Gideon heard the familiar sound of footsteps outside her room. Her door opened and the Reverend Daughter, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, entered her cell. She walked over to the bed in silence, her face unreadable in the near darkness, and lay down beside Gideon, facing the wall. She said nothing. Harrow never spoke to her here.
It had been... six years? No, seven, since the first time the heir to the Ninth House had visited her in the night. They’d been fighting that day, she didn’t even remember what about but it had clearly been bad. She’d pinned Harrow to the ground and Harrow had scratched half her face off, then crawled into a corner and thrown up. That night the Reverend Daughter’s dark eyes had been red with barely repressed tears, which had flowed forth freely as she lay beside Gideon. She hadn’t said anything then, either, but after a time the crying had stopped, and Harrow’s breathing and heartbeat had slowly calmed. Then she had gotten up and left, still without a word. Gideon hadn’t found the courage to say anything because what the hell did you say to that?
It had been really fucking awkward then, and it still was now. Prior to that night the two of them had fought regularly, usually over some stupid bullshit or other. Afterwards the fighting had gotten less frequent, mostly because Harrowhark had seemingly started avoiding her wherever possible, although whenever that wasn’t possible the two of them bickered as much as ever. And yet at the same time, once or twice a week, the nighttime ritual had continued. So yeah, extremely awkward.
Gideon lay awake, her and Harrow a couple of inches apart, and listened. The Reverend Daughter never spoke at times like these, but she’d learned to recognise her mood from her breathing. Harrow was stressed about something, or possibly anxious. Usually that followed an argument with her parents – Gideon was never privy to the content of said argument, just the tone of the raised voices she could hear while attempting to eavesdrop from outside the door – but she couldn’t remember that having happened today.
One such argument had taken place shortly after Gideon had turned fifteen. Whatever the substance of it, Harrow had cried again that night, one of only a handful of times she’d seen the mask slip. The next day, Aiglamene had informed Gideon that she had been chosen to receive training as a house cavalier. That sudden unexpected show of respect had marked the end of Gideon’s escape attempts. Aiglamene hadn’t said so, but Gideon somehow knew that this had been Harrowhark’s doing, and that it had cost her something to do. The nighttime visits had gotten much less frequent, a month or more apart now. She should have welcomed the reprieve from the uncomfortable ordeal, but it had just annoyed her instead. She didn’t work out why until weeks later, when she finally managed to disarm her teacher in a practice bout. She’d looked around and seen the distant figure of the Reverend Daughter observing, and she’d felt a sudden inexplicable surge of pride out of all proportion to her achievement. And then the horrible realisation had hit her like a brick. She wanted Harrow's approval. She cared what Harrow thought. Or felt. Somewhere along the line, Harrowhark Nonagesimus had begun to matter to her. And the worst part - the absolute worst part - was that none of this made Harrow even remotely more bearable than before. Her whining, bossy, snide, superior voice still made her want to stab something, with the only change being that that 'something' wasn't Harrow anymore. Harrow pissed her off whenever they were together, and yet she found herself missing her whenever they weren't.
And so now she lay silently in her bed, listening to the breathing of the girl she'd caught feelings for like an absolute idiot. She wanted so badly to reach out and touch her but knew that wasn't an option. Harrowhark was only a couple of inches away, but she might as well have been on another House for all the difference it made. She was unattainable. She was Not For Her. She was also still objectively really fucking annoying. But apparently none of that changed anything.
Gideon wasn’t sure really who the Reverend Daughter might end up being For, given the dismal state of the Ninth House and its prospects, but whoever might have been at the top of that list, Gideon herself was definitely at the bottom. Pelleamana and Priamhark would probably find her a bride they deemed acceptable, and it would never be her. Even at the best of times, they looked at Gideon as though she were something disagreeable they had dislodged from the sole of their shoe. And even if Harrow herself had some say in the matter, they barely even spoke these days, unless Harrow didn’t have anyone else on hand to be bossy and condescending to. Even here, in the middle of whatever the fuck this was, Harrow never spoke to her.
Gideon almost jumped at the sound, feeling for a moment that Harrow had read her mind somehow and had decided to be contrary for the sake of it, which honestly would have been just like her. The Reverend Daughter took a deep breath and then spoke again.
“You will come to the shuttle pad before dawn this morning. Bring your sword, offhand and any other essentials. And don’t let anyone see you!”
And with that she got up and left without looking back, leaving Gideon an even more confused mess than usual.
A few hours of fitful sleep later, she had gathered her sword, offhand, and a bundle of what she had decided constituted essentials and snuck down to the bottom level of the Ninth. There was already a shuttle waiting for her, and next to the shuttle was Harrowhark Nonagesimus, looking exhausted and still avoiding eye contact.
“Did you even sleep last night?” she asked as she followed Harrow aboard.
“No, but there’ll be time for that later,” said the Reverend Daughter, signalling to the remote pilot to prepare for departure.
“Okay. Right now it looks like you’re abducting me and you’re seemingly in a hurry about it. Do you want to tell me what’s going on?”
Harrow thrust a piece of paper—actual paper, no less!—into Gideon’s hands, and seeing that no further explanation seemed forthcoming Gideon started to read. About a third of the way down the page she commented: “This has Ortus’ name on it.”
“Yes it does. Finish reading before voicing your thoughts.”
Gideon finished reading, handed the letter back, and voiced her thoughts. “That’s a very large number of words to say basically fuck all. The gist is you and your cav are to go and take part in something extremely vague and then you’ll become a Lyctor, right?”
“Okay, great, very cool. I can’t help but notice that the cav in question is Ortus Nigenad, not Gideon Nav. So why am I here?”
“Oh for God’s sake Griddle you know exactly why. I need a cavalier that’s actually up to the job. I can’t think of a reason I’d ever need Ortus Nigenad and his awful multivolume poem.” (“It’d make a pretty good bludgeon in a pinch” suggested Gideon.) “I need someone I can trust to keep me safe. I’m choosing to believe that’s you.”
Gideon pushed aside the dizzying feeling this last remark had roused within her and tried to focus on the issue at hand. “Okay, two things. One, I’m not actually your cavalier. I’ve not taken the oath. Aiglamene was very firm on that point.”
“We have a lengthy flight ahead of us, I was hoping you’d do so at some point between now and our arrival.”
“Two, I don’t believe for an instant that the Reverend Mother and Father would agree to me accompanying you, seeing as they wouldn’t piss on me if I were on fire.”
Harrow rolled her eyes. “Which is why I obviously told them I was going to bring Ortus. Why exactly did you think I was insisting on secrecy?”
Gideon took a few moments to wrap her head around this. “You lied to your parents?”
“Yes” said Harrow.
“Have you ever done that before?”
“Not... as such. Usually they give me more flexibility than this. But unfortunately they were very clear on my not bringing you along and that wasn’t acceptable.”
“Well, shit. I mean not to sound like I’m upset at you sticking it to the Reverend Mother and Father because I think that’s great and you should do it more often, but—why? I know I’m good with a sword but that’s a big bridge to burn just for that.”
“You’re not just good with a sword, you’re excellent with a sword. Aiglamene’s words, not mine. But that’s not the why of it. As I said, this is about trust, and when it concerns a matter of this importance I don't trust Ortus as far as I can throw him."
"Doubt you could throw him at all, Nonagesimus, he's a pretty big guy."
Harrow didn't respond. Looking over at her, she seemed to have stopped paying attention, which was probably for the best since that last bit of flippancy might have prompted her to reconsider her choice of cavalier after all. Gideon opened her mouth to ask her what, exactly, she expected of her, but cut herself off as the shuttles deck plates shuddered. Their craft lazily lurched into the air and began the ascent up the shaft of Drearburh. She watched through the window as they climbed.
She'd imagined this moment—well not this exact moment—over and over when she was small. How she'd finally escape the Ninth House, and its horrible people. The Reverend Parents, Crux—and Harrowhark. She'd been firmly on the list back then. She'd wanted to leave them all behind and embark on some grand adventure. And now she was on an adventure (grandeur still to be determined), but she was going with Harrowhark, not away from her. Once, that idea would bothered her; now it just bothered her how much it didn't.
A small sound dragged her attention away from the window. Harrow had cleared her throat. “I’m about to tell you something" she said "that is known only to myself, my mother, my father, and Crux. I assume I don’t need to tell you that you never speak of this to anyone.”
“Of course not,” said Gideon, who privately felt that any group containing Harrow’s mother, Harrow’s father, and Crux was a group she didn’t feel the need to be a part of.
“Good.” Harrow exhaled slowly and then took a deep breath. She wasn’t looking at Gideon at all now, just staring out the plexiglass window as the shuttle emerged from the top of the shaft. “Sometimes... I see and hear things that aren’t there.”
Gideon considered this for a moment. “What, like... dead people?”
“No, Griddle, not like dead people." A pause. "Or at least, not specifically. This isn’t a necromantic thing. My senses are... unreliable.”
Gideon stared at Harrow, looking for the telltale signs that the Reverend Daughter was fucking with her. She didn't find them. “Wow. You’re actually serious aren’t you?”
“Of course I’m serious!" Harrow snapped. "Did you think I was swearing you to secrecy for a laugh?”
“Well no, not when you put it that way." She tried to get her head around the idea. "How long has this been going on?”
“As long as I can remember, Nav. It’s a lot less frequent now than it used to be but it still happens."
Gideon racked her brain for an appropriate expression of sympathy. "That's rough, buddy." That probably hadn't been it. She ploughed on regardless. "Why are you telling me though? You aren't usually one to give me more ammunition."
"I’m not just sharing this with you for the sake of it, I need your help. I need to know I can believe what I’m seeing, and I need to ensure none of the other houses learn of my infirmity. Watch me.” She made a subtle but complex gesture with her hand, one that Gideon felt she’d seen before. “If you see me do that, I’m asking you to discreetly confirm what I’m seeing. The key word there, in case it needed specifying, is discreetly.”
Gideon reflected on this for a second, and then followed Harrow’s gaze out the window. “That’s a really nice view of the Ninth out there. I can almost see all the way down into Drearburh. It very nearly doesn’t look like a hateful den of misery from up here.”
The corners of Harrow’s mouth twitched briefly into something that might have been a smile. “Very good. Some unnecessarily colourful commentary but it sounded natural enough. At least to anyone used to your usual drivel.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, Harrowhark still not looking at her, before Gideon plucked up her courage. “Harrow, I really appreciate you sharing your secret with me. I understand that was a big deal for you, and I'm surprised you trust me that much. But also I have to ask if you couldn’t have maybe asked me if I’d accompany you on this endeavour rather than just dragging me along at the last minute?”
“I wanted to. I really did. But there wasn’t an opportunity. I couldn’t risk letting them know what I was planning. It would have taken too long to fill you in, even if I’d been able to pilfer the letter before last night.”
Part of Gideon wanted to say “Lying and stealing? Who are you and what have you done with Nonagesimus?” Instead she said “Okay. Accepting that you would have asked for my agreement, I give it. But I have a condition.”
“Harrow, look at me.”
Harrow did turn to look at her at that, their eyes meeting for what felt like the first time in years. It probably was the first time in years. Her face was determined, but there was something else there too. “Okay, now name your condition.”
“That was the condition. Look at me. Stop avoiding my gaze, or talking past me. I don’t know what your issue is with me, but I can’t be your cavalier if you’re busy pretending I don’t exist.” She braced herself for an argument.
“Alright,” said Harrowhark.
“Well... good,” said Gideon, who was not expecting calm compliance and wasn’t sure what to do with it “in that case, I agree to be your cavalier. And for my first action in pursuit of my duty—Harrow, please get some fucking sleep. I’m still dead tired, and you look like I feel. I’ll take the oath properly when we’re both actually awake.”
Miraculously, the Reverend Daughter didn’t argue with her on that point either. Harrow lay down on the seat with her head next to Gideon, and within a few seconds fell asleep, leaving her unexpected cavalier alone to try and process the rollercoaster of the morning’s events, before she finally gave up and allowed herself to doze off as well.
Small Content Warning for Harrow's resistance to eating food. I'm not writing her as having an ED but there's some similarities so I feel it's worth mentioning.
"Not bad digs, I have to say," Gideon remarked, dropping her things next to the cavalier's bed and surveying the room.
"Yes yes, very nice I'm sure," came Harrow's terse voice from towards the entrance, punctuated by the dry clacking sounds of a bone ward being assembled. "Don't get too comfortable Nav, we have a lot to do and no time to waste if we want to stay ahead of the competition."
"What's there to do? We don't have anything to go on, other than whatever this ring is, and some cryptic warning about not opening locked doors."
"Which is plenty to go on, Griddle." The sounds of necromancy faded, and Harrow joined her cavalier inside the Ninth quarters. "It should suggest to even the meanest intelligence," she said, contriving to sound disappointed that this was a category that evidently did not include her cavalier, "that which doors are and are not locked is important, and that is knowledge I intend to obtain at my earliest convenience. And I'd wager that the ring is a key ring."
"Even assuming that's correct, I can't see how you can work out which of all the doors in this place are locked without going and checking every single one."
"And now you understand why we need to start as soon as possible. Come along, Griddle."
"Are you seriously suggesting—oh what am I saying, of course you are." Gideon sighed. "Coming." It couldn't possibly be as boring as it sounded.
"This is even more boring than it sounded," Gideon complained, as Harrow marked off the two hundred and somethingth door on her little map.
"Keeping you entertained is not my primary concern in bringing you here, Griddle, astonishing as that may sound to you."
"But why did you bring me along at all? Today I mean. Like you could count doors on your own surely."
"You checking, me writing shaves a little time off the task. And when that task is being repeated this often, that little time adds up. The sooner I have these all marked, the sooner we can move on to the next step."
"I'm not entirely certain yet, although I have an idea." She didn't continue, so whatever that idea was she obviously didn't feel the need to share it with Gideon.
"I can't help but feel there's something better I could be doing with my time."
"Don't undervalue the help you've been. You spotted X-203 behind the tapestry. I might have missed that one otherwise. And it's only the third locked door we've found so far, so it's clearly important."
"Harrow just because there's a big important locked door at home doesn't mean that all locked doors are inherently important. Or interesting."
"Sulking doesn't suit you, Nav. This isn't about the Tomb and you well know that. I'm right about this, I'm more sure of it than ever."
Gideon was about to respond with a not very polite assessment of exactly how little stock she put in Harrow's certainty (featuring some creative hand gestures) when they turned a corner and nearly bumped into the lovely Third House twin. Words, along with most rational thought, flew out of her head.
"Oh, Ninth! I was hoping to find you!" said the lovely twin breathily. "Coronabeth Tridentarius, Princess of Ida, heir to the Third House." Her violet eyes swept over Harrowhark and focused on Gideon, a decision which Gideon couldn't really blame her for. "I'm organising sparring matches for the cavaliers of all the Houses, tomorrow morning."
"Which I still think is an appalling waste of time" said the pale twin, whom Gideon belatedly noticed was also in attendance along with their cavalier, Gideon's brain having categorised them as unimportant background detail.
"I don't really care what you think, Ianthe dear," said Coronabeth amiably. "What do you say, Ninth? Can we expect you there?"
Left to her own devices, Gideon would have accepted the request eagerly. Harrow presumably knew this, and cut in quickly before she could respond. "We shall give this consideration, Lady Tridentarius. I thank you for your gracious invitation."
"Oh—well thank you. I hope to see you tomorrow, Gideon the Ninth." And with a smile and an inclination of that lovely head, she departed with her pair of hangers-on.
Harrow led Gideon on, resuming their task as if the immediately preceding conversation hadn't happened.
"So?" asked Gideon eventually.
"I assume you're referring to the Princess' invitation. We will discuss that when we're finished here."
"Seriously? You're going to make me wait until then to get a basic answer."
"Well, screw you then."
"I just want you to focus on the task at hand. I need you thinking. With your brain. Not with anything else."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're not remotely as subtle as you seem to think, Nav. Tridentarius is our competition, not a potential conquest for you."
"What the fuck, Harrow? Like, what the actual fuck? I can appreciate a hot girl without losing all decorum. And you can't blame me for staring. It's not like I've had any hot girls to stare at on the Ninth."
"I'm not having this discussion with you right now." Harrow's voice was dangerously clipped.
"Fine," Gideon sighed, and got back to tediously opening doors.
It was well into evening when Harrowhark finally accepted that they were done for the day, having mapped out near enough the whole ground floor of Canaan House. The number of locked doors had climbed to five, out of a total of just over five hundred. Gideon's ennui had climbed proportionally, and the moment they returned to the Ninth quarters she collapsed face first onto her bed.
Gideon ignored the disparate sounds of Harrow pottering with things irritatingly in the background. She was exhausted, and crabby, and still more than slightly pissed off with her necromancer.
"Right," said Harrow finally, "now that that's dealt with, we can discuss tomorrow." Gideon grunted noncommittally. "Are you still sulking, Griddle? If you don't want to partake in the sparring tomorrow then we can leave the discussion there."
Gideon lifted her head off the bed. "You made it pretty clear earlier that you have no intention of letting me go."
"Did I? I don't remember doing that. All I remember doing was asking you to wait until now to discuss the matter."
"You also insinuated that I'm an unreliable lecherous pervert."
"I would never call you unreliable, Griddle. And as to the rest, you are a lecherous pervert. You take an inordinate amount of pride in the fact." (This was probably a fair assessment.) "And with that out of the way, I'm now ready to discuss what you'll be doing tomorrow."
"Okay. I want to go join the other cavs."
"Really? Just like that?"
"Yes Nav, just like that. I actually think it's a good idea." Seeing Gideon's blank look she continued. "I have made a reasonable estimate, given the information I possessed before our arrival, of the capabilities of the other necromancers. But this threat assessment doesn't include their cavaliers, beyond the most general assumptions made on the basis of House reputation. This is one area where your expertise outstrips mine."
"So you're wanting me to, what, gather intelligence?"
"Exactly. Get the measure of the other cavaliers and determine which are a threat. It's probably a better use of your time tomorrow than accompanying me. And I won't have to deal with you complaining about being bored, which is an added bonus."
"Lesson learned, complaining works." Gideon looked at Harrow thoughtfully, and then asked, against her better judgement: "Sure you'll be alright on your own tomorrow?"
"For God's sake Griddle, are you being contrary deliberately? You were clamouring for this earlier. I've already explained my reasoning and I feel no need to repeat myself. I'd thought you might find it in yourself to be appreciative for a change."
"Okay, okay, I'm sorry. Just—take care alright?"
"Your concern, while touching, is misplaced. I will be fine. Concentrate on not getting yourself stabbed excessively."
"Just stabbed an acceptable amount?"
"You know what I mean."
Gideon got up. "Time for dinner I think."
"Have fun." Harrow somehow found new levels of disinterest to express.
"You should really also eat something."
"I'll bring something back for you."
"That won't be necessary."
"I wasn't asking for your permission."
"Nav, I don't require a babysitter."
"If you won't eat your dinner you clearly do require a babysitter, actually."
"This isn't your job!"
"Really? 'I need someone I can trust to keep me safe'. Your own words. I'm currently keeping you safe from malnutrition. Well, further malnutrition at any rate. Not much I can do about the past seventeen years."
"You aren't going to drop this, are you? Fine. Do as you see fit."
"I will. Be back in a while. Don't drop dead of starvation while I'm gone."
Gideon retraced her steps to the dining hall from memory, it having been one of the first fifty doors they had checked that morning. The huge space seemed ridiculously large for the seventeen necromancers and cavaliers inhabiting Canaan House, even if you added the three priests to their numbers. No sooner had she entered when there came a "Gideon the Ninth! Please, come join me, I insist!"
Far be it from her to refuse Dulcinea Septimus. Her hulking cavalier was conspicuously absent, and she was consequently sitting by herself. The two young teens from the Fourth House were seated several tables away, along with the Fifth cavalier (Magnus? That sounded right), who gave her a friendly wave, much to the apparent distress of his companions. Other than them the huge room was empty, five people populating a room sized for fifty.
Gideon seated herself beside the frail necromancer of the Seventh. She hadn't gotten a good look at her during their brief encounter on the landing pad, having been distracted by the need to avoid falling afoul of both Protesilaus the Seventh's rapier and—far worse—Harrowhark's ire. Dulcinea was very thin and delicate, perhaps as thin as Harrow, and so very pale. Her eyes were a beautiful blue. She was not, on this occasion, dribbling blood from her mouth, which was nice.
"Sorry we didn't get to talk more before," Gideon said, and immediately felt foolish for saying it.
"Oh I quite understand. I greatly appreciated your assistance, believe me. And I'm sorry again for Pro, he's much too protective of his charge. You understand I'm sure, I can tell you take very good care of the Reverend Daughter."
"Glad someone notices," Gideon replied, and was rewarded with a faint but heartfelt laugh that turned abruptly into a coughing fit.
"Sorry my dear," said Dulcinea, after she'd recovered somewhat, "I don't find a lot to laugh at anymore so I'm not really in the habit. I'm certain that the Lady Nonagesimus appreciates you, even if she won't let it show."
A skeletal construct brought Gideon a bowl of soup, and another provided her with a hunk of bread. She was starving, and yet she found herself eating more slowly and carefully than usual. Almost as though she was trying to make a good impression.
"They're marvelously well made, aren't they? The Seventh House works with flesh more than bone, I suppose at home you're more used to a high level of construct workmanship."
Gideon nodded, partly because her mouth was full, and partly because she knew Harrow wouldn't appreciate a summary of exactly how much the constructs here outdid much of what was on the Ninth. Finishing her mouthful, she elaborated "They are really good, I have to admit." And then, out of a fit of stubborn loyalty, added: "But not up to Nonagesimus' work." Harrow certainly could craft something at least this intricate (or at least Gideon assumed she could. Harrowhark could do practically anything there was to do with bone, much of it terrifying) but with only a handful of active necromancers, quality had long since taken a backseat to quantity in the Ninth House, simply out of necessity.
"Oh I'm sure they aren't! My apologies, I didn't mean to belittle your necromancer's skill. I'm sure she's wonderful."
"Yeah. She is." As Gideon spoke, Dulcinea tilted her head slightly, and Gideon worried that she'd heard the faint undertone of sadness that she hadn't quite managed to keep out of her voice. She hurriedly finished the last of her dinner and stood. "Speaking of, I need to get back to her. She's too busy to make her way here so I'm bringing her dinner back for her."
"I quite understand, Gideon the Ninth. Pro should be back for me soon enough anyway. It's been lovely to talk to you!"
Gideon flagged down another construct (they really were very good) for another hunk of bread, deeming it the easier part of the meal to get Harrow to actually eat, and headed to the door. She glanced back just before she left, and found Dulcinea Septimus still watching her with those strikingly blue eyes.
Harrow was still poring over her map and notebooks when Gideon got back. She debated just yeeting the bread at her necromancer, but ultimately opted to put it down next to her.
"Here, I brought you this. It was the most boring and tasteless thing I could find, so I figured you'd like it."
Harrow made a sound of acknowledgement but made no move to eat.
"Fuck's sake Nonagesimus. Eat. Please?"
Harrow finally looked up from her pile of notes and looked at Gideon with an expression equal parts exasperation and puzzlement. "Why is this so important to you, Griddle?"
"Because I worry about you. You're pushing yourself too hard." Gideon put up a hand preemptively to forestall Harrow's inevitable snide response. "And yes I accept that 'too hard' might in this case be the amount required. But if you're going to do that you can at least do it on a full stomach."
"If I do this, will you leave me in peace?"
"On this specific point? Sure. Until tomorrow when we inevitably run into the same issue."
Harrow glared at her, then broke off a piece of bread and stuck it in her mouth. She chewed for a few moments, then swallowed like it was something deeply distasteful. "There. Are you happy now?"
Gideon was happy, she realised. Absurdly so for such a little thing, but this was a small victory in the ongoing campaign of 'stop Harrowhark Nonagesimus from working herself to death' and that felt worth celebrating. "Yeah. Thanks."
"Good," said Harrow, a little less harshly than before. "I've got a lot to get through here before I plan my movements for tomorrow."
Gideon flopped onto her bed. "Can you get it done in the next hour?"
"Because you also need some sleep. You barely slept on the way here, you didn't sleep at all the night before that. I'm going to sleep now but I expect you to follow within the next hour."
"Fine," Harrow sighed wearily.
"Yes Nav, I promise. And you're making me regret not bringing Ortus. He at least knew his place."
Gideon overlooked this rather hurtful remark, and closed her eyes. Two small victories. That was something at least. And at least tomorrow she could take out her frustrations on an assortment of cavaliers.
“I just want to clarify a point, Griddle,” said Harrow, in a tone that suggested she wasn’t doing anything of the sort, “my instructions to you were ‘get the measure of the other cavaliers and determine which are a threat’, correct?”
“I didn’t accidentally say 'beat the crap out of half the cavaliers in Canaan House’ by any chance?”
“I only beat up three of them.”
“That’s near enough half and also not remotely the point.” Harrow sat on the edge of her bed and pinched the bridge of her nose in obvious irritation. Her face was caked with dried blood which she'd refused to explain in more detail than that she'd been busy. “Prior to your exploits this morning, the other heirs had most likely judged you by the reputation of the Ninth House cavaliers, which I regret to say has not been entirely stellar.”
“Shitty swordsmen, glorified bone porters, and horrible poets?”
“I sincerely hope Ortus’ crimes against literature haven’t filtered through to the rest of the Houses, for their sake as much as ours. But the rest of that summary is apt. We do not have the reputation of the Third or Fifth, much less the Second or Fourth.”
“And for some reason you’re annoyed with me for doing a bit to remedy that?”
“No, I’m annoyed with you because prior to this morning no-one here knew how dangerous you were except me, and now that’s no longer the case. You’ve drawn attention to yourself, and by extension to me.”
“Right, okay, sorry about that, but the thing is I was still just doing what you told me to do.”
“You couldn’t find a way to evaluate the opposition without actively fighting them?”
Gideon’s dwindling patience ran out. “No, actually, I couldn’t. Not in a way that would be useful at any rate. I can watch Jeannemary the Fourth or Marta the Second or that douchebag with the gelled hair (“Naberius the Third” supplied the Reverend Daughter helpfully) go at each other all day and yes I’d get an idea for which of them can take which others, but none of that actually translates into anything meaningful without a personal frame of reference.” Gideon paused mid tirade for a moment, and then amended: “Well I could probably tell you that Magnus the Fifth can’t fight for shit, but I’m not sure that counts as valuable intel seeing as he freely and happily admits that in casual conversation. So could you maybe acknowledge that your instructions weren’t as clear as you’d intended and stop being so damned sour about this?”
Harrow seemed genuinely taken aback at this, and took a moment to formulate a response. “Alright, clearly there has been a communication failure on both our parts.” (Which was the closest Harrow would likely ever get to an apology.) “It’s possible this might work out for the best in the end anyway. So, moving on, what are your assessments?”
Gideon thought on this for a bit before responding. “Magnus the Fifth isn’t up to much, like I already said. 'Babs' is technically good but I swear he fights out of a book. The first thing I did to him that wasn’t just textbook threw him completely. He’s also a sore loser if that helps.”
“I thought the two of you tied in the end.”
“We did, first touch at the same instant, but he treated it like a loss. Also ‘sore tier’ sounds like a sex thing.”
Harrow's mouth tightened. “Moving on.”
“Jeannemary the Fourth is actually pretty good. She’s better than I was at her age definitely.”
“At her age you were still waving that horrid longsword around, so I’m not surprised.”
Gideon tactfully ignored the slight against her first love and continued. “Give her a few years to practice and bulk up a bit and she’ll be excellent. As is though she’s just good. Marta the Second I don’t know for sure. She’s a Cohort veteran so I have to assume she’s capable, and she analysed my duel with the Third meticulously. And that’s who was there. Sixth, Seventh and Eighth were no shows.”
“The Sixth and the Eighth aren’t renowned for their cavaliers, so theirs can probably be discounted,” mused Harrowhark.
“Like you were saying everyone would do with me you mean?”
“Disregard my previous statement, that’s a very good point.”
“Thanks,” said Gideon, who hadn’t actually intended to make a point but was happy to take the credit anyway.
“Sixth and Eighth are unknowns for the moment. Which just leaves the Seventh, whom we met on the landing pad. Something about him bothered me.”
“The fact that he was about to shove a sword through me?”
“No that made perfect sense,” said Harrow, which Gideon found a tad hurtful. “You lunged at his adept, I’d have been shocked if he hadn’t drawn on you.”
“She’d collapsed on the ground and started coughing blood everywhere, which I just happened to find somewhat distressing. I was only trying to check on her.”
“I know that, because I know you’re an idiot who acts without thinking.” Had Harrow’s voice gotten a little frosty there? “Lacking that context he treated you as a threat and that’s hardly surprising. I’d like to believe if, say, Marta the Second threw herself at me you’d attempt to do something about it.”
The mental image this particular phrasing conjured in Gideon’s head forestalled any reply, but fortunately Harrow went on as though she hadn’t expected one.
“No, it was something else. I can’t put my finger on it. I don’t suppose you noticed anything strange.”
“Aside from the aforementioned ‘nearly turning your faithful cavalier into a colander’ bit, which by the way I still think you’re taking far too in stride? Let me think.” Gideon pondered, thinking back to a few days prior and the giant cavalier of the Seventh. And then: “Offhand chain.”
“How much do you know about the different offhand weapons?”
“Assume I know less than you do.”
“That's a first. Well they all match a certain kind of physique, personality and style. We settled on the knuckle knives for me because they give me options for offence and defence, make use of my strength, but don’t take focus away from the rapier, which I’m much better with anyway. But first Aiglamene tried me with all of them, or at least all the ones we had to hand.”
“To determine which suited you best I assume?”
“Well ‘work out which I’m least useless with’ was how she put it but yeah basically. Anyway, the chain is really hard to use.”
“That’s the one you hit yourself in the face with, isn’t it?”
“Yeah that’s the one,” said Gideon, an instant before she thought to wonder how exactly Harrowhark knew that detail. “The chain needs strength, but it also needs precision, finesse, and grace. And I don’t know about you but none of those three words sprang to mind when I was watching Protesilaus the Seventh. He’s huge, but he moves awkwardly.”
“Could it just be an old injury playing up?”
“Maybe, couldn’t say. It’s just the only oddity I can think of. I could go visit Dulcinea Septimus and see if I spot anything else while I’m there.”
“No,” said Harrow, somewhat more forcefully than necessary.
“Just no. I don’t trust Lady Septimus, concerns about her cavalier aside. And I don’t trust your judgement around her either.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Gideon defensively.
“You know very well what I mean. Look, just keep away from her. Please? I’m not trying to start a fight here.”
Gideon sighed, defeated. “Fine. I don’t know what threat you think the terminally ill girl could possibly be, and I certainly don’t like your insinuations about my reliability, but... fine.”
“Thank you,” her necromancer said, before making a very unsubtle attempt to change the subject. “Since we last spoke yesterday, I’ve made significant progress on my own. But I've hit a point where I have to admit I would benefit from a second pair of eyes. Are you willing to accompany me again?”
“I think you've made it abundantly clear that where I do and don't go is your decision, not mine,” said Gideon, with no small amount of spite. “So sure, why the hell not?”
“Don’t be petulant, Griddle. It doesn't suit you. I have my reasons for being concerned about the Seventh.” Harrow’s face softened slightly. “I promise I'm not just trying to start a fight with you. I need you on my side.”
Gideon couldn’t stay truly angry with the Reverend Daughter for long, not nowadays at any rate. There had been a time when she would have dragged this argument out for all it was worth, but now the thought of actively upsetting Harrow tied her heart in a knot even when she was being completely insufferable. “I am on your side, Nonagesimus. If you say you have your reasons I believe you, even if I don't know why you won't share them with me. And I'll go with you tomorrow if that's what you need. Which I suspect it is if you've been bleeding everywhere like that.”
"Thank you." The tension visibly went out of Harrow. "It's getting late. We'll talk more tomorrow."
Tomorrow, as it turned out, involved heading into the lower levels of Canaan House. Harrow had handed Gideon a large key which she explained that Teacher had given her at her request; it now rested on the key ring Gideon had been given when they arrived. The key opened the hatch they'd found before, now labelled on Harrow's map as X-155, and they had descended into the darkened basement level of Canaan House, while Harrow had done her best to describe her activities of the day before and Gideon had done her best to pay attention.
"The whole lower level is a laboratory complex," Harrow explained as she led her cavalier through the underlevel. "It's ancient, too! Pre-Resurrection I suspect, but that's not really here nor there. The point is that some of the chambers still have active theorems. I think they're meant to be tests."
"What kind of tests?"
"That's what I'm trying to determine. Here!" Harrow dismantled what had clearly been one of her bone wards and ushered Gideon through a door labelled '#1-2 TRANSFERENCE/WINNOWING. DATACENTER.' into the next chamber. "If I activate the pedestal in that room," she said as she indicated a door labelled IMAGING, "then the door to that room," and this one was labelled RESPONSE "opens up. I've been sending skeletons through and they've been destroyed by something."
"What do you mean, 'something'?"
"I don't know. I can't let go of the pedestal or the door shuts and the test resets, and I can't see from there. That's what I need you for. You can look through the windows into Response and tell me what I'm dealing with."
"So when you said you needed a second pair of eyes, you were being really literal?"
"I thought you wanted me to try and communicate more clearly," said Harrow insufferably.
So Gideon stood outside in the anteroom with a couple of Harrow's skeletons whilst her necromancer entered Imaging. The door to Response opened, the skeletons entered, the door slammed shut behind them, and the room began to fill with a thick mist. And then, just as Gideon had begun to worry she wouldn't be able to see anything that happened, an enormous construct loomed into view and demolished both skeletons in under a second. It was huge, and not even remotely humanoid, having far too many arms and legs. Two of the arms terminated in sharpened lengths of bone that set Gideon's mind racing and her sword hand itching. But before she could fully form those thoughts and relay them to her necromancer, Gideon heard the sound of a door opening, and only had a split second to realise that it wasn't the door to Imaging, but the door they had both come in through.
She spun around, drawing her rapier in one fluid movement, as a tall woman in a grey cloak entered the room. She took one look at Gideon with her sword drawn, drew her own rapier and lunged. Gideon parried desperately, slipping her hand into her gauntlet as her opponent pulled a knife from somewhere with her left hand and rained blows down on her. She was lightning fast and unrelenting, and Gideon found herself unexpectedly on the back foot. She parried one attack after another, reflexes pushed to the limit, unable to find an opening in the woman's all out attack to retaliate with her blade. She lunged instead with her knuckles, aiming to trap the rapier as she'd done with Naberius Tern; she succeeded in knocking her opponent's blade from her hand, but she just dropped to the ground and tried to sweep Gideon's legs out from under her, grabbing her rapier fluidly as she rose and resuming her attack. Gideon realised to her mixed excitement and panic that she didn't know how this would end, whether her assailant would tire or break through her guard first. Ultimately the question went unanswered.
Imaging opened, and Harrow's shrill voice shouted "Nav, stand down!" At almost the same time a man's voice behind the other cavalier called "Camilla, disengage!"
Both cavaliers stepped away from each other, Gideon doing so with a mild degree of disappointment, and sheathed their weapons. The other woman - Camilla, presumably - stepped aside and her necromancer entered the room to glare at everybody present. "Cam, who initiated this?"
"Ninth had already drawn but I made the first strike. Sorry, we're clearly both jumpy and it escalated from there."
"My apologies to the Ninth then, on behalf of my cavalier, and I hope we can leave it there."
"Apology accepted, Sixth" said Harrowhark, with the particularly calm tone of voice that Gideon had come to recognise as meaning she was absolutely furious. "But I'm afraid we're using this lab. You'll have to look elsewhere, Sextus."
"Very well Nonagesimus. We'll come back another time."
The Sixth departed, Camilla giving Gideon a respectful nod first, and Gideon turned to face the wrath of her necromancer. Harrow was fuming silently, seemingly looking through Gideon rather than at her.
"Did you see how quick she was?" Gideon said, partly to fill the silence but mostly because the adrenaline was still rushing through her and she needed to say something. "I've never seen someone move like that. Not Jeannemary, not Naberius, not Aiglamene."
"I couldn't get a single opening, she was pressing me that hard!" Gideon was almost babbling now. She didn't know what Harrow was about to say but she didn't want to listen.
"I think I might have had her if it had gone the distance, she wasn't as strong as me, but good grief she was fast-"
"Nav! For fuck's sake, shut up for a second! Did. She. Hurt. You?"
"What? No. She didn't get a hit through." Harrow let out a breath that Gideon hadn't realised she'd been holding, and her cavalier paused. "Wait, you were worried about me?"
"I came out of Imaging to see Camilla the Sixth doing her best to fillet you. Of course I was worried!" Harrow snapped. "If you're unhurt, then I suggest we table the discussion of your apparently insatiable need to fight everyone and everything in Canaan House until a point when I don't feel like slapping you for it." Harrow shook her head despairingly. "Did you at least see what was destroying my constructs in Response? Any ideas on how to proceed?"
"Uhh. Well. Yes. I do have an idea, but I'm not sure this is the right time to be sharing it..."
Gideon pushed open the door to the Ninth House quarters and gently deposited her unconscious necromancer on her bed. All things considered, that had gone pretty well. It'd taken a bit of arguing with a moderately stroppy Harrow for her to agree to Gideon fighting the bone construct, but Gideon had been correct, which hopefully would spare her a lecture later. Besides, the far more interesting bit had been how they'd done it. She'd had Harrowhark in her head.
She still wasn't entirely sure what that entailed, other than an endless supply of material for double entendres that basically wrote themselves. Harrow had felt her movements, and her feelings, every sensation of her sword and knuckles striking bone and her footwork as she danced around the return strokes. She hadn't, as far as Gideon could tell, gotten access to her thoughts or memories, thank fuck. That would have resulted in a much longer and more uncomfortable discussion than she ever wanted to have.
Instead Harrow had looked at the bone giant (heh) through Gideon's eyes, and told her where to strike. She'd seen the locations as her necromancer called them, lights overlayed over skeletal joints, and between the two of them they'd taken the construct apart by attacking its weak points for massive damage. When Gideon had returned to Imaging clutching the key she'd received as a prize, a bloody and very unsteady Harrowhark had heaped praise on Gideon using language mostly composed of probably unintentional innuendo, and it had gotten embarrassing enough that she was almost relieved when it was interrupted by Harrow finally passing out.
Having brought her back here, and bereft of anything better to do, Gideon fetched a damp cloth and made an attempt at cleaning the blood off Harrow's face. She knew that necromancers started bleeding heavily from a variety of exciting places if they pushed themselves past their limits, and she also knew that Harrow pushed herself past her limits basically every time she did anything because she was an idiot with no self preservation instincts. Most of the leakage had been from Harrow's nose (charming) so she began there, doing her best to ignore how gross the semi congealed blood was.
Instead she found herself looking at Harrow's face. It wasn't that she hadn't seen Harrow's face before, but this was possibly the first time she'd gotten a good look at it when it wasn't being accompanied by Harrow's near perpetual scowl, which rather ruined the effect. The paint had flecked off in a few spots between the sweat, the blood, and Gideon's own efforts at tidying her up. Up close, she could see that Harrow's lips weren't quite as thin as she'd always assumed, though whether that was due to the lack of paint or the lack of disapproval she couldn't say. She'd had various confused and unfortunate feelings for her necromancer for years now, but until now she hadn't consciously realised that Harrowhark was actually quite pleasant to look at. Not pretty, that wasn't the right word, but she was striking, at least when she wasn't actively being a condescending jerk.
She did her best to banish those thoughts, since they were stupid and useless and more than a bit voyeuristic, and finished cleaning up the currently inactive condescending jerk, getting a couple of patches of blood around Harrow's eyes (eww) and one thin trickle that had apparently come from her left ear (blech). She had just disposed of the now ruined cloth when the necromancer finally began to come to.
"Nav?" Harrow asked unsteadily. "Do you have the key?"
"That's alright, carrying you back here was no trouble at all, thanks for asking."
Harrow rolled her eyes tiredly. "Yes, thank you very much for literally doing your job. Now where is it?" Gideon held up the key ring and Harrow's eyes focused on the new addition to their collection. "Excellent. Now our next course of action is to find the room that unlocks."
"No, our next course of action is for you to actually eat something. You haven't had anything all day."
"Griddle this is time sensitive, you know that! We need to stay ahead of the competition."
"Which will be much easier to do if I don't have to carry you back up here halfway through because you've passed out again. Which you will if you don't get some food in you." At Harrow's responding glower, she added "Besides, you don't have a say in the matter. I'm going to get lunch, and I'm taking the key with me, and I really doubt you can stop me in the state you're currently in. So you can either come with or sit here being pissy."
She thought for a minute that Harrow was going to take the second option, but eventually she grumpily got to her feet and stumbled into the bathroom to redo her paint. Gideon sat drumming her feet and doing her best to not think about Harrow's lips.
"Griddle, did you wash my face?" asked Harrow quietly from the next room.
"Yeah." She'd rather hoped that would go unnoticed. "Is that a problem?"
There was no response for a moment, and then: "No, it's fine. But you know you don't need to do that right?" Followed a few seconds later by: "I mean I don't mind at all, but it's not an expectation. I can do it myself."
"I didn't have anything else useful to do while you were out. So, you're welcome. No trouble."
Harrow didn't reply, and re-entered the room shortly with her face touched up. "Alright, let's get this over with, since you insist."
Gideon accompanied her still slightly wobbly necromancer to the dining hall. There were still a few souls taking a late lunch, and Magnus the Fifth gave them a cheery wave when they entered. "Good afternoon Ninth—oh and you as well, Reverend Daughter! Lovely to see you join us for a change."
Gideon returned Magnus's wave, Harrow gave him an awkward nod, and they settled at an unoccupied table with a couple of bowls of what Gideon had learnt was chicken. Gideon tucked into her bowl while her necromancer picked at hers moodily. At least she was eating at all.
Gideon had just started to convince herself that she might manage to get Harrow fed without a fight when her necromancer looked up at something over Gideon's shoulders, and her eyes hardened. Gideon turned her head to see Dulcinea Septimus ambling towards them on her crutches, her massive cavalier following a step behind.
"Gideon the Ninth! I'd begun to think you were skipping your midday meal today. And you've come as well, Reverend Daughter! I haven't had a chance to speak with you since our impromptu meeting on the landing pad. I honestly don't really know what the point of my being here is, the more I learn about the tests the less I feel able to actually do any. Your cavalier has been doing a wonderful job of keeping me entertained though."
"Has she now?" said Harrow, in a voice so carefully neutral that Gideon had to avoid visibly wincing.
"Oh yes," said Dulcinea, either missing the warning tone or deciding to ignore it, "she's a delightfully funny conversationalist. You're lucky to have her."
"That's very kind of you to say. I'm afraid however that she might have less free time going forward." Harrow's voice could probably have frozen the ocean outside.
"Well that's a shame, but I understand. Doubtless you're making steady progress through the trials."
"I couldn't possibly comment, I'm sure. Now if you'll excuse me I'm afraid we need to take our leave." Harrow stood, and gave Gideon an expectant look until she rose as well. "Good day, Lady Septimus."
"Good day to you as well, Reverend Daughter. Gideon, I hope we can speak some more another time."
Harrow stalked off, muttering something under her breath that might have been "Not if I can help it." Gideon gave Dulcinea an apologetic look, and then hurried off after her necromancer.
"What exactly crawled up your butt and died, Harrow?" she asked conversationally once they were well out of earshot of the dining hall.
"I feel I've made my feelings on the subject of Lady Septimus abundantly clear."
"And I've kept away from her as best as I can since then. I didn't even say a word to her before. So I don't know why you feel the need to be such a colossal dick to her."
"You genuinely don't hear it, do you?"
"Oh it doesn't matter. My instructions to you stand. Don't speak with her, and don't spend time with her. No more than absolutely necessary."
"Glad to know you're basing your shitty behaviour on something clear and concrete." Gideon sighed. "Look, can we just go find whatever room this key unlocks? The sooner we're done with that, the sooner I can go find something to do that doesn't involve putting up with your crappy mood."
"Fine" said Harrowhark tersely, digging out her map. "And if we find what I'm suspecting we will, you can probably head off early. I doubt you'll have anything helpful to contribute after all."
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Gideon sat on her bed in the Ninth quarters, sharpening her sword. It was more for something to keep her hands busy than because it needed it. They had found the room reasonably quickly, and Harrow had almost instantly stopped paying any attention to Gideon once they had. The room was some kind of study, and from what she'd been able to make out from Harrow talking to herself, it explained the theorem underpinning the bone construct test. Gideon had left her necromancer to it, being still pretty upset with her.
It was now well into late evening and Harrow still hadn't returned. Gideon had done enough push-ups to tire even herself out, and now alternated between feeling worried for her necromancer, and feeling cross with herself for feeling worried. Odds were that Harrow had just gotten absorbed in her new discovery and had forgotten about her. There were times when she really couldn't remember what she actually saw in the Reverend Daughter.
She finished the maintenance on her rapier and was just about to see whether her offhand could do with a touch up when the door opened quietly and Harrow came in.
"Oh you're still up. I wasn't sure you would be."
"I think I've got my head around the theorem for the Winnowing trial. It took some doing, it's awfully complex stuff, but I've managed it."
Harrow sat down beside her and was silent for a moment, before she spoke again. "Look, about earlier... I was upset but I wasn't upset at you, and I shouldn't have taken it out on you."
Gideon considered continuing with passive aggression and seeing what happened, but ultimately decided to accept the olive branch, such as it was. "Okay, fine. I really wish I knew what your issue with her was."
"I promise I have a reason."
"Which you refuse to share with me."
"Because I'm not sure you'd—" Harrow stopped herself and began again. "Because I have a reason not to."
"Not sure I'd what?"
"Please stop pushing me on this, Nav." Harrow actually sounded genuinely distressed. "Can you just trust me?"
Gideon looked at the pleading expression on Harrow's face and caved, like she always did. "Ok. I trust you. But if you aren't going to explain it to me could you at least stop making it my problem?"
"I'll do my best." Harrow moved to her own bed and lay back, looking suddenly exhausted. "I'd like to head back down to the labs again tomorrow, if you're still willing to come with me." It was a question, even if it wasn't phrased as one.
"Of course I am. God knows what trouble you'd get yourself into if I didn't." Gideon yawned. "I'm going to get some sleep. Try to do the same alright?"
Harrow didn't reply, and a glance in her direction showed that she'd already succumbed to unconsciousness. Gideon got up, put Harrow's blanket over her, and then went back to bed.
Gideon followed her necromancer back down into the laboratory level, idly wondering if she'd get to stab something helpfully this time as well. Harrow had gotten a decent enough night's sleep that she hadn't even objected to Gideon's insistence on breakfast.
"Sextus isn't down here," Harrow remarked with uncharacteristic cheerfulness, "he's gone to check on—well anyway he's busy. Magnus the Fifth decided to share something useful for a change whilst you were off getting that horrible salad."
"I liked the salad."
"Focus, Griddle. We have a free run down here today, or at least I believe so. I don't think the others have gotten their hatch keys yet."
Harrow led them to a different section of the facility, to another foyer like the last. This one contained a single door, labelled: #14-8 DIVERSION. PROCEDURAL CHAMBER. and, in smaller letters under it: AVULSION!
"I don't suppose they could have named all these something more useful and less extra," commented Gideon, and Harrow inclined her head in agreement.
"I can understand the meaning of the name for the last test but only in retrospect. I assume the names were clear enough to those who made these experiments in the first place, but I can't get any useful clues from them." She opened the door and beckoned Gideon through.
The room beyond was a long corridor stretching out, barred by a large metal grate which shifted out of the way when Harrow flicked a switch on the wall. The corridor beyond was exceedingly long and narrow, with a small black and yellow striped line painted on the floor at the start. At the end of the corridor, maybe a hundred metres away, was a plinth with a box on top of it.
Harrowhark frowned at it. "This looks much too easy."
"Bet it isn't."
"Of course it isn't. I just don't know how yet. I'll try the simple solution first."
Gideon should have known that for Harrow the simple solution was 'throw some skeletons at the problem' rather than walking over and doing it herself like a normal person. The first skeletal construct took form, and stepped over the line. And promptly disintegrated.
Harrow stared in stunned silence and then asked: "Nav, can you please confirm for me what just happened?"
"Your skeleton went splat. Or maybe pop. Anyway, it ceased to exist. Don't really know how to describe it better than that."
Harrow nodded slowly. "Okay. That's a problem. Let me try something else."
'Something else' turned out to look an awful lot like exactly what she'd just done. A second skeleton took form, slightly larger and bulkier than the first perhaps. Gideon looked at Harrow, who had a trickle of blood running from her nose now.
"Something I worked out from the study the other day. Remember how the construct regenerated when you damaged it? This should do the same. It should fare better here."
Skeleton number two stepped over the line, and also disintegrated. It might have lasted a second longer, it was hard to tell.
"Oh, come the fuck on!" Harrow exploded. "How is it doing this? Even if there is a senescence field active, it shouldn't be able to just overwhelm the regeneration like that. Not that easily anyway."
"Couldn't say, since I don't know what a senescence field is."
"Accelerated rate of decay. Highly accelerated in this case. But even so, the second construct barely outlasted the first, that shouldn't—no, that's impossible, they can't have."
"Want to explain for your poor simple cavalier who knows only the sword?"
"I'm not sure yet. I need to try this again."
Two constructs at once this time, near copies of the first two, one basic and one the bigger regenerating model. Harrow, bleeding more noticeably now, sent them over simultaneously, and they both disintegrated at effectively the same time.
"They have done it! That shouldn't be possible!" Seeing Gideon's expectant look, Harrow elaborated. "It is a senescence field, but it's overlayed with an entropy field. Which shouldn't be possible. It's dissipating the thanergy in the bone so the theorem isn't functioning."
"So how do we beat it?"
"I don't know." Harrow sat down and began to think aloud. "I can't get a construct through, that's clear. And I can't go over myself, any protection I use will be undone by the entropy field. And if I can't go over you definitely can't." She lapsed into silence.
"Want to try another lab instead?"
"No, I'm pretty sure we need to do all of them eventually so we'll need to work this out." Harrow sat in thought for a while, and then took a brief speculative look at her cavalier before shaking her head, like she was dismissing an idea.
"What was that?" asked Gideon. "You thought of something, right?"
"No. It's not something I'm willing to pursue."
"Spit it out."
Harrow chewed her lip. "I can't make use of my own thanergy reserve to shield myself - the entropy field won't allow it. I could make use of an external source outside of the field."
"So... you mean me?"
Harrow shook her head. "No. Well I mean yes, but I won't do it. It's too dangerous."
"Don't I get a say in that?"
"No you don't, because you don't properly understand the risks. If I take too long, you could die. If your focus falters for an instant, I could die. And you'll be in immense pain the entire time."
"I thought you said you trusted me to keep you safe."
"This isn't about trust. I couldn't do this to—to anyone!"
Gideon sat opposite her necromancer and looked her in the eye. "My role here is to help you complete the trials while keeping you safe. This sounds like both of those. And you clearly haven't got a better idea."
Harrow didn't respond at first. Gideon could sense the stress coming off of her like waves. Finally she stood and said: "This will hurt like nothing you've ever experienced before. And you can't give in to it, or run from it. You'll have to fight through it. Anything else will mean disaster. Are you absolutely certain you can do this?"
"Yeah," said Gideon, rising to stand as well. "I can."
Harrow looked at her with an unusual mix of trepidation and tenderness, and then reached out and touched Gideon's neck. She held it there for what realistically couldn't have been more than about ten seconds but felt so much longer, then withdrew it. As Harrow moved away, Gideon could feel a tugging sensation beneath her skin. "This isn't so bad," she began to say, and then Harrowhark crossed over the striped line and the wall of pain hit her.
It was excruciating. Every nerve ending burned like white hot needles had been jammed into them. She couldn't help it, she screamed. The world around disappeared from her senses, her brain unable to process any input but the agony gripping every fibre of her being.
She could feel herself instinctively trying to push the source of the pain away, and fought to keep a hold of it. She could still sense Harrow's presence getting gradually further away, as though some invisible line connected the two, and down that line flowed burning fire.
She'd dropped to the floor at some point without realising it, still screaming. Blood was flowing from every part of her. It was too much. Harrow had tried to warn her and she hadn't listened. It was just too much. She needed to let go. She needed to—
An image floated into her mind, an image of Harrowhark disintegrating the way her constructs had. An image of a world without her necromancer and her stupid bitchy face in it. Gideon gritted her teeth so hard she felt they might shatter and held on to her connection to Harrow with everything she had. She could feel that Harrow had stopped, and now her presence began to get closer again. She just had to hold on a little longer.
She'd stopped screaming now, more from a shortness of breath than anything else. She felt Harrow moving closer with agonising slowness, and just as she thought she couldn't possibly handle it any longer the pain stopped as suddenly as it began. Gideon opened her eyes, unable to focus, saw a blurry shape that was just recognisable as Harrow looking down at her, and finally allowed herself to lose consciousness.
Gideon came to her senses back in the Ninth quarters an indeterminate time later. She could recall bits and pieces of what might have been dreams and might have been memories. Palamedes Sextus looking down at her. Abigail Pent doing the same. Harrow sitting beside her, face creased with worry. Harrow arguing with someone outside the door of the Ninth quarters. Harrow in the Avulsion chamber, cradling Gideon in her arms and whispering something to her over and over—this one had to have been a dream; Harrow had been naked in it and Gideon couldn't imagine she'd been that lucky.
She opened her eyes. It was just her and Harrow, and Harrow was watching her, tight-lipped. Her eyes were red and swollen, her paint had run, and she looked utterly furious.
"Good. You're awake." said Harrow.
"Not sure I can get up yet."
"It doesn't matter." Harrow stood. "I need to go get Sextus, he took a look at you earlier and said to fetch him when you were awake. After giving me a lengthy lecture that I really didn't need."
"I would have thought you'd be down in the new study you'd unlocked."
"I wasn't going to leave you alone, not in the state you were in." Harrow looked away and then added: "Besides. I didn't get the key."
"Wait, how come? It wasn't there?"
"I didn't make it across. I got a bit over halfway and then... I looked back." Harrow didn't meet her eyes. "You were covered in blood. You'd almost stopped moving. I thought you were about to die."
"So I went through all that for nothing."
Harrow's head snapped up, her eyes blazing. "Don't even think about trying to guilt me! I told you this was a terrible idea. I told you it was risky. I told you it would hurt. But you insisted and I made the mistake of listening to you. If you'd died, I would have died too and then everything would have been for nothing!"
"Harrow I didn't mean-"
"Don't EVER scare me like that again!" Harrow stormed out, slamming the door behind her.
Palamedes Sextus ultimately gave Gideon a begrudging clean bill of health, peppered with insistence that she should be a lot worse, should count herself very lucky, and should absolutely not do anything like that again. Harrow had brooded silently in the corner the whole time he'd been speaking. Once the Sixth necromancer had left, Gideon sat up and said "Hey, Harrow? I'm sorry, alright?"
"Whatever for, Griddle?"
"Don't be an ass when I'm trying to apologise, it makes it a lot more difficult than it needs to be. You warned me, I didn't listen, and it nearly ended in disaster. I fucked up, and I'm sorry. I was just trying to be useful."
"You've been more than useful since we arrived. I don't need you taking absurd risks out of some misguided need to prove yourself to me or whatever it is you're trying to do. Don't price your life so cheaply." Harrow picked up a bowl from the table beside her and handed it to Gideon. "Here. I got you some dinner. You need to eat after what you've gone through."
"That's not the way around this usually goes, you worrying whether I'm eating enough."
"Shut up Nav. I'm still angry with you. Don't think I'm not just because I don't actively want you to die."
Gideon ate the meat and vegetables she'd been given in silence, but after she'd finished she made another attempt at conversation.
"Where to tomorrow then?"
"You aren't going anywhere if I have any say in the matter."
"Oh come off it. Palamedes said I was fine, once he stopped fussing. I'm surprised you even went to him."
"This is an area where he's more capable than I am, though I'll thank you to never tell him that. And that's not the point. I need some time to reconsider my strategy, and to convince myself that you aren't just going to throw yourself at the first hazard you see." Harrow drummed her fingers on the table in irritation. "I don't know another way to do the Avulsion trial and I'm absolutely not doing that again, so for now I'm shelving that one. Which means that I'll need to scope out another lab. Those were the only two I'd checked."
"So you'll do that tomorrow while I sit here being bored?"
"As I believe I have said before, keeping you entertained is not high on my list of priorities. But I won't be gone for long I suspect. Just long enough to check another couple of labs and work out which to begin with. If possible, get an idea of what the test involves. Oh don't look sulky, if you absolutely insist I can find someone to keep you company. Though if you even suggest the Seventh I'm going to throttle you."
"Camilla then. Or Magnus."
"Fine. You are forbidden from fighting either of them."
"Spoilsport." Gideon yawned. She couldn't believe she was tired already, given how much of the day she'd spent unconscious. She lay down and then said "Harrow? I'm sorry you didn't get the key. I let you down."
"No you didn't. You held on incredibly. I aborted the trial out of concern. Perhaps if I'd continued we might have succeeded, although I'd hate to see what state it would have left you in. I'm not upset with you that we failed, I'm upset that you talked me into trying the idiotic idea in the first place."
"Oh. Right." Gideon paused to think this over and then added "So I did good?"
"Don't push your luck. I'm not going to consider congratulating you until I'm finished being furious. Go to sleep."
"Righto," said Gideon, and did.
Harrow had left already when she awoke the next morning. She found an annoying, bossy note waiting for her.
"I have taken your keys, obviously. Do not leave the room before I return. Camilla the Sixth was unavailable so I have asked Magnus the Fifth to keep you company. Do not engage him in swordplay. I reiterate that you are not to leave the room before I return. 'The room' is defined as the total area encompassed by the Ninth House quarters."
She hadn't gotten a note like this in years now. It would have been nostalgic if it hadn't been so very annoying. She got dressed, reapplied her paint, and briefly considered writing a spiteful response, but was fortunately interrupted by the arrival of Magnus.
"Good to see you, Ninth! Afraid the Sixth are both meeting with the wife today. They've got a spirit they want to call up apparently. Being very hush hush about it, I felt, but Abigail is a truly brilliant psychopomp, even if I say so myself. Anyway, the upshot is that you're stuck with me."
Gideon couldn't help but crack a smile. Ever since she'd arrived, Magnus had been consistently friendly with her, even after she'd absolutely thrashed him in their duel. "It's good to see you, I could do with some cheering up."
"Yes I heard about your ordeal yesterday. Abigail came to check on you, but you were still out of it. She said she had a lovely chat with your necromancer though!"
Gideon tried to imagine someone having a lovely chat with Harrowhark Nonagesimus, but couldn't. "Glad to hear someone's getting pleasant conversation out of her. All she did after I woke was make me feel completely incompetent."
"I'm sure she didn't mean to."
"You don't know her like I do. Condescension is pretty much her stock in trade."
"Perhaps. But I do know people can lash out sometimes when they're scared. Nonagesimus didn't leave your side yesterday, not until you woke. You gave her quite the shock."
"It's not like I meant to!"
"I'm not trying to suggest you did. All I'm suggesting is not assuming malice behind her words. Abigail told me that Nonagesimus was clearly distressed when she visited. She seemed to really appreciate having someone to take her mind off of it."
Gideon shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know. It's so hard to work out what she's thinking. Anyway I've worried enough about her for today. How are you two getting along with the trials?"
"Fairly well I think, although I can't claim any credit for it. Abigail's been like a child in a candy store with the facility floor, once she worked out how to get down there. To be honest, she's more interested in the history of the place and the original Lyctors than the tests themselves, but she's planning to make an attempt at one soon."
So Harrow had been wrong as to who else had a hatch key. That was worth telling her later, if only to watch her reaction. "So is your wife a historian? Sorry, I haven't been proactive about getting to know the other necromancers."
"No apology needed, she was disappointed to not get to introduce herself to you yesterday. And yes, she's a historian amongst other things. She's a polymath. Brilliant woman, don't know why she puts up with me sometimes." He chuckled self deprecatingly. "Oh while I remember, I don't think I properly complimented your sword skills the other day. I hadn't known what exactly to expect from the Ninth House cavalier but you certainly impressed. Not so much defeating me, that's really not a lot to boast about, but your duel with Tern was incredible to watch!"
"Thanks, I really appreciate you saying that. Though Naberius didn't seem to take it well."
"That one's used to winning, I suspect. I'd heard a little about him beforehand, he's considered the best duelist in the Third House. I can only assume you've got a similar reputation on the Ninth."
"You could say that I suppose." Best of a field of three was still best. "I've never really gotten much of a chance to test myself before."
"Well you've passed with flying colours so far I'd say. She wouldn't appreciate me saying it, but Jeannemary has clearly started looking up to you a bit. If you ever have the time to give her some pointers I think she'd really appreciate it."
"She's very good, I don't think I'd have anything to teach her. I've got four years of age on her, that's all."
"I think you underrate yourself, Ninth. I've got twenty years on you and you can see where that's got me. Every cavalier here, well aside from me, has been training their whole lives to be the best cavalier their necromancer could have. You're one of the best swords amongst them I'd wager."
"Not all the others," said Gideon with a degree of bitterness. At Magnus's puzzled expression, she explained. "I've only been a cavalier for three years. I've been wielding a sword longer than that, but not this one." She patted the rapier at her side. "Probably shouldn't be telling you that but I'm not sure I care anymore. I'm sick of pretending to be a real cavalier."
"Your secret is safe with me, Gideon the Ninth. But if you want my opinion, you're absolutely a real cavalier, and if you weren't selected earlier then that's a failing of the Ninth House, not you. I was impressed with your skills beforehand, and if you've attained that level of mastery in just three years then I'm utterly astonished." He sat beside her. "But that's not really the point of being a cavalier, and I don't just say that because I'm rubbish at it. Your role is to support your necromancer, and that's as much emotional as physical. That's the bit I'm actually good at, and I've already seen enough of you to know it's something you're good at too."
"Hardly. She's basically always mad at me."
"You think Abigail never gets upset with me? I've had to drag her away from her research more than once when she gets completely absorbed in it and forgets the rest of the world. She gets very irritable when I do, but she always forgives me in the end. Sometimes emotional support is about doing what they need, not what they want. Nonagesimus might be an incredible necromancer. Abigail certainly took that away from her talk with her. But she also said that she seemed to have achieved that at the expense of learning how to take care of herself. So yes, by all means, be her sword. Help her through the trials. But if you're making sure she gets three square meals and a decent night's sleep, you're doing her the world of good."
"Honestly if she eats more than one meal a day I consider that a victory. But... thanks."
Magnus gave her a warm smile, and might have spoken more, had Harrow not decided to finally return at that point. She gave Magnus a polite nod and said: "I've just run into your necromancer, she asked me to send you back her way. She's got something to share apparently."
"Well, duty calls then. Thank you for the chat, Ninth, and I'm glad to see you're back on your feet already." Magnus disappeared, giving Gideon a cheery thumbs up over the back of Harrow's head.
"Mapped out where you're going next?"
"We're both going I hope, and yes I've got another option that looks promising. But that can wait. Pent asked us both to meet her and the Sixth in the sickroom in an hour's time. She says they've got something critically important to share."
Update schedule is likely going to slow a bit since I've started work.
Clearly Abigail Pent hadn't been choosy with who she had given this invitation to. The Seventh obviously were already there, along with the Fifth and Sixth, but so were the Fourth and Second. They hadn't been there too long before the Eighth joined them, and finally the Third sauntered in, completing the set.
"What's this about, Fifth?" asked Captain Deuteros curtly.
"I'll let Sextus explain." Abigail replied.
Palamedes Sextus took off his glasses, polished them on his robe, and put them back on. "Camilla drew my attention to this. I hadn't wanted to believe it myself but she presented the evidence clearly and it stacked up. At her insistence we went to see Abigail Pent, and asked her if she could call up a specific spirit using a letter I had kept."
"Get to the point, Sextus," said Harrow irritably.
"This morning, I spoke with the spirit of Dulcinea Septimus."
Every eye in the room stared at him, and then almost as one, they turned to look at the girl in the sickbed. She coughed pitifully.
"Camilla and Abigail will confirm what I've said," Palamedes continued. "So, whoever you are, I suggest this is the time to come clean."
"What gave me away?" asked the woman who wasn't Dulcinea Septimus. She made a languid gesture with her fingers, and the body of Protesilaus collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut.
"You treated Cam and I like strangers. We'd been communicating with Lady Septimus for over a decade via letters. I thought you were just trying to break ties. Cam didn't buy it, and when we visited you yesterday she started dropping things into the conversation that you should have picked up on. You didn't."
"I see. What do you already know?"
"I know you're a Lyctor, presumably the Seventh. And I know you killed Dulcinea Septimus and Protesilaus Ebdoma. But I don't know your name, or why you murdered them."
The woman on the sickbed coughed again. Gideon drew her sword, and noticed she wasn't the first to do so. Marta the Second had her weapons drawn, as did Camilla and Naberius Tern. As she watched, Colum the Eighth and Jeannemary drew as well. Harrow had pulled a knucklebone from the folds of her robes.
"My name is Cytherea the First. And the rest doesn't matter now. I could kill most of you even now, I think, but you'd destroy me in the end. And I don't want to kill anyone without reason. I can't complete my mission, so nothing matters now."
"Are you going to plead for your life?" asked Jeannemary fiercely.
"Oh heavens no! I'd actually rather you put me down. Don't you want to avenge Lady Septimus?"
"I want to know why," said Palamedes flatly.
"And I'm afraid that you'll have to go on wondering. I'm too dangerous to be left alive and I don't feel the need to share my motivations with you. You'll figure it out yourself I'm sure. You're a very intelligent man." At his continuing glare, she added: "I took no pleasure in it, and she didn't suffer. She was going to die soon at any rate. I needed to infiltrate the trials, and I thought I could pass myself off as the heir to the Seventh. I didn't know she already knew you, she kept that from me when I questioned her. Does that satisfy you?"
"It doesn't even begin to satisfy me, but it's clearly all you're going to share."
"Yes. It is. Now be good sorts and kill me, would you? It'll take some doing, you'll need to destroy my brain or it won't stick. The Third should be able to manage it, assuming there's a competent necromancer between the two of them."
The twins of the Third walked behind Cytherea hesitantly, and laid their hands on her head. She smiled, and looked straight at Gideon. And then something that was very probably her brain trickled out of her ears and she crumpled.
The room fell into stunned silence. Gideon turned her head, surveying the faces of the others, her brain too in shock to process exactly what had just happened. The Fifth were comforting the distraught Fourth teens, the Second’s faces were set into impassive masks matched only by the Eighth. Even the two necromancers of the Third seemed taken aback. And then there were the Sixth. Palamedes Sextus stood facing the collapsed body of Cytherea, fury and sorrow warring across his face. Beside him his cavalier put her hand on his shoulder and fought back her own tears. Gideon had never seen Camilla look rattled before now, but in this moment she looked on the verge of breaking.
She dimly felt someone take her hand, looked to see Harrow leading her over to Palamedes and Camilla. Her necromancer’s face was utterly blank. Gideon followed after, feeling like she was moving through water, every step requiring her attention.
“Sextus, I- I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t.” Harrow’s voice had a pleading edge.
“I know, Reverend Daughter,” said Palamedes distantly. His voice was flat and he didn’t look up.
“I’m sorry,” said a voice, and Gideon realised it was hers, and that she was. Palamedes nodded vaguely. Camilla walked over to her and gave her a short but fierce hug. The world swam back into focus, and the nightmare Gideon had just witnessed finally caught up with her.
Gideon dropped her sword, staggered into a corner, and threw up.
Gideon lay sideways on her bed sobbing uncontrollably. She didn't know who had led her back there; probably Nonagesimus. Her mind was consumed by grief, nausea and a deeply violating feeling of betrayal. She'd been drawn to Dulcinea, who hadn't been Dulcinea, from the moment she'd first seen her. And then she'd turned out to be a liar and a murderer, and before Gideon had been able to wrap her head around that the woman was dead. The vision of her serenely smiling face as her brain ran out of her ears swam behind her eyes, and she resisted the urge to vomit again.
She felt the bed shift slightly, as though someone had sat on it, and then felt a small arm around her waist. "I'm sorry," said Harrow gently. "I'm so damn sorry."
Part of her brain noted that Harrow had never said sorry to her before, ever. Another part of her brain remembered how much, even just yesterday, she would have done to have Harrow hold her like this. But most of her brain was too sad to care. "What did you see that I didn't?" she choked out between sobs. "You suspected her all along. Was I just stupid?"
"No. Of course you weren't. It was little things. A tone of voice here. A word or phrase there. Things that suggested she was trying to manipulate you."
"Why the hell didn't you tell me?"
"Because I didn't know if I was really hearing them," said Harrowhark sadly. "You spotted nothing amiss, and so I doubted myself." The arm around Gideon's waist gave her a squeeze. "I wish I'd said something now. I didn't suspect anything like this, I just thought she was playing with you. If I could have spared you this, I would have."
Gideon wiped her tears away and rolled over. She looked into Harrow's face, which looked back at her with nothing but tenderness. "I thought you'd be falling over yourself to say 'I told you so,'" she said. "Why are you being so damned nice?"
Harrow recoiled at that, and a familiar fury blazed into her eyes. "Is it so difficult to believe that I value your well-being, Griddle? That you matter to me?" Harrow looked down, swallowed, and then looked Gideon in the eye again, and this time her expression was pained. "I—I want to tell you something. A lot of things really. But not here. Will you come with me?"
"What's wrong with here?"
"I'll explain when we get there. Indulge me, Gideon?"
Gideon blinked twice, dumbstruck. Harrow had definitely never used her actual name. She got to her feet in a daze and nodded silently. Harrow gave her a small smile and led her out the door and through the labyrinth of Canaan House.
Gideon was lost in her own thoughts for most of the way. Her emotions were still raw, and Harrow's behaviour puzzled her. She was acting so out of character it was concerning.
"Alright, through here," said Harrow, rousing Gideon from her reverie. 'Here' turned out to be a large room dominated by a huge pool of water. Harrow closed the door behind them, and called four skeletons into being which held it firmly shut. Then she took off her outer robes, and stepped into the water, vanishing below the surface.
Gideon shook her head uncomprehendingly. Harrow reemerged, spluttering, half her face paint peeling away, and motioned to Gideon to join her. Without really knowing why, Gideon removed her own robes and dove in as well. She surfaced, spitting out the unexpectedly warm and salty water, and faced her necromancer. "Okay, so why are we here?"
"I'm going to share with you something that I'm not supposed to speak of. A secret of the Ninth House. My mother insists it not be talked about unless she and I are both immersed in saltwater. I don't know if that's just superstition or grounded in actual necromantic theory, but I'm not going to take the risk." She paused for a moment. "Now that I come to it, I'm suddenly unsure how to begin. I have a lot I need to tell you. I'll start with how I was born."
"Gross," said Gideon.
Harrow rolled her eyes, and then sighed. "You're right, although not the way you're thinking." Harrow paused again. "Do you know why we are the only surviving children of our House?"
"Yeah. A flu from the ventilators went through the creche when I was a baby. You weren't born yet, and I survived. None of the others did."
Harrow shook her head. "No. Not a flu, although that's the story you would have been told. It was nerve gas, and it was very deliberate. It was done to bring me into existence." Gideon stared at her in shock. Harrow went on as though she hadn't noticed. "My parents needed a necromantic heir, and had failed in every attempt to obtain one. This was their last chance, and they seized it. They killed two hundred children under the age of eighteen in the Ninth House, all at once, and the burst of thanergy released powered my conception."
Gideon kept staring. Harrow's face was emotionless and she wouldn't meet Gideon's eyes. "Harrow, what are you saying?"
"I am the product of two hundred murders. I am a monster. I shouldn't exist. They killed every child in the Ninth House, save two. Ortus' survival was by design. Your survival was not. Neither of my parents knew how or why, but somehow you breathed nerve gas for ten minutes and lived with no ill effects. They've been terrified of you ever since."
Gideon shook her head in disbelief. "How do you know all this?" she asked, already knowing the answer.
"They told me. When I was still a child. They made sure I knew what the cost of my existence had been, and that I knew the weight that had been placed upon my shoulders."
"That's seriously fucked up! Who does that to their child?"
Harrow closed her eyes, looking suddenly tired. "When I was ten, you and I got into a fight. Not the first time but this one stuck with me. I don't know if you remember what you said to me." Gideon shook her head. "I remember," said Harrow. "You said my mother didn't love me. And you were right, and I knew it. And that was just the last straw. I wanted it all to end."
Harrow gestured for her to be silent and continued. "I planned to kill myself that night. It was an elaborate and melodramatic plan. I was going to break into the Tomb.” Gideon froze in disbelief. “Perhaps the Tomb itself would kill me. Or I would see what was inside and decide, finally, if it was worth everything, worth what it had cost to make me. To decide whether I had a reason to live on as a walking mass grave. But as night approached, I began to have second thoughts. Something gnawed at me that I couldn’t define. I felt the need to do one last thing before I plunged into the abyss. And I went to see you." A drop of something that might have been water and might have been a tear ran down Harrowhark's face. "When I entered your room, and you looked up at me—I had so much I wanted to say. But every time we spoke it ended in a fight, and I was just so tired of fighting with you. So I lay next to you and let myself feel everything I had bottled up inside. I'd always had mixed feelings around you. Sometimes I looked at you and was reminded of everything I was and I hated myself, and I took it out on you. Other times I saw the one girl who'd lived, the only one I could ever try to make it up to, and I wanted so much to do something, anything for you. But that night, when I considered death, I found I couldn't leave you alone. I found a reason to keep living. It's you. It's always been you."
Gideon trod water in silence, unsure of what to say. This was all so much.
"When you turned fifteen I asked my parents to make you a cavalier. It made sense, I knew it did, you were already the best sword in the House and they knew it too. But they resisted. They argued. They suspected, I think, my real reasons. I wanted you to have a reason to stay. The idea of you leaving terrified me. In the end they agreed, but banned me from seeing you outside of formal occasions. I broke that ban, but only as much as I dared. I couldn't risk them separating us. I needed you. And then when the letter came calling me here to Canaan House, I fought bitterly to be allowed to bring you along instead of Ortus. Aiglamene even spoke up for you. But they wouldn't hear of it. They hated you so much."
"So you took me anyway."
"Yes. And it's the best decision I've ever made." Harrow looked at Gideon with a sad smile, and then looked away again. "I told you before I didn't tell you about Dulcinea because I didn't trust my senses. That's true, but it's only part of the truth. Everything I noticed about her, I only noticed because I was looking for something to find wrong. I tried so hard to just let you be happy—good grief, you deserved to be happy—but I couldn't do it. I was terrified of losing you. I may have been right to keep you from her, given what she was, but it was for all the wrong reasons, selfishness and jealousy, and I take no joy in having been right."
Harrow let out a deep breath. "So now you know everything. I'm an abomination. I am two hundred dead children. You are the only thing in my life worth living for, and I don't deserve you. I never have and I never will. If you want to be released from my service here and now, I understand. I'll send you off to the Cohort like you've always wanted as soon as we're allowed to leave. You'll have the life you should have had if I hadn't clung to you tooth and nail and dragged you down into the abyss with me."
Gideon drifted closer to Harrow. She could feel that this moment mattered, that what she did or said here would shape the course of her future and that she needed to get it right. "You're an idiot, Nonagesimus," she said, then pulled her close and kissed her.
Harrow went completely stiff, and then began to shake, and Gideon began to think that she'd misread everything and made a terrible mistake. But then she felt the Reverend Daughter relax, and put her arms on Gideon's waist. Harrow's lips were softer than she had imagined, and the necromancer leaned into the kiss like her very survival depended on it. It was minutes before they finally parted.
"But—why? I don't understand. You should hate me."
"Of course I don't hate you, numbskull. Yes that's a really fucked up story but it's not like you asked to be born, or to have a bunch of children murdered to facilitate said birth. You can't blame yourself for that—although I can tell you're going to keep doing so anyway because when have you ever listened to me—and I certainly don't blame you. I absolutely hate your parents for it, but I was hating them a lot already anyway so it's not really adding anything to my schedule."
"I don't deserve you!"
"Well tough, you're getting me anyway." Gideon held Harrow close and ran her fingers over her shaved head. "You said I was the only good thing in your life. You were the best thing in mine. And that's a big compliment because I really like swords." She kissed her necromancer gently on the forehead. "I took the oath. I am your cavalier, now and forever." ‘And anything else you ever want me to be,’ she couldn't bring herself to add.
"Nav—Gideon. I don't know what to say."
"You don't need to say anything."
Gideon picked her necromancer up, one hand behind her shoulders the other behind her knees, and took her out of the pool. Harrow's paint had completely washed away, and she was blushing a deep red, her eyes unfocused. Gideon had never seen her necromancer utterly lost for words before. She set her precious cargo down by the door, picked up their discarded robes, and asked: "Back to the room?"
Harrow blinked and came back to her surroundings. "Yes," she said, "I think so."
They walked the long route back to the Ninth quarters, Harrow still looking dumbstruck, but with a hint of an emerging smile. Gideon couldn't keep the grin off her own face every time she looked at her. When they got back Harrow shut the door behind them and then began to laugh almost hysterically. Which was another first. Gideon sat down on her bed and just watched her adept for once in her whole life look genuinely happy.
"Get some sleep, loser," she said, warmly, and settled down as Harrow obediently clambered into bed.
"Nav," Harrow said, then licked her lips as though struggling to find something to say, before finishing: "Good night".
Gideon awoke an indeterminate time later to an unfamiliar sound. She glanced over at Harrow and saw her necromancer thrashing in distress, deep in the grips of some awful nightmare. Before her brain had had time to process she'd jumped out of bed, climbed in beside Harrow and put her arms around her. Harrow made a sound of alarm at the contact but didn't awaken.
"Shhh," she whispered soothingly as Harrow shook uncontrollably in her arms. Harrow's eyes flicked open and she focused on Gideon with some difficulty.
"I didn't want you to see me like this."
"I don't particularly want to see you like that either, honestly. I don't like watching you suffering."
Gideon held Harrow tenderly, waiting for Harrow to order her back to her own bed. Harrow continued to not do this. Her necromancer was still shaking like a leaf. Unsure what to do, she kissed her on the forehead again. Harrow calmed at the kiss, only very slightly but enough to be noticeable. She put her arms around Gideon and clung to her.
"Harrow? I don't know what nightmare you were having, though I can make some guesses, but you're safe. Nothing's going to hurt you while I'm here."
Harrow mumbled something quietly, which might have been "thank you", and they settled in for their first night together.
Gideon awoke the next morning briefly wondering if the past night had been a very pleasant dream, before looking down to see Harrow still asleep with her head on Gideon's chest. The Reverend Daughter looked more peaceful than Gideon had ever seen her, and Gideon lay there for what might have been half an hour or more, unwilling to risk waking her. But eventually she wasn't able to ignore her empty stomach any longer, and carefully extracted her arm from under her slumbering necromancer.
Gideon dressed quietly and gave her face a cursory paint, before rummaging on Harrow's desk for a sheet of flimsy and a pen. She wrote "gone out to get food" and then, after lengthy consideration, bit the bullet and added "be back soon, beautiful." Then she tucked the note into Harrow's hand and left the Ninth Quarters.
The ever present Magnus the Fifth waved to her as she entered the dining room, albeit with less than his usual enthusiasm. "Morning Ninth! Horrible business yesterday, I'm still in shock. Poor Lady Septimus, and the Sixth too. They're in mourning today no doubt. Horrible to lose a friend that way."
Gideon was briefly ashamed at how quickly she had pushed the events in the sick room to the back of her mind after everything that had happened since. "Yeah, it's horrible. I can't imagine what they're going through. I'd really gotten to like her and then I just find out she's not who I thought she was."
Magnus gave her a sympathetic nod. "It's okay to grieve the woman you thought you knew. Now, have you patched things up with your necromancer?"
"You could say that. Thanks for the talk yesterday, you were right. About a lot of things."
"Glad to hear it. These things always blow over eventually. Now, some good news I think! My darling wife and I are celebrating our anniversary today, and we thought that having a big party together for lunch would be just the thing to help take everyone's mind off of things. I do hope you can both make it!"
"Thanks for the invitation, I'll let Nonagesimus know. Thanks again for yesterday."
"Any time, Ninth!"
Gideon grabbed a couple of bowls of soup and took them back to the room. When she entered, Harrow was awake and looking at the note she'd left. Her necromancer looked up at her as she opened the door, and her face lit up like Dominicus itself. Gideon felt a worry she hadn't realised she'd had melt away, a fear that Harrow's attitude would have completely changed by morning.
"Morning, dork," said Gideon, sitting next to Harrow and handing her one of the bowls. "You clearly slept well for once, which I'm going to take credit for by the way."
"I can't object. You're very comfortable as it transpires." Harrow laid her head against Gideon's shoulder and picked at the soup. "I'd like to head down to the labs again today if you're game. No getting yourself injured this time though."
"Might have to wait. Abigail and Magnus want to see us for lunch. I'm pretty sure it's not going to end in nightmares this time, they're celebrating their anniversary."
Harrow considered this. "I suppose we can spare the time." She closed her eyes and was silent for a moment, and then asked "Nav? Do you really think I'm beautiful?"
"Because you once told me I looked like, and I quote, 'an ugly bag of bones.'"
"You were like seven, and you absolutely did look like an ugly bag of bones when you were seven. Also I think you'd just kicked me in the face so I probably wasn't feeling particularly charitable."
"So I'm not an ugly bag of bones?"
"You are an incredibly beautiful bag of bones, my shadow princess," Gideon said, kissing the top of Harrow's head and feeling the other girl shudder. "Hey, you okay?"
"Of course. Why do you ask?"
"Sometimes when I touch you, it feels like you don't want me to."
"Oh. I see. It's complicated, but it's not about you."
"Okay. Do you want to talk about it?"
"No, because if I do then you'll stop."
"That's not really reassuring me."
Harrow screwed up her face as though about to swallow something distasteful. "If you insist. I hate being touched. I've always hated it, as long as I can remember. It's too intense. It makes my skin crawl. It's like an itch that won't go away, and it builds in intensity until I can't think about anything else. I'd hoped with you it would be different somehow. And it is, and yet it isn't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It feels the same as it always does, like needles under my skin. But when it's you I don't hate it. I don't want it to stop." She took Gideon's hand and gave it a small squeeze. "So don't stop. Even if it looks like I want you to."
"I'll try. I just really don't want to screw this up."
"You won't." Harrow smiled at her. "We should probably get ready if we're going to see Lady Pent." She paused. "Nav, this might be an odd request, but... would you fix my paint for me?"
"Uh sure, don't know why you want me doing it though. You're a lot better at it."
"I just think I'd enjoy it." Harrow was blushing of all things.
"Alright. Close your eyes, you weirdo. And no complaining about it when I'm done!"
Harrow obediently shut her eyes, and Gideon began to work. She filled in the black in Harrow's eye sockets and nose, and then her lips, extending the black at the end to follow just above the line of her jaw. Then she painted the white over the rest of her face. She could feel the bones in Harrow's jaw, cheeks, and around her eyes, and hear her breathing intensify every time she touched her. It was unexpectedly intimate, and she had a hard time concentrating on the task itself. It wasn't the best skull anyone had ever painted, but it was better than Gideon's usual work. She cared more this time.
"Okay, you can open them now. Sorry it's not that good."
Harrow went and looked in the bathroom mirror. "It looks lovely, what are you talking about?"
"It's a lot shittier than your usual standard and you know it."
"Okay, it looks dreadful, but I like it anyway." Harrow came back in and sat back next to Gideon, then cleared her throat. "I'm going to ask something of you that I'm not sure you're going to like."
"That's hardly a first."
"When we're in public... can we just be cavalier and necromancer?" She saw Gideon's obvious disappointment and quickly added "What we're doing... whatever it is that we're doing... it isn't really the done thing, and I still need to consider the reputation of the Ninth. And besides I don't want anyone to try and get at me by targeting you."
Gideon sighed. "Alright. I don't like it but I can see the sense in it. Give me a kiss before we go and I'll manage."
Harrow gave her a very long kiss, neither of them wanting it to end. Eventually the necromancer reluctantly pulled away. "I'll find a way to make it up to you when we get back."
"I'll hold you to that," said Gideon, giving Harrow a reassuring smile, and then they got ready to attend a party.
Gideon's enthusiasm for the party was almost immediately dimmed by the discovery that she wouldn't be sitting with Harrow. In fact, they'd been placed almost as far as possible from each other. Gideon was stuck near the end of the table, sandwiched between Coronabeth and the awful girl teen, and across from the still withdrawn looking Palamedes and the Second House captain. Even a day ago she would have jumped for joy to have been seated next to Coronabeth Tridentarius, but now she just wanted to be with her little bone gremlin.
The little bone gremlin was up the other end of the table next to Abigail, with whom she was making what at least looked like polite conversation but could equally have just been an excuse to ignore Ianthe sitting on the other side of her. Every now and again Harrow would steal a glance in Gideon's direction.
"Ninth," said Magnus from the other side of Coronabeth, "Jeannemary has been dying for a chance to talk to you!"
("Magnus, don't tell her that!")
"She was hoping you might let her watch you some time."
("Magnus, it sounds weird when you say it like that!")
Gideon reluctantly tore her gaze away from Harrow to focus on the cavalier of the Fourth. "Huh? Oh, yeah, sure. No trouble at all."
Jeannemary took a deep breath. "How did you get to train with the knuckles, they're so badass, I want a set," she blurted out all in one go.
"Well, if you want my opinion," drawled Naberius from the other side of her, seemingly under the misapprehension that anybody had ever wanted his opinion, "the knuckles aren't a real offhand. Nobody uses them on the dueling circuit."
"Nobody uses your mum on the dueling circuit either," muttered Gideon. "My mentor tried me out with a bunch of them and we decided I had the most potential with them. Nothing too exciting I'm afraid." She forced a smile at the teen. "You're good with the dagger though so I'd stick with that."
Jeannemary blushed into silence again, and Gideon stole another glance at Harrow only to find her in conversation with Ianthe. Granted Harrow didn't look like she was enjoying the conversation, but also Harrow never looked like she was enjoying anything, and Gideon could absolutely see the look of predatory interest on the pale twin's face even from this angle. Protective feelings rose up inside her, mixed with something that she realised, to her moderate shock, was jealousy.
"Gideon, dear," came the rich voice of Coronabeth from Gideon's left. Gideon turned her head and witnessed the lovely twin leaning in her direction, her neckline gaping so severely she could have been a panel from Thirsty Thots of the Third . "Could you pass me the pepper shaker, darling?"
"You can reach it perfectly well yourself," snapped Captain Deuteros from the far side of the table.
"Oh I'm sure I could if I really stretched. Would you like that, Jody?"
Judith Deuteros refrained from response, eating her dinner with what Gideon could only describe as aggression. She passed Coronabeth the small pot of what was evidently pepper, and then in an effort to not just keep staring at Harrowhark all night she glanced across the table at Palamedes Sextus.
The Master Warden of the Sixth looked like a shadow of his former self. He responded whenever Magnus made an effort to engage him in conversation, but made no effort to keep that conversation going and lapsed back into silence the moment it stopped, picking idly at his food.
"Hey, Palamedes," said Gideon in a manner she hoped was helpful, "sorry about Dulcinea."
Magnus flashed her a warning look from the end of the table, but Palamedes gave her a tired smile. "Thank you, Ninth. And thank you for not tiptoeing around the subject. I know you're trying to help," (here he nodded at Magnus) "but I don't want to just pretend she never existed."
"I wish I'd gotten to meet her. Properly, I mean, not the fake one."
"She'd have liked you, I think. She liked when people spoke their mind, even if it wasn't social etiquette." He paused for a second, and then amended, "especially if it wasn't social etiquette."
Gideon struggled to articulate what she wanted to say. She'd never really had to deal with the death of anyone who wasn't basically ancient before. "She sounds wonderful," she settled for, feeling the words' inadequacy even as they left her mouth, "you must really miss her."
"I don't know if you can miss somebody you've never met, but yes. I do. We both do." Palamedes glanced over to the far end of the table at Camilla, who was doing only a slightly better job of keeping up a brave face. Abigail was doing her best to keep an eye on the Sixth cavalier, and even Harrow occasionally directed a remark to her, which was time she wasn't spending engaging with Ianthe.
By the time she actually got a chance to talk to Harrow, three courses of admittedly excellent food had come and gone. Gideon had had to endure the repeated flirtations of the Third princess (which by now even she could work out were primarily intended to wind up the Captain across the table), the surliness of Judith Deuteros (who was being wound up very effectively), incessant questions from Jeannemary, unwanted opinions on those questions from Naberius Tern, and a near endless stream of terrible wordplay from Magnus (those at least she enjoyed). But finally the last dishes were taken away and replaced with cups of hot tea, the party began to mingle, and Gideon immediately beelined for Harrowhark.
"Hi," she said, not really knowing what you said to someone you'd just spent the night with and were trying not to look like it.
"Hello, Griddle," said Harrow, not making eye contact. Her voice was flat.
"Nice party, huh?"
"You certainly seemed to be enjoying yourself, next to the Princess."
Gideon's eyes narrowed. So that was it. "I didn't pick the seating arrangement. And you had your own Princess next to you."
"If I could have removed Ianthe Tridentarius from the entirety of the First House, let alone my immediate vicinity, I would have done so. The woman is utterly vile, and even filthier minded than you."
"Well if you must know, Coronabeth's interests are pretty firmly elsewhere, and I got more than tired of being part of her game, and I'm not in the mood to deal with your irrational jealousy."
"I am not jealous!" snapped Harrow jealously, loud enough that Camilla and Abigail glanced over from their nearby conversation. "I'm not," she repeated, more quietly.
"Good," said Gideon, softly, "because you have no reason to be." Harrow did meet her eye then, and in that moment she didn't look like the proud, arrogant Reverend Daughter. It was the trembling look of a young girl scared of losing something deeply precious. Gideon ached to hug her close and tell her everything would be okay, but settled for a smile that she hoped was comforting. Harrow looked at her for a few seconds, her eyes glistening, then dipped her head.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” said Abigail Pent genially, and Gideon almost jumped. She hadn’t noticed her come over, and briefly wondered how much she had heard. “I’d like to speak with you both after the party, if you would be so kind. Come by the Fifth House wing!”
Gideon could see the turmoil of emotions cross her necromancer’s painted face, curiosity and sense of propriety clashing with a desire to return home as soon as possible. Harrow sent a quick apologetic glance her way before answering, "Thank you, Lady Pent. We will see you then."
Gideon sighed, and did her best to enjoy the rest of the party.
In addition to my ongoing thanks to saltwaterconfessions, shout out to EleniaTrexer for helping me map out the seating arrangement for the party to cause maximum drama.
"Lovely to see you again, Nonagesimus! And you too, Gideon, I hope to actually talk with you this time." Abigail had made every effort to make the Fifth House quarters welcoming for guests, having dredged up a small dining table from somewhere and set it for six. "The Sixth will be joining us as well. I've got a proposal for both of you, but that can wait. Take a seat, wherever you like! Magnus will be with us soon, he insisted on cooking for everyone, bless him."
"I didn't know you'd invited Sextus as well," said Harrow evenly, seating herself at one end of the table. Gideon took the seat to her right.
Abigail laughed. "Not a slight against you, dear. You two have a lot more in common than you might imagine, you'd probably get along if you gave it a chance. And what I'm going to suggest involves both of you, so do play nice while you're here."
There was a knock at the door, and Abigail admitted Palamedes and Camilla. They both looked tired.
"Nonagesimus," said Palamedes carefully.
"Sextus," returned Harrow.
Gideon rolled her eyes at Camilla, who returned the briefest flicker of a smile.
"Take a seat Sixth. And you two, stop looking daggers at each other. We're all friends here. Ah, Magnus, excellent timing!"
Magnus had entered from the next room with a tray of small pastries, which he placed in the centre of the table—apparently the Fifth saw no reason to let the fact that they had just served an enormous feast get in the way of providing yet more food. "Hello, Sixth and Ninth! There's a dessert later too. So glad you could join us, I've missed entertaining. I brought a couple of bottles of wine with us too, I can open one if anybody would like."
"Dig in everyone," said Abigail, "we don't stand on ceremony here. I'll get to the matter at hand once we're all finished."
Gideon took two of the pastries, which turned out to be filled with deliciously spiced meat. Harrow took one, and did her best to look like she was enjoying it. Abigail and Magnus kept the conversation flowing (they really were excellent hosts) and Gideon took the opportunity to chat with Camilla, who'd seated herself on her right. Palamedes and Harrow gradually let their guard down despite themselves, and were maintaining a civil if not friendly discussion about something Gideon didn't even bother trying to understand.
"Alright, to business then," said Abigail as Gideon finished her third pastry. "Then dessert." She got up and went to a desk in the corner, and came back with a notebook and a pile of papers. "I'll be open here. I'm hoping we can cooperate in the Lyctor trials and share our findings."
"I don't see how I could agree to that," said Palamedes. "The trials are a competition. It would be foolish to help competitors."
"That's been the assumption we've all made, yes. I don't believe that's actually true."
"And you have a basis for that belief?" asked Harrow.
"Yes, I do. I've made a study of Lyctoral history, and getting here has been a wealth of information on that front. I've got copies of the correspondence of the original Lyctors" (here she indicated the pile) "and I've been reviewing them in the context of what I've found here at Canaan House. My findings are in this notebook, which you're welcome to peruse, but I'll summarise: the first eight Lyctors treated this as a collaborative exercise. I don't believe they could have succeeded without doing so. Now, obviously we aren't doing this from scratch, we have their experiments to build upon, but even in that regard the exercise encourages cooperation. I assume you've both worked out that there are no duplicate keys."
Harrow and Palamedes both nodded. Camilla looked unsurprised, and Gideon did her best to look like someone who was also in the loop.
"The only way to view all the Lyctoral studies is with all eight keys - I believe there are eight. I suggest we hold ours in common. I am willing to share my findings and suppositions on the understanding that you both do the same."
"Why us?" asked Harrow. "Why not any of the other Houses?"
"A fair question, and I have two reasons. Firstly, I judge you two to be the two most capable of the other heirs. Secondly, I believe you both can be convinced to cooperate, or would at least consider the idea. I've asked the Fourth to hold off on entering the facility for the time being, they're so young and it's clearly dangerous down there. And the Second, Third and Eighth rub me the wrong way. Not, perhaps, the most objective measure but I stand by it. I hope that answers your question."
Harrow nodded, and Palamedes spoke up. "I believe I already know the answer to this, but how many keys do you have?"
"Shall we all answer that? I have one."
"Also one," said Palamedes.
"One as well," said Harrow begrudgingly, and Palamedes looked at her in surprise.
"I would have thought you had two by now."
"No, just the one. My second test was unsuccessful."
"So that puts us at three keys total," said Abigail, "or to put it another way each of us stands to gain access to two extra Lyctoral studies. And I'll add another incentive for you, Sextus. My key is to the Seventh House study. I can't promise anything but you might find some closure there."
"I see," said Palamedes quietly, a flicker of pain briefly making its way across his face. "I am currently inclined to accept. Is this agreement contingent on both myself and Nonagesimus accepting or is it open to us separately?"
"Separately, but I'd rather get you both. Ninth?"
"I'd like to confer with my cavalier in private before giving my answer," said Harrow. Abigail smiled and gestured to the back room, and Harrow led Gideon through into a very pleasant kitchen.
"That smells really good," remarked Gideon on the delicious smells wafting from the cooling rack on the stove. "So what are you expecting from me? I don't really understand how valuable these studies are, so I don't know what the offer is worth."
"Very valuable. But that's not what I want to ask you." Harrow bit her lip. "I'm not good at trusting people, and I'm not good at evaluating who is worth trusting. Abigail was kind to me when you were unconscious, and I haven't forgotten that, but even so. I need your advice. Do you trust the Sixth and the Fifth?"
"Yeah. I do, I think. Magnus has been consistently kind to me since we arrived. And Abigail and Palamedes were there when you needed. I don't think they have any ulterior motive besides the obvious. Keep in mind though, I also decided the millennia old murderess looked trustworthy so I'm not sure how sound my judgement is."
"I trust you. And if you trust them, then I will too." Harrow took a brief glance to check if the door was still closed, then stood on tiptoe and gave Gideon a kiss on the cheek before heading back to join the others.
"We accept," said Harrow simply.
"Lovely," said Abigail Pent with a smile. "On the assumption you have both thoroughly searched your respective studies, I propose I give my key to Sextus, his goes to Nonagesimus, and I get hers. I have notes on the corresponding trial chamber, and would politely request you provide the same."
The other two necromancers nodded assent, and their cavaliers fished out their keyrings and made the exchange.
"And now, dessert I think!"
Content Warning for Harrow's self loathing rearing its ugly head.
Gideon returned to their room with her necromancer, still savouring the sweet flavours of the dessert course. Harrow as expected hadn't had any, and didn't know what she was missing.
"This changes my next planned course of action. I have two days to get everything I can from this study before I need to return the key. It is now first priority."
"Nope, it's second priority. First priority is you making things up to me. Remember?"
"Oh. Yes. Of course." Harrow licked her lips nervously. "I don't think I'm ready for what you want from me. Not yet."
"God, you act like I have a one track mind, Nonagesimus. I do have an interest in you beyond fucking you, you know."
"I should hope so!"
Gideon put a finger under Harrow's chin and tilted her head up, prompting a small, strangled sound from her. "So surprise me then."
Harrow looked up at Gideon, and her wide eyes narrowed. "Alright then. Take a seat."
Gideon obediently sat on the edge of Harrow's bed, and her necromancer seated herself behind her. "I need to touch bare skin for this," said Harrow. "Can I put my hands on your back under your shirt?"
"You can put your hands anywhere you feel the need."
"I'll keep that in mind, Griddle." Gideon felt Harrow's hands on her back. "Now, you might absolutely hate this. I don't know for sure. But I'm hoping it will feel very pleasant."
"Wait, what are you about to do?" asked Gideon, suddenly suspicious.
"Surprise you, obviously. That was your instruction I believe. Now relax and let me get on with it."
Gideon tried to relax, and reminded herself that she trusted Harrowhark. She wouldn't do anything creepy to her, right? And then Harrow began, and Gideon gasped. She could feel a low buzzing throughout her entire back. Every single muscle was getting the best massage she had ever had, all at the same time, and it felt absolutely incredible. She took a deep breath and let it out in a low moan of pleasure. This was amazing. This was...
Part of her brain that hadn't immediately switched off when the feeling started made the logical leap. "Harrow, are you vibrating my bones?"
"Yes. It's a very effective massage tool isn't it?"
"It's weird and gross and I hate it."
"You don't sound like you hate it. Shall I stop?"
"You have called my bluff. Don't stop."
"That's what I thought. I'll finish soon enough, don't worry."
The buzzing continued for another ten minutes, maybe fifteen. Gideon was short of breath by the time Harrow had finished, and she lay backwards and rested her head in Harrow's lap. "That was incredible. You're incredible. I still can't believe you necromanced me."
"That's not a valid conjugation, Nav."
"Give me this one, you have no idea how many jokes I wanted to make about you handling my bone."
Harrow gave her a despairing look. "You know, sometimes I wonder what I see in you."
"Probably the abs. Maybe the biceps."
"Get up, Nav. I want to go to the Lyctoral study and I can't while you're lying on me."
Gideon got up, still feeling great. She turned and gave Harrow a quick peck on the cheek, before looking into her eyes. "Hey,” she found herself saying, “I love you."
"...oh," said Harrow. And then "No. I- no!" She backed away, eyes suddenly wild.
"Harrow? What's wrong?"
"This isn't right. You shouldn't love me. You mustn't!" Harrow almost tumbled off the bed, then staggered backwards towards the bathroom door.
"Harrow, wait! I don't understand!"
"This was a mistake. I've been stupid. I'm sorry." And with that she darted through the door and slammed it behind her.
Gideon rattled the doorknob futilely a few times, and pleaded "Harrow, open up! Please! Tell me what's wrong!"
There was no response. She pressed her ear to the door and felt she could hear, faintly, the sound of her adept sobbing.
Gideon stepped back, took a deep breath, screamed "FUCK!" at the top of her voice, and then collapsed against the external door and buried her face in her hands.
She was roused from her self pity some time later by the click of the bathroom door. Harrowhark had pulled her hood down over her face and wasn't looking at her. "Can I have the key?" she asked eventually.
"No," said Gideon.
"No! Not until I get a fucking explanation of what the hell all that was about, because it definitely was not the response I was expecting."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"Well fucking tough! Why are you getting so worked up about 'I love you.' It's not like I haven't known you my whole damn life."
"Because I'm a monster, Griddle! An abomination. A war crime. You shouldn't love me. You should be disgusted at my existence."
"Harrow I already told you I don't blame you for any of that."
"Which is a failing in judgement on your part. I do not want your love. I do not deserve your love. I do not want you bound to me."
"For God's sake Harrow, if you don't love me back just say so and stop pulling this shitty 'it's not you it’s me' crap."
"Don't love you? I have loved you for years!" Gideon's mind went blank. Her mouth opened and shut, unable to find any words that could convey how utterly unbelievable that statement was to her. "I have loved you before I could put a word to it. You have been my life. I knew I could never have you but that didn't matter. Just you being there was enough. And then the summons came, and I brought you here with me, and everything spiralled out of control until that night in the pool where I finally told you everything and you forgave me and... I was weak. I let myself be selfish. I convinced myself it was okay. And in doing so, I ensnared your heart."
"You didn't ensnare shit!"
"I ensnared you! I seduced you without ever meaning to. And it was wrong, but it took me until now to see it."
"Harrow, don't say that!"
"I took advantage of your forgiveness, and your kindness, and your selflessness-"
"STOP ACTING LIKE I'M A FUCKING VICTIM HERE!" Gideon stood, indignation pulsing through her. "I kissed you in the pool. I've initiated practically everything since then. You think my feelings developed since what, last night? I've loved you for years too, you self centred egotistical moron. Look, clearly I'm not going to convince you you're not a monster, so I'm not going to try. But read my lips. I. Don't. Fucking. Care. I love you, and I'm not going to stop loving you just because you start keeping your distance again. I'm just going to be really fucking sad about it instead."
"You don't understand!"
"I understand just fine. I'm not stupid. You hate yourself and you don't feel you deserve love, or kindness, or anything nice. And that absolutely breaks my heart, believe me, but astonishingly my feelings aren't actually based on what you do or don't feel you deserve."
Harrow was silent for a moment. Then she said "The key, please."
"I'm sorry, did you listen to anything I just said?"
"Yes. I need some time to process it. And I can't do that here with you. I need to be alone."
"Harrow, don't freeze me out again."
"I'm coming back. We'll finish this discussion. I need to be alone, and I need something, anything else to think about. Please give me the key."
Gideon detached the key from the ring and held it out for Harrow, then slid it over when her necromancer hesitated to take it from her hand. Then she stood aside to let her pass.
It was dark by the time Harrow returned. Gideon had run out of things to do to distract herself and had begun pacing back and forth fretfully before the door clicked open and the Reverend Daughter stepped into the room.
"Find anything useful?" she asked, more for something to say than because she particularly cared.
They maintained an awkward silence as Harrow made her way to her bed and collapsed backwards onto it. Then: "Nav?"
"I need you to understand something."
"I know I know you're a horrible abomination, you've said it often enough already. Frankly, it's starting to lose its impact."
"Could you shut it for a second and let me actually finish? What I was going to say is that I need you to understand that you can't fix me."
"I'm not trying to fix you!"
"Yes you damn well are! I do not deserve love. You can treat that as subjective all you like but my feelings on the subject aren't going to change. Accept that."
"Fuck, Harrow. So... what? That's the end of it? Just like that?"
Harrow sighed and got up. "No. I have had some time to think. You are wrong about a truly prodigious number of things, but on one point you are correct. If you have... feelings for me, then pushing you away serves no purpose but to hurt you. And I don't want to hurt you. This I promise."
"So then...?" Gideon asked, trying pathetically to keep the hope out of her voice.
"I accept your feelings. I do not like them but I accept them. I ask that if they ever change then you break things off with me immediately. I do still wish to be with you. I am likely still being selfish, but making you happy brings me joy." She walked over to Gideon and put her arms around her waist, resting her head against her cavalier’s chest. "I am yours, Gideon Nav. Until such a time as you choose otherwise."
Gideon held Harrow tightly and kissed the top of her head. "You have a remarkable ability to make something that should be really romantic sound like a kick in the balls, but I guess that's what I signed up for." She hoped she sounded happier than she felt.
Gideon remained awake hours after her necromancer had dozed off in her arms, unable to shake the anxiety gripping her. Harrowhark had become a minefield to her and she no longer knew where to step.
Explicit content begins in this chapter! Just a heads up!
Gideon stirred to wakefulness well into the next morning, and froze immediately upon realising she was alone. It wasn't until her hand brushed against the note on the bed next to her that she began to breathe again.
"I have gone to fetch you breakfast. I will return shortly. I did not wish to wake you."
She put the note back down and stretched, her joints popping. Far be it to ask Harrow to put any actual emotion into her writing. The note didn't actually ask her to do anything and it still somehow sounded bossy.
Bereft of instruction, her brain wandered back to its previous task of wondering how she'd screw things up next. It'd felt like such an innocuous thing to say in the moment, but it had led to what felt like the worst fight they had had in years. What would trigger the next one? Or the one after that? Harrow had told her not to try and fix her, but that implicitly meant standing back and letting her necromancer's self loathing consume her. She didn't know if she could do it. She didn't know if she wanted to try.
She felt tears of frustration well in her eyes, and blinked them back angrily. She loved Harrow. Harrow, apparently, loved her. That should be enough, shouldn't it? They should be able to make it work. So why did she feel so helpless?
Her melancholy was finally interrupted by the return of Harrowhark. Her necromancer handed her a plate with some thin strips of meat alongside something unrecognisable.
"I spoke with Magnus the Fifth. He asked after you but I said you needed the sleep. I asked what he felt you might like and he recommended this, apparently it's called 'bacon and eggs' and is very good."
"Thanks," said Gideon, managing a weak smile. Harrow was trying, at least.
Harrow sat beside her in silence as she ate (it was, indeed, very good) and when Gideon was finished, Harrow asked "Are you feeling alright?"
"Hmm? Yeah. No I'm fine," she lied.
"Okay." Harrow sounded unconvinced. "I ask because last night I was awful to you. I didn't mean to be, and I meant the substance of what I said, but I didn't think about how the way I said it would affect you. So if you were feeling upset... you could tell me. I would understand."
"I don't want to start another fight. Or restart that one." That, at least, was the truth.
"Oh Nav—" Harrow said, putting more emotion into two words than she had into everything she'd ever written. "I don't want to either. But I'm not good at this. I've never shared this much of myself with anybody, and it's hard. I get defensive. I lash out. I wish I could promise not to but I can't. All I can promise is that I'm trying. I never want to hurt you. So please, be honest with me. I need to know when I've done you wrong."
Gideon took Harrow's hand in hers and marshalled her thoughts. "I'm not expecting you to be perfect. I've known you my whole life; I know you're not perfect. I think I've always known you're hard on yourself, even if I've only recently learned why. And I understand why you feel the need to tear yourself down. But whenever you're cruel to yourself, you're being cruel to someone I—" she trailed off, afraid to say the word.
"Love?" supplied Harrow.
"Yeah." She squeezed Harrow's hand. "When I hear you say things like that, I want to defend you. I can't help it. Especially since defending you is literally my job and all." She shrugged. "I don't want to keep having this problem over and over again. Can we find a middle ground? You don't verbally tear strips off yourself when we're together, and I don't try to stop you from thinking whatever black thoughts you want about yourself in the privacy of your own head?"
"I can try. I don't want to fight with you either... darling." The last word was added uncertainly and had the feeling of an olive branch being extended.
"Didn't think you had 'darling' in your vocabulary, Nonagesimus. It sounds good coming from your lips." She smiled at her necromancer's blush, visible even under the paint if you knew what to look for. "Look I—I really want this to work. And I'm willing to put the effort in to make it work. If you are too then it'll be ok, yeah? Even if we find more things to have a shouting match about."
"I'm sure we will, given how stubborn you usually are about practically everything, Griddle. But yes—I want this to work too. I really do."
"Then we'll be alright." Gideon went to kiss Harrow, but her adept beat her to it for once.
"So, plan for today?" she asked after they parted, in a manner that was very nonchalant and absolutely not flustered in any way at this sudden assertive Harrowhark.
"I actually wanted to ask a favour of you. I have something I need to do in private, so would you be able to give Sextus' key to Pent, and get hers from Sextus?"
"Uh, sure. Mind telling me what you're going to be up to while I'm gone?"
"Nothing you'll disapprove of, I assure you."
"Despite the fact you're being super evasive about it?"
Harrow let out a frustrated groan. "Emperor's sake, Nav, do I actually need to spell this out? I am trying to plan you a nice surprise, such as one might do for someone they were extremely fond of. I am given to believe that said surprise will be more effective if you are not actively present during the planning process. So if you could just absent yourself for about an hour that would be wonderful. Actually, maybe two."
"Oh. Um. Right. Yes." Gideon pulled her hood down over her, feeling flustered and off balance again. "I eagerly await whatever your strange strange brain comes up with."
"Paint your face and then run along, dear." Harrow tilted Gideon's face towards her and kissed her on the forehead. "I have work to do."
Gideon found herself obeying without even thinking. She was still in a daze when she left the Ninth Quarters, unsure of what to expect when she returned.
By the time that Gideon had reached the Sixth House quarters, she hadn’t even gotten through half her allotted time. She knocked, and after a few minutes Camilla Hect opened the door for her.
“If you’re here for the key, you’ll need to wait a bit. The Warden’s out in the lab still, doing a last sweep.”
“Surprised you’re not with him.”
Camilla shrugged. “We went there together the first time, I think he’s past the point where he needs an extra set of eyes. But someone needs to handle the filing and he sure as hell won’t do that himself.”
“Okay. Want a hand?”
“I’ve pretty much finished for the time being.” Camilla paused, consideringly. “But if you want to kill some time, fancy a sparring session?”
Gideon exhaled. “I could absolutely do with one right now. I need to burn some stress.”
Camilla cocked an eyebrow, but said nothing. She measured out ten paces from Gideon, drawing her rapier and dagger. Gideon tightened the straps on her knuckles and drew her own sword.
“To the touch?”
Camilla was fast. Gideon had known that, knew it since they’d clashed in the foyer of Winnowing, but it still caught her by surprise. The Sixth wielded both her blades like a single instrument, striking with both in such quick succession that she allowed her no opening to respond. She parried as best as she could, but before long the long rapier of the Sixth house slid past her guard and drew blood at her thigh. Match to Camilla.
They stepped apart, breathing heavily. “You’re not focussed,” remarked Camilla, “and I’m not getting anything out of this if you aren’t. What’s eating at you?”
Gideon sighed. “How long have you been Palamedes’ cavalier for?”
“Eight years. Though I’ve known him longer.”
“How do you deal with—mood swings? Irritability?”
“Render him unconscious then put him to bed.” Seeing Gideon’s expression, she added: “Joking, Ninth. Honestly, he’s pretty agreeable most of the time. The Warden tends to think things through before acting, and that includes his interactions with others. Occasionally I need to encourage him to take a break and rest but that’s about as bad as it gets.”
“I take it the Reverend Daughter is more difficult.”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” Gideon sighed. “Sometimes she’s really easy to deal with. Other times…” She spread her hands in a gesture of helplessness.
Camilla nodded thoughtfully. "Again?" she asked. Gideon nodded.
Their second bout was much closer. Gideon warded off Camilla's strikes more comfortably, almost falling into a rhythm of it before finally seizing a window to counterattack. But as she lashed out, Camilla lunged, and she felt the Sixth's rapier strike home a split second before hers. Match to the Sixth.
“Better,” said Camilla, with an approving nod. “Now, how long have these mood swings been happening?”
“Uhhh… pretty much forever, really.”
“But they’re bothering you more now for some reason?”
“Do you know why that is?”
“I think so…”
“But you’re not going to share that with me?”
Camilla shrugged. “Well, you’re not leaving much for me to work with. But whatever’s changed, that’s going to be it. If things are in flux in terms of how you two interact, you’re going to have issues until you settle into a new dynamic. Which, by the way, means you should talk to her.”
“Easier said than done.”
“You’re a cavalier. It’s not meant to be easy.” She took a step back, readying her weapons. “Ready to go again?”
She was ready for Camilla’s assault this time. Her rapier and knuckles met the blades of the Sixth at every turn. All her worries, all her anxiety, she pushed all of it aside and embraced the moment. Camilla varied her rhythm, once, twice, three times, and every time Gideon adapted immediately. She felt, rather than seeing, the moment where Camilla’s formidable stamina began to flag, the strikes becoming less quick and powerful, and it was then that she sidestepped and lunged.
Match to the Ninth.
Two hours after she left, as requested, Gideon made her way back. Palamedes had returned after their fifth sparring round (Gideon had won the last two) and had enquired after her necromancer, but had thankfully accepted "she's busy" without any awkward follow-up questions.
She wasn't sure what to expect when she opened the door. The room was in near darkness, even the windows having been covered. The only illumination came from two rows of skulls, calvaria removed, which were serving as makeshift candle holders. Harrow sat on the bed in the relative gloom, swathed in darkness.
"What's with the skulls?" asked Gideon as she made her way over.
"Ambiance." Harrow paused, then added "There aren't a lot in the way of courtship rituals in the Ninth House, so I'm having to improvise."
"Huh, I thought we were kind of past the whole courtship stage."
"Courtship. Romance. Whatever you want to call it. I'm trying to make an effort, Griddle, not argue semantics." She held out something she'd been holding on her lap. "Here. I asked Magnus the Fifth this morning about the dessert you liked the other day, and he kindly provided me with the recipe."
Gideon took the cookpot gingerly, with near reverence. "Harrow—did you cook me a pudding?"
"I attempted to cook you a pudding. I am sadly forced to admit to less than perfect success. I hope you can enjoy it anyway."
Gideon took a spoonful of the congealing mess at the bottom of the pot and shoved it in her mouth. "You know this actually isn't too bad" she said the moment her mouth wasn't full. "Looks like garbage but still tastes nice. Almost wouldn't think it's your first time cooking... well anything I imagine."
"I did my best." There was a slightly petulant tone to Harrow's voice.
"I know. And I really appreciate it. You did good." She wolfed down the rest of it, savouring the sweetness, and then smiled at Harrow. "Kinda thought you were going to ravish me but honestly this was just as good."
"Really? That's disappointing to hear, given what's still to come." Harrow sat upright and shrugged off her robe. Underneath, she wore nothing else.
Gideon's brain short-circuited. She'd spent rather a lot of time, usually late at night, imagining what Harrowhark might look like underneath the many layers of clothing she constantly wore, and as it transpired her imagination was pretty on the money. Harrow was scrawny even for a necromancer, her lack of extraneous fat and muscle serving to highlight the shape of her skeleton in a way she could only imagine the Ninth House would find vaguely admirable. She was straight lines and angles and the barest hint of a curve here and there. Gideon drank in every single detail, slightly convinced she wasn't going to see any of it again any time soon. She dimly became aware that Harrow had said something, and seemed to be expecting a response.
"Huh?" asked Gideon intelligently.
"I said, 'is there anything you'd like to do with me?'" repeated Harrow.
Gideon considered this. "You have absolutely no idea what to do past this point, do you?"
Some of Harrow's poise evaporated. "Well, no" she conceded, "you were the one with all the literature. I'd rather hoped you'd take the lead."
"Can do, you poor repressed nunlet. Close your eyes. And stop me any time you need to. I know you've got touch issues, honey."
Harrow shut her eyes, and Gideon began. Harrow's body admittedly wasn't a lot like any of those in her magazines. Prior to coming to Canaan House she'd occasionally wondered if anyone involved in the making of those magazines had ever actually seen a necromancer; now she just wondered how they'd all managed to meet Coronabeth Tridentarius. But she didn't care. Harrow's body was deeply beautiful to her, the essence of the Ninth House distilled and refined into something unique and precious, and she was determined to celebrate it in the manner it deserved.
She slipped her left arm around Harrow, her hand on her back. Her right hand came to rest on her waist. She kissed Harrow's neck (which got a very endearing squeak from the other girl) then slowly ran her left hand down her spine, feeling the bump of every vertebra. Her right hand rose to trace Harrow's twelfth rib, then her eleventh. Harrow's breathing intensified, and Gideon moved her mouth to gently nibble her earlobe before resuming kissing her.
She reached the bottom of Harrow's spine with her left hand and slid it across to rest on her hip. Her right hand followed the curve of her seventh rib up to where it joined her sternum, feeling her rapid heartbeat. Harrow's breathing became increasingly ragged, and Gideon broke off kissing to ask "still enjoying this? Can I go a bit further?"
Harrow nodded vigorously, clearly incapable of vocalisation, and Gideon obediently slid her hand from her sternum to cup one of her tiny breasts. This got a response; Harrow physically shuddered, arching her back, and a strangled cry escaped from her mouth. Gideon gently teased Harrow's nipple with her thumb, and was pleasantly surprised to see Harrow shove one of her hands between her legs. She matched the rhythm of her movements to Harrow's, hearing her begin to moan, feeling her movements get faster and more urgent, and brought her other hand up to play with Harrow's other breast. Harrow cried out, a tremor going through her whole body, and then she collapsed against Gideon, her breathing still rapid and her heartbeat hammering in her chest.
"How did... you know... to touch my bones?" Harrow managed to force out between gasps.
"You mean other than bones being literally your entire aesthetic and about half your personality? Lucky guess." Gideon held Harrow gently, feeling her heartbeat and breathing gradually return to normal. "Gonna be honest, slightly surprised you know how to get yourself off given all the other gaps in your knowledge."
"I'm not that repressed, Griddle!"
"Well you said it yourself, you didn't have any... what was it you adorably called them again? Literature? Don't know what you were using for inspiration."
Harrow coughed, blushed, and looked very pointedly not at Gideon.
"—Oh. Huh. Really?"
"Yes. Even within my imagination I treated you like my property. I can't ask you to forgive me."
"What're you apologising for, this is the best thing I've learnt all week! Go on, how long have I been your fap fodder for?"
"Nav, can you not tease me about this please?"
"I'm not. I mean yes it's hilarious and I'm putting it on my list of things to make fun of you for later, but like... it's pretty flattering too. Go on, how long?"
"Five years. Or thereabouts."
Gideon cast her mind back. "Oh, so right around the time I grew my—"
"Nonagesimus, you dirty dirty girl. I'm so proud of you." She cuddled her tighter. "I wish I'd known. All those nights with you beside me I didn't dare to reach out, and all the while you're thinking 'Oh gosh I wish Gideon Nav would absolutely rail me'. We could have done this so much sooner."
"We couldn't have. It would have gone wrong. I was already scared that my parents thought we were getting too close." Harrow looked at Gideon wistfully. "Do you know why I want to become a Lyctor?"
"Ultimate power and authority and the ability to restore the Ninth?"
"Beyond the obvious I mean."
"No idea then."
"If I managed to restore the Ninth... my mother and father wouldn't be able to deny me anything. I could insist you remain my cavalier. Or at least that was how I thought of it when we left. I think perhaps now the better word might be 'consort'."
Gideon choked at the last word. "Harrow—are you asking me to—"
"No! Not yet. Not now. Not until I know that's even possible." She swallowed. "Nav—if the only way we could stay together was as necromancer and cavalier, if we could never be more than that again lest we lose everything—could you handle that?"
"If it was the only way? I'd make it work. I mean I'd be pretty sad about it but yeah. I mean for ages I didn't even think we'd have that."
"I don't want to be parted from you, Nav."
"I don't want to be parted from you either. Especially not now I've seen you in the buff."
"Idiot," said Harrow affectionately, tilting her head up to kiss her. "I would love to stay here the rest of the day, honestly. But I need to keep going. I need to succeed, for both of us."
"I got Abigail's key from Palamedes. We can go whenever you're ready. You might want to get dressed first though. I mean, don't feel the need to do so on my account or anything."
Harrow did, regrettably, opt to get dressed, and the two of them headed off to investigate the Seventh House study.
Harrow was pensive and lost in thought when they returned a few hours later. Gideon, as usual, hadn't really taken much in from the study aside from the giant, creepy, ominous "YOU LIED TO US!" written in blood on the wall, which she assumed was the focus of Harrow's concern.
"Cytherea wrote that?" she asked her necromancer.
"The bloody writing? Yes I believe so, unless Abigail Pent is prone to practical jokes. The blood's not old enough to have been there before we all arrived at Canaan House, and it's too old for it to have been Sextus or Hect."
Gideon tried to imagine Palamedes or Camilla scrawling bloody writing on the wall of a lyctoral study, but couldn't. "So is that what's bothering you?"
"In part. That and that the various trial theorems are coming together and beginning to form a picture. Do you remember Sextus' theory, that the theorems form parts of a whole?"
"Vaguely. I kind of tune you two out after a while." Harrow gave her an exasperated look. "Look, in my defence, you're both really dull when you talk shop. So you're saying he's correct?"
"I think so. But don't tell him that, he'll be insufferable."
"And this—Megatheorem? Yeah that sounds good—it's a problem somehow?"
"Maybe. I'm not certain. I don't want to hypothesize until I've got more data points to go on."
"Last time you didn't tell me something because you weren't certain, a ten thousand year old warrior was planning to murder everybody."
"Noted, but in this case if I'm correct it's not actionable. It's just deeply unfortunate. And I don't want to upset you and have it turn out to be nothing. I might discuss it with Sextus and Pent tomorrow. I haven't decided yet."
"Alright. In that case, try not to worry about it until then, hey?"
Harrow sat on her bed cross legged. "Distract me then."
"Easy enough." Gideon started to undo her shirt.
"That wasn't what I meant!" Harrow's eyes were wide.
Gideon paused. "You don't want me to get naked? I mean it is my turn."
"No. I mean yes, but you don't need to."
"I'm not doing this because I need to, honey. I'm doing it to see the look on your face." And with that she pulled her shirt over her head.
Harrow's response was everything she could have hoped for. Her poor repressed necromancer went red enough to be visible even under her paint, and tried very unsuccessfully to tear her gaze away. Gideon removed the rest of her clothes and sat down beside Harrow.
"You don't have to do anything you don't want to. You don't have to do anything at all if you don't want to. But I want to share my, let's be honest, absurdly attractive body with you."
Harrow tentatively reached out an arm and ran her hand along Gideon's bicep. Gideon smiled at her encouragingly. "Nav—Gideon—this is just a lot for me to take in."
"Title of your sex tape," said Gideon automatically. "Sorry. Go on."
"What you did earlier today was wonderful. And I want to do that again. Perhaps other things too. But not tonight."
Gideon laid her head gently on Harrow's shoulder. "No hurry, sweetheart."
Harrow ran her fingers through Gideon's hair. Then she grabbed her arm and pulled her backwards into bed.
"Okay, getting some slightly mixed signals here."
"I want you to sleep beside me. Without your clothes. But not—more than that."
Gideon nodded, and arranged herself beside her necromancer. Harrow began to remove her own clothes, still slightly shyly, and then lay down next to her.
"Can I touch you?"
"Nowhere too sensitive. But yes."
Gideon slid her arm under Harrow and wrapped it around her narrow waist, gently holding her necromancer against her. This, according to various articles she'd read, was called spooning, a name she hadn't really understood until she'd arrived at Canaan House and learnt what a spoon was.
"Gideon? You're happy aren't you?"
"Let's see, I'm naked, and I'm cuddling the girl of my dreams. Who is also naked. Yeah I'm doing pretty good."
"A simple yes would have sufficed."
"But this way I got to say 'naked' a couple of times and that was much more fun."
Harrow put her hand on Gideon's and they lay in silence for a few minutes. Gideon listened to the sound of Harrow's breathing, like she'd done so many other nights. It was the calmest she'd ever heard it.
"You know you don't have to use my actual name all the time, right? 'Griddle' went from aggravating to endearing somewhere during the last couple of days."
"Ok then. Griddle, am I really the girl of your dreams?"
"You have been since I was fifteen. Probably earlier, really, but I was a bit more confused then."
"Confused about what?"
"You." Gideon paused. "Sure you want to talk about this? I don't want to ruin the mood."
"No, go on. No secrets between us anymore."
"When we were kids—I used to absolutely hate you. Like, a lot. When I tried to run away, I was running away from you as much as anything else."
"You had every right to hate me."
"Don't get self pitying on me again Harrow or I'll kick your ass. You were a dick when you were a kid, I'm not going to argue with that, but I've long since forgiven you for it and you should probably forgive yourself too. Anyway, then when we got older you started coming to my room at night. Which, by the way, super weird thing to be doing. But I got to see a side of you I never got to see before. I saw how much you were hurting, even if I didn't know why. And I tried to keep hating you. But it just got so much harder."
"That's what she said?" interjected Harrow, with a slight uncertainty.
Gideon snort-laughed uproariously. "Oh my God, Harrow I'm so fucking proud of you!"
"I did it right?"
"Absolutely perfectly." She stroked Harrow's hair. "I haven't hated you in years, honey. I mean you've annoyed the piss out of me plenty, but that's just what you do. I can't really hold it against you. Hell, I'd probably miss it if you stopped."
"I don't think there's much of a chance of that."
"Me either." Gideon paused for a moment. "Harrow? Can I say some things? I don't want to make you mad again, but I think I need to say them."
A few seconds silence, and then: "Alright."
"I can't stop you hating yourself. You've made that clear and I'm not going to try. But I'm always going to be in your corner. Not just as your cavalier, but as your friend. And I hope that one day you can forgive yourself for what I still think basically amounts to 'existing'. But I know if that's going to happen, you need to find your way there yourself. I can't force you."
"Okay I'll concede 'friend' probably isn't the right word given the amount of naked activities going on here, but I didn't want to take a stab at a better one in case I overstepped."
"I'm not upset, Nav. I've just never had a friend before."
"Bullshit, you had the whole Ninth House dancing to your tune any time you wanted."
"Servants, Nav. Retainers. Supplicants. They loved my position, not me. The only person who ever even tried to care how I actually felt was Crux, and even that was just another kind of duty. I never had anyone, not really. Even you had Aiglamene."
Gideon took a moment to consider this. "Shit, Harrow. I never even thought about it that way. I spent so much of my childhood wishing that I could get an ounce of the adoration you were getting heaped on you."
"I know, Nav. I could tell. And I envied you right back, not having to stomach the false praise day in and day out from people who didn't realise I was the reason their sons and daughters were gone." Harrow nestled closer to Gideon. "I always wanted to be your friend, Griddle, even when we were at each other's throats. You were the only person who judged me for who I actually was. I loved you for that."
"We had a really fucked up childhood didn't we?"
"We did. I wish it could have been otherwise. You deserved better." Harrow turned her head to look at Gideon. "Nav?"
Harrow pressed her lips to Gideon's, softly and tenderly. Then she looked her in the eyes and asked "Was the word you wanted to use before 'girlfriend?’"
"One of them, yeah."
"I think I'd like that one."
"Oh good, because I really was having second thoughts about my other choice of 'fuckgirl.’"
Harrow made a face. "I'm going to sleep now and I hope to forget I ever learnt that word existed."
"Before you do, one last request."
"Tell me I look after you better than Crux. I think I might actually die if that's not the case."
"On balance, yes. Though if you don't stop talking soon I may revise that answer."
"Threat received. Good night. Girlfriend."
"Good night, Gideon."
After the last night, going back to acting professional and cavalierly in public again was harder than ever. Gideon remained the expected half step behind Harrow as they went to join the Fifth and Sixth, doing her best to not stare at her. Once or twice, she thought she glimpsed Harrow begin to turn her head to look back at her, before suppressing the reflex.
"Welcome, Ninth!" Abigail Pent greeted them warmly. "Before we get on to the business of the day, we should return everyone's original keys."
With that done, they sat, and Palamedes opened the discussion. "Camilla and I have gained one more key since we last spoke, the Fourth House key I believe. Have any of you gained another?"
"I have the Fifth House key, although I think I may have had a bit of an advantage in that one." Abigail looked at Harrowhark.
"I've had personal matters to attend to," said Harrow, tersely.
"Wouldn't have mattered I think," said Palamedes. "If I'm right, there's only one key in play. Octakiseron has the Ninth House key, and Dul- Cytherea had the Sixth before her death. The Third have that one now if I'm not mistaken. Which leaves—"
"The Eighth," said Harrow. "The Avulsion trial."
"—which I still firmly believe is impossible. At least without permanently injuring your cavalier."
"If you have something to say to me, Sextus, then say it."
"Nothing that I haven't said to you before. I take better care of my cavalier than you do," ("Doubt it," said Gideon under her breath. Harrow kicked her under the table.) "and I'm frankly appalled at your disregard for her wellbeing."
Harrow opened her mouth to respond, but Gideon beat her to it. "Hey, Sex Pal, I volunteered. Harrow explained the risks, at length, and I insisted. So could you lay off my necro? If you want to be pissy at somebody about not taking those risks seriously, I'm right here." Harrow gave her a look that was half annoyance and half gratitude.
"I hesitate to ask, but 'Sex Pal'?" asked Palamedes.
"First three letters of your last name and first three letters of your first name," said Gideon. After this failed to elicit a response, she added "I thought it was funny."
"Very clever, dear," said Abigail kindly. "But to return to the Warden's earlier point, I believe that the Avulsion trial is not, in fact, impossible. Risky, certainly, but not impossible."
"I respectfully disagree, Lady Pent. I've run the numbers several times. The distance involved is too great, one necromancer siphoning their cavalier—oh I see. Very clever."
"Indeed," Harrow said. "I'm ashamed I didn't see it before."
"Well I still don't see it now. Anyone mind explaining?" asked Gideon.
"We've been approaching the trials on the assumption they're meant to be completed individually," explained her necromancer. "Or rather as individual pairs. Pent is suggesting that this trial is intended to require more than one necromancer. One siphoning their cavalier, and one buffering that cavalier's thalergy reserves using something akin to the Second House's technique. At least, I'm assuming that's your suggestion?"
"Correct, and very well summarised, Reverend Daughter." Abigail adjusted her glasses. "As I noted before I still do not believe it to be without risk, but if the buffering keeps up with the siphoning that risk should be minimal. And it should involve dramatically less pain than before."
"Good. I volunteer again," said Gideon.
Harrow gave her a glare that could have curdled milk. "Excuse me everybody," she said with syrupy sweetness, "I need to speak with my cavalier in private." Then she stormed into the back room, leaving her cavalier to follow after her.
"What the HELL do you think you're doing?" Harrow was beside herself. "I have endured watching you suffer that ordeal once already. You nearly died. I have no intention of allowing you to put yourself through it again."
"Somebody has to do it."
"Then let Quinn do it. Or Hect."
"I've already survived this once. Abigail says it should be easier this time. I'll be fine." Seeing Harrow still not convinced, she added "Besides, do you believe either of them can handle the crossing as well as you?"
"Your appeal to my ego is painfully obvious, Griddle." Harrow dabbed at her eyes—had she been crying?—and said "I will consider this if I can get a sufficient assurance of your well-being. And only then."
"Okay. Sorry, honey. Not wanting to scare you, I know this is important."
They returned to the others. "Can you guarantee my cavalier's safety, Pent?"
"I believe she will not be in any danger, but I cannot guarantee it, no."
"I need a guarantee before I will permit her involvement."
"I've checked the numbers, Nonagesimus." Palamedes handed Harrow a piece of flimsy with some scribblings on it. "If both Lady Pent and I are buffering her she'll be fine."
Harrow reviewed his findings with pursed lips. Then she sighed. "Fine. I give my consent."
"Then I see no need to waste further time." Abigail looked to Harrow and Palamedes. "Shall we proceed?"
A short while later their party stood in the opening area of the Avulsion room. Some of Gideon's dried blood still decorated the floor. Harrow spotted it, shivered, then looked at Gideon again with obvious concern.
"I'll be fine, Harrow," Gideon said soothingly. Harrow said nothing and just looked away.
"Cam, can you make sure we're not disturbed?" asked Palamedes. Camilla nodded.
"I'll go with you. Not much I'm going to be able to do down here," said Magnus Quinn, and the two cavaliers went back up the stairs.
"Okay Ninth, do you understand what you need to do?"
"Same thing as last time, yeah? Don't break the connection, don't pass out."
"Right. It should be much easier this time. Nonagesimus, are you ready?"
Harrow was removing the bone studs from her ears. "Give me a minute," she said, and then began tugging off her clothes.
"God, Harrow, time and a place for that surely."
"Nothing I take with me will survive the senescence field, Nav. I'd thought you might remember from last time."
"I was probably busy leaking blood from every orifice."
Harrow finished stripping (Gideon silently congratulated herself on affecting disinterest in her naked girlfriend) and put a hand to Gideon's cheek. She left it there what felt like a little longer than strictly necessary, and Gideon felt the familiar pull of siphoning again once Harrow took her hand away. "Ready," her necromancer said, and Palamedes and Abigail laid their hands on Gideon's arms. Harrow walked towards the line on the floor and Gideon braced herself for the onset of pain.
It mostly didn't come. She felt the change in sensation as Harrow crossed over into the field, but instead of feeling like it was pulling her insides out through her eyeballs like last time it felt as though something was being pulled through her from the two necromancers standing to either side. Which, she supposed, it was, at least if she understood the theory behind it. It wasn't a pleasant sensation, certainly, but it was surprisingly painless. She put it to the side well enough to keep watching Harrow and her lack of clothes.
Harrow had gotten almost halfway when Gideon felt the first, intense hit of fatigue. She staggered, feeling her arms being grabbed and a quiet "steady, Ninth" from she assumed Palamedes, although he sounded like he was talking underwater. She tried to right herself, but she felt dizzy, and her vision began swimming. "Let's get her seated," said probably Abigail, and she was lowered to the ground. She tried to focus on Harrow's progress but she couldn't see anything for shit. The feeling in her head told her that her necromancer was still on the outward leg. The corridor really was absurdly long. She didn't know who'd designed this trial but they were probably a horrible, heartless bitch.
"Stay with us, Ninth. You just need to stay conscious. You can't afford to fall asleep," said maybe Palamedes.
"Your mum can't afford to fall asleep," slurred Gideon in response. She wasn't, perhaps, operating at a hundred percent right now but she had enough of her faculties to make witty banter, so she probably wasn't going to pass out.
She felt Harrow stop. "She's across!" said someone who might plausibly have been Abigail. "She's got it open. That hasn't deactivated it though, has it Gideon?" Gideon shook her head, and regretted the decision immediately. She was starting to get a headache.
"She's on her way back now," said somebody. She couldn't even guess who anymore. "You've just got to keep awake. You're doing great." Gideon grunted something she hoped constituted acknowledgement. She could feel Harrow coming closer. She gritted her teeth and tried her best to ignore the pain and exhaustion and just focus on Harrow. Her necromancer inched closer with what felt like interminable slowness, but was probably just her ability to accurately perceive the passage of time going the way of everything else. It felt like an eon. Occasionally a voice nearby would say something but she couldn't make out words anymore. And then finally, gloriously, the draining sensation of siphoning stopped and the pain in her head went with it.
"What the hell, Sextus? You said she'd be fine!" came a shrill, high pitched voice that set her teeth on edge. Good, Harrow was still alive then.
"I am fine," Gideon managed weakly, waving a hand at Harrow in demonstration. She sat up (somewhere along the line she'd laid down it seemed) and opened her eyes, blinking her vision back into focus. The first thing she saw once her eyesight cleared was Harrowhark Nonagesimus. She was still naked (bonus) but also scowling (less good). Her face looked strange, and it took Gideon a few moments and some squinting to realise she had no paint on. She immediately averted her gaze from her necromancer's naked face.
Palamedes and Abigail were both looking the worse for wear. She was used to blood sweat from Harrow, but seeing it on the two much more sensible necromancers was new. Harrow for once wasn't encrusted in blood, but on balance that was likely due to the senescence field annihilating it rather than any uncharacteristic show of restraint.
"She's doing alright, Harrowhark," said Abigail gently, "a little exhausted I think but she's in no danger. It all worked out as planned."
Harrow began to get dressed again, still radiating a foul mood. Gideon, still more than a little lightheaded, watched her with a mix of fascination and mild disappointment. Her little ribcage corset really was cute.
"I'm taking this key. You both have one already, and we were the ones putting ourselves in danger," said Harrow, clearly expecting an argument.
"That's entirely reasonable," said Palamedes, probably pissing Harrow off even further.
"We can do another exchange, tomorrow perhaps if you've gotten time to view the study by then," suggested Abigail.
"I'll see. I need to tend to my cavalier. If you'll excuse me, Fifth and Sixth." Harrow, now dressed again, extended a hand to Gideon who clasped it and got to her feet, slightly shakily, before tottering off after her necromancer.
Gideon expected an argument when they got back to their room, and was pleasantly surprised when Harrow laid her down on what was increasingly coming to feel like their bed and kissed her instead. She looked into Harrow's still concerningly nude face and saw concern and affection, but no anger.
"Thought you'd be upset with me," Gideon managed, still feeling worn out.
"Of course not. You were marvelous, darling." Harrow smiled at her. "I just want to be certain you're feeling okay. I know what Sextus' notes said but I want to hear it from you. Be honest with me."
Gideon considered her current state in detail and offered "I feel like I've just gone way too hard while working out." Then she remembered who she was talking to and clarified: "Really fucking tired. Kind of hungry too. But not in pain. I'll be alright."
"Good," said Harrow. "I can go and get you something to eat."
"In a bit. I'm probably going to run out of 'being awake' soon and I'd rather not waste valuable cuddling time."
Harrow settled down next to her and snuggled close. Gideon smiled at her, and then added "Hey umm, your face. The paint came off in the field. Just so you know."
Harrow's hand flew to her face and she went red with embarrassment. "Of course it did. I didn't even think. I walked the whole way back like this."
"Yeah. Sorry for looking, I know I shouldn't have."
"Oh I don't mind you seeing me like this, Nav. Well, not really. I'd rather have made the conscious decision to share this with you but that can't be helped."
"If it helps I was busy looking at your tits most of the time. Until you put them away anyway."
"Pervert," said Harrow affectionately, kissing Gideon on the cheek. "Can I do anything else to help you feel better?"
"Nah, just you being here is helping." Gideon yawned, and then said sleepily "I know this isn't really the point, but you are really cute under the paint."
"Not the point at all, Griddle. But thank you."
Gideon nodded, and then fell asleep.
Gideon followed after her necromancer the following morning, still a little sleepy. Clearly the Avulsion trial had taken a lot out of her. She'd slept solidly, interrupted only by Harrowhark waking her long enough to be fed a bowl of soup and some fish. Harrow had even accompanied her to breakfast this morning. Either she was more worried than she was letting on, or she'd actually found it in her to be sociable. Probably the former.
"So this is the Eighth House study we're headed to, right?"
"Correct. If I had the choice I'd like to learn as little as possible about that hateful trial, but I don't have that luxury."
They pulled up outside the door in question, and Gideon handed over her keyring. "You know you can just hold onto this yourself if it's easier."
Harrow shook her head. "It was given to you, ergo it is yours. I'm not certain why but I don't see a need to break with that."
The room they entered was spartan and clinical. White walls, white floor, white ceiling, all grimy and dusty but still stark. Like the other studies they'd visited, it was subdivided into distinct areas. On one side, a desk sat covered in papers, and to nobody's surprise Harrow gravitated to it immediately. Gideon busied herself with the other areas. There was a small space that might once have been a shrine, or a prayer space, but it was hard to tell. It had long since fallen into disrepair, and Gideon didn't have a good handle on religious iconography outside of the Ninth at the best of times. Along one wall was a fireplace with a shelf over it. Gideon felt the crunch of broken glass as she walked over to it, and bent down to pick up something off the floor.
It was a photograph in a frame, the glass smashed, depicting two women both draped in what she now recognised as Eighth House robes, or something close to them. The woman on the left was clearly the necromancer. Her skin and hair both were shades of apricot; apparently Silas wasn't unique in being largely monochrome. Perhaps it was an Eighth House thing. They probably dyed their hair for it. Her eyes were a deep red, and she glared at the camera in a manner that even Harrow would have found impressive. To the right of her was a woman who could have only been her cavalier. She was noticeably taller and more muscular, with darker skin and hazel eyes. Her dark hair was cut extremely short. She looked at her necromancer with mixed affection and amusement, and Gideon identified with her immediately. She turned the photo over, and found in small writing on the back "M & C". The glass seemed to have been smashed deliberately. She put it gently back on the shelf where it had clearly once stood and rejoined Harrow.
"What have you found out, my mortuary potentate?" she asked, putting a hand on Harrow's shoulder.
"Aside from the fact that your vocabulary is more extensive than I'd previously assumed? Well, if I want to make a nightmarish deathtrap out of a corridor I now know how. The rest of this is an extensive treatise on soul siphoning, which is distasteful to say the least. The Eighth House could have done the challenge alone with ease, from the look of this. I wonder why they didn't."
"I thought there wasn't a way to do that trial with just one pair."
"There wasn't for us. Not without unacceptable risks at any rate. The Eighth breed their cavaliers for this, Nav. Living batteries. It's revolting. The method they use for siphoning isn't something I can replicate with you, and thank the Emperor for that. It's barbaric."
"It must be if even Harrowhark Nonagesimus is turning up her nose at it." Seeing the look on her necromancer's face Gideon hastily added "I'm joking, honey."
"Well don't," said Harrow tersely.
"You alright? You're more on edge than usual."
"It's this. All of this." Harrow waved a piece of paper theatrically. "I hate the implications."
"Is this about what you were saying the other day? The way the theorems are coming together?" Harrow nodded. "And you still don't feel like sharing that with me, right? I noticed you didn't bring it up with the others."
"I want to believe I'm wrong."
"Come on Harrow. I'm never going to work it out myself, you know that. I thought there were no secrets between us?"
"Gideon please!" Harrow looked at her pleadingly. "I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to think about it. I'm not just keeping this from you out of spite." She put her hand on Gideon's cheek. "You trust me, don't you? You know I'd never put you in danger?"
Gideon sighed. "Fuck me, Harrow. Of course I do. I just hate when you don't tell me things. You've gone from 'frustratingly unapproachable' to 'frustratingly overprotective'." She put an arm around her necromancer and held her close. "I love you but you can be really annoying sometimes."
Harrow looked up at her. "I'm sorry, Griddle. When we get back, I'll think about discussing it further. I promise. But not here and now." She headed to the door and looked back at her cavalier. "I'm done here, either way."
Gideon nodded wearily, still upset but not willing to press the matter, and followed after Harrow.
Their mutual moodiness persisted through their walk back, despite efforts on both their parts to make conversation. Gideon couldn't quite suppress her grumpiness, and Harrow still clearly had other things on her mind. And just at the point when Gideon had gotten completely fed up with it, Silas Octakiseron and his looming cavalier stepped out of a side passage and found a way to make things worse.
"This has gone far enough," said Silas in his surprisingly deep voice. "The Ninth cannot be suffered to hold this many keys."
"Oh, so you have been paying attention. I had wondered." Harrow sounded almost bored. "Push off, Octakiseron. If I'm outperforming you, that's as much your fault as mine." She moved to step past him.
"The Eighth challenges the Ninth for their keys." That brought Harrow to a stop. She stared at Silas in utter bewilderment.
"You can't be serious."
"I name the time. The time is now."
"You are serious. For God's sake, Octakiseron."
"I do not need your blasphemy, shadow cultist. Yield or accept."
Harrow froze. Gideon stepped forward, tightening the straps on her knuckle knives. "We accept," she said, "right Harrow?"
Harrowhark must have seen the fire in her eyes, because she snapped back to herself. "The Ninth accepts. We choose here."
"Brother Asht," said Silas expectantly. Colum the Eighth stepped forwards. He had the decency to look at least vaguely apologetic. "Hyoid down. To the floor."
Harrow looked at Gideon, who gave her a nod. She had an outlet for her frustration now at least.
"Call," said Silas.
"Colum the Eighth," said Colum, raising his targe and drawing his rapier.
"Gideon the Ninth," replied Gideon, unsheathing her own blade.
"Begin," commanded Silas.
Gideon acknowledged within the first few seconds that she'd underestimated the Eighth House cavalier. He was strong, about as strong as her, which she had expected. That he was almost as fast as her came as a surprise. His rapier traced elegant patterns as he moved with the precision of someone who'd trained with that blade longer than she'd been alive. He wasn't a showboat like Naberius Tern, but used the blade with surgical efficiency, and he wielded his offhand shield like the battering ram it was. He was, by any assessment, one of the most dangerous cavaliers here.
But if she'd underestimated him, he'd dramatically misjudged her. She was as strong as him, faster than him, in a really shitty mood, and had just been told she could hit him almost anywhere she damned well pleased.
Her first strike with the rapier was parried, but only just. Her second was deflected by the shield. She blocked his return stroke with her knuckles and slid the point of her rapier under, drawing the first blood. She caught the rim of the targe in the chest for that, rolling with the impact just enough to not have the breath knocked out of her. Sensing an opening, the Eighth's rapier flicked out and she knocked it aside at the last possible second, twisting her wrist on the return so that the point of her blade drew a thin line of blood down Colum's sword arm. He took a step back, trying to catch a moment's respite, or gain enough distance to bring his superior reach to bear. Gideon refused to let him do either. She lunged after him, unleashed a flurry of strokes at his chest and upper arms, and just as he'd brought his guard fully high in anticipation of another, she dropped her stance and delivered a forceful punch with her offhand directly to his right kneecap. She heard the bone shatter, saw the flash of pain on Colum's face, saw him struggle to keep his balance and through some herculean effort manage to somehow remain standing. And then she swept her right leg at his remaining good one and knocked him flat on his ass. She looked up at Silas expectantly. "Call it, dickhead."
"No," said Silas simply.
"Your cavalier is down. Match to the floor. We have won." Harrow's voice was chilly. "Does the Eighth House lack honour?"
"No deal with the Ninth House is worth the breath expended upon it. You are a House of apostates and heretics, a cargo cult that should have died in infancy. You-"
And Silas probably would have continued on from there had Gideon, thoroughly sick of his bullshit, not chosen that moment to backhand him in the face. He crumpled to the ground.
"Was that out of line?" she asked Harrow, as an afterthought.
"Master Octakiseron appears to still be amongst the living, so no I don't think so. Rather satisfying in fact." Harrow knelt down next to Colum Asht. "If you will permit me, I can repair your knee well enough for you to stand. Regardless, I will be taking your keys."
Colum nodded, and Harrow laid a hand on his leg. The shattered bone knitted back together with a truly disgusting sound and Colum staggered to his feet, before reaching up to his neck and taking off his keyring. He handed it to Harrow with a polite incline of his head.
"I hope there will be no hard feelings," said Harrowhark.
"Not on my account, Reverend Daughter. But I fear my master will not let the matter rest there." He gave a respectful nod to Gideon. "Well fought, Ninth. I hope to avoid a rematch." And then he picked up his diminutive uncle and departed.
Harrow opened the keyring they'd received, and removed the single black iron study key from it. She handed it to Gideon, who added it to their collection."
"Very kind of Octakiseron to donate his winning to us," said Harrow. "And it's the Ninth House key too! It feels almost serendipitous." Then she looked up at Gideon with an expression of pure admiration. "I'd never say I forget how well you fight, but every time I witness it you still catch me by surprise. You're an incredible cavalier, Nav."
Gideon felt herself go red under her paint. "Well, you brought me for a reason," she said.
"Several reasons. But that was certainly one of them."
The rest of their walk back was in much better spirits. Gideon rambled through her analysis of the fight she'd just had, and Harrowhark at least feigned interest. And then they turned the corner to the Ninth quarters, and found Camilla Hect waiting for them. One look at her face made it clear that something was wrong.
"Come quick. The Third has murdered her cavalier."
"What, Coronabeth's killed Naberius?" Gideon was dumbfounded.
"No. Ianthe has!"
CW: this chapter contains a consensual but awkward sex scene. It might be uncomfortable for some readers; the discomfort is largely by design but if you wish to skip it, it starts at the paragraph beginning "Gideon led her into their bedroom" and is over by the paragraph beginning "She was crying."
Again, this is consensual, they're just two idiot virgins making dumb decisions.
Gideon led Harrowhark back from the nightmarish scene of Naberius' murder, her necromancer being seemingly too dazed to find her way herself. Gideon couldn't blame her; that had been seriously fucked up.
Ianthe, to hear her say it, had cracked lyctorhood. She'd murdered Naberius (who was a bit of an asshole but really didn't deserve that) and then according to her claims had consumed his soul, or some shit like that. She'd backed it up by showing off some very advanced and extra disgusting necromancy. Palamedes had berated her with cold tranquil fury the like of which she'd not seen from the Sixth House necromancer. Abigail had looked at her like a deeply disappointed parent, and then taken care of a distraught Coronabeth. And Harrow had just gone quiet. Somehow, that had been the most concerning bit of all.
Amazingly, the whole scene hadn't escalated into violence—or at least, no further violence. Gideon had been quite willing to drive her rapier pretty deep into the hateful woman, but Palamedes had put a hand on her in gentle restraint, Camilla had met her gaze and gently shaken her head, and she'd opted after a brief internal struggle to defer to their judgement. They'd met the Second House just outside, who'd gone to inform Teacher. A stony faced Captain Deuteros informed them that he'd congratulated Ianthe on her success—what the fuck?—and made arrangements for her to be picked up to be taken to the Emperor.
She opened the door to the Ninth quarters, gently pushed Harrow inside, and closed it behind them. Her necromancer's insistent silence was really starting to worry her. She'd known Harrow to be silent before due to concentration, or intense passive aggression. This wasn't that.
"So that was fucked up," she said, largely for something to break the silence. Harrow started, turned, and looked at her with her eyes wide. And then she dropped to the floor and screamed in absolute anguish.
Gideon moved without even thinking. She lifted Harrow in her arms and held her tight as her screams turned into sobs and she buried her face in Gideon's chest. Gideon hugged her until the tears finally stopped. She kissed the top of Harrow's head, and she finally looked up at Gideon, her eyes red.
"This is what you were worrying about, wasn't it?" she asked gently.
Harrow nodded miserably. "I'd never do that to you. Never! You have to believe me!" she choked out, looking into Gideon's eyes in desperation.
"Is that why you wouldn't tell me? Seriously? Harrow I know you. You can be a massive dick sometimes but you're not a killer. Of course you wouldn't. I never even considered it."
Harrow slid a hand behind Gideon's head and pulled her into a kiss, more forcefully than she'd ever done before. Her tongue explored every inch of Gideon's mouth with exacting thoroughness and when they finally broke apart for air she bit Gideon's lip, almost enough to draw blood.
"Woah" said Gideon "what's gotten into you? I mean, I like it, but yeah."
"I don't want to think about any of what happened back there. I want to forget all about it. I want to show you just how much I need you. I want to not worry about—about anything." She leaned in close and whispered in Gideon's ear "I want you to do everything you've been wanting to do with me."
Gideon stared at her girlfriend like she'd grown a second head. "Okay like, I'm really really on board with this idea in principle. It's just a teensy bit sudden, you know? So I need to check you're absolutely sure about this."
"Of course I am, Griddle. The competition is over. The entire enterprise has been built on, if not a lie, then a monstrous mistake. I am without a goal, and without the prize I was promised. But I have you, and you are worth so much more." She took Gideon's hand in hers. "Make love to me."
Gideon led her into their bedroom, undoing her buttons as they went. They pulled off their clothes, Gideon helping Harrow out of her adorable bone corset. And then, with both of them completely naked, Gideon picked up Harrow and deposited her on her back on their bed. She climbed on top, straddling her, leaning over and kissing her necromancer passionately while her hands began to trace Harrow's clavicle and scapulae.
She hadn't actually done this before, obviously. After all the only person she possibly could have done it with had been Harrow herself and that hadn't been an option. So for guidance she returned, as always, to her magazines, adjusted somewhat to suit her beautiful bone adept.
She kissed Harrow down her neck and chest, making sure to focus extra attention on her clavicle and sternum. She dropped her left hand to Harrow's hip, running her fingers along the edge of her ilium. Then she moved her mouth across to her tiny breast and ran her tongue over it. Harrow gasped, and she took that as approval. She kissed Harrow's tit, and then took her nipple in her mouth and began to gently suck. Her right hand made an orbit down Harrow's side and up her ribcage before coming to rest on her other breast. Harrow's breathing intensified as she began to tease both her nipples at once. Her left hand began to caress her waist, making the transit from hipbone to ribcage and back again. And then, as she felt her girlfriend begin to move beneath her, she moved her hand across from her hips to softly stroke between her legs. Harrow let out an audible whimper. She was already damp, and Gideon ran her fingers along her labia before sliding one inside.
She found the clitoris reasonably quickly, which was probably the best she could expect when working with someone else's unfamiliar equipment. She fingered it delicately, and when Harrow's moans got louder and more rapid she slid a second finger in to join the first. As she finger fucked the Reverend Daughter of Drearburh, which probably deserved some kind of accolade, she pulled her mouth away from Harrow's breast and took a quick look at her face. This proved to be a largely pointless exercise; between the dim evening light and Harrow's full face of skull paint her actual expression was largely indecipherable. Buoyed by optimism she moved her position until her head was level with Harrow's hips. And then she removed her fingers, grabbed a firm hold of Harrow, and went down on her.
Harrow squealed as Gideon's tongue went inside her. She bucked her hips wildly but Gideon held her tightly in place and made an absolutely thorough go of things. She ate her necromancer out like a dessert course, which probably wasn't a comparison she should be sharing with her. And, shortly after the third time she'd had to come up for air, she felt Harrow give one final shudder and go still.
This wasn't entirely what she'd been led to expect from her previous reading material. Most of the scenes depicted in them had ended very spectacularly, graphically, and stickily, and while she was prepared to accept that there was some exaggeration going on there this still felt a little anticlimactic. Maybe it was just a first time thing. She brought her head out from between Harrow's legs and moved to lie beside her. As she did, she caught a clear look at her face and froze.
She was crying. Not good crying, either. Harrowhark looked deeply distressed, and Gideon could only think of one reason she'd be looking distressed right now. "Harrow?" she asked fearfully. "Are you okay?" She tried to force out 'Did I hurt you?' but the words caught in her throat.
"I'm fine," mumbled Harrow, which was obviously bullshit. Gideon reached out to put a hand on her cheek, and felt a knife through her heart when Harrow pulled away from her. Fuck. She had hurt her. That had to be it.
"I'm sorry!" she blurted out, near tears herself.
"It's fine, Nav. I'm fine." Harrow got up and started fumbling about for her clothes. She pulled on her underwear and then her shirt and trousers, and then sat back down on the side of the bed. She didn't look at Gideon even once. "Nav," she said finally, "can I sleep alone tonight?"
"Yeah, sure. Of course," said Gideon, attempting to fight down her rising panic. She got up and dressed herself, trying to ignore the way Harrow deliberately avoided looking at her, and then climbed sadly into the cavalier's bed for the first time in days. Maybe she was jumping to conclusions. Harrowhark had had a pretty tough day by any measure. Maybe she'd feel better in the morning and this would all resolve itself. Somehow she doubted it.
She lay awake for hours trying not to freak out, and largely failing. She didn't want to have hurt Harrow. More than anything that idea terrified her. At one point she heard a familiar sound and looked over at Harrow to see her shaking in the throes of a horrible dream. She ached to go over and comfort her, but she'd only make it worse. For all she knew the nightmare was about her. She couldn't believe she'd been so stupid and clumsy and rough. Eventually, somehow, Gideon fell asleep.
By the time Gideon awoke it was well into the next day. Light streamed in through the windows of their bedroom and she blearily sat up and glanced over at the other bed. Harrow was where she'd left her. That set an alarm bell ringing. Harrowhark was a 'late to bed, early to rise' type as a rule. She debated going over and checking on her, but in the end she was too chickenshit.
Instead she got up and got dressed, heading through to the bathroom to paint her face. She lingered on it, taking more time than usual, trying her best to get it right, as though to craft an apology letter from her own countenance. And then she took a deep breath, trying to calm her tumultuous emotions, and went to go wake her necromancer.
Harrow wasn't asleep, as it turned out. Her eyes were open, flicking briefly over to Gideon when she walked into her eyeline before going back to stare at the wall.
"Morning," said Gideon, quietly.
"Morning," said Harrow flatly.
"Ok." Gideon paused, fighting to say what she needed to. Before she could have second thoughts, she blurted out "Hey, can we talk about yesterday?"
"Oh." Gideon licked her lips and decided to press the point. "I just want to make sure everything's ok."
"I am fine," said Harrow, unfinely.
"Because you don't sound fine is all-"
"For God's sake Griddle!" Harrow snapped at her "I do not want to talk about yesterday! I do not want to talk at all! Could you please just go away and stop bothering me!"
Gideon forced her face to remain composed. "Alright, I'll leave you be," she said. And then went outside to catastrophise.
Gideon wandered through Canaan House haphazardly. She didn't know where she was going, just that she needed to put distance between herself and Harrowhark. She was still struggling to comprehend the sheer magnitude of her fuckup.
Harrow had loved her. She genuinely believed that. They'd kissed. They'd spent nights holding each other. For a fleeting few days she'd had something she'd only dreamed of before. And then in one night she'd destroyed it. She'd pushed Harrow far too hard. She'd hurt her, if not physically then at least emotionally. And now Harrow had frozen her out again. The trust she'd earned was gone.
She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. She wanted to punch Silas Octakiseron in the face again in the vague hope that doing so would somehow improve the situation. Instead, without really thinking, she found her feet leading her to the apartments given to the Fifth House. She knocked on the door almost automatically, and after a few moments Magnus emerged.
"Ninth, what brings you here?" he began, then saw her face. "Oh, you'd better come in."
She nodded mutely and stumbled past him, collapsing into an armchair with her head in her arms. A cup of tea materialised next to her, and Magnus sat down on the chair opposite with a cup of his own.
"If there's anything I can do to help, just let me know. If you're wanting to talk to the wife she'll be a while still. She's been looking after Coronabeth Tridentarius. Poor girl hasn't taken it well to say the least. Is that what's troubling you dear? Horrible business."
"No," she managed "not that." She took a sip of tea, and then asked "Is Coronabeth going to be ok?"
"Physically she's fine, but she's really shaken up. One of the closest people in her life murdered the other closest person in her life, and that's without going into all the other aspects of it. She's barely spoken since yesterday." Magnus took a sip. "So is this about your necromancer then?"
Gideon nodded, feeling her eyes beginning to sting.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"I don't know. Maybe." She took another drink. "We were doing so well. And then last night after everything it fell apart."
"Do you know why?"
"But you're unwilling to share it with me." He held up a hand to forestall her reply. "And you're perfectly within your rights not to do so, of course. I'm not offended. But I can promise if you do it won't leave this room, and I'm a pretty non judgemental sort. Your decision."
"I don't know if she'd appreciate me saying anything." She frowned. "But she's not talking to me and I don't know what to do. Promise not to tell anyone?"
"My lips are sealed. Even to Abigail."
Gideon nodded and then swallowed. "Last night, we were... intimate."
"I did wonder if that might be it," said Magnus. "I'm guessing that isn't normal for the two of you."
"No. We've known each other forever and I've had feelings for her for ages, but this is all really new. And I think I did something wrong. I'm scared I've hurt her." She blushed. "Sorry, probably not something you want to be listening to."
Magnus chuckled. "Probably best to spare me the details I think. But I think I can offer some advice. First, be careful. I'm hardly going to tell you not to go down this road, would be terribly hypocritical of me, but the taboo around dating one's necromancer does have some substance. You need to be able to make difficult decisions as her cavalier that might conflict with what you want to do as her partner. Not saying it can't be done, and I'm not saying this to scare you. You're both smart girls and I'm sure you can make it work, but there's a risk that you're better off being aware of."
"Not sure that really matters now," said Gideon miserably.
"Which brings me to my second piece of advice. Things like this happen. Especially in new relationships. And they're almost never as bad as they seem at first. Even if you have hurt her, you weren't trying to, and that does matter. Give her some time and a bit of space and see if she doesn't want to talk after a while. And then apologise, and listen to her."
"Thanks" said Gideon. "Don't know if I believe it but I appreciate the effort at least."
"Best I can offer I'm afraid. Is there anything else I can do?"
"I wanted to ask Abigail if she might try and talk to her for me. Harrow likes her, I think. And she doesn't really like anybody. But if she's busy with Corona, I don't want to intrude."
"I'll see how they're doing." Magnus headed into the next room. Gideon sat alone with her thoughts.
Was Magnus right? Was she overreacting to things? That made sense in the context of a normal, stable, healthy girl. But Harrow was very much not normal, stable or healthy. She was mercurial, intelligent, dangerous, delicate. She was a mile wide guilt complex condensed into a five foot nothing bone goblin who could solve any problem known to necromancy but couldn't look after herself to save her life. Harrow never did anything by half. If she was angry with Gideon she would be giving it her all.
The door opened again and Abigail Pent entered. She gave Gideon a kind parental smile. "Magnus tells me you'd like me to speak with Harrowhark."
"Yeah. If that's okay. Is Coronabeth alright?"
Abigail shook her head. "No, not really. But I've done everything I can for her. I can't believe Ianthe. What kind of person can do that to somebody?"
"I don't know." Gideon looked towards the door to the back room. "Can I do anything to help her?"
"She's sleeping now, thankfully. But I'll let her know you asked after her. I think she'll appreciate that." Abigail walked to the front door. "Coming with me?"
"Yeah, I guess. I'm not sure she wants to see me right now."
"Then you can wait outside when we get there, if you think that's best." She opened the door and Gideon followed after her. "Do you know what's wrong?"
"I think so, but it's private. I'd rather let her decide what she wants to share. Sorry. I'm not much help."
"You're being very respectful, dear. Don't worry, I won't press you for details. She's not physically unwell is she? That's not so much my department."
"No. At least I don't think so. Just upset with me. I want to make it better but she won't talk."
"Well I can't promise she'll talk to me either, but I'll see what I can do."
They came to the corridor with the Ninth quarters. "I'll wait here" said Gideon, leaning against the wall opposite the door. "Look I—I just want her to be okay. If she still hates me that sucks balls but I'll deal."
"I'm sure she doesn't hate you, Gideon. Just wait here and try not to worry yourself." Abigail have her an encouraging smile, then went and knocked on the Ninth door. "Harrowhark? It's Abigail Pent. May I come in?"
There was a brief delay, and then the door opened a crack. Harrow's head poked out, looked at Abigail, looked at Gideon, looked away, and then retreated inside. The door opened further and Abigail went inside. Gideon leaned against the wall and waited.
Seconds dragged into minutes, minutes dragged into what at least felt like hours. Gideon went through her entire standing workout routine twice, and had been just about to start push-ups when the door finally opened and Abigail returned.
"She's ready to see you now, Gideon. Be gentle with her, she's still quite fragile. But she wants to talk."
"Thanks," said Gideon awkwardly. Abigail gave her a hug and then departed. Gideon took a deep breath and headed in.
Harrow was standing a little way inside the bedroom. Her paint had run from tears. She walked slowly over to Gideon and put her arms around her.
"I'm sorry," she said, softly.
"No I'm sorry, honey. I pushed you too hard last night. I feel so fucking awful. You mean so much to me and I never wanted to hurt you."
"Hurt me? What do you—wait you think I—" Harrow's eyes went wide. "Oh Gideon no! No no no! That wasn't it at all. Oh God, I've been so stupid."
"But—you were crying. I must have done something wrong."
"Last night? No you didn't, not at all." Harrow sat down on the bed and motioned for Gideon to sit beside her. "Everything had come crashing down. When we got back, I felt so adrift. I wanted to just enjoy the night with you and not worry about the future. And then you were so good to me but I just—I couldn't enjoy it. I was overwhelmed. I've wanted this so badly for so long. I was sure I could get past my sensitivity issues. And then when the moment came I couldn't. I felt so frustrated. And everything else that I was trying to escape from came flooding back." She rested her head against Gideon's arm.
Gideon put an arm around her and hugged her close. "So what is it that's got you all freaking out?"
Harrow gave her a sad smile. "I forget you take a bit longer to put things together."
"Ouch," said Gideon.
"Do you remember what I said? About what I was hoping for the future, for us?"
"You were going to try and use your Lyctorhood as a bargaining chip to let us stay together." Gideon paused. "Oh. Right. Yeah I think I see the problem now."
"I'd been suspecting for a while what Lyctorhood might actually require. I refused to believe it. And then that horrible Third House girl spelled it out in detail. Like it was something she was proud of! And now I have to go back home and tell my parents I had Lyctorhood in my grasp, the opportunity to save the Ninth, to ensure the Tomb is protected forever, and I threw it away to save one girl. A girl whom they already wish was dead." She looked up at Gideon's eyes. "And I don't even know if they'd be wrong to condemn me."
"Woah, hang on there Harrow. Of course they'd be wrong. Like putting aside for a second that the person who'd have to die here would be me, and I have some personal reservations about that, they'd be asking you to murder somebody."
"I don't think they'd consider that too high a price."
"I'm sure that Mr. and Mrs. Mass Child Murder probably wouldn't, but they're probably not the best moral arbiters now are they? Can you imagine Palamedes sacrificing Camilla? Abigail sacrificing Magnus?"
"They aren't under the same pressure I am, Nav! I have the fate of a culture resting on my shoulders and I'm letting myself be swayed by my heart. I love you. I could never hurt you. That doesn't mean this is the right decision."
"Harrow, answer me something. Honestly. If you'd brought Ortus instead of me, do you think you'd have done it?"
Harrow was silent for a long time. And then finally she said "...No. No I don't think I would have, not when it came down to it." She sighed. "You're right, Nav. This isn't just about how I feel towards you. I don't want any more deaths on my conscience. Two hundred is already too much to bear."
Gideon kissed her forehead. "So what's the plan then?"
Harrow shrugged helplessly. "I don't have one. I don't think there's a solution here. I lose you here in sacrifice, or I lose you in Drearburh when they inevitably blame you for my failure and force us apart. There isn't a scenario where we stay together, Nav. I'm so sorry." She swallowed. "This morning—I was trying to push you away. I knew losing you was inevitable and I wanted to have it over and done with. It was stupid of me and I'm so fucking sorry."
Gideon blinked back tears. "Harrow—I don't want to leave you. Not as long as I have a choice in the matter."
"And I don't want to leave you either. Abigail helped me see how stupid I was being. I shouldn't be driving you away. I should be enjoying the time we have left. And I intend to do that. From now until we're parted I don't want to spend a second without you." She held up a hand. "Figuratively speaking. I can see you itching to make a bunch of off colour bathroom related jokes and I am preempting them."
"Spoilsport." Gideon took Harrow in her arms and pulled her into a long, loving kiss. When they parted, she asked "So, other than keeping my delightful company, what do you want to do?"
"Abigail is meeting with Sextus, she said she hopes we can join them. She thought she might have found something. I'm not letting myself get my hopes up, but we should still drop by."
"Alright, let's get you ready to head out."
Harrow shook her head. "In a while. First I have something I want to do." She stood up and turned to face Gideon. "Strip," she commanded.
"I'm not going to ask again, Griddle."
Gideon wasn't sure what astonished her more: Harrowhark's sudden assertive confidence, or how quickly she rushed to obey her. Within a minute she'd dropped the last of her clothes and looked up at her girlfriend expectantly.
"Lie down." Harrow gestured at the bed.
Gideon lay down obediently. Harrow climbed on top of her, still fully clothed, looked down at her and smiled. And then before Gideon could react she reached out to either side and scattered the bone chips she'd been palming.
A dozen skeletal arms sprouted into being, grabbing a hold of Gideon's arms and legs and holding her firmly in place despite her struggles.
"Harrow, what the fuck?" she asked incredulously.
"I'm less than half your weight, Griddle. I can't exactly pin you down myself. I can remove them again if you really want but I think you'll appreciate this in the end."
"Okay, fuck it. I want to see where this is going."
Harrow leaned in and kissed her forcefully. She continued down her neck, and Gideon recognised Harrow taking much the same route she'd done with her the night before.
"Yes Griddle, I was paying attention." She hadn't even said anything. Harrow knew her well.
Harrow got a little clumsier when she reached Gideon's chest. Her hands were a lot smaller than Gideon's were, and Gideon's breasts very much weren't smaller than hers. Eventually Harrow resorted to propping herself up with yet another pair of bone arms and devoting both her actual hands to Gideon's left breast. She couldn't fault her ingenuity certainly. And then Harrow put her mouth to Gideon's right nipple and Gideon found herself suddenly unable to fault Harrow on anything at all ever.
She'd erred on the side of being gentle when she'd played with Harrow last night. Harrow conversely threw gentle out of the window. She did her work with tongue and teeth in equal measure, and Gideon gasped and moaned. "Holy fuck! Oh God, you're good."
"Of course I am." Harrow disentangled herself from Gideon's tits long enough to be smug. "Did you ever doubt me?"
"Not even once my lissome mistress."
"Good." Harrow switched breasts, and Gideon flexed against the phalanges holding her arm in place. She wanted to masturbate so fucking badly. Harrow felt the attempt clearly. "Now now, you don't finish except on my terms, Griddle."
"You're a cruel and evil little witch and my God do not stop."
Harrow began to kiss her again, giving attention to each of her abdominal muscles in turn, and Gideon tensed as she felt Harrow inch further down. And then just as she was about to reach what Gideon had hoped and assumed was her destination she moved to work on her thighs.
"Oh you fucking tease. I love you. Also fuck you."
"You say the nicest things, Griddle." Harrow moved kisses up her thigh, then traced a finger over her labia.
"Oh fuck yes yes yes oh fuck do it" said Gideon articulately.
"Good girl." Harrowhark leaned in, parted her, and put her tongue to work.
Gideon screamed in the absolute best way. All four of her limbs thrashed impotently as she felt her necromancer utterly devour her. Harrow was determined and thorough and surprisingly dextrous for a task that didn't involve a single bone. Gideon never wanted this to end, wanted Harrow inside her forever. But her body didn't get that particular memo and eventually, far too soon for her liking, she came.
She gasped for breath, panting, felt Harrow move out from between her legs and slide atop her, felt her put her arms around Gideon's waist and rest her head on her chest. "I love you," said Harrowhark softly.
"I love you too. That was incredible."
"Yes. It was." Harrow looked up at her, a look of absolute joy on her face. "I'm still not sure I can handle you doing it to me. But I can enjoy doing it to you."
"I wish I could reciprocate somehow."
"I know. I think I could get better about it with time but we don't have that. You do wonderful foreplay for me, but I need to finish myself. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." She looked down at Harrow lovingly, then said "I don't suppose I can have my arms back? You need cuddling."
"Oh, of course." The skeletal arms crumbled into dust and Gideon folded Harrow into a tight hug. "Were the bone arms okay?"
"I ask because I might have some other applications for them. If you were ever interested."
"I want to be horrified and I'm annoyed at how much I'm not. You stupid sexy bone witch."
Harrow kissed her again, gently this time. She ran one hand through Gideon's hair and traced the other along her arm. "Nav... you're really beautiful. You know that right?"
"Sure do. But it's nice to hear it from you all the same."
"Good." Harrow snuggled close to her again. "I meant what I said before. I want to be with you for as long as I can. I don't want to waste a moment. And I'm done hiding this in public. I don't care what the others think. You're my girlfriend and you deserve to be seen as such."
"I'm really glad to hear you say that. I umm... might have let slip to Magnus before. I was freaking out. Sorry."
"It's fine. I already told Abigail. And I can't imagine the Fifth having much room to judge us here anyway. Speaking of, we probably should go join them soon. After you're cleaned up and dressed."
"Come join me in the sonic?"
"I was just about to ask."
The Ninth House strode through Canaan House as one, Gideon walking at Harrow's side rather than the customary half step behind. When they reached the Fifth's quarters Harrow, of all things, held the door open for her.
"So glad you could join us!" Magnus gave them a cheery wave.
"Finally." Palamedes gestured them over from the sitting area in the corner.
Gideon collapsed onto a sofa, grabbing Harrow and pulling her onto her lap. Harrow gave a small squeak of surprise, then lay back and rested her head on Gideon's chest. This prompted an indulgent smile from Abigail, and an "I thought so" from Camilla.
"Bring me up to speed," said Harrowhark, ignoring them. She took Gideon's hand in hers and squeezed.
"Very well, Reverend Daughter," said Abigail. "To summarise, I've uncovered an exchange between the Ninth and Sixth House Lyctors suggesting that they came to believe there was a method of obtaining lyctorhood that did not require the death of the cavalier. The Ninth attempted to ascend this way, but her attempt was unsuccessful. Regrettably without access to her study—Octakiseron has the key—we've been left to recreate her method from scratch and try and work out where she went wrong. We've made some progress but would appreciate your assistance."
Gideon could sense Harrow's face shifting into the insufferably condescending expression that Gideon had always hated growing up. Now she just lay back to enjoy the show. "I can correct you on one misconception already. Nav, if you would be so good." Gideon obediently pulled out her keyring and extricated the black iron key of the Ninth. Harrow took it and held it up for inspection. "I thought you were keeping track of these better Sextus."
"Silas Octakiseron was in possession of this key as of two days ago. What happened?" Palamedes seemed genuinely surprised.
"He committed the error of challenging us for our keys. Nav ensured he came to understand his mistake. I have faith his cavalier will make a full recovery with time."
"And he just handed his key over? I find that hard to believe."
"Nah, I punched the little mayonnaise idiot out when he started being salty about it," explained Gideon helpfully.
Palamedes considered this. "Alright, that I believe. What did you find inside?"
"I haven't been yet. I've had personal matters to attend to." ("So it would seem" said Camilla drily.) "You're very welcome to tag along with me."
Harrow led the way to the Ninth House study, Gideon by her side. The Fifth and Sixth followed some distance behind, deep in conversation. Gideon could guess at the subject matter. She and Harrow hadn't exactly been subtle. If Harrow had reached the same conclusion she showed no outward sign. She unlocked the door when they reached it and waited for their companions.
The room within was definitely Ninth. And yet again, not. The decor was shades of black, with bone decor, but it lacked the miserable iconography that Gideon associated with the House of the Sewn Tongue. Also the furniture looked like it had been made by someone who didn't actually hate their life. Like the other studies she'd seen, it was a joint living and work space. Palamedes and Harrowhark were already rifling through the latter. Gideon went to look through the other half, and nearly had a heart attack.
There was a portrait on the wall of Harrow. At least, that's what Gideon's brain insisted on first seeing it. Looking closer, there were subtle differences. The woman in the picture was a little less angular in some places, more (somehow) in others. Her hair was short but not cropped quite as close as the Reverend Daughter's. She looked a little older, maybe in her mid twenties. And most damning, her face was completely nude of paint—which really should have been enough to make her realise it couldn't be her necromancer. Gideon took a closer look, and her gaze fell upon the nameplate. It simply said 'Anastasia'. And that was a name she knew.
Anastasia was a mythical figure in the Ninth House. The House was, at one point anyway, lousy with Anastasias and Anastasiuses. The tomb that housed the Ninth's past warriors (not The Tomb, obviously) was the Anastasian Monument. It was disconcerting to discover that an ancient mythical figure from your culture had not only existed, but had apparently looked a lot like the girl you were banging.
She heard an intake of breath over her shoulder and turned to see Camilla looking at the portrait too. "She's the spitting image of her."
"Yeah. Hey can you do me a favour and help me hide this so Nonagesimus doesn't see it?"
"You think it'll upset her?"
"I think if I hide it somewhere in her room it's going to be fucking hilarious when she finds it." Gideon was gratified to see that even the perennially stoic Camilla Hect had a sense of humour, and the two of them levered the portrait off the wall and slipped it out of sight to be retrieved later.
Abigail had joined Harrow and Palamedes by this point, and the three were taking notes. And in Harrow's case, starting an argument. Gideon went to stand beside her and tried her best to actually pay attention.
"—have Ianthe's methodology recorded here for comparison—" Palamedes was saying.
"She's not a reliable source. She wasn't trying to explain her process, she wanted to rub her 'success' in our faces."
"Her details map to conclusions I had already made. And which I'm certain you reached as well, Reverend Daughter. Don't be contrary."
"I'm not being contrary. We cannot know for certain exactly what steps she took."
"And we have no means of obtaining that information besides extrapolation. Either we accept this as usable or we drop the comparison completely. And that makes everything monumentally more difficult."
"Fine. Lady Pent?"
"The theorem detailed here is for the Ninth House trial, concerning thanergy storage. Similar to what I'd expect from the other studies. There's some margin notes that I've catalogued, they're painting a bit of a larger picture. But there's also these papers, which I can't read."
"Pass them here." Harrow took a look at them. "That's crypt cypher. I'll be able to break it given time."
"As soon as possible, Nonagesimus. What do the other notes suggest, Lady Abigail?"
"In the context of our other materials, I hypothesize that her alterations involved in part decompression of the process. Additionally the mirroring of certain steps by the cavalier. Very similar to what we'd hypothesized earlier, Warden."
"So why didn't it work?"
None of them had an answer to that.
"I've gone through it twice. I can't see an obvious point of failure," said Palamedes. They had reconvened to the Fifth's quarters.
"Could it have been a failure in the execution rather than the theory?" Camilla had been poring over the notes they'd made as well.
"Possible but it feels wrong. Anastasia was held in high regard by her peers." Abigail turned to look at Harrow. "Any luck with the cypher, Reverend Daughter?"
"It's not going to be a quick process. I know the form but I'm working without the key."
"Estimate of when you'll be done?"
"Not in time. The shuttles will be here for us tomorrow morning," Gideon took Harrow's hand again. They both knew what that meant for them.
Abigail and Palamedes exchanged a look. The Warden cleared his throat.
"I wished to ask a favour of you, Reverend Daughter. I would like to formally invite you and your cavalier to return with Cam and I to the Sixth in order to assist us in unraveling this puzzle. We'll work more efficiently if we're in the same place."
In the silence that followed you could have heard a distal phalange drop.
"Sextus," said Harrow carefully, "what's this actually about? Because it isn't about you having a study buddy."
Palamedes took his glasses off and polished them on his sleeve. "When I was eight years old, I began corresponding with Dulcinea Septimus. I devoted the rest of my life to trying to cure her cancer, and I modestly credit myself with her having survived years past her prognosis. A year ago I asked her to marry me. She declined, of course. Realistically I knew she would. There was no likelihood of the Sixth and Seventh agreeing to the betrothal of their heirs. And in the end, I never even got to meet her face to face before she was murdered."
"And I sympathise with you deeply, Warden. Now, please get to the point."
"The point, Reverend Daughter, is that I know what it's like to want somebody even when the world is set against you. I know how it feels to have your time together cut short. I'm not lying when I say I think we can solve this much more easily together than separately, but mostly I want you and Gideon to have the chance I didn't."
Gideon took a step forward without thought and folded the Master Warden into a fierce hug. The action surprised him as least as much as it did her, but after a second he awkwardly returned the gesture. Feeling slightly embarrassed, she let go and stepped away.
"Sextus—I am in your debt." Harrow was stammering. "You have done me a kindness I can never repay."
"I'm not interested in your indebtedness, Nonagesimus. Help me solve lyctorhood, solve it properly I mean, and you can consider us even."
Gideon spent much of the rest of the day preparing them both for departure, a task that was far less emotionally daunting than it had been earlier. Harrow sat at her desk with a notepad making attempts at breaking Anastasia's cypher, with occasional breaks for being kissed. The kisses felt less urgent now, but if anything that made them feel nicer. The pressure that had been there before wasn't there.
Eventually as night began to fall Gideon had gotten together the bulk of their belongings along with some towels she swiped from the bathroom on general principles. Feeling satisfied with her efforts, she clambered onto the bed. "Coming to join me, cute stuff?"
"In a minute."
"The crypt script of Saint Anastasia can wait until morning, my umbral priestess."
Harrow folded up her notes and went through to the next room to pack them with the rest of their things. Gideon smiled and counted under her breath. She hadn't quite gotten to five before she heard a muffled expletive, followed by the sweet sound of Harrowhark Nonagesimus' shrill voice asking "Griddle, what the fuck is this portrait doing here?"
Maybe, just maybe, things would be okay.
This is where I'm ending things, at least for now. I have some ideas for where I might want to go with it if I pick it up down the track, but at the moment that's not in the cards until I've read Nona.
I hope you've all enjoyed this self indulgent bit of wish fulfilment and you're satisfied with how it's come together! Enormous thanks, once again, to Saltwaterconfessions who beta read the whole thing for me and provided invaluable feedback and support. Any spelling and grammatical errors are mine and have probably been added over their objections.
And thank you all for the kind comments and kudos!