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(looking for) shapes in the silence

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For the last three and a half years, Gideon Nav’s morning routine had been the same.

Every day began more or less identically— with a hundred push-ups, a hundred sit-ups, and (on days Gideon felt particularly motivated) a thirty-minute jog to tie it all together.

Then she would shower. She would flex in the mirror until she felt either satisfied or a twinge of chagrined shame, and then she would pick the day’s variety of suit based on how badly she needed to do laundry.

Then came coffee, the subway, and the inevitable ordeal of waiting for her boss to arrive.

So Gideon really should have guessed from the first moment of this day that it was going to be a unique flavor of fucking terrible.

She knew from the very instant she woke up, in fact, because her alarm clock read a blinking, blank 12:00 instead of what it should have read, which was 6:00am.

Gideon blinked. Panic moved slower than her hands did, though it caught up with her by the time she read 8:13 on her phone’s lock screen.

“Oh. Fuck,” Gideon said abruptly, half-surprised in her post-sleep haze that she’d spoken at all. She blinked again, then looked blankly out the window and repeated, “Oh, fuck.”

This development relegated her usual workout to the very back of her mind, which she was sure her muscles would resent her for later.

But for now, Gideon threw the covers off her bed, not bothering for once to replace them, and tugged an undershirt on before reaching blindly for something clean.

Considering most of her clothing choices were half-asleep and completely panicked, Gideon thought she’d done the best job she could at finding an outfit. She ended up in a simple black suit with an equally simple white shirt underneath, and decided for today that a tie would only slow her down. She left her top button undone, hoping she achieved an artfully messy look rather than an actually messy look.

It was fine. Whatever. What were they going to do — fire her?

No: Gideon Nav was the best damn assistant to the editor-in-chief that the Ninth House Publishing Corporation had ever seen. They could barely afford her as it was.

Or, at least, that was what Gideon reassured herself as she fumbled for the emergency deodorant in her bag, elbowing her way through the door of the coffee shop downstairs.

Her heart sank momentarily at the sight of the line — it was at least twenty people deep and moving about as quickly as one might expect a glacier to — but it ticked back to life at the sound of a high, excited voice calling her name.

“Order for Gideon,” called her favorite barista with a knowing look. “You’re late.”

Gideon briefly considered leaving this barista the entirety of her worldly possessions when she died, then remembered that said possessions only amounted to a PS4 and a decrepit computer that she refused to part with.

“I think I owe you my life,” Gideon said matter-of-factly, pushing her way through a few annoyed customers. “Seriously. If you ever need someone killed, come to me and I won’t ask any questions. I’ll even bury the body for you. I know a spot.”

The barista — her name tag read Anastasia — let out a laugh. Little streaks of grey ran through otherwise black hair, wisping out from the bun she had it tied in. “I’ll keep that in mind. Is your boss really that bad?”

Ears lined with bone-studded jewelry, words edged with steel and barbed with iron, and a hard, rose-black stare flashed through Gideon’s head. Her palms prickled at the thought, and her hands tightened around the cup.

But Gideon forced a smile onto her face. “Oh, she’s worse. Imagine if, like, the worst person you know had a weird, even worse goth cousin, and you’ll start getting an idea of her. And since I’m, like, three seconds from proposing, I can tell you the whole sad story at our wedding.”

Anastasia rolled her eyes fondly. “Please. I’m much too old for you, you flirt. Get out of here.”

Gideon didn’t need to be told twice. She left with a wave and a chorus of thank-yous — as well as a sizable tip — and focused her attention on getting to her job.

A quick check to the bus schedule told her that the next bus wouldn’t come for twenty minutes, so she resolved to walk the distance instead. Even now, after nearly four years of living in New York City, she hadn’t quite gotten used to not having her pickup truck.

She settled into an awkward half-jog after the first ten minutes of her walk, and ended up making it through the towering black doors of the Ninth lobby with six minutes to spare.

Even with sunlight streaming through the windows, it was always dimly lit. When she had first started working there, the inlaid porcelain and bone had seemed impossibly intimidating — and, to be honest, a little weird.

Now it was just par for the course. Their publishing company had originally made its name in horror and thriller novels, so maybe a little gothic decor was warranted.

Gideon shoved herself shamelessly through the doors of the nearest elevator, much to the displeasure of her companions, and ran haphazardly through the list of things on her boss’ docket for the day.

9am, meeting with the Eighth branch, Gideon thought, watching the numbers change as the elevator rose. 9:30, meeting with Palamedes about— I dunno, whatever the fuck he’s doing now. The elevator stopped two floors before where Gideon needed, and she resisted the urge to scream.

She took a breath and continued her list. 10:15, meeting with— who was it again? Gideon racked her brain. They had gotten a call from somewhere important a few days ago that her boss had completely neglected to return, and something about it scratched at the inside of Gideon’s head.

The lady she’d spoken to on the phone had been— well, rude was an understatement. Her voice had been high and perpetually annoyed, and she had patently refused Gideon’s offer to reschedule whatever meeting her boss had forgotten — or, more likely, refused — to attend.

Oh, well. How important could it be?

The doors opened, and not a moment too soon. Gideon rushed out without thinking — or looking — and ran headfirst into a bustling intern.

She was only able to save one of the very warm, very full cups in her hand in time— because the other ended up all over her. The feeling of hot coffee soaking into a brand-new, pristine white dress shirt was one Gideon wished very badly that she would never relive.

“You’re fucking kidding me,” She said, more to herself than the intern, who looked as though his heart was about to drop out of his ass. Rage and fear and panic flared through her in turn, eventually settling into a heated sort of desperation.

Gideon looked around frantically. She only had a minute and a half, and the only person that would be reliably around on such short notice was—

“Camilla,” Gideon said raggedly, hauling ass over to her cubicle. “Camilla. Camilla. Two Knicks tickets, company box, if you give me your shirt right the fuck now.”

Camilla Hect looked up from a game of online chess — against Palamedes, no doubt — with a puzzled look on her face. It resolved into understanding at the large, beige stain on Gideon’s chest. She looked down at her own shirt, which was more or less the same shade of white as Gideon’s, with a sigh. “Nice spill.”

“Blame the intern from Marketing,” Gideon said in a rush. “Look, say yes or say no, but do it fast. I only have a few minutes.”

Camilla looked at her game, looked at her shirt, and looked at Gideon. “Yeah, alright. I have a spare in my locker at the gym anyway.”

“Marry me,” Gideon said, shedding her suit jacket hastily. “I’m serious. I’ll pay for it all. I’ll get us a sexy little honeymoon suite in Cabo—”

“Yeah, hard pass,” said Camilla, undoing her tie. “How am I going to be a hot silver fox if you lock me down this early?”

Gideon couldn’t argue with that. “Respectable.”

“Thanks,” Cam said. “I thought so too.”

They switched shirts hastily. Camilla was a little shorter and a hell of a lot less broad than Gideon was, but the shirt fit well enough. It pulled lightly against her shoulders as she moved. Hopefully, her boss would take that as a sign of bicep-related vanity rather than one of ill-timed misfortune.

Across the room, the next elevator dinged, which meant it was time to fucking go.

“That’s my cue,” Gideon said hurriedly, pulling her jacket back on and picking up the remaining cup of coffee. “I’ll get you those tickets, Hect. You can bet your life on it.”

Camilla waved her off, returning to her game with a brusque nod and a thumbs-up, and Gideon practically threw herself into the office she’d spent the last three years hating. The name painted in fine, filigreed black-and-gold letters on the glass door seemed to mock her as she did.

And then, as the office sent itself into a panic trying to look professional and appropriately busy, the elevator doors opened— and Harrowhark Nonagesimus stepped out ready to eat the world alive.

Harrowhark was the heir to the Ninth House, the prodigal daughter of the strangest publishing empire in the world, and the biggest, nastiest capital-B bitch Gideon had ever met. She barely came to Gideon’s shoulder, and yet most who met her thought she was over six feet tall from sheer power of intimidation.

She had taken over the company at the age of 17. Now, eight years later, she was still the youngest person ever to run it.

She was a strange, almost unbelievable success story: starting an accelerated university education at 14, getting a degree in Brit Lit in nearly half of the usual time, and staring down executives five times her age in board rooms all before she could order a drink to wash it all down.

And when she walked into the top floor of her building, it was like the hand of Death casting over a sickroom.

The office felt silent in an instant, with everyone who had been scurrying finding a spare wall to press themselves flat against. Cubicles were filled, heads were ducked out of sight, phones were made silent within a nanosecond.

And Harrowhark, clad in black from head to boots, began to approach.

Gideon stiffened, cleared her throat, and tried not to look constipated. With a broad, lopsided smile that she knew Harrow would roll her eyes at, she said, “Morning, boss.”

“I have a meeting in ten minutes,” Harrowhark said by way of greeting. She took the coffee gracelessly out of Gideon’s hand. “And I got my aunt to do the Oprah interview.”

“Which one?” Gideon asked. There were two of them — both decorated authors in their own right — and they tended to bleed together in Gideon’s memory. One hadn’t been seen in the public eye in years, while the other seemed perpetually dismayed by the current state of press. Both were blind. Neither was pleasant.

Harrow didn’t seem impressed by her lack of recall. “Lachrimorta,” She intoned, taking a sip of the coffee. There was a momentary instant, just as there was every morning, where Gideon prayed to whatever was listening that they hadn’t fucked up her order.

Today, it seemed she would be spared.

“She’s been complaining about her lack of press for decades,” Harrow continued impishly, turning hands painted with black nail polish to the stack of manuscripts on her desk. “So I finally told her to do something about it. The whole ordeal barely lasted the morning.”

Gideon nodded blithely. “Does that mean she’s going to stop calling me about her sales?”

“In a perfect world, maybe. In this one? Almost certainly not,” Harrow sighed. “Though I will remind you, Griddle, that that is my great-aunt you’re talking about. She’s a part of my family, and as such, there are things I am allowed to do that would be considered— what’s the word I’m looking for?”

“Douchey,” Gideon offered.

Harrow gave her a look, continuing, “That would be considered unseemly if you were to do them.”

“I thought you liked how honest I am with you,” Gideon said. “I mean, considering everyone else is too scared of you to say hello, I get the feeling you consider it a breath of fresh air.”

“Camilla Hect isn’t afraid of me,” Harrow said, with a tone that suggested vague disinterest. “She says good morning to me every day.”

“Camilla Hect isn’t afraid of anything. I once saw her eat a ghost pepper without flinching.” At Harrow’s resulting glare, Gideon put her hands up in surrender. “Low bar. That’s all I’m saying.”

Harrow hummed lightly at that, offering a shrug in response. She looked at the schedule on her desk and paused. “Who am I meeting with at 10:15? The First House isn’t set to meet with us until the end of the quarter.”

“Uh,” Gideon said. “So. About that.”

“Griddle,” Harrowhark said. “I have not kept you in my employ for three years—” (“In your employ? What are you, a pirate?” asked Gideon.) “—For you to forget the names of those I meet with.” She stood, blinking black-rose eyes lined with carefully smudged black eyeshadow. It gave her face the hollowed-out, dark appearance of a skull, which Gideon thought was a little much even for her. “Figure it out or pack your things.”

Gideon wracked her brain again. The woman had been upfront and openly bitchy in the way that only lawyers and elderly medical receptionists could be, which meant—

“She was from Legal.” She snapped her fingers. “Some lady from the legal department asked to speak with you today. Something about a visa application.”

“Then tell her I’m busy,” said Harrow, as if the very idea offended her. “I have done nothing to violate my visa, and the government knows that just as well as I do. Reschedule the meeting for next week, or next month, or next century for all I care.”

Gideon thought, personally, that the woman wouldn’t take well to being told— well, anything, but especially anything negative. She couldn’t even offer a thumbs-up in response.

Just a few more days, Gideon told herself, trying to breathe slowly. Then I’ll be home and—

“Oh, and I need you to work this weekend,” Harrowhark added disinterestedly. She was frowning at some piece of paper on her desk. “With Lachrimorta’s launch coming up, I can’t afford to let anyone slip through. I’ll be here nearly the full 48 hours, and I expect the same from you.”

Gideon blinked. “No.”

There was a terrible, dreadful beat of silence.

“What do you mean, no?”

Gideon shifted where she stood, but refused to yield. “I asked months ago to have the next three weeks off.”

“What could you possibly need three weeks for?”

God, Harrowhark had a punchable face. Gideon had to take a breath. “A family friend is mega sick, her 33rd birthday is in a few days, and I haven’t been home in three years.” She nodded towards Harrow. “And, lest ye forget, O lady of the night, you approved it after I helped you close that deal with that soldier selling her memoir.”

That soldier’s name was Dve,” Harrow corrected, choosing to ignore almost all of what Gideon said. “And circumstances have changed.” Gideon squeezed her hand into a fist, trying very hard not to scream, and Harrow let out a passive sigh.

“If I don’t see you in the office on Saturday morning,” Harrowhark said, as if she were explaining it to a child, “I will fire you. I will make sure your manuscript — and yes, Nav, I know it’s yours, your horrid voice is horridly indicative in your writing — never sees print.” Harrow leaned forward, steepling her fingers into a tent. “You will never work in this industry again. Do you understand?”

There were many things Gideon wanted to say, and most of them ended with Harrow’s face being shoved into her desk. One ended with Gideon’s fist connecting with her face; three years of overtime and never-ending work made even in one solid blow.

But that couldn’t happen. That wouldn’t happen. So help her, Gideon would be a goddamn editor.

Never mind that she had no experience in upper management; never mind that she hadn’t been on a date in two and a half years; never mind that she was missing a sick woman’s birthday celebration to work for someone she despised.

At least there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

So what Gideon said was: “Fine. I’ll rebook my flight.”

“And?” Harrow asked, expectant and unmoving.

A beat. Gideon’s molars ground into each other, and she had to tighten her hands into fists to keep them from shaking. It only half worked, but their trembling was from rage and not fear. “And I’ll see you Saturday.”

And Harrow smiled. It was a hard, borderline cruel smile, and one that spoke of victory. “Good,” She said. She took another sip of coffee, which Gideon took as her cue to leave. A call from Harrow, curious and almost lighthearted, stopped her at the doorway. “Oh, and Griddle?”

Gideon’s jaw ticked. “What?”

“Have you always chosen—” Harrow checked the label. “Half-caf cinnamon oat lattes with an extra espresso shot as your beverage of choice in the mornings?”

Fuck. She had been hoping she’d gotten away with it. “...Yes.” Gideon cleared her throat. “It’s— it’s like Christmas in a cup.”

“Is it,” Harrow remarked blithely. “Because every time we’re on a trip, this is what I order. You, on the other hand, usually drink a cup of black coffee and complain it isn’t bitter enough.”

How the fuck does she know that? Gideon thought, eyes widening. She cleared her throat again. Fuck. Was she doing that too much? “Look, if this is you asking if I order two of what you drink in case I spill one,” Gideon said, “the answer is no. Because that would be stupid and pathetic, which I am not.”

Camilla chose this moment to walk past the open door of Harrow’s office wearing Gideon’s coffee-stained shirt. “I talked to Palamedes,” She said, leaning in. “He’ll have his next draft over by the end of the week.”

“Wonderful.” Camilla left, and Harrowhark bore an expression best described as feral, greedy joy. She turned it on Gideon with a sharp grin. “Well, since you’re not stupid and pathetic, as you claim, perhaps you can answer something else for me.”

“What?” Gideon asked, hearing the edge in her voice. It was incredible: not even nine in the morning, and Harrow was already working at her last nerve.

“Who’s Anastasia?” Harrow asked innocently, batting her eyes. She held up the coffee cup, where— ah. Well, that was a shame.

212-919-2290. Give me a call if you decide to follow through on that proposal :) — Anastasia.

Gideon wished, briefly, and not for the first time, that someone would kill her. “I’m going to leave now,” She said brightly. “If we never talk about this again, it’ll be too soon.”

“I’ll see you for the Eighth,” Harrow said as she left. “And do remember not to say anything this time. Your job is to sit next to me and look imposing. You are a prop, Griddle. We have to remind them that the Ninth—”

“—Will not be reckoned with,” Gideon finished, having heard this same sentence about a thousand times in her years working for Harrow. “Sure. I’ll be outside.” She was sure Harrow was making a face or rolling her eyes, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

With a sigh, Gideon plopped herself down in the cubicle that had been hers for the last few years. It was across from Harrow’s office, which at the very least meant she would have a few seconds’ advance warning before they set off to do whatever the fuck Harrow needed to do.

That, however, was not where Gideon’s mind was.

She had never been one for pictures or decorations or— well, much of anything, really, so the only touches of personality in the sparse little cell were a small, tidy cactus in one corner and a worn picture of her and Dulcinea Septimus from her college days.

She looked at it for a moment. It had been taken right after one of her hockey games, and her hair was still wet from the shower. Dulcinea looked radiant — in a pale, fluorescent sort of way — even with her hands in her crutches. Both of them were smiling broadly, and Dulcinea was in the middle of laughing at something Gideon had said.

It was a scene as familiar as the back of her hand; she remembered every detail even now. It was the last time she had seen the other woman, and nearly four years had passed since.

Christ, she had missed so much. Isaac and Jeannemary’s bar and bat mitzvahs, Dulcie’s 30th birthday (and the ones that had followed it), Abigail and Magnus finally finishing the library. It had been too long since she’d been home.

Gideon’s eyes landed on the phone next to her computer. Guilt flooded her in waves, creeping up her throat and squeezing harder with every passing second.

“Just do it, dickhead,” Gideon muttered to herself. “Just— just fucking get it over with.”

With a sigh, she dialed Dulcinea’s number— and remembered too late that it wasn’t even five in the morning where she was.

Still, the other woman picked up on the third ring. “This is Dulcinea Septimus,” She said, voice as musical as ever. “To whom do I owe the pleasure?”

“Hey, Dulcie,” Gideon said, trying not to sound as horrible as she felt. “Look, I’m sorry I’m calling so early. It’s—”

“Gideon Nav, as I live and breathe!” Dulcie exclaimed, audibly delighted. “This is a surprise! A welcome one, of course. Though I’m afraid I don’t recognize this number! Did you get a new phone?”

“No— well, yeah, but I’m calling from the office,” Gideon said, eyes flicking over to Harrow’s door. No movement yet. Good. The last person Harrow discovered frolicking on company time, as she had put it, was fired on the spot, and Gideon had no intention of following them out the door. “It’s—” She closed her eyes. “It’s about my trip up to see you.”

She could almost picture Dulcinea holding up her finger. “Well, if it’s bad news, I will refuse to hear it,” She said, twinkling over the phone line. “What’s happened?”

“I have to work this weekend,” Gideon said. “Actually, let me amend that: I’m being forced to work this weekend.”

Dulcinea hummed. “By your boss?”

“The one and only,” Gideon muttered. “Yeah. My time off has been approved for months, and you know what she did? Little shit threatened my job over— actually, you know what? That doesn’t matter.” She let out a frustrated sigh. “Just— my point is, I’m going to be a few days late, Dulcie. I’m sorry. Fuck.”

“Someday, you are going to call and say that you’ve quit, and our entire town will rejoice for months.” Dulcinea went quiet on the other side of the line. “Is it terribly rude of me to say that we planned for this?”

“Somehow that’s worse,” Gideon groaned. “Just tell Abigail—” A flicker of black followed by a quick movement from the glass door had Gideon changing tack smoothly. “—That we take all of our submissions here very seriously here at the Ninth. Thank you for calling,” She said, and hung up with a flicker of guilt.

“Was that your family?” Harrow asked lightly, approaching her.

Should’ve known, Gideon thought dimly. “Yep,” She said, popping the p.

“Did they tell you to quit?”

“Every day.” Gideon nodded towards the hallway to the conference rooms. “Is it time?”

“It’s time,” Harrow said, voice somber. She gave a stiff jerk of her head. “Come.”

That couldn’t mean anything good. Gideon followed a half step behind her, shooting weary looks to all the coworkers she passed.

The Eighth was waiting for them in the conference room, looking just as pious and just as brittle as ever.

Today they were represented by Silas Octakiseron, who was probably the most deeply unpleasant person Gideon had ever met.

When Gideon had first arrived, she had been confused to hear people discuss the Eighth, the Seventh, and the Sixth in the same tones as they did the Ninth. Both, as it turned out, were branches of the larger Mithraeum Publishing Group, of which the First House was the flagship.

The different branches dealt — more or less — with different subjects: the Second made its name in war stories, the Third published high-stakes political thrillers in the same breath as hard-hitting nonfiction, the Sixth dabbled in historical nonfiction and biographies, the list went on.

But just as the Ninth House had gotten its start in horror and gothic fiction, the Eighth began with religious nonfiction.

A simple silver cross hung around Silas’ neck, and the fire of the congregation burned behind the drained, translucent blue eyes that stared out at them. He had long, faint blondish hair — it seemed to grow paler by the day, in fact — that was tied into a neat, sallow ponytail behind him.

His eyes were sunken, his lips were lifeless, and his hands were a cacophony of vein and bone. He bore closer resemblance to a corpse than to his nephew, who sat beside him and occupied nearly twice his mass. Colum Asht was nearly twice Silas’ age. Gideon still wasn’t super sure how their relationship worked.

“Finally,” Silas said simply. He stood with all the force of a leaf falling from a tree. “Please, Nonagesimus. Have a seat.”

“A fanatic from the Eighth telling me to have a seat in my own conference room,” Harrow said with a tone akin to wonder. “The world is going mad.” She remained standing. “Do you know why I brought you here?”

“To compare notes from the quarter,” Silas said. “Or perhaps to suggest a merge, though I can’t imagine why.”

Harrow’s expression shifted to one of impassive superiority. “Your ability to miss the point is unparalleled.” She took a step forward, resting a hand on the table. She had no fewer than six rings on her fingers. “I called you here because I wanted to see the look on your face when I told you that the Ninth House plans to buy out Cristabel Oct and the elder two Asht brothers."

Silas’ porcelain face cracked. “Those are our three biggest contracts." He blinked once, then twice more, though his voice remained relatively stable. "You can’t do that.”

“Oh, I can,” Harrowhark said. There was no joy in her voice— only steel. “I’ve spoken with my legal team as well as yours. We’ll pay them better and offer them more, and they’ll take it in a second. We’ll run their upcoming books.”

Anger, red and puffy, clouded the lily-white face of Silas Octakiseron. “You can’t,” He repeated. “It’s impossible.”

“It isn’t,” Harrow said simply. “I’ll have my legal department contact yours by the end of the week.” Without another word, she walked out the door.

It took Gideon’s brain a second to realize what the fuck had just happened, at which point she followed Harrow out the door awkwardly. “Can you really do that?” She muttered, catching up with Harrow down the hall. “Buy out their contracts?”

“I’m still working on it,” Harrow admitted. “But— yes. I think so. Now that Lachrimorta’s launching her book, we have the appropriate funds to cover the expenses from the presale alone.”

“Damn,” Gideon said, letting out a low whistle. “Harsh.”

“Octakiseron is the human equivalent of candle wax, and the Eighth has always treated its authors terribly. They take and take and take, barely caring about their well-being, until all that’s left is an empty husk,” Harrow said. “This has been a long time coming. I have a difficult time empathizing with him.”

And as much as she disliked Harrow, Gideon couldn’t argue with that.

They had almost made it back to the office when there was a sound from behind them. Footsteps, loud and fast, and approaching rapidly until—

“You,” Silas spat, getting the attention of the entire room, “are an awful, heretical, poisonous little witch.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Harrow muttered.

Silas didn’t seem to hear her. He raised a long, bony finger and jabbed it in her direction. Venom clouded his words. “You think you’re so powerful. You have nothing— you are nothing. You have no one, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.”

“This is all a boatload of fun,” said Harrow briskly, “but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Silas would not be stopped. “You think you can overpower the Eighth?” He asked, voice taking on a hard, oaken edge. “No. Don’t think we’ve forgotten: your own parents died rather than run this company. All you are is a blight to their memory.”

Harrowhark froze where she stood. For a moment, between the stark lines of her face and the angles of her eyeliner, she looked statuesque.

“This plan of yours is illegal and amoral,” Silas continued, “and I will see the Ninth burned to the ground before I let you backstab us.”

Gideon, for her part, had absolutely no fucking idea what she was going to do.

She had to do something— for fuck’s sake, anything was better than just standing there. Silas was advancing like a pale, wispy thundercloud, and his bodyguard’s hand looked like it was inching towards the inside of his suit jacket.

Gideon didn’t like Harrowhark, but neither of them liked Silas. At least with Harrow the only present threats were to her career. A fight (or worse) wouldn’t do anyone any good— and if she was being honest, hearing Harrow so loudly and publicly denigrated was getting on her damn nerves.

So as Silas advanced, Gideon moved smoothly between them, put a hand flat on Silas’ chest, and said, “Nope. Talk to her like that again and I’ll throw your ass out of the building myself.” She made her mouth a hard line and squared her shoulders for good measure. “Get out.”

She wasn’t sure where it came from, nor whether it was the right thing to do, and just as Silas opened his mouth to respond Harrow raised a hand.

“That won’t be necessary, Nav,” Harrowhark said. She turned around with a carefully-placed bored expression. “Security has their jobs for a reason. It would be nonsensical to take it from them.”

Her face shifted again, this time into a perfect, gravelike mask. “But my assistant is not wrong, Octakiseron. If you want to leave with all of your teeth, you’ll leave quietly and send someone else next time the Eighth has business here.”

Security — which had materialized out of nowhere — began to approach, putting a firm hand on Silas’ shoulder.

“Fine,” Silas spat. “I hope you die alone.” He left with his head held high and his fists shaking with rage, but without another word.

Gideon let out a breath as the elevator doors closed. “Okay,” She said, unevenly. “Well. That happened.”

“Astute observation, Griddle,” Harrow said, but it lacked its usual bite. Gideon looked down and saw her hands trembling by her sides. Harrow must have seen her eyes flick down, because they tightened into fists a second later.

Neither of them said a word as they made their way into her office. Gideon thought about asking if she was alright, then thought better of it, and was almost on her way full circle when Harrow snapped, “Stop looking at me like that, Nav. I’m fine.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Gideon protested halfheartedly. “And I was looking at you like I normally do.”

“I refuse to argue about this,” Harrow said, putting her head in her hands. “Get Camilla. I’m calling Palamedes.”

And that was that. It was as if the whole altercation had never happened.

The minutes ticked by slowly, and the hours went even slower. The meeting with Palamedes Sextus was a bright spot, which almost made up for the near-brawl that had happened earlier in the morning.

Palamedes was a kind man, which was rare. Gideon usually zoned out during their meetings — though not for lack of trying — but she was pretty sure he and Harrow knew each other from their days in university.

He held a position as a professor at a university in Ireland, but the few times he had been to their office he had made an impression— he was tall and slender, with warm brown skin and messy black hair, but what Gideon always remembered were his eyes. They were a bright, lambent grey, and gave an electric transformative quality to the rest of his face.

Camilla had served as his representative at their company for years now; they were old friends and cousins to boot. So when he and Harrow were talking over the finer points of his manuscript, pointing out archaic literary references and subtle nods to 15th-century literature, at least Gideon had someone to roll her eyes with.

Gideon snapped back to reality when she saw the clock hit 10:15. She had been able to call the immigration office while Harrow was talking to Palamedes, so there was no real deadline, but seeing the timestamp sent her instinctively into alertness.

“—and I’ll admit, trying to revive Chaucer for a modern audience is admirable,” Harrow was saying into the phone, “but you’re a fool if you think they’ll understand the nuance of your work, Sextus.”

“You have too little faith in your readers,” Palamedes replied, voice tinged with a gentle Northern English accent. Even over the phone, Gideon could picture the wry smile on his face. “Is it so hard to imagine that people might surprise you?”

“In my experience, yes.” Gideon made a hurry-up sign in the air and tapped her watch, which earned her a withering glare and a middle finger in return. Still, Harrow finished with, “Now get back to writing, Sextus. I have work to do.”

The line clicked dead a few seconds later, which meant Camilla gave Gideon a brief thump on the back and got the hell out of the office.

“I thought you rescheduled the immigration meeting,” Harrow said, skipping any pleasantries. “I told you to reschedule the immigration meeting—”

Gideon rolled her eyes. “Fuck’s sake, Nonagesimus, take a breather. I rescheduled the damn meeting.” She nodded towards the stack of papers on Harrow’s desk. “But you have a packed schedule today, and that whole pile still needs reviewing by the end of the week. Also, text me your lunch order, because I know for a fact that you haven’t eaten yet.”

At this, Harrow seemed to deflate. “Oh,” She said after a moment. “Where are you going for lunch?”

“Probably the deli.”

“Very well. In that case, will you—”

And Gideon never heard what Harrow wanted her to do, because she was interrupted by the phone on Harrow’s desk ringing.

Harrow blinked, then looked up at Gideon expectantly. Gideon rolled her eyes and answered the phone.

“Nonagesimus’ office,” She said blandly. At the other person’s voice, Gideon’s eyes widened, and she looked at Harrow. “She’ll be there right away.” She set the phone down into its dock. “Um. Okay, holy shit, it’s— it’s Gaius. He’s in a conference room and he says he needs to see you.”

At this, Harrow’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets. “The Emperor is here?”

“I will never understand why you call him that, but yes, and he wants to see you,” Gideon said.

Harrow rolled her eyes, but there was a sense of urgency to her movements that she’d lacked all morning. “For heaven’s sake. He runs a publishing empire, which makes him the Emperor. It’s a nickname, Griddle. Keep up.”

“Okay, well, do you want me to come w—” Harrow shot out of her seat and began walking faster than Gideon had ever seen her move towards the hallway.

Gideon jogged after her lightly, but wasn’t able to catch up before the door to the conference room opened. Harrow took a seat at the table and jerked her head slightly towards the door in a motion that meant wait outside.

Gideon did, though she rolled her eyes on her way out. The doors in the building were glass and very little sound was stifled through them, so at least she could get a good look at the people in the room.

* * *

Harrow turned her attention to the people in front of her as the door slid closed.

The Emperor, as Harrowhark and most of the other branch heads referred to him, was a middle-aged man with greying brown hair. Everything about him was plain. He lacked the frivolity of the upper class, and opted instead for a simple white button-down, black slacks, and nondescript black shoes.

He had a plain, strong-jawed face, with lines by his mouth and crows’ feet by his eyes— which were the only truly distracting part of him. They were almost entirely black, though a thin ring of white circled the irises.

In all her years of working with him, Harrow still had no idea how someone ended up with eyes like that. She didn’t think it would be appropriate to ask in public.

The Emperor leaned forward in his seat at the sight of them and offered a hand. “Nice to see you again, Harrowhark. I’m John Gaius, head of the First House, blah, blah, blah. Please, have a seat.”

Next to him was a woman with brown hair and a tightly pinched expression. “For God’s sake, John, she knows who you are.”

“Oh,” said the Emperor, as if he hadn’t considered this. “Well, you’re probably wondering why you’re here.” His voice took on the distinct impression of a middle school principal about to give someone a dressing-down. “This is Mercymorn Joy—”

“I called your assistant days ago to schedule a meeting,” said Mercymorn Joy, who lived up to neither part of her name. “On the way here I was informed that it had been rescheduled, which is both childish and absolutely stupid considering—”

John let out a sigh. “Mercymorn is in charge of our legal department. She and I are old friends, so she called me and asked me to— what was it you said?”

“Knock some sense into a foolish, horrid little child,” answered Mercymorn.

“There you go.” John leaned forward. “Harrowhark, it’s come to our attention that you violated the terms of your work visa.”

Harrow blinked. “That’s not possible. I just submitted the application— this isn’t—” She blinked again. “How?”

John, for a moment, looked genuinely sorry for her. “Do you remember when you went to Toronto for the book fair last spring?”

“I had to,” Harrow said. “We were going to lose one of our biggest clients to Simon and Scheuster if I didn’t intervene.”

“Yes, well, clients or not, you were expressly forbidden to leave the country while your application was being processed!!” Mercymorn said. “Can you read? This is a genuine question. John told me you were young and I want to know how much of a child I’m dealing with.”

Harrow’s eye twitched. “I’m twenty-five,” She said carefully. “And when I first took over I was 17. I am well aware of the terms of my visa—”

For a moment, Mercymorn’s face took on a fiery, almost feral quality. “Then you should have known!! All of the information is on our website!! It isn’t hard to find!!”

“I’m a little busy running a publishing house,” Harrow snapped. She put her head in her hands. “What’s going to happen to me?”

“You’ll be deported back to New Zealand. Or to England, if you’d prefer,” John said. “It’s my understanding that you hold dual citizenship.”

Harrow nodded along lightly, obviously calculating her next steps in her head. “That’s fine. I can run the branch from London or Auckland—”

“You most certainly cannot,” Mercymorn said.

John stopped her from saying more with a weary hand. “What Mercymorn means,” He explained, “is that you’re not legally allowed to work for an American company if you’re deported. And yes, Harrowhark, I know that it was founded by your parents in New Zealand, but since it was acquired by my company, it is technically American.” He paused.

“I’m sorry,” said the Emperor softly. “Until we figure this out, I’m turning over operations to Silas Octakiseron. The Eighth will manage the branch—”

“LIke hell it will,” Harrow spat. “Absolutely not. Octakiseron is not allowed within 500 feet of this building.”

“Harrowhark, you have turned this company on its head,” said John, almost pleadingly. “If there were any way we could have you stay, we would, but there isn’t—”

And then the conference room door opened, and a head of red hair poked in. “Sorry, hate to interrupt,” Gideon said, “but Casseopeia from the Sixth wants to talk to you, Harrow.”

Harrow’s resulting glare could have bored holes in the table, and she waved a flippant hand. “Not now.”

“Yeah, I know. I told her you were otherwise engaged, so no biggie,” Gideon said, completely missing the way Harrow froze at the word.

Engaged.

No. No, that was—

That was a stupid, foolish plan. It was a nonstarter.

Harrow looked up, then looked at Gideon with a hard stare and beheld her for a moment.

It was batshit insane, it was probably illegal, and it was definitely going to bite them in the ass if it backfired— but Harrow didn’t have any other choice. Her work was too important.

And God help them, it might actually work.

Gideon frowned lightly at the expression on Harrow’s face, which she was sure held a dangerous, unreadable expression. “Um. Everything okay?”

Harrowhark ignored her question. “There’s something you need to know,” She said to John and Mercymorn. She locked eyes with Gideon, holding her gaze firm.

White-ringed eyes flicked between them, and a frown flickered on John’s face. “Alright.”

“Well, it’s interesting that you’ve chosen to tell me about the visa application now,” Harrowhark said, turning to John and Mercymorn, “when Gideon only proposed last weekend.”

John blinked. He looked between them. “Excuse me?”

“I’m getting married,” Harrowhark said.

“To who?” John asked.

“To my assistant,” said Harrow, ignoring the choking, strangled noise of surprise Gideon made from the door. “To Gideon Nav. We’re engaged.” She paused, then stood. “Aren’t we, Griddle?”

“No,” Gideon said, because she was the worst. “What the fuck?”

Harrow closed her eyes. “It’s alright, darling,” She said through half-gritted teeth. “We can drop the act now. They know.” She met Gideon’s eyes again, sending a silent prayer that she would go along with it. “We’re engaged. Are we not?”

Gideon’s golden eyes were wide and extremely confused, but after a few seconds’ pause she made a jerky motion with her head that could, in some situations, be mistaken for a nod.

“Um. Y— yes.” She blinked. “We are— um. We’re going to get married.” She gave them an awkward thumbs-up.

“Does that solve our little problem?” Harrow asked, turning expectantly back to John and Mercymorn.

The Emperor of the Nine Houses looked like he wasn’t quite sure what to say, and settled after a moment on, “Sure.”

Mercymorn’s eye twitched. “Fine.”

“If I may ask,” said John carefully, “how did this… happen?”

Harrow blinked. It was a hasty, ill-conceived plan, which meant she was a little strapped for answers. “Well,” She began, buying herself another second. “Three years of late nights, book fairs, and coffee runs make for a close relationship. One thing led to another—”

“Yep,” added Gideon helpfully.

“—and here we are,” finished Harrow. “Engaged. To be married.” A pause. “We’re just— just two people who fell in love when we weren’t supposed to.”

Gideon blinked. “Yeah.” She blinked again. She was doing a lot of blinking. That wasn’t good. “Yep,” She said again, weakly. She gave them another thumbs-up.

Rather than risk any more of whatever ill-fated road they were heading down, Harrow said, “So if that’s all, then I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave. We have a lot of work to do.”

“Well, I’m afraid you won’t be able to work while under investigation,” Mercymorn said.

Harrow’s eye twitched. If Gideon was in this room for another second, she was going to start blabbing, and Harrow couldn’t risk that. “Then I’ll be doing wedding planning, and— such things.”

She practically shoved the two of them out of the room. Gideon was, for once in her life, utterly speechless. Harrow pulled them into her office and closed the door.

She sank into her desk chair and put her head in her hands. “Fuck,” Harrow muttered. Then, louder: “Fuck!”

“So, not that I don’t agree,” Gideon said. “But do you mind explaining to me what in the hell just fucking happened?”

“We’re engaged,” Harrowhark said, as if it were obvious.

Gideon’s eyes were as wide as saucers. “Yeah, so, we’re really not. Like, really, extremely not.”

“Well, we are now,” Harrow rushed. Gideon opened her mouth to protest (which, in her mind, was a very fair reaction), but Harrow held up a hand. “Listen, it’s too late to go back. You saw what happened in there, Griddle.”

“No, I didn’t,” Gideon said instantly. “I didn’t see or hear anything, and I especially didn’t see or hear anything that could get me tied up in— whatever the fuck kind of scheme you’re about to run.”

“I believe you mean whatever the fuck kind of scheme we are about to run, darling,” Harrow corrected, practically snarling out the last word. She chewed at her cheek furiously, thinking hard enough that Gideon could see smoke coming out of her ears.

After a moment, she let out a short, frustrated breath. “I am in a predicament. If you help me through it, I will give you the promotion to editor you’ve been chasing. I will—” She searched frantically for something else, and her voice took on a kind of desperation Gideon had never heard. “So help me, I will run your stupid little manuscript with ten thousand copies first run—”

“Twenty thousand,” Gideon said. It was worth a shot, right?

Harrow’s jaw ticked. “Twenty thousand copies first run, and I will ensure you get whatever position you want in this company or others. Help me with this and I will make sure you want for nothing. You will be rich, you will be successful, and you will never have to see me again once it’s over.”

Gideon’s palms prickled. She resisted the urge to scratch at them. “So, what, I help you avoid getting deported and you nepotize my way through the company?”

“Yes. In short: you marry me until my work visa gets re-approved, we get a quick divorce after an appropriate length of time, and then we never have to see each other again,” Harrowhark said. “This company is my family legacy. If I don’t have this, I have nothing.”

“You have about ten pounds of black eyeliner,” Gideon said unhelpfully.

Harrow roundly ignored this. “Do this for me, and I’ll make sure it’s worth your while.”

“I know you’re proposing, but I didn’t think you’d proposition me so early.” Harrow rolled her eyes. “And I haven’t agreed, asshole. What if I say no?”

“Then I will be deported to New Zealand — or, God forbid, to England — and you will have to work for Silas,” Harrow said.

Gideon made a face. “Yeah, hard pass. He’s even worse than you.”

“I will let that comment slide because of the gravity of what I’m asking you,” said Harrow with a tone that passed for gracious. “But we need to move quickly. The fiance visa process can be brutal, and we cannot even for a second let down our guard. If anyone finds out it’s a ruse, I’ll be sent out of the country—” Harrow cut off, chewing at the inside of her cheek. “And you’ll likely be thrown in prison.”

Gideon made another choking, strangled sound. “Hey. Hey. Hold on. I’m risking prison for this?”

“Nav,” Harrow said. Gideon heard a thin stream of desperation leak through the cracks in her voice. “If there was any other way, I would choose it in a heartbeat.”

“So you don’t want to marry me? I’m offended.”

“Be serious for once in your life. Neither of us want this,” Harrow said. “I am simply trying to make something out of a bad situation.” She paused. “Now hurry up. We need to speak with someone at the immigration office in the next hour.”

“I still haven’t agreed to this batshit idea,” said Gideon. “You do know that, right?”

“Well, make up your mind quickly,” Harrowhark said, seemingly depleted of her endless reserves of patience. “Come on. The car is already on its way.” She pushed past Gideon in a wisp of black smoke, making her pointy way towards the elevator.

Gideon followed her, rolling her eyes as hard as she could. Camilla met her gaze on the way— and, to her horror, mouthed married? with her eyebrows nearly at her hairline.

“How does the whole damn company already know?” Gideon asked in a low, irritated murmur.

“Word travels fast when an entire building fears you,” Harrow said lightly, sliding self-assuredly into an elevator. The people already in it pressed themselves flat against the walls. “Better start getting used to it.”

They descended slowly, with numbers blinking at each floor they passed, and one by one the people in the elevator vacated it. Gideon waited until they were alone to respond. “I still haven’t agreed to jack shit, darling.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

Harrow gave her a look. “I called you that for show.”

“And I’m rehearsing for the next one,” Gideon said. “Sugarlips. Penumbral lady. Ruler of the night.”

Harrow tapped her foot impatiently on the floor. “Those ones took a bit of a turn, don’t you think?” The doors finally opened to the lobby, and Harrow sped out, walking faster than someone her size should have been able over the large black-tiled floor.

Gideon jogged lightly after her, catching up in a few steps. She settled in a half-step behind the other person. “I’ll never understand how you move so fast,” Gideon said. “Your legs are, like, three inches long.”

“I’m five foot two, idiot,” retorted Harrow. “Come on. The car is waiting for us.”

“Hell,” Gideon muttered. “I’m really doing this, aren’t I?”

Harrow paused with a hand on the door and turned. “Have you made your decision?”

Years of offenses flashed behind her eyes. Every late-night breakdown Harrowhark had ever caused her, every missed opportunity, every second spent slaving away at a job that demanded her life, and she finally had a way out.

It was a black-clad, terrible way out, but if Gideon could pull it off, it was guaranteed.

“Hell,” Gideon said again. “Yeah, I have.”

“And?” Harrow tried very hard not to sound expectant, but the eagerness in her eyes betrayed her.

Gideon let out a weary sigh. “I will do this for you,” She said. “But don’t let it get to your head, Nonagesimus.”

“You may keep whatever thoughts you have about my head to yourself, Nav,” Harrow said. “And do hurry up. We’re late.”

* * *

“So,” began the immigration lawyer, sitting across from them both with a saccharine smile on his face. “My name is Augustine. Joy said you’d be down here shortly, so for now consider this a preliminary visit.”

Harrowhark frowned. “You and Mercymorn know each other?”

His face took on the expression of someone who had years’ worth of information to hold back before he nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. We know each other very well,” Augustine said, smiling like he’d just made a joke neither of them understood. Something in his voice made Gideon’s nose wrinkle. “But that isn’t why we’re here, is it?”

“No,” said Harrow.

“Guess not,” muttered Gideon, who would have been more than happy to stall.

“How long have you two been together?” Augustine asked, poising a gold-filigree pen over a clipboard. His hands were absurdly well-manicured, which both put Gideon at ease and made her a little suspicious. People who put too much time into their cuticles could only be trusted on occasion.

Remembering the question, Gideon cleared her throat. “Two years,” She said matter-of-factly, following the loose narrative she and Harrow constructed in the car. “We got together after my first year working at the Ninth, we stayed in separate living arrangements to keep people from getting suspicious, and I proposed last weekend.”

Beside her, Harrow seemed to relax marginally. The lawyer nodded along as she spoke. “Right,” Augustine said slowly, scribbling a few notes down. In the same way one might inquire about the menu at a luncheon, he asked, “And just to be clear, this isn’t some arrangement you two have concocted, is it?”

Harrow made a strangled noise in her throat, and Gideon resisted the urge to wet herself. Her voice came out higher than she was intending. “What?”

“You’re not marrying each other so she—” He gestured graciously to Harrow, “—can stay in the country?” Augustine leaned forward. “Because as much as I hate to ruin our little mood, that’s a federal crime. Punishable with jail time and one hell of a fine.” He nodded towards Harrow. “But if you confess to it now, the only one that will pay for it is her.”

The reminder sent Gideon’s head spinning. She tried very hard to focus, and turned toward Harrowhark to do so.

Harrow was staring at her hard enough that she was surprised a hole hadn’t been burnt into her suit jacket. Her eyes were wider and more uncertain than Gideon had ever seen her look. As she watched, Harrow swallowed lightly, throat bobbing as she did, and Gideon watched the veins and tendons shift for a moment.

Two futures stretched out ahead of her. There was one timeline for the two of them that ended here, with Harrow taken away in handcuffs and Gideon free to go.

And then there was the other.

Gideon looked at her a second longer before a brief, lopsided smile appeared on her face. “We’re just two people who fell in love when we weren’t supposed to,” She said, hearing the echo of Harrow’s earlier words in her voice. She turned back to Augustine. “That’s all there is to it.”

“Of course,” said Augustine with the ghost of a smile. His voice was kind and cordial, and held the very soul of manners within it. “I don’t mean to offend. You would be surprised how many people try to find a way to the left of legality,” He said. “I just figured I would ask.”

He shuffled a few papers on his desk and, with renewed vigor, turned to Gideon and changed the subject. “So, you proposed. My congratulations to the happy couple.”

“Thanks. We’re just thrilled,” Gideon said, reaching over boldly to squeeze Harrow’s hand. She realized after the fact that it was probably the first time they’d touched intentionally. Whether for fear of breaking the ruse or simple shock, Harrow didn’t move her hand away.

She did shoot Gideon a glare that could have killed a plant, but that was more or less expected. “Yes,” Harrow said, with about as much excitement as if someone had told her to clean a toilet by hand. “Thrilled.

There was a sort of dark satisfaction that flowed through Gideon at seeing her play along. Maybe this wasn’t the worst arrangement in the world.

Augustine watched them carefully, jotting something down in the notepad in his hands. “Well, I see in my notes that you have a fairly significant period of time off in the coming weeks.” He looked up. “Can you tell me about that?”

“Oh,” Gideon said. She looked at Harrow, then back at Augustine. “Yeah. It’s been a damn long time since I’ve been able to go home, working for the ol’ ball and chain here,” She said, nodding lightly to Harrow and ignoring the accompanying eye roll. “And one of my friends is sick in a major way, so when she said she was having a birthday party I said I’d bust my ass to come home.”

“With your new fiancee, I assume,” Augustine said, looking between them expectantly.

Gideon blinked. Harrow’s eyes widened.

They made brief eye contact, and as black met gold something passed between them. “Yep,” Gideon said, popping the p.

“That’s correct,” said Harrow, sounding — somehow — even less excited than she had before. There was something else in her voice. It was strange: Gideon couldn’t place it, but the way Harrow was looking at her made her feel uncomfortably seen in a way she wasn’t used to.

Thankfully, Harrow turned back to Augustine a second later. “Her time off starts on Friday, I believe.”

“We fly out Thursday night,” said Gideon, suddenly relieved that she hadn’t cancelled her flights.

“And where are you flying?” asked Augustine, dutifully taking notes. “I only ask because, well, I’m afraid we can’t let you leave the United States.”

“Oh, no.” Gideon shook her head. “Dulcie’s up in my hometown, so we’re flying to Sitka—”

“Sitka,” Harrow repeated, nodding along. “Yes.”

“—up in Alaska.”

Gideon felt a renewed sense of that same dark satisfaction hearing Harrow gag on her next word.

“A— Alaska.” She turned very, very slowly towards Gideon. “We’re flying to Alaska.” Rather than her usual self-assured nature, her words had the quality of someone who was trying very hard not to scream.

Yop,” said Gideon, who was by now extraordinarily pleased with how the situation was turning out. “I think I mentioned to pack something warm, sweet cheeks.”

Harrow’s eye twitched. She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by Augustine.

“Right. Well, that will do it for today’s visit,” He said. He stood, brushing some invisible dust from his impeccable suit, and gave them a smile that showed all of his teeth. “There’s a list of questions for the actual interview that you’ll need to answer, so you can take your time together to prepare.”

Augustine slid a folder across his desk. Gideon reached for it, but Harrow got there first. “Thank you,” She said, nodding imperiously. “Are we free to go?”

“Of course,” Augustine nodded. “Have a safe flight,” He said, opening the door for them. “I look forward to seeing you again.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Harrow muttered, though only Gideon heard it.

She elbowed Harrow lightly and gave Augustine a wave. The door closed behind them, and Gideon leaned down. “So,” She started brightly. “Scale of one to ten. How fucked do you think we are?”

Harrow shot her a look, sliding her sunglasses back onto her face. “If all goes to plan,” She said, walking as fast as her legs would take her towards the door, “we won’t be fucked at all.”

“Is that what you told yourself in high school?”

“I really do hate you,” Harrowhark said. “Do you know that?”

Gideon put a hand on her chest in mock flattery, opening the door for them both. “Aw, that’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me, honey! You shouldn’t have.” As it swung closed behind them, she leaned down. “But, hey, I wasn’t kidding about packing something warm. You get cold when the thermostat hits 75.”

“I can pack for myself, thank you,” bit out Harrow, shoving her way onto the sidewalk.

Gideon put her hands on her hips and stopped. “You know, the least you could do is ask me.”

Harrow stopped, whipping around with an annoyed look on her pointed face. “For heaven’s sake, Griddle, what inane thing are you jabbering about now?”

“I’m just saying,” Gideon said, crossing her arms over her chest. “You basically strong-armed me into marrying you — which, I admit, I did eventually agree to — and you didn’t even ask first.”

Harrow’s eyes narrowed behind her glasses. “Of course I’ve asked—”

“Nope,” Gideon said. “I mean asked.” She raised her eyebrows expectantly. “I mean proposed.” A beat. “Ask me to marry you, Harrowhark.”

Harrow clenched her jaw so hard Gideon thought it might break. She let out a deeply irritated huff. “Will you marry me,” She said flatly.

Gideon shook her head. “Nope. Down on one knee and everything.”

“Someday you will die, and I will go to your funeral laughing,” Harrow said.

“Maybe someday, but it sure as hell ain’t happening now.” Gideon tilted her head. “Kneel or I walk away.”

Harrow’s face tightened, crumpled, and sharpened in turn. “Fine,” She spat. She got slowly down on one knee, giving Gideon the meanest glare she’d ever received. “Will you marry me?”

Gideon’s expectant face resolved into a sweet, pleased smile. “Why, yes, Harrowhark. I will. Thank you for asking.”

“I hate you,” Harrow said again, getting to her feet.

“I know you do,” Gideon said, letting out a pleasant sigh. “And I hate you too, babe. Marry me about it.” She checked her watch. “Oh, look at the time. You’d better book your ticket, hot stuff. Wouldn’t want to leave me all alone on that plane, would you?”

Harrow gave her the finger, rolled her eyes and, without another word, walked away.

Gideon watched her go.

Harrow’s posture was atrocious, but when she walked it was always with her shoulders set back proudly; she moved as if she was trying to physically dispel the notion that she was anything less than the most experienced, most high-ranking person in any room she walked into.

She walked with wind in her shoes and fire in her eyes. She walked with purpose, with rage, with ambition and pride and power all wrapped up in one five-foot-two bundle. She never did anything, never saw anyone, never walked anywhere without a reason.

And just for a moment, Gideon caught herself wondering if she would walk down the aisle the same way.