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The Furnace of You

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She would never have been able to trick me if I hadn’t still been getting used to your body. And she was a necromancer, and I wasn’t, and she was a full Lyctor, and I was absolutely not. I confess that no matter how much of a hell I’d tried to make her life since I’d woken up in you, there hadn’t been much I could really do. I’m not saying I had given up, I’m just saying that Operation Fuck With Tridentarius was a work-in-progress.

Mostly this had involved messing around with her food by over-salting it, or playing merry hell with all her stuff. Can you believe she didn’t even bother to ward her rooms against us until I got in there and did up every button on every dress she owned in the wrong buttonholes? How self-centered can you get? When I broke in there I also found a letter she was writing to Coronabeth, only the first paragraph, nothing much even, nothing salacious or too personal. I doubt, honestly, that she even intended to send it. Anyway I may have...embellished it from there. Buttons, nothing—I really, really pissed her off with that one.

She deserved the pain, and for a minute there I was glad I’d managed to score a point on her that actually hurt. But in retrospect I do feel a little garbage about it. Give me a straightforward ass-beating any day. I’ll leave the manipulations to the likes of her.

She wanted to kill me, for real, but she didn’t want to kill you, and frankly that says a lot about how much she wants you to stay alive (one more reason to hate that bitch). It was funny to watch her wrestle with that one. Irrespective of her feelings on the matter, Dad (who, by the way, fucking hates it when I call him that, so I do) wouldn’t put up with any more murders. That’s why I refused to fight her. She tried to make me, but I managed to slip out of it. When I do fight her, Nonagesimus, it’s going to be for keeps, no resurrections allowed, because I owe her that reckoning. Ianthe Tridentarius is not going to be walking away from that one— she’s going to have limp. Or maybe crawl. I have some time to decide.

Anyway it was a shitty situation, and she had it out for me, so I was not surprised per se that one night she just put a bag over our head (I couldn’t set any of your wards, obviously, and I had to sleep sometime, no matter what I did). I was enraged, but I was not surprised.

I almost got away, but yeah, you’re still small and embarrassingly feeble, sugarcakes, I’m sorry. You can grow us new thumbs but turns out you can’t fight your way out of a heavily reinforced sack tied by a determined Princess of Ida.

She tossed us right out of a shuttle hatch several hours later. We hit the ground hard enough to crack some bones, which had healed by the time we rolled to a stop. Damn lucky we didn’t break your neck, because I am unclear if your saintly healing powers have any limitations, and I feel like a broken neck might have been pushing it. In any case, it smarted. More importantly, I was genuinely scared for us, because I didn’t know where we were, or what new development had motivated Tridentarius to do all this. But I knew her motivation would be an evil one, so I was not looking forward to trying to keep your body intact though whatever was about to go down.

A huge-ass knife cut the sack apart, crudely.

“Hey!” I started thrashing, yelling on principle, “Watch it!” I assumed they were trying to kill you, but on the off chance they weren’t, I really didn’t want to find out if you can grow back an eye.

“Ninth, stand down!” someone said urgently. It was a familiar voice, and I knew it immediately, but there was also something wrong.

“Cam,” I said, sounding sentimental as all fuck.

“I said, stand down,” said Camilla’s voice, “we’re not out of this yet.”

There was a sudden metallic thud right by my head, and I jumped. Then my brain caught up and I was ecstatic, because I just knew that it was the sound of my sword hitting the ground. God—Dad—had taken it away. Ianthe, fuck her very much, had found it—and now she was giving it back to me? That seemed like a trap, but I wanted the sword so much I didn’t even care.

I whaled out of that sack, earning no points for style, but for once your diminutive (read: scrawny) stature was helpful here.

I grabbed the sword, feeling ten thousand times better already, and turned around to watch Tridentarius disappear behind the shuttle hatch as it closed. I flipped her off. She just smiled at me sweetly. I knew then that we were screwed.

Bewildered, I turned to Camilla Hect, who looked even more intimidating from your height, if that was possible. (I’ll never get used to your height.) She turned to me, her grey eyes almost glowing in that shuttle’s floodlights, and then I knew what had been bothering me about her voice.

“Warden,” I breathed.

From the body of his cavalier, Palamedes Sextus appraised me carefully. Then reached out, silently asking permission, which I gave by virtue of standing still. He put two fingers on your skull, and his expression at what he recognized was a very strange mix of relief and concern.

“Gideon the Ninth,” he said, not needing me to confirm it, as if I hadn’t already by clutching my sword to me as if it were my own baby (it is). “It’s good to see you again.”

“You too, SexPal,” I said, and I swear to Dad he smiled. I couldn’t help myself: I stepped forward and hugged him with my non-sword-clutching arm. This surprised him but his return hug was genuine, and I have to admit it was worth it just for that. Sorry to have played fast and loose with your carefully cultivated reputation of darque mystique, but if you wanted your body not to hug people you should have thought of that before you fucked off and left me to make the decisions. With Gideon Nav’s Bodywatching Service, satisfaction is not guaranteed.

Or, wait— I mean, shit, that’s— you know what, nevermind.

“So, tell me,” I said when Pal was done using Cam’s musculature to crush your delicate ribcage, “What the everloving fuck is going on?”

His smile widened, but turned bitter. “Let’s get out of here before I explain.” He started walking and I trotted to keep up with him. We were in a grassy field, mostly flat, with occasionally treacherous footing, and the departure of the shuttle had left us in black night. There was a glow of artificial light 100 meters ahead.

“Is Cam dead?” I asked, finally working up the nerve. I’m an asshole for not putting it more delicately, but I had to know.

“No,” he said shortly. “We’re...sharing.” He stumbled briefly—not used to Cam’s stride? Maybe I wasn’t alone.

“You’re a Lyctor.”

“Yes,” he said. “Of sorts,” he amended. “Listen, Ninth—”

We had reached the edge of the grass. Beyond was a flat expanse of artificial material like concrete, but black. The light was coming from tall poles, buzzing with an electric whine, illuminating patches of the open area in a row that extended beyond our line of sight. Sextus had stopped in the last few meters of deep shadow. “Where are we?” I asked, unable to keep from questioning him.

“A graveyard,” he answered, with disdain, as if a student had shockingly disappointed him. “Tridentarius sent the coordinates. Am I the only one who finds her flair for the dramatic unbearable?”

“Definitely not just you,” I assured him fervently.

“Listen,” he said again. “I am not trying to keep anything from you. I am going to tell you everything I know, but this is not a safe planet, even if we weren’t— who we are.” He glanced out at the lit area, then pulled a bag off Cam’s shoulder and opened it. I hadn’t even registered the presence of the bag at first, since it was such a Cam-like thing to have a bag of useful shit over one shoulder that I’d taken it for granted. Sextus produced a jacket. He also produced a knife.

“You might as well take this,” he said, handing over the knife. I divested it from him fast, before he could mishandle it any worse and cut Cam’s fingers off.

“Don’t you have Cam’s knife skills when you’re in there?” I demanded, sheathing that thing through my belt. “I only just got here, but I know she would blame me if she gets back to that body short one finger.”

“We’re compromised, because my body doesn’t exist anymore—to speak of—and it’s not Lyctorhood as we were led to expect—” he visibly reined himself in from explaining further, probably dying to bring out charts and diagrams. I noticed he’d more or less avoided my question. “Look, please, just— put on the jacket, it will help you blend in. I hadn’t really counted on her turning over that sword. I’m glad you have it, but can you try to keep it from being too obvious?”

A two-handed broadsword that your body still didn’t truthfully have the strength to haul around without the assistance of your Lyctoral healing. I stared at him.

“Well, do your best,” he said, looking sheepish. Still weird to see his expressions on Cam’s face. I never knew her facial muscles were capable of half that much transparency.

The jacket looked heavy. I snatched it out of his hands, then balked and nearly dropped it.

“Palamedes,” I said, “what the fuck? This is leather.”

“Oh— it’s not human, don’t worry.” I just kept staring. I was getting awfully tired of being so lost all the time. “It’s animal leather, some kind of food animal. This planet isn’t flipped yet, the resources here are incredible.”

You would have put it on, no questions asked, even if it had been human. Growing up in the Ninth, I thought I was immune to squeamishness of every kind (soap from the fat of dead nuns, anyone?). And yet this was a tiny bit gross. Whatever. At least it was black, so I knew you’d appreciate it.

“Had to steal it,” Sextus said, apologetically, as if that mattered. “Not much choice. We’ve been making do. But it’s important to avoid notice if at all possible. There’s a war on, it’s not related to the Cohort, as far as I can tell. I think it’s a civil war. But the Cohort is here, too, and they are exacerbating the local conflict and beginning their own work. This planet is doomed. Understand? If you see anyone, and they see us, the plan is to hit them hard enough to knock them out, then run like hell.”

“Well, that’s simple enough,” I said, rolling your neck with a satisfying little crack. “Let’s do this.”

So we walked, brisk and purposeful, skirting lights and shadows respectively depending on nothing more than Sextus’ whims as far as I could tell. We did not see anyone. We did hear a lot of what I finally realized was distant gunfire, so anachronistic it didn’t even sound threatening. We took what felt like a circuitous path, probably because of the gunfire, or maybe it was just my disorientation. I did my best to keep my eyes on our six o’clock, but by whatever miracle or luck we had, nothing bad happened.

We eventually made it to a metal fence with a gap in it. Sextus ducked through so quickly I almost missed it, and inside the fence was a building, clearly still under construction. White, papery material drifted in the open windows like lacy mold, or dead skin. Rough concrete walls stood nakedly in a field of scrap metal and rubble. It stank of dirt and damp.

Sextus took us to a door, which opened to stairs; he whispered the number of steps to me and we went down them in the dark. After twenty steps we reached a landing, and another door he opened by feel. Once he’d closed it behind us, he flicked a light switch. Orange decrepit light sprang up along a chain of bare bulbs in cages, leading down a short hall.

When we finally got to a room, I was more than ready to get some answers, but Sextus stopped us again before he opened the door. I practically wanted to throttle him.

What?” I demanded.

“Before you go in,” he said, twitching Cam’s fingers on the door handle, “I wanted to warn you...”

He could not seem to decide what he wanted to warn me about, and I pointedly tapped your foot.

“Oh, you can handle it,” he said briskly, giving up at last. “Please don’t freak out.”

“You should know I’m not a freak-out kind of person.”

“I have sat by you while you puked from shock,” was his rejoinder, which, damn, touché.

“Sure, sure,” I muttered, “cherry-pick the lowest moment of my life to support your argument.”

We went through the door.

There was a corpse lying on the floor, and it was mine.

I took a minute to consider the implications. Or pretended to for appearance’s sake, because I wasn’t really doing a lot of what might be called critical thinking. Seeing myself dead on the floor could only remind me of one thing, and I was mostly trying not to have that memory come back to me in searing detail. How calm I’d felt. How I’d had to turn away from you. The split-seconds of the act itself, like the snap of your prayer beads down a string: the raw nerve of pitching forward, the stomach-drop panic of falling, the whole-body shock of impact.

My corpse looked amazingly fresh. It was dressed in clothes that did not suit me, some kind of black canvas-thick trousers, decent boots, a thick black long-sleeved shirt. So I couldn’t see if there was a giant rail-shaped hole in my chest, but I remembered it well enough to assume it was there. Even while we’d been fighting Cytherea, the big hole I’d left behind had been hard to ignore.

I looked up at Sextus.

“You can start talking anytime,” I said, internally gratified that I’d exceeded his expectations and not freaked out, much.

He nodded. “Would you like something to eat?”

_________

 

We ate this starchy paste-like food that had been formed into long strings and rehydrated with boiling water. There was a flavored packet of powder to season it, eye-wateringly salty.

I was able to wrench your eyes away from my corpse while I listened to Sextus, and take in the rest of our surroundings. Not much to take in. It was a barren cell of a room, but it was finished relative to how the building had looked from the outside. The floor was thin carpet. There were power access ports in the walls, and light from fluorescents, and there was a sink and a countertop. Sextus had an appliance for heating water, but that was the only thing in there besides ourselves (and my dead ass). It appeared that everything he owned, he kept in Cam’s backpack— including the food and utensils. This suggested some unforgiving circumstances, and I resigned myself to a future that did not include many showers.

“We’ve gone and fucked ourselves, if I’m honest,” he concluded as I slurped my second bowl of rehydrated starch with enough noise that he gave me an exasperated look. “We’ve cut a deal with Ianthe, traded Coronabeth for you, and we’ve simply hoped she won’t tell the Emperor the details for at least a little while. The fact that we could do that at all just proves how fucked we are. I’m really afraid that it’ll be rough from now.”

Worse from now on than it looked right now? Great.

“I want to emphasise that I vastly prefer being with you to being with Ianthe,” I said, putting my bowl down. “So, you know, thanks. But I assume that you were hoping to get Harrow.”

“Honestly, yes, but I think—” Sextus stopped, reached for Cam’s face then frowned in annoyance, and I could just tell he was wishing he had a pair of glasses to polish. He settled for flexing Cam’s hand, and rephrased. “You are what we wanted. As you are. We need you both. And I’m not actually surprised that it’s you driving in there. Ianthe did let it slip.”

I met his grey eyes for a minute. Of the memories I have from being inside you, meeting him in his bubble, and his fierce joy at recognizing me, was clearer than most. I’d tried harder to stay on the surface then, before you knocked me back under.

“Do you understand what she did?” I asked, not really caring how desperate I sounded. He’d understand. He’d know I was talking about you. “Sextus, nothing I have done has brought her back, and I don’t even know if she’s still...there.”

He’d been leaning against the wall, having given up picking at his own food. He came up to me and put Cam’s hands on your shoulders.

“Yes, I think she is there.” I swallowed as he continued, piercing me with those eyes of his. “Rest assured that I look forward to asking the Reverend Daughter for the details when she returns, but right now it’s irrelevant. What’s important is that you and she have started down the Lyctoral path— to true Lyctorhood. All you need to do is complete it. If she is there, which I am counting on, that should bring her back.”

A lot of ifs for the Warden of the Sixth. I was hating this more and more.

“I’m gathering that my dead body is part of this plan?” I said.

His gaze intensified. “It’s not dead.”

“Ok, accuse me of freaking out all you like,” I said, my voice clipped, “But it is disgusting to think about taking up residence in a beguiling corpse, or being a revenant in a meat suit. I’m not going through eternal life as one of those creepy skeleton dudes, they can’t even do anything fun.”

“I’m serious,” he said. “It’s actually alive. Heart beating and everything. Just a little—vegetative.”

“Ick,” I said. “But you’re not going to convince me that after my soul hitched a ride on Train Nonagesimus, my body just picked itself up and walked it off.”

“No, no,” Sextus dissembled, “We had, um, help.”

“Help, you say.”

“Well, Cam was able to repair— ok, the thing is, it was, ah, occupied for most of—”

Occupied?” I asked, my voice rising to an embarrassingly high-pitch. “With what, and do I have any, like, weird extra growths, or bees for eyes now? Anything I need to know?”

“No, it’s fine. I’m telling you, your body is fine, Ninth. Remarkably so, under the circumstances, we even kept you in shape...it was haunted for a while, and we didn’t know by whom, but it wasn’t a...normal revenant.”

I had a terrible suspicion then, I don’t know why it occurred to me. I pushed it aside.

“SexPal,” I said, hoping I was coming across as someone not to be argued with— which was harder when I was your height, even though you’d never had any trouble in this department (seriously, how do you do it?). “Understand something. If you can give me a way to bring her back, I will do it. I will do anything. I only care that it works right the first time. If there is more than one option, I want the certain one. Even if I am dead afterwards. And I have to say, this plan of ‘just keep walking the primrose path to perfect Lyctorhood’ does not sound certain.”

“Oh, Gideon,” he said, as if to himself.

“Can’t you, I don’t know,” I gestured wildly, “Reach into her head and yank her out of there? Fix whatever she did to the inside of this skull? I don’t care if she burns me up, I just want this to be over with, I just want—” I couldn't finish, though I wanted to say, I just want her to be alive.

Sextus was looking stubborn. It was a look that suited Cam’s face very well. “I’m the greatest necromancer of my generation,” he started, (“Like hell you are,” I said, loyally, which he ignored) “And I’ve spent a great deal of time on the study of Lyctorhood by now. I am very close to certain. I can’t give you perfect reassurance, because we are doing something unique and new, here. But this isn’t just about us—this is about all Nine Houses, the resurrection, about humanity itself. I’m trying to save more than just you and me and Cam, and I can’t do it alone. I need help. I need another necromancer, a brilliant one, someone I can trust. I need Harrowhark Nonagesimus.”

“I’m not arguing with that,” I snapped, “I just said I’d do anything—”

“And she needs you,” he finished, cutting me off. “That’s why we gambled. That’s why we kept your body and why we retrieved hers. Even though sending Corona back would mean running for our lives. Even though we’re dependent on the Blood of Eden and they could betray us at any time. Doubtless I could bring her back without the use of your body, and whatever she did to preserve your soul could be undone, and she could consume you and make you the furnace of her power. But I think if I did that, we’d lose her.”

“I don’t know what the fuck you mean,” I said, reflexively, feeling like I was being pressed onto my back foot in a fight.

Now he was looking at me almost pityingly. “You spent time among the Emperor’s fists and gestures,” he said. “You tell me—would Harrowhark the First help me if I asked her? Where would her loyalty lie?”

This was all too much for me, honestly. I didn’t want to admit to him how intimately I’d witnessed your devotion to the Emperor, and how readily you’d wiped me out of your head. Being in debt to anyone was not your style. I looked away from him, like a coward.

“In any case,” he continued, a little apologetically, “A perfect Lyctorhood is more powerful than achieving that state unilaterally. And it’s simple, that’s the beauty of it, you’ve already done the hard part.”

I sighed. “Hypothetically, then. If I tried your plan. What exactly would I do?”

“Your body needs to consume part of Harrow’s.” (I’d like the record to show that I thought of at least five hilarious comebacks to that one, and very classily refrained from all of them.) “A few drops of her blood in your body’s mouth. That’s all.”

“And then everything will come up roses.” Melodrama, I’ve been told, never became me.

“Please, Gideon,” he said, and I admitted to myself then that I was stalling.

I’d spent so much time wanting you back. Just lying around like a gigantic sad sack trying to figure it out, fantasizing that I was going to somehow do or say the right thing, and find you. I’d even considered praying to the locked tomb and might have done it if I had ever actually learned those prayers, and hadn’t known what a fucking joke the Tomb turned out to be in the end. But you’d always been into it so maybe it would have worked. I don’t know, I was trying to be a good body-guest, ok?

But now that my body was right there in front of us and Sextus was there in Cam’s body telling us what to do and this might actually work— Harrow, I was terrified. I have never been so scared in my entire life.

“What if,” I swallowed again, wishing we hadn’t eaten. “If it goes wrong…”

“I’ll try to help if something happens,” he said softly. “Honestly, that’s why Cam isn’t here. So I could help. I hate using her body if I don’t have to, for her sake.”

I nodded to that without really thinking about it, though a part of me was pained by the implications. I had finally noticed the wards drawn around my body. They were bone grit, and blended pretty well with the carpet. The hairs on the back of your neck pricked.

“But if you can only save one of us, you’ll save Harrow.” I didn’t make it a question.

To my relief, he didn’t dick me around on this, even though I could hear his distaste for the promise in his voice. He really was worthy of Camilla Hect, this guy. “I promise. If it comes to it, and if I have a choice, I’ll choose her.”

I took his hand. I didn’t look at him. “Thank you.”

And then I was out of excuses, so I stepped over to my corpse, trying to see it as just another corpse and not as me, and knelt down.

I had the knife he’d given me, not to mention my sword, but for some reason I decided against using either. I’d had some experience by now involving physical objects with necromantic rites and how fucked up that can get, what with the risk of hauntings. And I guess I didn’t want to slice open your finger and, what, jam it under my tongue? Hold my mouth open and try to drip into it? How would I really know how much blood was enough? (Define only a few drops, Sextus, like you hadn’t fucking calculated that down to the gram.)

Please don’t hate me for what I did. I honestly convinced myself in that moment that it was the most dignified option, and I respect that you’re very big on House dignity.

I bit your lip hard—your lips were used to it, you batshit little Ninth martyr—until I felt the bleeding start. Then I leaned us over my body, and kissed myself. (If it makes you feel better, I had to close your eyes to do it. My body is smokin’ hot, sure, but I guess even I’m not a narcissist.)

I had expected pain or dizziness. I had also been braced for nothing to happen and to have to deal with standing there sloppily kissing my lifeless mouth, trying to get more blood in there, like a loser. What I did not expect was to somersault headfirst into the brackish, filthy waters of the River the instant your blood met my lips.

As I went under I thought maybe I heard Sextus yelp, “Shit!”