The first week of October wasn’t supposed to be ominous, particularly now that Gideon Nav had a single room and could decorate as she pleased. It was supposed to contain the same straightforward mix of classes, rehearsal, and homework—leavened with healthy portions of chilling with her best bros, Cam and Pal, and flirting hopefully and indiscriminately with Dulcinea Septimus and Coronabeth Tridentarius—that had characterized the last week of September.
In fact, if someone had told Gideon that in the first week of October, she would not only voluntarily agree to help Harrowhark Nonagesimus, but also spend hours poring over a crumbling book, actually learn how to scan iambic pentameter, teach her nemesis how to throw a punch, and suffer a devastating personal revelation, she would have laughed in their face.
The universe would have laughed back.
When the trouble started, Gideon was running late for class—and Stage Combat 301 with Aiglamene Drearburh was not something to be late to, unless you wanted to spend the entire class period doing burpees while everyone else practiced fancy rapier tricks—when someone rapped on her door.
“One sec,” she bellowed. Okay, she had her backpack, she had her fencing bag, she had a sandwich to eat on the way, she had her left boot—where was the right one?
Whoever it was banged on the door again. Less patiently. More like a small herd of prey animals stampeding.
“Hold on,” Gideon bawled back. Aha! There was her boot, under the bed. She threw down the bags and sandwich, snagged the boot, jammed it on, reshouldered the bags, grabbed the sandwich, and yanked open the door.
Her freshman year roommate and total fucking nemesis, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, glared up at her from behind her usual metric ton of eyeliner.
“About time, Griddle,” she said crisply. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
“I’m late for class, so I’m thinking no. What do you want?”
“We have a situation.” Harrow steepled her fingers portentously. “Silas Octakiseron put his name down for the John Gaius Scholarship Award.”
Gideon sighed. “So what?”
“So, Silas Octakiseron is a narrow-minded religious lunatic who, while not utterly devoid of talent—“
“Harrow, I’m late. Get to the point.”
Harrow huffed disapprovingly but—shockingly—did. “He doesn’t deserve to win.”
“So, enter yourself.”
“That would be a viable solution if he were entering the monologue contest. He isn’t. He’s signed up for the scene competition. With Colum Asht.”
“And you want me to what? Beat them up if they don’t withdraw?”
Harrow smirked. “Oh, Griddle, always so coarse. No, I want you to enter with me.” She looked expectantly at Gideon, as if this were a perfectly normal request to make of your estranged former roommate.
“Harrow,” Gideon said patiently. “Pretty much the best thing about having a single this year is only ever having to see you in class. Why would I want to enter an extracurricular contest with you?”
“I thought you might say that.” Harrow seemed completely unperturbed. “But the John Gaius Scholarship Award for Classical Scenes comes with an award of $10,000 for the winning team.”
Classical drama? Ugh. With Harrow? Double ugh.
“Hmmm.” Gideon pretended to think about it. “Tempting, but I’ll pass.”
“You have student loans,” Harrow reminded her.
“Don’t care,” Gideon insisted, against the nagging feeling that $5,000 would be really nice, because Harrowhark Nonagesimus was a witch from hell, just not in the way Silas Octakiseron thought. “Still not going to be your scene buddy. Ask someone else.”
“I’ll throw in my half,” Harrow continued. “The contest is in a month. Ten thousand dollars to spend a month rehearsing with me.”
“I’m supposed to believe that?”
“Griddle, some of us have merit scholarships,” Harrow said acidly. “I’ll sign a contract in blood if you want. My half of the money if we win.”
“Then what’s in it for you?” Gideon demanded.
“Silas Octakiseron is not beating me at anything,” said Harrow. “Least of all because I didn’t even enter.”
“Is that why you’re always in the same classes?”
Harrow smiled grimly. “We’re not in the same classes. I’m in all of his…plus one or two more.”
“You have a problem, you know that?”
“Griddle, you are about to let a little bit of personal antipathy stand in the way of your acquiring a myriad of currency, which would allow you to do any number of things. Attend that summer conservatory at the Cohort Theatre you never stop going on about, for one. Not be crushed under the weight of your incapacitating student loan debt immediately upon graduation, for another. I’d say that you are the one with the problem.”
Much as Gideon hated to admit it, Harrow did have a point. As any physical theatre actor worth their salt could tell you, the Cohort Theatre’s 6-week training academy was almost literally to die for, and it came with the price tag to match. But ten thousand dollars would cover her airfare, tuition, room, and board, with a cool couple thou to spare. She’d have to be an even bigger fool than Harrow thought she was to pass that up.
“Fine!” Gideon surrendered. “Fine! I will help you clobber Silas Octakiseron with Shakespeare. Now, get out of my way, I have to get to Stage Combat.”
“We should really discuss—“
“Not now, Nonagesimus, I’m late!” Gideon shouldered past, nearly braining Harrow with the fencing bag slung precariously over her shoulder, which relieved her feelings somewhat. “Text me or something, like a normal person!”
Harrow didn’t text. Gideon supposed she shouldn’t have expected her to. After all, Harrow wasn’t normal.
So, really, if you looked at it in light of Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s utter, unutterable weirdness, her next communication crinkling under Gideon’s foot right inside her door when she got home from post-rehearsal drinks (“Bodacious Babes…in Armor!”, a combat-comedy with Corona Tridentarius for the student cabaret, going to be wicked funny) shouldn’t really have been a surprise.
If you looked at it in the not-light of walking tipsily into a dark room at 1:30 a.m. where everything should have been just as you’d left it, though? It might cause you to swear and bang your elbow into the wall while flailing for the light switch, which was not just surprising but unpleasant.
Once Gideon had managed to hit the light switch, the crinkling turned out to be a now-crumpled and tread-printed sheet of white paper with an ominous message printed in Harrowhark’s crabbed, angry handwriting:
MEET AT MY ROOM TOMORROW MORNING AT 9 A.M. DON’T TELL ANYBODY.
TO CLARIFY, TOMORROW IS A WORD THAT REFERS TO TUESDAY, OCTOBER 7TH.
Nine a.m. was much earlier than Gideon had intended to be awake, much less in the company of Harrowhark Nonagesimus.
She dug out her phone and fired off a text to Harrow: new room who dis
The response was almost immediate. 9 a.m., Griddle. Don’t be late.
The next morning, a slightly hung-over Gideon Nav jammed her favorite aviator sunglasses onto her nose, swung through her favorite coffee cart, and headed off to her least-favorite place on campus: Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s dorm.
Harrow still lived in Ninth House, the oldest, smallest, gloomiest, and so-far-from-everything-else-it-was-practically-off-campus-iest of Canaan University’s unimaginatively named dorms, which Gideon had hoped never to set foot in again after finally escaping it at the end of freshman year.
Everything about Ninth House was the same. Same lack of elevators, same cramped stairwells, same flickering fluorescent overhead lights filling the hallways with the same undercurrent of sickening drone. Harrow even lived on the same floor they’d lived on last year, though not in the same room—she too had upgraded to a single.
“Where do you think you’re going, Nav?”
Oh, God, even the RA was the same, looming unpleasantly out of his doorway at the slightest hint of Gideon’s footfalls.
Marshall Crux smiled unpleasantly. “Back with a transfer request? I thought you couldn’t wait to get shot of us.”
“You wish, Cruxy,” Gideon growled. Marshall Crux had been responsible for squashing all eighteen of her hall transfer requests last year. Why, she had no idea—it wasn’t as if he’d enjoyed her company any more than she had his.
“Then you have no possible business here.” Crux drew himself up officiously.
“Working on a group project with Harrow. Don’t worry, not staying long.” She stalked past, leaving Crux to mutter darkly about House disloyalty—really? who cared that much about which shitty dorm they lived in?—at her shoulder blades.
This morning already sucked, and she hadn’t even seen Harrow yet. She sighed and made to knock on the door, which flew open as soon as her knuckles grazed it.
“Nav,” Harrow intoned. “It’s about time.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Gideon pushed past. “Let’s get this thing over with.”
Harrow’s taste in décor hadn’t changed either. Her room still resembled a mausoleum, draped in dark tapestries with unsettling skeletal motifs and crammed with yawning, overstuffed bookcases. Even the overhead light was swathed in black.
At least Harrow’s depressing, creepy room was hangover-friendly. Gideon flopped onto the black-and-white woven rug covering the gross dorm carpeting and pulled off her aviators.
“Now that you’ve finally made an appearance—“
“It’s 9:05! That counts as on time!”
“—we should select our scene,” Harrow continued implacably as if Gideon had never spoken. “I’ve made a list of some possibilities for your perusal.” She handed over another sheet of white paper. Gideon tried to remember if she’d ever seen Harrow use a piece of notebook paper and came up empty.
Shaking her head slightly to clear it—who cared what paper her fucking nemesis wrote on, anyway?—Gideon glanced through the list. Harrow’s handwriting was just like her: jagged, cruel-edged, and pointy enough to draw blood.
Hamlet, Act III, scene i: Hamlet and Ophelia
Measure for Measure, Act II, scene iv: Isabella and Angelo
Macbeth, Act I, scene vii: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
Troilus & Cressida, Act III, scene ii: Troilus and Cressida, cutting Pandarus
Gideon glanced back up. Harrow’s whole body was tensed, her bad black eyes boring little holes into Gideon. Oh, yeah, this was going to be fun.
“Is there something I should know, Nonagesimus?” she drawled. “These are all couples.”
Harrow’s intent gaze got a fraction less intent and several fractions more annoyed. “Angelo and Isabella, a couple? Really, Nav. You must have been paying even less attention in Dramatic Analysis last year than I thought.”
“Whatever, Spark Notes exist for a reason. Anyway, I know enough to know Angelo’s got the hots for Isabella, so my question stands.”
“You try finding a two-person classical scene where the two people have never—never---“
“Thought about screwing?” Gideon supplied helpfully.
“Yes, thank you, Nav, that infinite crudeness was precisely what the moment called for,” Harrow snapped. “You really should strive for at least moderate accuracy in your summations. In any event, two-person scenes where neither party has ever considered forming a romantic attachment that are not the tent scene from Julius Caesar are unexpectedly difficult to come by.”
“Tent scene?” Gideon hooted. “Tent scene? What’s wrong with the tent scene? Do they actually fuck?”
“No.” Harrow sounded like she was grinding her teeth. Gideon was slightly impressed that she was still managing to speak. Only slightly, though, because—more’s the pity—nothing could ever really shut up Harrowhark Nonagesimus on a roll. “The problem with the entirely platonic tent scene is that Silas Octakiseron and Colum Asht are already rehearsing it.”
“How do you know?”
Harrow ticked the points off on her fingers. “One, they did it last year for Scene Study, where it was received with moderate praise; two, we all know Colum isn’t much for memorization, so they’ll want to stick with something he already knows well; three, Judith reports that Silas is monologuing to anyone who will listen about how misunderstood Cassius is, in a way which carries the implication that soon Cassius will be less misunderstood as a result of Silas’s performance.”
“That’s a hell of a lot of subtext for Judith to read into.”
“Judith merely reported the facts. The inferences are mine, which makes them no less impeccable. In fact, as you pointed out, it makes them even more so.” Harrow’s smugness was almost unbearable.
“Fine, fine, they’ve dibs-ed the tent scene, and I’ll take your word for it that that’s less hilarious than it sounds,” Gideon conceded. “But you’re going about this all wrong.”
Harrow arched a single brow, ominously. Gideon wasn’t sure how she managed to pack so many omens—all of them dire—into a single muscle movement, but she did.
“Look, Harrow, if I’m going to give up my weekends for this—”
“Weekends? Oh, Griddle. Try weekends, Monday evenings, Tuesday mornings, Wednesday afternoons, and Thursdays at midnight. I cross-referenced our schedules.”
“How did you find out my—never mind, I don’t want to know. As I was saying, if I’m going to give up my weekends for this, it should at least be fun. Fight scene!”
“You’ve seen me fence. I’m impressive.”
“Not that impressive.”
“Yes, I am. You want to win, don’t you?”
“It’s a classical scene competition, Nav. They’re looking for drama; for heightened language, if not verse; for character depth! Fight scenes don’t have any of that.”
“Sure they do.”
“Name me one. From a classical play.”
Gideon crossed her arms. “The Tybalt and Mercutio duel.”
Harrow rolled her eyes right back. “That’s got at least four people in it, even if you cut the supernumeraries. My point stands.”
“Who says we can’t have four people?”
“The rules of the John Gaius Scholarship Award for Classical Scenes, for one. Choose one of the scenes on my list, please.” The please was icy.
The idea of pretending to have ever had romantic feelings for Harrowhark Nonagesimus was too much for Gideon. So was the idea of being the recipient of Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s unrequited feelings, though the idea of Gideon playing a dour nun with a becobwebbed you-know-where when Harrow was right there was too ridiculous to contemplate.
“Ew. No way.”
Harrow’s lips pursed into a moue of disdain. “It’s called acting, Griddle.”
But Gideon had already weathered a cross-campus trek, several flights of stairs, and a surprise encounter with Marshall Crux, which was far too much indignity to be borne before noon, much less while hung-over. “I said no, Harrow. If I can’t have a sword, I’m not doing it. You and your ten thousand dollars can go screw each other.”
“Nav—” Harrow began dangerously.
“I’m out.” Gideon jammed her sunglasses back on her nose and swung towards the doorway. “If you think of a fight scene that meets your standards, text me.”
Gideon was half expecting the note jammed under her door that evening when she got back from brushing her teeth.
THE MAID’S TRAGEDY – FRANCIS BEAUMONT AND JOHN FLETCHER. ACT V, SCENE III, AMINTOR AND ASPATIA.
I HAVE RESERVED STUDIO 202 AT 1:00 PM TOMORROW (WEDNESDAY). READ IT BEFORE THEN.
She groaned and flipped the page over, only to discover a postscript.
I MEAN IT. READ IT. WE’LL CUT EVADNE, OBVIOUSLY.
Gideon groaned again, then grabbed her jacket. Guess she’d be hitting the library tonight after all.
Under the bright lights of the library’s third floor during the wee hours, Gideon read the last line of The Maid’s Tragedy, exclaimed “What the fucking fuck!” and hurled the book onto the table in front of her.
Probably she shouldn’t be hurling it because it was ancient and the sickly peach-colored cloth cover already looked like it was hanging by a thread, but she couldn’t find it in herself to care. If Gideon didn’t already hate classical drama, slogging through the entirety of this bizarre ass play in one night would have been enough to make her start.
The plot revolved around a dude named Amintor, who’d impressed the king so much that he’d arranged for him to marry some chick named Evadne, which would have been a cooler reward if Amintor weren’t already engaged to a girl named Aspatia. Instead of telling the king to get stuffed, Amintor dumped Aspatia (who spent the rest of the play whining about it to anyone who would listen) and married Evadne, only for Evadne to be like, “Haha, joke’s on you, I’m actually sleeping with the king and you and I are never, ever, ever gonna do it!” on their wedding night. Amintor asked Evadne if he could at least say they had had hot sex; she agreed, but that backfired when the king overheard Amintor telling all his bros about his Super Sexy Wedding Night and got pissed at Amintor and Evadne.
So, Amintor went moping around until Evadne’s brother was like, “Yo, what the fuck is wrong with you?” and Amintor spilled his guts. Evadne’s brother decided the whole situation was fucked up (duh), and obviously, the solution was to kill the king and put his plot-convenient brother on the throne (wait, what?). But instead of just doing that, he and Amintor told Evadne that she’d dishonored literally everybody ever (but most of all them), and the only way to make up for it was for her to kill the king, and oh by the way, if she didn’t, they’d kill her.
Evadne somehow found the dishonor part of this argument incredibly convincing, even after her pissed-off brother was no longer waving a sword in her face, so she killed the king while her brother and Amintor led a revolt. Meanwhile, whiny Aspatia had decided that she couldn’t live without Amintor and wanted him to kill her, so she disguised herself as a boy and challenged Amintor to a duel, which he won easily because she didn’t actually know which end of a sword was the pointy one. Then Evadne walked in and cried a lot about how sad and guilty she felt, then killed herself. Amintor was like, “Damn, I wish I’d married Aspatia, this whole scene is getting to be a real downer,” and then Aspatia revived all, “Jk, it’s me, I love you too, but I’ma die now, peace.”
Amintor rounded things out by stabbing himself and died in Evadne’s brother’s arms because the two of them really should have been the romance in this miserable story. Evadne’s brother tried to kill himself because the plot of the play had gotten way too fucked up even for him, but then the old king’s brother walked in all, “Hey, hey, I’m the new king, don’t do that, suicide is bad, somebody go sit on this dude until he stops wanting to die.” Somebody did. The new king was like, “Damn, we’re at the end already? I guess we need a moral. Uh, don’t have sex ‘cause you’ll get pregnant and die. But mostly die!” The end.
And all of it happened in impenetrable, stupid Jacobean blank verse that didn’t even have footnotes, much less Spark Notes, because nobody had wanted to read it since 1890-whatever.
Of course this was the kind of thing Harrow would choose. Of course it was. And it was still a love scene. Typical. She couldn’t be satisfied with roping Gideon into the worst group project ever unless she found new depths of worstness to take it to. It figured. It just figured.
But on the other hand, Harrow had managed to find a two-person scene that would let Gideon show off some flashy sword moves. It would even work with Harrow’s completely garbage upper body strength and non-skills in the stage combat department because Aspatia wasn’t supposed to know how to fight. The fight would actually be pretty fun to choreograph, and at least the tearful reunion didn’t last too long and ended with Harrow dead, which was pretty frigging sweet even though it was both temporary and fictional.
It was…almost considerate. If Gideon wasn’t already acquainted with the infinite depths of perfidy Harrow’s soul contained, this might feel like an olive branch. Or rather, it did feel like an olive branch, and if she knew Harrow slightly less well, she might believe it.
You don’t have to believe it to work with her, she reminded herself. Take the win. Hell, it might even be kind of fun.
Damn it. Gideon was really going to do this, wasn’t she?
“Well,” Harrow demanded as the door to Studio 202 swung closed behind Gideon, “what did you think? You did read the scene?”
“Yes, eldritch overlord, I read the scene,” Gideon said. “I read the whole ass play, and let me tell you, those are four hours of my life I’m never going to get back. What the fuck is up with the Jacobeans?”
Harrow smiled sepulchrally. “They do tend to emphasize action and dramatics at the expense of the verse line. But the absurd plots are not entirely without charm, even if the poetry is completely charmless. So, we’re agreed?”
“Yes,” Gideon grumbled, deciding not to touch Harrow’s poetry thesis. “So, what’s the plan? Read-through?”
“Of course.” Harrow sounded as if this were the stupidest question ever asked by anyone ever. She pulled a photocopied, stapled packet from her backpack and thrust it at Gideon. “Here’s your copy.”
“I’ve got my own,” Gideon said defensively, yanking the peach monstrosity from her backpack. She considered its threadbare cover dubiously, then grabbed Harrow’s packet. Harrow smirked. Gideon pretended not to notice.
“Where’s your copy?” she asked.
“I’m off book.”
“Oh, like it’s hard?” Harrow tossed her long black coat onto an actor block, dragged another into the center of the room and perched on it, looking expectantly at her scene partner. “Well?”
“Coming, coming,” Gideon sighed, pushing over a block of her own. “Where do you want to—oh.” Harrow had marked the beginning of the scene with an angry slash and the word “START” in her spiky, crabbed writing.
Harrow raised an expectant eyebrow.
“Fine, fine. Here goes nothing.” Gideon drew a deep breath. “Now your will, sir.”
“When you know me, my lord, you needs must guess my business,” Harrow countered immediately. Damn. How was she off book already? Harrowhark Nonagesimus didn’t mess around. Oh, fuck, she was almost at the end of her speech already, wasn’t she?
“I’m the brother to the wronged Aspatia,” Harrow finished triumphantly.
“The wronged Aspatia! Would—”
“No, Griddle, it’s Ah-spay-zhuh. Three syllables.”
“You literally just said Aspatia,” Gideon insisted, pronouncing it with four.
“Because it’s Aspatia in my line.”
“So, what, you think this dude doesn’t know his own ex-girlfriend’s name?”
Harrow’s sigh was less of a sigh and more of an annoyed exhalation. “Of course not, Griddle. Look at the scansion.”
“The scan what now?”
“The scansion. The method by which one determines the pattern of stresses that makes up a metrical verse line.” Harrow’s eyes drilled contemptuously into Gideon’s. “Honestly, you’d think you’d never done Shakespeare before.”
“This isn’t Shakespeare!” Gideon was affronted.
“No, but it’s Jacobean. It was first performed a mere three years after Shakespeare’s death.”
“Good for it,” Gideon shot back. “And that matters because?”
“Because, like Shakespeare, The Maid’s Tragedy is composed largely in iambic pentameter. I thought you’d read this play.”
“So it’s your knowledge of iambic pentameter that’s deficient. Iambic pentameter means that there are ten syllables per line, with the stress landing on alternate syllables. I’m BROther TO the WRONG’D AsPAtiA.” Harrow demonstrated stiltedly. “Four syllables. But yours is, ‘The WRONG’D AsPAtia! WOULD thou WERT so TOO…’ Three syllables.”
“You memorized my lines too?”
“Of course,” Harrow snapped. “How else would I know my cues?”
“Uh,” said Gideon. “Maybe by learning all your lines in order, like the rest of us?”
“This insight into your memorization strategies does not fill me with confidence.”
“Jesus Christ, Harrow, don’t you ever sleep?”
Harrow smiled thinly. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead. If we could continue?”
“You’re more than a little disturbing, you know that?”
Harrow’s smile grew broader. “I know.”
Shaking her head a little, Gideon couldn’t help but smile back as she picked up the line again. She half expected Harrow to interrupt her again immediately, but Harrow confined herself to correcting Gideon whenever she fucked up Aspatia’s name.
The scene was kind of fun, Gideon was shocked to discover. Not only did she get to tell Harrow that there was something in her looks that reminded Gideon of hideous sins (super true, very relatable dude, that Amintor), Harrow’s Aspatia was wry and ironic and pretty damn funny, playing with double meanings and winking at the audience over Amintor’s head, definitely not the whiny little drip she’d seemed on the page.
No, Gideon thought. You could call Harrowhark Nonagesimus many things (and Gideon certainly had), but whiny was not one of them.
They read the scene through several times, then wrangled almost amiably about set design. Almost. Apparently, John Gaius had decreed that his potential scholarship recipients might have the use of two blocks, a table, and a chair, though none were required. Harrow seemed to think his offer disingenuous.
“Look, Harrow, we don’t get extra points for having a bare stage,” Gideon insisted, running a hand through her hair in annoyance. “And a fight scene’s a lot more interesting with some levels to play with. Especially since you’re such a shrimp.”
Harrow didn’t rise to the bait. “Aspatia doesn’t know how to use a sword. Would she even know how to use levels?”
“Just leave that to me,” Gideon promised. “I can make the fight look super cool while still keeping you looking like a super dork. Besides, Aspatia’s supposed to be finding Amintor at home, right? It’ll look weird if I’m just standing around my room holding a sword. But if we have a table and chair, I can be writing a letter or something when you get there.”
“That’s actually not an awful idea,” Harrow said musingly. “We’ll proceed with a table. Tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Gideon echoed.
“It’s almost 2:30. The directing class will be coming in soon. Meet you here tomorrow at midnight?”
Wait, rehearsal was over already? When had that happened?
“Fine,” said Gideon, covering her temporal confusion. “And hey, look at you, using a normal way to schedule instead of a creepy note!”
“I can write you a note if you like.”
“Nah.” Gideon started to sling her arm companionably over Harrow’s shoulder as they left the studio and checked herself, alarmed. What had gotten into her? Hopefully Harrow hadn’t noticed. “You almost achieved normalcy. Why mess with success?”
She waved a hand over her shoulder and jogged off down the hall, successfully avoiding meeting Harrow’s eye.
Technically, the fine arts center closed at 11:00 p.m. At least, the custodial staff went around and locked all of the doors at 11:00. But nighttime rehearsals were theoretically possible, as long as you were already inside the building (and preferably your chosen studio, unless you had great lockpicking skills or an understanding with whoever was using it before you) when the Great Enlockening occurred.
Gideon skidded into the building at 10:57 and made a beeline for Studio 202 but changed course when she heard voices inside. Harrow must have made arrangements, Gideon assumed. And if she hadn’t, well, that was just too bad and maybe she’d learn to schedule rehearsals at less insane times. Gideon parked herself in an out-of-the-way corner of the building instead. The custodians didn’t seem to care too much about students in the building after hours, but it was still best not to be too obvious. She curled up with her script instead. Might as well spend the time studying her lines. Harrow was, well, Harrow, but it still rankled that she was miles ahead on the whole memorization thing.
At 11:58, Gideon headed back up to the second floor. She reached the top of the stairs just in time to see Silas Octakiseron and Colum Asht beginning to exit.
“Hey!” Gideon called and began jogging to meet them. Silas glanced at her, then let go of the door and swept towards the stairs, damn him. Colum took pity on her and grabbed the door just before it closed.
“Thanks,” she panted.
Colum nodded. “You’re here late. Working on the combo for Aiglamene’s class?”
“You got it.” Gideon gestured awkwardly towards her fencing bag.
“Brother Asht!” Silas’s imperious voice echoed from the stairwell.
“Sorry about him,” Colum said softly. Gideon shrugged and headed into the studio. She’d keep an ear out for Harrow and let her in whenever she got there. Where had she been hiding anyway?
“Nav,” Harrow’s voice echoed imperiously from behind the thick curtains that bordered the room.
Well, that answered that.
“How’d you get in here?” Gideon demanded. She ducked behind a curtain and glanced through the set pieces stacked haphazardly along the wall before selecting a table and beginning to separate it from its fellows.
Harrow appeared from around the corner and grabbed a block. “I got here when the main stage rehearsal was breaking up. Ianthe let me in.”
“So, you just what? Spied on Colum and Silas the whole time?”
Harrow smiled her most terrifying smile. “It’s always wise to scope out the competition, Nav. And we’re actually not in terrible shape, provided we keep up our rehearsals. No, downstage right for that table. Aspatia’s entrance is unexpected, so she should be moving left, contrary to Western audiences’ comfort zone.”
Gideon sighed and moved the table. It wasn’t worth arguing. Besides, that set-up would give them more space for the sword fight. Maybe not all of Harrow’s ideas were as terrible as she was. “The mayonnaise king not actually as good as he thinks he is? Color me shocked.”
Harrow set her block upstage left and went back for a chair. “Let’s just say six months hasn’t improved Colum’s memory or diction. Or Silas’s temperament. Obviously.” She set the chair and looked expectantly at Gideon. “I assume we’re blocking tonight?”
“Sure,” Gideon agreed. “And look! I brought swords!”
Harrow’s forehead crinkled doubtfully. Gideon rolled her eyes inwardly. What exactly did Harrow think was in her fencing bag anyway? She pulled the rapiers out and clattered them onto the table, following them with two belts.
“Where did you find those?”
“I had one on loan from Aiglamene for stage combat already, so I just asked her for another.”
Harrow made a skeptical face.
“What?” said Gideon. “Aiglamene likes me.”
Harrow snorted. “She does not. Aiglamene doesn’t like anyone.”
“C’mon, she signed me out an extra rapier. From Aiglamene, that’s practically a love letter.”
Harrow shrugged one narrow shoulder, conceding the point. “So, where do we start?”
“Begin at the beginning,” Gideon grinned.
“And go on till you come to the end, then stop. Yes, yes, very clever, Nav.” Harrow crossed the room to the curtains serving as their stage left entrance.
“Hey, wait, you’ll need these.” Gideon caught up with her and handed over one of the belts. “Buckle that on, and you can slide the rapier through. Like this.” She patted the wire basket of her own rapier hilt fondly. “Wait—you’re left-handed. Other side, that way you can draw across your body.” She demonstrated again.
“I know what across the body means, Nav. Get in position.”
“Sure you do,” Gideon said, but she crossed back to the table and made a show of settling into the chair, kicking her feet onto the table in a pose of studied nonchalance. “Ready whenever you are, gloom mistress.”
Harrow strode purposefully through the curtains, one hand on the hilt of her rapier, and they were off, flying through the scene until the end of Harrow’s second speech.
“If you like your sword, use it; if mine appear a better to you, change; for the ground is this, and this the time to end our difference.” Harrow paused. “I draw here. How do I do that?”
Gideon gave her best shit-eating grin. “Across your body, Nonagesimus. Need me to draw you a map?”
Harrow glared but wrestled her sword out of her belt.
“Not bad,” Gideon allowed. “We can work on a more graceful draw if you want, but that’s gravy. Besides, Aspatia not quite knowing how to handle a sword is funny. You want to point it at me, though.”
Harrow met her eyes, and swung the sword point towards Gideon’s throat. “How’s that?”
Gideon laughed and stepped back easily. “Not quite. You’re trying to challenge me, not slash my throat. So just point it in my general direction. Like this.” She swung her sword slowly and deliberately until it pointed in a lazy 45-degree angle towards Harrow.
Gritting her teeth in concentration, Harrow tried again.
“Yeah, like that. Do it one more time, and we’ll keep going.”
“The ground is this, and this the time, to end our difference.” Brow furrowed with concentration, Harrow swung her rapier to point in Gideon’s general direction. The point quivered.
Gideon gave her a quick wink of encouragement and mouthed, “Nice!” before launching into her next line.
They volleyed the lines back and forth, finding a rhythm.
“You must be urged: I do not deal uncivilly with those that dare to fight; but such a one as you must be used thus,” Harrow challenged. “And now I strike you. How?”
“Okay, this one’s pretty simple. Put down your sword for a second. No props when you’re learning a new move.”
Harrow set aside the rapier. “Now what?”
“Since you’re challenging me, I figure you slap me across the face. You’re going to swing your upstage arm towards my face and then pull it at the last second so that it looks like an impact. I’ll turn my head to sell it.”
“Aren’t you concerned that I might hit you in the face?”
Gideon snorted. “Hilarious. Should I be?”
“That’s a lot of trust to put in someone who just pointed a sword at your throat, Nav.”
“Oh, please, like you could have actually hit me with your little noodle arms. I know what I’m doing, Nonagesimus. Trust me.”
Harrow froze and searched Gideon with her eyes. Gideon winked cheesily, and Harrow seemed to snap back to herself.
“Show me again,” she demanded. Gideon considered for a moment, then turned her back to Harrow and swung her arm in a lazy arc before slamming her hand to a stop beside an imaginary opponent’s face.
“Like that,” she announced as she resumed her position facing Harrow. “Give it a whirl, Nonagesimus. I’ll talk you through it.”
Harrow drew herself up, poised like the cobra Gideon knew she was. “Okay, on three, you swing slow like I showed you, and you stop when I say stop. One, two, three…now, stop!”
Harrow caught her arm mid-arc, inches from Gideon’s cheek. Gideon grinned up at her.
“Weren’t you supposed to move your head?”
“Oh, I will, on the next round. That was a warm-up. Try it again with no count.”
Harrow swung again, and this time, Gideon whipped her head to the side.
“See, Nonagesimus? That’s how it’s done.”
“What about the sound of the slap?”
“I’ll clap my hands as I turn, like this.” Gideon demonstrated. “When we’re going at speed, no one will notice.”
“That looks quite obvious to me,” Harrow sniffed. “Isn’t there a way for me to do it?”
“Sure, but I’ve seen you move, Nonagesimus,” Gideon pointed out. “I’ll do the knap.” At Harrow’s mutinous look, she added, “Besides, you’ll be holding your sword, remember? You need two hands. Mine’s still sheathed. I’ll do it. Go again.”
“This seems slow,” Harrow remarked as she swung at Gideon’s face a second time.
“It is,” Gideon said, pleased. “But you always learn stage combat at one-quarter speed, and you never practice faster than three-quarter speed. Aiglamene says you’ve got to leave some room for performance adrenaline.”
“I suppose that makes sense. Can we move on?”
“Sure thing, night boss. Get your sword and plant it on the ground, like this. Don’t move that hand. Now, the slap again. Good. Okay, take it back from your line, and we’ll move on.”
“Such a one as you must be used thus,” Harrow spat out and swung her off hand in a perfect, if snail-slow, arc. Her rapier point stayed planted. Gideon ducked and clapped, fighting back a proud smile. Harrow wasn’t half-bad at this. It was almost fun.
The rest of the scene went swimmingly until they came to the big fight. Aspatia was supposed to kick it off with, well, a kick, but swinging her right arm while keeping her sword planted with her left was apparently the limit of Harrow’s balance and coordination. Despite Gideon’s slow, careful demonstration, when it came time for Harrow to try the move, she tripped over her own feet and stumbled.
“Whoa, easy there! Let’s try again.”
Harrow shot a glare at Gideon, but condescended to try to kick her again. “Try” being the operative word, since she again rocked off balance.
“You’re leaning too far forward,” Gideon observed. “You’ve got to plant your other leg right under your hips and keep it there when you kick, or you’re going to lose your balance.”
“Yes, thank you, Nav,” Harrow snapped.
“Stand strong, like this.” Gideon took a relaxed-but-ready position. “No, don’t move your foot yet. Just stand.”
“I know how to stand,” Harrow said witheringly.
“Sure, but you can’t skip steps with stage combat. Now shift your weight to your left leg without picking up your feet. Okay, now try kicking.”
This time, Harrow not only stumbled but actually tumbled to the ground.
“Shit, are you okay?” Gideon hovered over her fallen scene partner.
“You did that on purpose!” Harrow accused as she climbed to her feet.
“Actually, no,” Gideon said. “Have you met Aiglamene? I don’t fuck around with stage combat. Ever. But I think I see the problem now. Your center of gravity’s all over the place.”
Harrow snorted dangerously. Gideon pressed on, “You’re moving your hips too much when you kick, so you’re throwing yourself off-balance. Try again, but this time, don’t move your hips at all. Just use your foot.”
“I think you have a misunderstanding of anatomy, Griddle. The femoral head has to rotate in the acetabulum in order for the leg to move at all.”
“Yeah,” Gideon said. “But that’s still your leg moving. Your hips don’t need to be part of it, and right now they’re getting in on the action way too much.”
“Just try it my way, Nonagesimus. What have you got to lose?”
Glaring, Harrow flashed her foot out again and stumbled again.
“You must be loving this,” she hissed.
If someone had asked Gideon last week, she would have said that watching Harrowhark Nonagesimus stumble and flail her way through the world’s easiest fake kick would be the pinnacle of hilarity. But now that it was happening, Gideon found herself shaking her head soberly.
“C’mon, let’s try again,” she said. Harrow resumed her kicking position, her face set and murderous.
“Hey, I have an idea,” Gideon found herself saying. “Can I touch you?”
“Just to show you the move. It’s easier if you can feel what’s supposed to move and what isn’t.”
“All right,” Harrow conceded ungraciously. Gideon moved behind her grumpy nemesis and put her hands gently on Harrow’s bony hips, which were startlingly warm under her hands. Warm and tense. Harrow’s entire tiny body was apparently a live wire of tension.
Maybe she should tell Harrow to take a deep breath? No, on second thought, Harrow was so tightly wound that she’d probably pass out if she took a normal-sized breath, and that was only if she didn’t murder Gideon for suggesting it in the first place. Maybe Gideon should take that deep breath herself and hope some it transferred over to Harrow through weird osmosis. Okay, focus, Nav.
“Okay,” Gideon repeated, audibly this time. “Now, feel where my hands are? Kick your foot forward a little, but don’t let your hips move against my hands at all.”
Again, Harrow rocked to one side, but Gideon caught her easily and nudged her back to center. “Almost. Did you feel how you went sideways there?”
Harrow gave an infinitesimal nod, and her hair ghosted along Gideon’s bare shoulder. It tickled.
Gideon resolutely ignored the tickle and tightened her hold on Harrow’s hips. “Let’s try again. This time, don’t worry about losing your balance. I’ve got you, you’re not going anywhere. Just keep your hips square and kick your foot out.”
Harrow’s kick was small and tentative, but her hips stayed square and warm under Gideon’s palms.
“Yeah, like that! Do it again, a little harder!” Gideon valiantly caught herself before she made a joke about the double entendre. Harrow would almost certainly push her away, and this was actually kind of nice. Obviously not the holding Harrow part—though it wasn’t quite as disgusting as she’d always thought it would be—but the watching Harrow’s incremental improvement part.
Harrow snapped her foot out, and again, her body stayed balanced.
“All right!” Gideon whooped and let go of Harrow to offer her hand for a high-five. After a moment, Harrow slapped back and offered a cautious smile.
“That’s a big improvement. Want to call it here tonight?” Gideon suggested.
“No,” Harrow insisted. “No brute force move will overmaster me.”
“Whatever you say. Okay, square up your hips and go again, without me this time.”
Harrow’s kick was back to being tentative, but she was no longer stumbling all over herself. After a few more repetitions, Gideon pronounced Harrow ready to try the move with sword in hand. She regretted that choice instantly, as the feather-light sword dragged down Harrow’s puny arm and knocked her stance off-kilter. She kicked out, overbalanced, and in her attempt to right herself tripped straight over her dragging rapier point, landing at Gideon’s feet in an ungainly heap.
“Shit, Harrow, are you okay?” Gideon leaned over to offer her a hand up, which was apparently a mistake—Harrow jerked back as if she’d been burned.
“This was a mistake,” she said bitterly. “I can’t manage a kick, much less an entire rapier duel. I know you had your heart set on combat, Griddle, but we’ll have to work something else out. The scene between Evadne and the king, perhaps. You can stab me to death while I lie stationary.”
Two days ago, stabbing Harrow to death would have sounded amazing. Now, though? They’d made so much progress. And since when did Harrow care what she had her heart set on, anyway?
“C’mon, Harrow” Gideon said bracingly. “So one thing doesn’t come easy to you. So what. You’ll get it. Because this is the one thing I’m great at, and I say so.”
“You know nothing about me if you think anything about this scene has been easy for me.” Harrow’s tone was caustic enough to strip paint off a building, but for once, her ire didn’t seem to be directed at Gideon.
“What the fuck, Harrow. We’ve been doing this for two days, and you think of things for Aspatia that I never would have imagined. You’re already off book, for Christ’s sake! There’s no way one little kick can stop you!” The look on Harrow’s face was so distressing that Gideon almost didn’t notice that she was complimenting her nemesis.
“Oh, that. It’s all show. I’m not a brilliant memorizer because I have an excellent memory, Griddle. I don’t. I’m hiding my infirmity.” Her mouth quirked bitterly.
“Reading aloud, for me, is… difficult and tortuous,” Harrow said, choosing her words with exaggerated care. “I don’t like doing it in front of people. I’d rather make my mistakes privately, so I need to be off-book before anyone else.”
“But I’ve heard you read aloud in class,” Gideon protested.
“You underestimate me. I’m always off-book. For everything. Hard work will cover a multitude of sins.”
Gideon didn’t quite know what to make of this. Finally she said, “Look, you’re the smartest person I know. This doesn’t change that. It just makes you, like, even more impressive.”
Harrow gave a bitter laugh. “I suppose I should be glad you find me impressive, Griddle, but that’s not the point.”
“What is the point, then?”
Harrow shrugged miserably but refused to say more. Gideon studied her closed, obstinate face. Harrow’s bleak eyes gave nothing away.
“Tell you what,” Gideon said, faux-blithely. “Let’s skip the fight for now. I want to run it by Cam before I teach it to you anyway, get a second opinion. There’s probably a better way to teach kicks too. I’m no Aiglamene.”
Harrow snorted. Encouraged, Gideon went on, “Hell, if you’re cool with it, maybe Cam can come demo it for you on Saturday.”
“If I’m ‘cool’ with it?” Harrow’s eyes narrowed in something Gideon couldn’t quite name. Challenge? Disbelief? Contempt? Something else?
“I mean, you said this whole project was a secret, right?”
“Yes.” Harrow’s face squared up as much as her pointy, triangular anatomy could manage. “I didn’t want to trust anyone else with it. But if you trust Camilla…” She trailed off.
Harrow trusted her? Harrow trusted her judgment? Since when?
“Fine. You may ask her.”
“All right!” Gideon whooped. “So, let’s skip past the fight and get the rest of this baby blocked so we can call it a night! By the end of the fight, you’re gonna end up here.” She slumped dramatically against the upstage block, then sprang to her feet. “Now you.”
“That’s not completely unoriginal,” Harrow allowed. Gideon had never thought she’d be excited to see the return of Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s arrogance, but apparently this was a night of firsts. She watched as Harrow gingerly arranged herself in an approximation of Gideon’s pose. “Like this?”
“There is no place so fit for me to die as here,” Harrow proclaimed, and they were off again. Gideon grabbed for her script—she definitely didn’t have her big remorseful speech memorized yet—and launched into it.
“The wrong I to Aspatia did stands up,” she said sadly.
“Was it a dream?” Harrow asked weakly, and Gideon fell to her knees beside her without thinking, following Amintor’s urge to check on the young boy he had unwittingly slain.
Aspatia revealed her identity; Amintor was shocked and horror-stricken. When Gideon reached the line, “Come, let me bear thee to some place of help,” she reached toward Harrow with a questioning glance—Is this all right?
Harrow gave a tiny nod, even as Aspatia said, “Amintor, thou must stay.” Gideon gathered her scene partner into her arms and held her close, ignoring the way Harrow’s bony elbows and hipbones jabbed into Gideon’s ribs and stomach. Harrow craned her neck up as Aspatia’s strength faded. Gideon bent her head close in a sad parody of a kiss as Amintor vowed his undying love to dying Aspatia, and Harrow sagged in her arms, letting Aspatia’s head loll.
“Aspatia! Help! For God’s sake,” Gideon cried, cradling Harrow close. Harrow was still all pointy hard edges, but now that Aspatia had given up the ghost, all of the tension seemed to have drained out of her tiny body. Which just felt wrong. Harrow was a live wire. Harrow was a jack-in-the-box stuffed into a too-small box. But with Aspatia’s death, she had somehow turned herself into a rag doll, if a far-too bony one.
No, not a rag doll—Harrow was a porcelain doll, small and fragile and delicate. Easily broken. Gideon couldn’t bear to let go of her. She threw the blocking she’d previously planned—a lot of strutting and fretting and ranting and raving—out the window and continued the speech right where she was. She cried out desperately for water, and then when no one magically appeared with it, she gently massaged Harrow’s temples.
“Yet there’s nothing stirs: some hidden power tell her, Amintor calls, and let her answer me!” Gideon implored. Harrow remained mute and still, and Gideon felt Amintor’s rising panic take hold of her.
“O, she is gone!” she cried out and moved to begin setting Harrow down. But as her weight shifted, Harrow’s head rolled from Gideon’s shoulder into the hollow of her neck. Harrow’s hair whispered against her skin again, and Gideon caught the scent of it, of her— fresh and evergreen and just a bit icy, much like Harrow herself, but alive and vibrant as she currently wasn’t.
Gideon settled back down onto the ground and said sadly, “I will not leave her yet.” Now what? She and Amintor both seemed to be out of options. Gideon scanned the ceiling for inspiration and realized Amintor could be doing the same thing.
Gideon nestled Harrow even closer to her; drew in another breath of Harrow’s weird, wintry scent; and blazed into her next line, Amintor’s appeal to the gods.
“Lend forth some few years the blessèd soul to this fair seat again!” she begged and was shocked to discover that she was tearing up. What the fuck was happening to her? Gideon never got like this on stage, even when she wasn’t working on yawntastic classical plays; any performance weeping jags were carefully choreographed and all in the shoulders, thank you.
Oh, well, apparently she was a better actor than she’d thought. Gideon swiped at her eyes and muttered, “No comfort comes; the gods deny me too.” Obviously, the gods were frigging morons if they could look at frail, unmoving Harrow and not want to intervene. Gideon-as-Amintor gently tapped Harrow-as-Aspatia’s cheeks, which were surprisingly smooth, while calling her in-scene name. No good. She remained limp, which was just wrong.
It was all wrong. Gideon couldn’t take another moment of this soggy, unnatural stillness. Amintor’s final decision to kill himself suddenly made a certain sideways kind of sense.
“Here’s to be with thee, love!” Gideon cried. She mimed a stabbing motion, then let her head tip sideways to rest on Harrow’s and relaxed her body under Harrow’s weight, sagging against the block so that Harrow sank back into her even further. Wow. Who knew the end of a classical scene could feel so satisfying? She could almost stay here forever.
Except that Harrow snapped her eyes open, pushed out of Gideon’s lap and up to her feet, and nodded decisively. “Well, I’m convinced. That blocking works. Shall we note it down and call it a night?”
“Sure thing,” Gideon said weakly. What the fuck was wrong with her? She retrieved her pen and furiously scribbled down “kneel, reach out, hold her,” then set about shoving the furniture back to the sides of the room.
“Griddle,” Harrow said impatiently, and Gideon suddenly realized Harrow had been trying to get her attention.
“Sorry, didn’t hear you—curtains,” she said.
“Saturday at two? Same place?”
“Sure. I’ll ask Cam,” Gideon agreed. “You go on ahead, I need to pack up the foils.”
Gideon shook her head desperately as she walked home through the cool night air. She still couldn’t shake the feeling of Harrow lying sad and small in her arms, or the memory of the strange desolation she’d felt when Harrow stood up. Which really didn’t make sense because the scene was over by that point, and even if it weren’t, Amintor should be fucking thrilled to see Aspatia standing up and walking around, shouldn’t he?
Unless he wanted to stay there and keep holding Aspatia, maybe finally get that kiss he and Aspatia had been circling around.
Gideon stopped dead.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
This was ridiculous. They’d had a great rehearsal, nothing more.
And yet, somehow, the idea of this scene ending with a kiss sounded one hell of a lot less disgusting than it had on Monday.
There was a name for this, Gideon reminded herself slightly hysterically. Showmance. That’s all this was.
Just a showmance. Definitely just a showmance.
Oh, Griddle, her treacherous brain responded pityingly in Harrow’s voice. You just keep telling yourself that. We’ve barely even begun rehearsing.
“Shut up,” Gideon hissed at herself. “Shut up, shut up, shut up.”
But the damage had been done. Harrow’s imaginary voice was right. A showmance definitely required you to have been working on an actual show long enough for your character’s feelings to bleed over into you. It shouldn’t be possible after a single read-through and one blocking rehearsal, no matter how well it had gone.
Fucking fucking fuck.
Gideon broke into a run. Maybe if she ran fast enough, she could leave these thoughts right here and run straight past them, back to her dorm and into a cold shower. And then she would never have to think about…this again.
Riiiight. Sure. Because that was going to happen.
If the universe could have laughed, it probably would have. Fucker.