Actions

Work Header

The Process of Elimination

Chapter Text

Someday they might revisit the story and laugh. They might chuckle heartily at the memory of Ortus Nigenad begging the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House to break his sword arm, to cut him down at the legs. One day, they might even smile at the thought of Ortus the Ninth, green around the gills, gripping a bucket in his arms and moaning inconsolably on the cavalier’s cot at the base of his necromancer’s bed.

On the morning that Harrow woke to Ortus heaving into said bucket, she promised her cavalier she’d make sure that day never arrived.

He’d been up in the early hours of the morning. Harrow opened her eyes in the night to catch Ortus climbing out of his bed, shuffling across the floor and slipping out of the bedroom. She’d assumed it was merely a trip to the toilet and she closed her eyes and willed herself back to sleep.

That was her first mistake. The next time she woke it was to the sound of Ortus retching and a sharp sour smell that pervaded the room. She was unable to keep the panic from her voice as she sat bolt upright in bed and said: “Ortus, are you sick?”

“It’s something I ate, my lady,” Ortus groaned. He gagged, an awful pull of a gag that made Harrow’s empty stomach churn.

“What did you eat?” Harrow asked, her voice shrill as she bunched up the sheets and pressed them to her nose. And when he didn’t respond immediately: “Ortus!”

“It was the only way, Lady Harrowhark,” Ortus said, pitifully. “You said it yourself. You can mend a broken bone and all would scoff at bruised flesh and muscle, but an eruption of the stomach must be granted time. No one can expect a cavalier to take part in a duel if he expels the contents of his stomach onto the floor at his opponent’s feet.”

Harrow dropped the sheets and leaned forward, unsure she’d understood the intention behind Ortus’s words. “Do you mean to say you poisoned yourself?”

“Poisoned is a strong word, my lady,” Ortus said. He groaned and then he added: “It’s also the correct word.”

“So this is your grand plan? You’ll escape the competition by throwing up at the feet of Camilla the Sixth? Of Naberius the Third and Protesilaus the Seventh? At the very feet of Her Divine Highness?”

“Hopefully not Her Divine Highness,” Ortus managed, though the words sounded as though they pained him.

“I thought you were training with Gideon,” Harrow said. “When you begged to be reprieved of your duties as my chaperone, I thought it was so that you could focus on the sword.”

“No,” Ortus said. “Of course, we were training, but I--” Ortus’s words were interrupted by another bout of sick.

That was enough. Harrow could not sit through another moment. She pushed herself from the bed, her bare feet cold against the worn wood floor. She did not bother to pull on her robe before she rushed to the door and flung it open.

“Captain?” Aiglamene stirred on her cot. Had Ortus drugged her as well? What was Harrow to do if her entire retinue fell ill? “Aiglamene!”

Harrow felt herself slump with relief when Aiglamene started. She was on her feet surprisingly fast for someone her age. A moment more and her sword was in her hand.

Somewhere behind them, Ortus hurled again.

Harrow looked at the crooked set of Aiglamene’s hips, at her one good eye. She looked at the wrinkled hand gripped tight to the hilt of a black Ninth rapier, at the skeletons writhing on the basket.

They should just bow out of the competition. Let another house have the first key. That was where they were headed anyway. Ortus could stand and fight and another house would surely still win. But now, looking at Aiglamene, Harrow paused.

She did not want to bow out. She did not want to give up this prize without a fight.

“It appears,” Harrow said, “that I’m in need of a cavalier.”

**

It all started at breakfast at the start of the week after the key ceremony that sent the Second House back to Trentham. Teacher stood at the center of the crumbling dining room, just as he did every week. His compact body was practically shaking with excitement at the news he would soon impart. As it was every week. A pool party, a fishing trip, mud wrestling--it was all apparently equally thrilling to Teacher.

He began with his usual inane over-excited pleasantries: “Very good, very good. Not many of us left anymore, are there?”

It was an accurate assessment. Teacher successfully confirmed that he had at least one working eye. The crowd in the dining room was beginning to thin. Soon it would be as sparse as the hair on Teacher’s head. There were four houses remaining: the Third with their vast retinue of attendants, domestics, and advisors; the Sixth and their three companions, rarely seen outside the library (or at least without a ledger or pen in tow); the Seventh with a handful of attendants who seemed more like nurses than anything else; and, finally the Ninth, which consisted of Harrow, Ortus, Aiglamene and no one else.

Teacher clapped his hands together and then rubbed his palms as though trying to warm them. “We’re very close to that happy moment when Her Divine Highness will make the final choice; a choice that will shape the rest of her life... and quite possibly yours. Are you ready?”

Gideon groaned a long drawn out, “Come on, how can I choose?” It sounded self-deprecating, almost endearing. Convincing. Septimus swayed in her seat and reached for Camilla the Sixth’s hand. Coronabeth cooed.

Harrow checked her veil as she rolled her eyes. She thanked the Lord Undying that Gideon left her with the Sixth for so long. She needed some sanity.

Which was not to say--Harrow understood their reactions. To a degree. The groan was contrived, but then Harrow knew more than the rest of them. She knew it was part of their act. Beyond that, Gideon was—there was no arguing the fact that Gideon was attractive. She was bright and magnetic, undeniably endearing. Harrow wasn’t about to start swaying in her seat or making awful little bird noises, but she wasn’t immune to Gideon’s appeal. She saw what they saw.

Then again, Harrow also knew that Gideon was absolutely inappropriate, a downright pervert; She was a schemer and cheater, completely disloyal to the Nine Houses and planning to turn her back on the Empire as soon as she manipulated her pieces into place. The attractive, magnetic veneer was part of an act designed to help her escape. She’d turned everything here into one giant escape plan. Harrow was a pawn, a picked lock or stolen key, nothing more.

At least Gideon had the decency to let Harrow in on the plan early on. She could have gone a different route. She could have tried to seduce and deceive only to disappear without warning once the deed was done.

At least Gideon offered Harrow exactly what she needed in return for playing a part.

Was it treason? Was helping the daughter of the Emperor Undying escape her fate just as bad as the months Harrow spent trying to open the Locked Tomb as a child? Was it worse because here she would succeed where she’d previously only ever failed? What about the circumstances of her birth? Which was worse? Which did she have a direct hand in?

“This week, the remaining houses shall compete in a series of duels set to tournament rules,” Teacher announced. Ortus stilled and Harrow cleared her throat, returning her attention to the matter at hand. “Her Divine Highness shall, of course, officiate and determine the duelling order for this auspicious event.”

Gideon clarified: “I’m drawing names out of a hat.”

“She’s drawing the names out of a hat,” Teacher agreed. “That is, in fact, a method of determination. One that we promise she does not use for the key ceremonies.”

Gideon laughed. “Don’t give away all my secrets.”

“Must we be subjected to this comedy routine?” Harrow asked, her voice low. She tried not to stare at the way Gideon’s cheeks dimpled when she smiled. She refused to remember the hours spent beside Gideon in tight corridors, the dusty smell of her jacket, or the press of her hip against Harrow’s back.

“All right,” Teacher said. “Calm down everyone. The names will be drawn from a hat. The first two houses drawn shall duel. The winner shall duel the next house drawn, and so on and so forth. The winner of the tournament will win a solo date with Her Divine Highness, to be hosted within her private chambers.”

It was Ortus’s turn to sway in his seat.

At the next table, Ianthe Tridentarius looked up from her breakfast and caught Harrow’s eye. Her violet eyes glittered with barely suppressed excitement and when she spoke, her voice was loud, clear, and meant for Harrow’s ears. She tilted her head toward Naberius, her chin pointed down toward her plate.

“Finally,” Ianthe said, “some good fucking food.”

**

Ortus sagged against the safely shut door as though in an attempt to hold the whole of Canaan House back with his weight. When he spoke it came out in a long sad sigh. “I’m very sorry, my lady, if I’d known it would come down to this, perhaps I would have lived my life differently up until now.”

The sound Aiglamene made was one of extreme pain.

“For what?” Harrow asked, brightly. Ortus would not win the tournament, which meant Harrow would not be visiting Gideon’s private rooms. Even with Ortus present as her chaperone, even with the presence of the First’s priests, the thought of being in such personal proximity to Gideon--and everyone knowing about it--made Harrow feel unsettled and on edge. The fact that Ortus could not possibly win such a competition did quite a lot to lighten her load! She wouldn’t have to spend all of her energy staving off more rumors before they even started to spread. She’d have plenty of time to puzzle of the Lyctor theorems, to try to work out the missing piece. “I’m only sorry we can’t refuse to participate from the outset. I’m sick of these charades.”

“Nonsense,” Aiglamene said. She settled herself into a chair and crossed her bone leg over her flesh one. “The Ninth will participate in the challenge, and for our lady’s sake, we must win. You both heard the sad-looking Third princess. They think they have this in the bag.”

“They very likely do have this in the bag,” Harrow said. Naberius the Third had been bragging for weeks. He tried to talk tournaments with anyone who would listen. This challenge was made for him. Even Gideon had to know that.

Aiglamene crossed her arms over chest and shook her head. Her skeletal foot bounced on her knee. She looked Ortus up and down and said: “Let them underestimate us.”

“I think they’re estimating us exactly accurately!” Ortus said with a note of mounting hysteria.

“Yes,” Harrow said, a little less brightly. “I’m inclined to agree with Ortus.”

Now it was Harrow who was assessed by their captain. Harrow’s body went tense under the scrutiny of Aiglamene’s one good eye. Aiglamene’s frown said all that needed to be said, but she supplemented it with words anyway: “A date hosted within the private chambers of Her Divine Highness cannot pass to another house.”

“I would prefer that it didn’t,” Harrow lied, though even she could see there was some truth in Aiglamene’s words. If the plan was going to work, it had to be believable. That was what Gideon said at the start of this. Salacious rumors were apparently believable to most in attendance, but an official chaperoned date within Her Divine Highness’s rooms would be better. Any rumors that sparked from that meeting could be supported or tamped down by the presence of her cavalier, by whoever the First chose to watch over the proceedings from their side. The talk could instead turn to the easy rapport between the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and the First Reborn’s First Born, to the bright light in Her Divine Highness’s eyes, and the careful way the Reverend Daughter removed her glove before she held it out for Gideon’s kiss. She could task Ortus with making it sound proper, but full of tension, pregnant with repressed feeling. She could play to all of Ortus’s strengths, and once written, she’d task him with dispensing the news. Aiglamene was right. As much as the very thought set Harrow’s heart racing and her entire body on edge, this date could only help, but duels--

“Ortus has to win,” Aiglamene repeated.

How?,” asked Harrow and Ortus in unison.

Aiglamene pushed herself back up from the chair. She rocked across the room to her rapier, and once there, she lifted the sword and pointed it toward Ortus’s chest. “Let’s begin.”

“Captain,” Ortus protested. Aiglamene did something with her wrist, the tip of her rapier shook, and the button that held Ortus’s cloak bounced down the steps and across the floor. His cloak sagged on his shoulders and then, when he relaxed his arms, it fell into a pile at his feet. Harrow was impressed.

Ortus had apparently seen this trick before. He groaned sadly. He did not draw the rapier sheathed at his side, but stepped away from the door, down the steps and into the room. Harrow retreated to the safety of the sagging sofa by the windows.

Aiglaimene, rapier held high, continued: “As you know, I’ve trained you to fight to the floor. Cavalier tournament rules require that the duel be fought ‘to the touch.’”

“That sounds more reasonable,” Harrow said carefully. She’d never paid much attention to Ortus’s training. It was hard to care about such things when Ortus did not care himself. She knew far more about The Noniad than she did about the sword.

“No, it’s ridiculous,” Aiglamene countered. “It’s hardly a fight at all. A tournament duel is a dance, nothing more.”

Ortus slumped lower. “That’s all well and good, Captain. Except I can’t dance either.”

“No, you cannot,” Aiglamene agreed, “but if I know you, Ortus, and I hope by now that I do, I suspect you’ve worked out how everyone else here dances. You’ve had a lot of time to watch.”

Ortus thought this over. “No, not everyone. I think I understand Naberius the Third and I’m fairly certain I understand Protesilaus the Seventh, but Camilla the Sixth--”

Aiglamene nodded at this. “Camilla the Sixth is a wild card. I suspect that means she’ll be the one to beat, despite the bravado of the Third.”

“Understanding how they dance is a far cry from beating them in a duel,” Harrow said, intrigued despite herself.

“It’s half the battle,” Aiglamene said. “The other half is up to Ortus. You will tell me all you’ve learned of the Third over these many weeks. You’ll tell me all you know of the Seventh and the Sixth, and together we’ll choreograph the dance. Unsheath your rapier. Let’s get to work.”

**

Harrow watched Ortus stumble for over an hour. She watched Aiglamene touch him with the tip of her rapier again and again. Aiglamene assumed the rigid stance of Naberius the Third. She squared her shoulders like Protesilaus the Seventh. When they moved on to Camilla the Sixth, Aiglamene assumed the worst and came at Ortus fast and vicious. When Ortus shouted profanities and threw his rapier to the ground, Harrow took it as her cue to leave. She slipped out the main door and at the corridor that intersected the hallway that led to the Ninth’s rooms, Harrow paused and considered her options. She could go left and lose herself down in the facility for the rest of the afternoon, or she could go right and pore over the dusty books hidden away in the library.

There was another option.

She turned right but she did not go to the library. Instead she started toward the hidden hallway that led to the Second House study. She’d been there twice already: once with Gideon and Ortus, and then again with Ortus, Palemedes Sextus and Camilla the Sixth. She was certain she would find herself alone there now. It had been two days since the keys were distributed. She was certain Ianthe had completed her search, which left only the uncertain Seventh.

Her key was already in the lock when she heard the voices within. Harrow froze and contemplated a retreat. The last thing she wanted was to end up in a room alone, without her cavalier, and surrounded by the Third.

“Hello?” a voice called from within. “Who goes there?”

It was Dulcinea Septimus. The uncertain Seventh, no longer quite so uncertain.

Harrow was seriously considering leaving without a single word when the door opened and she jerked forward, her hand still connected to the key in the lock. She stumbled right into Camilla the Sixth, who took Harrow by the shoulders and set her back on her feet.

“Reverend Daughter!” said Dulcinea Septimus. “This is certainly a surprise, though I suppose it shouldn’t be, should it? Sextus isn’t surprised to see you, so I shouldn’t be either.”

“Harrowhark,” Sextus said, nodding his head in greeting. Dulcinea was right. He didn’t seem that surprised to see her. Nor was she all that surprised to see him.

Harrow gathered herself and surveyed the room. Dulcinea sat in her wheelchair at the center of the training floor. Palamedes Sextus sat in a chair beside her with a large book open in his lap. Protesilaus stood before the antique rifle that hung on the wall, and Camilla the Sixth removed Harrow’s key from the door and shut it behind them.

“I apologize,” Harrow said. She took her key ring from Camilla’s hand. “I didn’t realize there was anyone here.”

“Not at all,” Sextus said, clearing his throat. “The more the merrier. I was just explaining to Lady Septimus what we found in the study. I have my theories that--well, I’m sure you have your own theories.”

“I do,” Harrow agreed.

“Splendid,” Dulcinea said. “Please, stay, sit down. We’d love to hear them. Pro, a chair for the Reverend Daughter.”

“Oh, no, I--”

Proteslaus placed a chair beside Harrow and before Harrow knew it, she was sitting with Palamedes Sextus and Dulcinea Septimus.

“Look at this,” Dulcinea said. She pressed a piece of flimsy into Harrow’s hand. “Cam found it beneath one of the beds. It’s printed with Gideon’s name, though of course, this is very old. Pal confirmed the age and it’s approaching that ten thousand year mark. Do you remember on the boat, Her Divine Highness said she was named for one of the Lyctors?”

“I do,” Harrow said. “She called him a dick.”

Dulcinea smiled fondly, “Yes, she did, didn’t she.”

Palamedes supplied the rest: “I think this room must have belonged to the Lyctor Gideon.”

That was interesting information. Gideon never said a word about it the last time they were in these rooms, though she must have known. Harrow had been so absorbed in Gideon’s physical proximity, in dispelling unfair rumors, in the theorems and her mounting horror at the implication, that she never once thought to ask. Harrow looked down at the scrap of flimsy. The words were incomprehensible, fragments of sentences, but Gideon’s name stood out, easily read. Give Gideon my congratulations.

“So she was named for a Lyctor from the Second House.”

Sextus cleared his throat, which brought Harrow back around to the subject of Lyctorhood. She remembered sitting beside Dulcinea on a fishing boat, remembered Dulcinea telling her that she came to the First intending to win a marriage competition, but had since realized she was there for a different reason altogether. Was that reason Lyctorhood? Would the Seventh still desire it if she knew what it would entail? Would this woman destroy Protesilaus to feed and fuel herself? Would the Sixth?

Harrow barely knew them. She had no idea what they might think of it.

“Are you interested in Lyctorhood, Lady Septimus?”

“To a degree,” Dulcinea confessed. “But then, aren’t we all? Who hasn’t grown up on stories of Lyctoral miracles? What necromancer hasn’t indulged in dreams of sainthood? You must be interested as well.”

“No,” Harrow said, succinct yet careful. “I would not choose to abandon my House.”

“No,” Dulcinea agreed. “But then, you are in Her Divine Highness’s favor.”

“For now,” Harrow agreed.

Dulcinea smiled, not unkindly. “We can all see it. I don’t expect you’ll be asked to abandon your House anytime soon.”

Harrow wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She wasn’t sure if it was meant sincerely, or if it was intended as a cut, as a reminder of the circulating rumors. Dulcinea Septimus did not seem the type.

“It’s different for me,” Dulcinea said. “I will abandon my House sooner than I’d like whether I wish to or not.” Palamedes, having remained uncharacteristically silent throughout most of the conversation, reached out to touch Dulcinea’s hand and then thought better of it. His fingers settled over his own knee instead.

“Oh,” Dulcinea said with a smile. Her smaller hand was less hesitant as it bridged the gap and settled over Palamedes. “Pal spends all of his time in these rooms, desperate to understand Lyctorhood. He can spend hours talking about a need for the truth, but I’ve read his letters and he hasn’t once fooled me yet.”

Harrow was again at a loss for words and was now a bit embarrassed to hear Dulcinea talk of Palamedes in such a familiar manner. She’d read his letters too, but she’d gleaned nothing but a desire for truth in the unanswered letters the Sixth wrote to the Ninth.

Palamedes cleared his throat but didn’t contradict Lady Septimus. He changed the subject to a theorem he’d discovered in the book in his lap, one that appeared to be a precursor to the theorems used by the present-day Cohort. Harrow looked to Camilla, but Sextus’s cavalier, as usual, gave nothing away.

“I’ve decided I’m rooting for you,” Dulcinea said much later, just before they parted ways. “A union between the Daughter of the Resurrector and the Keeper of the Locked Tomb. It’s not an outcome anyone would expect, but when I see you beside her it somehow makes sense.”

“I don’t know that sense is a factor in anything that’s transpired since we arrived in this place,” Harrow noted.

“No,” Dulcinea agreed. She smiled. “But matters of love and marriage should never involve too much sense. Of course, the rest of us still need to try. None of us can turn down a chance to replenish our House. Still, I’m rooting, just a little, for you.”

**

Harrow returned to the Ninth’s rooms to find Ortus doing solo drills while Aiglamene watched from her chair, commenting on each move, every stance. They barely looked up to acknowledge Harrow’s return.

“Perhaps I break my ankle,” Ortus said, raising his rapier again. “Harrowhark has me traveling down a very treacherous ladder.” He lunged, the tip of his rapier pointed toward a piece of flimsy stuck to a pillar they’d wrapped and tied up with black cloth.

“All right,” Aiglamene agreed. “Yes--Guard up, Ortus. Guard up until you’ve retreated.--You break your ankle and we substitute the woman with a skeletal leg.”

While Ortus shook out his aching arm, Harrow crossed toward the bedroom and tried to imagine how that might go:

“Ortus the Ninth has suffered an unfortunate accident,” Harrow would explain in the most formal Ninth tones she could muster. She would stand tall, with back straight and her veil obscuring her eyes. She would leave her carefully painted mouth exposed, skeletal teeth gnashing crisply over her words.

“Yes,” Teacher would say, wet concern dripping from every word. “That staple ladder is treacherous indeed, though it is perhaps the safest thing down that hole.”

The Third princesses would confer, and they were smart so it wouldn’t take them long before Princess Corona would turn to Harrow and say: “You’re the greatest bone magician the Empire has ever produced. Couldn’t the Ninth… simply repair it?”

“Couldn’t the Third cure Lady Septimus?” Harrow would counter, ready for that very obvious question. “The bone has been mended, but the strength is not fully restored.” And: “What strength there was.” And: “What little strength.”

Back in the present, Harrow paused in the doorway as Aiglamene shook her head, disgusted by the mere suggestion. “A primary cavalier fights on a broken ankle. A cavalier will fight on a busted knee.”

“In a life or death situation, yes,” Ortus agreed. He pulled out of his stance. Though Aiglamene contradicted him, he seemed relieved that he’d managed to distract his teacher long enough to earn him a break. “Yes, of course, I know the oath as well as I know my own name, but this is a tournament duel in a marriage competition, not--”

“Yes!” Aiglamene burst forth, hands out to emphasize his point. “It’s a tournament duel in a marriage competition. And in the last hour you’ve suggested everything short of cutting off your own hand so you don’t have to put in the work it would take you to win.”

“I can’t win,” Ortus argued. He knocked his buckler against the pillar in an unusually spirited move. “I have nothing to offer in this arena and I never have. Toss me off a terrace and into the sea.” He gestured toward Harrow. “Stab me in the heart and use my soul as your battery, my lady. I’d be far more use to you then.”

The fight was suddenly sounding very familiar to Harrow. Her cavalier had been caught up in the very same fight Harrow’d battled since they arrived on the First. Unlucky for Ortus, none of the other cavaliers were likely to cut a deal with Ortus in order to let him win provided he leave them alone, let them travel, and never require them to see him again. Still--

“I too arrived on the First convinced I had nothing to offer in the marriage arena,” Harrow said, carefully. She pulled her gloves from her hands. “And I had a captain and a cavalier who convinced me to try despite that.” A captain, a cavalier, and a secret deal to ensure her win, provided that she leave Gideon alone, let Gideon travel, and never required Gideon to see her again. Still--

“I am still here. And I have learned that we never quite know where our own strengths may lie, or what it is that might give us an advantage.”

“Well said, my lady,” Aiglamene sniffed. “Once more, Ortus. First guard, advance, draw through. Fifty times, then you fight me and we’ll close out the session.”

**

They arranged to meet in the atrium above the facility hatch. It was late and Harrow hoped they wouldn’t encounter anyone else down below. Harrow and Ortus arrived first. Ortus unlocked the hatch and stared down at the ladder with a groan. He’d woken up aching and determined to let the whole of the Nine Houses know.

“Don’t even think about it,” Harrow warned.

“I’m afraid of heights, my lady,” Ortus said. “I’m never not thinking about it.” Drearburh was all height, all depth. No wonder Ortus seemed so scared all the time.

Harrow moved to stand beside Ortus. She stared down into the darkness of the facility below.
“You know I don’t care if we lose,” Harrow said, gently.

Ortus shot Harrow a withering look. “You heard Teacher. It’s a date within her private chambers. You really don’t care if the Third wins entrance to Her Divine Highness’s private chambers?”

“Stop saying it like that,” Harrow said. “Why should I care? Private chambers doesn’t mean what you’re insinuating it means. It will change nothing.”

“Princess Coronabeth,” Ortus pressed. “In Her Divine Highness’s private chambers?”

“Ortus, please. Do you think if you keep saying it like that, you’ll unlock some secret reserve of skill and stamina within yourself? Do you think if you keep saying it like that you’ll best Naberius the Third? This is silly. The Third may win this, or the Seventh, or the Sixth. There may be nothing we can do about that. But consider: the Third and the Seventh and the Sixth are not here now. They were not there when Gideon unlocked the Lyctor studies.”

“As far as you know,” Ortus countered, immediately, as though he’d really been thinking it through. “If I could conjure the spirit of Matthias Nonius to fight for you in my stead, I verily would. I would conjure him gladly, and for you, my lady, I’d ask that he refrain from conversation, knowing as I do how the words of Nonius draw out your headaches.”

Harrow ignored the bit about Nonius, her mind caught on what came before it. “What do you mean, as far as I know?”

“I mean, if she’s willing to bend the rules for the Ninth, how can we know what she does for the others? This is only one night of seven. How could we know what she gets up to on the other six?”

Harrow paused at that. Ortus wasn’t entirely incorrect. There was nothing stopping Gideon from forming similar alliances with the other houses. Their arrangement stated that either one of them could change their mind at any time. If Gideon decided she liked what the Third offered better than the Ninth, there was no stopping her from backing out of the arrangement with Harrow and tying herself to the Third instead.

Harrow thought back to those moments when it was clear that Gideon had spent time with the other houses. She’d sparred with the Second, joked with the Sixth. She’d surely spent time with the Third and the Seventh as well. She thought of the way Gideon blushed and stumbled under the Third’s focus. There was attraction there, barely suppressed and obvious to everyone. If Gideon succumbed to that, then--

There was a sound in the lobby above the atrium, and Her Divine Highness made her entrance, appearing at the top of the stairs.

“No,” Harrow agreed, distracted. “There’s no way to know.”

“What?” Ortus asked.

Gideon had discarded her usual mostly white attire for something a bit more casual: black boots and soft black trousers, a white knit shirt with long sleeves pushed up to her elbows, a black undershirt beneath. The clothes softened her, at least until one’s eye caught on the enormous sword strapped to her back.

Harrow cleared her throat and turned toward the hatch. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and expelled all thoughts of Coronabeth in Gideon’s private chambers from her mind. She let the breath out and reminded herself that Gideon didn’t insist that anyone else call her by her name. They had an arrangement. Gideon would honor it and the Ninth would be replenished. Harrow’s debt would be paid and her future secured.

“Why are you two--I’m not that late, am I?” Harrow turned back in time to watch Gideon trot down the stairs fast, as though both sets of Ninth eyes on her had left her nervous. When she arrived beside them at the base of the staircase, she’d recovered and appeared confident and composed once more. She clapped a hand against Ortus’s back in greeting and Ortus winced at the impact against his already sore shoulder. “Ready for the tournament?”

Ortus merely groaned in response. His body swayed toward the open hatch, and Gideon caught him, a large hand curled around his shoulder to hold him back.

“Don’t ask him that now,” Harrow warned, at the same time Ortus found his voice and said: “Please, Highness, do not ask me that.”

Gideon stilled. “Okay, not excited about the tournament. Got it.”

Irritation swelled suddenly within Harrow. She longed to snap back, to say, “You’ve met my cavalier, you must know you’ve thrown me back into a competition I can’t win,” but she held her tongue, unwilling to say the words with Ortus right there; unwilling to bruise her already aching cavalier.

It was the swords. Gideon was just obsessed with swords. She probably hadn’t thought much about the Ninth at all when it came to the tournament. Gideon probably got so excited about swords she forgot everything else including their pact, including her goal.

Harrow clenched her jaw, reveled in the feel of teeth grinding against teeth. Just go join the Cohort already and leave the rest of us alone. No, that was--

She took a deep breath, pushed her irritation down. She did not want Gideon to go join the Cohort and leave the rest of them alone. She (and Ortus) needed this woman on their side. They needed her to bind herself to them, to Harrow and their House. A lost tournament was merely a road bump on route to an essential end.

Gideon glanced down the shaft into the dark facility below. “Shit, that goes deep.”

Harrow gestured toward the ladder. “Shall we?”

**

Ortus did not break his ankle. He made it down the staple ladder without incident. When they emerged from the corridor into the central room, Gideon paused, her hands on her hips as she took in the branching hallways, the signs identifying the laboratories. She whistled and it echoed off the walls.

“It’s this way,” Harrow said. She pointed toward the corridor labelled LABORATORY ONE-THREE.

“Hold on.” Gideon reached out for Harrow’s arm, but stopped short of actually touching her. “I’ve never been down here. I want to have a look around.”

Gideon led them down the corridor labelled LABORATORY FOUR-SIX first. Harrow followed a step behind Gideon. Ortus followed the requisite half-step behind Harrow. Harrow explained what she understood of each trial and realized as they went that the basis for the trial correlated to the laboratory number, which correlated to the studies they’d already visited upstairs. She realized that she understood how to complete some of the trials that had eluded her during her early visits to this facility. Of course, understanding how a thing was done did not necessarily make the doing of that thing easy. It was one thing to understand how the entropy field in the avulsion laboratory worked. It was another to successfully complete the challenge without killing herself or her cavalier.

In the passage labelled LABORATORY SEVEN-TEN, the grill on the floor had fallen away, had cracked right down the middle and fallen onto the pipes below. Gideon jumped the gap and then turned back to see both Harrow and Ortus hesitating on the edge. It was a reasonable gap for someone with Gideon’s height and athleticism. It was just a bit too wide for everyone else.

Gideon offered her arm to Ortus and he took it gladly, used Her Divine Highness as a sort of second railing and propelled himself across. Next it was Harrow’s turn. Gideon grasped one of the actual railings, leaned over and proffered her hand. It was easy to cross the gap with Gideon’s hand in hers, with Gideon’s arm firm and unyielding.

“So this is where they worked it out,” Gideon said.

“It all still works. Laboratory One and Laboratory Ten have been dismantled, but the rest of them are completely intact after ten thousand years. It’s amazing, really, when you consider the time that’s passed.”

Gideon stared at a dusty white board with some half-erased scribbles. Harrow wondered if she recognized the handwriting. It was strange to think that she might, that these Lyctors, the saints who consumed their cavaliers were also people that Gideon grew alongside, people that gave her the name she carried now. Were those the Lyctor Gideon’s scribbles on that board, the Gideon of the flimsy the Sixth and the Seventh had found in the Second House study?”

“Has everyone been down here?” Gideon asked, turning toward Harrow.

“I’m not sure. I have and the Sixth have. I would be surprised if Ianthe Tridentarius wasn’t spending significant time down here as well. The rest, I really couldn’t say.”

“And the laboratories that are intact?”

“Now that I understand the theorems, I can see that the challenges within these labs must represent a practical application. They’re designed to teach each element of the awful whole,” Harrow said. Gideon turned to watch Harrow as she spoke. “There are eight laboratories still intact, eight Lyctor studies, and an eightfold theorem to Lyctorhood.”

“You’re into this.”

“I’m into the pieces,” Harrow clarified. “I reject the whole.”

Gideon was quiet for a moment longer, her strange gold eyes studying Harrow’s face. Eventually she said, “Okay, so which piece of the whole did you bring me down here to fight?”

“Laboratory Two,” Harrow said. Gideon let out a breath of a laugh. Harrow knew why, but asked anyway: “What?”

“Nothing,” Gideon said. “It would be two though, wouldn’t it? If the labs align with the houses, then Laboratory Two contains the trial designed by my namesake and his cavalier.”

Not really a secret then. “Are they really that bad?”

Gideon squeezed Harrow’s hand and Harrow looked down in surprise. Had they been holding hands all this time? Gideon’s thumb swiped over the ridges of her metacarpals.

“Oh God,” Harrow said, the words bursting from her lips before she could suppress them and swallow them down. She pulled her hand away.

Ortus made a noise behind her. It sounded like a snicker. Harrow’s cavalier better not be softly snickering behind her back. She resisted the urge to turn and glare.

“Sorry,” Gideon said. “I didn’t--how old are you?”

“Eighteen,” said Harrow, a bit indignant, and Ortus followed with: “I’m thirty-six, your Highness.”

“Right, we’re all still babies if you think in Lyctor time. Imagine all the shit you’d live through and all the shit you’d do and everything you could get away with if you had another nine-thousand nine hundred whatever more years. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to imagine it and I can’t. Like, I guess someone could live that long and not be totally fucked up, but I’ve been surrounded by really old folks my entire life--I’m nineteen, in case you were wondering--and they’re--” Here Gideon substituted words with a shudder. “--Teacher’s probably the best of them and you’ve met that guy.”

“Teacher is ten thousand years old?” Ortus asked before Harrow could open her mouth with the very same question.

“Just about. Teacher and the other priests and the skeletons. Nineteen years has been a lifetime for me, but it’s gotta feel like the blink of an eye for my so-called family. Like, I know what everyone says. I know the Ninth is old--like geriatric old, you-put-in-a-pool-for-the-water-aerobics old--”(“We did not put in a pool for the water aerobics,” Harrow corrected and Ortus said: “We have a pool?”) “--but I would love to spend some time with normal old people--human old instead of god old or whatever.”

Gideon would not actually love the normal old people of the Ninth. She did not grow up on the Ninth and would not understand, but it didn’t really matter, did it? The Ninth would be a temporary pit stop for Gideon. She did not intend to stay and the Ninth would not try to keep her. It wouldn’t matter, not once the Ninth was replenished. There would be children again, and Harrow would make sure that the mistakes of the past, the mistakes of her parents, were never repeated.

The rooms labelled IMAGING and RESPONSE looked exactly as Harrow had left them. If anyone had attempted the trial in her absence, they’d disturbed very little. The bloody handprint on the window of the door to Response was Harrow’s bloody handprint. The bloody puddle beside the podium in Imaging was Harrow’s too.

“Someone’s been having fun in here,” Gideon noted.

“Yes,” Ortus agreed. “Harrow.” Ortus took his spot beside the blood-smeared Response window without being asked. His hand gripped the hilt of his rapier. He was breathing fast, big gulping breaths, as though he was the one being sent inside instead of this Gideon Reborn.

Gideon Reborn was still eying Harrow’s mess, her eyebrows high on her lovely forehead. “All of this was you?”

“I haven’t completed a full study of the splatters, but everything appears as I left it,” Harrow confirmed. “The blood is mine. The bone, also mine.”

Gideon shook her head and then held up a hand. “You chose to hide down here and bleed rather than attend a pool party.”

“Of course.”

Gideon laughed. “You know, necromancers aren’t really that much different than Lyctors when you get down to it.”

Ortus hummed in agreement.

“Do you want to fight the construct or not?”

Harrow didn’t bring them down here to gang up on her.

Ortus hummed again. Gideon was still smiling at Harrow and it was hard to behold, so Harrow didn’t look. She kept her face still and waited, expectant, for Gideon’s response.

“Okay,” Gideon said after what felt like a very long time of Gideon staring at Harrow and Harrow refusing to look back. “Yes, I want to fight it. Tell me what to do, my dark Osseous Lady.”

Harrow ignored the stupid name--was calling her ‘bone lady’ supposed to convince Ortus that they were convincingly and (more important) appropriately flirting?--and sent Gideon to stand at the door to Response beside her cavalier. She explained how it worked, the volume of bone matter she’d sent into that room, all of it pulverized. She could hear it, but until she dragged her cavalier down to stand at the window, she could only guess what was happening in the Response room. “No matter what I try, I can’t see it.”

“And it’s a giant construct?”

Harrow expected Ortus to chime in at that point, but Ortus was silent, standing patiently at the window to Response.

“Yes,” Harrow confirmed. “It’s a giant construct.” She shoved a hand in her pocket and drew out a distal phalanx, a broken chunk of talus, and several chips from a rib. She tossed these onto the floor and raised six constructs. “When the door opens, allow the constructs to pass, and watch.”

“Watch?” Gideon repeated, affronted.

“You’ll get your chance, Highness,” Harrow promised, and before Gideon could protest the honorific, Harrow turned and retreated into Imaging. She’d done this so many times over the last several weeks that she barely needed to think. She placed her hand on the pedestal and heard the door to Response open. She recalled the layout of the room and pushed her constructs toward the door. They made it five steps before something knocked into them. Three lost their balance and clattered to the floor.

“What--?”

In the other room Ortus cried out. Gideon cursed. The last three constructs fell and the door shut before a single one made it inside.

“What happened?” Harrow demanded, just as the feedback hit her and she felt a jolt, a sharp screaming jab to the brain. It was pounding drums and metal screeching against metal, deep bellows and rushing water, and the blood began to drip from her ears immediately. Harrow shouted and tried to release her hand from the podium, but before she could act she was in Response, and for one brief moment she saw the thing, a flash of the construct before her--enormous and terrible, eyes a brilliantly bright green. There was the drum pounding in her ears again, hammering in her chest, and her visit blurred. Everything raged and the world screamed and then she saw Ortus in the corner of the Response room, his rapier gripped tight in both hands, body shaking and eyes squeezed shut.

“Ortus!” she cried out in horror. Her constructs were back on their feet and they banged against the Response door. In the other room Gideon shouted: “I’ve got him, Harrow, but this construct--fuck. I knock off a limb and it regenerates! I can’t do jack shit to this thing.”

There was another flash of blurred construct. The drumming was faster now, but quieter. She was able to push back the bellows and the screeching metal. She grunted and her body gave another jolt. She was in the corner and she saw Gideon dancing before her, a blur of movement and swinging steel as she maneuvered around this enormous construct the way she had Harrow’s skeletons on the terrace weeks ago. She was beautiful like this, all muscular lines and exertion. She turned and her sword followed, a smooth motion right down onto the sword-like arms of the bone beast. The arm shattered against her blade and as Harrow--Ortus?--watched, it reformed.

Of course. Regenerating bone was one of the theorems found within the Second House study. Harrow was thrilled by the discovery, but it was quickly eclipsed by the series of theorems for obtaining Lyctorhood. And the piece of that Lyctorhood whole found in the same study as the theorem for regenerating bone was--it was winnowing. Transference. Exactly what it said on the damn sign.

“I’m a fool,” Harrow said. She focused on the theorem. She knew it. She’d written it down and puzzled over it, turned the pieces over and over. It was possession theory pushed to its limits. It was-- “Gideon, Ortus. I know what this is and I know how to beat it! It wants me to--I need to get in your heads. Literally.”

She heard Gideon grunt over the speakers. “That’s moving a bit fast, isn’t it, Reverend Daughter?”

Harrow couldn’t help herself. She laughed and then she pulled her hand from the panel.

“Hey!” Gideon said, and Harrow heard the door to Response slide open. It took another moment before Gideon appeared in Imaging. There was a swagger to her step and bone dust in her hair. Her enormous sword was propped up, the hilt resting on her shoulder. “Why’d you stop?”

“I thought it might be easier to discuss this while you weren’t fighting for your life...or that of my cavalier--where is Ortus?”

“I’m here, my lady,” Ortus said from the other room. He sounded awful, shaky.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” Harrow asked Gideon. “I need to speak to him.”

Gideon took a step away from the door. Harrow still had to step close to get past Gideon--too close. She could feel the heat radiating off Gideon, could almost taste the salt of her sweat in the air. Harrow wiped blood from her nose and rushed past Her Divine Highness and through the door.

She found Ortus leaning against the wall and sucking in great big gulps of air.

“I’m on to you,” Harrow accused.

“I know, my lady,” Ortus said. He wasn’t even going to argue.

Harrow reconsidered her cavalier. She took in the damp edges of his paint and his sword arm hanging limp at his side. “It was actually quite brave if you think about it, Ortus. You put yourself in danger because you thought it would help to save your House. Aiglamene might try to call it cowardice, but it was sacrifice, was it not?”

“I suppose it was,” Ortus said slowly. He looked like a man that knew he was falling into a trap.

“You see?” Harrow said. She was going for gentle, but she feared she might sound insincere instead. She was not well versed in gentle. “Bring that resolve to the tournament and you’ll be fine. In truth, you and I are more alike than I thought.”

“Wait,” Gideon said from the other room. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to listen, but you’re right there and I have ears and--that whole thing was because of the tournament? The duels?”

Ortus groaned. “I hoped to be disqualified, your Highness. I hoped to be rendered unable to fight so that there would be no choice but for Captain Aiglamene to step in in my place.”

“But--that thing could have killed you. And the duel--it’s just a game. It’s not even--it’s to the touch.”

“It’s a dance,” Ortus said with a nod and a shrug. “I can’t dance.”

Gideon groaned. “I’ve heard that one before. Is everyone like this on the Ninth?”

“Perhaps not everyone,” Ortus said, carefully, “But--”

“Certainly everyone in our generation,” Harrow finished.

Ortus cleared his throat. “It would seem.”

Gideon took a deep breath, the sort of breath one took after coming to an important conclusion. “Right,” she said. “Okay. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to come up with a time, just you and me, and we’ll get together and do some drills. I’ll--”

“With that sword?” Ortus interjected, his painted face slack. It was the most terrified Harrow had seen him yet.

“No, of course not. I know the rapier too. I--what--” Gideon stopped abruptly when her eyes caught on Harrow.

“What?” Harrow repeated. She assumed she was bleeding again and pressed fingers to her nose and her ears. They came away red, but it didn’t seem like new blood.

“Don’t look at me like that, Harrow. It’s messing with my head.”

Harrow blinked. Her heart rate had spiked during the conversation, but she hadn’t realized she was looking at Gideon like that, whatever like that might mean. She’d never been very impressed by swordsmanship before, but she’d never seen anyone fight like Gideon--she’d never seen anyone that looked like Gideon looked with a sword in her hand.

It was impressive. That was all.

She apparently managed to reign in whatever her face was doing, because Gideon continued: “Anyway, I’ve had a lot of time, like a lot, and I can’t do complicated necromantic theorems or write romantic poetry epics, but I’m good at picking locks and I’m great with a sword. We’ll figure out a time and I’ll make sure it’s somewhere we aren’t seen.”

“You’d do that?” Ortus asked so that Harrow didn’t have to. Sometimes having a cavalier at her side was a relief.

Gideon shrugged. “Sure,” she said. “Don’t tell her I said so, but I kinda like your boss. It’d be nice if we could get her a win.”

She said it for Ortus’s benefit. Ortus was not in on their plan. The Ninth needed to think it was real just the same as God and Teacher and the skeletons. Harrow felt the heat rush to her face regardless. The words were no different than Gideon calling Harrow’s name first at each key ceremony, but when said for Ortus’s ears alone, they somehow felt different.

“Hm,” Harrow said, intelligently.

“But,” Ortus said, “isn’t that cheating?”

**

Gideon agreed to it all quickly once Harrow explained the theory behind the theorem. It wasn’t possession, not really--she couldn’t control Gideon, but she could take a back seat in Gideon’s mind, she could see through Gideon. Harrow would be able to see the construct, see it as herself, a necromancer, without ever entering the room at all.

“But you can’t hear my thoughts,” Gideon pressed. And then, once assured Harrow would not be able to hear a single thought in that gorgeous head: “This seems like fourth date stuff.”

“It does,” Ortus agreed. Harrow narrowed her eyes.

Gideon continued: “Are we at fourth date yet? Actually, you know what, nevermind. I’m in.”

“Really?”

“I’m in,” Gideon repeated. She paused. Then: “I’m in...to you getting in. To me--God, this is awful. There’s too much here, I can’t not--”

“I know,” Harrow agreed. Even Ortus was nodding.

“If you think about it, once we do this, the rumors are kinda true. You’ll be intimately inside of me--” She gestured toward the door to Response. “--behind closed door. All of it a little necro-freaky.” She paused, and then: “Lots of boning involved.”

Harrow spent a long moment reconsidering Ortus as a potential marriage option, but eventually she said: “Fine. Yes. You’re right. Once we do this, the rumors are kind of true.”

Gideon smiled. Grinned, really, in a way that made Harrow’s stomach feel strangely unsettled. “I’m ready, Harrow. Let’s do it.”

**

Harrow felt the familiar copper taste of blood in her mouth as, in the other room, Gideon bit down on her own tongue. The wailing, pounding cacophony in Harrow’s ears faded, lower, lower--first the screams, then the screeching, and finally the pounding, until at last Harrow had it. There! The construct rose up before them, enormous, angry, and very clear. The theorem was complete.

“That worked!” She could see. What was more, she could feel. She was, for all intents and purposes, inside the First Daughter of the First House. “Gideon, you’re a genius.”

“You can tell me how smart and strong I am later. First, let’s knock this thing down and make sure it doesn’t get back up again.”

“Right,” Harrow agreed. She considered the construct, took it apart with her mind and put it back together again. It couldn’t be destroyed with brute force; it would simply regenerate. She just had to find the right strings to pull and-- “Go for the left lateral radius. That’s it, just there, nothing else.”

“You got it,” Gideon said, and she went for the left lateral radius, and managed to hit that and nothing else with that enormous sword of hers. Harrow waited, wiped sweat from her forehead with her free hand. The arm did not grow back. “Okay,” came Gideon’s voice from Response. “Okay. What now?”

Harrow studied the thanergenic signatures, followed the strings and found her next target. “Right bottom tibia, lower quadrant, near the notch.” Gideon went down, her sword swinging around and missing the construct’s left leg before perfectly colliding with the right bottom tibia. Lower quadrant, near the notch. Harrow could feel how Gideon thrilled at this, how she moved her body from one move into the next. She was at full height before Harrow could wipe blood from her ear, ready to follow through on each instruction: side of the mandible, then eighteenth rib, and finally sternum, and Gideon shouted as the construct went down, a great whoop of triumph.

By the time Harrow emerged from Imaging, Gideon was already there, and she grabbed for Harrow, wrapped her in an enormous hug and lifted her off her feet.

Harrow’s froze, stunned by the sudden contact, by the pressure of Gideon’s strong arms holding her, by her face pressed against the sweat-damp skin of Gideon’s neck and Gideon’s shoulder.

“Shit,” Gideon said. She set Harrow down and took two steps back. “Shit, I’m sorry. I got completely carried away.”

“It’s all right,” Harrow said. She smoothed her cloak, cleared her throat. She moistened her lips with her tongue, and then immediately regretted it. Was the salt on her skin Gideon’s or her own? And then Harrow looked up at Gideon and gasped, her hands flying up to her own face.

“What?” Gideon looked down at herself and discovered the mess that Harrow had made of her, the blood sweat and smeared paint marring the soft white of her shirt. “Oh, no, that’s--Harrow, it’s fine.”

“It might come out,” Ortus ventured. “If scrubbed well. The First House must have a very large store of bleach. So much of the wardrobe is white.”

“Sure,” Gideon agreed. “Except I’ll probably never wash this again. I’m going to frame it as a reminder of the best fight of my life. The time the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House got her necro-freak on all up inside me. The time--”

Harrow’s heart was in her throat and Gideon’s salt was on her lips, and Harrow could smell Gideon. She could feel the searing heat of her. She felt lightheaded. She felt herself sway and she took a step forward. “That was--”

“Fucking amazing,” Gideon finished.

Harrow might have nodded. She said: “I’m afraid I have to pass out,” and then she fell.

**

She woke up cradled in Gideon’s arms, with Ortus crouched over her, his thick fingers tapping her cheek.

“There she is,” Gideon said. There was a smear of Ninth paint on Gideon’s cheek, the grey strangely bright against her brown skin. Were those Ortus’s fingers stroking Harrow’s hair, or--? No, both of Ortus’s hands were right there in front of her, which meant--

“Ortus, help me to my feet.”

Ortus hesitated. “Maybe you should rest, my lady. You just tipped over. If Her Divine Highness hadn’t caught you, you would have hit the floor very hard.”

“Thank you,” Harrow said. “Thank you, Gideon. I’m grateful that you were there to catch me before I hit the floor very hard, but I assure you I’m fine now. I simply exhausted myself. Now, Ortus, help me to my feet.” She didn’t say “or I’ll toss you back into Response with that enormous construct,” but the look she gave Ortus was enough. He held out an arm and helped her to her feet.

Gideon released her and stood as well, brushing off her trousers. Her white shirt was even more of a mess than it had been before Harrow’s fainting spell, streaked with paint and dirt and Harrow’s blood and sweat, probably some of Gideon’s own as well, and despite that, Gideon’s face held nothing but interested concern. When Harrow stumbled over her own robe, Gideon stepped forward, ready to steady Harrow. She stopped when Harrow held up a slightly shaking hand.

“I’m fine,” she repeated.

“I know,” Gideon said. “I just forget about the toll it all takes on normal--well, not normal. Just, you know, non-Lyctor necromancers.”

“I’ve been walking around with blood on my face for weeks.”

“True. You’re--” Gideon stopped, abruptly. She looked like she was trying to hold back a smile. She was failing. One more look at Harrow’s face and the smile broke free, wide and crooked. Harrow forced her mouth into a resolute frown. Gideon waved a dismissive hand and said: “Sorry, I was about to say you’re cute when you bleed, and then I realized how fucking creepy that would sound, but now I’ve said it anyway. Just not in a creepy way.”

Even Ortus looked pained, like this entire exchange sounded much more eloquent and poetic when he drafted it in his head. His fingers twitched as though trying to strike through the last ten minutes. Revise, rewrite. Too late Ortus, there was no turning this charade into an epic romance.

“Still creepy?” Gideon guessed. She seemed flustered, stumbling over her words and physically unsure. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her trousers and then changed her mind, folded them over her chest, thought better of that and let them fall back to her sides.

“Well,” Harrow said, eventually. “I’m nothing if not consistent. This is now the second time I’ve fainted into your arms.”

Gideon stilled, and then her entire body seemed to let out a breath as she relaxed, shoulders slumping just slightly and her face stretching back into that magnetic smile. “That’s good, Harrow,” she said. She reached out as though to nudge Harrow’s shoulder with her knuckles, then thought better of it and pulled back. “See, that’s what I should have said. Very smooth.”

**

“Perhaps you’re right, my lady,” Ortus said once they were back in their rooms. Harrow had insisted he give his robe to Gideon so that she could cover her soiled shirt on her way back to her quarters. He’d aqueised with an understanding: People would certainly talk.

Now he stood in their shared bedroom in his black shirt and trousers, his face a sad smudged skeleton, though a small smile was playing at his lips.

“Right about what?” Harrow asked. She tossed her robe into the corner of the bedroom and then sat on the edge of the bed and began to remove her boots.

Ortus turned his back and busied himself in his trunk of belongings. He said: “Perhaps it won’t make a difference if we lose the duel.”

**

Over the next few days, Harrow helped Ortus slip away from Aiglamene to attend his training sessions with Gideon. Ortus moved slowly and groaned a lot, but he didn’t try to escape his appointments and when he returned to Harrow’s side, his robes smelled damp and musty from the exertion and his face shone with sweat. He was still moaning a lot and he moved even slower with the knowledge that they were returning to the Ninth’s rooms so that he could do it all over again with Aiglamene, so that he could sleep for a few blessed hours and do it some more.

Harrow did not attend these training sessions between her cavalier and her intended. She was not interested in watching Ortus complete yet more drills. She wasn’t willing to listen to his grunts and his whines. What was more, she hadn’t entirely recovered her composure after the Winnowing trial. She was not ready to watch Gideon in motion again so soon after feeling Gideon in motion from the inside.

Harrow spent an afternoon in the library with Sextus and his cavalier, questioning them on what they’d learned about the two empty laboratories in the basement. Sextus claimed he’d learned a whole lot of nothing, but Harrow didn’t believe that for a second. She spent her evening in Laboratory Ten, searching for anything that might provide a clue as to the trial that was once housed there, to that missing piece of the Lyctor puzzle. What had they started? Why had they abandoned it? Why settle for cavalier consumption?

Sextus, as far as Harrow could tell, was right. She found nothing in Laboratory Ten, nor the next night in Laboratory One. They’d been scrubbed clean, completely destroyed.

The night before the duel, Ortus retreated to his cot early, insisting that he needed a full night’s sleep before the day ahead. He received no argument from Aiglamene who sat back against the sagging sofa in the main room of the Ninth’s quarters and said: “We’ve done what we can. We’ll still lose, but at least now he’ll put up a fight.”

Ortus didn’t put up a fight. Not really. Not at all.

He slipped out in the night--somehow made it past Aiglamene--poisoned himself, and spent the entire morning barfing in a bucket, so when it was time to actually go to the tournament, he looked very obviously green beneath his paint and was so weak he could barely walk. Aiglamene was silent, tight lipped, but she tightened her gloves as they left the Ninth’s quarters, rapier affixed, as always, at her hip.

The contingent from the Third, the Seventh, Gideon, Teacher and the priests were all in the main atrium when the Ninth arrived. Harrow went straight to Gideon and said: “I need to speak with you, Highness.”

“Oh?”

Gideon’s tone gave it all away in an instant. She excused herself from the Seventh and followed Harrow to the edge of the room. Her fingers pulled at the cuffs of her shirt and she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Harrow didn’t know her well enough to fully understand all of her body language. It didn’t matter. She understood these jitters as another admission of guilt and made her accusation: “You poisoned my cavalier.”

“I can--” Gideon stilled and narrowed her eyes. “Hold on. He said I poisoned him?”

“He didn’t need to say it. I can smell conspiracy in the air, Gideon.”

“He knows me, Harrow,” Gideon said expressively, hands spread to somehow illustrate her point. She kept her voice as low as she possibly could while speaking so emphatically. “He knew exactly what to offer, exactly where to hit.”

“Then tell me, what, exactly, did my cavalier offer the First?”

“Your Captain,” Gideon said.

Harrow frowned and waited for Gideon to continue.

“I know you thought about it, Harrow. If Ortus is removed from the competition, Captain Aiglamene would be compelled to stand in his place,” Gideon said, as though reciting the words from a textbook. “Captain Aiglamene with her fucking badass bone leg and that sweet black rapier writhing with skeletons. How am I supposed to resist that? How am I supposed to say no? Even if you lose today, I still win. He likened her to Matthias Nonius, Harrow, like, really talked the whole thing up, and I know--I know--some of that was embellishment. I know about The Noniad, but like--okay, so imagine if I came to you and I said--I don’t know, help me get out of here and I’ll give you everything you ever wanted, every bone in the Nine Houses. Could you refuse? Could you really?”

Harrow sighed and waited for Gideon to realize what she’d just said. Gideon did not catch on. “No,” Harrow agreed, finally. “I am not in a position to refuse when you’re offering everything I need.”

Gideon got it then. She ducked her head. “Right. I mean, I can throw in some bones if you need me to sweeten the deal. We’ll just have to hope that the future heir to the Ninth House doesn’t inherit my foot-in-mouth syndrome.”

The Sixth entered the atrium. “So you poisoned my cavalier,” Harrow pressed, getting to the point before Gideon was pulled away by the day’s event.

“No, I--yes. Okay, we went to the kitchens together and I made some suggestions, that was all. The rest was all Ortus.”

Harrow took a deep breath. Truthfully, she was relieved. Gideon was, of course, right. They’d all thought about it. Aiglamene had a much better chance in this competition. Ortus was bound to lose, despite all of his hard work--and he truly had put in a lot of hard work--but Aiglamene--

“I’ll announce the change,” Gideon offered.

Harrow chewed a piece of paint from her bottom lip. The Ninth should sit out the challenge. She shouldn’t let Ortus and Gideon go behind her back. She shouldn’t allow them to band together, to manipulate situations to their liking. Harrow was the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and Ortus--

There was a flutter of noise at the other side of the room and Harrow turned to find Babs laughing. Ianthe’s violet eyes were intent on Harrow’s cavalier, who sat sadly in a chair by the door with a bucket in his hands. Aiglamene paced before him with her one eye. Her body lurched on the skeletal leg. The Third had no idea what they were laughing at. They had no idea what hid behind that limp and those scars.

“He better not be contagious,” Ianthe said, loud enough to be heard, and Harrow imagined a swarm of skeletons descending on the princess of Ida, bone fingers tearing off that smug and sallow face.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to look at Gideon’s fingers gripped tight over the layers of black fabric. “Don’t be too hard on him. He’s trying to get you a win.”

Ortus was trying to get a win for himself--a future in which he played no part in the continuation of the Ninth House, where he was left alone to write and never again asked to fight for his necromancer. Ortus was not a courageous man. It said something about Harrow, surely, that her cavalier would rather fall from a staple ladder than risk a future betrothal. It said something, that he would rather be pummeled by a nightmare bone construct than risk Harrow losing Gideon to the Third. He would literally poison himself rather than risk Harrow’s hand.

Harrow pulled away from Gideon’s touch. “Fine. Announce the change.”

**

“To the first touch,” Gideon proclaimed with barely repressed excitement. To Gideon’s left, Princess Coronabeth’s lips moved, as though she too was reciting the words. Ianthe swatted at her sister’s shoulder. Corona did not stop her recitation: “Clavicle to sacrum, arms excepted. Call.”

“Camilla the Sixth,” Camilla said in her clear deep voice.

“Protesilaus the Seventh,” Protesilaus returned. In accordance with the morning comedy routine at the start of the week, their names were, in fact, drawn from a big white hat that looked like it had never graced a head in the last ten thousand years. Prior to pulling the first names, Gideon broached the subject of the Ninth cavalier. There were no objections to Aiglamene standing in Ortus’s place. They took one look at her, saw someone old and broken, and shrugged their shoulders in indifference. What difference was there between Upchuck the Ninth and an octogenarian with one eye and a botched up skeletal leg. At a glance, Aiglamene appeared equally easy to beat and far less likely to hurl on anyone.

Now the Sixth and the Seventh faced each other at the center of the room. Gideon nodded to the dueling houses and said: “You know the drill. Seven paces back--turn--begin…”

The cavaliers moved. Seven paces, turn, and--

What came next was like an explosion. Harrow felt unprepared for the assault on her senses, for the speed at which the two cavaliers came at each other, Camilla with her rapier and knife, Protesilaus with sword and chain. Harrow flinched at the flash of bodies, the scrape of steel. The room was silent except for the sound of metal against metal, except for the occasional gasp or exhale. And then everyone froze--Protesilaus stood with the tip of his rapier pressed above the Sixth’s gut. It happened so fast that Harrow almost wanted to demand someone explain to her what had just happened.

The rest of the room seemed to follow the action just fine. Camilla disengaged, emerged from her stance and sheathed her rapier as Gideon called out:”Match to the Seventh!”

“Hm,” Aiglamene grunted beside Harrow.

On Harrow’s other side, Gideon nodded, just slightly.

“What?” Harrow asked. “What happened? Why ‘hm’?”

“She threw that, my lady,” Ortus observed quietly from the bench behind Harrow. Gideon hummed in agreement, but she recovered quickly, smiled and moved to congratulate Dulcinea Septimus. Dulcinea beamed at her cavalier and blushed up at Gideon. Palamedes Sextus stood beside the Seventh and when Gideon gripped his shoulder and leaned in to say something close to his ear, Palamedes shook his head with a self-deprecating shrug. Camilla, for her part, wasn’t even breathing hard. Dulcinea swatted Cam’s thigh with the back of her hand, then reached for her cavalier, his big hand clasped in both of hers. There appeared to be no hard feelings between the two houses.

Another name was drawn from the hat and Gideon’s yellow eyes went wide and bright as she read the scrap of paper. “Ortus the Ninth,” she said, obviously fighting to suppress an anticipatory grin.

“I stand for Ortus the Ninth,” Aiglamene confirmed. She stepped forward and waited for Protesilaus to return to the flagstones at the center of the room.

The process repeated itself. Protesilaus the Seventh and Aiglamene stood facing each other as Gideon began to arbitrate. Then the paces, and then, again, that explosion.

Gideon returned to Harrow’s side and stood close as Aiglamene advanced on the Seventh. Harrow wished she could request that Gideon provide a running commentary on the fight, that Gideon could help her understand the intricacies she’d never cared to pay much attention to before now. Gideon was all twitches beside her, sharp intakes of breath and sucked teeth.

“Bone leg,” Gideon said at one point, and Harrow had no idea what Aiglamene had done with her leg that was so impressive, but Gideon was nearly vibrating with excitement. She shone in the same way she did on the terrace, the same way she did in the facility after fighting the Second’s bone construct. Gideon lit up at a fight, and now, standing on the sidelines, she clasped her arms tight across her chest, fingers pressing into her biceps, as though she needed to restrain herself to prevent her body from jumping into the fray. “Fuck, this is--Harrow are you seening this?”

Harrow was seeing it, but she was fairly certain she wasn’t seeing it the way Gideon was seeing it. Protesilaus’s chain wrapped around Aiglamene’s rapier and Aiglamene pulled back, bent and retreated in such a way that the metal whistled as her rapier slipped free. Beside Harrow, Gideon gasped and reached out to set her fingers against Harrow’s arm. Harrow felt scalded by that touch, but she did not dare move, could not disturb the room. She held her breath, her heart in her throat until a moment later Gideon’s fingers fell away.

Harrow turned toward the others and found more satisfaction in Naberius the Third’s tense stance and thin lips than she did in the fight itself. Coronabeth looked almost as thrilled as Gideon, her eyes wide and bright and very violet. Camilla’s eyebrows were raised, just slightly. She nodded and murmured something to her necromancer.

Ianthe chewed at her thumbnail. It was hard to tell if she was nervous or just very bored. She felt Harrow watching and tilted her head to look back at the Ninth. Harrow turned away just as Ianthe began an exaggerated roll of her eyes. Bored then.

Beside Harrow, Gideon emitted a noise that sounded like a loud hiccup and Harrow returned her attention to the duel just in time to find the tip of Aiglamene’s rapier press gently over the Seventh cavalier’s heart.

“Match to the Ninth,” Gideon said, in barely concealed awe. Aiglamene stepped back and bowed to the Seventh. Protesilaus leaned forward to shake her hand.

“Congratulations Ninth! Condolences, Seventh,” Teacher said. He held up the hat. “Two down, one more to go!” Naberius the Third stepped into the center of the room, a slick smile on his face, and Teacher’s smile slipped. “Uh uh uh. Patience Third, we must first draw your name from our hat.”

“His is the only name left,” Ianthe said, slow and sour.

“So you think! So you think,” Teacher muttered.

That caused a ripple through the room, but Gideon squashed any thoughts of surprise guests straight away. “I wish my name was in there, but no, the Third is right. Here, look.” She shoved her hand into the hat and pulled out the last folded paper. “Naberius the Third.”

Naberius made a cocky little turn around the center of the floor, his arms coming up as though he expected to be met with cheers. The room was silent, with the exception of Coronabeth, who clapped politely for Naberius.

Aiglamene stepped in opposite the Third. Ortus attempted to clap around his bucket, a sad hollow echo of a clap.

Naberius the Third said something low to Aiglamene, something that was intended only for her ears. Harrow was unable to hear it and unable to read Tern’s lips, but she caught part of Aiglamene’s response, which looked a lot like “Eat grit.”

They began their paces, turned, and then set off in a blur of rapiers and knives.

Harrow saw the moment that Aiglamene realized she wouldn’t win. Naberius was a dancer. He was a tournament duelist, same as the Seventh, but he was slick and nasty, and oil spill. Aiglamene had been lucky with Protesilaus. Whatever happened with Camilla seemed planned, perhaps Protesilaus was in on it too. Had he let the Ninth win? Perhaps it was always intended to come down to the Ninth and Third. Perhaps it would have even if Ortus had pushed himself to fight. The Sixth and Seventh were on the sidelines now and the Third was relentless.

Aiglamene stopped dancing. She threw the rule book aside and returned to her own set of rules--a Ninth House set of rules, from a book that crossed out to the touch and slashed in to the floor instead.

When the Third’s offhand knife split into three and caught the blade of her rapier, Aiglamene didn’t flinch. She let the sword go and it flew from Tern’s knife and clattered against the floor. It was Naberius who seemed surprised--he clearly didn’t expect Aiglamene to let go of her rapier without a fight--and in that moment of shock, Aiglamene heaved up and kicked the base of her bone foot square in the Third’s gut. He stumbled back and fell. He was still skidding across the floor when Aiglamene settled over him, her offhand knife pressed tight to his throat.

“Keep the Ninth’s name out of your mouth, you sniveling child,” Aiglamene growled.

Gideon whistled and rushed forward to gently pull Aiglamene back from Tern’s neck. Aiglamene retreated. She plucked her rapier from the floor and sheathed it at her side.

Gideon was breathless, as though she was the one who’d just been bested in battle. “Okay, that was--phew! It’s hot in here, isn’t it? I’m--anyone up for a rematch?”

The Third erupted in narrow eyes and pointed fingers. “She’s a rabid old dog,” Naberius shouted as Gideon reached out to help him to his feet. “Someone should put her down!”

“No, right, okay,” Gideon agreed. She released Tern’s hand and he fell back onto the floor with a grunt. “You know me, the swords start swinging and I get caught up. I don’t want it to end.” She reached out for Tern again. “Match to the Third!” She helped Naberius the Third to his feet. He looked like he was barely restraining himself from shoving her away.

Teacher was laughing nervously and he set both hands on Gideon’s arms in some strange attempt to settle his over-excited charge. “Tonight the Third House is invited to attend dinner in the private rooms of Her Divine Highness. Dinner is at seven. Try not to be late!”

With that the other priests descended and led Gideon from the room. Gideon caught Harrow’s eye on the way out. She mouthed something that looked like “Holy shit!” and she followed it with a gesture that was either a botched thumbs up or instructions for Harrow to call her.

Call her?

**

Harrow skipped dinner and chose to spend her evening in the library. She could not bear to spend the evening in the company of Ortus’s upset stomach or Aiglamene’s anger and apologies. She’d thank her captain forever for knocking back at the Third, but those thanks would have to wait for morning. Until then, Harrow would do what she must to keep her mind occupied, to keep her focus on the mysteries of Lyctorhood, rather than the mysteries of Coronabeth in Gideon’s bedroom.

The library was occupied by two of the Sixth’s retinue, hunched over a pile of books and furiously scribbling notes into pads of flimsy. They hardly looked up at Harrow’s arrival.

Harrow slipped past them toward the back of the library.

“Harrowhark Nonagesimus,” came a voice and Harrow turned to find Ianthe Tridentarius sprawled over a big leather chair tucked between two shelves. “I thought I might find you here.”

“If this is about the duel,” Harrow started, “I’m willing to call it even.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ianthe lied. She stood from her chair and came to stand with her hip pressed against the nearest table.

“Is dinner over so soon?” Harrow asked.

Ianthe smiled. That was it then. That was the reason for this encounter.

“You didn’t accompany your sister?”

“No,” Ianthe said. Her smile was gone. She once again seemed completely bored by all of it. “Her Highness is a simple woman with simple tastes. One Tridentarius at a time is all she can truly handle.”

Harrow turned toward the bookshelves at the back of the room. “I’m sure.”

“Babs wanted to go,” Ianthe continued, “but we thought it was time for Dear Corona to put her best foot forward. Alone.”

Unchaperoned. Harrow nodded. She was not jealous. She did not care. She pulled a book from the shelf without reading the title. “You aren’t interested in Gideon’s hand.”

Ianthe sat on the edge of the table. She laughed a sad inversion of her sister’s bright laugh. “In Her Divine Hotness? God, no. Corona can have her. My interests lie elsewhere.”

The first week at Canaan House, Ianthe discussed the circumstances of her birth. She was the second child. Coronabeth, then, would marry and tie her future to the Third, but Ianthe--Ianthe could set her sights on the heir of any of the other houses. She could use her position to bind herself and her House to another. It didn’t have to be Gideon. She could have pursued anyone. All of the House heirs gathered together, the perfect chance to forge a marital alliance.

But no, Ianthe showed no interest. She showed no interest in anything except: “Lyctorhood.”

Ianthe’s eyebrows rose at Harrow’s town. “You want me to believe you aren’t interested in the same? Come on, Harry. I know that’s why you came. This is a marriage competition, and you are a shadow cultist. You couldn’t possible think that you had a chance. It was Lyctorhood, wasn’t it. You can admit it to me.”

Harrow bristled at Harry and seethed at shadow cultist, but she refused to play this game by the Third’s rules. “No,” Harrow said simply. “Or at least, not anymore.”

“You’ll regret it,” Ianthe said. She leaned back against her hands, propped against the table. She crossed her long legs, looking Harrow up and down. “When the First chooses the Third, you’ll regret ignoring the real prize, one that may actually be achievable for a freaky little bone nunlet. Why settle for a marriage when you can be a god?”

“I’m not sure you’d say that if you knew how it was done,” Harrow said and regretted it instantly.

Ianthe’s eyes widened, just slightly. “No? And you think you know?”

Harrow dropped her book on the table. “I know enough,” she said, and left Ianthe alone with the Sixth.

**

Harrow listened to Ortus breathing, heavy and rhythmic. She refused to think about Coronabeth nestled away, alone with Gideon in her rooms. She refused to think about Corona’s physicality on the fishing boat, of her thigh pressed up against Gideon’s, or the way Gideon blushed and stumbled at her touch. The Ninth’s loss was inevitable as soon as the tournament duel was announced. Harrow had a week to prepare for this. She refused to feel threatened. She refused to acknowledge the lump in her throat or the unsteady beat of her heart.

If Gideon succumbed to her obvious attraction to the Third princess, the Ninth would be all right. It had been some time since Harrow did the math, but she did it now. Second place was still one hundred and five souls. One hundred and five resurrected souls was a fraction of five hundred, but it would do a great deal to help the Ninth. They would still need an heir, but one hundred and five souls would give Harrow some time to consider her options, to chart a new course. Perhaps one of those one hundred and five would be someone Harrow could stand to consider. Perhaps--

The wedding that united Gideon, First Born of the First Reborn, with Crown Princess Coronabeth Tridentarius would be resplendent, gold and glittering. It would be the greatest spectacle the Nine Houses had seen in a myriad. It was exactly what this competition was designed to create. It was exactly how it was meant to conclude. Coronabeth, alone with Gideon, could correct the course of the competition and ensure it came to pass.

One hundred and five souls. The Ninth could live with that.

Harrow, now settled in and very slightly comforted by thoughts of her consolation prize, was nearly asleep when the knocking started. Aiglamene roused herself first, limped to the door and responded gruffly to whoever stood on the other side. Harrow was already up by the time Aiglamene appeared in her doorway.

“It’s Her Divine Highness, my lady. She wishes to speak with you.”

Harrow didn’t expect Gideon to rush here so soon to break the news.

“Whatever she wishes to say can surely wait until morning,” Harrow whispered. She felt slightly panicked, despite all of her rationalization. This moment was always going to come.

Aiglamene shook her head, tilted her chin toward the door. “She’s requested to see you now. She was very adamant about it. Whatever it is, she does not feel that it can wait and after this afternoon--apologies again--the Ninth cannot afford to keep her waiting.”

Harrow recalled Gideon’s face when Corona reached out to swipe the Ninth’s paint from Gideon’s lips. It would have been nothing for Corona to lean in and kiss Gideon. It took next to nothing for Corona to take it all away.

Harrow shrugged into her cloak. Her face was still painted. She could only hope it wasn’t too smeared. Harrow crossed the main room of their quarters in a flapping rush of fabric. She slipped out the door and into the corridor.

Gideon waited there with her back pressed to the wall. She looked disheveled, somewhat indecent. Her hair was mused and her shirt was open at the collar, one side flopped down to showcase her collarbone. Harrow averted her eyes.

“Here to poison my cavalier again?” she asked lightly.

“How is he?” Gideon voice was low, tired.

“He’ll be fine. Was Aiglamene everything you hoped she’d be?”

Gideon let out a breath that Harrow assumed was a laugh. “Ortus was right. When she planted her foot on Tern’s chest and knocked him down, fuck, that was bad ass. Gorgeous. I thought it was finally my turn to pass out in your arms.”

Harrow shook her head. “Let’s get this over with, please. That is what we’d discussed, is it not? If either of us changes their mind at any time, we can back out of our arrangement with no questions asked and no hard feelings. I’ll ask no questions. There are no hard feelings.”

“I’m not here to--Harrow, really?”

Harrow looked up at that. “If you aren’t here to tell me that our arrangement has ended, then why are you here?”

“I told you I would come by. After the duel, I--” here she made the same call me gesture from earlier that day.

“That’s what that was?”

“Yeah, of course. I wanted to tell you how fucking great Aiglamene is--And also I’m here because there’s something I’ve been thinking about since we were in the lab earlier this week, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t at least try to address it now.”

“What’s that?” Harrow said. She expected Gideon to ask her about Lyctorhood again--whether she wanted it, and if she didn’t, then who did? She expected Gideon to ask her to fight the construct again, in need of that release after standing on the sidelines all afternoon, her face lighting up at the thought of the fight. She thought maybe it was Aiglamene Gideon would request to fight, though if that was it, she surely could have asked Aiglamene herself. Harrow didn’t expect Gideon to stumble over a few short words--”It’s, well…”--before she took a step toward Harrow, then a step back. She turned to look back down the corridor, toward the way she’d come, and then she pushed her hand through her hair, swore under her breath, and turned back to Harrow once more.

“I’m not sure how to--Okay, hear me out. Down in that laboratory I joked that we’d skipped to fourth date stuff and it got me thinking about second date stuff? Third date stuff, you know.”

Harrow did not know. “What third date stuff?”

Gideon closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and when she opened those funny yellow eyes again, the panic was gone. She began to lean in and when those eyes fell on Harrow--

Harrow stilled, certain for a moment that her heart had stopped. She shook her head, turned her head away. She pressed her fist to her chest and coughed.

“Are you all right?” Gideon asked. Her voice still seemed lower than usual and close enough to Harrow’s ear that she felt the words prickle against her skin, felt them shiver down her neck.

“Yes,” Harrow said. “I thought for a moment you intended to kiss me--” (“I did,” Gideon interjected.) “--but of course, you wouldn’t, because that isn’t what our arrangement is about.”

“I wouldn’t,” Gideon repeated, her face going slightly slack.

Wait. “You did?”

Gideon looked a bit stunned now and she merely shrugged in response.

“Why?” Harrow demanded.

Now Gideon’s brow furrowed. She waited for Harrow to continue, but Harrow didn’t think the question needed clarification, so she waited for Gideon to formulate her response, her heart pounding out the passing seconds.

“Because I thought--” Here Gideon paused, lips pressed tight, eyes staring somewhere past Harrow. Finally she nodded and said: “We should practice.”

Harrow wasn’t sure what to say to that.

Gideon held up her hands and continued: “No, look--I’m right. We should practice kissing because, eventually, we’ll have to do it in front of other people and when we do, it shouldn’t look like it’s the first time we’ve ever…you know. Kissed. That second and third date stuff.”

“It has to be believable,” Harrow said, remembering their discussion over dinner on the terrace weeks ago. “For your father and Teacher and the...skeletons.”

“Exactly,” Gideon agreed.

“And when you say kiss, you mean--”

“The kind of kiss we might end up sharing in front of an audience,” Gideon said. “The kind of kissing we’ll need to do until we’re married and you never have to see me again.”

She was right, probably. They were getting nearer to the end of all this and people would expect it. At a minimum, they’d need to kiss in front of others twice: at the key ceremony where Gideon made her final decision, and at their wedding back on the Ninth. It would be strange for them to feel awkward with each other during either of those moments. It would give it all away if Harrow tensed and froze like she did when Gideon kissed her temple on that awful fishing boat. Harrow pressed her fingers to the spot that Gideon had kissed that day. “You’re right.”

Gideon opened her mouth to argue, one hand raised. “Hea--I am?”

The corridor was very hot. Harrow felt sweat prickle against her shoulders, felt the heat slide up her neck to settle across her carefully painted cheeks. “You’re absolutely right. It’s essential that we practice this. And not just kissing--I’m--I’ve been going about this entirely the wrong way, and you said it. Everyone is going to assume we’re getting it on behind closed doors for the rest of our lives. Everyone should assume, but they won’t believe any of it if I don’t play my part. It will look exactly like what it is. An arranged marriage. A convenient loveless match, and if there is nothing between us then what reason could you possibly have for choosing the Ninth over the Third or the Seventh, over any other House? We won’t convince the Emperor as we are. We won’t convince Teacher or the priests. Not even the skeletons would be swayed.”

She couldn’t be that bad at this, could she? The rumors--surely someone thought Harrow was capable of being close to Gideon without instant self immolation. The Third wouldn’t be threatened if they didn’t think there was something there. But Harrow tried to imagine how it might go at that final key ceremony. She imagined Gideon’s warm face, the intensity in those eyes. She imagined Gideon leaning in toward Harrow and then--and then nothing. Harrow could not imagine kissing Gideon in front of the hostile eyes of the Third, nor the jubilant eyes of her own House.

She would destroy it all at the eleventh hour if she wasn’t prepared. It was no different than the work she put into her studies, into mastering a new theorem. She was never what anyone would call a natural. Not at anything. Not necromancy, not leadership, not life. All of it required discipline and diligence. All of it required effort.

She would fail at this. She would tense under Gideon’s hand. She would yank herself away in undeserving fright. She would stumble and she would freeze, unsure how she was supposed to respond.

“You’re absolutely right. I can’t believe I assumed we could just wing something like this. You’ve been right from the start. Ortus was right. Even Aiglamene--” Aiglamene was right to a degree, but practicing necessary public displays of affection was a far cry from some of Aiglamene’s suggestions.

Gideon was studying Harrow, yellow eyes on Harrow’s face, on Harrow’s eyes and Harrow’s mouth. She had one arm folded over her chest. The fingers of her other hand pulled at a fleck of dry skin on her bottom lip. Eventually she sucked at her lips, ran the tip of her tongue between them and said: “Are you sure?”

It wasn’t the response Harrow expected. She narrowed her eyes at Gideon. “This was your idea.”

“I know, but now I’m--”

“Fine,” Harrow said, too quick, too sharp. “We can think it over and return to the subject at a later date.” They had time. Two more weeks before Gideon had to make her final decision. A lot could happen in two weeks of a marriage competition. It hadn’t happened yet, thankfully, but one of them might still change their mind, and it would be more difficult, Harrow thought, to walk away once they took this next step. It was always hard for Harrow to walk away from a subject of study once she’d started.

Gideon licked her lips again. It made it impossible not to think about the actions they discussed, just incredibly distracting. Gideon asked: “Have you ever kissed anyone before?”

“No.” Harrow was surprised that she did not feel much embarrassment or shame in the admission. Gideon, after all, hadn’t grown up that much differently than Harrow, if you replaced the aging population of the Ninth with more skeletons instead. She asked the question back anyway: “Have you?”

“Sure,” Gideon said and Harrow felt her heart drop a few inches, felt the momentarily missing embarrassment rush back in as she remembered all of the chances Gideon had to kiss over the last couple weeks. Was it Judith Deuteros? Coronabeth Tridentarius? Perhaps it was Dulcinea Septimus or Camilla the Sixth. It was only a few days since Harrow had this discussion with Ortus; it was stupid to fall back into thinking she was the only one Gideon visited, the only one Gideon crowded up against picking locks in the dark corners of Canaan House.

“Oh.” She didn’t want to know and couldn’t help but ask. “Who?”

Gideon’s smile was crooked, sheepish, and she shrugged before she answered: “The back of my hand. A pillow or two. There’s a statue on the third floor. I kissed that once just because its mouth was mouth shaped and it’s face was the right height.”

“Only once?”

“Okay, I kissed it twice.”

“Pervert,” Harrow concluded, somewhat settled by the return to this banter. “So this is, as you said, practice that is necessary for our arrangement, but if we’re honest, it’s also an opportunity for you to kiss someone not literally made of stone.”

“Well yeah, I mean, this whole thing is designed for me to end up kissing someone not literally made of stone,” Gideon pointed out. “That’s kind of the point, right? Though now that you mention it, I have heard rumors that Ninth nunlets aren’t that far removed from stone statues.”

Harrow snorted. “Before or after you heard the rumors that I’m a necro-freak in the sheets? It surely can’t be both, can it?”

“Can’t it?” Gideon asked. While they spoke, Gideon managed to maneuver them back so that one step more and Harrow’s back found the chilly stones of the wall. One step more and Gideon was there, leaning in with one hand against the stones, caging Harrow in. Gideon wet her lips a third time and Harrow looked down, only to find herself faced with the soft ridge of Gideon’s clavicle instead.

Harrow swallowed. “I thought you changed your mind.”

“I did,” Gideon agreed. She settled back, turned so that her left side was pressed against the wall beside Harrow. After another pause she reached out and pressed the knuckles of her right hand to Harrow’s left shoulder. Harrow did not flinch away from the touch and Gideon grinned. “Good night, my soon-to-be betrothed.” She paused, and then: “My Black-clad Broom.” And: “My Bilious Bone--”

“--Good night, Gideon.” If Gideon kept that up, Harrow might be forced to crack a smile.

Gideon took a step back and pushed herself off the wall. She bowed to Harrow, low so that her shirt gaped and Harrow got a good glimpse of bandeau, and then she began to back down the hall away from Harrow. She made it three steps before she stopped.

It wasn’t until Gideon stopped that Harrow realized she was following. She tipped her head toward the end of the corridor, a lame attempt to save face. “Come on, Highness. I’ll walk with you to the end.”

“It’s Gideon.”

“Gideon,” Harrow repeated.

Gideon didn’t move. She just stood there watching Harrow approach. Harrow felt instantly self-conscious and suddenly remembered that she’d literally rolled out of bed for this meeting. How smeared was her paint? Did the blacks of her robes match? Gideon didn’t look like she disapproved, but Gideon wasn’t choosing Harrow because she found Harrow attractive. She wasn’t marrying Harrow for love or even wealth. It didn’t really matter what Gideon thought of Harrow, provided Harrow was willing to marry her and let her go.

“You know, I’m being an idiot, right?” Gideon asked, suddenly. “It’s not that I don’t want to kiss you. It’s just that even if it’s practice, it’s still a first kiss--we talked about it so much just now, I’m nervous I’ll screw it up.”

“You won’t screw it up. You’ve been practicing on your hand and pillow and that statue you were dating--” (“Hey!”) “--it’s basically the same thing, remember?” Harrow surprised herself. She managed to say it all with a straight face, managed to avoid saying that if anyone was going to screw up it would be the nun from the Ninth.

It was then that Harrow realized she had to be the one to start this. Gideon had a confident physicality that was almost entirely unheard of on the Ninth. She’d invited physical intimacy from the moment they met--casual touches, a fight, a hug, a kiss on the cheek--and Harrow withdrew, flinched away from every single moment of contact. Of course Gideon was hesitant to follow through now. Of course she was nervous.

Harrow had stopped in front of Gideon, with her tousled hair and her disheveled shirt, with her exposed neck and chest and wrists, but now she moved, stumbled forward. She remembered too late that she wasn’t wearing gloves and when she reached up for Gideon, her fingers met the warm brown skin of Gideon’s shoulder, then her neck, and her cheek. Gideon bent toward Harrow’s hand and when their lips met even Harrow knew that kissing a statue could never be close to the real thing. The kiss was chaste, stunned lips to still stunned lips, but despite their chapped skin, Gideon’s mouth felt shockingly soft against Harrow’s painted lips. Harrow felt ready to ignite. Gideon’s skin seemed scalding hot beneath the bare pads of Harrow’s fingers and Harrow could not tell if Gideon was on fire too, or if it was Harrow’s heat and Gideon was in danger of being burned.

Harrow pulled her hands away from Gideon’s face and Gideon caught them and clasped them tight. She broke away from Harrow, just far enough to look at her, with bright eyes and that intoxicating smile.

“Damn, Harrow,” she said.

Harrow wasn’t sure what to say. She just stood there while Gideon smiled the least controlled smile Harrow had ever seen on that face. Gideon brought their hands to her mouth and kissed Harrow’s knuckles.

Gideon continued: “Maybe just a little more practice and then I think we’ll be okay.”

“Your Highness!” Harrow said, affronted. She pulled her hands from Gideon’s grip and Gideon laughed.

“Good night, my Crepuscular Collaborator”

“You know, when we first met you made fun of brooms, but I’m starting to see that the apple doesn’t fall so far from--”

“Okay,” Gideon cut in, still laughing. “I get it, too far. I’m leaving!”

Harrow waited until Gideon waved at the end of the Ninth’s corridor and disappeared. She waited until she was safely back in her room with Ortus snoring on his cot. Finally, safely alone, hidden away beneath the heavy blankets of the four poster bed, Harrow allowed herself to smile.

**

Ortus and Aiglamene were tense behind Harrow. It felt like they’d gone back in time to the start of all of this, when every week put the Ninth contingent on edge, unsure if this would be the week Harrow was sent home. The difference was that this time Ortus and Aiglamene were convinced that they would be the reason for the Ninth’s departure, rather than their Reverend Daughter.

Harrow, for her part, was tense for an entirely separate reason. She could still feel the heat of Gideon’s skin on her fingers, the soft press of Gideon’s mouth pressed to hers. The ceremony was the first Harrow would see of Gideon since the practice kiss they shared the night before.

To Harrow’s left, the Third looked relaxed, absolutely triumphant. Corona was all blinding white teeth and sun kissed limbs. Ianthe was all smug superiority and angular bones. Naberius was his usual combination of hair gel and insufferable bravado.

To Harrow’s right stood the Sixth and the Seventh, chatting amiably and seemingly unconcerned about the ceremony, despite the fact it was likely that one of them would very soon be packing their bags.

“You’re in a light mood,” Harrow noted when Sextus shifted to stand beside her.

He nodded. “The only thing that I regret is not having the time to work it through until the end.”

“Perhaps there will be another letter,” Harrow said. “And this time it will be the letter you’ve been waiting for.”

Sextus’s face went serious for a moment. He said: “Tell me you’ll write if you work it out. When you work it out. If you can, write, just to let me know that you got it.”

“I will,” Harrow said, knowing for a fact that she would not. “I think Ianthe’s close.”

Sextus shook his head. “Close, yes, but she doesn’t have it worked out yet, and neither do I.”

Harrow hummed and then froze when Gideon walked into the room. The bright shock of red hair on her head was no longer disheveled. The dark shirt she wore beneath a white jacket was buttoned appropriately. It didn’t matter. The mess Harrow made of Gideon was plain in the way Her Divine Highness’s eyes sought Harrow out immediately, not at all subtle. Worse, her entire face lit up when she found Harrow, mouth stretching into a ridiculous grin. She lifted her hand and for one awful moment Harrow thought Gideon might blow her a kiss, destroying absolutely everything. If she didn’t reign this in immediately, the entire room would know for certain that the rumors were true. Harrowhark Nonagesimus was a pious shadow cultist in the streets, and a bone-wielding necro-freak, seducing the First Reborn’s First Born behind closed doors.

Aiglamene visibly relaxed. “Oh, well done, my lady.”

It was Harrow’s turn to tense up. She held her back stiff and straight, clasped her hands at her sides to stop herself from reaching for her veil. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“I don’t quite know either, but whatever you got up to with Her Divine Highness last night clearly made an impression.”

“No one got up to anything.”

“Good,” Aiglamene said. “Maintain that. The Third House is watching.”

She was right. The Third House was watching. Harrow closed her eyes and willed Gideon to call the Third first.

She paid no attention as Teacher made his usual introductory remarks. She kept her eyes closed as Gideon began to speak.

Third House. Call the Third House.

“Third House!”

Harrow opened her eyes in relief.

“Will you accept this key?”

Coronabeth exclaimed with delight and rushed forward to accept her key.

The Ninth House was next and Harrow managed to look up at Gideon long enough to mouth thank you before she accepted her key.

After a lengthy pause to ensure a maximum level of suspense, Gideon called the Seventh House.

“Help me to the front, Pal,” Dulcinea requested, her long fingers light on Sextus’s forearm. Her cavalier stepped back and let the Sixth step in beside his adept.

“I’m afraid I can’t accept this key,” Dulcinea said, her voice clear and bright.

“Oh.” Gideon looked a little stunned. She turned to glance back at Teacher, unsure what she should do next.

Dulcinea cleared her throat, drawing Gideon’s attention back. “I went into this competition to find love, yes, but more than that, I arrived excited to finally place faces on long time friends.” Here Dulcinea reached up to grip Sextus’s hand. “I met those friends, and I saw their faces. And I did find love, but it isn’t you, your Highness. I’ve learned that it’s someone else, and for that reason, I can’t accept your key. Life is really very short and I cannot bear to spend another week here when my heart--my hearts--have departed. While none of us here know each other that well, I’ve spent enough time with the Crown Princess and Reverend Daughter to know that you’ll find someone here who really loves you. Just as I have.”

Gideon opened her mouth to speak, and then looked up and met Harrow’s eye. It was too much. What they were doing, what they had planned--in that moment it felt like a slap in the face of Dulcinea’s speech. Harrow had to look away, couldn’t bear to hold Gideon’s gaze for more than a second. Gideon, Harrow hoped, turned her eyes toward the Third instead.

Gideon cleared her throat. “I hope so,” she agreed. Harrow heard movement and knew that Gideon was getting down off her platform and hugging the Duchess of Rhodes and the Master Warden of the Sixth House. “Hey, maybe a joint wedding? No, I know. I’m joking. It’s just hard enough losing one House. I can’t believe we’re losing both of you today. Anything to say for yourself, Sextus?”

“Nothing I’m prepared to say aloud,” Palamedes admitted. “I’m afraid Dulcinea is about to find that I’m much more eloquent on paper.”

“Nonsense!” Dulcinea laughed.

The Third murmured among themselves, probably discussing whether they should request that Gideon hand over the Seventh’s key in addition to the Sixth’s. To Harrow’s right, Protesilaus pulled Ortus into a hug and Ortus wiped a damp spot at the corner of his eye. Even Camilla the Sixth was smiling, just slightly.

“I’m awful at goodbyes,” Harrow admitted, when Sextus returned to their little group.

“So am I,” Sextus said. He gripped her shoulder and Harrow did not flinch. “Write.”

“I’ll try.”