Gideon had only been to two planets in her entire life (three if you counted the monstrosity of a ship that was the Mithraem, a ship so god damn massive it had its own gravity field, but while aboard it she had learned that God was her dad and a bastard in basically the same sentence, and also Harrow had almost died there like twenty times so, Gideon was just pretending she’d never been there before because fuck that place). Needless to say, Gideon was fairly inexperienced with planets that weren’t a) a freezing cold death hole that was packed to the gills with dead people or b) basically a big house in the middle of the ocean that was, coincidentally, also packed to the gills with dead people. So yeah, getting used to life on Bravo 875 took some doing.
It’s not that it was a bad place to be. Pretty much the opposite, actually. After living on the Ninth for all 18 of her years, anywhere else would’ve felt like a paradise. But being here had taken some adjustments, to say the least. There were just so many alive people. Gideon was used to throngs of skeletons comprising the majority of a planet’s population, and wrinkled, half-dead crones filling in the gaps, and ghosts just absolutely everywhere. But the planet Bravo 875 was absolutely swarming with live, warm, people, most of whom weren’t even half decayed. People in transports, people in buildings, people walking down streets (Streets! Real streets! Hardly anyone traveled via mineshaft here.), people selling food and other people-related things in open-stall markets on the bright and dusty streets. Gideon was up to her eyeballs in people.
Requisite adjustments to the lack of death and frostbitten limbs notwithstanding, Gideon had learned one thing very, very quickly - she loved people. If heaven was a real place, Gideon imagined it looked something like Bravo 875. Even though she was busier than she’d ever been in her damned life working with the BOE - turns out, being the Child of God makes you something of a hot commodity to the people trying to kill your dad - she was, more often than not, completely blissed out. This was because anywhere she happened to be, whether it was in a meeting room, or a last minute transport to the other side of the planet, or the cafeteria of the BOE compound, she found herself inevitably surrounded by other alive people, and those other alive people frequently bumped shoulders with her, or made brief eye contact in passing, or shook her hand. It was paradise.
Her necromancer did not seem to share the sentiment. Ever since Gideon had gotten her body back (her beautiful, muscle-bound body, a little stale after being dead for a year but, hey, nobody’s perfect), she and Harrow had spent what felt like every moment together. This meant that whenever Gideon was surrounded by people, which was a lot of the time, Harrow was too. And where Gideon loved the press and company of so many living humans, Harrow seemed to be deeply, unerringly intent on making herself vanish rather than be touched or so much as acknowledged by another person. Not that her being a pinched little weirdo was out of the ordinary, by any means, but Gideon noticed that Harrow seemed more pinched and more little than usual when she had to be in the presence of others, particularly in large crowds.
Gideon couldn’t find it in herself to be annoyed by this. The first time she’d noticed Harrow’s stranger-than-usual behavior around a large swath of people in the BOE cafeteria, she’d given her an out.
“You don’t have to stay, y’know,” Gideon had said.
Harrow had looked up at her with those startlingly yellow eyes. “What?”
“It just seems like you’d really rather be anywhere else,” Gideon had shrugged. “If you want to head back to the barracks, you can.”
“Are you going back to the barracks?”
“Not for a bit, no.”
“Then I’m staying.”
Gideon was embarrassed to admit that she didn’t realize until three or four similar conversations later that Harrow would rather be in these deeply uncomfortable situations than leave Gideon’s side. That was fair enough, seeing as Gideon had made Harrow watch her die once. She imagined that Harrow expected far worse to occur if, Dad forbid, Gideon ever left her sight. So Gideon decided that if she could not convince Harrow to spare herself the company of the throngs of people, then it was up to Gideon to do her best to shield her from them. So shield her she did, placing her considerable bulk between Harrow and the people who surrounded them on transports, in meeting rooms, in cafeterias, on crowded streets. If Gideon could make a small, people-free space, she did, and placed Harrow directly in the center of it.
But what Gideon had not accounted for were the children. Gideon had heard of children before. She’d even considered herself well versed in the things, having made acquaintance with the teens from the Fourth in Canaan House all that time ago. But it turned out that children came in various shapes and sizes, many of which were significantly smaller and more incoherent than the dearly departed Jeannemary and Isaac. Gideon and Harrow were frequently kept in separate circles from the tiny, deafening creatures, and most encounters with them were only in passing, as the BOE caretakers herded the children from one class or activity to another in the portion of the compound that served as a schoolhouse.
The first time they had seen children had been something of a shock. Camilla had been taking the two of them from the barracks to yet another meeting with the resident BOE commanders, and Gideon had heard a shrill, bloodcurdling scream from across the courtyard. Both she and Harrow had immediately been on alert, Gideon ripping her sword from its sheath on her back, and Harrow summoning a veritable herd of constructs from a handful of bone dust in the span of a heartbeat. When Gideon found the source of the noise, she was baffled to see what looked like an industrial scaffolding complex, erected in the middle of a fenced-off pen. And on the scaffolding were clambering dozens of miniature humans, all of whom seemed to be in competition for who could produce the most ear-splitting noises. Gideon thought they all deserved a gold medal, the way they were going at it.
Camilla had stared at Gideon, and then at Harrow, blinking once in a show of uncharacteristic amusement. “Those are children,” she said.
Oh. Children. Gideon still held her sword in front of her, not sure if this was some kind of test or something. “Why do they sound like they’re dying?”
Camilla shrugged. “They’re children. They do that sometimes. Most times, actually.”
Gideon had sheathed her sword reluctantly. The constructs stayed in formation for another moment longer. Gideon looked at Harrow’s face. Her necromancer looked as though she had seen, well, not a ghost, a ghost probably wouldn’t have elicited more than a blink from Harrow, but she looked as though she had seen something very strange and very frightening, and her eyes were wide and her mouth was tight. Then she blinked and seemed to come back to herself, and with a roll of her fingers the constructs collapsed into dust, and they continued on to their meeting.
That was not their last encounter with the Children. In addition to seeing them around the BOE compound, they’d actually had a direct run-in once, when returning from a particularly long meeting in the commander’s quarters. They’d been talking about what had been discussed when a classroom door opened and out poured a shrieking cacophony of tiny humans. The children had crashed around the two of them like a wave, paying them no heed for the most part as they ran for their scaffolding. But a few of them had stopped and stared at the Ninth adept and her cavalier. Gideon’s first instinct had been to step forward a little, shielding Harrow as had become her habit in the presence of unfamiliar newcomers. Doing so had attracted the children’s attention, and the stragglers, a cluster of four wide-eyed infants, had stared up at her with something between awe and fear.
One of them, a gap-toothed girl with messy brown hair and big brown eyes, had pointed with a finger skinnier than Harrow’s over Gideon’s shoulder. “Is that a sword?”
Gideon had reached back and touched the hilt, needing to confirm in the face of such an oddly direct question that it was, in fact, a sword. But before she could answer, the girl’s eyes had shifted to land on Harrow, standing stock still and silent behind Gideon. Her eyes went a little wider than before, her mouth forming a small ‘o’ before she lisped out a new question in a voice barely above a whisper. “Is that your real face?”
The adult caretakers didn’t leave room for answers, sweeping the children along by their shoulders, uttering hasty apologies to Gideon and Harrow as they went. The children began hollering again, and bolted to catch up to the others in their weird little pen. Gideon watched them go, then glanced down at Harrow.
“So kids are fun,” she said.
Harrow’s eyes were fixed on the retreating forms of the children. “Do you think it scares them?”
“What? The sword?”
“My face paint.”
“Oh. I dunno,” Gideon said helpfully. “Harrow, are you alright?”
Harrow looked away from the distant pen and its swarming inhabitants. “I’m fine. Come on, Griddle.”
Harrow was strangely quiet all the rest of that day, and Gideon determined to keep her better protected from the presence of children. This task turned out to be much easier to commit to than it was to carry out. Children, as it turned out, were slippery little beasts. Not only that, but when next they were set upon by a swarm and Gideon raised her hands and tried to make herself larger to shield and distract from her necromancer, they thought she was playing a game. They began shrieking with laughter and running toward Gideon. One of them yelled, “I’ll get you!” which made Gideon feel as though this was something she wanted to prevent. So she ran. Not far, of course, just to one end of the courtyard to lead them away from Harrow. Unsurprisingly, the children were not as quick as she was, what with their nubby little legs and their flailing arms that really screwed with their aerodynamics. She managed to dodge and juke them with relative ease, which they seemed to find hilarious. After a while, though, they began to run out of breath, and slow down, and shout things like, “Hey, not fair!” This made Gideon feel bad, and she slowed down, just enough for them to grab at her black robes. Instead of climbing her like so many miniature Heralds as she had expected, they let her go and resumed their shrieking.
“You’re it! The big lady is it!”
Whatever it was supposed to be, Gideon didn’t know, but she felt confident that she understood the basic ins and outs of this game. She could play along. So with a loud laugh and an enthusiastic “I’ll get you!” she ran after the kids. They scattered like a flock of constructs hit by a boulder, flying in every direction with loud shrieks of what sounded like either pure terror or pure delight. The chasing game went on for several long minutes, culminating in Gideon tripping over her boots by accident and collapsing in the dirt, and every child in a hundred yard radius piling on top of her, howling and laughing.
“Oi, gerroff!” Gideon shouted, but she was laughing too as she defended against tiny booted feet that threatened to put out a few of her teeth. Then she caught sight of her necromancer across the courtyard, standing and watching the massacre stiffly, and Gideon remembered what she’d even begun this all for. She began plucking the little ones off her person. “Alright, alright, that’s enough from you lot.”
She struggled to her feet, shaking off a few clingers as gently as she could manage, despite their whines of protest.
“Noooo, we want to play!”
“I’ll come back soon, alright?” Gideon said, without considering why she would have said it.
“Promise. Now go on, go play on your...metal thingy, or whatever.”
Gideon made her way back over to Harrow, who was watching her with a guarded expression.
“That looked...invigorating,” Harrow said, her voice clipped. “Are you alright?”
“Fine, yeah,” Gideon said. “Just trying to keep them off you.”
Harrow nodded and said nothing.
Over the days and weeks, Gideon prided herself on being a solid distraction for the kids, leading them away from Harrow’s very frail and damageable person. They taught her more than one of their funny little games (at which Gideon continued to be better than all of them as far as winning went, but she went easy on them for the sake of keeping the peace). They loved her roughhousing, queueing up for a turn to get tossed in the air or ride on her back or shoulders while she played at being a lion or elephant or other some such beast. More than once, though, someone ended up with a skinned knee or palm or elbow. The first time it happened, the victim, a skinny, tender boy with gray eyes and black hair, ran to Gideon with tears in his eyes, holding out his hand to her. She could see where the dirt and gravel had gotten ground into his skin.
“Bad luck, mate,” she winced.
“Kiss it,” he sniffled.
Gideon very nearly begged his friggin’ pardon before she recalled seeing something similar occur with one of their adult caretakers after a kid had taken a nasty fall. So she held his chubby little hand in hers, and pressed her lips very gingerly to the scrape. And just like that, the tears in his eyes dried up and he was scampering off like nothing had happened at all, leaving Gideon crouched in the dust feeling somewhat befuddled. She glanced across at Harrow, who had taken to sitting on the courtyard wall while Gideon wore herself out with the kids. Usually Harrow was watching Gideon with that same unreadable expression, but this time she wasn’t. This time, she was looking at a tiny curly-haired girl who was walking up to her. Harrow was sitting stone still, watching the girl approach. As the girl came level with Harrow’s knees, she reached up and held out a single, slightly crumpled-looking flower. Gideon was wondering how quickly she could get across the courtyard to prevent Harrow from using a construct to remove the kid from her immediate vicinity when Harrow reached out and took the flower carefully.
The girl smiled very shyly, then trotted off to continue playing with her friends in a scrubby patch of grass, with Harrow watching after her with a strange wide-eyed expression. Gideon considered mentioning it that evening after they had turned in for the night, but she noticed the flower resting on Harrow’s bedside table, and thought better of bringing it up. She didn’t have to though, because later that night, hours after they’d both gone to bed, Harrow’s voice came through the darkness.
“Hmph?” Gideon said, trying to pretend as though she hadn’t just jerked suddenly awake.
“Do you think they know?”
“Hm, who know?” Gideon was struggling with words at the moment. “Know what?”
“The children.” Harrow’s voice was soft, and a little sad. “About me.”
Gideon blinked the sleep from her eyes and through the dark of their little room could see the shape of Harrow, sitting up and wrapped in a blanket. “What d’you mean, about you?”
“About what I am. About what my parents did...to create me.”
“Not unless someone’s told them. So, no, probably not.”
“But do you think they can tell.”
Gideon slipped off her cot and climbed onto Harrow’s, pulling her small frame in against her side. Harrow leaned her head on Gideon’s chest, and Gideon kissed her hair. “You’re not what your parents did, Harrow.”
“I couldn’t be anything else.”
“If you’re worried that the kids are going to pay you too much attention or something, I’ll keep them off you, alright? Promise.”
Harrow let out a little sigh, but she nodded, and leaned up to give Gideon a little kiss, and then went back to bed.
Gideon tried to keep her promise, she really did. And she succeeded for the most part. But there was one day, just the one, where the circumstances were taken quite out of her control. She’d been playing with the kids again on their way back from an evening meal. They were playing the chase game - which they inexplicably called tag , she’d since learned - and Harrow was watching from her secluded spot on the wall, when Gideon’s attention was caught by a wave from across the courtyard. Camilla was standing there, beckoning her.
“Nav, a moment.”
Gideon called a time-out to the kids and jogged over, catching her breath. Camilla had a missive from one of the commanders. It wasn’t a terribly important thing, something about the available cavaliers being called upon for some BOE rotation, but it was enough to take Gideon’s attention away from the courtyard for longer than usual. When Camilla was finished passing on the message, she glanced past Gideon’s shoulder, and her eyebrows lifted nearly half a centimeter, which was a good several miles by Camilla Hect body language standards.
Gideon turned to see what Camilla was having a conniption about. She saw that Harrowhark Nonagesimus had her hands in the grasp of two diminutive girls, and they were leading her across the courtyard to their little patch of dirt where several more children were already squatted. Gideon nearly bolted and scooped up the babies in either arm like rugby balls, but something about the look on Harrow’s face stopped her. Harrow didn’t look alarmed or disgusted, which Gideon would have expected and understood. No, Harrow looked...soft? Charmed? Warm , even? It was baffling, but absolutely undeniable. Gideon had learned to speak the language of Harrow’s facial expressions, even under the mask of her skeleton paint, and Harrow was very distinctly not upset by this turn of events.
Harrow came to stand by the ring of children, who scooted aside to give her room on the dirt. Gideon half expected Harrow to grimace, or even turn her nose up at the prospect of wallowing in the dust, but she sat very quietly, without any fuss at all, folding her legs up under herself. A girl with curly brown hair, one of the apparent ringleaders of the group, announced loudly that she was going to start making the food for the tea party. Most of the children seemed much too distracted by Harrow’s presence to pay attention to the beginning stages of the grass and sticks concoction that the girl was putting together. Harrow blinked, shifted a little, seeming to be at a loss of what to do under the unblinking gazes of so many small humans. The one of the kids piped up, and Gideon heard him distinctly over the commotion of the other kids in the courtyard.
“Why does your face look like that?”
Oh my god, you can’t just ask people why their faces look like that, Gideon thought. She waited for Harrow to bristle and launch into a soliloquy about the sacredness of the face paint and the long history of the house of the Locked Tomb. Harrow didn’t. Harrow smiled a very little and lifted her hand and smeared her face paint, like smeared it on purpose, until her tan skin showed through beneath.
“It’s paint,” Gideon heard her say.
A small chorus of “ohhhhhh” went up from the assembled infants. One of the boys piped up with an ear-splitting “Cool!”
A little girl with straight black hair and smiling black eyes stood and went up to Harrow, standing so closely to her that their noses were almost touching. Harrow’s eyes widened a little, but she stayed stock still, as though afraid that moving at all would startle the girl away. The little girl pressed her hands to Harrow’s cheeks and squished their noses together. Gideon saw the little girl’s lips move, but her words were so quiet, spoken in what looked like a very intense whisper, that Gideon didn’t catch what was said. Harrow responded, also whispering. Then the girl turned to the group and announced, “Her name is Harrow and she’s my friend!”
The chorus went up again, a cacophony of “Hi, Harrow!”s ringing out, ranging from sing-song warbling to voluminous bellows. The ring-leader, who had been slaving away over her preparation of the “food” for the tea-party, stood with an armful of dirt, grass, and twigs.
“Do you want some cake, Harrow?” she asked loudly, walking up to the necromancer proudly.
Harrow looked somewhat bewildered at the question, but her eyes went to the dirt and sticks and she seemed to put two and two together well enough.
“Yes, please,” Gideon saw her say. Harrow took a small handful of the grass and twigs. “Thank you.”
“I’m Molly,” Molly said loudly, apparently unable to say things any other way.
“I’m Charlie!” another kid piped up.
“I’m Lila!” said the girl who had stared into Harrow’s soul a moment before.
Then everyone was chiming in, eagerly giving Harrow their names as she nodded and tried to meet the eyes of each child as they spoke. Gideon felt her chest squeeze. She watched as Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, Perfect Lyctor to God Himself, had a tea party with a bunch of children.
When it was time for the children to go, Harrow’s tea party all gave her hugs goodbye, and Gideon heard them asking if she would be back the next day. Harrow told them she would. Three of them remained clinging desperately to her legs, and she touched their heads carefully until they peeled away from her with great reluctance. Gideon came up to stand behind Harrow as the last of them trotted away toward their waiting parents.
Harrow looked up at her, and she looked happy. She glanced away at the grin on Gideon’s face.
Gideon leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “That seemed like fun, hey?”
Harrow let out a short breath through her nostrils. Gideon could hear the smile in it.
“Come on,” Harrow said. “Let’s head back.”
As they walked Gideon couldn’t help but cast sidelong glances at Harrow every so often. Harrow was glowing. Harrow had a smile in her eyes. Harrow had learned today that she was not the sum total of her parents’ horrific choices. And Gideon was glad. Gideon was very, very glad.