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The Great Library of Mattress

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Gideon had always had a strained relationship with books. Writing lessons meant the grotesque nuns that trundled around the halls of Drearburh hunkered down next to her and wreathed her in halitosis until she could spell phalanx. She also associated schooling with having to sit still for more than the time it took to eat a meal, a requirement neither to her taste nor inclination. In fact, it was only when Harrow got better at reading than her and started teasing her about it that Gideon put in any effort at all into education. Once the scribbles on the nasty notes that Harrowhark put under her door had shuffled themselves into legibility, and she’d become proficient enough to realise that the library was (to use the literary term) – boring as all balls – she abruptly lost interest again. Eventually she was excused from such lessons, which was good in that it meant less time sitting and was bad in that it meant more time getting her ass handed to her by Aiglamene on a daily basis. But she’d learned enough to hide pieces of flimsy scrawled with imaginative but inaccurately spelled threats in Harrowhark’s underwear drawer and was thus satisfied.

She didn’t think much about the printed word again until just after the thing happened with Harrowhark’s parents. The heads of the Ninth were so immensely preoccupied with covering it the hell up that Gideon found herself afforded an unusual amount of freedom. She could even spend an hour or two watching the shuttles come and go from the landing field before Crux came to retrieve and re-inhume her. The shuttles were unloaded by the skeletons but piloted by actual people, who would often come out for a breath of stale air while they waited. Gideon would watch them, wide eyed, from behind one of the horrible bone piles as they sucked on little white sticks that produced clouds of smoke, periodically knocking ash onto the ground. Sometimes they played cards with each other. Their faces were strange – unpainted and all-coloured, some spotted with stubble, some with acne, some with skin so smooth and soft it looked like cream in a bowl.

One day Gideon accidentally upset the bone pile she was hiding behind, and the heads of the pilots snapped round in response to the noise. There were two of them today. One’s hand went straight to her sword while the other just grinned and gave Gideon a wink.

  “Relax, Cicero, it’s just a kid. A baby Ninth! Look at that face paint – it’s almost cute. Not like that big armoured one. Gives me the fucking creeps that guy.”

  “He gives me the Fucking Creeps too,” said Gideon, which for some reason they found hilarious. Enchanted by her own powers of conversation, she drew closer and asked where they were from.

  “Somewhere much warmer than this shaved ballsack of a rock, I’ll tell you that” said the one called Cicero, pulling her jacket closer around her. “I’m going to wait inside, the big fella’ll be out in a minute. You coming?”

  “Yeah, yeah,” said the one who wasn’t called Cicero, and stood up, brushing bone dust off her pants. “Kid? You like chocolate?” she asked, rummaging around in the pocket of her short brown coat, and pulling out something in a bright wrapper. Gideon had no idea what chocolate was but since no-one around here had offered her anything but a hard slap at the end of a conversation for years, she held out her hands eagerly and nodded. She was disappointed to discover inside the packet a brown nugget – so far Gideon’s Venn diagram of ‘brown’ and ‘tastes good’ was universally non-overlapping – but she scoffed it anyway, and found her tongue immediately drop-kicked into a world of oh hell yes. In Drearburh the definition of ‘sweet’ was indistinguishable from that of ‘not so bitter as to suggest imminent poisoning’, so the experience of chocolate was somewhat overwhelming. The pilot laughed and rummaged around in another coat pocket, drawing something out that looked suspiciously like a book and handing it to Gideon along with another piece of chocolate.

  “Emperor divine, but you remind me of my niece when she was little. Except more… skull-y. Take it easy, kid. And you better hide those, your man Crux is coming.” Gideon stuffed the book down her pants leg as Crux’s bulk rounded the corner.

  “Nav” he rumbled. “Get over here.” Gideon ran, dodging past him as he made a grab for her.

Later, she crouched on her bed under the wheezing Ninth house lights and opened the chocolate reverentially, before unrolling the book-thing she’d been given. It was the most weird-ass book Gideon had ever seen. It had words, sure enough, but not very many of them, in fact it was mostly drawings. Of people, but not Ninth people, other people. Kind of like the shuttle pilots but different. Their eyes were drawn huge and expressive. And they were so colourful. The Ninth considered any colour lighter than two shades from midnight to be dangerously frivolous, which made these drawing-book people positively indecent, and therefore utterly intriguing. Gideon quickly worked out that the funny white bubbles that hovered beside the drawings were supposed to be what the people were saying to each other, and that the other words explained what was happening. The story was about something called the Cohort and how they won a Glorious Victory against the Enemies of the Emperor. Gideon stroked the bright red coats of the people in the drawings, imagining herself in one. Well, she had a sword too, didn’t she?

Now that Gideon had discovered that shuttle pilots could be a source of both sweets and books-that-weren’t-boring, she spent all the time she could in the field, trying to befriend the pilots there. Some of them ignored her or kicked at her when she approached them, others laughed and pretended to light their weird smoking-sticks off her hair. But a few seemed partial to her winning charms and would respond appropriately to her requests for sweets and comics. She immediately ate every sweet thing that was handed to her until a stabbing pain in her jaw and the resulting encounter with an antiquely fumbly tooth adept resulted in them both losing teeth (her due to his ministrations, and him due to Gideon kicking him hard in the mouth as a witty riposte). After that she decided it might be more prudent to pace herself, so she piled them up beneath a loose floorboard in her room. The comics she stuffed inside her mattress. Harrowhark found them before long, of course, and took them straight to Crux who went even greyer than usual and confiscated them, which set Gideon off on a five-month quest to steal them back, during which she learned some invaluable lock-picking skills.

Once, when Gideon was about fourteen, a pilot left their coat in the field and Gideon, accustomed now to rifling through the pockets of any garment left unattended on principle, duly explored its contents. She retrieved a dog-eared packet of little white lozenges that looked like sweets but tasted like being booted in the mouth by a snowman, two of the white smoking-sticks (which she now knew from the comics were called ‘cigarettes’ and were the epitome of cool), and a kind of magazine she’d never seen before. Back in her room, she tried one of the cigarettes, decided that it tasted like Crux’s back hair, threw it away, then opened the magazine. This one was called Brawlers in the Buff and presented Gideon with the first real shock she’d had since Harrowhark had snuck a bone chip into her ear canal and tried to grow a skeleton from it. The people in this magazine had no clothes on. For Gideon, who hadn’t seen another naked human since she and Harrowhark used to be ritually sonic-ed clean by the nuns once a week – Gideon had declared at the time that the sight of Harrow naked would have made Blessed Sister Lachrimorta go blind if she wasn’t already – Brawlers in the Buff was quite the revelation. The people in it were supposed to be Cohort soldiers, like the comics, but they were pictured without armour, or in fact anything at all, and in stances that would have made Aiglamene bark at them to keep their left flank guarded, for the Lord Undying’s sake. One woman wore nothing but her sword belt and a red Cohort coat draped over one shoulder. Another similarly underdressed soldier was advancing on her, and the caption was some kind of wordplay on rapiers and sheaths that Gideon didn’t understand at all. Looking at the nude bodies Gideon had the terrifying thought that this was what Sister Glaurica or, even more mind-shrivellingly, Crux might have hidden away under their Ninth caparisoning. I mean… gross. Most of the pictures were of people on their own, but Gideon was drawn to the images where there were two or more people, particularly if they were touching. There was something about the way that some of them – not all, a lot of them kind of just looked bored or vaguely peckish - were looking at one another. Gideon, who had rarely beheld an expression directed at her that wasn’t hate, scorn or tolerance tinged with pity, was ill-equipped to recognise tenderness, but was drawn to it, nevertheless. She spent almost as much time looking at their eyes as anything else.

If what was depicted in Brawlers in the Buff was the kind of activity required to produce children, then as far as Gideon was concerned the Ninth’s dwindling population was perfectly explicable. As she shivered in the depths of a Ninth winter she reflected that the dearth of infants around Drearburh may have been mostly to do with the fact that it wasn’t warm enough to be naked for more than about 30 seconds without your dong literally freezing off – although judging by the state of most of the residents any robust conjugal activity would probably have to be paused so often to allow someone to cough up a wad of mucus or die quietly of dementia that the likelihood of conception was almost nil.

Over the next few years Gideon became a self-styled connoisseur of non-Ninth literature courtesy of the shuttle pilots. She would sometimes bribe them with cigarettes (which they seemed to be forever short of despite the fact that they were so easy to steal) to get them to throw in a more carnally inclined magazine along with her regular comics. It seemed that the Ninth House was the only one not making a little cash on the side from the nudey pics racket. She did see something once called Boner Adepts, but it turned out to be a satirical product of the Fifth and featured people in cartoonish black costumes mostly getting off with skeletons sporting enormous bony wieners (which said more about the Fifth’s knowledge of skeletal anatomy than the Ninth’s sexual proclivities). The Third’s mags were notable mainly for the quality of the hair styling. The sixth’s publications were rather baffling, with multi-page essays on Skene glands and any actual sexy images dropped in almost absent-mindedly. The Seventh’s mostly featured very thin, pale people swooning on couches, which was about the same as their non-pornographic magazines, only those had fewer nipples on display. Gideon’s favourite were the ones from the Second and Forth, which combined the heroism of the Cohort comic book stories with, well, sex.

Gideon’s ownership of non-Ninth reading material – even that of a titty nature - appeared to be something that was tolerated provided she didn’t actually wave it about in the transept. It also provided one of the enduring triumphs of her sixteenth year: catching Harrowhark Nonagesimus sneaking a peek. Gideon was returning to her room, bruised and cursing after a particularly rough training session with Aiglamene, and had walked in to find Harrow hastily stuffing something back under the mattress. She stood up and regarded Gideon with a look of condescension so lofty that it would’ve given altitude sickness to a mountain goat – no small feat considering she was flushing a colour that would have caused a sartorial scandal had she been wearing it. Gideon’s jaw just about hit the ground and Harrowhark swept imperiously past her, saying “I always suspected you were a degenerate, Griddle. Now I need suspect no more”.

 “Don’t sulk because my library’s more fun than your library, Nonagesimus,” Gideon shot back. Harrow tossed a knucklebone over her shoulder which accelerated towards Gideon and flicked her stingingly in the ear as she stalked out and slammed the door shut behind her. Gideon wondered which magazine Harrow had been looking at, and what she’d found there that distracted her enough that Gideon had almost managed to sneak up on her. Gideon had henceforth carried a sense of satisfaction that her little library had contained something that Harrowhark ‘my-knowledge-of-the-arcane-mystique-makes-your-brain-look-like-a-raisin-in-comparison’ Nonagesimus hadn’t already read about. She counted it as a victory.