In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.
It had been a simple plan, considering all the ways it could have gone wrong. Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus might spend most of her time finding new and infinitely more boring ways to use bones, but she had a sixth sense for Gideon’s escape attempts, and the only time she bothered to lift her frail muscles was to keep her from leaving the Ninth. If she had gotten a hint of an unplanned shuttle, a single question about the forged pass, a whisper about the missing key, she would have struck like a cobra; even as Gideon watched the Ninth sink from her view through the plex screen of the shuttle, she braced herself for the blow she knew would come.
Gideon spent the first month at the Cohort tensed like a spring. Aiglamene’s training and her own regimens let her drift through training in a haze while the weepy levies and would-be heroes had the basics of swordplay and drills beaten into them. Every time a new message arrived or boots walked down the corridor outside her unit’s bunks, Gideon’s old instincts would rear their head, and she would steel herself for the flat gazes of the soldiers, their hands on her shoulders as she was led to the brig, the peremptory questions asking whether her escape was premediated, what her defense was, whether she had anything to say for herself. Even knowing she could hurt Harrow worse than Harrow could hurt her would be cold comfort once she was returned to the Ninth. Before, it was her own personal hell; now that she had known the luxuries of food that didn’t use snow leeks and people whose gaze was bored, rather than hateful, it would be unbearable.
When she slept, Gideon Nav dreamt of growing old with Harrowhark. The dream always started the same way, though it seemed new every time. She would wake up before the clang of Drearburh’s bell echoed through her oblate’s cell, her fitful sleep disturbed by aches and pains. She would pretend that her slow, deliberate movements while donning her robe were from a hidden spark of resistance rather than avoiding another bone broken from a bad fall. She would shuffle into the vast church past the rows of skeletons and the few remaining nuns who clung to life even more stubbornly than she did. The pew her body stopped at changed from dream to dream, but as her joints screamed from the effort of kneeling, it always offered the same view of the Lady of Drearburh, whose parents had finally been laid to rest decades ago. Gideon’s knotted fingers would pick through the string of prayer beads just as surely as others of the Ninth house; after her muscles had withered to the point that her sword was too heavy to lift, this hated ritual had filled the time normally spent training. The Lady of Drearburh never bothered to acknowledge her. She had, after all, won her final victory when Gideon reached the age when the luckiest survivors of the Cohort were discharged to live out their retirements; why would she bother to turn her eyes over what was now just another oblate? The dream always ended the same way, too: a flare of pain in her chest, her lungs rattling as she breathed her last breaths, knowing that even in death, she would loyally serve the Ninth. Then she would wake up and see the dull gray wall of the boarding ship, or the dirt of her foxhole, or the cool white tile of the infirmary, or, on one memorable occasion, the branches of the tree she was falling out of, and remember that no matter how boring or painful the Cohort became, at least there were more people than skeletons around her.
That month became a year, and that year became two, then five, then ten. The irrational fear of being dragged back to the Ninth faded and was replaced with the entirely rational fear of dying. Gideon knew she was strong and fast, but she had seen stronger and faster people breathe their last in front of her. If Gideon Nav, formerly of the Ninth, was going to die, she would die of old age surrounded by adoring women, not from a sucking chest wound on a worthless stepping-stone of a planet.
Ten years after that knot of tension had started to loosen, her nightmare walked into her office.
The office itself was a glorified closet, smaller than her cell on the Ninth and mostly filled with a desk and bed, but it gave the mixed blessing of privacy that most enlisted soldiers lacked. It, along with the scarlet officer’s jacket and the small captain’s cluster on her collar, had been earned by going against every instinct and risking her life to save a necromancer’s. They had been stationed on some backwater shithole that had unexpectedly turned hot, and their necromancer had thrown caution to the wind and badly overextended their front line. One thing led to another, and before she knew it, Gideon found herself with a shiny battlefield commission and a tactics manual she was fruitlessly attempting to understand.
As she sat with her boots propped up on her desk, the sound of her office door opening interrupted her non-reading. She glanced up, prepared to chastise the ensign who opened without knocking, but the words curdled and died in her mouth as she saw a specter from the past. The last ten years had not been kind to Harrowhark; even beneath the smudged paint of the Anchorite Dying, Gideon could see that her face was etched with new lines around her mouth. Her dour black robe hung more loosely than Gideon remembered. In classic stiff-necked Reverend Daughter fashion, she had obviously dismissed the customary placket of dirt to ward off space exposure, and she looked even more exhausted than normal. To anyone else, she was a harbinger from a grim cult, straight out of a genre piece; to Gideon, she was a delicate piece of clockwork starting to wind down.
The silence of ten years stretched between them like an abyss, before Harrowhark Nonagesimus swept her veiled eyes around the office, opened her mouth and said:
“Whose idea was it to make you an officer, Griddle? Even the Cohort needs soldiers who can read books without pictures.”
Gideon shrugged and idly turned a page to try and cover her old instincts screaming at her. “If you’re really that interested, you can always ask the Fourth House brats who pushed for it. If they haven’t died in the Emperor’s name while getting coffee.”
Harrow’s mouth thinned. “That doesn’t answer my question. Aiglamene gave you some skill with that sword,” she said with a classic Reverend Daughter sneer towards the two-hander, “but if they’re looking for a leader, they might as well make your sword captain.”
Gideon shot a flat glance at Harrow. “You didn’t show up after ten years to talk about how I succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Just tell me what you want so I can tell you to shut the fuck up and get out.”
Harrow opened her mouth, presumably to spit more venom at Gideon, but shocked Gideon by breaking years of tradition: Harrow closed her mouth, carefully closed the door, took a deep breath, and sat down on the small stool in front of Gideon’s desk. She slid a sheet of paper across the desk and even through the veil covering her eyes, Gideon could feel her gaze trying to pound nails through her head.
“The Necrolord Prime, in his wisdom, has summoned the heirs of the Eight Houses to ascend as Lyctors, and you will be my cavalier.”
The silence returned, thick and stifling. Gideon filled that silence by swinging her feet off the desk and skimming the letter, which (shockingly) confirmed Harrow’s bullshit story. Gideon wasn’t a Sixth House scribe, but the paper looked legitimate, and even Harrow would think twice before committing to a lie this risky or unbelievable. Gideon cleared a dry throat and said: “If you need someone to hump bones around for you, just take Ortus.”
Harrow’s hand started working a small bracelet of phalanges. “Ortus is… unable to fulfill his duties.”
Gideon arched an eyebrow. “So he finally made it out, huh? Good for him, although you should really beef up your security if someone as weepy as him can sneak out under your nose.”
“I’m not here to talk about Nigenad, Griddle,” Harrow snapped, “I’m here to replace him.”
“Well, you’ve made a very persuasive argument, but now is when I tell you to shut the fuck up and get out.”
Harrow leaned over the desk, her voice reaching a feverish intensity. “Listen to me. I know the Ninth House—”
“Treated me like shit? Made the Cohort seem appealing? Tried to make me become a nun? The Ninth House might have followed your lead, but all that was you,” Gideon said.
“For God’s sake, we were children, Griddle,” Harrow said in her strongest Reverend-Daughter tones. “The Ninth House gave you food, shelter, and that sword you swing around. I’m not here to conscript you, I’m here to persuade you.”
Gideon shot Harrow a lopsided smirk that had grown rusty with disuse. “I hate to disappoint the Reverend Daughter—”
“—Reverend Mother, but first of all, there isn’t a single thing that you or the Ninth could offer me, and second of all, any promise you make isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Harrow swallowed, her throat making an audible click, and hesitated before saying: “When you arrived, the most seasoned necromancers of the Ninth were unable to question the woman who carried you.” She paused, and Gideon could feel some of the raw arrogance of the old Harrow. “None of them were Lyctors.”
Gideon’s blood ran cold, and her thoughts spun in circles. She had obviously thought about the mystery of her origins, but it was always distant and remote, something that could be tossed aside for more interesting things or picked up on a whim. The idea that her mother could be given a name and a face was like a scar reopening, or a corpse digging itself out of a deep grave. She stood up, her body trembling, and shoved the Emperor’s letter back into Harrow’s hands.
“You sweep back into my life after ten years,” Gideon hissed, “and throw that in my face just so you can get me to heel like a fucking dog? How desperate do you think I am?”
Harrow stood, her mouth twisting, before leaning next to Gideon’s ear and whispering: “Nav, I swear on my mother and the tomb that if you help me ascend to Lyctorhood, I will spill as much blood as it takes to pull her spirit back.”
The silence had returned, but this silence sparked with tension as Gideon met Harrow’s veiled eyes. After an eternity of waiting, Harrow tucked the letter into her sleeve.
“The shuttle to the First leaves in two hours,” she muttered. “There’s a space for you, if you want it.”
Gideon spent the first hour pacing her office, glancing at her sword, and thinking in circles. She spent the second hour packing. As she settled into the cramped shuttle, she took grim pleasure in Harrow’s nervous knucklebone prayers. She sat against a wall, making sure to keep Harrow in her eyeline, but the steady drone of the engines lulled her into a doze as the shuttle carved its way towards the First.