Gideon never learned how to swim.
She never even imagined what it might feel like to drown. There was so little water on the Ninth that drowning was hardly a feasible childhood fear. Getting gored by skeletons, sure. Suffocating to death huddled in her cell after the Ninth’s ancient systems failed? Yeah, all the time. Freezing to death huddled in her cell after the Ninth’s antique systems failed? Absolutely! Murdered by Crux, murdered by Harrow, another round of the creche flu, poisoned by Crux, poisoned by Harrow, poisoned by the great-aunts, tripping and falling from one of the upper tiers, attacked by the zombified Reverend Lord and Reverend Lady, pushed into the Tomb with the rock rolled shut behind her--all of these were reasonable fears on the Ninth. Drowning? Gideon would have to stick her nose and mouth into a cup of water and try not to think too hard about how the water used to be some decrepit old crone’s piss. So no, Gideon never imagined it, never even thought about how it might feel until she stepped foot onto the First, until she stood on a terrace and looked out at that endless blue sea, until she stepped off the edge and into a pool at Harrow’s bidding.
Even then, she didn’t really think. At least not very seriously. Harrow said jump and Gideon jumped, simple as that. She felt a little unhinged in that moment, jumping into a pool with her clothes on, her heart pounding hard in her chest. There was a brief moment of panic when she plunged into the water and remembered that she technically didn’t know how to swim, but the pool wasn’t that deep; she could stand.
Harrow plunged in after her, splashing and sputtering, her arms and legs flapping until she found her footing. Gideon watched the paint melt off Harrow’s face and she lifted her feet and discovered that treading water was easy, and she could float without much effort at all. She thought about saying so, but could hear Harrow’s retort ready and waiting: Of course you float, Griddle. Your head is a buoy, full of hot air.
The first time Gideon really imagined what it might feel like to drown was when she pulled Harrow into that hug, when she wrapped Harrow tight, felt all of Harrow’s sharp points, and plunged them both beneath the surface. Harrow went perfectly still in her arms, so calm at the thought that Gideon had chosen to end her, so accepting. After that, pressed into the corner of the pool with Harrow’s head tucked in against her shoulder, and Harrow’s fragile frame pulled tight against hers--that was when Gideon really started to think about it. She imagined what it must be like, the salt sting of the water in her nose, in her mouth. She imagined how it would fill her lungs and her throat, how together they would sink to the bottom of the pool, entwined in death the way she always new they would.
Fuck. Harrow had been ready to welcome that.
And then. Then.
Living (well, not living) inside Harrow was a lot like that moment in the pool. It was difficult for Gideon to imagine herself as a disembodied soul, re-bodied within a body that already had one soul stuffed inside it. It was a difficult thing to envision, but her stubborn consciousness envisioned it the way one might envision themselves in a dream. When Gideon thought about her situation, when she was able to think about it and understand it--she was herself as she always had been--hot, gorgeous--with her associated body, somehow squeezed up inside Harrow, in a frame that was way too small for the both of them, Gideon’s body twisted up so that her face was squashed against Harrow’s left armpit.
Other times, it felt just like those minutes (hours?) in the pool, floating on the surface, touching each other in ways they never had before--no, shut up. Not like that. This time it was Harrow doing the holding, Harrow with Gideon pressed up against her, with Gideon’s big hot-air head on a bony shoulder that bounced and jerked in an attempt to knock her off.
And then Harrow grabbed her, fingers sharp and pointed, hooks that dug in and wouldn’t let go. And then Harrow grabbed her and Gideon was forced down, and she drowned and she drowned and she drowned.
Sometimes as the waters pushed up past Gideon’s ears, she swore she could hear children laughing, a crowd of them, two hundred at least. Sometimes they screamed. Sometimes she screamed with them, two hundred and one.
Harrow latched on and yanked her down, and each time Gideon hoped it would be the last, each time she hoped that Harrow would end it, finish it, but each time Gideon realized that even though it hurt, this was not a murder; it was an embrace. And she accepted it. Sometimes she even offered herself, and then she sank and she sank and she sank.
At the bottom of Harrow there was a tunnel and if you swam through it and up, you surfaced in a cave. The ceiling dripped and crawled with those glowing worms that only seemed to live in the deepest recesses of the Ninth, the ones they chopped up and then sprayed around the eaves and beams of the great halls of Drearburh, that glowed even after they’d died and been ground to dust. There might be necromancy involved there, actually. Gideon had never thought to ask. It was hard enough to get past the idea of dead worm flecks dusting her shirts and her hair and her skin. No wonder the creak of those doors was a scream.
When Gideon pulled herself out of the water, she was not at Harrow’s surface, but locked away inside a tomb. It didn’t take her long to realize it was the Tomb, chains and all, the stuff of so many of Gideon’s childhood nightmares. Sometimes she stayed there for days, shivering but never freezing, and she wondered whose fucked up vision this was, if she’d pulled this from a nightmare or if it was an accurate recreation from Harrow’s childhood, forged by a truly fucked up memory bank. It didn’t matter. There was space to breathe there. There was space to take big gulping breaths without the hairs of Harrow’s metaphorical armpit getting sucked up her nose.
Problem was, the place was haunted. It was stuffed with ghosts that never really wanted to see Gideon, never wanted to introduce themselves, but they were there, and sometimes Gideon would catch a glimpse of one out of the corner of her eye, a child peeking around a pillar, a head surfacing in the moat of icy water and then disappearing against beneath the surface. Sometimes she would feel a hand on her arm or her back and she’d turn to find no one there.
It was also boring as hell. There was nothing to do but lay on the altar and ignore the ghosts, to imagine Harrow’s frozen girlfriend and to wonder what could be so special about an iced up dead chick. The chains were huge, mega thick, which--if an accurate rendering--said something. Maybe Gideon was developing a crush too. Maybe this was the start of a proper love triangle.
Sometimes Gideon sat at the edge of the little island and she dipped her toes in the water and shivered. That never lasted long, but it wasn’t because of the cold. She inevitably started imagining the creepy children that watched her from the dark recesses of the cave, from underwater and once from a ledge above the altar, grabbing at her feet and pulling her in. She could take a couple kids no problem, come on, but she wasn’t sure how many there actually were and she didn’t know what might happen if they all grabbed hold.
Occasionally Gideon could see things in the ripples on the water, glimpses of the actual surface, of Harrow’s face smeared with blood, of tea and biscuits, of Ianthe Tridentarius with her--what the fuck?, was Harrow actually--
Gideon went back to the altar after that. She preferred to stare up at nothing, at ice and rock, than to watch Harrow shove her tongue into Ianthe’s mouth. Fuck.
No, she had to watch.
She had to know. She spent most of her time right there, huddled at the edge of the water, her arms wrapped around her knees, ghost kids be damned. Sometimes she held her sword, terrified that someone or something would come surging out at her. Sometimes she felt no fear at all and she conjured up interesting publications to occupy her time.
If she tried to get back out of the tunnel while Harrow was active, she’d hit a stone wall, and no amount of hammering on it with her fists, no amount of screaming, would push it aside. Harrow had rolled the rock shut behind her. Harrow had locked her in.
Eventually Harrow passed out, or dozed off; never for long, just a few minutes. Sometimes Harrow left entirely and when she did, she released Gideon and Gideon floated back toward the surface, pushed up with her arms and remembered that swimming wasn’t so hard.
Those were the times that Gideon got closest to the actual surface, those brief moments when Harrow slept and the longer moments when Harrow left the building entirely. She’d get so close, and then find that there was something there, some barrier, a thick layer of ice, and Gideon would press up against it, try to push it aside, and it was only then that she struggled to breathe, that she panicked, and her mouth opened and her lungs expanded and all the water of Harrow’s innards rushed in.
And then Harrow disappeared and Gideon was sucked from her cave, pushed up toward the surface where the thick layer of ice had thawed and cracked. She was up and out of the water, no longer allowed to drown. She had a rapier in her gut and a necromancer who would not or could not return. And all Gideon wanted were Harrow’s fingers, sharp and pointed, hooks that dug in and wouldn’t let go. All she wanted was Harrow there to grab her, to force her under and hold her down. All she wanted was to drown, to drown, to drown.
Gideon didn’t know shit about necromancy except for all of the shit she couldn’t avoid knowing because it was everywhere, just basically her entire life.
She still didn’t know shit, which was why it took Gideon way longer than it should have to realize what Harrow had done and why Harrow would not or could not return. She knew enough to know that they were still connected, because she had a living example of what it might be like if they were not connected standing right there, and Gideon’s living example probably wasn’t going to be growing back her thumbs anytime soon.
The River should have killed Pyrrha and Gideon both, but it was only Pyrrha that was ever in any real danger. By the time Gideon regained consciousness to find herself lying on the shore, the King of the Resurrected Sun, the Necrolord Prime, Emperor of the Nine Houses and Gideon’s dad was staring down at her with those unsettling creepy fucking eyes. He had his fingers on her throat and her chest had already repaired itself, but Pyrrha--Pyrrha needed help. Pyrrha needed reconstruction, and the Emperor hemmed over it, over the unprecedented damage done to his Saint of Duty, but he did not comment, barely even questioned. He merely mended it, and when Pyrrha spoke her thanks, she kept her eyes closed, and apparently that wasn’t weird either, because she’d been weird inside of the Saint of Duty for ten thousand years and all the other weird and ancient people were totally used to that. Oh yeah, that’s just Old Timer Gideon refusing to look at them again. That’s just Burnt Biscuit Gideon closing his eyes to them and turning away in disgust. Totally normal, never was the life of a party.
What Gideon was starting to understand was that there were degrees of Lyctorhood. There was Lyctorhood, the normal kind, which was the kind that was a dirty trick and got people killed. It was the kind that got you a necromancer licking the blood off her fingers after consuming a delicious meal of raw cavalier. A normal Lyctor could be torn apart ‘easily enough’ (ha!). A normal Lyctor could be killed without too much trouble (ha again!).
And then there was this. Knowing what they all knew now, Pyrrha called it an imperfect Lyctorhood, but it was still a step up from the normal kind. Imperfect Lyctorhood was this in-between state where the necromancer and cavalier were stuffed into one body together, where Pyrrha could sit back and stay quiet and live an entire alternate life while her necromancer slept, where Original Gideon’s soul could be ripped free and Pyrrha could still go on in his shell, not a full Lyctor, not really, but not the same as they were before it all either.
Imperfect Lyctorhood was Gideon sitting in Harrow’s tomb with the rock rolled shut, but there was no ice at the surface, no barrier to prevent Gideon from surfacing in Harrow’s absence, and the way Pyrrha told it, they could do this consciously. They didn’t have to hide as Pyrrha had done. Gideon could surface while Harrow sank and they could slide past each other, could drown each other over and over again for ten thousand years, switching places, sharing the helm.
So that was the second kind of Lyctorhood. Compartmentalization, Pyrrha explained.
Then there was the third kind. The third kind was the kind that got everyone riled up. The third kind was more of a bomb than Gideon had ever been. The third kind changed things that hadn’t changed in ten thousand years.
Admittedly, the first kind of Lyctorhood, the apparently common kind, was pretty fucked. Good riddance to Naberius Tern, but Gideon didn’t know shit and she saw that there was room for improvement, that a compartmentalized cavalier was more useful for splitting forces between the body and the River than a battery on autopilot.
Perfect Lyctorhood, though. That was another thing entirely, and Gideon was not actually sure she liked the sound of it. She wasn’t entirely positive she wanted to understand. Compartmentalization was already too much.
Didn’t matter. The only person anyone could ask was so-called God and no one that was left was touching those questions anytime soon. They all saw what happened to Mercymorn.
So yeah, getting back to the point, it was Pyrrha that clued Gideon in. It was Pyrrha who’d won the freakin lottery by being sent off to check on the Nine Houses as soon as
God, Dad, the Emperor plucked them all up from the River. Gideon had a choice to make there, and that choice was easy. She could stick around and bond with her dad and deal with Ianthe Tridentarius, or she could sneak onto Pyrrha’s shuttle and get the hell out of dodge. Gideon, luckily, had a lot of experience with escape plans, and the Necrolord Prime did not seem to care about her continued presence nearly as much as the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House had.
Gideon basically just walked right into the shuttle and shut the door behind her. Pyrrha wasn’t even surprised.
“Good choice,” she said, and that was that.
So yeah, it was Pyrrha that worked it out. It was Pyrrha that said, “She locked you out before, kept you shut out of her head for eight months and blocked her own awareness of you. She’s obviously worked out how it’s done.”
Gideon, who was sitting curled up in a seat that seemed much larger than seats used to seem, who couldn’t stop staring at Harrow’s tiny hands, at her fingers that moved when Gideon told them to move, looked up and said, “Wait, what?”
“I suspect she’s just switched positions. Before she had you locked in, now she has you locked out.”
And then it clicked, because the thing was, Pyrrha was totally fucking right. Harrow already had all of the pieces in place to do exactly that. She had her hiding place, her safehouse. It was right there and ready. Gideon spent eight months warming the altar for her.
“Fuck, you’re right.” Gideon slapped Harrow’s tiny hand against Harrow’s forehead, and then pressed it there, the pressure a soothing comfort for a brain trying to make do with a mismatched soul. “Shit, how the--Fuck.” And then: “But, shouldn’t I have felt her return? She was gone. I know she was gone, and I never felt her come back.”
Pyrrha shrugged. “I spent ten thousand years underground and he never realized, never really wondered. I was careful and he assumed we were working together just as we should.”
Gideon didn’t understand that. She couldn’t fathom ten thousand years of silently watching Harrow from the inside, locked in that icy tomb with all of Harrow’s ghosts. Gideon couldn’t imagine not needing Harrow to know that she was there and that Harrow hadn’t eaten her, that she wasn’t burning up to fuel Harrow’s Lyctorhood. Harrow had to know that Gideon had her back. She was there to protect her thumbs. Gideon was her sword, sharp and ready and always waiting. Anything less felt like it might kill her. It would kill her over and over again, ten thousand years of just wishing they’d done it the wrong way, the Ianthe Tridentarius way, Harrow licking Gideon off her lips, a delicious fucking meal.
Because the thing was, with this imperfect Lyctorhood model you could apparently kill the necromancer completely and leave the poor cavalier behind in their body, which was wrong and just weird. It was weird for Gideon. It had to be really fucking weird for Pyrrha. It was honestly shit and completely unfair. What was the fucking point if you could still end up abandoned and alone?
Pyrrha continued: “There was a lot happening all at once. She might have slipped back in while we were in the River.”
That seemed possible. Harrow’s heart agreed; it was pumping a little faster than it had been a moment before.
“You’re the expert here, the only one in the universe, right? So how do I get her to come out?”
Pyrrha frowned and checked a panel on the shuttle’s console. They were travelling stele to stele. It was going to take a while.
Eventually Pyrrha sat back, adjusted her necromancer’s body in the seat, stretched out his legs and folded his hands over his stomach. His head lolled against the back of the chair and then Pyrrha turned to look at Gideon. Gideon wondered if, after ten thousand years, Pyrrha thought of them as her hands and her legs and her stomach, or it was still his and she was just squatting in there.
Gideon felt like a squatter. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to think of Harrow’s body as hers, wasn’t sure if Harrow would ever want her to. Harrow, after all, had never been a hospitable host. She locked the door of her House up tight and then threw away every single key. On the other hand, it was pretty hard to imagine ten thousand years of anything. Who knew how things might change?
“I never tried,” Pyrrha said in answer to a question that Gideon had almost forgotten she’d asked. “I’m honestly not sure.”
“Okay, cool. Thanks for the help.”
“You have the advantage now of knowing she’s there. I imagine it’s just a matter of going to where she is, but if she’s got herself locked in, it’ll take some doing to pick that lock.”
And what if it wasn’t a lock at all? What if it was a big slab of literal rock that could never be rolled away?
Gideon pulled at Harrow’s thumb. It stayed put.
“So if we get to the Sixth and everything looks fine, what’s next? How are you going to--” here Gideon waved Harrow’s hand toward Pyrrha’s face.
Pyrrha sighed. She was fully slouched now, her head propped up by her hand. “I had some supplies hidden on the Mithraeum, but obviously--”
“Yeah, sucked down hell’s asshole.”
“Provided the Third is still there, which it should be, we can stop and get more. Contact lenses, Gideon.” She paused, like Gideon’s name felt strange on her tongue, which of course, it would. “A pair of contact lenses and you can fool God. Gideon--my Gideon--was never much for eye contact anyway.”
Later, lying in her bunk, Gideon sank. She pushed down and down until she came to the tunnel she’d been through so many times before. The way was shut. The rock had been rolled. Gideon pounded her fists against the stone, but it did not move, did not budge, and Gideon was too buoyant, two singular to stay down for long. She held on as long as she could, her fingers gripping tight to the stone. She bellowed Harrow’s name and received no response.
By the time their shuttle hovered over the Sixth, Gideon had spent several nights pounding her fists against the rock and begging that Harrow listen. When she was pulled back up, she took a moment to collect herself and then she sank again. The fact that the rock was shut at all confirmed that Pyrrha was right. Harrow was definitely in there. She was in there reading Gideon’s magazine and destroying Gideon’s imaginary version of her beloved sword, probably swinging it around and dinging it against rock and ice.
No, that didn’t track. Harrow hated her sword. She probably threw it right into the water as soon as she arrived. She was in there having tea parties with all her ghosts just like she did when they were kids except then the ghosts were kid-sized skeletons and the only other real living kid still wasn’t invited.
If she could, Gideon would spend her nights slumped with her back up against the rock. She would fall asleep there with Harrow’s name on her lips. If she could just figure out how to stay down.
Pyrrha was getting better sleep than Gideon. Gideon’s eyes were bloodshot and tired in Harrow’s face--which was how Harrow’s eyes usually looked in Harrow’s face, so maybe that was just the natural order of things in there. She slumped into her seat, Harrow’s feet firm on the ground (they touched, but just barely).
“Everything looks normal,” Pyrrha said. They were close enough to Dominicus that Pyrrha had sealed the shuttle up tight and was staring at a screen rather than out the plex. Gideon glanced at the screen. It was a planet all right. It looked nearly the same color as the explosive light of Palamedes Sextus. Gideon looked away. She closed her eyes while Pyrrha tried to get a hold of someone on the com. The voice that eventually picked up sounded like it probably belonged to a woman and that woman sounded bored out of her mind. Pyrrha was very polite, and when the voice asked if they were requesting permission to land, Pyrrha declined.
“That’s it?” Gideon asked. It seemed like a long way to travel to look at a planet on a screen and talk to a voice for a minute, tops.
“That’s it, they’re fine.”
“We couldn’t have just, like, I don’t know, phoned from the Mithraeum 2 or whatever it’s called?”
“We could have, but I didn’t want to stay. Did you?”
Pyrrha made a good point.
“What happens if he figures out your necromancer is gone?” Gideon asked later as they hovered over the Seventh. If the Sixth was fine, the Seventh was surely still there, but Pyrrha still wanted to check.
“I’m not sure,” Pyrrha admitted. “Until now, I believed he would have killed us in order to keep it from the others. But the others are all gone now. Ianthe the First knows the truth and chose her side--he might be fine with it, honestly, but I’m sick of acting as his attack dog. I guess I should have mentioned that earlier. I’m not planning to go back.”
She actually looked like she’d just decided that right then, that very moment.
Gideon shrugged. “All right by me.”
Pyrrha nodded. Gideon liked her. She remembered listening in while Harrow listened to the other Lyctors talk her up. She knew that Pyrrha Dve was a total babe. It was too bad they didn’t get to choose the body they were going to be stuck in for a myriad. It’d be a lot easier to hold a sword if they’d chosen Gideon’s body instead of Harrow’s.
Harrow would have hated that.
Gideon sat in her chair beside Pyrrha and she sank. She tried to load her arms with imaginary weights to keep her down. She tried bones first, figured it was appropriate, but then she remembered that bones float and the bones inside Harrow seemed to really excel at floating. Next she tried big heavy stones, which worked a little better. If she really believed the stones were real, they kept her down a little longer. She used them to pound at the rock in the hopes that the sound of stone hitting stone would carry further than her fists or her voice. She hurled the stones at the rock with all the force she could muster, which wasn’t much considering that she was essentially trying to throw stones at the bottom of a sea.
She tried not to think too hard about the water, about the fucking ocean of Harrow juice.
She sank and she sank and she sank. She screamed as loud as she could, and she reached out with silent probing force, and nothing changed. Nothing changed.
And then something changed.
By the time it happened, they were en route to a planet outside the Empire, one that Pyrrha had been to before, one she knew Blood of Eden liked to hide out on. Gideon had promised Harrow that if anything happened she would do her duty and go back to the Ninth, but she couldn’t do that, not unless she wanted the Ninth swallowed up by one of God’s resurrection beasts, or at least that was how she understood it. When she asked Pyrrha, Pyrrha just shrugged and said, “That’s what he always says, but it’ll take years. Why would an RB care about you when he’s sitting up there in space, a much juicier target? Cytherea hid herself on the Seventh for a generation and nothing and no one came for her there.”
Okay, so Gideon couldn’t go back to the Ninth, cause like, there was a very slight chance that if she did go back a resurrection beast would show up there tomorrow and if she was responsible for the Ninth being demolished by a swarm of space bees, Harrow would never forgive her. And also (apparently more pressing than the space bees) Gideon wasn’t ready to see Crux again or the look of disapproval and disappointment on Aiglamene’s face, and she didn’t know how she was going to explain the fact that the Reverend Daughter was missing, but she was probably in her body somewhere? And until Gideon figured out a way to coax Harrow out, the Ninth’s least favorite person was staring out of their favorite person’s eye sockets instead, surprise!
By the time the change happened, Gideon had given up all thoughts of the Ninth and was looking ahead, set on finding Camilla Hect instead. She remembered at least some of Harrow’s encounter with Camilla. She remembered enough to know that they were with Blood of Eden, that they had a portrait of a woman Gideon now knew to be her mom on their shuttle (what the fuckkkk) and a necromancer in their company. Oh yeah, and a hand she could use to communicate with Palamedes Sextus if it came down to that. Maybe. If Gideon couldn’t get to Harrow, Judith Deuterous might know what to do. Everything Gideon remembered about Deuteros suggested she might be more of a pain about it than anything else. If the Second couldn’t or wouldn’t help, then, whatever, Gideon would give Sex Pal’s hand a shot.
In hindsight, good old Dad probably would have been the person to ask, but like, fuck that guy.
It was probably a blessing that Harrow was being such a stubborn bitch about this. It didn’t leave Gideon a lot of time to think about the rest of the crazy.
Gideon sank with her arms full of rocks. She started banging at the door as soon as she made it to the tunnel.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! “Griddle?” Bang! Bang! Bang. Bang...
Gideon paused, her arm still clutching a rock. “Harrow?”
Gideon tried to hold on, tried to wedge herself in between the rock and the edge of the tunnel. It didn’t work. The pull was too strong, and she was yanked away from the rock and from Harrow and she was up and she was up and she was up.
She surfaced with a gasp, startling Pyrrha.
“I’ve got her,” Gideon said in a rush. “She knows I’m there.”
She sank again before Pyrrha had a chance to respond. This time when she made it to the tunnel there was a creepy ghost kid standing in front of the rock. Gideon recoiled, but the kid didn’t lunge or attack. She held out her hand and opened her palm to reveal a folded sheet of flimsy, the shiny kind used for magazines. Gideon took the note, unfolded it, read it twice and then read it again.
Go away and never come back to this place. - H.N.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Gideon said aloud, her words a little garbled in this water that wasn’t actual water. The ghost kid shrugged, and when she opened her hand again, there was a pen there.
“Harrow!” Gideon growled. She snatched the pen from the ghost, and wrote her response directly beneath Harrow’s note: Surprise, Bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.
She thought about leaving it at that, but Gideon wasn’t trying to play games here. She didn’t want to spend a century playing telephone with Harrow’s creepy ghost kids acting as middle men. Harrow needed to open up already. This had gone on long enough. Word is, you forgot to chew your food and now you’re stuck with me forever. Get out here so we can learn how to operate this meat suit together, okay?
She pushed the note back into the little girl’s hand. The girl clutched it and nodded, but she didn’t move. She just stood there and stared at Gideon, eyes like black pits, creepy as all fuck. Fine. Okay. Gideon could take a hint. She let herself be pulled up to the surface. She waited.
She didn’t have to wait long.
Gideon just barely learned how to swim, but fuck it, she was entering the synchronized swimming competition anyway. Sign her up. She and Harrow would figure it out eventually.
Until then it was elbows in faces and Harrow’s voice saying, “Griddle,” with that old familiar exasperation every time Gideon so much as shifted inside her. Harrow’s annoyed admonishments, which did nothing but make Harrow look like a crazy person and earn her a sharp glare from Pyrrha, made Gideon want to wrap her arms around her necromancer and never let her go. Her imaginary arms. Harrow’s arms? Whatever, they were metaphorical hugs, the point was she’d missed this. She’d missed Harrow so fucking much she felt like she might explode with it.
It was difficult to talk to each other when you were both in the same body. Gideon spent a lot of time thinking can you hear me? and some time--when she was allowed at Harrow’s helm--saying, “Can you hear me?” while Pyrrha shook her head and made sure the people around them looked at this tiny unadorned (boneless) woman and thought lost it instead of wizard shit.
They wrote a lot of notes, catching each other up on what they’d missed during the separation--Hey, guess what! God’s my Dad!--and destroyed them after they were read, then wrote some more. Sometimes they wrote imaginary notes and the ghosts delivered them. Gideon liked the real notes better. She hated letting the ghosts get too close.
The planet was called Acts 4:12 and there were a hell of a lot more people on it than Gideon expected to find living outside the Nine Houses. She knew there were people out here. The Cohort was fighting someone after all, but she never before thought too long or too hard about who that someone might be. They were illustrations in her comic books and words spoken because you knew you were supposed to speak them and necromancers leaning down to kiss the hands of the kneeling soldiers at the front.
People on Acts 4:12 died and they stayed dead and their skeletons didn’t move from wherever they were placed. With so many living people crammed together like this, who needed the dead?
“That’s not true,” Pyrrha said, which startled Gideon. She’d been trying to push the thought toward Harrow, didn’t realize she’d said it aloud.
“Their skeletons don’t stay where they’re placed?”
They were renting a tiny room with one bed that they took turns sleeping on. Pyrrha, it seemed, had been here before. She was friendly with the man that handed them the key, and when the man turned his back, Pyrrha led Gideon to a dusty trunk in the basement. She had another key hidden down there and the key opened the trunk and inside the trunk there were guns, and Gideon honestly wasn’t sure what Pyrrha expected her or Harrow to do with the small gun that Pyrrha shoved into her hand.
“Well, not always,” Pyrrha amended, “but what I meant was, they don’t always stay dead.” She was standing at the window, looking down at the street.
“Okay,” was all Gideon could say to that. She was lying back on the single small bed. It was her turn to sleep, but now that Harrow was back, Gideon spent enough time in the tomb that the last thing she wanted to do was waste time at the surface by sleeping. Still, she had a feeling Pyrrha was thinking about one particular very stubborn person who did not stay dead and Gideon remembered the time Harrow caught the Saint of Duty with Gideon’s mom in Gideon’s sort of ex-girlfriend’s dead body, and Gideon was not ready to have this conversation and probably never would be. She shut her eyes and tried to sleep.
Gideon’s favorite day, at least so far, was the day she was in the back seat, down in the creepy tomb, watching the proceedings on the ripples, mostly just getting bits and pieces here or there. She wasn’t locked in or anything, just waiting her turn while Pyrrha and Harrow explored a crowded street lined with stores. Harrow hated the crowds and her insides and outsides were tight and tense. The Saint of Duty knew people on this planet, all right, and many of those people turned out to be Cohort operatives placed there to watch and to listen. If anyone could help them find Camilla Hect, it was Pyrrha’s sneaky pals.
They didn’t talk much when they were out in the open like this, not about anything important, so Gideon really wasn’t paying much attention. She closed her eyes and felt the tension in Harrow’s limbs, in her calf muscles that would probably cramp and seize as soon as Harrow’s shift ended and Gideon’s began. And then that tension dissipated. It wasn’t gone, not entirely, but there it was a noticeable release, felt even from Gideon’s place deep in Harrow’s shadowiest recesses.
Gideon opened her eyes. Harrow had stopped walking and was standing in front of a large display of dark sunglasses. She reached for a pair and slid them onto her face. There was a little mirror beside the display and Harrow contemplated her reflection: her unpainted skin, her hair that grew too fast and was pulled back away from her face, and the set of the dark glasses on the bridge of her nose. Harrow turned toward Pyrrha.
“For Gideon,” Harrow said. She adjusted the glasses and shrugged. “What do you think?”
Pyrrha considered the question and then shook her head and plucked the sunglasses from Harrow’s face. She pulled another pair from the rack and handed those to Harrow instead.
When Harrow looked back in the mirror, Gideon saw that the pair Pyrrha had chosen from the rack were much closer to the pair that had been lost in the River. They were big on Harrow’s face. They covered a lot of skin and made Harrow look a little like a big-eyed space bee. They were perfect.
“Yes,” Harrow agreed. “These are perfect.”
When it was Gideon’s turn at the helm, when she began to surface and Harrow began to sink, Gideon reached for Harrow as Harrow slid past, clutched at Harrow’s arms and held her tight.
“Yours,” was all she managed to say--or gurgle, rather--and then she pulled Harrow in and kissed her on her metaphorical mouth. Harrow’s imaginary lips were stunned and still against hers and when Gideon released her, Harrow’s big dark eyes watched Gideon rise. Gideon couldn’t help herself. She winked.
It was her very first kiss, which was a little sad, a little pathetic, but at least it was with Harrow. It was a funny thought--at least it was with Harrow--and one she didn’t want to think about too hard. Anyway, that wasn’t even the best part.
The best part, the part that warmed Gideon every time she thought about it, was the next time they passed in the dark waters of Harrow’s insides, when Harrow grabbed for Gideon and Harrow kissed her back. Harrow surfaced flustered and stumbling. Gideon pulled herself onto her island in the tomb, fell back against the stone altar. Her smile was stretched so wide her imaginary cheeks ached with it.
It happened almost every time after that, desperate clutching kisses that never lasted long enough. And all Gideon wanted in those in between times--when Gideon was listening to Pyrrha’s reports and when Gideon was watching the water in the tomb--all she ever wanted were Harrow’s fingers, sharp and pointed, hooks that dug in and wouldn’t let go. All she wanted was Harrow there to grab her, to force her under and hold her down and never let her go. All she wanted was Harrow’s mouth on hers so that Gideon could drown in it and drown in it and drown in it.
And then a breakthrough, an address in a city not far from the city where they started to look, just a short shuttle ride away, a city on the planet Ephesians. Gideon had no idea where that was, but Pyrrha assured her it was not far at all, like hopping from the Fourth to the Fifth for dinner. Gideon was unaware that anyone in the Nine Houses traveled to another house just to eat. That sounded pretty far to her.
It was early morning when they arrived. Pyrrha shoved the gun into Harrow’s hand. Harrow took one look at it and said, “Why would I need this?”
“On Ephesians, you’re a wizard, you’re evil demonic filth. If we encounter trouble, that pistol’s the only thing you need. Don’t forget it.”
Harrow did not know how to use a gun, but her cavalier did. Her sword did. Gideon stood there for hours on Acts 4:12 with Pyrrha beside her and a target ahead and the loud pops of gunfire all around. It was stupidly simple and loud and so much worse than a rapier, leagues behind her two hander. It required no skill whatsoever, as long as you could aim, and it was totally useless against bone. That wouldn’t matter here. It was good against flesh and flesh was what counted on Ephesians.
Harrow took one look at the gun in her hand and she sank right away, didn’t even bother to say goodbye to Pyrrha. She passed her relay baton to Gideon with sharp fingers and a fierce kiss. It was easy like this when they only had seconds. It was easy when it wasn’t real, when it was imaginary lips and metaphorical mouths. They didn’t talk about it, didn’t write, and sometimes Gideon wondered if it was all in her head, if the fucking ghosts were playing tricks, if the water was just giving her this one good thing to keep her going. Gideon contemplated leaving Harrow an imaginary note in the tomb asking her. She didn’t write it. She didn’t want to risk reading an answer she didn’t want to hear.
She surfaced as Pyrrha was shoving her gun into the waist of her trousers and pulling her shirt down to cover it. Gideon did the same, the metal cold against Harrow’s back.
“Is this where my mother was from?” Gideon asked as they walked. She wasn’t sure why she asked, how she knew, but it probably had to do with the stiff expression on Pyrrha’s necromancer’s face.
“Yes,” Pyrrha said, without hesitation, confirming Gideon’s gut.
Pyrrha was walking fast and her legs were long. Gideon practically had to jog to keep up and Harrow’s body was not used to jogging. The air felt thick here, hot and moist, and it was difficult to breathe.
“It’s going to get worse,” Pyrrha promised. “It’s best if we beat the sun. Her lungs can take it; you won’t pass out.”
“Thanks,” Gideon said, but she continued to push. In truth, this was what she should have been putting this body through on a daily basis. Harrow was a Lyctor for eight months and only managed to get smaller, but there was only so much Gideon could accomplish while confined to a shuttle. There was only so much she could do while spending all her free time banging rocks against a stone wall.
The building was grey and nondescript.
Harrow’s heart was beating fast in her chest.
“What should we call you for this?” Gideon asked. Pyrrha had a different name for everyone they met. For one contact on Acts she was Odysseus, for another Gideon and Harrow were instructed to call her Jeff.
“Let’s go with Pyrrha this time.”
Pyrrha, somehow, had a key to the front door and knew exactly which floor and exactly which door. There were thirty flights of stairs to get to the door. Once there, Pyrrha took a step back and shoved Gideon forward. Gideon knocked.
Camilla Hect answered the door. She looked wary and mean, hair as blunt as ever, and Gideon guessed there was at least one knife in the hand she couldn’t see. It’s not like Camilla could actually kill her, so Gideon ignored the threat of imminent stabbing, grabbed for Camilla and pulled her into a tight hug. Camilla froze in her arms and when Gideon pulled back, she saw that it was the Saint of Duty’s shell Cam was staring at now.
“It’s okay,” Gideon said, one hand still on Camilla’s arm. She felt something sharp against her thigh and looked down. Yep, there was that knife. “Pyrrha’s cool, I promise. She’s kinda… my step mom?”
Pyrrha shook her head. “No, I’m not.”
“My mom’s sex friend,” Gideon corrected.
“Not that either.”
Gideon sighed. “It’s complicated.”
Camilla’s clear grey eyes shifted to Gideon. “Nav?”
“Yeah,” Gideon agreed, and pointed at her eyes in Harrow’s face. Then she remembered she was wearing her new sunglasses. She pushed them up Harrow’s forehead and pointed at her eyes again.
Camilla grabbed Gideon by the arm and yanked her inside. Pyrrha followed. She didn’t need to be pulled. Camilla locked at least seven deadbolts, instant flashbacks to the Sixth’s rooms at Canaan House. Once that was done, she turned back to her guests and said, “What happened to Harrow?”
“She’s here,” Gideon said. She patted Harrow’s chest. “Like in here.”
Camilla frowned at that, like she wasn’t sure she believed Gideon. She tilted her head and started to walk. Gideon and Pyrrha followed.
“What are you doing here?” Camilla asked. She turned the dial on a box near the door and music began to play. The shades were all drawn, the curtains pulled tight. There was a fan spinning overhead, but it was still really fucking hot. Camilla was studying Gideon, taking in Harrow’s too-long hair and Gideon’s eyes, probably the lack of bone accessories. Was this the first time the Sixth had ever seen Harrow’s unpainted face? That was probably it, but there was something else. There was something going on with Camilla, something different.
“What happened?” Gideon asked. “Why do you seem different?”
“It’s my eyes,” Camilla said, matter-of-fact.
Gideon squinted. “What’s wrong with them?”
“They’re the Warden’s.”
Gideon frowned. “Are they?”
“My eyes are darker.” Camilla opened a drawer beside the sagging sofa and pulled out a pair of glasses. She set them on her face. “They’re his. See?”
Gideon squinted, crossed her arms over chest. “I guess.”
“You’re the cavalier?” Pyrrha asked from behind Gideon.
Camilla nodded. She sat down on the sofa, then gestured to a chair.
“Of course you are. It’s reverse imperfect Lyctorhood,” Pyrrha concluded, which was -- Reverse what? Gideon sat down on the sofa beside Camilla and together they watched as Pyrrha began to pace. “We speculated whether it should be done in reverse. The cavalier’s body is stronger, more capable of self defence, but as you can imagine, none of the necromancers--well, John claimed it would kill both the necromancer and the cavalier, that the cavalier’s body couldn’t handle the sudden surge of thanergy and the cavalier didn’t know or understand the theorems anyway. Of course, no one knew compartmentalization was possible then.”
“He’s in there?” Gideon asked, catching up. She hoped Harrow was getting all of this. “Harrow, pay attention.” She felt a twinge of pain in her left hip and took that to mean the message was received. She turned back to Camilla: “How? Wasn’t he a hand?”
Camilla shrugged. “He talked me through it.”
Gideon looked at those eyes and remembered them in Sextus’s face. “Hm. See, this is confusing, because you have his eyes and he has yours, but Harrow and I still have our own eyes. And it’s not even like the eye thing is because you’ve got like this reverse imperfect Lyctorhood thing going on, because then we’ve got Pyrrha over there who still has Deadest Gideon’s eyes--” (“My necromancer is dead,” Pyrrha translated for Camilla.) “--so how the fuck is anyone supposed to keep track of who’s running who?”
“I’m probably not the person to ask,” Camilla said, pragmatically.
“Right,” Gideon said. “You’re wearing those glasses and I already forgot who I was talking to. Is Palamades at home?”
“Are you asking him to come out and play?” Camilla returned.
Gideon smiled and slapped a hand on Camilla’s knee. “I missed you.” And then: “Yes.”
“One thing first,” Camilla said. “Did the Warden say anything before the explosion?”
Gideon paused, surprised by the question. They’d had this conversation before, but Camilla sat there, carefully watching Gideon as she waited for the answer.
“Yeah, he did,” Gideon said. “He said you’d know what to do.”
Camilla nodded. “I do.”
Also weird: watching souls swap places from the outside. There was a moment where Camilla’s face contorted hilariously, her mouth stretched to the side like she was pulling at it with her finger, and Gideon hoped to whoever was listening that she and Harrow didn’t ever look that silly. Gideon watched closely as the grey eyes behind the glasses grew dark and muddy. She recognized them now as Camilla’s eyes, and wondered how she’d ever forgotten, and then Gideon was yanked into a tight hug. He stood as he hugged her, pulled Gideon up with him and lifted her off the ground. Fuck, Harrow was short.
“I knew she’d come though,” he said in her ear, as though this was all Harrow’s doing, her great achievement, and Gideon hadn’t needed to beg and scream and drag Harrow from her cave scratching and kicking the entire way. Gideon let it go without comment, because--well, honestly Gideon had never been hugged like this before. She’d hugged people a few times now, sure, but she’d rarely been hugged herself, and she savored it, laughed into his shoulder and ignored the glasses that poked against the side of her face and threatened to get tangled up with the sunglasses on her head.
When he set her down, her feet firm on the floor, she held him out at arms length, looked him up and down--he looked exactly like Camilla now except for the glasses--and said, “So how does it feel to be inside Camilla?”
Palamedes sputtered for a while and pressed Camilla’s fingers against the bridge of Camilla’s nose beneath the glasses that he probably didn’t actually need, and Harrow started yanking on Gideon’s unreal feet in an attempt to resume control, and Gideon added: “Not so much Sex Pal anymore, I guess. More like Sex Cam?”
Pyrrha groaned, too old for Gideon’s humor, and Palamedes rolled his eyes, the stick too far up his cavalier’s ass for Gideon’s humor, and Harrow clawed at Gideon’s imaginary legs and tried to drown her for the ten thousandth time.
“It’s, um. Well, it’s a sizable step up from clinging to a few bones. She’s a gracious host.”
“Come on,” Gideon admonished. She wasn’t going to let him brush past her question.
He looked up toward the ceiling and sighed heavily. “She feels very robust.”
“I bet,” Gideon smiled. Was he blushing?
“It’s extremely disconcerting, your words coming from the unpainted and deboned visage of the Reverend Daughter.”
Gideon nodded. “I bet,” she said again.
“On the subject of Harrowhark...” He sat down and cleared his throat. Gideon followed his lead and returned to her seat on the sofa. They waited while he leaned forward, arms propped on Camilla’s knees. When he spoke, his voice was low. “Are you absolutely certain that it’s Harrow that you carry with you?”
“Yeah, of course it’s Harrow,” Gideon confirmed. “She’s in here pinching me right now.”
Palemedes looked to Pyrrha, who nodded, and said: “It’s her, no question.”
“Interesting,” Palamedes said.
He sat back on the sofa, a position that looked relaxed, except that Camilla’s shoulders were incredibly tense and he had his hand on her knife. Pyrrha caught Gideon’s eye. Gideon shook her head. Eventually, Palamedes reached a decision. He nodded and then stood, still holding the knife, and looked down at his guests. “If you’re Gideon, which it certainly appears that you are, and you’re both telling me you have Harrow in there with you--”
“We do,” Gideon confirmed again, a little exasperated. She should just let Harrow show him, but Pyrrha narrowed her eyes and then looked to the waistband of Gideon’s pants. Right, fine, she’d stick around in case they needed the guns.
“--then perhaps you might shed some light on who we’ve been caring for these past months.”
Gideon froze at that. “What?”
Pyrrha was already looking past Gideon and Palamedes toward a bedroom. The door was shut when they arrived. It remained shut now. Every other door in the apartment--not that there were many--was open. Pyrrha slipped the gun from her waistband. She tipped her head toward Gideon, a message that she would take the rear. Palamedes led the way to the door.
He paused with his hand on the knob. “I should warn you--”
“Just open it already,” Gideon said, unable to handle the suspense, though there was a not-so-small part of her convinced he was going to open the door to introduce Corona or Captain Deuteros or someone else entirely reasonable. Still, Harrow’s heart was pounding and Gideon desperately wanted her sword in her hands. She wanted Harrow at her side.
Palamedes opened the door and stepped into the room. Gideon followed. Pyrrha kept to the doorway, her gun out and visible. The room itself was just a bedroom, sweltering like the rest of the apartment. Dark like the rest of the apartment.
“You can come out now,” Palamedes said. He moved across the room to another door. “Come on out. There are people here I’d like you to meet.”
Gideon was not at all prepared for what came next, because what came next was her doppelganger stepping out of a closet. The woman was a perfect clone of Gideon Nav, like if Gideon secretly had a twin sister, but unlike Corona and Ianthe, Gideon and her twin were both equally vibrant and gorgeous. Except they weren’t, not really, because Gideon was essentially dead, at the very least departed, and her long lost twin had scars on her right arm in the exact place Gideon had scars on her right arm, two parallel imperfections from where Crux grazed her with a repeating crossbow during training years ago.
“What. the. Fuck.” Gideon managed to choke out.
Her body smiled at her and those eyes--yellow just like hers--were bright with recognition.
“I remember you,” Gideon’s body said.
Gideon should hope so!
Her body’s voice was Gideon’s and not Gideon’s and Gideon absolutely was not ready for this. She could handle dying for Harrow. She could handle eight months locked up with Harrow’s ghosts. She could handle her dead mother parading around in the dead body of her crush, could handle finding out she was born to be a bomb, could handle that God was her dad. This she could not handle. Her entire body was shaking--Harrow’s body, not--
“Sorry, I’m--,” Gideon stumbled back toward the door. Pyrrha stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. Gideon pushed, but Pyrrha didn’t budge. She was hardly paying attention to Gideon at all. All of Pyrrha’s focus was on the other Gideon’s eyes. Fuck. Gideon tripped over a few more words: “I--no. Nuh uh. Nope!” And then she did the only thing she could do. She sank.
There was a moment there in Harrow’s deep dark sea, a moment when Harrow reached for her and they held each other. Harrow’s eyes were wide, stunned, and so very dark. She stared at Gideon in disbelief, and when she leaned in to kiss Gideon, Gideon thought that it tasted like a goodbye.
Harrow tried to let go. Gideon held on tight. Don’t go.
Harrow kissed her again. One of us has to be up there.
Gideon held on tighter, but it didn’t matter. Harrow was right, and the pull was strong. Gideon could try to hold on forever, but forever down here was short and one of them always slipped away.
Gideon surfaced in the tomb, crawled out of the water and onto the shore. She lay there on her back, her eyes on the ceiling, and she didn’t turn back toward the water until she heard Pyrrha say, “Alecto.”
Gideon’s body’s mouth smiled with remembrance at the name, and it was Gideon’s smile, the right side pulling a little further than the left, the same crooked teeth, everything just a little big skewed, just a little wrong. Harrow’s heart was racing, galloping, and if she wasn’t a Lyctor, Gideon would be concerned it was about to give out.
Harrow stepped forward. She looked at Gideon’s wrists and Gideon’s neck. She looked into those familiar yellow eyes.
“It’s you,” Harrow said, and it all clicked into place. Harrow’s crazy dead bitch of an ex-girlfriend had hijacked Gideon’s body, and now she was here, with Gideon’s meat and all of Gideon’s beautiful bones, and Harrowhark Nonagesimus was so entranced she might just swoon and collapse right into those strong and gorgeous arms.
Gideon dropped a stone in the water and the surface blurred. Above her, the worms that thrived inside Harrow pulsed and writhed. Around her, in the dark shadowy pockets of the tomb, Harrow’s ghosts laughed and they laughed and they laughed.
Imperfect Lyctorhood was shit.
Total absolute shit.
Lyctorhood was the kind of shit where a cavalier could sacrifice herself to save her necromancer, give Harrow her whole entire life, and then almost a year later the cavalier could find out that her body didn’t actually die! No, actually her body was just fine and there was barely a scar from where she--again--gave Harrow her whole entire life and now Harrow’s dead girlfriend was all moved in and she’d rearranged all of Gideon’s furniture. Now Gideon was the one sitting in the tomb while Harrow stared at her body, at someone else inside it, while Harrow tentatively reached out to touch her body’s hand, like Harrow never attempted when Gideon was actually in there.
Now when Harrow sank down (presumably to inform Gideon that she was acting like a stubborn piss baby, though she never managed to say the words out loud) Harrow kissed Gideon and it felt like maybe she’d rather be kissing someone else. Now, suddenly, Gideon remembered the look on Harrow’s face back in the pool in Canaan House and Harrow’s tongue in Ianthe Tridentarius’s mouth and those moments seemed even more significant. Suddenly Coronabeth Tridentarius was standing there and instead of looking absolutely amazing, she was just another shit reminder that Harrow might have been Gideon’s first kiss, but Harrow chose Corona’s sister instead.
That wasn’t a fair thought, but Lyctorhood wasn’t fair.
Imperfect Lyctorhood wasn’t fair.
None of this was fucking fair.
At least with the first brand of Lyctorhood--the kind where Harrow sucked Gideon from her teeth and burned her for eternity--at least with that, Gideon wouldn’t have to sit there and watch. Harrow could live happily ever after with her girlfriend nestled up in Gideon’s body and Gideon would be blissfully unaware as she burned and burned and burned.
Long story short, Gideon refused to surface again for weeks.
She hunkered down while Palamedes said, “Is she alright?” with concern plastered all over Camilla’s face, and Harrow said, “She does this sometimes. She always has,” which, okay, fuck you, Harrow. Fuck you and your big dark eyes. Gideon saw the way that Harrow looked at her body now. She felt the way that Harrow’s heart jumped and her stomach fluttered.
Gideon tried to roll the rock shut behind her, tried to lock herself in, but the stupid thing wouldn’t move. She begged the ghosts, got down on her knees, but the ghosts wouldn’t come for her and the rock wouldn’t budge. Apparently the rock only moved for Harrow, God’s blood be damned.
Speaking of God’s blood and the body that contained it, Alecto was weird. Mercymorn and Augustine were awful, but they were also right. Alecto did things that were not normal. She stuffed bits of bone in her mouth like a fucking chipmunk and she sat there for an hour with them in her cheek, Gideon’s poor face puffed out so she looked like a total asshole, like she did after Crux kicked her with a heavy boot. Alecto routinely ate food that was too hot and didn’t seem to notice, and had probably scalded all of Gideon’s insides beyond repair. It left Gideon wondering if her body was as dead as Protesilaus, as dead as Pelleamena and Priamhark. Maybe she was, in fact, super dead and her body was just being puppeted by her dad’s creeper cavalier, like the ghost of her mother in the body of Dulci--Cytherea the First.
Harrow’s eyes were all over the body, and from where Gideon was hiding, her body definitely didn’t look dead.
Worst of all was the way Alecto moved. Most of the time it was fine, but there were moments where she seemed to forget, here she moved too fast or too slow, where she bent in ways that Gideon never bent and moved in ways that Gideon never moved, and even that didn’t drive Harrow away.
When it came down to it, Pyrrha was the only person there who seemed to understand Alecto, though Harrow tried. Of course, Harrow tried.
Harrow stood over Alecto’s bed and watched her lie there, her eyes staring at nothing--she never seemed to sleep. Harrow, Gideon could tell, wanted to crawl right into bed with Alecto, cradle her girlfriend in Gideon’s body, and fall asleep holding Gideon’s (Alecto’s) hand.
“How are you?” Palamades asked Harrow routinely, because Harrow walked around in a fucking daze, just staring at her would-be girlfriend in her cavalier’s discarded body, just tentatively reaching out with shaking fingers and then pulling away.
Gideon felt Harrow’s heart jump each time he asked the question and she huffed a sort of laugh. Out loud to the tomb and the worms and the ghosts, Gideon said: “Can’t you see she’s living the dream?”
Up at the surface Harrow said, “I don’t understand how this happened,” and Palamedes nodded and made all kinds of small thoughtful noises that seemed wrong coming from Camilla Hect’s throat.
In moments like those Gideon had a hard time containing herself and she felt pressed up tight against Harrow’s walls, constricted and confined. There was no space to move, barely space to breath, her face right up against Harrow’s armpit, her legs impossibly twisted up in Harrow’s legs. She should be too heavy for Harrow to carry. Harrow should buckle beneath her weight. Gideon tried to shift, tried to push away from Harrow, and then it was Harrow making small noises in her throat, her heart a gallop, her fingers tight against her knee. Gideon could tell that Harrow wanted to kick and she wanted to scream and she didn’t do either, just sat there and waited for Gideon to settle, to shrink and fall back against the stones.
Alecto watched with Gideon’s eyes in Gideon’s face, a fucking monster, and Harrow could hardly look away.
“It would be helpful to talk to Gideon directly--” Palamedes said. He looked Harrow pointedly in the eye, as though trying to transmit his judgement way down to Harrow’s base, through the tunnel, and up into the tomb. It worked. Gideon received that message loud and clear. “--but based on Pyrrha’s description of the events that took place while you were in the River, my guess is your cavalier’s physical stubbornness traces back to the same source that allowed you to unlock the tomb with her blood on your hands.”
Harrow moved. She moved toward Alecto and fell to her knees. She looked up into Gideon’s eyes in Gideon’s face and she said, “Do you know how much you mean to me? You were always with me, and I was never sure.”
“I know,” Gideon’s mouth lied.
Harrow, unsatisfied, pushed on: “It was really you, wasn’t it? It was you all along.”
Gideon’s eyes blinked down at Harrow. “You’re a daughter of Anastasia Nove and you came to set me free and I’ve followed a half step behind ever since.”
Pyrrha grunted at that. She stood and walked to the other side of the room.
Harrow’s intake of breath was sharp and it caught in Gideon’s imaginary nose. Inside Harrow was screaming. Inside Gideon was beyond the tomb and Harrow’s hands were on her, yanking her out from beneath Harrow’s armpit, holding her too tight, squeezing and pinching. She was screaming I begged you to wake and you spent a year at my side and up at the surface she opened her mouth to say the words, but they would not come.
Harrow retreated, out of the bedroom, back toward the living area with its sad saggy sofa and its whirring fan. Gideon fell back into the tomb and she touched her arms where Harrow had touched her and tried to find marks to prove that it was real. A ghost--this one a little boy--sat down beside her and shrugged his shoulders as if to say: what can you do? Gideon closed her eyes and when she opened them again, the ghost was gone.
Back in the living room on their first day there, Judith Deuteros and Coronabeth Tridentarius were on the sofa, pressed together with their knees touching, the head of Judith’s cane gripped tight in her hand. There were files spread across the table. They were paper, all paper, records of the horrors perpetuated by the Empire, by God and his Hands and his Cohort, and since the last time they saw one another even Judith had carefully reconsidered her side. Corona and Judith eyed Pyrrha warily, knew all that she’d done, but they were still entangled in it. They couldn’t help themselves. They were as Nine Houses as they come, Judith weak and hunched now, never fully healed, never quite the same, but a necromancer through and through. Corona, tall and shining, with a rapier at her side. Corona explained how it happened, how she trained with Camilla for months and then she spoke the oath with her hand on Judith’s cheek. One flesh, one end, and Gideon for one did not see that coming.
Harrow did not seem to care.
Each day Corona and Judith disappeared and each evening Corona and Judith returned and every night someone stretched sheets over the sofa cushions and Harrow curled up there and she slept. Pyrrha slept on the floor or she took a blanket and stretched out across two chairs as though it was nothing, as though she’d slept through worse. Gideon lost track of the days, but one day, in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark, Harrow opened her eyes to find Gideon’s body standing beside the sofa. When Harrow spoke, her throat was thick with sleep.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen you read something without illustrations, Gri--” Harrow stilled as she remembered who she was talking to and as her eyes adjusted, she saw that Pyrrha was awake too, sitting up straight in her chair, silent and watching. Alecto was holding a stack of the papers from the table, carefully turning them over in Gideon’s hands.
“How much is real?” Alecto asked.
Harrow said, “I don’t know.”
And Pyrrha said, “All of it. Every single word.”
Alecto moved to stand beside Pyrrha, her hand on Pyrrha’s forearm. “You were there?”
Pyrrha pressed her hand over Alecto’s (Gideon’s) hand in a strange display of familiarity, of understanding and affection. “With Gideon, yes, for everything. It’s my doing as much as anyone’s. I was his sword through and through, and I wasn’t burning myself up for anyone.”
“Where is John?”
Pyrrha shook her head. “Unreachable.” That couldn’t be true, couldn’t possibly be true. The Mithraeum was reachable, the Mithraeum’s replacement must be reachable too.
“I can’t feel him,” Alecto said.
Pyrrha wasn’t done: “We need to go back for your body.” She nodded up at Gideon’s frame. “You’ll need the real thing. We go back, get you out of your chains and you’ll feel him. He’ll come and then we can decide what to do.”
Gideon remembered how it went with Mercymorn, how it went with Augustine. She imagined the Ninth House--Drearburh, the drillshaft, Crux and the great-aunts, all of it--sucked into the stoma at the base of the River. Harrow hadn’t been there, she didn’t know to object. She sat on the sofa in silence, eyes for Alecto alone.
Eventually Alecto remembered her. She left Pyrrha’s side and returned to the sofa to look down at Harrow.
Alecto didn’t look down at Harrow the way that Gideon would have looked at Harrow. At least, Gideon didn’t think that was even close to how she ever looked at Harrow. Gideon looked at Harrow a lot, and she’d looked at her in many ways over the years: with anger, frustration, hatred, with worry, and pride and wonder. She had a hard time imagining her face ever looking this cold, even in those moments when she’d really truly hated Harrow more than any single person in existence.
“My love,” Harrow said, and Gideon listened, rapt. Harrow held out her hand to the cold and distant Alecto, to this woman living rent-free in Gideon’s body, and the body accepted. Gideon’s larger hand curled around Harrow’s, fingers warm and definitely not dead. Harrow’s heart skipped a beat and she froze, held like that for a moment, and then ripped her hand away, as though stung, bitten or burned.
Harrow sank in a desperate panic, the sort Gideon hadn’t felt since that moment when she did the exact same thing. Gideon held on tight, did not want to surface with the memory of her hand in her hand. She could not do it, would not do it--not unless Harrow asked--and when she met Harrow half way, she grabbed on and she shook her head, fierce with resolution.
“My love,” Gideon echoed. It was meant to be an accusation, but Harrow stared back at her with wide stunned eyes, and when she kissed Gideon it felt like the first time. Gideon was not sure what that meant. It felt like a trick, like Harrow kissing the safe stand-in, and Gideon was not in the mood for tricks. She let go of Harrow and watched as Harrow rose back toward the surface, watched her go as Gideon sank back down toward the tomb.
Harrow did not reach for the woman in Gideon’s body again.
Eventually it became clear that what they needed was a plan, a course of action. They could not hide out stuffed in an apartment on Ephesians for the next ten thousand years. They shouldn’t hide out stuffed in an apartment on Ephesians for another month. They should be gone by week’s end.
The plan Pyrrha proposed wasn’t at all what Gideon expected. From her back seat, Gideon assumed they’d go right back to the Ninth, charge down the shaft and roll the rock aside. The triumph of the Reverend Daughter’s return would be shattered with an immediate act of blasphemy, of treason, but Harrow would let it happen. She’d been waiting for this moment her entire life, for Alecto unchained.
Instead they would return to the First, to Canaan House and its crumbling tower, to its haunted labs and endless sea.
They left one day too late. One day earlier and they would have left Ephesians undetected. One day sooner and the Edenites would not have realized, or they would have realized and they would have been too late. Maybe it was the missing files, maybe Corona stumbled and said the wrong thing. Maybe they were watching closer than Camilla and Palamedes realized and they caught a good look at Harrow or, more likely, Pyrrha. Hard to hide a face they’d been tracking and fighting for ten thousand years. Hard to hide a face so intricately intertwined with the life and loss of their most influential commander.
It started with a bullet through the window that lodged itself in Judith’s shoulder.
“Down!” Corona shouted, as more followed, popping through the windows and ricocheting off the walls, and Gideon was up and out of the tomb before Corona’s mouth closed down on the word. Gideon surged forth and pulled Harrow to her knees. Harrow did the rest, fell onto her stomach, her head turned to the side as she searched for Alecto, searched to make sure Alecto was there and okay. Alecto was down too. Gideon’s face was still. She did not look frightened.
“That shouldn’t have been possible through the glass,” Camilla noted, or perhaps it was Palamedes. Harrow couldn’t see their face, so Gideon couldn’t check the eyes. Harrow’s focus was down now, down thirty floors to the street and back up again.
“They’re coming up the stairs,” Harrow said. Behind her, the Sixth said, “I count thirty.”
It was hard, on a planet with a population like Ephesians, to single out individual sources of thalergy that might raise suspicion. It was difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in a building that housed hundreds, surrounded by buildings just as tall, stuffed with hundreds and thousands more.
“Thirty-three,” Harrow corrected.
From somewhere in the room, Pyrrha let loose a breathy laugh. “Still not enough.”
Harrow was searching her pockets for bone, but her pockets weren’t as big here, and they were nearly empty. She was missing the robes of the Ninth, with their extensive pockets hidden within, with her piles of bone and dirt. It wouldn’t matter. She still had her sword.
“Goal is to protect the Third, the Second, and Alecto on the way down,” Pyrrha said. “No real threat here for the rest of us.”
“Leave me behind,” Judith said, immediately. Her voice was strained, but still commanding. “I’ll just slow you down.”
Harrow turned her head and Gideon saw that Corona and Camilla had crawled to Judith’s side. The Sixth pressed at the wound in her shoulder while Corona held Judith close, her fingers soft on Judith’s cheek.
“Don’t be a baby, Jude,” Corona insisted. “You’re fine.”
Judith laughed and gripped her cane. “I haven’t been fine since the First and you know it.”
They all watched as Corona’s face went hard. She set her jaw and said, “All right, then we finish what was started there, just like we discussed.”
Judith shook your head. “Like you discussed. I never once agreed.”
“What floor?” Pyrrha asked and the Sixth, without shifting away from the Second, said, “Twenty-first.”
Corona leaned down and kissed Judith on the mouth, those soft Tridentarius lips over a mouth taut with pain. Harrow closed her eyes and turned away, opened them again on Alecto’s blank expressive.
Typical. Harrow never looked at the things Gideon actually wanted to see.
And then something happened. Judith and the Sixth both shouted at once. Harrow turned her head back just in time to watch Corona stand, just in time to see her body shake with the impact of the bullets, to watch her fall back to the floor at Judith’s side.
Corona was smiling, her eyes bright, and when she spoke blood appeared at the corners of her lips. “Do it, Jude. You’ve seen them. You know how we could be.”
“You crazy stubborn bitch,” Judith said, but she was moving. She was moving toward Corona and the Sixth reached out to help.
Pyrrha, unphased, left them to it and started toward the door. Gideon fought Harrow for joint control. It didn’t take Harrow long to take the hint and shift aside, and as soon as she did, Gideon moved. She crouched low as she ran for the bedroom, for the swords and the bones Camilla kept hidden in a trunk there. Fuck guns, Gideon would have a sword in her hand.
True to form, Camilla had stockpiled a lot of swords. Gideon looked down at the bounty and closed her eyes. Heaven. “Camilla Hect, I could kiss you.”
Camilla wasn’t there to kiss, and Harrow probably wouldn’t like it if she was, so Gideon settled for getting Harrow’s grubby little hands on as many weapons as she could hold. Rapiers for Corona and Pyrrha, knives similar to those she’d seen Camilla wield. The biggest sword in the bunch--not big enough--for herself, and another big one for Alecto, though Gideon had no idea if Alecto could or would use it. Maybe Gideon’s body held enough muscle memory to wield it in her absence. She could only hope.
They pushed out into the hallway together, five bodies instead of six. Pyrrha and Gideon were at the front, Camilla and Corona taking up the rear with Alecto positioned at their center. The thinking was that she had the most vulnerable body now, but considering the fact that Gideon’s body was still walking, it seemed that might not be the case. Gideon did not want to think about that, so she forged ahead, keen to protect her body from destruction, even if looking at it totally fucked her up inside.
They met the first group on the stairs. Pyrrha was right. It was barely a fight; over in seconds. Bullets fell from Harrow’s chest as her body repaired the damage, clinked as they landed against the stairs. Pyrrha’s body was slower and she grunted and pushed at a hole in her arm as she slowly worked a bullet from her muscle. It slid out into her fingers and she threw it aside with a hiss.
“Are we good?” she asked. Murmured confirmation and they pushed on, plowing through the Edenites until they were out on the streets. Bullets rained down from the windows above and they huddled around Alecto, ducked through alleys and crouched beside smoking vehicles. Gideon hadn’t come this way since they first arrived and she was actually surprised to find the shuttle exactly where they left it.
They piled inside and checked the damage. A bullet had grazed Alecto’s shoulder blade, a red line across Gideon’s brown skin. Gideon steeled herself and poked at it. It wasn’t deep. She’d be fine. Her body had been through worse, which was--fuck, it was fucked, Gideon fell back into a seat and laughed as the Sixth sat heavily beside her.
In the back of the shuttle, Corona sat thrumming, her breath coming fast and ragged as they adjusted to the transition, her eyes shifting from violet to Judith’s rich dark brown. She had blood on her shirt. There were holes in the fabric, tears that showed the smooth undamaged skin beneath.
“I knew she wouldn’t reject me,” Corona smiled. She said it to Gideon or to no one. It wasn’t clear. “I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist climbing inside.” She shook in her seat and shut her mismatched eyes.
Gideon turned to the Sixth, to the dark eyes that watched Corona and Judith as they threaded together and fought over space. Gideon leaned in close and said, “I highly recommend kissing during the transitions, if you haven’t tried it already.”
Palamedes cleared his throat and averted his eyes. “We’ll keep that in mind. Welcome back.”
Pyrrha did not wait for clearance to land on the First. She guided them through the atmosphere, settling onto the empty landing terrace. Skeletons streamed through the doors toward the shuttle.
“That little fucker is still alive?” Corona asked, though given the words it was probably Judith.
“Call him if you need to,” Pyrrha suggested when Teacher appeared, a smile plastered on his face as he welcomed the Necrolord’s esteemed Saint of Duty back to the First. “Let him know who is here.”
Teacher’s eyes followed Gideon’s body and he muttered and shuffled away.
In Canaan House, Pyrrha led them down, down that terrible ladder, past the blood stains left by the Fifth, past the place where Isaac died. She led them past Laboratory Eight and Laboratory Nine and then she stood in the dilapidated ruins of Laboratory Ten and she pushed aside a fallen ceiling panel. Behind it was a door, thick and black and stone.
Harrow’s breath hitched. “I knew it.”
“Your secret door theory,” Palamedes said, impressed. “Hot damn.”
Pyrrha did something complicated with a keypad below the knob, with her thumb and a light, followed by a bunch of buttons. There was a satisfying click, and they all pushed through. The staircase behind the door was wood, well preserved like the Lyctor studies above. The air smelled damp and briney.
Pyrrha led them through a beautiful study with lush carpets and a heavy wooden desk. Harrow and Palamedes gravitated toward the shelves of books and stacks of paper, but Pyrrha reeled them in and pressed on toward another staircase, down a level deeper. They passed a bedroom, another kitchen, a less formal living space, and then another door and another keypad, another staircase of dark wood.
Finally, they found themselves within a pit of stone and at its base, a rock. Finally they found themselves at the bottom of Canaan House, and at its base, chains connected to pillars of steel, chains that disappeared into holes in the ground.
The air down here smelled like the deepest parts of the Ninth, and Harrow convulsed around Gideon. The ocean inside her sloshed and it shook. Waves crashed against the stone island within Gideon’s tomb and Gideon readied herself, just in case Harrow could not deal, just in case she had to sink.
Harrow held. “I know these chains.”
Pyrrha nodded. “I understand you also know the theorems we’ll need to roll this rock away.”
Harrow began to sway. Gideon stretched out, held her in place. “I do.”
“There’s a ward,” Pyrrha said. She looked to Alecto. “In that body you can break it.”
Harrow looked down at her hands. There was dried blood there from where Gideon had pressed at the wound on Alecto’s shoulder, where she’d pressed Harrow’s fingertips to that wet red line, her own blood on Harrow’s hands.
Harrow stepped toward the rock. “I can help with that too."
Pyrrha crouched at the edge of the pool and said: “This is as far as I go.”
The rock had been rolled away and the water lapped gently against the edges of the opening, against the stones at the base of the pit. It was the very heart of Canaan House, if a heart could be pushed all the way down toward the toes, down as deep as it could possibly go.
“The River is nearly stagnant here, but it isn’t empty and it’ll be a difficult swim. I’ll stay here and wait.”
“And on the other side?” Harrow asked, but Harrow and Gideon both saw the chains. They both recognized the shine of the metal, the weight of it. and Harrow answered the question herself: “The tomb.”
Alecto knelt over the pool. She was breathing strangely, Gideon’s chest rising and falling fast, and as Harrow watched, she swayed on her knees. Gideon thought that Alecto was humming, but when Harrow leaned closer, the hum turned into a murmur of words: “All the night tide by my side.”
“Mm,” Pyrrha agreed, from her place at Alecto’s other side. “He was always a particular idiot about you, wasn’t he? The sort of idiot to lock you in a tomb and then just pretend to throw away the key. The sort of fool who couldn’t resist leaving himself a way in. Never even told Anastasia. If I know him--and after ten thousand years of watching, I hope that I do--this is the route he’ll try to take. He’ll send Ianthe the other way, with an army perhaps, but he won’t send them in. They’ll wait on the Ninth to see what spills out. He’ll try to bring me with him instead, once he finds me here, but I don’t think I’ll survive it.”
“Ianthe can’t command an army,” Corona said softly. “She’s never once been able to convince anyone to listen to her.”
“Maybe not,” Pyrrha agreed. “It’s too soon for this, but stranger things have happened. You’re about to find out.”
Alecto was still murmuring as she slid her feet into the pool, as she sat on the edge, the water soaking her trousers. “No one could ever dissever his soul from her soul…”
Pyrrha shrugged and leaned in close to Alecto’s ear. “All this time and I’m not sure they’d need to.”
That got Alecto’s attention and earned Pyrrha a long lingering look.
“Will the Ninth’s body survive the journey?” Harrow glanced back over her shoulder to check who was speaking. It was Camilla Hect with her necromancer’s eyes, her face as still as ever, never giving anything away.
“No idea,” Pyrrha admitted. “Should at least get Alecto close enough to return to hers. Better say your goodbyes now though, just in case.”
Harrow did not need to be told twice. She removed Gideon’s sword from her back and then climbed down to sit beside Alecto with her feet in the River. She grabbed Alecto by the arm and pulled until Gideon’s body turned toward her necromancer. She didn’t need to use much force. The body turned as though it knew the way home and Gideon braced herself for what came next. From her place deep inside, she begged Harrow not to kiss her body without her in it. Even a hug would hurt, but a kiss--
Harrow’s fingers traced over the scar that marred Gideon’s right eyebrow and down across Gideon’s cheek before they settled on her jaw. She moved forward, closing the distance between them and Gideon couldn’t help herself. She pressed back, fighting for control, fighting to stop the closure of that gap.
Harrow resisted, her head shaking with the effort. “Griddle, I’m not going to--stop.”
Gideon stopped, settled. She would take whatever blow Harrow dealt.
Harrow centered her focus on Alecto and said, with quiet intensity: “I loved you with everything I had, and for the longest time, I loved you to the exclusion of everything else. You were with me when I had no one and nothing, and when I die, I would be honored to die at your feet and in your name. I loved you and I love you and I want you to know that what I say, I do not say easily, nor lightly.” Here Harrow paused, took a deep shuddering breath. Harrow looked down into the River, down into the water with its shadows that twisted and writhed. Alecto was unmoving beneath Harrow’s hand, which slid back to cup Gideon’s cheek. When Harrow spoke again, her voice was as cold as Drearburh. When she spoke again, she did so as the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House. She said: “If you do anything to harm the body of my cavalier, if you do it even the slightest damage, I will end you. I will find out how it can be done, and I will do it myself.”
Gideon wasn’t sure what she expected Harrow to say, but it wasn’t that. She hadn’t expected a Ninth House threat spoken to that which did not remain buried, did not remain insensate, did not remain in perpetual rest with closed eye nor stilled brain. It didn’t even matter--her body was just a body now. Gideon wasn’t in it and was unlikely to return, so for Harrow to threaten the love of her life--
“Hmmf,” Gideon concluded to Harrow’s tomb and her ghosts, unsure what to make of any of it.
Alecto did not seem so impressed. She was breathing strange and heavy before Harrow began and she continued to breathe strange and heavy now, but beyond that, there was no change, no indication that she was even listening except that when Harrow looked at her, she looked back at Harrow, yellow eyes to Drearburh black.
Eventually, Pyrrha cleared her throat. “If she makes it to the other side with this body intact, once she vacates, you’ll need to get someone in there fast or none of your threats will matter. This close to the River, you won’t have much time.”
Harrow paused at that. “How?”
“You’re the necromancer,” Pyrrha reasoned. “You’ve got maybe an hour to figure it out.”
Harrow turned back toward the Sixth, toward the Second snuggled up inside the Third. Both bodies nodded. They would help. They would help Harrow to--wait, what? Gideon struggled to catch up. She was still caught on Harrow’s harsh words to the beloved squatter in Gideon’s meat, and when she did catch up, when she understood what they meant by it, she sat up in Harrow’s tomb, back stiff and straight.
Who did they think they were shoving in there next?
It wouldn’t be her. It couldn’t be. Gideon made her choice and that choice might be shit sometimes, but it was also--it was drowning and surfacing and drowning again. It was her hands clutched to Harrow’s arms, Harrow’s mouth on hers. It was Harrow sinking and Gideon going straight for the swords.
Gideon fought her way to the surface, pulling and grabbing until Harrow shifted aside, no time for kisses now. Above the surface, Gideon turned to the group and she glared. “Yeah, hello, remember me? You know, the technical owner of the body in question? I’m here to say, no! No way. Let her sink it in the River because no one is putting anyone in me without my permission.”
No one seemed very surprised to see her. No one seemed that surprised by her words either.
The Sixth said: “Do we have your permission?”
Gideon turned to study the side of her own face. Alecto wasn’t paying attention anymore. Her mouth was moving, but there was no sound. She was hunched strangely, like Gideon’s arms were too short for the arms they contained. Gideon shook Harrow’s head. “Sorry, no.”
“It’s a chance for Perfect Lyctorhood,” Pyrrha reasoned. She said it softly, as though she sympathized with Gideon’s reluctance. Maybe she did. Maybe she understood it better than anyone.
Gideon shrugged Harrow’s bony shoulders. “No, thanks.”
It was Palamedes that spoke next, having switched places with Camilla while no one was paying attention: “Someone or something is going in there whether you give them permission or not, Nav. It’d be best for everyone if that something was you.”
Gideon felt Harrow below her, waiting her turn. She felt Harrow around her, arms tight and legs tangled.
“If we do it, what happens to Harrow?”
“Pyrrha can correct me if I’m wrong,” Palamedes said, “but it should only increase Harrow’s power. That’s why the Emperor kept this hidden. It was an attempt to consolidate power. If you can achieve this, you’ll still be Lyctors with everything that entails, and more besides, but you’ll be back in your body and she’ll be in hers.”
“And if she needs a sword?”
A small smile tugged at the corner of Camilla’s mouth. “She has you.”
Gideon closed her eyes and pressed Harrow’s fingers to Harrow’s forehead. There wasn’t another choice, not really. They left Alecto in Gideon’s body, or they pushed Gideon back into her body, or they threw Palamedes or Judith into her body, or they let the River decide. The others were right. This made the most sense.
She still hated it.
“Temporarily,” Gideon said in a desperate attempt at bargaining. Then: “Fine.”
She didn’t wait for a response. She sank right away and was met with the sweet press of Harrow’s mouth to hers, a thankful kiss.
“Temporarily,” Gideon repeated, one not-so-small word while they were both in the same place at the same time. Temporarily, she said, but Gideon wasn’t stupid. She knew that this was it, one last kiss in Harrow’s sea. Harrow said something and it was lost to the water as Gideon tried to hold on. Impossible; it was always the same. They could never hold on for long and eventually Gideon let go and let Harrow rise to the top.
There was a slight quiver to Harrow’s voice when she spoke. “That’s settled then.” She swallowed, the force of it a wave that pushed against the stones of her tomb. “Shall we go?”
They fought the River and they won, but Alecto was gone before they were ready, out before the lease expired. She made it through the River and then she evacuated Gideon’s building the moment she climbed up onto the shore. Palamedes caught Gideon’s body as it collapsed, abandoned and empty, and he lowered her down onto the chilly stones of the tomb. Gideon watched this from behind Harrow’s eyes. She felt the way Harrow’s hands shook and her breath hitched. Spread out like that, Gideon understood that she looked a lot like she had in those last moments at Canaan House--minus the spike, of course, and minus the blood. Didn’t matter. Harrow couldn’t stop staring and her entire body was thrumming and twitching, nerves firing and heart racing.
They fell to their knees around her: the Ninth and the Sixth and the Second. They were talking fast, three necromancers coming together to solve a problem before it was too late. Gideon could not follow, was never going to understand and didn’t bother to try. They either got it right or they didn’t. She went or she stayed, and if Gideon stayed, she was ready. She was prepared to fight whatever went in there in her place. She had her sword, retrieved from Pyrrha’s shuttle, there on the stones by Harrow’s side.
“The concern that I have,” Judith said, low and careful, “is whether you’ll move the right soul. This theorem we’re contemplating is complex--Ninefold--one wrong move and you’ll end up in her body instead of your own.”
“We’ll have to risk it,” Harrow said. Gideon could feel Harrow’s heart in her throat. “Try not to hold on too tight, Nav.”
Very helpful. Thank you, Harrow.
Gideon had absolutely no idea what she was waiting for, no clue what to expect. She didn’t know how to brace or how to let go.
When it happened it came like a kick to the face.
It felt like every fight she and Harrow ever had, like a swarm of skeletons pulling and tearing, bone against bone. It felt like Gideon lying on the ground, defeated, then the sudden impact of Harrow’s boot to her face. It was a kick, a punch, and then she was out of the tomb, water in her lungs and it felt real, the sting and burn of real actual water. Gideon screamed and there was no sound, just an explosive gurgle of bubbles. Another kick, another attempted intake, and Gideon reached and she reached and she reached but there was nothing to grab, no way to hold on. She choked on sea and salt and--was that blood? It was thick like blood and it was in her nose. It was in her mouth and coating her throat and behind her eyes everything was red. Harrow’s ghosts found her, they pulled at her and they laughed. They tried to hold her back and Gideon felt a surge of hope. She reached for them. She held on tight.
There was a terrible tearing, like muscle ripped from bone. Gideon screamed. She screamed. She screamed.
Everything went still and quiet for one long stretched moment, and then something new happened. It was a tightening, like the press of a bandage wrapped around a wound and the pull of thread as it closed damaged skin, like the feel of small hands pressed to her face and her neck and her wrists, frantically checking for a pulse, for a whisper of breath.
This wasn’t how she left things. There were ghosts here now too, the ghosts she dragged with her as she fought to hold on. There was a sea that roiled within her and crashed at her sides.
She was full of strings, a sticky webbing that clung to everything and mended itself as soon as it was cut.
And if Gideon sank? What would she find there?
“Gideon?” Harrow asked.
Gideon opened her eyes to find Harow leaning over her. Harrow’s eyes were wide and--fuck, no. Okay. Gideon shut her eyes, squeezed them tight, opened them again.
No, that was--right. That was right and she should have expected it. Gideon knew that was how it worked because it was what had started the whole mess back on the Mithraeum. She knew that Alecto’s eyes were really the Emperor’s eyes and that his eyes were really her eyes, but she’d thought--
Harrow’s eyes were a rich yolky yellow and her face was naked and pale. Gideon could feel the rapid beating of Harrow’s heart in her chest--no, not--was that her own heart? She felt sure, suddenly, that her body couldn’t take this. She was going to have a heart attack and die for real, right then and there. She was going to die in Harrow’s arms for the second time.
She didn’t die.
“Yeah,” Gideon managed, her voice a painful croak, like she’d been screaming for hours. Maybe she had.
Harrow’s fingers pushed at Gideon’s eyelids, pressed at the skin of her cheeks and her forehead until finally Gideon reached up--she could do that, it turned out--and moved Harrow’s hands away.
“It’s me,” she said with a groan. “Fuck, that was bad. Let’s never do that again.”
Harrow’s fingers slipped from her grasp. They slid down Gideon’s forearm, pressing into the skin there as though checking that Gideon was still solid, still real. Gideon felt the pressure of Harrow’s fingers and she felt her fingers doing the pressing. When Harrow’s hands found Gideon’s face again, Gideon felt Harrow’s palm against her cheek and she felt her cheek against Harrow’s palm. She felt sick. She closed her eyes and knew that they were Harrow’s eyes and knew that they were hers now too.
“Can you stand?” the Third asked. Or the Second. Damn, it was so hard to keep track of so many people stuffed inside one another, so many people with other people’s eyes and other people’s bodies.
Gideon pushed herself up on her elbows. Harrow didn’t shift back or move away and their foreheads knocked together with a painful thump. Neither of them complained. Neither of them moved. They held for a moment, Harrow’s forehead pressed tight against Gideon’s, and the pressure did more to soothe the rent bits of her than anything else had. Harrow’s hand slid back down Gideon’s arm, fingers wrapping tight around Gideon’s hand. Finally Harrow pulled and they stood up together, Gideon’s tall frame pressed up against Harrow’s short. Harrow’s grip was firm, as though Gideon might fall again if she let go.
“Yeah,” Gideon said, her smile tight, her arm slung over Harrow’s shoulders. “I can stand.”
It didn’t matter.
All that fuss, all the rush, and that which was buried remained buried, insensate, with closed eye and stilled brain. Four bodies and six souls stood around the altar and waited. And waited. And waited.
Harrow’s girlfriend wasn’t fucking waking up.
“Are you sure she’s in there?” Gideon asked from behind Harrow’s shoulder. Palamedes reached out to touch the body, but Harrow knocked his hand away before he could make contact.
“Of course I’m not sure,” Harrow snapped. “How could I possibly be sure?”
It amazed Gideon how quickly things returned to normal, how they fell back into their old selves, just with some new eyes. Harrow, a yellow-eyed bundle of sharp edges, and Gideon standing half a step behind. She wondered how Harrow’s eyes looked in her face and she took a step forward, leaned over Alecto to see if she could catch a glimpse of her reflection in that sweet sword.
Yeah, okay, so they looked pretty damn good.
Gideon settled back and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. It was surprising how tall she felt after so long in Harrow’s small frame. She felt enormous, hulking, and she shifted to stand closer to the similarly-sized Coronabeth, who regarded Gideon with the Second’s dark eyes. Corona reached out to take Gideon’s hand. Gideon let her and when Corona squeezed, Gideon squeezed back. Harrow looked down at her own hand and frowned.
“I think I’ve read this story,” Corona said, then: “In fact, I think we’ve all read this story. Doesn’t it seem so familiar?”
Harrow turned away from Alecto, her eyes darting toward Coronabeth. She caught on the Gideon’s hand in the Third’s and her mouth went tight. Her eyes narrowed and her fingers curled in toward her fist. “I haven’t.”
“You have,” Corona insisted. She gave Gideon’s hand one final squeeze and then released it. “It’s such a popular one. There’s a princess who eats a poisoned apple. She falls into a deep sleep and she’s placed in a coffin of ice and glass. She can be woken by one thing and one thing only--”
“--true love’s kiss?” Gideon finished, suddenly realizing that she knew this story too. She probably hadn’t read the exact tale that Corona referenced, but similar ideas had shown up in her comics over the years.
“That’s ridiculous,” Harrow said, immediately, the disdain audible in her dismissal.
Corona shrugged. “Does anyone have a better idea?”
“It’s worth a try,” Palamedes said.
Harrow swept a hand toward the body. “All right then. Go ahead and give her a kiss.”
“Harrow,” Corona admonished. “You’re the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, Keeper of the Locked Tomb. None of us have known this place or this girl as you’ve known her. You said it yourself. You loved her to the exclusion of everyone.”
“Those words weren’t for you,” Harrow said with all the chill of the tomb.
“Precisely the Third’s point,” Palamedes murmured.
That was all that was needed to convince Harrow. She took it as a challenge and she clenched her fists before pressing them against the edge of the altar.
“Turn away, Griddle.”
Gideon did not turn away. In fact, she leaned closer. There was less horror in this than the thought of it happening while Alecto was in Gideon’s body. Gideon had already witnessed this once. She’d seen Harrow reach for the figment of the body in her bed. She’d seen Harrow kiss those incorporeal lips, felt what Harrow felt, the desperation when Harrow’s hand pressed low against Alecto’s belly. When Harrow just stood there, waiting for Gideon to obey, Gideon shook her head and pressed her hands to the edge of the altar beside Harrow’s, the outside of her left hand brushing up against Harrow’s right.
“No way,” she said. She didn’t need to look at Harrow to see the look on Harrow’s face at that. “Anyway, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. This can’t be worse than your tongue swiping around in Ianthe’s mouth.”
“What?” Corona asked with a surprised bark of a laugh. She looked stricken by this, and more than a little delighted. Harrow turned to glare, a sharp yellow-gold knife of a look.
“Kidding,” Gideon corrected, before Harrow decided she’d prefer a beast from the River to her resurrected cavalier. “That definitely never happened.”
“Good for her,” Corona concluded.
There was a dull throbbing pain now, just above Harrow’s left eye--at least Gideon assumed it was Harrow’s headache she was feeling and not her own.
“I’m not sure this will work,” Harrow admitted.
“No?” Palamedes asked, monotone. “Can’t imagine why not.” It was a perfect imitation of Camilla Hect and Gideon wondered if they switched places again while no one was paying attention.
Harrow leaned in over the body. Gideon leaned over beside her.
Harrow was shaking and it seemed, suddenly, like she’d been shaking nonstop since they arrived in this place. Gideon wanted to wrap Harrow up, warm Harrow in her arms--though Gideon was also wet and chilled through and wrapping a wet and cold Harrow up with more wet and cold probably wouldn’t stop the shaking. Harrow was close to Alecto now, and as Harrow closed the space between them, as her pinched little cupid’s bow of a mouth settled down over Alecto’s beautifully crooked lips, Harrow’s hand brushed closer to Gideon’s and Gideon covered it gently with her own. Alecto’s mouth was ice cold and Gideon’s heart knocked against her ribcage. She realized she was holding her breath. Harrow began to pull away from Alecto, then leaned back in to kiss the indent at the center of Alecto’s bottom lip. When Harrow started to stand back, there were drops of water shining on Alecto’s cheeks and Gideon realized they were Harrow’s tears.
Gideon let out the breath she’d been holding. She released Harrow’s hand and pulled Harrow in, tucked her necromancer up against her side. When Harrow didn’t stiffen, when she didn’t pull away, Gideon reached up to brush Harrow’s tears away with the pad of her thumb. Harrow hardly seemed to notice, because--
They waited and as they waited, Harrow began to tense beneath Gideon’s arm as though willing herself to turn into stone, to merge with the walls of this mausoleum, into the confines of the cave. Gideon felt it coming before it happened, so she wasn’t surprised when Harrow shrugged her arm away. Gideon stepped back but stayed close.
Still nothing happened.
“Maybe try it again?” Gideon suggested. “I know you’re--it hardly felt like you were trying.”
A stupid lie, but a little bit the truth too? It didn’t feel like it had in Harrow’s room in the Mithraeum. It felt like--
“It was a ridiculous idea and now we know it didn’t work.” Harrow’s eyes flashed.
“We know something,” Corona agreed.
“I’ll try it next,” Gideon offered. She shifted so that she was standing in front of Harrow, took Harrow’s place at the altar. Gideon looked down at the woman there, at Alecto the First. She really did look pretty dead, all things considered. Gideon looked at the sword, which was remarkably similar to her own. She looked at the dark eyelashes on pale cheeks and the mass of wet hair that seemed to be every color and no color at all. She imagined her eyes in Alecto’s face and in Harrow’s face, in every face that mattered now except her own, and she was surprised to realize that she wanted to kiss this bizarre body-hijacking creature, this so-called monster. She wanted to press her mouth to those lips that Harrow had kissed, feel again the draw that compelled Harrow to press a hand low on that imagined belly. She wanted to place her lips to that divot and steal Harrow’s kiss for herself, store it away so she could taste it again later.
In short, Gideon had it bad, and she was doing a terrible job of hiding it. She knew that now. She knew she was being terrible in the face of Harrow’s true love. Didn’t matter. Couldn’t seem to stop herself.
“That isn’t necessary,” Harrow said, her words clipped. Her hand was on Gideon’s arm in an attempt to still her cavalier. She’d have to do better than that.
“No one has any better ideas,” Gideon countered. “And I’m like related, or whatever. Maybe it’s like the ward. Maybe it’s a blood thing and maybe that’s why she took my body in the first place.”
“If it’s a blood thing then kissing her won’t make any difference.”
Gideon shrugged. She looked over her shoulder at Harrow’s pinched face. “But we won’t know until we try. Look, I’ll kiss her and if that doesn’t work, then I’ll bleed on her or something.”
“Nav might be onto something with the blood idea,” Palamedes said, thoughtfully.
“With the blood idea,” Harrow agreed, agitated. “The kissing has been proven not to work.”
The kissing proved nothing, except that if this was like the stories, then Harrow’s true love was not lying on that altar--a thought that Gideon was not sure she could handle, if she was honest. And yeah, if this was like the stories, then it was likely none of their kisses would ever wake Alecto. Gideon knew necromancers and she knew cavaliers and she knew all of the stories that claimed to state the contrary, but if there was anyone able to kiss Alecto the First awake, that person was Gideon’s father. It was John Gaius, the necromancer to Alecto’s cavalier, and he was not yet there.
“You know and I know who really needs to be doing the kissing here--”(“What is that supposed to mean?” Harrow interjected.)”--and you know and I know that without him here, I’m the next best thing.”
“I don’t know that,” Harrow looked to Corona or Judith. “Do you know that?” Then to Palamedes or Camilla. “Do you?”
“I don’t,” Probably Palamedes said from behind them, “but I also don’t think it matters much now. Look. She’s awake.”
Corona or Judith gasped. Harrow pushed at Gideon to get a view of the altar. Gideon drew her sword.
Alecto, with gold eyes open and in a voice that sounded like everyone Gideon had ever known, said: “He’s in the River. Here he comes.”
God emerged from the River with a smile on his face, with hands held out in surrender and eyebrows raised in apology. He should have destroyed them all immediately. Guess he still thought he had a chance, that they could talk things through to a reasonable end. He’d learned nothing from what happened at Canaan House, but then again, Gideon wasn’t a necromancer and had no fuzzy feelings for the guy at all. From the conflicted look on Harrow’s face, maybe it was a better tactic than Gideon thought.
God took one look at Gideon with those eclipses he called eyes and said, “Oh, wow, would you look at that? My other Gideon did say you’d found your body and you know, with Harrowhark’s eyes you look just like your mother? Well done, the both of you. Extraordinary.”
He said it as though he was genuinely pleased and Gideon felt Harrow soften, just a bit.
Anyway, after a bunch of bullshit words of praise for all the new and exciting Lyctors in his midst, he helped Alecto from her chains--this also seemed pretty dumb to Gideon, though she guessed Alecto probably could have helped herself and it was better to keep up the good show. He set Alecto’s sword aside and pulled her up to sit at the edge of the altar and then he kissed her face, her eyelids, her cheeks, and finally her lips. She was pliant in his arms, maybe even limp. He helped her to her feet, and when she stumbled, Harrow rushed to support her other side.
“She’s all right,” he promised. “I made sure from the start that she’d always be all right.”
And she was, or she seemed to be. She took a few steps with their help and then she stood straight, feet firm on the ground, with neither shake nor wobble in her legs.
He stood back with a satisfied nod, leaned against the altar and spread he spread his wide as though inviting the whole group in for a hug.
“Well? Now that we’re all here, what would you like to know?”
He told them some interesting things, Gideon would give him that. Whether those things were the truth or another set of intricate lies, it was hard to say. Alecto, for her part, did not disagree with any of it. She walked among them, testing her legs. She lifted her sword and set it back down. She walked around the altar, behind the Emperor, and he did not flinch or give any indication that he was uncomfortable with her behind his back and out of his sight.
Alecto, as he told it, was one of his earliest successes. She was the whole of the fallen First, the soul ripped so rudely from a planet. There was a lot of talk of theory and theorems next and Gideon ignored all of that. Instead, she watched the way that Alecto touched her sword, with gentle surety and obvious reverence, and for the first time--second time?--Gideon understood her, just a little. The gist of the theorem talk was this: John Gaius condensed and contained the resurrection beast of the First within the shell of a human: the God who became man.
Once he figured out how it could be done, he placed the whole of Dominicus within her too--because she agreed and because he wanted to see if he could--and then Alecto took John within her and John Gaius took her and all that she contained: the man who became God. Souls condensed and contained and layered beyond recognition.
And then Alecto said: “How many?”
She was standing behind him and she had her sword in her hands.
John Gaius had to know that, but he smiled at Gideon and he smiled at Harrow and he smiled at the Sixth and the Second slash Third. And he tilted his head back toward Alecto and he said, “How many what, dear?”
“How many others like me? How many like the nine of us?”
He was not scared of her. Why would he be? Gideon had seen him disintegrated. She’d seen him reform. What could Alecto do? She was a God in the body of a woman and all she had was a great big sword.
He couldn’t give her an answer. He couldn’t answer her because he didn’t know, because he’d never kept track, because the revenants were never as big or as mean as those first nine, so there was no reason to stop. Because there were so many he couldn’t possibly remember a number, nor could he remember their names. They were all just little disposable worlds in the end.
And in the end, it wasn’t the great battle of their time. In the end, it was Alecto’s sword through John Gaius’s back, a perfect thrust up through his heart. In the end it was the Eightfold Word, and John the God--the necromancer--became John the Cavalier to his own trademarked brand of Lyctorhood, the sort where he was destined to do nothing except burn and burn and burn.
Harrow fell to her knees on the stones, her hand pressed to her open mouth. The Second or the Third cried out. The Sixth was still and silent.
When Alecto turned toward them, Corona (or Judith) knelt beside Harrow. Alecto’s eyes were a mess of black and brilliant honey yellow, that perfect white circle of an eclipse torn through and erupted with shining gold. Gideon readied her sword, still anticipating a fight, but the Sixth set a hand on her shoulder, and when Gideon turned, Camilla shook her head.
And nothing changed.
There was no flare, or if there was, it didn’t reach the Ninth. The Nine Houses did not crumble or fall...or if they did, it could not be felt from within the tomb. But then again, why would they? Alecto was always the source for everything. She was their beginning and she alone could be their end.
Six souls in four bodies watched in stunned silence as Alecto--with the whole of the First and Dominicus and the Necrolord Prime, King of the Resurrection within her--lifted John Gaius’s empty body in her arms. Gideon thought that Alecto planned to set him on the altar, that she would close the chains around his wrists and leave the sword embedded in his heart. She turned her back to the altar instead.
She took John’s body in her arms and she stepped off the stones at the shore. She sank beneath the water without another word and she did not surface again.
No one moved for a very long time, sure that it could not be over, sure that there was more to come, but the tomb remained still and silent in her absence. Finally it was Corona who stood and she said: “We’re the only ones who witnessed this. No one needs to know until we figure out what it means and what must be done.”
Corona shrugged. “We arrived and the tomb was empty. We arrived and whatever happened was already done. For everyone else, for the whole of the Ninth and the Eighth and the Seventh and Sixth, everything is as it was. That which was buried remains buried. Isn’t that how the Ninth’s prayer goes?”
Harrow had to be lifted from the stones, her entire world shattered, the pieces rearranged. There was no one else in her that could take over the controls, but she still had Gideon, and Gideon carried her. Harrow rallied when she realized no one else knew how to undo the wards, no one else knew how to get past the traps, all the tricks of the tomb. Finally, they stumbled out from behind the rock, past the slumped abandoned bodies of the Reverend Mother and the Reverend Father, right into the deepest part of the Ninth. They found themselves in that old familiar black crack of a corridor, blacker than ever before, still a crack, but with the addition of exactly one Lyctor leaning against a wall and examining her cuticles.
Ianthe was alone, no army at her side and whatever fight she might have contained drained from her form the moment she saw Coronabeth. She had seemed bright there for a moment, a bright yellow light in the surrounding gloom, but she dulled before their eyes. She rushed forward and stopped when Corona lifted her rapier, the tip pointed at Ianthe’s neck. Corona’s arm held steady and she smiled and said, “Where’s your army, sister?”
Ianthe recognized the change then, though from the look on her face she didn’t understand it.
“Oh, Corona,” she drawled. “Who did you manage to hide away in there?”
“Judith, of course.”
Gideon thought she caught an eye roll from Ianthe, but it was mostly obscured by the Ninth’s trademark shadows. Ianthe pushed the tip of Corona’s rapier aside and said, “They’ll be pleased back on Ida, won’t they? A matched set.”
Not quite. Naberius Tern was dead and burning and Gideon knew for certain that Corona and Judith were kissing during their transitions. Good for them.
There was more to be done. They needed to check on the Sixth again. They had to return to the First, unsure what they’d find there. John was gone, but there were still the resurrection beasts and no one was certain what this meant for them. What were they inheriting as the newest--and only--saints of the Nine Houses? They had to take the time to understand what they’d done.
They made it up to the great doors of Drearburh before the penitents of the Ninth crowded in. There were so many more of them now, Niners who weren’t old and decrepit, who weren’t dry old husks waiting for the end. The old hunched nuns were still there, and the skeletons, but now they were mingled in with the replenished young and Harrow looked on them all with stunned wonder that made her eyes shine like Corona’s jewelry. They gasped at Harrow’s naked face, at the absent bones and missing robes. They fell to their knees and clicked at their knucklebones.
And at the end of everything, Gideon stood in front of the foreboding white doors, and she looked down at Harrowhark Nonagesimus standing beside her, with blood on her face and that look of stunned wonder in her eyes, and Gideon was surprised to realize she felt like they’d lost.
Gideon shifted in her body, in her big hot body that she’d broken up with (mutually!) and somehow still ended up back inside. She stood there in a body she never thought she’d see again and she looked at Harrow and everything in her, every inch of her insides, of her soul that stretched to the tips of these calloused fingers and down to her too distant toes, longed to climb out of this frame and back into the smaller one where she belonged, to take control of Harrow and carry her off the Ninth and away from its nuns and its bones and its empty bloody tomb. And it wasn’t even like--
“Harrow,” Gideon said, and it sounded fucking strange to hear that name in her old voice, to hear herself forming words with her own mouth, to hear the sounds that came from her own throat. She’d been in this body for hours, but this, now, was the first moment she’s had to really listen and--
Harrow stepped forward into the crowd of Ninth faithful.
There were the dreaded doors of Drearburh, and here was its Lady, dark and terrible. Crux was there and he looked at Harrow’s eyes and he looked up at Gideon Nav and he sneered with all the old hatred, though he couldn’t possibly understand what any of it meant. It didn’t matter. He looked at Gideon with a twisted mouth that said he knew what she’d done to their Lady and he would make sure that she paid. If only. If only it was as salacious as Crux seemed to think. He ushered Harrow toward the doors and Harrow let herself be led. She didn’t look back, not until she was standing on the other side of the doors, with her feet firm on worn carpet rather than worn stone.
Maybe it was because they were on the Ninth, because everything had brought them back to the place that they started. Maybe that was why it felt like they were standing on opposite sides of the shaft, like they couldn’t meet without falling and landing splattered and twisted at the very bottom, right in front of the open tomb.
“You aren’t going to follow her in?”
Gideon jumped and turned to find Camilla Hect standing there. Her eyes were still grey, just as Harrow’s were still yellow, just as Gideon’s were Drearburh black. It was only then that Gideon was certain. It was only then that she realized that they hadn’t learned anything, that absolutely nothing had changed, and they were going to turn their backs on each other and walk away.
“In there?” Gideon asked. “No way.”
Harrow turned and walked away.
Gideon stared at the big white doors and the many skeletons that flanked them for a long time after they were shut, long enough that when Corona or Ianthe or Judith or Naberius--Probably not Ianthe. Definitely not Naberius--set a hand on Gideon’s arm, Gideon jumped, startled.
“Yeah.” Gideon pulled herself back from her thoughts of the real tomb and Harrow’s tomb and the pool and the sea and the way it felt to kiss Harrow, and most of all, the way it felt to know that Harrow might never kiss her again. “Go on. Someone’s gotta check on Pyrrha and the Sixth.”
Gideon shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere without Harrow.”
Someone behind her made a small snorting noise--probably Ianthe. This was followed by the sound of a hand slapping against skin.
“Of course not. We’ll go.” Camilla or Palamedes. “And then we’ll come back for you. Harrowhark won’t risk staying here for long, not until we find out if anything has changed. She won’t risk drawing a resurrection beast this way.” Probably Palamedes.
It was a very sensible thought, but then, had Harrow every truly been sensible when it came to the Ninth?
With Harrow shut safely away behind the doors of Drearburh and their fellow Lyctors gone, packed into the shuttle of a confused and reluctant Ianthe, there was nothing for Gideon to do except return to her old cell. It was just as she left it, and Gideon guessed she had Aiglamene to thank for that. Definitely wasn’t Crux. Gideon placed herself on her bed with her back against the stiff mattress and she looked up into the blackness and she felt like a child and she felt so fucking old. She left and she died and she found Harrow and she lost her and now Gideon was back at the start and alone in the dark.
She was back at the start, with Harrow’s eyes in her face and the memory of Harrow’s heart pounding in her chest. She remembered how it was in the tomb, beside the altar. She remembered how it felt when Harrow touched her face, how she felt the touching and she felt the touch.
There was no one waiting there to take her place. There was no one there to press a mouth to hers in what she assumed was a kiss, but maybe it was some kind of, like, assisted breathing? Maybe Harrow thought Gideon likely to drown and was just giving her mouth-to--
No, come on. Those were kisses and not even Harrowhark Nonagesimus could pretend otherwise.
Harrow’s ghosts were still there. They weren’t doing much, just watching Gideon. One of them idly plucked at those sticky strings, impossible to sever. Gideon tried to feel Harrow, tried to feel for the connection that was still there, had to be there if their eyes were still switched, still all fucked up with each other.
It took some time yanking on that sticky web, but eventually she found it, and it felt so familiar that she broke the surface and laughed up at the dark. It wasn’t the same as it had been before, no more armpits in faces, no more grabbing each other and drowning. It wasn’t the same intimacy that came with literally sharing the same body. This was more like lying back in that pool at Canaan House, floating on the surface, the tips of their fingers just barely brushing. Back in the pool, Gideon had done it intentionally after the first time, thrilled at the touch of Harrow’s skin to hers, the subtle press of fingers to fingers. This was intentional too, and after brushing against Harrow for a bit, she held on, her fingers carefully hooking Harrow’s and pulling her in. Harrow did seem to move closer, a little. It wasn’t enough, but it was something.
It was something to think that they could be separated by lightyears, galaxies apart, and that Gideon could reach out and she could touch Harrow’s soul, that she could feel the touch of Harrow’s hand against hers. It was something to know that anything that befell Harrow, Gideon could fix, no matter where it happened, no matter when. It was comforting to know that she could never really leave, that she would spend the rest of their very long life inextricably twisted up beside Harrow, tethered, renewed.
That was a horrifying realization. Not the twist of them together, the knot they’d created that could never be undone, but the admission that Gideon wanted it, and that even then it didn’t feel like enough. This perfect Lyctorhood wasn’t enough.
It shouldn’t even be possible. They were just getting good at being one person and now they had to re-learn how to be two?
Gideon brushed her invisible fingertips--soul fingers?--against Harrow’s soul fingers and focused on whatever small comfort could be found in that. She closed her eyes and she felt the ghosts inside her pulling and she thought that they must miss Harrow too. Sorry kids. They were stuck with Gideon now and Gideon was not quite so easy to haunt. She hoped they didn’t stop trying. Maybe they’d succeed in pulling Harrow back where Gideon failed.
She was nearly asleep when the knock came.
It was soft, a gentle rap of knuckles, and later Gideon wasn’t sure if she actually heard it, or if she felt the knock of the knuckles against the chilly metal as though they were her own. Gideon was up immediately, one hand on the door, the other brushing through her too-long hair in an attempt to smooth it, as though it mattered that she look presentable in this crack in the dark.
She knew who she’d find on the other side, but her heart still jumped when she saw Harrow standing there. Harrow was alone, her arms pressing her robe tight to fight the chill. Gideon wanted to pull her in, press her necromancer to her chest and shut the door. She didn’t, because she was an idiot afraid of making things worse than they already were. She didn’t, because the Ninth or Crux or all those ghosts she’d dragged into herself had mixed up the thick layer of settled muck that coated her base, just a mess of old yuck about this place and its Lady. These doors and these caves made everything else that came between leaving and returning seem like a dream conjured up after an evening of too many comics, pages of flimsy stuck to her face as she fell asleep and dreamed of an illustrious career in the Cohort, of Harrow bowing her head and saying uncharacteristic things like You’re the first flower of my house. and I am undone without you.
Looking at Harrow now, it was hard to imagine her mouth actually saying those words, but Gideon had been right there. She’d heard them.
Gideon swallowed, pressed her fingers to the base of her throat in an attempt to still the pulse pounding there, and said: “Yeah?”
Harrow responded by clearing her throat. Her face was naked, but there were remnants of paint at the edges, on her neck and along her hairline. She’d painted her face and then, for some reason, she wiped it all off again, but not very well. She was shrouded in black, but her veils were pushed back away from her face and she wasn’t wearing any of her old array of bone. This, at least, could not be confused with the past. By Ninth House standards, Harrow was practically naked. She was far from the same Harrow she’d been at the start of this.
And then there were her eyes. Rings of bright yellow around black pupil. Her eyes were so dilated in the dark that if Gideon squinted, the yellow might blur and Harrow would look just as she always had, just with a bit more jaundice.
“Where are the others?” Harrow asked. She pushed her head into Gideon’s cell as though Gideon might actually be hiding three Lyctors in the small space. Gideon stepped back and held out an arm in invitation. Harrow had never actually stepped inside before that Gideon could remember--well, not entirely true. Gideon was positive that Harrow had been in there before, but only when Gideon herself was not there, and only to snoop and to steal.
“It’s just me. They left.”
Harrow startled at that and looked up at Gideon. Her eyes were too damn intense as they searched Gideon’s face. Gideon had to look away. Even that didn’t help. She still felt Harrow’s eyes flicking from Gideon’s eyes, to her mouth, her hands, and then back up again.
“Left?” Harrow repeated, eventually. Gideon decided it was safe to look at her again.
“Yeah, cause like--the Sixth might be burning up and nobody knows what’s happening on the First or if Pyrrha is even alive. Your girlfriend’s all hopped up on God blood. She might be over there wreaking havoc or who knows what.”
“Do you think she actually--” Harrow trailed off. Her eyes glazed a little.
How long had it been since they’d spoken to each other? Really talked? Nearly a year?
Gideon shrugged. “Don’t know. Mercymorn literally disintegrated the guy and he put himself back together.” One half of a Lyctor re-Lyctorizing their other half didn’t seem like it should be possible. It didn’t seem like it could be that easy, but then, Alecto was the revenant of a planet and a sun and all of the ghosts of the First. She was the God who became man and the man who became God, so really, what did Gideon know about any of it?
“Are you okay?” Gideon asked. She remembered how Harrow slumped against the stones at the altar, how Gideon had to carry her across the water.
Harrow was still for a moment, considering, and then she said, “Are you? He was your father.”
Gideon shrugged again. “Seemed like a dick. Anyway, she was your girl.”
Harrow shook her head, bright eyes pinning Gideon against the door to her cell. “Follow me, please.”
And Gideon Nav followed Harrowhark. She followed her down the tiers. She followed her up to the great doors of Drearburh and there she stopped. This time Harrow stopped too.
“I’m your cavalier. I should have followed you in earlier,” Gideon admitted. “Sorry for getting weird about it.”
Harrow lifted her arm in a way that, for just a second, looked like she was reaching out for Gideon’s hand. She dropped it back to her side almost immediately, before Gideon’s fingers even had a chance to twitch toward hers.
“Will you follow me in now?” Harrow asked.
Gideon did. She followed Harrow through those awful doors, down and down and down until Harrow pushed through a door that Gideon had never noticed before, down a corridor Gideon rarely saw, and Gideon found that they were standing in a room much like the tiled room at Canaan House if you shoved that room a mile below ground and filled it with even more mold. The pool here glowed a gentle green, a very Ninth glow and a very Ninth green.
Harrow stopped at the edge of the pool and looked at Gideon, expectant. Gideon was having a hard time breathing. It became even harder to breathe when Harrow began to remove her robe and kick off her boots. Gideon scrambled to do the same.
“Go time?” Gideon guessed, though she barely managed to push the words out past her lips. She had to say something to stop herself from combusting right there on the tiles.
“Yes, Griddle. This is go time.”
Gideon’s knees buckled at that and she rushed herself into the pool in an attempt to hide it. The water splashed up and onto the tiles in a big whoosh with her entrance. Harrow was more careful. She sat down on the tiled edge and then carefully slipped in. In the glowing light of the room, Harrow’s (Gideon’s) eyes took on a greenish glint.
The pool was very deep, deeper than the Canaan House pool, and they hung there, treading water at the surface until eventually Harrow said, “Tomorrow I’m to choose an heir.”
Gideon felt the relief flood her, this news that Harrow would not resume her role as the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House.
“Crux?” Gideon guessed, unable to help herself.
Harrow shook her head, apparently not getting that it was a joke. “A necromancer from the resurrected.”
Here in the pool with Harrow, Gideon was having a hard time containing herself. She could feel a smile pulling at her lips, threatening to give her away. She probably wasn’t hiding anything anyway. Harrow had to feel this. There was no way Gideon wasn’t contagious.
Harrow, for her part, looked tense and serious, a little pinched. She didn’t look like she was feeling anything Gideon was putting out there, like she was completely as immune to Navitis as Gideon was susceptible to Nonagesimitis.
“What’s wrong then?” Gideon asked, and she braced herself for Harrow’s confession.
“I should be happy that the next Reverend Daughter or Reverend Son will start a new line and lead a rejuvenated House,” Harrow admitted. “But all I can think, all I keep thinking, is that I still don’t know how to undo what we’ve done.”
Harrow gestured between them. “I promised you your freedom, and I won’t hold you here on the Ninth, but I don’t know how to disconnect myself from you. I’m not sure there is a way, if there ever was--but I promised, Griddle, and I meant it.”
Gideon waited, sure that this was a joke and this was Harrow’s dramatic pause before she smacked Gideon with the punchline.
Harrow didn’t say anything more, which meant--
“Well, that’s total bullshit,” Gideon concluded, eventually.
Harrow’s mouth turned down into a sad little frown, which Gideon absolutely could not deal with right now.
“You never once meant it! You didn’t mean it when you showed up on the landing tier with those papers. You didn’t mean it when you promised Aiglamene at the start of this and you didn’t mean it when you made me promise to come back here if anything happened to you.” Hell, Harrow wouldn’t even let Gideon get away in death, though Gideon was not stupid enough to say that out loud.
“Do you know what it was like to see her in you?” Harrow said.
Gideon felt her shoulders stiffen. “Seemed pretty awesome from where I was sitting.”
Harrow’s eyes went wide. “I think that was why she stayed so long. She stayed to preserve your body so that we could undo what was done and so that I could keep my word. I meant it, Griddle, but I didn’t mean for it to be this. I thought we had a chance to undo it completely, not to--” Gideon knew that Harrow was about to say perfect it, but she bit back the words. This didn’t feel perfect to Gideon. It obviously felt even less perfect to Harrow.
“I still don’t believe you,” Gideon said. “But even if you do mean it--” Here she shrugged. “--too late.” It was still sometimes hard for Gideon to imagine a world in which she did not hate Harrowhark, even though she’d been living in that world for a long time now. She imagined it must be the same for Harrow, but even when Harrow hated her, really loathed her, Harrow still hadn’t ever wanted to let her go. “Anyway, what would you do here if I left you? You’ll just catch the eye of a resurrection beast here, eventually.”
Harrow shook her head and didn’t answer. Didn’t matter, because Gideon realized that she already knew the answer to her question. Harrow would crawl back into the tomb. She would lock herself away. She would sleep and Gideon would keep her fueled and running, and she would sleep, and she would keep Gideon fueled and running, and she would sleep.
Gideon was not John Gaius and Harrow was not her Alecto. That wasn’t how this was going to go. If Harrow wanted to stab Gideon through the chest and suck her back into that kissing sea, then maybe they could talk, but this--
“Don’t be stupid. I’m sure as fuck not leaving you here.”
“I think this is how it was always going to end,” Harrow said, her voice quiet.
Gideon laughed, couldn’t help herself, but she made an effort to swallow it back down when she saw the look on Harrow’s face. “You think I’m going to let you stay here? And what? Crawl into that tomb and roll the rock shut behind you? You really think I’ll let that happen?”
Harrow thought it over. “We could use your blood for the wards.”
“You’re crazy, Nonagesimus. You’ve really lost it. You know, I still wouldn’t be able to come visit you,” Gideon said. “I’m not a necromancer, in case you forgot. I’m just some weird blood bomb, good with a sword.”
“You’re the other half of my Lyctorhood,” Harrow said. “You’re a Lyctor. It’ll hurt, but with determination you’ll eventually make it through.”
Nice vote of confidence there. Gideon took a deep breath and said out loud what she’d been hoping for since the start of this conversation. “Listen, it’s really flattering that you’re willing to let me visit your crypt--”
“--don’t get perverted.”
That did it.
“Are you--I would love to get perverted if you’d just stop being so you for five seconds. Like, look, I’m not God, Harrow, just his stupid mistake of a kid. You’re not your undead ex. That tomb was never meant for you and I’m sorry to be the one to point this out, but with the tomb empty, the Ninth House is kinda pointless. There’s no one left to protect, and you’re still--Fuck, we never really change, do we? I’m over here feeling like I lost, like this perfect Lyctorhood isn’t enough because I can’t stand all this empty fucking space that used to have you in it--I had to reach so fucking far just to make sure you were still there--and then you tell me you’re planning to lock yourself up just to get away from me!”
“I’m not trying to get away from you,” Harrow insisted. “I just said--”
“I know, I heard you! You’re overdue for a nap and you’re giving me the only key to your ice cold boudoir. I just need to decipher nonsensical necromantic theorems and cut myself open anytime I want to use it.”
Gideon felt the anger flash through Harrow then, and that physical reminder of their layered souls set off a sudden thrill beneath her skin. Harrow’s face changed, went slack with surprise, and Gideon knew that she’d felt that thrill too. Good. It was about time Harrow felt the ridiculous feelings Gideon was pushing out.
“I get it,” Gideon continued, because she had momentum and she didn’t want to lose it. “I get it because there’s a part of me that would give anything to climb back inside of you and lock the door behind me, and that fucking terrifies me.”
Harrow pressed the palms of her hands hard against her eyes, her legs kicking hard to keep her afloat. She said: “That’s exactly why I need to remove myself. I need to let you go.” Then, a little choked: “I’ve destroyed you, Griddle.”
It was like talking to a brick wall. Gideon pushed at the water, and it surged forward and splashed Harrow in the face. Harrow sputtered and glared.
“Stop being an idiot and look at me. I’m not destroyed. Actually, my body is magically repaired. And I don’t want to go anywhere. If you’re here, I’m here. If you’re somewhere else, that’s where I’m at too. I froze outside the doors earlier, but that was just muscle memory. Truth is, I’ll follow you into Drearburh and into the tomb. Hell, I’ll even follow you into Crux’s room. So yeah, you want a long nap? I want one too. We can cuddle.”
“I’m not joking! Don’t you get it yet? All I want is for you to touch me so I don’t feel like I’m standing entirely alone in a pile of our ruins. Just hold me for a fucking minute, Harrow. You can pretend that I’m her. I promise I won’t hold it against you.”
When this was met with silence and averted eyes, when Gideon couldn’t even feel a response from Harrow, she shook her head and sank below the surface of the pool. The water was loud in her ears, the sound of the air bubbling out of her nose, but at least it felt familiar. She couldn’t drown now, not even if she wanted to, because she was half of a whole and her other half was still treading water above the surface, sucking air into her stupid stubborn lungs. Gideon could feel that now, the expansion and contraction of Harrow’s chest as she tread water above Gideon. Down here she could still feel the rapid beating of Harrow’s heart, as though it echoed through her own chest. Maybe it did. Maybe, in some plane, it was beating right beside hers. It grew louder and Gideon felt the water push against her face.
She opened her eyes, expecting to find that she’d drifted too close to Harrow’s feet, that Harrow was about to kick her in the face, but it wasn’t Harrow’s foot that she found. Harrow was beneath the surface with her. Harrow was reaching for her with those familiar sharp fingers, pulling at Gideon in such a way that for a split second Gideon thought Harrow might be trying to drown her. As if she could! And then Harrow’s pointy fingers latched on and pulled Gideon in until finally Gideon realized what this really was...Harrow was trying to hug her.
Gideon waited another moment just to be sure--drowning still felt like a possibility--and then Harrow’s arms wrapped tight around Gideon’s waist and Harrow pressed her face into the space where Gideon’s shoulder met neck, Harrow’s mouth right up against Gideon’s skin. There was no mistaking that.
Gideon hugged back. She hugged Harrow back with all that she had, and when her feet found the bottom of the pool, she pushed off, and for the first time since Canaan House, they surfaced together.
Harrow gasped against Gideon’s skin and Gideon shuddered beneath her hands. She could feel Harrow now. She could feel her feeling what Gideon was feeling, on and on, like the infinite reflections created by two facing mirrors. And then, before Gideon had recovered from the echoes passed back and forth between them, Harrow kissed her.
It was, in all honesty, Gideon’s first real kiss, but in it she felt all of the kisses they’d tried to share during the sinking and surfacing. It was her first real kiss and it reverberated through her with the ghost of a thousand kisses that came before it.
This time there was nothing pulling them apart. There was nothing stopping them from turning the first kiss into a second and a third and a fourth until they were well and truly making out, until Harrow was sucking at Gideon’s tongue, her fingers caught up in Gideon’s hair while she made desperate little grunting noises that Gideon savored and swallowed, collecting them so she could remember them forever. Maybe Gideon should have guessed that this was how it could be. Maybe she should have guessed during all of those months she watched Harrow with Ianthe Tridentarius, as she watched Harrow beg Alecto to want her back. Maybe Gideon should have known that despite all of that, once they started this they wouldn’t be able to stop.
Not that it would have changed this. Stopping was the absolute last thing on Gideon’s mind. Not now that she’d finally convinced Harrow to eat her.
Gideon found herself kissed into the corner of the pool, maneuvered until her back was up against the tiled walls. Harrow was before her with knees that pressed into Gideon’s sides, with hands all over her shoulders and neck, and with a mouth that wouldn’t quit. Gideon wanted nothing more than to drown in this, but if she was going to drown in this--
She pulled back from Harrow’s kiss and the back of her head knocked against the tiles at the edge of the pool. Harrow winced. Her hand rushed to cup the back of Gideon’s head, a move designed to cushion any future blows.
It should be weird, opening her eyes and seeing her own eyeballs staring back at her. It really should be weird, and it was, but it was fucking sexy as all hell too. She was all up inside Harrow and Harrow was all up inside her and that was how it was going to be until--well, better not to think about that until. Better not to think about the possibility of forever.
Harrow looked surprisingly present in this moment. She didn’t look like she was glazed over, lost in her head thinking about someone else. Still, Gideon couldn’t help but wonder--this did come right after she’d invoked the other woman. She had to--
“Are you thinking about her?” Gideon asked, blurted really, and she regretted it immediately. She sounded pathetic, a jealous second. Harrow’s eyes narrowed, sharp on Gideon, even as her mouth looked all soft and kissed red. Harrow could push Gideon away now and leave the pool and Gideon wouldn’t blame her for a second. Not after that.
“No.” Harrow lied with that sharp short punch of a word. She sounded affronted, but she didn’t leave, so at least there was that. Harrow continued: “Do you remember what you said on Acts?”
Gideon said a lot of things on Acts. She kept Pyrrha awake with all of the stupid things she said on Acts. How to choose?
“The first time we kissed, you said, ‘Yours.’”
Something exploded in the vicinity of Gideon’s heart and she slouched against the wall of the pool. She accidentally sucked in a mouthful of water and she choked on it, tried to cover, failed. Eventually she managed to say: “Yeah, well--I mean, I literally was yours, right? Still am.”
Harrow nodded. She leaned in until her forehead was pressed against Gideon’s forehead, until her nose brushed Gideon’s cheek.
“That’s what I was thinking,” she said with a puff of breath close to Gideon’s ear. “I always come back to you. I never understood it and I fought it and even then, the whole of me, I--It took me so long to realize what that meant. I think I understand it now.”
Gideon’s chest hurt and her stomach flipped and her toes tingled. She wanted to ask Harrow to elaborate, but couldn’t find the words. It didn’t matter. Harrow continued without prompt, her rapier sharp over Gideon’s heart, poised to kill.
“I’m yours, Gideon, if you’ll still have me.”
Gideon died. She was resurrected. She died again.
When that didn’t work, Gideon sank. She tried to drop beneath the surface, but Harrow had her up against the wall. Harrow had the tips of her bony knees pressed tight against Gideon’s sides and one hot little hand curled behind Gideon’s head. Harrow’s other hand was firm on Gideon’s arm, and when Gideon went under, Harrow went too. And then Harrow kissed her; a kiss like every kiss they’d ever shared beneath the surface.
It was so much more difficult when the water was real. When the water was real, trying to breathe meant sucking in a lungful of actual salt water instead of whatever it was that made up Harrow’s sea. It meant coughing and sputtering back at the surface, a sharp burning in the nose that made her eyes water and her face twist. Harrow held Gideon while she coughed. She pressed her mouth to Gideon’s shoulder and, though it was through the wet cloth of her shirt, Gideon thought she felt Harrow smile.
Eventually Gideon managed to get her lungs back under control. She peeled Harrow’s head off her shoulder by the hair and beheld the face of her necromancer, her now-literal other half. Harrow’s face was still constructed of an assortment of hateful angles. Her dark brows were still woeful, though thanks to recent events, her lips were currently far from bloodless. Her jaw, usually set in a way that Gideon could only describe as disdainful, now looked relaxed, almost slack. There was no panic in her eyes. There was no Drearburh in them either. There was only Gideon.
Harrow glanced down at Gideon’s mouth and Gideon received that message loud and clear.
Too many words.
She wrapped her arms around Harrow, pulled her in with hands pressed to Harrow’s back until Harrow’s knees slid back and Harrow’s thighs pressed tight to Gideon’s sides instead, until Harrow’s boneless chest pressed up against Gideon’s and Gideon shook at the feel of her.
They stayed like that for a long time, bodies pressed together in the corner of the pool, shuddering mouth exploring shuddering mouth, and when that wasn’t enough, they started to shift against each other, Harrow’s thighs clenching at Gideon’s sides, Gideon’s hands pressing her even closer. The sea inside Gideon crashed against her insides and the ghosts cried out, her entirety desperate to get closer to Harrow, to get so close that she slipped right past the barrier of skin and found herself back inside, caught up and twisted, soul against soul.
Harrow’s fingers pulled at her and Harrow teeth bit at her lips, and Gideon felt her frustration, felt the desperation that churned in Harrow. They were two oceans separated by an isthmus, the only thing between them these clothes and this skin and these muscles and bones.
Gideon pushed herself up and onto the edge of the pool. She pulled Harrow with her and Harrow grabbed at Gideon, yanked herself up until she was there in Gideon’s lap, one knee on either side of Gideon, her hands on Gideon’s arms and her waist and her back.
It was amazing, Gideon thought, what living inside each other did for inhibitions. She’s never had many, but now with Harrow, she had none. Harrow had inhibitions up to her eyeballs, but Gideon could feel that Harrow’s were gone as well. They sank into that pool and when they surfaced, everything else was left behind. It was Harrow-and-Gideon. Gideon-and-Harrow. They already knew each other inside and out, now it was finally time to know each other...inside and out.
Fuck, that was bad. That was pull-you-right-out-of-the-moment bad, and Gideon should not be allowed to think. Gideon pulled back so that she could see Harrow, so she could re-center herself in the moment. That worked. Harrow’s blazing eyes on her worked.
Harrow reached behind Gideon until she found the pile of their robes and she pulled them in and spread them across the tiles. Once that was done, Harrow didn’t waste any more time. She began to push at Gideon’s wet shirt.
Fuck, okay. Gideon didn’t need to be asked twice. There was a second, as Gideon pulled her shirt over her head and found that Harrow had done the same, that she was sure she couldn’t survive this. She was sure her heart would give out, or Harrow’s would. And then she remembered that it didn’t matter. If her heart gave out, Harrow’s heart would restart it. They weren’t dying anytime soon. Not unless they decided to go out together, two hearts stunned into silence at the exact same time.
That actually seemed plausible right then. Here lies Harrowhark and Gideon, soaking wet and half dressed, overcome and overwhelmed, so horny their hearts simultaneously seized and they died with their hands on each other’s necks, just like Gideon always knew they would. Except she never expected it could happen in such a sexy way.
She came back to her senses just in time to see Harrow rid herself of her bandeau, to find that they were both naked from the waist up. Gideon, of course, was pretty familiar with both of their bodies by now, having lived in them each for varying amounts of time. No, that wasn’t--she wasn’t familiar with Harrow, but she’d seen the small dark points of Harrow’s tits enough to know what to expect. Knowing what to expect, knowing how a body looked--it wasn’t the same as really being allowed to look. She’d always tried to avert her eyes before. She’d done what she needed to do and moved on. What she needed to do now was--
Oh God. Harrow was not interested in taking this slow or letting Gideon savor the moment. There was no rhythm in this, no thought, just delicious desperate movement that Gideon felt curling and twisting in her gut and then out toward all of her limbs, up her throat and out her mouth in a groan that achieved nothing except to push Harrow further into her desperate frenzy. Gideon’s hands slid up Harrow’s thighs to Harrow’s waist, guiding her, helping her through it, but they were still half-dressed, and Gideon knew that even if Harrow got there now, it wouldn’t be enough.
Her fingers fumbled with the button on Harrow’s trousers. She managed to get them open, but Harrow was focused, hardly seemed to notice, so Gideon’s fingers fell to her own trousers and fumbled with the button there instead. She pushed up off the tiles, back arching as she struggled to get her pants down past her hips. Harrow was no help at all, she hung tight to Gideon though it all.
“Harrow,” Gideon said and then almost honey, almost my love, but that was too much. Those were inside thoughts and she swallowed them back. The name was enough. Harrow lost some of that single-minded focus for just a moment, her head cleared just long enough to shift off of Gideon and remove her trousers before she was back, both of them naked now. Harrow moved above her, hips sliding over Gideon’s, and she looked down at Gideon, her eyes full of wonder as they lingered on Gideon’s mouth, on her shoulders and her arms, on her breasts. Harrow’s hands followed, fingers pressed to Gideon’s lips, fingertips tight on Gideon’s shoulders, thumb smudging at her skin. Her hands traced the lines of Gideon’s biceps, and then one small hand over Gideon’s breast, palming it, pinching at the nipple until Gideon gasped. Harrow gasped too and Gideon surged forward to kiss her, to capture that gasp with her mouth before it escaped.
Their bodies didn’t quite match up. Harrow ended up pressed low against Gideon’s hips instead of where Gideon really needed her, but Gideon was learning that the truly wonderful thing about this perfect Lyctorhood was that it didn’t matter. Gideon still felt it. She felt it through Harrow, her urgency and desperation, the rhythmic thrill of Gideon’s bare flesh sliding again and again against Harrow’s cunt, the pleasure in it. When Gideon realized that it still wasn’t going to be enough, she shifted beneath Harrow. She lifted a leg and repositioned her thigh, just enough to shift Harrow toward that side, to change the angle until Harrow gasped and buckled on Gideon’s leg. Gideon’s hands guided Harrow, aided her, pulling her body down against Gideon’s thigh. She pulled Harrow forward to increase contact with Harrow’s clit—oh yeah, that was better—closer, closer, and her own body thrilled and it ached and it cried out for more.
Harrow’s release went straight through Gideon, reverberated back and forth between them so that they both cried out and they both fell back against the pile of robes, panting and sated, their chests rising and falling in unison. And when Harrow’s leg settled between Gideon’s, Gideon thrust up against it and only then remembered that her body was still desperate for its own release, even while it echoed the remnants of Harrow’s.
Harrow felt it too. Her hand slipped between Gideon’s legs while her chest was still heaving, and she sucked in her breath when she found Gideon soaked and ready, as though that could possibly be a surprise after everything they’d just done.
It didn’t take long. Harrow could feel when it was good for Gideon, and she adjusted the slide of her fingers until they hit just right. Gideon tried to watch Harrow. She wanted to see what she was feeling as Harrow felt it, wanted to see each twitch of her body through Harrow, each rush of pleasure reflected in Harrow. She didn’t want to miss a second of it, but it was too good, Harrow leaning over her, Harrow’s leg pressing against the back of her hand, a rhythmic pressure against the fingers that slid alongside Gideon’s clit. Gideon wasn’t going to hold on much longer, and Harrow already knew that. Of course, Harrow knew. She kissed Gideon and pressed her tongue into Gideon’s mouth as her hand and her thigh steered Gideon right over the edge.
The thick shadows of the Ninth burst with light as Gideon exploded beneath Harrow. The sounds she made--and there were definitely some sounds--were muffled by Harrow’s mouth as Gideon groaned around the press of Harrow’s tongue. Harrow’s arm pushed down against Gideon’s chest, holding her against the floor as Gideon’s body rolled beneath Harrow, like the sea that surrounded Canaan House, swell after swell after swell. Harrow rode them all, her body shaking as she tried to stay afloat. It was the most beautiful thing Gideon had ever seen.
Gideon fell back against the tiles, limbs limp and nerves still twitching beneath Harrow’s fingers.
Water lapped against the edges of the pool. It dripped somewhere in a far corner of the room. Beside her, Harrow breathed heavily and said, “Oh.”
She sounded so surprised that Gideon couldn’t stop herself from letting out a breathless laugh.
“Yeah,” Gideon agreed. “Oh.”
Harrow’s fingers were still curled in the hair between Gideon’s legs and when she pulled at a few hairs, just gently, Gideon knocked her hand away with a grunt and a sharp look. That earned a small smile from Harrow.
“That was very...informative.” (“Informative!?” Gideon choked.) “I’m going to have to know every time you get yourself off to one of your nasty publications now, aren’t I?” Harrow mused, quietly. As though Gideon was going to need a magazine with the memory of what they’d just done so fresh in her mind. This time when Gideon laughed it was loud and it echoed off the walls of the room. She hugged Harrow close and pressed a kiss to her temple.
“I have a better question: If I’m on Acts 4:12 and you’re on the Ninth would you still feel my orgasm? And would it be instantaneous, or is there travel time involved? And would you be able to tell I was thinking about you when it happened?”
A low hum was Harrow’s only response. Her hair-pulling fingers slid up over Gideon’s stomach and found a nipple instead. She pinched it absently, watched it contract, and then she pushed herself up on her elbow to stare down at her fingers on Gideon’s skin, at the flat space between Gideon’s breasts. It took Gideon a moment to realize that she was looking for a scar.
“Do you still want to undo it?”
“Do I want to undo putting you in a situation where you were forced to fall on a spike in order for me to live?” Harrow asked in a tone that made it clear that, orgasms aside, she still thought Gideon was an enormous idiot.
“Yeah, okay,” Gideon said. “But this now.”
“No,” Harrow admitted. “Obviously not this now.”
That obviously was enough. It was no You’re the first flower of my house, but Harrow’s actions, the way her fingers traced over Gideon’s skin, the way her eyes hadn’t left Gideon since they surfaced, since that first real kiss, that was already beyond anything Gideon had ever let herself imagine. It was enough and it was not enough and it was too much all at once.
“Will you come back to my cell?” Harrow asked.
Gideon swallowed. “Yeah,” she said. “You know I will.” Though, Harrow couldn’t really know that. Gideon agreed to sleep in the same room as Harrow exactly once in their entire lives and then she promptly died right after that, so like, yeah, okay. It was probably a pretty good question.
Harrow seemed reluctant to move, but eventually she did. She stood naked over Gideon, all pale skin interrupted by the dark hair on her head, beneath her arms and between her legs. Harrow’s body was a lot like her face, all angry angles that somehow inexplicably combined into a body, into this person that pulled at both Gideon’s heart and her gut. Gideon ran a hand up the back of Harrow’s leg, her palm curling around Harrow’s calf, the back of a knee, then thigh. She felt the goosebumps break out across Harrow’s skin just before Harrow wrapped her arms around her ribs, just below the pointed tips of her breasts. It was Gideon’s cue to move, and Gideon did. She stood, fisting the robes in her hands as she went. They were damp and covered in who-knew-what from the floors of this room, but they were better than their sopping shirts and trousers. Gideon’s trousers were floating in the pool, kicked there in her rush to remove her clothes. She didn’t move to collect them. Harrow didn’t seem to care. She wrapped the robe around herself and slipped her bare feet into her boots.
“Stick to the shadows,” Harrow said. “They’ve seen enough of me today as it is.”
“You got it, boss,” Gideon said. This she could do. She could follow half a step behind Harrow, her feet squelching wetly in her boots. She could tuck herself into the shadows when needed and she could pull her hood low to obscure her face. The only thing missing was her sword. Her sword and the paint and all of the clothes she usually wore under her robe.
Ahead of her Harrow paused. She turned back to look up at Gideon, her eyes wide in the dark.
“Can you see them?” Harrow asked. Gideon looked where Harrow was looking and at first she couldn’t see shit. She was about to say so, but then her eyes caught on two bright patches, blurry lights that moved through the dark.
“It’s like the lights on the construct back at Canaan House.”
“Not quite,” Harrow corrected, though she sounded somewhat impressed. “I understand why you saw that now, but that was thanergy. This signature is thalergenic.”
Gideon didn’t have much to say to that. She grunted a “Hm,” which seemed to satisfy Harrow. Harrow moved on and eventually she pushed open the door to her cell, pulled Gideon in and shut the door behind them.
Harrow’s cell was the size of ten of Gideon’s, but it was still a cell; dark and sparse, with a single cot pushed up against one wall. The Reverend Mother and Reverend Father’s rooms had been lavish in comparison. It was so long since Gideon had entered this space that she didn’t realize Harrow had never moved into their rooms, had kept to this one instead, hardly more ornate than an ordinary nun’s. Harrow pushed Gideon toward the sonic and then followed Gideon in, standing close together, their robes dropping to the floor.
When it came time to maneuver two people into a cot very obviously designed for one, it was Gideon who arranged herself first, her larger body lying flat so that Harrow could settle herself over her cavalier. The weight of Harrow over her--what little weight there was--and their tangled limbs was comfort, a reminder of how it felt to be pressed up together in the same small body, sharing a shell that was so full of ghosts there was barely room for one.
Harrow pressed her cheek to Gideon’s chest and said, “Once I choose an heir, they’ll need a cavalier.”
“I’m already assigned.”
“Not you, you dolt. Aiglamene’s been training several of the young resurrected. None of them are you, but some seem like they might know what they’re doing. Would you watch them train and let me know what you think?”
It was easy to imagine herself getting sucked back into this place. She’d done her time off-planet, just as Aiglamene had, and now she was back. She could easily imagine herself old and bent, teaching children how to hold a sword, how to stand.
She needed to stop imagining herself old and bent. It was never going to happen now, was it?
“We aren’t staying here,” Gideon said. She meant it as a question, but the words fell out of her mouth with a finality that she didn’t expect.
“No,” Harrow agreed. “When the Sixth returns, we’ll leave with them.”
“Both of us,” Gideon clarified. She needed to hear Harrow say it.
“Yes. Both of us.”
Gideon relaxed beneath Harrow. “No off-planet orgasm transmittals for you then, I guess.”
She felt Harrow’s temperature rise. “I’d rather spend more time exploring them in person first, thank you. Go to sleep, Griddle. We’re up before the First Bell.”
It was smart, slipping in the part about in-person orgasms right before the part about before the First Bell. Gideon let that go, enjoyed the rise in her own temperature instead, the solid press of Harrow against her. It might not last. Harrow might push her away tomorrow. They might decide they hate each other again next week, but it didn’t seem likely. Not now, after everything.
It wasn’t long before Gideon felt Harrow’s breathing slow and even out. Harrow went heavy in her arms, a comforting weight against Gideon’s chest and side. Harrowhark Nonagesimus, insomniac extraordinaire, fell asleep with her legs tangled up in her cavalier’s, with her face pressed to her cavalier’s chest.
All that time drowning and surfacing in Harrow. If that was what it took to get them to this moment--if it took the dying, the short burn of their Lyctorhood, the drowning and surfacing of their imperfect Lyctorhood, then a resurrection into this so-called perfect Lyctor pair--yeah, that felt worth it. Right now, Gideon knew that she’d do it all again, each and every fuck up, if it meant they’d end up right here, lying together naked in the same bed, Harrow pressed up against Gideon, real skin to real skin.
Gideon closed her eyes and she sank into sleep.