She would never have been able to trick me if I hadn’t still been getting used to your body. And she was a necromancer, and I wasn’t, and she was a full Lyctor, and I was absolutely not. I confess that no matter how much of a hell I’d tried to make her life since I’d woken up in you, there hadn’t been much I could really do. I’m not saying I had given up, I’m just saying that Operation Fuck With Tridentarius was a work-in-progress.
Mostly this had involved messing around with her food by over-salting it, or playing merry hell with all her stuff. Can you believe she didn’t even bother to ward her rooms against us until I got in there and did up every button on every dress she owned in the wrong buttonholes? How self-centered can you get? When I broke in there I also found a letter she was writing to Coronabeth, only the first paragraph, nothing much even, nothing salacious or too personal. I doubt, honestly, that she even intended to send it. Anyway I may have...embellished it from there. Buttons, nothing—I really, really pissed her off with that one.
She deserved the pain, and for a minute there I was glad I’d managed to score a point on her that actually hurt. But in retrospect I do feel a little garbage about it. Give me a straightforward ass-beating any day. I’ll leave the manipulations to the likes of her.
She wanted to kill me, for real, but she didn’t want to kill you, and frankly that says a lot about how much she wants you to stay alive (one more reason to hate that bitch). It was funny to watch her wrestle with that one. Irrespective of her feelings on the matter, Dad (who, by the way, fucking hates it when I call him that, so I do) wouldn’t put up with any more murders. That’s why I refused to fight her. She tried to make me, but I managed to slip out of it. When I do fight her, Nonagesimus, it’s going to be for keeps, no resurrections allowed, because I owe her that reckoning. Ianthe Tridentarius is not going to be walking away from that one— she’s going to have limp. Or maybe crawl. I have some time to decide.
Anyway it was a shitty situation, and she had it out for me, so I was not surprised per se that one night she just put a bag over our head (I couldn’t set any of your wards, obviously, and I had to sleep sometime, no matter what I did). I was enraged, but I was not surprised.
I almost got away, but yeah, you’re still small and embarrassingly feeble, sugarcakes, I’m sorry. You can grow us new thumbs but turns out you can’t fight your way out of a heavily reinforced sack tied by a determined Princess of Ida.
She tossed us right out of a shuttle hatch several hours later. We hit the ground hard enough to crack some bones, which had healed by the time we rolled to a stop. Damn lucky we didn’t break your neck, because I am unclear if your saintly healing powers have any limitations, and I feel like a broken neck might have been pushing it. In any case, it smarted. More importantly, I was genuinely scared for us, because I didn’t know where we were, or what new development had motivated Tridentarius to do all this. But I knew her motivation would be an evil one, so I was not looking forward to trying to keep your body intact though whatever was about to go down.
A huge-ass knife cut the sack apart, crudely.
“Hey!” I started thrashing, yelling on principle, “Watch it!” I assumed they were trying to kill you, but on the off chance they weren’t, I really didn’t want to find out if you can grow back an eye.
“Ninth, stand down!” someone said urgently. It was a familiar voice, and I knew it immediately, but there was also something wrong.
“Cam,” I said, sounding sentimental as all fuck.
“I said, stand down,” said Camilla’s voice, “we’re not out of this yet.”
There was a sudden metallic thud right by my head, and I jumped. Then my brain caught up and I was ecstatic, because I just knew that it was the sound of my sword hitting the ground. God—Dad—had taken it away. Ianthe, fuck her very much, had found it—and now she was giving it back to me? That seemed like a trap, but I wanted the sword so much I didn’t even care.
I whaled out of that sack, earning no points for style, but for once your diminutive (read: scrawny) stature was helpful here.
I grabbed the sword, feeling ten thousand times better already, and turned around to watch Tridentarius disappear behind the shuttle hatch as it closed. I flipped her off. She just smiled at me sweetly. I knew then that we were screwed.
Bewildered, I turned to Camilla Hect, who looked even more intimidating from your height, if that was possible. (I’ll never get used to your height.) She turned to me, her grey eyes almost glowing in that shuttle’s floodlights, and then I knew what had been bothering me about her voice.
“Warden,” I breathed.
From the body of his cavalier, Palamedes Sextus appraised me carefully. Then reached out, silently asking permission, which I gave by virtue of standing still. He put two fingers on your skull, and his expression at what he recognized was a very strange mix of relief and concern.
“Gideon the Ninth,” he said, not needing me to confirm it, as if I hadn’t already by clutching my sword to me as if it were my own baby (it is). “It’s good to see you again.”
“You too, SexPal,” I said, and I swear to Dad he smiled. I couldn’t help myself: I stepped forward and hugged him with my non-sword-clutching arm. This surprised him but his return hug was genuine, and I have to admit it was worth it just for that. Sorry to have played fast and loose with your carefully cultivated reputation of darque mystique, but if you wanted your body not to hug people you should have thought of that before you fucked off and left me to make the decisions. With Gideon Nav’s Bodywatching Service, satisfaction is not guaranteed.
Or, wait— I mean, shit, that’s— you know what, nevermind.
“So, tell me,” I said when Pal was done using Cam’s musculature to crush your delicate ribcage, “What the everloving fuck is going on?”
His smile widened, but turned bitter. “Let’s get out of here before I explain.” He started walking and I trotted to keep up with him. We were in a grassy field, mostly flat, with occasionally treacherous footing, and the departure of the shuttle had left us in black night. There was a glow of artificial light 100 meters ahead.
“Is Cam dead?” I asked, finally working up the nerve. I’m an asshole for not putting it more delicately, but I had to know.
“No,” he said shortly. “We’re...sharing.” He stumbled briefly—not used to Cam’s stride? Maybe I wasn’t alone.
“You’re a Lyctor.”
“Yes,” he said. “Of sorts,” he amended. “Listen, Ninth—”
We had reached the edge of the grass. Beyond was a flat expanse of artificial material like concrete, but black. The light was coming from tall poles, buzzing with an electric whine, illuminating patches of the open area in a row that extended beyond our line of sight. Sextus had stopped in the last few meters of deep shadow. “Where are we?” I asked, unable to keep from questioning him.
“A graveyard,” he answered, with disdain, as if a student had shockingly disappointed him. “Tridentarius sent the coordinates. Am I the only one who finds her flair for the dramatic unbearable?”
“Definitely not just you,” I assured him fervently.
“Listen,” he said again. “I am not trying to keep anything from you. I am going to tell you everything I know, but this is not a safe planet, even if we weren’t— who we are.” He glanced out at the lit area, then pulled a bag off Cam’s shoulder and opened it. I hadn’t even registered the presence of the bag at first, since it was such a Cam-like thing to have a bag of useful shit over one shoulder that I’d taken it for granted. Sextus produced a jacket. He also produced a knife.
“You might as well take this,” he said, handing over the knife. I divested it from him fast, before he could mishandle it any worse and cut Cam’s fingers off.
“Don’t you have Cam’s knife skills when you’re in there?” I demanded, sheathing that thing through my belt. “I only just got here, but I know she would blame me if she gets back to that body short one finger.”
“We’re compromised, because my body doesn’t exist anymore—to speak of—and it’s not Lyctorhood as we were led to expect—” he visibly reined himself in from explaining further, probably dying to bring out charts and diagrams. I noticed he’d more or less avoided my question. “Look, please, just— put on the jacket, it will help you blend in. I hadn’t really counted on her turning over that sword. I’m glad you have it, but can you try to keep it from being too obvious?”
A two-handed broadsword that your body still didn’t truthfully have the strength to haul around without the assistance of your Lyctoral healing. I stared at him.
“Well, do your best,” he said, looking sheepish. Still weird to see his expressions on Cam’s face. I never knew her facial muscles were capable of half that much transparency.
The jacket looked heavy. I snatched it out of his hands, then balked and nearly dropped it.
“Palamedes,” I said, “what the fuck? This is leather.”
“Oh— it’s not human, don’t worry.” I just kept staring. I was getting awfully tired of being so lost all the time. “It’s animal leather, some kind of food animal. This planet isn’t flipped yet, the resources here are incredible.”
You would have put it on, no questions asked, even if it had been human. Growing up in the Ninth, I thought I was immune to squeamishness of every kind (soap from the fat of dead nuns, anyone?). And yet this was a tiny bit gross. Whatever. At least it was black, so I knew you’d appreciate it.
“Had to steal it,” Sextus said, apologetically, as if that mattered. “Not much choice. We’ve been making do. But it’s important to avoid notice if at all possible. There’s a war on, it’s not related to the Cohort, as far as I can tell. I think it’s a civil war. But the Cohort is here, too, and they are exacerbating the local conflict and beginning their own work. This planet is doomed. Understand? If you see anyone, and they see us, the plan is to hit them hard enough to knock them out, then run like hell.”
“Well, that’s simple enough,” I said, rolling your neck with a satisfying little crack. “Let’s do this.”
So we walked, brisk and purposeful, skirting lights and shadows respectively depending on nothing more than Sextus’ whims as far as I could tell. We did not see anyone. We did hear a lot of what I finally realized was distant gunfire, so anachronistic it didn’t even sound threatening. We took what felt like a circuitous path, probably because of the gunfire, or maybe it was just my disorientation. I did my best to keep my eyes on our six o’clock, but by whatever miracle or luck we had, nothing bad happened.
We eventually made it to a metal fence with a gap in it. Sextus ducked through so quickly I almost missed it, and inside the fence was a building, clearly still under construction. White, papery material drifted in the open windows like lacy mold, or dead skin. Rough concrete walls stood nakedly in a field of scrap metal and rubble. It stank of dirt and damp.
Sextus took us to a door, which opened to stairs; he whispered the number of steps to me and we went down them in the dark. After twenty steps we reached a landing, and another door he opened by feel. Once he’d closed it behind us, he flicked a light switch. Orange decrepit light sprang up along a chain of bare bulbs in cages, leading down a short hall.
When we finally got to a room, I was more than ready to get some answers, but Sextus stopped us again before he opened the door. I practically wanted to throttle him.
“What?” I demanded.
“Before you go in,” he said, twitching Cam’s fingers on the door handle, “I wanted to warn you...”
He could not seem to decide what he wanted to warn me about, and I pointedly tapped your foot.
“Oh, you can handle it,” he said briskly, giving up at last. “Please don’t freak out.”
“You should know I’m not a freak-out kind of person.”
“I have sat by you while you puked from shock,” was his rejoinder, which, damn, touché.
“Sure, sure,” I muttered, “cherry-pick the lowest moment of my life to support your argument.”
We went through the door.
There was a corpse lying on the floor, and it was mine.
I took a minute to consider the implications. Or pretended to for appearance’s sake, because I wasn’t really doing a lot of what might be called critical thinking. Seeing myself dead on the floor could only remind me of one thing, and I was mostly trying not to have that memory come back to me in searing detail. How calm I’d felt. How I’d had to turn away from you. The split-seconds of the act itself, like the snap of your prayer beads down a string: the raw nerve of pitching forward, the stomach-drop panic of falling, the whole-body shock of impact.
My corpse looked amazingly fresh. It was dressed in clothes that did not suit me, some kind of black canvas-thick trousers, decent boots, a thick black long-sleeved shirt. So I couldn’t see if there was a giant rail-shaped hole in my chest, but I remembered it well enough to assume it was there. Even while we’d been fighting Cytherea, the big hole I’d left behind had been hard to ignore.
I looked up at Sextus.
“You can start talking anytime,” I said, internally gratified that I’d exceeded his expectations and not freaked out, much.
He nodded. “Would you like something to eat?”
We ate this starchy paste-like food that had been formed into long strings and rehydrated with boiling water. There was a flavored packet of powder to season it, eye-wateringly salty.
I was able to wrench your eyes away from my corpse while I listened to Sextus, and take in the rest of our surroundings. Not much to take in. It was a barren cell of a room, but it was finished relative to how the building had looked from the outside. The floor was thin carpet. There were power access ports in the walls, and light from fluorescents, and there was a sink and a countertop. Sextus had an appliance for heating water, but that was the only thing in there besides ourselves (and my dead ass). It appeared that everything he owned, he kept in Cam’s backpack— including the food and utensils. This suggested some unforgiving circumstances, and I resigned myself to a future that did not include many showers.
“We’ve gone and fucked ourselves, if I’m honest,” he concluded as I slurped my second bowl of rehydrated starch with enough noise that he gave me an exasperated look. “We’ve cut a deal with Ianthe, traded Coronabeth for you, and we’ve simply hoped she won’t tell the Emperor the details for at least a little while. The fact that we could do that at all just proves how fucked we are. I’m really afraid that it’ll be rough from now.”
Worse from now on than it looked right now? Great.
“I want to emphasise that I vastly prefer being with you to being with Ianthe,” I said, putting my bowl down. “So, you know, thanks. But I assume that you were hoping to get Harrow.”
“Honestly, yes, but I think—” Sextus stopped, reached for Cam’s face then frowned in annoyance, and I could just tell he was wishing he had a pair of glasses to polish. He settled for flexing Cam’s hand, and rephrased. “You are what we wanted. As you are. We need you both. And I’m not actually surprised that it’s you driving in there. Ianthe did let it slip.”
I met his grey eyes for a minute. Of the memories I have from being inside you, meeting him in his bubble, and his fierce joy at recognizing me, was clearer than most. I’d tried harder to stay on the surface then, before you knocked me back under.
“Do you understand what she did?” I asked, not really caring how desperate I sounded. He’d understand. He’d know I was talking about you. “Sextus, nothing I have done has brought her back, and I don’t even know if she’s still...there.”
He’d been leaning against the wall, having given up picking at his own food. He came up to me and put Cam’s hands on your shoulders.
“Yes, I think she is there.” I swallowed as he continued, piercing me with those eyes of his. “Rest assured that I look forward to asking the Reverend Daughter for the details when she returns, but right now it’s irrelevant. What’s important is that you and she have started down the Lyctoral path— to true Lyctorhood. All you need to do is complete it. If she is there, which I am counting on, that should bring her back.”
A lot of ifs for the Warden of the Sixth. I was hating this more and more.
“I’m gathering that my dead body is part of this plan?” I said.
His gaze intensified. “It’s not dead.”
“Ok, accuse me of freaking out all you like,” I said, my voice clipped, “But it is disgusting to think about taking up residence in a beguiling corpse, or being a revenant in a meat suit. I’m not going through eternal life as one of those creepy skeleton dudes, they can’t even do anything fun.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “It’s actually alive. Heart beating and everything. Just a little—vegetative.”
“Ick,” I said. “But you’re not going to convince me that after my soul hitched a ride on Train Nonagesimus, my body just picked itself up and walked it off.”
“No, no,” Sextus dissembled, “We had, um, help.”
“Help, you say.”
“Well, Cam was able to repair— ok, the thing is, it was, ah, occupied for most of—”
“Occupied?” I asked, my voice rising to an embarrassingly high-pitch. “With what, and do I have any, like, weird extra growths, or bees for eyes now? Anything I need to know?”
“No, it’s fine. I’m telling you, your body is fine, Ninth. Remarkably so, under the circumstances, we even kept you in shape...it was haunted for a while, and we didn’t know by whom, but it wasn’t a...normal revenant.”
I had a terrible suspicion then, I don’t know why it occurred to me. I pushed it aside.
“SexPal,” I said, hoping I was coming across as someone not to be argued with— which was harder when I was your height, even though you’d never had any trouble in this department (seriously, how do you do it?). “Understand something. If you can give me a way to bring her back, I will do it. I will do anything. I only care that it works right the first time. If there is more than one option, I want the certain one. Even if I am dead afterwards. And I have to say, this plan of ‘just keep walking the primrose path to perfect Lyctorhood’ does not sound certain.”
“Oh, Gideon,” he said, as if to himself.
“Can’t you, I don’t know,” I gestured wildly, “Reach into her head and yank her out of there? Fix whatever she did to the inside of this skull? I don’t care if she burns me up, I just want this to be over with, I just want—” I couldn't finish, though I wanted to say, I just want her to be alive.
Sextus was looking stubborn. It was a look that suited Cam’s face very well. “I’m the greatest necromancer of my generation,” he started, (“Like hell you are,” I said, loyally, which he ignored) “And I’ve spent a great deal of time on the study of Lyctorhood by now. I am very close to certain. I can’t give you perfect reassurance, because we are doing something unique and new, here. But this isn’t just about us—this is about all Nine Houses, the resurrection, about humanity itself. I’m trying to save more than just you and me and Cam, and I can’t do it alone. I need help. I need another necromancer, a brilliant one, someone I can trust. I need Harrowhark Nonagesimus.”
“I’m not arguing with that,” I snapped, “I just said I’d do anything—”
“And she needs you,” he finished, cutting me off. “That’s why we gambled. That’s why we kept your body and why we retrieved hers. Even though sending Corona back would mean running for our lives. Even though we’re dependent on the Blood of Eden and they could betray us at any time. Doubtless I could bring her back without the use of your body, and whatever she did to preserve your soul could be undone, and she could consume you and make you the furnace of her power. But I think if I did that, we’d lose her.”
“I don’t know what the fuck you mean,” I said, reflexively, feeling like I was being pressed onto my back foot in a fight.
Now he was looking at me almost pityingly. “You spent time among the Emperor’s fists and gestures,” he said. “You tell me—would Harrowhark the First help me if I asked her? Where would her loyalty lie?”
This was all too much for me, honestly. I didn’t want to admit to him how intimately I’d witnessed your devotion to the Emperor, and how readily you’d wiped me out of your head. Being in debt to anyone was not your style. I looked away from him, like a coward.
“In any case,” he continued, a little apologetically, “A perfect Lyctorhood is more powerful than achieving that state unilaterally. And it’s simple, that’s the beauty of it, you’ve already done the hard part.”
I sighed. “Hypothetically, then. If I tried your plan. What exactly would I do?”
“Your body needs to consume part of Harrow’s.” (I’d like the record to show that I thought of at least five hilarious comebacks to that one, and very classily refrained from all of them.) “A few drops of her blood in your body’s mouth. That’s all.”
“And then everything will come up roses.” Melodrama, I’ve been told, never became me.
“Please, Gideon,” he said, and I admitted to myself then that I was stalling.
I’d spent so much time wanting you back. Just lying around like a gigantic sad sack trying to figure it out, fantasizing that I was going to somehow do or say the right thing, and find you. I’d even considered praying to the locked tomb and might have done it if I had ever actually learned those prayers, and hadn’t known what a fucking joke the Tomb turned out to be in the end. But you’d always been into it so maybe it would have worked. I don’t know, I was trying to be a good body-guest, ok?
But now that my body was right there in front of us and Sextus was there in Cam’s body telling us what to do and this might actually work— Harrow, I was terrified. I have never been so scared in my entire life.
“What if,” I swallowed again, wishing we hadn’t eaten. “If it goes wrong…”
“I’ll try to help if something happens,” he said softly. “Honestly, that’s why Cam isn’t here. So I could help. I hate using her body if I don’t have to, for her sake.”
I nodded to that without really thinking about it, though a part of me was pained by the implications. I had finally noticed the wards drawn around my body. They were bone grit, and blended pretty well with the carpet. The hairs on the back of your neck pricked.
“But if you can only save one of us, you’ll save Harrow.” I didn’t make it a question.
To my relief, he didn’t dick me around on this, even though I could hear his distaste for the promise in his voice. He really was worthy of Camilla Hect, this guy. “I promise. If it comes to it, and if I have a choice, I’ll choose her.”
I took his hand. I didn’t look at him. “Thank you.”
And then I was out of excuses, so I stepped over to my corpse, trying to see it as just another corpse and not as me, and knelt down.
I had the knife he’d given me, not to mention my sword, but for some reason I decided against using either. I’d had some experience by now involving physical objects with necromantic rites and how fucked up that can get, what with the risk of hauntings. And I guess I didn’t want to slice open your finger and, what, jam it under my tongue? Hold my mouth open and try to drip into it? How would I really know how much blood was enough? (Define only a few drops, Sextus, like you hadn’t fucking calculated that down to the gram.)
Please don’t hate me for what I did. I honestly convinced myself in that moment that it was the most dignified option, and I respect that you’re very big on House dignity.
I bit your lip hard—your lips were used to it, you batshit little Ninth martyr—until I felt the bleeding start. Then I leaned us over my body, and kissed myself. (If it makes you feel better, I had to close your eyes to do it. My body is smokin’ hot, sure, but I guess even I’m not a narcissist.)
I had expected pain or dizziness. I had also been braced for nothing to happen and to have to deal with standing there sloppily kissing my lifeless mouth, trying to get more blood in there, like a loser. What I did not expect was to somersault headfirst into the brackish, filthy waters of the River the instant your blood met my lips.
As I went under I thought maybe I heard Sextus yelp, “Shit!”
I figured out quickly that I was not in the River physically.
There was none of the pressure I remembered oh so well from my dive in there after the collapse of the Mithraeum. I choked on the gritty water anyway. It popped my ears and burned my vision out, even if none of those physical attributes were real— just my soul imposing the rules it understood on what was happening to me. I was helpless, swirling into that freezing vortex of greasy muck, rotting flesh. Why the fuck does this keep happening to us, Nonagesimus?
I tried to...swim, I guess...or at least flail around. I couldn’t tell if I was moving in any way at all. But chaos gradually cascaded into intention, and I was being drawn towards something, whether I wanted to go or not. The water turned clean, then cold. It was black-of-space cold, and it was salt.
When it ended I wasn’t prepared. My head broke the surface violently and my hands scuffled over rough stone. I made it out somehow, scraped and numb, choking, and when I rolled over I was treated to the view of dry grey phantom feet. Your bullshit dead girlfriend was back.
Everything had gone wrong. I was lost, I was dead maybe, and this freezer-meat twat was here with me, and you weren’t.
I squirmed away from her fast and heaved water out of my lungs. The heaving and coughing took a long time. While I was putting up with that, I wondered what kind of afterlife I was in for, if I was going to have to deal with something dumb like being stuck in Drearburh Hell with this bitch for eternity. I very deliberately did not think about what it meant for you if I were dead. I wondered if she was genuinely dead and if so, could I kill her twice?
Maybe I’m not an especially nice person when you get right down to it.
She didn’t move. It felt like she was crowding my personal space even though she was a good few paces away from me. She had a knack for that.
“I have to thank you for the use of your body, Gideon,” she said eventually, like she was trying to break an awkward silence at a cocktail party.
“You’re not welcome, bitch,” I said, shivering violently. “You could never have afforded me without cheating. Why am I always having to deal with creepy women in awe of my bod?” I got my feet under me and stared her down. I felt all beat up, like I still wanted to cough my lungs out.
We were in the Tomb, her Tomb, your Tomb. I recognized it. Whenever I would sink into your soul all the way down, I’d end up here. (It had been a bit of a dick-punch, the first time, to see for myself that the deepest part of your heart was manifest as this corpsified skank’s mausoleum.)
I was standing on the lip of rock next to the saltwater moat of the Tomb, the tidal ebb and flow of the water murmuring behind me, that ubiquitous greenish Drearburh light liming everything with a death hue. Mummified Bitch was standing in front of me, looking magnificent and gross, and behind her was the wreck of her coffin—
Oh. And you were in it. Curled on your side, frost coating your black robes of office. You were not wearing paint, and your face was young and unguarded and vulnerable, mouth open slightly, as if you were sleeping (or had died in your sleep). You were holding something in your hands, clutching it close to your chest, and I felt pretty sure I was going crazy, because I would have sworn it was one of my tittie mags.
I took two steps toward you, and then Frosty Hoe was in front of me, blocking my way. I didn’t even see her move, she was just there. My grip tightened and I realized, I was holding my sword. So this was definitely a hallucination, then. It explained a lot, but it was awfully damn cold for a hallucination. I held the blade out in a perfect line, the point steady an inch from her forehead.
“Out of my way,” I said.
She didn’t deign to reply.
“I won’t ask again,” I said. “I’m getting her back. Don’t make the mistake of trying to stop me.”
Still no response, so I thought, fuck it, and I whipped my sword around, trying to brain her with the flat of it.
It went through her. I almost fell over, totally opening up my guard, but she didn’t move to take advantage. She was just a ghost. Same as when she’d been haunting all up in your shit, she could look real but never be touched. All that comfort it gave you to see her, to think that she was condescending to take care of you. And she never once touched you. I didn’t think I could get any more pissed off, but I did.
I made that sword sing. I hit her with every combination my arms knew. I opened her guts, beheaded her more times than I kept count of, split her skull, skewered kidneys.
Nothing happened to her. For reasons unclear to me, she tried to dodge me, or pretended to try. Either I was faster or she was toying with me, I’m sure it was the latter. We danced across that frozen stone island, my footwork perfect, always winning, always connecting on the followthrough. But her body wasn’t real, and no matter what I did, I could not get past her, which didn’t even make sense. I should have been able to walk through her. And yet I might as well have been ten thousand miles from you.
I’ve studied the blade for most of my life. I am aware that I am good at it, maybe great at it, because it’s obvious and I like to think I am a practical person who can recognize obvious facts. But yeah, so what, that and a nickel could buy me a package of cigarettes. I’ve lost most of my fights when you think about it. I lost to Aiglamene every time until I was thirteen. By the time I was eighteen I still lost to her three times in ten. She never told me I was any good except the once, and I never had anyone else to blow sunshine up my ass about it; if I ever wanted sunshine I had to blow my own, and that was always a waste of time I could have spent doing sit-ups.
I won a couple fights for you that made a difference, but when it counted the most I lost. Just once I wish that being good with a sword would come through for me when you needed it—just once I wish I could save you by doing the only thing I’m any good at. I needed you to be saved, Harrowhark, and I hadn’t managed to pull that off by fighting (my fault), I hadn’t managed to pull it off by dying (your fault), and now I was fighting again, uselessly, and this glacial harlot was playing around with me like I was a stupid child.
“Not fair!” I screamed at her, cutting an arc on the upswing that neatly hewed her rib cage, whiffing through her ghostly person so fast I almost took myself off balance again. “Not fucking fair, you snowcone whore! You owe her! She made you her whole life’s purpose! She worships you and you owe her. Kill me already if that’s what you’re planning on, but stop playing with your fucking food and you let her go!”
I was so totally over it at this point, just completely done with the bullshit. She looked at me with that ancient perfect face, and I pitched a fit and threw my sword on the ground as hard as I could. Sucking wind, the cold air killing my throat, I opened my arms wide and dared her to do something about it.
“You used my body,” I panted furiously, “But you used her devotion, and for that you should spend eternity in the worst hell the River runs through. You treated her like a move in your game. I may not be worth anything, but she is, and what good is she to you if she dies now? Let her go. Kill me while you’re at it, because I am sick of being not dead. But you know if you don’t free her, I’ll haunt you until the heat death of the universe.” I stared her down.
“Dicksicle,” I added, for good measure.
Empty threats, I know. But there was nothing else that I could do.
She seemed to come to some decision. She bent down, reached for my sword.
“Don’t let go of her, Gideon Nav,” she said, and picked the sword up.
The ground quaked and the water rose in a knee-high wave that swept my legs out from under me. It was so far from what I’d expected that it took me forever to react. I floundered up out of the salt water gasping, and made straight for you in her coffin. This time, nothing stopped me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her gripping my sword, and it was smoking, blackening, as if it were being cremated. Her hands were burning to ash around where she touched it, but her face was serene. I didn’t have the time or attention to see more than that, because the water was rising so fast and it was pouring over you.
I snatched you up out of there. I’d been afraid that you would actually be frozen, like, an ice sculpture, but you weren’t. Your body flopped around like all your strings had been cut. The water went over my head and I tried to kick us back to the surface, but swimming while holding you wasn’t possible, and whatever thin veneer of reality had been clinging to the whole situation sloughed off at this point, so the concept of swimming was meaningless anyway.
I did the only thing I’ve ever known with any certainty was the right thing to do: I held you. I tried to make peace with dying, which was more difficult this time, with you in my arms.
Lights out. Maybe we were in the River together. Still seemed too clean for that. Not even really like water, at all.
The cold was the kind indistinguishable from fire. I could no longer feel you physically, or myself. I was burning apart. I was disintegrating in the supernova that was you. It was like avulsion; who I was and the pain I was feeling were the same thing. The only thing I was capable of knowing anymore was that you were there, and I leaned into that connection with all the will and desperation the crucible of our childhood had forged in me.
And it was working. You were using me up, at last. You’d finally done it. If it had been possible to think, if I had still held onto any sense of who I was, I’d have been happy.
So imagine my surprise when you spat me out. There isn’t a way to describe the kind of pain I felt when you did that, and I fought you. You were absolutely feral as you fought back. You wrenched my soul around like you were setting a broken leg on a battlefield—scratching and tearing at each other—I would have howled if I’d had a voice. The very concept of having a voice made me panic with the realization that I was becoming myself again, that you were undoing it all, you were walling me off again—
I could taste the oily filth of the River. My grip on you broke, and I’ll never forget that moment.
The pain intensified, a relapse into the memory of death: that feeling like a sledgehammer staving in my chest.
I took a deep, real breath, and that sledgehammer came in a second time. I realized, in a detached way, that I was feeling my own heartbeat.
I opened my eyes.
I was on my back. The paneled ceiling above me spangled with migraine sparklers, and oh did I feel like shit. Double shit. Could do, honestly, with fewer experiences of waking up in a different body, because it is clearly not healthy.
I turned my head and saw Sextus, and then I turned the other way and saw you.
You were kneeling just further away than I could reach, staring at me. So you’d woken up before I’d managed to, because I’d left your body sprawled on top of mine if I recalled correctly. You had blood on your lip you hadn’t wiped away. Most importantly: you had my golden eyes in your face. Also, I’ll be honest, that jacket looked fucking incredible on you, I’d had no idea.
“Harrowhark,” I said, helplessly.
I tried to move, and found that I could, more or less. My soul was fully hooked back up with my meat, and Sextus had not been lying when he’d claimed my body was not missing anything important. But I was so sore, holy shit, almost too much to move. I’d also apparently been getting used to your body more than I’d credited, because now that I was back in my own, I was having a hard time dealing with how much bigger I was. If I had been standing or sitting I would have fallen ass-over-teakettle. As it was, I kind of just waved my arms around to no effect, taking a mental inventory in case some bits had been replaced by dentatas or tentacles and SexPal hadn’t noticed.
I was having weird double-vision, seeing flashes of myself out of your eyes, and trying hard to ignore it and failing. I think I was feeling something of what you were feeling, and it was a very powerful but complicated mess. It was making me dizzy, and honestly a little nauseous. I ached to have you say something, anything.
You eased closer to me, your expression pinched and haunted and bewildered, looking at me as if you had to memorize my face for a life-or-death test on it later. I reached up halfway, wanting to touch you. I had the premonition that if I did, it would set something off, some chain reaction, so I hesitated, the way I would right before pressing a giant red button labeled SELF DESTRUCT.
“Harrow,” I repeated, more quietly.
For the first time in so long I heard your own voice out of your mouth, and it nearly broke me. You said:
“Jeannemary says hi.”
My brain did not process this well. What a thing to lead with, Nonagesimus.
“‘Hi, Gideon,’” I said, staring at you. “‘Nice to see you too. You’re sure looking good for someone dead, what have you been doing? Well, you see, Harrow, I’ve been on this workout routine where I’m fucking dead—’”
Before I could go full-out hysterical, in what had to be the worst timing I’d ever experienced, the whole building shook with the concussive force of a real-life massive explosion.
A few ceiling tiles came down next to us as the walls trembled. We all scrambled. I found the strength to get to my feet, reached for you without thinking, and almost yelped when my fingers brushed your shoulder and a shock of migraine pain pulsed through my temples. Were you siphoning? It didn’t feel quite like that, but then again I couldn’t think of anything else this did feel like.
Another explosion, more distant, just sound and a tremor, but gunfire and lesser bursts of firepower followed. Sextus had come up to us and with only a brisk “Apologies,” he clapped a hand on each of our heads. You flinched and glared but did not move, and I didn’t even think about moving, I was too preoccupied with staring at you, honestly.
“Satisfied?” you asked him, not bothering to give him any time for assessment.
“Are you?” he retorted, but he wasn’t looking at you. He was still, his gaze unfocused. The sound of gunfire was muffled but assertive. His hands dropped. “God. I don’t know what...at least you’re both alive. What a clusterfuck. Goddamnit. You’re a genius, Nonagesimus, but a mad genius.”
Your glare was scintillating. You drew yourself up, the leather jacket as regal a vestment as your robes and veils of office had ever been, and told him, “Kill us twice, shame on God. I did my best. Tell us what to do, Warden.”
He looked grim, with the determination of a man about to undertake something deeply unpleasant. You were kind of overdoing the whole Bitchy Nun act, and part of me registered that it was odd you weren’t asking more questions. As if you were more up to speed on all this than I was. But somehow I could tell that you were really glad to see him; that rather than being confused, you were resigned to whatever this new reality was, even if it was going to be revealed at any moment to have been a sham. All these feelings were radiating off you like heat, straight to my nervous system. I wanted very badly to grab you and shake you and yell at you to stop being an idiot, you were really alive this time. I wanted to yell at you not to quit on me. You glanced at me and I took a half step back from you, my head splitting.
Palamedes’s eyes flicked to me then back to yours. He actually grabbed your shoulder for emphasis, which you again permitted with a frankly breathtaking generosity. His instructions were as rapid and clipped as the gunfire. You listened.
“You cannot do theorems. Not just because of this,” he waved his hand expressively between us, and I felt a spike of fury that I was ignorant of something no one felt the need to explain. “The planet we’re on is in the process of being flipped. The Cohort’s spread thin so they are going slowly, but the cascade effect is exponential—”
“I’m aware of the mechanics,” you broke in, impatiently. Well, I’m glad someone was aware of something. SexPal did not even pause for breath.
“You need time—” and there was that flick of his eyes back to me, “I say again, do not do theorems, not unless the alternative is certain death. We have to run and for that Cam has to retake this body. It is disorienting, she will need a second to adapt. Ninth—” his intensity shifted to me full force, “watch Cam’s back. Do what she says. She has spent the most time here. She has developed our contingency plans and laid the groundwork. Don’t improvise anything. Move quickly. As soon as you’re secure, Harrow, come find me.”
You nodded, though you looked pissed off, as if it were all terribly inconvenient. “Then for God’s sake, Sextus, don’t dawdle.”
He held out a hand and grabbed my forearm. “Ninth, tell Cam it’s a scholar’s mate,” was his parting instruction, and in spite of it all I rolled my eyes at his dumb Sixth code words.
“How about I just tell her, ‘help, help, we’re fucked’?” I shot back, but he was already gone.
Cam’s body fainted, her head lolled on her neck alarmingly. I caught her, but I didn’t have to hold her up long; with a jolt she seemed to come back to herself, twisting out of my grip. Her hands came up to her temples, and for a second she just stood there trying to hold her head together. Then she stamped her foot.
“Motherfucker,” quothe Camilla Hect.
“You back, Cam?” I asked. Damn, but I felt stupid, worthless. If she was hurt somehow, I didn’t know what I was going to do for her, or for any of us. I might have never felt so helpless in my life. It’s not a great feeling.
“Yeah,” Cam snapped. “Balls. Yes. Give me a sec—”
Her face was all twisted up like she was in pain, but as if she were more annoyed about it than anything else. It was astonishing how thoroughly Palamedes had been wiped away from her face and body. This was 100% unadulterated Cam, and she was fresh out of bubblegum, etc.
She looked at us both, taking in my anxiety and your resting bitch face, then whipped her head toward the door at the gunfire sounds.
“Gideon?” she asked me.
“Yeah,” I said. “In the flesh.”
“What did he say?”
“I’m supposed to tell you it’s a scholar’s mate.”
“Ballsacks,” she said. “He thinks they’ve found us. I hope he’s being paranoid. Follow me, now.” She lunged for that bag of hers, zipping it up, and went straight for the door. You were on her heels and I turned around to get my sword, and—
My sword had been on the ground behind me. I had just put it on the floor when I’d been talking to Palamedes and then forgotten about it for a hot minute, and I hadn’t looked at it since. What I had failed to see was that it had been destroyed.
Oh, no. No no no no no no no
What was once my sword was now a pile of slag. The carpet around it was blackened and ruined, like it had been fire-blasted. Now that I was paying attention I could smell the fading reek of burned synthetics and melted steel. The metal was all drippy and puddled, but already cooled, as if this had happened last week, or last year. Had I really lugged this sword back from that shuttle drop-off just hours ago? How had I not noticed this the instant I woke up? How long had I been unconscious?
I tried to pry it up anyway but it was a permanent feature of this shitty carpeting forevermore. My fingers scrabbled at the mess uselessly, and behind me Cam yelled “Right fucking now, Gideon,” and there was no time.
“Fuck,” I yelled, at nothing and everything, giving in for a just a second, trying to get some of the terrible things I was feeling off my chest. It didn’t do much good. I didn’t give myself the luxury of anything more selfish than that yell, I was already standing up to run out after you, letting the door slam closed behind me as we pelted for the stairs. But I was drowning in self-pity with every step we took.
That sword wasn’t just a sword, you understand. It wasn’t just that I loved it or valued it. That sword was me. It had been the only definition of who I was since I was eight years old. With it, I had been a swordswoman, and I’d had a future. I’d been a person. As a cavalier I’d failed in what I’d been meant to do, yeah, but I had still been enough of a person to become a cavalier in the first place, to have had the chance to fail.
Without it, in Drearburh, I would have just been a thrall.
I had never even once imagined the day it might be gone. It just hadn’t occurred to me to consider the possibility. Harrowhark, you’ve been right all along, I’m the biggest idiot in the whole Empire. Probably the universe. My sword was gone and now I was nothing.
We burst out of the door to the outside world. There was yet another explosion— these soldiers seemed to be throwing bombs like candy from a parade, how much firepower could they possibly have? My ears rang, and dust had filled the whole atmosphere, so there was no good view of anything. But there was light, and I realized that the planet had turned far enough that it was now full daylight, which confirmed I had in fact been unconscious for hours longer than I’d assumed.
I was bringing up the rear, which was a mistake, and my fault. Everything is my fucking fault. There were five people out there. They can’t have been certain we would show up because otherwise we’d have been hit the instant Cam opened the door, but they must have been waiting for us specifically, because they attacked as soon as they saw us.
Most looked like cannon-fodder Cohort grunts, swords and uniforms and all. One must have been a cav because he was holding a rapier and a chain, and where there’s a cav there’s, yep, a necro, with hair the same color as the dust, and greasy skin. He raised his hands to do some horrific thing or other, but he didn’t have a chance against you.
You raised your hand and almost lazily curled your fingers. A thanergenic shimmer broke outward from both of us like a wave, and I crumpled to my knees. I felt the effort it took you, which was hardly any effort at all, but I tasted blood and carrion, and the migraine reached a zenith I couldn’t deal with. I puked hard. My body must not have eaten for a long time, as there was nothing to bring up, but I spat out plenty of bile. For some reason I hoped Cam hadn’t noticed.
So, I had managed to pick up on the fact that you were still only half a Lyctor, that this thing we had was a clusterfuck, as Palamedes had put it. I got it. I knew I must have done something wrong back in that room and ruined everything for us. For you.
But— you were still Harrowhark Nonagesimus, who had been a gesture of the King Undying, wielding a power that would have made the greatest adept of the Empire weep. That senescence field you flung at greasy-skin mummified him into powder without giving him a chance to see his death coming.
Cam was doing just fine taking out most of the rest of the baddies. I got my wish; she had no attention to spare for my weakness. The Bad Guy Cavalier decided, bravely but perhaps foolishly, to pursue you, and I just watched, my pain receding slightly relative to that unbearable high, braced for it to spike again whenever you decided to turn the cav into a dust pile to match his boss. You didn’t cast again, though. You retreated, and tripped.
I didn’t even have a weapon on me. I threw myself across the ground to reach you, yanked out the knife I’d sheathed in your belt, and managed to roll into this cav’s shins hard enough to make him stumble. That granted me the half-second I needed to pull him into the dirt with me. Try swinging that chain now, asshole.
Except, oops, he absolutely did keep trying to swing the chain, just wrapping it around his hand and bludgeoning me. Crux would have laughed his ass off to see it. I remembered very clearly all of a sudden the fight with Naberius from that past lifetime, and his sore-loser sneer even though he’d won. She’s just a brawler.
Well, eat me, Tern, because I guess that’s what I am. Thrall. Brawler. Just a spit-up soul who can’t seem to die.
This cav was weirdly graceful, eeling out of my holds with less effort than it should have taken him. He figured out quick that I was stronger and would win if he stayed down, so he fought to escape. I put the knife in him twice, hard, not paying attention to where it went in. He made me pay for that, and I dropped the knife.
No time to hesitate or think. I used his own chain against him, getting both my hands around it and his fist, slamming the weight of it all into his head before he could finish choking me. After I got in that first blow he was weakened and the second was easier. The third was easier than the second. On the fourth blow I could feel that his skull had gone soft and I dropped the chain like lightning and scuttled back from him.
When Cam touched me on the shoulder and I jumped. Aiglamene had always resorted to slapping me in the face when I’d needed to get my shit together, but apparently Cam can bring me up short with merely a shoulder-tap.
I still felt like I was in a bit of a haze as I got up and brushed my hands off, found and picked up the knife. I bent to collect the rapier off the dead cav, and enjoyed one happy second of the security-blanket relief that came from my hand on the grip of a sword, any sword.
“Leave it,” Cam ordered me. She’d finished wiping off her knives and sheathed them both at once. “We don’t need it.”
“I do!” I protested.
“Trust me,” she said. “It’s more dangerous to have it than not. Hide that knife. Hurry.”
It took some willpower to let the rapier fall back to the ground. The clatter as it dropped was jangly and sharp against the remote gunfire cracks. Cam was halfway across the yard already, trusting us to keep up, and I looked for you frantically, not seeing you, until I realized you were still there right next to me. Waiting for me.
“What?” I snipped, my hackles up for some reason.
You didn’t answer, just kind of nodded and hurried after Cam, and this time I made sure I was following you the requisite half-step behind.
Cam didn’t immediately go for the fence. She detoured to a rubble pile, heaved a slab of plywood out of the way, and retrieved a hidden duffle bag. This she handed to me, and when I slung it over my shoulder it clanked in a muted but reassuring way. As if it were filled with sharp weapons all wrapped up to prevent clanking. Even through my pounding head, it was the most beautiful sound.
“Holy shit, Cam, I could marry you,” I said.
She didn’t dignify that with any kind of response.
We got out to the street. We ran briefly, which hurt a lot, then walked, which made me feel nervous. I startled at every flicker of movement, but those glimpses of other soldiers didn’t lead to more confrontations. Eventually the dust started to clear. The bulk of the fighting noises seemed to be falling off behind us, cross-fading into the sounds of vehicles and traffic.
“Don’t,” you said to me, sotto voce, at one point. Like a needle to my lung. A pinprick of a word that made it hard to breathe.
“What?” I asked, this time with genuine confusion.
“Don’t behave like a cavalier,” you elaborated through slightly gritted teeth. “Back off.”
I was at a loss. I obeyed automatically.
“It draws attention,” you said, as if this should have been obvious. Cam shot us a stony glance. “The half-step back. No one else here would do that.”
I kept my distance.
Within an hour we were just another group of pedestrians. It wasn’t what I’d call crowded, but we were no longer alone. It was surreal as hell, to have just walked out of a warzone into a city. I hated it unreasonably.
“Is this normal?” I muttered to Cam as we walked. “For people to just...not mind that other people are getting blown up a few klicks away?”
She cut her eyes over to me. “You sought Cohort placement, before?”
“Ah,” I demurred. “Yes? Obviously I hadn’t yet deployed, when...when we met.” Why was I babbling? For some reason I felt tremendously guilty, and then I realized that feeling was bleeding off of you into me.
“Well.” Cam said. “Yes. This is normal.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. For this and lots of reasons, I decided to shut up; I had enough to do, what with my nightmare of a headache, and trying to watch Cam’s back.
In the end, we walked the whole of that morning, and every step of it was shitty. The city was a mix of steel and sound and concrete, with a dingy overlay of soot and grime; I would have been interested to see it if I’d been in a better headspace. The planet’s sun was silica-bright and I wished really bad that I hadn’t lost my sunglasses. In fact, I’ll admit that I spent more than a little while missing those glasses with pathetic intensity. I kept remembering unwrapping them from your letter and reading your handwriting through the smoked lenses.
Part of me was indignant that Camilla Hect’s Great Escape Plan was just “walk away very fast and far”, but I sure as hell didn’t have any better ideas, and my capacity to think some up had an inverse relationship to the distance we traveled. By the time we stopped I was a mere emotionless void. I had room for only one thought in my head, and it was ouch.
We had turned down a wide arterial. Ahead of us was a forebodingly fancy building: it had steps of darker and lighter stone and pillars n’shit. I got the impression Cam was making for it, but couldn’t have cared less about that, or anything else really, so I wasn’t forming any conclusions. So, when Cam ducked aside at the last minute, mimicking Sextus from last night, I experienced not a single flicker of interest in why.
We were in an alley, and we walked down it as if we owned it (well, you did; I just plodded) until we were able to huddle behind some trash piles, no longer visible from the street.
“Ok,” Camilla said, looking us over. I don’t know what she saw in me, but she rather pointedly directed her instructions to you. “We’re going to leave this city. There aren’t very many ways we can do that and they’re all public. Which means they’re dangerous. But we’ve been rumbled anyway, so I don’t trust the other bolt-holes I’ve set up around here. Make sense?”
You nodded. I leaned against the alley wall and zoned out a little.
I started paying attention again once I felt a tap on my cheek, and opened my eyes to Cam’s face point-blank in front of me, which I am here to tell you, really puts the fear into one.
“Gah,” I said. “I’m awake, what?”
“You look really terrible,” Cam said, impatiently.
“I feel terrible.” What was I supposed to say?
Her eyes narrowed; she was taking my pulse in a businesslike fashion. I did not have the motivation to stop her.
“You’ll have to clean off a little better,” Cam said, but the way she said it made me think that she wanted to say something else. “I can’t get you on a bus if you look like that.”
“I can’t possibly look more like ass than you both do,” I protested weakly. But maybe that wasn’t true. Neither you nor Cam had spent any time in the dirt, and possibly neither of you felt as sick as I was feeling.
“You do, though,” Cam said. “It’s the shaking. You look like a drug addict.”
“A what now?” I was shaking?
“You look like you’re addicted to a chemical substance. It’s common here. Even in a place like this they have their caste systems. We have to look just downbeat enough to blend in, not stand out.”
I closed my eyes again. There’s only so much I can do, ok? I can’t be expected to be at my most attractive when I only retook custody of my body like four hours ago. I was starting to feel cold and sweaty. I just wanted the pain to go away. I heard you talking to Cam but I didn’t listen.
When I felt my face touched a second time, I didn’t move. I knew before I felt it that it was you touching me. The migraine pain seemed to concentrate against my skull near your hand, like iron filings towards a magnet, but your fingers were gentle. When I opened my eyes, I was surprised all over again to see those gold irises I’d left behind with you.
You had a gray handkerchief in your hand, and a bottle of water in the other. Of course Cam had a set of grey hankies. She had probably kept them washed and pressed ever since she’d packed them to leave for Canaan House. You were cleaning dirt and blood off of my face. You were biting the inside of your cheek like you were furious. I could feel some of that fury: I couldn’t parse anything more nuanced, but there was so much else there, twisted up with it. I couldn’t keep your feelings out any more than I could stand outside at high noon and keep from getting sunburned. And the way you were feeling, oh, Harrowhark, it was going to be the final straw, the thing that unraveled me.
I recognized the pattern you were using as you wiped the handkerchief over me, folding it after every stroke to expose a cleaner side. I’d seen you take your paint off the same way, when I’d been sharing your body. It was like a ritual, done through pure muscle memory, maximizing efficiency. You finished on my jaw, down first one side then the other, and then you handed me the water bottle.
I swished a mouthful and spat, first. You curled your lip. I drank the rest and handed the bottle back to you.
You stepped onto your back foot, eying me critically. “Try brushing off some of the dirt.”
I didn’t see the point, but pinned against the alley wall by my eyes under your dark and furrowed brow, I made an effort. I felt your frustration. I gave up, splaying my hands in a gesture of defeat.
“I’m trying, gloam queen,” I said. You twitched at that like you’d been stung, and I winced at your distress.
“Harrow,” I tried again. “I don’t know what’s wrong. Tell me what to do, please.”
“I can’t,” you said, and the admission cost you. “I don’t know either. I will solve it, I swear that I’ll solve it. I need time. Here—” You put your hand on my neck and this time I did yelp as our connection intensified. It was as if we shared a broken leg we couldn’t put weight on, and any necromancy you did was like doing hurdles.
“I’m sorry,” you hissed. “Don’t tell the Sixth I did this—” and I felt a wash of hormones, adrenaline and whatever else. You withdrew your hand as quickly as possible, and when you did the pain ebbed back to baseline, whatever flesh magic you’d done helping it along. I had to lean over and gasp a little bit, but as the pain washed back I did feel steadier, a little less in shock.
You’d turned to warily watch the alley mouth. I busied myself re-shouldering Cam’s duffle of weapons, stretching the cricks out of my spine. That was when I noticed Cam was not there.
“Fuck, where’s Camilla?”
“She went to acquire documentation to travel. We were instructed to wait here. You weren’t paying attention.”
“How are we traveling?” I tried to replay some of the last ten minutes to myself. “She said— a bus?”
“Yes. A motor vehicle. For mass transit.”
“That’s—” Insane. Reckless. “We’re voluntarily going to trap ourselves in a moving land vehicle with other people?”
You just looked at me over your shoulder. For a second, the only emotion I got from you was pure exasperation, and I was almost amused.
“Yes, Griddle. As we discussed not five minutes ago directly in your presence, we’re going to voluntarily board an enclosed moving vehicle with other people.” Before I could object, you cut your hand through the air in an unmistakable gesture of shut up. “If we trust the Sixth, we do this. If we don’t trust them, we might as well run now, together, and take our chances.”
I had not even once considered the possibility of trying to lose Camilla. But I realized you were actually waiting for a response. Had you considered it?
“Fuck, no,” I said. “Obviously we trust Camilla.”
You turned away again as if that was settled. I didn’t feel very settled. You’d made your point. But.
You back was to me fully. I tried not to read anything into that. Your narrow shoulders were clenched back, your spine straight and your head high. Your legs were so thin they looked longer than they really were, every perfect line of you pointy and sharp, like a deadly instrument, a razor. Your long hair curled down past your shoulders, and there was dust in it. You wore the black jacket like it was both weapon and armor, but I think if you’d been wearing a sack it would have looked the same.
Nothing in your body betrayed anything of what you felt but your body was lying. Your guilt and discomfort and rage throbbed through every one of my neurons with every breath you took.
“Thanks,” I said after a moment. “For getting the— dirt off.”
This time when you looked back at me, it was with that look on your face that I’d only seen you use briefly at Canaan House, of something like protectiveness, or fear...
I was moving forward to touch you before I knew what I was doing. You took a step back.
“Please stop,” you said, and I stopped cold. There was a terrible pause.
“I will solve this,” you vowed again, as if I’d accused you of something.
“I know,” I said, a beat too late, but I meant it. The pain in my head beat in time with my pulse as I watched you, and you looked aside from me.
Cam returned. We took tickets from her. Entered the building and walked through it (your footsteps echoed across the pale stone) through gates, past other people who took the paper tickets away. We boarded a bus (you strode down the aisle like you’d done it every day of your life). We sat in the back.
Cam had warned us not to talk much. There was a rack above the seats for luggage and when Cam put her smaller bag up there I copied her and slung the duffle up, and I was even careful about it, and didn’t allow it to make any betraying clinks. You took a window seat and Cam sat next to you and I was forced to sit ahead, in front of Cam, because I couldn’t bring myself to take the window and possibly be boxed in by another passenger. The bus wasn’t full and no one on it wanted anything to do with anyone else, which, who could blame them. So I got the seats to myself.
I wanted to turn around.
“Don’t turn around,” Cam whispered.
A soldier with a long gun boarded the bus last and sat in front. My heart threw itself against my ribs in panic, but Cam whispered again, “This is normal. She won’t shoot. Act bored.”
The bus drove off. There was an odor of fuel as we moved but the speed mind-blowing. It was completely rad. I had never been on a planet before with enough atmosphere and terrain to allow for this kind of overland velocity, and it was this final novelty that stimulated, at last, enough exhilaration for me to briefly forget about almost everything else. It wasn’t comfortable, but I needed the distraction, so I took it.
That’s why I didn’t notice, I think, that as soon as we’d started moving, you’d sunk into the River to find Sextus in his bubble. I should have noticed. Your feelings diluted to nothing when you left your body and that should have alerted me; if anyone had looked back at us they might have been unsettled by how deep and still you were managing to sleep on that stinking, rumbling metal tube.
I don’t know how long we’d been riding (minutes? hours?) when you came back, but I knew immediately when you did, partly because my nervous system was suddenly awash in despair, partly because your whisper to me cut right through the noise and the pain as if you had yelled in my ear.
Alarmed, I turned around. You were looking at me with burning intensity, and you sat forward and said,
“Trust me, and don’t make any noise.”
Then you touched me one more time, and I may have grunted a little, but the pain was actually dropping off, except that I was seeing myself out of your eyes again, visions of you then me then you flickering past like a toy picture reel. I had already let go of you once and I didn’t want it to happen again but this wasn’t the same, this didn’t feel like a struggle or a failure, it felt like a letdown, like the evaporation of a mirage or the embarrassment of learning the truth or like the way in military comics there’s always the storyline of the wounded vet with the phantom limb pain and it’s always a metaphor for what they really lost.
The vision-flickers slowed and stopped and it was just your stricken expression, a pitiless emptiness inside me, and your hand on my pulse. We shared one last second together that contained multitudes.
Harrow. Harrow, what are you doing—
And then you pushed at my mind like you were pushing me off the top tier of Drearburh
And your eyes changed
Harrow why do you always look so sad
And my vision blurred
And I passed out.
Harrow stood in the hallway, just outside the room containing Gideon Nav, and subconsciously flayed the label on a bottle of undrunk nutrient shake.
The hall was dim; soft yellow lamplight spilled out from the room’s open doorway. The window at the end of the hall revealed only a slate-grey, anemic midday sky. Pieces of the bottle label fell like ash around her feet as Harrow painstakingly gathered her resolve. She had come to find Gideon alone and talk to her, and she had been standing outside the door, on the brink of going in, for what felt like a very long time.
They were in an apartment. That was unusual. Most of their shelters were less hospitable: half-finished or half-rotten buildings, or single rooms they could barricade. Or, equally rarely, worse. Train station lobbies. All-night diners. Today Cam had been very lucky, and found something better, with a pickable lock.
The place contained all the possessions of the absent owners. While this afforded some comforts, they always had to be very careful in these types of situations to leave no trace of their presence. But they’d found some media discs, and the device needed to access the files, and a speaker system. Boredom overruled caution, and between them Cam and Gideon had made it work (Cam was used to the Sixth archives and cobbling together old technology, and Gideon was the kind of person who would push unfamiliar buttons without fear).
Harrow hated it. This music seemed designed to bypass the senses and overpower the mind directly; even heard through the walls, it had eroded her composure all day. Camilla had sat perfectly still and listened for a while with enjoyment (granted, there was no direct evidence of her enjoyment, but as she had listened voluntarily, there was no other logical conclusion). But Gideon was the real audience. The Ninth cavalier was overcome with enchantment. It had been clear from the instant that they had first turned it on that Gideon would have given her left hand for five minutes with that sound system, and so despite what it did to her nerves, Harrow did not even consider asking her to turn it off.
But blaming the music for her reluctance to approach the doorway was no excuse. It was all so infuriating. And asinine. She could only thank God there was no one to witness her, standing in this gloomy hallway, powerless with anxiety.
If she could have, Harrow would have chosen retreat, and escaped to Palamedes. For all the weeks preceding, she had done exactly that, maintaining a front of ironclad dignity that omitted any implication that she might be running away. The Warden had seen through it, of course. He needed her, and they had work to do, so she had gotten away with it for a while. But in the end he’d cornered her into a promise. At least, a promise by implication. And the only thing Harrowhark Nonagesimus wanted to do less than face Gideon Nav, was to face Palamedes Sextus without the ability to give him a favorable report.
This, now, finally— this was the best opportunity she might get in weeks, to do what she had been putting off, and she was not going to waste it. She would compose herself, and walk into the room, and she would make things right.
She would, in just another minute.
Harrow leaned back against the wall. From the room, one song ended and another began; she caught the almost imperceptible sound of Gideon singing along to herself.
Something inside her chest tightened. She found herself envying Palamedes keenly, and the limitations he suffered that kept him safe...that sad narrow room, the refuge he had carved out of hell itself, with only his wall-writing for company. She knew he considered it a curse, but she wanted to be there. She wanted to have never woken up.
The first night, after that terrible first day, they had slept on the bus.
When Harrow had broken their Lyctoral bond, Gideon had fainted. Harrow had expected this, but it had been nerve-wracking all the same, wondering if Gideon might have suffered permanent damage, or if she was going to topple out into the bus aisle and cause a scene. There had been nothing Harrow could have done about it, either way.
Harrow had managed not to faint, herself. She had spent some interminable time sitting rigid, her eyes closed, digging her thumbnail into her thigh. She could no longer sharpen her keratin to draw blood, and bleeding in this public space was a bad idea anyway. But she could give herself pain, and that helped some.
Despite feeling that she had not even begun to recover, there came the point when she couldn’t delay longer what she had to do next, so she had kneaded some of the tension out of her temples, composed herself, and then sat back yet again in preparation. A little desperately, she had tried to pray, but immediately gave it up; she knew in that instant that she would never utter a prayer again. The prayers of the Ninth, even unspoken, sounded absolutely false to her now. She did not know if the Body had tried to prevent Gideon’s awakening, or ensured it, but she was certain that the Body had abandoned her at last, and for good. The message of the sword had been unmistakable. Harrow was profoundly alone.
The road peeled away beneath them. Running lights along the bus aisle were illuminated against the gathering night. Harrowhark had thrust aside her disquiet, drawn her trembling hands within the sleeves of her leather garment. She had entered the River. It was very, very difficult, now. Like entering wet sand.
Her soul might have been ravaged within seconds if it hadn’t been for the pathway Sextus had laid down, and perhaps for some hint of her former sainthood clinging to her spiritual presence like a shadow. It did not matter. She disdained the peril of that liminal space, and pressed forward. Abruptly she was in his room with him, and could not keep from gasping from the effort, which meant the game was up before she had a chance to explain herself.
“You severed it? You unspoke the Eightfold Word?” Sextus had been beside himself in disbelief, unlike she had ever seen him before.
“It isn’t that remarkable,” she’d shot back. “Did it never occur to you to consider it was possible?”
“But—” he’d stammered, “The risk!”
“It was less of a risk than the alternative! She would not stop trying to— to—” Was there a word for it? Trying to pour her soul into Harrow’s. Trying to yield her life to Harrow. To martyr herself, the asshole. Harrow reflected bitterly that Gideon had spent her whole life running enthusiastically (idiotically) toward her own destruction, and all her stupid jokes and stupid smiles had been to distract from this fundamental truth. It had been all Harrow could do to choke off the flow of Gideon’s soul to hers, until she could put an end to it at last.
“But I told you how to do it!” Sextus was saying.
“Well, you were mistaken in your analysis,” Harrow retorted, no longer really paying him close attention. She had hoped he could be more helpful— she had really meant, in good faith, to make some attempt— she needed to think.
“Like hell I was.”
“It did not work for me, Warden,” Harrow yelled, whirling on him. “It’s not my fault! You have not tried this with a body, fully alive, you don’t have the evidence to be sure— as far as we know, no one has ever succeeded at what you’re insisting I must do! Every other Lyctoral ascension has been preceded by a death— I will decide what risks I am willing to bear!”
She had expected him to continue to be angry, but to her horror, his face had softened.
“It’s a sin for me to ask this of you,” Sextus said, with a step toward her. “After everything you’ve endured, I know it’s too much, but I also know I’m correct. Thanks to you, remember, I do have a corporeal basis, and I’m telling you it was enough to complete the process. Just because the scale is different for you, doesn’t mean the theory—”
Harrow had just about had enough. “Good of you to remember me as the author of your corporeal basis,” she had snarled, “And that which I giveth, I may taketh away. I will make that hand of yours a coccyx if you test me.”
“No, you won’t,” he’d said, with his gaze gone flinty. A note of alarm crept into his next words. “How the hell did you get down here, anyway, without Lyctoral protection from the River? If you want to talk about risks—”
That had been her limit. Harrow had left immediately, and to hell with Palamedes Sextus, with his calculations and his theories and his infuriating caution. For the man who had disdained the Avulsion trial to tell her that the risk was worth it. He hadn’t felt the indomitable disintegration of Gideon’s life and spirit; he didn’t know how close she had been to having all her efforts be for nothing. He should be in awe of Harrowhark Nonagesimus, who had wrested her cavalier back into her rightful self. It would have been a simpler matter to scrape a sunbeam off her body and into a box.
Her ear had been trickling blood when she had surfaced. Cam had gone so far as to frown, and passed Harrow another hanky.
The petroleum fumes had kept Harrow awake for the remainder of their travel and she had sat quietly, the grey cotton smooth against the side of her sticky, sweat-grimed face, and strained for a sound she could no longer hear without knowing what it was she was missing. It tortured her for hours until she realized that she was listening for the thump of her cavalier’s heart, and that the Lyctoral perception was no longer hers to enjoy. That Gideon was alive, she was forced to take on faith.
All the nights they spent together since had blurred together in an exhausting, endless purgatory.
The world they inhabited now was such an alien one. Their circumstances left so much to be desired, if one were in the habit of indulging in desires. To wit:
1. The planet experienced seasons, and it was getting inconveniently cold.
2. In her rejection of Lyctorhood, Harrow was forced to succumb to the necessity of a more regular calorie intake. The food available had (minimally) adequate nutritional value, but unfortunately quite a lot of taste as well.
3. It was a challenge to keep clean, but if there was one creed by which they lived, it was never attract attention. So they could not allow themselves to grow filthy. They washed irregularly, furtively, and with difficulty. The miserable planet did not even utilize sonic cleansing technology. Water-bathing put Harrow viscerally in mind of the attack she had suffered from the Saint of Duty, and she hated every second of that necessity too.
And, of course, they were wholly dependent on Camilla, and dependency chafed. Yet Harrow would have begrudgingly admitted to being impressed. Cam was a priceless asset. She was especially valuable when it came to identifying places to sleep, which she referred to as “bolt-holes.” Bolt-holes aside, the Sixth cavalier had adopted a kind of “hide in plain sight” strategy— they spent a small but unnerving percentage of their time out in society. Cam availed herself of public resources with nonchalance: marketplaces, transit systems, landscaped acreage designed to promote exercise. It was a civic ecosystem to boggle the mind of one accustomed to the Ninth, and Cam, whom Harrow had heretofore never thought to credit with any skills outside of swordsmanship, had a preternatural gift for steering them safely through it. More than once they might have been caught. It hadn’t happened, yet, other than that first day.
In short, Harrow was entirely out of her depth. She constantly pressed for greater caution to no avail (she kept waiting for Camilla to point out her hypocrisy: that Harrow would be willing to traverse the River as a mortal, living soul, but break into a nervous sweat whenever Gideon blew bubbles with her bubblegum on the subway). Cam had made the point, when Harrow expressed trepidation about their use of a library, that to not behave as if they had a right to exist in public would only make them seem more like imposters. At the time, Gideon had been photocopying some swimsuit magazines, and had taken Camilla’s side.
It threw Harrow further off-balance that Gideon took it all in stride. Her cavalier tried new things and asked constant questions and followed Cam around like a duckling. She was predictably excited about the food. Gideon would walk down the street as if she had grown up there, popping colorful chewy candies into her mouth, or drinking coffee from disposable cups.
One day, in a food retail shop, Gideon had been transported to discover the nutrient shakes. They were sold under the name “muscle milk”, which had to be among the most repulsive descriptors for foodstuffs that Harrow had ever heard. When nagged to try it, Harrow had found it to be sweet, but not repulsively so, and with an unpleasantly chalky mouthfeel, which was at least not the worst texture she’d ever experienced. The real advantage was that it made the process of eating go quickly, because it eliminated the need to chew. And whenever she drank it, Gideon would shut up about her needing to eat. So now Harrow drank it for most meals, if they could keep it on hand, and she was still a little pissed off about it.
For Harrowhark, however, the foreign landscape of the planet itself was nothing next to the foreign landscape of own soul, her own new self. It had happened again: her life had fractured. Her former self was dead. She actually preferred to understand it this way. It had the comfort of a pattern, a well-known childhood fable. If she condemned Harrowhark the First to death, maybe she could tourniquet the defining sections of her history off from the present, and keep the rot from spreading. Certainly there was almost nothing left to her here, now, with which she had formerly defined herself; she could no longer be a Lyctor, or permit herself to be a necromancer. She was nothing. Just Harrow. One of a billion people, in an indifferent and war-torn world. Why not imagine herself reborn?
She was convinced it would have worked if Gideon hadn’t been there, half a step behind her.
Gideon, in short sleeves, doing endless push-ups like a trapped animal. Gideon, keeping watch at night, holding a rapier sheathed and inert across her knees. Gideon with her bright gold eyes, who teased Camilla, ate cold desserts even when it snowed, behaved with an insultingly scrupulous correctness as a cavalier primary and never quite met Harrow’s eye, flinching whenever Harrowhark looked back at her.
Perhaps it was fair to call it running away, but her own feelings aside, Harrow still felt it her duty to spend every possible moment visiting Sextus. She was aware in a clinical sense that if someone didn’t, he might eventually succumb to the revenant’s insanity, even if he was not, technically, a revenant. Time meant nothing within his bubble.
Her body was vulnerable when left behind. Under the protection of her companions, it never crossed her mind to be concerned for herself, but there was risk to Cam and Gideon too. She had never gone under while in public again, after that bus ride.
“Stop fidgeting,” Gideon had said, annoyed, paging through a week-old newspaper, as Harrow had prepared to part body and soul two weeks previously. At the time they’d been in a disreputable hotel room; yet another place they’d broken into. Cam had extracted from them the promise that they would keep the doors locked, and then gone out alone, leaving behind a dreadfully thick atmosphere that Harrow was desperate to escape. She had never before entered the River without both cavaliers present.
Harrow tried to unclench her shoulders. She had learned that it made it worse, to be tense.
“Seriously, Harrow, you can relax. Nothing is going to happen to your body while I’m here.”
Gritting her teeth, Harrow had ignored her. As she had battled her way into that muddy current, the River bubbling from beneath her like a mire, she had caught Gideon’s stage whisper:
“Which is the opposite of what I said to your mom last night.”
And just before she slipped under:
“I’m not even going to draw dicks on your face, no matter how much you deserve it.”
It had put her in a bad mood, once she had emerged into Sextus’ study. No bad mood had ever deterred her from doing work, but the Warden was obnoxiously friendly, asking her if she felt well enough to attempt any progress. She was so tired of people looking out for her. Nothing could have made Harrow less inclined to relax than to be asked if she wanted to relax.
“I wouldn’t come here if I wasn’t prepared to work,” Harrow had said, repressively.
“I wouldn’t be offended if all you wanted was the company,” Palamedes replied mildly. He must have taken her pursed lips as an endorsement of said company, because he smiled his sharp smile, brown eyes gleaming, before launching into the same question he always opened with.
“What’s your report?”
She tolerated this, even though she found the formula tiresome. She assumed he just missed Cam.
“We are all unhurt,” she had said, nervously stretching her fingers backwards in her old familiar exercises. “We are still in the same city. We found a hotel, which should be safe for two nights. Hect was out on reconnaissance when I went under.”
“And?” he prompted.
“I’m still estimating six months,” she’d replied, slowly. She always dreaded this part.
“Last time you reported increasing Cohort activity. The rate of planetary death should be accelerating.”
“I’ve only been gone for fifty-seven hours since my last visit, and already the surge in their activity has ebbed. I’ve been paying attention, and I’m still estimating six months.”
“This is important.”
“Sextus, they’re simply not working very fast. I haven’t been anywhere close to a thanergenic resonance in days. There are no detectable signature traces.”
Palamedes sighed. “Well, it means Cam managed to get you out of harm’s way.”
“Worrying about this is a waste of effort,” Harrow had said, allowing her impatience to show. “We still have time.”
He pulled his spectacles off, and Harrow resisted rolling her eyes at his signature move. “It’s not good enough, and you know it.”
“You are trusting too much in insufficient data,” she accused him. “It’s still six months at least. I can feel it.”
At that, the Warden had looked uncomfortable. His face closed, in a strangely formal way, as if he— or maybe she— had made an embarrassing faux pas.
She refused to break the tension. If he didn’t like to think about it, he could find someone else to invent whole new theories of thanergenic warding with. The truth was that she had, in her sainthood, single-handedly slain multiple planets, and no amount of remorse could change the fact that she knew how it went. For their current planet, death was coming, but the inevitability was still on the horizon. She did not need to do the math to know it in her marrow.
It was the Cohort’s behavior itself that was much more concerning to her. The Emperor’s war machine continued to work around the edges of the existing planetary conflict, but as far as she could tell, they were mostly— as Gideon might say— farting about doing nothing. They didn’t invade in force; they had not begun the kind of genocidal campaign for which they were so lauded in the Nine Houses. None of the Cohort necromancers were doing any serious magic, just using up thanergy, getting the juices flowing. It would work eventually, but it was inefficient.
It was an annoying problem. This strange disinterest was inexplicable. She and Sextus shared an unspoken understanding that the other shoe was going to drop at any time, and when it did, it would no doubt be covered in shit.
“I proved our latest theorem,” Sextus said, and even though she’d managed to cast a pall over the start of the session, he still sounded excited. He was probably physically incapable of sounding calm when talking about proofs.
“Talk me through it,” she had said, closing her eyes in preparation.
There was one (and only one) good thing about their forced occupancy of a thalergenic planet, and it was the ubiquity of writing materials. Ink and paper were so cheap that people treated them like trash. Cam could have shoplifted the stuff in her sleep. Harrow had actually needed a day to adapt, when she first came into possession of a paper journal, finding at first that using real paper merely for note-taking made her hyperventilate until she got used to it.
The irony was that it did not help them much, because she could bring nothing with her into the River. Sextus may have achieved a limited Lyctorhood with Camilla, but he considered it precarious, and refused to manipulate the bubble theorem in any way that might risk his preservation, and thereby risk Cam’s life. So they had to memorize. For the Warden, this was second nature. Harrow harbored a very secret pride that she had thus far managed to keep up with him.
Whenever they’d worn themselves out with analysis and debate, she’d go back to the living world, write it all down as best she could— but the other problem was that they couldn’t test anything. If she were to perform any necromancy, so much as the meanest theorem or the—weeniest— construct, there was twofold risk: that a necromancer of the Cohort would notice, and triangulate them, and that she would be putting another pebble into the landslide of the planet’s doom. She had already cheated a few times. It was harder than she wanted it to be, to give it up.
Thanks to his Lyctorhood, in Sextus’ bubble they could now do some things, if they were passive. The Warden kept his psychometric abilities and Harrow had submitted to more than one full examination of her temporal lobe with ill grace. She still caught him looking at her, sometimes, with a kind of burning expression of wonder.
Listening to him on that particular day, following his logic, part of her mind had remained on the higher-level problem: considering the entirety of their theory, turning the new result into the whole.
“You’re correct,” she had said, opening her eyes, but looking inward, biting her lips in thought.
“It’s progress,” she’d conceded. “It remains incomplete. We still need to account for greater context.”
This was the frustrating part of the work they were doing, that it seemed to go on forever. There was always something missing, some flaw they had to patch.
Palamedes had started his own fidgeting, tapping each finger against its respective finger in sequence. He was astonishingly fast at it. “What if we didn’t?” he asked, with the air of one beginning a speech.
This was new, and she’d had an unsettling intuition about where he was going with it. “Explain.”
“I’ve been waiting to put this to you. It occurred to me...” he had started a circuit of the room, like he was giving a lecture, “I was thinking about...Lyctorhood. About your, um, roadblock. Academically, you understand. And I realized that none of what we’ve been doing makes any real sense.”
Harrow had stood stock-still, as if not moving would make him forget she was there. She felt the anger kindle, deep in her gut. They had a truce about this, and she wasn’t going to let him change the terms.
“The ward is the wrong approach,” Sextus was saying, oblivious to her tension. “It’s crude. It’s a brute-force solution. We just can’t account for everything, and it won’t last.”
“No ward lasts forever,” she’d put in, “Which I recall we agreed to accept as a starting premise.”
“Indulge me,” he’d said with a flap of his hand. “I swear we’ve been approaching this backwards. Shielding won’t actually work, because it’s a diminishing return; you have realized that the very solution we’re aiming for will contribute to the problem?”
“Again, if you’ll recall, our goal—”
“Forget the goal. Forget all of it— we were aiming too low. Think about the Lyctoral harmonics: apply that here. Just imagine for a minute that it’s not a ward we need, but, for lack of better word, an inoculation—”
She was longing for him to drop it. He was always stubborn, but she was too; typically she could wear him down faster than this. “I’m right when I say we still have time, Sextus, but not if we abandon it all now. We’ve already come this far. You should be thrilled by the efficiencies we’ve perfected. This is the correct path, this is doable, this is what we agreed on.”
“The math doesn’t work, and you know it.” Sextus countered, unassailable. “Honestly— if we extrapolate this—the math of necromancy itself doesn’t work. God, Harrowhark, how did we never see this before? A whole lifetime of study and we were only ever looking at shadows on a wall. It made sense: all living things will die, ergo all living things are dying, ergo the death energy we use must be a bottomless resource. And near Dominicus, it is… But we were being lied to, all that time. We were duped by the myth that necromancy isn’t bound by thermodynamics.”
“It’s not,” she’d snapped. “Listen to yourself! You sound like a zealot. You’ve been trapped in here too long.”
He stopped walking abruptly and pinned her with his gaze, which Harrow had returned as good as she got.
“You’re disappointingly close-minded,” he said.
“You still think this is about control.”
“We have been over the alternatives! You are losing sight of the reality— it’s unbecoming of you to fantasize.”
“You know,” he said, finally nettled, “I’ll admit I’m increasingly surprised by the way you’re handling this. The Harrowhark I knew had more courage.”
Harrow’s blood had turned to ice. It was a low blow, his sleight-of-hand substitution of one argument for another. She had almost left him then and there— to do so would have proven his point about cowardice, but she was furious enough not to care.
“Don’t,” she had said, like a rattlesnake muffled by velvet. “Don’t you dare. I don’t suffer to come find you like this so I can be condescended to by the second best.”
“Cram it,” he’d said simply. “I’m calling your bluff. You haven’t tried. You haven’t even asked Gideon to try. You have no intention of achieving Lyctorhood, at all.”
Harrow felt numb; she closed her mind to the memory of Gideon, insisting that all Harrow had ever had to do was ask.
“What if I were to refuse?” she had said, stiletto-quiet. “When you put all your hopes of your resurrection in my Lyctorhood, did it not occur to you I might simply decline it, in the end? Or were you too self-centered for that to cross your mind?”
She had hurt him. It had accomplished what she’d needed to do, and driven their fight away from the heart of her grief, but her new self couldn’t tolerate the cost with equanimity. She pressed her mouth tight against anything else she might have said, and held his gaze, and waited defiantly, tremblingly.
“Reverend Daughter,” he’d said stiffly, “do you even want to do this with me? Do you even believe in what we’re attempting?”
She’d leapt on the accusation. As long as he was still fighting her, she knew where she stood. “I’m not your cavalier,” she had fired back. “If coming here of my own free will doesn’t assure you of my dedication, I won’t waste my breath trying to convince you.”
It was as if she had slapped him. Palamedes had put a hand to his mouth, staring at her. Then he shook his head and looked away. “Sometimes I think I know you, and then you say something so cold-blooded, I’m not sure anymore.”
She had put her own face in her hands. Weak. She was so weak now, so beholden. The debts she had accumulated should have been heavy enough to rip through the fabric of the universe. The old Harrowhark would never have undermined her defenses with apologies, but her new self groveled for absolution, cut down by self-loathing.
“Warden,” she began, trying to school her voice.
He wasn’t going to let her off so easily.
“You’re living with Camilla right now,” he was pacing again, but this time like he was trying to burn off the desire to hit something. “You would have to be a simpleton not to notice that she is a capable partner, independent and equal. What kind of relationship did you think we had? How do you assume I’ve treated her?”
“I—” she was tongue-tied. “Sextus, please, I would never—”
“Camilla chose me. I have always given her the credit of assuming she chose that path of her own free will. She has a wonderful mind. She could have been a formidable analyst or a theoretician. And God knows, I’ve been lucky to have her talents in that area— but she devoted herself to the sword for my sake, and closed the door on what she could have been in a different life. And you think that means she has made herself a lesser person.”
At this, Harrow had sunk to her knees, hands still covering her face. It was a useless gesture, a Ninth penitent's act of contrition, meaningless in the here and now. She possessed no virtue that could have endowed any promise she made with value, but she spoke anyway, compelled by what force, she could not even have said.
“Camilla the Sixth is a more worthy person than I can ever hope to be. You know I will be in debt to you and her for the rest of my life. Sextus, I swear if it is within my power to liberate you from here, I will not rest until I have succeeded.” She took a breath. “I am so profoundly sorry.”
When he didn’t reply right away, she got to her feet, the feeling of numbness settling deeper into her chest.
“Forgive me,” she had said. “I will leave.”
“Oh, please stop.” Palamedes blew out of his cheeks explosively, as if he had been holding the breath. “Is this how all Black Anchorites apologize for everything? It would explain a lot. Sorry, don’t answer that.” He walked to the fake doorway, putting both hands to either side to stare at the illusion of the Canaan hall. “I’ve acted badly,” he said, after a pause. “I’ve been presumptuous, taken you for granted. I have to beg your forgiveness, also.”
“You have it,” she had said, swallowing. “But you don’t need it.”
She had felt shaken, and thought he must have felt the same. As much as the silence that stretched between them then was painful, it was even harder to break it. Palamedes collected himself first.
“Gideon isn’t lesser, either, for being with you,” he’d ventured carefully, looking back at her over his shoulder, his hands still against the doorframe.
How to even begin to engage with such a statement? She couldn’t. She fundamentally could not.
Palamedes turned around fully and leaned back against the wall. “You should talk to her, Reverend Daughter,” he said gently. “Forget the problem of Lyctorhood— talk to her anyway. After everything, I’m astonished that you haven’t.”
He was guessing; she had never broached the subject; for all he knew, she had heartfelt conversations with Gideon every night. But why bother to deny it? Despite his blind spots, Palamedes Sextus was too perceptive by half.
She opened her mouth to say something noncommittal— yes, you’re right or yes, I will— anything to put the conversation behind them, and was shocked to hear herself say instead, “What if she did refuse me? I don’t know how—” she bit down on this confession so hard, the click of her teeth was audible.
“Oh, my God.” Palamedes fisted both hands into his hair, and addressed the floor. “Am I really going to have this talk? How to get a girl to like you? No, you know what, I’m not. You’re smart enough to be the second best necromancer of our generation, you can bloody well handle this yourself.” Giving the lie to his own words, he looked back up at her, his close-cropped hair standing on end. “Do you just need...tips? Because you can borrow that book if you want to. If I’m honest, it’s the only literature I’ve ever read that addresses the subject, so, um, directly.”
Harrow tried her best to kill Palamedes with her glare. (She had once riffled through the book in question out of careless curiosity, read the word mewled, dropped the volume like a hot coal and never acknowledged its existence ever again.)
Mercifully, Sextus didn’t twist that particular knife in any further. He sighed a deep, long-suffering sigh, then maneuvered his lanky frame down to the floor and stretched out, resting his hands on his stomach. Having achieved this repose, he stared at the ceiling as though it were a window to another world, one that only he could see.
Eventually, Harrow joined him, stretching out her own body in the opposite direction, shoulder to shoulder with the Warden. This new silence had lasted for a while, and this time it felt emptier. Silence was common for them; they would often reach a standstill during debate, and retreat to their own thoughts. It was not always amicable, but it was rarely antagonistic, and either way the awkwardness had worn off a long time ago. (When she bothered to consider it, Harrow was uneasily aware they were actually becoming quite close.) Palamedes had formed a habit of sitting cross-legged and straight-backed during these episodes, but Harrow had always preferred to lie down. She took it as a gesture of apology then for his dig about the book, that he’d given her an excuse not to look at him, or be looked at.
When he spoke again it was as if they were continuing a much more profound conversation. The intimacy it betokened sent a slight frisson up Harrow’s spine; she almost felt like she ought to be apologizing to Camilla.
“Maybe I am not the best person to ask,” Sextus said softly. “My own record in this area is execrable, and even leaving that aside, the Sixth house has some terrible love stories. So few of us can marry each other, but we all live in there, surrounded by the weight of all the human experience the library can chronicle, and it’s not like there’s much else to do when you’re done with your workday, then to just keep reading. It tends to give people complexes. I have an heirloom, a crystal sculpture, that belonged to my father’s mother. The woman that gave it to her was her first cousin, and she loved my grandmother passionately her whole life, and couldn’t have her, of course. I think she emigrated to the Fifth, actually, in an effort to dull the pain. So you can see how I may have formed some terrible notions of love in my impressionable years.”
Into the pause Harrow said, “I refused to believe you were ever impressionable.”
She heard him chuckle. “Well, that’s kind of you to say. But we’re all fallible, is my point.”
There was a weariness in her, all of a sudden. She felt lulled, and remained still, breathing evenly, for once in her life aware that if she punctured the delicacy of the moment, she might finally break something precious beyond hope of repair.
There was a brief pause when Palamedes might not have continued. When he did, it was with a rush, like a well brimming over.
“I’m still astonished with myself for having gone through with it. Even to this day… We wrote to each other so often, that we obviously used flimsy for all the correspondence, we could never have afforded anything else. But I saved a piece of real paper for that particular letter. I think I must have spent half a year drafting it. Just dozens of versions. Heaven knows what a mess it would have read like after all that, to an outsider. And, the actual scribing, God help me! I used real ink— I thought blood would be too macabre for the occasion. From one necromancer to another! It just shows how deeply I’d managed to gaze at my own navel.
“And then of course I made a grammatical error in the very first line, and I had to leave it in, because that was my best piece of paper. And I was overthinking it all so much that my handwriting went all to shit. It’s astonishing. The blind faith a lovelorn youth can have in the power of love. It’s the only piece of writing I have ever done that I didn’t show to Cam.
“I fully expected her to say no. But I asked anyway, because there is nothing in this universe that can so utterly master us, as love can...I wanted there to have been a letter, and for her to have read it. I even wanted the letter to be passed down to one of her family’s descendants. Just to have it known, for a while, that I’d felt the way I’d felt. And when I got back her reply— it was so perfect and kind, the grace of that woman—it was a pure shock of cold water over the whole thing, you can’t imagine. Part of me knew that there never could have been a universe where Palamedes Sextus didn’t pour out his heart in a marriage proposal to the Duchess of Rhodes, but knowing that couldn’t have saved me from the mortification I felt at having done it. I regretted the whole thing bitterly for months. I certainly didn’t allude to it in any future letter.
“Now, though… I don’t know what I think anymore. Maybe you’re right and I’ve lost too much perspective while buried in here to be rational about anything. I used to think that proposal would forever define my whole life as shameful. Later I believed I would never decide for sure, one way or another, if it was a redeemable act or not. But now I find myself wondering...God forgive me...if it wasn’t the most correct and perfect thing I ever did.”
Harrow did not cheapen his offering with a response. When enough time had passed that she thought she might speak, however, she had no idea what to say. She felt so broken, as if all the cracks in the foundation of her existence had been exposed.
Palamedes turned his head slightly, and Harrow unwillingly mirrored him, facing him just enough to take in his expression out of the corner of her eye. Despite the astonishing fact of his recent confession, he looked much more at ease than she felt.
“You’re scared to hurt her,” Sextus said. “You think she’s not capable of coming to you willingly.”
Harrow thought, she isn’t. Too much debate with Sextus forced her to present the opposing argument to herself: but she did forgive you, in the salt water pool. Harrow stubbornly rejected this evidence. If she really let herself believe it, she would have to admit that she was someone worth forgiving, and find a way to live with that.
“Harrowhark.” Harrow flicked her eyes back to the face of her friend, bravely enduring his unblinking gaze, those deep, earth-brown irises he had taken from Camilla the Sixth. “Why did you take such a wild chance, to save her? Why really?”
She thought she knew what he was trying to coax from her, and could not say it. “I wanted a choice,” she said, finally, settling for most of the truth. “I had lived a life without any choices. I thought it was safer and right that way. Then we were in Canaan House and...I suddenly cared about choices, just at the moment when I had never had less free will. I rebelled. If you knew me, Sextus, you would know. It wasn’t the first time I failed to do what I was meant to do.”
“You think it was incorrect?”
Impossible to say. She didn’t know. She was trying so hard to move on and find out, but she couldn’t. Gideon was a sea-anchor, dragging her back to her past. In a fit of temper she blinked back tears, faced with the vile truth that this splitting herself into past versions of Ninth, and First, was nothing but a misguided effort to account for the contradictions. She still yearned to do it. To digress to the belief that with enough effort she could erase, as though with a failed draft, the blight of her all-consuming love for Gideon Nav.
The futility of it sickened her. She could no longer let herself accept it. She was in the same trap as Sextus: she had to leave in the mistakes. Maybe love had always been a mistake and it had always been a triumph, the same thing both at once.
She did not allow herself the indulgence of self-pity for any longer than she could help, and having pulled herself together, said, “If we assume, arguendo, that you are correct. About the thermodynamics. What we’re talking about, taken to the logical conclusion...could only be described as a thalergy bloom.”
When she looked over at him, Palamedes’ eyes were shining. “Proof of concept,” he said, vibrating with excitement. “We’ll need a starting point for the thanergy work, to get our foot in the door. I’ve been thinking about this. Some kind of grave site. That should be easy, in a war. But it would have to be safe.”
“Well, you can work on finding it,” Harrow said, standing abruptly. “I should go back. I’ve lost track of the time.” In fact she was abysmal at tracking real-world time while in the River. She believed it was not actually possible. Once, early on, she had stayed under unaware for eighteen hours, and Gideon had yelled at her for five whole minutes.
Sextus stood with her. His smile was a little rueful and a little sly. He fidgeted his hands, wavering like a man on a diving board, as if he wanted to pull her into a hug.
“Don’t make it weird,” Harrow said, raising a finger at him in warning. “We haven’t bonded.”
“Oh, we’ve bonded,” he said with a wicked grin, “And I’d swear you to secrecy, but you’re a Black Vestal, so I assume that would be insulting. Harrowhark,” he added, gently catching her wrist and peering at her over his glasses, “for your own sake. Don’t fuck it up.”
She had departed the bubble then, and in her confusion found the River a more hostile journey than usual. But she had made it out, oppressively aware of how the window of their opportunity was threatening to close.
Her conversation with Sextus had haunted her ever since. Previously, she had entered the River under the barest minimum of acceptable conditions, trusting Cam and Gideon to make it safe. For the past fortnight, however, she had barely seen him, and for debriefings only, never to linger. In fact they had genuinely had a stretch of bad luck and hard conditions, so it had been easy to find reasons not to take the risk. But avoiding him was hardly soothing: she could barely work, barely sleep. Her notes blurred in front of her whenever she tried to focus. They had made no progress on their theory at all. Even Cam had commented that she looked like hell.
She was perfectly skewered. It could not go on this way. Hence: her resolution, the hallway, the door.
The bright simplicity of Gideon’s music was becoming an agony. The hall was getting really dark now, with early winter dusk bleeding the light out of the world. She could not stop itemizing her mistakes.
Gideon’s death was her fault. Gideon’s servitude was her fault. Never again. The further she got from the ephemeral certainly Sextus had gifted her with, and the closer she got to her cavalier, the more she doubted. Harrow refused to believe that Gideon Nav did everything deliberately, refused to believe that Gideon could have chosen her fate with her eyes open. She could not bear the hubris of asking for Gideon’s forgiveness a second time. Of asking...she did not even know what she would ask for, or how, and she knew with contempt that no book could ever illuminate it.
So. She could still fix this. There was more than enough to make amends for. She would give Gideon something, the only miserable offering left for her to give, but past due. Let no one accuse Harrowhark of not knowing her duty and rising to it.
With the stoicism of a fire-walker, Harrowhark entered the room. Gideon was lying with her back on the floor and her legs on the furniture, her foot moving at the same pace as the music time signature. Harrow looked at her cavalier, and Gideon looked up and noticed her and, literally without missing a beat, slipped her a wink.
Harrow froze, unsettled, and tried to regroup. She gestured imperiously at the vibrations in the air. “What is this?”
Despite the wink, Gideon’s smile was frail. Her answer was uncharacteristically dispassionate. “A song. You can listen in here if you want. It’s more comfortable than the hall.”
Harrow felt her stomach drop. She decided to ignore the admission that Gideon had been aware of her standing outside; if she did, Gideon would probably think she had intended it that way.
She listened with ill-concealed impatience for a few seconds as the song lyrics implored her to not believe them, just watch.
“What is the meaning of it?”
“I dunno, Harrow, I’m pretty sure it’s just about being a hot badass. I’m really identifying with it.”
A quintessentially Nav response, but the way she said it brought Harrow up short; there was something missing, some lack of enthusiasm that could arguably be interpreted as bitterness, which rendered the statement ironic. Her attitude could not have been more antithetical to the emotion of the song.
“I have to talk to you,” Harrow managed, finally, after suffering another round of lyrics.
Gideon turned the sound off, and got up. The relief was short-lived. Harrow made the mistake of catching Gideon’s eye again— it was flabbergasting how she was never prepared for the intensity, the frankness of that golden gaze, and she panicked, and blurted it out:
“I release you from your indenture to the Ninth House. From service to me.”
Gideon’s expression instantly curdled. It was the same look she’d had on the day she’d asked Cam what was in the breakfast sandwich she’d been eating, and received the uninflected reply that it was made with unborn birds.
Gideon said, “Harrow, what the hell?”
If she were honest, this was not the reaction Harrow had expected. She clenched her hand slowly into a fist, suddenly improvising. “What about this is unclear to you?”
“It’s— I mean— Why are you doing this now? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Of course it makes sense. I made you a promise, and I don’t break promises.”
Oh, she hadn’t meant to say that. Not like that. They both looked at each other in absolute alarm, Gideon’s last broken promise hanging between them.
Gideon asked, carefully, “What do you expect me to do? Go join the Cohort?”
Harrow reined in her frustration. “Don’t be a moron. You know perfectly well by now you couldn’t.”
Gideon’s lip twisted with hurt. “Well, hey. If I can’t cut it as a soldier, maybe they still need someone to do, you know, HR.”
“That’s not what I meant—”
“Or a culinary specialist.”
“Gideon, this is—
“I’m sure I could at least learn to clean toilets—”
Harrow pinched the bridge of her nose. “Please stop joking.”
“Bold of you to assume I’m joking.”
“Fine,” Harrow snapped, “Go. Join them if you want to. It’s beside the point.”
“I’m still waiting for the point here.”
“You’re being deliberately obtuse.”
“You’re avoiding my question.”
“I am ignoring it, because it’s a stupid question.”
“Do you want me to go?” Gideon asked, throwing up her hands.
“No!” Harrow said, clenching her hand on the bottled drink until the plastic crackled. “Of course I don’t.” She meant those words. She really did. Once spoken, however, she heard how they sounded, like a comforting lie, and she knew she couldn’t take back the way she’d said them. Part of her did yearn for the relief of rejection. It really might be easier, if Gideon left. Until that instant, that particular thought had not crystallized, and as it did she felt as if she had removed a blindfold, and now saw how close she had been standing to a chasm.
Gideon sat down on the couch heavily and crossed her arms. “This is such bullshit,” she muttered, as if to herself.
“It is not bullshit,” Harrow insisted, refusing to give up. “If you want me to, I’ll write it out formally, in blood. I’m being perfectly serious.” She didn’t mention that she had already done the formal writing. The document was resting hidden in the stack of her other notes and journals. Originally she had thought to present the paper to Gideon first. At the last minute she had hesitated.
Gideon huffed out an irritated sigh. “Harrow. Your blood would not impress me, because I have seen it dripping out of your ears like a million times, and your handwriting would not impress me, because your handwriting looks like someone massacred a line of spiders. You may not have noticed, but we’re not orbiting Dominicus anymore. There’s no one here to scold you if you take the stick out of your ass. Whatever you really want to say, you can just spit it out.”
There was altogether too much implied in that statement, and Harrow disdainfully sidestepped it. “I said exactly what I wanted to say. You’re just refusing to understand.”
“No, I’m not. I’m actually trying. You’re the one who’s being all nunnish and cryptic and I—” Gideon bit off the words. “I just don’t get it, Harrow. I just keep not getting it. I don’t know what you want from me.”
“I don’t want anything from you, you—” A beat, a quick inhale. “I don’t want you in my power anymore!”
This was delivered with more force than it should have been, but Gideon was finally getting on her last nerve. Lashing out felt familiar, in the way returning to an addiction felt familiar. But Gideon was not fighting back, when there had never been a moment of their relationship when she didn’t fight back. Instead she just looked at Harrow, with a hint of confusion, leaving Harrow again in unscripted territory.
Why did nothing involving Gideon Nav ever go according to plan? Why did it always spin out of her control? There had been those brief moments at Canaan House where it had all felt so easy, so perfectly natural to talk to Gideon, to depend on her, to smile at her. Harrow felt a flush rise to her face as she remembered in searing detail confessing enough feelings to Gideon— first flower of our house—the best of all of us— to goad her into the fall, easily the worst of all the mistakes she could never erase.
The bottle was nude of its label now, and Harrow’s fingers had subconsciously moved on to endlessly twisting the cap on and off. Gideon had slumped back into the couch, and now eyed the bottle with the disinterest of someone who wished to be left alone.
“For shit’s sake, Harrow,” she said, “just drink it already.”
“I—” Harrow felt the blush deepen, “It’s the last one we have, I brought it for you.”
Gideon lifted one eyebrow. “Yum.”
Harrow glared. “You do actually like them.”
That strange, fleeting confusion crossed Gideon’s face again. “No, I do, it’s fine. Thanks—”
“If you don’t want it—”
Gideon leaned forward to take the bottle, but Harrow was trying too hard not to allow their fingers to brush; they fumbled it. The bottle fell to the carpet with a soft thump and accusingly spewed its contents.
Harrow felt hot with humiliation over every inch of her skin. “I’m sorry.”
For a second Gideon just stared at the mess, and Harrow wavered in a dreadful indecision between staying to take responsibility for the problem, or sparing Gideon any more of what was clearly her loathsome presence. No small part of her was waiting in expectation for Nav to give her the finger and tell her off. But something infinitely worse happened.
Gideon put her face in both hands, and burst into tears.
She cried like her heart was broken, as if Harrow wasn’t even there. Harrow was blindsided by the realization that she had yet again made a false assumption, which was that Gideon could not have concealed any sorrow this deep or mortal.
As she stared at Gideon’s heaving shoulders, mouth agape, Harrow was visited simultaneously by two very bitter memories: the first, walking up to Gideon’s door back on the Ninth, after the...shuttle incident...raising her fist to hammer on it and make some demand or other of its occupant, only to retreat silently in shock upon hearing the exact same sobs through the barred window. The second: Gideon raising a rusty blade level with her head, staring her down, the first—only?—time she had ever thought Nav was truly threatening her. And Harrow had said, god damn her arrogant younger self, she’d said,
It won’t be the last time I make you weep.
Like a coward who’d flipped a switch on an oxygen recyc machine just to see what would happen, only to run when the alarms blared, Harrow took three steps back out the door, whirled artlessly, and fled.
Credit to the late, legendary Sir Terry Pratchett for the joke about a "nourishing meal that contained masses of essential vitamins and minerals and unfortunately quite a lot of taste as well," from the novel The Last Continent, which I have blatantly stolen here.
If you are still reading this despite all the plot handwaving, you have my gratitude, because this continues to bring me much joy to work on, and posting it is forcing me to make it as finished as it can be.
Also I have recently realized, while browsing various posts from other fans out there, that other folks have also connected Gideon with both muscle milk and Uptown Funk. Who knows how many other SameBrain observations/jokes I have in here. I promise it's all coming into the fic organically, or at least subconsciously. Apparently Gideon is a simple woman of simple tastes, and we all have her pretty well figured out.
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.
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.”
“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 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?”
“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.”
“God, but you’re an idiot.” A glass of water was shoved into Gideon’s face. “Drink this.”
“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, 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.
I promise that all remaining chapters of this work will contain serious kissing.
The hammer came down six days before they had planned to move on. A quiet, distant, non-negotiable lethality. Absolute checkmate. Nothing they could do.
Gideon heard it first. They’d kept taking turns dowsing for information with Cam’s pet radio. Gideon had explained at length that they didn’t have the antenna to hear anything very far overland, basically nothing outside of the city they were in, but Cam insisted it was worthwhile regardless. And once she got over her post-heist twenty-four-hour hangover, Gideon did not argue. Anything to break the routine a little, frankly, was worth the time just for its own sake.
So she’d been sitting in the kitchen not long after sunset, a fair way toward something like contentment, eating bread and peanut butter. Her left hand flipped through a book, wiping the peanut butter off on her pants between pages, and every now and then her right hand adjusted the radio dial. Listening to nothing. Cam was somewhere else. Harrow was lying in the corner, deep in the River as usual. In addition to the various distractions spread before her, Gideon had also arranged herself so that she couldn’t see Harrow over the stainless center tabletop without craning her neck, and that was just fine.
When the voices came on they were clear and crisp, as if they were being broadcast into their bolt-hole kitchen just for them. Gideon listened to the dialogue with half an ear for several sentences before it clicked, and her head snapped up from her book, disbelieving. It gave her the strangest feeling of déjà vu she’d ever had: she recognized the jargon, the prescribed language. It was straight out of her comic books (they really were propaganda, holy shit). This was the script of a Cohort tactical officer administering the launch of a nuclear strike from orbit.
Gideon heard the coordinates. They meant nothing to her, they could have been anywhere, anywhere on the globe. She only heard one side of the broadcast; there might not have been any replies, planet-side (well of course there wouldn’t have been, why talk to anyone on the ground if you’re about to nuke it ‘til it glows?) She heard enough to think she knew the payload. If her childhood knowledge from goddamn comic books could be trusted.
The sequence took less than a minute. Dry, clipped, professional, then: dead air. Once a commander gave an order for this, there would have been no delay. Somewhere on-planet, a city would be gone, or going.
Gideon’s chair fell behind her with a bang. She was jogging down the dark halls of the school— leaving Harrow just for a minute— before she could overthink herself into a panic. Cam had to know now. For the first time she regretted the sheer amount of space they occupied; Cam wasn’t anywhere. She looked in every haunt, and at every failure was wracked with indecision about where to look next, backtracking, circling. Some ancient terror, the brain-stem instinct that had sent her mammalian ancestors cowering away from overhead shadows, had been triggered by her awareness of the firepower orbiting above her. They didn’t have any particular rule about silence, not in this building: they just never made any noise, because noise was one more dangerous thing.
“Cam!” Gideon shouted, throwing open every door in her desperation to find her, picking up speed. “Camilla!”
Cam, it turned out, was in the library. She came out with two daggers unsheathed, and Gideon blurted out, “Nukes,” and Cam’s face drained of blood. They got themselves back to the kitchen in record time and Gideon cranked the radio volume. Ten minutes, some of the worst she’d ever spent, passed in radio silence. Gideon reported everything she could remember having heard. She was a bad reporter, given to tangents, unable to remember the diction of the broadcast precisely. But she remembered the coordinates. Cam’s knuckles clenched pale.
“That’s southwest,” Cam said. They were back to speaking softly, as if they could still hide. “Maybe...two hundred kilometers. Two fifty.”
The voices crackled back into life. This time, blessedly, there was no indication of an imminent strike...but it didn’t really matter, nothing mattered now. The voices on frequency proved Gideon had not hallucinated, which meant it was all real and not a dream. Cam listened with the intensity of the damned, and when the radio fell silent yet again they looked at each other.
“Fallout,” Gideon whispered.
“Maybe,” Cam whispered back. “But—”
It was obvious, though Gideon didn’t want it to be. They had no response, no strategy. They could not have had. Would Cam have even worked this possibility into her threat model? Why bother? The Cohort could drop another payload at any time, could probably drop bombs every five minutes until they’d blanketed the world, if they liked. It was entirely possible that this one wasn’t the first. Nukes weren’t the Cohort’s usual style, but apparently they were willing to be flexible this time.
The fallout might reach them. It might not. Another strike could hit them, or there might not be another strike, or there might be more and they’d all happen far away. There was no direction they could flee that would better their chances. The only thing that made sense...was to pretend they didn’t know.
“Cam,” Gideon asked, closing her eyes. “Can Blood of Eden get us off-planet?”
“Depends,” Cam said. “Eden believes that they know where we are, but I think I’ve kept us one step ahead. The last contact I had with them was a month ago, before we arrived here.” At this, Gideon’s jaw dropped. Cam had kept that quiet. “We’re...worth something to them. They don’t know about me, my Lyctorhood. But by now they almost certainly know we have Harrow. I tried everything to keep that from them, as long as we could.”
Gideon felt a chill wash over her, as if a blanket had been ripped away.
“If we went to them,” Cam concluded, “I estimate that they’d take us off. I also believe there would be zero chance we could escape them after that. They will save us to barter.”
“What about the planet, anyway?” Gideon asked, even though she knew better. It seemed so insane that nobody could stop this. “Do they care about it, that it’s—”
“They will have written it off.” Cam said. “Long before now. This changes little. Eden’s goal is always to engage ship to ship. If the Cohort ever gets on-planet it’s over, because necromancy is foolproof. If you fight them, people die, and the planet flips. If you don’t fight, the Cohort kills, and the planet flips.”
Gideon swallowed, her mouth tasting sour. “What do you want to do?”
For an instant Cam looked like she didn’t want to have to decide. An anger that was really weariness broke the surface of her non-expression, in the way the skin around her eyes tightened.
“If Palamedes were here,” Cam said, then stopped.
“He’d have already told us the odds,” Gideon said bracingly, “And then he’d just do whatever you decided, no matter what. Ok.” She swallowed again, inhaled fast and deep. “Let’s go, let’s leave today. Can we leave today, the way we planned?”
“Probably. More or less—” Cam did something she rarely did, and sucked her teeth in furious thought. “There is a train tonight but if she isn’t back in time…”
They couldn’t carry an unconscious Harrow around like a sack of bones and get away with it. One of them, at least, was shackled to this room until Harrow resurfaced. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Then, well…” Gideon wanted so badly to fight or move or hit, to do something, to unwind the fear that twisted in her gut. “I guess we wait for her, and as soon as she’s awake, we run.” She scrubbed her palms down her pants, to dry them. “Or, fuck it, we don’t change anything. Let’s stick it out and leave when we planned it, that’ll be safer—”
“No,” Cam said. “We’re not waiting. You’re right, and I don’t want to be here anymore. Our luck is out. I want us to move. I’ll go now. I think…” Cam actually got on the floor, measured Harrow’s length with her arm span. “I think, if it came down to it, we could fit her in the duffle.”
Gideon had to smother a mirthless, reflexive laugh. “We’d have to leave behind all that weaponry.”
From her kneeling pose next to Harrowhark, Cam threw her hands in the air. “If we have to do it, I’ll try hard to fit the rapiers in too.”
“Cam, for fuck’s sake—”
“No, we’re doing this.” Cam stood up in one motion. “Compromise: I’ll get us tickets for tomorrow’s morning train. It’ll leave the north station by ten hundred. That’s only a two-hour hike from here. If she’s awake for it, great, if not, we’ll carry her. Our chances of pulling that off are good, if we don’t board downtown.”
“I really hate this.”
“Yes, well, me too. I’m back in one, two hours tops— there’s an autokiosk I can buy from not that far— just stay here and wait for her. If she wakes up, do not let her go back down.”
“Duh,” Gideon said, glaring at Harrow’s comatose form. It wasn’t really her fault, of course. But Gideon was never not pissed off at Harrow for all the trips she took into literal hell, and now, she had an excuse for feeling that way. She latched onto it, like flotsam in deep water.
Cam didn’t waste a second— she never dawdled once she had chosen action. Gideon held half of their remaining currency, a habit in case they were ever separated, and she handed it all over knowing their tickets out would cost them the last of it. Cam started walking as soon as the cash hit her palm. She looked back from the doorway and tipped her chin up, the closest Camilla Hect ever got to an encouraging pep talk: Gideon pointed the forefingers of both hands back at her in kind. She refused to jinx anything by saying be careful or don’t take long. And then she was alone again, and there was nothing more to do except resume her place at the table, push the plate with her bread crusts away from her, and watch Harrow for signs of life.
In the end she settled cross-legged on the floor, despising the sensation of looking down on Harrow from chair height, and just stared. The overhead kitchen lights were of a harsh bluish tint and given to flickering. Harrow’s eyelashes cast little crescent shadows. Gideon thought: come back, and tried to beam the words into Harrow’s brain. This was embarrassingly ineffectual, even in the privacy of her head.
There was that emotional breaker again, tripping her into a shutdown, making it all numb. But she couldn’t move away, couldn’t look away. She had to keep swallowing down the growing tightness in her throat, and pressing the heels of her hands across her brow to push the tension out, and doing the endurance breathing again, but not very well. She couldn’t hold her breath for longer than the count of six.
“Come back,” she demanded, wanting to break the silence. “Nonagesimus, you jerk, I’m so tired of this.”
Her voice cracked in a way that threatened her tenuous composure. Maybe less with the talking out loud, then.
When Harrow did wake, the best part of a long hour later— thank fuck— she jumped at the sound of Gideon saying her name. A thunderhead scowl gathered over her brow automatically, and then her eyes widened in shock.
Gideon watched her, caught the glimmer of necromantic death-lust pass her face. It was memorable from childhood, from the rare occasions she had watched the Reverend Daughter perform death-rites. At the end of the night, necros wanted thanergy. Harrow had always been cadgy about it, but her relish was there if you knew what to look for. She didn’t need Gideon to tell her what had happened.
“The Cohort?” Harrow asked, struggling onto an elbow.
“Yes,” Gideon said. “Nukes from orbit, they have a ship up there. Two hundred klicks away, Cam said.”
Harrow closed her eyes. “Hundreds of thousands—”
“Yeah,” Gideon cut her off, bleakly. “I know. The radio. So, listen, this—”
Harrow had flopped back down, hadn’t opened her eyes, very rudely doing the opposite of listening. “Hey!” Gideon clapped loud right next to her ear, going for maximum annoyance. “Look at me, you asswipe, I need to tell you the new plan.”
Harrow didn’t move.
“You did not just—” Gideon gaped in disbelief. Harrow had plunged straight back in. Hadn’t even pretended Gideon might have cared. “Screw you!” Gideon yelled at her, at a loss, composure ruined. “And screw you too, SexPal! Can you hear me in there, dicks? I need you to get back here so we can all stay alive! What the fuck is wrong with you!? Why do you all have such hard ons for the fucking River all the time!?”
For this second period of waiting Gideon could not sit still. She paced, kicking things. She shoved pots and pans around just to hear the godawful noise, wishing quite a lot that it was Harrow herself she was shoving, bonus if the shove was conducive to defenestration. Her mouth was dry as sand; she gulped a glass of water, and then, inspired, filled the glass again and threw it into Harrow’s face. Harrow, of course, did not move. Gideon filled the glass a third time, planted herself against the kitchen counter, and waited for Harrow’s next return like a cat at a mousehole.
Half an hour in all, this time. Compared to Harrow’s average, that was one quick-ass trip to the River. It might even have been her record. Gideon was not impressed. Harrow took a living breath, opened her eyes, started to sit up, and Gideon inverted the glass over her.
Harrow sputtered, practically squawking, flailing. Gideon turned to fill the glass once more. “If you go back down again,” she began casually, though her voice quivered, “I will cover your face in a mandala of dick drawings, for real. I will burn your pants so you have to wear those pink sweats we found in the locker room. I will tattoo Ianthe’s initials three inches above your asscrack. Goddamn it, Harrow, you can’t just do this to me!” The glass was full; she’d spun around again, the diatribe spilling out of her. Harrow had gained her feet; she didn’t cringe— to the contrary, her jaw was set, girded for war— but she did back hastily out of range of another deluge.
“What were you thinking?” Gideon demanded, slamming the glass down next to her. “What in fuck’s name were you thinking, that when we’ve just learned the Cohort’s bombing this place into a wasteland, it would be an awesome time to check back out and go splashing around the River with SexPal? What if Cam and I needed you conscious? What if we were counting on you?”
“Stop making this all about you, Griddle,” Harrow replied, eyes flashing. “This changes everything, I didn’t have a choice. He had to know immediately. We have to revise everything we’d assumed. Don’t you question my judgement.”
“I don’t even know what you’re doing!” Gideon shouted, her hands clinging hard to the rim of the sink, so she didn’t haul off and slap the woman in front of her. “All that necromancer stuff is very important, such math, many theorems, wow, I fucking get it, but from where I’m sitting it isn’t worth all this! How many times can you do laps in the River before you get lost, and can’t come back? What’re the chances something else comes back instead and I have to put you down like Colm fucking Asht?”
“What if we are attacked when I can’t wake you? What if I can’t save you?”
Harrow’s fingers flexed, clearly wanting bone, a defense. “I never asked you to save me.”
Gideon flew right off the handle.
“I swore you an oath!” She took a step toward Harrowhark, unable to help herself. “I swore to you and you accepted me and I am your cavalier, Harrow, the cavalier primary of the Ninth! I will fall on a railing for you again, and again, and again—” at each repetition she snapped for emphasis; the word again seemed to strike Harrow as if Gideon was really hitting her, and it gave her no joy, but she could not stop. “I will fall ten thousand million times, if that’s what it takes. It would be nice if you pretended to give a shit. You don’t want me to, you have to release me, really release me. Not just rip up my indenture contract and act like you don’t get why that’s bullshit. Not just scrape me out of your brain like you’ve got buyer’s remorse. You have to say it to my face that you want me gone.”
Harrow trembled, incensed; her hair and clothes dripped arhythmically on the linoleum floor.
“If you don’t want me, tell me,” Gideon said. It felt like her heart was beating hard enough to shake her whole chest. “Go on, say it.”
“Say it, loser!”
Harrow seemed offended to the point of incoherence. Some resolution in her cracked, and she strode forward, her hands still twitching like she was preparing to bury Gideon in about twelve tons of oss. Gideon backpedaled from the long habit of pure self-preservation. Harrow reached out, snatched the forgotten water glass, and had her revenge: she flung it hard enough for some of it to go up Gideon’s nose. It was Gideon’s turn to sputter.
“Since I don’t have a pool,” Harrow snarled, as if that explained anything. “Since you seem fixated on having this out, on demanding accolades for bravery, fine. You told me that I could take it up when we were dead, and buried, but if you want to take this up now—” she had backed up one half-step, as if pacing off for an attack. “Well. We’re not buried yet, but I’m taking it up.”
Gideon thought of several cutting ways to respond, and said none of them; she slucied water off her eyebrows and held Harrow’s benighted eyes without blinking. She was shaking.
“You think you get the moral high ground, and you don’t,” Harrow was panting with indignation, “You think you can hide behind duty, and you can’t. You forced my hand, you destroyed all my choices as if you had the right, and how conveniently you’ve forgotten, that I swore the word-same oath to you.”
Gideon opened her mouth but Harrow snapped, “Don’t,” and plunged her hands into her jacket pocket, coming up at last with bone fragments. Impressive, really, but unsurprising, that she had somehow managed to stash a few. “So help me, Nav, I’ll gag you if you say a single word, and risks be damned. You left me! As if it were nothing, not one thought of what it would mean to me, to sing out the Eightfold word with your blood on my lips, to deliberately commit the sin of Lyctorhood with your soul as my furnace— God, do you even know how much Lyctorhood fucking hurts!”
“I died!” Gideon was aghast.
“And then it was over for you! You left me! It hurt, Griddle!”
On that last outburst Harrow’s voice had crescendoed to a volume Gideon had never heard her use before. Harrowhark had always had all the power; since childhood, she had almost never needed to shout.
“Dying for you was always going to be the only way!” Gideon shouted back, raking her hands through her hair, and this shut Harrow up, her face twisted, stricken. “It’s the great big obvious fucking secret of the First, it’s how it works, so what if the oath is the same for both of us, what matters is what it means. We were forced, but I thought— what mattered was that I was willing! Harrow, I really meant what I swore to you. I know you didn’t ask me to. You didn’t need to ask. I wanted to. I told you at the time. It’s what a cavalier signs up for. I wanted you to be a true Lyctor, because I went willingly.”
Harrow gaped at this, disarmed. “Did it even remotely occur to you that I would have rather died, with you? That I would have counted the price too high?”
“You needed to be a Lyctor,” Gideon said, fumbling now, “The Ninth needed you. The Tomb needed you. I—” She had to stop, she had to breathe. “You had to live.”
“I have never deserved to live!” Harrow’s volume had swept up again, uncontrollably. “Least of all have I deserved your forgiveness, and yet on top of that you keep trying to hand me your life, Gideon, and I don’t understand why!”
“Because I wanted—I needed it to mean something!”
“No!” Gideon bellowed, heedless of the echo off the factory-steel kitchen. “The way I care about you!”
Harrow’s posture had not changed, but in some indefinable way she had imploded, crumpled. Her gaze was infinitely black; the void of it was too hard for Gideon to meet anymore, so she didn’t.
“I know it hurt,” Gideon said, tightening her arms across her chest. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I just. I didn’t think you’d chicken out when it came down to it. As my friend, for the sake of our vow—surely it would have been easier to accept it. Surely, being a Lyctor would have made up for whatever big sadness you felt. I tried to give you that, and you buried me, you turned your back on me, you’ve been doing it ever since, and I can’t stand it anymore. I didn’t ask for much—”
“You asked for everything, Nav.” She heard Harrow move to confront her head-on, but Gideon kept her eyes on the floor.
“I gave you everything.”
“And you think— a myriad of power— could have made up for it—” Harrow sank both fists into Gideon’s damp hair, dragging her face up; if Gideon looked at her she’d give everything away, but she’d given herself away a long time ago, so what the hell. Her arms (they always were the smartest part of her) went where they would: her right hand cradled the back of Harrow’s neck; Harrow’s breath was so warm as she was speaking, low and raw: “Made up for it?” she repeated. “There’s nothing, nothing in the universe— Not if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries—” she was shaking Gideon now, for emphasis, enough to rattle her teeth, and Gideon had to wrap her other arm around her to hang on, “and all knowledge—”
Harrow shook her harder, for good measure. “Griddle. If I have not you...I am nothing.”
None of the meaning of this had time to land before Harrow had kissed her, ruthlessly hard, and then Gideon was kissing back, I am nothing ringing in her head.
She tasted ashes, and salt, and her lips were getting swollen; Harrow’s kisses were hot and sweet, edged with punishment, her mouth parted, her hair wet in Gideon’s hand. It was kissing only for lack of a better word: a desperate, primal effort to cross the divide between them again and again. Gideon could not get air; she did not want any; she was woozy with bloodrush, her Reverend Daughter in her arms, her resurrection in truth. All this time she’d been just pretending to have returned from the dead, as half a person. Gideon-without-Harrow. Gideon-alone. She stopped trying to pretend, pressed Harrow to her, and told herself she was never going to fucking let go.
They both kept breathing as if breaking out of an undertow, with gasps that sounded like sobs. “Gideon,” Harrow was saying senselessly between gasps, “Gideon.”
“I’m here,” Gideon said back. “Harrow. I’m here.”
The weight of it all, everything they’d endured, rolled over Gideon all at once and she had to break off the kiss and cling, trying to calm down. They digressed into a grasping hug in a tangle of arms and hands. Harrow shuddered and buried her face in Gideon’s chest. Gideon kept shifting her embrace, holding Harrow’s head, then her torso, trying to cover enough of her all at once to protect her. The sense of panic was bewildering—why was she afraid? It was as if the past weeks, the past months, all the time and grief of Lyctorhood had been wiped away and they were back in Canaan House. Harrow was trapped in a bone shield in the facility and Gideon couldn’t find her. Harrow was walking away from her and Gideon couldn’t stop her. Cytherea’s construct was hammering at their fortress and Gideon was terrified all over again that she wasn’t going to be fast enough, that it wasn’t going to work, that she was going to fail Harrow in the end.
It would be a miracle if her knees didn’t give out at any moment. She pulled Harrow’s head back and captured her mouth again, trying to prove to herself against all unreason that Harrow was safe, and here, and hers.
Harrow was trying to talk and kiss at the same time. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she was saying, “I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t, I failed you—”
“It’s ok, really, I forgive you. I already forgave you,” Gideon said, words smothered by her attempts to meet every kiss from Harrow in full. “I fought like twenty space bees for you. I threatened to punch a Lyctor in the butthole for you. I’m still your sword, Harrow, always, it’s ok.”
Harrow kept talking; Gideon was not certain she was listening. “I lost you, on the railing. And I tried to save you but I couldn’t forget you without undoing myself and you just by trying— I lost you all over again, and it was worse, because I let you go. And I haven’t stopped feeling, ever since— that I was still there, and the work had failed, and I was going to spend the next ten thousand years burning you, losing you.”
“I forgive you,” Gideon repeated, like a talisman. She put one hand against the side of Harrow’s head and pressed her face, her lips against the other side. Harrow’s hair tickled against her nose and forehead. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.”
Harrow jerked back, wrenching on a fistful of Gideon’s shirt. “And where do you think you get off, talking like that— not going anywhere! When you looked me in the eye and promised to die for me a million times over! Just— fuck you, Nav!” Harrow was crying. It was the type of crying that was just tears, sliding down her face unchecked and ignored, like a weeping statue. Her expression was untouched by it otherwise, all belligerence and betrayal, and not a little of her old exasperation, those lines in her brow that Gideon could probably claim exclusive credit for.
Gideon didn’t know how to answer her except to pull her in again and kiss; she knew damn well there was nothing she could really promise without lying. Harrow bit her in retaliation, choking back an unhappy sound.
“Harrowhark.” Gideon twisted her hand in Harrow’s hair; and Harrow dug her slender fingers into Gideon’s shoulders, hard enough to bruise. (And Gideon was not too far gone to notice that the juxtaposition— Harrow’s avian-slight body, the ferocity of her grip— was, put it plainly, unbearably hot.) “I’m not taking that back. I’m not ever going to watch you die. Too bad if you don’t like it, I do not have even one regret about that. Maybe I should, but I don’t.”
“You are such a fucking cavalier,” Harrow shot back, moving a hand to Gideon’s face. “As if it makes any difference, when you’ve already destroyed me. You’re not even listening.” And Gideon was listening— she really was— but it was so hard to argue anymore, when Harrow’s bowed and bitten lips were right there.
“Harrow,” Gideon said again, against her mouth.
“If you say one more thing about dying for me—”
“If we don’t sit down, I swear to God I’m going to collapse.”
“You would never,” Harrow said, threatening, but she only held tighter. Gideon managed to slide them tremulously to the floor, pulling Harrow into her lap and then closer, against her chest. They sat, entangled.
So. Ok, then. Cam was absolutely going to win her bet.
The kitchen was quiet now. Gideon should probably have started to care about what time it was, and when Cam would be back. She should have been explaining their new plan to Harrow and worrying about nuclear fallout. She couldn’t. Her thoughts, frankly, were all fractured to pieces, a senseless mosaic of glister, and in between all those shards was the feeling of Harrowhark, and holding each other. It felt so good, in a frightening way; every time she examined the feeling it got bigger. Like stepping out of a series of rooms into ever-larger rooms, all that space and light echoing around her. Gideon found herself brushing pieces of the fine curls of Harrow’s hair away from the side of her face, a little compulsively, and forced her hand to stillness. She took a deep, long breath.
Harrow twitched faintly, as if pulling back from a trance, though she remained in her symbiotically fervent embrace around Gideon’s neck. Her body shivered again.
“I’ve never felt anything like this before,” Harrow said, sounding pained.
Gideon spent several affrighted seconds trying to wrap her mind around Harrowhark Nonagesimus delivering a line straight out of a bad romance story, something from one of the sentimental magazines that were always disappointing light on the porn, until she realized that Harrow was talking about the bomb. Gideon made some sound in response— she hoped it came across as innocuous.
“Does it just feel like— lots and lots of thanergy?”
“Apopneumatism,” Harrow hissed. “It’s more than thanergy, although the bloom is still ripening, I don’t even know how that’s possible. But it is also the sorrow of violence. There isn’t enough life in the Dominicus system to have ever created a fluorescence of death like this. I had no idea. I can’t even describe it.” Her shudder this time was more visceral, more pronounced. Gideon tried to cradle her closer. She was aching, somehow, to be closer to Harrow, which was madness when Harrow was right here: like her need increased exponentially with its fulfillment.
“How bad does it mess up your plan with Sextus?” Gideon asked, only halfway invested in what she was saying. She took another slow breath— Harrow smelled, well, like Harrow, except without the mustiness of the Ninth vestments, and a new animalistic tang that Gideon thought might be the jacket leather— with every breath of this scent Gideon felt her like her life was a puzzle piece dropping into the right place. “We’re heading out, by the way— getting the morning train,” she added. “Cam is buying tickets now. She really ought to be back any minute.”
All that recent apocalyptic death in the next town over may have made Harrow twitchy, but at the simple reminder of Camilla’s existence, she jumped nearly out of her skin. She whipped her head to the door as if Cam were there taking photos for blackmail purposes, her body stiffening in an autonomous response to being seen. Gideon almost giggled, but she herself was experiencing a bad reentry to reality, at this sign from Harrow that their current status might not be permanent.
Cam, of course, was not in the doorway (Gideon was starting to worry, and forcibly denying to herself that she was worried). Harrow turned and faced her again; her hand drifted up to rub a thumb along Gideon’s jawline, but she didn’t lean in. She sat there like she didn’t know what should come next, absolutely still in that way she got when she was out of her depth. Gideon didn’t know, either. They stared. How often had they stood on the precipice of some new beginning or ending, with nothing they could do about it but stare at each other? But this time Gideon must have changed— death must have done something to her she hadn’t even realized— because she said the next thing, forcing the words out.
“Nonagesimus, you’re in love with your girl in the tomb.” She didn’t say it accusingly. It was something she could understand.
To Gideon’s surprise, though, this apparently blindsided her adept. It took Harrow a minute to reply to that one. When she did she sounded furious again. “The last time you suggested I was in love with a dead woman— I believe your precise words were have the hots for—”
“You do, though?”
“Do I?— but I seem to recall I kicked your ass into a pool.”
“Technically, a skeleton kicked my ass into a pool.”
Gideon dropped the snark. Every nerve ending in her body felt raw and exposed. “You don’t have to apologize for it. You do love her. I was inside you for a year, remember? But I need to understand this.” She could no longer make her voice go above a whisper. “Because you’re all that matters to me. You’re the only thing. You found me out, congrats. You are totally seeing my girlish and vulnerable heart. If you don’t want me, the way I want you…”
“Griddle.” Harrow locked her hand around Gideon’s jaw like a vice. “The girl in the tomb was always an illusion. I can admit to suffering illusions. I have been a fool, utterly, in every measurable way.”
“Look, I’m just asking if I get to kiss you again,” Gideon managed, hardly even able to talk at all now.
Harrow looked confused at this, and in answer leaned forward and kissed Gideon fleetingly. Gideon’s heart lurched in an altogether new way. “I mean. Ah, um. From now on. Like, again tomorrow. And next week. And after that.”
“Yes,” Harrow said, as if it might be a trick question.
“Ok.” That was good. Like, really good news. Ok. “You’re not a fool, you know.”
“I’m sitting in your lap,” Harrow rebutted, and Gideon smiled at last.
Tension still hummed between them. Gideon could feel the strain of it, how much more there was to say, and how the danger they were in tainted everything. She knew Harrow was still angry, and hurt; she also knew she couldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear. It was much easier not to talk.
Gideon tugged lightly on Harrow’s waist, and— amazingly— Harrow came back to her, and they were kissing all over again, maybe a little less bruisingly than before, but still no finesse, no patience, no control. Gideon kissed as intensely as she could, trying to say something without knowing exactly what it was, or how to make anything right. She kissed in the passionate false hope that if she did it enough, they wouldn’t have to talk about dying ever again. God, the way Harrow tasted. Cam could have taken all the blackmail photos she liked if she had been there, or sat down and painted them in oils for that matter, and Gideon wouldn’t have cared or stopped. It wasn’t even particularly...sexy, or whatever; it wasn’t not sexy, nothing about having Harrow all over her like this could be anything less than unbelievably sexy, but Gideon had always imagined her first kisses in detailed fantasies involving older Cohort bombshells, inducting her into the sacred art of lovemaking, laughing at all her jokes. And now all of that seemed ridiculous, like a drawing done in crayon, and there wasn’t room in her head to remember those fantasies anyway, not when Harrow's lips were fixed on the corner of Gideon's mouth, and her thighs were clenched on either side of Gideon's hips, and it was so wonderful. She wondered if she could possibly take any more without losing it, if this was what it felt like to be having a heart attack.
Harrow murmured something that this time might have been for-real sentimental and grandiose, something about a last dance. Gideon wiped her eyes, and tried to be cool. “What—”
They both heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps echoing down the hall at the same time. It was not Cam’s sure and lightfoot stride.
Gideon was on her feet faster than she would have believed possible, seizing her rapier off the table and drawing it in one motion; Harrow had those bone chips in between her knuckles again, shaking her other hand free of its sleeve and drawing herself tall. Gideon tried to get in front of her, sliding around to the side of the door for the advantage, cursing herself for not choosing to collapse into a makeout puddle in a slightly more strategic position. Complacent. Idiot.
The footsteps stopped. “Don’t attack,” Cam called, not loudly, her voice thin.
Gideon ditched the rapier onto the countertop and sprang for the door, relief surging and cresting in her in a way that told her just how badly worried she’d been. Cam rounded the corner into the kitchen, and Gideon caught her when she stumbled.
She was wearing a thin nylon jacket she hadn’t possessed when she left, and holding her side. There was really quite a lot of blood. Gideon pulled out a chair and eased her down. Harrow was there, briskly attempting to assess the extent of the injury, but Cam shoved her off.
“No theorems. Ninth— my bag.” Gideon dumped the contents of Cam’s backpack onto the counter (Cam’s brow creased at the mess). Amid the paraphernalia was gauze, a bottle of antiseptic...Gideon had learned one or two things from Cam about how to do this, and grabbed the pair of scissors.
“What happened?” Harrow demanded, standing down from her healing role with ill grace.
“Well,” said Camilla, “there’s good news and bad news.”
“I assume you don’t give a shit about this jacket,” Gideon interrupted.
“Formerly property of a dead man, so no.”
“That tracks, because it makes you look like a tool.”
“The good news is, I have tickets.”
Harrow plucked them out of the pile while Gideon finished peeling off the jacket tatters from Cam’s body, and got to work on her shirt. “We can’t use these,” Harrow said, waving the tickets, sounding stressed, “The departure time is eight hours from now. This is for an overnight train. We can’t get on an overnight train with you in this condition.”
“I told you we were leaving,” Gideon protested, at the same time Cam demanded, “Did you not tell her we were leaving?”
“But—” Harrow started.
“We are not changing plans,” Cam gritted, daring Harrow to contradict her. “You can help me take the bullets out if we can get to a defensive position, but until then, needs must.”
Gideon paused. “You were shot?”
“I really need to acquire us a gun or two,” Cam complained, ignoring their reactions. “The old stories say not to bring a sword to a gunfight, and I never did like following the rules, but there’s some wisdom to that.”
“What happened?” Gideon asked. She looked at the bottle of antiseptic, but Cam shook her head.
“Water, then vaseline. Get the bleeding to stop—” Cam took a moment to breathe.
Gideon did her best to wash her off. Three holes pitted the skin of her abdomen. The gauze was going to soak through quickly, and Gideon was not sure what they would do after that, when they ultimately ran out of gauze. They could raid what was left of the school medical room, and then what?
“It might have been bad luck,” Cam said finally. Her voice was strained. “I don’t know. Given that they used pistols...I’m not even certain they were Cohort. They might even have been BOE. Might have seriously misjudged that—” she drew a tight breath. Gideon finished the wrap, and sat back with bloody hands, and sought Camilla’s gaze until she had it.
“How many attacked you?”
“Just three,” Cam said.
“Of course they’re dead.” The Sixth had managed to regain her composure fast, which Gideon would have had more respect for if the woman wasn’t trying quite so hard to bleed out. “What, you wanted me to invite them back?”
“How did you make it back at all?”
“Who knows?” Cam said, leaning back in the chair. “I’m a Lyctor. If I’m alive, he’s alive, so. I stay alive.”
Harrow moved in front of Camilla then, looming while doing her signature hand-flex. Gideon stood up to maintain her view of them both, restlessly rubbing the back of her neck, hoping she wouldn’t have to pick sides. Cam and Harrow were waging a contest of intense looks, and honestly it could have gone either way.
Cam said, “If you use theorems to heal me, they will find us, and we’ll be dead. I may or may not have been shot by Cohort, but I know the Cohort is in this city.”
Harrow, fingers splayed, answered evenly, “Diagnostic only. Passive. I’ve learned a lot from the Warden.”
Cam remained obviously reluctant, but Harrow had invoked the one thing that could have elicited permission, and it worked. Cam nodded.
Harrow put two fingers against Cam’s carotid artery. Memory tugged at Gideon— if Camilla was a Lyctor, that would make it harder for Harrow to impose any necromancy on her— but she was only trying to see, wasn’t she? Harrow, for her part, did not appear concerned or even all that deep in concentration. A second passed...a handful of seconds...and then Camilla jolted, and whipped her hand up to Harrow’s throat.
“Damn it, Nonagesimus!” Cam barked.
Harrow brushed Cam’s arm away without remorse. “You should have been forthright about the extent of your damage. A calculated risk. If you were attacked, we have been made anyway. Our only option is speed. We cannot achieve speed if you are bleeding.”
Cam hissed through her teeth. She still looked pained. Despite her alleged confidence in calculated risks, Harrow had not, apparently, gone too far. “And yes,” Harrow promised (threatened?), “We will remove the bullets later.”
With her preternatural ability to ignore her own hypocrisy, the Ninth necromancer daubed at her nose with the back of her hand, which came away bloodstained. Gideon reached out for her unthinkingly, grasping her upper arm; Harrow glanced up at her, inscrutably, and decided to tolerate it. She looked back at Camilla, and then broke some of the new tension by sighing.
“And we still have to wash all this fucking blood off,” she said. She pulled out of Gideon’s grip, briskly but not coldly, and started for the door. “Help her, Griddle. There are notes I should burn— I will do that while we run laundry.”
Cam refused most help. They ended up mincing down through the school halls while Gideon occasionally braced Cam up with a hand on her elbow. It was another unwelcome moment of déjà vu for Gideon, thinking back on how Cam had pinballed her gently down the crumbling walks of Canaan house in the wake of the siphoning trial.
She didn’t mention it. Cam didn’t seem to have much attention to spare for reminiscence. A tiny selfish part of Gideon was glad of that, given that in any other circumstance, Cam would surely have been observant enough to notice the seismic alteration in Gideon’s existence. Harrowhark had kissed her. Harrowhark had let Gideon kiss her back. Gideon felt this must have been as obvious as if her chest had been a diorama, even though there should technically have been no evidence (unless she had hickeys? Come to think of it, she might).
They were almost at the gym lockers, and Gideon was certain she had gotten away with it, when Cam spoke up.
“Why, by the way,” Cam wheezed, “are you and she all wet?”
Cam would never have pitched her such a softball if she hadn’t been in pain. Out of sensitivity to her plight, Gideon opted for the more sophisticated joke.
“Wet t-shirt contest, obviously,” Gideon deadpanned. “You took a long time. We were bored, what can I say.”
Surprisingly challenging to write! I mean, it's easy to write them making out, but hard to decide how much is too much. And they have so much to talk about, it was quite difficult to decide what they should start with.
Harrow quotes 1 Corinthians 13:2, in part, when she'd pouring out her feelings. I really shoehorned that in there, huh? But I've rewritten this plenty, and we have to move on, so at this point it gets to stay. After all this is meant to be an ode to the original books, so I might as well embrace it.