The scholarly delegation from the Fifth had been eagerly anticipated in the Library. On a station designed for the purpose of keeping things safely locked away, any outside influence was cause for excitement. Of course Sixth academics read—and published rebuttals to—scholarship from other Houses, but that scholarship arrived in the form of flimsy-printed pamphlets or holo journals. To have scholarly colleagues before them in the flesh was another thing entirely.
The delegation had been shown to their rooms immediately upon arrival, so Juno didn’t get a good look at them until introductory remarks fourteen hours later. They were all well-dressed, healthy-looking, like they occasionally saw actual sun and not just helio-lamps. They mixed cheerfully with the Library denizens, who outnumbered them significantly—it was quite a small delegation—so that each Fifth scholar had a cluster of gray-clad conversation partners encircling them like asteroid chunks around a moon. And if her colleagues were minor celestial bodies—then Abigail Pent was the star at the center of the universe.
Juno lingered by the halfhearted refreshments table, watching the spirit-talker talk. The woman’s brown hair was braided back neatly, and her brown necromancer’s robe was unadorned and plain. But there was a radiance about her, despite the fact that no ghosts were in attendance. Her eyes were bright behind her round glasses, and the crowd around her was larger than around any of her colleagues.
Juno had no intention of pushing through it. Let the underlings fight for an edgewise word with Lady Pent. The Archivist would have her chance for an uninterrupted conversation. First of all, she was moderating Pent’s panel in an hour. And second, there would be dinner. As the highest-ranked necromancers of their respective Houses and the most respected scholars in their respective fields, the two of them would of course be sitting together. Juno should know. She’d made the seating chart.
“I believe I should congratulate you,” Lady Pent said over the salad course, “on an excellent job earlier. That panel would have gotten out of hand if not for your cool head.”
Juno smiled at her. “That was rather livelier than we’re used to. I had no idea we’d be treated to a live demonstration of spirit magic. I see the rumors didn’t overstate your skill.”
The spirit-talker waved the compliment away. “Oh, it was nothing. Bastien had been so looking forward to this little conference, I couldn’t let them miss it on account of having died last month...They’ll float easier on the River knowing they corrected those aspersions about their footnotes. But you !” She put down her fork and leaned closer. “You handled that scene during the question-and-answer session with real aplomb. Prevented an inter-House incident, I should think.”
“We may have one yet,” said Juno darkly. “Either Hex screwed up the signature reading on those documents, or Quingenarius has got to admit that that ghost was lying to him. But they can’t both be right.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Of course.” Juno furrowed her brow at the other woman. “The psychometric findings directly contradict the spirit testimony. Personally I think Quingenarius needs to be a little more skeptical of his research subjects, but I’m no spirit magician.”
“That is exactly why I think interdisciplinary collaboration is so vital,” said Abigail warmly. “We’re all squirreled off into our little specializations, when we have so much to learn from each other...Which reminds me, I brought you a little something.” She reached under the gray tablecloth and produced a long-necked bottle made of dark glass. “Did you know Koniortos is famed for its vineyards?”
“Inexcusable,” said Juno vehemently. A servitor had taken away the dinner plates somewhere between their second and third glasses of wine. “The administration exists to serve scholarship, not inhibit it. There’s no point in us having all these artifacts if we don’t let anyone look at them. That’s not stewardship, it’s hoarding.” She took an emphatic swallow of her drink to drive the point home.
“The Library’s commitment to preservation is certainly unreproachable,” said Abigail, hands clutched around her own glass. “I really shouldn’t be complaining at all, given that the continued existence of these materials is entirely due to Library protocols...Only it would be awfully helpful if more of them were made available for out-of-House research. Not that you’d let them off-House, of course,” she said hastily at Juno’s expression.
“I’d sooner eat them myself. But we’re quite free with access to the copies—you’ve been given those at least?”
“Oh yes,” said Lady Pent. “And they’re excellent copies, very helpful. But between you and me,” she said, suddenly conspiratorial, “some of the things I’m most interested in haven’t been uploaded to holo.”
Juno frowned. “Everything from the first six thousand years post-Resurrection is on holo. You’re looking for something modern?”
“Not at all,” said Abigail. She took a cautious glance around to make sure no other scholars were in earshot, then leaned in. Her wine-scented breath touched Juno’s cheek. “The Fourth House founding records. Presumably handled by the Sixth Saint himself...Even a copy would be absolutely revolutionary for my work, but what I could do with the original…It would mean unprecedented breakthroughs in Lyctoral scholarship. I’d be in your debt.”
Juno narrowed her eyes. Lyctoral records were kept two levels up, in a lightless room lined with helium boxes and aggressively temperature-controlled. Everything there had been digitized since before her grandmother was born. And yet it would be just like Sixth bureaucracy to keep an innocent genius from the very artifacts she needed most. And Abigail Pent’s auburn hair looked very, very soft.
“You know,” she said, dropping her voice to a whisper so that Abigail had to lean even closer to hear her, “I really think there is a point when regulations no longer achieve their stated goal. There’s absolutely no reason why a scholar of your reputation, closely supervised by a Library official, shouldn’t be allowed a brief look at even our most prized materials.”
The Fifth necromancer’s eyes widened behind her glasses. “You mean—”
Juno drained her glass, then returned it sharply to the table. “We’re going upstairs.”
With the scholars still politely mingling downstairs, the halls of the Library were almost silent, save for the echo of Abigail Pent’s footfalls in her low, practical heels. Though no one but the Oversight Body could really question someone of her rank, Juno was still relieved to find the halls devoid of gray-robed scholars who might witness her there after hours, leading the Fifth necromancer into the Library’s restricted storage area.
The final auto-door closed behind them, leaving the two women in a black, windowless room lined with rows of steel shelves. Juno activated one strip of lights, half-illuminating the tiny space with a dim bluish glow. This revealed long rows of boxes, each neatly and indisputably labeled with flimsy — “RESTRICTED.”
The spirit-talker watched intently as the archivist pulled on gloves in two smooth, expert motions and carefully opened a box. Juno extracted a small book with a blue cover, and placed it on a wedge-shaped cradle to support its binding. “There,” she said, finally opening the book. “Book bindings from this era are terribly fragile—one reason these originals are not typically handled.”
“Remarkable,” Abigail exclaimed, somewhat breathlessly. She looked up to meet Juno’s gray eyes. “It looks exceptionally well-preserved.”
“Some yellowing is inevitable in 10,000 years, even under optimal conditions,” Juno sighed. “We cannot stop the decay, we can only hope to delay it.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen paper, or felt it,” Abigail remarked in a whisper. It was with the gentle turn of the next page that Juno noticed the irregularity—the motion provoked a small cloud of fine blue dust, almost undetectable in the low light. Abigail moved closer to Juno and hunched over the book. “Was that the binding?”
Juno adjusted her glasses. Along the book’s gutter, where the paper leaves met at a delicate seam, was a powdery, deep indigo splatter, as if a graceless reader had spilled something on the pages a myriad ago and simply closed the book. Abigail reached for the book, ignoring the pair of gloves waiting beside her on the countertop.
“Do not touch that, Lady Pent!” Juno said urgently, grasping Abigail’s pale wrist in a firm grip. The spirit talker’s skin was very soft, and felt much warmer than the chilled air around them. “I’m afraid the book is contaminated. We don’t have the proper protective equipment. It may have released spores.”
Juno turned Abigail’s hand over in hers. It was too late: she had already made contact. A faint dusting of indigo powder coated the tips of her bare fingers. Abigail did not look afraid, and she did not retract her hand. “Spores! Is the contaminant original to the time of the book’s publication?”
Juno Zeta swore. “For the Emperor’s sake! The Scholars should have filled out the proper documentation for a biohazard risk.” Were biohazards the yellow form? Or would this go under red for organics? This was why she had assistants. “They should have had a containment team in here as soon as they detected it. I should have been notified! This is completely against protocol.”
Abigail started to ask a question that began with, “What is,” but the archivist didn’t quite hear the end of it. For a moment, she felt very dizzy, and then, suddenly, she was acutely aware of her body. She performed a quick scan for symptoms. This would be necessary for the documentation. Her mouth had gone dry, that was manageable. There was a tight, nervous feeling in her stomach, understandable, given the circumstances. And then, lower down, it was unmistakable. In her formal gray suit pants, Archivist Zeta was unusually wet.
She cleared her throat. “I believe I’ve identified the contaminant. I read a paper on it some years ago, but I’ve never encountered it firsthand. It turns out there is a very good reason that box was sealed. The toxin is extremely transmissible. Onset of symptoms can be—almost immediate. Let me get you to Medical. Lady Pent, are you all right?”
Abigail was staring at her now. She responded in a distinctly lowered voice, “Yes, Juno. Quite all right.”
“You’re not experiencing—symptoms?” There was no way the woman hadn’t been exposed. Juno hastily shut the book and returned it to the box, then stripped her contaminated gloves.
“What are the symptoms of this contaminant?” Abigail’s voice had a breathy edge.
“They vary.” Juno’s fingers were clumsy on the lock mechanism of the box. “Dizziness. Fever.” Her blood felt as if it had been electrified, humming beneath the surface of her skin. “Most notably, profound and irresistible sexual arousal. Trittys isolated the compound several years ago, the psychoactive effects—”
“Are powerful,” Abigail said. The room was mostly in shadow, but Juno thought a flush was rising on her cheeks. “I read the Trittys report as well. She theorized that the effects of the toxin would subside more quickly if they were...acted upon.”
“The case study,” Juno said softly, “was not large enough to support that claim.”
Abigail Pent was so close that Juno could feel the heat radiating from her body. Her breasts brushed Juno’s front, and Juno felt her nipples stiffen in her shirt at the touch. There was a conflagration between her thighs, and someone had just twisted the burner to high. A low sound ripped itself unbidden from the back of her throat.
“I know it’s hardly laboratory conditions,” the Fifth necromancer was saying, “but don’t you think we have a unique opportunity to add to the body of knowledge on this subject?”
Juno wet her lips with her tongue. “A scholarly obligation, even.”
When their mouths crashed together her brain briefly went as blank and brilliant as the supernova of a sun. There were no chaste kisses to begin, only the wet open-mouthed hunger of two people determined to devour each other. Juno lifted her hands to Abigail’s soft hips and squeezed, pulling their bodies flush. Abigail pushed her inexorably backwards until they collided into a wall of shelving with a clang.
The noises Juno was making would have embarrassed her if not for the fact that Abigail’s hips were rocking against hers with a needy, determined rhythm. Her hands were traveling too—sliding under Juno’s blazer, fingers dragging over her rib cage, pausing only when they got to the notebook in her breast pocket—
With difficulty, Juno broke the kiss, gulped refrigerated air. “Documentation,” she gasped. “We need to write everything down.”
Abigail, panting, beamed at her. “You are a brilliant scientific mind.”
Juno’s briefcase, with all her pens in it, had been abandoned in the dining room. Abigail found a stub of pencil in her skirt pocket, and they used this to scratch out the facts. “Time of exposure was what, five minutes ago?”
Juno consulted the heavy watch she wore, then wrote it down. “Onset of effects was immediate. We both experienced dizziness and symptoms of arousal...Would you say your clitoris is engorged?”
Abigail looked thoughtful. “I think so. And I believe I have a slight fever.”
“Damn! Me too, and of course I don’t have a blasted thermometer. I’d better put that we were drinking, it might impact the effects… ‘Subjects had slightly elevated blood alcohol content at time of exposure,’ but that’s useless if I don’t have real numbers. You’re right about the laboratory conditions, Pent, this is unscientific as hell.”
“I believe,” said Abigail Pent, “that we have long since passed the threshold for first names.”
Juno met her gaze. The air between them seemed to sizzle as if charged with a necromantic force field. The initial cold of the room was gone, and she found herself sweating. “I need to take your pulse.”
When she pressed her fingers to the cleft of neck and jaw, her first thought was that Abigail’s skin was hot enough to brand. Feverish, for sure. Her second thought was that Abigail’s hair, slipping from its braid to tickle her at her hand, was just as soft as it looked. Abigail held herself very still and kept Juno’s gaze, but her heart was hammering under the press of Juno’s fingers and her throat worked as she swallowed.
“As I thought,” Juno said, glancing down to write the figure with her other hand. “Next I—“
But her sentence faltered in her throat as Abigail, still unblinking, raised her hand to Juno’s and removed it from her neck. She wrapped her palm around Juno’s two extended fingers and lifted them to her mouth, extending her tongue to flicker it between Juno’s fingertips.
“Oh, fuck,” said the Archivist.
Without breaking eye contact, Abigail took Juno’s fingers into her mouth until her lips brushed her knuckles. Her tongue slid along their undersides before parting them, slipping in between. The dizziness rocked Juno again, traveling downwards and ending with a stab to her clit. She stumbled, the notebook slipping from her grasp to smack to the floor.
Abigail looked unconcerned. She removed Juno’s fingers from her mouth with a wet pop, unclasped her outer robe and let it fall to the cold floor of the storage room. Juno was stripping her blazer with shaking hands; she let it land on the heap of Abigail’s discarded robe.
This time it was Juno pressing Abigail back, crowding her against the little plex counter until they could not go any further. Their breathless messy kissing resumed, a tornado that fed on itself. Their hands seemed to be everywhere: Abigail’s fumbling with Juno’s belt, Juno’s spreading to palm the soft lines of Abigail’s upper body. The other woman bucked when Juno ground a palm against her breast; when she replaced it with her fingers and twisted at the nipple through the fabric, Abigail gave up on Juno’s belt buckle and clung to her hips, fingertips biting in.
“I want you on the counter,” Juno said breathlessly. Abigail hoisted herself up to sit where the book had been and kicked off her shoes. Juno bent to fumble with the buttons of Abigail’s blouse. There seemed to be a hundred of them, and her fingers worked faster and clumsier with each one, until she heard the ping of a stray button hitting metal.
“I appear to have lost a modicum of fine motor dexterity,” Juno said apologetically, but Abigail only grinned and yanked her bra up so that her breasts stuck out underneath. Even pinioned under the band of elastic, they were gorgeously full, the areolae dark and wide. Small beads of sweat gathered in the valley between them, and Juno pressed her face there hungrily.
“Stimulation —ah—” Abigail struggled to speak as Juno swirled her tongue around her nipple— “seems to be exacerbating the effects.”
Juno lifted her head. “Should I write that down?”
“Later.” Abigail gripped her shoulders and pushed with surprising force until the Archivist was kneeling before her.
Juno reached a hand under the endless fabric of Abigail’s long brown skirts. Underneath, she wore thin tights, sheer enough to show the fine hair on her legs. Juno swore at the obstacle. The drug seemed to have infected her with a desperation to have her skin against Abigail’s, and any barrier seemed a monstrosity. She was almost whining now, shame far behind her.
She moved up Abigail’s thigh with messy, open-mouthed kisses and felt the spirit-talker’s hips jerk forward with each one. At the juncture of Abigail’s thighs, Juno rubbed her face desperately against the offending fabric. She could feel the heat of Abigail’s cunt against her cheek, and saw the dark wet spot that waited there unattended. She pressed her mouth to that center seam and found that she could smell the unmistakable evidence of the other woman’s desire.
“Just—just pull them, please,” Abigail urged.
Juno reached up unseeing, feeling for the waistband where it cut in slightly to the soft flesh at Abigail’s waist, and pulled. Abigail lifted her hips off the counter to help Juno ease her tights down. Juno watched Abigail’s face, her wild eyes, her open mouth. With renewed urgency, she gathered the elasticated fabric in her fists and pulled hard. She was met with a loud ripping noise, and found it split in her hands.
She opened her mouth to apologize, but only a ragged animal noise came out. Her tongue connected with the smooth skin of Abigail’s thigh and she sucked at it urgently, drawing long moans from the woman above. She hooked her fingers into the hole in Abigail’s tights and tore until it opened wide, allowing her to shove the wet fabric of Abigail’s underwear aside. Juno pulled her hips forward, and Abigail swung her legs over her shoulders.
Juno parted her with two fingers and licked a long vertical line to the top of her vulva. Abigail’s clitoris was in fact engorged, she observed intently. But her hands were too busy to find the pencil, and the notebook lay forgotten somewhere on the floor. Abigail’s hips canted forward to meet her mouth with each stroke.
“Just like that—oh, just like that, yes—”
Juno’s jaw ached, but she held fast, persisting with quick upward motions until Abigail’s thighs tensed, tightly hugging the sides of her head. Abigail spasmed under her with a ragged exhale, and Juno held her hips through the small jolts of her aftershocks, then briefly rested her head on Abigail’s thigh.
Juno’s updo was unraveling now. Her face was framed by sweaty gray and brown flyaways, and at the nape of her neck, a protruding hair pin held on by almost nothing. Her lips were swollen, her mouth and chin shining with the remnants of what she had just done. Juno sat back on her knees and craned her neck to meet the spirit-talker’s warm brown eyes.
Abigail was catching her breath. She looked ruined, long strands of auburn hair tumbling from what was left of her braid. Now would be an optimal time to pause and make note of what they’d done—better to write it down while the memory was fresh—but the pencil had rolled under something, and the throb of want between Juno’s thighs had become almost painful. It would be so easy to shove her fingers between her labia and scrub until she shattered like pressurized glass.
But before she could corral her drugged brain cells to a decision, Abigail slid off the counter and to her knees. Her proximity forced Juno backwards and she overbalanced, catching herself on her palms. Abigail was wriggling out of her skirt, yanking her ruined tights down her legs. Her underwear went with them, revealing a generous mess of brown curls that Juno had felt but not seen. Blouse unbuttoned, bra askew, glasses somehow missing, she was unrecognizable as the neatly dressed professor who had defended her ideas at a podium hours earlier. Now she was crawling over Juno like a predator over a catch, and Juno scrabbled in the gap between their bodies to get her pants undone, anything to close the space between them, her flesh aching for touch.
Abigail, being one of the most brilliant minds of her generation, realized at once what she was doing and helped untangle her from her pants. Juno wasn’t sure she had ever been this wet, even when she was a young woman with regular periods who thought a hot flash had something to do with solar flares. Abigail’s fingers found her soaking, dipped into her as easily as they might have dipped into water, slicked her wetness up and over where her nerves were raw and screaming for it. The first stroke made her see stars, and she jerked up as Abigail moved her hand, chasing that touch with naked desperation.
Luckily, Abigail wasn’t in the mood to tease. She pushed two fingers shallowly into Juno’s cunt, then—in response to Juno’s frantic nodding—slid them deeper, curling them hard against her swollen inner walls. Juno gave a long groan that ended in a sob and grasped uselessly for an anchor. There was no purchase on the hard floor, so she squeezed Abigail’s calves instead, clinging to her even as she took her apart.
Abigail shifted to straddle Juno’s thigh, and with effort Juno summoned the brain function to crook her leg so that the woman could grind back against it. The feeling of Abigail’s cunt sliding against her, all soft damp hair and raw heat, would have been nearly enough to send her over the edge on its own. Combined with the sensation of Abigail’s fingers pumping steadily into her, the slick and obscene sound they made, the sizzle of electricity when Abigail’s thumb brushed her clit—Juno didn’t stand a chance. She came like a generator meltdown, choking and swearing as she arched off the floor.
The orgasm echoed through her body for so long she couldn’t tell if it was one, or two, or several. It didn’t matter. Eventually her muscles stopped clenching for long enough for Abigail to draw her fingers free. They sat breathing hard in the thin blue light, and they looked at each other.
“Well,” said Juno, when she remembered how. “That was—remarkable.” The notebook was within reach, but her bones felt too liquidly heavy to reach for it. She scanned her body lazily, checking for symptoms. The sweat was cooling on her skin, but her head still felt thick with fever. Her nerves were raw with stimulation, but the memory of Pent’s fingers inside her made her throb again. Abigail was still sitting on her thigh; Juno twitched it experimentally, and the woman shuddered, leaning into her.
“If I may make— oh —an observation,” Abigail said weakly. Her hips were rocking forward as if unbidden. Juno’s hands drifted upward to her nipples, squeezed. “Orgasm does not seem—oh, more, more—does not seem to have curtailed the effects of the—Juno, please, harder.”
God damn it, the last vestige of professionalism in Juno Zeta’s brain said before it went under in a volcanic wave of lust. They were going to need so many forms.
Once the Fifth delegation had safely returned to Koniortos, Juno Zeta’s four-scholar team was called to her office for an urgent meeting. The Archivist looked as if she hadn’t slept, and seemed angry in the way she really only got when someone made the mistake of getting her started on the Archaeology Department.
“Archivist, are you all right?” asked a gray-robed scholar.
“Yes, Ty, I am all right, but it has come to my attention that there has been a serious breach of protocol.”
Two of the four scholars looked at her blankly. Caspar and Julia did not meet her eyes.
“The survey, scholars. I asked you three months ago to check the restricted stacks and verify that we have surrogates of all the House founding records uploaded to holo.”
“And we submitted our report, Archivist. Everything is on holo.”
“There was an omission. Box Four. Fourth House founding records. Volume Nine is contaminated with an extremely potent biohazard.”
“How—” Caspar began.
“How I detected this is not important. What is important is that this was not noted anywhere in the documentation.” Juno held up a blank sheet of yellow flimsy.
“Archivist,” Julia said, very slowly, “Caspar and I were surveying the Fourth House records. We noticed the contaminant. A bluish powder. The trouble was,” Julia continued, toying with the seam of their robe, “we didn’t have masks with us, and then—”
“Due to the potency of the toxin, we were—unable to complete the form at that time,” Caspar said, looking at his shoes.
Juno nodded. “I’ll be sending one person to return to the restricted stacks. Personal protective equipment is essential. We need a containment team in there as soon as possible.”
“Did something happen to Abigail Pent? I heard someone saw her at Medical—” Ty was interrupted.
“Scholars love talk. Disregard whatever you heard,” Juno said curtly, “unless you heard it from me.”
When the auto-door closed behind the humiliated scholars, Juno turned back to her correspondence. “Dear Abigail,” she wrote. “Regarding the continuation of our research...”