As a rule, Ianthe tried not to indulge in fantasy. Sentimental speculation in the face of disappointment rarely did any immediate tangible good, and what better authority on wrenching tangible good from the jaws of disappointment than the second in line to the throne of Ida, now Eighth Saint to serve the King Undying? So when Harrow refused Ianthe’s kiss, she made a valiant attempt not to care. She sang no palinodes about other dark universes in which Harrow reached for her, for good or ill. She laughed it off, she said something she hoped was rather mean, and she waltzed away. Ianthe counted it among her dearest blessings that, if anyone existed in the Necrolord Prime’s vast empire too oblivious to notice how thick she was laying it on, it was Harrowhark Nonagesimus.
And that was the problem, wasn’t it — she’d been so trying so hard these days, and it showed. It was not, she was painfully aware, a good look. For most of her life, Ianthe had contented herself with skulking in corners. She’d been chilly, remote, some half-glimpsed phantom flitting through the wings of a theater while Coronabeth put asses in seats and chowed down on scenery. It had been enough, back then, for Ianthe to know that she was writing the script. It was a strange and decadent thrill to take center stage back at Canaan House but the afterglow faded fast. Frankly, she didn’t like to be looked at for too long. Harrow often accused her of “necromantic frippery, all spectacle, no substance,” but Ianthe had always put quite a lot of effort into what she did, thank you very much. It was simply that now there was no radiant twin to draw away the eye while she worked. A nascent star in the lyctoral firmament, Ianthe was the radiant twin now. To be seen actually applying herself? It was a mortifying ordeal.
If people could see you trying, they could see you failing, falling ass over face and eating total shit. Ianthe rarely fell ass over face and ate total shit, but lately she seemed to be doing so with ever more frequency and fervor.
So she stuck to her blithe, libertine act, a picture of carelessness, all the way down the hall to her rooms. Even that charade seemed to her a bit much, upon further reflection, a little too transparent, the picture a little too overdrawn. Whistling? Really? Who whistles?
Ianthe sank into the gold-lacquered chair by her bed, worrying at wine-stained lips with lipstick-stained teeth. Once she thought she’d peeled away all the skin that Harrowhark had deemed unfit to kiss, she moved absentmindedly to biting at the cuticles of her fleshy left hand.
It wasn’t that she and Harrow had been so close before. Mostly they’d been intrigued by each other. There was a good deal of mutual sizing-up that necessitated proximity, lots of time spent together, charged eye contact, maybe a little light stalking. Unnerving each other was part of the game. If the testing of psychological and intellectual limits led to a little physical experimentation, wasn’t it all part of becoming a nearly omnipotent necrosaint? Also, to be frank, they were both traumatized as fuck. In those conditions, sometimes the body takes a few leaps it wouldn’t otherwise. Harrow couldn’t know it now, but she actually had let Ianthe kiss her on more than one occasion, in those early days. For her part, Harrow had practically jumped out of her skeleton — skeletons, plural; her wardrobe practically consisted of bone chips — at the opportunity to submit Ianthe to the Sewn Tongue. She had clearly relished the laborious procedure, which she took to with great care, screwing Ianthe’s lips up tight and bloody with black thread she had synthesized from her own hair, possibly laced with her own osteocytes. She muttered ten excruciating sermons’ worth of incantations, then unlaced Ianthe’s mouth. Ianthe was about halfway through asking sarcastically whether this was what passed for seven minutes in heaven at horny Ninth slumber parties before Harrow shut her up, licking dried blood from the holes her own hands had made, sucking each wound until it wept anew, leaving Ianthe’s mouth riddled with throbbing stigmata. Filthy little vampire. Filthy sacramental fetishist. Ianthe redoubled her nail-biting efforts. Those were the days.
That Harrowhark was gone now, it seemed, just a packet of letters and some transected cortical tissue, but even Nonagesimus 2.0 had tackled Ianthe for a little post-op snogging back on the Erebos. Another brief but stunning failure for Ianthe on the clearly-giving-too-much-of-a-fuck front. She remembered with a grimace the shameless little noise she had made into Harrow’s mouth. Harrow couldn’t not have noticed, Saint of Oblivious Prudishness though she was.
Ianthe actually considered this the beginning of the end to some extent, or, more optimistically, the opening salvo of a rough patch in their slow-burn epic power struggle and/or courtship. At first, Ianthe was quite tickled about the whole DIY lobotomy thing. Lyctorally speaking, it threw a wrench in the course of Harrow’s development from which she would probably never be able to fully recover; her spectacular failure would pull focus from Ianthe’s own less than ideal performance. More importantly, it put that overgrown carrot of a cavalier, over whom Harrow wasted far too many tears, quite literally out of sight and out of mind.
But the process had also dulled something in Harrow, at least temporarily, made her naïve and stupid about the nature of their bond. Paradoxically, this put Ianthe at somewhat of a disadvantage. She kept — how to put it? Misjudging her distance. She’d flash what she thought was an unmarked smile at Harrow, in the hallway or over dinner, and her sister lyctor would vibrate with suspicion. Fine, Harrowhark was suspicious of her, those were probably good instincts, except her incredible stiffness would catch Augstine’s eye, or Mercymorn’s, or worse, God’s. They’d look briefly at Harrow with disdain or condescension or pity, then they’d turn their gaze on Ianthe, like they were watching some trite Seventh romcom and holding back canned laughter at Lady Septentrio, Duchess of wherever, coming on too strong again. Layers of irony and half-mocking innuendo offered Ianthe some insulation when it came to Harrowhark, but those probing, thousand-year-old eyes could see right through her. If she shared Harrow’s saccharine, daughterly relationship with the Lord, he might offer her a volume of very old, bleeding-heart poetry as a consolation, “for even if she flees, soon she shall pursue…”
A sudden jolt of pain diverted her from this particularly ill-advised line of thinking. She’d been a little careless with her teeth. From the tip of her middle finger dangled a clumpy string of skin and flesh, like a foul pink hangnail, peeled off from the milky-white flexor tendon. Ianthe waggled her finger and it flapped wetly back and forth. She regarded this morsel for a moment, licked her lips.
What she might have done was to tamper with the thalergetic makeup of her finger, tenderizing muscle, meat, and tendon, pinching nerve endings numb, a typical animaphiliac’s trick to ease the passage of teeth through flesh. But she was feeling sorry for herself. Ianthe ushered a burst of awful lyctoral strength into the muscles of her tempero-mandibular joint and bit down. The sharp pain gave her an excuse to squeeze out a few insipid tears while she chewed abjectly on her own severed finger meat and swallowed. She took to the ring finger next because really, she was quite drunk, and she needed the protein. She was tempted to eat her left pinkie, but contented herself with sucking at the two open wounds, decelerating their regeneration to savor the tinny blood and rich marrow, and to stew in corporeal discomfort for a change.
She even found herself missing Babs for a ridiculous moment, although, actually, thinking about it more, what she really missed was stress eating chunks out of his hand instead of her own.
She didn’t bother changing into a nightgown, just slid her dress off her shoulders and slunk into bed. Already webs of fat and collagen were beginning to mat themselves back together around the dull ache of scaffolding bone. The feeling made her glance, instinctively, at her skeletal right arm. How fucking stupid, how fucking boring. A waste of two perfectly good compound fractures. She re-considered freezing regeneration, slinking down the hall to Harrowhark’s room, sticking her clotted wounds under that smug little nose and insisting, again, remake me again, Nonagesimus. Two new osseous keepsakes from a supercilious nun who couldn’t bear the lonely, greedy demands of Ianthe’s lips but could reach into her innermost parts and coax forth something new. Would the Reverend Daughter deign to put her mouth to the newly-made bone? If Harrowhark pressed middle and ring finger to her lips would Ianthe be able to keep herself from shoving them down Harrow’s bone-studded throat till she gagged?
Not a good bedtime fantasy. The image of Harrow gasping and spluttering, those painterly lips parted and blooming with wine-purple vomit, threatened to do things to Ianthe that she was too tired to deal with. Besides, her fingers were all intact now, encased once again in an unbroken stretch of sallow skin. She pulled the thick buttercream comforter over her head and indulged in a somewhat tamer nightcap.
She suspended all disbelief and pictured Harrowhark returning to her door, atomizing the Saint of Duty’s blood from her hair, face, clothes — the dress Ianthe had chosen for her. She imagined Harrow climbing into bed next to her and weeping like she’d wept for her big, dumb cavalier all those months ago, howling at fresh-opened wounds in her psyche that wouldn’t stay cauterized. Again, she’d say, I need you to help me do it again, and Ianthe would cup Harrow’s broken bird face say, of course, Harry. Ianthe would kiss Harrow and Harrow would kiss Ianthe back. She’d open herself up once more under Ianthe’s clever hands and Ianthe would happily give Harrow all that she asked for and more. She’d reach deep into the tragedy of errors that made up Harrow’s consciousness and she’d slice out Gideon Nav for good, Gideon Nav and the whole Ninth House and whatever beautiful, awful secret of Harrow’s devotion was stashed in the Locked Tomb. She’d render it all so much medical waste. She’d make some really great double entendre about it in a toast at their wedding. Not a soul in the reception hall would get the joke, but Ianthe would give herself a good laugh all the same.
This was pure fantasy, she knew. Harrowhark Nonagesimus was a foolish, mad genius and her work would likely never undo itself. Besides, excising the Locked Tomb from Harrow’s memories would probably ruin the most amusing bits of her personality, if it left her with a functioning subjectivity at all. Pure fantasy. The stuff of dreams.
But still, it rankled her.
“My affections lie buried in the Locked Tomb.”
Let them lie, indeed. It was disgusting, Harrow’s insistence on pouring her love into a sad, dark niche carved into an unfeeling rock face lightyears and lightyears away. Glass houses, Ianthe. Salt water and granite bore Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and she might as well be lightyears from you.
“Awful. Gross. Weirdly specific.”
She flipped onto her side and scowled, ate a chunk of her thumb for good measure.
“Go on, hold onto the past, Harry,” she conceded, bitterly, mid-chew, “make yourself miserable.”
Ianthe swallowed hard, closed her eyes, shut her traitorous mouth before it could voice her half of the corny, wretched promise: and I’ll keep having dreams about loveless marriage and regret.