Harrowhark awoke in a state of abject horror.
This wasn't exactly unusual. What was unusual was the source of her instinctive, skin-crawling, corporeal dread: she was drowning. Animal panic bred by a thousand immersions in the Ninth's deepest pool gripped her limbs and thrashed them wildly, sending her to grope desperately for the stone lip of the pool that should have been there and wasn't.
She carried on like that for a good thirty seconds until a few more salient facts penetrated her hindbrain. First: the water was not cold (Harrow had never before known any water that wasn't cold as the ice around the Tomb). Second: the water was not engulfing her, and though it gave everywhere she pushed and bulged buoyantly up under her spine in an unmistakably liquid fashion, it seemed to be covered in some kind of soft skin or film that kept her from falling into it. Third, and consequently: she could breathe just fine. She stilled, and breathed, and tried to keep from trembling, awash in cortisol, afloat on some weird fluid-filled organ that was warmed nearly to blood heat.
Fourth: there were…blankets? Extremely fine blankets, made of a material so costly Harrow couldn't even identify it, dyed an eye-smarting purple. They had been tucked in carefully around her, as a burial shroud around a respected corpse.
Fifth: there was another person in the room.
"Hi! Hello," said a cautiously friendly, deeply concerned, horribly familiar voice. "Are you… good? You're not gonna, like, foam at the mouth, right? Or vomit blood? Because those are new sheets."
Harrowhark, immobilized in the supine position by a wobbly surface on which she could not get any kind of solid grip, looked up into the face of Her Serene Highness Gideon, Crown Princess of the Empire of the Nine Houses, sole daughter and unquestioned heir to the King Undying, and remembered everything. She had fainted. She had fainted while talking to the Necrolord's Heir! Apparently she had swooned into Gideon's extremely muscular arms like -- well -- like an underfed, dehydrated, and overtaxed necromancer in the kind of horrible trashy romance novels that she'd heard about and never actually read. She had become a cliche.
That would have been bad enough, and the honor of the Ninth House might have been only minimally besmirched if the upper echelons of the Empire had just left Harrowhark there to die on the floor. But they hadn't had the decency for that. Instead, the Necrolord's Heir had apparently borne the stricken Reverend Daughter back to -- here, wherever here was, without any other kind of chaperone. As the Heir, Gideon had the legal and moral right to do absolutely anything she pleased, and reputation had painted her as a downright rake. Harrow was completely defenseless, without even her cavalier. (Who was -- she made a mental note -- dead, and also fired. Posthumously.)
Her Serene Highness said, "Wow, I was joking about the sheets. Upchuck blood if you want to, I won't have you drawn and quartered or anything. Just don't die. Harrowhark, right?"
"Harrowhark Nonagesimus," said Harrowhark Nonagesimus, her voice cold and hostile as a drawn rapier. "The Reverend Daughter. At your service, Your Serene Highness."
"Yeah, okay, that's sweet of you, and if I need someone to faint and flop around in my service you'll definitely be the first one I call," said Her Serene Highness, grinning. The grin was not cruel; in fact it was warm, and teasing in a way that Harrow would have recognized as actually quite gentle, if she'd had any standard of comparison, which she didn't. The Heir's eyes were a bright, burning gold. They clashed horrendously with the brash purple overtones of the rest of the room. Harrow was suddenly sure the clash was completely deliberate.
Harrow cleared her throat. Even tucked in blankets -- blankets that could have filled the Ninth House coffers for a decade! -- she felt dreadfully exposed, as though the Heir might suddenly drag bone claws across her belly and throat. "I am grateful for your assistance, Highness, and I deeply apologize for this -- intrusion on the hospitality of the First House. With your kind permission, I will take my leave." This was pure bravado. If she could have gotten out of this contraption unaided, she would have been back in Drearburh by now.
"I'd give you my permission, I really would," said Gideon, "but you've got about three drops of blood in you, you look like complete and total shit -- no offense -- and your guard captain told me you've been bleeding yourself out every night doing ghost wards because your lodgings are haunted. I'm supposed to be finding a consort, not letting the House heirs get gnawed on by revenants or die of pneumonia. Stay here for a while, all right? No one's gonna bother you, this place has the best wards in known space. Dad's the only one who could break them, and he's out of the system."
Harrow had been stiff as a pinned skeleton through most of this speech, planning Aiglamene's death by torture; at best wards in known space she relaxed, but only fractionally. Wards were only a defense against external threats. "Again I thank you, Highness, but I must caution you that if this is an attempt to strike some sort of bargain for -- carnal purposes --"
The face Harrow had mostly seen on coins burst out laughing. "Carnal purposes! Shit!" wheezed the Heir to the Throne Over the River. "I'm not gonna ravish you, Nonagesimus! Not that I'd ravish anyone, yuck, but you know I have every hot babe in the Nine Houses throwing themselves at me, right? Like, they're right outside, you were at that party."
"In that case," Harrow said, now approaching the coldness she'd felt on the soles of her bare feet the first time she stepped onto the rocky island with its frozen burden beyond the stone she'd rolled away, "I fail to see why you have imprisoned me on this device, where I am entirely at your mercy. It gives a very particular impression."
Gideon stared at her in confusion that turned to bewildered disbelief. "I haven't imprisoned you, Nonagesimus. It's just a waterbed."
"It is too squishy," said Harrowhark, who clung to dignity the way certain species of carnivorous ants dug their jaws inseparably into the flesh of their victims. "I cannot get out of it."
"It's supposed to be squishy. It's comfortable. And it's rad as hell." As though to demonstrate, Gideon the First smacked the surface of the bed (if you could call it a bed) with the heel of her hand, sending a jocular thwap rippling over its surface. Then, eliciting another spasm of Harrow's abject horror, she flopped onto it facedown.
The bed was five or six graves wide, which was plenty of space, and no part of the Necrolord's Heir came close to touching any part of the Reverend Daughter, even in the earthquake of ripples that she created on impact. Harrow found this only mildly soothing. She had still somehow gone from being in a bed alone to being in a bed with Her Serene Highness, which had been the exact opposite of her only objective in coming to this idiotic ball, even if it was the one thing every other House heir drooled and clamored over. Her nerves were jangling like the Secundarius bell ringing muster call, and she couldn't shake the feeling that she would somehow fall through into the water and drown if she moved too much. What was worse, she now couldn't avoid noticing the body of Her Serene Highness, which stretched and flexed with lean muscle under her dazzling gold-trimmed mother-of-pearl robes, now puddled around her over the covers like starfire. Even without touching her, Harrow could feel that the taut, strong body concealed by those robes was astonishingly rich in thalergy, all but bursting with vivacity and life. Not very serene at all, actually, thought some distant part of Harrow's brain that was not busy having hysterics.
Hysteria did not last; it drained away like blood from an opened vein, leaving a deep hollowness behind. Aiglamene had told Gideon the truth. Harrow had been forced to put up fresh blood wards every night in the Ninth House's lodging, sometimes twice a night. That, on top of the exertion of the official functions she'd been forced to attend, had weakened her shamefully. She was like her House; depleted, pitiful, impoverished, putting up a façade that had collapsed under the flimsiest pressure. She could not possibly have presented a better or more absurd contrast to the Necrolord's Heir. Black robes beside white, strength beside frailty, groveling weakness beside effortless power. She felt more than ever how wise it had been not even to try to enter consideration to be Her Highness' consort. It was not dignified, and of course it would have been doomed to failure.
Gideon could not possibly have done anything but abhor such a hateful creature. A still, bitter voice in her heart said: No one would. Even the monster with stilled brain beyond the stone would not wake for you.
She was distracted from her indulgent self-pity by Gideon's fingers very lightly brushing the back of her wrist. Harrow turned her head to see Gideon looking at her with raised eyebrows, her chin on her crossed arms, the viscous surface of the water bed curving up to press against the arch of her hips. Harrow hastily looked away.
Gideon seemed unbothered. "Did you just not like the party, or are you a sad sack all the time?"
"Yes," Harrow snapped. "Your Ninth House, Highness, is famed for the potency and longevity of its sad sacks."
Her Highness laughed again, a deep guffaw that somehow lit a churning, tingling warmth somewhere in Harrow's duodenum. It was strange, and she hated how little she hated it.
In fact, she was warm all over, possibly for the first time in her life. She was also beginning to realize that for the first time in her life, no part of her was pressed against something pointed, knobbly, or otherwise mortifying to the flesh.
Somehow sensing this -- who knew what powers the scion of the First House wielded? -- Gideon waggled her eyebrows over those astonishing eyes. "See? Waterbeds are the shit. I'll have Dad ship some out to the Ninth, he'll think that's hilarious. Will you be alright if I leave you here? I don't have to call in a guard to make sure you don't suffocate on your own spit or anything?"
"I will be fine," Harrow pronounced, as sepulchurally as she could. A stray clump of neurons receiving signals from the golden warmth in her solar plexus said she'll stay if you ask her to. Harrow strangled that thought, dismembered its corpse without ceremony, and rendered it down to greasy smears in the acid vat of her soul so that its remains might never be found.
"Cool. You can get up, you know. You can do anything you want, I'm moving the Ninth delegation to this suite for now." Harrow wanted to argue against this indulgent luxury, but had no idea where to start. Before she could come up with some suitably penitent objection, Gideon rolled away from her and off the bed with a practiced motion that Harrow watched hungrily, though she was not sanguine about her ability to imitate it.
"Your Highness," Harrow called impulsively. Gideon turned on the threshold, her eyes glittering like coins as she looked over her shoulder, her robes mussed and still somehow stupidly flattering. Harrow managed through careful manipulation of her core muscles to elevate herself about thirty degrees. "It is… comfortable," she admitted.
Gideon's grin was like Dominicus -- stingingly, scorchingly bright, and totally awe-inspiring, and hard to look at. Then she was gone, and Harrow was left alone with the loud imperial décor, the knowledge that she had probably failed her House, and the completely alien sensation of comfort.
Her heart lay entombed in the dark and deadly cold; her soul was an abomination; hers was the life of the dread bell and the sewn tongue. She must not get used to this vanity, this softness.
But as it was the will of Her Serene Highness, Harrow thought she could tolerate it for a little while.