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are we dancing after death, you and i?

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“To be honest,” said Abigail, “I’m quite sorry to crash this one, as I would love to see where this mixer goes.”

Under Harrowhark’s feet, the floor vibrated very gently, like the tiniest spawn of an earthquake, which made Ortus spill a bit of ink on a flimsy that contained indubitably garish poetry. He cursed under his breath, Aiglamene reproached him, and the Fifth’s attention was temporarily displaced.

“If I’m honest,” came another stranger’s voice from just behind Harrow, “I’m also interested in the outcome of this mixer. Still wouldn’t mind you crashing it too much, though, frankly. If only ‘cause John would be livid.

Harrowhark startled badly, which she accounted to the continued assault of her senses and her heightened paranoia in a crowd. A woman drifted slowly into her peripheral view. She held a cup sporting a crude sketch of a lady’s behind, wore all black, which grudgingly earned her a second of Harrow’s time, and had a shock of ridiculous red hair, dusted with gold to compliment her eyes, which earned her free reign over Harrow’s entire life.

Ninth,” gasped Abigail as she looked upon the Divine Highness, which made no sense. Magnus choked on his canape.

Divine Highness,” said Harrow, and bowed deeply. Abigail murmured, This feels wrong, which Harrow paid no mind to, having discarded them as irrelevant the moment they’d disrespected the Emperor’s Daughter. The Newly Risen Princess. The Hope of the Nine Houses. God’s Greatest Glory.

It was lucky she had so many titles, since by the Emperor’s sanity, trying to recall her name felt like someone was drilling a nail into Harrow’s temporal lobe.

The Hope of the Nine Houses sighed dramatically. “Please, stand,” she commanded, “this is so awkward, and I have no idea why John likes it.” She inclined her head for a moment. “Okay, it’s probably ‘cause he’s a giant douche.”

Magnus seemed to be stifling a smile. His wife elbowed him in the ribs. She was openly grinning.

Harrow straightened, feeling sweat trickle into her brow.

Who’re you?” the Divine Highness shifted her focus to her. Her eyes really were as remarkable as they said. Liquid gold, sparkling in the candlelight.

I am Harrowhark Nonagesimus,” said Harrow stiffly, “Reverend Daughter of the House of the Ninth. I am honored to make your acquaintance, my Lady.”

Likewise,” said the Newly Risen Princess. Her eyes shifted from Harrowhark’s face to the rest of her body. (Harrow had never been more grateful for the Ninth’s dressing habits, and, as blood shot into her face, her sacramental paint.) “You’re… younger than I thought.”

“The Ninth isn’t all skeletons, my Lady,” said Harrow, “as that would be a rather unsustainable, necromantically speaking.”

The Divine Highness gave a short, surprised laugh. After another thoughtful look, she handed her cup to Abigail—who regarded it with faint amusement—and leaned in close enough that she might smudge Harrow’s paint, if she so wished. “I’m going to put on my rad glasses,” she whispered, breath hot on Harrow’s earlobe, “and you won’t tell anyone it’s me—believe me, it’s better that way—and, if I may, Reverend Daughter, I would ask you for a dance.”

Harrow’s breath stuttered, and she reached into the pouch attached to her skirt for a proximal phalanx, clutched it tightly in her sweating fingers. “Why?”

You’re standing here all by yourself with a bunch of old people,” remarked God’s Glory quietly, “and believe me, I know what that’s like. You look about my age, dressed like a bat, and lonely, and I want to dance with you. Isn’t that enough?”

It wasn’t enough. Remarking upon Harrow’s loneliness would have gotten anyone else manhandled out the door by a skeleton, and she felt shame creep up her neck at the notion that the Emperor’s Daughter would associate with the Ninth House only with her face hidden. Harrow disliked pity, and she disliked being imitated.

She also didn’t have a choice, much as she clung to pretending.

Of course it is,” she breathed, “of course, I’ll dance with you.” A sudden thrill ran up her spine at this, one she didn’t want to examine too closely, and the Divine Highness leaned finally away, and proffered her an arm.

Harrow took it and walked with her, head held high. Aiglamene gawked openly, and Abigail and Magnus lead a quiet, heated discussion—can’t continue this—know it hurts, they look so young and the happiest I’ve ever—getting exhausted, can we risk—one dance—no time—which, again, made no sense, but Harrow ignored in favor of absolutely everything else that was happening.

Don’t make a fool of your House,” Aiglamene called gruffly, and added, in a manner that was almost gentle, “do try to enjoy yourself, my lady,” and then Harrow was swept away.

The lights were dimmed in the middle of the room, electric almost entirely replaced by the softer candlelight, which dipped the assorted crowd into pleasant, familiar shadows.

Harrowhark risked a glance at her partner as they moved through the masses, which parted for the Reverend Daughter, instead of her; she’d put on a ridiculous pair of toned glasses to conceal her gold eyes. Her hair and clothes were all lightly dusted in a questionable, glittering substance. Her attire was fitted, black, and expensive, over a starched white shirt that had slightly too many buttons open even for Third standards, and a black-gleaming rapier at her hip. She was also, which was in line with rumors that Harrow had always dismissed, decidedly not of a necromancer’s built.

Harrowhark reminded herself harshly that she had not come to compete for the Newly Risen Princess’ bride, and needed to get it together, since she’d need all of her concentration to apply the meager, stiff dancing steps Aiglamene had taught her.

Harrow,” Her Highness said, suddenly. “Can I call you Harrow?”

Certainly, my Lady.” She should not like hearing her say her name.

Could I ask another favor?” Harrow nodded mutely, and the Emperor’s Daughter let go of her arm to fidget with a button on her shirt. Closing it, thank God. Would you call me—anything that aren’t my ridiculous, over-the-top titles that Augustine is so jealous of, anything but my name, just—something that won’t be recognized. Something just for us.”

Harrow’s heart clenched in her chest. Her feet picked up vibrations again, more forceful than the first set.

Griddle,” she suggested, and immediately wanted to tear out her ribcage and strangle herself with her vocal chords. “I’m sorry, I—”

Griddle,” whispered the Hope of the Nine Houses reverently, “it’s perfect. Come on, we’re there.”

Even the music seemed quieter here, more pleasant (which should have confounded her, seeing as this was the dance floor) and the crowds bearably thinned. Harrow finally dared to look up, the veil pinned atop her head swishing gently.

Griddle was looking at her with soft eyes. Her trepidation fell away like a fine-spun bone cocoon; Harrow felt exposed, and only half-uncomfortable with it. The floor shook, and maybe it was only the feet of a few hundred people dancing with joy.

The piano player started a new song, the viols coming in after a few tentative notes, and suddenly, Griddle was grasping her arm again, settling a gentle hand on her lower back, atop her polished bone corset. She led Harrow’s hand to her own hip and back, and started swaying.

Aiglamene’s training was redundant. It was unnecessary, presumptuous, outdated. The Newly Risen Princess, God’s Glory, Hope of the Nine Houses, G—here, Harrow’s head spiked again—Griddle only led her across the dance floor, slow like a beating heart. Her arms were around Harrow, drawing her close, and her eyes… were free of the glasses, and had been for some time. Her eyes looked at Harrow and saw someone worth holding.

She had never felt such bliss in her whole, wretched life.

There was no one else on the dance floor. This did not worry her. Griddle drew her closer, and closer, pushed her away, once, to twirl her—and Harrow complied, skirts flying, and bit her lip not to smile—did so anyway—and stumbled, caught Griddle’s wide, carefree grin, mentally cut it out, framed it, and taped it to the inside of her eyelids. She was drawn close again, heart pounding in her ribcage. The music had quieted and the lights had dimmed and they were alone, and Harrow got on her tiptoes and pressed her forehead to Griddle’s.

They did not resume their movement. They did not dance. They did not tremble. They only swayed, gently, and they were alone in the world, and Harrow’s heart ached with deep, bottomless grief and equally infinite joy.

I missed you, Griddle,” she said harshly, after a moment had passed, and her dance partner’s face was suddenly wet with tears. They might have been Griddle’s, and they might have been Harrow’s, and they were probably both. White paint smudged her forehead. Harrow felt, rather than heard, a sob force its way out of Griddle’s throat.

You too, my twilit princess,” she said with a rough voice. The music had gone, and the floor shook like a cat trying to get rid of something clinging to its fur. “I want to stay here forever.”

Harrow nodded seriously, smilingly. “Because your father is God.”

Even though my dad’s God, and he’s a bit of dick,” Gideon replied, laughing brightly. It dimmed down again, and she said, “I want everything to stop fucking hurting for us, Harrow.”

She looked at her—here, she seemed to be perpetually looking at her, as though she was drowning and she couldn’t tear her eyes from the disappearing glimpse of the blue sky—and Harrow moved her hands from Gideon’s shoulders to her jaw. She cupped her face, and the act of touching alone felt like tiny needle points driving into her skin, reminding her of its painful absence the last... her entire life.

Gideon leaned in closer, Harrow leaned in closer, and for the briefest of moments, their lips touched. Chapped and bruised and fumbling and musical.

And I want that for you both,” said Abigail Pent.

Her voice was choked. “Believe me, I do, but this can’t be. This isn’t how it happens."

Gideon—or was it Harrow—cried out as their bodies were ripped apart, their eyes holding onto one another’s gazes in desperate fear, as their lips mouthed names, apologies, promises—the floor trembled again with silent violence, and it pulled Harrow under, swept her away from the candlelight and the girl with the gold eyes whose name she had, once again, forgotten, who had held her with such tenderness.

Harrow was pulled away, and she was alone again.