon’s hand up over her dress, over her hip. Gideon makes a sound like she’s having a heart attack. Dulcinea urges that hand backwards until it splays over the fastenings of her dress. "Buttons," she says again, breathlessly.

For a moment Gideon doesn’t answer, just distracts her with kisses. She’s a fast learner. She catches Dulcinea’s bottom lip between her teeth briefly, gently, and Dulcinea urges that hand to the fastenings of her dress again. Gideon’s fingers pause on the top button.

"Babe," she says unsteadily, "are you sure?"

‘Babe’, that’s so wonderful, so wrong on every single level, she loves it. "Yes," she whimpers, "yes, Gideon, please," in a way which is designed to go straight to the lizard brain of any brash virgin who wants to impress the girl they’re undressing for the first time. The fingers which are so careful on the rapier thumb each button open like Gideon’s done this all before. She works her way down the row, and Dulcinea impatiently wriggles out of her sleeves as the bodice parts, pushes the dress down past her hips and kicks out of the skirts until the gown is off and she’s left in her drawers and undershirt. The shirt she pulls off over her head and then it’s just drawers.

Gideon catches her breath. Dulcinea rolls back so that Gideon can look at her, shyly. This is normal. She should be smiling but shy, even if she knows her own beauty, even if it might not be exactly to the tastes of a girl like Gideon, whose eyes follow the shapely Third princess around the room whenever they meet.

Then again, is that true? Gideon’s eyes also follow the Reverend Daughter around the room, though Dulcinea sees the longing in those golden eyes as more complicated than the longing for Coronabeth’s ample curves. The Reverend Daughter is a late bloomer. Slight, not graceful. Angles and bones as befits a beauty of the Ninth House, who like their girls to be in the same mold as what lies within their tombs. Harrowhark is draped at all times in layers of black robes, but Dulcinea suspects their bodies might not be so different, once the robes come undone.

Her hands flutter to shield her breasts as though there’s any modesty left to protect, then drop. Gideon doesn’t know enough to fake it or hold anything in reserve. She looks at Dulcinea like she could devour her in two bites without having to chew.

"I don’t have much... going on," murmurs Dulcinea, demurely.

Gideon reaches out to trace down from the side of Dulcinea’s breast, very slowly, drags it down to finally rest at the white skin of Dulcinea’s waist. She knows what Gideon’s seeing as though she’s lying in Gideon’s spot. Each rib will be clear beneath skin that is too pale by Seventh House beauty standards. The veins will stand out like rivers snaking their way down her arms and chest. Illness thin, in a sickness frame. But her hair will spill in light brown curls down those bulging collarbones, stopping softly above small round breasts with the palest of pink areola.

Gideon drags her hand up back up slower until Dulcinea is breathing hard from real impatience. When her thumb finally traces the underside of a breast and comes to rest there, she sighs without even thinking about it. The skin of Gideon’s thumb is rough and gentle all at once as she traces a wide circle around the puckering flesh, swipes over the rapidly hardening nipple.

"You’ve got everything going on," Gideon says, steadily now. "You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen."

"How many naked girls have you seen?"

"Babe, I’ve seen thousands."

"Were any of them real?"

"Just one," says Gideon, "Right now," and Dulcinea is kissed again by this enthusiastic overwhelmed baby who took so little seduction. Gideon crushes her mouth to hers and keeps thumbing her nipple until it feels hot and swollen, and just when it is almost too much stimulation she slides a hand between them to the other one. Dulcinea worms her hands under Gideon’s shirt and presses them against the hard planes of the other girl’s abdomen. Gideon groans just at being stroked nowhere so erogenous as around her ribs. They mash up against each other in a confusion of kisses and touching and Dulcinea is aroused by how real this feels, how natural. Sex has not felt like this for... well. It’s been a while.

Gideon is so... careful with her. Always so concerned to not lie on her too heavily or to put too much pressure on her chest. That’s cavalier instinct too. Of course a necromancer was never meant to sleep with their own cavalier. That’s perverted. It makes what should be pure impure. Other necromancer’s cavaliers, though? They’re fair game. Dulcinea has always been amused by the continued necromantic fetish for other people’s cavaliers. Now being in bed with one she decides that she does, in fact, share it after all. When Gideon pulls away and sits back on her heels, rolls the shirt up and over her flat stomach and sharply defined pectoral muscles, Dulcinea admits that the other reason for the fetish is simply that cavaliers are eye candy.

Once the shirt is removed, Gideon pulls off the elasticated cloth that supports her breasts, tosses it haphazardly to the floor. She’s just in trousers now. Dulcinea sits up herself and trails a hand down the warm brown skin starting from her collarbones. She lets her hand linger around the curve of one of Gideon’s breasts, which are small and firm with rosy-hued dark nipples, and Gideon breathes hard through her mouth.

She catches Dulcinea’s hand and twines it around her neck instead, and they do a controlled fall back to the mattress, breasts pressed up against breasts, mouths glued to each other’s mouths again. That’s nice, especially when Gideon’s nipples drag a little over hers, and when Gideon grunts at the contact. Dulcinea is lying on her back and Gideon is resting her weight on her elbows as though one wrong move could crush her partner flat.

When Dulcinea haloes her legs around Gideon’s hips, Gideon has to pull away from kissing her. Up close her yellow eyes are more shocking than ever. Like coins, she’d told her, that first time she saw them. But they are also like a wolf’s eyes, or some other wild animal’s. "Dulcinea, this is, uh," Gideon murmurs, "going pretty fast?"

"We’re skipping all the boring bits," she agrees. "Do you mind?"

"More like, do you mind?"

Dulcinea arches up so that her bare stomach presses against Gideon’s bare stomach, hips to hips. The waistband of her drawers urges against the button of Gideon’s trousers. Gideon sucks in a hard breath.

"When you are nearly dead," says Dulcinea, "you stop thinking about all the things you did do and you start thinking very hard about all the things you didn’t, and then you suddenly want to do them all at the same time... And when you’re nearly dead you’re struck all the time by how alone you are. I’ve spent so many nights being so alone in this bed, Gideon the Ninth, and maybe I’ll even die in it... and why should my last thought be, I could have kissed her?"

"But... this," says Gideon, and can’t say anything else when Dulcinea arches up again, her heels pressing into the tight curve of Gideon’s ass. "Have you even done this before?"

"This," Dulcinea repeats, sing-song, and rocking her hips. "Is this what they call it in the Ninth House, Gideon? Because in the Seventh House we call it fucking."

Gideon makes an indescribable noise. "I’ve fucked before," adds Dulcinea. "But I’d like to do it one more time, if it’s us fucking... each other, I mean."

Gideon is blushing. As pure as salt, as pure as sugar. But she’s laughing too. She says, "Dulcinea Septimus, you are a bad girl."

"I don’t think you like them very nice," says Dulcinea.

Then she twines her arms around Gideon’s neck and pulls her close to kiss her before she can think about what she just said. Gideon hasn’t done this before, of course. Dulcinea knows that nearly for certain. Honestly? She wants it very much to be true. It would be so sweet to be Gideon’s first. Sweeter to imagine being Gideon’s last, if she lets herself be romantic.

She takes her knees away from Gideon’s hips and fingers the buttons at the close of Gideon’s trousers. Caught beneath their bodies this is more of a demand than an actual attempt to get the cavalier naked. Gideon leans up on her elbows again, unbuttons herself so emphatically that Dulcinea swears she hears a few threads snap, strips off the rest of her clothing. Then she starts on her partner’s, and stops in the middle working the drawers down Dulcinea’s hips before she belatedly thinks to ask, "Can I?" and Dulcinea doesn’t bother to answer, just flexes herself up so that her clothes can come off. Gideon’s sat back on her feet getting Dulcinea’s underwear off over her ankles and it’s dark but her eyes are drawn to the curls between Gideon’s thighs.

"Oh," says Dulcinea, "really a natural redhead... I’d hoped."

"You seriously need to get spanked," says Gideon. At Dulcinea’s excited coo, she adds, "I’m not spanking you. I’d break your tiny ass."

"Promises, promises," says Dulcinea and draws Gideon back down to her, running her hands over the firm muscles of the arms and back. They’re fully nude. Side by side. She thinks about what this all looks like from the outside. Imagine encouraging this dark swordbearing nun of the Ninth into your bed, despite being a dying nothing, only a Seventh House sacrificial lamb. Imagine stealing a few hours with her, despite the gap between your house and hers. The skull meeting the withered flower.

Gideon’s mouth is sure on hers now. She kisses down Dulcinea’s neck and down the exposed ridges of her collarbones. She hesitates before cupping the velvet weight of Dulcinea’s breast in a hand and lowering her mouth to a nipple, and Dulcinea sighs her encouragement as she sucks, once, lightly. Too lightly for her tastes. She takes a fistful of the flame-colored hair and tugs, and Gideon sucks again obediently, and rougher this time. Traces the tip of her tongue in a wide circle around until Dulcinea moans out loud.

Gideon slides a hand between her legs and she’s the one who sighs now, with her broad palm and first two fingers finding Dulcinea so slick. Dulcinea just giggles. "Fuck," says Gideon hoarsely, "fuck, you’re dripping," and she is, she’s charmed that pleasure can still touch her, arousal being a thing that she can feel. She can still want. Maybe that shouldn’t surprise her so much? Gideon draws her hand back to her mouth with those two fingers wet and shiny and sucks them, once, then harder, greedier.

"So clean me up," says Dulcinea, smiling.

Gideon licks the last remnant from her forefinger, holding Dulcinea’s gaze with those golden eyes. "Necros are demanding little fuckers."

"But you love us," says Dulcinea, guiding that hand back down. "You can’t help it."

It looks as though Gideon’s going to deny that one, but her fingers are at the liquid, silken slit between Dulcinea’s thighs and Dulcinea is draping her knee over Gideon’s hip again so Gideon can get to her better. All Gideon can do is say her name, repeating it over and over, like she’s never stroked a cunt before that wasn’t her own. Which she hasn’t, Dulcinea is now fully certain. This is Gideon’s virginity she’s taking. Gideon slides her fingertips deeper, then upwards, trailing them over the swollen hood of her clitoris, and Dulcinea lets herself whimper.

Gideon shifts her thighs and that means Dulcinea can slide her hand down too between hers. Not enough access to get her fingers inside her, but enough so that she can slide a finger past damp crinkles of hair and slide it between the hot wet folds of Gideon’s cunt. Gideon’s thighs twitch and she cries out as though she can’t believe she’s being touched. As though she came this far and still didn’t expect it. Dulcinea now knows that she has a true cavalier on her hands. Only a true cavalier could be surprised, at this point, at their role not simply being in service.

Gideon’s fingers work Dulcinea and Dulcinea teases back in turn. Gideon is kissing her again. She suspects that the kisses, for Gideon, are at least as erotic as the broad pressure of the thumb at her clit. The girl is just as starved of love as of pleasure. Dulcinea, hardened to both, can take her satisfaction at watching how responsive she is at the slightest suggestion of either. Gideon loves being kissed back. Gideon loves Dulcinea arching her knee up higher, higher again, so Gideon can slide two fingers inside her up to the knuckle.

"Too much, babe?" She’s panting.

Dulcinea breathes, "More," and experiences the sweet fullness of a third, the stretch of Gideon’s fingers within her, so clever with a sword, so new at this. She whimpers this time just thinking about it. She says, "Fuck me, please," and Gideon obeys, slowly then gaining pace, and it’s loud because she’s so wet.

It’s a shock to realize she could come from this. The stimulation is far from expert. But there have been many orgasms in her life and none of them have felt so filthy as what she is doing right now. The way Gideon looks at her... She is making Gideon fall for her, she realizes. From a kiss. From a touch. It’s like starting a fire merely because you stood too near a dead ember.

"Just like that," Dulcinea whispers, and angles herself so she’s grinding into Gideon’s wrist too. Gideon’s frowning in concentration and watching her like she is a miracle or a hallucination, a visitation.

That pushes her over. Dulcinea’s orgasm is brief and violent, enough to take her breath away, enough to make her cough, amazed she can still be surprised by her body.

Gideon tries to take her hand away too early but Dulcinea squeezes it between her thighs, milking every last clench of her muscles, before she relaxes. Gideon wipes her fingers on her thigh and holds her close. Dulcinea nuzzles into the hollow of her throat and sighs, her pulse throbbing between her legs now, sweat pooling at the backs of her knees.

"Score one to me," says Gideon.

Dulcinea laughs softly. "It’s not a duel, Ninth."

"‘Gideon,’" she corrects, "I’ve had enough of girls who won’t say my name."

"Let’s hear you say mine," says Dulcinea, who wonders, for a split second, what that would really sound like.

She pushes with deliberately feeble arms until Gideon obediently rolls over on her back, gleaming with sweat, gleaming between her legs and those lean brown thighs, and Dulcinea scoots down so that she’s propped up on one arm and smiling down at her. Gideon’s fingers briefly caress her cheek until she bites them, which makes Gideon laugh, before her fingers stroke back down Gideon’s belly, which makes Gideon moan. She wriggles down the bed and when Gideon realizes what she’s doing she tries to sit up, so Dulcinea thwacks her lightly on the ribs until she lies back down.

"Be good, or I’ll spank you," she says.

Gideon smirks, which is gorgeous, and says "Babe, you’d break your hand."

Dulcinea says, "You’d be surprised."

"You don’t need to spank me," says Gideon more seriously. "I’d do anything you asked."

Another cavalier heresy that’s better than the orgasm, almost. Dulcinea says, "I’m going to hold you to that," and positions herself between Gideon’s legs, wriggling down flat on her stomach, resting her head on Gideon’s thigh. She licks a long wet patch there that could be Gideon or could be where Gideon wiped her fingers clean, she doesn’t know. Gideon hisses through her teeth. When Dulcinea licks a deep hot line upwards to her clit, nestled swollen at the top of those folds, Gideon says nothing but a hard tremble goes through her body like an earthquake. She tastes thick and sweet and salt. Dulcinea does it again, and teases two fingertips inside Gideon’s cunt. It doesn’t take any more than that.

"Dulcinea," she gasps. "Oh fuck, babe, don’t stop. You’re so perfect, don’t stop."

To Dulcinea’s lack of surprise, Gideon is one of those girls who doesn’t shut up when you’re between her legs. "You’re so fucking beautiful," she says, when Dulcinea slides those two slippery fingers home and crooks them inside her. Finds the telltale ridges and strokes until Gideon swears. Traces her tongue around and then over her clitoris, finally, which gets her a heated, "God, that’s good, you’re so good, fuck you’re incredible," and she feels Gideon’s hands tangle in her hair. Her curls are twisted away from her face as she sucks and licks and fucks her fingers inside Gideon, and when she looks up at Gideon she redoubles her efforts. Gideon’s kissable mouth is slack and her eyes are like molten amber. She bucks up into Dulcinea’s mouth before she can stop herself, then groans in apology. Dulcinea sucks at her clit now in long, rhythmic bursts, until Gideon drips down her palm.

"Fuck," she says roughly, and then, "I love you, love you so much, Dulcinea, nnh, fuck!"

She cries out and comes in a tight squeeze all around Dulcinea’s fingers, again and again. Dulcinea unseals her mouth and licks Gideon’s cunt clean and then her fingers, chasing away the last smears.

She sits up and admires what she has done. Gideon has one arm flung over her face and she’s heaving for breath. Dulcinea slides herself up to put her full weight on Gideon’s chest, partly for the fun of hearing her heart hammering.

Gideon flops her arm away and looks at her. Her breath is less labored now. The mouth is smiling, confident. But the eyes say otherwise. The eyes are smashed jewels. This has hurt her somehow. Dulcinea leans forward to touch her mouth lightly to Gideon’s mouth, moved more than she has been moved for... A long time.

She realises with a start that she could end it here and now.

There are worse deaths.

She could tell Gideon her real name.

She could kill this lovely brave stupid young cavalier and Gideon wouldn’t experience a moment’s pain. She could even tell her that she loved her too, before she did it. Shyly. Or gently. Or passionately. She can say it, and more, and make her believe it.

Gideon isn’t to know that the woman lying so close to her heart has only ever loved one person. Someone who lied to her as she could lie to Gideon, right here and right now. Deliver the suffering downwards. A hastily rewrapped gift with the original tag crossed out.

And what would she do with the body?

The part of her brain that brought her here in the first place says, Leave it naked and lovebitten in the Reverend Daughter’s bed.

"Was that good?" says Dulcinea, instead.

Gideon laughs. It shakes Dulcinea on top of her as her ribs expand. "Was that good, she says. I don’t know. Yeah. Yeah, it was good. It was great. A million out of ten."

"That thing you said," Dulcinea says lightly, and Gideon stiffens. "You don’t have to mean it. No," she says, as Gideon opens her mouth. "I won’t let you mean it. I won’t let you say anything brave or romantic... you are already very brave and romantic. I have nearly everything I wanted now."

"How?" Gideon asks, angry all of a sudden. Her eyes are sharp as sunlight. She wraps her arms around Dulcinea’s thin body as though she can lock her there. To cushion her from the universe. "How the fuck do you have anything you want?"

"Hmm," says Dulcinea. “Well, I love that I came to Canaan House and got laid.”

That gets a laugh out of Gideon, no matter how unwilling she is to let it escape. Dulcinea lies forehead to forehead with her for a long time as the sweat dries and cools on their skin. Gideon’s arms around her are strong and warm. They’re nice. "You’re amazing," Dulcinea says, and means it. "The Reverend Daughter is very lucky to have you."

Gideon rolls her eyes as though this has ruined the afterglow. But her hands are very tender as they stroke down Dulcinea’s back and the raised bumps of her spine. She bites her lip before she says, "So, hey, is this... going to happen again?"

"Probably not," says Dulcinea, with honest disappointment. "It’s not in good taste... you’re younger and you’re the Ninth House cavalier... Master Octakiseron would burn me at the stake. And how I would get you away from the Reverend Daughter? Unless you think she would be all right with me saying excuse me, can I borrow your cavalier for filthy sex."

Gideon barks a not very humorous laugh in response to that. She kisses Dulcinea again before Dulcinea rolls away and reaches for the abandoned nightgown. Gideon checks over the side of the bed for her clothes, sliding her underwear and trousers back on before digging for the rest out from underneath a pillow. Dulcinea watches her and slides under the covers where their bodies were, seeking the remains of their warmth.

"Hey, babe," says Gideon, wrestling herself back into her shirt. She sits back down on the edge of the bed and rests her hand over Dulcinea’s hand. "Dulcinea, I want you to know... I’d mean it if you wanted me to. I’d mean it, if you let me. I don’t give a fuck who you are, or who I am. I know I’m some nobody. I know you’re basically Seventh royalty. I don’t care what the rules are. Back where I come from, I am known for not caring what the rules are. Say you want me to mean it and... I’ll mean it."

Dulcinea curls her fingers around Gideon’s. She smiles, which makes Gideon lean in and kiss her very softly, lingeringly, one last time. It takes her a while to break it off and she only does so unwillingly. The poor unkissed baby. Dulcinea has only put off today what will hurt Gideon tomorrow. She has only put off breaking her. No matter the outcome, Gideon Nav will have to break, one way or another.

She feels a twist of regret which scares her. There have been no regrets. There can be no regrets. She has not regretted anything in... years.

"Gideon," Dulcinea says, and finds herself saying it not as Dulcinea after all.

She says it as herself.

Cytherea says, "Gideon Nav... I’m tired, so go back to your Reverend Daughter before I change my mind. Go back, before I want to keep you. I could keep you if I wanted... but you’d be sorry if I did. I wouldn’t be able to keep you for very long, and I would keep you long past you loving me. That’s the trouble, you see, my sweet. You wouldn’t love me if I kept you... and you wouldn’t love me if you knew me."

Gideon doesn’t understand. She just smiles that heartbroken and heartbreaking smile, the one that has stopped more people in Canaan House than its resident Lyctor in their tracks. She moves to the doorway, smoothing out her messed-up clothes, running a hand through her flame of hair. It’s going to take more than that if she wants to look as though she hasn’t just been ridden hard and put away wet.

Fortunately, in all likelihood the Reverend Daughter doesn’t know what that looks like.

"Thanks for letting me down gently," Gideon says. "And thanks for the hot sex. I wish I was let down more often with hot sex."

“You could do the hot sex part and not get let down,” she suggests.

“That’d be ideal, yeah.”

"You don’t suppose the Reverend Daughter would let me borrow you, for sex purposes?"

"Not for one moment in this dumb and shitty universe," sighs Gideon. " Sweet dreams, babe."

The door closes.

Sweet dreams.

Cytherea thinks that’s a cute phrase.