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When the Wolf Bane Blooms

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Energy. Endless, boundless. From the moment she opened her eyes each morning, the wolfblood that coursed through Gideon’s veins sent her heart pumping, racing. It beat better than a human’s- faster, but stronger. So in the mornings she ran, miles and miles, tearing through the brushpaths forest creatures made; feeling that strong heart work hard for her, feeling like a feral creature that had been locked in a cage it’s entire life, finally tasting freedom. She imagined not going back, every morning, as she ran until her legs felt wobbly.

Then she returned. To the cage. To the coven.

To Harrowhark.

The thing about werewolves is that a debt to your pack means a lifetime of servitude; the thing about vampires - being a thrall means the further you get from them, the more you deteriorate. Gideon can go pretty far, on account of the wolf blood. She can’t go far enough. So when she reaches the point in the forest where her skin feels like it’s peeling off, where she can almost feel it burning, sloughing from her in ribbons, when she feels maddened by it (it’s all mental, just unpleasant) - she turns around. Or, she turned around, usually. Today she didn’t, because she wasn’t alone.

“Griddle,” the bundle of black fabric that was Harrowhark glared up at her from the shaded edge of her parasol. “I need to stress that you cannot do anything...wolfy, while we’re in Canaan. Do you understand?”

“Uh, yeah, you’ve only said that like, fifty times.” Gideon kicked at a stray rock with the steel toe of her boot, giddily aware of how far the black spires of Drearburh had faded into the distance. “Don’t worry, my vampiric mistress, I will be your practicable thrall, totally human, until the Solstice is over.” She bit back the and not a day after , though her heart fluttered at the thought. One last favor to her cadaverous overlord, and eternal freedom was hers. Gideon, free at last.

“Good,” Harrow’s voice was icy, as always, but her sharp little fangs had scraped the paint from her lips in two needle-like lines. She was worried , a thought that was both unfathomably funny and made Gideon nervous; though she was certain it was not for fear of a fight. For all of her faults, Harrow was powerful- even Gideon could not deny that. Being thralled to a vampire gave her intimate knowledge of Harrow’s emotions, her desires, her power. The black, sludgy, dead blood in her still veins hummed with energy. She was chock full. It was terrifying at times - in others, Gideon cursed the idea that Harrow may have been the only vampire powerful enough to hold onto her, to exert that vice on successfully upon her wolven brain. In rare, ephemeral moments, as she writhed and turned in agony beneath the brandished light of the full moon, she was thankful it was Harrow whose sharp, bony fingers secured the chains to her throat. Those moments were exceptionally fleeting.

“So what’s gonna happen when we get there?” Gideon asked, and Harrow said nothing for a long moment.

“...I don’t know,” She said. “There are no records of anything besides the full moon ritual, and even that is vague. I suspect it’s mostly consorting with the other Houses; though I cannot be sure. Ortus was not up for the job, lest something go wrong - and you, Griddle, are my only other thrall. And you are, as I’m loath to admit, far more capable in crisis situations...should one arise.” It wasn’t much of a compliment, but it was enough to bolster Gideon’s mood. It wasn’t often she could squeeze a kind word out of Harrowhark. But the full moon posed a problem; though, if she was careful, and there was no spilling of blood, or plates of meat lying around, there would be no issue. As though reading her mind, Harrow said:

“In the event you’re unable to stop a transformation, I want you to run.”

“You just said I’m there for protection . Your werewolf-thrall is an executable offense, stupid. Divine sin, and all that. Remember?”

“Yes, well.”

Well nothing. I’m not going to run away. I’ll die fighting . Blaze of glory, baby! Gideon let out a little whoop. She said it lightly; though she was not sure if she was entirely joking. She would certainly die in the process, if it came down to it, but it was a very cool and sexy way to die.

“You will not. You will run, and when I die, you will be free of the curse; simply endure the madness for a night or two until I’m burned. A heavy conversation, though rarely did their banter end without some mention of death, either by their hands or another’s. It was strange to have one where Harrow seemed almost protective over her; no doubt to preserve the image of her House, to die a martyr, or to avoid giving Gideon the satisfaction of murdering her herself . Gideon glanced back at her - Harrow lagged a step behind her now, her usually quick-paced short stride slowing to a crawl.

“I can carry you,” Gideon said casually. “If you’re tired.” Harrow didn’t breathe, but her atrophied muscles were screaming. The link between them carved a parallel dull ache in Gideon’s legs and calves. Harrow frowned at her, but allowed herself to be picked up like one would carry a lover over the threshold; she went limp, adjusting her parasol to cover the pale shades of her collarbones before the clouds cleared and the evening sun grazed them. In her arms, Harrow felt like nothing, all points and bones and angles. She wondered, as she always did in moments like this, whether the warmth buzzing in her chest as Harrow tucked her head into the hollow of Gideon’s neck was because of the thralling- or because she had gone soft for the girl. Stockholm’s, more like it. And Harrow simply wanted to suck the warmth from her body as she sucked the life from her in kind.

 

They arrived several hours later; the moon was high, nearly full, just a sliver of black at the edge. Gideon’s neck prickled. The monument of a mansion that was Canaan was situated into a cliffside; there was no comfort to be had in its structural integrity, as it appeared to be only a stiff breeze away from crumbling into the sea. The inside, though, was ornately old and beautiful - as they stepped beyond the heavy chestnut doors, gold-leaf spires climbed upon the walls like spiderwebs, the ceiling of the parlor a fresco of biblical magnificence. Gideon set Harrow gently to the floor before they crossed the doors to the sitting room, the etched white marble clicking beneath Harrow’s heels.

Don’t smile,” Harrow hissed warningly, and Gideon was acutely aware of the oversized, pointed canines pressing at the corners of her lips. Dead giveaway- and being torn apart by eight pissed off vampires was not on the agenda, at least not tonight. 

Gideon had expected the other Houses to be equally as ghastly as the Ninth; she bit back a whoop of surprise as they came face to face with several rather normal looking groups of people lounging about. The sickly, paleish ones were undoubtedly vampires - their companions were more surprising, healthy and flushed with life, nothing like the thralls in the old books.

  Maybe they’d shaped up; her forcible study of Vampiric origins gave Gideon at least an inkling of how barbaric their practices had been until the Emperor - praise upon his ever-darkening soul - had united them under his collective vision. An era of peace, of respect between the living and the half-dead. And he’d given them a common enemy.

Gideon itched at the leather gloves. She should have cut her nails. She’d only protested a little when Harrow shaved down the sideburns, dragging a razor over the soft wisps of auburn that stopped half-way down her cheeks. Harrow was the only one wearing the traditional skull-paint; it seemed the other Houses had given that up long ago, though it was dreadfully Ninth to cling to tradition, even as it clawed its way desperately into the grave. Gideon said a quick prayer she hadn’t been forced to do the same. It would have been ungainly- not to mention a tragic covering of her best features.

“The Ninth has arrived,” The sarcastic tone prickled at the hair on the back of Gideon’s neck; she turned to the languid form of a woman slumped over a red velvet chaise, hair like buttermilk, skin of a distinctly vampiric and greyish complexion. She raised a hand, affecting to kiss the back of Harrow’s, who pulled away from the touch as though she’d been slapped.

“Tridentarius,” Harrow remarked. “You forget your station, and over-presume closeness with the Ninth.”

“Given consideration to our offer, yet? I’m sure your parents told you about it,” The pale-haired girl smiled a coy, maliciously careful smile, and Gideon raised an eyebrow. She, at least, had not been privy to that . “We were very generous, all things considered.” Judging by Harrow’s expression, the chance of the offer actually being very generous was slim to none.

“The Ninth wishes to be shown to their quarters posthaste. We’ve no time for discussion ,” Harrow affected a tone more serious than the usual. The girl threw up her hands in a shrug.

“I have nothing to do with that ,” She drawled, tossing a clump of silken hair about her shoulder. “The Third simply wishes to offer it’s condolences to the Ninth. We didn’t believe you’d attend,” - Gideon felt Harrow’s anger flare agonizingly, though her expression remained neutral - “But we are happy to make the acquaintance of the new Reverend Daughter.”

“The Ninth wishes to remind the Third,” Harrow said, teeth gritted, “That while I am my mother’s daughter, I am not my mother. The Ninth will participate in Solstice gatherings for as long as I am it’s proctor.”

“As you wish,” the Third House vampire crooned; Gideon felt herself bristle instinctively at the tone - keeping herself calm was imperative, but the irascibility of Harrow’s emotional state was proving challenging. “Upstairs, right hall,” her voice faded as Harrow turned on a heel and stalked toward the twin staircases of the foyer, dragging Gideon by the shirtsleeve.

“Who-” Gideon started, but Harrow cut her off.

“Tridentarius, Ianthe. Third House. She has a sister. You are not here to socialize, Nav. Loathsome as it is, I am.” Harrow’s heels clicked upon the heavy wooden steps as Gideon trailed a half-step behind, at her elbow, her longer stride taking the stairs two at a time. Harrow was positively radiating displeasure, but underneath it all, something else - a bolt of pure, white-hot anxiety.

“Nonagesimus,” Gideon started, and Harrow stopped on a dime, though she did not turn to look back. “Are you nervous?” She swore Harrow’s black-clad shoulders pinched imperceptibly further.

“I have found myself to become slightly timorous in the presence of others,” She said, carefully. “But it is my duty to reforge the bond the Ninth lost with the other Houses. I have no time to feel nervous.” Something about that made Gideon so sad , the way she could feel how Harrow suffered, feel her trying to wrangle it miserably, feel her fail. But when Gideon touched the collar of her coat, Harrow slapped her hand away. She hung further back after that, as they roved the hall for the room with a brass plaque 9 above the door.

 

The room itself was neat and barren; the little black wardrobe in the corner held barely enough space for a week or two’s stay, though it did not presently need more - the bed was carved, stained wood, with a dusty silken canopy; thin and gossamer, threadbare in places where the lamplight shone through. It smelled musty and cobwebby, though the scent had long since become homey for Gideon, being the most prominent smells of Drearburh garments as well. The bed was the only human-sized sleeping vessel in the room - Gideon opted for a spot on the corner loveseat, a horrible little velveted black and gold sitting piece, which she tossed a thin sheet over and then leaned on rather uncomfortably. She did not stray too far down the path of why there was a single bed and a place for two to sit; she was almost certain of the feedings that had taken place on this loveseat in times long-past, and wondered briefly if any had been fatal.

“I must go back to the foyer,” Harrow said gently, after Gideon had dumped their trunks unceremoniously in a mouldering corner. Harrow presently stood at the window, the heavy lace of her Ninth gown trailing behind her by a generous foot. Gideon was struck with the thought that in another life, she may have been a Victorian ghost; that she may have crawled from the mirror moments before, the picture of a lost soul, waiting endlessly for some love who would never return beneath the light of the moon. When she caught Gideon looking at her, her eyes were still softly lidded, lost in reverie - they narrowed as they met Gideon’s own, and the illusion shattered.

“Try to remain as silent as possible,” Harrow said. “Your duty is to stay out of the way until tomorrow and keep your lycanthropic traits suppressed, not make friends.” Gideon snorted.

“It’s too bad you are here to make friends, Nonagesimus,” She said, as Harrow’s frown deepened. “You’re probably the least likable person I’ve ever met.” She knew it was a dig, a low one, and it elicited the wave of irritation off Harrow she’d been craving. Harrow did not deign a response; she simply swished out of the door like a funeral procession.

An evening off was not something Gideon Nav was afforded, had ever been afforded; and though she would doubtlessly be sleeping on the grimy little loveseat she was currently occupying come dawn, she slipped into the canopy bed for a moment, into its layers of down comfort. It was soft , and the mattress sagged and hugged her body like a cocoon - and though she knew that by vampire standards it was high noon, she’d been walking all day, and she was so tired. She fought her fluttering eyelids to no avail, and slipped into a dreamless sleep.

 

The door clicking shut woke her. If her ears had not been as sharp, she may have missed it. Harrow was back early - the inevitable tongue lashing to follow the discovery her thrall sleeping in her bed would be cataclysmic, but Gideon could not find it in her fugue state to care. The feet that approached the bed shocked her out of it; heavy, quick. On her in seconds. She barely had time to open her eyes when strong, muscular hands closed around her windpipe.

“Harrow?” She croaked. As the doubled world came back into picture-perfect focus, the narrowed, dark brown eyes that looked into her own did not belong to anyone she had seen before.

Wolf,” The girl who was currently choking her hissed. Gideon struggled from under her grasp - though she had a sizable amount of muscle and several inches on her, she was strong - and slammed her to the wall.

What did you say?” Gideon hissed, pressing her forearm to the girl’s throat.

“Why are you here, Werewolf? What pack? Who sent you?” When the girl bared her teeth, Gideon dropped her. The unmistakable points of her wolven teeth glinted in the lamplight - larger than a vampire’s, distinctly inhuman.

You’re a werewolf?” Gideon felt some strange, mammalian excitement bubbling up in her chest, and okay - that was weird, and a little conflicting, considering the circumstance. Her brain’s metaphorical tail was wagging, and it would not stop. The girl was staring at her incredulously.

“You couldn’t smell me?” She said, shaking her head. “I thought-”

“I’ve never met another werewolf,” Gideon could have slapped herself for how excited she sounded. “Sorry, why are you trying to kill me? I thought we’d be friends, or something.” The other girl regarded Gideon warily from under the jagged line of straight, brown hair that fell about her face, and then something in it softened.

Never met another… God,” She sighed, running a hand through that mess of hair. “The Ninth truly are full of surprises.” To Gideon’s surprise, she extended a hand. She shook it tentatively, and was thrilled by the rush of electrified, pure joy touching another werewolf sent to her brain.

“Camilla Hect, of the Sixth.” Camilla Hect said.

“Gideon Nav,” Gideon Nav said. They sat down, cross-legged on the floor. The rapid change in the vibe was not lost on Gideon, and she found herself questioning her self-preservation instincts. Still, she felt she could trust Camilla Hect, so trust her she did.

“Do you belong to a pack?” Camilla asked. Her face was pointed, her jaw squarish, her hair straight. The dark greybrown of her eyes bore into Gideon’s own, steely and resolute, and as her mouth moved, the sharp edges of her canines bared. Gideon was pretty sure she could take her if she got feisty again.

“No,” Gideon said. “Do you?”

“I figured as much,” Camilla said. She considered Gideon’s question for a moment, then said: “Not anymore.”

It didn’t seem polite to ask about why one had become estranged from their werewolf pack, so Gideon said: “Why did you attack me?”

“I’m not sure how to say this,” Camilla said carefully, “But werewolves, despite my being one, usually have nefarious intentions when it comes to vampires. Secretly infiltrating a coven meeting, I assumed the worst - wrongly, I am almost assured of, now.” She paused a moment, then added, “Sorry.”

“How do you know I’m not dangerous?” Gideon asked.

“You didn’t sniff me out,” The other girl looked idly at the wall. “And you don’t seem to have any of the training or knowledge a vampire hunter would have. I suspected as much when your door wasn’t locked, but I had to be sure.” A blow to the ego. Ouch. But fair.

“And you, how did you end up thralled to the Sixth?” Camilla screwed up her nose at that one.

“What- no. You can’t thrall a werewolf.”

“You should tell that to my vampiric overlord, then,” Gideon said. “It seems like she didn’t get the memo on that one.”

“That’s...impossible,” Camilla was looking at her like she’d grown a second head. “The subjugation of werewolves by vampires is simply nonviable. It doesn’t work on us.” Gideon just shrugged by way of response. It was not her prerogative to spill every secret the Ninth kept, though she had already spilled enough of them to have her tongue ritualistically removed upon return. She wondered briefly if she could really trust Camilla Hect; something told her that if the trustworthiness of her had been dubious, she’d already be dead.

“If you’re not thralled to the Sixth, why are you here?” Gideon ventured to ask; Camilla looked as though she sized her up once again. She breathed a sigh.

“Someone I care for greatly was turned, and I’ve sworn my life to protect him. I intend to keep that oath through even this.”

“I understand,” Gideon said, though the idea of valuing the life of another over her own seemed a frightening concept. The closest she could conceive of was her entanglement to the Ninth - and though she swore fealty, she did not know if her willingness to die for Harrowhark was a sort of suicidal recklessness or the amalgamate of emotions her thralling had thrust upon her. Both, possibly. Gideon dusted herself off, held a hand out to Camilla - who looked at it like it was poisoned, got up by herself, and then said:

“Speak of this to no one. When we meet tomorrow, if we are not alone, we’re meeting for the first time. Keep your wits about you; it is hardest on the full moon. I’m sure you’ve...prepared.” 

The heavy wooden door was nearly silent as Camilla slipped out, and perturbed from the terrifying interruption, Gideon opted simply to curl up on the mouldering loveseat and await Harrow’s return. She slowed her breathing, focused - the coalescent emotions spilling from Harrowhark were distant, blotchy, but present: anxiety, the consistent undercurrent, louder now. Loneliness. A hollow scraping that Gideon had often wondered what life would be like without; so long their souls had lived in twin, the scooping out of Harrowhark after she won her freedom nearly terrified her. She focused on the link until she could focus no more, then let it fade into the background - then she sat for several hours, did sit-ups, pushups, squats, and reread the comics she’d stuffed in the lining of her trunk.

 As the inky streaks of dawn crept from beyond the dark body of the sea, and Gideon’s eyes threatened to slide shut once more, Harrow’s silhouetted form entered the room, locking the heavy door behind her. She snuffed the lamps and got into the gargantuan canopy bed wordlessly. There would be no “ goodnight” s between them; Gideon was thankful for that, at least. She did not want to play domesticity between a creature of damnable bloodlusty hunger and a feral, moondrunk animal.

Yet, still, the tinge of ashy Harrow-ness had infected the room almost instantaneously, and she breathed it in with the fervor of a starving dog; that was one of the most painfully embarrassing things about being thralled to Harrow. She smelled irresistible, though it was of ash, and old books, and sometimes stale, unwashed fabric. Gideon felt she could curl up in the depths of that smell, could carve a little hole and sleep there, breathing in the redolence. It simultaneously embarrassed and thrilled her, though the latter was more likely not of her own accord. It was excruciatingly hard to tell where real feelings ended and emotional servitude began; and Gideon would be no one’s willing lapdog.

And yet - and yet. When she awoke to the sound of blankets tossing, of Harrow’s teeth chattering from the dreary seaside chill, silhouetted by the reddish noonday sun and made shapeless by the partially-opaque quality of the canopy - she climbed into the bed, feeling dreadfully like that willing lapdog, uncaring of the implications as she pulled Harrow’s freezing frame into her own. Gideon’s heart pounded so fast; the other girl’s was still as a corpse, her body just as unmoving. She knew, then, that Harrowhark was awake; Gideon pretended to be asleep, focused on slowing her rabbit-quick pulse. When she had successfully fooled Harrow into believing she had fallen asleep, the frigid girl curled into her, slotting in back-to-chest. As Gideon’s chin tucked over the back of her head, she felt dizzy and drunk on the smell of books and ashes washing into her canine-sharp nose.

 

Sleeping in a bed so large is a wonder, was the thought Gideon had when she opened her eyes to evening sunlight striping the bed from a thin gap between the shades. The indentation in the bed beside her was empty save for a piece of paper, crumpled in Gideon’s closed fist. Bleary-eyed, she stared at Harrowhark’s scrawling writing, all loops and nearly illegible:

Meet at sunset, left courtyard. Not a moment after the sun has dipped below the horizon.

Until then, do not speak to anyone.

H

She probably would have wondered where Harrow had gone, had she cared; though it was usual for vampires to do things at all hours of the day - they didn’t need to sleep very long, at least not as long as Gideon did - it was unusually un-Harrow to have left their quarters, in an unfamiliar place, for an unnecessary reason. She crumpled the note up, ran a hand through her hair in a way that passed as brushing it, stuffed some of the dried meat she’d had the foresight to pack into her mouth, and then strode straight to the door.

In lighter hours, with the oil lamps all snuffed, and the gaps in the curtains casting warm shadows on the dreary gold-flecked walls, Gideon discovered Canaan approached a semblance of beauty. She wandered, curiously, through the hallways; down the twin sets of stairs and past the foyer, through the frescoed entry, and out the front door. She thought of leaving - here, alone in the forest, she could trace the way back to the Ninth, and from there, the way to civilization - but it was more force of habit than anything. Gideon Nav could bide her time for true freedom; it was just a day or two away. Instead, she ran.

The grounds outside of Canaan were similarly carved into the cliff face, winding to the top of the cliffside. Verdant, tangled masses of flowering vines choked the ash trees, and Gideon let her feet take her up the path’s edge. It was dark, eerie - not a birdcall, nor animal in the brush, and the canopied tops of trees let in only the barest glint of sunlight. Her brain fuzzed to static, the rhythmic tapping of her feet upon the hard-packed dirt deafeningly loud in the silence, and Gideon let herself be carried to the cliff.

She was surprised to see a woman at the edge, a parasol shielding her pinched, thin shoulders from the sun, feet dangling above the sea. Gideon’s stomach turned - angry waves lashed the jagged rocks that jutted from beneath the roil, and she suddenly worried the woman would fall. She hurried to the edge of the cliff, but the girl held up a frail hand; when she turned a pair of inhumanly blue eyes on Gideon’s, she felt her breath catch.

“That’s far enough,” The woman said; she then stopped to cough violently into a kerchief, shoulders shaking. She took a wheezing, shuddery breath and then said: “I’m just as safe here as I am anywhere else.”

“May I help you stand, Lady?” Gideon proffered a hand, but she waved her off, getting unsteadily to her feet. She was dangerously close to the edge, still, and now her back was turned - a stiff breeze could have blown her over, and Gideon felt her pulse quicken as her brain conjured images of the woman’s frail form toppling into the sea.

“Please, none of that Lady crap. Dulcinea Septimus,” She said, a tight little smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “And you - why, what house is lucky enough to have a thrall like that? All toned and healthy, look at you.” Gideon’s ears burned; the testy voice of Harrow reminding her to say nothing echoed acridly in her mind, but Gideon figured she could be forgiven, and saw no danger in the Lady Septimus, vampiric proclivity or otherwise.

“Gideon Nav,” She said. “Of the Ninth.”

“A pleasure, to be sure,” Septimus said. In the shadow of the parasol her eyes looked electrifyingly blue; her lilywhite, gray-tinted skin was dusted in pale brown freckles that matched the color of her hair. “Curious to know the Ninth allows their thralls so much freedom; but I suppose I cannot pretend to know what the Ninth is up to these days, it feels a myriad since I last laid eyes on that delightfully ghastly skullpaint! I nearly fainted with delight when I saw the Reverend Daughter’s last night.”

“Forgive me for not making your acquaintance sooner, then,” Gideon nearly sighed with relief as Dulcinea picked her way from the cliff’s edge - as her eyes dragged up to the skyline, she watched the sun threaten to dip below the edge of the ocean, inky lines of red streaking to violet. She felt her pulse quicken. “I really must go, I’m wanted at the courtyard.”

“I’ll be seeing you then, at the ceremony?” The ceremony? Gideon nodded, and hoped the abrupt confusion was not written on her face. She waved, then jogged down through the curling path back to Canaan. Beneath the darkening sky, the foliage was nearly suffocating; lush in the daylight became sinister in the eve. The lamplight-pocked windows of Canaan came into view and Gideon felt herself suddenly nervous - though the sun had not yet descended below the horizon’s edge, she felt the pull of the full moon’s light at her throat and chest.

Calm, she warned herself. She hadn’t misguessed her limits for years; though Harrow often watched her on the full moon - for safety reasons, a task that thoroughly humiliated and frustrated them both - Gideon had become a masterful wielder of her ruinous ability. Deep breathing, careful keeping of the emotions, and avoiding triggers like blood and raw flesh were imperative in preventing an unwanted transformation. In Drearburh that was simple; here, there were so many hidden variables. Gideon felt the hairs at the back of her neck prickle at the thought. One or two, she may have been able to take - Eight vampires, and her best hope for survival would be escape, as Harrow had told her. To escape would be to abandon her, to run, to assure Harrow’s death - and thus assure Gideon’s freedom. The choice should have been simple; but as the sunset deepened, ever-darker, she felt her stomach twist at the idea that it may happen. Funny, she thought, how it always came back to Harrow as the epicenter of her complicated problems.

She’d been brought up in the Ninth; Harrow had, as well, living as a human until her eighteenth birthday, when she was turned by her parents, and thralled to Gideon the very next day. Her body, wrought with onset of the vampiric curse, drained her of color and strength and fought her soul for several years. Gideon, on the other hand, had suffered by months - each turn of the full moon, she’d struggled to stop her transformations, painfully mad and drunk on the moon. Those months Harrowhark, despite her quarrels, would stay with her; often just to watch her struggle and kick beneath the chains that held her to the floor, howling and biting and tearing for flesh. She remembered in those moments anger, hot-white, as the wiry girl sat with her hands around her knees and watched undoubtedly just to bask in Gideon’s suffering - she remembered she had ached to tear her throat out, and would have, had she the mental wherewithal to slough the chains.

Even after her vampiric changing, Harrow sat with Gideon on those nights; on the worst, as Gideon bucked and growled, Harrow clasped the heavy chains about her throat, ran her fingers through her hair as she snapped at them. Sometimes, she even touched Gideon’s hands, ran her fingers over the claws and bristly hairs on her knuckles. She was nearly tender with her on those nights - it was never spoken of, and Gideon was nearly certain Harrow thought she had no recollection of her wolven hours. But she did: she remembered them with a clarity nearly sharper than that of her usual days. The following morning they were always back to bickering; though their hearts were never quite in it for a day or so after. She supposed it was those nights that had seen her fondness grow. Though they were thralled, this was, perhaps the first time in their five years being chained in thralldom to one another, that Harrow had acknowledged that chain in any capacity - another thing that had eaten away at Gideon for years. She would have fought and clawed her to pieces for even attempting to drink her blood; but the strange sense of rejection that came with never being asked was a peculiar side effect of the situation. Gideon was perhaps the strongest creature that had ever been held so coyly beneath the thumb of a vampire, and Harrow didn’t even want her. She would have said no , fuck no, never in your life, but she would have - she loathed to admit - liked to have been asked.

In another life, maybe, had they been normal girls with simply a quarrel between them, it could have blossomed into something decidedly different. But the intricacies and layers of their relation to one-another were so tightly drawn together Gideon did not suffer trying to pry them apart, partially from fear of what she’d find when she did.

When she approached the courtyard, the sun had set fully - she was no doubt several minutes late, and prepared herself for the brunt of Harrow’s scorn. Instead, when she rounded the corner into the trellis-framed courtyard, Harrow’s eyes met her own with a laser-sharp gaze of pure, unadulterated fear. Oh shit. It gripped Gideon’s throat like a vice - if her own pulse hadn’t been hopped up on her anxiety, she’d have felt Harrow’s like a truck. She said nothing; simply looked away, and Gideon felt her muscles relax. She took her place at Harrow’s side, on the stone bench - their knees touched, and Harrow flinched away like she’d been burned. Finicky as always, Gideon thought, as she remembered the way Harrow had wriggled into her arms the night before. Something, though, she knew, was terribly wrong.

“We are gathered here tonight, on the full moon, a congregation of each House!” The speaker was a girl who looked not unlike the other Tridentarius Gideon had met the previous evening; she was taller though, more full, her voice strong yet airy. Her skin was more full of life than her sister - and though she affected the presence of a vampire, Gideon could smell the hot, red blood thrumming beneath her veins. Interesting. Ianthe was in her shadow, pale skin looking like a banshee beneath the blue light of the moon, boredom written plainly on her sallow features. She caught Camilla’s eye across from her, sitting next to a broad-shouldered, bespectacled man - the girl did not acknowledge it. If there was a fidget in the way she angled her body, she hid it well enough.

“To our Houses, and our continued reunion under the Emperor Undying, greatest vampire of all covens-” She stopped for dramatic effect, though only the Eighth applauded politely - “To a night of cavorting and merrymaking! Now, let us begin with blood spilled, holy by the light of the moon!”

From beside her, as a few more half-hearted claps rang about the Houses, Harrow leaned into Gideon and whispered:

“They’re going to drink.” Which normally would have made a fun party, except she was most certainly not talking about wine. Gideon gritted her teeth. Ritualistically having her blood sucked by Harrow was one dastardly thing; catching the scent of blood on the night of a full moon was another beast entirely. Lucky for her that Harrow only ghosted her lips over Gideon’s throat, as she sat pinned in place. Harrow’s lips were soft - an entirely inappropriate thought for someone who may be just several minutes from vampiric annihilation - and her eyelids were shut, fluttering gently against the alabaster paint on her skin. She was, Gideon realized with a jolt, beautiful. The angular tilt of her face, rimmed by moonlight, sent Gideon’s heart throbbing, a sudden heat crawling up her throat at the soft curls of black hair brushing her neck. She shuddered as Harrow brought a hand to her wrist; though she dug her nails so sharply into Gideon’s forearm she bit her tongue to avoid a growl.

“If you cannot bear it, run, Gideon,” Harrow whispered, her lips just barely touching her throat, so low she strained to hear. “Run and do not look back.”

Like hell I will, Gideon tried to say, but the words caught and itched in her throat. Her mouth was dry as cotton; she wanted Harrow to bite her. She felt desperately mad with intention; she wanted to feel Harrow’s teeth on her neck, to run her fingers over Harrow’s cheeks, to turn her face to hers, to-

The scent of blood entered her nose like a shock to the temples, and it was all she could do to not give in to the desperate clawing within her chest. Her feral nerves thrummed hot with the blood of the wolf - though she normally tolerated it, sometimes enjoyed that feeling skulking around in her bones, tonight she was rigid with terror. She pressed at it with her hands, itched at her collar, feeling her nails dig into her throat. Beyond, the more languid of the Tridentarius twins sucked at the neck of a man with a contemptuous, petulant expression, and Gideon imagined raking her claws across his chest, tearing him to ribbons, spilling all of that blood to the dirt. She imagined clamping her teeth around Ianthe’s neck and shaking her until the flesh tore. She coughed. She must have looked feral; Harrow’s hand found the back of her neck and pressed her face to her chest, turning her eyes from the moon. Gideon breathed in the ashy scent - though she’d humiliatingly dreamed of this softened touch from Harrow more times than she cared to admit, she only felt her muscles tensing with the bloodlusty insanity that was steadily fuzzing over the corners of her mind. Gideon wrestled it down, though it was a battle she feared futile, that it was simply a matter of time before she slipped.

“I see the Ninth is no stranger to adulterous sin with a thrall then, judging by the way you hold her.” Ianthe’s voice had the quality of someone who was affecting disinterest, but it was tinged with a glimmer of real shock. “Now the condemnation of our arranged marriage makes a lick more sense.” Harrow shoved Gideon from her like she’d suddenly turned into some kind of monster, which, given about a half hour, would be entirely accurate; Gideon’s throat itched at arranged marriage , and something dark bubbled up in her chest that begged her to tear the Tridentarius limb from limb.

“The Ninth simply did not need financial assistance,” Harrow’s voice was like a knife’s edge. “As executor of my parent’s wishes, I believed it best our Houses stay separate for the foreseeable future. It was not personal.” Ianthe shrugged.

“Not personal my ass, ” She said, her eyes tracing over Gideon’s body - normally she would have reacted, but it was all she could do to flounder in murderous contempt. “Oh, but you’re a baby vampire...here’s a lesson from a veteran: we all fall in love with one at some point. The key, my dear, is to squash it while it’s still budding, compendiare alicui , and all that.” Ianthe knelt before Harrow, who seemed frozen in place - the space between their bodies suddenly like a wall. Ianthe knelt before them, raised a hand, dragging a thumb over Harrow’s chin to tilt her head, dragged a thumb over her lips -

Gideon growled , low and throaty, an action which utterly shocked her in it’s automaticity. Ianthe’s eyes snapped back to hers, and Gideon felt her teeth clamp so hard over the inside of her cheek she tasted blood - which was not good, really, really not good -  and she managed only to cover the second sound with a cough. The grip on her psyche was slipping dangerously now. She fought back the cruelty that thrummed in her fingertips, that yearned to feel black, sludgy vampire blood spilling down her throat, that longed to sink into the soft meat at the girl’s elbow and slough tendon from bone.

“She’s not doing well. She has never been drunk from, it’s reacting badly with her system,” Harrow said abruptly. “I regret our sudden departure, but I must get her to our quarters.” Harrow stood, pulling at Gideon’s arm. She stood almost instantly - she did not have the wherewithal to allow for anything but to be dragged from the courtyard, past the smugly smirking Ianthe Tridentarius, through the foyer and beyond the door plated with a 9. The trek there felt like walking in a haze, all of the lights too bright and the world too sharp yet strange and floaty, as though the human part of Gideon’s consciousness could do nothing but powerlessly watch her body amble. Harrow directed her to the bed; Gideon complied readily. There was a joke to be made: it was a tragic consequence of their situation that it would not be.

“Get ahold of yourself,” Harrow was frowning at her, standing in front of Gideon, leaning over Gideon’s knees so her thighs dug in. She tilted Gideon’s chin to meet her unfocused eyes; Gideon felt only horror-struck seconds from losing control entirely, far too gone to comprehend any emotion beyond instinct. Gideon felt the growl ripple from her.

“Nav,” Harrow said warningly. “I don’t want to lose you.” And there was the soft Harrow. The Harrow who thought Gideon would not remember her by morning.

“I can’t,” Gideon managed to wheeze, pinched and strangled. She gripped the down cover so hard her now razor-sharp nails poked little holes.

“Think of what will happen,” Harrow pleaded with her, but Gideon felt the last ounces of her sanity running ragged down the drain. Harrow’s gaze turned suddenly nervous, softer than she’d ever seen. “If I drink from you, you may calm down.” Gideon’s inner psyche howled in indignance, pounded on the edges of her brain, bit and tore and pulled at every inch of her in a begging attempt to force her to refuse. Gideon nodded, unable to speak. 

When Harrow climbed into the bed and slotted her knees into the small of Gideon’s back, she let her tilt her head aside; though Harrow didn’t breathe, Gideon swore she felt it, warm and living, on the column of her throat. She suppressed a shudder, and somewhere vague and shadowy, she was impressed by how far gone she could be and still feel that . It was the second time Harrow’s lips brushed her throat that night, ghosting over the soft brown skin there. Anxiety flared somewhere indistinct in her psyche.

“This should slow your heart rate, give you some control. If it doesn’t work, I still would like you to run,” Harrow said, quietly, against her skin. “Do you understand?” Gideon nodded again. Harrow breathed an okay , and then sunk in her teeth.

It was a little different than she’d imagined; hardly painful aside from the initial pinch, and a radiating warmth spread down her throat and over her collarbones. She suddenly felt drunk, as the itching thoughts and instincts gave way to sedation, and she shuddered with chill as Harrow’s tongue pressed into the skin, lapping up the blood. With every wild beat of her heart, she felt the tension drain, though as her mind cleared and calmed it did not stop her from being hyperaware of how Harrow’s bony fingers tangled in her hair and pressed her neck closer, of how soft her lips were against the flesh. Gideon swallowed hard. Without the stress, her chest felt near to burst with the enormity of how absolutely fucking tender Harrow was being with her, how the smell of her crushed all of her senses, how a quiet, pleased little sound tore from her throat as her tongue mopped at the blood. When she pulled away, Gideon cursed herself for how red she could feel her cheeks were; she felt only meagerly pleased by how beneath the now-smeared paint on her face, Harrow was flushed darkly too.

“Do you feel…?” Harrow began, rubbing at a splotch of crimson on her lip.

“Normal,” Gideon said, aware of how high her voice sounded. She ran a hand through her hair. “Not...at risk of...anything.” If she was being honest with herself, she did feel at risk of something; some different agony altogether than the past hour’s ordeal.

“Good.” Harrow said, and they sat there a minute. The silence became too long, and Gideon began to worry - she stole a glance at Harrowhark, who was biting at her lip, and staring rather intensely at a corner of the wall.

“I would like you to lay down,” she said, and Gideon obliged, though her heart hammered.

“Close your eyes,” she said, and Gideon did. She mentally kicked herself for not arguing it, though she realized how emotionally fried her neurons were after it all. After a moment, there was a slight lightening in her chest, as though a weight she had not known she bared was lifted from her shoulders; when she opened her eyes, Harrow was looking down at her with some darkness akin to the depths of a tremorous ocean.

“What was that?” Gideon asked.

“You are free,” Harrow said. Gideon sat up suddenly, clutching at her chest.

Free? ” She repeated. She had won her well-fought freedom; she had not expected it until the eve of tomorrow, or perhaps the following night, after they had settled back into Drearburh. With a sickening conviction, she realized she did not feel so different after all, the implications of which suddenly sent a wave of nervousness to rock her fragile psyche. It was too much to behold.

“I have known I could never keep you, selfish as it may have been to wish it,” Harrowhark admitted, dark lashes fluttering on her cheeks. She wiped a thumb over it - Gideon did not dare look closer, terrified to see her cry. “My parents forcing you to be mine was nothing short of a delay of the inevitable, and I ignored your suffering to the benefit of keeping our souls entwined. For that, the Ninth apologizes. I apologise as well. I hereby release you, Gideon Nav, from service and thralldom to the Ninth; I beg your path to take you somewhere warm where you will rest easy, free of our poison. You may go.” Gideon gawped at her. It was the type of speech she’d burned to hear from Harrow nearly all of her life; now, it felt treacherously close to a rejection.

“I don’t care about the Ninth,” Gideon said softly. She should have picked up her meager things, crawled into the night, let Harrow deal with the fallout of her thrall disappearing suddenly into the forest, never to be seen again. She should have ran. Instead, she touched Harrow’s cheek: Harrow, who stiffened under the touch, regarded her with an agonizing mix of trepidation and plain desire.

“Gideon,” Harrow said bitterly, bringing up her hand. She gently pried Gideon’s from her face. “You’d be a fool to stay.”

“I would,” Gideon swallowed, aware of how close she was to vomiting up her precious heart. “I thought all I wanted was freedom from the Ninth, but leaving meant leaving you . It’s always been you, Harrow, even now - even as two separate kinds of monster, in this wretched vampire den.” She laughed, pressed an arm to her forehead, painfully aware of the note of insanity in her voice. “You drove me crazy, Harrow, all those years - you didn’t even want me, it was all I could do to...to get your attention, to know you remembered I existed at all. Some of the nights I transformed, I let it happen, I willed it, so you- so you-” She expected contempt, anger, seething hatred at her admittance to remembering Harrow’s treatment of her on those nights; instead she was regarding Gideon with a gentle kind of reverence that stopped her in her tracks.

“You remember,” she said softly. Gideon nodded. “Oh.”

They were quiet again, and though she stewed in her pathetic confession, Gideon was no longer convinced Harrow would cast her to the wilds by the end of their conversation.

“I didn’t- not want you,” Harrow said, which was as close as she would get to saying I did want you. “I felt a certain...pull towards you that terrified me. I was unfit for reciprocation; I feared allowing closeness with you when you would remember it would draw us into something I could not conceive...I feared that loving you would allow for the chance a creature as undeserving as I would become loved in turn.”

“Well, it’s too late for that ,” Gideon said, and kissed her. Harrow’s lips parted slightly; Gideon felt her lean in almost imperceptibly, though she dare not move her hands. Her lips were even softer than they’d felt on her neck - the sharp points of her fangs were pressing against them from the inside, and Gideon knew her canines were pressing back. When Harrow wrapped her arms around her neck, Gideon felt her heart sing; as her lips parted and Harrow’s tongue found her own, she could hardly stifle the throaty moan of pleasure that rose from deep in her chest. She ran it over the jagged points of Harrow’s fangs.

They broke for air, mostly on Gideon’s part - she was panting like an animal, though she was long past the point of embarrassment for it. The paint on Harrow’s face was streaky and faded, pallid skin poking out in places. She was looking at Gideon with a soft, faraway expression, and in the dim her eyes were blacker than the night. She looked laid bare; Gideon nearly turned away out of politeness, but Harrow caught her cheek with her hand. Gideon swallowed.

“I cannot keep you,” She whispered.

“Yet I have always been yours.”