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The Furnace of You

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“Come on, Gideon,” Palamedes murmured. “It’s not far now, come on.”

His words, in Cam’s low voice, were delivered with exceptional grace, which was just like him, and if Gideon thought about this too hard she might become hysterical from excessive kindness. She needed someone like Aiglamene now, or Cam for real, someone to give her a firm kick up the butt and tell her that just because her insides felt like they’d been puréed and put back in, it was no excuse to wuss out. Someone who could say it will be ok and not mean Harrow is ok, because she really couldn’t think about that— hysterics might be the least of it.

“Palamedes,” she panted, then spat away the bile rising in her throat, which was disgusting, but whatever. She was having a very bad day. “Pal,” Gideon started again, leaning against a tree, “Someday, you will be having a very bad day, and I will be there to make you cups of tea and pat your hand saying ‘there, there’ and watch you hurl. And I want you to know how fucking much I am looking forward to that day.”

“I’ve always admired people with clear goals,” he replied, patting her on the back just to prove he could be a dick, too. Gideon hid her flinch at the touch: her whole body was a bruise.

He was right, however. If she stopped for too long she might not start again. And if she believed Sextus (which she did not), they were nearly at the top of this hill, anyway...Gideon put her forehead against the tree trunk, and tried not to let her mind drift to where her heart was fixed: back on the train with Harrow yanking down her sleeves for her, leaving her.

The tree was damp in the predawn chill, the texture rough and organic, like bone. Against the skin of her forehead Gideon could feel patterns and scars traced through the bark like one of Harrow’s wards.

With effort, she suppressed these thoughts, slammed a hatch over them. From her slumped position, she snuck a glance at Palamedes. He’d pressed Cam’s hands to the trunk of another tree opposite. He had felt up the trees with regularity since he’d surfaced in Cam’s body, using his special psychometric skillz to find their way (she assumed), but Gideon was surprised now to see the expression he had on Cam’s face. Sextus looked like a man falling from orbit, like a man who’d just been handed his newborn child.

“Whatcha see in there, SexPal?” she asked, when he’d stepped back, almost as if he had to wrench himself away.

He just shook Cam’s head. “I couldn’t say,” he replied, but Gideon understood his tone, the admission that here was a thing Palamedes Sextus had no basis for understanding. “But,” he continued, sounding chagrined that he was reduced to speculation, “I believe this must be the time of year— when the sap rises? It’s—” he shook Cam’s head ruefully. “It’s noisy as hell.”

Gideon believed him. She didn’t even need psychometry to know something was up. The air smelled powerfully of what she guessed must be just the overall forest, but it nagged at her: it was too rich and compelling, somehow all musky and floral and cold at the same time. Nothing in Drearburh had been like this. The closest thing she could compare it with was Harrow’s new-milled ink. Breathing in this scent made it that much harder to put one foot in front of the other; it made her feel like she was listening to music again, getting taken apart, absolutely torn to pieces by the mortality embedded in everything beautiful. Like she was dropping into the right place. Like she fit here somewhere.

And fuck that. If this was a world without Harrowhark in it, she didn’t want to fit. Surely there was no such thing as a universe she belonged in without Harrow. Some of her internal bulwarks caved, and Gideon sank to her knees, doubled over.

“Ninth,” Sextus was saying to her, comfort and urgency in equal measures, Cam’s arm around her shoulders, Cam’s face tilted close to Gideon’s ear, Sextus holding her up. Gideon kept her face in her hands, part of her ashamed at the weakness, most of her ready to give in. She couldn’t do this. She quite simply and fundamentally was not strong enough for this.

“Gideon, Gideon,” Palamedest kept saying. “I’m frightened too. But we don’t know anything. All we can do is keep going, and we have to have faith in her. She knows how to find the destination we had picked, too— she might be less than a kilometer away right now. We’ve got to keep going.”

And they did, they did. She didn’t have a choice but to get up. She’d promised so much. She’d promised Harrow not to die (which almost certainly included a rider in the fine print that likewise prohibited laying down in the late-winter sod and feeling sorry for herself); she’d promised Cam she’d protect Palamedes, even though at the time she’d been coughing blood and shivering, recently woken from her final faint at the end of Harrow’s siphoning.

That had been sometime last night, in the dark. Gideon had woken to find Camilla holding her wrist, as though the Sixth had started taking her pulse and not bothered to finish the task. Gideon had coughed until she could breathe again, then taken Cam’s hand and squeezed it.

I’m glad you made it, Niner, Cam had said. Wasn’t sure there for a minute.

It had been so dark, but Gideon had heard in Cam’s voice— but surely not?— that the Sixth cavalier had recently been weeping.

But she hadn’t shed tears that Gideon had witnessed. Gideon had listened then, bereft and palsied, as Cam had explained. Could she tell at all, Cam had asked, whether Harrow was alive? The question had gone through Gideon like an arrow. But no, she couldn’t tell. There was no feedback, no connection; there hadn’t been, not since Harrowhark had snapped their Lyctorhood apart all those weeks and months ago. The siphoning had joined them, in a sense. But it had just been pain. Gideon could barely remember it. Her body remembered for her. She’d sneezed again bloodily, officially ruining Cam’s last hanky.

In that case, Cam had continued, there is only one logical next step. There are three possibilities. One is that Harrow failed, and is dead. Another is that she failed to halt pursuit, but that she escaped and is alive. And the third is that she succeeded. The second possibility precludes us from returning to town. If she is alive but the risk of capture remains, then we have to make the effort to find her first. I’d prefer not to succumb to capture unless we are together. The only rational place to rendezvous is our original destination, because each of us possesses the ability to find it, and we know this respectively about each other. But I cannot find it myself. I had counted on the resources of the town. Information, maps. Now that that option is closed to us, all I can do is let the Warden take over. And he can find the way for you. But I’ve failed.

Gideon had clenched her teeth together for a second to try and stop them chattering, then said, with all the ferocity she could muster, “I’ll watch him, Cam. I’ll keep him safe, I swear. We haven’t failed yet, and you sure as hell haven’t.”

Cam had squeezed her hand back, and murmured something Gideon hadn’t understood. “Alea iacta est.” Then she had removed, from its carefully swaddled padding, from the very depths of her pack, the Warden’s bones. She’d put her fingers over his, twining together his dead hand with her flesh, and tapped her middle finger erratically. Eventually she had sunk deep, deep into meditation.

To Gideon it had seemed to take a very long time after that. She could not keep herself conscious. To her shame, after her promise, it had been Palamedes who’d shaken her awake later, who’d demanded to know what had happened, who’d examined her eyes and her tongue and her pulse, and she hadn’t slipped back asleep again. She’d gotten up, and had not since sat back down; the long dark walk had started, and it felt now like it had all happened a week, or a year prior, though it was merely hours.

Now, on the ground, Gideon pulled it together: painstakingly, horribly, awfully. When she thought she could stand, she nodded, and put her hands down to brace against her thighs.

“Give me a minute?” she asked, her voice rough. Sextus stood up, waiting for her, and when her time ran out Gideon took his proffered hand and climbed back to her feet.

For all their walking, Gideon couldn’t imagine they’d come all that far. Their pace was miserable, and it wasn’t getting any faster. Mist rose out of the ground as the sun came up. Sextus had not technically been lying when he’d claimed the summit was ‘just a little further’: after less than another hour, they crested the hill at last, breaking into a rocky ledge with a clear vista.

Sextus called a halt and started to survey the ground spread before them. Gideon, numb and past caring, sat and sipped water from one of the jars in Cam’s pack. The water was cold, and went down like needles.

“There,” Palamedes said at last, pointing out across a valley. “That’s it. It must be.” He clapped Cam’s hands together, blew into them to warm them.

It was too far away to see clearly, but as she peered across the distance, Gideon thought she could make out buildings, structures, something. She did not have the energy to be intrigued, but knowing the place really existed kindled a pilot-light of hope in her. Except that it was so remote, all the way over there. Gideon looked back at Sextus in disbelief.

“But,” she said, with sisyphean despair, “Sextus, it’ll take days to get all the way there.”

“Not at all,” he said, heartily. “You’re not used to large planets. It looks further than it is.” He held Cam’s thumb at arm’s length, squinting and winking at it as if her thumbnail held the answers to the ultimate questions of life. “Five kilometers. Seven, tops. We’ll be there before breakfast.”

“Joke’s on you,” Gideon said lowly, “there isn’t anything for breakfast.” To that point, she drank more water. Maybe it would feel kind of like eating. “Also, wait a second,” she said. “If the place we want is down there, why are we up here? I thought all that tree-groping was you getting directions?”

“It was,” he said, “it’s a difficult art—”

“Are you telling me we walked up this hill just for the view?”

“Yes,” he said. “And it worked, now we know where to go. Hand over that water, please, I’m not dehydrating my cavalier.”

Gidon wanted to toss him off the cliff, no matter what she’d promised Cam. “So now— let me get this straight— we have to go back down this godforsaken hill?”

“It’s easier to go down than up.”

“Is not.”

She wanted to ask how he could be so certain that Harrow could find this place too, when necromantic way-finding or scrying or whatever in fuck’s name he was doing was a difficult art. Was Harrow even good at this? But she didn’t ask. Sextus already knew how she felt.

Gideon opened the duffle, put her rapier on her belt. Sextus didn’t say a word about it, for which she was grateful.

The sun broke over the mountain peaks behind them, and they descended into the valley.

_________

Gideon would not have admitted it afterward, but Sextus had been right on. (How the hell had he figured out the distance? The man had grown up in an underground library.) It was not yet mid-morning when they emerged from the trees and saw it.

Sextus stopped in mid-stride. He had reason to be surprised: he’d told Gideon the little he knew of the place, but most of what he knew had to do with the ‘thanergenic environment.’ Anything Gideon would have classified as useful to know about it, wasn’t possible for him to determine from necromantic scrying, other than in vague terms. He had hypothesized that they were heading for some kind of mountain hostel.

It was not a hostel. There were at least two low wooden buildings, stretched out in suggestively hostel-like wholesomeness, but they were shadowed, literally and figuratively, by the cathedral. The great church looked like it did not belong: it was dark non-native stone, grey against the warmer wood of the outbuildings, and it vaulted higher than the surrounding trees, domed and phallic and imposing. What kind of blood and treasure had it demanded to erect this here? All in all, Gideon detested it instantly. She was about to suggest they retreat back out of sight and regroup, when she noticed Harrow.

Gideon made a noise— it might have been Harrow’s name, it might have been a wordless shout of relief— and ran for it.

Harrowhark was a tiny dark figure against the dark stone and nearly blended in. She had been sitting, or standing, on the steps before the great front door. Now she dropped from the steps like a raven stooping, was coming toward them across the grass— was sprinting. Gideon tried to go faster, but her body didn’t quite have enough left to match Harrow’s speed. The ground between them was endless. But then Harrow was there, and Gideon was crashing into her, digging her fingers into Harrow’s back, and Harrow had locked her arms around Gideon’s waist.

Eventually Gideon stammered, “I thought—” she cleared her throat, swallowed, tried again. “Harrow, I thought—”

Harrowhark was holding her so tightly. They had touched in a myriad of ways by now, in both violence and ardor, grasping, clinging— Harrow wrenching so often on Gideon’s shirtfront of late that the collar was irredeemably fucked up. But this was somehow new, and taking her breath away: this was Harrow, embracing her, encircling her.

“Griddle,” Harrow said. “Oh, you’re so hurt.” The words, the embrace contained an ocean of pain. But Gideon tired of pain, and she shook her head in response to Harrow’s grief-struck tone, and kissed her fiercely.

“Harrowhark,” Gideon pleaded, breaking away, “Not again. Please not again. I don’t want you to walk anywhere I can’t follow, and I don’t want to have to do this alone, and I don’t ever again want to think it’s the last time I see you after I watch you leave. Not until we’ve arrived at the final death we have to face. And when that happens I can take your name down with me, or you can take mine. But not until then, Harrow. Nothing but death. Tell me we won’t do that again.”

Harrow gazed up at her, sunburned, with dried blood faintly ringing her nostrils, and said, “Too many words, beloved.”

Gideon made an embarrassing sort of hiccup. “Yeah.”

“One flesh,” Harrow started.

“One end,” Gideon finished for her. She pressed kisses helplessly into Harrow’s face, her forehead, her cheek, skin coppery with the traces of blood and sweat. “One end, one end.” The way the words burned in her throat made them feel more precious than they had before, if that were possible. It made her brave enough to ask for what she wanted. “Lyctorhood, Harrow,” she said, bending to murmur the question into Harrow’s ear, a small part of her registering that Palamedes had caught up behind them. “Please?”

Harrow tucked her head between Gideon’s neck and her shoulder, and Gideon felt her nod. Her voice was full of trepidation and not a little pain, but it was firm. “Yes,” Harrow said. “Yes. We will try. Yes.”

_________

They did not part from each other after that, not when Sextus clapped a hand to Harrow’s shoulder in an irrepressible gesture of affection, which Harrow to his startlement returned by briefly covering his touch with her smaller hand; not when the necromancers immediately then began a “discussion” of such intensity it made Gideon’s head spin, a word-salad debate of terms like apoptosis and anima and isotropic decay; not when Gideon interrupted to insist that they all do right by the absent Camilla and walk a perimeter of the area before getting up to whatever dark arts they had in mind, and maybe they could also find some food?

“And, maybe, sleep?” Gideon added without much hope. “Can we just, take a break for a while, before you get down to it?”

This kicked off the debate again, Sextus and Harrow trading barbed rebuttals around exactly how many minutes they had to spare, but although they forgot to reply to her, it answered Gideon’s question. No time to waste, apparently. But she put her foot down about the reconnaissance, especially when Sextus pressed Harrow into a report of her encounter with Judith, and Harrow admitted that she had left Deuteros alive.

“There’s still a threat from that quadrant,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry. And she did signal Eden before I left her, so they will be searching the region. But I have made of her a Sewn Tongue. She cannot speak of us, or frankly much of anything else— I did not have time for finesse. Given how little time we have, I felt this would more than buy us the last of it.”

Sextus gave her considering look, but did not reopen the debate.

They started with the outer buildings, agreeing without saying so outright that they would avoid the cathedral as long as they could. Gideon kept within a half-step of Harrow; Harrow kept backing into her, leaning toward her like a blade of grass to the light, casting looks of concern over her shoulder. Their fingers brushed over and over until Gideon finally snatched up Harrow’s hand and kept it.

Of the two low buildings that winged the central church, one was dormitories, and the other hosted rooms in service of everyday life: pantries, a kitchen, offices. Gideon would have recognized the spine-breaking little cots anywhere; clearly this had once been a convent or a monastery. It was all shrouded in the dust of long abandonment.

The pantries were empty. What fresh food there had once been, had decayed to a stagnant-smelling dirt. They did find some aluminum tins, unmarked; Cam’s possessions included a can opener, which Gideon had learned to use. But opening one of the tins did not enlighten them as to the contents. Best guess, it had once been beans. Even Gideon would not eat any.

Behind the dormitories was a fenced bathing-house, which reeked. Gideon pushed open the gate expecting some dreadful thing: a pile of corpses, a pit toilet. Instead they discovered a wide, innocently steaming pool.

Harrow wrinkled her nose and drew slightly into Gideon’s shadow, as if her cavalier could protect her from the horrors of a smelly bath. Palamedes walked right up to the water and put Cam’s hand in it.

He looked back at them with a smile. “It’s a hot spring. I’d not seen one before. No wonder they built this place here.”

“Gross, SexPal,” Gideon said, but because she was contrary at heart, she followed him to the edge of the pool and ventured one finger into the water herself. It was seductively warm. “That can’t be healthy,” Gideon said, dubiously, already half-hoping for an excuse to try it out.

“It’s just sulfur. I’m sure it’s harmless.” Palamedes wiped Cam’s hand on her shirt. Gideon winced at the thought of Cam returning to find her body clothed in wrinkled, odiferous clothing.

_________

There was a mass grave in the courtyard between the dorms and the church. It was just a slump in the grassy earth, but the necromancers’ reaction told Gideon all she needed to know. Sextus paused as they came upon it, and stood silently for a minute in respect. Harrow looked on impassively. Gideon did not break the silence to ask what had happened. Maybe it had been the local war. Maybe something else. It seemed clear they were very alone, that this was not a place of honor: not merely abandoned, but cursed.

At last they pushed open the great doors of the church edifice, or attempted to; anticlimactically, they found them locked fast and too massive to break down. Circling the structure yielded another, normal-sized door that was also locked but just flimsy enough to yield to a good kick. Gideon had to do the honors, because she did not trust Sextus not to break Cam’s ankle in the attempt. Afterward she tried to hide the roil of pain the impact sent through her tenderized body. She did not fool Harrowhark, who went so far as to wait until Sextus had disappeared inside before pulling Gideon’s hand to her mouth and placing there a chap-lipped, beseeching, traumatized kiss. This made Gideon feel a lot of strange and powerful things; she wanted to make a crack about it but found herself tongue-tied.

The inside of the cathedral felt like Drearburh. It was in no way similar: there was light, and the ghosting waft of sandalwood and honey. But it was unmistakably steeped in tradition and old as balls.

They had entered backstage. There wasn’t much left. The money shot was out under the dome. Gideon and Harrow followed Sextus’ footsteps through the dimness, and emerged behind the altar to a cacophony of color. The dome turned out to be all stained glass, in a mosaic pattern that boggled the mind: even in the faint light of morning it captured the room entire, spilling sunlight across the floor like paint.

Harrow, back in her natural element, softly let go Gideon’s hand and went to stand where she could command the chancel, eyes raking the area with her particular welding-torch intensity. Sextus was down under the dome, pacing off distances between the transepts and counting his steps. He was having some difficulty; the place was strewn with debris, whole pews and broken pews and fragments of statues, some of it half-charred. It was as if there had been some violence here, but aborted before completion.

“It’s perfect,” Sextus said, nearly tripping over a piece of detritus with a small crash. “We can do all the work here, we can barricade the doors if we want to be cautious— we don’t have to worry about rain, even. Just perfect.” He sounded as satisfied as if he’d known this all along. Harrow pointedly neglected to congratulate him, though she must have agreed, as she started muttering under her breath, as if calculating.

“All right then,” Gideon said, stumping down the steps to join Sextus below Harrow, looking around with the sinking feeling that Harrow might ask her to move some of this stuff. “Let’s get this over with. What next, tenebrous magistrate?”

Harrow’s mouth twisted ironically. “Not much— we undertake the Lyctoral theorem—” Sextus whipped Cam’s head over to stare at Harrow, and Gideon blurted,

“What, right now?”

Harrow blanched. “Not just yet,” she said. “I was going to say, we have to achieve that before we start the ward, and we need to complete the ward before the end of the day if it has a chance of working— but first, we need this area clear. At least fifteen bodies square.”

Gideon’s heart sank. “How did I guess.”

She and Sextus, who had the advantage of Cam’s strength, did it all. Harrow tried to help, but couldn’t even begin to move a whole pew on her own. Sextus eventually pulled a stick of chalk from Cam’s knapsack and handed it to her with a tiny smile.

“Draft it out, Reverend Daughter,” he said, “Someone has to, and we might as well parallelize the work.”

Harrow accepted the chalk with a graceless sneer, but set to it without further complaint. She had the last laugh, in any case, when Gideon had to spend the next couple hours reminding Sextus constantly: “Please, SexPal, lift with Cam’s legs, not her back, for fuck’s sake. Have you never lifted anything heavier than a book in all your life?”

Gideon otherwise got through it by focusing on the scratch of Harrow’s chalk against the stone, sneaking endless glances, sometimes meeting Harrow’s eyes only for their gazes to skip off each other, then come back. Harrow was here and alive, and they were still in the game— BOE could go fuck themselves, them and the Cohort both.

Finally, finally, with midday approaching, they ran out of things to move, and were left sweating and waiting in the wide cleared area, while Harrow dragged her last line of chalk over the floor.

She dropped the chalk over by the wall when she was done, and then came to eye her work critically. Sextus looked up at her and nodded; Harrow lifted her chin haughtily. Gideon’s palms were sweating inside her gloves, while the sweat on her back was making her shiver unpleasantly— it was not warm, and outside the wind was picking up, occasionally loud enough to be heard even through the stone walls, making her feel even colder. The clouds must have been racing through in the gusts of it, because the light had waxed and waned frequently while they worked.

Harrow must have satisfied herself as to their preparations; she looked at Gideon. Go time. Gideon wiped sweat off the back of her neck, walked across the cleared ground, swallowed hard.

“So how do we start this?” she asked, trying not to sound like a nun on her wedding night and failing totally.

“It’s just a theorem,” Harrow said, stripping her gloves off as she made her way over, snippy with her own nervousness. “It’s not a seance.”

Gideon wiggled her eyebrows in an attempt to make Harrow laugh. “An ultratheorem, maybe?”

Harrow glowered a bit, then her mouth twitched. “A ninefold theorem,” she sighed. “I’ll handle that part. You follow my lead.”

Gideon took this to heart and began to peel her own gloves off, making a hash of it. Above them somewhere in the planet’s atmosphere, clouds retreated again, and she was suddenly almost blinded by brightness and hue. They had gravitated naturally towards the center of the room: at the flare of light Gideon found herself with Harrow in the very heart of the window pattern, blazing now in a perfect circle on the floor. Gloves almost off, prising the last finger free with her teeth, Gideon stared for an instant transfixed.

Snapping out of it, she hastily tossed the gloves behind her, and then turned back. Harrow was waiting. Unexpectedly, Harrow’s mouth broke into a smile, and time itself, which for so long Gideon had felt at the mercy of, seemed to falter in its regular course. Harrow’s was a small smile, almost secretive. It was an assured and ready smile. Gideon could never help but return a genuine Nonagesimus smile— like couldn’t stop herself even with a gun to her head—but something in her thrilled at this one, that made Harrow look so...sanguine. The sharp points of Harrow’s face were dappled with those colored bars of light. Gideon thought, with epiphanic clarity, I will love her my whole life. And she could feel her face grinning back so wide it was painful, could just tell that she was looking at her necromancer with the cudgeled expression of a lovesick fool despite herself, and that she might as well write her heart on her forehead. So much for being Ninth.

“Ready, Nav?”

“Always, my sidereal liege.” And she was. The stone walls threw their voices back to them, a watermark of an echo.

“It’s not going to be like siphoning,” Harrow explained quietly. “Not at all. It has to go both ways. Do you understand? It won’t hurt, but this will be harder than anything we did in those laboratories. Balance is essential. The thalergenic signature is amplified if we can maintain our equilibrium. There was never a trial to practice this, or a tablet to explain it, because the first of the Emperor’s saints never got this far. We will have to depend on each other.”

“Right then,” Gideon said, and cracked her knuckles. “I watch your back, you watch mine, we make it up as we go. We’ve got this, night boss. Let’s trade some juice.”

Harrow appeared to be having some second thoughts at that one, but forestalled her eyeroll— mostly— and then, glaring in concentration, swept her right hand up to touch Gideon’s neck with her fingertips. Gideon felt the familiar jolt to her soul, instinctively leaned into it, and was hit with immediate starbursts of pain behind her temples.

Harrow pushed back and they were left standing, slightly winded, Harrow shaking her hand out as if burned, her tall brow furrowed hard.

“Gideon,” she said, showing remarkable depths of patience. “Gideon, trust me.”

“I know,” Gideon said, and took a shuddering breath. Harrow was right, this was infinitely harder. “I know.”

Harrow reached up again and pressed her whole palm to the side of Gideon’s face. Gideon cupped her hand alongside Harrow’s jaw in return; she closed her eyes and turned her face into Harrow’s hand, minutely, and she waited.

This time when she felt it, Gideon made herself steady, let Harrowhark quest out to her without responding—though this took time. She had not quite realized before how much she had leaned in, when Harrow had asked. For a minute or an hour or a myriad, they let that be enough. Gideon forgot about the room and about Palamedes and all the rest of it, trembling to keep it all from spilling over, feeling flayed open and laid bare. But there was Harrow, touching her face; it was going to be ok.

Harrow wasn’t going to start without her. Eventually Gideon knew she had to go first. It was with extreme trepidation that she took the leap: she pulled back along the shared connection, drawing Harrow’s own soul into hers, squeezing her eyes so tightly shut her face began to ache. Harrow instantly reciprocated. Gideon let her with relief; the easier part by far was to hand over everything she had, yet she could feel more and more clearly, as the burning fuel of Harrow’s soul poured into her, that the act of taking was the other side of the same thing.

Her hands were shaking badly now. Harrow said, her voice tight, “That’s right, Griddle. That’s fine. Hang on.”

Gideon nodded. No force on earth could have compelled her to open her eyes. The rushing tide was becoming unbearable. It was furthermore clear by now what Harrow had meant about amplification, the way the flow of each soul to the other in an endless howlround was spiraling into a greater power than the sum of either alone. The terrifying distinction between duty and love, between a sacrifice and a gift. Gideon managed to stand upright within it, but it took everything she had, and then it took more.

Each summit they reached only revealed another. It was never going to break. Gideon was clinging now to the back of Harrow’s neck, trying so hard to find herself within that awesome flood, needing something, anything, to hang onto, to keep herself intact. When Harrow surged up to kiss her, Gideon was already bending to meet her, inevitable and perfect, as if the whole course of history and fate for her had always been leading to this. As if Harrow were the fulcrum of the universe, which, for Gideon, she might as well have been. Everything they had ever risked and lost and won seemed to snap into place when her mouth pressed into Harrow’s. If that kiss had been the only one of her life, Gideon thought, she could have been content at least that she’d learned everything worth being alive to learn. Her left fist on her rapier tightened, grounding her to earth.

The kiss broke. Their hands remained, cradling each other in a mirror image. The only sound Gideon could hear was Harrow’s breathing, and her own breath following. Gideon should have been ready to collapse. She felt like she had been through a natural disaster, her foundations liquified and rebuilt; she should have been undone, destroyed, wrecked, and yet her footing was firm.

Harrow whispered, “Fiat lux,” and Gideon could still hear her smile. She opened her eyes.

Harrow stared back, her face flushed, hair sable and sweet-smelling: irises bright and gold. As if she had been born with that color in her.

“Did I ever tell you you’re beautiful?” Gideon asked, stunned. “Because you’re so beautiful.”

Harrow’s face twisted like she’d been forced to swallow acid only to discover that she liked the taste; Gideon was unable to wait any longer, and swept her off the ground in a spine-cracking hug. They whirled slowly on the spot, Harrow protesting feebly, undermining her own complaints by burying her hands in Gideon’s hair. They had caught each other in the fall; they had fixed the devastating combustion of their power at a Lagrange point between them; they had perfected Lyctorhood. Harrow belonged to her. She belonged to Harrow.

“It worked,” Harrow murmured, “It worked...I can hear your heartbeat again...I can hear all of you.”

“Kinky,” Gideon answered into Harrow’s neck, grinning with delight, breathing her in.

“Griddle,” Harrow admonished through gritted teeth, but the game was up— Harrow thought she was funny. Gideon could tell. She took pity on her poor adept and set her down, stepped back, and took stock.

Harrow withdrew a chip of bone from one pocket and tossed it lightly, and when she reached for her new limits Gideon could feel her emotion, her savage joy when she found no bridle on her power. The bone became dust at her gesture, then rose in an instant to a fully articulated construct, collapsed in the next instant into a perfect marble sphere, and within a span of heartbeats had assumed an endless flicker of forms at Harrowhark’s behest, each construct more fantastical than the last, with no origin in any biology. Harrow abruptly snapped her wrist and the bone reformed around it in a pale bracelet; she turned to the Warden with her arm still outstretched, burning through him with her gaze.

“Palamedes,” she said, breathless. “Satisfied?”

Sextus grinned with Cam’s face, more than a little wolfishly, and Gideon’s blood tingled in an answering rush.

“Very,” he said. “Shall we begin?”

_________

Harrow’s chalk draft loosely resembled a compass rose. Gideon watched Harrow and Sextus pace it off one last time, bickering. Harrow started adding lay-lines of bone dust at inscrutable intervals, and Palamedes added Cam’s spit once or twice.

They would start from the center and spiral out. Gideon knew she did not have a role to play here other than battery, but found herself taking a place orthogonal to her necromancer, west to Harrow’s north, and waiting quietly. Part of her expected Harrow to wave her off like an unruly child, but Harrow instead threw her a look of approval.

Palamedes began with no ceremony. He pricked Cam’s finger, frowning a little as he did, and pressed the bloody fingerprint to the center of a flagstone. Harrow crouched next to him and casually did some unholy flesh-and-bone magic to extend a tube from her vein, and poured her own blood out in a knife-sharp line.

Then she did something Gideon had never seen her do before: she pressed bone into the floor, like a grounding rod, in the center of the fingerprint Sextus had left. Harrow spent several seconds with index and forefingers pale against the top of her spike; Gideon wondered how deep she was driving it.

Sextus raised one of Cam’s eyebrows. “Inspired,” he said. “But let’s not improvise too wildly.”

Harrow merely gave him a long-suffering look. “Improvisation, nothing,” she snipped.

From then on they did not pause, tracing out in an ever-building circle. Harrow and Palamedes traded off seamlessly, and Gideon soon realized that for all the seeming randomness, it was all one long unbroken line. They were keeping time as much as physical measurements, neither speeding up or slowing down. The pattern accreted, gathered itself like a cresting wave.

Harrow contributed the vast majority of the blood, as if she had a bottomless well of it— which, now that she had reclaimed Lyctorhood, she clearly did. She emptied her veins over and over. Bone dust blotted it all, with rare exceptions in places when Harrow would leave the blood wet and crude and shining on the floor.

An hour passed, then another, and then Gideon lost track— but she did not leave. Rather, she had become invested in seeing it through. She kept within orbit of the other two (orbiting Harrowhark), sometimes obliquely, sometimes antipodal, and once passing behind her Lyctor, pausing to stand and watch while Harrow inscribed some abominably fractal design out of the gobbet of spit Sextus had left her.

Another and another hour...the sun had shifted far, the color in the room ebbing and flooding with every cloudbreak, the window design sliding east. Thus as the physical color was drawn away from their working ground, Gideon started to see the metaphysical colors remain: those same faint smudges of light she had last noticed when fighting constructs in Canaan house, with Harrow riding her mind and soul. She had nearly forgotten about them.

As the ward grew in size, the thanergy-lights grew stronger, in clusters, as if the work contained nodes of power coming online. There was a pattern to that, too, and Gideon was amusing herself in following it, wondering how much longer Harrow and Sextus would have to keep it up, and what they would do if they ran out of space, when the pattern deviated.

She would have ignored it, assuming it was intentional, except that Sextus sucked in a breath. Harrow, showing an admirable ironclad will, did not break focus until she had finished the line she was laying down. Then she looked up.

“Oh, fuck,” she said.

“It’s repairable—” Sextus said quickly.

“It’s not,” Harrow lamented, “We’d have to unravel the last four layers, at least, and we don’t have time.”

Gideon cleared her throat. “What’s the issue?”

Harrow’s nostrils flared, but she pointed at the most recent node of coronal light, simmering in and out of focus like a winnowing candle flame.

“We made an error,” she said flatly, “we failed to link two sigils, and there’s a break—”

“I see it,” Gideon said. She had noticed the discrepancy before, but now that Harrow pointed, the exact fault was obvious. That particular googly node had a cleft through it, a dead and unlit swath. “Ok, so— this may be a dumb question but— why not just go back and join up that bit there?”

Harrow snorted her breath out. “We can’t touch any of it.”

“You mean, you can’t smudge it up?”

“Yes. No. I mean, correct, you cannot mar the linework, not so much as a millimeter. But more importantly, we can’t allow our flesh to make contact. That will initiate the cascade. Do so when it is unfinished, and it will be ineffective, or worse, harmful. It’s like—” she moved her hands as if playing a shell game, absentmindedly making a demonstration of the flowering map of power before them. “We are building a resonance. Or— it is similar to stoking a furnace, laying in fuel correctly to build heat. When we complete the work, if the timing is right, we will have made a forge. But…”

She trailed off, and Gideon watched as the smear of lights started to ebb a little more. Even Sextus was looking stricken, heartbroken at the idea that it was over, that they weren’t going to get a second chance. Harrow went so far as to sit down, chewing her inside cheek discomfortingly, her gold eyes dimmed.

Gideon, however, was feeling pretty good for a change. She was starting to get an inkling of what Lyctorhood had to offer, and it was one hell of a drug. She felt spry. She felt invulnerable. She felt puckish.

Gideon Nav toed off her boots, and rolled up her pant legs. She stripped down to her shirtsleeves, no longer noticing the cold, and she drew the Ninth rapier, setting belt and scabbard aside.

This display made Sextus clearly anxious. By the time Gideon had eagerly rolled out both shoulders, he was flinching as if Cam’s feet were on hot coals. “Ninth,” he said, “just what do you think you’re going to accomplish?”

Gideon shrugged, and stepped to the edge of the ward. “What’s the worst that could happen?” she asked. When no one answered her right away, she turned to Harrow. “No, seriously. Harrow— tenebrous magistrate— I’m pretty sure I can make it over there without dicking up your art. If I get close enough, can you take it from there?” She tapped her head with one finger.

Harrow’s eyes narrowed, considering. Her fingers, stained a little bloody, worried at a button on her jacket sleeve as she gazed at the sunspot flaw in their effort. Then she looked back at Gideon.

“Well, hurry up then,” her Lyctor commanded, in her bitchiest nun voice. Gideon grinned and fist-pumped, ignoring Sextus’ subvocal groan.

She stepped out and put her foot down in the nearest empty space between all those threads of blood, holding her sword out in a perfect line, and she shifted her weight to center. She paused there, just for a second; then she let her feet and arms take over, and began.

Her footwork was really perfect. It was mind-blowingly easy, to see where she had to step next, where she had to retreat to make progress. There were just enough gaps in the linework, even if she had to twist her foot to its outer edge, or spend most of the time as high onto her toes as she could get. Gideon thought she must look absurd with some of the contortions she was forced to make, the occasional twee pirouette, but there was nothing else for it, and Harrow didn’t mock her. She felt fluid and perfect and deadly. Her sword balanced her out, gave her a counterpoint.

When she was finally in range, she settled into the closest thing to a ready stance as possible, and called, “Harrow.”

She felt her adept slide into her mind. It was seamless to do it now, no nausea, no tongue-biting. Easy as falling asleep.

There.

She wasn’t certain if it was Harrow’s thought, or hers. But she knew what to do. They had missed only a small patch, little bigger than a coin.

Gideon spat on her hand, and bloodied her sword in the wet of her palm. With this coat of blood and spittle, she put the tip of the rapier down, and drew: a diagonal, an arc, a fiddlehead spiral. Light dragged from the tip of her sword, her fingers twitching minutely. Detail work, but it was trivial.

The effect was instantaneous. The nodes of light flared like shuttle landing beams. She vaguely heard Pal shouting behind her: “We agreed no improvising!” (“Too late now, Sextus, fix those carbon levels!”) Gideon didn’t dare move lest it distract the magicians; her position was stressful, a kind of lateral half-lunge, but she could hold it forever if need be. She was a Lyctor, and she could feel the trade of soul-fire between Harrow and her ramp up as either of them demanded. Maybe they’d never find out how high or how far they could go.

Honestly, though, Harrow might have been bent on trying. Based on what Gideon could hear, Harrow had taken a shortcut. The Sixth and Ninth necromancers were now barreling toward the end of the project with frantic haste; Sextus was swearing impressively, in warning and excitement. There was pure uncut triumph radiating from Harrow now, torching Gideon’s nerves in a way she remembered from that first day on planet, but it didn’t hurt this time. Gideon gave back the emotion as good as she got, through their fountaining power. That’s my girl. She wanted to laugh. She could tell Harrow wanted to likewise. Around her the thanergy lights bloomed and bloomed.

Get out of the theorem range, Griddle.

Gideon picked her way back with less twinkle-toed bullshit than she’d been forced to use going in, and once she’d vaulted outside the circle of the nascent ward she walked the edge until she was about thirty degrees off from Harrow, her subconscious taking Harrow’s cues. The ground was starting to shudder as if in a minor earthquake. Palamedes had moved the opposite way, was about forty degrees widdershins, and Harrow was finishing the final knotwork of blood with her lip caught between her teeth. Gideon poised one finger over the design, alight with anticipation.

As soon as Harrow lifted her hands, she barked her order aloud.

“Now, Warden!”

Palamedes put Camilla’s right forefinger on some critical spot. Harrow, following, copied him.

Touch it, Nav, now, right there, carefully,

Okay, you are seriously not even trying, Gideon thought, and obeyed.

_________

The River welcomed you in, and I followed.

You and I were standing in shallow water, a rocky streambed, in a twilit haze. The planet’s soul far ahead of us: a trembling broken creature of many parts, of shape and feeling. It was burned in some places, torn in others. The River water carried its blood away.

I could not see Sextus anywhere. Seemed we were the only ones who’d taken this plunge. It was less scary than my last visit, though it was still the River, still weird. Speaking only for myself, time had collapsed into a meaningless singularity. I could hardly remember the room we’d left behind. I carried no sword. Your face was naked. But I had you and you had me, so I didn’t feel afraid.

We both saw the planet at the same time. But we weren’t in a hurry. We started walking, you and I, and then we were there: like I said, time had pretty much checked out of the situation.

It was possible, I thought, that this was the final death we had to face, but then I felt your certainty: We’re not dying, Griddle. Don’t be melodramatic.

Rich of you to call other people melodramatic, I thought, but no one asked me. Thinking about death drew my attention to the borders of our little twilight. I hadn’t noticed at first, but now I saw that we had landed in a sweetwater River bubble of your creation, a quiet babble of a place, shaded by peace as if by willow branches. Beyond that peace, all the River’s ravenous ghosts were howling. We couldn’t quite hear them, but they circled like jackals. They were drooling to get in here. Somehow I knew that, until your Work crumbled, they never would.

Our planet-buddy quivered on the border of our influence. All those salivating dead quivered directly on the other side, and the poor planetary soul clearly had no idea what to do or where to go: frantic to escape us, desperate to stay within our bubble’s safety. You approached, unhesitatingly, no-nonsense.

Hey, give them some air, I murmured to you, and you listened and paused. I mean, no need to spook ‘em, right? I took your hand, more to comfort the planet than for any other reason, but it always felt right to hold your hand. It cemented the relaxed confidence I felt, being here.

Whenever you’re ready, I said to the planet-beast. In your own time.

When the planet approached us at last, just an instant later, and you brushed your fingers across it, careful and kind, I felt so proud of you, Harrow— that was a Reverend-Mother gesture, that was you as you were meant to grow to be. Your touch against the beast pulled us both into a globe-spanning vision, dumped a world of understanding into our heads: the sap rising in the forest around the cathedral where we’d left our bodies. The ocean-wide migration of species, the hibernation of insects. Nightfall and daybreak. Blood and mycelia. Seeds beneath the soil in the Cohort’s blasted lands, teeming to sprout despite it all, savage with defiance.

Well, I said when we’d floundered our way back to our own heads, managed to shut off the God-mode perception. That was...quite a trip. Maybe start with some foreplay next time, bud.

Griddle, you chastised, admirably hiding how shaken you were, a planetary spirit can’t comprehend your base jokes. And I have to say I envy them.

I winked at the planet over your head, just in case you were wrong about their sense of humor. You, meanwhile, gently cajoled the beast to— figuratively— stand up straight, wipe their nose, and get their shit together. The tangible manifestation of the bedraggled soul unfolded and realigned a bit, looking slightly less nightmarish afterward, like a beat-up bird ruffling its feathers (and bones and teeth and squishy bits) back in formation.

You would be safe here, for a while, you told the beast. But it’s not where you belong. All of that— you made a sweeping gesture that somehow encompassed the vision we’d had— the web and symphony of your existence— it’s not time for it to be over.

You can follow us back, I added, trying to be helpful.

The creature pulsed and roiled, but you held firm, unbending. Kindness, for you, had always been a little brutal. You’d taken on SexPal’s reverence for truth. For a myriad that might have been an instant, we stood together against them in a battle of wills, and maybe the planet would have beaten one or the other of us alone, but they didn’t stand a chance against us both.

I know it hurts, you said, the only concession you gave.

In the end the planet shook like a dog (only getting us a little bit bloody), expanded themself with a pained snarl; doubled and doubled again, with us in their shadow craning our necks, watching the limbs and guts and wings of our host-world’s soul limber up. Then, with no further ado, they fucking launched themself, rocketing into the twilit ether like a bat out of hell, which was barely even a metaphor.

Shit. I’m guessing they can take it from here, I said, eyebrows nearly in my hairline.

You squeezed my hand, deeply satisfied. You were practically preening with success. We were rising up, the sound of the water fading, our lineation softening. There was one bright point of light. I figured, why not, and pulled you in close. I swear you nuzzled into me, content as a feral cat in sunshine.

One? I heard you ask, puzzled.

Yop, I answered. You and me, sugartits.

The geography we had left behind was wrenching us back, a boiling froth like whitewater roaring all around. I stole a quick victory kiss while I had the chance, partly to head off any complaints about sugartits, mostly because I’d decided I wasn’t going to let any more such opportunities go to waste. Even if we were, technically, in hell. As long as there was anything left of me, I’d know you, and as long as there was anything left of you, I’d be known, and that’s all it would ever take for me to want to kiss you, and I sure didn’t need a better excuse. You let me get away with it. Pretty sure you liked it.

_________

Gideon blinked her way back to consciousness. Her ears were ringing, the same way they did after stepping out of a loud room into a quiet one. Even her super-Lyctor-vision was a little blurry.

Her visual acuity slowly resolved. None of them had moved. Both Harrow and SexPal looked about as boneless and pathetic as washed-up starfish. Gideon knew she looked the same. When the hell had she last actually slept? On the train?

But they’d got what they paid for. Sprawling across the cathedral floor was their masterwork. Activating the ward seemed to have applied a permanent fixative. The blood-lines were enameled onto the flagstones. There were no more thanergy-lights, but the design flickered like murmurations, like the sun on a wind-struck pool. Staring at it for any length of time made Gideon start to feel like she was falling, or flying. The ringing in her ears had faded but not entirely gone away: there was a super-auditory sound of keening, like a tuning fork in the frequency of a chalkboard scratch. She was extremely glad that she hadn’t eaten the Mystery Beans.

“What the fuck,” she said, to no one in particular.

“Sextus,” Harrow said, dredging the words up, “how long were we down?”

“Fifteen minutes, give or take,” he said, Cam’s voice coming out as raspy as a crotchety old man’s. Sextus cleared her throat.

Harrow, for some benighted reason, bristled. “That’s not very fast. My Lyctoral record was eight minutes.”

“Oh, lighten up,” Sextus said wearily. “This is an entirely different process. We’ll get into practice soon.”

Harrow pressed her lips together, but condescended to be mollified. If Gideon had been hoping that perfect Lyctorhood would temper some of Harrow’s insane competitive nature, apparently this hope had been in vain.

“So, like,” Gideon said, when no one offered anything further, “did it work?”

Harrow caught her eye and a little color came back into her face, a half-smile gracing her mouth. “Nav, you were there. What do you think?”

“Well, I mean— yeah? Was it— what you expected? Did you prove your concept?”

“You bet your ass we did,” Palamedes said. He was rubbing Cam’s temples in a pronounced state of wince, but starting to smile himself in spite of it. “I have to say it takes it out of you, but just look at this. A perpetual thalergy well!”

“Nothing is perpetual,” Harrow pointed out, pedantically. “I keep telling you.”

“An almost perpetual thalergy well!”

“And that’s a misnomer, there’s as much thanergy as thalergy in both the base structure and the output—”

“Perhaps it’s better to say it’s like a thalergy gyroscope. Almost perpetual balance—”

Gideon was sorry she’d asked. “Is it in any way like man-eating magma fish?”

“Nav, I will enscroll your jaw.”

They all drifted back into companionable silence. The ward may have been provocative to behold, but it was mesmerizing. It smothered conversation. Sextus, swaying in Cam’s body, finally scooted back a few meters until he could lean somewhat against the first chancel step. Gideon did the same, and found that it helped: it felt better to be even that much further away from the ward. Harrow got to her feet, shakily crossed to sit next to Gideon, and leaned her head against her cavalier’s shoulder.

Someone (me, Gideon thought) was going to have to be the buzzkill that reminded them about the Edenite drones or whatever it was that was definitely going to come down on them next. Gideon did not want to do this. She felt strongly that the universe owed them a major break. The mere thought that it wasn’t over, that there was going to be more hard stuff to do after this, was incomprehensible. So when she asked her next question, it was not out of any particular interest, but simply to put off the inevitable moment when they’d have to get up.

“Does this work the same on any planet? Could you put it on the First even though it’s all water?”

It was as if she’d electrified them both. Harrow, leaning against her, went taut as a bowstring. Palamedes sat up and pulled Cam’s hair with both her hands.

“Oh, my God,” Harrow was whispering. “Oh, my God. I never considered.”

“If we inverted the theorem,” Sextus said, hyperventilating, “oh my God. It’s so obvious—”

“But how would the stabilization process behave in a thanergenic system? Unless—”

“No, yes, that’s the point, the process would resolve to the same equilibrium even from the opposite set of initial conditions...which would mean…”

He and Harrow had locked gazes. “Are we speaking,” Harrow said to Sextus, her gold eyes wide, “of...undoing the Resurrection?”

Palamedes laughed, a bit manically. Then he shook Cam’s head.

“Okay, no, let’s calm down.” (Gideon had never heard him sound less calm.) “We need data. Reverend Daughter, you can take measurements— a week of observation should get us started. We’ll run some simulations—”

“Whoa, whoa,” Gideon said, reluctantly having arrived at the very point she had wished to avoid. “What’s this about ‘a week’? If Cam were here she’d already have spirited us away to some next hidy-hole. BOE is crawling up our ass, remember?”

Sextus’ expression hardened. “We’re done running from them. Cam would agree. We did what we needed to do. Let those motherfuckers get an eyefull of this— Cam will wrap them around her little finger.”

Gideon glanced down at Harrow, for her opinion, but Harrow wasn’t paying attention. She was still vibrating a little, staring at the ward, eyes darting. There was a certain kind of intense and indescribable emotion that pulsed off of Harrow when she was thinking hard. Gideon, privileged to feel this across their Lyctoral connection, was getting another headache from it.

“I dunno,” Gideon said. “Would they really believe us?”

“They will,” Sextus said. “They are not total fools.”

“If you say so.” Gideon rubbed her face. Sextus wasn’t naive, but she felt he was being uncharacteristically obtuse; she just knew it would be more complicated than that. She was conscious of the spectre of Future Camilla Hect kicking her ass for having agreed to anything that put the Warden in unnecessary peril. “But, for real though,” Gideon asked. “Is this really what you want to do? I’ve gotta know, because we still have some time to choose differently. I bet you a luxury shuttle that when BOE does show up, and we convince them we can end the Empire, then that’s us at their mercy. Maybe we get to dictate some terms and they have to kiss our ass a bit, but in the end we’re committed. No matter what. Not even Cam can strike a bargain that gives us the option to back out, if we’re handing them the end of their generational war on a silver fucking platter.” She met Sextus’ grey eyes— but the question was really for Harrow, who she knew had started listening. “Because if I understand this ward even a little bit, and if you’re saying what I think you’re saying, then to reverse the Resurrection will mean that flowers die on necromancy’s grave. That there will never be any more adepts. It’ll change the whole universe. Do you even know what that would do to you? To Dominicus itself? Do you want to find out?”

Harrow, beside her, answered.

“A reckoning is due,” she said. She reached down between their huddled bodies to take Gideon’s hand. For a minute there was silence: just the keening whine of the ward-theorem, and the faint gusting of the wind outside. “And, Gideon. You’re forgetting that they would be dealing with us, now. Two full Lyctors.”

Sextus smiled thinly. He was watching Harrow, with Cam’s chin tipped down as if he were subconsciously looking over spectacle rims. He looked inordinately pleased.

“Just think of the legacy,” he said, not without irony, allowing his eyes to be pulled back to the wonderment of their ward. “To be remembered as the adept that ended necromancy itself. It’s certainly better than anything I’d heretofore aspired to leave behind. I’d have been happy enough with a locked-room mystery for the next generation. A fiendishly hard one.” He stretched Cam’s arm across her body, noticed the arm, and a queer expression crossed his borrowed features.

Gideon opened her mouth again, but Harrow squeezed her hand, and she closed it, and squeezed back.

A little more time had passed, and Gideon started to think about when she could next kiss Harrow, when Sextus gave a sigh with an air of finality.

“And now I think I must return my cavalier to you,” he said. There was a stiffness to his words. Gideon had not expected him to go so soon and so abruptly; she swallowed with sudden emotion, unable to talk, plunged without warning into a dreadful awkwardness.

Palamedes did not hesitate after making this declaration; indeed he barely glanced at them as he took another deep breath and started to lower Cam’s body into a supine position across the floor. At the last second Gideon finally got it: Harrow’s hand so hot in hers, and the memory of Camilla cradling Palamedes’ skeletal fingers. He was jealous. Gideon’s heart gave a painful lurch. In that split second, she followed an impulse.

“Oi, SexPal,” Gideon called, pulling him up short. “Give me a message for her.”

From the floor, Palamedes peered at her. “What message?”

“Any message. I’m offering to pass it on for you. You always left her one before.”

“That’s...kind of you, Gideon. But I don’t have—”

“My dude,” Gideon cut him off, “I say ‘offer’, but this is not optional. I promise I will pass no judgement on anything you want to say. I will keep the straightest face you can believe. But you have to tell me something to tell her, from you. Or if you don’t want me to hear it, you have to write something down.”

“Do we even have any paper?”

“Um.”

He steepled Cam’s fingers across her stomach, regarding Gideon owlishly. “Look, I really—”

Gideon rallied fast. “But the lack of paper does not move me, nerd! I can think of some astonishing ways to make you follow through on this, and I’m not afraid to use them.”

“But Cam knows—”

Warden,” Gideon said, out of patience, “Cam will forgive me if I give you a nipple-gripple for her sake, I swear to you.”

Next to her, Harrow was trying to turtle into her jacket lapels. “Nav, don’t be insufferable,” she hissed. Gideon ignored her.

Sextus stared at her for a second or two more, then held Cam’s hands up in surrender. “Ok, I hear you, I hear you,” he acquiesced, possibly unmanned by the mere idea of a nipple-gripple. “Give me a minute.”

Sextus was not an idiot, thank God. He was taking it seriously. He had put on a deeply pensive expression, and made a sudden curious gesture: using Cam’s left hand to deliberately take up her right, and brush her thumb across the bowl of her right palm. In that instant, the right hand looked like it did not belong to him at all.

“Tell her, she is the star to my wandering barque,” he said, his eyes fixed on her palm, and only for having known them this long, did Gideon catch the near-waver in his voice. He added, recklessly, “and tell her I love her madly— use those exact words— she’ll get the joke. I promise.”

“That’s all I ask,” Gideon said, feeling now that she had in fact asked for far too much, and grateful beyond words for it. “Thanks, Palamedes.”

He smiled as if he could see right through her, which he probably could. He gave Harrow a look that was somehow private between them. Harrow accepted it with a shuttered face. Then he settled back, closed his eyes, and departed. Gideon, blinking with tiredness, propped her arm on her knee and put her chin in her free hand.

Cam returned to her body with a grunt, bringing the heels of her hands up to her eyebrows as if she were coming back to consciousness with a hangover. Once it seemed the worst of it had passed, she let her hands fall out to her sides spread-eagled, took in the cathedral swoop, the windowed dome above her, then sat up and lifted one eyebrow at the ward that unfolded across the floor. Finally, she looked up to evaluate her companions, and permitted her eyes to widen.

“Well, okay!” quothe Camilla Hect. “Would you look at that.”

“Welcome back,” Gideon quipped. “Nice of you to join us after the hard part. Want to know how many pews I had to carry out of this room without you? I made sure that Sextus didn’t strain your back, by the way, you’re welcome.”

Cam took another look around and shrugged. “My heart bleeds for you,” she said. She swept her hand in front of her, and got serious. “This was what he wanted to do?”

“Yes,” said Harrow, her voice reverberating unexpectedly, and tinged with pride.

Cam’s gaze snapped over to Harrow’s. “And it worked?”

“Yes,” Harrow repeated, her golden eyes unblinking, as fervent as a prayer.

Cam smiled then, and slumped back down to the floor in the most beautiful gesture of letting go. Gideon called her name to get her attention back, and then told her what Sextus had said to tell her.

Cam took this in with open astonishment at first, and Gideon didn’t ask if it was because of the fact of the message itself, or its contents, but she suspected the former. The Sixth and their inside jokes— fucking librarians. And she worried all over again that Cam would feel it an intrusion, and braced to apologize, but she had guessed correctly: Cam did not berate her, or make any sign of embarrassment. In fact it was more than worth it, really all of it, to watch Cam absorb those strange and ancient-sounding words, and their appended corollary, then see her throw back her head and laugh. Gideon had never heard Camilla really laugh. For a woman so imperturbable, it was an amazingly rich and bell-like sound, and it hit the air of the cathedral like another shaft of sun.

“He’s really very funny,” was all Cam offered in explanation, when she could speak again, though it sounded like she was talking to herself more than anything. “Not many people appreciate that about him. So,” and she dragged herself up to her feet, wincing a little and stretching her arm across her body, “what’s here that’s interesting? Do we have beds?”

Gideon debriefed her willingly, and almost forgot to add, “...and, oh man, wait ‘til you hear this. We’ve got beds, Cam, and even better, we’ve got a bath. It’s like a whole damn pool and it never stops refilling.”

“A hot spring?” Cam’s grey eyes took on a lusty glint. “In that case, the hell with you two, I get the first soak. Don’t wait up for me. Don’t come get me unless we’re attacked by at least a moderately sized army. Anything less, I trust you to deal. Where do I find this bath, again?”

Gideon waved in the right direction, describing the dormitories. Cam checked the knives at her belt, appeared satisfied, and with a single wave and maybe just the flicker of a conspiratorial smile for Gideon, a glance at how Harrow had folded Gideon’s hand into her hand, walked out without looking back.

When Cam had disappeared, Harrow did something Gideon could have never, in ten billion years, predicted: she settled to the floor with a groan of exhaustion, and rested her head in Gideon’s lap.

When she had recovered from the shock of this development, Gideon, trying to hide her smile, blew out her own sigh. “She might get the bath, but I, for one, am calling dibs on whatever bedroom is the shortest walk from this spot.”

“I already picked us a room,” Harrow said from her lap, her eyes closed.

Gideon hesitated until she was sure her voice would come out super suave and chill. “Us?”

“You’re my cavalier,” Harrow said matter-of-factly. “Naturally, we’re sharing a room. And it seemed to have the biggest bed.”

“Mmphf.”

“And a couch for you.”

“Ah.”

“Which I’m sure you can push adjacent to the foot of my bed.”

Gideon chuckled. “I bow to the wisdom of your choice, my midnight lady.”

Who was she kidding? Those calm words were a total bluff. Gideon’s heart rate was climbing alarmingly as she imagined, in more detail than she could avoid, scenarios involving closed doors, large beds, and Harrow all to herself. It didn’t help to have Harrow idly twining her petite, warm fingers over and around Gideon’s. The thought occurred to her unbidden that Harrow might be...deliberately?...teasing her? Was she? Flirting? Oh shit, Harrow was flirting. Harrow was a Lyctor, her Lyctor, and touching her; Harrow knew exactly how fast Gideon’s heart was pounding, and she was just lying there in perfect serenity, head pillowed provocatively north of center on Gideon’s thigh. Oh. Oh.

Gideon shifted, leaning back languidly to rest her elbow on the step behind her, her smile widening.

“One question for you, Lady Harrowhark.”

“Yes, Nav?” Harrow asked, coming across impressively un-riled.

“Given that you don’t seem to mind if I kiss you in front of the Sixth.”

“A slight mischaracterization, but in essence, I concede. It seems pointless to maintain some affectation that we are not together.”

Gideon’s insides soared at the word together.

“Does that mean I also get to touch your butt in public?”

“...No.”

“Hear me out— like, an affectionate little butt pat—”

“Absolutely not.”

“—once in a while. Tastefully, you know?”

“Forget it, Nav.”

Gideon smirked. She glanced down, caught Harrow eyeing her suspiciously. Gideon winked. For some reason Harrow blushed.

They still did not get up. Gideon was aware of all the problems, the hardships they had to deal with soon, how hungry she was, the persistent danger— but the longer she sat, playing gently with her necromancer’s hair, the less it all seemed to matter. She felt satisfied for the first time she could honestly remember, thoughts carefully circling the idea of what might happen later.

Harrow seemed to have no intention of ever moving from her repose again, and Gideon realized, belatedly, that Harrow was in fact utterly spent from their effort, and fighting hard not to succumb to exhaustion. Gideon touched her adept's face, thumb brushing along Harrow’s lower lip. “Hey, Nonagesimus.”

Harrow’s eyes flickered. “Yes.”

“You need to recover. Should I take you somewhere to sleep?”

“No,” Harrow sighed. “I think—I’ll be fine shortly. Just, keep a lookout.”

“Obviously.” Gideon caressed her face again. “Fall asleep, honey, it’ll be ok.”

Harrow nodded once, and then she was out. Gideon sat perfectly still, her rapier angled across her shin, hand coming to rest over Harrow’s sternum, feeling the rise and fall of her easy breath. The multicolored window patterns faded away as the planet turned, and the tapestry of their handiwork scintillated with promise in the lessening light.