Work Header

Our Previous Transactions

Work Text:

The Seventh found her in the library. Dulcinea Septimus entered the room on crutches and alone, her dead puppeted cavalier conspicuously absent while his necromancer hobbled about. Perhaps it was too difficult to maneuver on the crutches and pull his strings at the same time, though Harrow could have done that at the age of eleven. Harrow pulled her veil a little lower over her eyes and hunched down in her chair. She willed herself to disappear into the shadows of the room, but from the sound of the footsteps and the tap of the crutches, it was clear she hadn’t gone unnoticed.

“Oh, the Reverend Daughter!” the Lady Septimus said, as though announcing Harrow’s arrival at a dinner party. “I didn’t think I’d find you here. Not when things seem so much more interesting on the lower floors.”

When Dulcinea got close to the corner where Harrow was hunched, she stumbled and caught herself on the edge of the table. She was breathing heavily and it sounded like there was a wad of gunk lodged in her throat.

“Oh, clumsy!” she said with a gurgling laugh. “I’m always doing that.”

Harrow did not get up to help the woman. She glanced up through the lace of her veil and then returned her eyes pointedly toward her book. “I’ve noticed.”

“You would have, wouldn’t you?” Dulcinea agreed. She pulled out the chair opposite Harrow--it shrieked as she dragged it across the floor--and carefully lowered herself into it. Harrow shut her eyes and chewed at the paint on her lower lip.

“I’m extremely busy, Lady Septimus,” Harrow said through pinched lips and squeezed eyelids. “Is there something you need from me?”

“Yes, your cavalier!” Here the Seventh let out an abrupt laugh, as though she’d surprised even herself. Harrow opened her eyes just as Dulcinea covered her mouth, blue eyes shining with mirth, or perhaps with tears as the laugh quickly dissolved into a dreadful hacking cough. Harrow gathered the books spread out before her and pulled them closer lest they get sprayed with the Seventh’s detritus.

Harrow studied Dulcinea through her veil. There was something unsettling about the woman’s face. She was small and angular, with a pointed nose and a pointed chin. She had a thin-lipped mouth that smiled too easily and seemed to possess an upsetting number of vaguely blue-tinted teeth. Despite all of that, even Harrow could admit there was a strange beauty to be found there. The eyes were big and almost too brightly lit, an absolutely brilliant blue. But it was more than mere physical appearance. There was something in the way she carried herself--the way she arranged her hands, or the set of her shoulders, perhaps--that brought to mind some of the oldest sisters of the Ninth. Dulcinea Septimus carried herself like she’d lived an entire life in fewer than thirty years, and Harrow supposed that, in many ways, she had. Septimus didn’t have much choice there. Harrow supposed it might seem sadder, somehow, if she’d still seemed young so close to death.

“Surely, whatever you need from a cavalier could be managed admirably by Protesilaus the Seventh,” Harrow said.

“Not this particular thing,” Dulcinea said. She pressed the pad of her thumb to her index finger, as though to demonstrate how miniscule, how reasonable, this particular thing would be.

“This conversation is already twice as long as it needs to be,” Harrow pressed. “What particular thing?”

“It’s more of a question, really,” Dulcinea corrected. Her fingers had moved to the edge of the table where she traced them over the grain of the wood.

Harrow let out her breath and looked back down at her notes. “Don’t be coy, Lady Septimus, it won’t help. Whatever question you might have about my cavalier, I assure you the answer is none of your concern.”

“That’s the thing. It is my concern, you see. It’s of very personal concern, in fact.”

Harrow sighed and sat back. Harrow knew that Gideon was spending an inappropriate amount of time lounging about on terraces with Dulcinea Septimus and it had only been a few days since Harrow witnessed Gideon punching the Third cavalier in the chest, a move that--while surely deserved--flew in the face of all Harrow’s careful instructions. Gideon did, at least, do it silently. What had Gideon done to this woman to prompt Dulcinea to hunt Harrow down?

“If my cavalier has offended you or your cavalier, I apologize on her behalf, and I suggest we consider the matter even,” Harrow said. “Is that all?”

Dulcinea began to laugh again except this time she was very obviously laughing at Harrow. Harrow bristled and realized she hated this woman. She had no reason for it, really. She barely knew the Seventh, but she’d disliked her from the moment she stepped off that shuttle and swooned into Gideon’s arms, from the moment she directed her zombie of a cavalier to point a sword at Gideon’s neck, and everything the Seventh had done since then only confirmed for Harrow that her first gut instinct was right. Whatever parts of the Seventh weren’t already rotted through were rotting now before Harrow’s very eyes.

“Goodness, no! Quite the opposite, I assure you! Oh, that is very funny, isn’t it, though I suppose you’re correct that that would make us even. No, my question, Reverend Daughter, was whether you and Gideon the Ninth were attached?” She said this with one eyebrow raised into a perfect arch, so well executed that she must have spent hours in front of a mirror perfecting the expression.

“Attached?” Harrow repeated.

“Yes, you know. Involved. Modern times being as they are, it’s not unheard of or even that uncommon anymore for a necromancer and her cavalier--well, just look at the Fifth. I didn’t want to presume, but it did seem that--”

Every inch of Harrow recoiled. She started to stand, ready to walk away from this conversation without another word, but she was here first. The work was important and--

Of all the--

Finally, Harrow succumbed. She stayed and sputtered, “Why would you think that?”

“Oh,” Dulcinea said, her hand fluttering against the pale skin of her exposed chest, just above the low neckline of her dress. The skin here was thin; Harrow could see the delicate network of blue veins beneath. “When I saw that she’d been trained on a heavier sword, I thought, well--she’s very attractive, and no one has seen her lugging around a single bag of bones! And then the vow of silence, naturally, we started to assume--” Right. More than enough cause in that one short sentence to justify Harrow murdering Gideon Nav before morning. Trained on a heavier sword. Griddle, you useless, careless, thoughtless oaf. “Perhaps she accompanied you here in a more personal capacity?”

Harrow steeled herself, choked down the horror at the insinuation that there had been gossip surrounding her relationship with Gideon that went beyond this ninny from the Seventh. Harrow had hardly seen Gideon awake since she arrived at Canaan House, they certainly hadn’t spent enough time together for anyone to conclude that--perhaps that was why? Did they think she was avoiding her cavalier during the day because they were having a torrid affair behind closed doors?

“No,” Harrow managed to say, though the word felt dry and tight in her throat. It sounded like she’d choked on it, and Dulcinea’s smile returned.


“No, I am not involved with my cavalier, but since you’re here, and we’re having this conversation, I do have a question about yours. I couldn’t help but notice--”

“Splendid,” Dulcinea cut in, her blue eyes impossible bright, her smile upsettingly wide. “Then you wouldn’t mind if I--”

“I mind,” Harrow snapped before Dulcinea could finish. “This is inappropriate, Lady Septimus. My cavalier has sworn herself to the Ninth. She has dedicated herself to the Ninth. She’s not for sale.”

“I’m not asking to purchase her,” Septimus clarified. “But if she showed an interest--and by that, I mean, romantically. If it did not interfere with her duties, well, then I don’t see the issue if I chose to pursue--”

“Lady Septimus!” Harrow stood from her seat so abruptly that the chair fell back against the bookshelf behind her with great loud clatter. “The Ninth does not have time for a romantic dalliance. Beyond that, a relationship with another House presents an egregious conflict of interest for all parties involved. I will say no more on this matter and I recommend that you cease pursuing both this conversation and my cavalier.”

Dulcinea threw up her hands in surrender. Her fingers were long, the skin tight around the knuckles, hardly more than the thinnest layer over bone. “I meant no offense. It’s just--I’m sure you’re aware that she comes by the terrace where I rest in the afternoons, and I do very much enjoy our visits. She’s spectacular, though I’m sure you know that too. Wonderful, really. A shining gem of a cavalier. And those eyes. So in closing--and then I promise I’ll never say another word on the matter--you’re a very lucky necromancer.”

Dulcinea was laying it on so thick that Harrow felt she might suffocate beneath this mountain of praise, and for Gideon Nav of all people. For Gideon Nav who sucker punched the Third and rushed in to catch the swooning Seventh. Gideon Nav who couldn’t follow simple instructions, not completely, not ever.

“Thank you,” Harrow managed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must--Good Night.” She gathered her notes and her books into a haphazard heap and rushed from the room. Even bogged down with an unwieldy stack of documents, there was no question she could move faster than Septimus.

Harrow went straight back to the Ninth quarters and pushed open the door to find her cavalier already asleep, her gentle snores filling the room. Harrow leaned back against the closed door and felt the tension in her shoulders ease, just a bit. Gideon’s snores were already familiar, already a comfort in this strange and unfamiliar place. Harrow wasn’t careful when she set the books down on the table, they hit the glass with a loud thwack. If Gideon woke up, Harrow was ready for a confrontation, to forbid her cavalier from spending any more time with the Seventh. Harrow was in the mood for a fight.

Gideon didn’t wake up.

There was a break in the snoring and then she shifted, flopped onto her back and started right back up again. Harrow’s footfalls were heavy as she crossed the room to stand over her sleeping cavalier, but Gideon did not stir again.

Gideon was the physical opposite of Dulcinea Septimus. She was big where Dulcinea was small and bird-like, dark where Dulcinea was pale, all warm tones to Dulcinea’s cool blues. Gideon’s skin was thick and scarred, calloused from a life dedicated to one thing and one thing only: her sword. Her mouth had the exact right amount of teeth and her smile never made Harrow’s blood run cold. Their one similarity was in the eyes. Not the color, Dulcinea’s too-rich blue would never be compared to Gideon’s golden yellow. Gideon’s were always so startling for Harrow, a brilliant amber in a sea of Drearburh browns. There were times where Gideon caught Harrow’s eye and Harrow’s entire body felt the shock of it, of those intense eyes fixed on her, searching her for the weak spots that Gideon could try to exploit. Gideon’s eyes threatened to break Harrow, but Harrow had learned to cut herself on those eyes, to make sure they kept her sharp and ready.

Dulcinea's eyes were similar. They were too something. Too big or too bright or perhaps just too blue. When they lingered too long on Harrow, Harrow’s body sent a shiver of foreboding right down the center of her spine. She didn’t like to think of those eyes on her cavalier, lingering, burning into Gideon’s skin, slipping past, right into her bloodstream. Those eyes were a poison, an ocean fit for drowning. The sinuous read capillaries of the sclera were ready to wrap you up and yank you down.

Harrow didn’t believe a single word that fell from Dulcinea’s thin lips. She didn’t think for a moment that a romantic dalliance was the beginning or the end of the Seventh’s plans for the Ninth.

And then the insinuation--Surely, everything she said was a fabrication designed to tug at Harrow’s strings, a search for that one thread that would cause Harrow to unravel completely. No one could really think that she brought Gideon to the First in a personal capacity. The invitation was clear! An heir and her cavalier primary. No retainers, no attendants, no domestics. Unstated, but just as obvious: no secret lovers.

It was laughable. Gideon hated her, had always hated her, and even if Gideon did not hate her--which she did, as though every cell of her knew what Harrow had done just to be born, and Harrow had spent a lifetime making sure it was deserved--Harrow was sworn to another, loved another and always had, to the exclusion of all else. There were necromancers and cavaliers from other houses who were inseparable, who functioned as halves of one whole entity, who wouldn’t dream of spending their days in solitary study while their cavalier sat in the sun with the heir of another House.

They were weak.

Harrow had never needed a second. Everything she had done, she had done on her own. Still, if it was the way things were done on the other Houses, then perhaps she should require that Gideon stay by her side at all times, that she sit there bored for hours while Harrow pored over a wealth of new texts, while she stared at one laboratory or another and tried to puzzle it out.

Emperor Undying, Gideon would be absolutely insufferable though. She would fill each silence with pointless words, with things that did not even make sense and were not at all relevant to the challenges that Harrow currently faced. She would fidget. She would take off her robe and start doing press ups against the library tables, against the exact table where Harrow was trying to work. She’d start doing those clapping ones, which were especially irritating. Gideon had always been a strutting peacock, a total show off. Handstands right in front of Harrow while she was trying to study, pull ups on any ledge that would support her. Yes, Griddle, your hard work paid off. Yes, your biceps do look impressive from that angle. Harrow would get nothing done! They’d end up snapping at each other, hands tight around each other’s throats, bruised and broken children all over again.

Look at her!

Red eyelashes fanned over her cheeks, the paint all scrubbed away to expose a few angry zits underneath. Gideon’s mouth was slack, hanging open and wet at one corner. She had one arm flung up over her head, the sensitive underside and armpit exposed, the swell of the biceps pronounced where they converged in toward the triceps. And here was Harrow crouched over her cavalier, watching her sleep, wasting time dwelling on the Seventh’s words, which was surely the point of the entire thing from the start. Harrow stood and shook her head to clear it of Septimus.

No one in this tower was stupid enough to engage the Ninth cavalier in a romantic entanglement. No one was stupid enough to risk Harrow’s ire; not even the Seventh. Harrow could take Dulcinea Septimus with or without her cavalier by her side. She could take that lumbering dead cavalier with her eyes closed. Harrow moved toward the table, to her stack of books and documents. She pulled a piece of flimsy from the pile and searched her pockets for her pen. She wrote:

Reminder: Do not talk to anyone.

Harrow ripped off the bit of flimsy and then crouched back down beside Gideon to press it into the palm of her hand. Gideon’s hand curled in toward it and caught Harrow’s fingers, held them gently against Gideon’s palm. Harrow froze, heart suddenly thumping in her chest. A moment ago she wanted to kick Gideon awake, poke her with her own rapier to remind her of her station. Now Harrow froze, didn’t dare move lest Gideon wake to find Harrow crouched over her, gently pressing notes into the palms of her hands.

Gideon did not wake.

She did not move when Harrow carefully slid her fingers from Gideon’s grip, or as Harrow cursed herself aloud for not wearing her gloves. She left a smear of ink on the underside of Gideon’s index finger, an ugly smear of black. She was contemplating removing the ink, dabbing at it with a damp cloth--but no, that would surely wake her cavalier--when Harrow suddenly realized that her single note would never be enough to stop Gideon from passing time with the Seventh. Not with those eyelashes, or bright blue eyes pulling Gideon in. Gideon was not that strong. A second note was needed.

Harrow stood, her heart slowing again as she moved away from Gideon and rushed back to the table, to her pen and her flimsy. She paused over the blank page. She could not outright forbid Gideon from spending time with the Seventh. That would surely send her cavalier straight back to that terrace hell bent on proving that Harrow could not control everything that Gideon did. Harrow could not afford to mention the Seventh at all. It had to be a general instruction, an impersonal missive. She pressed her tongue between her lips and placed her pen to flimsy. She wrote:

Silent flirting is expressly prohibited.

That should do it. It would likely confuse Griddle, but that could only work to Harrow’s advantage. It’d bring attention to the way that Gideon was interacting with those around her. It would trick her into paying more attention to her body and her face, to those striking eyes and that infectious smile, to a demeanor that invited people in without requiring her to say a single word.

Harrow folded the flimsy and set it on Gideon’s pillow. If she found the first note, still pressed between fingers and palm, she’d know to look for more. They’d done this several times by now, and the missives Gideon left her in response--once a curt Got it, Bone Boss, but mostly stick figures throwing up several middle fingers--made it clear that she’d found them all.

Harrow considered her work for a long moment, watched the rise and fall of Gideon’s chest. She was going to lose Gideon either way. That was the cost of saving her House. She could have Gideon for this short time, and then, once Harrow achieved her goal and became a Lyctor, Gideon was free to go where she pleased, to turn her back on Harrow and never look back. Until then...Harrow returned to the table and clarified:

Expressly prohibited means forbidden.

This note she left propped on the hilt of Gideon’s rapier. She nodded, satisfied, and began to collect her books. She should sleep now so she could be up and gone before Gideon woke, but she wasn’t tired. She was wide awake, almost buzzing. She should take advantage of the moment, slip down into the Facility and get back to work. There were three laboratories that she’d been puzzling over, but Laboratory Two was giving her the most frustration. If she started now, she could get several hours in while everyone else slept. The Sixth were working in Laboratory Three, but they usually retreated back to their quarters by midnight. Her stack of books secure in her arms, Harrow returned to the flimsy and pen and scrawled out one last note, determined to make Gideon understand the gravity of the instructions:

Engaging in conduct expressly prohibited shall void all our previous transactions.

There. Yes, that should do it.

Harrow pressed her back to the door, checked and then double checked the wards and the locks. Finally satisfied that their rooms were secure and would remain secure in Harrow’s absence, Harrow pushed all thoughts of Gideon falling into a romantic entanglement with the Seventh aside. Gideon (mostly) went along with the vow of silence. There was no reason to believe she would not comply with these instructions as well, at least for a little while. Harrow left her final note beside the door, took her books and her pen and her journal, and left her cavalier to sleep alone within the quarters of the Ninth.