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High But Very Drear

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nine.

When Crux told the story later to your crop of resuscitated novices, he would say that the Seat of the Emperor had blocked out the sun at it descended to the Ninth House, a holy eclipse ushering in a new age. This was patently false on several levels, beginning with the physical impossibility of a ship of the Seat’s class engaging in atmospheric flight, and continuing on to the banal reality that solar eclipses were only slightly less common than bones on the Ninth, but Aiglamene never corrected him. The newly resurrected needed a scaffold for their minds as surely as the newly dead needed one for their bones.

And anyway, Crux had never served in the Cohort and avoided even the dim light of the surface as if he would crumble like so much mummified oss, so what would he know?

one.

Without Gideon and the Reverend Daughter, days on the Ninth turned smooth like healthy cartilage. Aiglamene saw to it that skeletons were dispatched to maintain the oxygen-sealant machines and to boil the constricting flesh from the bones of each week’s dead; she took receipt of the monthly supply shuttle and maintained weekly communiques with the atmospheric prison, her only contacts with the outside world; she prayed silently in Drearburh’s mass for the Lady’s success. This was as it should be. The Ninth was the least and last of the Emperor’s Houses, and it had ever endured by rote perseverance, even if Aiglamene’s personal perseverance was at least fifty percent due to her refusal to let the warden beat her in their games of correspondence chess.

Yet it was undeniably emptier. The children had been extracted from the breast of the Ninth like a healthy organ from a dying man. Without them, its body shuddered towards corpsehood.

But the Ninth were necromancers. No corpse rested in their halls, and no lack of aptitude would have seen Aiglamene let the Ninth rot rather than calcify.

two.

The arrival of the Seat of the Emperor had been heralded by a message from the prison, sent to Aiglamene’s rarely-used communicator rather than official House channels. It read: hey wtf there’s a battleship here?? also check on game 3. yrs, feower.

Aiglamene legged it to the lift.

The lift swayed and groaned as it ascended to the landing field, but no more than she would have had she run all eighteen flights from where she had been supervising maintenance of the waste atmosphere collection valves. Hopefully no one had been so upset by her departure they died; it had happened before, and she considered it rather ignominious for a Captain of the Guard to take out members of her own house.

Crux was there before her, as he always was, solemnly black-draped and prepared as a catafalque, wringing his hands uncharacteristically.

“Well?” she said.

“The Emperor has arrived,” Crux said, squinting up the shaft towards space. He pulled his ancient, cracked tablet from the pouch in his robe it so rarely left. It was playing a recording.

This was one hell of a portent, so Aiglamene listened:

“I the Emperor, your Lord of Death and your Lord of Life, wish to bestow my thanks upon the Ninth House, for its children have sworn themselves to me in the holy service of sainthood. Harrowhark Nongesimus and Gideon Nav rise now into Lyctorhood, and so I return to you in kind a hundred lives for every Holy Finger on my hand; a hundred lives for every Lyctor now in my court. Let these five hundred be the rock upon which the Ninth builds its renewal. I bless the stalwart few who remain; I bless the work they will do guide my children from their slumber; I bless the Tombkeeper, and the wards upon the Tomb. Let it be so.”

Aiglamene had served nearly forty years in the Cohort, from the ages of sixteen to fifty-four, and she had never before heard the Emperor’s voice. She did not exclaim in joy or fall to her knees in prayer. Instead, her first thoughts, absurd and delayed, were I’ll never see that sword again, and Five hundred? We only have one-and-twenty score cells.

three.

The Emperor was not there in flesh, but Aiglamene forgave Crux that overstatement. What difference was there between the word and the body?

Crux descended into the cavern of Drearburh and returned with a handful of adepts and a procession of skeletons. They clustered on the landing field, not much darker or more lively than the gravel that covered it and watched the shuttles inch their way down the tunnel that connected Drearburh to the sky.

“Approach direct, you are cleared to land,” Aiglamene found herself repeating. “Keep steady.” (“The tunnel is rated for shuttles a full class larger than them,” she hissed to Crux as an aside. “Where has Second precision gone?” He made a wet sound of dismissal, like an organ collapsing.)

Aiglamene did not flinch as the first shuttle landed a mere ten meters from her, her nerves and hearing dulled by years of waiting for supply shuttles in this very spot. She strode up the ramp as soon as it clanked down onto Ninth soil.

“We will receive the gifts of our Lord the King, the Exalted Word of Death,” she said. Her face was painted in the image of the Skull of the Bound Penitent, lumpy and misshaped where the paint was loathe to stick to her scars. The pilot froze in ill-concealed panic. They were a mere Second baby, no more than fifteen and with the gawky look of one still in the Junior Cohort. She had likely short-circuited their stolid and callow mind.

Crux loomed over her shoulder, a shadow with weight, and the infant pilot caved immediately.

“We are here in thanks to our Emperor,” they said, rather more quickly than the regulation time for prayers. “Blessed be His Hands, holy be His Gestures; may His grace rest ever on the Ninth House and on its child His Lyctor.”

With this, the skeletons descended on the shuttle. They were too well-kept to rattle, and unloaded boxes of dirt and fertilizer in clicking silence. Then came sealed containers of rations and cuttings and seed: potatoes and oats, cabbage and beets, beans and kale – “you know, for the expanded population,” the pilot had babbled before quickly realizing the error of speaking – and plex boxes labeled CRICKETS and BEES. They had not had animal life on the Ninth since Aiglamene was a child.

Last of all came the coffins. They were lain out on the landing field, too blinding white to be a proper mausoleum.

Aiglamene and Crux watched with rather less emotion than the constructs. Ninth House pride would not suffer gratitude. This was wergild for the end of the Tombkeeper line.

four.

Her first task was names.

The bodies woke up naïve. They spoke as the Nine Houses spoke, and they were clothed as convalescents of the Cohort with cursory Ninth-black armbands, but they knew nothing of aptitude or religion. They knew no family ties, no histories, no selves. Crux, no great creative mind, had not known what to do with their collective amnesia. It was left to Aiglamene to gather up Aisamorta and Lachrimorta, who were inventive if rather unfortunately sadistic, to name them.

They became Arke and Dolores, Plutaph and Geras, Rhadamanth and Sepulchrista, each name taken from a funerary niche that each new immigrant pressed their lips to as they were sprinkled with their namesake’s ashes. Water was precious on the Ninth, so they took their baptisms in dust.

It was Crux’s job to give them proper reverence and tremor, a task he approached with near-malicious glee; it was Aiglamene’s job to beat off the rust of a myriad and make them serviceable.

She taught a smattering of them the mace and shield. She had no energy left for the sword, no more love left in her for hours of correcting form. They were not Gideon Nav – many of them were not even Ortus Nigenad – but they breathed and had a pleasant lack of rheumatoid arthritis, which put her ahead of the Aiglamene of the last few months by a significant margin.

She delegated what she could to the rest of the laity and elders, set these fresh-faced ancient neonates to the task of scraping bones clean and scrubbing out the cells they slept in. For the first time in almost twenty years, there were voices in the creche of the Ninth, something Aiglamene took note of and then put aside firmly as the door of the Tomb.

It was the duty of the Ninth to remember. It was not their duty to grieve.

five.

Life, such as it was, continued. Half her games against Feower were lost, and the others were won, proving again why Aiglamene could not yet suffer death to take her. For the first time since childhood, she ate flatbread of ground crickets and oats covered in fermented beets. These were recipes only the eldest Niners still knew, and that their newest members would never know a time without. They lived in a time of blood and honey.

And yet, the air hung heavy around her, as if in some smothering dream. The Ninth House was not yet complete.

six.

“We must discuss,” here Aiglamene paused, succumbing to her inborn longing for portentous silences, “the issue.”

Crux, a man born and bred to the silence of the grave, understood her meaning before she had even begun to speak. A true Ninth nun could communicate only through the drape of their habit and subtle shifts in their posture, though as of late osteoporosis had proved a communication barrier.

“We will not discuss,” he spat. “We will not renounce. We will not usurp.”

“No Lyctor has ever returned to their House of birth.”

“We will not discuss. We will not renounce. We will not usurp.”

Crux persevered like rust. He was fundamental, inescapable, and recurring. This had been a boon to Drearburh in the dark years of the Reverend Daughter’s adolescence, and again when she left for the House of the First, but his grim tenacity was proving to be an obstacle here.

“They’re dead, Crux.” It was the first time she had ever vocalized this knowledge. It had never even been vocalized to her, but rather communicated through expressive silence alone.

He rounded on her with a fervor that had been absent since Gideon’s departure. “You speak of that to me now? In the age of our Lady’s ascension? In this age of infants we are meant to keep straight and keep narrow? “

“No Lyctor has ever returned to their House of birth,” Aiglamene repeated. “We must select a new Tombkeeper and cavalier primary.” Her patience was the patience of one who had very nearly died and found death not particularly impressive.

“Our House will persist,” Crux said as if in prayer. “Perpetual. Undisturbed. The ancient traditions …” he trailed off, in the manner of a tired man, or perhaps a man who realized that the people who had made up those ancient traditions had been mosaicked into the walls in ash and bone, and even had he spoken for the rest of his life he would never communicate them all to the five hundred blood transfusions who now dwelled in their halls.

Aiglamene left.

seven.

In the Anastasian, the crypts and their doors were carved from obsidian, free from rust or rot in pale imitation of the Emperor. This was where Aiglamene found Crux, some months after their dispute. They had not avoided each other; that would have been impossible in the narrow halls of Drearburh. Instead they communicated with starker and deeper silences, until they threatened to break through the shell of secrecy they had woven around them.

She found him with the corpses of the Reverend Father and the Reverend Mother, folded neatly into crumpled bundles. They looked like porcelain faces attached to a body of rags and straw.

“Help me,” he rasped.

She helped. They were very light after years of desiccation, and it was the task of a half hour to slot them into a niche that had never been meant for them.

She did not have to ask this question, for Crux spoke on his own: “It was not a foreign battlefield they died on, but I tell you they measured the Ninth House a battleground … Not a hostility between the grace of the Reverend Parents and the thanks of the congregation, but a battle for our future. I tell you that they won.”

eight.

Aiglamene met Crux at the door of his cell. She held a bundle in her arms and said simply, “It’s time.”

He did not have to ask as he followed her down. They took the stairs, not the lift, as Aiglamene and Crux both were believers in the penitential quality of pain, and what they had done and were about to do was a violation of the rules of their House. They descended to the Anastasian, and once again opened its black and hallowed doors.

It was only then that Aiglamene unfolded the bundle. It was the Reverend Daughter’s robes of office. An old pair, too small and too ragged to befit a journey to the First House.  Within them were wrapped a similarly worn pair of gloves of fermented collagen leather, the kind worn when sparring.

Crux made a noise of disgust in the back of his throat.

“By ancient tradition, they go to the grave together,” Aiglamene said, not sorry at all about throwing Crux’s own words back at him. That was practically an ancient tradition itself. He made another displeased noise, but settled back on the balls of his feet with an unpleasant popping of cartilage.

They looked upon the cloak and upon the glove. Aiglamene did not blaspheme and think of the battlefield on which someday their owners might die, but she knew it would be far from here. She folded them again, binding the glove inside the cloak so that it was swallowed up in its darkness, and placed them within the niche. Then she stood back and prayed on her rosary, made of molars stained dark with tar. Beside her, Crux did the same.

Then they left, and barred the door of the Anastasian.

As they climbed the stairs to the hall of Drearburh proper, Crux said a single word.

“Rhadamanth.”

Aiglamene paused, but did not speak.

Crux continued: “Her paint and recitation are passable for mass. She does not suffer idiots.”

This was as high a praise as anyone had ever gotten from Crux. Aiglamene said decisively, “Dolores for cavalier. He has no instincts for the fight, but he can stand at attention and he can take a hit.”

And that was the end of the funeral of the Reverend Daughter and her cavalier.