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On the Nature of Love and Sin

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Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;

It’s not an important question, but it’s been bothering you for days. You want to push it to the side, to focus on blood wards and murderous Lyctors and the mysteries of soup, but it keeps returning to your mind as you wander sleeplessly through the halls. You don’t know why. Four days without sleep is probably the answer, but not the one you’re looking for.

You find yourself in Teacher’s study. He’s offering you another biscuit, which you take because he is God and expects it, but you do not eat. You place the biscuit in your pocket.

He stares at you, the concern obvious in his eyes if you would only look up.

“What are the limits of love?” you ask, before he can say anything.

“I– what?”

You frown, unsure why Teacher sounds flustered. “Love. Is there a limit to what are acceptable means if they’re motivated by love?”

Teacher is quiet. You hazard a glance up and see that he’s lost in thought, staring a thousand years away. You’re struck by the realization that he is not just Teacher, or John as the elder Lyctors refer to him, or God in an abstract reverential sense.

He’s the last of countless billions dead.

“Above all, love each other deeply, Harrow,” he quotes quietly, “because love covers over a multitude of sins.”

You caught a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and promptly shattered it with a reflexive swing of the heavy sword in your hands.

You looked down at the blade in your novice grip and tried to throw it away, out of your sight. You got a stubbed toe for your efforts.

One golden eye, one black. Even as you mourned, you pondered on this. The Lyctoral soul absorption wasn’t complete, which meant you thought you might be able to save something of your cavalier.

You began to write letters and plot, the pursuit of a solution enough to push the sorrow out of your mind. You would need Tridentarius in on this, no matter how much you loathed the idea of bringing that cheat into your plan. You made a note in a letter to your future self to master other forms of necromancy, not just your bone magic. It wouldn’t do to rely on Tridentarius more than once.

You don’t know why you always fought with her. She was nothing, and you were a necromantic genius composed of two hundred dead children. Two hundred, minus her.

You were ten. You know you’re nearly there at solving the wards on the Locked Tomb, that great puzzle that tantalized your thoughts nearly as much as she did.

You see her at her mother’s niche, talking to it again like words would bring her mother back.

“I love you,” you hear her say to the grave. The words pierce through you, words she would never say to you.

“She’s dead, Griddle,” you tell her cruelly, trying to push the unwanted emotions away. “She can’t love you back.”

You don’t remember how you got on your back, her weight on top of yours as she choked you. You clawed at her face, trying to get her eyes but only scraping her cheeks with your fingernails.

She let you go, murder in her golden eyes. You crawled away, threw up, and shakily pulled yourself up with the wall.

You ran, or tried to run, and refused to look at her. You knew she would have hate on her face.

Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

You remember that God committed the sin of resurrection himself, gave life and undeath to the Nine Houses and Dominicus.

You almost tell him of your own sin, of entering the Locked Tomb, but your tongue is tied. You do not want another absolution like the one he gave before. You didn’t deserve it.

Instead, you ask, keenly aware of the Body, frozen skin and golden eyes, that manifests in your room, “How can we decide when love is worth the sin?”

Teacher smiles. He gives you another biscuit, which you politely take and place in your pocket next to the first. “That’s something you need to decide for yourself, Harrow. You have a generous lifetime to figure out the answer.”

He seems like he’s hinting at something. You have no idea what. You blame it on the lack of sleep. You just want an answer so you can return your focus to preventing your death at the hands of Ortus and stop being bothered by the question of love.

“The most important thing about love, Harrow,” Teacher continues with an amused smirk, “is that you don’t give up on the one you love, and you don’t let them down.”

You squint at him suspiciously.

Twenty-four letters, twenty-four contingencies. Some you suspected would never happen, but it wouldn’t do to not be prepared. You were here, 48 hours later after… after, and that was the result of no preparation at all.

You were, perhaps, a little vindictive when writing the contingency in the event of Tridentarius’s death. For all that you had extracted her word and made her a Sewn Tongue, you would still be quite satisfied if and when she died, so that none would know of the sin you were about to commit.

You had one last letter to write, and this was the hardest for you. You would have to entrust this to Tridentarius.

“To be given to Gideon Nav,” you wrote on the envelope. That was far simpler than figuring out what exactly to say to her.

It took several hours. You’d written and rewritten and scrapped the previous attempts, and you were down to your last ragged scrap of flimsy.

In the end, there were only four words you could say to her.

One flesh, one end.

With her blood beneath your fingernails, you retraced your steps through the gates of the Locked Tomb. Your entire life revolved around this rock that should never roll away. You, the walking sin of 200 dead, were supposed to fear the tomb, worship it that it might spare God.

Your heart ached as you thought of the look of hate on her face. You weren’t unused to the hate. You’d never felt love, but you thought you could with her. You thought those three words would one day have been yours.

No longer. You knew this was the end, but you would rather die than face your shame.

You rolled away the rock. You climbed to the island and the frozen mausoleum, and you glimpsed your absolution’s face.

She was beauty and perfection. Dark hair framed her face that you could mistake for sleeping but for the frost. She was all you ever wanted to love, and she could not refuse the gift of your heart.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!

“Was that a… joke, Teacher?” you ask.

Teacher heaves a deep sigh. “Never mind, Harrow,” he says. “Why don’t you go do something normal? I heard Ianthe told you how to make soup.”

You’d made soup yesterday. You’d made it the day before. You’d made it five times now, as you neared one hundred hours without sleep.

Your mind rambles down the distraction of soup and doesn’t notice the particular emphasis Teacher placed on the name “Ianthe”.

“Harrow?” you hear Teacher asking. It seems he’s been trying to get your attention a few times.

“Yes. Soup,” you say, rising to your feet, as a fragment of an idea forms in your head for how to kill the Saint of Duty.

“And Harrow?” Teacher calls after you as you go to leave.

“Yes, Teacher?”

“Remember, the course of true love never did run smooth. You’ll find the right path,” Teacher says with a smile. The smile does not reach his pitch black eyes. You don’t notice, even as you nod and leave to make soup.

It took you several hours to plan and memorize the procedure. Slower than you would have liked, but faster than someone like Tridentarius could manage. Sextus was perhaps the only person you knew of who could do it faster, and Sextus was dead.

Still, Tridentarius was going to be necessary, if only because she could handle the fleshy tissue better than you, loathe as you were to admit it.

You wouldn’t let her be in the room for the actual procedure.

With your frontal bone split open, you forced Tridentarius away, behind a screen, so that you could concentrate on delicately manipulating your own cranial bone structure as you layered theorem over theorem to construct the necromantic bubble you would keep your cavalier’s soul in.

You paused to clamp down on a sudden sense of ‘but what if this doesn’t work’, shoving it into the same bubble you would put her into.

You could feel the sweat drip down with the effort of delicately manipulating grey matter and creating precise spikes out of your temporal and ethmoid bones.

The process took far too long, but you wanted to be thorough. You completed it, closing up your frontal lobe with care as you refused to let your hands shake.

You looked at your reflection, your dark eyes weary from the strain. You almost couldn’t tell that Ortus’s own dark eyes were fighting yours, like Naberius fought in Ianthe’s.

You collapsed asleep, unsure of exactly what you’d just done.

The frozen mausoleum on the island hidden behind countless traps was her tomb. You worked to make it her cathedral.

You could never stay there long enough to satisfy you. Even you, raised in the chill of the Ninth House, could not stand the cold for long. She was a constant in your thoughts, her perfect body, the eyes you imagined to be a brilliantly inhuman gold. Sometimes, you imagined you heard her voice.

You kissed her upon her brow as you left her cathedral.

That was the last you saw your love in person. After your parents and their cavalier committed suicide, you never set foot in the Locked Tomb again.

But you still saw her, still felt her presence near you. She appeared as you saw your mother’s corpse swinging as you held an unused rope in your hands. You, the sinner bearing the souls of two hundred damned, could not absolve yourself in death and could not unite with her in passing.

There were three who shared the cold truth of your parents’ death. You, the Body, and her.

Gideon found you with your face blank and still, staring at your parents’ dangling bodies, but she didn’t see the face of your new love.

Only you could see the Body who embraced you as something in your heart died in Drearburh’s cold.

O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?