Chapter 1: Cut Your Teeth, then Cut Your Losses
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Locked Tomb, heir to the Ninth House, greatest necromancer of her generation, was at the end of her rope.
She reviewed the numbers in her head on the descent to the deepest bowels of Drearburh where she made her home. After this year, the coiffers of the Ninth House would see their last penny. The crop yields for the year, combined with the last of the nutrient paste they could afford, plus the usual rationing, would mean the entire house would starve before Harrowhark was twenty.
The lift stopped at the lowest level, where Harrowhark could convince herself through the placebo effect that the planet’s core provided most of the heat. She walked out, away from any vents that might travel to the surface and thus any unintended ears. The lights this far below were feeble from disuse, blinking to luminescence like a dying animatronic before succumbing to darkness. Harrowhark ignored the lights and lack thereof, her mind on her congregation; Marshal Crux who cared for her, Captain Aiglamene who protected the house, Ortus Nigenad who, despite the poetry, provided some entertainment. Then there were the adepts and loyal believers of the beast within the Tomb. People who, if Harrowhark told them to leave, would only do so with great reluctance.
Her biggest question, oddly, rested on a certain redhaired animosity that had made her life a living hell as much as she tried to thwart her escapes. The end of Harrowhark’s rope meant the last link on Gideon’s chain would finally snap, releasing the brute to the universe beyond the Ninth. It was hard to tell what frightened Harrowhark more: the universe’s inability to handle Gideon or Gideon’s inability to handle the universe.
When she was deep enough in the caverns that the lights could only click in their failed attempts to provide for their Reverend Daughter, when the limestone underfoot no longer felt warm from Drearburh’s pitiful heating system, when the air was thin and stringent inside her nose, when she was so enveloped in darkness that Harrowhark was certain she had passed through a portal into blissful Nothingness; only then did Harrowhark open the dam of her emotions.
There was no grace in it, no elegance or poise. Just raw anger, as brittle as the tendons of her grandmother’s skeleton. As she screamed, those tendons snapped, fraying at the edges, and dissolving into dust. Harrowhark screamed until her eyes popped out of their sockets, until her vocal chords were on the verge of snapping like her anger, until her blood curdled like milk and vinegar. She exposed to the depths of Drearburh everything she could never show to a living face; from the deepest chambers of one heart to another.
She owed her home that much. She failed it. Any longer like this and her congregation would be refugees seeking solace on the nearest planet that would tolerate their presence. The fate of her House did not rest in her hands. Six years she ran things, and in those six years, Harrowhark did not have a solution to the natural entropy of death.
At least, the solution that existed required more than just Harrowhark, more than just the Ninth and its sparse resources. If the Ninth were to survive, it would have to make itself more vulnerable than it was ready to be. Harrowhark would have to prostrate herself to the service of others.
For the sake of her congregation. For the sake of Gideon. For the sake of the Ninth.
So she screamed for her congregation. For their bony demeanors and reverent prayers and quiet loyalty. She screamed for Ortus, who with his mother may have a place on the Eighth. She screamed for Captain Aiglamene, who had wanted to retire in obscurity on the Ninth, of all places. She screamed for Marshal Crux and his oversight and oddly shaped compassion. She screamed for Gideon, whose freedom could only be granted with the fall of her jail.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the last Reverend Daughter of the Emperor Undying’s Ninth House, screamed for herself.
The presence of Gideon Nav manifested as a number of things depending on the day and her mood. Today, it manifested as the color red. Red like her hair, like anger, like the blood on her knuckles after training as she tossed a piece of real paper on the desk of Harrowhark, the wind of the force tickling the Reverend Daughter’s chin.
“The fuck is your game?” Gideon challenged.
The paper, Harrowhark knew, purchased Gideon’s commission to the Cohort. Officer training, starting as a second lieutenant. Had Gideon been allowed to leave two months ago, the commission would have meant Gideon’s freedom after five years. Now, Harrowhark waived the last of Gideon’s debt; a parting gift on the deathbed of everything either had ever known.
Gideon came in looking for a fight. Harrowhark, after sixteen stubborn years, had given up. She took the commission and placed it at the edge of the desk for Gideon to take. “I don’t have time for this.”
Harrowhark worked by the feeble light of a single lantern, her attempt to conserve power as futile as the light itself. She had crunched these numbers herself multiple times, and they all came out the same. Marshal Crux and Captain Aiglamene would be staying behind on the Ninth, but Gideon would not. That was something she decided in the bowels of Drearburh, among skeletons so old they turned to dust like Harrowhark’s pride as their mistress stormed past.
“I don’t have time for your bullshit,” Gideon said. Her shirt was tight in the chest and frayed at the seams. The only color on the Ninth was black, but Gideon’s height and anger were as red as Cohort uniforms in this moment. “What the fuck, Nonagesimus?”
Harrowhark straightened from the letter she was failing to write on a piece of flimsy. The ninth attempt at this letter. She could write decent enough on a good day. Today was not a good day.
“I don’t have to explain myself to you.” Harrowhark avoided the golden gaze of Gideon. Instead, she looked at the commission, Gideon’s ticket off the Ninth, and felt something inside her whither like flimsy in a fire. “You were given a gift. Why question it?”
Gideon placed her hands on the desk and leaned against it, her face towering above Harrowhark despite the hunch. Gideon was a tidal wave of vermillion, on the cusp of crashing against the lady of the house. Instead of fighting against it, like Harrowhark would have done two days ago, she would allow herself to be consumed by it. A single surrender to wash away in Gideon’s words. Harrowhark’s last opportunity to memorize the sound of her voice.
The final tirade should be made with eye contact, but when Harrowhark raised her gaze to those unsettling eyes, she saw their golden gaze reading Harrowhark’s flimsy upside down. It was an incomplete letter, but Gideon was always smarter than anybody gave her credit for. Gideon’s rage died before the shore, and met with the craggy rocks of Harrowhark’s embarrassment.
“Leave!” the Reverend Daughter commanded.
Gideon removed her hands from the desk. “Harrow--”
“Take the commission and go.” Harrowhark stacked sheets of flimsy so their failed words blurred into each other through the layers. She refused to look at Gideon, what must be a pitiful set of her eyes, a jaw relaxed in satisfaction. “You’re free, you dolt. Stop questioning it and take advantage of it. Your shuttle is already on its way.”
But Gideon did not move.
Harrowhark could barely hear herself when she said, “Griddle, please.”
The commission disappeared from Harrowhark’s line of sight. Gideon turned to leave the office, but she paused at the doorway. In a brief moment of panic, Harrowhark realized this would be the last time she would ever see Gideon Nav in her life. She looked up, expecting nothing more than the back of her head. Instead, Gideon considered Harrowhark from the open door, eyes like candle flame. Gideon chewed the inside of her lip, lost in thought. Then, oddly, she smirked and nodded once. The last thing Gideon said to Harrowhark wasn’t a word at all, just a decisive grunt.
Harrowhark’s insides crumbled like the skeletons from earlier in the day. Gideon’s final look meant the brute was forming a plan. Instead of pleading to stop whatever she was going to do, Harrowhark exhaled everything out of her lungs. Every worry, every memory involving Gideon and the feel of her face under her fingernails, the sight of Gideon knocking her skeletal constructs to dust on the training floor.
“Not my problem any longer,” Harrowhark muttered to herself. She assumed the loss of Gideon would have lifted a heavy weight from her shoulders. Instead, that weight settled in her lower abdomen as powerful as the ache before diarrhea but without the promise of relief.
Chapter 2: Got a Feeling We're All Alone
Harrowhark finished the tour in the chapel because it was the most impressive reminder of what the Ninth could be. She ignored the spiderwebs in the rafters and the thick layer of dust under the altar, places the skeletal cleaning crew were unable to clear before the dignitaries arrived. The pews had not been waxed in so long she could tell where people sat based on the glint of the wood.
It was here, in the final section of the tour, she revealed what the Ninth needed. Medicine, food, pilgrims, residents with certain skill sets, everything that the Ninth lacked for too long. Harrowhark bared herself to these strangers and their analytical gazes, the feeling grotesque and vulnerable and insulting, like a seductive strip tease. Some had written ahead prior to their arrival, seemingly decent in their correspondence. Harrowhark’s instincts were to not trust them, particularly the delegates from the Fifth. Lady Abigail Pent and her husband Magnus Quinn smiled too easily, too warmly; their kindness as alien as Domincus’s warmth.
The Seventh and Second were also present, as well as the Third.
The delegates from the Seventh cooed over the beauty of everything. Both had notebooks, and when Harrowhark paid attention to what they put in them, she saw one sketching and the other writing. Poetry was something Harrowhark was unwillingly familiar with, but no one in the congregation sketched. They otherwise kept to themselves; Harrowhark didn’t know how to get them to open up, her shyness around anyone she didn’t lead in prayer getting the better of her.
The Second, a captain and lieutenant, both with rapiers at their hips and bright red Cohort uniform jackets, were stoic in their observations of the Ninth. Harrowhark overhead the captain tell the Fifth that the Second were interested solely because of a recent Cohort recruit. Overall, unless the Ninth promised further recruits of potential, which they did not, the Second were unwilling to divert resources and treasures to assist the dying House.
Harrowhark, against her better judgement, felt her gaze drift to the adepts of the Third. Princesses Coronabeth and Ianthe Tridentarius were twins; one vibrant and golden in stark contrast to everything Ninth, the other a slab of butter sitting in ambient temperature, easily malleable and greasy. Princess Coronabeth’s thick curls caught the feeble light and reflected it brighter than before, in defiance of the laws of physics. Her violet eyes lingered on the architectural flourishes that blurred into Harrowhark’s background, now refocused through the lens of strangers. She looked anywhere but at Harrowhark as though the Reverend Daughter were the least beautiful thing on the planet.
Princess Ianthe, lavender gaze like a predator, kept her eyes on Harrowhark the entire tour. Harrowhark felt those eyes like an unwanted finger trailing up her bare sternum. She was prone beneath it, helpless, a mouse coiled in a snake moments before being devoured. Ianthe held herself like someone who knew how to wield her power like a sword, and her slash was as deadly as Gideon’s zweihander.
Except Gideon never really fought to kill. Harrowhark felt two steps away from death when she locked eyes with Princess Ianthe of Ida. It was in that gaze that she revealed the stark helplessness of the Ninth.
Afterward, in the deepest depths of Drearburh where she once again laid her heart bare and raw, she saw her future, and it destroyed her.
ADDRESSING HARROWHARK HIGHT NONAGESIMUS, REVEREND DAUGHTER OF THE LOCKED TOMB; FROM SECOND LIEUTENANT GIDEON NAV, SIXTY-THIRD INFANTRY DIVISION
To my Penumbral Lady,
Sup? It’s odd writing you a letter because I completely fucking hate you, but I feel as though the sudden influx of exoplanetary treasure without an explanation would just be confusing. That’s my doing, by the way. You’re welcome.
One time, at basic training, we were using live swords to spar, and I took one across my chest, so deep I got bed rest for a couple days. I also got stitches on both my insides and outsides, but flesh wounds are par for the course at the Cohort. Let me paint you a word picture.
If you can stand, you can fight. Bad heart? Still fighting. Bad arm? You’re still upright and sent into battle. Lost an ear and still have a bandage around your head? Still expected to train with the rest of them. I think you get the picture. Flesh wounds are par for the course in the Cohort, and some Second Lieutenant from Nowhere doesn’t get anything as luxurious as bed rest for a couple days just because she got a couple dozen stitches. But I did .
Then I flirted with a nurse, who told me that they didn’t actually expect me to live from such a wound because it nicked a part of my heart and sliced through my lungs or some bullshit like that. I scoffed, because obviously none of that happened since I am still here . And she looked at me like I was a toddler playing in a minefield.
Long story short, I’m apparently unkillable. Which is how I got assigned to the frontlines.
This is just the beginning of what I’ll be sending over. Please use the resources purchased from these valuable treasures to purchase some lube that will ease the stick out of Crux’s butt. You might want to use it for the stick up your butt too.
Give Ailgemene my regards, and nothing else.
ADDRESSING SECOND LIEUTENANT GIDEON NAV, SIXTY-THIRD INFANTRY DIVISION; FROM HARROWHARK HIGHT NONAGESIMUS, REVEREND DAUGHTER OF THE LOCKED TOMB
On behalf of my house, thank you for your humble contributions to our coiffers. I will use these funds to purchase the small things that will bring me joy and make you roll your eyes, like actual ink and an updated encyclopedia galactica.
Drearburh is starting to breathe more easily now. I would say it feels like home, but I do not recall it ever feeling like this.
After presenting myself to the delegates of four of the other Houses, I have before me two offers. Only the offer from the Third provides any sort of practicum I can use for the benefit of my congregation. Unfortunately, it apparently means cultivating a lifelong relationship with one of the Princesses of Ida, the one called Ianthe Tridentarius. She often finds me in the library when I prefer to be alone, but I have grown to tolerate her theories of necromancy. Ianthe is a flesh magician; she flaunts it at every opportunity.
The resources of the Third mean further contributions from you are not necessary. Do not waste your efforts on the House that you finally escaped. Take your treasure and use it to build a life on some habitable planet orbiting the furthest sun from Domincus. Purchase every magazine in publication and start a library, or something. Stay away.
Chapter 3: Shooting the Breeze Becomes Matrimony
So the original lyric is “Even shooting the breeze becomes acrimony” but “acrimony” rhymes with “matrimony” and, well, you’ll get the idea . . .
Harrowhark knew it was coming before it arrived. Like Drearburh’s inevitable fall, it came slowly; first with subtle hints that could be ignored, then with less subtle hints that could not. Unlike the fall of Drearburh, preventing it would spell instant doom for the Ninth House. And the Ninth could not afford anymore disasters.
There was already a disagreement over the incoming treasure from Gideon Nav, who kept sending her winnings as though Harrowhark were her personal savings account. Princess Ianthe, who spent most of her time on the Ninth despite her sister’s pleading attempts, appointed herself the important role as representative of the Third. She did not like the incoming treasure from Gideon Nav, now a Cohort lieutenant, and Harrowhark could only guess at Ianthe’s strangling attempts to keep the Ninth low and vulnerable as the main reason why. Harrowhark walked away from that conversation shaking with the unfamiliar rage of fear.
In Gideon’s letter with the news of her promotion, she skimmed over the gory details of the campaign that earned her recognition, but her pride at the promotion itself shone through in her crude and swaggering words. Harrowhark kept that letter in a chest pocket for several weeks, as if Gideon’s pride could be a substitute for every emotion Harrowhark lost under the Third; as though Gideon’s attempts to single-handedly save the Ninth from financial dependence were also saving Harrowhark from total despair.
(She held it and other letters close for other reasons too, reasons she only dared to admit when she returned to the deepest parts of Drearburh, the only place she felt safe enough to unleash as raw and strained and weak as the dead bones kept in the crypts so brittle and fragile to be nothing more than thick constructs of dust.)
Contrary to her messages to Nav, which had grown more frequent over the months, Harrowhark squirrelled away the treasures to be the Ninth’s and only the Ninth’s. A “fuck you fund” as Gideon once referred to it. Harrowhark was not surprised at the vitriol Gideon spouted in relation to the Third and Ianthe in particular, but she was surprised by their new allyship. If Gideon were here, she would personally see the Third to the nearest shuttle with her sword as a personal secretary, give the Third a one-fingered salute on lift off, then walk backwards into her personal hell, locking eyes with Ianthe’s ascending form the entire way.
Gideon Nav was not here, and Harrowhark felt the lack like an open wound to the chest. She may have presented a metaphorical breakwater to keep the Third at bay, but even Nav the Unkillable Fire couldn’t prevent the inevitable.
It came during a private dinner with the entire Tridentarii family, an event organized by Ianthe over the course of a month. She had spent the time fretting over everything from decorations to food to the people allowed to walk in the presence of her parents. Harrowhark spent the time with her people and their growing strength now that pneumonia wasn’t as big a threat as before.
The King and Queen of Ida made their disdain for the Ninth known as soon as they set foot on the blackened soil. Princess Coronabeth, who had only visited one other time in the months since Gideon’s departure and the Third’s takeover, was more affable. Like the first two times she visited, her eyes wandered to anything that was not Harrowhark. Harrowhark wished for Coronabeth’s violet gaze instead of Ianthe’s lavender one. She wished Coronabeth would spare a glance for the heir of the Ninth, if only to acknowledge the ongoing relationship they will have to build as in-laws.
Each member of the Royal Family glittered like gold, brighter than any light Dominicus could cast, and certainly brighter than any sconce polished to a shine so to look brand new. Even draped in various shades of purple--the King and Queen in deep, more mature shades than their daughters--they were blinding.
Harrowhark felt like a shadow, a pox upon their presence, a blackhead on the tips of their noses that grew too big to be invisible yet remained too small to pop. She endured the stares of not only Ianthe but the King himself. Where Ianthe looked at Harrowhark like a meal, the King of Ida looked at Harrowhark like a poison. Or the carcass of a rodent with the audacity to bleed on the fine carpeting in the parlour in front of the Emperor Undying himself.
As skeleton constructs removed the penultimate course of their meal, everything for which provided for from the Third’s generosity, Ianthe cleared her throat. “If I could have everyone’s attention, there is something I would like to discuss before dessert.”
This was it. Harrowhark’s tongue and mouth already buzzed to an uncomfortable degree from their flavorful meal, and now that buzzing traveled up to her ears, then down her throat, forcing her esophagus to heat up and constrict in anticipation of the next words out of Ianthe’s thin and insatiable mouth. It was hard to swallow. Harrowhark forced her concentration to zero in on Ianthe’s clavicle, the only part of her that Harrowhark found pleasing to look at, though ‘pleasing’ may have been a stretch. She focused on her breathing so she wouldn’t faint.
“As I have spent the past several months enjoying my time with the Ninth,” Ianthe started. “I am pleased if a little embarrassed to say that a lot of that came from spending time with the Reverend Daughter. I know she’s been a little stiff tonight, but can you blame her Papa? When she’s not choking down food, she’s a wonderful study. Helpful to her people, rigorous in her study of necromancy, prudent in her position as House heir. And,” Ianthe turned to look at the dark eyes of Harrowhark, who met her gaze with anticipation, “someone I would like by my side as my wife.”
As she spoke, Harrowhark thought of dark skin, tight muscles, a lopsided smile that only appeared when she believed herself unobserved. A pair of golden eyes that glinted like candlelight during service, soft beacons of guidance in Drearburh’s casual darkness. The way Gideon swung her sword and swore when Aiglemene disarmed her. Hair as red as rage, as red as the Cohort uniform jacket that Harrowhark has never seen and probably never will. Harrowhark thought of Gideon Nav and wished without shame the former indentured servant of the Ninth hadn’t left at all.
Ianthe took her goblet of wine and raised it to Harrowhark. “Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth, Keeper of the Locked Tomb, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Harrowhark wanted nothing more than to knock the ancient goblet out of Ianthe’s margarine hands. She wanted to punch the princess in her smug little face and march to the nearest shuttle, which would take her to the front lines and the comforting presence of a familiar wave of vermillion.
Instead, she took her own goblet of wine and tapped it against Ianthe’s in a delicate clink . “Yes,” was all she managed, the word choking against the upper esophageal sphincter on its way out. “Yes,” Harrowhark repeated, stronger now. Ianthe smiled, her eyes curling with an authenticity Harrowhark did not want to admit, her teeth dazzling in the dim lantern light.
Harrowhark felt weightless, as though she launched herself from the top tier of Dearburh’s shaft and felt nothing but the wind of her fall.
ADDRESSING LIEUTENANT GIDEON NAV, SIXTY-THIRD INFANTRY DIVISION, FIRST FLOWER OF THE NINTH; FROM HARROWHARK HIGHT NONAGESIMUS, REVEREND DAUGHTER OF THE LOCKED TOMB, FUTURE DOWAGER PRINCESS OF IDA
Shut up, Griddle.
I know what you’re going to say, and you can ram it so far up your ass you’ll need your sword to cut you in half to get it out.
Not like I need to justify my decisions to you, because you are not beholden to me nor am I beholden to you. But I am still compelled to write down the benefits of this match so you understand everything I am doing for the Ninth. Maybe you’ll then learn something about duty.
First, a larger sum for the coiffer. I do not know how many generations our relationship with the Third will last, and I need to pack away every halfpenny I can get my hands on. For the sake of any future Reverend Daughters and Sons, and to prevent them from making the same impossible choice as I was confronted with this past year and a half.
Second, and speaking of future Reverend Daughters, so I can bear an heir for the Ninth. I am coming up on my prime fertile years, Griddle; my mother had trouble conceiving even me, and she did not get an early start. I have her genes and her necromancy, and I hope that my youth can do for me what her body failed to do for her until her drastic efforts bore me. I will spare you the details of that story. Just know that this has been starting to weigh heavily on my mind now that my House’s future no longer consists of death.
Third, when I am presented as the Dowager Princess and wife of Ianthe, the people of Ida will want to venture to the Ninth. Some of those people will stay and become permanent residents. I want this to happen. We now have the resources to support a growing and younger population, and I intend to celebrate our growth by welcoming people who seek to serve the Locked Tomb and keep the beast within.
You can keep your judgments to yourself, Griddle. As I have said in countless letters, you are not beholden to the Ninth anymore. You can stop sending me your frontline treasures and instead use them to start a life elsewhere. Find a wife, one who can make you laugh, who fawns at the sight of your biceps, who will kiss you before you fall asleep at night and again when you wake up in the morning. I did not have the words to say this at Drearburh, so I hope you can forgive their tardy delivery: you deserve someone who brings you the world. She’s out there, probably laughing at the same dirty magazines you laugh at, and her heart is as tender as yours.
One more thing before I leave you; Aiglamene has gained a bunch of new students as a result of “Mathias Nonius come again.” Thought you should know that soon, you will no longer be the only soldier in the Cohort fighting under the banner of the Ninth. Aiglamene has said one particular student shows considerable promise: a Knight of Tisis named Jeannemary Chatur. If you see her on the frontlines, say hello. She shares your spitfire, apparently.
And stop with this twilit princess nonsense in your letters. They are always the least interesting names I have ever seen, and I’ve read my genealogy.
ADDRESSING HARROWHARK NONAGESIMUS, REVEREND DUMDUM OF THE HAUS OF STUPID, DAMNED PRINCESS OF IDA-GIVA-FUCK; FROM LIEUTENANT GIDEON NAV OF THE SIXTY-THIRD INFANTRY DIVISION, THE UNKILLABLE FIRE, MATHIAS NONIUS COME AGAIN, BEST SWORDSWOMAN OF HER GENERATION.
To my crepuscular queen, my nocturnal mistress, the night boss of my nightmares:
In response to your previous letter: fuck you too.
I could provide a long and detailed list of all the reasons you should not marry who you are going to marry, but everything really boils down to the single regret you will be facing for the rest of your lifetime and beyond. That single regret is one Ianthe (Ianthe).
More than that, I have just bullied a Cohort numbers nerd into looking at the figures of all my earnings for the Ninth, plus the potential earnings of future students I may take on once I decide to retire, plus the earnings from getting paid to take on these students, and we (by we I mean he) determined that I can totally support the Ninth without the Third. Can you imagine Drearburh in purple draperies? I think you’d die of heart palpitations.
Don’t do it, Nonagesimus. It’s not worth it. Join me in converting the Ninth House into formidable paladins in the name of the Emperor Undying, at least until the Ninth can support itself for another thousand years on pilgrims and skeletons.
I have an extended period off again before I’m called for redeployment. It’s been two years, but I think I’ll spend it on the Ninth to fight some sense into your thick, reinforced skull.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, dowager princess of Ida, heir to the Ninth House, Reverend Daughter of the Locked Tomb, had fought to be wed in black. She wore a collared shirt, jacket, and trousers worth more than anything she owned on Drearburh; the only thing she could think of was their resale value and whether it would be severely depreciated because she wore the clothes, or whether they would still be valuable because they were worn by a princess of Ida (dowager or not, that had to count for something). An ancient diadem from the Ninth held a veil of black lace over her face, the only two pieces of the Ninth allowed to her by Ianthe, or rather, the wedding planner who only listened to Ianthe. Harrowhark wasn't even allowed her bone jewelry. They did concede the argument of Harrowhark’s color palette, but only because they saw what she looked like in purple. The only touch of color was a bowtie, formal in appearance, but the mature plum of the royal family of Ida. Harrowhark would choke herself with it if she weren’t bound to the Ninth.
She walked down the aisle as she was instructed during rehearsal the previous day. Slowly, deliberately, so the cameras could watch every painstaking step from every painstaking angle for the people of Ida, who worshipped their royals like celebrities.
Ida had more technology than Drearburh, and Harrowhark missed the simplicity and humility of her home. She thought of home as she passed the halfway point, avoided the gaze of Marshal Crux towards the front of the cathedral where she would be wed. Aiglamene was not with him, having joined the security guards surrounding the cathedral, the grounds, and the royal palace.
The end of the aisle brought with it the stick of room temperature butter known as Ianthe Tridentarius. Ianthe was clad in white, which washed her out, her veil draping off her head like a silk robe hanging off a harlot, the gown itself eccentric in its intricate beading. It made Harrowhark want to poke her own eyes out, and Ianthe was sure to do it herself if given the opportunity.
At the altar, Harrowhark and Ianthe faced their martial futures; black and yellow, decrepit and wasted, a match made in desperation. The priest from the Eighth House cleared his throat and began the sermon.
Harrowhark did not pay attention. Her eyes were dead, her soul a burden for her body to carry for the rest of her days. She did not compare the grandness of Ida to Drearburh because there was nothing to compare. Drearburh was, as the name suggests, dreary and accompanied by the noise someone makes when they lift a heavy emotional weight. It was tiny, a slice of nothing that was on its way to becoming a something.
Worst part is, now that this was happening, Harrowhark didn’t know if she wanted it anymore. Wouldn’t it be better if the Ninth just died with her? She could watch over her congregation as it took its last breath, then slowly seclude herself into the heart of Drearburh, into its deepest bowels where she felt most at home, and wither away to obscurity as the last remaining descendent of the Ninth lived out her days in blissful, dilapidated freedom.
She was so lost in thought that she was the last person to notice the shouting and clash of metal from outside the cathedral. The people in the pews stirred, the sound of their worry a susurrus, an undercurrent of noise that was obviously someone fighting very hard against a lot of people. The priest stopped his sermon, Ianthe looked at the cathedral doors at the other end of the chapel, her eyes narrowed in suspicion, her mouth a sneer of disappointment that anything should ruin her big day.
It was this sneer that caught Harrowhark’s attention and brought her back to reality. For once, Ianthe’s sneer was not directed at Harrowhark. She blinked and jumped as the cathedral door blew open.
Silhouetted against the sunlight, a tall figure stood in Cohort whites with a zweihander, which she casually slung over one shoulder. Some blood and viscera flew from the blade, landing on some poor chaps who flinched when hit with the gore. The figure walked with the swagger of someone who was not sorry in the least to crash the wedding of a royal. The puff of red hair on her head stood out like blood, the glint of her sword against the light as threatening as fangs. A pair of reflective lenses in thin frames obscured Gideon’s brilliantly golden gaze. It was amazing that she even made it this far; Harrowhark tried to recall every single interaction she had with Aiglamene for clues about Gideon Nav’s presence at her wedding. She came up with nothing, because she had spent the past two weeks since arriving on Ida in the same funk that enveloped her down the aisle.
Gideon Nav, the Unkillable Fire of the Cohort, Mathias Nonius Come Again, First Flower of the Ninth, said nothing as she walked down the aisle. A poor fool sitting with Ianthe’s family stood up, brandishing a rapier, as though defending the honor of the union. Without even using her sword, Gideon flung one booted foot out to kick the rapier aside and slide the fool’s feet out from under him. He landed with a gasp from the crowd, discarded like yesterday’s gossip.
Harrowhark did not take her eyes off Gideon Nav, nor did Gideon look anywhere but at Harrowhark save for handing the Third swordsman his ass. Before the altar, at the foot of the stairs, Gideon Nav reached her free hand to the Reverend Daughter.
It was two years since they last saw each other. Despite the letters and the treasures that kept them connected, Harrowhark suddenly understood what the constant weight in her chest was: She had missed Gideon Nav.
Now, at a crossroads from which there was no turning back, Gideon came as a lifeline; the life preserver to a drowning Harrowhark, the life-saving rope lowered to a Harrowhark clinging to the steep sides of the drillshaft, the breath of life to Harrowhark’s lifeless form. She lit up the darkness without even trying, her crooked smile the agent that removed the numb buildup around Harrowhark’s heart. The crinkle of her eyes warmed the Reverend Daughter from the inside. If Harrowhark was a walking corpse moments before, Gideon Nav was the agent that resurrected her.
Without thinking, Harrowhark accepted Gideon’s hand. As soon as she did so, Gideon dragged her off the altar steps and back down the aisle. Her grip on her sword went from a casual threat to an active one, a challenge to anyone who dared step in front of her. Her grip on Harrowhark’s hand was gentle, firm, rough; Harrowhark’s grasp must feel weak in return, but she held on as tightly as she could.
The people were quiet with shock as they watched the dowager princess leave. Ianthe, at the altar, dropped her jaw in a perfect little O that would have been funny if anybody cared to look at her.
Outside, Gideon led Harrowhark down the steps of the cathedral, where remnants of Gideon’s approach dried brown in the sunlight. Harrowhark was grateful for her veil--the sunlight surely wasn’t this garish before the wedding--and kept her eyes on Gideon. A scar Harrowhark never saw before sliced through Gideon’s mandible under her ear. There was another scar on the back of her neck, where some hair didn’t grow. Gideon kept the sides of her head buzzed now.
A shuttle stood in the middle of the square outside the cathedral. Aiglamene stood beside it, her longsword bloodier than Gideon’s. Gideon nodded to her former teacher as she dragged Harrowhark into the shuttle. As the door closed behind them, Gideon tapped a pattern to the cockpit, then helped Harrowhark into a seat as the shuttle ascended into the atmosphere.
When the shuttle broke through the atmosphere to the vacuum of space, Harrowhark turned to Gideon, her white knight, who probably threw away a profound career to rescue Harrowhark from the wrong turn on the crossroads.
“Where are we going?” Harrowhark asked.
Gideon removed her sunglasses and revealed two beacons of hope and love. When she spoke, the familiarity of her voice turned Harrowhark’s insides into goop.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Locked Tomb, heir to the Ninth House, greatest necromancer of her generation, preferred to lead from her office. Mathematical figures did not lie to her, or kept her away from important information, or attempted to keep her spirits low. There was comfort in data analysis. If she could, she would have stayed there indefinitely.
But she could not stay there indefinitely. The woman whom Harrowhark actually wanted to marry, a certain swordswoman of the Cohort vibrant with color and energy, often pulled Harrowhark away from tables and figures “so you can survey thine kingdom, O tenebrous overlord.”
Gideon walked into the office now, the only person in all of Drearburh who dared disturb the Lady of the House without knocking first.
“My Vestigial Lady?”
“Yes, Griddle?” Harrowhark didn’t look up from her paperwork because the sight of Gideon’s warm gaze still made her flush after six months. Harrowhark never really felt like a wilting flower, even under the thumb of she-who-not-be-thought-about, but she did whenever Gideon Nav entered the room.
“It has been exactly four hours since you sequestered yourself inside your office, which means it is time for your daily walk.”
Harrowhark smiled, and this she allowed Gideon to see. She raised her head and found Gideon’s lips on hers. A chaste peck as greeting even though they saw each other just that morning. The Reverend Daughter said nothing as she stood and offered Gideon her elbow.
If Gideon Nav knew the debt owed to her by the Ninth, she refused to acknowledge it. When they returned to the Ninth, the same day Gideon pulled Harrowhark off the altar, Harrowhark made one final plea to free Gideon from anything to do with the Nine Houses. Instead of leaving, Gideon stayed. She was never deployed again, but earned a healthy stipend training recruits on the Ninth.
Gideon had won a not insubstantial plot of land on some fertile planet, which Harrowhark converted to agricultural fields to subsidize the snow leeks grown on the Ninth. Gideon may have been the one to find people to act as dignitaries to oversee the land and consultants to help improve it, but they answered to Harrowhark on most things. The added agricultural insight improved the quality of food on the Ninth too.
For each new pilgrim that found their way to the Ninth, Gideon Nav greeted them with a smile and bad joke. She ensured they attended their first three masses at the beginning of their stay, and directed them to Harrowhark with any spiritual needs.
When she wasn’t training recruits or welcoming pilgrims or assuring their representatives that they were doing just fine so shut up already, she was confounding Harrowhark. How this woman grew up to rebuild the very thing that put her down for a lifetime, Harrowhark may never understand. She would forever be grateful for Gideon Nav, her pillar, her partner in Ninth business, her love.
So when Harrowhark led Gideon out of her office, they did not walk out to the snow leek fields or training grounds. They did not go to the chapel to pray, nor to the library to read, nor to their bedroom for intimacy. Harrowhark led Gidwon to the central lift, where they descended down, down, down into the bowels of Harrowhark’s and Drearburh’s heart.
“I always knew this was how you would kill me,” Gideon said, and Harrowhark knew by tone and the way Gideon squeezed her elbow, that she was being facetious.
Harrowhark leaned her shoulder against her emotional support Gideon. “I want to ask you something,” she said. Her voice shook as she spoke, and Gideon tensed against her upper arm. “But I can only do it down here.”
Gideon squeezed Harrowhark’s elbow where she still had her hand against it, which was patient restraint on her part. When Gideon provided comfort, she preferred to do so with physical touching--an arm around the shoulders, a hug, a clap on the back. Harrowhark hated receiving those casual touches, something Gideon respected. Yet another thing Harrowhark was grateful for.
When the lift finally stopped, Harrowhark led the way; passed the vents that would whisper their secrets to the people above, through poorly lit caverns that may serve a renewed purpose with the renewed House above, down corridors of weak and failing lights that, with some tender love and care, may one day reveal the deepest desires of their mistress’s heart. Gideon remained silent throughout, followed Harrowhark’s lead in everything. She was a beacon of patience and goodwill, and Harrowhark had no right to ask what she was going to ask.
At the final crevice in the final corridor, where the echoes of Harrowhark’s emotions clung to the walls like dust and darkness, they stopped. Harrowhark faced Gideon, nothing more than a featureless outline, and took the warrior’s hands in hers.
“Gideon Nav, I have no right to ask this.”
“Please just let me finish.” Harrowhark took a rattling breath, then a deeper one, more sure of itself. Gideon waited, patient, comforting, a treasure more valuable than anything she could ever earn on the frontlines. “You have done more for this house than it can ever repay. But that’s not why you’re here. This place, this cavern in particular, is where I went when I had to let off steam. I couldn’t do it in front of anybody, because showing weakness meant showing I was more vulnerable than she believed, so I came here where no one could see or hear or know. I’ve come to think of this place as my heart.”
Gideon tightened her grip on Harrowhark’s palms, an imbuing of strength that Harrowhark didn’t deserve but received anyway.
“You . . . Gideon Nav, you rebuilt the place where I lay myself. You have brought us from the brink of destruction, and my house can never adequately repay you for that. But, more than that, you saved me. You saved my life in a way that I cannot find words to express, so I hope to do so with my actions. I brought you here, to the depths of my heart, because I want to pledge myself to you. I can only provide what my House can, and my House is inadequate in that regard. And so I give myself to you, if you’ll have me, in matrimony. Gideon Nav, I am honored and privileged just to ask you this: Will you take me as your wife?”
Even in the darkness, Harrowhark knew that Gideon bit her lower lip in embarrassment, ran her thumbs over Harrowhark’s knuckles, looked at Harrowhark with eyes as bright as Domicus.
“Harrowhark Nonagesimus,” Gideon said, and Harrowhark’s breath caught in her throat at her full name, “ yes. ”