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marvelous and dangerous

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Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so
marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

-Lisel Mueller, “Sometimes, When the Light” (1980)

 

 


 

 

Harrowhark

Your name is Harrowhark Nonagesimus. You are seven years old, and today, you committed sacrilege. Sister Iwa took you and Griddle to the Tomb and made you open it, and there was a woman inside! She was frozen in ice and wrapped in chains, but she looked so real. And then Sister Iwa said she and Griddle had to melt the ice, but that would mean taking the Body out of the Tomb, and you weren’t even supposed to be inside the Tomb. The Tomb is supposed to be locked forever and you helped unlock it. Now they’re going to take the Body out and your stomach hurts and you don’t know what to do.

So you told your parents. Your parents always knew what to do, they had an answer for everything. They’d be able to help. They’d bring Mortus and a lot of bones and they’d go to the Tomb and stop Sister Iwa from taking the Body away, and Sister Iwa and Griddle would go to prison—you would be in trouble but everything would go back to normal. It would be okay.

But that’s not what happened.

Your parents did something else instead.

And now you’re standing in their bedroom and you're holding some rope your mother tied into a loop for you and your parents and Mortus are swinging from the ceiling and you know you’re supposed to join them but your stomach hurts and you can’t breathe right and everything is horrible and you really, really, really, really need someone to tell you what to do.

The bedroom door is open. You’re looking at it because looking at the open doorway is better than looking at the bodies around you and you see Sister Iwa walk by and she’s tugging Griddle along with her. Griddle looks into the room and she grabs the doorframe to stop Sister Iwa from pulling her away and she says, “Mum? What’s going on?”

Sister Iwa looks in the door too. Her hood is down now, and you can see that her hair is red, matching Griddle’s. It’s much longer though, braided back instead of shaved all short. She looks shocked for a moment, and then she—she—she smiles. Only for a moment. But you saw. You saw her smile.

“They’re dead, Gideon,” Sister Iwa tells Griddle. “They killed themselves.”

“Oh,” says Griddle, looking confused. You know what it looks like when Griddle is confused, it’s what she always looks like when you beat her in a fight. But then her face changes. “But Harrow’s in there! She’s still alive!”

“Leave the abomination alone,” Sister Iwa says. You hate when she calls you that. You hate it. “We need to go to the shuttle, remember?”

“But—”

“Bomb. We need to go,” Sister Iwa says, and she pulls Griddle away. Griddle follows her. And then she looks back at you, and you look at her, just for a moment.

Then Griddle is gone, and you never see either of them again.

 

 


 

 

Fifteen Years Later

 

 


 

 

Wake

Fifteen years after the death of Emperor John Gaius, his empire is controlled by The Blood of Eden. The Houses have fallen, and necromancy become taboo. Your government is a small one, only slightly more religious than it is militarized, but it’s more than capable of handling a few billion naturalized citizens and refugees. It is and has been well-established in a thalergetic system, on a planet known only as the Garden. You are Commander Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead Kia Hua Ko Te Pai Snap Back to Reality Oops There Goes Gravity, and you rule with an iron fist.

Well. Maybe you use a bronze one, on occasion. Sometimes even copper. But the unhappy public perception is one of an unhappy iron first, and unhappy people tend to riot and revolutionize. You would know. You led one.

You shift in your seat, sighing slightly. Your jaw is clenched. You make an effort to relax, and try to resist immediately clenching it again. You’re in one of your private sitting rooms, waiting for your next meeting to begin. Sometimes you wish your government was less efficient, because you’re early and the room is quiet, and it’s giving you time to think.

The past fifteen years haven’t been easy—relocating an empire and placing it under the jurisdiction of the Blood of Eden, of which you’ve retained control, was unruly, to say the least. Letting the Houses shift from planet-states to social structures took some of the burden off your shoulders, at least. Everyone who isn’t a member of the Blood of Eden is a member of a House, and their House connections create a welfare state that keeps them alive and happy.

Except for those few remaining members of the Eighth. That’s their own fault. You wouldn’t have needed to decimate their House if they hadn’t insisted on continuing to practice necromancy.

But you’re still suffering the repercussions of that, in that the people are reconsidering the former Emperor’s rule and debating whether life really is better without necromancy. You need to swing public perception back in your favor, and do it fast.

There’s also the problem of your daughter. Your daughter, who is set to control the Blood of Eden after you, maintains a rather...cavalier attitude towards her responsibilities. At her age, you were rising through the ranks of BoE, two years from your field promotion to commander and five from making it stick. You’d like your daughter to make something of herself, and you’d like to kill two birds with one stone even more.

And speaking of your daughter: your meeting du jour is arriving.

Gideon Una, who chose to name herself for her father’s side of the family instead of yours, strides into the room, dressed in her standard uniform of a black tank top and pants. Longsword strapped to her back, sunglasses on her face. No formal clothing. Nothing at all to mark her rank, or signify that she’s technically heir to a throne. You despair of your daughter, often.

“Why are you wearing those damn sunglasses inside?” you ask her.

“Because they look cool,” John Gaius’s daughter replies, lowering them just enough to wiggle her eyebrows suggestively.

“Gideon—” you say, pinching the bridge of your nose.

“Yes, Ma?”

“Please—just this once—be serious for two minutes. Please.”

You watch your daughter valiantly choke back a series of terrible jokes, and nod at her approvingly. “Good. We have a problem with publicity.”

“You, a problem with publicity? No way! Who said that?” Gideon asks, mock scandalized. She removes her sword and settles down on the seat across from you, swinging her boots onto the coffee table. You glare at her. She swings them back down, looking only a little guilty.

“The people want the Houses back in power,” you cut to the chase. “I need to soften my image —” even you can hear the disgust in your voice “—and show that the current government is still connected to the Houses in some way.”

“Cam and Pal were here just last week,” Gideon points out. “Cam’s here almost daily for sword stuff, last week was only weird because Sextus came along and he spent the entire time reading a book—”

“The Sixth never held political power,” you say, exhausted, feeling like Gideon should know this already. “They’re archivists and librarians to a fault. We need a figure meaningful to the people, someone mysterious and dramatic that will catch the public eye—”

“Oh fuck no,” says your daughter, who has cottoned on to the plan. “They’re all dead, Ma, they killed themselves after we broke into their stupid Tomb.”

“There’s no evidence the daughter died,” you say calmly.

“There’s no evidence the little rat lived, either!” Gideon says, full of indignation and the righteous fury of childhood enmity.

“Bomb,” you call your daughter, and she settles down and listens, as she always does when you use that particular nickname.

“You’re going to put out word that you’re looking for your long-lost childhood best friend, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, whom you believe may still be alive. It will be known that I approve of this search. In some months, you will return with Harrowhark, and she will renounce necromancy and swear allegiance to the Blood of Eden.” Thereby improving your public image and showing that even the long-lost Ninth House is loyal to the new regime. Your daughter will probably take the librarian prodigy and his shadow with her; you’ll send Camilla more of the specifics as the time approaches. She, unlike your daughter, can be trusted with details.

“You actually expect me to find Harrowhark,” Gideon states flatly.

After a pause, you say: “A girl who resembles her would serve the same purpose.” In all honesty, you assume the abomination died with the rest of her House when it was sucked into Dominicus. And because she is an abomination, you would rather your daughter not find her. It shouldn’t be difficult to locate a small, dark-haired woman in her early twenties to act as a suitable replacement.

The heir to the Blood of Eden narrows her eyes at you. “You sit on a throne of lies.”

“Still a throne,” you point out. “A press release in your name will go out in a week or so. Now get moving, you’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Whatever, Mom,” Gideon says, but she picks up her sword and walks out the door to enact your plan.

 

 


 

 

Thirty or so years ago, you hatched a plot with the Saints of Joy and Patience. Seven years after, you crash-landed on the Ninth House and barely survived evacuating the bomb from your womb. During that painful, gruesome process, an “it” became a “she”, and all of a sudden you cared about the bomb and didn’t want to kill her right away or whatever. You decided then and there that you’d still enact the plan, but you’d wait until your daughter was old enough to participate on her own. Seven or eight should be good enough, you thought, holding your red-haired, golden-eyed daughter close to your chest.

You didn’t even get to name her. A single misspoken name while screaming your bloody head off, and a bunch of decrepit nuns called your daughter Gideon Nav.

They called you Wake Iwa.

A year after that, the Reverend Father and Mother committed a war crime to produce a necromantic abomination instead of a child. You knew what they did. You didn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t worth it when they’d all be dead in six or seven years anyways.

Gideon and Harrowhark hated each other on sight. You’re not entirely sure why, but you were more than happy to let them turn against each other. When the abomination was seven and and your daughter eight, you used your knowledge of the traps, their competitiveness, and Gideon’s blood to break into the Tomb. Within it was—well. Not Alecto. But she did hate John, and she helped you and the Saints of Joy and Patience wake the real Alecto and destroy John once and for all.

(You would have destroyed the remaining Lyctors, too, if they hadn’t destroyed themselves.)

And John Gaius’s death left a power vacuum that you were only too happy to fill, with Gideon set to claim the throne after you. And now, your only problem is holding on to it.

 

 


 

 

Gideon

You refuse to go off and start the search for “Harrowhark”; do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Instead, you find yourself in the indoor training room reserved solely for your use. Listen. You know your mother. You were raised by her. Asking you to con some random woman (because, let’s be real, Harrow is long dead and would never agree even if she happened to be alive) into believing that she’s the long-lost scion of the Ninth House and also your best friend is not more than two standard deviations from the mean of “Weird Things Ma Has Made You Do”.

But you’re not happy about it. You bypass the weapon stand against the wall, with a set of dual swords and a dinky rapier, in favor of pulling your two-hander out of its sheath on your back as you cross the sandy arena. You’re ready to start hitting some shit.

You barely even remember Harrowhark , you think as you drill against a dummy. What you do remember isn’t flattering. A small girl all done up in gray and black; face painted like a skull and dark eyes worsening the effect. Black hair, too, if your memory of the few times you’d seen her without the layers of robes and veils held true.

You take a deep breath and shift your grip, adjusting your hands to be further apart on the hilt, before starting your drills again. You don’t know why you hated Harrow. You just remember spending years laying traps and playing tricks on each other, spitting childish insults in each others’ faces. This was not discouraged by your parents. Yours at least told you to fight back harder, stronger: Don’t let the abomination win next time. You’re not sure what Harrow heard from her parents, or if they ever spoke at all. You have vague memories of an older man and a few women doing most of Harrow’s raising; relatives? Caretakers?

And then you were eight and the three of you were breaking into the Tomb, and the Reverend Mother and Father hanged themselves and handed Harrow a noose. You and your mum weren’t on-planet long enough to see if she used it; you presume she did.

You take a break, resting on the pommel of your sword, breathing hard. The dummy is mostly destroyed—you’ll have to requisition another.

“Are we interrupting something?” comes a quiet voice from behind you.

“Oh man,” you say. “You guys will not believe what Ma asked me to do this time.”

 

 


 

 

“—And she wants me to go and find her! My long-lost childhood best friend, Harrow fucking Nonagesimus!” you say to your conveniently captive audience.

Palamedes Sextus, necromancy-free Master Warden of the Archive, and Camilla Hect, Warden’s Hand, are two of your closest friends. They’re also your only friends. The Sixth, which rebranded as the Archive a decade or so ago, is one of the few Houses that retained its sociopolitical power after it gave up necromancy. Which makes Cam and Pal some of the few people who are: 1) your age, 2) mostly on the same planet as you, and 3) understand what it was like to grow up in a House instead of as a member of BoE.

Even then, growing up Ninth was, ahem, not the same as growing up Sixth. But Pal was training to be both a necromancer and the Master Warden, and Cam would’ve been his cavalier, and when you and Cam realized you both wanted someone to train with, they’d stuck around ever since. It helps that they’re of a similar social rank to you, since technically, you’re a princess. It’s not your official title or rank, but it may as well be.

Palamedes quirks an eyebrow at you. “Is the problem with the finding or with the childhood best friend?”

“The problem is with the we fucking hated each other,” you say. You’ve all moved from standing in the middle of the arena to sitting on one of the stadium benches along the side, which rarely get used by anyone other than the three of you anyways. “The problem is with the she’s probably dead in the ground, because her parents suicidally shat themselves when Ma and I cracked the Tomb open.” Capital T-tomb. You regret every day that you can’t manage to shake your early childhood training on “These Things Deserve Emphasis, Gideon.”

Camilla snorts, not even bothering to look up from the sword she’s polishing. Rude! But also: fair!

“So it’s all a lie?” Pal asks. That eyebrow is gonna get stuck if he doesn’t move it soon.

“A heaping, steaming pile of lies,” you agree. The last time you saw Harrow, your mum was pulling you away from the room where her parents and their cavalier were swinging from the ceiling, and in your final look back, you made eye contact with a small girl in all black, holding a noose and looking scared out of her mind. Then your mum pulled you away, and you lost sight of her. “The press release goes out next week,” you add, not bothering to hide your disappointment at the prospect.

“And then you leave to search for her?” Palamedes asks. When it’s just you and Cam hanging out, there’s a lot more sword noise and much less mouth noise. Seriously. Way less mouth noise.

“Her, or a random goth chick with a hard-on for bone jewelry, geddit—”

“Cam?” Palamedes asks, turning to look at his cousin.

“Yeah,” Camilla says, stretching her fingers. “We’re coming with. It’ll be funny.”

“And we want to help you succeed, if we can,” Palamedes says.

You, unwittingly, find yourself verklempt. “You guys are the best,” you say, doing your best to not sound as choked up as you feel. Camilla knocks her shoulder against yours, which from her is a sobbing, melodramatic declaration of love.

“We can’t subject anyone else to your terrible jokes, either,” she says. And those are fighting words, so the afternoon devolves into you and Camilla wrestling while Palamamedes reads out passages from his book.

 

 


 

 

Three weeks later, the three of you and a fuckton of luggage find yourselves in a cafe on a bustling street, on a planet known for its population of Empire refugees.

“You know, there’s rumors the Princesses of Ida live here,” Palamedes says conversationally, stirring his coffee.

“Really? Do you think we’ll run into them?” you ask, trying not to seem overly-interested and coming across that way anyways. Like so many formerly necromantic families, the Third House twins have turned to alternative careers. In their case: being socialites. They aren’t even princesses anymore, technically, but they don’t seem to care. You’ve seen photos of the one—Cainabeth? Coronabeth?—and she’s hot, okay? Your interest here is super understandable.

“An entire planet, and you think there’s a chance we’ll run into a couple of celebrities?” Cam asks in mild disbelief. You’re pretty sure her coffee cup is already empty; it’s been pushed to the side to make room for a small tablet.

“Hey, it could happen! The hot one could lay eyes on me and be like, ‘Wow, Gideon, how did your biceps get so big and would you mind sweeping me off my feet,’ and then I would say—”

“You would say, ‘Sorry, but I’m looking for Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Seen her around?’” Palamedes says.

“Yeah, yeah. Fuck you too. What’s the plan for that, anyways?”

Neither Cam nor Pal says anything about you not having your own plan for the project your mother assigned you, which probably speaks volumes about your relationship.

“We’ve got a couple of different options, depending on how much time you want to spend searching—”

“As little as possible while still being like, realistic,” you interrupt. If you turn up three days later with some girl who barely remembers to respond to Harrowhark, your mother will know, okay. You’ve got to take some time with this.

Palamedes nods in acknowledgement and continues, “So we either spend several months traveling from planet to planet in search of the real Harrowhark, and if or when we don’t find her, we pick someone suitable at random. Or we stick to this planet, find someone suitable, and teach her to be the perfect Harrowhark Nonagesimus.”

“And technically, you only have three months to do either,” Camilla says, tapping away at her tablet.

You and Palamedes turn to stare at her.

“Wake sent me a dossier,” she says, unrepentant. You didn’t even tell her you were bringing Cam and Pal with you. It’s not surprising she found out, but like, still. You’re twenty-three. You could do with the barest illusion of privacy.

“So we find someone to be our Harrow, spend three months teaching her to play the part of a bone witch, and then we—” you say.

“Present her to Wake at the Redemption Gala, she renounces necromancy, you spend the next several months doing publicity stunts until Harrowhark is no longer a person of interest,” Cam fills in. Damn. That must’ve been some dossier.

“That must’ve been some dossier,” you say. Also, the Redemption Gala? The annual ball celebrating the end of necromancy and the redemption of the Empire? Ma is really going all out for this one. Your tradition for the last several Galas has been to put in a token appearance at the beginning, then sneak off with someone hot and spend the rest of the evening with them. Looks like that won’t fly this year, though. Yikes.

“I’m summarizing,” the Warden’s hand says.

“Our big problem,” you say, “is finding someone to be Harrowhark. What are we supposed to do, hold auditions?”

“That’s an incredibly stupid plan,” says Palamedes, who is generally good at plans. “There has to be a better way.”

 

 


 

 

Nona

You’ve seen a lot of weird shit in your eight months working at the theater, but these auditions are the weirdest shit yet. A series of young women have paraded across the stage, all wearing black and a haughty attitude.

You’re supposed to be sweeping, not watching the stage, but standing in the wings clutching a broom, you can’t help yourself. You watch as one hopeful, bearing a strong resemblance to Coronabeth of Ida and wearing an oversized black coat, walks across the stage and stops dead in the middle.

She shrugs the coat onto the floor, pronounces: “Gideon, it’s me, Harrowhark,” and follows it all up by doing a strange sort of wiggle that emphasizes every part of her objectively attractive body. One of the women running the auditions chokes on water; you see the other thump her soundly on the back.

“Thank you, we’ll reach out if you’re needed,” their male companion says. The woman harrumphs and walks offstage without picking her coat up; you halfheartedly consider sneaking onstage to steal it. The weather is getting colder, and as an Empire refugee without an arithmonym, resources are hard to come by.

You peek out past the wings. The three people running the auditions are all busy talking to each other. You catch “—that was the last one—” “—the fuck are we supposed to do?” “—told you this was a terrible idea”.

They seem busy; still halfheartedly looking at the stage, but paying more attention to the conversation than the abandoned coat. You see your moment. You set your broom aside and walk stealthily onto the stage, trying to strike a balance between “moving quickly” and “avoiding attention”. You reach the coat, bending down to scoop it into your arms. It’s still warm from the woman’s body and softer than you imagined. You bury your face in the fabric and sigh happily. If the coat was big on the woman, it’ll be huge on your tiny frame, but you can always use it as a blanket. It’ll still keep you warm on the cold winter nights.

You’re standing there, on a fucking stage, in the middle of stealing a stranger’s abandoned coat, when you hear a voice say:

“Hey, wait, where’d you come from? You’re perfect!”

Oh, fuck.

You remain frozen in place, holding tight to your stolen coat, as the one who talked jogs up to the stage and uses one hand to swing herself onto it. As she gets closer, you realize that she’s much, much taller than you, with muscles to match and dark clothes over warm brown skin. Her red hair is cut into a flopped-over fauxhawk, and as you look up at her, now standing only a few feet away, you realize she has gold eyes.

Huh. That’s funny. You’ve never met anyone with gold eyes before. Or maybe you have; you can’t remember. But you feel as though you’d remember someone with eyes like these, though. They make an impression.

“Gideon, I think she’s a custodian here,” one of the redhead’s—Gideon’s?—companions, the male one, says. He and the other woman are both dressed in gray, and they’ve walked up to the base of the stage, standing on top of the orchestra pit instead of joining you and Gideon on top. You feel your intestines shrivel up. Three peoples’ worth of attention is two more than you’ve had in years. You clutch the coat even closer to your chest.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” you say, looking around desperately for an escape. Something in your eyes must give you away, because Gideon’s expression softens and she says, “Hey, you’re okay. We won’t tell anyone, promise. What’s your name?”

There’s no hiding it now. “Nona,” you say. “My name is Nona.”

“No arithmonym?” the man asks, looking surprised. You shake your head no. Arithmonyms are for people with Empire lineage; most people without them have intentionally renounced their House, usually for some sort of horrible crime. If you ever had House allegiance, you don’t remember what it was or what your name would have been.

“So you’re BoE then,” Gideon says, a little confused. She would be, if she thinks you’re Blood of Eden. The only members on this planet are high-ranking government and military officials. Not the type of people who have jobs cleaning little-used theaters.

“No,” you say, exhausted and a little scared and just plain sick of having this conversation, “I’m just Nona.”

You’re twenty-two years old; your memories only go back fifteen. The earliest of them is of an older woman telling you to call yourself Nona, that Nona is your name now. She was dressed in black, with a dark, barely-starlit sky behind her. She handed you a small packet of dirt and helped you climb into a storage container. You’re small now and you were smaller then; you fit well enough amongst the records and flimsy. The woman closed the lid, muffling her next words. The next thing you knew, a strange man had lifted the lid off your box and was staring at you. You didn’t wait for him to call for help. You ran away as soon as he turned his back, and you’ve been running ever since.

You still have that packet of dirt.

You wait for Gideon or one of her friends to say one of the lines you’ve heard a million times before, a “nevermind” or an “oh, sorry, this isn’t going to work,” or even straight up walking away. Instead, the gray-clothed woman says:

“That might be for the better, actually.”

Your mouth drops open, just a little bit. You’ve never met anyone who thinks of not having an arithmonym, not having any sort of allegiance or protection, as a good thing. These three can’t be up to anything good, then. Drug dealing at best and human trafficking at worst. You resolve to keep your guard up, and try not to think about how easy it would be for Gideon and the other woman to take you in a fight.

“Cam’s right,” the man agrees. “If she doesn’t have House allegiance, it’ll be easier to pretend she’s the real deal. This might be the best chance we have at pulling this off successfully.”

Your body is going to turn up in a ditch and no one will be able to identify it. You need to get out. You know all the hidden entrances and exits to the theater, but you’re not fast enough to make it out and back to your apartment without one of them catching you. Especially if you keep the coat with you, which remains your preference in this situation.

Gideon nods thoughtfully. “Nona, how would you like to pull off a con?”

You’re calculating your chances of escape, and they’re getting lower by the second. A con? A con, that you’d be a part of, instead of victim or casualty? If they’re conning someone, it’s probably for money or drugs. Human trafficking is out, then. You raise your estimates of survival a little higher—but not much. Gideon takes your rapid blinking as interest and continues.

“We need you to pretend to be someone who is most definitely dead. The three of us will spend three months teaching you how to be her, at the end of which you will swear your allegiance, as this person, to Commander Wake. We—” she indicates herself and you “—will be working closely together throughout this whole process, and for several months afterwards. At the end of those months, you’ll be free to go and do as you wish.”

What you’re hearing is that you need to pretend to be someone you’re not for six months, minimum. And you’re not sure how Commander Wake plays into it, but if she’s involved, then the eyes of everyone with access to a tablet and a vidscreen will be on you. Even the thought is nauseating. You also didn’t hear any mention of a reward in that spiel. Do they really expect you to do this out of the goodness of your heart?

“How’s Commander Wake involved? And what’s in this for me?” you ask, cuddling your coat close and daring to look over at Gideon. She’s standing near you with her arms crossed over her chest, a quizzical tilt to her head. You helplessly realize that, between her height and her muscles and those bright gold eyes, Gideon is very, very handsome. You mentally berate yourself for being attracted to someone who so clearly wants to take advantage of you.

“What’s in it for you?” Gideon asks, a tilt to her head and a small frown on her lips. She’s confused. She’s genuinely confused as to why you wouldn’t sign up for a con out of the goodness of your heart. Fucking rich people.

You tilt your head up and hold your coat tight. “I’m not doing this unless I get something out of it, too. What do you have? Money? Connections?” Money would be best, you think. You wouldn’t be able to get a better job or a nicer apartment, but you’d at least be able to buy yourself some new clothes. Better food. A space heater, even. God, you’d kill a man for a space heater.

“What do we have?” Gideon asks, turning to her companions. They’re both leaning against the stage, the man’s hands propping up his chin and the woman’s arms folded neatly. “Cam, was this in the dossier?”

The woman rolls her eyes. “We’re authorized to give specific rewards, all of which are only feasible if the person receiving them is in a House. Outside of that, you would need to request permission to give a monetary gift over 14,999 credits, and you could possibly arrange an employment opportunity after the job is completed.” Your jaw drops open. Fifteen thousand credits? For you? Who the hell do they need you to be?

“Who do you need me to be? And again, how is Commander Wake involved?” you ask, desperately hoping for some answers. There’s so much going on that you don’t understand. You need to know before you come to any decisions.

“We need you to be a woman named Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last daughter of the Ninth House, who was killed along with the rest of her House when Dominicus imploded,” Gideon says, speaking carefully. Okay. That doesn’t sound too bad. Everyone knows no one from the Ninth House survived, so the real Harrowhark won’t be coming after you. But if she was the last daughter, she was probably a Necromancer, which is now illegal. Hopefully they won’t make you do or learn any.

“And Wake is involved because she’s my mum,” Gideon continues. The man puts his hands over his eyes.

Oh.

Your legs turn to jelly. You collapse with a thump that echoes on the hollow stage, coat falling in your lap. Commander Wake’s daughter. That must mean Gideon is Gideon Una, next in line for the metaphorical throne. You asked Gideon Una what you would get out of a con she needs you to pull off. No wonder she expected you to just go ahead and agree. She’s probably used to people falling all over themselves to do whatever she wants.

And as for her friends...there isn’t a lot of tabloid press on Gideon, and you don’t pay much attention to that sort of thing anyways. They’re probably BoE or high-ranked House members, though. The sort of people who can talk about giving someone more than fifteen thousand credits without blinking. And they’re here, in your little theater, talking about having you steal a dead girl’s identity. You take your hands off your coat for the sole purpose of hiding your face in them.

“There’s something else we could offer, too,” the man says. You unbury your face just enough to peek out at him. He’s exchanging looks with the gray-clothed woman; eventually, she tilts her hand and gives a “do as you want” gesture. He continues, “The Sixth House—the Archive—is desperately in need of genetic diversity, although maintaining bloodlines is less important these days. And as Master Warden, I have the power to name new members. There are more details to work out, of course, and it wouldn’t come into effect until Harrowhark is no longer needed. But—how does Nona Shaist sound?”

Nona Shaist. You’d have an arithmonym, you’d have somewhere you belong, you don’t mind sweeping a theater but working in the Archives would be amazing . You’d had the occasional daydream about joining a house, but usually they involve making your way into the Cohort, or becoming another body for the Eighth. Never anything like being invited to join a House, let alone the Sixth. Your eyes start to blur, and with a start, you realize that you’re crying.

“Nona?” Gideon’s knelt down beside you, hands resting on her thighs. Although she makes no move to reach out and touch you, you can feel her eyes on you. Watching you. Waiting for you to make a decision.

You look up and rasp, “What do you need me to do?”

 

 


 

 

Gideon

Several hours, some really good sushi, and one trip to a truly shitty apartment block later, the three of you and Nona are on a remote-piloted shuttle to the station known as the Archive, current home of the former Sixth House. Pal suggested, and you agreed, that it was the best place to whip Nona into shape—between her new allegiance and the fact that the station houses the only records to make it off the Ninth, there isn’t a better option.

It’s a four day trip to the Archive from the planet you were on; the shuttle has room enough to see the four of you through that, but not much more than. Two bunk beds and a small bathroom in the back, separated from the cockpit and kitchenette by a partition. You’re in the sleeping quarters, busying yourself with some easy exercises—push ups, jumping jacks, mountain climbers. Pal is sitting and thinking in the cockpit, Cam reading a book near him. Nona is on a bench in the kitchenette, staring out a viewport, the stolen coat draped around her shoulders.

She really does look like how you remember Harrow. Short and uncomfortably skinny, with dark hair and eyes to match. A seriously pointy chin. The nervousness is new, though. The Harrow you remember was never nervous or scared, or if she was, she always rallied quickly. Except for the last time you saw her. But that was different.

After Nona agreed to help you, you spent the next thirty minutes planning in more detail. She told you a little more of her background—how she doesn’t remember anything from more than fifteen years ago, and spent time in an orphanage until she aged out at eighteen. She also promised that she didn’t need to formally quit her job or talk to her landlord, so the four of you went and got food before going to Nona’s shitty apartment so she could get her stuff. She wouldn’t let any of you follow her up into it, either, so you and Cam and Pal waited outside and wondered if windows were supposed to be that cracked. Eventually, she came back down, with only a small box full of clothes and knicknacks.

She held onto that damn coat the entire time.

You switch to crunches, then sit ups. There’s not much noise coming from the front half of the shuttle, until you hear someone stand up, walk, and sit down somewhere else. Then Cam’s voice says, quietly, “You don’t need to be scared of her.”

You immediately start exercising extra hard. No eavesdropping here! Sorry, too many muscles, not enough ears. Pay no attention to the Gideon behind the curtain.

Nona hmms, mostly out of surprise, you think.

“Gideon. I know it’s intimidating, her being Wake’s daughter, but you don’t need to be scared of her.”

You start doing squat jumps to block out some of the noise. Down, up, thunk on the metal of the shuttle.

Nona says, “I’m not scared of her. I was simply caught by surprise, earlier.” Down, up, thunk. Down, up, thunk.

“I know. But really, all she does is work out and make bad jokes. She doesn’t care about politics, or that you’re not associated with a House.” Down, up, thunk. Rude! You have other hobbies. Like collecting dirty magazines and thinking about girls. The point about politics is a good one, though. You should have mentioned that yourself—you know your mother would rather you were much more involved than you are.

And you didn’t even think that she might be intimidated by you. Between Cam, Pal, and your fucking mother, it didn’t even cross your mind. Nona probably thought you were trying to take advantage of an easy target. She genuinely is the best option, though—she’s a physical match for Harrow, has some of the same behaviors, and no one will uncover the ruse by revealing her true identity. It’s good that she’ll be joining the Archive, but still. You resolve to watch out for her more over the next few months. She needs it.

“I understand,” Nona says. “I just think…”

Cam hums, prompting her to continue talking, but she never does.

 

 


 

 

 

 


 

 

Four days later, at ass o’clock ship’s time, the shuttle reaches the Archive. You’re still half-asleep in your bunk when it locks into place, the traditional bump-BUMP startling you into full alertness. You sit up too fast, smacking your head into the bottom of the bunk above you. Ow. Stupid shallow shuttles. You swear they make these things for short people and short people alone.

Nona leans over the edge of the top bunk and glares down at you. Her giant black coat is wrapped over her head, one of the sleeves dangling off the side. It would ruin the effect of the glare, except you’ve learned over the past few days that a grouchy, early-morning Nona is not to be fucked with.

“Hey, only one of those bumps was me,” you point out. “I would also rather be asleep right now. Just saying.”

Nona scrunches even more of her face up, then grumbles before rolling back over in her bunk. The sleeve flops over with her. You, too, flop back down in your bunk, enjoying the last few minutes of rest before you absolutely have to get off the shuttle.

Or you would, if a pillow wasn’t thrown in your face. “Get moving. Cam’s been up for an hour and she wants off the shuttle.”

Cam’s been a hideous morning person for years. You literally could not give less of a fuck about making her wait another hour, except you kind of could, because she’s your friend and you also want off the shuttle. You throw the pillow back without looking, knowing your aim is true by the sound of Palamedes cursing. “Do that again and I’ll break out the nickname. Don’t see if I won’t.”

Above you, Nona makes a chirrp noise, like a curious cat.

“Palamedes Sextus. Sex Pal,” you say, by way of explanation. He hates being called that. It’s fantastic.

Two seconds later, another pillow is aimed at your face. This one from directly above. You’re about to throw it back up and over when Nona’s horrified face peeks over the edge.

“Lady Una, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Oh my God, no, you’ll give me hives. Seriously, it’s just Gideon,” you say. You’ve managed to talk her down from calling you “your highness”—which isn’t even your title—but the “Lady Una” thing has stuck, especially when Nona is freaked out. You’re hoping she gets over it soon. “Don’t worry about the pillow, either.”

Nona opens her mouth and you quickly say, “If the next words out of your mouth are ‘I’m sorry,’ I’m gonna throw the pillow back at you.” You watch her narrow little face (affectionate) twitch for a moment, until it finally settles on a small, tentative smile. You’re about to smile back, and then loud banging noises start coming from the kitchenette, so you assume Camilla has finally run out of patience and you gotta get your ass out of bed, stat.

Soon enough, the four of you exit the shuttle into the station proper; a motley crew amongst the prim, proper, and extremely busy archivists. The shuttle bay is always crowded this time of day; there’s a regular population of people who commute to the Archive from the planet below, many of them former necromancers who don’t like to stay in space for too long. You know Palamedes sometimes has trouble with that, but he has rooms set aside for him on the station anyways.

He leads your strange parade, all dressed in grays and blacks and carrying various bags and swords, towards them, with Cam following directly behind him, Nona behind her, and you talking up the rear. It’s too loud and busy to talk, so the four of you walk in silence until you reach Palamedes’s rooms. You’ve only been here once or twice, but they always look the same—plain, not overly personal, and kept perfectly organized through Cam’s influence and her influence alone.

Pal heads directly for the bedroom in the back with his and Cam’s bags; in turn, Cam grab’s Nona’s and goes through the bathroom to get to “her” room next door. You’ve never seen her actually use it; it generally doubles as extra book space and a spare room for when you stay over. But if Nona’s over there, you’re probably on the couch. You resign yourself to a few weeks’ worth of backaches and push past Nona to set your bags on the floor. You immediately flop over on the couch, watching Nona as she looks around wide-eyed before settling on one of the chairs at the table. She’s actually wearing that damn coat this time; it drags on the floor when she walks if she’s not careful.

When Cam and Pal have gotten back in the room, both standing in the kitchenette, she asks, “How do you become someone you never were?”

“Well, I can find some books on acting techniques,” the Master Warden says. “They’ll be a little outdated, but the theories should hold true.”

“Dude, there’s only two people alive who’ve met Harrow, and one of them is in the room with you. I don’t think she needs to learn acting from a book,” you say from your position on the couch. Usefulness of learning from books aside, you’re pretty sure acting isn’t what Nona was asking about.

“There’s also the records that made it off the Ninth, but they haven’t been digitized yet. We’d have to go through them ourselves,” Palamedes continues. Cam already looks excited at the prospect.

“Lady—” Nona starts, catches herself, and says firmly, “Gideon. Weren’t you and Harrowhark best friends as children? You could teach me about her.”

Oh fuck. That lie bit you in the ass real quick. You exchange a panicked look with Cam and Pal, who both raise their eyebrows at you. Jerks.

“Yup, that was us,” you say, frantically thinking of some way to cover it up. “But I never learned much about Ninth traditions. You’re better off going through the records to learn those.”

Nona frowns thoughtfully. “I suppose so. In that case, I’d like to take a look at the records now. If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly.” Seven-year-old Harrow was endlessly dutiful and formal, too. It’s funny how alike they are.

“We can go over now, if you’d like,” Palamedes offers. “We’d need to catalogue them as we go, but that’s good knowledge to have around here.” Camilla’s hands start twitching. You swear nothing gets that woman hotter than cataloguing. It’s a little weird.

So you resign yourself to a day of solo workouts and vague boredom and wave the three of them off, promising to be barefoot in the kitchen when they come back. And you mean to, you really do! Except you get caught up in practicing with Cam’s bo staff (why does she have a bo staff? The world may never know), and then you take advantage of being off the shuttle to shower in a bathroom where your elbows don’t hit the walls and the showerhead is above yours. And after that, you finally try to cook something in the tiny kitchenette, but it’s not really built for actual cooking. Your lack of skill in the department notwithstanding.

When Pal, Cam, and Nona get back, they’re carrying records and takeouts and you’re standing over some charred ex-food that came out of the microwave horribly.

“Oh thank God, I still can’t cook,” you say upon seeing the boxes of food. Palamedes wrinkles his nose at the smell but withholds commentary (good for your ego!) as he heads to the bathroom—final destination Nona’s room, probably—with the records.

Cam rolls her eyes as she sets the food on the table. “We decided it was better safe than sorry. Since you’re clearly sorry.” Hey, you resemble that remark! But discretion is the better part of valor, so you sweep your mistake into the trash and settle down to eat.

All through dinner, Nona chatters on and on about the traditional robes of the Ninth (boring and ugly, in your opinion); the traditional face paints of the Ninth (the patterns have names ?); how she needs to start doing the face paints immediately but only in private, of course; and do you think I could get some bone jewelry somewhere? Because the real Harrowhark would definitely wear bone jewelry (can confirm). It’s totally different from the Nona you’ve gotten to know over the past few days. She’s gone from barely speaking to producing an endless litany on everything Ninth.

In a way, it’s nice to hear; you hadn’t realized you actually missed the Ninth House, being Gideon Nav instead of Gideon Una. Suddenly, you’re stupidly nostalgic for your childhood on that dark little rock, even though it highkey sucked. No sunlight, terrible food, nothing but the endless clicking of bone rosaries. You’re glad your mum was around to show you how to use real soap and eat foods that aren’t thin, tasteless soup.

The endless chatter continues until Cam and Pal retire to their room, which shocks Nona into silence.

“Are they—?” she asks, clearly confused.

“No, just really close,” you reply. The two of you are still sitting at the table in the middle of the living space, the remains of your takeout pushed to the side. You’re just wearing your tank top and pants; the apartment is stiflingly hot. Nona is all wrapped up in her big, stupid coat, though. “Cam was training to be his cavalier, and they stuck together even once that wasn’t needed anymore.”

“I apologize if this is presumptuous, but—would you have been hers?” Nona asks, head tilted to the side.

“Would I have been what to who?” you say, supremely confused.

“Harrowhark,” Nona says. “The real one. Would you have been her cavalier? If you were just a regular Niner, that is.” Oh. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh. Oops.

“No, I think the son of her parents’ cav was set to be hers,” you say. You can barely remember Ortus, if you’re being honest. There was no one anywhere near his age around, thanks to the creche flu that took out all children but the three of you, so you think he stuck by his parents for the most part. “And I wouldn’t have been a good fit anyways.”

Nona looks a little by this, but nods, accepting your non-answer without asking further questions. You find yourself wanting to do something to earn Nona’s trust, to make this strange woman see you as Gideon instead of Commander Wake’s daughter. She’s small and weird-looking and the picture-perfect Harrowhark, and all you want is for her to rely on you a little bit, to see you as you are.

“Hey, Shaist. Wanna know a secret?” you say, using Nona’s unofficial Sixth name and all the charm you can muster.

She turns towards you, head tilted to the side and a little hmm? noise in her throat. Her cheeks are faintly pink.

“Harrow and I hated each other,” you whisper, leaning towards Nona just a bit. “I mean it. Best day of my life was when she fell for a tripwire I set and broke her nose. She got me back for it, but her face was priceless.”

Nona’s mouth drops open in shock. “What? But I saw on the news—”

“A total lie,” you say, grinning conspiratorially. “Ma made it up so the story sounded better. She totally knew, too—got mad at me whenever Harrow won a fight. Used to give me tips on how to do better against her next time.”

Nona stares at you in shock. Then, she lets out a giggle, a strange, high little sound. “So Commander Wake is having you teach someone to be your dead childhood best friend, who was actually your worst enemy, all for publicity?”

“Right?” you agree. “It’s so stupid. Who would reactivate their nemesis like that? Sure, Harrow, let’s relive the glory days of making each other walk into pitfall traps!”

And that’s what sends the two of you into spats of uncontrollable laughter, until your stomachs hurt and tears are coming from your eyes. Every time you think you’re done laughing, one of you looks at the other funny, and it sets you off again. Eventually, Nona stands up, wrapping her coat tighter around herself. She’s still smiling, a gentle thing that softens the sharp angles of her face and puts a sparkle in her eyes. You like the way she’s looking at you. Not like you’re Lady Una, but like you’re someone friendly, approachable, interesting.

Like you’re someone she wants to be close to.

“I think I need to get to bed. But—thank you for telling me, Gideon. I’m glad you did.”

Mission complete.

 

 


 

 

Nona

You’ve been on the Archive for a week and a half, now. It’s so different from anywhere you remember living before. Everyone on the station is there with a purpose; all of them are there to do a job or achieve a goal. No one (with some very specific exceptions) pays attention to you, not because you’re being shunned but because they simply don’t care. It’s amazing. Something about space makes you feel dizzy and cold all the time, too, regardless of how much you layer. But that’s really the only downside. You spend your days digging through old records with Master Warden Sextus and Warden’s Hand Hect, learning about the traditions of the Ninth House and the cult of the Locked Tomb. And your evenings—

Your evenings are spent with Gideon.

Perfect, strong, handsome Gideon, with her red hair and gold-amber eyes. Sitting at the table or on the couch together, watching her hands move as she regales you with tales of her and Harrowhark’s childhood together. Conspiring to make up new ones, because you mutually decided that if you’re to be “Harrow the childhood best friend,” you needed stories to match. Sharing the occasional story from the past fifteen years of your life, of how hard you had to fight to get that job at the theater and landlords upcharging you for not having a House association. How much it means to have her frown and say, “I’m sorry. That shouldn’t have happened.”

Of course, sometimes you want to claw her face off when she says it, because she’s one of the few people who could have done something about your situation. Things are much better for you now, of course, and you don’t think there are any other Houseless, non-BoE amnesiacs running around the place. But if there are, protections need to be put in place. It’s not fair to force people to remain members of Houses when this new regime insists they don’t matter anymore. But you have an in with the government now, and time aplenty to do something about it.

It’s only been a week and a half since you arrived on the Archive, two since you met Gideon and Masters Sextus and Hect. But it’s been a busy week and a half. Today, you’re set to start going through the final box of Ninth House records, put aside because it’s recorded as weighing a good ten pounds more than the rest. You’re eager to see what’s inside it; you’re sure it’s something exciting, like real books or antique weaponry. Your favorite find so far is an amature epic poem about some hero called Matthias Nonius—it was left incomplete, but the first five books are extremely promising. You have hopes that whatever is in this box is even better. The Warden’s Hand went to retrieve it; you and the Master Warden are waiting for her return in one of the special collections rooms.

“I thought we saved the heaviest box for last, Master Warden,” Camilla Hect says. She’s made it back to the room, and looks to be carrying the box without any trouble. She’s holding onto the edges easily, no strain in her arm muscles, no sweat. She’s not even breathing hard.

“The records show box three as weighing fifty pounds, while the rest are under forty,” Palamedes says, frowning at his Hand.

In response, Camilla drops the bin right onto the ground. It makes a hollow thunk sound, followed by the flutter of some flimsy lifting up before settling on the bottom. Not the sounds that fifty pounds of material make. You stare at the box, deeply perturbed. What could be inside?

“Any other discrepancies?” Palamedes asks. He bends down to crack the lid off the box. You, cautiously, follow him at a distance. You’re not sure you want to be up close when this one is opened.

“None that I could find,” Camilla replies. She, too, is bending down to open up the box. “Same age as the other boxes and equally untouched. Only the recorded weight versus actual is off.”

They lift the lid off in unison, and the three of you peer into the box.

“Um,” you say.

Fascinating,” mutters Palamedes.

“Is that dried blood?” asks Camilla.

And indeed, it looks like there is dried blood along one side of the box. It’s a dark, rusty-brown stain, flaking off in small pieces.

“I wish I could still use necromancy, it would be so useful here,” Palamedes says. You pretend you never heard him, for Gideon’s sake. “Cam, what do the records say?”

You’re scared to touch anything. You’re twenty-two years old and your memories only go back fifteen; the earliest of them is you, climbing into a storage container, and staying huddled in there, not moving, for several hours. Is this one big enough to fit a child inside? Would it have been weighed before it was opened, or after? If the container was opened and a seven year old girl leapt out, would the man who opened it have weighed the container again, and updated the records?

“They’re all population records,” Camilla says, a little distantly. “Master Warden, look at this.”

Palamedes peers over her shoulder; you’re staring at the box still, a little unfocused. “Name, birth, date of death...Cam, these are all children.

“And all of them died on the same day, at the same time,” she says. “What happened on the Ninth?”

There’s dried blood on the inside of the storage container. If it was taken off-planet in a shuttle, it might not have been secured properly. If the container slid around, could the small girl inside have hit her head, scraped it against the inside rim, hard enough to start bleeding? Would she have lost seven years’ worth of memories?

“Look, Gideon is on here,” Palamedes says. “Gideon Nav...she was only a year old at the time. She’s the only one who didn’t die.”

“Harrowhark must have been born later,” Camilla says absently. Then, she and Palamedes jerk upright and stare at each other.

“Nine months later, Master Warden?”

“It’s possible. The thanergy bloom would have been incredible—”

“Would they have gone that far?”

“Gideon’s said the Ninth didn’t have many resources. I suppose it’s possible, but they must have been desperate.”

The shipping box came off the Ninth. It holds records from the Ninth, records of children who died before Harrowhark was born. Gideon and Harrowhark were the only two children on the Ninth; one of them was taken off-planet by her mother. The other, if she survived, would have had to have been smuggled off-planet.

You dismiss the notion instantly. It’s impossible for you to be the scion of the Ninth House. The additional records in Box Three must have gotten lost somehow. With you’re luck, you’re probably the bastard child of some BoE higher-up, and they’ll recognize you as their child just as Gideon is introducing you as Harrowhark Nonagesimus and ruin the whole thing.

“Do you think she knows?”

“I’m not sure. But it’s worth a conversation, I think,” Palamedes says. “Nona? Are you alright?” His attention startles you; you’ve been kneeling on the ground with them, lost in thought. You breathe in, feeling chilled despite your coat. Your jaw is aching; you must have been clenching it. Your knees are sore from kneeling, too, but you’re fine. You’re fine.

You force a small smile and say, “Apologies, I was lost in thought. Did you go through all the records in the box?” There’s one key difference between you and the real Harrowhark: you’re not a necromancer. Of course, necromancy is illegal, but if you can convince Gideon to let you learn some, it’ll prove once and for all that you couldn’t possibly have come from the Ninth House.

“Yes, there weren’t many. If you’re interested, you could take a look at the face paint patterns again, so the day won’t be a total wash,” Palamedes says. He’s still holding some of the flimsy from the box in his hands.

You think the Master Warden may be trying to get rid of you, but you’re not sure if you care. You do want to take another look at the face paint designs; you’ve decided that you should wear some of the simpler designs in the days leading up to the Redemption Gala, and do one called The Chain at the event itself. It’s incredibly complex, so you’ll need to spend some time practicing to make sure it looks good.

“Yes, I’ll go examine those. I’ll see you both tonight?” you say, and Palamedes and Camilla wave you off. Soon enough, your mind is lost in swirls of black and white and gray paint, the symbols of the Locked Tomb.

 

 


 

 

That night, the four of you eat dinner together again. It’s become a sort of tradition, all of you sitting around the round table in Palamedes’ quarters, eating takeout together and talking about your day. You swear you’ve never had as much food, in both quality and quantity, as you have on the Archive. There’s a cafeteria for the archivists as well as several private restaurants, and the four of you have been rotating between them every night. And all the food is so good. Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, no strange preservatives, and as much of it as you want. You might have even put on a few much-needed pounds.

You’re almost done with tonight’s dinner when Palamedes says, “Gideon.”

The Gideon in question has just taken a last bite of food and makes a muffled mmrph? sound. Her cheeks are stuffed full like a small rodent’s.

“Were there any—tragedies when you were on the Ninth? Possibly when you were around a year old?” Palamedes asks, trying to be delicate. He’s intently focused on Gideon’s face, waiting for her to react. You look between them curiously; Camilla has also put down her utensils and is carefully watching Gideon for any movement.

For her part, Gideon appears not to notice. She chews, swallows, and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. “Actually, yeah. There was a really bad bout of creche flu when I was about a year old. Me, Harrowhark, and this guy Ortus were the only kids to survive.”

“Harrowhark wasn’t born yet,” Camilla says, at the same time as Palamedes asks, “Who’s Ortus?” You realize this is related to the records they found in the box earlier, the ones listing all the dead children of the Ninth. You push your plate away. The thought of all those dead babies is making you feel sick.

“Ortus was the son of Harrow’s parents’ cavalier,” Gideon says. She, too, is frowning, chair pushed back from the table and arms crossed across her chest. “What do you mean, Harrow wasn’t born yet? And should Nona be here for this?”

“I mean, there were two hundred and one names on the records, and Harrow’s wasn’t one of them,” Palamedes says. “Neither was Ortus, but he was older than you, correct? And I think Nona deserves to know, if she’s going to be Harrowhark.” Deserves to know what? If Ortus was left off the list, could Harrow have been too? Why are the Master Warden and his Hand so sure she was born after?

“There’s something missing here,” Gideon says, looking between the three of you. She’s leaning forward now, elbows on the table and chin resting on her hands. “Yes, Ortus was like twenty years older than us. What records? What aren’t you telling me?”

“We opened up the final box from the Ninth today. The only items in it were a few records, with the names of two hundred and one children from the ages of birth to seventeen, all but one of whom were dead,” Camilla says, dark eyes focused and intense.

“And?”

“All two hundred deaths occurred in the same five-minute span. The thanergy bloom would’ve been—” Camilla makes an explosion noise, hands moving up and out to match. You know that thanergy is the death energy that necromancers used to power their abilities; you’ve learned that much from the Ninth House records. But what’s the importance of having a whole lot of it released at once?

Palamedes opens his mouth and is about to speak when Gideon holds up a hand, forestalling him.

“Let me get this straight. You think Harrow’s parents killed two hundred babies with nerve gas or something, got down and dirty while they did the deed, and popped out a Super Saiyan necrobaby nine months later?” Gideon says, now using her fork to gesture while she talks.

“Essentially, yes,” says Palamedes, looking pained. His food has also been abandoned; you’re not surprised. You really don’t feel like eating anymore.

Despite—or maybe because of—having her theory confirmed, Gideon doesn’t look happy. She drops the fork and pushes her chair away from the table abruptly, metal-against-metal making a horrible scraping noise. The three of you sit in silence as she paces around the apartment a few times, before finally settling in the little kitchenette. Even her hair isn’t as bouncy as usual—it’s flopped over limply, barely moving as Gideon walks. She leans back against the countertop and rubs her hands over her face before saying, “Well. That’s fucked.”

“It’s terrible,” you whisper. Three pairs of eyes turn their attention to you, horribly so. You shrink back for a moment, your shoulders hunching inwards, then take a deep breath and rally yourself. “All those children dead, just to make one necromancer? Harrowhark was an entire generation of the Ninth House. She was their entire future, and then the Houses fell and the Ninth died anyways. It’s horrible.” You’re desperately hoping that your suspicions are wrong, now, and that you came out of some other records bin from a different planet. You can’t even begin to imagine the burden that would have been on Harrowhark.

Attempting necromancy is your answer. Attempting necromancy and being unable to do it will prove you’re not Harrowhark. It’s possibly the only thing that will, as you don’t expect to find another records box with signs of a head injury inside it anytime soon.

“Well, Ma always called Harrow ‘the abomination’,” Gideon says bitterly. “And now we know why.” With that, she pushes herself off the counter and walks out of the apartment, the three of you staring after her in silence.

With a sinking feeling in your stomach, you realize that you and Gideon won’t be spending the evening together.

 

 


 

 

Gideon

You, like the twelve-year-old you are, have spent the past few days avoiding your friends. After the revelations the other night—when Cam and Pal figured out that the creche flu had been genocide, actually, and you were one of two children who survived—you couldn’t bring yourself to be around them or Nona.

Especially Nona.

Your memories of Harrowhark are limited. But she was short and skinny, like Nona. Had dark hair and darker eyes, like Nona. Had a pointy little face, like Nona, albeit hers was covered in greasepaint. And you hated Harrow. Hated her with all the fury an eight-year-old could muster, which was a lot. Something about her pious little attitude and the way she acted like she owned you drove you up the wall.

But you don’t hate Nona. You like her quite a bit, actually. She’s sweet, under the sharp edges of her personality, and you love the way she brings her giant stolen coat everywhere with her. But she’s also learning how to be Harrow, and becoming more and more similar to the late, great Reverend Daughter in the process. Developing a fascination with all things Ninth, asking about bone jewelry, showing a propensity for intelligence and quick thinking. So when you look at Nona...you’re starting to see Harrow instead. And you don’t want to think of the weird amnesiac you rescued as a war crime. But you can’t manage to reconcile the two, so you’ve been avoiding her instead.

You’ve been leaving the apartment early and coming back late, avoiding Nona and Cam and Pal at both ends of the day. It’s been terrible for your sleep schedule, but it’s worked—you’ve only seen them a few times, mostly in passing. It helps that you’ve been spending your days in the desolate gymnasium at the bottom of the station. You found it by chance a few years ago, while you were visiting Cam and Pal and they were too busy with librarian stuff to pay attention to you. You’re pretty sure no one else, except maybe Cam, knows the gym exists, which is probably for the better. The place is a shithole. It looks like someone might have tried to turn it into a dance studio at one point, because one wall is mirrored with a barre along it, but that didn’t change much. The mirror is dirty and the barre cracked, and the only other things there are some shitty swords in a closet and a pile of wrestling mats in the corner.

You’ve been super bored lately, too. You didn’t bring your two-hander with you, only the set of dual swords that Cam taught you how to use, so you’re limited to those and whatever she has on hand at the station. It’s getting old fast. Spending all day napping on the wrestling mats is also getting old fast. You miss Cam and Pal, and you miss your late-night talks with Nona. You like having someone to talk about growing up on the Ninth with, and the stories she shares invariably make you want to wrap her up in that coat and never let her go.

You’ve noticed that every night, you end up closer together than you started—knees knocking under the table, shoulders brushing as you giggle on the couch. You find yourself wanting to run your fingers through her already-untidy hair, cup her jaw in our hand and brush your thumb across her lips.

Would she let you? You hope so. You can’t bring yourself to try.

But! Doesn’t matter. The point is moot. Because you’ve been avoiding her like it’s your job.

“Gideon?”

You flail yourself up off the mats into a sitting position. Nona is standing in the doorway of the gym, cowlicks and all. She’s white-knuckling the doorframe, small hand clenched tightly around the edge.

“Oh, uh, hey. How’d you find me?” you say, patting the spot next to you.

Nona takes a few tentative steps into the room, then quickly crosses the rest of the way over to you. “Camilla thought you might be here.” She sits down on the wrestling mat, a little further than the spot you indicated.

She’s not wearing her coat today. Without it, she looks even smaller than usual, more like Nona than Harrowhark. She’s mentioned being too cold a few times; you hope she’s warm enough without it.

The two of you sit in silence for a moment. Both of you, on some wrestling mats in a dirty gym, half turned towards each other, hands awkwardly in your laps. Your gaze drifts across the room, towards the closet with the shitty swords. One or two of them might be sharp enough to commit ritual suicide with. But: apologizing is probably better.

“I’m sorry,” you and Nona say simultaneously.

You blink rapidly. “Wait, why are you apologizing?”

“For whatever I did to make you avoid me, of course,” says Nona, who is hunched in on herself, arms wrapped tight around each other. “Why are you apologizing?”

“For avoiding you,” you say. Nona opens her mouth but you quickly barrel on. “You didn’t do anything wrong. I just got wrapped up in my own head.”

“Oh,” Nona says. “Then can I ask—?”

“Learning about the war crime I survived was hard on me,” you answer honestly. “And—you’re becoming more and more like her. Like Harrowhark. That’s all.”

Nona nods, chewing on her lip. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no, it’s a good thing. It’s what my mum wants. It’s just—”

“It’s not what you want, is it,” Nona says softly.

You sigh. “Not right now, no.” Your mum is going to be thrilled (as thrilled as she ever is, which isn’t much) that you found such a close match for the real Harrowhark. The more similar Nona is to the real thing, the better the con will go. But you keep nearly calling her “Harrow,” or worse, “Nonagesimus,” and that shit is not flying.

“If it helps, I thought of something that might help you distinguish between us?” Nona offers.

“Oh?”

“But it could also make things worse.”

You find a smile tugging at the corner of your mouth. “Spit it out, Shaist.”

Nona blushes, as she usually does when you call her that, but looks nervous nonetheless. “Harrowhark was a necromancer.”

“Uh, yeah, that’s like the whole reason why she’s dead now,” you point out. Nona flinches a bit, which—odd, yes, but sure, you were a little blunt. “What about it?”

“I’m not. Or, I could be? And if I tried to do some and couldn’t, then you’d have a way to tell us apart.”

You’re no longer smiling. “If that’s a joke, it’s not funny.”

“It’s not,” Nona says, reaching a hand towards you. You ignore it. You push yourself off the mats and walk a few feet away, running a hand through your hair.

“Nona, be serious. I’d need to get my mum’s permission, and she would never go for it. She hates necromancy like nobody’s business. I don’t even like necromancy very much, and—”

“No, listen, I’ve thought this through,” she argues. The novelty of Nona interrupting to stand up for herself is enough to make you stop your pacing and listen. She continues.

“The Commander is doing this for publicity, right? It’ll fall apart quick if there’s no proof that I am who I say I am. Bone magic is foolproof evidence. I can just try to do some, and if it works, I only need to learn enough to show off at the Redemption Gala, and then I’ll never do any of it ever again. This could work, Gideon.”

Fuck. Points have been made. It would work well for the Gala, and if your mother was seen pardoning a necromancer who did bone magic right in front of her, it would do wonders for her reputation.

“We can’t just get you some bone jewelry and call it a day?” you say, a little desperately.

“I want that too,” says Nona. Of course she does. “But it’s not proof the way being a practicing necromancer is.”

Your gaze slides towards the mirror, the reflection of Nona’s profile only partially blocked by the barre. The shitty lighting and smudged mirror give the effect of a halo around her head, highlighting her philtrum and the tip of her pointy nose. She’s sitting on the mats daintily, one leg crossed over the other. As you look at her reflection, she turns to look, too, and her eyes meet yours in the mirror.

“I’m scheduled to talk to Ma sometime next week, since we’re less than two months out from the Gala and she gets needy when she doesn’t hear from me.” This is a lie; you’re pretty sure no one has ever, in all of history, described Commander Wake as needy. But she does like to know every single detail of your life. “During our call, I’ll ask her to grant permission for you to learn some basic—and I mean basic, okay, no making giant skeletons from random knucklebones—necromancy. If and only if she grants permission, we’ll take a trip down planetside so you can try it out. Deal?”

“Deal,” Nona says, looking ecstatic and relieved both. “Thank you so much , Gideon, I mean it—”

“Thank me after I’ve talked to my mum,” you say, resigned to your fate. “Come on, let’s head back to Cam and Pal.” You reach out a hand to help Nona off the mats and she takes it, easily pulling herself up. Her hand is absolutely tiny in yours; you brush your thumb over the back before letting go. You head out of the gym and up into the station proper, Nona following behind.

 

 


 

 

Wake

“Hey, Ma!” Gideon says, waving from your vidscreen. Your daughter looks good. Her sunglasses are nowhere to be seen, showing off her sperm donor’s eyes, and her hair is tied in a messy bun at the back of her head. She usually has fun over on the Archive; with Sextus and Hect spending so much time on the Garden, she rarely has a chance to visit.

You’ve set aside some time for this call today; you’re sitting in your private office, hidden away with no prying eyes. It’s been yours since you were thirty or so; you missed it desperately when you were on the Ninth. You were pleasantly surprised to find it intact after abandoning it for nine years—no missing books, large desk in the same corner as before, with only an added layer of dust.

You smile at your daughter. “Gideon. I take it you’ve found a candidate?” She mentioned as much when you arranged the call; hopefully she found a suitable impersonator.

“Oh yeah, she’s perfect. I’ll introduce you!”

The camera flips around, showing a small woman in all black, leaning over a bathroom sink. She’s holding a stick of black greasepaint, and her face is half-done up like a skull, half-plain.

“Nona! Say hi to Commander Wake!” The woman turns towards the camera, shrieking, “Gideon! I’m not ready!”

Your heart stops. For a moment, you think Harrowhark Nonagesimus has come back to life. You haven’t seen the abomination since she was seven, but this woman is skinny like a necromancer and has the same narrow, angular face, the same black hair and eyes. The resemblance is only aided by the half-done face paints. If she had but said ‘Griddle’ instead of ‘Gideon’, you would’ve been fully convinced your daughter found the Reverend Daughter herself.

The camera flips back to your daughter’s grinning face. “Well, what do you think?”

You don’t let any part of your reaction show. “She’s a good fit. Where’d you find her?”

“On the streets,” Gideon says, a shaky camera your signal that she’s walking somewhere. She heads into a room you recognize as the Warden’s small, book-covered office, closing the door behind her. “She worked at the theater we held auditions at and tried to steal a coat that got left behind.”

Your daughter held auditions for the role of Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Kindly Emperor. “What House is she from, that she was stealing coats?” you ask.

Gideon hesitates before answering. “She doesn’t remember. She said she was in an accident, about fifteen years ago, and doesn’t remember anything before that. As far as she knows, she’s a Houseless orphan.”

So if the abomination did make it off the Ninth, there’s a nonzero chance that she’s this woman, this—Nona, your daughter called her. Nona. Interesting.

“Pal agreed to give her a Sixth arithmonym once she no longer needs to be Harrowhark,” your daughter continues. “She won’t back out on us.”

“She certainly seems committed to the role,” you allow, thinking of the face paint the woman was wearing.

“Yeah, she’s decided she has to do the fanciest! skull! ever! for the Gala, so of course it has to look perfect,” your daughter says, rolling her eyes affectionately. “She’s taking it super seriously.”

You say nothing to this, only nodding to encourage your daughter to continue speaking.

Gideon hesitates for a moment before saying, “Speaking of…”

You raise an eyebrow.

“Nona wants to try some basic necromancy so she can do some at the Gala and it’ll really look like she’s the real Harrowhark,” she confesses, all in a rush.

Interesting.

You pause for a moment, watching Gideon’s mouth twist nervously.

“Why did we kill the Emperor, Bomb?”

“Because He was a necromancer,” your daughter says, voice small.

“And why does that matter?”

“Because His life prevented the lives of others from following the path of the River. Because He and the necromancers in His likeness prevented us from drinking of the Blood of Eden, from experiencing life after life and death after death.”

“And now you want to bring one of them back,” you say, not gently, but not as coldly as you could, either. Gideon, as obstinate as ever, refuses to back down.

“Only temporarily. Only enough to look really good at the Gala, and it’ll make you look good if she does necromancy in front of you and you don’t pull out your rifle and shoot her.”

You consider this for a moment, hand resting on your chin. It would improve the fiasco leftover from the Eighth if you were seen letting a known necromancer live. And...the abomination was always a strong necromancer. Stronger than the Ninth had produced in a long time. If this Nona manages to learn necromancy and do it well, especially bone magic, it would prove beyond a doubt that she is Harrowhark Nonagesimus come back to life.

You don’t have evidence for that now. But you could.

“The chances are high she won’t even be capable of necromancy,” you point out. By the end of the myriad, the Houses were relying on increasingly drastic measures to ensure the production of necromantic offspring. Your revolution stopped all that, of course. And despite the massive jump in birth rates from fifteen years ago, very few of the new lives are capable of that sort of blasphemy.

“But you’ll let her try?” your daughter asks.

“Yes, Gideon, I’ll let her try.” If only to learn whether you need to kill her. You never imagined your daughter would find the real Reverend Daughter; you assumed she would bring you a suitable impersonator. There was no evidence of the abomination’s death, but none to suggest she lived, either. You find yourself disturbed at the thought of her wandering the system all these years, right under your nose. Better hope that this Nona is nothing more than she appears to be.

“Thank you, Mum, thank you,” Gideon says. “I promise, we’ll make it look good for the Gala. I won’t let you down.”

You smile at your daughter. “I know you won’t. Now tell me, how have you been doing amongst the librarians? Are you keeping up with your training?”

You’re familiar with the dearth of suitable workout materials on the Archive. But it’s nice to hear your daughter talk about her time there nonetheless. And you carefully, moment by moment, note every word she says about the mysterious Nona, compiling it all in your mind. Just in case.

 

 


 

 

Nona

For your first time attempting necromancy, the Warden and his Hand bring you to a grassy, sunlit field a little ways outside the planetside settlement.

Two weeks ago, Gideon had emerged after her call with Commander Wake, tired and happy, with the announcement that you had been granted permission to try learning necromancy. You like to think you wouldn’t have gone ahead without the Commander’s permission; you’re not entirely sure that’s true. Ever since you pitched your idea to Gideon, you’ve been studying anatomy and Ninth necromantic theorems like mad. It’s exhausting. You hope it’s enough.

And while you were doing that, Gideon spent her time arranging this trip down to the settlement, as necromancy is impossible in space. Your relationship repaired itself after your talk in the gymnasium and her call with the Commander; you’re back to spending the evenings talking together, and sometimes the days too, when you want company while you study. Your outing this morning was her idea: Gideon says that even at seven, Harrow had a couple ear piercings.

Your own ears sting a little; they feel oddly weighed-down with metal. By the time of the Gala, some of them should be healed enough to switch the metal for bone. You’ve always wanted piercings, but it never felt right to spend money on them. You’re both grateful and ashamed that Gideon paid for the ones you have now, the titanium in your lobes and daith and helix. She said she could use it as a write-off, and while you’re not exactly sure what she’s writing off, it seems convenient.

After that, though, Gideon had sent you, Camilla, Palamedes, and a massive pile of human bones off with a wave, citing a grass allergy as a reason to go and do something else. And now you’re here, in a beautiful meadow on a warm, sunny day, so incongruous with what you’re about to try and do. The pile of bones has been thoughtfully scattered across a portion of the grass, theoretically making it easier to sense the individual pieces.

You, Camilla, and Palamedes, standing in the meadow together, stare at the bones. You’re not entirely sure where Gideon sourced them, only that they’re human and include complete skeletons as well as odds and ends. They should do the job well, once you get up the nerve to try it.

“The theorems I’ve studied say it’s best to start simple, with a ribcage or a pelvis, and try to morph the bone from there,” you say, carefully looking at Palamedes, the only one of you with any necromantic experience. Those parts of the body have some of the largest, least delicate bones, unlike the hands and feet.

The Warden adjusts his glasses, saying, “Sixth necromancy is—was—quite different from Ninth. But you may as well give it a shot.” He’s right. You sit down in the grass, your coat settling on the ground around you. You look over at Camilla and Palamedes nervously; they’ve taken a few steps away, and are reading books instead of paying attention to you. That’s good. You’re not sure you could do this if they were watching closely.

You breathe in and out, focusing on the world around you, and then further out, trying to sense the thanergy in the bones nearby. It’s difficult. You’re not sure what you’re looking for, and the grass under your body and the wind in your hair makes it harder. You nearly give it up as a lost cause. But slowly, you start feeling it: the sensations of death and decay emanating from various places across the meadow. You focus on the strongest concentration of it, a sparkling black mass in your mind’s eye. Once you’re sure you have a grasp on it, you take another deep breath, then push .

A shooting pain hits you, stabbing from the top of your head down behind your eyes. A trickle of something damp slides down your face. You ignore both, trying to mold the bone into a sphere of osseous matter. Every time you think you have a grasp on it, another section bulges out. It’s not even that much bone—you’ve come this far already. You should be able to mash a few bits of bone into an orb. You feel yourself starting to shake, more of the shooting pains hitting across your brain, more of the liquid sliding down your face and scalp. You’re pushing yourself too hard, you realize dimly. The theorem notes warned about this. It’s easy to give yourself brain damage if you do too much, too fast.

You give yourself permission to detangle from your uneven sphere. It’s trickier than you expected, pulling yourself out of the mass of thanergy. You return to your body, eyes blinking open into light far dimmer than when you closed them. Every muscle you have is sore and aching, the skin on your face tacky and stiff. You reach up and touch it; your fingers come away red. Blood. The notes said this could happen.

You look across the field, trying to spot the small sphere you were molding. But all the bone is in one big ball in the center, haphazardly mushed together.

Oh.

Oops?

“What the actual fuck, Nona?” Palamedes says. He’s staring at the bone orb in disbelief, one hand shoved under his glasses to rub his temple. Camilla looks equally shocked.

You have a dim memory—memory?—of doing something similar as a child, of being praised for your aptitude and chastised for ruining so much bone.

And that’s when everything goes black.

 

 


 

 

Gideon

You thought you did everything right for once. You thought that, after two weeks of careful, responsible planning, you had this trip fucking nailed. You found a piercing shop for Nona, you sourced a fuckton of human bone, you arranged hotel rooms for two nights. Everything was great.

Except when you placed a reservation for adjoining hotel rooms, one room with one bed and one with two, something in the system got all messed up, and now you have two adjoining rooms with one bed each. Which is what Cam and Pal are used to, but unless you want to sleep on a tiny, shitty chair, or in a tiny, less-shitty bathtub, you’ll have to share a bed with Nona.

Sharing a bed. With Nona. You spent half the afternoon talking to the receptionist, but there’s no other rooms available, and nothing at any of the other hotels in town. You’re stuck here. It’s a big bed, if nothing else; you won’t be forced to be near each other. But what if one of you rolls towards the other in your sleep and you wake up cuddling? What are you even supposed to do in that situation?

Oh God what if you accidentally crush Nona in your sleep. She’s delicate like a baby bird, okay, it could totally happen!

You take a deep breath and run your hands through your hair. It won’t be a big deal. They’ll come back from their necromantic outing, and you have takeout waiting for them, and you’ll explain the situation and you’ll all have a good laugh. It’ll be a little awkward, but it’ll be fine! Nona will blink up at you with those big dark eyes and say, “Oh, well, I’m okay with it if you are, Gideon,” and you’ll have to play it cool and act like you’re not freaking out over sharing a bed with her. And Cam and Pal will laugh at you while pretending they aren’t, because they’ve seen through every single one of your crushes in the past decade. It’s super embarrassing.

You sprawl across the tiny, shitty chair and take a deep breath. It’s not actually that bad of a chair, if you’re being honest. It’s just small and uncomfortably built; the back and armrests are too straight, and the seat too shallow for lounging. You definitely wouldn’t be able to sleep in it, though, and the chair at the desk is even worse. Maybe you could share with Cam and Pal? But they’ve got their platonic soulmates thing going on, and Pal snores like a motherfucker. So hopefully Nona will be okay with sharing, and it won’t be too weird. You can make a wall of pillows down the middle of the bed if you have to.

That’s when there’s a knock at the hotel room door—Cam probably asked the receptionist which room to go to—and you hastily pull yourself off the chair and walk over.

You open the door and stare in shock. It’s Cam and Pal and Nona, for sure, but Nona looks dizzy and barely awake, arms slung around Cam and Pal for support. And is that blood on her face? What the fuck happened?

“Can you move out of the way?” Pal asks, voice tight. Oh, right. You’re blocking the doorway. You hold yourself tight against the wall as Cam and Pal haul Nona inside and settle her down in the desk chair. She sways a little bit, almost falling off before Cam settles her more securely against the back. Her feet don’t even reach the floor, you notice, heart aching at the sight. Her new piercings look nice, at least; they shine in the dim light of the hotel room.

But while you’re looking at her, Nona is looking right back at you. Her eyes find yours and sharpen a little bit, showing some alertness. “Gideon, I did necromancy,” she says, slurring her words just a touch.

Oh, okay. It’s your worst fear and your strongest hope coming true all at once. It’ll be fantastic at the Gala, but God, so much for finding a dissimilarity between Nona and Harrow. “You did, huh?” you say, aiming for a smile and landing on an awkward grimace. “How did it go?”

“It went bad, and then good, and then bad again,” says a very solemn Nona. Her eyes look huge in her small face, even bigger and darker than usual.

“She forced all the bones into a giant orb,” Cam says in an undertone. She’s got Nona’s coat over one arm, and is looking over the hotel room curiously. “Is this ours?” she asks, referring to herself and Palamedes.

A bone orb? Nona made a bone orb? Whatever, you’ll deal with that later. “No, both rooms have one bed,” you say. “Keys to yours are on the desk.”

Cam snorts and says, “Good luck,” before setting the coat on the bed and grabbing the other set of room keys. She heads back out of the room, presumably to go next door.

“Do you want any assistance?” Pal asks, glancing at the door. Nona is slumped over in the desk chair, half asleep and more than half confused.

“No, I think I got it,” you say, resigned to your fate. “I’ll stop by after I get this one in bed.”

Palamedes nods, and you watch him head out the door before turning your attention back to the necromancer in the chair.

“I know so many bones,” Nona says. “So many, Gideon. So many bones.”

You resist the urge to make a horrible, entirely inappropriate joke. “You do, huh? Come on, let’s get you into bed.” You reach out and grab her wrists, pulling her up easily. As soon as you get her up, though, she slumps back over, unable to hold herself up. Oh God. You wrap an arm around her torso and keep the other around her wrist. Her waist is tiny . You feel like you’re going to break a rib if you squeeze too hard; you can feel her ribcage and hip bones so easily, with only a hint at softness in the middle.

“I know all the bones,” Nona says as you walk her to the bed. “All of them.”

“Oh yeah? What’s this one called?” you ask, rubbing the center of her wrist. There’s a bone there, right? You’re pretty sure there is. Your hand wraps around her whole wrist so easily, though. It’s small and delicate, just like the rest of her body.

“‘S the lunate,” Nona says. “‘S called that because it’s shaped like a crescent moon, see?” And she shifts her wrist in your grip, to trace the shape of the bone against your palm. You swear you can feel lines of heat along the path her finger took.

“Uh huh,” you say, mouth dry. “C’mon, Nona, you should get some sleep.” You nudge her gently, and she flops onto the bed, face down and legs still on the ground. You snort at the sight and lift her the rest of the way up, turning her so she’s on her back.

“Don’t leave,” Nona says drowsily. You had turned away from her, just for a moment.

“I’m just getting your coat,” you say, retrieving said coat off the end of the bed. “Jesus, this thing is heavy.”

“‘S comfortable,” Nona says. You drape it over her, carefully spreading it out and setting it down gently. She does a happy little wiggle once it’s on, settling in for sleep.

“I’m gonna go talk to Cam and Pal, but I’ll be back after, okay?” you say, because you’re not sure how much more of this you can take without doing something ridiculous. Ridiculous like brushing Nona’s hair away from her face and kissing her forehead, or something equally inane and trite.

“Mhmm, okay,” Nona says. You’re just turning away when a hand snaps out and grabs your shirt, pulling you onto the bed. You reach out to catch yourself, one arm on either side of Nona’s body. Her big dark eyes stare into yours.

“I remembered something. I remembered doing necromancy as a child. Don’t tell Gideon, okay?” Nona says, and then rolls over and goes right to sleep. At least she’s on the side with fewer brand-new piercings. You carefully push yourself up and off the bed, and stare at Nona’s sleeping body for a moment.

Don’t tell Gideon. Failed step one. Maybe Cam and Pal will be able to shed some light on the subject. You carefully, quietly, open the door that adjoins your rooms, and knock gently on the one on Cam and Pal’s side.

Palamedes opens it, and he says, “We need to talk.”

 

 


 

 

Wake

You feel a great disturbance in the Force.

You don’t, as there’s no such thing. But you do pause the work you’re currently doing—interesting how it’s still called paperwork, even after all these years—and set your stylus down on your desk, leaning back in your chair.

Nona, soon to be both Harrowhark Nonagesimus and Nona Shaist, remains a problem. It’s in her damn name. A short, slight girl of twenty-two, with dark hair and the blackest eyes you’ve ever seen, who looks natural with her face painted like a skull.

You did your own research on her, after speaking with your daughter. Nona X. No records before she reached eight years of age, no memories, no arithmonym; an orphan on a planet full of orphans and refugees. Almost everyone else who arrived there during the evacuation had an allegiance, and the rest were adults who intentionally chose to dissociate themselves from the Houses. It’s an odd situation, made odder by the request to attempt necromancy.

A request that you granted.

Your daughter’s take on the situation was correct, in that it will be a boon to your plot if the girl is capable of harnessing thanergy. However: if she cannot do necromancy, it confirms that her similarity to the abomination is a random fluke. If she can, it confirms that young Harrowhark survived the destruction of her House and the death of John’s empire.

You’re very nearly certain that she’s Harrowhark, even without the necromancy.

And if she is Harrowhark, she needs to die. She is a necromantic abomination that should have never existed, proof of a war crime and the product of her parents’ genocide. You hadn’t known what they planned in advance—if you had, you would have snuck Gideon off the list, like Glaurica and Mortus did for their snivelling poet of a son. You’re still grateful that her father’s blood allowed her to survive. Many of the other parents on the Ninth killed themselves, after their children died. You can’t find it in yourself to blame them.

Nona—who is maybe, certainly, Harrowhark Nonagesimus—deserves to die.

But still.

Still.

There are already whispers and gossip buzzing about your daughter’s “search”, the possibility of a necromantic scion at the Redemption Gala. Whether you’ll allow her to live, if she chooses to appear.

And if you don’t want to push your people closer to a revolution, you have to let her live. You’ll have to wait until long after your reputation is settled, and have her killed quietly, instead of doing it yourself. If she’s telling the truth, which you find likely—the abomination’s hatred of your daughter was astounding—she doesn’t remember being Harrowhark. She cannot be held accountable in the same manner.

But still.

Maybe having her under the same roof as you, under supervision from the Blood of Eden, will make you feel better. You pick up your stylus and awaken your tablet, opening up a missive to Gideon and her Archive friends.

 

The Redemption Gala is a month away. Now is the time to bring your imposter to the Garden. She needs to be seen as Harrowhark, and referred to as such, around the palace before the Gala.

I expect you here within the week.

Travel safe. - Wake

 

That should light a fire under their asses. Side project taken care of, you settle in to do the rest of your paperwork. You’re looking forward to meeting Nona in person.

 

 


 

 

Gideon

Half an hour and three cups of mediocre hotel coffee later, you’ve gone from dazed and overwhelmed to panicked and overwhelmed. None of you have even touched the takeout that you so thoughtfully got. You try to be a provider and this is what happens. But—focus, Una. There are more important things at hand.

“Let me go over this again,” you say. You’re sitting at the desk chair in Cam and Pal’s room, facing both of them where they’re perched at the end of the bed. “Nona fused all the bone in that field—which was a fuckton, by the way—into an orb, which shouldn’t be possible for someone who’s never done necromancy before. And now, you think she’s lying about her identity?”

“Not lying, but I do think she isn’t who she says she is,” says Palamedes, ever the pedant. “The box from the Ninth with the records in it—” you know there is absolutely more than one box from the Ninth with records in it, but you assume Pal is delicately referring to the baby genocide box “—also had dried blood along the inside. Like someone had been in it, and gotten injured during transit.”

“You think someone was smuggled off the Ninth in a records box? They wouldn’t have bothered getting anyone off, they didn’t give a shit about anything beyond the Tomb and—” you’re unable to continue, feeling sick at the realization that your Sixth friends have already come to.

“And Harrowhark,” Palamedes finishes. “It’s possible that head trauma would cause retrograde amnesia. Not likely, and more common in media than real life, but possible. We’ve lost a lot of pre-Resurrection research on memory and are just starting to make up for it, but the gist is—”

“The gist is that we may have unintentionally found the real Harrowhark,” Camilla cuts in, interrupting Pal’s nerd rant. “It sounds conspiratorial, but it does add up.”

Add up? It adds up? Did they get high while watching Nona make her bone orb?

But: Nona’s words to you before falling asleep. Her physical similarities to Harrow, her fascination with all things Ninth. How her memories end fifteen years ago, right after you last saw Harrowhark. The way she mentioned feeling cold and sick on the Archive, and actually took her coat off when you got on-planet. Who else do you know who feels cold and sick in space? That’s right, Palamedes Sextus. Who is a goddamn necromancer.

You can’t imagine it’s all a series of wild coincidences. Especially the part where the Ninth smuggled Harrow off-planet surrounded by records of children who died so she could live.

It just makes too much sense.

“This is the part where I would laugh you out of the room,” you inform them, “except she said something to me too. As I was putting her to bed, she said that she remembered doing necromancy as a kid, and told me not to tell Gideon.”

“You’re Gideon,” Palamedes says, brow furrowed.

“Thanks, Friendamedes, I hadn’t noticed,” you say. Much like Nona and her bones, you are having so many feelings right now. So many. But you’ll deal with them later. “Point is, I think you two are right. What are we going to do about it?”

“Do you think she’s figured it out?” Camilla asks, referring to the necromancer asleep next door.

“Seven-year-old Harrow wasn’t an idiot, and Nona isn’t either,” you say, thinking aloud. “If she told me not to tell myself, she definitely has some idea. But I—”

All three of your communicators ping at the same time, interrupting whatever the fuck it was you were about to say. You pull yours out and glance at it. Fuck. Your mother’s fucking timing.

“She wants us back to the Garden within the week,” says Camilla, who is a speedreader and a showoff.

None of you say anything for a moment, all thinking the same horrible thought.

“Do you think Commander Wake—” Palamedes says, as delicately as he can manage.

“If we’ve figured it out, there’s no way she hasn’t,” you say, feeling thoroughly sick. Your ma’s good in a fight, but she’s even better with her brain. She didn’t become the leader of BoE at twenty-five by being stupid. “She probably knew from the moment she saw Nona.” And if she knows, there’s no way she doesn’t want Nona—Harrow—Nona dead. This whole plot was her idea, so you’d bet you’ve got a grace period after the Gala before she goes after her, but it’s definitely going to happen. It’s a matter of when, not if.

“We can’t say anything to either of them,” Camilla says.

Both you and Palamedes turn towards her in surprise. Sometimes you forget that Camilla Hect is as smart as, if not smarter than, Palamedes Sextus, and then shit like this happens, where you both know she’s got the right answer but don’t know the equation she used to get there. “Explain,” the Warden says, frowning a bit.

His Hand heaves a sigh. “It’s like this. The chances that Wake wants the real Harrowhark to be alive are very slim. The chances that Harrowhark wouldn’t hate Wake are equally slim. We tell Nona that she’s Harrow, she agrees with us, and decides to confront Wake over destroying the Empire. We tell Wake that Nona is Harrow, she agrees with us, and decides that Nona has to die before the Gala instead of eight months after. We don’t tell either of them anything, we’re at a stalemate for the next month and everyone survives until the Gala. Simple.”

You consider this for a moment. Cam is right, as per usual. If neither Wake nor Nona learns more than they currently know, then their behavior towards each other will stay the same. But you’re also going to be spending the next month, if not some time after the Gala as well, in the same building. Together. All the time.

“This is going to be the worst game of keep-away,” you say, startling a sensible chuckle out of Palamedes and a snort out of Camilla. “We’re gonna be the Houses being pulled into Dominicus, it’s gonna suck so bad.”

“It’ll be fine,” Palamedes says.

“No it won’t,” you say.

“No, it won’t,” he agrees.

Ugh. Enough of this bullshit. You want to sleep. Granted, sleeping comes with its own problems (namely the bed you have to share with the woman who may or may not be your childhood nemesis), but it’ll still be better than this. You push yourself off the desk chair, and take a jerky step towards the door.

“I should get back to—” you say, pointing uselessly at the door between your rooms. You’re almost out of the room when Pal speaks.

“Gideon. Are you going to be okay?” he asks, gray eyes intent on yours. He and Cam have been able to see through you for years. Usually, you appreciate it. It’s nice to have friends who know how you feel without needing to explain yourself. But right now, you’re dealing with the fact that the girl you’re crushing on, who was pretending to be your dead frenemy, actually is your dead frenemy, except she has amnesia and doesn’t remember any of it. It’s a lot.

“I’m always okay,” you say, forcing a smile, and make your escape back to your own room.

It’s not much of an escape. Nona—Harrow—She is asleep in the bed you’re supposed to share, curled up over the blankets and under her coat. You take a few steps closer, feeling slightly creepy but also wanting to look. She looks younger in sleep, more the Harrow you remember and less the Nona you know. There’s still dried blood on her face; you wonder if it would be overstepping your bounds if you got a damp washcloth and wiped it off. Harrow used to get the same streams of blood, from every orifice on her face and then some, as a child. You remember teasing her about them, saying she mustn’t be very good at necromancy if it made her whole face bleed. Her response was, of course, “I’ll make your face bleed,” accompanied by tiny, sharp fingernails raking across your skin.

Suddenly, you feel tears prick at the corners of your eyes. Harrow’s alive. The last time you saw her, your mum was pulling you away from her parents’ bedroom: a small seven-year-old, standing amongst three dead bodies, holding a child-size noose. You and your mum used Harrow to destroy the pathognomic tenet of Ninth faith, and then left her to die with the rest of her House. But somehow, against all odds, she survived. Harrow survived, and now she’s Nona, who is smart and sweet and just as vicious as Harrowhark was.

You quietly walk to the bathroom and get a washcloth, waiting for the water to warm up before wetting it. Shit. it drips a bit on the carpet as you cross the room and kneel next to the bed, saying, “Nona,” quietly, and then again, “ Nona,” a little louder when she doesn’t respond.

“Hmm?” Nona says sleepily, rolling over to face you. “‘M sleeping, Gideon.”

“I know,” you say, your heart aching. “But you’ve still got some blood on your face. Let’s get it off, okay?”

“‘Kay,” Nona mumbles. She closes her eyes and turns her face towards yours, lifting her chin expectantly.

This is the most important task you’ve ever had in your entire life. The dripping washcloth, growing cooler by the second, feels like lead in your hand. You carefully bring it up to Nona’s face, and as gently as you can, rub it against the blood on the spot where her nose meets her frontal sinus. Nona makes a small noise of complaint—is the water too cold? The washcloth too rough? Should you be using one of your tank tops instead? They’d be softer, but you only brought so many with you—

“Cold,” says Nona, not opening her eyes. Oh thank God. A problem you can fix.

“I can go warm it up again,” you say, equally quiet, pulling the washcloth away from her face. The blood came off, at least—the washcloth is marked with a small crimson stain where it was resting on her face.

“No, ‘s okay,” Nona says sleepily. “You can keep going. Feels nice.”

You will die if you don’t get this right. It’s become a precious, delicate bubble in your chest, something reverent and intimate and vulnerable all at once. You shift to a clean spot on the washcloth and gently run it from her temple down to her jaw, then again downwards from the corner of her eye. You repeat this process until you’ve done the entire left side of her face, and then start again on the other. There’s blood on the inside of her ears, too. She wiggles away when you reach in to wipe it off, careful not to jostle any of her new piercings.

Partway through the whole process, Nona speaks again. “Gideon.”

You pause your motions, the washcloth turning shades of pink and red. “Everything okay?

“Who wipes blood off of your face?”

“What?”

“Gideon. Who wipes blood off of your face?” Nona says again. Her eyes are wide open now, searching yours.

“There isn’t any blood on my face,” you say, more than a little confused. Even speaking quietly, your voices seem loud in the otherwise silent room. You take the washcloth and resume cleaning Nona’s face. Her eyes flutter shut as you run it down the bridge of her nose, then force themselves open again.

“But if there was. Who would wipe it off? Who gets to take care of you?” Nona asks, becoming restless. You think you know what she’s getting at now.

“Tell you what,” you say, running the washcloth along Nona’s brow. At this point, there isn’t any blood left on her face. You’re continuing with the simple, steady motions because you want to. “If I ever get blood on my face, you can be the one to wipe it off, okay?”

“Not just blood,” Nona says. You run the washcloth down her nose again, just to see her eyelashes brush against her cheek. “Anything gets on your face, I get to be the one to wipe it off.”

Nona’s intensity has you flustered, blush hidden by your brown skin and the dim lighting both. Your mum loves you, you know, but she’s never been the type to provide gentle care. You’re sure Cam and Pal have such moments between themselves, but you’ve never been privy to any, let alone been the recipient. Who does wipe the blood off of your face?

You’re pretty sure that you’ve run out of surface area to put the washcloth on. You stand up carefully, knees popping as you go. You’re on your way to the bathroom, having resigned yourself to a night spent sleeping in the bathtub, when Nona speaks again.

“Are you gonna come to bed?”

You trip on nothing, nearly fumbling the washcloth. “I can? Just let me put this away first.”

“Mmkay. I’ll be here,” the woman you’re half in love with says, sounding like she’s falling back asleep. You quickly make your way to the bathroom and halfheartedly rinse the washcloth out, wringing it dry and draping it over the edge of the sink. Your toothbrush is still in your bag, sitting uselessly on the floor near the desk. You rinse your mouth out as best you can. You’re still fully dressed; normally, you sleep in just your boxers, but that’s not going to work tonight. Your pants are comfortable enough to sleep in, at least. You take your shirt off, leaving you in only a sports bra, and call it good.

You make your way back out of the bathroom, dropping your shirt on top of your bag as you go. Nona is sound asleep again, curled up under her coat, facing the center of the bed. You climb in on the opposite side, trying not to disturb her with your movements. She doesn’t stir; you settle down on your side, facing the wall, with nary a peep from her side of the bed. All the necromancy must have wiped her out.

You fall asleep to the sound of Nona’s gentle breathing.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Nona

You wake up, underneath your coat and over some blankets, still in your clothes from the day before. There’s sunlight streaming into the room, only partially blocked by the thin curtains; that must be what woke you up. It takes you a moment to realize where you are—you’re not used to having another body so close to yours. The body, of course, belongs to Gideon. You have vague memories of being brought back to a hotel and Gideon cleaning dried blood off your face after wearing yourself out doing necromancy—

You did necromancy.

You’re Harrowhark Nonagesimus.

You squeeze your eyes shut, hoping to fall back asleep and into a world where you haven’t realized things. You open your eyes. No such luck. Might as well close them again, then.

You’re—well, you’re a Houseless orphan named Nona, who was Harrowhark, scion of the Ninth House, before she lost her memories. But if you don’t remember being Harrow, Reverend Daughter and war crime, you can keep being Nona, right? All your knowledge of Harrow comes from Gideon’s stories and what you’ve read in the Ninth records. It’s not a lot; certainly not enough to start acting and carrying yourself like Harrowhark.

But you’ll have to do that soon anyways, because you’re pretending to be her for a publicity stunt.

You clasp your hands over your mouth to stifle a giggle. What a ridiculous situation you’ve found yourself in, like something out of a musical or a children’s movie. You’re Harrow, who is Nona, who has to be Harrowhark. You have to playact as yourself. But:

You don’t remember being Harrow. The glimpse of memory you received yesterday—a few older women, all blind, instructing you in necromancy—is hardly enough to base an identity off of. You remember being Nona; you know your life. It’s familiar to you. You think you can continue being Nona, for now, and you will create a new plan if (or when, you allow yourself to think) more memories start returning.

You open your eyes a peek.

If you remembered being Harrowhark, you’re sure that you would think Gideon grew up very well.

You’re facing each other, in what would be a very intimate position if Gideon were not under the blankets you’re on top of. Your bodies are curled together like parentheses, your head tucked underneath her chin. One of her arms is draped on the pillow above her head, her hair flopping onto it; the other is wrapped loosely around your shoulders. The blankets have been pushed down the bed somewhat; they’re tucked around Gideon’s ribcage, showing the black sports bra she’s wearing in lieu of pajamas. It’s a good look for her, especially with the way the angle of her arms puts all her muscles on display.

One of your new earrings is caught at a painful angle between your head and the pillows. You adjust it, then snuggle in closer to Gideon. For body heat only, of course. You’re warm enough, buried under your coat as you are, but you wouldn’t say no to being warmer. And—well, it feels a little wrong to be cuddling with Gideon when she doesn’t know about it. But you’re already snuggled up together; getting closer isn’t going to hurt anyone.

You tilt your head to look down the blankets, feeling extremely naughty; all you can see is muscles and—just a hint of an auburn treasure trail, what lies beyond hidden by dark pants. Oh my goodness. You pull your head back a little too quickly, accidentally knocking it into Gideon’s chin.

Oops.

“Ow,” Gideon says, blinking blearily. You watch her eyelashes avidly; they’re a pale red-gold against her brown skin. She’s starting to nod off again, eyes closed and chin tucking into her neck. “Mmph. What’s going on?”

“Go back to sleep,” you whisper.

You get a mumble as a response, followed by the arm wrapped around you squeezing, then pulling you with as Gideon rolls onto her back. You’re suddenly draped across her, stomach-to-stomach. Even with the blankets between you, you can feel your ribcage being pushed up and down as Gideon breathes in and out. Her other arm has wrapped itself around your waist as well; yours have nowhere to go but by her shoulders. One of your legs has fallen between Gideon’s. The other is on the outside of your bodies, curled up around her hip.

Oh dear. Oh no. This is, to your understanding, what is called a compromising position. And as much as you want to continue looking at Gideon in the early-morning light, she’ll be mortified if she wakes up to having grabbed you in her sleep. So as nice as it feels to be on top of her, you need to get both of you out of this.

Plan number one: Wriggle out of Gideon’s arms, shimmy down the bed, and escape to the bathroom.

This is foiled the minute you start the wriggling part of the process. You try to pull yourself down and back, and Gideon just makes an unhappy noise and tightens her arms around your waist.

Fine. Plan number two: Wake Gideon up and deal with the consequences.

“Gideon,” you whisper. “Gideon. Wake up.”

“Nnnngh. You can’t make me,” Gideon mumbles.

Gideon. Let go,” you say, attempting to pull yourself out of her arms. But your meager core strength is no match for Gideon’s muscles, and you once again find yourself trapped. Time to bring out the big guns.

“Gideon. I need to pee.” You don’t; not badly enough for it to be urgent, anyway. But it’s a convenient lie.

“Whuh? Huh? Nona?” Gideon says, finally waking up and realizing the position you’re in. “Oh shit, I’m so sorry—”

“It’s okay,” you say. It really is okay; in other circumstances, you would love to spend the morning cuddled up together. But so far, all contact between you has been...not accidental, but certainly tentative. This morning was not tentative, by any definition of the word. Maybe when you’re back on the Archive, you’ll tell Gideon that sleeping on the couch isn’t good for her back and she should share with you instead. Yes. But now is not the time for that.

You wiggle a bit more, trying to avoid putting your knee anywhere awkward. “But I really do need to pee.” Gideon obliges, releasing you from her arms, and you abscond to the safety of the bathroom.

 

 


 

 

The two of you quietly get ready for the day together, dancing around who uses the shower and who dresses in the room. The bathroom alone is three-quarters the size of your old apartment; it’s ridiculous what you’re getting used to, spending all your time with royalty. Giant bathrooms with full-water showers are a strange and foreign luxury, but certainly not an unwelcome one.

You finish getting ready first, more likely due to starting earlier than any primping on Gideon’s part. So you start some coffee and wait. You aren’t entirely sure where Camilla and Palamedes are; your best guess is they’re in the adjoining room, but you haven’t heard any noises from that direction yet, and you know for sure that Camilla is an early riser. You’re fine not knowing; you’re not entirely sure you’re ready to talk to them yet, after the events of yesterday.

Palamedes is smart; would he have figured it out? What about Camilla? If they knew, would they have told Gideon? You have so many questions and so few answers. You hope to God the four of you aren’t lying to each other about your true identity. But if they figured out what the papers in your box meant, then...hm. Well. It’s a possibility, one that you’re going to ignore. You curl up in the big chair in the corner of the room with a cup of coffee, and settle in to wait.

When Gideon emerges from the bathroom, dressed but with her hair wet and dripping on her shoulders, you gesture wordlessly at the half-full coffee pot. She thanks you quietly and pours herself a cup, settling in at the desk chair. You’re tickled to see she also takes hers black. The two of you drink your coffee in companionable silence for a bit, until Gideon says:

“Got a message from my ma last night.” Her voice is hollow; she’s staring into her coffee mug instead of looking at you.

Commander Wake. How, how, had you forgotten about Wake. The public story of the revolution is that she and her daughter unlocked the Tomb and found a weapon to kill God; you’re sure reality is very different. And you know for a fact that if the Commander knew who you really were, she would absolutely want you dead. If you were simply a random young woman with a penchant for necromancy, it may be different, but you’re not. Regardless of how you think of yourself, you’re not that woman. You’re someone else entirely.

“Oh? What’d she say?” you say, trying and absolutely failing at being casual.

“She wants us back on the Garden within the week,” Gideon says, sounding miserable, still not looking at you. You’ve been looking forward to visiting the Garden; the planet is supposed to be absolutely beautiful, a forest and a city all in one. But clearly, Gideon isn’t looking forward to returning home. It’s possible that your stay on the Archive was as idyllic for her as it was for you. You were doing work the whole time, yes, but it was interesting work. You were learning the basics of archival studies and data analysis from the Warden and his Hand, without having to worry about where your next meal was coming from or paying rent or whether to pay the electricity or water bill. You hadn’t suspected that Gideon found the same peace you did.

“So we’re leaving soon?” you say, hands twisting around your coffee mug. You regret leaving your coat tangled up in the sheets. Retrieving it would reveal how desperately you want comfort. You restrain yourself, and try to keep your longing glances to a minimum.

“We’re staying on-planet tonight and leaving tomorrow morning, as planned. But I’m going to schedule a shuttle to pick us up two hours after we get back on the Archive, so it’ll be a bit—” Gideon gestures with her hand “—wham, bam, thank you ma’am.”

“Oh.” A thought suddenly hits you. “Will Camilla and Palamedes—?”

Gideon shakes her head. “Don’t know yet. They’ll be there for the Gala, but the rest of it could just be us.”

Alone time with Gideon. The Nona of yesterday would be jumping up and down with glee. Today’s is a little more trepidatious. You think regretfully of your plan to get her into your bed on the Archive; at least you have one more night in this hotel room.

“Is the plan for today changing at all, then?” you ask, taking another sip of your coffee. You were supposed to do a bit more necromancy today, followed by a tour of the on-planet Archive facilities. With the way you used the bone yesterday, you’re not sure you can do more necromancy, and if Camilla and Palamedes’ plans are up in the air, the facility tour may be as well.

Gideon shrugs, still not looking at you. “I guess we’ll play it by ear.”

 

 


 

 

You do get your facility tour, but it’s a quick, rushed thing later that morning. Camilla and Palamedes have decided to return to the Archive a day early, to give them time to reorganize the Ninth records and copy some for you to bring with you. When you ask to return with them, you’re told that it would be better for you to stay on-planet and return with Gideon tomorrow. They’re probably right; you’re afraid that one pointed question from either of them will have you revealing everything.

You spend the afternoon the same way you did yesterday, attempting necromancy in a field. Of course, you’re alone this time, as Gideon is off doing whatever it is that she does. You’re much more careful today, in no small part because there’s no one to help if you make yourself pass out again. So you pull your orb apart a bit, and spend your afternoon sitting against a tree, manipulating a rib bone into different shapes. It’s frustrating work, made more so by the knowledge that seven-year-old Harrow was far more skilled than twenty-two-year-old Nona.

Gideon shows up as it’s starting to get dark, with a cart full of empty boxes.

“If there’s one thing I learned on the Ninth, it’s that there’s no wasting good bone,” she says with a rueful grin, and together you pack up the bones so you can bring them back to the settlement. It goes well. The two of you manage a semblance of friendly normalcy all the way until bedtime, at which point Gideon points out that with Cam and Pal gone, there’s no need for you to share a bed.

She’s right; of course she’s right. But it still stings. The bed feels too-big and ridiculously empty without Gideon’s body next to yours. You wrap yourself in your coat and huddle under the blankets, unsuccessfully making up the difference. You sleep on Gideon’s side of the bed—a funny thing to say when it was only hers for a night—trying to smell her on the barely-used pillow. Imagining you recognize the scent from a childhood spent together on a small, isolated planet.

It’s the loneliest you’ve been in two months.

The next morning isn’t much better. You get ready for the day on your own, quietly, and meet Gideon with your luggage and the bones outside your respective hotel rooms. Not even using the adjoining door. But you’re both carrying travel cups of black coffee. It’s a small comfort to you as you board the commuter shuttle back to the Archive, and by the time you’re settled in for the short trip up, the silence between you has gone from awkward to comfortable.

The shuttle is decently crowded; you see plenty of people in Archive robes, carrying briefcases or bags or boxes with them. You still can’t believe that there are people who travel from the planet to the Archive regularly, let alone as part of their daily routine. Going off-planet was unthinkable two months ago, and even this short, half-hour trip overwhelms you still.

You decide it’s about time one of you made some conversation.

“Why black coffee?” you ask Gideon, tearing yourself away from the viewport. You both have fresh cups, ones from a busy little stand in the spaceport. You managed to pay for both your drinks, before Gideon could—you may not have much money, but it’s black coffee. And with your other expenses at zero and a well-paying job on the horizon, you can definitely afford it.

“It’s all anyone in BoE drinks,” Gideon says, shrugging. “Ma never kept cream or sugar around, so I just—got used to it.” She nudges you with her elbow. “Why do you drink black coffee?”

“You may have noticed,” you say, trying to maintain some of your dignity, “that I don’t like overly sweet or strong flavors.”

“Or any flavor at all?” Gideon says, snorting into her coffee.

“That’s not true,” you say, knowing that it is very much true.

“Nona. That first day, when we all went and got sushi together? You got sashimi, and then you barely ate any of the fish and just had the rice. No wasabi, no ginger, not even any soy sauce. Just rice,” Gideon says, gesturing with the coffee cup as she calls you out.

“The rice was good,” you say defensively.

“The rice was absolutely delicious, but to not even have soy sauce? Nona. Yes, I noticed that you’re a picky eater. I couldn’t not notice.”

You scrunch up your face at Gideon. “The point is. I dislike sweet things in my coffee as well. And black coffee is usually cheaper, too.”

“Makes sense,” Gideon says. “Maybe you’d like flavor if you tasted something other than coffee.”

You scrunch up your face at her again. “Are you excited to be going home?” you ask, changing the topic.

Gideon shrugs. “I’m not not excited. But it’s not a big deal to me, you know? The Garden’s been my home for fifteen years. And Eden’s Heart—the BoE headquarters—is a massive fucking palace, but it’s also where I live. So.”

“You can spend some time showing me around, then,” you say, taking a sip of your coffee. Living in a ‘massive fucking palace’ so long it becomes ordinary. Okay. “Surely there’s something about it that you missed.”

That gets Gideon to look at you, a little half-smirk on her face. “Well. I have missed my sword.”

She’s had two swords with her this entire time, though. You’re about to ask what, exactly, she means by that, when an automated voice announces that you’re docking at the Archive, and you get caught up in the hustle and bustle of getting off the shuttle.

Palamedes is waiting at the shuttle dock for you, standing impatiently with his hair messy and glasses askew. “Can you ask someone to load the bones directly into your shuttle?” he says, without so much as a hello. “Because Cam is still going through the Ninth records, and she wants Nona’s input on what to make duplicates of.” And with that, you’re whisked away while Gideon deals with the logistics, and somehow two hours have gone by and you’re back at the shuttle dock, carrying all your belongings and ready to start your life as Harrowhark Nonagesimus. Twenty-two years after your first try.

Both Camilla and Palamedes are there to see you and Gideon off, and to your immense surprise and distress, both of them hug you and Gideon in turn.

“Both of you, be safe,” Palamedes says sternly, looking you both in the eye. “I mean it. Think things through before you do them.” The four of you are your own island, standing still in a sea of extremely busy Archivists.

“Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Camilla puts in.

“One time we had a sword fight while blindfolded,” Gideon says thoughtfully. “Think that’s still on the books, or—”

“Make good choices, please,” Palamedes says, pulling Gideon in for one last hug. “We have to do some on-station work for a bit, but we’ll be there a few days before the Gala. Keep us updated, okay?”

“Will do, Pal,” Gideon says, pulling away from the hug. She turns to you and says, “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” you reply, and you step into the shuttle to begin the rest of your life.

 

 


 

 

Gideon

After an easy, four-day shuttle trip, you and Nona land at a spaceport on the Garden, the one closest to Eden’s Heart. It’s quiet with just the two of you, but not uncomfortably so. Your relationship with Nona has settled into something similar to what you have with Cam and Pal, where you can spend hours near each other without needing to speak a single word. Of course, you aren’t vaguely in love with—attracted to— whatever—either Cam or Pal, and neither of them have gotten head trauma while escaping a dying planet, developed amnesia, and unintentionally created an entirely new identity as a result.

Unless there’s something they’re not telling you.

You’re glad Harrow is alive, but you’re even gladder that she’s Nona, because you can’t imagine she would want anything to do with you if she remembered being Harrow. She wouldn’t have agreed to be presented to Wake and renounce necromancy forever, that’s for damn sure. But: you have Nona.

And now, every time you see her, you can’t help but remember what it was like to wake up with your arms wrapped around her, her body draped on top of yours. It was only for a moment, but my God, what a moment it was. You finagled your own bed the next night for your own sanity; you didn’t know if you could deal with waking up cuddling her, again, and possibly even having time to enjoy it. You also weren’t sure that you could handle waking up to Nona in your arms, fearing that you were bringing her to her death.

You’re scared shitless of what your mum will say when she meets her in-person, or that seeing Wake will somehow trigger more of Nona’s memories to return. It doesn’t help that she’s started dressing more like her previous self as well, making “Harrowhark’s” presence known in advance of the Gala. While you were getting dressed this morning, she asked if she should do face paint—to really sell the Harrowhark Nonagesimus thing—and you said yes, for some godforsaken reason, and handed her some of the dresses and veils that you picked up on-planet at the Archive.

So you exit the shuttle with Nona dressed as a Ninth House nun, looking the spitting image of an adult Harrow. If you were less scared, it would be fantastic; as it is, you’re still extremely entertained by the ruse. You’re gratified to see whispers up start the second you step onto the spacedock, and watch them get even louder as Nona steps out, taking your proffered hand as she climbs over the edge of the shuttle.

“We’re making a scene, my penumbral lady,” you say, leaning down to whisper in Nona’s ear.

She grins at you through her layers of veils and paint. It’s a little odd seeing her without her coat; she tucked it away in a bag in preparation for your trip to the palace. “It’s fun being stared at when no one can see your face. But Gideon, are you sure we don’t need to get our luggage?”

“Please. I have people for that,” you say, reluctantly pulling your hand out of Nona’s. There are already various porters waiting to climb into the shuttle in your wake; part of arranging transport was also arranging for your luggage to be brought to your rooms in Eden’s Heart, and for the bones to be delivered to your training room. You don’t mind carrying your own bags around, but it’s certainly nice to have the help. Especially with the bones.

The whispers and poorly-hidden stares follow you as you lead Nona through the familiar halls of the spaceport, to the city waiting for you outside. It’s funny; for a planet called the Garden, there isn’t much green space in its main city. There’s plenty of plants, of course; the occasional park, building walls done in moss and grass instead of white cement, trees formed in the shapes of stop signs and traffic lights. You can feel yourself getting congested already. But the overall impression is definitely ‘weird, fancy city’ and not the wild jungle paradise it’s sold as.

“This is...not what I was expecting,” Nona says, looking around curiously as you stand outside the spaceport. You’re calling an automatic taxi, since you forgot to request a car from the palace and bullshit you’re walking there.

“It’s not what anyone expects,” you say, rolling your eyes under your aviators. You spent the ages of nine to twelve trying to convince your mum that turning the city into a true garden, with all the buildings made out of treehouses, was a fantastic idea. Now that you’re older, you understand all the reasons why it wouldn’t work, but the concept has legs. Weird tree root legs, but legs nonetheless.

Your taxi arrives promptly, and starts driving as soon as you and Nona have climbed in and you’ve input your destination and the payment. You spend the drive watching Nona stare at the city passing by outside the window, veils lifted for a better view and mouth slightly parted. Her already-wide eyes get even wider as Eden’s Heart comes into view, an impressive block of white spires surrounded by actual gardens. You’re enjoying your homecoming and Nona’s face both, when you realize that oh yeah, this is an automatic taxi, and you forgot to put in the code that takes you to the Grownup Door for Grownups, instead of the Plebeian Door for Plebes.

You watch the car approach the soldiers stationed at the main entrance with a combination of sheepishness and dread. Nona has stopped staring in wonder and is now looking at you curiously, most likely wondering why the car is stopped and a soldier approaching it.

You mutter shit under your breath, and roll down the window before the soldier can knock on it.

“You don’t need my ID, right?” you call out, head sticking out the window, tinted glasses lowered just enough to show your eyes. Luckily, you think you recognize the soldier’s face; unluckily, you can’t remember her name to save your life. Or, in this case, your dignity. At least she’s not one of the one’s you’ve had a dalliance with.

“Papers please, Lady Una.” Oops, yes she is. You think you snuck off with her during last year’s Redemption Gala, and haven’t spoken to her since. Yikes.

You dig into your pocket and pull out the cards proving that not only are you who you say you are, but you’re also allowed entrance into the palace, on account of living there, and sheepishly hand them over.

“And your guest?” the soldier says, peering first at your papers, then at Nona tucked away in the corner. She’s flipped the veils back down, hiding her painted face once more.

“Is with me,” you say calmly, since you don’t have an ID card for Harrow yet and Nona never had one in the first place. Luckily, being heir to the throne has its perks, and the soldier frowns at you once more before handing back your IDs and waving you through the gate.

“I’ll let the next checkpoint know you’re on your way,” she says, sounding resigned. Which is fantastic, because it saves you the trouble of being stopped again, but also alerts Ma to your arrival. Which is less fantastic. At least you’re getting the worst over with, you think as the taxi comes to a stop in front of a small set of stairs leading to a large set of double doors. An older, shorter, less buff version of you stands in front of them, red hair braided into a bun at the base of her neck and looking decidedly annoyed.

“Is that—?” Nona asks, looking in the same direction you are.

“Yup,” you say, experiencing a very distracting combination of “Mum! It’s my mum!” and “Oh shit oh fuck oh shit”. “Ready to face the music?”

“Definitely not,” Nona mutters, but takes your hand and follows you out of the taxi nonetheless. You confirm that you’ve reached your destination and all occupants have exited the vehicle, and it drives itself off, taking your only chance at escape with it.

“Hi, Ma!” you say cheerfully, half-leading Nona over, half-hiding her behind your body.

Your mum smiles at you, as good as a hug from anyone else. “Gideon. I take it your journey went well?”

“Sure did,” you agree. Biting the bullet, you step to the side and fully reveal Nona, saying, “Ma, this is—”

“Oh, I’m well aware of who your guest is,” Commander Wake says, very calmly. You and Nona exchange a look, for what you’re sure are very different reasons. “Gideon, I expect to see you for dinner tonight, and I’ve arranged fittings for you and your guest at 1100 hours tomorrow.”

“Fittings?” Nona whispers. She must be standing on her tiptoes to reach your ear.

“For the Gala,” you whisper back, ignoring Nona’s mutter of “By the fucking Emperor.”

“I take it that works with your schedule?” asks your mother, who knows very well that you don’t have a set schedule.

“We’ll be there,” you say, eager to escape this conversation. “I think we’re going to do a quick tour of the Heart, and then turn in early tonight, though.”

“As long as you make it to dinner,” your mother says dismissively, motioning for the palace doors to be opened. You recognize freedom for what it is, and signal to Nona that you can start walking up the stairs. Both of you freeze, however, as your ma turns to face you.

“And Gideon? It’s good to have you home,” says Commander Wake, before disappearing into the depths of Eden’s Heart.

“She’s terrifying,” Nona whispers to you. Try being raised by her, you think, as you lead Nona into the palace you call home.




 

 

Ten minutes into the tour, you realize that you definitely should have better prepared Nona for the whole “palace” aspect of Eden’s Heart. Half of it is living quarters for you, Wake, and any important visitors; the other half is cabinet and military rooms for important government business. All of it, however, is very imposing, done in a rather opulent pre-Resurrection style for no reason you’ve been able to discern. The walls are lined with art pieces and artifacts from across the known universe, all very expensive but of dubious aesthetic value, mirrored on the other side by large windows that let in the yellow light of the system’s sun. The glass is bulletproof, of course. You’ve never had occasion to try it out, but you believe your ma when she tells you these things.

“I cannot believe you live here,” Nona says, stopping in front of a particularly large, ugly vase.

“Actually,” you say, a little awkwardly, “we’re not even in my part of the palace yet. This is still the general purpose area.”

“The general purpose— Gideon . What the hell,” Nona says, looking very exasperated under her veils and paints. You belatedly realize that oh yeah, the woman who was cleaning a theater and living in a tiny apartment when you met is definitely not used to any sort of luxury, at any scale, and you definitely should have warned her about this place.

“Most of this stuff isn’t even nice,” she continues, waving wildly at the vase. “Why would you want a giant, expensive vase that isn’t even pretty?”

“Sometimes,” you say solemnly, heaving a sigh, “things that are expensive...are worse.”

“You’re worse,” Nona mutters. You, being the better person for once in your life, choose to ignore her. “Let’s just keep going,” she says, and you dutifully lead her onwards.

Eventually, you make it to the part of the palace informally known as ‘Gideon’s Wing’. It’s not a true wing; more like the back half of one, with your training arena on the first floor and your bedroom and other miscellaneous rooms on the second. The door to the bedroom across from yours is slightly ajar, and you push it open to reveal that yes, the palace staff have prepared this room for Nona, as evidenced by her meager luggage lined up by the bench at the end of the bed.

As soon as Nona sees her bags, she makes an excited squeak of a noise and pushes past you to get to them. You watch, bemused, as she digs into her bag and pulls out that damn coat, wrapping it around herself and collapsing on the bed with a happy sigh.

“Feeling better?” you ask, following her into the room.

“Much,” Nona says, pulling off her headpiece and veils to fully reveal her painted face and short, dark hair. “Do you realize how ridiculous your life is?”

“Maybe,” you say, a little sheepishly. You sit yourself down on the opposite corner of the bed from Nona, who is sitting up and looking around the room. It’s fairly standard for a guest room in the Heart, if not a little smaller than some; still bigger than Pal’s rooms on the Archive, still somewhat lavishly decorated. There’s a desk set up in the corner, instead of in a separate room, and a door leading to a bathroom opposite it.

“I cannot believe how many pillows you have,” Nona says, grabbing one and squeezing it.

“Um,” you say.

“If you say this is a guest room,” Nona threatens, looking like she’s about to throw the pillow at you.

“My room is across the hall?” you try. A pillow is once again launched at your face. You handily catch it and toss it back at Nona. But wait. If she thought this was your room...

“Wait, you dive-bombed onto the bed thinking it was mine ?” you say, absolutely gleeful. “Nona, baby, if you wanted back into my bed, all you had to do was ask—”

“Shut up,” says Nona, who you are sure is blushing under her paints. Then she shifts away from you slightly, and says, “It didn’t seem like it back in the hotel.”

Oh. Well, that’s true. You screwed the pooch on that one. You don’t have a comeback, either. Hard to come up with those after you’ve been brutally eviscerated.

You change the topic instead.

“So, the plan for the next month,” you say, laying back on the bed.

Nona leans forward, peering down at you very judgmentally. “You have a plan?”

“Please, I can make plans,” you say. She’s picked up some bad habits from Cam and Pal. So rude. “For example, we’ve got fittings for our Gala outfits tomorrow morning at eleven. Then, we spend the next thirty-odd days doing various preparations for the Gala, including practicing necromancy and being seen out and about as ‘Gideon and Harrow’. We figure out what sort of show we’re going to put on at the Gala, which kicks off a few months of publicity stunts, after which you move to the Archive and I visit as often as possible.” All of that assuming that Nona doesn’t recover her memories and your mum doesn’t decide to kill her, of course.

“And you have your dinner with the Commander tonight,” Nona adds.

“And I have my dinner with Ma tonight,” you agree.

She flops down and rolls on her side to face you. “Do you think she’ll ask? About my necromancy, that is.”

You hadn’t even considered that. It’s a worrisome thought. “Probably,” you say, trying to think through the pros and cons of lying to your mother. If you tell her that Nona didn’t have any problems doing bone magic, then she’ll know, and you and Nona are both fucked. If you tell her that Nona couldn’t do any necromancy at all, nuh-uh no way, she’ll find out at the Gala instead, and then you’d be fucked in a different way entirely.

“Tell her I struggled, but managed to do a little,” Nona says, after a pause. You’re sure she has her own, non-Harrowharkian reasons for wanting to hide her necromancy from Wake. Hell, if you were a practicing necromancer living under the Blood of Eden, you wouldn’t want your mother to know no matter who you were.

“Good idea,” you say, also after a moment. “Wanna go practice some now?”

Nona sits back up quickly, looking excited at the prospect. “Really?”

“Sure, why not?” you say, also sitting up. You’re a little nervous at the prospect of witnessing necromancy for the first time in fifteen years, but: “We’ll go down to the practice room, I’ll do my sword thing and you can do your bone thing. It’ll be fun.”

“You have a strange definition of fun,” says Nona, but she follows you off the bed and out of the room nonetheless.

 

 


 

 

After a month that feels longer than the last two combined, it’s finally the night of the Redemption Gala. Your mother had the idea to start the tradition about a year and a half after the Emperor died, only a few months after you started living on the Garden. You lowkey think it’s in poor taste—nothing like making a conquered people celebrate the death of their God-Emperor and all that—but that hasn’t stopped your mum for the past fourteen years, and it won’t this year either.

But this year is different, in that you took an active role in preparing for the Gala, instead of coasting along. You’re wearing a gold shirt under a dark red suit; you asked for skulls to be embroidered in black along the lapel, in honor of your link to the Ninth House. You’ve got skull-shaped cufflinks, done up in black and gold, as well; you fidget with them nervously as you stand outside the ballroom. The Gala has already begun, but your mum’s speech doesn’t start until a half-hour into the event, and you have strict orders to interrupt at the tail end of it. Cam and Pal took the time to find you and say hi when they arrived, barely on-time for the Gala. They offered to wait with you, but you declined; you’d rather you had some allies on the inside, instead of out here with you and Nona.

Speaking of Nona—she isn’t even here yet. When the dressmakers showed her several options, all ready to be modified and tailored to her needs, she only hesitated a few moments before picking a black, off-shoulder jumpsuit-dress thing with sheer sleeves and skirts that parted to reveal flowing pants underneath. It looked ridiculous when she first put it on, on account of it being stupidly oversized, and you haven’t seen her in it since.

You assume it fits better now, but—where is Nona, anyways? She should be here by now. This is the longest you've gone without seeing her since you arrived on the Garden. You’ve spent the majority of the past month together: out and about as “Gideon and Harrowhark, childhood best friends”; practicing your lines for the Gala; training together, Nona with bone magic and you with your sword. Making yourself nut up and watch necromancy was worth it. It’s been fun to watch Nona progress in leaps and bounds. Some of it you remember from watching Harrow, fifteen years ago; other parts seem entirely new. You tried not to compare Nona to Harrow too much, dodging questions and making excuses when she would ask you if Harrow could do something or other. It seemed better that way.

Your evenings fell into something similar to what you had on the Archive. It took a bit to settle into a routine here, with your newfound fear and Nona’s general nervousness, but eventually, you started going to each others’ rooms at night. Sitting on a bed together with matching cups of coffee, shooting the shit, laughing about the face of some dignitary or other when they overheard you call Nona your bone empress. Talking about your plans for the next day, and trading increasingly ridiculous ideas for your grand entrance at the Gala.

A few times, Nona was exhausted enough to fall asleep on top of you. She’d wear herself out with all the necromancy, then you’d be in bed together and her head would roll onto your shoulder—two more seconds and boom, she was out cold. You never let her sleep for too long, a few hours at most. You’d sit with your arms wrapped around her and wake her up once it hit midnight, carrying her across the hall if she didn’t feel like walking. If nothing else, that’s a sign of how different she is from Harrow—if one of you had ever fallen asleep around the other, the sleeper would have woken up with all her hair cut off.

You crane your neck, looking down the hallway. No sign of Nona yet. It’s just a dress, right? You’ve been under the impression that they’re easy to put on, but you’re starting to think you were wrong about that one. Maybe the jumpsuit part makes it more complicated? You wish you could ask Cam and Pal about it, but you have the feeling they wouldn’t know either; neither of them are dress people, and they’ve worn the same gray suits to the Gala every year for the past five. What the hell is taking so long?

Just as your mum’s speech is starting and you’re seriously considering sending out a search party, Nona comes skittering around the corner, saying, “Sorry! Sorry! Doing the paint took a minute, and then I couldn’t get the bones right, and it was a total mess.” She’s slightly rumpled and all out of breath, and she looks resplendent.

You recognize her face paint as The Chain, the ridiculously fancy pattern she’s been practicing for the past two months, and it somehow obscures her pointy features and enhances them both. The paint neatly ends at the bottom of her jaw, which is good, because she has on a bone choker connected to a ribcage corselet sitting neatly on top of her dress, looking like it was always meant to be there. The gauzy, ephemeral sleeves have been split down the middle from her shoulder to elbow; they’re held in place by half-circles of bone that rest against her slim arms, holding each side of the fabric in place. The whole effect is terrifying and beautiful in equal measure, as if someone took a Ninth House nun, told her to dress in high fashion, and she liked it.

“Whoa,” is all you manage to say. She’s switched out some of the piercings, too, so they alternate between metal and bone. You can’t help but look her up and down and up again; wearing fitted clothing is doing amazing things for her. You knew her waist was tiny, because you’ve held it in your hands, but actually seeing it? My God. To say nothing of the rest of her, because holy shit.

“You’re not too bad yourself,” Nona says, reaching up and adjusting your collar. You almost swallow your tongue, then find it again and say, “How many of those bones did Ma’s tailors approve?”

“Oh, none of them. But I assumed no one would complain,” says Nona, who is displaying a remarkable combination of sheepishness and confidence. “It was much harder to get them right than I expected, to be honest.” Her hands flutter up to her arms, indicating what you assume was the hardest part of the process.

A staff member knocks on the inside of the ballroom doors, indicating your one-minute warning.

“I’m nervous,” Nona admits, twisting her hands together as she glances towards the doors. “I really hope this goes well.”

“You’re going to be amazing,” you say, with complete honesty. Struck by a sudden bolt of inspiration, you say, “Hey, Shaist.”

Nona makes a small, surprised noise and turns to face you. Careful not to smudge her paints, you grasp Nona’s chin and tilt it upwards, leaning down slowly to give her time to pull away, if she wants. She doesn’t, though; she tilts her face higher and closes her eyes, and you kiss her as gently as you can, worried about smudging her beautifully-done paints but not enough to give this up.

The kiss—more a chaste press of lips than anything else, but still a kiss—continues for one long, sweet moment, until you hear the ballroom doors creak open and pull yourselves apart. And before either of you can say anything, you’re leading Nona inside the ballroom, towards the best or worst thing you’ve ever done.

 

 


 

 

 

 


 

 

Harrowhark

You’re being led headfirst into a crowd of the most important BoE officials and Empire refugees, but you feel like you’re walking on air. Gideon kissed you! She called you Shaist and then kissed you, and you haven’t even noticed all the dignitaries you’re pushing by, because Gideon kissed you.

The woman leading you through the crowd calls out, “Hey, Ma! I brought someone for you to meet!” just as Commander Wake reaches a quiet moment towards the end of her speech. You know from Gideon that the rest of it wasn’t important, that your interruption was perfectly intentional and planned. The crowd around you doesn’t, though, and their gasps and murmurs only increase as the Commander raises an eyebrow and says, “You may bring her.”

There are two sets of curved stairs leading up to Wake’s dais. As planned, Gideon leads you to the left one, the crowd pulling away like the sea before a tsunami. You follow her up the stairs without having to lift your skirts, grateful for pants and good tailoring both. You stop on the landing a few steps below the dais, as planned, while Gideon continues up the stairs and says, formally:

“Commander Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead—” the Commander’s eyebrow twitches “—Kia Hua Ko Te Pai Snap Back To Reality Oops There Goes Gravity, may I present to you the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, scion of the Ninth House.”

The room, which had largely gone silent, erupts in an even louder buzz of gasps and whispers. Commander Wake is even more intimidating than usual in her full BoE dress uniform; the crowd below you sparkles in the light. You just barely manage to pick out Camilla and Palamedes, a spot of plain gray amidst a sea of shiny. It’s terrifying having everyone stare at you, but they’re not looking at Nona, not really.

They’re looking at Harrowhark. And that’s who you’re going to give them

You pull a bone out of a hidden pocket and toss it up. Focusing on the black glitter of thanergy, you unfold the singular bone into a carpet of them, a criss-crossing network that settles perfectly on the remaining steps. Someone in the crowd says, “Holy fucking shit ,” loud enough to carry across the room. You feel a shooting pain in your head. Is there blood coming from your ear? You can’t tell. It should only be a little; you practiced this maneuver with Gideon plenty of times.

You step onto your bone carpet, careful to maintain its integrity so it doesn’t break under your weight. You’re not sure what you’re expecting to see when you look at Wake; disapproval? Anger? You’re certainly not prepared for the expression you do see: a cold, triumphant smile, more a baring of teeth but a smile nonetheless.

And you know. You know that smile.

More precisely: you remember it.

You remember everything .

You kneel before Sister Iwa— Commander Wake on her dais, your mind far beyond what your body is doing. The osseous carpet behind you folds itself into a singular bone, easy as breathing now that you remember what to do; you slip it into its pocket without a thought. You look up at the woman responsible for your family’s deaths, Griddle standing behind her throne. You know what to say; you practiced it constantly over the past few days. It doesn’t feel real anymore.

But you know your lines. “Commander Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead, I come before you today to renounce my ties to the dark art of necromancy. I renounce my allegiance to the Ninth House and the Locked Tomb which it guards. I swear instead to the Blood of Eden, to follow the path of the River and embrace life after life and death after death.” You regret the words as soon as they’re out of your mouth.

You bow your head, awaiting Wake’s judgement. You’re sure that she recognized you the moment she saw you on that vidcall with Gideon; she was an adult when she saw you last, and you haven’t changed terribly over the past fifteen years. You certainly haven’t gotten much taller.

“Rise, Harrowhark Nonagesimus,” comes the familiar voice of Wake Iwa. You stand slowly, skirts fluttering around you as you rise. “I accept your sworn allegiance. I give you redemption for your past deeds, just as today we celebrate the Redemption of the Necromantic Empire and the death of its Emperor. Go, and enjoy the evening with my daughter by your side.”

Ten minutes ago, those words would have meant nothing to you. Now they make your blood boil. You can feel the bone in your ears and your pocket; you itch to turn it against Wake. You don’t. You curtsy instead, rising only when Griddle offers you her arm. You take it, and the two of you process down the stairs amongst applause from the crowd. You should have pushed harder to wear a veil tonight. Everyone around you is looking directly at you, at your gauzy dress and the death’s-head on your face. Someone in the crowd says, “I can’t believe she let her live.” You can’t believe it either; you’re half-sure you’ll find your death tonight, one way or the other.

The music resumes as you reach the bottom of the stairs. BoE members and former necromancers alike return to their own business, talking and dancing and drinking champagne.

“Now that went well,” says an extremely self-satisfied Gideon. Ugh. There are still some eyes on you, but they’re more subtle now; the occasional sideways glance or whisper, less outright staring. Gideon has removed her arm from yours, and the two of you are standing by the base of the stairs, close enough to whisper and out of the way of anyone’s path.

“Mm, I wouldn’t be so sure,” you say lightly, “Griddle.”

Watching the blood drain from her face is the funniest thing you’ve seen in months. “I didn’t tell you that.”

You’re well-aware that Gideon never told you the nickname you gave her as children. You wonder if she would have ever mentioned it; if she had forgotten what you used to call her or if she hadn’t wanted to bring back a hated nickname. Quite frankly, you don’t care.

“You didn’t have to. I remembered,” you say, quite serenely. Gideon mutters, “Kindly Emperor,” grabs a champagne glass off a passing waiter’s tray, and drinks it all in one go. You allow yourself to watch her throat work as she swallows. She thunks the empty glass down on a different waiter’s tray, wipes her mouth, and says, “Okay. Here’s what we’re gonna do.”

“I’m listening.”

“When this song is over, we’re going to dance together, because that’s what we’re expected to do. Then, you’re going to go through that doorway—” she gestures to the back corner of the room, to a doorway that looks as though it leads into a hallway of some kind “—turn left, and go into the third room on the right. I’m going to stay here, get Cam and Pal, and meet you there.”

“You need backup to deal with one little necromancer? For shame, Griddle,” you say, doing your very best to make up for fifteen years of missed teasing.

“I need backup to figure out getting you out of here without you or my ma killing each other,” Griddle says through gritted teeth. Oh. Well, the assistance is appreciated. “C’mon, this song’s almost over,” she says, and you follow her to the dance floor.

You were right, though—Gideon grew up amazing .

You remember her at age eight, scrawny and scrappy, with floppy red hair and feet far too big for her body. Clearly they were a sign of things to come, because you’re struck all over again by her height, by the breadth of her shoulders under her suit jacket. Even pissed and scared, she’s incredibly handsome. You understand what you felt for her, before you recovered your memories; you think you could still feel it now. But your head feels so full ; you’ve got seven years of missing time and more emotions than you care for to deal with first.

You’re glad she kissed you when she had the chance.

The music changes to a new song as you reach the dance floor. Gideon reaches out a hand; you take it, placing your other on her shoulder. Her other hand settles on your waist, fitting perfectly between your hips and your ribs. The song is simple, a three-step waltz. You can handle a waltz. During rehearsal, Gideon would play at dipping you down or lifting you up for a spin. You expect her to be able to restrain herself for the real deal.

Now that you’re the real deal.

She leads you through the waltz nimbly, the other couples around you nothing but a blur. Your forms are good, which of course means that your body is pressed tight against Gideon’s, your head fitting right above her clavicle. The black embroidery on her lapel is of the Locked Tomb skull; you hadn’t noticed before.

“Do you remember being—” Gideon asks, whirling you about the ballroom. You can guess how that sentence would have ended; the name she doesn’t want to say.

“Of course I didn’t forget the last fifteen years of my life,” you say, more than a little irritated. But you relent, adding, “I simply remembered the first seven.” Gideon frowns at that, continuing to twirl you around.

After another moment, you say, “I suppose you didn’t figure it out.” You thought the record box and your ability to do necromancy would have given your identity away; perhaps not? You assume Griddle would have told you if she knew. She was always terrible at keeping secrets.

Gideon snorts. “That’s hurtful, Nonagesimus. Of course I figured it out.”

“You what.” Your voice is dangerously quiet, even to your own ears.

“Cam and Pal and I figured it out that first night on-planet at the Archive,” Gideon says, more slowly.

The song is ending. You curtsy to your dance partner, as required by propriety, then grab her hand and drag her out the doorway in the back, left down the hallway, and into the third room on the right.

You round on Gideon the second the door is closed. “You knew I was Harrowhark and didn’t tell me?” you shriek. More than anything else that’s happened tonight, more than forsaking the Locked Tomb, than being redeemed for your necromancy, this one single thing has you incandescent with rage.

“What was I supposed to say?” Gideon fires back, “‘Hey, Nona, I think you might actually be the woman I hired you to act like?’ I’m sure that would’ve gone over well—”

“Yes! Yes, you were supposed to say exactly that!” you say, resisting the urge to throttle Griddle. “I refuse to believe you didn’t tell me. I will not believe it. You are an imbecile of—”

“Believe it! I didn’t tell you! I didn’t want you to attack my mum on sight, which I now see was a reasonable precaution to take—”

“Your mum the war criminal! Your mum who killed God, your mum who used two children to open the Locked Tomb—”

“My mum, who hates necromancers!” Gideon shouts. And who hated you the most, she doesn’t say, but you hear nonetheless. You remember Wake calling you an abomination. You remember hating it, for it reminded you of the circumstances of your birth, of which you thought there was no way for Wake to know. Knowing what you do now—that she is and was the leader of a group of insurgents—you presume she did, and called you accordingly.

Both of you stop talking for a moment, staring at each other. You can see Gideon’s chest rising and falling rapidly; you find yourself similarly worked up. Somewhere along the way, between the dancing and your mad rush to this room, her jacket got rumpled, the dark red fabric shifting to reveal the bright gold of her shirt. Her hair is mussed, too, whatever product she used failing when she needs it most.

“You thought the Commander would want to finish the job,” you say, struck by the memory of Wake’s smile upon seeing the dead bodies of your parents and Mortus. “You lied to me—by omission, Griddle, don’t give me that look—and in doing so, believed you were protecting both me and her.”

“I’m sorry,” Gideon blurts out, interrupting the excellent speech on not needing protection you were about to deliver. She does look rather contrite; head lowered, shoulders defeated, gold eyes big and sad.

“For lying?” you ask, interested in receiving your well-deserved apology.

“For leaving you,” Gideon says. It takes you a second to realize she’s remembering the same moment you were: seeing each other for the last time, when Wake pulled her away from your parents’ bedroom. Abandoning you to the fate of the Ninth House, instead of bringing you with them to BoE.

“Griddle, you were eight,” you say, feeling like you’re pointing out the obvious. “You’re not responsible for your mum leaving me behind.”

“I could have stopped her,” argues Griddle, stubborn to the end.

You raise an eyebrow at her. “Stopped your mother, the military commander.”

“Well, I didn’t know she was a military commander at the time.”

And that argument is ridiculous enough to have you huffing out a laugh, which makes Gideon snort in return, and finally the tension is broken, just enough for Gideon to offer you a crooked, tentative smile.

“I don’t blame you, Gideon,” you admit, which feels like a rather large confession, albeit one that shrinks in comparison to the rest of your evening. “For lying to me, a little bit, but not for the rest of it. Not for anything that happened in the last fifteen years, nor the seven before that.” What could she have done? She didn’t know you were alive, and before that, you were children, trapped by circumstance and parental influence both.

“He was trying to hide it, but Palamedes was thrilled to be around a practicing necromancer,” Gideon confesses. Learning this gives you an inordinate amount of pleasure. “He tries not to talk about it around me, but his nerdy little brain totally misses—shit! I gotta go get Cam and Pal!”

She spins towards the door, then back to you, saying anxiously, “No—Harrow, will you be okay if—?”

“I believe I’ll manage,” you say dryly, shooing Gideon off. “Go get our friends.”

She stares at you for a second. Then, you’re treated to a brilliant megawatt grin as she opens the door and dashes off. What did you do, to make Gideon smile like that? You think back on what you said for a moment.

Oh. You called Camilla and Palamedes ‘our friends’. You believe they both considered Nona to be theirs; you hope Harrow fits the bill as well. Of course, if they’ve truly known about your identity for a month, you may not need to worry. You take a deep breath. The loops of bone on your sleeves have been pulled out of place. You adjust them, fidgeting a bit more than you strictly need to.

You take advantage of your moment of peace to examine your surroundings. The room you’re in is of decent size, clearly some little-used receiving room but lavishly decorated nonetheless. There’s a couch and chairs in the middle of the room, the back wall covered in mirrors. A ridiculous, wasteful touch. You wander over to look at them. They’re beautiful, gold-rimmed and sparkling clean. Much nicer than the mirror in that dirty gymnasium, where you sat with Gideon and she confessed how similar she found you and Harrowhark.

She hadn’t known then. You had; you had at the very least suspected, after seeing the box with the bloodstain and the records. How funny; to think if it were not for that box, you would never have made it off the Ninth. You would have died with the rest of your House when Dominicus swallowed it whole. Fifteen years of amnesia is not too high a price, then, for the rest of your life.

But it’s odd, you decide, looking at your reflection; you now have two lives, two identities. You’re glad to be Harrowhark again, but you think you’ll miss being just Nona. Your life was hard, but simple; only in the past three months had it become something wondrous, something marvelous and dangerous. Not to mention the headache you’re getting at the thought of merging your two selves.

The door opens behind you. You’re surprised; you hadn’t expected Gideon to be back so soon. But the face you see in the reflection doesn’t belong to her.

“Commander Wake,” you say, jumping a little in your haste to turn around. She looks much the same as she did ten minutes ago, in her full dress uniform, long red hair neatly arranged. But now, you note, she has her gun. Everyone knows of Commander Wake’s infamous rifle. You never expected to see it in person.

“So, how did you survive?” Gideon’s mother asks, leaning against the doorframe casually.

You don’t bother feigning ignorance. “Aiglamene did it,” you answer. Aiglamene , how had you forgotten about Aiglamene? Aiglamene, who cared enough to save your life. To give you a packet of grave dirt to take with you, now the only piece of the Ninth House left. “We knew the Tomb had been opened. Marshal Crux, my great-aunts, the lot of them were prepared to die with the House. For failing their duty. Aiglamene convinced them to save the records. She snuck me into a box, just before the evac shuttles came, and told me to call myself Nona. She failed to anticipate the head trauma I would receive on the shuttle, of course, but one cannot plan for everything.”

“I always liked that woman,” Wake says, more to herself than you. She fixes you with her golden stare, the same shade as Gideon’s. “You could be Nona, you know. Stop playing this game, live out your life as simple, gentle Nona Shaist.”

“We both know it’s not a game, Commander,” you say, heart fluttering in your chest.

“Do you think history wants Harrowhark to have lived? Honestly, child, we’re better off now,” she coaxes. “Necromancy was a disease. It needed to be strategically and deliberately cleansed from the universe, and all necromancers with it.”

You stare at her for a moment. “All but one.”

Wake stares back at you, expression ugly. The rifle is strapped to her back, in what you assume is easy reach. You remember: the whole reason for this con was because her government was reaching a turning point with the Empire refugees. She needed to show some support for necromancers after the decimation of the Eighth, and once again decided to use you and Griddle to do it.

But she miscalculated.

Commander Wake thought you dead until she heard Gideon call you Nona on a vidcall, saw your face half-plain, half-painted. She thinks you an abomination, the worst apple of a bad bunch.

If Wake shoots you, her plan fails. Civil unrest worsens. There’s a chance, however small, that you could be a necromancer again. Your corselet should stop the worst of the damage. But mostly, you want to see if she’ll do it.

“Finish it,” you say, staring Sister Iwa dead in the eyes. “You’re responsible for the deaths of the rest of my family. What’s one more?”

“Finish it? Bitch, I just might,” Wake says, pulling a pistol out of a hidden holster. Hm. The rifle is her trademark weapon; if she uses the pistol, there’s much less evidence in your favor.

But you’re in too deep now.

“I drink from the Blood of Eden,” murmurs Wake, a zealot till the end. “I follow the path of the River. I believe—”

“Do you remember their bodies, Sister? Swinging from the ceiling, where they put themselves after you opened the Tomb—”

Wake points the gun at you. “I follow the path of the River. I believe in life after life and death after death. I believe—”

“Do it,” you say, walking up to Wake, forcing her to hold the gun against your chest. “Do it, and I’ll be with my parents and Mortus in their bedroom on Drearburh all over again—”

“I drink from the Blood of Eden. I follow the path of the River. I believe in life after life and death after death.” Wake walks forward, pushing the gun further into your chest, forcing you to mirror her step-by-step in a mockery of your dance with Gideon.

“I believe that necromancy blocks the path of the River, and prevents life from continuing beyond it. I believe that necromancy is a sin that must be cleansed. To harness thanergy is to reverse the path of the River. To use the lives of others is to prohibit them from drinking the Blood of Eden.” You’re nearly backed against the mirrored wall; you shift parallel to it, forcing Wake to follow you. Her pistol doesn’t leave your sternum for a moment.

The gun’s safety clicks off.

“Who are you, child?” asks the woman who killed God.

“I am the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, first and last necromancer of the Ninth House, final keeper of the Locked Tomb,” is your answer.

“To be a necromancer is to be a sin,” Wake begins. Her finger rests on the trigger of the gun. Your mouth is dry, your hands sweaty. You don’t dare move. “To be a necromancer—”

“Mum? What’s going on?”

To be honest, you had forgotten Griddle was on her way back. She’s standing in the doorway, as lost and confused as she was fifteen years ago. You can see Camilla and Palamedes standing behind her, craning their necks to see into the room.

“This doesn’t involve you, Gideon,” her mother says. The gun never leaves your chest; Wake’s eyes never leave yours. You watch out of the corner of your eye as Gideon steps into the room, Camilla and Palamedes following.

“The hell it doesn’t! If you shoot Harrow, she’ll die, and you’ll destabilize your own government, again!”

Wake tilts her head to the side, considering her daughter’s words. She has yet to look away from you. “Yes, shooting her would result in her death. Did you know, she’s really the abomination, Gideon? Excellent work, if you ask me.”

Gideon’s mouth twists sheepishly. Palamedes busies himself cleaning his glasses; Camilla pretends to check her nails. “Yeah, we knew. All three of us did,” Gideon says.

Wake pulls the gun from your chest, flicking the safety on before sliding it back in its holster.

“The necromancy gave it away,” you say, finally daring to speak. You take a few steps back, removing yourself from point-blank range, and brush your hands down your dress, smoothing it out.

The Commander bestows a disappointed look on her daughter and her daughter’s friends. “The necromancy? Really?”

All three of them exchange puzzled looks. “How could we have known sooner?” Palemedes asks, looking confused. The point is fair; you never told them about your memories of traveling off-planet, hidden in a box of records.

Nonagesimus, children. I swear, I raised an idiot.” Wake mutters that last part to herself, pinching the bridge of her nose. She crosses the room and settles down on the couch, swinging the rifle off her back to lay it down beside her.

You’re not sure you like Griddle’s mother calling her an idiot. Gideon herself doesn’t seem to mind; she looks surprised, ashamed, and resigned in turn, as if she should have realized that your Niner-adjacent pseudonym was a bit of a giveaway. Perhaps Aiglamene could have been a bit more subtle. But you didn't realize the connection yourself; you can't expect anyone else to have caught on.

“So, little necromancer, what are your plans?” Wake asks, staring you down once again. “Are you going to keep your promises to my daughter?” (“Mum,” Gideon hisses.) “What will happen to Harrowhark Nonagesimus?”

Gideon crosses the room to stand with you, placing a gentle hand on your arm. “Harrow—”

“Shush,” you say, absentmindedly patting her hand. “I’m thinking.”

Harrowhark Nonagesimus was the last hope of a dying House; a war crime committed in search of the perfect necromancer. What role is there for you in a world without necromancy? In all honesty, you have very little interest in political discourse or civil uprisings. You would love to continue practicing necromancy; giving it up feels like blaspheming against the two hundred lives sacrificed in favor of yours. But you don’t want to bring necromancy back, not really. You’re sick of death. There isn’t much room for Harrowhark in this world.

But—you aren’t only Harrow. You’re Nona, too. Naive, terrified Nona, who wants so badly to join the Archive and spend the rest of her life cataloguing old records. Nona, who spent fifteen years nervous and confused, who finally has a purpose. You just started being Harrowhark Nonagesimus again. You’re not ready to give her up yet. But you want to give Nona Shaist a chance, too.

And as for being friends with the Warden and his Hand? Your feelings for Gideon? Well. You’re not sure. But you want to find out.

You look around the room, at Camilla and Palamedes still standing by the door. At Wake, looking at you expectantly from the couch. At Gideon, standing earnestly at your shoulder, looking at you with patience and a gentle, lopsided smile.

Watching you. Waiting for you to make a decision.

You take a deep breath and say, “I think I know what I want to do.”

 

 


 

 

Epilogue

Lady Gideon Una and her dear friend, the long-lost Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus, are the talk of the galaxy for months. As they travel around, visiting planets and touring the facilities of former Houses, the reformed bone witch receives plenty of attention. Criticism and praise both, for her continued loyalty to the Ninth House—the face paints , my goodness—despite swearing allegiance to the Blood of Eden. And Lady Una, despite previous reluctance, seems to be coming into her own as the next commander of BoE, starting a kinder, gentler path along her mother’s footsteps.

But news cycles move on, as they are wont to do, especially when there’s a far more interesting scandal involving cannibalism and a former Princess of Ida to report on. Slowly but surely, Harrowhark Nonagesimus fades into obscurity, as she is seen alongside Lady Una less and less frequently, and never seems to appear elsewhere.

(Several years later, just before Commander Wake is set to retire, she and her daughter announce that there is no Harrowhark Nonagesimus—there never was. The two of them schemed to hire a young woman who fit Harrowhark’s description, and taught her to play the part to improve the Commander’s struggling reputation. But her reputation has since recovered, and she is largely praised for ending her regime and beginning a new one on a fair, honest note.

But that’s a story for another time.)

As the Reverend Daughter appears in the news cycle less and less frequently, a Nona Shaist begins to make herself known at the Archive. A small, dark-haired and dark-eyed young woman with alarmingly pointy features, no one is entirely sure where she came from. But despite her lack of training, she’s smart, hardworking, and eager to learn, and so the curiosity around her fades quickly. It is unusual for the Warden and his Hand to pay so much attention to a new employee, but little notice is paid beyond a cursory glance. They’re librarians; they have work to do.

The young woman settles in well at the Archive, learning quickly and establishing herself as polite, but quiet and self-sufficient. She largely works alone, with no one to notice the occasional faraway look in her eye.

Of course, the Warden and his Hand are dear friends of Lady Gideon Una. She visits the Archive frequently, seeking their advice and entertainment. The little-used gymnasium on the bottom floor of the station receives quite a bit of attention and care when the Archivists realize that Camilla Hect and Gideon Una often spar there, putting on quite a show.

Our dark-haired young woman also receives visits, from a redheaded woman bearing a strong resemblance to Lady Una. It couldn’t actually be her, of course; what would one of the highest-ranking members of BoE want with a small, quiet librarian? But the visits occur nonetheless, and the two women appear to be unusually close. On the rare occasion they’re seen in public together, the redhead frequently has her arm wrapped around the dark-haired one, and always allows her to carefully, gently, wipe the rare bit of dirt or food off her face.

And if the redheaded woman ever slips and calls the dark-haired one ‘Harrow’?

Well.

Nobody needs to know.