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Amaranth

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When she was a toddler, Harrowhark Nonagesimus saw a vivid color for the first time in her life, it was a brief flash crossing the hall of the church inside Castle Drearburh during Mass, followed by a loud laughing sound that interrupted her mother’s monotonous praying. Curious, she had done her best to turn to see what that was, when she couldn’t, the small child had tried to stand up to follow it, but was frozen in place by the sound of her mother clearing her throat.

The Reverend Mother had sent two stern looks, one to the scarred captain sitting on the chevets, Aiglamene had barely reacted, just tensed her back and given the smallest bow in return, and one to her, reminding her of the rules of Mass.

Harrow had obeyed her mother’s silent order, sitting straight and serious on her chair, but that flash had been imprinted in her mind; from then on, every time she was allowed outside of the library or her room she’d look around, trying to find whoever had made that appearance.

At times she’d catch a glimpse of that color, it was another child, older looking, cheerfully running around or running away from the nuns. It was then that Harrow realized she was not the only non-adult in the planet. Whenever the other kid was near, she wanted to follow her, to meet her, but she wasn’t fast enough to catch up, and it wasn’t as if she was allowed to run around when her parents or Crux were with her.

A year passed before they could actually meet.

The other child had been as surprised to see another shorter (flesh) human as Harrow had, but her expression had soon changed into a smile and she had let Harrowhark slowly get closer and touch her curiously, the Reverend Daughter had reached for her bright reddish hair right away.

The feeling of the other girl’s hair had fascinated Harrow from the first time she got to feel it, it was somehow rough to the touch, but also soft, softer than many things that the heiress of the Ninth had ever experienced.

From that moment on, Gideon became everything that Harrow didn't have or had had in her very short life, she meant color outside of the monochrome routine of her home, she meant warmth in the cold and lonely days. There were just so many things that the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth got from the indentured servant child that she had never experienced before: Help when she fell down, a pat on the head when she was lonely, laughter in the middle of the mandatory silence of the castle. Harrow’s world changed with Gideon in it. The other girl was the only one who truly seemed to enjoy the dark-haired kid’s presence beyond her status, the only one who saw her as another child rather than as the next ruler of the Ninth House.

The first time she had experienced giving a gift had been with Gideon, using the candy her aunts had given her at Mass. The blind sisters were always saying how “children loved candy”, so, she had stored it in her pocket and ran off after the ritual to find the only other child in their small planet, to give the sweets to her. The golden eyed kid, already taller and stronger looking than Harrow despite being only one year older, had stared at it, tasted it before her face light up as she smiled at the dark-haired child fully. Nonagesimus felt a tug inside her, from then on it became a normal thing after mass, Gideon would wait for her near the leek field and they’d “share” (Harrow didn’t like the taste, it was too strong for her, so she let the other kid have them all) the candy pieces.

However, it all changed one day, Gideon had been searching for her, they were... playing (another new concept for Harrow) and the Reverent Father had been around. Priamhark Noniusvianus had stared at the red-haired child as if she was the plague, but ignored her afterwards... until she touched his robe, in an attempt to catch his attention, most likely wanting to ask him where the Reverent Daughter was.

The Heir Father jerked like if he had been burnt and stepped away from the confused child, then he had let a few knuckle bones fall to the floor, they made very little sound as they bounced a couple of times before humerus, radius, ulnas, and carpals spurted from them, now fully formed skeleton hands clawing at Gideon and forcing her down, smashing her face to the ground without any consideration for her wellbeing, pining her in place.

Harrow, who had been hiding near the shelves, could only watch in silent horror as her father took off his belt and began to beat the other girl. Seconds dragged by, Gideon began to scream and, for the first time, Harrow felt disgusted with herself, she couldn’t move, she couldn’t shout. She wanted to stop her father, to stop what was going on, to protect the other child, but failed to do so.

She had been terrified of the man.

The ruler of the Ninth stopped just as suddenly as he had acted, and the skeletal hands let go of the howling girl, who, as soon as she was freed, darted away, crying loudly.

Priamhark then turned to where his daughter was, and advanced towards her, silently adjusting his clothes. The little raven-haired girl had not opposed him when he took her wrist forcefully and took her to her room, she had been trembling through the entire time it took them to get there, trying hard not to let her tears fall (she knew how much her parents hated her crying).

Surprisingly, her father did not hurt her, instead he had spoken to her for a very long while, about the duties she had, about the responsibility she had to bear. That night, her parents took her to a pool of salt water, and nothing was okay ever again.

Gideon’s meaning had changed that night, she became a reminder of Harrow’s own unworthiness, of her duty to the Ninth, of the crime her parents committed. Gideon also became a trigger for everything Harrow wanted to avoid: her parents’ disapproval, the frown on her father’s sharp face, the sneer of her mother. Even her aunts had changed their demeanor around the Ninth’s heir, they stopped giving her candy or any kind of positive attention, it got worse whenever a whiff of Gideon reached them (for blind women, they had a very good perception of what was going on around them), if the other girl was in the room, they made it Harrow’s duty to chase her out.

Without them having met again after Priamhark’s “reaction”, Gideon took it as a new game and often ran off chuckling whenever Harrow went to shoo her away. Several days passed before the Ninth’s future scion could slip away from the suddenly tighter surveillance of her parents and retainers, and as she had done so many times in the past, Nonagesimus ran towards the snow leek fields.

She had to tell Gideon not to get close again, warn her about what her parents would do to her… what the Ninth would do to her. Her steps slowed down as it dawned on her, no matter what she did, things were what they were: She was an abomination but would not be treated as one, because she was her House’s only hope for a future, Gideon wasn’t an abomination, but would be treated as one until the day she died, because she was the reminder of the House’s crime.

She felt as if she was drowning just under the surface of that hateful pool of water and salt.

Distracted, Harrow still made it to the leek fields.

Upon arriving, she saw the girl dashing back and forth, seemingly done talking to the skeletons and now focusing on simply running around, their gazes met and, as always, and as if nothing had happened, as if she had not been able to find Harrow the last time they actually played, she went to her, smiling widely and leaning down a bit, inviting her to greet one another as they usually did.

Gideon loved whenever the other child touched her hair, Harrow loved the feeling of it. Her hand moved on its own and reached at the only source of bright color she had known so far, but the softness didn’t make her feel well, it didn’t make her relax or distract herself from her obligations. It brought her shame for even allowing herself the overindulgence, guilt for not stopping her father and for knowing that even if that happened again, she could not intervene (She wasn’t strong enough, brave enough), fear as she realized that her parents would know and disapprove, they would know and they would doubt if she was worth their sacrifice, they would know and they would…

Her hand clenched, and then fisted as panic rose in her chest, she didn’t ruffle the soft looking hair, instead she tugged at it until strands came off.

Gideon yelped, shouted and then pushed her away. Once they separated, teary eyed, she looked at the smaller girl, her gaze slowly changing into one of contempt, betrayal. As if she had been trying not to expect that from Harrow but now saw the mistake she had made, still, she stayed there for a moment more, gaze searching for something in the girl before her: an explanation, an apology maybe?

Harrow felt her chest tightening, but she clenched her teeth, biting down into her cheek until she tasted copper, she kept her gaze down and tried to keep her posture straight and stiff, just as her mother and father’s, she was the heir of the Ninth after all, it was expected of her.

Gideon’s gaze searched for hers before it changed once more into something softer and vulnerable that soon shifted into a hardened glare. Without another word she just turned away and ran off.

Many minutes passed by before Harrow dared to move again, her first glance was to the strand of hair in her hand, the sickly white and drowning navy air made it look as if the red strands in her hand were fading in color.