At first you didn’t realise the nun was awake. She shouldn’t have been, after the stunt she pulled. Six days… it probably said more about you than her, that such insanity only made you want her more. Had it been the soft sound of her breath, asleep in your bed, that finally gave you the courage to do what you knew must be done? You had long since gotten over the novelty of having a room all your own; now there was only the bitter knowledge that you were not made to sleep alone.
You made much of the fact that Coronabeth had been the only one to sleep badly, those three nights you’d been apart in your whole mortal life, but really, it was only because you’d known better than to try to sleep at all. Your natural pallor, the permanent bruise-purple of your eyelids, and the lethargic air you affected easily concealed any additional haggardness from a single missed night’s sleep.
How many nights had it been now, tossing and turning in satin sheets? The dead weight of your transplanted arm was a poor substitute for the dead weight you’d carried your entire life. You were cursed, you now realised, to forever live in the shadow of your burdens. Everyone loved Coronabeth, she was the perfect princess, the perfect heir, the perfect necromancer; a perfect fraud.
Was that why every word of praise for that lump of flesh dangling from your right shoulder stung like a blow? You could hear Teacher’s reproachful tone “but they did such a good job of matching it, Ianthe. It’s perfect, I promise you.”
But it wasn’t perfect; it wasn’t even so good at faking it as Coronabeth had been, and Babs knew. Babs could always tell.
You didn’t know she was awake, because you didn’t hear the change in that breathing; you were making too much noise of your own. Not screaming - you had that much pride - but your breathing was harsh, too loud in the still of the room, and every time you moved, the carpet squelched wetly beneath you; the thick pile turned swampy with your blood.
You had begun, what felt like hours ago, with meticulousness, precision, forethought - all the things Harry still thought you incapable of - and it had served you not at all. Now you clawed at yourself like an animal in a trap, stabbing and sawing and hacking, and still the accursed limb remained, grafting itself back onto you like a parasite. You felt lightheaded, and for a moment, you imagined that the arm itself was attacking you, suffocating you as Corona had in the womb, but you knew it was only the ocean of blood you’d spilled which left you so weak; even a lyctor’s body could only do so much.
Your elbow wobbled beneath you, and you collapsed into that vast red sea like you wished you could drown in it. The futility of it all hit you, and you dropped the knife, left arm becoming as limp and uncooperative as the hated right with your enervation. You could not even bring those fingers to curl, could not pick up the knife you’d dropped, but your hatred of this cuckoo limb still overcame exhaustion; you slapped ineffectually at the almost-imperceptible seam where familiar flesh cleaved to the imposter, slapped again, and gave up at last, rolling to your side, curling foetally inward.
And then Harrow was there, kneeling over you, rolling you onto your back. For a moment, you saw your own death in the chasm of her eyes, and you welcomed it. You fancied that you could feel her inside you still, those scattered cells of her you’d swallowed. Was that how she’d do it, by birthing a monster from inside you? You might even have enjoyed it, you fool, relished the chance to get even so close to your sister-lyctor, the closest sister you had in this whole galaxy. Would you have pretended, in that microcosm of eternity, feeling part of her growing deep in your belly, that centuries from now she might have consented to planting a different kind of seed in you? That you could ever have been the kind of person to settle down with wife and child, or that anyone not umbilically tied to you would willingly spend forever at your side?
Your mouth twisted into a smile at your own folly, a familiar, contemptuous press of the lips which Coronabeth had always hated, as she hated any reminder of the differences between you. “Oh Ianthe,” she’d say, “your lips look so thin when you do that. It isn’t attractive at all,” and then she’d pout, her own lips obscene in their fullness. The one thing you’d never figured out - the one depth of your sister’s psyche she kept stubbornly guarded from you - was the reason for that hatred. Was it a possessiveness over their shared features? An implication that if Ianthe could warp their face into ugliness, that people would come to realise that Coronabeth, too, was capable of such unloveliness? Was it fear that any exaggeration of their physical dissimilarities would finally reveal her as a liar? Or was it just the one way in which Corona excelled above her twin? Ianthe was smart, cunning, the greatest necromancer of her generation. Corona was… pretty.
Harrow still said nothing, still stared with an intensity which made you hotly aware of her proximity, of the blood sticking your nightdress to your skin, revealing every detail of your body while hers was still shrouded in that perpetual black. Her profound stillness made you conscious of your own trembling.
“Harrow,” you said, dismayed to hear how unsteady your voice was.
“You’re a fool.” Harrow said in return, and now you were back on solid ground. You knew what this was, you knew how to play it. If there was one thing that Ianthe Tridentarius, wretched shadow of the greatest beauty on Ida, knew how to do, it was how to turn mockery back on its speaker, how to stab someone with their own barbed tongue. No Black Vestal would ever best a princess of the Third on this battleground.
“How I crave your honeyed words,” you said. “How I love your tender compassion.”
You expected her to meet you, insult for insult, blow for blow, that familiar verbal sparring that made you ache to fuck her until she couldn’t form a single coherent syllable. Oh, the things you’d say to her then, as she broke around your fingers…
Instead, her voice when she replied was plain, matter-of-fact, unerotically practical. “It needs to come off all at once.”
“Get something to bite down on.”
This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. When Harrow finally came to you, be it decades or centuries from now, you’d pictured her angry and vulnerable, mortified by the ceaseless demands of her untouched flesh, a blank canvas for you to sully as you wished, an apt pupil for whatever lessons you deigned to teach her. You’d never expected this calm self-possession from poor little Harry.
Never let it be said you weren’t adaptable.
You nodded once, and tore a bloodied swatch of buttercup lace from the skirt of your nightgown. You considered, for the briefest of moments, ripping out the bodice instead, but even at this late stage, you suspected that such a move would cause your skittish sister-lyctor to bolt.
You twisted the fabric, clenched it tightly between your teeth. She pressed her hands to your ribs and mounted you, her knees upon your thighs. Then she raised one arm and unsheathed a great shank of bone from her knuckles, and you bucked beneath her, seeing a different lyctor kneeling over you, for just a moment, silhouetted against a sky as blue as her cavalier’s eyes.
It should have hurt to relive it, your unmaking, but your body was so drained of adrenaline that it couldn’t form an appropriate response, and instead you felt a different kind of arousal. She took the arm with a single cut, the blade crafted so keenly that you barely felt the drag of bone on flesh. You felt the pain though.
The human mind can only tolerate so much pressure, you discovered. When pushed beyond that limit, everything is the same; an excess of pleasure just as intolerable as a similar magnitude of pain. You weren’t even aware of screaming, the sound just one more layer of the incomprehensible overload of sensation.
A wash of blood came over you, settling into each valley of your body, trickling down your ribs like streams running into the sea, and just as quickly it stopped; Harrow had pinched off the blood vessels with a deftness that rivalled your own; when had the little bone witch become so adept with the flesh? Or was it only your flesh she had such a facility with? Only your flesh which answered so eagerly to her demands …
She pressed fingers into the core of your shoulder where tendon and muscle gave way to bone, and with two fingers inside you she coaxed forth osseous poetry. Cell by cell at first, then faster, an avalanche pouring from the ruin where once an arm had been. At last the humerus was complete; it spent itself into the waiting cup of the radius, the forked embrace of the ulna, and they in turn came to their ends and bloomed into a complexity of carpal bones which you could not follow.
You felt the desperate heaving of your lungs, felt how with each inhale your expanding ribs pulled against Harrow’s hot, smothering weight, and how with each exhale you surrendered again to her control.
“This will hurt.” She warned, and your idiot flesh did not scramble to escape her; no, you rocked upwards, heaving yourself into her, and that was the moment when you knew that you were lost; that Harrowhark Nonagesimus could walk you to the very brink of hell itself, and you would adore her as she pushed you over the edge, if only she would swear to never leave you.
She trailed fingers up the shaft of the humerus she’d made you, and you almost spat out the chunk of lace, because you could feel it, only the ghost of a sensation, vibrations conducted through bone, but a caress nonetheless. When she pressed the heel of her palm into your shoulder, it was like dying, and like drowning, and like the rough touch of a lover too careless to heed your exquisite post-coital sensitivity. You sobbed, choking as though her hand had cupped your throat and not your shoulder, as she let go, as she levered herself off you.
She sat at your side and did not touch you at all; you were finished, and so you were of no more use to her.