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A Simple Charm

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"Pssst. Hey. Gloom mistress," Gideon hissed. "Let me see your hands."

Of all the places for useless, time-wasting drivel -- and it wasn't like Harrow was surprised to be subjected to time-wasting drivel, this was still Gideon Nav, and no amount of saline ingested or vows solemnly undertaken would change the basic fact of her -- Gideon could at least have had the good grace not to spout nonsense in a Lyctor lab.

Harrow hefted the binder that contained, inexplicably, a photograph of Teacher, and gestured with it in a way she hoped was vaguely threatening (but, more importantly, would remind her cavalier that they were in a Lyctor lab). “Go away.”

“Holy shit, Harrow. You cracked it,” Gideon replied, in the awestruck tones of someone beholding an unparalleled triumph of skill, slathered with a layer of sarcasm thick as greasepaint. “All these years of complete and utter bullshit, and it turns out all you ever had to do was say ‘go away’ and that would totally work. Now I will crawl away in shame and leave you to claw open your own face." At Harrow's blank look she said "You're leaving fingerprints. Give them here.”

Harrow pulled her arms a little deeper inside the folds of her sleeves. “I am trying to comprehend the deepest necromantic secrets of the universe and, if we are very lucky, get us out of this charnel house alive. If you insist on interrupting me —“

“Yeah, what are you gonna do? Bleed on me? Been there, got the shitty commemorative shirt, thanks.” Gideon was closer than a half-step, close enough that Harrow could sense the ebb and swell of her breathing and had to fight a shiver every time Gideon’s exhale brushed against the drying blood sweat at her temple. Her hugely muscled torso was angled forward, as though she were peering in fascination at the whiteboard Harrow was studying. Harrow would have flinched away, condemning this ploy as some kind of gross indecency, except Sextus and his cavalier were in a nearly identical position across the room, muttering to each other. Then Gideon moved into Harrow’s line of sight, blocking the Sixth from her view — and blocking her from theirs. “Come on,” she coaxed. “He’ll try to kill you if you get blood on all this super interesting ancient grimy shit. And I’m pretty sure you could take him, but then I’d have to fight Cam for real, which would suck balls.”

A strange fluttering warmth curled around Harrow’s pylorus at the strength of Gideon’s conviction that she could win a necromantic duel against the Master Warden. That confused her long enough for Gideon to capture her left wrist and slide back her voluminous sleeve, cradling Harrow’s narrow hand in her own and supinating it to examine the palm. It was studded with four gouges where Harrow had driven her own blunt nails through skin into muscle, apparently while engrossed in plucking the molecular structure of the key from the Warden's mind. She hadn't noticed at the time. She hadn't even noticed the fat drops of venous blood oozing from the cuts and down the curves of her fingers in long dark smears.

Gideon was right; she had left deep red fingerprints on the corner of the whiteboard when she'd touched it, broodingly, right where a missing term should have been in a particularly complex theorem. It was an unacceptable lapse. Who knew what sort of ancient wards were rusted into the very fabric of reality here, that might be lit like gunpowder with the thanergy from a strange necromancer's blood?

Stung by her own carelessness, she snapped, “You try sorting through the rubbish heap he calls a brain. Your neural feedback was nothing -- your skull's an empty thimble compared to his."

Gideon did not react to this. She just stood there and looked at the injured hand she held with a strange expression on her face that Harrow didn't like.

“Griddle. The volume of blood loss is insignificant and my dexterity isn’t impaired. It’s not important.”

“I dunno, I could tell Sex Pal you’re injured, get a second opinion,” Gideon said, snapping out of whatever had made her look so sad. She delved deep into the pockets of her own robes and came up with a scrap of thin filmy cloth that Harrow recognized as having come from a Drearburh shroud. Gideon ripped it in half with her teeth and started winding it around Harrow’s palm, covering up the scratches and all the constellations of pockmarked scars that surrounded them, evidence of past gougings.

“Did you cut that from a mummy just to bring it all this way?” The thought that Gideon might be homesick was laughable, but then why else would she be carrying such a thing?

Gideon made a face just like the one she’d made at age six when Harrow had dared her to lick one of the lacquered bones set into the Secundarius bell. “Yuck, no, I'm not trying to give you gangrene. I stole it from the looms ages ago. Certified mummy-free.”

“Why?”

“Because swords are sharp,” Gideon said patiently, “and if I asked Aiglamene to kiss my boo-boos all better she’d have punted me off the top tier.” She carefully smoothed down the end of the makeshift bandage — it clung to itself with the gossamer strength of spiderweb, and Harrow felt a faint and totally incongruous spark of pride in the craftsmanship of her House — and then stood there, brow furrowed with an expression uncomfortably close to actual thought. “Could you fix yourself up from stuff like this? If you sucked some more juice out of me?”

“Probably,” Harrow answered. “And, as a stern warning did not suffice, you are now forbidden to refer to your juice in my hearing ever again, in any context.” Gideon smiled and started to let go of Harrow’s hand, but Harrow reversed the grip and latched onto Gideon’s wrist with lightning ferocity. “Which reminds me. If you try to — goad me into siphoning you again, I’ll meld your teeth together in your jaw with a single gap big enough to shovel gruel through, and then I’ll shackle your wrists behind your back with your own radii and take my chances with a skeleton cavalier.”

The only commentary Gideon seemed to be able to muster to that was a low whistle. Then, for the first time in Harrow’s memory, instead of pulling against Harrow’s viselike hold, Gideon returned it. She didn’t quite lace their fingers together, but she did brush the pad of her thumb over Harrow’s digital fossa in a touch that could not possibly have any medicinal purpose. Harrow didn’t choke on her own tongue at the skin-shivering sensation, but it was a near thing.

“Yeah, well, I can’t exactly rustle up a skeleton necromancer if you get all fucked up.” Gideon paused. “Fuck, you know what, I changed my mind. Please make me a skeleton necromancer. I will be so good.”

“Nonagesimus,” Sextus called in his dry, mild voice. “You’ll want to look at this.”

Gideon stepped back and tucked her hands nonchalantly into her sword-belt, which along with the stupid grin creasing her facepaint made her look like an imbecile. Harrow flexed her newly-bandaged hand and thought of the violence she would inflict on anything living or dead that tried to do her harm.

Sextus had found the missing component of the theorem Harrow had been studying. The whole thing was beginning to assemble itself in her mind, messy and complicated, less like a skeletal structure connected with logical joints and more like a tangled snarl of blood vessels, a plexus of entrails encircling half of a gruesome conclusion. Harrow tried to focus on his droning explanations, but her hand felt tingly and strange. Surely it couldn’t be getting infected already? But then again, Griddle had used corpse linen --

Then the fire alarm blared, and they bolted, all four of them. Harrowhark did not reach for her cavalier. (But she did think about it, which was unsettling enough. A mystery to be solved later, when there was time.)