Actions

Work Header

Sound and Fury, Signifying

Work Text:

Camilla had never seen a candle until Canaan House. The Library of the Sixth was a metal cylinder packed with books and combustible gases, uncomfortably close to its star, and any kind of open flame would have been all it took to trigger an extinction event. Yet her favorite ancient idioms had always been the ones about exhaustion and illumination: burning the midnight oil, burning the candle at both ends. She knew what they meant, better than the Scholars who studied the literary canon their whole lives. The Warden's only fuel was himself, and he burned it recklessly, transmuting his solidity and substance into thought.

Thought and pain. Pain was acceptable, as long as it was in service of some worthy thing, but he could not abide wasted suffering. He had always gripped what hurt as though it were a torch, and made damned certain that if he or Dulcinea Septimus or anyone else was going to suffer, whatever they sacrificed would at least cast light.

So she wasn't surprised, in the end, by the manner of his death. Shattered, and undone, and hollowed out, and betrayed; but not surprised.

----

Start with the speed of sound, 343 meters per second in air. From the sickroom where the thing that was not Dulcinea Septimus lay pretending to die, the distance out into the corridor would have been maybe a dozen meters. Call it fifteen, as a working assumption. (How he hated assumptions. "The first resort of the lazy," and "Puts the hazard in haphazard," he'd said. But put that aside. Put it all aside --)

Call it fifteen meters, which made a lag time of 0.044 seconds between the origin of a sound and its first possible perception by an observer in the corridor. Time of neural transmission and interpretation not measurable in this instance; estimate a tenth of a second. Put that in a race against the speed of a thanergetic detonation's shockwave and they weren't even remotely comparable.

Time was the problem. There wasn't time to ask Gideon the Ninth for the details of how the Warden had died. She'd got his final message and she knew what to do; they'd planned for this, or something like it anyway. But there was doing and there was knowing, and she was Sixth. She wanted data.

Specifically, she wanted to know if Gideon had heard him scream. She wanted to know if the Lyctor had hurt him, and she wanted, with the dull constant toothache rot of a want that would never be fulfilled, to extract the same pain from Cytherea's immortal nerves and regenerating bones, to return it with interest, to make her take it back. She wanted to take him back, to carve him out of that appallingly ancient body, as though perhaps his last work pulsating there inside the Lyctor's lungs had something of him still in it. The last bit of him left.

Put it aside. He'd have said it didn't matter. Focus on the main task; revenge was bad praxis and bad morals. And there wasn't time.

----

Coronabeth woke at least twice a nightcycle on the shuttle, screaming and sobbing, shrieking her sister's name. Like if she worked herself up into enough of a state, Ianthe might still be summoned back to comfort her.

Camilla did not wake screaming. Her sleep was, like everything that mattered, fragmentary. It would have been even without Coronabeth's wailing interruptions.

What dreams she remembered were of things that had been ordinary, once. She dreamed of servitor skeletons pushing their brooms across the hall of the Copper Garden, only the dust that they swept up wasn't copper, it was Palamedes, and she tried to gather it in both hands only to watch it fall through her fingers and mercilessly dissipate. She dreamed of interminable afternoons in the Library stacks, searching in a panic for one book among the myriad that would tell her where he was, and never finding it.

On the thirteenth day the vibration in the walls of their little cell changed. It rose from the ubiquitous engine hum they had stopped noticing into a jaw-rattling wail of distressed joints, pierced at intervals by the shriek of metal abraded by abominable pressures.

"What is it?" Coronabeth asked. She was more composed now than she had been, sitting on her bolted-steel bunk in the attitude of a caged predator, fierce and alert.

"Re-entry," Cam replied, only because it had been thirteen days since anyone had asked her a question, since anyone had turned to her with a solemn and expectant look or nodded in gruff satisfaction at her answers.

Of course Coronabeth only set her mouth into a mask of grim consternation, like an actress getting ready to storm onto a stage. Camilla closed her eyes and felt the ship shake through the soles of her feet and the palms of her hands, imagined the heat and halo outside as the shuttle ripped through atmosphere like a fist through flimsy. Listened to the sound it made as it was torn apart.

----

After the initial shock wore off (as much as it was ever going to), the habits of a lifetime reasserted themselves. Coronabeth made herself beloved, and Camilla made herself useful. 

Camilla could be painfully useful. In the demesne of Dominicus she had probably been the best-trained medic outside of the Cohort. Here she was respectable, more so because she was used to working without the benefit of necromancy. Her captors and handlers correctly determined that she would do what they asked with discretion and competence as long as they didn't give her a reason not to. She certainly had no love for the Emperor or his war. 

She had no love for anything, except the Warden's reliquary. The Edenite soldiers had wanted to take it away from her, but she'd broken the wrist and nose of the first one who tried, despite being sedated and woozy from blood loss. Once they'd satisfied themselves that it wasn't some kind of necromantic bomb, they decided it was a better tactical decision to let her keep it.

(He'd have thought that was funny. She did too, under the howling grief.)

She made it worth their while to keep her alive and leave her in possession of her bag of dead boy's skull. She washed out and stitched eviscerating abdominal wounds in the trenches of hold planets. She un-twisted and reset limbs mangled by Cohort necromancy. At first she talked to Palamedes as she worked, finding it helped her think. Then she realized she was hearing his replies too clearly, his dry unmusical voice in her ear saying things like mesenteric artery's severed, better tie that off, or heart's inverted, that's a nasty Third trick if I ever saw one, and she made herself stop.

On a hot, swampy, malarial planet she lay flat on her back in the cool dirt after working for -- she didn't know how many hours. At least twenty-four, probably closer to thirty-six. She didn't know when she'd last eaten. She did know that she'd taken a few gulps from a canteen of stale muddy water that someone had handed her, back when the possessed soldiers started coming in. They'd gone up against a Fifth adept, somewhere in the jungle a few kilometers to the southeast. Most of them -- the lucky ones -- had died screaming.

Three suns turned the sky into a blazing hell. Palamedes was sitting next to her in the dust, frowning down at her with his eyes stormy and mouth a thin line, ruler-straight. He had been lecturing her about the dangers of heatstroke for perhaps ten minutes. She was aware that she was hallucinating; if he had been real, he would have dragged her under cover and given her saline, and saved the lecture for when she was actually listening. This fact did not seem very important or bother her very much.

She probably did have heatstroke, compounded by moderate-to-severe dehydration. She thought that if she died here, some necromancer of the Nine Houses would come across her corpse in a few hundred years, brush aside moldering scraps of leather and cloth and say: that's odd, this ribcage has bits of skull in it. And perhaps a cavalier walking a half-step behind would smirk and reply: a two-headed rebel, Warden? Must have been hard to sneak up on. The necro would snort and say something like Hardly and then something like Calipers, please and the cavalier would unzip a neat little black bag and smile where the necromancer couldn't see.

She had managed to crawl most of the way into the shade of the treeline when an Edenite officer found her, dragged her into cover and then back to the escaping shuttles as they fled another defeat at the hands of the Emperor's wizards. When she woke next, Palamedes was gone. Coronabeth was there instead, looking down at her with an eerily similar exasperated frown, though it wasn't as compelling without the spectacles.

Coronabeth had moved up in the world in the month since Camilla had seen her last. She was wearing an officer's frog-green jacket with a few insignia on her collar that meant nothing to Cam. It looked beautiful on her, but that wasn't saying much. A mud-drenched burlap sack wouldn't have dimmed her radiance. The black rapier she'd taken from the corpse of the Ninth hung at her side, and her grip on it was comfortable, if not entirely by-the-book. Edenite life -- and a life that was wholly her own -- clearly agreed with her.

"Honestly, Sixth, I thought you had more sense than to let yourself get killed in a swamp in the middle of nowhere," Corona said when she saw Cam was awake.

Something in Camilla's chest bloomed at being called Sixth, and she had to wrestle it to a standstill before she could trust herself to speak. "I had my reasons."

"All of them brilliant, I'm sure, but the cause needs you alive -- and I don't think Warden Sextus would have appreciated you ending up another casualty." She said his name with gentle reproof and utter calm, as though reminding Camilla of a duty of care that she'd been neglecting. The only reason Cam didn't get up and hit her was because the next thing she said was, "Don't get upset. I've got something in the works that I think will interest you, and it will get us both closer to what we want."

Slowly, Cam said, "What do you think I want?"

"Nonagesimus," Corona answered promptly. "Or a chance at her, anyway. We'll be making a delivery that will take us within range of the planetary belt around the seat of the Emperor. There's more chance of finding her there than anywhere else."

"And what do you want?"

Corona smiled. It was a hard, tight, glittering expression, that Cam would have dismissed as melodramatically and quintessentially Third if she hadn't recognized in it the dull edge of the pain that they shared. The empty mirror, the cold pillow: not just loss but abandonment. Only Corona's still had in it a hint of hunger for revenge, the senseless craving for pain that Cam had carved out on Cytherea's hide.

It made Coronabeth look, for a moment, astonishingly like her sister.

"That is none of your business," she said.

Camilla, who had just spent a month slogging through mud and blood piecing Edenite soldiers back together on the slim rumor of a hope that she might find a necromancer who could be beaten, bribed, or blackmailed into confirming what she most needed to know, said "Okay."

----

A planet, seen from orbit. Day on one side, night on the other, and the border between them: the terminator, the sword's edge. Where Camilla waited, suffering agonies, while Nonagesimus sat slumped in a horrendously uncomfortable-looking position, blood drying around both nostrils and in thin stripes down the sides of her neck from her ears.

Cam reviewed the contents of the letter (which were completely fucking insane, but seeing as she was here chasing her own necromancer's ghost in a few skull-chips, she couldn't even comment on it. Except to wonder, not for the first time, how necromancers had managed to make it a week past the Resurrection without all mutilating themselves in pointless, horrifically unethical experiments).

She couldn't sit still for longer than it took to think through the letter twice; if she tried she would start ripping out her own fingernails. She stood and paced, paused to call the shuttle down into a clearing she'd scouted on the way in, filled Judith and Corona in on what she could of the letter's contents and Harrowhark's dissolution. Judith glared at her in uncomprehending hatred, which was typical. Corona took the news thoughtfully and only said, "Understood." The poster, which would have been rolled up and stuffed under the seats if Cam had had her way, of course said nothing.

When she paced back Nonagesimus hadn't moved, except maybe to slump a little further into incipient scoliosis. Camilla went back to the shuttle, set up a tent, picked up the last and least of the Emperor's fists and gestures in a fireman's carry, and laid her out in a position that wouldn't clog her airway or destroy her neck tendons. The necromancer had the same heft and angularity as the folded-up tent, as though she was made of nothing more than a few short poles strung together with baling wire. But the sensation of a bony elbow digging into her ribs caused Cam such visceral pain that she had to sit back on her haunches and breathe for a few seconds before she could start wiping the worst of the brain bleed off Harrowhark the First's face.

As she did it she couldn't help but think of Harrow's own cavalier, who should have been there in her place. Who had made willingly the choice that Camilla and the Warden had refused -- and that Harrowhark had refused too, once she'd understood it.

"Idiots, both of you," she told the unconscious Lyctor quietly, and felt she spoke for her own necromancer, wherever or whatever he was now. "But I hope it works."

Then there was nothing more to do, and she had to sit there in a chorus of unseen insects and feel the sweat trickle down the back of her neck and try not to think about the Cohort shuttle that had lifted off from the First with the rest of the Warden's remains. She failed, of course. She watched its bright exhaust trail behind her eyes for nearly a quarter of an hour, trying to triangulate what direction it had taken flight in, as though that meant anything now, eight months later and halfway across the galaxy.

Day on one side, night on the other, and Cam sitting in the middle with the line of the terminator like a guillotine shadow over her neck. Restlessness had sunk into a kind of torpor, a black-hole paralysis, all her energy and life draining into a sinkhole that grew denser and deeper with the accumulated weight of every second the Revered Daughter lay like her own corpse, unmoving.

It was definitely in the running for the worst fifteen minutes of Camilla’s life. Then Harrow twitched, spluttered, and sat up.

And said nothing. She stared numbly at the shuttle -- at the tent -- at the fucking trees --

The lethargy of doomed waiting snapped like a drawn bowstring. Cam’s body and soul vibrated under the impact so hard that she should have had her own re-entry halo.

“So?”

Those black, blank eyes found hers. Lightless, bewildered, fearful. And Nonagesimus said, “He’s in there.”  

----

Plenty of Edenites wore gray. The color didn't mean anything in particular to them, except that gray clothes were cheap to produce and easy to clean. So she heard the news like everyone else did.

Suddenly it was everywhere, without any clear source: Dominicus died and reignited! And: the Sixth House fried in the flare! No one connected her drab gray shirt and trousers with that drab gray station. No one looked at her with any particular pity, except Coronabeth. Judith did not pity her; Judith had withdrawn into a shell of hatred and contempt for them all as traitors to the Kindly Prince. It was probably better that way.

No one seemed to know for sure whether the Library had been actually destroyed or merely damaged beyond repair, and no one seemed to care what treasures of knowledge had been obliterated or decompressed in the vacuum of space. Or how many people. The planet of the Sixth was tidally locked to Dominicus; there would have been no turning away, no option but to stare and witness. To bear the brunt of the conflagration as the center of your orbit, the source of your light, burned blindingly and died. Cam did not have trouble imagining it.

She finished her assigned tasks and went back to her bunk, stacked in a long gray barracks in a row of a dozen others. When she was sure no one was watching her she curled in on herself and wept bitterly: for her fathers, and for Juno Zeta, and the Scholars, and the Spire, and the Copper Gardens and the thousand myriad books and the maintenance constructs and her first rapier and her shuck, and all the things she had not even considered it was possible to lose, ten lifetimes ago when she'd boarded the shuttle to the seat of the First.

When she was done crying she drew out all that was left of the Master Warden of the Sixth House, the Emperor's Reason. A handful of cold knobbly bone, carpals and metacarpals and phalanges. Precisely a handful. He liked precise measurements. She pressed his fleshless hand between both of hers as she never had while he was alive, willing the warmth of her fingers into his, as though that would be enough to call him back. As though it could salvage something, anything, from the wreck of the universe she'd known.

She hadn't let herself talk to him out loud when he had been just a piece of chipped and maybe-empty skull, because she'd known it was the first step into madness, and she could not afford to go mad. But now it was reality, not delusion, so she was free to tell him things, in the dead of night or in quiet places where she wouldn't be seen or overheard. The odds that he received or understood anything she said were probably less than for a coma patient, but the odds were definitively no longer zero, and that was enough. 

She could have told him what had happened to their House. She probably should have, but she didn't. She could come up with logical reasons for not saying it: she wasn't sure he could hear her, and if he could she didn't want to give him a shock that might sever the revenant link. But she was too much in the habit of honesty to believe that those were the real reasons. 

The hand leached warmth from her skin, but it did not move. Against that gutting absence of proof she clutched her second talisman: Harrowhark's voice, high and cold and astonished, saying He's in there. She had nothing and no one else.

His hand was warm in hers, now. Almost warm enough that she could pretend -- only she'd never been very good at pretending. He'd always said that what she lacked in imagination she made up in tenacity and incisive wit. It was his favorite way of calling her a smartass, which always prompted her to call him a wiseass.

And now they were all that was left.

Cam fell asleep curled up in her bunk not much bigger than a coffin, the Warden's skeletal hand pressed to her heart, just in case the vibration could travel down whatever nebulous spiritual thread Nonagesimus had followed and tell him in the oldest code: I'm here. I'm still here.

----

When she woke the scaphoid and lunate and pisiform still dug into her palm like pebbles, but there was something else. A faint yet unmistakably perceptible pressure against the dorsum of her hand. It lit up her radial and ulnar nerves like the Emperor's Birthday, startled a sound of wild surmise out of her that she smothered in her pillow before it became a shout.

The bones she held were still warm, warmer than her skin. And the phalanges and metacarpals had curved, not with the laxity of an unsupported construct but with intention, to interlock with hers.