The scope of the problem first became clear when Gideon dropped a bone-and-metal mixing bowl onto the ancient and dignified floor of the Canaan House kitchen.
The bowl, which up until this point had been a peaceful resting place for rising dough, clanged rudely across the tiles. The dough— a substance hitherto unknown to Gideon, who was only familiar with the concept of fresh warm bread because people talked longingly about it in comics, sometimes— didn't have the decency to minimize damage by staying put, and instead spattered across the slightly less ancient but previously just as dignified outfits of the kitchen's four other inhabitants with a series of horrible wet thwaps.
After, there was a lingering silence. Into this silence, Gideon said, calmly, "Shit."
Four gazes swiveled from the scattered bread residue to her. Gideon did not notice, as her hands were clapped over her eyes (well, over her aviators), which is how the bowl had come to be dropped.
"I'm going to kill Harrow," said Gideon, by way of violent explanation. Eyes still closed, she took off the sunglasses and pressed the heels of both hands hard into her eye sockets.
"So you do speak," said Magnus, with a note of mild but delighted surprise.
"Only on holidays," Gideon said. Months of urgent training berated her for failing to preserve the sacred mysteries of the Ninth. (Months of urgent training had a suspiciously familiar voice.)
"It might have saved some time miming all those questions about kneading," Magnus continued, as if he hadn't heard, which was probably for the best. "It was fun, wasn't it, though? I haven't been able to play Charades in ages, everyone always thinks Abigail and I cheat."
"You do cheat," said Isaac, startled out of habitual teen silence to set the record straight, and Jeannemary added on: "You must, it's just that we haven't figured out how! Nobody could get the battle hymn of the empire, fourth revision from that awful little dance."
"I don't know what to tell you," said Magnus, pausing in picking a lump of wet flour off his jacket to give a helpless but fond shrug in the direction of the Fourth House pair. "We're just that good."
"Yes, dear," said Abigail, laying a hand on Magnus's arm. "We are. But, Ninth, why are you going to kill your necromancer?"
"She's gone somewhere dangerous," said Gideon, who refused to admit that she had enjoyed the farcical miming, that she couldn't remember the last time her cold and furious life had made room for something as mundane as a game.
"Is that," asked Abigail, cautiously, "unusual? Only— this entire endeavor is one dangerous place after another, whatever little pockets of time we carve out between them set aside."
"She's gone somewhere dangerous without me," said Gideon.
"Oh," said Magnus, and Abigail's hand on his arm squeezed, just once. "Well. That's different."
"Look," said Gideon, settling the sunglasses back on her face and untying her borrowed apron, hoping against hope it had protected her sacred shadow vestments from the undignified flour (it had absolutely not), "sorry about the— this." Her gesture attempted to encompass the floor, the bowl, and the entire messy situation, shaking additional unidentified mess off the apron in the process. "I have to go after her."
She looked for somewhere as un-foolish as possible to drop the apron and was surprised to find Isaac Tettares holding out a hand in her direction. "Thanks," she said, and passed it off, which unfortunately apparently counted as showing interest, and which gave him the courage to ask a direct question.
"Um," asked Isaac, eyes shining. "How do you know?"
"What?" asked Gideon, backing away, refusing to be unsettled by a child.
"How do you know she's gone somewhere dangerous?" asked Isaac, voice gaining confidence as he went on. "Have you wired some kind of alert system?"
"It's, uh. It's on the schedule," said Gideon. "I just... forgot. Because of the bread."
Nobody was convinced by this, least of all Gideon.
"It's a Ninth House thing," Gideon went on, backing away with increasing desperation. This was a slightly more plausible explanation, if only because nobody wanted to look too closely at what fell under the awful skeletal-ribbed and rotting umbrella of Ninth House things. "Gotta go—!" And she was out the door, gone.
But it wasn't a Ninth House thing, except inasmuch as it was happening to the only two representatives of the noble and decrepit Ninth House on this quite literally godforsaken rock. Gideon knew Harrow had gone somewhere dangerous—knew that Harrow was back in the lab where they had only just completed a horrible trial—because she could see it, clear as day: an awful overlay on her vision of that terrible dangerous room and a pair of terrible dangerous hands drawing some kind of ward next to the plinth.
The hands were definitely Harrow's.
This was definitely a problem.
Gideon sprinted towards the hatch and the lab below, sparing half of her only remaining neuron not involved in managing suddenly seeing double to be briefly, fleetingly grateful for the smallest blessing, which was: that it seemed to be unidirectional, so Harrow might not have seen her behavior in the kitchen. Which had absolutely broken the sacred vow that Gideon had taken, which Harrow had made her swear in the fraught moments after defeating the skeletal construct, receiving a single, hard-won key, and realizing that they were somehow, miraculously, succeeding, which was: Don't Fuck It Up.
In all fairness, it was unlikely that Gideon alone could fuck this up any worse than the two of them combined had already managed to.
It was difficult to pinpoint exactly when the problem had begun. It was true, if unhelpful, that the origins of the problem could be traced to their arrival at Canaan House, or with Harrow's ignominious birth, or Gideon's, or even the very first unlovable fish-thing that had crawled up onto land in search of a better life. However, it was perhaps more accurate to say it started when Gideon realized Harrow had spent a full day and a half without returning to their horrible little room, and that she hadn't even taken her sacred paints along, and so Gideon went looking for her necromancer. She had explored the ruins in vain for hours, following the ebb-and-flow of a pull she couldn't name, and might have gone right on wandering if she hadn't heard new voices echoing up a drafty corridor, and traced them to the previously absent Sixth House nerd-adjacent necromancer and surprisingly sturdy cavalier, the latter of whom promptly attacked.
After a brief exchange of blows, the necro— Sextus— called them off, which was a great disappointment to Gideon; she would have happily continued to risk life and limb for the sheer joy of getting to fight. Instead, they provided Gideon with a surprising amount of intel, once she caved and asked: Yes, they had seen Harrow; she was in the underground facility, and had ordered the pair of them out; yes, she did in fact look a bit peaky ("pallor indicative of dangerously low levels of hydration," said Palamedes, but who had the time). "Are you going to help me or what," said Gideon, cutting off the medical tirade, and to her unending surprise, they did.
Down in the lab, Gideon had plucked a feather-light Harrow away from the test room plinth, which was positively dripping with Harrow's awful blood-sweat. It was a testament to how close Harrow was to collapse that Gideon was able to do this; she saw a few feeble skeletal arms wave in her direction, but perhaps Harrow was unwilling to risk the hit to her own dignity of trying and failing to prevent it. The sheer weight of fatigue kept Harrow mostly quiet, even when Gideon had to do her best to hide that she was solely responsible for holding her upright as they walked stubbornly past the Sixth House, with a terse "thanks" (Gideon) and a nod (Camilla).
One corridor on, Harrow battered Gideon's hands away and rested her forehead against the wall, muttering: "No. No more. This is an unconscionable display of weakness."
"Whatever you say, o twilit tyrant," said Gideon, taking an unconscionably indolent seat on the cold stone floor. "Were you even going to tell me you'd found a secret lab?"
"If it became necessary to do so," Harrow grated out. She took a few deep breaths, which sounded mostly clear of horrible lung-gunk, if a little slow. She lifted her forehead away from the wall, but kept her hands pressed against it for support.
"So," said Gideon, "that's a nope. You'd rather faint than ask me for help, huh? You would have passed out if you'd been down there for another second! Imagine how much worse if I'd had to physically carry you out! You'd never recover." She clasped her hands together and stretched her wrists out before her, then rose back to her feet in one smooth motion, brushed off the seat of her pants, and cocked an eyebrow at Harrow in challenge. This was a trick it had taken her six entire months to perfect, making weird and awful faces at herself in smeary, silver-backed mirror shards back on Drearbruh. "Fine, if you're gonna be like that. Are we going, or are you just gonna sit there and bleed?"
Harrow only glared, and then proceeded to stutter-step back to their room, one hand on the nearer corridor wall, dripping a trail of blood behind her all the way.
Gideon persuaded Harrow into three hours' rest, by way of using her bulk to physically block the exit from their quarters. The second this time was up, they went, inevitably, right back. The Sixth House had removed themselves to presumably healthier climes, which gave Harrow some grim satisfaction.
And then they got down to it. It took some horrible, countless number of hours for Harrow to learn the trick of seeing through Gideon's eyes and filtering out the distractions down to what matters, but finally, they fought it to a standstill, and Gideon retrieved her key.
In the aftermath, still dripping with sweat, her sword and her gloves and the warm, dark skin of her forearms still covered in cold, grey shards of bone and colder, greyer bits of ash, Gideon burst through the door back to Harrow and the plinth, spat out a mouthful of blood, and grinned, and asked: "Ready to admit that you needed me?"
Harrow was silent, staring grimly in Gideon's direction from her seat on the floor. There was blood-sweat marring her skull paint, and her stringy hair was greasy and gross, her skin ashen and wan. She was exhausted beyond reckoning, but she still looked, somehow, proud.
"You don't have to say it out loud," said Gideon, giddy with success, still riding an adrenaline high and willing to push her luck. "Did you know the Fifth has a whole art form where they get each other to guess what they mean without words? So hey, if you think I'm the greatest thing to ever grace the halls of Canaan House, just wave your arms, maybe wiggle those bony hips a little bit, and—"
"I didn't know," said Harrow, through gritted teeth.
"What?" said Gideon, shocked.
"I had not," said Harrow, quietly, "previously understood the skill involved in your profession."
"I'm not a professional anything," said Gideon, aggrieved at this slight on her untethered soul, but Harrow held up a hand and went on.
"I may have underestimated you,” said Harrow, with great reluctance. "I will... consider this, moving forward."
"Oh," said Gideon. Fundamentally, this changed nothing: it wasn't a declaration of fealty, an undoing of age-old wrongs, or a sudden reveal of all the Ninth House's long-kept confidences. The latter was unlikely; Harrow carried a bundle of secrets so large that only the clanking of her habitual bone jewelry could possibly disguise the noise they made rattling around when she walked. There were a hell of a lot of skeletons in that closet. Or under her skirts? Gideon had lost the thread, a little bit. But still: it was a moment. Maybe even a Moment, she was willing to allow, given that they were both hell-tired. Something in Gideon's soul had lost one of its sharp edges, gone briefly, dangerously soft.
"Well," said Gideon. "That's... let's consider it after a nap." She debated reaching out a hand to help Harrow up, but the mere thought of this was enough for Harrow to shoot her a look that said very clearly I would rather die. So instead she merely turned, sheathed her sword, and strode away towards the ladder, out of the suite of trial rooms.
Behind her, Harrow gasped and said "Griddle, wait— " and when Gideon looked back, she was covering her eyes. Harrow lowered her hands slowly, shook her head, and muttered something under her breath. "Never mind," she said, when Gideon raised her eyebrows in a question, "The theorem must be bound to the room, it'll go away when we leave."
"What'll go away?" asked Gideon.
"Nothing. It's fine. Let's go."
"Whatever you say, my sepulchral seductress," said Gideon. And Harrow made a horrible face, and they left.
That was meant to be the end of it. They returned to their skull-adorned quarters, sometime in the technically-morning-but-not-in-any-way-that-mattered, and Gideon had been able to persuade Harrow that yes, actually, defeating a regenerating construct was worthy of real, actual sleep in celebration. Harrow had proposed a generous four hours. Gideon had, indignantly, demanded: "What? At least seven, my bruises have bruises, you're covered in a horrible thin film of dried out blood-sweat, you won’t catch me dead at anything less than eight— " and they had met in the middle at four and a half.
Tragically, Gideon didn’t even get that: she started dead awake maybe halfway into their scheduled rest. The sun wasn't even properly up yet— what a concept, for a light in the sky to just rise all on its own— just thin wisps of dull light grey apologetically peeking through the horrible high windows of their dim-curtained room. Closing her eyes did not allow her to fall back asleep, despite the exhaustion in her bones, and neither did the tried-and-true tactic of doing the mental equivalent of one-armed pushups: plotting her next escape attempt, which unfortunately hit a little different since they had departed the hallowed halls of the Ninth. This was deeply unfair.
With any more sleep proving elusive, Gideon went for the second-best use of her downtime, which was to catch up on some reading. After as quiet a burrow as possible into the secret compartment in her trunk where her longsword and other necessities lay ready for battle, she settled back into her horrible nest on the floor.
Five minutes later, Harrow burst into the room. Gideon had had the few seconds' warning of the Necro-version of pitter-pattering gentle feet upon the floor, which was a far more unsettling clatter of rattling bone jewelry that electrified her entire spine. She had tucked her reading material away and was doing a very passable mimic of bleary-eyed disgruntled waking when Harrow made it in.
"Nav," said Harrowhark. She had one hand braced on the doorframe, clutching it so tightly that Gideon swore there would be indents left in the ancient wood, and the other pressed tightly across her forehead. "Nav. You can't— you are the one who demanded rest, and instead I find you delaying our work for such frivolous reasons as—"
"I was resting," said Gideon, "I was sleeping quite soundly, in fact, until someone decided to do a bone jig across the floor and interrupt my beauty sleep—"
"You were not sleeping."
"Was too," said Gideon, a tactic which hadn't worked since they were perhaps five, and even then only served to provoke Harrow further into a frenzy of bone-raising hell. She stored bone frenzy away for later, in the mental filing cabinet labeled skeleton puns that might actually kill Harrow.
"I know you were reading one of your awful magazines," said Harrow, spitting it out through gritted teeth, "because I saw it."
Harrowhark let the hand across her forehead fall to grip the opposite doorframe, and looked up at Gideon. The bags under her eyes were truly monumental, she'd hardly need the necro-paint if they went on not sleeping. But more importantly, there were tiny bright spots around her iris, visible even at a distance.
"Oh, shit," said Gideon.
"Yes," said Harrow.
"We're fucked," said Gideon.
"Yes," said Harrow. "It's distracting. How will I be able to focus on the work of ascending to lyctoral glory like this?! I can't even sleep if I'm instead awoken by your racing heartbeat and seeing flashes of— of—"
"Scabbards & Skins," said Gideon, helpfully. "You can't tell me you've never seen it before, I've had this one for ages and I know you snooped around my cell. Anyway, I was only reading it for the article on blade-preserving oils, it's a classic."
"The worst part," said Harrow, arms crossed over her chest, "is that I know this to be true, because—again— I saw it."
Gideon abandoned all pretense of sleep and sat upright. It was unsettling, seeing flecks of gold light in Harrow's eyes, but even as she squinted to try to make them out, they faded away. Maybe some weird trick of the morning light? It wasn't as if either of them was used to the concept of morning, it probably did all sorts of weird things to the ol' rods and cones.
"So was it... like the trial room?" asked Gideon, cautiously.
"Exactly the same," said Harrow, who had begun to pace the little floor of their quarters. "Overlapping perception. Sudden onset— perhaps brought about by a change in heart rate or a spike in pineal gland activity?— limited to sight. But I can't find a spell anchor, and it ought to have dissolved when contact with the plinth ended. That room isn't active, it's been solved!" She finished this last in an angry rush: when Harrowhark crossed something off of her to-do list, it stayed dead.
"What is it, then?" asked Gideon, into the expectant void left by Harrow reaching the end of her rant. She was reluctant to play the questioning half of this duo; in the past, it had only ever ended in pain.
Harrow said something too quietly for Gideon to make out.
Gideon rested her arms on her knees and said, "Again, please? Maybe it's a case of underdeveloped ear bones—do I have those? is that a thing?— but I couldn't quite make out what you said, what with you facing away and also not speaking above a grave whisper."
"I don't know," said Harrow, "the limits of— this— or what's causing it." To admit that she was fallible seemed to cause Harrow great agony, and to have it come so soon after allowing for physical assistance must have been almost unbearable. "I need— time. Undistracted time, to examine the link—"
"What link," interjected Gideon, who was roundly ignored.
"—and solve how to deconstruct it."
"Deconstruct what," interjected Gideon, again, but faster.
"Whatever fragment of spell has caught us both and stuck," said Harrow, in a rush, as if getting it out quickly would limit the damage of acknowledging that they had any kind of connection, even one caused by a lost piece of necro-junk stuck in the depths of Gideon's soul. "I need some time to consider it in peace. Which means you," here she pointed at Gideon, the bones along her fingers and arm rattling in awful accompaniment, "need to get out."
Gideon sat quietly. She had really thought they had had a moment, sort of, of begrudging respect, and she wasn't so foolish as to think it would last, but, still. She would allow herself a few seconds of mourning for her fleeting belief that Harrowhark Nonagesimus might have room to acknowledge other people's competency.
"Griddle," said Harrow, and then let out a frustrated huff. When Gideon looked up, Harrow had inched a little closer, and was peering hawk-like down at her in a way that activated several circuits of distress. "I am concerned," Harrow went on, "that your continued proximity might provoke a repeat resurgence of the strongest physical symptoms of the— link," she finished, trailing off, as if naming it would make it more real.
"You want me to go... so it doesn't happen again," Gideon translated, into non-academic speech. Harrow's studies might have been conducted only at the schools of self-guided hard knocks, but that had never stopped her from being as scholarly obtuse as possible. Gideon had absorbed rather a lot of necro jargon through sheer osmosis, which was deeply, profoundly annoying.
"Yes," said Harrow. "Preferably to a location where you have the lowest likelihood of being disturbed, or seeing anything that might cause a spike in blood pressure, in case that's what sets it off. Perhaps the kitchens."
"You want me to go hang out with a bunch of awful old bone piles?"
"I have calculated that there are unlikely to be any skeletal servitors," said Harrow, dropping the proper terminology in with the side of her mouth curled a little in disdain, "present, at this hour, and even if there were, you are forbidden to pick a fight."
"You want me to go hang out in the kitchens alone?!"
"The kitchens," said Harrow, her simulacrum of patience fraying at the edges, "have the lowest possible likelihood of contact with any other beings at this time of day, and therefore the lowest possible chance of causing you any distress. Or any... excitement." This last was said with narrowed eyes, and pronounced with the delicate cadence of someone for whom the memory that her body needed anything as banal as sustenance and rest brought real distress, and the idea of carnal desires was worthy of a healthy case of the vapors.
"I was reading," said Gideon indignantly, "about novel techniques in sword polishing!" When she belatedly processed what had just exited her mouth, she added, "Literal polish! Literal swords!"
"Griddle," said Harrowhark, "I must once again remind you that I know, because I saw it, and I am doubly horrified to add that the thrill of a possible ten percent increase in oiling efficiency with novel synthetics was enough, on its own, to set your blood pumping."
"Fine," said Gideon, if only to spare them both the grim task of considering pumping blood, "Fine. I'll go to the kitchens— your carefully calculated most boring-ass place in this haunted-ass castle— and, I don't know, sit on my hands, or something."
"Very well," said Harrow.
"If," said Gideon. "If you agree not to go to the lab without me."
"Nav," said Harrow, exasperated, "why in the name of the Tomb Below would I agree to that?"
"Three reasons," said Gideon, and held up her hands to tick them off on her fingers. "One, it's dangerous." (Harrow let out a tiny snort of breath through her nostrils.) "Two, if I find out you've gone down there again, and you've been holding out on finding another massive target for me to take my pent-up frustrations out on, who knows what horrible things are gonna happen to my heart rate. And three—" here she abandoned counting off, and opened both her hands in supplication— "I am asking, my benighted baroness, for this one boon. The smallest measure of trust, given that we're all in this together. What's the worst that could happen?"
Harrow stared her down. Gideon left her hands out at her sides, and tilted her head.
"Fine," said Harrow, tersely. "I won't return to the lab without consulting you first. Except in case of emergency."
"Define emergency," said Gideon, skeptically. "No post-its."
"An immediate threat to life or limb."
"Done!" said Gideon. "Great. Really stellar terms. It's a deal."
So Gideon had gone to the kitchens. And, defying Harrow's expectations, it had been full up with other people, and Gideon had gotten roped into helping with morning loaves, because the patient construct skeletons' technique apparently left something to be desired for those with more discerning palates than Gideon, who had grown up with chunky gruel as a special treat. But still: it had been boring, it had been fine, until Gideon had gotten a sudden unavoidable flash of a vision of Harrow's hands working in the lab, and broken her vow of silence and probably seven more sacred ones besides, and generally caused a ruckus, and now here she was, running pell-mell through the depths of the castle.
Gideon tried to pretend that she was only sprinting out of frustration that Harrow might get to fight something fun without her, and that there wasn't some drop of genuine concern for her necromancer working its slow way through her bloodstream and into her forebrain. She had long enough running through ancient, uncaring corridors to work on convincing herself of this that it almost, almost worked.
Gideon arrived at the hatch and found it unlocked, but when she opened it, noticed that the interior was protected by a dried-blood-and-bone-dust combo that could only have been devised by someone with a truly evil mind. Thus assured that it was Harrow's, she yelled down into it:
"Harrowhark!! Get the fuck back up here this second!"
This produced no response. She'd halfway expected bone-arm constructs to burst through the floor and grab her, and she wasn't exactly disappointed that they hadn't, but it was a little bit of a letdown.
Gideon had been dumping most of her mental energy into not seeing what Harrow was doing the whole way over, because the overlap messed with her own sense of where her body was, which made sprinting a little rough. But if she relaxed her control just a little and let her eyes slide out of focus, she could still see it: Harrow, unbothered, alternating between putting a hand into the contraption and taking indecipherable notes. For a second, Gideon almost felt a phantom buzz on her own hand, in apparent response. The double vision made her feel briefly woozy, and she shook her head to clear it.
She closed one eye, squinted, and yelled again: "Harrow! Come on! Light a fire under your wretched bony ass, for once!"
Her vision of Harrow didn't react in the slightest. Gideon was about to scream again, and was working on coming up with the most cutting bone-based insults she could, when she noticed a series of sticky notes attached around the inner rim of the hatch, which read:
Gideon: knock*. (with the addition of a hastily drawn arrow pointing to a metal pipe descending into the hatch alongside the ladder)
Do NOT raise your voice. The lab is soundproofed. I have devised a vibration-based alert system ("Have you," said Gideon, reflexively delighted) that will warn me of your presence.
* knock in the pattern of the gloaming call to prayer.
"That's just two bells, Harrow," said Gideon into the empty air, "hardly unbreakable security," but she knocked twice anyway, slow and stately, on the metal pipe.
In her vision overlay, Harrow looked up at a series of bone arms she'd managed to hang over the metal pipe running along the top of her own room, which were jangling merrily back and forth. She snapped her fingers, and back up by Gideon, the wards deactivated.
"Not nearly as fun an alert as I'd expected," said Gideon, and she shoved her awareness of Harrow back down into the depths of her brain until it went away again, and slid down the ladder into the lab.
"Threat to life and limb, you said," Gideon said with as much menace as she could muster as she stomped into Harrow's control room. "Emergency, you said. And what, you couldn't wait even a couple hours before sneaking back off on your own?! "
"This is an emergency, Griddle," said Harrow, with what might've been patience if it weren't for the way the bone arms behind her kept clenching and unclenching into fists and back again. "This entire situation is an unprecedented emergency. We are besieged. As long as this lasts, I cannot," she said, and took a deep breath, as if whatever she said next might pain her greatly, and began again: "I cannot trust the evidence of my own eyes."
There was real panic in Harrow's expression. Anyone else might've missed it, but Gideon had spent her entire young life finely attuned to how Harrow might be feeling, and what Gideon might need to watch out for, because of it. Harrow's mouth was just a little too tight, and fine lines appeared around its edges, cracking through her sacred paint.
"This is a grave weakness," said Harrow, gravely. "We are in impossible danger of someone exploiting it. At any minute we may be found out, which is a turn for the worse I shudder to contemplate. Have you burst in on me— have you interrupted my work— only to complain?"
"Uh, no," said Gideon, who was doing her best not to give Harrow shit for being so panicked over seeing the cleanest pages of Gideon's skin rags that she made it sound like a war crime. "I interrupted your work because it's already taken a turn for the worse, actually."
At this, the construct arms behind Harrow froze. "Worse how," Harrow said, cautiously.
"I knew you were working here— in the deadly ghost lab— because I saw it," said Gideon.
Harrow closed her eyes. After a long, long second, she opened them again.
"This changes nothing," said Harrow.
"Bullshit it changes nothing," said Gideon. "It happened out of nowhere! One second I'm sitting peacefully in the kitchen making bread, the next second I'm— still sitting peacefully in the kitchen making bread," she said, catching herself at the last minute. "But I could see you down here. If I had been somewhere even a little bit more dangerous, and gotten that distracted, anything could have happened! Like, for instance," she continued, stomping over to Harrow to emphasize her point by way of looming, "If I'd been here! In the lab! Where a half-ass priest told us it was whole-ass dangerous to be!"
Gideon had an additional point planned, but had to cut herself off, because her Harrow-sense bubbled up from wherever she'd locked it away, and she was seeing double, suddenly, looking up at her own face from a few inches below it. The light acne on her chin was very visible, and she could see Harrow reflected in her sunglasses' mirrored lenses. The amazonian view was satisfying on an abstract level, but the actual effect gave her brief and awful vertigo.
"It's still happening," said Harrow, reading something in the grimace on Gideon's face.
"Yeah," said Gideon, tersely, "but—"
Harrow snatched the sunglasses off of Gideon's face. This movement towards Gideon was so startling that Gideon froze out of self-defense, some animal instinct seizing up all her limbs at once, which was the only reason it worked. Harrow had made a lifetime's work of not touching Gideon except in violent retaliation, and even then she mostly had bone constructs do the actual work of pinning Gideon's robes to the wall while she delivered victory lectures with scorn.
Harrow swore, softly. Gideon, seeing what she saw, was too startled to reply. Gideon's eyes, normally a clear, sharp gold, were dusted with a smattering of little sunspots. Or, not sunspots: sunspots were bright solar flares. These looked like— like shadow bleeding in at the edges, like the fading light of a dying star. But even as Harrow watched, and Gideon watched her watching, they faded. And Gideon's sense of Harrow faded, too.
"So," said Harrow. "It does go both ways." This was a fruit so low-hanging that even Gideon could only bring herself to scoff. "And there's visual evidence... That's unacceptable. I will, of course, wear the veil of my office. And you will continue to wear... these." For a second, Gideon thought Harrow might replace the sunglasses on her face, and her stomach did a cruel little flip she didn't care to further investigate at the thought, but Harrow only hesitated for a moment, and then thrust them out roughly towards Gideon in one cold hand.
"This changes nothing," Harrow said again.
"It goddamn well does," said Gideon. "I saw you! That wasn't part of the trial! It's getting worse!"
"The fundamental problem is the same," said Harrow. "I had initially suspected a fault in the theorem's application, or the way it was ended, and that is still the most likely explanation. I had come down to investigate it, but..." she trailed off and glared at the podium, taking its failings as a personal affront. "The podium won't respond to me at all. I suspect each activator is barred once the trial is successfully completed, presumably to cut down on errors such as this."
"Ironic," said Gideon. Harrow ignored this. "But this— thing, however it started, it's affecting our eyeballs, right?"
"Probably an anchor in the occipital lobe, with connections to the second cranial nerve," said Harrow, almost absently.
"Whatever. But it's still something in the meat."
"Yes," said Harrow, grudgingly. "I haven't been able to find any kind of disturbance on the skeletal level."
"So," said Gideon, "maybe we should talk to a... meat expert?"
"Griddle," said Harrow. "If you have an actual proposition, make it." She was flipping one of her bone rings between her fingers, a nervous habit she never revealed in public. It was the metatarsal ring, Gideon knew, the one she fiddled with when she was medium-antsy, and hated that this knowledge had taken up space in her brain that could've been reserved for much more useful things.
"The Sixth seem to be pretty handy with... the flesh sciences," said Gideon, cautiously, feeling around the edges of what Harrow saw as her dignity.
"Palamedes certainly thinks they are," said Harrow with a scoff, and then her brain caught up. "When did you speak with the Sixth?"
"After I fought them," said Gideon, and saw her mistake immediately. "I mean—"
"When did you fight the Sixth?" asked Harrow. She had two rings going now, clattering together around her knuckles at increasing speeds.
"Just the cavalier!" said Gideon, raising her hands, as if that were any better. "She drew first! I was trying to get past them to you!"
"Fine," said Harrow. "Just— if you plan to pick fights with any other Houses, have the decency to warn me first."
"I didn't plan to fight her," said Gideon, "it just— happened." Fights did in fact seem to just happen around Gideon, in the way that an apple, detached from its stem, just happens to fall towards the ground. Fighting, for Gideon, had gravity.
"Anyway," said Gideon, "I thought you were into me facing off against other cavaliers! I saw you watch the end of my bout with Naberius, and you didn't kill me after, anyway, which is about as good as it gets, for you."
"Aiglamene's teachings may not have been completely wasted," said Harrow, grudgingly.
"And I got a good vibe from the Sixth cavalier, while we were facing off," Gideon went on. "I feel like we can trust them."
"Trust them," said Harrow, in tones of deepest scorn. "Because you got a good vibe from an enemy combatant?"
Gideon gave her a helpless shrug. The look Harrow shot back in return could melt steel.
"People always want something," said Harrow. "The scales have to be balanced. And if we go to another House, and not only reveal this— deficit, but ask them for assistance? That is a debt we will never pay down."
"Sometimes people just want to help," said Gideon, not quite believing it as she said it.
"Have you ever, Griddle," said Harrow, "done something out of the pure unvarnished goodness of your rotten heart?"
"Well," said Gideon, "I'm pretty fucked up, so. Maybe a bad example. But I think they might. They seem cool."
"They seem cool," repeated Harrow. She let out a great frustrated huff of air. A third bone ring was clacking between her fingers, repetitively, over and under each knuckle. She kept this up as she paced the length of the room, twice, and then returned to stand in front of Gideon again.
"Fine," said Harrow. "My own methodology has proven fruitless. I am currently out of alternatives. We will approach the Sixth and propose a trade: they may... investigate this phenomenon, in exchange for their insight and utmost silence. But this is a one-time exchange. I will not make a habit of fraternizing with the enemy."
"I think they might be fun to fraternize with," Gideon said. "But we're really gonna do it? Damn. Does this mean you're actually going to, like, listen to me? Sometimes?"
"Don't push it," said Harrow. "While I grudgingly allow you have some areas of militaristic competence, that is no marker of any acceptance of your instincts as a greater package."
I'll accept your greater package, said Gideon's brain, unhelpfully. Then she processed the preceding chunk of the sentence. "What?" said Gideon.
"What what?" said Harrow, sensing a trap.
"You think I'm competent?" said Gideon. "Underestimating is one thing, but competence? The highest praise I could imagine! I would slay a thousand legions to hear it pass once more from your sacred lips, o vestal villainess."
"Enough," said Harrow. She flung out her hands before her, and around the room, constructs dissolved back into their component osseous parts, covering her arms with a light clatter and clank. "If we must ask the Sixth for... assistance—" she spat this word out like a mouthful of poison— "the sooner done, the better."
"Sure," said Gideon, and made a great half-mocking bow, gesturing to the ladder up and out of the hatch. "Let's go. Deadly necromancers first."
"Why?" asked Harrow, suspiciously.
"Your handmaiden insists, with all of her several areas of militaristic competence, that it's the more easily defensible position," said Gideon. "Also, I like the view."
"A system away from home, and yet you still constantly find new ways to blaspheme against the Reverend Daughter of your sacred House," said Harrow. But she climbed up first all the same.
Harrow knew where the Sixth House's quarters were, because of course she did, some spillover knowledge from the awful and spooky map she'd constructed night one that she refused to let Gideon see long enough to get a full understanding of, out of an excess (or maybe exactly the right amount) of paranoid caution.
On top of a standard warding, the Sixth had installed an entire hardware store's worth of additional security to their front door, which Gideon found endearing. She was trying to decide if there was a spot she might knock between the wards that wouldn't immediately dissolve half of her bones and all of her skin, when she was spared this risky gambit by virtue of Camilla Hect opening the door.
"Ninth," she said, and gestured past her for Harrow and Gideon to enter. So they did.
"Sextus," said Harrow, sweeping into the room with all the drama and grace of an underslept swan still wearing last year's down fluff for decoration. "I propose a trade."
"Oh?" said Palamedes Sextus, looking up, distractedly, from the many sheets of flimsy he was apparently writing on all at once. To his left, a stack of discards had grown so tall that he was using a mug of some steaming beverage as a paperweight to hold them down. "This ought to be good. What've you got to offer, Nonagesimus?" Behind Gideon, Camilla closed the door, and busily got to locking every one of their seven additional physical locks.
"Knowledge," said Harrow, "of an unanticipated and undocumented side effect from one of the trials, in exchange for any conclusions you might draw from examining it, and your permanent silence on the subject."
"Examining it— so it's still going on?" asked Sextus, who looked significantly more interested now. "Is there one that makes you grow a third hand? Messes with your signature? Makes you unrecognizable to bone wards?"
"No," said Harrow, and then she was silent for a moment. Gideon spared a glance to examine her, in between trying to decipher the completely illegible shorthand half-visible on every available surface, and could tell she was worrying the inside of her cheek between her teeth.
"Regarding Laboratory one-two. You are familiar with the temporary perceptual overlap initiated by the presence of one party in the transference room while another activates the relevant theorum in winnowing," Harrow said. This was not a question.
"Of course," replied Sextus. "But we just got through that one ourselves, and we've been fine— no bits of regenerating ash, no thalergy signature disrupts, nothing."
"The perceptual overlap has not been— completely temporary," said Harrow, through gritted teeth.
At this, Palamedes took off his glasses. Presumably this was only for effect, because after peering dramatically at Harrow, he replaced them. "What, constantly?"
"What's the trigger?"
"Heart rate, sometimes, but just as often: nothing."
"Any visible indication?"
"Slight shift in pigmentation in the inner layers of the iris, on the receiving end."
"Receiving end— so you're both— have you found any correlating pulses in your thanergy signature—" and then they were off to the necromantic races, and Gideon tuned them out out of sheer self-preservation. With that conversational noise safely relegated to background chatter, she turned instead to admire Camilla Hect's surprisingly large collection of swords.
"So your necro's still seeing through your eyes?" asked Camilla.
"What?" said Gideon, startled and a little refreshed by someone speaking with her plainly, for once. "Yeah. I mean, not always. But off and on. I get that little buzz in the back of the brain when it's happening, you know?"
Camilla did know, and indicated this with a single nod.
"But it's not that bad, honestly, and I'm sure the next trial has some failsafe that'll stop it."
"Which next trial?"
"Whichever's next. You know, in order. We must be on the same one, if you just finished ol' spikebone?"
"They're not..." said Cam. "You can do them in any order. They're all unique, like the keys."
"Ah," said Gideon, "Well." This meant that they weren’t as ahead of everyone else as she’d thought, and spending time on this problem instead of progressing was more urgent than she'd understood, and she felt vaguely guilty about it, and then mad at the guilt, which she thought she'd trained herself out of years ago. It was so rarely useful. She tried to mentally wrestle it into submission and cast about for a distraction.
"Hot damn," Gideon said, seizing on Camilla's excellent kit both because it was in her immediate field of vision and because she was honestly interested, "is that real rendered blade protector? Not the vat-grown stuff? That's supposed to be best against deep space chill, but we never had any of it back home—"
Gideon's attempts to see if anyone else got just as hot & bothered as she did over sword oils were rudely cut short by Harrow's rising tone of voice, which barged in: "I tried surface analysis. Blood. I took a sample of her bone marrow—"
"You did what?" said Gideon, frantically replaying the last seconds of conversation in her echoic memory so see how worried she ought to be.
"And nothing. I can't isolate a problem on our end. The test itself won't respond to me now that it's completed, so I can't dismantle it. I thought time might let it fade, but instead we seem to be having the opposite reaction."
Palamedes was patiently conducting some sort of scan throughout this tirade. He'd got on a pair of gloves and was holding an instrument pointed at Harrow's elbow, then at her eye, then the back of her head. Every so often the box gave off a calming bip. Gideon found this unnecessarily twee.
"There's nothing immediately medically wrong," said Palamedes, as he packed the scanner away. "And I can't make out the signature of the spell, on you or on your cavalier. Something's blurring it out. It's as if a piece tried to heal back over and accidentally incorporated the theorem... I need to think about this for a while. In the meantime, you might test if it's limited by distance."
"Tell me something I don't know, Sextus," said Harrow, with real fatigue in her voice. When he opened his mouth again, she quickly went on: "Rhetorical. That's what we were planning to try next."
"I'm glad you came to us about this, Ninth," said Palamedes. "If you're seeing the same general thrust of the theories as we are— I don't think this was an intentional effect, but I do think it's important."
"How so?" Harrow asked.
"Just... a gut feeling," said Sextus.
"Don’t undersell your carefully cultivated microbiome," said Cam.
"No, stop that," Sextus went on, but he was smiling. "I mean it. whatever caused this— an imperfect spell, a written script that was meant to decay but instead was healed by some other power— it's important. The effects are important. You can learn more from when and how a thing breaks down than you would have if it had been perfect from the start."
"That requires performing with less than perfection in the first place," said Harrow, haughtily. The effect was somewhat ruined by her sleeves, still rolled up from having her pulse taken, which kept getting caught on her bone rings as she tried to unroll them. Gideon snorted in amusement.
Harrow shot her a deadly glare, then sighed. "I will head westward and down," she said. "Griddle, wait five minutes, then go eastward and up."
"There's nothing out that end of this place but the battlements and the big wet lake!" said Gideon, in habitual protest. She knew it was technically an ocean, but also knew that getting it wrong would needle at Harrow, a little bit, and 18 years' worth of habit forced her to seize every opportunity she could get to do just that.
"Yes," said Harrow, "I'm counting on it. I can cloak my own necromantic signature and am less likely to be noticed in the deeper areas, which are of greater necromantic interest and more likely to be populated. Nothing on this horrible rock could cloak your thalergetic glow."
"Aw, you think I shine," said Gideon. Harrow made a face.
"I will wear the veil," Harrow went on, "you keep your sunglasses."
Gideon said, grinning, "You keep ordering me to do that as if they weren't my absolute favorite accessory." Harrow made a worse face, and Gideon continued: "No, babe, don't stop, I love it. Just for you, they stay on."
Harrow turned and stormed out of the room. Or attempted to: she had to stop, and undo all the locks first, which lessened the effect. "Five entire minutes, minimum," she said over her shoulder, and then she was gone.
For a moment, they all looked at the door. Then the two members of the Sixth House, acting as a unit, formed up ranks and turned on Gideon.
"So," said Camilla. "Abandoned the vow of silence altogether?"
"I'm just shy around strangers," Gideon said. "Easily intimidated." Camilla almost smiled. "We didn't meet many new people back on the Ninth."
"I wrote to Harrowhark, once," said Palamedes. "Well, to the Ninth House, to request help with improvements to the theories underlying our skeletal servitors. Which were... perhaps not quite ideally optimized for exterior work. ("Falling to pieces the second they got a whiff of space," said Cam.) I was curious about your station, too, but we never heard back... I wondered, sometimes, what it might be like to live in a House with so little contact with any others. To be that isolated from the outside world."
"No real contact with the inside world, either," said Gideon. "Drearbruh's very... steeped in tradition. Not a lot of room for anything else but that." This was more than she meant to share, but she had been lulled, a little, given a false sense of security by the warmth of the room. And a realer sense of security by the locks.
"Ah," said Palamedes. "Well. I'm glad you found at least one person you could trust."
"One person—" said Gideon, startled. "What, me and Harrow? I don't—" she began, but then she stopped, as her brain presented her with an involuntary recap of how she'd been acting, and the trouble she'd gotten into, and asked whether those were the actions of a woman entirely without trust. A little seed had germinated, somewhere between Harrow's reluctant explanation of the trial, and the fast and guileless way she'd fallen into sleep, after, when Gideon had talked her into taking a nap. It was fragile, and it was small, and if anybody threatened it Gideon would kill them, quick as lightning.
"Sure," said Gideon, "Yeah. A little chilly outside, but we just spent all our time on swords and bones. It works."
Cam nodded in recognition of their shared order of priorities. Palamedes tilted his head, and his face held a little too much sympathy. "Well," he said. "I'm glad you both get some time here. Setting aside the quest for forbidden knowledge, the food's pretty good, and the warmth must be a nice change."
He peeled off his examination gloves and moved to sit down on one of two clear spaces on the couch. He reached out, groping for his paperweight mug of tea somewhere behind him, but before he could complete the gesture, Cam had placed it in his hand, with the ease of years. A gift of knowing what was needed, and when, and an anticipatory generosity that grew from knowing the other would rise to meet you there in turn.
Looking at that too closely hurt Gideon, somewhere soft under her ribs. It hadn't been nearly five minutes, but suddenly she couldn't bear to be in that room, a little pocket of comfort carved out of the uncaring halls of Canaan House, made warm by the comfort of camaraderie, for a single second longer. So she made her excuses and headed towards the door, off to get as far away from Harrow as was humanly possible.
Camilla watched her go. After a moment, she began to ask, "Do you think they could—" and Palamedes nodded, once, leaping ahead to the end of the question.
"You know," he said slowly, "a week ago I wouldn't have said so. But maybe, with a little luck—"
But Gideon was out the door, and didn't hear.
It took Gideon a solid couple of hours to pick her way slowly east. Well, east-ish; she had worked out the trick of using the moving light in the sky and the time of day for loose directions, but not every room had convenient windows, or conveniently solid floors. Mostly they just had indecipherable tapestries, rotting away from who-the-hell-knew-how-many years of abandonment. Gideon tried to move one, once, checking for another secret door, and it dissolved in her hands into a film of grit and horrible old dust. She kept her hands mostly to herself after that.
She was almost to the balustrade when ahead of her, she saw a whole section of flooring solemnly scrape loose from its tenuous moorings and fall away into the infinite dark below. She fancied she heard a splash.
"Well, fuck," Gideon said to herself. "You couldn't even make me a copy of your forbidden map, O Most Revered Offspring Of The Grodiest Bones? Maybe mark off some of the paths with definitely deadly, and not in a fun way, either? I can't punch a sheer drop, that's just not fair."
Gideon thought she heard a little noise of surprise, or maybe felt it, but it was quickly cut off, and maybe that was just the echo of another tile falling. Whatever, she was almost there, and she couldn't have Harrow blaming her for this attempt not working. So she devoted the level of focus she usually brought to her sword forms instead to guessing which path was likeliest to hold steady beneath her, and a short while later, she was looking over the edge of the castle to the waters below.
The light of the late afternoon was... nice, Gideon acknowledged, through the protective layer of her beloved lenses. For a moment, it cast a glow over the edges of the stones of Canaan House, lining it in warmth, making it plausible that somebody lived here, once; that this was a place that had been built with care. And then the cloudbanks above closed up, and it was dark again, and somewhere at the edge of her hearing a skeleton reeled a fish in with an awful wet plosh, and that was the end of that.
Gideon wondered if she could provoke the servitors into taking a more active role in protecting the food supply if she threatened their fish basket, and shifted from that into a beautiful daydream about whether she'd rather take on forty skeletons armed with fishing poles, or one giant skeleton armed with only a fish. It was the fishing line you had to watch out for, really, that could trip you up something terrible, but maybe the rune she was drawing could keep them from getting close enough to get a good cast in.
But wait, no, Gideon wasn't drawing blood sigils on an ancient and crumbling wall somewhere in the bowels of the castle, that was all Harrow. Gideon let her vision slip— sideways? backwards?— and took a moment to passively gather what intel she could, from wherever Harrow was looking: she was sitting inside a series of concentric rings of warding, bone and ash and a nasty blood one at the center that Gideon vaguely thought might be something about ghosts. But none of that, nor the distance, had kept Gideon out.
My long-buried monarch, I regret to inform you: no dice, said Gideon. Or she tried to say, anyway, aiming the gist of it like a lance, laced with snark and the tiniest touch of honest regret, Harrow-ward. She got back a sudden, sharp, feeling of surprise and then deeply familiar annoyance, and then whatever channel that came from clamped closed, a door slammed shut. She could still see Harrow, though, who clasped her hands together and brought them up to press against her bowed forehead, like she was praying, or warding off a Gideon-induced migraine. O midnight marquess, Gideon went on. Shadow-clad sovereign? Twilight princess? Is that anything?
"Cease," said Harrow, out loud, into the dark and empty room.
So you can hear me, said Gideon, delighted. Back on the balustrade, she settled down against the stones, briefly allowing herself to enjoy the feeling of warmth against her back where the sun had soaked in. Great, wonderful, got a whole new avenue of communication to try some bits I've been working on. Did I tell you the one about the cav from the Eighth who walked into a bar and said "ouch? "
Harrow did not dignify this with a response. Gideon thought she felt the muscles in her back tense up, which was weird, given that Gideon was relaxed, for once. Entirely without her conscious intent, her brain bundled up a little packet of this feeling and fired it off alongside her next communiqué, which seemed to bounce harmlessly off of the closed-vault door of Harrowhark's fine-honed mind. Only Harrow's shoulders dropped, a little, so maybe a bit of it melted through around the edges.
Fine, said Gideon, be that way. Only I can feel you gritting your teeth, which means this didn't work, did it?
"Your infinite powers of perception astonish me." said Harrow. "You are correct: it did not." She stood up. Instead of doing anything as mundane as dusting off her robes, she snapped her fingers, and the ash and grit that had been trying to make a home in their folds exploded outwards and away, all at once. It was kind of hot.
Gideon opened her eyes wide, with a start, at this terrible betrayal by her own lizard hindbrain, and was suddenly grateful for the impenetrability of Harrow's locked-tight link.
"Meet me in the quarters," said Harrow. "Talk to no one. Perhaps try, Griddle, " she continued, "not to fire off every passing thought or... feeling... in my direction. Your mind gives off an astonishing level of noise."
Can't help it, mistress of mausoleums. While you were out learning to do frankly freaky levels of laser lockdown of your own emotions, said Gideon, I studied the blade.
At this, Harrow did something that left Gideon's connection flailing in the dark. She could still sense, vaguely, that Harrow was present, somewhere, moving through the dark, but she couldn't see a damn thing—
"That stone-cold bitch," said Gideon, out loud, as she cottoned on. "Is she gonna walk the whole way back with her eyes closed just to get me to go away?"
Fine, Harrow, she sent back. Trip on every rock from there back to your cold hard bony bed. Skin both knees, see what I care. And then, entirely involuntarily: See you at home.
This was too much. It was a strong enough motivation for Gideon to take the link she had followed to see Harrow in both mental hands, and do her own version of a lock-down, which was less like a clean sharp cut and more just dropping a giant pile of rocks on the thing and hoping it stayed down. It seemed to work, though, and her awareness of Harrow faded into the background enough for her to stand up, crack her neck at a frankly alarming volume, and begin to make her way into the depths of the castle once more.
Gideon took a different route back to the Ninth House quarters, aiming to avoid the sections of the outer rings of castle that were likely to turn into the world's deadliest game of hopscotch. Unfortunately, this meant she was also traversing the slightly better-trafficked paths, inasmuch as seventeen people and three monks of dubious vivacity could be considered traffic. This became a problem when she crossed an abandoned, dusty threshold into a slightly less abandoned, dusty hall, and heard voices. She backed up a step and peeked carefully around the corner, to see the triple threat of the Third House facing off against the miniature representatives of the Fourth.
"I mean it," said Coronabeth. "Stop following us. You're not babies, it's not cute or funny, it's just sad." She was using her radiant glow to its greatest advantage, and her charisma was honed into a sharp and deadly presence that gave her words greater weight. Gideon had a brief vision of other contexts where she might appreciate that voice and had to swallow hard.
"I can tell when you're cloaking," Coronabeth went on. "You are not permitted at the grown-ups' table, and if you try to join us again, you will be removed by force."
Isaac muttered a reply, voice too low for Gideon to make out, but she saw Naberius's hand drift towards his rapier. Beside him, Ianthe stiffened, then turned and looked directly at Gideon, who had edged a little too far around the corner in hopes of better appreciating Coronabeth's sick burns.
"Ah, Ninth," said Ianthe, raising her voice. "Speaking of skulkers. Come and join us, why don't you?"
Seeing no alternative, Gideon reluctantly did.
"Still suffering in holy silence, I see," said Coronabeth, as Gideon drew near. "At least that saves you from having to engage with the awful babble of children."
Gideon did her level best to shoot a look at Isaac and Jeannemary that said: I know you know, but can we all be cool, for a second, just this once?
The Fourth looked at Gideon, and then each other, something simple passing between them in an exchange of raised eyebrows and tilts of the head. Finally, Isaac said, in formal tones somewhat ruined by the tiny crack in his voice: "The Fourth has no quarrel with the Third or Ninth Houses." And the two of them nodded vaguely in Gideon's direction, and left.
"They've got to stop," said Coronabeth. "They don't even have any keys— " at this, Ianthe glared so hard at Coronabeth that Gideon was surprised she didn't burst into flame— "they're not getting anywhere, they're not worth my time. Babs, come on, let's go." And she stalked away, passing Gideon and moving towards the outer rings of the castle without even a nod of acknowledgement.
Gideon was too busy being indignant about this to notice that only two members of the Third House were departing, at first, but was startled back into awareness of Ianthe, visible out from under her sister's bright shadow, when she quietly said, "Hm."
"What have you gotten into, Cavalier of the Ninth?" asked Ianthe. There was a predatory gleam in her eye. Gideon was reminded of the Ninth House rats, which weren't much to look at mostly, but once in a long long while she'd heard skittering and caught a shadow of something much bigger out of the corner of her eye, and remembered that things could grow to be quite outsized and mean, when nobody was looking at them.
"My sister wouldn't deign to spare a second of her attention on a cut-price bone nun," Ianthe continued, stalking slowly closer to Gideon. "But your thalergenic signature is off. We are surrounded by ineffectual children and I won't have you adding to the problem. Something's wrong with you. Is it catching?"
There was a tickle, somewhere in the back of Gideon's skull, and Harrow swore. Leave immediately, she said. Bow, scrape, run, I don't care, but don't let her get any closer. Do not let her touch you, Griddle, do you hear—?
Gideon bowed, and backed away, and the second she had made it around the corner, broke into an entirely un-dignified and un-stately run. The flash of Harrow faded into nothing as she went, and Gideon was shocked at how wrong it felt, how quickly her brain had come to anticipate the connection. She worried at the absence all the way home.
Back in the quarters of the Ninth, they debriefed. Harrow refused to call it a debriefing, because the only time she'd ever tried it, years ago, sitting Gideon down to make sure she fully understood how her latest escape plan had failed, and why all of them would fail, Gideon had laughed so hard she'd thrown up on the unforgiving Ninth House floor and, worse: Harrow's bone-encrusted boots. Now, every time they exchanged post-encounter intel, Gideon made sure to give Harrow a little extra room, and raise both eyebrows, and grin, and Harrow would roll her eyes, and the word floated between them like an unacknowledged fart. This was great fun.
"So," said Harrow. "It's not limited by distance. Or not as much as we can get on this awful rock of a planet, anyway."
"Harrowhark Nonagesimus," said Gideon, delighted. "Did I just hear you acknowledge that the House of God is flawed?"
"And," continued Harrow, as if Gideon had said nothing, "the time between them is decreasing."
"Is it?" Gideon asked. "Only— I just saw you once, after a couple hours, when all your wards were already set."
"The link activated three times on my end," Harrow said, tersely.
"Three— " said Gideon. "And you didn't tell me? I only heard you when you were worried Ianthe was going to, I don't know, get too close and be overwhelmed by my muscular prowess!"
"It might have upset the data," said Harrow, "or prompted you to make a scene that might tip others off to the situation."
Gideon had to concede this point. But it would have been a good scene, anyway. "Space and time aren't helping, then," she said, "cool, chill, only the major forces of the universe aligned against us, no big. What's next on the list for us to try, horrible protectress of my heart?"
"You are going to do nothing," said Harrowhark, taking Gideon's proffered heart and stomping on it, just a tiny bit.
"Harrow," Gideon said. "We're both in the shit. I am your resource, goblin guardian of the gloaming. It doesn't do any good for you to just let me sit here and idly rot. And anyway, I thought we both agreed I’m competent?"
"I'm not denying—" said Harrow, with a surprising note of desperation. "It's not— the next logical test is to see whether it requires a conscious link, and the only way to do that is for one of us to go to sleep."
"Oh," said Gideon. "Fair. But how come you're not taking a nap?"
"I am perfectly adequately rested."
"Bullshit," said Gideon. "You fucking are not, your eyebags have eyebags."
"More importantly, you can't watch a series of wards to see if any kind of unconscious activation trips them."
"Slightly less bullshit," said Gideon, grudgingly. "Fine."
So Gideon curled up in her nest of pillows and bedding on the floor. Harrow drew a series of wards around her, the same as she'd done back in the underbelly of the castle. The final touch was activation with a few drops of her own blood, which dropped onto the wards with an awful squelch. "Yuck," said Gideon.
"Go to sleep, Griddle," said Harrow.
"I will never be able to sleep knowing you're looming over me in the dark like that."
"I don't loom," said Harrow, loomingly. "And besides," she continued, with shocking patience. "you don't need to be asleep for me to overpower you. I could have done it literally any time."
"Damn," said Gideon, a little admiringly, because she was a little tired, and her filter wasn't great. "That's almost hot. Doesn't much help, though."
Harrow let out a short, sharp huff of air and settled in, kneeling on the floor before her, to wait. Eventually, against all odds, Gideon slept.
Gideon dreamed an old dream, its path worn smooth through years of repeat treading. She was kneeling on a beautiful, plush carpet. A decorated cohort officer was standing over her, offering a medal. The officer's uniform was attractively torn in a series of structurally improbable sword-cuts. Her décolletage was somehow tastefully concealed, but Gideon got an eyeful of sideboob, and found it good. The text of the medal's inscription refused to stick, shifting from one moment to the next, but it was all satisfying variants on "get fucked, Drearbruh."
Gideon received her prize with the utmost grace, and stood with only a little lingering look to marvel at the way the officer's jacket was holding together despite being absolutely shredded. But when Gideon turned to show her success off to the only person whose opinion of her mattered, on some bone-deep undeniable level, there was nobody there at all.
This was unacceptable. So, with the vague feeling of this oughta work, right, that tended to carry her into trouble between dreams and waking both, Gideon willed a door into being, and opened it.
The dream shifted. Beyond the door, instead of more starship, was... the cold storage room? Where the skeleton servitors of Canaan House kept piles of off-season vegetables, and slabs of fish, and, digging through buckets of flour, Magnus Quinn.
"Oh," said Magnus. "Harrowhark Nonagesimus! What a surprise! Are you a midnight snacker, too? Abby tends to wake up peckish when we're away from home, so I thought I'd grab something now to head her off at the pass. Also," he continued, conspiratorially, unaware that it was difficult to find anyone lower on the ranks of Harrow's possible co-conspirators than himself, "If I make it in early I can usually get a batch of dough rising before the skeletons try it. No fault of theirs, shockingly good construction, even I can see that, but they never fold it quite enough, you know?"
Harrow only blinked at him, briefly and blearily. Somewhere in the back of her skull, Gideon held her metaphorical breath. Weird dream, fine, but maybe if she tried to hold herself tightly and not give herself away, she'd get to see how Harrow faced off against her greatest natural enemy: a well-meaning uncle.
Magnus was unbothered by this lack of response, and went on working at a little table, covering one bowl with a cloth of real linen and measuring flour out into another. Harrow took this bustle as a cue, and began amassing a stock of apples and yesterday's rolls.
"Glad to see you're holding up alright," Magnus said, after a moment, a little hesitant. "I mostly only see your cavalier around, but she was worried about you, this morning. You two need anything? Abby found a bunch of extra pillows in storage, and the kids claimed most of em— would you believe, Isaac sleeps with a whole layer under him, like an extra mattress— but I think there are still a few left, if you— "
"The Ninth House thanks you for your concern," said Harrow, automatically, "but we want for nothing."
"Ah," said Magnus, "well, if you change your mind—"
But Harrow had already turned tail and fled.
Back in the Ninth House quarters, Harrow stacked her bounty up on a bone-free surface of a dressing table. Then, shockingly, she went to look in at Gideon, whose body was fast asleep. (This was unsettling, but Gideon had dreamed far worse, so she gamely went along.) There was an undercurrent of noise in Harrow's head that was bleeding through to Gideon's, a sense of worry, of aborted plans, and a long line of stress fractures waiting to happen. Harrow shook her head and forcibly banished it.
Harrow stalked into the bathroom and gripped the edges of the sink very tightly. The cold was a shock on her skin. Alone in the bright little room, she muttered to herself: "I am starting to believe I need to rethink my assessment of the kitchen." And Gideon laughed.
Harrow looked up, startled. In the mirror, her eyes shone with flecks of gold. "Griddle...?" she asked, but the dream shifted and changed, and Gideon was back on the Cohort ship as if she'd never left at all.
Her commanding officer told her she had done her House more honor than it was worth. Gideon wasn’t sure the Ninth was worth any honor, and said so, but she was grateful all the same.
The officer nodded, and went on about how thankful they were for her expertise, and how it was just about time for them all to take an off-duty holiday, and if she'd care to accompany her to her quarters, perhaps they could discuss... additional displays of skill...?
Gideon was no fool, and said absolutely, hell yes, right this minute. She followed the officer back with a little skip in her step.
But something was off about the officer: she was going fuzzy around the edges even as she slipped off to change into her more comfortable (though hopefully just as slashed-to-hell) off-duty garb. Don't ruin this for me, brain, thought Gideon, desperately, stay asleep a little longer, hold it together, I need a win here—
And when the officer returned, solid once more, swishing around the corner into the bedroom in a surprisingly dark and drapey robe, Gideon was relieved. Until she looked up at the officer's face, and saw that it was Harrow's.
The sheer indignity of Harrow turning up and ruining a really promising sex dream was enough to snap Gideon wide awake.
"Harrow," she said out loud, furious, as if it were Harrow's fault, somehow, and naming that might resolve it. But there was no reply. Gideon dragged herself out of bed, which was a monumental feat, and made a circuit of their quarters, and still found nothing. There was evidence that Harrow had been here, and even maybe slept, a little, but she was gone.
Gideon next tried to scream into the void-link: Harrow! Got a bone to pick with you! but despite what Gideon felt was an incisive and clever little jest, or perhaps because of it, this produced no dice. She prodded it, and could tell that something was there, but the little burrowing sensation of awareness was mostly dormant, a dragon sleeping in the back of her brain.
She cast about for instruction, and found only a few scattered literal breadcrumbs, so at least Harrow had eaten. But when she made to leave, to stomp around the castle until the link activated again and she could express her grand displeasure at Harrowhark's complete destruction of her chances to see a boob, even just one, even a dream-boob, even only for a second, she was pulled up short by a couple of curt, scrawled notes, affixed around the handle and locks of their quarters' great door:
Fix your paint and stay out of trouble, said the first. Above it, a second had hastily been added, with a scrawled: try to, underlined thrice, and an arrow pointing to the latter half of the instructions of the first. So at least Harrow acknowledged how unlikely this was.
Gideon stared at these for a while, but none of them resolved into additional note of "sorry for invading your dream," or even "condolences on your loss of a chance to scope some titty." She decided it must not have been real, only an especially plain-flavor dream weird, which was simultaneously a disappointment (that she wouldn't be able to bully Harrow with cohort innuendo) and a relief (that Harrow might have missed the brief spark of surprised warmth she'd felt, to see her there, before shock took over and she snapped back into consciousness).
The conflicting forces of emotion were strong enough to power Gideon through autopilot application of a very minimalist reading of one of the three painted skulls Aiglamene had forced into Gideon's muscle memory: this was the one with the wonky teeth, which probably had some proper name that Gideon refused to acknowledge, like, the force of sepulchral devotion, which really ought to get a nightguard to fix its molar grinding. Harrow would probably know. But Gideon was doing her best not to think of Harrow, just now, and forced this thought away, checked her rapier and her offhand, and stomped off to the kitchens to hunt for breakfast.
She was relieved, briefly, to see no sign of the Fifth House, which was a strong argument that her own vision of Harrow had been false, and Harrow's of her, too. But then she spotted a carefully set aside bowl, covered in the real patterned linen she had seen in her dream. And then, worse, quick on the heels of this realization, in walked Magnus himself.
"Oh!" he said, actually clapping his hands with delight, which honestly, who does that? "Two penitents of the tomb! Before breakfast! What a treat." This felt quite unfair to Gideon, who had never been penitent a day in her entire life.
She was prevented from needing to come up with an appropriate rejoinder by Abigail, hot on Magnus's heels, who wandered in and started to ask: "Dear, have you seen the— oh, hello, Ninth."
"It's Gideon," said Gideon, reluctantly, who tried to associate herself with the Ninth House as little as possible, as a rule.
"Very nice to formally meet you, Gideon," Magnus said with real warmth. He didn't go so far as to hold out his hand again, which was a relief to everyone involved. "What do you need, Abby?"
"I was going to see if you had the mini torch," Abigail said absently, her sharp eyes peering at Gideon, "but— Ninth, did you know there's something off about your thalergetic signature? It's... fuzzy, around the edges, a little bit. Do you want me to take a closer look?"
"Nope!" said Gideon, at once. "No thanks. Known issue. Part of one of the trials. Looking at it makes it worse." She wasn't sure whether this was true, but was sure any further observation of her and Harrow's circumstances would count as getting into trouble, which was forbidden.
"Alright," said Abigail, easily. "Oh, I am glad your vow wasn't permanent, that makes this much simpler."
"It was meant to be," Gideon said, "but... special circumstances. Which are," she continued, ticking them off on her fingers: "one, I don't feel like it, and two, Harrow can't stop me." At this, she felt a little wrinkle, somewhere in her hindbrain, but assumed this was lingering guilt, which was, again, really never useful, and shut it down. "I need to stay up here for a while, though, if I won't get in your way."
"Of course," Magnus said, delighted. "An honor to be graced by the presence of the Ninth." Gideon felt even less kinship with grace than she did with penitent, but kept her mouth shut. "Isaac, I can see you lingering at the corner, it's no use. Come in and help!"
Isaac, with great reluctance, walked slowly in, Jeannemary close behind him. "'lo, Ninth," said Isaac, to which Gideon replied, stately, "'Sup."
"Is it still a Ninth House holiday?" asked Jeannemary.
"What?" said Gideon, then, "Oh. Right. Yeah."
"Seventh feast of the cunning—" Gideon began, on autopilot, then cut herself off. "Uh. I'll tell you when you're older," she finished, brusque, from the accumulated wisdom of four entire additional years.
She was saved from further queries by the sudden shock of a spurt of flame going off, right across from her. Magnus had dug a strange little device out of his pockets, and Abigail was busily using it to... menace a tray of rolls? Which were covered in a kind of glaze, and it did look very appealing, the way the shining liquid melted down over their tops, but also, that was a lot of trouble to go to for a snack. The Ninth was weird about open flames, in that you absolutely didn't have them, because why the fuck would you risk it. Gideon couldn't help leaning closer out of sheer curiosity, and also a permanent magnetic attraction to any possible new weapon.
"Mini torch," said Abigail, noticing her scrutiny and holding it up. "A bit excessive, but it's fun. Want to try?"
Gideon was a little hesitant about the possibility of this being a ploy to examine her thalergenic signature, but also, against her better judgment, she wanted to buy into this moment of a kind of normalcy she'd never really known, so she reached out a hand to take it. And it was fun, applying a tiny blast of flame to one roll after another. One of them didn't quite set right, and Abigail said, "go on, try it, I always make a few misfits so we can eat them right away—" and Gideon did, and it was the best thing she'd eaten in— it didn't bear thinking about how long.
When she reached the end of a row, she hefted the torch up, and pointed it away, just to see how long of a flame she could get, but— "Ooh, no, better not," said Magnus. "Aim too high and you might set off the sprinklers."
Gideon looked at him blankly.
"Part of the fire alarm system? There's a ward that senses heat on the ceiling, there," he continued, pointing, "only it must've been a bit different on a station, mustn't it? With a linked system like this, when a ward is tripped, by heat, or by something breaking one of the sprinkler pipes, the whole thing sets off, an alarm starts, everyone evacuates."
"What if you're in the part that's on fire?" asked Gideon, fascinated.
Magnus said, "Well, you get out, don't you? Check the handles first, close the door behind you, but run like all hell. Exit doors unlock automatically. Most active necro rooms have a linked ward that cuts off any active theorems, too, in case one of them was the problem."
"Damn," said Gideon, in admiration. "That's handy."
"What happens if you're near a fire on a station?" Asked Jeannemary. "What do you do?"
"Die, mostly," said Gideon.
"Cool," said Isaac, who had a bit of a morbid side, apparently, followed closely by "Ow," as Jeannemary tweaked his ear.
"Don't take him seriously," said Magnus, fondly. "He was a little bit of a goth, for a minute."
"Noooo, Magnus," wailed Isaac, "you swore you'd never tell anybody!"
"Well," said Magnus, who was clearly enjoying this, "A sworn sister of the Locked Tomb, especially one under a vow of silence, doesn't quite count, does it?" And when Jeannemary laughed, disloyally, he added: "Don't think I've forgotten that you wanted to be a nun yourself, young lady."
"Magnusssss," Jeannemary hissed. "That was ages ago!"
"It was last year," put in Abigail, smiling.
"I only liked the garb! They get to wear all black, and your necromancer's bone earrings are awful, she looks so great, and the skull paint is wicked!"
"Well,” said Gideon, flustered a little by the thought of Harrow looking great, "Paint's not great as all that. I get breakouts like you wouldn't believe." She handed the mini torch back to Magnus, to cover her brief unsettledness.
Magnus took it and finished the final row on the tray, looking over his work proudly. "It's a little bit much, but it does give them a nice shine. And my buns," he said, looking at Abigail with a conspiratorial grin, "have always been the real treasure of the Fifth House."
"Yes, dear," said Abigail, fondly, patting him on the shoulder. But this was simply too much for the teens, who looked at each other in mutual silent horror and fled.
Abigail watched them go. And then, when they were out of sight, she let out a great, sudden sigh. Her posture shifted, turned a little inwards, and she took one of Magnus's hands with her own, and squeezed.
"They're so young," she said, helplessly. "I know they were invited, that they're capable, but I can't help but be terribly worried all the same."
Magnus slung an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "We're doing all we can," he said, quietly. He kissed the crown of her head, gently, then turned her chin up to look at him. Something wordless passed between them, and Gideon felt completely invisible; the space they had carved out was sacrosanct, and there was no room for anyone else. Her heart ached to see it.
She was almost relieved by the distraction when a pressure picked up behind her eyes, and she heard Harrow's voice, clear as day, say: Lab. Now. And then she was gone, but Gideon could still feel the link. When she prodded it, mentally, questioning, she felt a brief annoyance back, and then a brief flash of the fastest path from where she was to the hatch, offered reluctantly but useful all the same.
"Well," said Gideon, stretching to shake the last vestiges of sleep out of her bones, "it's been real, but duty calls."
"Oh," said Magnus, coming out of whatever place he and Abigail had briefly gone and back into their real and awful world. "Ninth House thing?"
"Yep," said Gideon. "Catch you on the flip." And then, because it had been good, and she was against all odds starting to be a little fond of this horrible, impractical, jovial aunt-uncle duo, she added: "Thanks for the roll."
On her way out, she grabbed a couple of extras, and shoved them deep into her pockets. But these were definitely only for her, for later, and certainly not for Harrow.
"Really?" asked Gideon, having made it back into the lab, and stomping right back into the same old test chamber. "Really? You tell me to stay out of trouble, and then head straight back down here for the second time? You didn't even lock the hatch, Harrow, it's like you want to get murdered, or spied on, or worse."
"It was locked," said Harrow, with unfair composure. "I only released the warding when I felt you coming."
"I'll feel you—" Gideon started to say, and then the rest of her brain caught up to the neural circuit labeled delightful witty repartée, autopilot version, and she stopped. "Anyway. You vanish, you call me back— do you think maybe you might try telling me what's going on?"
"It's getting worse," Harrow said, tersely.
"What do you mean it's getting worse."
"I heard," said Harrow, slowly, gripping the sides of the podium so tightly it was a wonder her knuckles hadn't split from the strain, "what the Fourth was saying to you."
"About the bones? Pretty sure it was meant to be a compliment. Teens are weird," finished Gideon, who was still the wrong side of twenty.
"That's not the point. Griddle, I heard it. The original theorem started out sight-only, and I certainly couldn't get any other information without rigorous active focus— to have it just bleed over, like this?" Harrowhark let go of the podium, in favor of pressing the heels of her hands hard into her eyes. They came away smudged with paint. "It was a time-bound, limited link. It should have ended when we won. But it didn't, so something is left, and I think Palamedes was right and something is healing around it, and I can't make out what it's doing, but if I'm hearing your end without trying, it is clearly getting worse."
"Oooooh," said Gideon. "Okay. If hearing is bad, it's been bad for a minute, because I thought it was a dream, but I heard you in the kitchen with Magnus. You didn't see my dream, did you?" she finished, in a rush, which suddenly seemed urgent.
"Why," asked Harrow, deadpan, "would I care about your dreams, Griddle."
"You wouldn't," said Gideon, "you shouldn't, doesn't matter. Please go on with telling me exactly how we're fucked."
"Eloquent as ever," said Harrow. "The hearing is one indicator, but the sense of place is another. That means it's a dual-way active connection, even when only one party is receiving; otherwise you wouldn't get the sense of relative distance. And the distance is bad, too," she continued, pacing a little; "it felt like an elastic stretched to its limits, when you were all the way on the other end of the castle. The low-level awareness of the other party's location is a huge distraction."
"Okay," said Gideon, "but I kind of always had that. I had to know where you were," she continued, at Harrow's questioning look, "because of how it gave me the best guess at knowing where the skeletons would be coming from, on the next go-round."
Harrow looked at her, and drew in the short sharp breath that meant she had something to say, but whatever it was went unsaid. Instead, a strange look passed over her face, and something tickled at the back of Gideon's Harrow-sense that might be confusion, or maybe regret? But filtered through her knowledge of Harrow, it was probably just some variant on mean, a feral cat that's only sorry it didn't dig its teeth in deep enough to bleed.
Harrow turned away. After a moment, she said: "In any case. If there is a solution, it must be found in the lab itself. I wanted to study the theorem, but since the trial isn't active, I can't see the structure to try and pinpoint what might have gone wrong."
"Can't you just... set it off again?"
"I tried that first thing," said Harrow, frustrated. "It doesn't respond to me any more. It must be locked down after a completed attempt. But today I thought, maybe they contrived a failsafe, that would recognize a... problem if both parties were present, and fix it, or at least let me examine the workings again, to see what was going on. I tried giving it some of your blood—"
"— but that had no effect. There's a chance it requires an active thalergetic signature present near the transference alcove in order to reactivate, though, so—"
"So you just need me down here to see if the door opens," said Gideon, “You want to point me around like a puppet? Fine. Obviously a better solution than talking through a problem like a normal team. Where do I stand."
Harrow directed her to wait by the door. So Gideon stood there, hand on the hilt of her sword, while Harrow busily drew another series of sigils and wards— "sight and clarification," she muttered, when she saw Gideon watching— around the winnowing podium. Gideon realized belatedly that if this did work, and the door opened, she might have to go round two with the bone-pile, without the benefit of Harrow actively helping her aim. This wasn't ideal, but a part of her brain buzzed in anticipation, nevertheless. She felt a bone-deep need to... well, to show off, a little, to remind the both of them of her competence.
The sigils were drawn, and Harrow was standing at the center of them, before the podium, but she seemed to hesitate. "Go for it, o bearer of the crepuscular crown," said Gideon, "I am yours to command." She drew her rapier, and fell into a practiced stance, ready. Some piece of her lingering fear fell away, because, after all, she was very good at this part.
The link buzzed open again, and Gideon got a pulse of something like worry, or concern, and underneath it a terrible deep well of sorrow. This lasted for only a second, and then Harrow shook herself all over, and slammed it shut at the same time as she thrust both hands into the activation port.
They stood there for a long stretch of time, or what felt agonizingly like it, anyway. Gideon extended the tip of her useless, tiny little rapier and poked the door, which stayed stubbornly shut. Finally, Harrow withdrew her hands, an act which she managed to make violent, and made them both into fists at her side. Something about the unfairness of it must have messed with her perfect control, because Gideon could see them from Harrow's perspective, looking down, and with a little shock she realized she could feel a phantom echo of that tension, too.
"Okay," Gideon said slowly, sheathing the rapier again, with a little bit of regret that she didn't even get to use it, "maybe unclench a little, Harrowhark. We'll figure this out." And before she could process what she was doing, she was striding over to Harrow's side, reaching out for one of those hands. Just as she was about to touch it, she felt a sharp burst of panic, and Harrow said, quickly: "Leave."
Gideon froze. She dropped her hands to her sides and stood there, still.
"Fine," said Gideon, after a moment, too tired to even pull a new epithet from the top of the stack where she kept them queued up and waiting, "You don't want me here. I get it. Little bit of a mixed signal, but we can move past that. Just tell me where to go."
"I do not care," said Harrow. "I can't think like this, Griddle! You're not even trying to contain it, you keep bleeding through whatever I'm doing, and you're so— so noisy. I was doing a decent job of shielding, but when the secondary input is this close, it's too much. Go somewhere without any constructs. Where nobody's dead. They glow in your vision, and you don't even notice, but I can't possibly work like that— just go!!"
So Gideon went.
Gideon stomped directly off towards the sad little garden, out of frustrated habit. She was unsurprised to see that Dulcinea had beaten her there, if she ever left at all, and was languishing prettily in a chair off across the way. The presence of the teens was unexpected and unusual, but there they were, huddled together muttering on a bench near the entrance, working through a roll apiece. This reminded Gideon of the rolls in her pocket, which she had forgotten in her frustration to casually pass off to Harrow, just in case, and then she was thinking about Harrow, and that made something sizzle to life in the back of her mind.
It was stronger, this time; she could almost tell Harrow was prodding at her senses in turn, after a brief initial flood of annoyance at being disrupted. And when she put the pieces together and sorted out where Gideon had gone—
Absolutely not, said Harrow. Leave. Now.
Why, o my penitent primarch? asked Gideon. It's nice out, for once. And nobody's dead, here, so you won't be bothered at your important work.
Griddle, said Harrow. The voice didn't have tone to it, not really, but Gideon felt a wash of something frantic. There are too many people. It is dangerous, Griddle, you need to go—
But Gideon was feeling reckless, and angry, at being so easily dismissed. So she slammed the link closed, forcibly ignored the brief squawk of protest which she felt as it went, and decided to stay.
She walked over towards Isaac and Jeannemarry, who looked up at once. Gideon could tell that Dulcinea was also looking in her direction, but she felt a little too petulant to appreciate the attention, just now.
"Oh," said Isaac, "it's only you. I thought Magnus had come after us, again."
"They never take us seriously," said Jeannemary, a hint of fierce, determined spine showing through the layers of zitty teen. Gideon had a brief vision of the person she might become, was already growing into, and recognized a kindred spirit. "I can't wait to be grown. Nobody talks down to you, Ninth! We've been gathering all this intel, and they won't even let us have our own keys—" at this, Isaac poked her in the side, but she went on— "and it must be so much better, to just be here the two of you, necromancer and cavalier, nobody telling you what to do."
Gideon thought about the warmth she had felt, when Magnus or Abigail chivvied the teens around in the kitchens, and felt suddenly old, and then very young, and then old all over again.
Jeannemary was sniffling, a little, and her eyes were red around the edges. "Ugh," said Jeannemary, "If they see I've been— it'll be worse, they get so concerned— " and this was too much for Gideon, somehow, to bear. She squatted down on her heels, in front of the awful teens, and solemnly slid her sunglasses off of her own face, and held them out before her.
"Here," said Gideon. "You wanna borrow these, just for a minute? It helps, sometimes."
"Oh," said Jeannemary, and then, "oh. Your eyes," she went on, "do all of the Ninth have that two-tone color ring, with the dark on the inside? It looks like your pupil's bleeding. "
"Metal," said Isaac, with reverence.
The hairs on the back of Gideon's neck prickled. Across the garden, Dulcinea's head turned in her direction, and the movement was ancient, awful and slow. Gideon closed her eyes, trying to buy herself time. If she hadn't fucked it up before she certainly had now, and she was frozen, briefly, at the realization of a problem she couldn't solve with a sword—
And then she was brought out of it by the clatter of rattling bones, and Harrow turned the corner and entered the garden at a dead run. She grabbed the sunglasses out of Jeannemary's hand, and jammed them onto Gideon's face.
"Your vows, cavalier," said Harrowhark, and her voice was cold fury. "You forget yourself."
The arrival was shocking, and so was the run— Gideon had almost never seen Harrow move at anything beyond a stately, awful stalk, except when Gideon had been attempting to wrestle her into the ground. But most shocking of all was the cold pressure of Harrow's hand on Gideon's wrist, as she grabbed her and turned to march away. And of course Harrow couldn't really move Gideon if Gideon didn't want to be moved, not with her bird-boned build against Gideon's frankly spectacular muscular bulk, hand encircling her wrist or no. But Gideon followed after, all the same.
The noble and prestigious necromancer of the Ninth House returned to her assigned quarters, followed by her slightly-bedraggled-but-pulling-it-off cavalier.
As they crossed the threshold, the bone wards jingled like a cheery door chime, which turned Harrow's perma-glare all the way up to eleven. She swung that glare at Gideon, who raised both hands in the air and took a step back out of sheer self-preservation. "Unacceptable," said Harrow.
The look in Harrow's eyes was cold, and grim, and Gideon's halfhearted plan to joke her way out of her grave (ha) mistake fled right out of her head, unwilling to be associated with whatever came next. "Harrow," she said, instead, slowly, "I'm—" but then the link opened up, and along with the fuzzy-edged vision of herself (the messy look worked great, actually, Gideon would have to try getting her hair to stick up on end more often), Gideon caught an edge of the actual emotions underlying that awful, empty look. There was fury, yes, but it was inward-turned, at Harrow, and underneath that, a sickening wave of real, actual fear, so deep that it might drown them both. But Harrow must have caught some of that, escaping, and she clamped down on the connection, cutting it off.
Harrow's shoulders raised, a tiny bit, as she took a deep, slow breath. "We are neither of us at our best," she began. "I have allowed a lack of sleep and... additional mitigating circumstances to affect my performance. My priorities may have become... slightly misaligned."
This was the closest Harrowhark had ever come to admitting to something so mundane as a mistake. Gideon was so astonished that she had nothing at all to say in reply.
"The Seventh necromancer," said Harrow, "is dangerous. No, Griddle," she continued, as Gideon opened her mouth to protest, "appearances aside, there is something wrong about that House. I don't fully understand it. Uncertainty is dangerous. I did not mean to place you in the path of danger. I should not have let you go alone."
Gideon was still staring directly at Harrow. She was distracted by the slow corona of gold flickering in and out at the edges of Harrow's irises, but also caught up in horrified fascination of hearing Harrow explain herself, for once, and wondering how far it might go.
"More than that," said Harrow, "I feel I have failed to adequately convey my distress at the continued existence of this link."
"No, I get it," said Gideon, "awful to be reminded that I exist when you're doing your best to not even remember exactly that. You always squash it right away, though, so it can't be all that bad?"
"You feel so much," said Harrow, "and you find the most inexplicable things funny, and you're constantly making awful jokes, in between sizing everyone up and deciding how many moves it would take you to bring them down. I have to close the link as much as I can, because otherwise I would never get anything done, and even then, I know you're still watching me, and it is the most distracting thing I have ever known!"
"Oh!" said Gideon. "The mortifying ordeal of being seen. That old chestnut."
"Yes," said Harrow. "How can you stand it?"
"Well," Gideon said, slowly, "I figure there's really nothing about me that you don't already know."
It was Harrow's turn to stand in silence. Her sharp edges went a little fuzzy, the wrinkle in her brow took on a new form, and all at once Gideon was struck by the need to get them back onto familiar territory. The best way to do this was to annoy her, so she quickly added: "Except for which of the titty mags are my actual favorites, which is a secret I will take to my grave."
"Griddle," said Harrow, exasperated.
"No dice, guardian of vestal virtues. Raise all the constructs in the world, but these lips are sealed."
"Griddle," said Harrow. Two Griddles in sequence was a bad sign. "Risk of discovery and exploitation aside—" this was a massive problem to leave to the side, and Gideon braced herself for whatever worse thing had shoved it away— "I am concerned that unless we find a fix in the immediate future, this may become permanent. Its effects have already spread beyond the occipital lobe. If it fully integrates itself into the neural networks of your mind, there'll be no removing it."
"Yikes," Gideon said. "Can't you just... snip out... that part of the brain?"
"Not and leave you living," said Harrow.
"Little less than ideal," said Gideon. "I am formally filing a motion against."
Harrow said, with great reluctance: "I think we need to speak with the Sixth."
"Damn," said Gideon. "It's really that bad, huh?"
Harrow worried at the inside of her lip again.
"Don't worry, sweet cheeks," said Gideon. "I'll do all the asking. Take five, have a snack—" here she dug around in the pockets of her robe, dug out two squashed but still perfectly edible breakfast rolls, and dumped them unceremoniously on top of the nearest bone stack— "and we'll head on up."
Harrow picked up one of the rolls with a look of great suspicion, then quickly dropped it.
"Aw, don't be like that," said Gideon, "Magnus made them, not me, they're actually pretty good."
But Harrow was distracted, looking at the door, and after a second Gideon heard a hesitant knock on a wall, somewhere around the outermost bone ward.
Gideon's rapier was in her hand. She felt a little buzz, in the back of her mind, and saw Harrow raise five constructs behind her, quick as lightning. She felt a sharp, fierce jolt of pride, at that awful skill, and hoped that Harrow saw it too. She strode to the door, ready to face down whatever stood behind it, and yanked it quickly open—
"Hello," said Palamedes Sextus. "Is this a bad time?"
The Sixth had not arrived guns blazing, but rather with notepads and calculators abuzz, hoping for a further exchange of information. To frame it this way was impossibly generous. Gideon said "Hell yes," without a second's thought, on the strength of appreciating Cam's swordwork, and felt a quiet buzz of frustration but grudging acknowledgement from Harrow, in return. She could still see Harrow's sight, a little, but something had shifted, and her brain was processing it a little better, so instead of a visual overlay it was more like— a confidence, that if she needed to she could check on things outside her own cone of vision. It was a little bit cool.
"So," began Sextus, "We've been investigating a suspicion based on the idea of a cross-task thread linking the knowledge gained from all the trials together. We haven't been able to determine exactly the underlying cause of your... problem, exactly, but I think you can brute-force a solution."
"Nice," said Gideon, "Brute force is right up my alley."
Harrow did the telepathic equivalent of bouncing a chip of bone off the side of her head, a sudden brief zing. This meant Harrow was paying attention to her, which was a nicer feeling than Gideon cared to admit.
Palamedes spread his hands, helplessly. "I can't resist a good puzzle," he said, "and there's good data to be gained from picking apart what the fail-safes to each laboratory are. The winnowing and transference theorem is shielded while it's inactive, but I'm good at shields. If you can finish the task again, really complete it, not just start and give up, there's a hard overwrite when the construct breaks apart that should deal with whatever spell detritus is still bouncing around in a feedback loop inside your skulls."
This was quickly leaving Gideon's alley and in danger of entering another zip code, town, and country altogether. She could feel Harrow's attention perk up, her pulse rising, and said through the link, you would get a hard-on for theory, wouldn’t you, and then tuned out the resultant indignant response in self-defense. Gideon instead focused her attention on Camilla, who was wandering the perimeter of their quarters in a very patrolling way. She nodded at the space Gideon had cleared for push-ups, squinted quizzically at the paint stains on the bar above the door, and then returned to Gideon's side, standing still, but the kind of stillness that was much more predator-in-the-bushes-waiting-to-leap than anything remotely chill and reassuring. Gideon greatly appreciated this.
"It's nice to see him with a colleague," said Cam. "He was never any good at making friends our age. Just kind of... repeatedly nerded at people, to see if they might be compatible, which they usually weren't."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," said Gideon. "Hey, after we fix this, do you wanna spar?"
Cam shot her a look.
"So," said Gideon. "That's a maybe?"
But Gideon's attention was shifted to the academic convo, again, at a hit of frustration through the link.
"I know it's not a trivial undertaking, but you have to activate the failsafe cutoff at the end of the task," said Palamedes, "it's the only thing that might be strong enough to stop this— whoever made it, they did so with the combined power of an entire generation of necromancers, and neither of us can make up for lack of combined life force on brilliance alone. Ninth, this can't go on," he continued, tone shifting into deadly seriousness. "Perception sharing without any underlying structure or understanding— you'll go mad. Or it'll kill you outright, bleeding thalergy and thanergy like that. It's all going into supporting this incomplete construct— something about the way it was cut off, or something in the structure of one of your minds, is trying to heal around it and incorporate it. I'm surprised you're not dead already, frankly, you both must be very stubborn." This was a comical understatement, but Gideon couldn't find it in herself to laugh.
"It's useless," said Harrow, "because we can't complete the task a second time. I've tried again and again, and it won't activate for me, not with Gideon's blood, not with her bone—" Gideon sent her a quick flash of you did not, and Harrow replied with the image of a fragment of bicuspid, and a snide you didn't even miss it— "and not with her actual presence in the actual room. It recognizes that I've already activated the plinth and defeated the task, and the door will not open."
"Well," said Gideon, into this pause, "I could try to activate it."
Harrowhark and Palamedes both looked at her as if she'd grown a second head. (She checked in Harrow's vision to make sure she hadn't: all clear.) And then they both spoke over each other at once, in a rush:
"If there's thalergenic and thanergetic bleed, it might be possible, but the overlap—"
"If the overlap is severe, that's a very good reason to think it might in fact work. How bad is it, Nonagesimus?"
"It's getting worse," said Harrow, and her worry bled around the edges of her block, and ate away at Gideon. "There's a chance, but— I think it would exacerbate the effects. We'd only have one shot."
"Well," said Gideon, "third time lucky!" She looked at Harrow and winked, which was very sexy of her, and absolutely did not deserve the exhausted, impatient look that Harrow shot back. "Are we gonna argue all day, or are you gonna go use some horrible bones to punch the shit out of some other, even more horrible bones?"
Harrow screwed her eyes shut tight, pinched the bridge of her nose tight between two scrawny fingers, and sighed. In Gideon's book, this counted as a win.
The Ninth House left the Sixth at the top of the hatch, with instructions to halt any possible interference, and descended into the depths of the labs alone. The link hadn't faded since they'd left their quarters, and Gideon felt a little bit worried; in every other instance, it had cleared after half an hour, max, and now it had been easily twice as long as that.
"We don't have time to try this more than once," said Harrowhark, heavily. "I am... willing to allow that the Sixth has made an alliance with us, however temporary, but if anyone else sees the evidence that this is still going on..." here her voice trailed off.
"Yeah," said Gideon, "not to mention the whole going mad and dying thing. I'll pass, thanks all the same. So: how're we gonna do this?"
"You place your hands in the plinth," said Harrow, "and I defeat the construct. We have to cause a force-stop with your hands still activating the trial, and the link between the theorem and your thanergetic signature complete. A slow fade or a dissolution because you've removed yourself from the theory's set of active arguments won't do it; it won't work just to place your hands in and take them out again."
"Aw, no fun," said Gideon. "Not even just the tips?"
"No, I got that far," said Gideon, "Weird soul-energy bleed, puzzle box thinks I'm enough of a necro to activate, sure, why not. I meant: how are you gonna beat the monster? I'm not handing you my sword, you've never done a push-up in your life, it would embarrass us both."
"With your guidance, I can... get out of the construct's way long enough to take it down," said Harrow. There was a buzz of some kind of energy coming through the link that Gideon couldn't quite parse. "But for that to succeed— for you to receive enough data, and be able to respond with enough speed to make it count— I'm going to have to open the link all the way."
And then Gideon put the pieces together: Harrowhark chewing on the inside of her teeth, rattling her rings around her fingers. The bone-bracelets up and down her arms were practically vibrating. She was desperately anxious, but Gideon couldn't tell why. "Harrow," said Gideon, "it's been open the whole time, I've been getting bits of you looking at my ass the whole time we went down the ladder."
"It was directly in my line of sight," said Harrow, "and you kept wiggling it on purpose— but no. Your end of it is open. I've been holding mine shut."
"If this is shut," said Gideon, cautiously, who could feel the shape of Harrow, and had a sense of her stance, and mood, and a thrumming knowledge of her nearby existence, "then what's it feel like open?"
Harrow was silent for a moment. Then she raised a hand and made a quick, hasty gesture, and a wall fell that Gideon hadn't even known was there. And Gideon's sense of Harrow went from a vague outline to a whole colored-in picture that used the whole awful, sad, dreary box of crayons: her left ankle itched, where her robes had rubbed against it for a week, and her right arm was a little stronger than the left, not that that was saying much, and her neck was stiff, a little, from no sleep, or sleeping wrong, and she regretted abandoning Gideon's proffered squashy breakfast roll. And she was anxious, sure, that was easy to read, but underneath that was that same old fear, again, and a deep and roiling anger at the unfairness of the situation, at this whole goddamned world, to which Gideon could certainly relate. Worse, too, there was a layer of bedrock guilt and grief so overwhelming that Gideon's mind skipped right off of it, a hot stove of an underlying belief about Harrow's fundamental unworthiness she couldn't bear to lay a hand on for too long. Gonna talk about that one later, babe, she said, and Harrow's mind twisted, and convulsed, and almost shut her out altogether before reluctantly opening up again.
Gideon had a moment to wonder if this overwhelming flood was what she'd been offering Harrow, all along, all unwittingly, every time she'd reached out to annoy her, or take a peek through her eyes, and be briefly concerned about whether that wasn't a bit much, really— but then she remembered that this was Harrow, who knew every one of her teeth from years of imprints left on her skin in childhood battles, who knew the shape of her wants and needs as well as she did her own—and maybe better— from years of positioning herself directly in their way, so it was fine. Harrow knew her, skin to bone.
"Okay," said Gideon, stupefied. "Well, cool. If I can see you that clearly, I can get you to dodge, that works. But what about the sword thing, though."
Harrow was startled, and maybe gratified, and a bit relieved that Gideon seemed on board. Gideon didn't know what she had been braced against— it wasn't words, exactly, just a too-fast-to-follow exchange of feelings, but she recovered quickly.
"I don't have to hold a sword," said Harrow, and shook the bracelets from her wrists. As they tumbled through the air, they divided, and divided again, and raised themselves into ranks of larger-than-life servitors. A dust swirled up around her, and calcified into an armored plating of bone, covering vulnerable joints and the soft body underneath. Gideon could still feel her inside it, heart beating like a drum.
"Show-off," said Gideon, a little fond. It was a little much, the feedback loop of looking at Harrow looking at Gideon looking right back, and to distract herself, she stretched her arms out to her sides, shaking the fatigue from her joints like a cat waking from sleep. At the same time, she could feel every inch of Harrow's tense frame, coiled into itself, poised to strike. It was menacing and deadly, and made for a weird, jangling contrast. Gideon was kind of into it. "Alright, my unquiet queen," Gideon went on: "Let's get to it."
She thrust her hands into the plinth. There was a pinch, somewhere in the back of her soul, and a little buzz, and Gideon could feel something active drawing down the line that connected the two of them. And then the plinth let out a little pling, which again, little too cutesy for the solemnity of the moment, and the door opened, and Harrowhark, wrapped in bone, surrounded by a small army of skeletal attendants, walked in.
The construct was just as brutal and merciless as it had been the first time around. It was even a little more intimidating, actually, seeing it from Harrow's slightly smaller perspective. Gideon threw her whole attention down through their link; all that Harrow had told her was required to sustain the theorem at the plinth was to just hang on, and she was perfectly capable of doing that with a small chunk of her brain while she sent the rest scampering off to assist.
The assistance broke into giving Harrow possible paths for skeletal servitors to attack that same sequence of weak points that would dissolve the regeneration abilities and warning Harrow to get the fuck out of the way! when it swung at her actual body in retaliation.
The dodging part was great, mostly. It was at least going fine. But that half-step of speed that was missing, the difference between Gideon's reflexes in Harrow's body and Gideon's actual years of training, wouldn't let them gain any ground. Harrow took out a first weak point, with a skeleton's well-placed kick, and then, somehow, a second, but anything beyond that seemed impossible to coordinate. Worse, while Gideon's impulses and guidance remained quick as ever, it had only been about a minute and Harrow was starting to flag. She was animating skeletons at an astonishing rate, and the blood-sweat departing her pores was taking with it rather a lot of essential vitality.
The regenerating construct took a swing at Harrow with its right arm, a mean horizontal swipe that hit a glancing blow off her reinforced armor, and then with a second, bonus right arm, which seemed like cheating, in the same direction. Gideon had them dart back from the first, but spotted the second only in time to scream Harrow, block! down the line— and Harrow, in perfect overkill, raised a whole giant chunk of bone tower, against which the arm obligingly smashed. But the bone had little cracks in it, and Harrow's nose had begun to bleed. The first two active weak points they had taken out had entirely reformed by now, and Gideon was able to point out a path that maneuvered a servitor close enough to destroy the first again— but at the last second, the giant construct leaned over and crushed its head between its bony jaws, which was frankly just rude.
"We may need," said Harrow, "to find another way." What other way, said Gideon, in her head, sending a little nudge to remind Harrow to strengthen the plating at her elbows, which were wobbly. I'm not letting this thing kill us both, or drive us both mad, or kill me alone and leave you to wither in despair! This was maybe an exaggeration, but Gideon was nothing if not sure of herself. You said yourself: one chance! This is it! Don't give up on me now, bone bride!
But the construct was winding up, and another strike came in sideways, from the opposite direction, bowling a wave of Harrow's skeletons over before it, raised and vanquished in the same second. Hot on its heels came a second strike, but Gideon had seen the secondary shoulder joint pull back in anticipation, and Harrow had another bone-wall ready— but it was weak around the edges, and the construct crashed right through it, and Harrow took a hit so hard Gideon almost pulled her hands straight out of the plinth on reflex.
Why does it keep doing that, she muttered in frustration.
"It's not meant to be easy, Griddle," Harrow said right back, spitting a gross gobbet of blood onto the floor. Her breathing was a little ragged and wet, in a way Gideon didn't like, but her sense of Harrow's body was fast becoming one big danger! sign, so it was hard to make out any specifics. The sheer adrenaline of the thing was blocking any actual pain, but nothing could block the understanding that a combination of construct attacks and overdrained necro was causing serious internal problems, which was deeply unsettling. "It wouldn't be much of a trial if it didn't fight back."
No, said Gideon, it keeps hitting hardest with lateral strikes, the vertical ones never get the full windup. It could wreak a lot more havoc if it reached all the way overhead, it's robbing itself of momentum!
"Griddle," said Harrow, "I wish you wouldn't advise our enemy on how to kill me faster." She was building the shield-wall back up, slowly, but underneath it Gideon caught a brief, fleeting glimpse of something exasperatedly fond, so faint she nearly missed it.
Harrow, Gideon said, suddenly hopeful, look up!
Harrow raised a wall of raw bone directly over her head and threw herself down on the ground. Gideon felt the force of it reverberate through her bones, and worried about fractures, but did her best to pull herself together.
No, said Gideon, good speed though, you're getting better already. But I mean: what's on the ceiling that it doesn't want to hit?
So Harrow peeled the bone-layer back, bits flaking off and being reabsorbed into her armor, and looked overhead. Both of them spotted something irregular in the cold white tile: a small, unassuming series of metal pipes, connected to a little sprinkler. And all of a sudden, Gideon knew what it was, and laughed in delight. Harrowhark, she said, buzzing with excitement, you're not going to believe this, but I have a real, actual, plan.
"You want me," said Harrow, exhausted, "to smash the pipes."
No! said Gideon. Well, I mean, yes, but it's the why part that's good. Around Harrow, the construct was still swinging. Chips of bone flew off of Harrow's little protective calcified closet; servitors rose up to gamely push the construct back, but it was crushing them as fast as Harrow could raise them, and maybe a little faster besides. This whole awful castle has an ancient planetside fire-suppression system! Fifth told me all about it! That's the sprinkler, right there. If you can break a pipe, the whole thing thinks a circuit's been tripped, and it'll go right off!
"I don't think getting it wet is going to help us destroy it," said Harrow.
We don't have to destroy it, said Gideon. We just have to cause a force stop to the thingy with both my hands still in this awful puzzle-box, yeah? When a planetside suppression system thinks there's a fire, or when there's a break in the circuit, all the doors unlock, and—
"And an auto-stop forcibly shuts down all active theorems," said Harrow. Her voice was very small, and she sounded more tired than Gideon had ever heard her. "That just might work. I can do it. But I'm running out of raw materials— I won't be able to manage anything else."
Okay, said Gideon, into the back of her soul. No worries. You've got this; I've got you. Focus on knocking that shit sideways and I'll handle the rest.
Harrow took a deep breath. She raised her hands out in front of her and then clapped them together, which, again, was clearly just for show, but Gideon, against her better judgement, loved it. As the sound echoed, a tower of skeletal arms erupted from the floor. Each subsequent layer drew more and more heavily on Harrow's armor, the only raw material she had left, peeling layers of bone away. Gideon could feel her attention go with them, using every possible piece of knowledge she possessed to gain height as quickly as possible, a program of beautiful simplicity and no wasted energy.
Damn, Harrow, said Gideon, admiringly. This was great praise.
The construct was battering at Harrow's body, and inside it, Gideon took on as active a role as she could: working with the little piece of Harrow's awareness that remained to run them sideways round the room, zigzag, stop and start, to dodge out of the way of as many swings as they could. But the hits kept coming, and Harrow was struggling, still a few feet away from the pipe, when a final swing hit her straight in the gut.
Harrow fell backwards against the wall, which propped her slightly up in apology. She raised a hand to her mouth, and coughed, and her hand came away wet. Gideon couldn’t feel anything at all besides tired from Harrow, anymore, and she wasn’t a medical expert, but that was probably not a good sign. Harrow, said Gideon, Harrow, hang on, we’re so close—
Her vision was darkening around the edges, something vital wasn't getting through to her brain, and things were fading very fast— and then Harrow closed her hand, and the blood dissolved into dust, and she drew up a final, long, spindly skeletal arm at the bone tower's very top, and it grabbed the pipe and pulled.
For a long, awful, second, nothing happened. Gideon was frozen with Harrow, unable to catch her breath, exhausted beyond belief from raising skeleton after skeleton and the simple work of living, but then the pipe broke with a rusted snap, and the sprinklers activated, and the construct dissolved into dust, and the fire alarm came on with a slow, low whine.
Gideon was still with Harrow as her necromancer fell slowly to the floor, felt her fading into unconsciousness. The sprinklers were going, and the calcified bits of dust on the edges of Harrow's robe were turning a slow and awful grey in much the same way the color was leaching out of Harrow's skin. Some terrible liquid was making its slow way into her lungs. Gideon was screaming, with her voice and her mind both, and then, finally, the plinth let out a little ding, and the doors unlocked, and something in the back of Gideon's head went snap, and she was alone.
Gideon was through the door to Harrow in seconds, in no time at all. "Harrow," she said, and then tried, Harrow, which echoed into nothing, and then, louder: "Harrowhark Nonagesimus! If you die on me I will kill you myself!" which made no sense, really, but was gratifying to yell all the same.
But Harrow wasn't breathing. Gideon was increasingly frantic, and she wasn't a medic, and the Sixth were whole long minutes of running in the other direction, which was way too long. So Gideon did the only thing she could think of, which was to take a long, deep breath, cover Harrow’s bony little nose, and then breathe out straight into the gap between Harrow's lips, all at once.
Like much of the other essential knowledge she possessed, Gideon had learned this from comic books. There was a whole series called Abduct Her, Longus! purportedly written by an ex-Cohort medic. The comics made it very clear that they were “legally not medical advice” but they were also “inspired by true stories!” which seemed about as accurate as it would be to say that whoever designed the construct they’d just fought had been inspired by a fish. Still, that was about as good as it got, for primary sources, out on the Ninth.
Anyway, it was all about the trials and tribulations of the Cohort’s medical division, who were constantly getting kidnapped or called away on planetside missions, which always ended up with a lot of uniform removal and a surprising amount of mouth-to-mouth. They generally made it look a bit sexy, and even someone who'd never seen an ocean could appreciate the appeal of a decorated cohort medic saving a new recruit from drowning, both of their hair a little sticky with salt, and then continuing a makeout sesh once the danger had passed.
This wasn't like that at all. Harrow's lips were cold, and crusty around the edges, with dried blood, and if this was what all mouth-to-mouth contact was like, Gideon wanted a refund from God himself. The chest compressions Gideon finally remembered she needed to start felt like way too much, against Harrow's fragile bones. She thought she felt something crack. She made a low, wordless sound to keep time, and when she reached a full count, she stopped, took a breath, and started all over again.
Something in the back of her head was scrabbling against her skull, a rope loose from its mooring. As her body continued on autopilot, she found herself scrabbling after it. She followed the link, or the memory of it, a long way down into the dark. They weren't at the ocean, but there was something here like it, anyway, vast and deep and impossibly wide. Harrow was descending into it. Harrow was going somewhere without her, and this was unacceptable: this went against every death-pact they'd ever sworn, every threat made, every violent promise kept. Growing up the way they did, forced into roles they didn't want by a whole vast crushing system that ground children into dust, they'd only learned one way to relate. And now, they were just starting to see the first possibility of something else, and Harrow was going to up and bail? Nuh-uh. Absolutely not. No way.
So Gideon chased after her. The link was fading, and the mental connection alone wasn't enough to hold Harrow here. She did another round of chest compressions, breathed her air into Harrow's lungs, and then did it all over again. It wasn't enough. Gideon took Harrow's unresponding hand, and then both hands, and pulled her up into her arms, held Harrow's bony little body tight against her own. "Don’t fucking leave me here alone,” said Gideon. “It would be so insufferably goddamn boring, Harrow. Please." She said this last right into Harrow's ear, voice cracking from overuse, and then scrunched her face up against her neck and closed her eyes tight. Every atom of her mind lit up at once with a desperate reaching burst, the last gasp of a dying star.
And then Harrow took a breath.
This shocked Gideon so badly that her first response was to squeeze harder, until Harrow started smacking her in the sides, and wheezing in a sad little voice, "Off, Griddle, I can't—" so Gideon took her by the shoulders, instead, gently, and held her a little ways away while she coughed and choked and spat and cleared every last truly nasty gobbet of some awful fluid out of her airway.
"Harrow," said Gideon, "Harrow," and couldn't say anything else, for a little while.
After, Harrow wiped her mouth, and looked at Gideon, confused. "You saved my life," she said, a little indignant.
"Seems like," said Gideon.
"Griddle," said Harrow, slowly, "this is not a debt I can repay."
"Oh hell, don't," said Gideon. "You don't owe me shit! I am breaking the scales! I am casting them away! I'm not here to weigh your heart, Harrow, I just want you to let me peel back your seventeen layers of awful goth-girl skin and see it, a little, sometimes."
"I don't deserve that," said Harrow, in a very small voice.
"So your awful unconscious kept saying," said Gideon, "and we are gonna talk about what's up with that, later, believe me, once you've recovered enough for me to kick your ass up and down this entire castle." Harrow opened her mouth to protest, but Gideon had begun to work up a head of steam and kept right on going: "Listen, though. Sometimes awful shit happens for no reason. I know that, and you know that, better than anybody. But sometimes things come up daisies in a way that nobody's earned, and you have to let that happen, too, you massive dumbass. Maybe try to enjoy it."
Harrow had no response to this logical masterpiece. Or: the crease in between her eyebrows relaxed, some infinitesimal amount, but she was still shaking, and and exhausted, and Gideon was tired, too, and a little bit furious at the entire situation, and oh boy did she ever have questions for Harrow—
—but that was fine. They were both still here. All the rest was details.
"Anyway," said Gideon, "our collective awful wretched desperate gasp of a nothing plan worked. The link's gone. I can tell because I can't tell whether you're about to kick me in the teeth or if this is just standard Ninth levels of baseline annoyance."
"Oh," said Harrow, and was silent for a second, probably prodding around in her own gloomy castle of a mind. "...So it is. I can see what Palamedes meant," she went on, with a faraway look in her eye, "about the way a thing breaks being useful... this oughtn't to have been possible at all, unless it linked up with other pieces and other theories, somehow. So I'm not sorry it happened. But I'm glad it's done."
This was quite a lot of words for someone who'd been stone-cold dead a couple minutes ago. Gideon was impressed. She said, "Sure."
Harrow looked at her, surprised. "What, do you miss it?" she asked.
"Absolutely not," lied Gideon.
"Sure," said Harrow. Then she tilted her head and her slightly-glazed eyes refocused on Gideon's face. "Why are you bleeding?" Harrow asked, and reached a hand up, absently. It touched down on the curve of Gideon's cheek for only a second, which was still rather a lot.
"Oh, this?" asked Gideon, deliberately casually. She wiped her chin and looked at the back of her hand. "Gross. Worse, it's not my blood. I had to give you mouth to mouth, a little. Heard something crack, maybe a rib, maybe cartilage, I don’t know, I’m not a medic, but if it feels, like, weird, that's why. Sorry."
Harrow stared at her, wide-eyed. She opened and closed her mouth a couple times, unable to get a sentence started. When she finally did, what emerged was: "But I'm a nun," which seemed to surprise them both equally. Gideon grinned in delight.
"What, do nuns not swap lung until the second date?" asked Gideon, still smiling. "It's fine, five second rule, doesn't count. I won't tell Aiglamene if you don't."
Harrow pressed her lips together in a way that on anybody else would seem cruel, but on Harrow, meant she was trying to hide some real emotion. Gideon thought it might even be amusement. "You might thank me, though," said Gideon, pushing her luck, "it was a little gnarly."
Harrow sat up with as much dignity as she could manage, which wasn't much. She stared Gideon dead in the eyes, which was terrifying, and then said, absolutely straight-face deadpan: "You have done your House more honor than it is worth."
Gideon froze, then threw back her head and laughed in delight. "You absolute bitch," she said, still smiling, "I knew you saw my dream!"
Harrow huffed out a breath in what definitely wasn't a laugh, and spat out some blood, and possibly a fragment of tooth, along with it. Gideon decided not to ask. Harrow wiped the back of her hand over her mouth, trying to clean it, and succeeded only in mixing a little red into the black-and-white surrounding paint. This was awful, and very Harrow. Gideon wouldn't have it any other way.
"You have been a thorn in my side," Harrow said, "since your first breath."
"Yup," said Gideon. "Hope you're used to it, because I'm gonna keep right at it until the last."
"It's going to be dangerous," said Harrow.
"Yup," said Gideon.
"It's going to get harder," said Harrow.
"Yup!" said Gideon, smiling beatifically. "And as a special present to you, to celebrate your not choking to death on your own blood, I'm gonna let that one pass."
"I have no way to guarantee your safety," said Harrow. Her hands were shaking, a little, where they clutched at the edges of Gideon's robe, and Gideon covered them with her own, a warm and solid weight, and the shaking slowed. "This is beyond anything I envisioned. We might face any kind of threats. Gideon, I don't know what's going to happen next."
"Well," said Gideon, grinning. "Let's find out."