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The Process of Elimination

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The hush that settled over the room at the arrival of Her Divine Highness was the first moment of relief that Harrowhark Nonagesimus had since arriving on the First. She sighed, turned her face away from Aiglamene, and let her eyes fall shut so she could savor that relative calm while it lasted.

To her left, Ortus scribbled notes onto a scrap of flimsy, the scratching sound familiar and grounding. Behind her to her right, Aiglamene whistled and said, “That one should be climbing the ranks of the Cohort, out on the front. Why this silly marriage game?”

Harrow opened one eye and scanned the room. Her eye found Her Divine Highness immediately, and Aiglamene was right--this was not the woman Harrow expected to find based on the invitation. She expected the sheltered First Daughter of the First House to have the build and attributes of a necromancer, first of all. Harrow’s first mistake; she opened her other eye to confirm. Her Divine Highness was tall--taller than the hunched Aiglamene, taller than Ortus and very much taller than Harrow--and she was solid, distractingly well built. Her brilliant white suit hugged tight to the muscles of her arms and tapered in at her waist, her form obscured only slightly by a filmy pearlescent cloak that hung over one shoulder. The rapier at her side sparkled in the ridiculously bright lights of the room. When the room erupted back into raucous activity, Her Divine Highness appeared at ease with the cacophony of sound and the press of people all vying for a moment of her time. She walked a fine line between imposing and approachable and she appeared to walk it confidently, without a single wobble.

Harrow took one look at Her Divine Highness and knew with certainty that this daughter of the Emperor Undying would wed the bright and equally solid Crown Princess from the Third. There was no question. It was the obvious choice, the match so blatantly preordained that the First should have cancelled this ball and the competition as soon as the Crown Princess of Ida was born and spared the rest of Houses this torture.

“We should have turned down the invitation,” Harrow said, not for the first time.

“You, of all people, understand why the Ninth could not.”

Harrow did understand and did not want to talk about it with Aiglamene. It was not, after all, Harrow’s choices that led them to this moment. She had inherited those choices nonetheless. She was those choices. She understood that their House needed resources. She understood that their House needed aid. She was not ready to sell herself or her House to obtain it. There had to be a better way than this, if she could only get somewhere quiet to think.

Her Divine Highness stood between the representative from the Fifth and her cavalier. She laughed at something the Fifth cavalier said, threw her head back with it to expose the long line of her neck. Harrow watched the necromancer and her cavalier exchange a secretive satisfied glance. They looked quite a bit older than Her Divine Highness, though not so old as to cause a particularly enduring scandal. They were likely no older than Ortus was, after all, and Ortus’s age had not stopped Harrow’s parents from threatening to unite them in marriage if Harrow did not agree to this spectacle. Still, it seemed the Fifth was not trying terribly hard to ensure their victory.

Beside her, Ortus said, “That’s Lady Abigail Pent.”--Ortus, it turned out, was surprisingly skilled at mingling.--”We met amidst the refreshments. Did you know she’s married to her cavalier?”

“What?” Harrow asked, leaning forward to get a better look at the pair. “Horrific!” She turned to Ortus, her shoulders tight with accusation, and was relieved to find that he simply looked resigned. He shrugged his great sad shoulders, and from this Harrow understood that he was just as befuddled by the discovery as she was. After the meeting with her parents, Ortus got down on his knees--she very nearly fainted with fright --to beg that Harrow answer the First’s call and spare him this fate. By the end of the display she found herself offended by the intensity of his grovelling desperation.

Ortus sighed heavily and his face took on that faraway look that Harrow recognized as a warning that poetry was imminent. She supposed she should be grateful for what came out of his mouth instead. “Perhaps the timing of the invitation came too late to spare the Fifth our own barely-dodged nuptials.”

She wasn’t grateful.

“That’s not it,” Aiglamene interjected beside them. “She’d have had plenty of choices on the Fifth, still chose the cavalier.”

“Disgusting,” muttered Harrow.

“Terrifying,” agreed Ortus.

“Motivation,” said Aiglamene, her eyes sharp on Harrow.

Fuck motivation. Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, was not competing for anyone’s hand in marriage. She did not care one bit that anyone, in this case, happened to be the daughter of the King Undying himself. It changed nothing. The game was crass, base, so far beneath her she could barely see the point of it. She was here in protest and determined to be eliminated during the very first round, that very night. She would find another way.

When the invitation arrived, she’d presumed--she’d hoped--it was the letter that they’d been waiting for for centuries, the announcement that the Emperor required Lyctors, the highest position to which a necromancer could aspire. There had been talk for years, centuries, rumors that the diminished number of Hands was untenable, that the Cohort would flounder if something was not done. She’d received numerous letters from the Sixth over the years speculating that the moment was upon them, that their Resurrector could not possibly delay another year. Harrow never responded to a single of the Sixth’s letters. The call for Lyctors never arrived.

That was it then. She’d just have to figure out how to deal with her parents’ threats once she returned to Drearburh. There had to be an exploit, another workaround. Perhaps when the need to produce an heir arose, she could have herself cloned on the Fourth? Perhaps the next Harrowhark would find the options better suited to her. Perhaps she could send Ortus to collect intel on reproductive advances on the other Houses and the night wouldn’t be a complete bust after all.

She turned on Ortus and found herself saying something else, her finger raised in accusation. “If you ever say the word nuptials to me again I’ll drag the bones of Matthias Nonius up from the Anastasian, make you watch while he rips up all eighteen volumes of The Noniad, and then shove the bits of flimsy down your throat with his formerly-heroic bone hands.”

His eyes implored her, pleaded with her once again to win this competition and save them both and Harrow realized, then and there, that her cavalier actually seemed to think she had a chance to win this.

She looked across the amphitheater toward Her Divine Highness. From her place amid the Ninth, Harrow watched Her Divine Highness laugh and blush with the Seventh, plainly ogle the better half of the Third. She watched the Daughter of the Emperor Undying dance with the Second, her back straight and her face pleasant and engaged. She watched her shake hands too firmly with the Fourth (they buckled like she’d tried to break their arms). She talked at length with the Sixth and then slapped a hand against his back like they were old school buddies with a history of camaraderie and not an ounce of sexual tension--the Sixth necromancer seemed startled by the gesture. His cavalier narrowed her eyes. Harrow nibbled at a cracker--too salty--and watched Her Divine Highness listen patiently to the Eighth. When the Third passed by them and her eyes followed, when her body sagged in relief as she turned away from the Eighth, Aiglamene snorted and murmured, “Well, that answers that question.”

It didn’t matter. Even with the Fourth, the Sixth, and the Eighth at an apparent disadvantage, even with the frankly shocking lack of effort from the Fifth, the Ninth would not compete.

Harrow pulled her watch from her pocket, checked the time. How long was this supposed to last? Thus far, they’d stayed safely tucked in their secluded corner, far from the frivolity. If Harrow could avoid Her Divine Highness the rest of the evening, she would have no choice but to send Harrow home. How could she choose someone she had never met, someone with whom she’d never had even a scrap of a conversation?

Across the room, Her Divine Highness appeared cordial and formal, and every so often she broke into that smile that stretched wide across her face, lopsided and imperfect. When she smiled, Harrow found it almost impossible to look away...which was how Harrow ruined her own carefully laid plans. Her Divine Highness looked up at exactly the wrong moment and caught Harrow watching. That did the trick. It broke the spell. Harrow jerked her eyes away from the woman, then decided that wasn’t enough and turned her entire body away as well. She turned toward the wall and contemplated pressing her forehead against it, craved that grounding pressure.

“Stand up straight,” Aiglamene said. It was all the confirmation Harrow needed to know that she was headed their way.

Harrow cleared her throat. “I need to attend to my bodily functions,” she said. She attempted to rush away before Aiglamene or Ortus could stop her, but Aiglamene was fast, even now. Her arm shot out and she caught Harrow around the chest. Harrow had no choice but to acquiesce and save face, or be dragged gracelessly back into position. Aiglamene had always had that streak of savage. Harrow assumed that that was why she was sent--to keep Harrow in line.

Harrow bit her lip and adjusted her robes. The room pounded in her head and for a moment she felt like she couldn’t breathe, felt like she might collapse. A figure appeared before them, too bright in that white suit and Harrow felt herself sway, had to shut her eyes to gather herself.

“You’re here,” said an unfamiliar voice. And then: “Whoa, okay careful.”

Aiglamene wrapped an arm around her again, this time in an attempt to steady her. Ortus scratched furiously at his bit of flimsy. Around them the room roared and the light burned through her eyelids.

“I have to get out of here,” Harrow said. She felt like she was choking, her chest tight and her heart racing. The hand around her waist was not digging sharp fingertips into her side, and as the realization dawned that this was not Aiglamene that steadied her, Harrow allowed herself a brief moment to think objective achieved, terrible first impression complete before she forced herself to open her eyes.

Her Divine Highness was way too close, blindingly close. This close Harrow could see the blemishes near her hairline, a streak of darker hair at her temple that faded into the red. It was her eyes though--her eyes were extraordinary, a rich yellow that Harrow had never encountered on the Ninth. She realized she was staring, blatantly staring with her mouth hanging open a little--if Her Divine Highness was truly brash she could simply lean in and--Harrow lowered her gaze and collected herself. Her traitorous throat emitted an embarrassing little yelp as the steadying arm fell away and Harrow was left to stand upright on her own two feet.

“Sorry,” Her Divine Highness said. “I meant no harm.” She held up her hands toward Harrow’s cavalier, though Ortus’s fingers were still clutching his flimsy, the thought of going for his sword the furthest thing from his mind.

“Your Highness,” Aiglamene said, and she bowed deep, the only one among them with both sense and decorum. “May I introduce you to Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House?”

“Reverend Daughter,” Her Divine Highness said with a small tilt to her head and that heartbreaker’s smile directed right at Harrow. “We’ve met, I think.” She winked. Ridiculous.

“Have we?” Harrow asked, surprised into speaking. And then, because she couldn’t help herself: “Is there something in your eye?”

“No, I meant just now when you--nevermind.” The woman hooked a thumb toward the doors, her face scrunching up with self-deprecation. “Did you want to go get some air?”

“An excellent idea, Your Highness,” Aiglamene said at the same time Harrow turned up her nose and said, “No, thank you. I’m fine.”

They stood like that for a moment, the words hanging in the air, no one quite sure what to do or say next. Behind Harrow, Ortus took furious notes. Her Divine Highness glanced back at him. “Hm.”

She turned her runny egg colored eyes back to Harrow. “If you don’t want to be seen walking out with me, I get it. What if you leave first and I’ll come find you on the terrace? You and your cavalier, I mean. Of course. Obviously.” She shrugged and then laughed. There was that neck again. “Shit, get a grip.” That part she said low, barely loud enough to hear. The three members of the Ninth ignored it.

When Ortus didn’t respond right away, Harrow turned to glare at him. It was a glare that Ortus severely misinterpreted. He rushed to speak: “I know my Lady would prefer to conduct these introductions in a more private and tranquil sphere without her cavalier.” He shoved the flimsy back into his pocket, bowed, and added, “Your Divine Highness.”

Aiglamene nodded in agreement as though he’d said exactly what she’d hoped he would. That confirmed it. They were prepared to throw her to the wolves! They were in cahoots and had clearly been provided secret instructions.

“I see,” Harrow said, glad that the paint obscured her burning face. “I will be on...the terrace then.” She had no idea what terrace they were referencing. The landing deck?

“Out the big doors and to the left,” Her Divine Highness instructed. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Harrow began to walk away, but paused, dismayed at how easily the First Reborn’s First Born fell into conversation with her cavalier and her captain. She felt a sudden stabbing fear, a realization that as soon as she left, all talk might turn to her.

“Nice sword,” Her Divine Highness said as she nodded to Aiglamene. “Badass leg.” She squinted. “Cohort?”

“A while back,” Aiglamene confirmed with a slight bow. She tapped her leg and Her Divine Highness looked unnecessarily impressed.

“Are those skeletons writhing on the hilt? I love the black.” And then the Ninth captain drew her sword, made her blade naked to Her Divine Highness. The woman did not look offended. Her face did not twist into the scowl of Marshal Crux. She looked delighted, awed even. She held out her hand. “It’s Gideon, by the way.”

Harrow turned on her heel and left.

**

The bench was pockmarked and corroded from the salt air, even this high up from the sea. Bits of rusted metal flaked off on Harrow’s hand. She wiped it away and checked her watch. Half an hour. Perhaps Her Divine Highness--Gideon--had forgotten. That would be all right. It was quiet here, the temperature was pleasant and the sky was full of stars. In the depths of Drearburh she rarely saw enough sky to see the stars. They were terrifying, unsettling and overwhelming, but terrifying, unsettling and overwhelming in an entirely different way than the crush of the ball, the scream of the instruments and the shouts of the revelers. Harrow slipped past two taped off barriers to get out here and the terrace was empty. Perhaps she was in the wrong place? That would be all right too. She could stay here while the ball continued on without her and no one could fault her for it. She’d done exactly as she was directed. She played entirely by the rules. She even accidentally swooned right into Her Divine Highness’s arms. Not even her parents could fault her performance there.

Her Divine Highness pushed out the doors to the terrace just after the forty minute mark. Harrow sighed, readied herself for her next performance, accidental or otherwise.

“There you are,” Her Divine Highness said. She seemed nervous, kept wiping the palms of her hands on her trousers. She stood in front of Harrow, towered over her, then seemed to think better of that and collapsed beside Harrow on the bench. Harrow drew her limbs in tight to her body and slid up against the rusting arm.

“Sorry, I was--the Fifth are really friendly.”

Harrow shrugged. “You’re forgiven, Your Highness. I was enjoying the solitude.”

“Gideon,” she countered.

“All right, you’re forgiven, Gideon. I was enjoying the solitude.” She earned a smile for that. Gideon clearly couldn’t take a hint.

Gideon pushed a hand through her hair.

“I was told the Ninth wouldn’t attend. Which isn’t--Shit, I fucked that up fast. What I meant to say was--Sorry, I’m terrible at this. Starting again. Reverend Daughter! I’m glad you’re here.”

“Are you?” Harrow asked, completely confused by this stumbling introduction.

Gideon seemed slightly taken aback by the question. “Sure. I’ve never met a black vestal. The Cohort is full of the other Houses, so I see them once in a while, but not the Ninth. At least not anymore.”

Harrow wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She nodded her head in agreement.

“You didn’t think the Ninth would attend because I wrote a letter declining the invitation,” Harrow explained. “I was overruled, but the fact remains that I’m not here to be anyone’s bride--”(“They went with broom, actually,” Gideon interjected. “Not my idea.”)--”The Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House is not for sale.”

Gideon nodded. “I actually thought I was the one up for sale here. At clearance prices, even.”

Harrow shook her head. “You’re deciding all of our fates. Why the game? You could make your choice tonight and release the rest of us. It hardly seems like a difficult decision.”

Gideon kicked the heel of her boot against the stone of the terrace. “Who do you think I should choose then?”

“The Crown Princess of Ida. There’s no competition.”

Gideon smiled, big and easy, and then was quiet for a long time. Her eyes still seemed bright, even in the dim light from the windows. She studied Harrow’s face, her eyes on Harrow’s pinned veil, her paint, her prayer bones. Harrow held her composure under that gaze for as long as she could manage. When she could no longer bear it she turned out toward the sea.

“This wasn’t exactly my idea,” Gideon said.

“Why did you agree to it?”

Gideon reached for Harrow, a hand on her arm to draw her back in, and Harrow allowed it, shifted back so she could see the face of the woman beside her, that funny red hair. Did the Emperor have such a ludicrously colorful head?

“Look, I’m a fucking maiden locked in a tower. The only difference from the fairy stories of the Third is I get to have a fucking sword. A real sword, not this rapier. Literally no one here to fight except skeletons though,” Gideon shrugged. “This is a means to an end.” The first part of this sounded like nonsense, but the second half Harrow understood. She understood, also, that if her options in this life were marriage to Ortus or marriage to Gideon, a marriage to Gideon was the more amenable choice. If she was presented with this solution in the halls of Drearburh, perhaps she would actually consider it. Here though--she could not compete against the Third, nor the Second, nor the Seventh. She could not even compete against the Fourth, the Fifth, the Sixth or the Eighth. She would not debase herself by trying.

“If you have to play this game, if it’s simply a means to an end, then release me,” Harrow said, her words clipped, her head high. “Eliminate me first.” She understood that there were consolation prizes. Just by showing up she’d improved the fortunes of the Ninth. She had done her part. Fifteen resurrected and a shuttle of resources. No one could fault her. She was a black vestal, shrouded in secrets. She’d heard enough talk to know what was said of the Ninth here. They were cultists, traitors, mistakes. “You can’t choose the Ninth, so send me home.”

“You really want to leave?” Something about Gideon’s face was infuriating to Harrow all of a sudden. Maybe it was her youth--Harrow wasn’t used to youth besides her own. Maybe it was the crease above her eyebrows or the way the light from the windows caught on her hair. Harrow hated this, hated everything about it. She was out of place, in over her head. It was all so stupid, so childish.

Yes, you yellow-eyed moron,” she snapped, unable to contain herself. “I want nothing to do with a marriage competition. It is beneath me and I will not sit by to serve as the butt of Third House jokes for the next eight weeks.”

“Harrow, I--”

“Eliminate me now and spare me this torture!” She did not correct the presumed intimacy of being addressed as Harrow instead of her full name, instead of her title. Instead Harrow shifted from yelling to begging, and she hated herself for it. She went so far as to turn toward Gideon, to take both of Gideon’s hands in her own. They were cool and dry, and the press of those palms to hers was a relief, a release all on its own. “Your Highness, I beg you.”

“Okay!” Gideon said. She shook her head, couldn’t seem to look at Harrow, but she held Harrow’s hands tight in hers, her knee on the bench between them, her leg pressed up against Harrow’s thigh. “Okay, I liked it better when you were insulting me. Yellow-eyed moron? Fuck, okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

She said it as though she wasn’t in charge, as though she didn’t hold all the cards, really couldn’t decide her own fate. She said it like she really was just some maiden locked in a tower. It didn’t matter. Harrow looked at the smooth lines of Gideon’s face, that perfect nose, that crooked mouth, and she took Gideon at her word, trusted that Gideon would follow through.

Her hands were still held tight in Gideon’s and Gideon leaned in, close beside Harrow’s ear. “Would you dance with me first?” Her voice was low, a secret--or perhaps simply an excuse to get close enough to smell the ash on Harrow’s veil, to see the mismatch stitching, to assess the Ninth and find her wanting. Harrow let Gideon take her in. Go ahead, Highness. Find all the reasons you need.

Harrow exhaled and her breath shook in her chest. She pulled herself back into stiff defiance, felt all her pieces fall back into their natural order, their assigned place. She built herself up until she was sure hers was a defiance clear enough to be read through her paint. And then she pulled back just far enough to look Gideon in the eye.

“I can’t dance,” she said. Harrow had spent months learning the steps with Ortus. She knew the dance card by heart. It didn’t matter. She could not dance with this woman. It would not help her cause. “You’d do better to ask someone else.”

Gideon did not try to lean in toward Harrow again. Instead she stood, straight and irritatingly tall. Her fingers fiddled with her sash as she shrugged. Her smile was crooked and sharp—sharp in teeth that emerged a bit crooked in spots, rather than in intent. It interested Harrow that those teeth hadn’t been fixed. Teeth were easy enough for even the very youngest bone adept.

A maiden locked in a tower. It was interesting, Harrow had to admit.

“Me neither,” Gideon said. “Don’t tell anyone.” She held out her hand to Harrow.

Harrow sucked her tongue, and looked away, her hands clenched tight into fists. It wasn’t that interesting. “You’ve been dancing all night. Everyone here knows how well you can dance.”

“You’ve been watching me.” Gideon seemed delighted by this. Her whole face lit up with it..

Everyone is watching you.” Harrow’s voice burst out in a loud retort as her body exploded up from the bench. Standing, Harrow tugged at her veil, but she couldn’t work it free from its pins. The sharp points stabbed at her fingers and she stopped trying with a hiss. She wrapped her hands around herself instead, bowed her head in thanks, and started toward the door. As she passed Gideon, her eyes caught on something and she paused. “I will not dance with you, Your Divine Highness, but before we part, there is one thing you should know.”

Gideon looked down her shoulder at Harrow. “What’s that?”

Harrow returned to the bench, brushed her fingers across the metal. She stood straight and firm before Gideon, her face turned up to look Gideon in those bizarre yellow eyes. Harrow held up her hand, the pads of her fingers stained the brownish red of old blood.

“You shouldn’t have sat beside me. You see, you’ve completely ruined your suit.”

**

Her Divine Highness did not return to the amphitheatre until it was time for the first key ceremony. The ball floundered without her as people milled about in confusion, unsure if something had happened, concerned that something had gone wrong. Aiglamene scowled and demanded to know what Harrow had done. Ortus made his round of the rooms, tasting what was left of the food and taking notes on the changing moods of each House delegation. When Gideon finally returned it was in a different suit (a striking black beneath a new pearlescent cloak) and with the funny little rainbow-sashed priest at her side. The priest had explained the rules of their game at the start of the evening, and now it was time to bring the night to a close. He held up a fistful of keyrings, a key dangling from each one. When he shook them the room erupted in applause at the clanging racket.

Harrow chewed her lip in nervous anticipation. She barely listened as the priest reiterated the ridiculous reason for the gathering, this farce that would stretch out across eight full weeks and end with someone marrying a woman they barely know, their House replenished and their future secure. By the time Gideon took center stage, Ortus was back at Harrow’s side, his paint smeared and his face anxious.

Gideon began exactly as expected. “Third House!” she said. “Will you accept this key?” The more robust twin cried out and one beautiful hand flew up to cover her mouth. Her withered sister turned to beam at the Houses standing nearest, smug victory plain on her face. Behind them both their cavalier stood, his chest puffed, his head bobbing to confirm that it all went exactly as he expected. The Third took their time approaching the platform. The Crown Princess made it first. She pulled Gideon in for a hug, kissed both of Her Divine Highness’s cheeks. Gideon stumbled and laughed, eyes bright and cheeks lined with her smile. The crowd watched as the Third collected their key and returned to the crowd.

Gideon continued, each House called, one by one: Seventh was next and then Sixth--”Didn’t see that coming,” Aiglamene mused.--”and then Fifth and then Second. Next came the Eighth and Aiglamene huffed beside Harrow, cursed under her breath. Aiglamene had clearly assumed the Eighth would be the first to go. Only the Fourth and the Ninth Houses remained.

Harrow let out a great sigh of relief, closed her eyes on the room and thanked the Emperor Undying for a Daughter so gracious.

The room was quiet, waiting, and when Harrow opened her eyes she found that Gideon was looking right at her, staring at her from across the room. Oh no. No. You lying bitch. Don’t you fucking dare.

“Ninth House,” Gideon announced and Harrow stood there, frozen, her face red beneath her paint and her fists clenched at her sides. “Will you accept this key?”

“She will!” Ortus called out. Harrow felt smoke emit from her ears as she contemplated killing her cavalier right then and there. The party could use some worthwhile spectacle.

Gideon’s brow furrowed, but when Harrow did not move, did not speak, she took Ortus’s word, nodded once in their direction and then turned to the Fourth. “Right, okay. I’m sorry Fourth. Truth is you seem like great kids, better than I was at your age, but like, that’s just it, right? You’re kids--teens--and I can’t--yeah, no, I’m sorry. Good luck out there!”

Harrow did not wait to see what came next. She grabbed Ortus by the arm and began dragging him toward the door.

“My Lady--”

“Let’s go before I sprout a full army from your panniers and tear down this entire room. You first.”

On the platform beside the small priest, Gideon was still talking: “Jeannemary, I know I promised, and I almost always keep my word. I’ll let you touch my biceps before you go, okay?” The crowd laughed at that, the Crown Princess from the Third squawking loudly beside her drooping sister. Her Divine Highness, so witty, such charm!--”I’ll turn it back over to Teacher, who will--Reverend Daughter? Harrow, wait!”

I almost always keep my word. Ha! Ha ha! Harrow ignored Gideon’s call. Aiglamene bellowed an embarrassing reprimand and still Harrow did not stop. She ditched Ortus by a sculpture of unidentifiable foods and made it all the way to the landing terrace before someone caught up. Harrow didn’t stop to see who it was. Of the three people who were inclined to follow her, it was easy to guess who was the fastest. She pulled six bits of metacarpal from her pocket and tossed them onto the stone.

Behind her, Gideon let out a sharp cry, and by the time Harrow turned back to look at her, six skeletons stood between them. Two of them pressed hands to Gideon’s chest to hold her back.

“It was somewhat nice to meet you,” Harrow announced, her voice short, strained. “Good luck with the rest of the competition.” There was one shuttle at the edge of the terrace, undoubtedly waiting for the Fourth’s arrival. Harrow intended to be on it.

One of the skeleton’s hands slipped off Gideon’s shoulder and Harrow pulled it back with force, its hands slapping back in place. Not quite back in place. Instead of Gideon’s shoulder it grabbed Gideon’s right breast. Gideon pushed it away with a flustered shout. Her face warned Harrow that she was maybe twenty seconds away from drawing the rapier at her belt. All right, Her Divine Highness. Go ahead. We’ll have that dance after all.

She should have said that out loud. She didn’t.

“Look,” Gideon said. One hand was on her sword, but she did not draw. Her other hand she held up in half-surrender. “Look, I’ll send you home, I will. I promise that you don’t have to compete in anything. You can be the worst contestant any of the Houses have ever seen and I swear on my life I will never make you marry me. At the end of this you can go back to the Ninth and marry whoever it was you left behind there--”Ha! Ha ha!”--The thing is talking to you today didn’t make me want to throw myself off this terrace, and there are a few other houses that did--not the Fourth, they're just awful teens, it’s not their fault. So I’m asking you to stay longer, just a few weeks at most, just until I get through the process of getting rid of those other guys.”

Harrow considered this. “What does the Ninth gain from this arrangement?”

Gideon shook her head. “You know the rules. Each week you’re here, it’s another fifteen resurrected for the Ninth. I have nothing else to give, I can’t--wait.” She shoved her hand into her pocket and pulled out a keyring. “Your key.”

Fifteen resurrected per week? Harrow had been so blinded by hatred for the very concept of this event, that she’d missed this. The consolation prize was not a one time thing. It grew the longer she was here. One more week and that was thirty souls for the Ninth. Two and she was up to forty-five. Three more weeks and it should be enough to appease her parents, to kick-start a (very small) generation. The boob-grabbing construct released Gideon. It grabbed the key and walked it over to Harrow, dropped it into her hand. “What does this unlock?”

Gideon shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “That’s part of the challenge.”

“You just said I do not need to compete.” Harrow tossed the key onto the stones.

“Seriously?” Gideon asked, exasperated. “Harrow, I’m locked in a fucking tower, remember? No one tells me shit.”

Harrow considered the dark keyring, the single small key. “It’s probably something awful. Something like the key to Her Divine Highness’s heart.”

Gideon laughed at that. “More likely it’s some old books or a pile of dusty drapes or something. You know this place was once crawling with his Hands, right? I’m sure they left some necromantically juicy stuff behind, if you’re into that. I mean, that’s the kind of prize you necromancers are really after anyway, isn’t it?”

“Fine,” Harrow said. Though she was loathe to admit it, she was intrigued by the key. The promise of the resurrected sealed the deal. She shoved the key into her pocket. “A few weeks.”

“Just a few.” Gideon nodded toward the skeletons. “Now that we’re agreed, can I try my hand at fighting these?”

“What? No,” Harrow said, but when she saw the look of disappointment on Gideon’s face she amended that to “Later, I suppose. Maybe.” For now, she released her constructs, let them fall to heaps on the stones. She started back toward the door. Aiglamene and Ortus were there, swords drawn, ready to intervene and take out Harrow’s constructs themselves, no doubt. Traitors.

Harrow pushed past them into the corridor.

“Well?” Aiglamene asked.

“Put those away,” Harrow directed. “We’re staying.”