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The Furnace of You

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On what turned out to be the first day of the new year of their adopted planet, a sad little Wednesday in the ten thousandth and second year of her deadbeat Dad, Gideon Nav stuffed five candy bars in her pocket, strapped on her sword gloves for warmth, and made her eighty-eighth escape attempt from the scion of the House of the Ninth. It did not go well.

The scion, at the time, was sleeping in a tangle of thin blanket on one of two hard, narrow cots pushed against opposite walls of a narrow, antiseptic room. Harrow’s face was toward the wall, her body hunched in a defensive foetal position with the exception of one thin arm flung out at a diagonal. The fingers at the end of this arm were curled around a fold of the blanket, like a child grasping a beloved comfort object. It was a distressingly familiar pose, for some reason.

Harrow was sleeping the dreamless, throat-cut sleep of the insomniac who has reached the limit of endurance, so despite the groan of the metal frame when Gideon shifted on her own cot to get up, she did not worry overmuch about waking her.

Gideon had strapped the black rapier of the Ninth next to her before attempting to sleep herself, and she took a moment to unbind it, but only to then lay it across the top of her sheets and pillow. She took her own blanket, and, holding her breath, eased it over Harrow’s shoulders: just because they had grown up in the Drearburh cold didn’t mean the current planet wasn’t still, you know, goddamn cold. Gideon personally felt that, for all the advantages of this latest place Cam had found for them to stay, the fact that there wasn’t much in the way of blankets was a stupid problem.

That done, she could not think of any more reasons not to start her new life, so she slipped out of the room. Cam was sitting in the office outside, reading a textbook by a desktop light. Gideon waved tiredly as she passed Cam by. The Sixth would have no reason to stop or question her— none of them slept much, and Gideon frequently gave up any attempts to sleep when it was her turn, and went to do exercises instead. Or Cam would assume she’d gone to take a pee. It didn’t matter. She only needed a few minutes.

She snagged the candy on her way out (there were several vending machines in the building they’d found, and they’d smashed them all immediately upon discovery). Once outside, Gideon hunched over and started walking. Sunrise would not come for a while yet, and this particular city was especially ravaged, in ruins from aerial bombardments, mostly abandoned. She pushed her hands deep into the front pocket of her thick hooded shirt. They all owned only one set of clothes, so she had not been able to put on anything warmer. The sweatshirt was ok, but it sucked at blocking the wind.

She made it maybe an hour down the road before she had to stop and sit on a broken wall, put her elbows on her knees and her head between her hands, and breathe those long steadying endurance-exercise breaths that Aiglamene had taught her: in for the count of ten, then hold for ten, then out for ten. Over and over. Definitely, there was something wrong with her. She should have at least felt some kind of satisfaction. And if she wasn’t going to feel anything, her body shouldn’t be reacting like this.

It was all totally, utterly unfair. She had never asked for anything unreasonable; she had never once taken it to heart when Crux had railed against her for being selfish, needy, ungrateful. She had only ever wanted one thing. It was a great cruelty, that no sooner had she learned to want for something else, that her first, abandoned dream of freedom had been granted.

That bitch.

She hauled herself up, and rolled a shoulder until it popped. Steadfast, she endeavored to walk a few blocks more, and then a few more. She tried hard. Weakness still wasn’t going to get her where she needed to go; that was never going to change, apparently. She told herself this. It did not matter.

Dawn broke over the sky like an egg. The jewel-toned lights of the port below began to flicker on and look beautiful, as any illusion is meant to from a distance; an iodine whiff of the planet’s ocean reached her and her arms prickled with gooseflesh. Gideon felt like she was walking into a tunnel. Or, no— it felt like walking into an open crypt. No— an open grave. A pit of soil. She could feel the doors of her future slamming hard around her with every step, the universe mocking her...not needed, not wanted, not even Ninth anymore.

And that thought should have motivated her to keep going, should have confirmed the rightness of the act of abandonment. But the more she walked, the greater the self-delusion required to maintain the conviction that running away wasn’t totally, stupidly childish. A simple act of rebellion in the spirit of all her very earliest attempts, back when they weren’t really serious, but necessary to her all the same. At the time, all she had needed (badly needed) was to feel strain on those bindings. It had meant more than anything (although she could never have articulated why), that Harrowhark had never failed to provide the answering resistance.

But this attempt...this was meaningless. It was really true: the bindings were all gone. She was so unmoored as to feel physically lighter, drifting like thistledown, stumbling from time to time on the uneven pavement— though the stumbling she might credibly blame on exhaustion. Since her resurrection she had more or less ceaselessly been in this state, adrift and lost and so very, very tired.

With a snarl of frustration, she stopped again, stood in the middle of the street in the lingering predawn shadows, waited to feel something, knowing full well that it would not happen. She had done her crying (humiliatingly) and she had done her duty (uselessly) and now she was damaged. Defective. Hollow. She’d tripped an emotional breaker as a defensive mechanism. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know where to go.

“Ok,” she said aloud, bitterly, giving in. “Ok. You win. You goddamn win, all right?”

Thus she turned around, and hiked back; she managed to remember the way, and at each cross-street went through it all over again, clinging to the sensations of tired and cold in order to ignore what any of it meant, and just kept picking the direction that led back to Harrowhark.

At least this is the last time I try to escape, Gideon thought, when she was almost done retracing her steps. At least the next time I leave, it will just be me walking away.

__________

It was not very many minutes later that she had reason to regret aborting her desertion.

“I swear to God,” said Camilla Hect, “go fuck yourself.”

Gideon stood very still, as anyone would with the rapier of the Sixth pricking the skin just under their left boob.

“Look,” Gideon started, when Cam seemed to be waiting for a response.

“No, you look,” Cam said, dialing up the pressure, and Gideon felt the warmth of blood bloom around the tip of Cam’s sword. “You can betray her if you want. Or me. But not him.”

“I,” Gideon tried again. “Cam. I—”

“Tell me right now that you’re not going to do that again.”

“I won’t.” This, at least, she was able to say with utmost sincerity. The tableau held another beat.

Presently, Cam said, “No. You won’t,” but she kept the sword up. Eventually Gideon raised her hands in surrender— reflecting with chagrin that this exact gesture comprised a nontrivial percentage of her interactions with the Sixth cavalier.

“I deserve whatever you want to do to me, ok?” Gideon took a deep breath, slowly. “Cam, I had to.”

Cam sheathed her rapier abruptly, with a violent metallic shnneek, keeping her hand on it. “You had to.”

Her face was smooth, but her grey eyes were narrowed to slits. Gideon had to consciously resist squirming like bait on a hook.

“I need you,” Cam said, voice curt with fury. “You decide for yourself what else you want to believe, but I mean what I say, and I need your help.”

Gideon kept quiet, thinking mulishly of how useless she had felt, continuously, for every single day they’d been on the planet. But she was not asshole enough to talk back, and when Cam at last turned and unlocked the heavy metal doors, slamming them open, she followed her obediently inside (sending up a fervent prayer of thanksgiving to be at last out of the fucking wind), and down the mazelike halls to the main offices, and the cots they slept on. When they got back to the medical bay, it was sterile with emptiness, the blankets neatly folded on their respective beds.

“Where is she?” Gideon asked, surprised, and took the look Cam shot back at her on the chin, because yeah, she deserved that too.

Cam deigned to answer her, probably because she knew the answer should have hurt, saying simply, “Under.”

Gideon tried not to sound desperate. “Are you going to tell me where she left her body?”

Apparently not. “Get your sword,” Cam ordered, and ok, that was at least new and unexpected. Gideon picked up the black rapier from where it lay accusingly on the pillow, trying to hide her distaste, and followed Cam out again, back through the building to the gym.

Objectively speaking— relative to the last few weeks, and really the last couple months— their luck had finally turned around. Cam had outdone herself with their current refuge. She’d found them a whole building to hide in, and not just any building: A finished building. A school building. A totally abandoned school building, and it had a gym.

So, yeah, the beds were kind of awful, because no-one expected to sleep in a school, apparently, but there was a lot to be excited about otherwise. Showers...laundry machines...an industrial kitchen...a ransacked library that still had plenty of books. The gym was especially wonderful. In Drearburh, training facilities had consisted of swords of mixed quality, the hard stone floor, and Aiglamene’s bad attitude. Gideon herself was a dubious example of how far those could take you, but it was luxurious to indulge in something better. There was a small room with benches and weights and bars to pull up on— riches beyond price— and a much larger room with skylights and vaulted ceilings and a sprung wooden floor— palatial in its grandeur, for all that it smelled like stale sweat.

Cam led them there without a detour. Gideon started to feel hungry, considered opening a candy bar, decided it wasn’t worth her life. Cam, not bothering to slow down, swung the gym door open so that it banged against the wall.

Gideon noticed Harrow’s body instantly, in the corner of the room, arranged on a thin and mouse-chewed mat like she was on a funeral pyre.

“I told her I knew where you were. I asked her to come over here before she went down, so I could use the room while I kept watch. She’s perfectly fine,” Cam said. “Not that you care.”

It took a whole ten seconds before Gideon trusted herself to speak. You’re the one that walked out, she reminded herself over and over, and you’re the idiot who decided to come back to the glamorous life of a fugitive.

“You know I wouldn’t have decided to leave, if I wasn’t certain you’d take care of her,” Gideon finally managed.

“That’s a terrible fucking excuse. I hope it wasn’t your only one.”

“Hey—”

“Did I give the impression I brought you here to listen to you? Draw your motherfucking sword, Ninth, you haven’t handled it in all these weeks.”

No point in trying to resist. Much. “I’ve handled your mom’s sword,” Gideon mumbled into her sweatshirt as she ripped it over her head. Weak.

“You are pathetic.”

Gideon walked to the corner where Cam had left her duffle of weapons, next to where Harrow lay (it was so difficult to see the minute rise and fall of Harrow’s breath, but Cam was tapping her foot, so no time to look closely). She chose an offhand knife, then tried to unsheathe her rapier casually, as if Cam were not correct, as if she had not been ignoring it or avoiding it or downright refusing to look at it for every day since Harrow had walled her out for good.

Training was one thing. She did pushups, held handstands, crunched into sit-ups with the compulsion of a nervous tic, the same absentminded intensity with which Harrowhark chewed her fingernails: just a habit she couldn’t dislodge. (Her body needed it anyway; SexPal had been full of it when he’d claimed they’d “kept her in shape.”) The sword was a different matter. Gideon was not sure why...maybe she had been daring Harrow to bring it up. Fat lot of good it did. Harrow was never around to notice or care.

She approached within six paces of Cam, and hesitated.

“Is this, like, to the floor, or...?”

“I can hit any part of you I want, I probably won’t kill you, it’s over when I decide it’s over. And you had better make it worth my time.”

Gideon shut her mouth, stepped into stance, and tried not to look like she was bracing herself to get her ass kicked into next week. Her body was not doing its own thinking like it should, and she had to mentally check everything: her foot placement, her shoulder position, her grip. It felt like trying to add up a long column of numbers in her head and losing track on every attempt. Her face felt hot.

Cam swept into her attack without malice, in the same sense that a lightning strike could be described as without malice. By a miracle, Gideon was able to parry and make a riposte, and from there she hung in with the tenacity of a bad rash. She had been in more than enough fights to know when she was going to lose, but it just kept...not...ending. It was incredibly irritating to know in her gut that Cam could have swatted her down at any moment, but at the same time was giving her a scrupulously rigorous fight.

“Fuck you,” Gideon panted, dodging gracelessly around a whip-fast thrust of matte grey steel, “stop going easy on me.”

Cam didn’t react other than with steel. Their weapons rang.

Gideon blocked— she swore to herself she would stop blocking every fucking blow— she blocked again in desperation. Her impatience got the better of her. She swiped Cam’s weapons aside, bullying her way into the Sixth’s guard; she swung the butt of her dagger on a trajectory toward Cam’s skull.

Cam bent out of the way, pivoted back like a dancer, and kicked Gideon in the sternum so hard she slid two whole meters across the floor.

“Are we having fun yet?” Gideon wheezed, when her lungs worked again.

They fought three more bouts. Cam drew them out like sermons. Gideon would have rather had her toenails pulled. Worse still, as she circled and dodged, were the glimpses of Harrow in her corner. Each time her peripheral vision snagged on that death-still body, Gideon felt a tug in her midsection, as of a barb sunk into some vital part, threatening to tear.

___________

When Cam had demonstrably wiped the floor with her for the last time and strode off without another word, Gideon didn’t put the rapier away. She pushed herself up, lifted her sword, and flexed through her whole series of movements and stances, then did it again, and again, and again. It was sheer drudgery.

She drilled long past the point where the repetition was useful, forcing herself to assume the correct forms until her arms trembled. The thought arose at one point that she was punishing herself for something, something other than the attempt to leave, or maybe for that, and for all of the rest of them too— she squashed these thoughts down hard. Whenever her hands wanted to be both on the grip, and she had to ruthlessly correct, she thought of her lost two-hander. She felt only numb. It was hard to miss something that’d been part of someone else. The person Harrow had thrown away.

At last when the daylight started to fade and the room grew dimmer, Gideon dragged her quivering meatsack over to the wall, as close as she could get to Harrow without being next to her, and opened a candy bar. When she had finished eating it, she ate another one, and then, antsy from the sugar rush, got Cam’s file and whetstone out of the duffle bag and started to put the edge back on her blade. They had agreed not to turn on lights in any rooms with windows, but growing up Gideon had become good at sharpening swords in the dark.

Gideon had moved on to restoring the edges of every sharp object in Cam’s duffel by the time Harrow finally woke, around midnight, like the blackhearted little necromantic creep that she was. Neither of them said anything as Harrow massaged feeling back into her limbs. For the first time, Gideon didn’t remind her to eat, and when Harrow got up stiffly and left the room, for the first time Gideon did not follow her. She did throw a middle finger up at Harrow’s departing back, but her heart wasn’t in it.

___________

 

They fell into a routine. Harrow obliged them (way too graciously, which meant she hated it) by continuing to enter the River from the training room each day. Gideon unearthed more of the moldering exercise mats and stacked them up to make a better mattress for her, a gesture that passed without comment.

They would go there together first thing, Gideon and Harrow, whenever sleeping shifts ended. They shadowed down the hallways hugging the opposite walls from each other, like rats. In the gym Gideon would start doing squats or whatever while Harrow silently slipped the mortal coil; Cam meanwhile would be walking a perimeter of the building, and would show up when she was done. Fencing would commence. Gideon would get absolutely steamrolled for an hour or two. A perfectly wholesome way to spend one’s mornings.

Camilla was not a cruel person, and did not continue to abandon Gideon to the exclusive responsibility of watching over Harrowhark (easily the most boring task they had to share, and so what if it was the whole point of everything they did, it was awful: sit around, make sure nothing attacks Harrow, make sure Harrow doesn’t drool too much...Gideon could not possibly have designed a more distasteful task for her personal torture; it would have been preferable if she’d been resurrected as Naberius Tern’s Personal Lip Balm Applicator). Anyway. When she and Cam were not sparring (“Gideon Nav punching bag time”), they traded in shifts to watch. Everything in Gideon’s life now was measured in shifts keeping watch. Maybe this was as close as she would get to a military experience. She was kinda glad she’d given it a miss, actually. It was true after all, what Harrow thought, that she’d have been a lousy soldier.

Otherwise, she continued to choke down sword drills, wondering if it wouldn’t be faster to just stab herself (again) and get it over with. Cam was resigned by the second day to teaching Gideon how to properly use the dagger as an offhand, probably because it was too painful to bear when Gideon did it badly. The thin silver lining was that, on the foundation of this tutelage, Gideon was also able to successfully wheedle for instructions in gymnastics (“So who do I have to blow around here to learn a handspring?”).

Whenever Gideon pushed herself to the point where she couldn't do another pull-up without falling off the bar, she’d read some of the books lying around, typically without taking much in. Just letting the pages soak up the time. Not thinking, very carefully.

A few days turned into two weeks. They all finally discussed it and agreed in the end that there was just no reason to change locations yet. They had it too good. Harrow reported “excellent productivity”; Cam pressed her mouth into a razor-thin line. Gideon knew that Camilla would not have stayed if had not been confident of their relative security, but the simple fact was that they were all sick to death of running. They might have been in serious danger of complacency, but, proving the truth of it, Gideon could not bring herself to mind.

And so they continued. Harrow grew more wan every day, but she seemed in decent spirits, her fingers stained deep blue with ink, eyes burning black coals of fervor, barely looking up from her work to acknowledge the existence of anything else.

One day, when Harrow, in a departure from the norm, didn’t go into the River at all but instead withdrew into a nest of crumpled notes, writing furiously and chewing pens, Cam enlisted Gideon in a floor-to-ceiling inventory of the building. They had been to all the rooms and mapped them on the first day, for defensive purposes, but had not taken the time to really case the joint. Now, they itemized every object. Gideon belatedly realized Cam was looking for something, and not finding it.

In the last room there was a piece of furniture Gideon couldn’t determine the purpose of: it was like a table that was too tall, and too oddly shaped, to be useful. There was little else in the room except scrap paper, and chairs. She was running her hands over the thing, trying to decide if it was wood or some kind of plex, when Cam walked up beside her, and flipped up a hinged lid to reveal— a piano.

“Holy shit,” Gideon said, intrigued. “Have you seen one of these before?”

It would have been embarrassing, in retrospect, but for what happened. Gideon would never forget it, as long as she lived.

Cam didn’t answer her. The Sixth sat down at the instrument, slowly, and poked the keys— Gideon jumped at the sound— Cam raised her eyebrows in her version of a wince.

“It’s hellishly out of tune,” she said.

Then, all of a sudden, Camilla was playing. Playing music. From memory. Gideon stood behind her, paralyzed, transfixed. Gently and softly, the music broke her in half.

She had felt something like this, a shadow of this, when they had found the music collection in the apartment those weeks ago. It had maybe been one of the greatest days of her life, until it wasn’t...and when they had departed that place she had been almost glad to leave the sound system behind. Music was a luxury of the rich and powerful houses, the Third or the Fifth; the Ninth simply did not have any. So she had not known better. She had not expected music to be dangerous.

It was obvious now that she had badly underestimated the threat. What Cam was able to play, even with cold fingers, even on a discarded and hellishly-out-of-tune piano, struck deeper by far than any music to which Gideon had heretofore been exposed. The melody was not fast, not complicated, but terrifying in its depth. Gideon was helpless. Wrenched open. Her heart was being lifted out of her chest. She almost wanted to plead, stop, but her mouth would not let her.

Cam reached an ending; her hands stilled like birds landing. Live music, Gideon learned, did not just end, but faded, like water absorbed into the ground. She stared at Camilla. Cam stared at the piano. Gideon could hear her own blood in her ears and nothing else. She would have given almost anything for time to never start again.

Cam broke the spell: put her hands on the open piano lid to close it, paused. She was giving one of her best thousand-yard stares to nothing in particular. Her body was very still and tight. Before Gideon could say anything unforgivably stupid, such as are you ok?, the lid snapped down decisively; Camilla stood up, stretched her head to one side as if working a kink from her neck, casually started for the door.

“Right,” Cam said. “Tomorrow then.”

That was awfully cryptic for her, but they were already out of the room, firmly turning their backs on it. Gideon decided to keep her mouth shut, to wait and see.

If she had thought about it at all while it was happening, she’d have assumed that Cam had played the piano just to show it to her— would have been far too overcome to assume otherwise. Cam was constantly passing on information like that, about what things meant, or were, important knowledge of the world they had to survive in. The piano in that context was no different from any other mind-blowing thing Cam knew how to demonstrate, like how to make spaghetti. But it dawned on Gideon, much too late, that she had been no more than a tolerated witness to something private and painful. Cam had not been playing the piano for her at all.

_________

 

Gideon awoke the next morning with a violent start, so discombobulated with sleep that she nearly fell out of bed. She tried to remember if she’d been dreaming, but couldn’t. It was one of those terrible wake-ups where it took so long to get her bearings that she had to sit through a moment of mild panic about it. Her brain felt preserved in honey inside her skull.

At least waking up meant that she had fallen asleep at some point. She was alone in the room. She couldn’t even remember whether it had been Cam or Harrow who was supposed to have been on her same sleep shift. Maybe she was dreaming right now?

This unsettling idea was dispelled by the time she had shuffled her way to the kitchen and drunk the maximum amount of coffee that Camilla allowed her to have (the first and only actual rule Cam had unilaterally imposed on their group: only one cup of coffee per day for Gideon Nav). She also mixed up and ate some packaged oatmeal. Just like Drearburh used to make, glue-like texture and all, except it was sweet. Desserts were fun but the constant sugar in all the damn food was starting to grow tiresome. She was pretty sure it was making her break out again. Still, the chore of putting mediocre food into her mouth until the hunger stopped was old hat, and she could deal.

By the time she made it to the gym she had banished the last lingering cobwebs of befuddlement, but the food and coffee had done their work and she was hyped, restless. She vowed to sweat it off.

Harrow was playing dead as usual. Cam was sitting straight-backed, meditating: it was one of her quirks. Gideon plunged directly into her standard set of pushups, thinking about nothing more than her form, and she was almost ready to do her first clapping set, when she heard the whisper of a rapier drawn.

She was on her feet in a leap, her rapier in her hand; had parried Cam’s sneak attack even before she had had time to think about doing so.

Cam did not disengage, but assumed a relaxed stance that clearly signaled pause. She was eyeing Gideon with something like piqued interest; she nodded her head in the direction of Gideon’s hip.

“You wore it today,” she said, meaning the sword. And yeah, Gideon had: without really thinking about it, for the first time in a while, she had put her rapier on her belt before she’d left the bedroom, rather than just carrying it in hand.

“So?” Gideon asked, risking bringing her left hand up to wipe hair out of her face. “I had the heebie-jeebies when I got up, I felt like it.”

Cam shrugged. “Continue?”

Gideon didn’t have an offhand weapon. Stupid to parade around with a rapier on her belt and no offhand. Time for her lesson in humility. She nodded. They sparred, and Gideon tried to make up for it by being aggressively bigger and stronger, which kind of worked, until Cam kicked her rapier out of her grip.

Gideon picked up a dagger for the next round, and they set to work in earnest. Cam was particularly unreadable today. Their fights had an interesting edge to them. Cam disarmed her again at one point but Gideon stayed in it with just the dagger for much longer than she should have, and when that was over Cam raised a single eyebrow at her.

“Make an effort, Sixth,” Gideon complained, fed up, kicking her poor sword back into her hand. It was her constant refrain, to whine at Cam about not patronizing her, and it never made any difference. “I swear I’m not going to throw a tantrum if I lose once too often.”

Cam just looked at her. Whatever.

They started round five. Or was it seven? By now it all felt like one long fight, and Gideon was fully warmed up, her body pliant with nerves and adrenaline and bruises from hitting the floor. The engagement opened in a flurry, the clash of metal strident. Gideon was breathing deep, but for the first time in what felt like a myriad, she was not winded. About fucking time her stamina came back. Over and over, she folded Cam’s sword aside, growing more contemptuous by the minute, waiting for a real attack.

By the time Cam decided to turn up the volume, Gideon was fully sick to death of this pattern and no longer interested in holding anything back. They criss-crossed the space, the air ringing. Cam dealt out a series of lethal thrusts, slipping them in at oblique angles, which Gideon blinded with the dagger or stepped around to counter with her own attacks. She lunged to her full reach; Cam backpedaled; Gideon pressed. Cam presented her with a thin opening (a mistake?) but Gideon answered only with a feint. She did not want to draw blood, and she was ready for the fight to be decisively over, even as she had to admit there was a primal thrill to it now: the sweetness of movement, executed cleanly: the way she was able to put the will of her body into the weapon. She’d forgotten this.

When she won it was sudden, anticlimactic. She used her offhand to pry Cam’s dagger out of her grip (HAHA TAKE THAT YOU THRICE DAMNED LIBRARIAN) and ran the tip of her sword down Cam’s rapier like fire on flashpaper. With a metallic shriek their blades grappled, but Gideon broke it to her advantage, and just like that the point of the Ninth blade was resting on Camilla’s heart.

Cam stopped moving, acknowledging the win. She breathed a long sigh through her nose, almost as if she was relieved about something, and made as if to sheathe her sword. Gideon stepped back, opened her mouth to indulge in some well-deserved smack talk, already looking forward to giving Cam shit about this for the rest of their natural lives— and they both startled at the sound of a throat clearing.

It was awkward as hell. Harrow never came back this early. In those brief moments of swordplay, with Harrow out of sight behind her back, Gideon had frankly forgotten about her. Guilt washed through her, chilling the damp on her arms, coming to a sloshing rest somewhere in the pit of her stomach.

“Yo, Nonagesimus,” Gideon said, her shoulders clenched, “if you’re going to lurk around watching me fight, I’m going to start to think you’re perving on me.”

The joke fell flatter than Sister Lachrimorta’s ass, and she regretted it before the first word was even out of her mouth. Red-faced, she sheathed her blades one at a time and turned around. Harrow was sitting on her heels, on her mats, rubbing her left wrist absently, looking washed-out with exhaustion, yet without permitting this to even slightly compromise the arctic-level chill of her scowl. She seemed to collect all the shadows from around the room into her corner, a little black hole of black clothes and black hair and blacker aspect.

“Sextus has been scrying,” she said, addressing the Sixth, holding her voice carefully even. Cam drew a breath that was nearly a gasp; Gideon looked at her. “We need a specific set of conditions to accomplish the work we’re intending, and he has identified a potential location that’s...suited to us.”

This was apparently Cam’s cue to ask questions, but, the gasp aside, Cam pointedly did not react. After an even more awkward pause, Harrow cleared her throat.

“It is a great deal further north,” Harrow said. “Two week’s travel. Or more.”

“That far?” Cam asked, finally. Her inflection betrayed nothing: she might have been making small talk.

“From what the Warden can tell, it is likely secure enough to shelter us for at least a day. There are vanishingly few other options and none so ideal. We don’t want to depart immediately,” Harrow said, trotting out each sentence as if she had prepared all these mollifying arguments in advance, “We want to be certain we can act as soon as we arrive, and we still need more time to prepare. But we are very close,” she promised, a hint of conquest in her voice now, “We have solved almost everything, and we are incredibly close. If I can keep seeing him at this rate— if we stay here a little longer— it will be finished.”

If this impressed Camilla, it did not show. Gideon didn’t know enough to be impressed or not, and probably couldn’t have been even if she did; the inexplicable, hunted feeling that had mushroomed up in the wake of her unremembered nightmares had not been banished by exercise, only temporarily abated. It was now returning amplified, making her want to put her back to the wall. The sweat along her upper spine was congealing as her body continued to cool. She shivered.

“How many more days do you need?” was Cam’s only query.

“Ten, or less.”

This did get a reaction. Cam’s eyes flickered in real surprise. “That’s longer than I assumed. That’s a long time to push our luck.”

“Is it any worse than how far we’ve pushed it already?” Harrow asked, lightly. Gideon could have told Cam she was on thin ice, except that if Gideon were going to place bets right now her money would have been all on the Sixth.

“My intention was to move again within a few days,” Cam said. Gideon wondered if that were true.

“Irrespective of your intentions, is the risk acceptable?”

Cam did not exactly win the ensuing staring contest, but when she spoke first it was not an admission of defeat. “It’s acceptable.” She nodded. “If he would like us to take that risk. I will take it.”

Harrow unclenched a little. “Then I will return now,” she said, “to let him know.”

“No,” said Cam, adamant, and at the same time Gideon yelped, “No!”

Harrow froze, nonplussed. She looked back and forth between them, eyes narrowed like she couldn’t believe they’d had the temerity to gang up on her. “I have to,” she explained with a bad imitation of patience, “I told him I would. With my apologies.”

Gideon groped desperately for an excuse. “You haven’t eaten, you haven’t really slept. It’s a terrible idea.” The truth was that she had a private superstition about Harrow entering the River more than once in a day, and her nerves pricked in alarm at the thought of having to watch her go down again. There was no reason for it, but that might have been the worst part.

Harrow started to say something, probably to lie and claim that she had, in fact, eaten and slept, but Cam spoke first.

“I need to procure us a radio,” Cam said. “I need Gideon to help me. As long as you’re conscious now, we’re going to take advantage of the extra daylight, and we can’t watch you.”

“What?” said Gideon.

“What?” said Harrow.

Ignoring these interjections, Cam decreed, “You’ll go back tomorrow.” As if it were an afterthought, she appended, “He won’t know the difference.”

____________

 

Which is how Gideon, in a twist of fate she could have never predicted, found herself drinking beers in the kitchen with Cam while endlessly tuning a stolen radio, hoping to overhear Cohort communications.

The heist itself had gone so well it was still bothering her. Venturing out on a Cam-sanctioned outing should have felt better than her runaway attempt, but it was worse. They walked the whole distance in a dreadful state of exposure to the midday light. The former economic hub of the port was still gasping along like life-support equipment hooked up to a corpse, and there was commerce there, and a light gilding of civilization...yet the feral, unwelcoming vibe persisted from the ravaged suburban streets all the way down.

Cam was certain that all of the boats in the harbor would have radios, and was hopeful that some would be abandoned. They had sat on the breakwater, watching and eating fish and chips (amazing), then Cam bought cigarettes (“Look, I’m sorry about this, but you would not believe how invisible these make you”). Gideon would also not have believed how sick they made you; she would never eat fish and chips again. But the cigarettes did work. No one even glanced at them, and when darkness fell, Cam had her target on lock.

Cam stole the radio smooth as cream, leapt over the gunwale with it under her arm, tucking her lock-picks into her bra. Gideon, playing the lookout, was the one who had to ask, flabbergasted, “What about the antenna?” and then go back for that, and the transmission line, floored that Cam would not have known to obtain those components. She sweated absolute buckets of nervous, nicotine-smelling sweat the entire time, desperately forcing herself to ignore the saltwater lapping below her. The antenna was a long whip, and would have called attention if noticed; Harrow was alone back in their bolt-hole; Gideon longed for relief from the certainty that their luck had run out hours ago. It didn’t come— they walked away unchallenged.

Between the suburbs and the port, the ruins and nascent revival blended in an interstitial surreality: there would be whole blocks of burned rubble with one intact and open bodega still standing, garishly done up in fuck-you neon advertisments. Passing one such on their way back, Cam stopped and handed Gideon the radio, then strode into the shop devil-may-care. When she came out she had two packages with her, one in each hand, containing bottles.

Gideon stared. “Are you mental?”

“Untwist your shorts, Ninth, I got a six pack for you too.”

Which had rendered Gideon basically speechless.

They had gone directly to the kitchen once they had finally made it back. Gideon had glimpsed Harrow in the office, absorbed in drawing something, which had been a great relief up to a point, but had not made her feel especially better. As much as Gideon longed for a shower, and laundry, and food, she stuck with Camilla. Almost nothing could have pried her away at this point. Cam was fraying badly around the edges. Gideon was scared.

Camilla drew two bottles from their cardboard sleeves, pulled the cap off of one beer using the other, then utilized the orphaned cap to pop the second off with a magician’s twist of her hand. She gave a bottle to Gideon, then clinked her bottle against it. Gideon took a whiff of the stuff— it smelled kind of like the yeasty Canaan bread.

“You’ve heard about it if you’ve heard a lot of Cohort stories,” Cam said. “It’s bubbly and it tastes terrible. You’ll love it.”

Gideon drank. The sensation of the bubbles was unexpected and made her cough at first, but Cam was right, this stuff was amazing. They finished the bottles. Cam opened two more.

“Why are they designed like that?” Gideon asked. “To be opened two at a time?”

“They’re not,” Cam said. “They’re meant to be opened with a notched metal shim that’s designed for it, but I don’t have one.”

“Weird,” Gideon said. They clinked.

The radio squalled pensively as Gideon nosed up and down the frequencies their antenna could receive, waiting to hear something. It felt like a placebo. The beer was sanding down the edges of her anxiety— Gideon side-eyed it for that, but it also felt pretty good to drink. More satisfying than playing with a radio that was never going to help them. Maybe the beer wasn’t such a bad idea after all. She glanced at Cam, who was back to her thousand-yard stare, the rapidly depleting beer bottle gripped professionally in her right hand.

Gideon got up, retrieved some packaged cakes from their food inventory. She took a cake and broke it, wordlessly handed half to the poor wounded girl next to her.

“It’s a complete shitshow,” Cam said, as if Gideon had asked her a question. “Since you want to know. It’s horrifying. It’s never going to get better. I might never actually see him again.”

“Yeah,” Gideon said, looking so wholeheartedly at Camilla’s face in profile she could have drawn it by hand afterward. “Yeah.”

“I’m always aware of him,” Cam continued. “It’s hard to describe. His soul is there. But I can’t reach him. I don’t know how much of it is all in my head.”

Gideon tried the trick with the bottles but didn’t have the hand for it. Cam shook her head. “Like this.” They started beers number three. Cam drank most of hers in one go. Gideon did likewise in sympathy.

“When he died,” Cam said, so softly Gideon might have missed it under the radio, “I knew exactly what I needed to do. So I did that. Until, eventually, I started to doubt. I honestly wondered at times if he hadn’t lied to me, given me an impossible task to keep me moving—keep me working and living—-until enough time had passed, that...I wouldn’t want to die anymore.”

“Shit, Cam.” Gideon’s heart was aching.

“I knew he didn’t have it in him to be that cruel,” Cam said simply. She eyed the last inch of liquid in her bottle. “We shouldn’t drink these too fast, by the way. They’re basically piss but they’ll still get us drunk if we try.” Gideon chugged the last of her bottle despite the warning, as a big middle finger to the universe in general.

“It’s significant that he’s able to scry accurately from the Riverbank,” Cam sighed. “I wish I’d known he could do that. I keep being surprised, and I don’t like being surprised. Thank god Harrow can reach him, but it’s hell that she can talk to him, and I can’t.”

“I wish I was the one trapped in the River,” Gideon said, in a beer-inspired fit of angst. “Sextus should take my body, honestly. I’m kind of a dead weight as it is.”

“You can’t possibly think it would work like that.”

“No,” Gideon muttered.

“You believe me, right?” Cam asked suddenly, intensely. “That I badly need you here if we’re going to survive?”

When you got right down to it, no, actually, Gideon did not believe her. So Cam didn’t know how to work a radio. Big deal. Cam could play an instrument, open a beer, navigate a computer interface, and administer medical care. She could pick locks and make herself invisible with cigarettes. She was ten times the swordswoman Gideon would ever be. Cam and Harrow: they were the survivors. Gideon had never had any practice in survival...pretty much the opposite, really.

She tried to put words to some of this and failed. Under the audit of Camilla’s stare, Gideon picked fretfully at the label on the beer bottle, thought about Harrow doing the same thing, and stopped.

“Listen,” Gideon ventured at last, “When I came running to you both in Canaan, when I thought Harrow was the one killing people…” Her fingertips had settled on a bottlecap, rolling it gently across the table. “I asked Sextus what he’d do if you killed someone, and he said he’d get rid of the body for you. He trusts you like a law of nature. Whatever it is they’re working on in there, abandoning you isn’t part of his plan.”

Cam wrenched the caps of their fourth beers like she would have preferred to open them with her teeth.

“He wouldn’t have a choice,” she said.

“This is Palamedes we’re talking about,” Gideon countered. “Pretty sure he does have a choice. Also, that reminds me, I cannot believe I have not asked you this already— how the fuck did you get Harrowhark into a handcuff that time?”

Cam kept a solid poker face. “Part of it involved promising her I wouldn’t disclose how. Why, do you think you couldn’t get her into cuffs?”

Gideon’s brain stuttered into a shutdown at this, which she tried to cover by drinking.

“What is the deal with you two?” Cam burst out. Gideon quietly choked to death on beer backwash. “Just—what the fuck? It’s like you both think it’s very important that you pretend to be strangers to each other. I do not understand.”

“What’s to understand?” Gideon asked, head on the table. There was a brief flicker of pain, blindingly acute, as her traitorous brain succumbed to the alcohol and ran a memory tape of Harrow’s face: eyes locked on hers in panic...bloodstained and poring triumphantly over her journals...frozen, the barest inch away from Gideon’s, water droplets trailing down her neck. Gideon faked a cough to clear her throat. “She got what she wanted, I guess. She doesn’t need me now.”

“Bullshit.” Cam drank. “At Canaan house, the Warden and I had a bet on. His bet was that you were secretly lovers, hiding it because you were her cavalier, and having a giant tiff about something. Mine was that you didn’t know you wanted to be lovers yet.” She sounded very satisfied. “Close your mouth, you’ll catch flies. Anyway I think more and more that I was right, and that the Warden will have to pay up next chance he gets.”

Gideon was one thousand percent unprepared to respond to this in any conceivable way, and was saved by voices on the radio, causing them both to sit up and listen like their lives depended on it. Gideon tuned them in as best she could, but after a few minutes it became evident they were nothing important. She noted the frequency anyway.

“It’s not that I couldn’t see how you might want to walk away,” Cam said. Gideon winced. “You realize, though, that when you did I had to evaluate the chances you’d done it to join the Cohort.”

“Never,” Gideon said instantly, surprising herself with her own vehemence. Cam wasn’t wrong, but that had hurt. Gideon tried to soften the outburst: “And even if I still didn’t know better— Well. I am not very good, with the sword. After all. As it turns out. They wouldn’t enlist me.”

Cam was now glaring at her, not unlike Aiglamene had used to, whenever Gideon was being especially flip. “Ok,” Cam said. “You’re serious. Can I tell you something? I have been kicking myself this whole time for underestimating you. Thought I had your number after we first fought, way back there on the First. I was dead wrong. It’s a bad lapse of judgement. Don’t tell Warden. He was much more accurate in his assessment of Harrow. I hate it when he’s more right than I am.”

“What are you talking about?” Gideon waved her bottle a little too enthusiastically and christened the countertop with beer foam.

“Just that you’re very good,” Cam shrugged. “I’m never going to go easy on you, by the way. I’ve never gone easy on anyone else and I’m not about to start for some asshole like you. Take that to the bank.” This was delivered with Cam’s version of affection: matter-of-factly. “Like I said, my analysis was wrong by an order of magnitude. First you turned out to be more than just a golem, and that was one thing, but even after we fought I didn’t adjust my threat model enough. Made the mistake of assuming you’d had more rapier training than you do.”

“Thanks for the warm fuzzies, and all,” Gideon said, trying to pretend like turning a radio dial took concentration, trying to convince herself that her face was only pink from alcohol, “but you’re completely full of shit. Cam, you hand me my ass on a platter every damn day.”

“You can hold your own against a Lyctor, Ninth,” Camilla sighed, heavily implying the unspoken get over it already.

“Cytherea?” Gideon drank defensively, still acting like she cared about the radio; she didn’t want to have to think about that fight. “You might remember I lost that one, too—”

“Not her.” Cam said disdainfully, swallowing her own swig of drink. “Me.”

Gideon absorbed this like a bag of wet cement to the face. (Seriously, maybe this beer was actually a bad idea.) She knew Palamedes was a Lyctor, had listened to his lecture on the whole thing. At the time she’d been sort of calling it in, waiting for him to get to the part about Harrow, and her takeaway had amounted to “SexPal is a Lyctor, but fun sized, and only in Cam’s body.”

Despite spending most of her waking moments with Cam, and even after the piano, Gideon had never thought about it. Never stopped to consider that the Lyctorhood of the Sixth, with both souls still sentient and unconjoined, would have left its mark on Camilla, too.

“Are you saying,” Gideon said, awed, “that you’re like a superhero?”

“You’ve got to try reading something other than comics.”

“Don’t try to distract me. Can you punch through walls? Is it like that Second House augmenting thing? Seriously, Cam!”

“It’s—” Cam tapped one finger, “It just gives you an edge. When I push myself very hard, I’ll be waiting to get to that point where it’s difficult, and I want to quit, and I’m sucking wind. And that never comes.” She gave it more thought. “Also, I’m really fucking fast.” Another shrug. The beer was making Camilla downright as expressive as Ortus’ poetry. “Not sure that’s what’s supposed to happen. His theory was that it works better if both people are really alive. A soul degrades if it’s anchored to anything that isn’t its own body. He only has a hand. He used the word ‘delicate.’ The Lyctoral...process...can be destabilizing, so the Warden didn’t want to go all the way.”

Gideon did try. She made it maybe thirty seconds before her carefully set face dissolved into sniggers and then to paroxysms of laughter.

“Please consider taking up that vow of silence again,” Cam said, rolling her eyes while she tipped her bottle toward the ceiling.

“It’s not my fault,” Gideon hooted, “you said it. How far did you go, Lyctor third base?”

They each nursed the last swallows of their fourth respective beers. Gideon had forgotten about dinner and showers, blissfully lacking in fucks to give. She was now playing with the radio only for the amusement value of the warbling static, head pillowed on her left arm.

“When did you learn this?” Cam asked, gesturing to the radio.

“Just picked it up,” Gideon said carefully. “Trying to get off the Ninth.” Studied feverishly for months, more like; it had taken forever to smuggle in the operational manuals she needed. Her attempt to build a secret radio at the age of sixteen had been blown wide open when Harrow had decided to expand the snow leek fields. Gideon would never believe that had been a coincidence.

“I see.”

“I knew the comics were propaganda and all,” Gideon said, feeling a need to absolve herself, to be worthy of Camilla’s regard. Whenever she thought back on her youthful obsession with enlisting, she felt soiled. “I didn’t see a reason to care. I had to have something. There was literally nothing else.”

“Tenacious of you to keep at it your whole life.”

“Oh, that was easy— I was really in it for all the Cohort babes.”

“That I believe.”

“Wouldn’t have been worth it,” Gideon said, surprising herself all over again.

“Don’t lose sleep over it,” Cam said. “Our House is more honest about the front, because we can’t afford to lose anyone. I knew before I had to slit my first living throat that I would puke afterwards, and I did, too. It’s how it’s supposed to be.”

“Um,” Gideon glanced at Camilla Hect, badass motherfucker, and made a mental note not to get on her shit list ever again. “Thanks?”

At that moment Harrow swept by the door. She didn’t enter the kitchen, and she didn’t glance their way— stone fucking cold. Gideon could practically see the billowing of her nonexistent vestments behind her. Surely she was doing this only for dramatic effect. Where in an abandoned school could she possibly have to be in such a godawful hurry?

“Come eat dinner, shithead!” Gideon called after her, getting no response.

She only became aware she was staring at the empty door when Cam cleared her throat and reached across her field of vision to unsleeve the next two bottles.

“Cohort babes, huh?” Cam asked.

“Shut the fuck up,” Gideon said, putting her head back down with a thump.

“We going to finish these or not?”

Gideon lifted her head slightly. “Wanna race to see who can drink one faster?”

“Hard pass,” said Cam, deftly popping the caps off beers number five.

_____________

 

Gideon took meticulous care to walk straight and quiet on her way toward the school offices, the result being that she ran into the doorframe upon entry. She held the wall while she steadied herself, trying not to drip too much blood. Bathroom sink. Right. That was down the hall. She noticed with interest that she was swaying, and held the wall again.

From the ether somewhere to her right came the voice of Harrowhark Nonagesimus. “What’s wrong with you?”

Ah. Great.

“Nothin’,” Gideon said, with a spectacular failure to articulate. Maybe Harrow wouldn’t notice. “Cam is practic’ng with knives. Throwing. She said, sleep it off, I can’t teach you like ths.”

The wraith-like form of the Reverend Daughter materialized in Gideon’s field of vision, fists clenched. She stared at Gideon for a few hard seconds. “You’re intoxicated,” Harrow said, shocked.

Gideon blinked hard. “Am not.”

“Wait— Hect is aware that you’re intoxicated? Is Hect intoxicated? How? How could she let this happen? Why was she teaching you to throw knives?”

“It was her idea,” Gideon protested, hiding the hand with the knife wound behind her back, “because she isa total badass. Do not b’smirch Cam’s honor. And Cam s’not the boss of me. Tha’s your job."

“In our situation!” Harrow was working herself up into a proper conniption. Gideon found herself instinctively bracing to be assaulted by skeletons. “I can’t believe it of her!”

“But totally believe it of me, eh?” Gideon tried to wink, but sort of forgot how to do it and ended up just squinting at Harrow’s face.

Harrow had clearly cut her own hair again. Gideon knew she hated how fast it grew now, and the fact that it was still growing like that was deeply troubling, but Gideon had never dared to ask why. That must have been what she’d been up to tonight. She had made a mess of the job, enough to melt Gideon’s whole heart: spiky black licks of hair, of all sizes, sticking in random directions, way too soft and fine for someone who’d spent their life in that much ossuary dust. The hacksaw-pixie look totally clashed with her sharp, flawless face and piercing eyes.

Harrow closed those eyes as Gideon watched. It looked like she was counting to ten. She took a deep breath, nostrils flaring.

“Whatever intimacy you are cultivating with Camilla Hect,” Harrow started, a certain stress on the word intimacy, but Gideon cackled. It was so funny she had to lean the rest of her body against the wall.

“I’ll thank you not to cast filthy aspersions on our beautiful friends’hip,” Gideon said, attempting a lofty tone, ruined it by still giggling. “Somed’y, Harrow, you’ll find out you don’t haft to be jealous of my time.”

There was silence then, which may have lasted longer than Gideon was capable of judging. Harrow must have reached a conclusion as to the extent of Gideon’s incapacity, because she suddenly grabbed Gideon by the wrist, dragging her towards the cots. Her grip was unexpectedly strong.

“You’re a jackass,” Harrow was muttering darkly as Gideon stumbled in her wake, “You’re a cretin, you’re a waste of oxygen. Getting drunk, getting hurt, going out on pointless heists, like she needs to prove something to me. I won’t tolerate it. Not when we’re this close.” Harrow ripped back the curtains that divided the cots from the rest of the room, and gave Gideon a vicious little shove. “For the love of all that’s holy, you smell bad. Get in the bed, Nav.”

Cam had used the word lovers. Oh, God.

“Alright, baby, I’mma put on my robe and wizard hat,” Gideon mumbled, avoiding Harrow’s eyes, aiming her body in the vague direction of the cot and hoping all her various limbs would get the memo to keep up.

“What the fuck are you even saying half the fucking time,” Harrow snarled, but she seemed to be talking to herself, because she was walking away as she said it.

Gideon yielded to the shitty thin mattress, curling up on top of the blanket. The room spun very slowly, but she could make it stop if she concentrated. Concentrating was hard when she wanted to sleep. She groaned.

She was made aware of Harrow’s return abruptly when she felt her wounded hand snatched up, and the skin and muscle knit together with a jolt.

“Hey!” Gideon protested, eyes opening wide, “That’s not safe!”

“It’s fine,” Harrow snapped. “It’s barely a theorem at all. I think I can be trusted to know the risks, unlike some of us.”

“Would’ve healed."

“God, but you’re an idiot.” A glass of water was shoved into Gideon’s face. “Drink this.”

“But—”

“I will force feed it to you.”

She would, too. Gideon propped herself up halfheartedly and put her mouth on the glass. Give her credit, most of the water did end up down her throat. She curled back up, coughing.

“Harrow.”

“Shut up.”

“Harrow, this is bad.” Icy silence. “Like, really bad. It’s spinning."

Gideon would have sworn on her life that Harrow’s response, sotto voce, was, “No shit, Nav."

Gideon tried to think. There was something important. “I need to learn to cut your hair,” she declared, suddenly, urgently.

“Why?” Harrow asked, in the universal manner of people everywhere trying to reason with the drunk.

“Cavaliers do hair,” Gideon insisted. “Issac did for Jeannemary. Colm did ‘t for Uncle Mayonnaise. You have to let me.”

“Taking your measure as a cavalier with Octakiseron’s yardstick?” Harrow asked. “Disgusting.” But her voice was neutral now, resigned.

“Just let me do your hair,” Gideon said into her pillow. All of a sudden it sounded very sad to be called a cavalier. Had she ever been anything more than a bad actor in a bad play?

“All right, Griddle,” Harrow promised, in a tone that made it clear she meant the opposite. “But you’re not allowed to make it look weird.” At last, her shadow across the bed retreated.

“I can do a good job,” Gideon said to herself. “The kitchen has bowls.”

Gideon was in the final stages of negotiation with her body on a sleep-without-barfing treaty when Harrow came back, again, like the angel of death. Blearily Gideon registered a shadow passing over her forehead, and with a yelp that came straight from her brain stem, jerked back.

“Don’t,” she pleaded.

Harrow was statue-still by the side of the cot. “It’s just me, Griddle,” she said, uneasily.

“Just don’t,” Gideon said, heart beating fast, “Don’t do brain necromancy. Don’t put me under. I’ll be ok, promise. I just, I don’t want...please."

Harrow breathed out very slowly. “I will not touch you with flesh magic,” she said, in her formal tones. “I swear. It was not my intention.”

“Ok,” Gideon said.

A touch of asperity crept back into Harrow’s voice. “You certainly won’t need my help to pass out.”

Rather than withdrawing, Harrow’s shadow eclipsed her further; Gideon felt the drape of a blanket over her torso, and she lay still in confusion, but that was all. After a minute she became aware that Harrow was gone again, probably this time for good. Another minute, and her brain fogged over; without further preamble, as predicted, Gideon passed out.