Gideon Nav stood over her own body and said, “You think I’d get used to this after the first time, but nope.”
She looked good. Well, she always did, but Gideon meant in the sense that her body didn’t look like a gross, months-old corpse. She had no idea how Camilla and the others had managed to keep her in such good condition. Probably some wild necromancy stuff. Gideon’s not qualified to know, and certainly isn’t complaining.
“Do you understand what we need you to do?” Camilla said.
“Absolutely not,” Gideon replied confidently.
Camilla briefly pinched the bridge of her nose, sighed, and then looked right at Gideon with Palamedes’ eyes. It still made her skin crawl. But then, her own yellow eyes staring out of Harrow’s sharp, sad little face were probably just as unsettling. Fair’s fair.
Camilla stared down at her (and oh, Gideon hated that, why did you have to be so goddamn short, Nonagesimus?) and said, very slowly, “We need you to retrieve Harrowhark’s soul.”
“Yeah, I got that part.”
“She’s hidden herself in a part of her brain—”
“Sure. The place she was keeping you.”
Gideon scoffed. “Where she locked me up. Because God forbid Harrowhark Nonagesimus owe me anything.”
Pyrrha Dve, in the shrink-wrapped skin of Gideon the First, snorted. Camilla exchanged a glance with Coronabeth, who was sitting backwards on a creaky chair, chin resting on her crossed arms. Some of her radiance had worn off since Canaan House. Now she always seemed to be wearing a slightly distant expression, like she was imagining what you’d taste like.
Corona smiled. “Gideon, darling, on a scale of one to ten: how smart would you say you are?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“So like a four,” Camilla said, before forging ahead. “Harrow’s a Lyctor. You’re her cavalier. Palamedes thinks you can follow that bond like an umbilical cord (“Gross,” Gideon said.) down to where she is.”
Gideon glanced uncertainly down at her own body, lying comfortably on a pallet on the floor. “Okay, let’s assume that makes sense. How do I get from there into here?” She poked her body with the toe of Harrow’s boot. “And what about—” She rapped one knuckle to Harrow’s temple.
“Your body’s yours,” Pyrrha said. She’d taken up a position in the far corner, where she had a clear view of the door. “It wants you back. You could probably crawl inside it now if you wanted.”
“We can fix her brain,” Camilla said, gesturing with the hand that was gauntleted in the bones of someone else’s hand. Gideon hadn’t seen her without them since they’d reunited. Very Ninth. “But we can’t open the tomb.”
Gideon grimaced. “That’s what I’m for.”
Figures. Gideon rolled Harrow’s deeply unimpressive shoulders. “All right. Let’s do it.”
She was sitting cross-legged beside herself some fifteen minutes later, eyes pressed shut in concentration, when she sighed. “How long is it supposed to take?”
Camilla opened her eyes. “Have I done this before?”
“You’re Sixth! You’re supposed to know everything!”
Camilla closed her eyes again and leaned her head back against the wall. “No one knows everything, Nav.” And then, as an afterthought: “Just concentrate.”
Gideon grit her teeth. Pyrrha had suggested Gideon hold her own hand, to make it easier to find her way back, which was very bad for a multitude of reasons. Not the least of which was the inexplicable way her chest felt like it was going to cave in at the sight of Harrow’s scrawny fingers wrapped around Gideon’s own. She’d closed her eyes mostly to avoid that, and the concentration idea had come later.
A few more uneventful minutes passed, consisting mainly of Gideon trying not to freak out at how futile this suddenly seemed. Of course Harrow couldn’t just make it easy—
“You should be able to feel her,” Pyrrha said, kneeling beside her. She laid one of Gideon Prime’s heavy, scarred hands on Harrow’s narrow back. “I could always feel my Lyctor, even when he was under. Like a black hole in the back of my mind.”
Oh. Gideon did feel that tug. It was the cord that bound her to Harrow, the one that stretched back through her whole life, that had sent them crashing into each other like doomed planets, that had always dragged her back whenever she’d managed to crawl any distance away. It was the current she’d leaped into headfirst the first time she’d died.
Not a Lyctor thing at all. Just Harrow-and-Gideon, Gideon-and-Harrow. She’d always felt it, as long as she could remember.
She reached for it.
Harrow’s scowl. Harrow’s perfect sacramental paint. Harrow’s arms straining to lift her sword. Harrow kneeling over her, naked and stricken. Harrow’s nails dragging bloody furrows down her face. Harrow absorbing a necromantic theorem by pure force of will. Harrow clinging to her in the pool, fifty percent waterlogged robes by mass. Harrow screaming at her. Harrow saying “Gideon.” Harrow—
And then Gideon was drowning.
The black water engulfed her, rushed in to fill her mouth, the salt stinging her nose and eyes. She flailed her arms in the directionless dark. On pure instinct and adrenaline, she clawed her way to the surface and took a terrible, lung-shriveling gulp of frozen air.
The glittering worm-light twinkled on the rippling surface of the lake. The dense saltwater buoyed her up despite the drag of her clothes. When she’d gotten enough breath back to confirm she wasn’t actively dying, Gideon tipped her head back and shouted at the distant cavern ceiling. “Fuck!”
The well. The tomb. Whatever. Fuck, she hated this place. Harrow better appreciate this, she thought savagely, as the the cold leeched into her skin and she began to shake.
She swam, gasping and heavy-limbed, toward the island and the coffin and the girl she knew would be in it. The pull at the back of her mind was stronger now, almost a buzzing at the nape of her neck. She crawled up onto the rocky shore of the island on all fours, panting, her black robes trailing icy rivulets down her arms.
Gideon blinked down at her hands. Her hands. In the diffuse light of the tomb, Gideon could make out the shape of her own hands. Those were her fingers curling into the jagged rubble of the shore, familiar scars etched across her knuckles.
“Oh, shit,” she said.
She pushed herself up onto her knees and ran her hands up her arms, across her shoulders, sliding her fingers up to tangle in her crop of brilliant hair.
“Oh, thank God.” She came very close to kissing her biceps, but under the circumstances that seemed inappropriate. “This had better work, Nonagesimus, because I am not going back in your shitty body.”
She hauled herself to her feet. She was absolutely freezing, a fine layer of ice cracking and reforming on her skin, teeth chattering so hard it felt like they were trying to eject themselves from her skull. She was also filled with the pure, simple delight of feeling her own body move around her—her skin, her teeth, her skull.
She was where she needed to be. She was going to pull her necro out of this godforsaken tomb, end the game of musical bodies they were playing, and then everything would be all right. Harrow would be alive. And Gideon was going to give her shit for approximately the next myriad for not just taking what she’d offered and saving them a whole lot of trouble.
Well. Maybe only half a myriad. Not being dead was pretty all right.
The mausoleum crouched in the center of the island, barely more than a box of black glass and cloudy ice. It was ugly and brutally functional, more a prison than a final resting place, which Gideon supposed made sense. She exhaled and marched across the threshold into the shadowed heart of the Ninth House.
She had seen the inside of the Tomb before, in Harrow’s memories. The tableau that greeted her was not what she’d come to expect. The chains forged to bind Harrow’s perfectly dead girlfriend were broken and scattered like shrapnel. The coffin’s lid was pushed to the side haphazardly; parts of the floor had cracked under its weight. There were gouges in the lip of the coffin bed like something had clawed its way out.
And, of course, there was no ten-thousand-year-old corpse waiting for her, no body with Gideon’s eyes, with God’s eyes. Instead, curled up within the ice and stone, bare-faced and blue-lipped, more peaceful than Gideon had ever seen her, was Harrowhark Nonagesimus.
A sigh shuddered up out of Gideon like a ghost. The clenched fist in her chest abruptly relaxed.
She rested her hands on the lip of the coffin, flinching at the cold, and leaned over her necromancer.
“Is that my fucking sword,” she said. The words came out uncomfortably fond, seeing Harrow wrapped around the blade like it was a favored toy and not a very dangerous piece of sharp metal, and she swallowed them away.
She was struck, not for the first time, by how young Harrow looked when she wasn’t channeling the pure unbridled sorrow and determination of an entire murdered generation.
“Harrow?” It came out a whisper. The impenetrable silence of the tomb swallowed her words. She tried again. “Harrow. Wake up.”
To Gideon’s complete lack of surprise, she didn’t stir. Harrow was nothing if not stubborn.
She reached down to shake one bony shoulder. “Hey, Nonagesimus, time to get up. Wakey-wakey.”
Gideon ran through everything she could think of to wake Harrow up short of shouting directly into her ear. She even poured some of the frigid lakewater over her, which only succeeded in turning Harrow’s hair into a nest of frozen quills, which Gideon felt a little bad about. Then she decided, fuck it, and did scream directly into her ear, to no avail. Harrow didn’t so much as twitch.
There was a single, crystalline moment of terror where Gideon thought Harrow might be dead. But no, no, faint wisps of steam curled up from her lips. She was alive. She was just being a little bitch about it.
“Come on, Harrow,” she groaned, slamming her palms against the coffin. She tried to ignore how fast her heart was beating, how much the cold stabbing her lungs felt like the first slivers of panic. “You did it! You won! You’re a Lyctor, and you barely even needed me to do it. So wake the fuck up and rub it in my face already!”
Harrow slept on.
Gideon fell into a crouch beside the coffin and pressed her face into her hands. “Shit,” she muttered. “Fuck. Shit. Goddamn it. Think, Nav.”
She peeked between her fingers at Harrowhark, insensate and oblivious to her suffering. “It should be me in there,” Gideon said plaintively. “I don’t know about this necromancer spirit magic Lyctor bullshit. This is your job, Harrow. You’re the one who’s good at impossible.”
An impulse wriggled its way up her brainstem as she looked at Harrow’s thin, slack face. Without examining it too closely, Gideon laid her palm against Harrow’s gray cheek. Still nothing. No fluttering eyelashes, no disgusted curl to her lip, no scathing remark about personal space. She didn’t know what to do with a Harrow like this.
“Get back here, asshole,” she choked.
She traced her thumb along the sharp line of Harrow’s cheekbone, which felt illegal. She was almost surprised Harrow didn’t roar back to consciousness on the strength of offended pride alone. She held her hand there until Harrow’s skin started to warm and the thin rime of frost melted and dripped into her hair. Then Gideon realized she felt warmer, too. The hum of their connection had broadened into something bright and hot under Gideon’s skin and it flowed down her arm with the prickling sensation of a limb waking up.
She thought about Harrow’s cool fingers against her neck before the siphoning challenge, setting an anchor into her flesh. She thought about Pyrrha’s insistence that she maintain contact with her body. She thought, distantly, painfully, of arms around her while her soul fled her ruined meat, when she sought refuge from the dark in the burning beacon that was Harrowhark Nonagesimus.
“Huh,” Gideon observed.
She stood and leaned over the coffin and very deliberately took Harrow’s face in both hands. The energy between them flared, bright and warm as a funeral pyre. Harrow’s breath deepened. Her lips parted. Gideon could finally see the rise and fall of her chest.
Gideon’s heart was a thunderstorm in her ears. She tried to focus on the heat coiling behind her ribs, the thalergy or ghost magic or maybe just sheer desperation, and force it out, down, into Harrow. She couldn’t. Whatever this was, it didn’t feel like siphoning, like the relentless sucking pressure of her life pouring out of her. She felt like a lighthouse guiding Harrow out of black. She just needed to give off more light.
Looking down at Harrow’s pointed face, bracketed by hands that seemed absurdly large and clumsy by comparison, Gideon had exactly one more idea and Harrow was going to hate it.
“Okay,” she said. Her mouth felt very dry. She slid one hand around to cradle the back of Harrow’s neck and lifted her head. It was possible that Harrow’s eyelids flickered, but Gideon suddenly found that looking too intently at her face was difficult. “Okay,” she said again. “Pucker up, my moonlight empress. Don’t fucking strangle me when you wake up.”
Gideon bent her head and pressed her mouth to Harrow’s.
To be perfectly honest, Gideon had no idea what she was doing. Or rather, she had a lot of ideas about what she was doing, but no actual experience to back it up. She’d imagined it plenty of times—well, maybe not this exact scenario, though some of the details were right, not that Gideon would have admitted it on pain of death—but imagination turned out to be worth about as much as a Third flesh magician in a Ninth House ossuary.
There was no way she could have imagined how fragile Harrow felt in her hands, or the precise angle of her jaw as Gideon tipped her chin back, or Harrow’s breath against her lips. She couldn’t have imagined the sharp stab of want that pierced her with the same surety and finality as an iron railing, and on the heels of that, the eye-watering realization that this was Harrow, Harrow who had been in love with a corpse since she was ten years old, and that she was currently kissing her in a representation of said corpse girlfriend’s bed.
Gideon woefully acknowledged that this was something she was probably going to have to deal with at some point.
She also couldn’t have imagined the surge of necromantic energy radiating off her, making the air around them warm and humid rather than the typical Ninth ambiance of frigid and dank, but Gideon figured she could be forgiven for that one.
All this avalanched through Gideon’s mind in the space of a few seconds, which was just enough time for her to recover from her dramatic realization and start to worry that this wasn’t working and that she did this hugely creepy “kiss an unconscious girl” thing for no reason and she would have to tell Harrowhark obviously because not telling her would be worse somehow and—
Harrow gasped into Gideon’s mouth like she was breaking the surface of the icy lake.
“Holy shit,” Gideon panted. She leaned back and opened her eyes to find Harrow, her irises properly void black, looking up at her in a curiously detached way—calm, almost content—and that made Gideon more afraid than anything else. Harrow lifted her arms weakly and Gideon thought that maybe she was going to try and strangle her, which at least made sense.
Instead Harrow draped her arms around Gideon’s neck, dragged her ragged fingernails over Gideon’s scalp, and pulled her back down. Harrow’s mouth moved against hers. Harrow was kissing her back.
She entertained the idea that this was some kind of confusing nightmare dimension her brain had vomited forth, designed specifically to torture one Gideon Nav, right up until Harrow slid her tongue along Gideon’s bottom lip. There was no way her subconscious would manifest a Harrowhark that had more game than her, followed immediately by the thought that wait, Harrow had more game than her, which unfortunately made her think of Ianthe Tridentarius, which really put a damper on the whole kissing thing.
Harrow made a soft, pleading sound into her mouth and knotted her fingers in Gideon’s hair, because Gideon had gone stone-still while her brain redirected all available energy into processing this information. Apparently, Gideon was not doing her share of the work.
The insistent tug on her scalp and the press of Harrow’s mouth felt very much like a request and, as ever, Gideon yielded.
She wrapped her arm more securely around Harrow’s shoulders and hoisted her up so she wasn’t lying in a horrible fucking ice tomb anymore. She couldn’t have said whether or not it was a very good kiss. Harrow having more experience than Gideon really wasn’t saying a lot—something Gideon was grateful for in a heady rush of jealousy. It was uncoordinated and neither of them were careful enough with their teeth, the whole thing underscored with an edge of desperation like they were trying to eat each other alive. Which, yeah, was kind of par for the course.
Harrow groaned appreciatively when Gideon pressed closer. Gideon felt the rumble of it in her sternum and was hit over the head by the desire to feel it again. A good kiss? Who the hell cared? It was Harrow.
Eventually Harrow broke away, breathing heavily. She buried her face in the curve of Gideon’s neck, and Gideon held her and thought about absolutely nothing for a few blissful seconds.
“Gideon,” Harrow sighed. The whisper of her breath made Gideon shiver.
“Hey, uh, Harrow,” Gideon said softly, not letting go. “Not that I’m not totally on board with whatever just happened, but do you think you could explain to me what the fuck is going on?”
Harrow stiffened against her. Gideon desperately wished she could keep her idiot mouth shut for more than thirty seconds. Her necromancer untangled herself from the clutching mess of limbs they’d become and Gideon reluctantly let her go. When Harrow met her eyes again, she looked both awake and apprehensive.
Gideon swallowed. The uncertainty in Harrow’s face made a cold, slimy feeling bubble up in her gut. “Um. Yeah? Yes. Cavalier Supreme, come to rescue you from this shit-ass prison cell you hacked into your brain. Which was, by the way, an absolutely terrible, completely unnecessary thing to do when I literally died to save your pathetic scrawny ass but, you know, we can discuss that later when we’re not both getting hypothermia in your Frozen Obsession Palace.”
While Gideon spoke (and desperately willed herself to stop fucking speaking) Harrow first flushed hot from her ears down to her chest and then went abruptly pale.
“You’re real,” she said. She looked utterly stricken by this realization.
Gideon wanted to crawl back into the lake and drown for real. Instead, she took a deep breath and set her hands on Harrow’s shoulders, putting an entirely appropriate distance between them. Whatever was going on in Gideon’s stupid, stumbling heart wasn’t Harrow’s fault. After everything, she knew that reality was not a given for Harrow.
“I’m real,” she confirmed. And then, “What, do you usually dream about making out with me?”
Harrow flushed with mortification at this apparently dreadful suggestion, but the look of horror didn’t leave her face. “Griddle. Gideon. You can’t be here.”
“I submit evidence to the contrary.”
“No,” Harrow insisted, her dark eyes wild. She dug her nails into Gideon’s biceps and Gideon suppressed a wince. “No, you need to leave. You need to put me back.”
Gideon frowned. “Not a chance, Nonagesimus. We need you topside.”
“You’re not listening,” Harrow said. “If you don’t leave, the Lyctoral process will start to incorporate your soul and that—if that happens I can’t—”
Every shred of bitterness from nearly two decades coalesced into a ball of splinters in Gideon’s throat. “Yeah, you can’t get the last word in, I get it,” she bit out. Then, low and resigned, “It would have really been that bad to need my help, huh?”
Harrow looked like Gideon had slapped her. An ugly voice in Gideon’s mind said, Good. Gideon had died for her, had fought a mess of evil space bees for her, had been nearly crushed out of existence in the River, had dragged herself back down into this fucking prison to pull her out, and Harrow still wanted to be left well enough alone.
“Don’t worry, Sextus has it all figured out—”
“You think I—”
“You still get to be a Lyctor, no Gideons required—”
“Gideon, I can’t lose you again.”
Necromancer and cavalier froze. They stared at each other, and in unison said: “What?”
Harrow fisted her hands in the front of Gideon’s robes. Gideon wondered if she could feel the way her heart was pounding. “Explain,” she rasped, hot eyed and desperate.
Gideon did. Cam and Pal and their eyes and her body and the way out of this goddamned, God-set trap they’d fallen into.
Harrow’s mouth went slack, her breath billowing clouds of steam in the cold air between them. Her lips were parted, which was distracting. For an interminable amount of time, in which Gideon felt like she couldn’t quite breathe, she said nothing.
“Your turn,” Gideon prompted hoarsely.
In reaction to nothing Gideon could see, Harrow’s mouth stretched in a smile that lit up her whole face. A deeply ingrained alarm rang to alert Gideon to imminent danger, but she crushed it down. After the disbelief and the cold horror and the endless, futile months of watching Harrow deal with the worst shit imaginable, that smile was the most beautiful thing Gideon had ever seen.
“Griddle, you are the galaxy’s most perfect moron.”
“Why does everyone keep calling me stupid—”
Harrow kissed her again.
All right, so maybe Gideon was stupid. A minute ago, she’d been absolutely sure that kissing Harrow had been some grave offense, some violation, because of course Harrow couldn’t want her. Harrow was all but married to the dead broad in the Locked Tomb. She had only recently looked at Gideon with anything other than thinly veiled disgust. She had swallowed Gideon’s life and then spit it back in her face.
Except—that wasn’t true, apparently. Harrow had fucked up her incredible genius brain to try and save Gideon, with no evidence that such a thing would even be possible. She’d thrown herself on her sword just as surely as Gideon had. For Gideon.
Maybe it wasn’t so surprising she hadn’t seen it; nobody else had ever done anything for Gideon in her whole short, wretched life.
And now Harrow was kissing Gideon. On purpose. One hand back in Gideon’s hair, the other curled possessively around her neck, thumb brushing her throat. Harrow took Gideon’s lip between her teeth, pulling a sound out of Gideon that was embarrassingly like a whimper. She didn’t think the heat that rolled through her had anything to do with thalergy bloom.
When they parted again, Harrow’s eyes shone in the dim light. Gideon realized with dull panic that Harrow was crying. Without thinking, she reached up to wipe a tear away with the pad of her thumb and Harrow leaned into the touch, eyes sliding closed.
“You thought I didn’t want you,” Harrow murmured into her palm. “You can be such a fool, Gideon Nav.”
“In my defense,” Gideon said breathlessly, “I wasn’t really in on the plan.”
Harrow shook her head, covered Gideon’s hand with her own. “One flesh, one end. I meant it.”
“No,” Gideon choked. Harrow opened her eyes, uncertain. “I’m sick of endings. I’m ready to start some shit.”
Harrow stared at her. And then she laughed, high and genuine, and that lit up a whole new branch of neurons in Gideon’s brain and then she was laughing, too. She wrapped her arms around Harrow and lifted her bodily out of the coffin.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” she said.
They walked to the shoreline hand in hand, like they were afraid the other might disappear. Gideon didn’t want to let her necromancer go ever again. But when they reached the border of that gently lapping water, Harrow stopped and tugged to turn Gideon around.
“You have to go first,” she said.
Gideon laughed. “Nonagesimus, if you think I’m just going to leave you here—”
“You need to go back and get in your body before I take one step out of this place.” Harrow’s grip tightened around Gideon’s hand. “I’m not taking any more chances with you.”
Gideon swallowed. “But you will come?”
“Of course I will.”
“You had better, because if you don’t I’m coming right back down here and I’m going to kick your ass to Dominicus and back.”
“Griddle. I promise.”
“Swear by the Tomb,” Gideon insisted.
Harrow’s brows furrowed. Then her whole face softened into a wholly unfamiliar expression that made Gideon’s chest feel too small, too tight, like the pressure of the River trying to stave in her ribcage. Harrow placed her other hand directly over Gideon’s breastbone. “I swear by the soul of Gideon Nav, I will follow you.”
Gideon’s eyes burned. “Okay,” she said, when she could speak again. “Cool. Just one more question.”
Harrow tilted her head.
“Were you reading Frontline Titties of the Fifth for the articles or—”
“Nav!” Harrow blushed and shoved at Gideon’s chest. It was a pathetic attempt to move her, but Gideon let herself be moved, grinning like a mad skull as she fell backwards into the dark water.
Gideon had kept Harrow’s body warm for her while she was taking a nap at the bottom of her own mind. No one had extended Gideon’s body the same courtesy. The various systems didn’t come back online all at once. It was like Gideon was standing at one end of a long, dark hallway, watching the lights snap on one by one.
First awareness, then sensation. She was laying on the ground. People were talking, but Gideon couldn’t comprehend the words. There was a limp, bony hand in hers.
Autonomic processes. Gideon’s heart tripped into rhythm. Her lungs expanded, her chest rose. Instantly, the hand closed around hers like a vice. Or it would have, if Harrow had more than two muscles at her disposal.
Muscular control. She squeezed back. She opened her eyes.
Harrow was leaning over her. Gideon’s eyes still shone a molten gold among the familiar angles of her face. That would take some getting used to.
“Gideon?” Everyone else had fallen silent around them.
Gideon grinned. “Yes, my shadow sovereign?”
That same blinding smile shattered Harrowhark’s composed mask and Gideon simply couldn’t help herself. Harrow gasped when Gideon pulled her down on top of her, sighed when Gideon sought her mouth. It was somehow even better in the flesh.
From somewhere in the room, Coronabeth wolf-whistled. Gideon flipped the bird in her general direction.
Eventually, Harrow managed to pry Gideon off of her. Gideon was still smiling. She laid there, caught her breath, made sure her brain was running properly, and said, “Who’s the stupid one now?”
Harrow laughed again. Gideon’s ears rang with it. “Still you, Nav,” she said, bending to give her one last chaste kiss, and the careless ease of it made Gideon’s throat tighten. “Now, come on. It’s time to get up.”