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Chain and Braid

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“You have far too much hair,” the Body had said to her.

Harrow knew she had too much hair. Aside from her religion, it was personal preference that kept her hair in a tidy pixie. Her long, thick, black hair tended to age her down, and with her already abysmal height, she didn’t need the help looking younger. It also kept her hair out of her eyes so she could focus on her studies and necromancy.

But ever since she made it to Mithraeum, her hair had grown nonstop. She’d try to cut it off, but it’d grow back instantly. She tried daily for about a week, eventually falling into a fit of rage and shaving it all off. But like magic, it grew and grew until it reached past her shoulders.

This was even worse than before. Her hair hung past her shoulderblades, and it was heavy and hot. She thought about asking Ianthe, who had long hair herself, of how to manage it, but she didn’t want to ask more favors of Ianthe—whatever the previous favor had been, she wasn’t sure of, and Ianthe couldn’t tell, but she didn’t want to show any form of weakness or give Ianthe any more reasons to be smug. Augustine would be no help, and John would likely find her problems laughable or educate her on the symptoms of Lyctorhood.

That left Mercymorn, the joyless Saint of Joy.

Harrow hadn’t ever willingly visited Mercy. Usually, Mercy visited her unannounced to reprimand her theorem usage or her age (or lack thereof). Sometimes, she collected her to practice planet-killing for her lessons. That was the case here, and Harrow had just only finished cleaning up her bloodsweat. The last person she wanted to see was Mercy…but perhaps she could help.

Harrow’s stomach churned as she knocked on Mercy’s door. She hated asking for help for anything , especially from Mercymorn, but she was at her wit’s end.

Mercy opened the door a crack, revealing a chain blocking the door. “What.”

Harrow straightened and inhaled sharply, making herself appear a bit taller. It was then she noticed that, despite how Mercy carried herself, she wasn’t much taller than Harrow, maybe about four or five inches.

“I need…” Harrow paused to swallow. “Your help.”

Mercy rolled her eyes and slammed the door.

Harrow’s sigh dissolved into an irritated groan. She knew asking Mercy wouldn’t do any good. But just as she was about to turn around, she heard the sound of the chain.

Mercy was unlocking the door.

She stuck her head out of the gap, her peach-colored hair in an unruly bun. “Get in here before someone sees you,” she whispered.

Harrow obliged, looking around the hall as though there were some attacker Mercy was expecting. No one was there but the Body, but that was normal.

Mercy locked the door behind her with the chain Harrow had seen prior. As Harrow eyed the door, she noticed there were various chains, all of different shades of silver and different thicknesses. They would’ve made nice necklaces if Harrow had some spare teeth to hang on them, but instead, they blocked the grey door, though they hardly looked strong enough to keep any intruder at bay.

Mercy motioned toward a white chaise lounge. “Sit, child.”

Harrow sat. Her hands were shaking, so she sat on those, too. She refused to show Mercy any fear.

“What do you want.” Mercy’s tone was flat—a statement, not a question, though she sat by Harrow’s feet and inclined her head as though she were genuinely curious.

Harrow inhaled sharply again. “Something’s wrong with my hair.”

“It looks fine.”

“No, it isn’t! It won’t stop growing. I don’t…like it like this. It’s in the way. It’s heavy. It’s too warm. It gets in my eyes. I tried to shave it earlier, before you took me to practice, but it grew back longer than before. Is this…a Lyctor thing?”

Mercy snorted. “You’re hardly a Lyctor. You’re more like a molting adolescent duck.”

“At least you’ve decided I’m not nine years old.”

Mercy exhaled loudly through her nose and shifted a bit uncomfortably. “Hair growth is…not a Lyctor thing, Harrow. You’re being manipulated in some way.”

Harrow quirked an eyebrow.

“I know you don’t like being touched, but this might actually involve touching. May I investigate your scalp?”

Harrow scoffed. No, she did not want Mercy of all people touching her, but she figured it was a necessity. “Since when do you care about my consent?”

“Since you entered my room, Nonagesimus. You are still a child, after all. Do you want my help or not?”

Harrow sighed. “Fine.”

Mercy stood and walked to the back of the chaise, and Harrow backed up against its support. It would’ve been an awkward angle on anyone taller, but it reached the top of Harrow’s shoulders rather comfortably.

With cool hands, Mercy stroked Harrow’s hair. There was a certain firmness about it that reminded Harrow of when her mother would ritualistically shave her head as a child, ruffling it a bit before shearing it off. This, of course, was far more analytical and less loving—if she could ever call Pelleamena Novenarius loving .

Mercy lifted the mass of it and slung it over the edge of the chaise. She left for a moment, then returned with a comb and a bottle of water, which she showed to Harrow before using them.

“Why are you showing me those?”

“So you don’t flip out when they touch you.” She spritzed her hair down. She departed for a moment, and Harrow heard the screech of a chair on the floor. She turned to see that Mercy had pulled up a chair to sit behind her, but when they made eye contact, Mercy roughly turned Harrow’s head back.

“Don’t ruin the parts.”

“The parts?”

“The parts in your hair, dipshit. Stay still.”

“What are you doing to my hair?”

“Braiding it. What? Did your mommy never braid your hair?”

“No. She shaved it off.”

Mercy made a tisking noise. “Lame mom, then.”

“But why?” Harrow resisted the urge to turn her head as she felt Mercy piecing apart bits of her hair close to her scalp. “I thought you were investigating. Now you’re braiding?”

“I did investigate. This is the work of the other toddler, Tridentarius. Unfortunately, we need her blood to undo it, so I thought I’d braid it up to keep it out of your way before I stab the little bitch.”

“What did she do to it?”

“Flesh magic.” Mercy did not elaborate. “Harrow…aren’t you and Ianthe seeing each other?”

Harrow choked on nothing, leaning forward to heave.

“You messed up my work,” Mercy complained.

“Sorry,” Harrow wheezed, sitting back to where she was before. “And…no. Not at all. I wouldn’t…not after…”

“What are you babbling about?”

Harrow swallowed a bit of phlegm. “There was…someone. In the past. And…” Harrow suddenly felt rather nauseous. “Oh no…”

Mercy, sounding a little frustrated, set down the comb and handed Harrow a silver trash can to empty her stomach in. As she retched, she felt something lift her hair.

Mercy was holding her hair out of the way.

No one had ever done that for her.

When she was done, she sighed, wiped her mouth, and set the trash can down.

“Water?”

“Please.”

Within moments, a crystalline glass of water was in her face.

“Your baby hands will drop it and it’ll break, so I’ll just hold this for you,” Mercy said, but there was something else to her voice. A kindness, perhaps.

Harrow, feeling rather small, let Mercy hold the glass as she took a sip. Those unnerving red-brown eyes of hers didn’t waver from Harrow’s, and it made Harrow’s heart race, so she closed hers. She didn’t like eye contact, especially not that intensely.

Eventually, Mercy set the glass aside. “You don’t want to drink too fast. You’ll puke on my couch, and I don’t want to clean the stains out of it.”

As Harrow began to calm down, Mercy returned to her braid. She pulled a few strands a bit too tight, and Harrow winced, but Mercy moved it almost immediately. She had never let someone touch her for this long, and she was finally beginning to get used to it.

But it was quiet. Harrow ordinarily liked the silence, but this made her hands sweat a little. She wanted to say something to Mercy as she worked, but couldn’t think of what to say.

“I’m guessing you loved your cavalier,” Mercy said finally.

Harrow coughed, and for a second, she thought she was about to vomit again, but then quickly realized it was simply shock at the idea of her loving Ortus of all people. “Ortus?”

Mercy paused. “Who?”

Harrow didn’t say anything. Her stomach lurched. She didn’t trust herself to speak, for fear it would come out as acid.

Mercy clipped something into Harrow’s unfinished braid atop her head and moved to face her. She crouched in front of Harrow and stared at her face for a while before lifting her thumb and tracing it up her forehead and down her pointy nose.

“I see,” Mercy muttered.

“See what?”

Mercy simply shook her head and stood to return to her chair. “I shouldn’t tell you. Has anyone informed you you’re a mad woman?”

“Yes.”

“Because you are. And very brave. I suppose I shall rescind calling you a child.” The braid was down Harrow’s neck now, and Mercy was twisting it much faster. “You’re far braver than I.”

“I…” Harrow chewed her lip for a moment, which was a mistake with how chapped it was. She could taste the chalky paint and a twinge of metal. “Thank you, I guess.”

“Don’t get used to it.” There’s the snap of a rubber band, and Mercy handed Harrow a hand mirror to look behind her. “How’s that?”

Mercy clearly had a gift with hair. The choppy bits at the top were tied into little braids going down the sides of her head, meeting to one singular braid that swirled into a bun. Harrow felt tears in her eyes, but wasn’t sure why, so she blinked and thanked Mercy.

Mercy sat beside her. “You remind me…too much of myself when I became a Lyctor.” She lifted the glass of water and held it up for Harrow to sip from. “You should drink more water. Your skin is all tight and flaky. You’re a Lyctor…sort of…but you’re not completely immortal. Take care of yourself.”

Harrow said nothing and sipped, feeling like a small animal Mercymorn had brought in from a storm and was nursing back to health.

“I loved someone very important to me,” Mercy said as she took the glass away. “She was everything to me. But I could not save her. She paid…the ultimate price for my glory into Lyctorhood.”

Harrow picked at a broken black nail. “You loved your cavalier.”

“That I did. It’s shamed by society because of what we must do to…ascend. I am sure you know all too well.”

Harrow shook her head. “I didn’t love Ortus.”

“Right. Ortus.” Mercy exhaled. “Cristabel was…my world. So loving. Kind to everyone, even those who didn’t deserve it…which was most people, really, but she found a way to find the good in them. It was almost a religious devotion, to find the positive in everything, even in death.” She swallowed. “I wanted to marry her, but…” She paused to clear her throat. “She did not value her life, her body. She was honor-bound to serving me to the point of complete sacrifice.” Mercy leaned forward on her knees, inspecting the floor. It brought her a bit closer to Harrow to the point their knees bumped each other. “It’s been ten thousand years, and I miss her every day.”

“Why are you telling me this, Mercymorn?” Harrow shifted a little away from her. She was sitting too close. “You reprimanded me for even saying her name.”

Mercy pressed her lips into a thin pink line. “Her name does not leave this room.”

Harrow nodded but said nothing. It brought the inkling of a memory to the back of her mind, like someone knocking on an iron door. Bile rose to her throat, and she swallowed harshly.

Finally, Mercy spoke again. “Because I want you to know that I understand.”

“Understand…what?”

“What it’s like to lose. And when the deed is done, know that I have always known the truth, and you will be free. Do what I couldn’t do, Harrowhark.”

Harrow felt rather dizzy. This wasn’t unusual, of course. She tried to look somewhere, anywhere in Mercy’s quarters, and her eyes fell on the Body. She was gesturing toward the door.

“I should…go.” Harrow stood, and the world swam around her. She saw the Body reach out toward her, but she phased through her touch, as always.