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The Process of Elimination

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The hush that settled over the room at the arrival of Her Divine Highness was the first moment of relief that Harrowhark Nonagesimus had since arriving on the First. She sighed, turned her face away from Aiglamene, and let her eyes fall shut so she could savor that relative calm while it lasted.

To her left, Ortus scribbled notes onto a scrap of flimsy, the scratching sound familiar and grounding. Behind her to her right, Aiglamene whistled and said, “That one should be climbing the ranks of the Cohort, out on the front. Why this silly marriage game?”

Harrow opened one eye and scanned the room. Her eye found Her Divine Highness immediately, and Aiglamene was right--this was not the woman Harrow expected to find based on the invitation. She expected the sheltered First Daughter of the First House to have the build and attributes of a necromancer, first of all. Harrow’s first mistake; she opened her other eye to confirm. Her Divine Highness was tall--taller than the hunched Aiglamene, taller than Ortus and very much taller than Harrow--and she was solid, distractingly well built. Her brilliant white suit hugged tight to the muscles of her arms and tapered in at her waist, her form obscured only slightly by a filmy pearlescent cloak that hung over one shoulder. The rapier at her side sparkled in the ridiculously bright lights of the room. When the room erupted back into raucous activity, Her Divine Highness appeared at ease with the cacophony of sound and the press of people all vying for a moment of her time. She walked a fine line between imposing and approachable and she appeared to walk it confidently, without a single wobble.

Harrow took one look at Her Divine Highness and knew with certainty that this daughter of the Emperor Undying would wed the bright and equally solid Crown Princess from the Third. There was no question. It was the obvious choice, the match so blatantly preordained that the First should have cancelled this ball and the competition as soon as the Crown Princess of Ida was born and spared the rest of Houses this torture.

“We should have turned down the invitation,” Harrow said, not for the first time.

“You, of all people, understand why the Ninth could not.”

Harrow did understand and did not want to talk about it with Aiglamene. It was not, after all, Harrow’s choices that led them to this moment. She had inherited those choices nonetheless. She was those choices. She understood that their House needed resources. She understood that their House needed aid. She was not ready to sell herself or her House to obtain it. There had to be a better way than this, if she could only get somewhere quiet to think.

Her Divine Highness stood between the representative from the Fifth and her cavalier. She laughed at something the Fifth cavalier said, threw her head back with it to expose the long line of her neck. Harrow watched the necromancer and her cavalier exchange a secretive satisfied glance. They looked quite a bit older than Her Divine Highness, though not so old as to cause a particularly enduring scandal. They were likely no older than Ortus was, after all, and Ortus’s age had not stopped Harrow’s parents from threatening to unite them in marriage if Harrow did not agree to this spectacle. Still, it seemed the Fifth was not trying terribly hard to ensure their victory.

Beside her, Ortus said, “That’s Lady Abigail Pent.”--Ortus, it turned out, was surprisingly skilled at mingling.--”We met amidst the refreshments. Did you know she’s married to her cavalier?”

“What?” Harrow asked, leaning forward to get a better look at the pair. “Horrific!” She turned to Ortus, her shoulders tight with accusation, and was relieved to find that he simply looked resigned. He shrugged his great sad shoulders, and from this Harrow understood that he was just as befuddled by the discovery as she was. After the meeting with her parents, Ortus got down on his knees--she very nearly fainted with fright --to beg that Harrow answer the First’s call and spare him this fate. By the end of the display she found herself offended by the intensity of his grovelling desperation.

Ortus sighed heavily and his face took on that faraway look that Harrow recognized as a warning that poetry was imminent. She supposed she should be grateful for what came out of his mouth instead. “Perhaps the timing of the invitation came too late to spare the Fifth our own barely-dodged nuptials.”

She wasn’t grateful.

“That’s not it,” Aiglamene interjected beside them. “She’d have had plenty of choices on the Fifth, still chose the cavalier.”

“Disgusting,” muttered Harrow.

“Terrifying,” agreed Ortus.

“Motivation,” said Aiglamene, her eyes sharp on Harrow.

Fuck motivation. Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, was not competing for anyone’s hand in marriage. She did not care one bit that anyone, in this case, happened to be the daughter of the King Undying himself. It changed nothing. The game was crass, base, so far beneath her she could barely see the point of it. She was here in protest and determined to be eliminated during the very first round, that very night. She would find another way.

When the invitation arrived, she’d presumed--she’d hoped--it was the letter that they’d been waiting for for centuries, the announcement that the Emperor required Lyctors, the highest position to which a necromancer could aspire. There had been talk for years, centuries, rumors that the diminished number of Hands was untenable, that the Cohort would flounder if something was not done. She’d received numerous letters from the Sixth over the years speculating that the moment was upon them, that their Resurrector could not possibly delay another year. Harrow never responded to a single of the Sixth’s letters. The call for Lyctors never arrived.

That was it then. She’d just have to figure out how to deal with her parents’ threats once she returned to Drearburh. There had to be an exploit, another workaround. Perhaps when the need to produce an heir arose, she could have herself cloned on the Fourth? Perhaps the next Harrowhark would find the options better suited to her. Perhaps she could send Ortus to collect intel on reproductive advances on the other Houses and the night wouldn’t be a complete bust after all.

She turned on Ortus and found herself saying something else, her finger raised in accusation. “If you ever say the word nuptials to me again I’ll drag the bones of Matthias Nonius up from the Anastasian, make you watch while he rips up all eighteen volumes of The Noniad, and then shove the bits of flimsy down your throat with his formerly-heroic bone hands.”

His eyes implored her, pleaded with her once again to win this competition and save them both and Harrow realized, then and there, that her cavalier actually seemed to think she had a chance to win this.

She looked across the amphitheater toward Her Divine Highness. From her place amid the Ninth, Harrow watched Her Divine Highness laugh and blush with the Seventh, plainly ogle the better half of the Third. She watched the Daughter of the Emperor Undying dance with the Second, her back straight and her face pleasant and engaged. She watched her shake hands too firmly with the Fourth (they buckled like she’d tried to break their arms). She talked at length with the Sixth and then slapped a hand against his back like they were old school buddies with a history of camaraderie and not an ounce of sexual tension--the Sixth necromancer seemed startled by the gesture. His cavalier narrowed her eyes. Harrow nibbled at a cracker--too salty--and watched Her Divine Highness listen patiently to the Eighth. When the Third passed by them and her eyes followed, when her body sagged in relief as she turned away from the Eighth, Aiglamene snorted and murmured, “Well, that answers that question.”

It didn’t matter. Even with the Fourth, the Sixth, and the Eighth at an apparent disadvantage, even with the frankly shocking lack of effort from the Fifth, the Ninth would not compete.

Harrow pulled her watch from her pocket, checked the time. How long was this supposed to last? Thus far, they’d stayed safely tucked in their secluded corner, far from the frivolity. If Harrow could avoid Her Divine Highness the rest of the evening, she would have no choice but to send Harrow home. How could she choose someone she had never met, someone with whom she’d never had even a scrap of a conversation?

Across the room, Her Divine Highness appeared cordial and formal, and every so often she broke into that smile that stretched wide across her face, lopsided and imperfect. When she smiled, Harrow found it almost impossible to look away...which was how Harrow ruined her own carefully laid plans. Her Divine Highness looked up at exactly the wrong moment and caught Harrow watching. That did the trick. It broke the spell. Harrow jerked her eyes away from the woman, then decided that wasn’t enough and turned her entire body away as well. She turned toward the wall and contemplated pressing her forehead against it, craved that grounding pressure.

“Stand up straight,” Aiglamene said. It was all the confirmation Harrow needed to know that she was headed their way.

Harrow cleared her throat. “I need to attend to my bodily functions,” she said. She attempted to rush away before Aiglamene or Ortus could stop her, but Aiglamene was fast, even now. Her arm shot out and she caught Harrow around the chest. Harrow had no choice but to acquiesce and save face, or be dragged gracelessly back into position. Aiglamene had always had that streak of savage. Harrow assumed that that was why she was sent--to keep Harrow in line.

Harrow bit her lip and adjusted her robes. The room pounded in her head and for a moment she felt like she couldn’t breathe, felt like she might collapse. A figure appeared before them, too bright in that white suit and Harrow felt herself sway, had to shut her eyes to gather herself.

“You’re here,” said an unfamiliar voice. And then: “Whoa, okay careful.”

Aiglamene wrapped an arm around her again, this time in an attempt to steady her. Ortus scratched furiously at his bit of flimsy. Around them the room roared and the light burned through her eyelids.

“I have to get out of here,” Harrow said. She felt like she was choking, her chest tight and her heart racing. The hand around her waist was not digging sharp fingertips into her side, and as the realization dawned that this was not Aiglamene that steadied her, Harrow allowed herself a brief moment to think objective achieved, terrible first impression complete before she forced herself to open her eyes.

Her Divine Highness was way too close, blindingly close. This close Harrow could see the blemishes near her hairline, a streak of darker hair at her temple that faded into the red. It was her eyes though--her eyes were extraordinary, a rich yellow that Harrow had never encountered on the Ninth. She realized she was staring, blatantly staring with her mouth hanging open a little--if Her Divine Highness was truly brash she could simply lean in and--Harrow lowered her gaze and collected herself. Her traitorous throat emitted an embarrassing little yelp as the steadying arm fell away and Harrow was left to stand upright on her own two feet.

“Sorry,” Her Divine Highness said. “I meant no harm.” She held up her hands toward Harrow’s cavalier, though Ortus’s fingers were still clutching his flimsy, the thought of going for his sword the furthest thing from his mind.

“Your Highness,” Aiglamene said, and she bowed deep, the only one among them with both sense and decorum. “May I introduce you to Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House?”

“Reverend Daughter,” Her Divine Highness said with a small tilt to her head and that heartbreaker’s smile directed right at Harrow. “We’ve met, I think.” She winked. Ridiculous.

“Have we?” Harrow asked, surprised into speaking. And then, because she couldn’t help herself: “Is there something in your eye?”

“No, I meant just now when you--nevermind.” The woman hooked a thumb toward the doors, her face scrunching up with self-deprecation. “Did you want to go get some air?”

“An excellent idea, Your Highness,” Aiglamene said at the same time Harrow turned up her nose and said, “No, thank you. I’m fine.”

They stood like that for a moment, the words hanging in the air, no one quite sure what to do or say next. Behind Harrow, Ortus took furious notes. Her Divine Highness glanced back at him. “Hm.”

She turned her runny egg colored eyes back to Harrow. “If you don’t want to be seen walking out with me, I get it. What if you leave first and I’ll come find you on the terrace? You and your cavalier, I mean. Of course. Obviously.” She shrugged and then laughed. There was that neck again. “Shit, get a grip.” That part she said low, barely loud enough to hear. The three members of the Ninth ignored it.

When Ortus didn’t respond right away, Harrow turned to glare at him. It was a glare that Ortus severely misinterpreted. He rushed to speak: “I know my Lady would prefer to conduct these introductions in a more private and tranquil sphere without her cavalier.” He shoved the flimsy back into his pocket, bowed, and added, “Your Divine Highness.”

Aiglamene nodded in agreement as though he’d said exactly what she’d hoped he would. That confirmed it. They were prepared to throw her to the wolves! They were in cahoots and had clearly been provided secret instructions.

“I see,” Harrow said, glad that the paint obscured her burning face. “I will be on...the terrace then.” She had no idea what terrace they were referencing. The landing deck?

“Out the big doors and to the left,” Her Divine Highness instructed. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Harrow began to walk away, but paused, dismayed at how easily the First Reborn’s First Born fell into conversation with her cavalier and her captain. She felt a sudden stabbing fear, a realization that as soon as she left, all talk might turn to her.

“Nice sword,” Her Divine Highness said as she nodded to Aiglamene. “Badass leg.” She squinted. “Cohort?”

“A while back,” Aiglamene confirmed with a slight bow. She tapped her leg and Her Divine Highness looked unnecessarily impressed.

“Are those skeletons writhing on the hilt? I love the black.” And then the Ninth captain drew her sword, made her blade naked to Her Divine Highness. The woman did not look offended. Her face did not twist into the scowl of Marshal Crux. She looked delighted, awed even. She held out her hand. “It’s Gideon, by the way.”

Harrow turned on her heel and left.

**

The bench was pockmarked and corroded from the salt air, even this high up from the sea. Bits of rusted metal flaked off on Harrow’s hand. She wiped it away and checked her watch. Half an hour. Perhaps Her Divine Highness--Gideon--had forgotten. That would be all right. It was quiet here, the temperature was pleasant and the sky was full of stars. In the depths of Drearburh she rarely saw enough sky to see the stars. They were terrifying, unsettling and overwhelming, but terrifying, unsettling and overwhelming in an entirely different way than the crush of the ball, the scream of the instruments and the shouts of the revelers. Harrow slipped past two taped off barriers to get out here and the terrace was empty. Perhaps she was in the wrong place? That would be all right too. She could stay here while the ball continued on without her and no one could fault her for it. She’d done exactly as she was directed. She played entirely by the rules. She even accidentally swooned right into Her Divine Highness’s arms. Not even her parents could fault her performance there.

Her Divine Highness pushed out the doors to the terrace just after the forty minute mark. Harrow sighed, readied herself for her next performance, accidental or otherwise.

“There you are,” Her Divine Highness said. She seemed nervous, kept wiping the palms of her hands on her trousers. She stood in front of Harrow, towered over her, then seemed to think better of that and collapsed beside Harrow on the bench. Harrow drew her limbs in tight to her body and slid up against the rusting arm.

“Sorry, I was--the Fifth are really friendly.”

Harrow shrugged. “You’re forgiven, Your Highness. I was enjoying the solitude.”

“Gideon,” she countered.

“All right, you’re forgiven, Gideon. I was enjoying the solitude.” She earned a smile for that. Gideon clearly couldn’t take a hint.

Gideon pushed a hand through her hair.

“I was told the Ninth wouldn’t attend. Which isn’t--Shit, I fucked that up fast. What I meant to say was--Sorry, I’m terrible at this. Starting again. Reverend Daughter! I’m glad you’re here.”

“Are you?” Harrow asked, completely confused by this stumbling introduction.

Gideon seemed slightly taken aback by the question. “Sure. I’ve never met a black vestal. The Cohort is full of the other Houses, so I see them once in a while, but not the Ninth. At least not anymore.”

Harrow wasn’t sure how to respond to that. She nodded her head in agreement.

“You didn’t think the Ninth would attend because I wrote a letter declining the invitation,” Harrow explained. “I was overruled, but the fact remains that I’m not here to be anyone’s bride--”(“They went with broom, actually,” Gideon interjected. “Not my idea.”)--”The Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House is not for sale.”

Gideon nodded. “I actually thought I was the one up for sale here. At clearance prices, even.”

Harrow shook her head. “You’re deciding all of our fates. Why the game? You could make your choice tonight and release the rest of us. It hardly seems like a difficult decision.”

Gideon kicked the heel of her boot against the stone of the terrace. “Who do you think I should choose then?”

“The Crown Princess of Ida. There’s no competition.”

Gideon smiled, big and easy, and then was quiet for a long time. Her eyes still seemed bright, even in the dim light from the windows. She studied Harrow’s face, her eyes on Harrow’s pinned veil, her paint, her prayer bones. Harrow held her composure under that gaze for as long as she could manage. When she could no longer bear it she turned out toward the sea.

“This wasn’t exactly my idea,” Gideon said.

“Why did you agree to it?”

Gideon reached for Harrow, a hand on her arm to draw her back in, and Harrow allowed it, shifted back so she could see the face of the woman beside her, that funny red hair. Did the Emperor have such a ludicrously colorful head?

“Look, I’m a fucking maiden locked in a tower. The only difference from the fairy stories of the Third is I get to have a fucking sword. A real sword, not this rapier. Literally no one here to fight except skeletons though,” Gideon shrugged. “This is a means to an end.” The first part of this sounded like nonsense, but the second half Harrow understood. She understood, also, that if her options in this life were marriage to Ortus or marriage to Gideon, a marriage to Gideon was the more amenable choice. If she was presented with this solution in the halls of Drearburh, perhaps she would actually consider it. Here though--she could not compete against the Third, nor the Second, nor the Seventh. She could not even compete against the Fourth, the Fifth, the Sixth or the Eighth. She would not debase herself by trying.

“If you have to play this game, if it’s simply a means to an end, then release me,” Harrow said, her words clipped, her head high. “Eliminate me first.” She understood that there were consolation prizes. Just by showing up she’d improved the fortunes of the Ninth. She had done her part. Fifteen resurrected and a shuttle of resources. No one could fault her. She was a black vestal, shrouded in secrets. She’d heard enough talk to know what was said of the Ninth here. They were cultists, traitors, mistakes. “You can’t choose the Ninth, so send me home.”

“You really want to leave?” Something about Gideon’s face was infuriating to Harrow all of a sudden. Maybe it was her youth--Harrow wasn’t used to youth besides her own. Maybe it was the crease above her eyebrows or the way the light from the windows caught on her hair. Harrow hated this, hated everything about it. She was out of place, in over her head. It was all so stupid, so childish.

Yes, you yellow-eyed moron,” she snapped, unable to contain herself. “I want nothing to do with a marriage competition. It is beneath me and I will not sit by to serve as the butt of Third House jokes for the next eight weeks.”

“Harrow, I--”

“Eliminate me now and spare me this torture!” She did not correct the presumed intimacy of being addressed as Harrow instead of her full name, instead of her title. Instead Harrow shifted from yelling to begging, and she hated herself for it. She went so far as to turn toward Gideon, to take both of Gideon’s hands in her own. They were cool and dry, and the press of those palms to hers was a relief, a release all on its own. “Your Highness, I beg you.”

“Okay!” Gideon said. She shook her head, couldn’t seem to look at Harrow, but she held Harrow’s hands tight in hers, her knee on the bench between them, her leg pressed up against Harrow’s thigh. “Okay, I liked it better when you were insulting me. Yellow-eyed moron? Fuck, okay, I’ll see what I can do.”

She said it as though she wasn’t in charge, as though she didn’t hold all the cards, really couldn’t decide her own fate. She said it like she really was just some maiden locked in a tower. It didn’t matter. Harrow looked at the smooth lines of Gideon’s face, that perfect nose, that crooked mouth, and she took Gideon at her word, trusted that Gideon would follow through.

Her hands were still held tight in Gideon’s and Gideon leaned in, close beside Harrow’s ear. “Would you dance with me first?” Her voice was low, a secret--or perhaps simply an excuse to get close enough to smell the ash on Harrow’s veil, to see the mismatch stitching, to assess the Ninth and find her wanting. Harrow let Gideon take her in. Go ahead, Highness. Find all the reasons you need.

Harrow exhaled and her breath shook in her chest. She pulled herself back into stiff defiance, felt all her pieces fall back into their natural order, their assigned place. She built herself up until she was sure hers was a defiance clear enough to be read through her paint. And then she pulled back just far enough to look Gideon in the eye.

“I can’t dance,” she said. Harrow had spent months learning the steps with Ortus. She knew the dance card by heart. It didn’t matter. She could not dance with this woman. It would not help her cause. “You’d do better to ask someone else.”

Gideon did not try to lean in toward Harrow again. Instead she stood, straight and irritatingly tall. Her fingers fiddled with her sash as she shrugged. Her smile was crooked and sharp—sharp in teeth that emerged a bit crooked in spots, rather than in intent. It interested Harrow that those teeth hadn’t been fixed. Teeth were easy enough for even the very youngest bone adept.

A maiden locked in a tower. It was interesting, Harrow had to admit.

“Me neither,” Gideon said. “Don’t tell anyone.” She held out her hand to Harrow.

Harrow sucked her tongue, and looked away, her hands clenched tight into fists. It wasn’t that interesting. “You’ve been dancing all night. Everyone here knows how well you can dance.”

“You’ve been watching me.” Gideon seemed delighted by this. Her whole face lit up with it..

Everyone is watching you.” Harrow’s voice burst out in a loud retort as her body exploded up from the bench. Standing, Harrow tugged at her veil, but she couldn’t work it free from its pins. The sharp points stabbed at her fingers and she stopped trying with a hiss. She wrapped her hands around herself instead, bowed her head in thanks, and started toward the door. As she passed Gideon, her eyes caught on something and she paused. “I will not dance with you, Your Divine Highness, but before we part, there is one thing you should know.”

Gideon looked down her shoulder at Harrow. “What’s that?”

Harrow returned to the bench, brushed her fingers across the metal. She stood straight and firm before Gideon, her face turned up to look Gideon in those bizarre yellow eyes. Harrow held up her hand, the pads of her fingers stained the brownish red of old blood.

“You shouldn’t have sat beside me. You see, you’ve completely ruined your suit.”

**

Her Divine Highness did not return to the amphitheatre until it was time for the first key ceremony. The ball floundered without her as people milled about in confusion, unsure if something had happened, concerned that something had gone wrong. Aiglamene scowled and demanded to know what Harrow had done. Ortus made his round of the rooms, tasting what was left of the food and taking notes on the changing moods of each House delegation. When Gideon finally returned it was in a different suit (a striking black beneath a new pearlescent cloak) and with the funny little rainbow-sashed priest at her side. The priest had explained the rules of their game at the start of the evening, and now it was time to bring the night to a close. He held up a fistful of keyrings, a key dangling from each one. When he shook them the room erupted in applause at the clanging racket.

Harrow chewed her lip in nervous anticipation. She barely listened as the priest reiterated the ridiculous reason for the gathering, this farce that would stretch out across eight full weeks and end with someone marrying a woman they barely know, their House replenished and their future secure. By the time Gideon took center stage, Ortus was back at Harrow’s side, his paint smeared and his face anxious.

Gideon began exactly as expected. “Third House!” she said. “Will you accept this key?” The more robust twin cried out and one beautiful hand flew up to cover her mouth. Her withered sister turned to beam at the Houses standing nearest, smug victory plain on her face. Behind them both their cavalier stood, his chest puffed, his head bobbing to confirm that it all went exactly as he expected. The Third took their time approaching the platform. The Crown Princess made it first. She pulled Gideon in for a hug, kissed both of Her Divine Highness’s cheeks. Gideon stumbled and laughed, eyes bright and cheeks lined with her smile. The crowd watched as the Third collected their key and returned to the crowd.

Gideon continued, each House called, one by one: Seventh was next and then Sixth--”Didn’t see that coming,” Aiglamene mused.--”and then Fifth and then Second. Next came the Eighth and Aiglamene huffed beside Harrow, cursed under her breath. Aiglamene had clearly assumed the Eighth would be the first to go. Only the Fourth and the Ninth Houses remained.

Harrow let out a great sigh of relief, closed her eyes on the room and thanked the Emperor Undying for a Daughter so gracious.

The room was quiet, waiting, and when Harrow opened her eyes she found that Gideon was looking right at her, staring at her from across the room. Oh no. No. You lying bitch. Don’t you fucking dare.

“Ninth House,” Gideon announced and Harrow stood there, frozen, her face red beneath her paint and her fists clenched at her sides. “Will you accept this key?”

“She will!” Ortus called out. Harrow felt smoke emit from her ears as she contemplated killing her cavalier right then and there. The party could use some worthwhile spectacle.

Gideon’s brow furrowed, but when Harrow did not move, did not speak, she took Ortus’s word, nodded once in their direction and then turned to the Fourth. “Right, okay. I’m sorry Fourth. Truth is you seem like great kids, better than I was at your age, but like, that’s just it, right? You’re kids--teens--and I can’t--yeah, no, I’m sorry. Good luck out there!”

Harrow did not wait to see what came next. She grabbed Ortus by the arm and began dragging him toward the door.

“My Lady--”

“Let’s go before I sprout a full army from your panniers and tear down this entire room. You first.”

On the platform beside the small priest, Gideon was still talking: “Jeannemary, I know I promised, and I almost always keep my word. I’ll let you touch my biceps before you go, okay?” The crowd laughed at that, the Crown Princess from the Third squawking loudly beside her drooping sister. Her Divine Highness, so witty, such charm!--”I’ll turn it back over to Teacher, who will--Reverend Daughter? Harrow, wait!”

I almost always keep my word. Ha! Ha ha! Harrow ignored Gideon’s call. Aiglamene bellowed an embarrassing reprimand and still Harrow did not stop. She ditched Ortus by a sculpture of unidentifiable foods and made it all the way to the landing terrace before someone caught up. Harrow didn’t stop to see who it was. Of the three people who were inclined to follow her, it was easy to guess who was the fastest. She pulled six bits of metacarpal from her pocket and tossed them onto the stone.

Behind her, Gideon let out a sharp cry, and by the time Harrow turned back to look at her, six skeletons stood between them. Two of them pressed hands to Gideon’s chest to hold her back.

“It was somewhat nice to meet you,” Harrow announced, her voice short, strained. “Good luck with the rest of the competition.” There was one shuttle at the edge of the terrace, undoubtedly waiting for the Fourth’s arrival. Harrow intended to be on it.

One of the skeleton’s hands slipped off Gideon’s shoulder and Harrow pulled it back with force, its hands slapping back in place. Not quite back in place. Instead of Gideon’s shoulder it grabbed Gideon’s right breast. Gideon pushed it away with a flustered shout. Her face warned Harrow that she was maybe twenty seconds away from drawing the rapier at her belt. All right, Her Divine Highness. Go ahead. We’ll have that dance after all.

She should have said that out loud. She didn’t.

“Look,” Gideon said. One hand was on her sword, but she did not draw. Her other hand she held up in half-surrender. “Look, I’ll send you home, I will. I promise that you don’t have to compete in anything. You can be the worst contestant any of the Houses have ever seen and I swear on my life I will never make you marry me. At the end of this you can go back to the Ninth and marry whoever it was you left behind there--”Ha! Ha ha!”--The thing is talking to you today didn’t make me want to throw myself off this terrace, and there are a few other houses that did--not the Fourth, they're just awful teens, it’s not their fault. So I’m asking you to stay longer, just a few weeks at most, just until I get through the process of getting rid of those other guys.”

Harrow considered this. “What does the Ninth gain from this arrangement?”

Gideon shook her head. “You know the rules. Each week you’re here, it’s another fifteen resurrected for the Ninth. I have nothing else to give, I can’t--wait.” She shoved her hand into her pocket and pulled out a keyring. “Your key.”

Fifteen resurrected per week? Harrow had been so blinded by hatred for the very concept of this event, that she’d missed this. The consolation prize was not a one time thing. It grew the longer she was here. One more week and that was thirty souls for the Ninth. Two and she was up to forty-five. Three more weeks and it should be enough to appease her parents, to kick-start a (very small) generation. The boob-grabbing construct released Gideon. It grabbed the key and walked it over to Harrow, dropped it into her hand. “What does this unlock?”

Gideon shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “That’s part of the challenge.”

“You just said I do not need to compete.” Harrow tossed the key onto the stones.

“Seriously?” Gideon asked, exasperated. “Harrow, I’m locked in a fucking tower, remember? No one tells me shit.”

Harrow considered the dark keyring, the single small key. “It’s probably something awful. Something like the key to Her Divine Highness’s heart.”

Gideon laughed at that. “More likely it’s some old books or a pile of dusty drapes or something. You know this place was once crawling with his Hands, right? I’m sure they left some necromantically juicy stuff behind, if you’re into that. I mean, that’s the kind of prize you necromancers are really after anyway, isn’t it?”

“Fine,” Harrow said. Though she was loathe to admit it, she was intrigued by the key. The promise of the resurrected sealed the deal. She shoved the key into her pocket. “A few weeks.”

“Just a few.” Gideon nodded toward the skeletons. “Now that we’re agreed, can I try my hand at fighting these?”

“What? No,” Harrow said, but when she saw the look of disappointment on Gideon’s face she amended that to “Later, I suppose. Maybe.” For now, she released her constructs, let them fall to heaps on the stones. She started back toward the door. Aiglamene and Ortus were there, swords drawn, ready to intervene and take out Harrow’s constructs themselves, no doubt. Traitors.

Harrow pushed past them into the corridor.

“Well?” Aiglamene asked.

“Put those away,” Harrow directed. “We’re staying.”

Chapter Text

“Good morning!” The little priest said from one end of the large dining room. He’d directed them to call him Teacher, but Harrow had not yet seen evidence that he deserved the title. “Good morning to you all! We hope you have all settled in, that your quarters are satisfactory, that your rest was uninterrupted. It has been two long days since our commencement ball and we hope you have recovered from the festivities.”

A smattering of laughter erupted throughout the room. The Fifth cavalier shook his head and bellowed, “Not yet, Teacher, not yet!” The laughter started again, though no one had said anything funny.

“Two long days without Her Divine Highness in your midst!” the priest continued, and at her table Gideon groaned and shook her head, appropriately modest and ridiculously appealing.

“Here here!” shouted the Third cavalier. His hair shook stiffly as he raised his cup of tea to signify a toast. His face was pinched tight and it was obvious to Harrow that he spoke up only because he couldn’t bear to be upstaged by the Fifth.

This was an easy crowd. Another round of laughter, this time with applause.

Harrow turned to her own cavalier. Ortus, as usual, was using his knee as a not-so-discrete table as he scribbled away, documenting everything and everyone. Harrow was already dreading his next epic poem. May the Best Broom Win, perhaps. A Broom of One’s Own. Ortus stopped when he felt Harrow watching, covered the flimsy with the palm of his hand. Write away, Ortus. It’ll keep your fool’s mouth shut. She looked to her captain instead.

Aiglamene was smiling, but her mouth was tight, and Harrow took comfort in the fact that her captain was merely feigning amusement to appear polite. Aiglamene noticed Harrow and shook her head, forehead ridged. She nodded toward the next table. Yes, yes, Aiglamene wanted her looking at Her Divine Highness. Fine, all right. Harrow would look.

At first glance, Gideon’s winning smile looked completely genuine, but it was hard to say for sure. Harrow had met the woman only once, on a night when Her Divine Highness was expected to put her best foot forward. Perhaps all of her smiles were an act; maybe all of it was a complete façade. She remembered how Gideon had thrown her head back at a joke from the Fifth, the pinched half moons of her eyes and the bronze line of her neck. That had looked real enough. Harrow was fairly certain she was incapable of eliciting a laugh like that, even if she wanted to, which she certainly did not. She wasn’t here to make friends. She certainly wasn’t here to flirt. Let Gideon laugh with the Fifth. Gideon could marry them for all Harrow cared. Harrow would stick to the sidelines and count her resurrections. Fifteen souls a week, each day another two souls and some change. The Ninth would have children again. The Ninth would have life. Not a lot, but more than they had before. It would not make up for what Harrow’s birth had cost them, but it would have to be enough to lift some of that weight, to remove some of the burden.

Their eyes met. Gideon’s smile stretched wider and a small dent appeared in her right cheek. The fingers she’d been tapping against the table stilled. “Hi,” she mouthed, and her fingers fanned out in a subtle little wave. Harrow looked away.

At least, this time, Gideon didn’t wink. It still felt a little too much like part of this whole charade.

She felt another set of eyes, and looked toward her left to find the sad princess from the Third staring back. Unlike her sister, this princess looked every bit a necromancer. She didn’t react to being caught watching Harrow, just continued to stare, the fingers of her right hand pulling at a strand of pale hair. Harrow tried to remember her name. She’d pieced together as much as she could from the unsolicited letters she’d received over the years, not a single one of them ever answered. Tridentarius, Coronabeth and Ianthe. Which one was this? Harrow contemplated flipping her off, and felt the first small smile of the day tug at her lips.

According to the teacher priest, this was the first time any of them had seen Her Divine Highness since the ball. It was certainly the first time that Harrow had seen Gideon, but she somehow doubted the accuracy of the statement. Some of these people were practically salivating trying to get at Her Divine Highness. They weren’t preoccupied by keys or the layout of Canaan House. Who knew what went on in the distant and convoluted corridors of the First? Still, it was intended that the last two days were spent getting to know one another. Mingle, get to know the House and your opponents, assess the playing field. Harrow managed to avoid them all, had witnessed nothing more than a chance encounter in a corridor, the sound of footsteps across an empty hall.

She spent most of the first day mapping the entirety of Canaan House, each crumbling terrace, each twisting corridor. The priests and Her Divine Highness must live on the uppermost floors where the walls were a freshly painted white and all of the doors were locked. There were locked doors on the lower floors too. Gideon’s key didn’t open any of them. Harrow didn’t find a door that it did unlock until well into that first day.

“Now, to the first order of business,” said the rainbow-sashed priest. “Her Serene Highness has reviewed the surveys that were provided to each heir”--(“What survey?” Aiglamene asked. Ortus shrugged and Harrow ignored the question.)--”and together we have chosen three of you who will have the honor of competing in our first group date. You will join Her Highness Gideon amidst the verdant plants growing in our greenhouses for an afternoon picnic. Delightful!”

“What survey?” Aiglamene asked again. She looked pointedly at Harrow.

“We’ll discuss it after this meeting is adjourned,” Harrow said, quietly. She found the survey slipped beneath their door, late into the first night while Aiglamene and Ortus slept, Ortus’s snores rocking their quarters and making sleep all but impossible for Harrow. She glanced at the contents and knew at once that she could not sit down and contemplate answers to questions such as What was your first impression of Her Divine Highness? and Where would you like to take Her Highness on a secluded one-on-one date? and even worse, Describe your happiest memory. She could not answer those questions and would not answer the simpler ones either: What is your favorite color? and If you were asked to prepare dinner for Her Divine Highness, what delicacies would your House present? The answers to those questions were easy, obvious. Black. Porridge and leeks. This entire game was designed to rule out the Ninth from the start! How many had bet on the Reverend Daughter’s elimination in the very first round?

Harrow had, so that was one. How she’d beat out the youthful happy faces of the Fourth House was a complete mystery.

Harrow tore the survey into pieces and then burned those pieces on an empty terrace in the early hours of the morning. The smell of burning fat and plastic seared her nostrils as she stood beneath the stars. She watched the ashes float out over the water and disappear.

“Second House, Third House, and Eighth House. You three are invited to join Her Divine Highness for an afternoon of merriment among the greens. Your Highness, what do you think of that?”

Gideon seemed surprised to be addressed, in fact had a mouth full of bread that she had to rush to swallow and when she spoke, her words were interrupted by the bread’s dry retaliation: “Sounds--”hiccup!--”great!”

It did not sound great.

“As for the rest of you, rest assured that there will be room enough for you at Her Divine Highness’s side, at least for the next few weeks! Tomorrow we will host an event that will afford you all the chance to participate, to impress Her Divine Highness with your skill.”

“It better not be a cavalier’s tournament,” Aiglamene muttered.

Ortus looked up as though summoned. “Duel?”

“Water volleyball!” the priest announced. His tone had changed, the joy in his voice very obviously exaggerated. “We all love pool games, don’t we?”

Harrow did not. She’d have to disappear before dawn to escape this.

The solid Princess of Ida seemed delighted. She appeared to be the only one. Her sister went so far as to roll her eyes, long and slow, for all to see.

Across the table from the Ninth, the Second’s adept, Captain Deuterous, sat back in her chair and said, “Well, at least we’ll get to see Her Divine Highness in her bathing togs.” Her cavalier chuckled. Ortus scribbled furiously.

Were a few souls for the Ninth really worth all this?

Sadly, they were, and Harrow did not storm out of the room. She waited patiently for the morning meal to conclude and then she led her captain and cavalier into the corridor.

Aiglamene just barely waited until they were out of earshot of the other houses before she set a hand on Harrow’s arm and said, “What survey?”

Harrow chewed at her lip. “I threw it away. Her Divine Highness and I have an arrangement. I’m not required to participate in...group dates.” Thank the Emperor. It sounded like torture.

Aiglamene’s face went red beneath her paint. “No, Reverend Daughter. That is not how this works.”

“Stand down, Captain. My parents aren’t here.”

“You will compete, my Lady. You will do all that is asked of you here. You will do it for the good of the House and you’ll like it because it’s for the good of the House. That was the arrangement.”

Her tone was expectant and Harrow longed to pull skeletons up from Aiglamene’s naked toe bones, yearned to pummel her captain into the ground with constructs made from her own foot, but Aiglamene was so old. It wouldn’t be fair. Harrow pushed her hand into the pocket of her robe and closed them over the cold metal ring. The teeth of the key pressed sharp to her palm.

“A group date with the Second and Third, or the Third and the Eighth, or the Second and Eighth would not endear me to Her Divine Highness,” Harrow said. “It’s blatantly set up to seed dramatic rivalry between Houses. It doesn’t help the Ninth, and I can’t imagine it will be a deciding factor in who Gideon chooses to send home.”

Aiglamene’s eyebrows rose at that. Harrow wasn’t sure if it was because she’d crafted an exceedingly smart and logical rebuttal or if it was because she’d slipped and used Gideon’s first name. Either way, her captain was appeased. Mostly.

“Group dates aside, the survey likely contained information that would benefit the Ninth for Her Divine Highness to know.”

“Yes,” Harrow agreed. She gestured down toward her cloak. “You’re right. I’m sure Her Divine Highness would have a very difficult time guessing that my favorite color is black.”

**

The atrium above the hatch was mercifully empty and Harrow stepped carefully out of the shadows and down the stairs. She’d found the door two days prior, her heart pounding as she tried the key in the lock. It turned and Harrow felt a little thrill course through her. It turned again now, and that thrill was back for more. Harrow had to use all her strength to wrench the doors open, the screech of the metal echoing in the atrium. Harrow flinched and waited. There was no one there, no sounds of approach. She was still alone.

It had taken her awhile to ditch her cavalier and her captain. Luckily, they were both prone to polite pleasantries, and she was able to duck away when Magnus the Fifth stopped them for a chat. It helped that Aiglamene and Ortus were also very slow. Once she was able to get away, losing them in the maze of the First wasn’t difficult at all. Aiglamene was unlikely to attempt the crumbling terrace that had to be traversed to reach the atrium and Ortus was afraid of heights, a fact that did him no good on the Ninth or on the First.

The hatch door opened onto a hole… a very deep hole with an access ladder fixed to one side. This surprised Harrow when she first opened this door. Honestly, she’d still half expected to open the door to find a full-size painting of Her Divine Highness flexing her arms surrounded by a series of heart-shaped plushies, one for each eligible heir!

The day she found the hatch, Harrow examined the ladder and found it in good condition. It was certainly stronger than many of the ladders and staircases in Drearburh. Now she removed her gloves to make sure her grip was sound, and stepped down. The metal was cold beneath her fingers. Her feet were unnecessarily loud on the rungs. It felt like a very long time before she reached the bottom and when she did, she looked around at the enormous metal laboratory. It looked just the same as it had yesterday and the day before that. She thought she must be the only one who’d been here in a myriad.

“Thank you, Gideon,” she breathed. She’d said this each time she’d descended into this space, and she needed to stop because she sounded ridiculous, but--and she was a little loath to admit this--she truly was thankful that she had not been sent home directly after the commencement ball, if only because it gave her these past few days in this space. Her Divine Highness was right. This was exactly the kind of prize a necromancer got excited over.

Harrow started toward the corridor marked LABORATORY ONE-THREE. The last two days she’d been working in Laboratory Two, and she was anxious to resume her work there. Anticipation rose within her, warming her despite the chilly air. She was close to working it out. She could feel she was close, she just needed to--

There was a shuffling sound in the corridor ahead, and then nothing, absolute silence--that particular absolute silence of people trying very hard not to be perceived. Harrow stood very still, her hand gripped tight around the prayer beads she wore twisted around her wrist. She waited for whoever it was to make the first move, to acknowledge that they’d been heard.

Nothing.

Harrow could ignore it. She could let them go about her business while she continued with hers. She could call out a greeting, but that would require her to transform into a friendlier and more trusting person than she was. Out of the question. Harrow had just decided to ignore them (there was plenty of space for two necromancers to gorge themselves on secrets down here) when a grey clad figure stepped into the corridor from Laboratory Three, hand on the rapier at her side. Harrow stilled.

The woman turned back toward the door and said, “It’s the Ninth, the Reverend Daughter alone. No sign of her cavalier.”

Harrow cursed herself for not dragging Ortus with her, but then, Ortus was not on her side. Ortus and Aiglamene could not know where she hid away and they must not know where to find her. They would gang up on her the moment she gave herself away. Then again, so might the Sixth.

The Sixth’s necromancer appeared at the door. “Reverend Daughter,” the Master Warden said, actually sounding pleased by the interruption.

Harrow did not want to sit through introductions. If Palamedes Sextus was anything like his letters, this would turn into a lengthy social call. If Harrow was interested in small talk, she would have stayed topside with the others while they expressed their breathless anticipation for Her Divine Highness half-dressed as she emerged dripping wet from a pool of water.

No, thank you.

Harrow contemplated walking away without a word. She’d ignored the Master Warden’s letters for more than a decade, it would be very much in character. The Sixth had already started their approach and she suspected that if she tried to walk away, they would simply follow. So she stayed, and when they were close enough that Harrow could see their faces--his bespeckled and gaunt, hers hard and sharp--Harrow said: “Why are you down here instead of up there with the rest of them?”

“I could ask the same of you,” Sextus said. “For my part, I recognize a contest I can’t win when I see one. I’m determined to make the best use of my time while I’m here.”

“What makes you think you can’t win?” Harrow asked. In her estimation, the Sixth was a far better candidate than many of the others.

“The invitation might say brooms”--Harrow made an involuntary noise of disgust--”but bride would have been the better word choice. The Sixth might have sent someone else, had we known.”

“Interesting.” It was nothing Aiglamene hadn’t guessed on the very first night. “Though she did choose the Eighth today.”

“Yes,” Sextus agreed. “We have our theories about that.”

Harrow did not care to know their theories. She pressed her lips tight and waited for the conversation to move on. Sextus mistook her silence for a request for more and tilted his head toward his cavalier.

“Collecting fodder to justify sending him home,” Camilla the Sixth supplied.

“That’s my theory,” Sextus agreed.

“I don’t see why she needs justification,” Harrow said. “She holds the power here.”

“The Eighth might disagree.”

“My theory is that maybe she likes him,” the Sixth cavalier said.

Sextus snorted, and despite his cavalier’s straightforward tone, Harrow assumed it was some sort of joke between them. She moved on.

“How long have you been down here?”

The Sixth conversed silently, a series of arched eyebrows and mouth twitches, until finally Sextus said, “Two days.”

Harrow cursed herself for assuming she’d been alone. “Oh?”

“You found the hatch before us,” Sextus clarified, “but I suspect we were only a few hours behind.”

These two were good then, good and very quiet. Quiet enough that they knew of Harrow’s presence before Harrow detected theirs. Harrow hated that. She clutched her hand tight on the bone beads and savored the sharp press of them against her palm.

“You know what this is,” Sextus said. It wasn’t a question. “Each laboratory houses a test designed to master a complex theorem. It’s--”

“His Lyctor trials,” Harrow supplied, following his lead to the most obvious conclusion.

Sextus smiled and adjusted his glasses. “You read my letters.”

“I did.”

“You never responded.”

“Of course not. Why would I?” She looked past the Sixth, down the corridor toward Laboratory Three. She’d been so caught up in Laboratory Two, she hadn’t yet made it down to Three. She wondered what sort of test it might contain. She was not about to ask that and settled on a different question instead. “Why give us a key to these laboratories? Does he intend for Her Highness to marry a Lyctor?”

“Perhaps,” Sextus said. “Or maybe he’s hoping he’ll find a match for his daughter and gain a few new Lyctors in the process. A two for one deal.”

“None of this makes sense. It would actually be a comfort to think that the entire point of this ridiculous marriage charade is to replenish his Lyctors, but why all of this frippery? Why use his daughter as a pawn?” She knew that Gideon claimed none of this was her idea, but that wasn’t her information to offer here. She cut herself off before she let it slip.

“I don’t know,” Sextus said. He looked around at their surroundings. “The Sixth understands the necessity of going outside your House to find a suitable partner, but this still doesn’t sit right.”

“No,” Harrow agreed. They both turned toward different laboratories, anxious to get back to their studies.

“Warden,” Camilla the Sixth said, exactly on queue.

He cleared his throat. “Yes, we’d better get back to it. Reverend Daughter, it’s been a pleasure.”

Harrow did not want to lie, so she simply nodded her head toward the Sixth before she turned and walked in the opposite direction. She waited until they disappeared back into Laboratory Three before she pushed through the door marked #1-2. TRANSFERENCE/WINNOWING. DATACENTER. Harrow checked her bone wards and then moved immediately to the pedestal at the center of the room labelled RESPONSE. It was time to get back to work.

**

Dominicus had disappeared below the horizon by the time that Harrow stumbled upon God’s Single-and-Ready-to-Mingle Spawn in a corridor not far from the Ninth’s rooms. Gideon was deep in conversation with Captain Deuteros and the Second cavalier. She had an enormous sword strapped to her back and the hair at the nape of her neck was damp with sweat. The side of her body was pressed casually against the wall, her head tipped so that her temple rested against the peeling wallpaper. The Second, in contrast, stood at attention, spines straight, hands folded behind them, rapiers at their sides. Their faces were just a bit shiny, and Harrow assumed that wherever Gideon had been before this, the Second had been there with her.

Harrow froze as soon as she caught sight of the trio, her mind working desperately to map another route back to her rooms. She pressed her fingers to her nose and they came away red. Her whole face was streaked and dripping from her efforts in Laboratory Two and she wanted nothing more than to take care of the blood and collapse into her bed for a few hours, just long enough to get up and get out again before anyone (read: Aiglamene) tried to drag her to a pool party. Harrow would jump off a terrace before she donned a bathing suit.

There was no way to bypass them. The three women stood at an intersection that Harrow must pass to get where she needed to go, which could only mean that Gideon had planned their position. She’d stopped them in this location on purpose to put herself in a place where she knew she would eventually encounter Harrow, but the plan only worked if Harrow chose to return to her rooms. The library had been blessedly empty since they arrived, with big long tables and thick cushioned chairs. Harrow could doze there. It would ensure that she was out of reach of her captain and her cavalier come morning. She could--

“Reverend Daughter!” Gideon burst out, and Harrow cursed aloud. She’d lingered too long and the Second had seen her and given her away.

Harrow wiped blood from beneath her nose, took a deep breath, and came forward with her head high. She could feel the blood oozing from her ears. This she ignored. There was no dignified way to drain puddles of blood from one's ears with company present.

The Second hung back as Gideon approached Harrow with that wide crooked smile. The smile fell just a bit as she got close enough to see Harrow’s face. Harrow sighed as Gideon waved off the Second (they turned and left without another word) and then continued toward Harrow with caution, hands out like she wanted to hold Harrow by the arms but knew better than to actually try.

“What happened to you?” Gideon asked, eyes rich with concern, the smile all but gone. “You look like shit, like someone tried to put your face through a meat grinder. No offense.”

“None taken.” Harrow sniffed, felt blood suck back up her left nostril. She managed not to cough. She did not feel offended, that much was true. Being told she looked like shit, like she’d been pushed through a meat grinder, was far preferable to--well, to just about anything else Gideon might have decided to say about her appearance. Like shit meant that things were going according to plan. Like shit meant that Harrow would have another few weeks to work through the trials in the basement and then she’d be released to return to the Ninth with just enough souls to kick-start a generation. Like shit was precisely the impression Harrow intended to make.

Gideon was staring at the blood dripping from Harrow’s right ear. Harrow resisted the urge to hide it by covering the ear with a cupped hand. She cleared her throat and felt blood there too.

“Do you need me to kick their ass for you?”

Harrow swallowed. Gideon’s forehead glistened with sweat and Harrow could smell it. She needed a sip of water. “No, I--” she fumbled in her pocket and held up her key ring. “I’ve been testing a new theorem.” It was close enough to the truth.

“Oh,” Gideon straightened up at that and the air returned to the corridor. Harrow took a deep breath, but still felt a little like she was drowning. “Right, sorry, I forgot that happens with the blood. I spend a lot of time around--.”

“Lyctors.” Of course. Gideon spent a lot of time around Lyctors, who logically held onto their blood far better than a lowly necromantic heir.

"--skeletons.” Gideon finished. “You’ve probably noticed. This whole place is stuffed with priests and skeletons, but mostly the skeletons.” She stopped and only then seemed to register what Harrow had interjected. “Lyctors? You’d think, but no, I haven’t seen one of his Hands since I was a kid. Anyway, I was waiting for you.”

“Why?”

Gideon shrugged. “Because I haven’t seen you in days.”

“You just saw me at breakfast, but that wasn’t what I meant. Why haven’t you seen a Lyctor since you were a child?”

“They’re like--I’m not actually really sure what happened there, but something went down. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

Of course it mattered. She felt her heart speed up, just slightly. “Are we here because he needs new Hands? This whole game is just to test us, and the keys point to the truth?”

Gideon paused. “Huh,” she said. “I don’t think so, but what do I know?”

“You must have some idea.”

“Sure. I think you’re here because he’s sick of listening to me complain about how this House is falling apart and he decided he’d win some points with the Nine Houses by marrying me off so whoever wins can have bragging rights, and oh hey, bonus! Now I’m someone else’s problem. I mean, I don’t know. That’s just the impression I get. You know, like you’re eighteen now, get out of my House, that kind of thing.”

Harrow wasn’t sure what to say to that, so she said nothing and Gideon continued: “Anyway, I wanted to make sure you didn’t regret staying. I’m guessing based on”--here Gideon waved a hand in the general direction of Harrow’s bloody face--”all this, that you don’t?”

Harrow recalled her breathless thank you, Gideon each time she stepped off the ladder and felt the chill of the facility’s air on her cheeks. “You were right about the key.”

“Dusty old drapes?”

“No, actually,” Harrow said. “Much better. Dusty old drapes might get the Sixth’s blood flowing, but there isn’t much there for a bone adept.” The corner of her mouth twitched and threatened to smile. She reigned it back in, but Gideon was watching. She caught the twitch, and her eyes got a little brighter, shining like gold coins. She crossed her arms over her chest and nodded down at Harrow.

“So old bones then,” Gideon concluded, also wrong. “They really got your blood flowing? Old dead stuff really is the key to the Reverend Daughter’s heart?”

Gideon’s expression made it very clear that she was joking with Harrow, but Harrow felt her body flood with sudden cold anyway, her limbs stiff, her face shuttered. Her Divine Highness was not Harrow’s friend, nor was she Harrow’s ally. She was a means to an end, that was all. Nothing here could involve either of their hearts, nor would flowing blood be discussed again.

Gideon saw the change and her smile faltered. She nodded again, bit her lip, and soldiered on. “You want to hear about the picnic?”

“Not particularly, I have to--”

“--You didn’t fill out the survey.” Gideon said this in a rush, like it was essential that she said it there in the corridor at that exact moment, before any more time had passed. It was obviously the reason she’d been waiting to catch Harrow, the entire point of the conversation.

The blood was drying on Harrow’s face and her skin, already stiff with the paint of her skull, itched with it. “The deal was that I do not have to compete.”

“Yeah, I know. You don’t have to do anything, but it would have been a better day--a more interesting day, if--actually, it depends on who you replaced. The Eighth really doesn’t like the Ninth.”

“No,” Harrow agreed. “They wouldn’t, would they? I take it the Second House fared well?” They seemed to be faring well when Harrow arrived on the scene. Captain Deuteros looked capable. She could probably handle a sword as well as any cavalier. Harrow didn’t know much about Her Divine Highness, but what little she did know suggested can handle a sword landed someone on Gideon’s hot list. She really should be in the Cohort and not trying to pick and choose her way through eight necromancers, most of whom could not hold a sword for more than a few minutes without their arms aching for days.

Gideon turned back toward the now empty corridor. “Sure. Captain Deuteros is impressive.” She held an arm out to Harrow. Harrow stared at it, unsure what Gideon expected her to do.

“I’ll walk you to your rooms?” Gideon asked. “Unless you want to go somewhere else.” This again, sounded like it might be a joke, or worse, innuendo. Harrow ignored it.

“I know the way.”

Gideon dropped her arm. She ran a hand through her damp hair, and then she sighed and said, “You really don’t like me.”

This startled Harrow. “I like you just fine.”

“Really?” Gideon asked. “Because Lieutenant Dyas said you looked upset, like you saw us and were preparing to bolt.”

Harrow tried to control her face, tried not to look at Gideon as though Gideon was a blind moron, but she was almost certain she failed. “You’re the Emperor’s most treasured progeny, the First Daughter of the First House, and I’m standing here dripping with my own blood. Of course I intended to bolt.” She started walking toward her rooms, though in truth, the library really did seem like the better option.

Gideon fell into step beside Harrow, catching up easily. “That’s fair. I’m sorry for being weird about it. I guess I just thought, with the competition out of the way, we might at least be friends.”

Harrow snorted at that, choked a little on a glob of blood. “I don’t have friends, your Highness.”

“Me neither."

Harrow paused. “It’s really just you and those little priests here?”

“Don’t forget the skeletons.”

“Why?"

“I don’t know how to answer that,” Gideon admitted. “No one really knew what to do with me? They didn’t like having a kid underfoot. I don’t know.” They were standing outside the door to Harrow’s rooms. Gideon looked at the bones that adorned the walls and ceiling surrounding the door. “Nice. On brand.”

When Harrow didn’t respond (because she couldn’t think of anything to say except shut up and You’re the Emperor’s daughter and no one knew what to do with you? and neither seemed an appropriate response to the First Reborn’s First Born), Gideon pressed her lips tight. Her fingers fiddled with the straps that held her ridiculously huge sword. They stood there for a moment. It was awkward. Eventually Gideon said, “Will I see you in the pool tomorrow?”

Harrow laughed--actually laughed--before she caught herself, her hand over her mouth. “Absolutely not,” she said. “No offense. These challenges have nothing to do with necromancy.”

“Nah, why would they?”

“You are looking to marry a necromancer, aren’t you?” Harrow asked. “Judging a necromancer based on their skill at water volleyball is laughable.”

“I wasn’t going to judge anyone based on their skill at water volleyball. We’re just getting to know each other. Anyway, I’m expecting it’ll mostly be the cavaliers playing, so you can just watch and laugh at us if you want. It’ll be fun. I hope it’ll be fun.”

“Absolutely not.”

"Okay, hey, so how about this. At the ball you said I could fight some of your constructs. How about tomorrow morning? We can meet in the training room. Or somewhere else. Anywhere, really, your choice.”

The training room was right next to the pool, which made it all sound like a blatant trap.

“No.”

Gideon groaned. “Come on, at least think about it a little. I’ll get up early for you. I’ll be there at seven. Meet me there or don’t. I won’t hold it against you.”

“I won’t be there,” Harrow warned, because there was no point in pretending otherwise. Let Gideon sleep in. “And you’re more than welcome to hold it against me.”

Gideon laughed at that, as though Harrow meant it as a joke. This entire House was full of the easily amused.

“Good night,” Gideon said. She held out her hand for Harrow’s. Without thinking, Harrow set her gloved fingers in Gideon’s hand. She let Gideon lift her hand and then, realizing that Gideon intended to put her mouth on Harrow’s soiled and bloody glove, Harrow yanked it away. Gideon startled and stepped back. She opened her mouth to say something, but Harrow cut her off.

“Good night, your Highness.”

Harrow pushed into her rooms and shut the door in Her Divine Highness’s face.

**

Harrow was true to her word. When her watch ticked over to seven o’clock Harrow was as far from the training room as she could get. She was already in Laboratory Two, had been for hours, standing at the controls while construct after construct was destroyed by an unknowable, unseeable force. By ten o-clock she knew that she was going to get nowhere without a second person to act as her eyes. She needed her cavalier, but didn’t dare go to fetch him.

By one in the afternoon Harrow was exhausted, bloody and spent. She checked her wards and then curled up in the corner of the laboratory and took a nap. When she woke up, it was to a stomach that rumbled in outraged protest, to a dry mouth desperate for a drink, and with a face sticky and stiff with a crust of blood. She hated to give in to the demands of her traitorous body, but there was no question that she needed to eat and she needed something to drink. She would not be able to continue without first tending to her body’s extremely annoying demands.

She was careful on the ladder. She took each step slowly, carefully, stopped when she felt dizzy, her arms wrapped tight around the rungs. The last thing she wanted was to fall off this ladder and turn a party into a funeral. Would the Ninth still get the souls she’d earned if she died? Was there a soul bonus for a dead heir?

Tomorrow she would be better prepared. Tomorrow she would bring food, a canteen of water and a cloth to wipe her face. It was stupid having to return to the world above to attend to these things when it could so easily be avoided. She should bring a blanket too and then she’d be ready to avoid returning to her rooms for a few days, at least.

Harrow crossed the crumbling terrace and re-entered the tower, climbing the stairs toward the upper levels. As she traversed the corridors toward the kitchen, she heard water and laughter, smelled the salt of the sea in the air, and by the time she registered what was happening and where she was, she was standing before the open doors to the large hall that housed the swimming pool. She’d walked by the pool before. The area was usually occupied by one or two people. The Third swimming laps or the Second sparring in the attached training area.

This was more than two people. The pool was absolutely packed, body’s writhing in the water, people laughing, so many exposed teeth. Naberius the Third bounced a ball off his fists and Harrow felt dizzy as she realized what it was that she’d stumbled upon.

Water volleyball. The horrid pool party.

She scanned the room for her cavalier and found him in the water, laughing with the Seventh and Fifth cavaliers. Had she ever seen Ortus laugh before? It made him look very young. His smile was actually rather beautiful and Harrow lingered, watching him fight the Fifth when the Fifth wrapped an arm around his neck and dunked him beneath the surface.

If Ortus was there, then so was Aiglamene, and Harrow moved closer to the cover afforded by the edge of the door before searching out her captain. Aiglamene was sitting on a bench against the wall. She was decked out in her Ninth blacks, her skeletal leg exposed, her sword at her side. She wore the same polite smile that she wore each morning at breakfast, tight and forced, but perhaps not visibly so if one hadn’t known her their entire life.

Harrow’s stomach protested. She needed to move before she was witnessed by her cavalier or worse, by her captain, but her eyes found Gideon and she stayed where she was. Gideon was laughing too, wet hair the color of blood. Her bathing suit was black and sleeveless, and she ran her hands over her arms as though she was cold, though no one else seemed chilled and Gideon hardly seemed the type to feel self conscious. She had no reason to be, from what Harrow could see of her. Her arms were as toned as Harrow had imagined they would be when she first saw Her Divine Highness in that white suit at the ball. It wasn’t all from hefting around that great big sword. Gideon clearly worked hard to build the muscle she had. Either that or it was some genetic benefit of being the daughter of God.

The solid twin--Coronabeth, Harrow had learned--moved in toward Gideon and whispered something in her ear. No friends, my ass, Harrow thought. Together these two were golden, a perfect picture of good breeding and glowing health. It was disgusting, all of it so pointless. It was honestly hilarious, this swimming pool full of cavaliers, the only necromancers in the water Coronabeth Tridentarius and Captain Deuteros. Deuteros looked like she was having less fun than the Third, though Harrow guessed that was a very recent development, starting probably around the time Princess Corona laid a perfectly manicured hand on Her Divine Highness’s arm. The Third and the Second were nothing alike. Harrow could see why the way Gideon smiled at Corona might seed doubt within the Second.

It was easy to imagine this contest coming down to these two women, Judith with her sword and her crisp uniforms, her Cohort training, a quality that was clearly attractive to Her Divine Highness, versus Coronabeth with that shine, those breasts and that hair, with glittering wealth and social connections. It didn’t matter. Harrow would be long gone by the time it came time for those two to duke it out.

Group date: Necromancers wrestling for Her Divine Highness’s hand.

If Harrow wasn’t careful, she might make herself laugh.

She realized she was still standing there, completely lost in thought, and when she regained her focus, she found that Gideon was pulling herself up and out of the pool. Everyone was quiet, watching the woman’s arms, the stretch of brown skin that appeared between the hem of the fitted tank and the waistband of her shorts. All that before her thighs even made their first appearance and when they did there was an audible gasp from somewhere in the room. Was that the Seventh? Whoever it was embarrassing themselves, it was the push Harrow needed. It was well past time for Harrow to make a hasty retreat.

She turned back the way she’d come and took a different route to the kitchen. She huddled at a table in the corner of the dining room, a watered down bowl of green broth clutched between her hands when Her Divine Highness appeared, barefoot and with a towel wrapped around her waist, but still dripping from the pool. Harrow froze, hoped that Gideon was here for refreshments or something and not because she was following Harrow, but Gideon walked straight to Harrow’s table and sat down opposite.

“Hey,” Gideon said. She reached for a plate of cheese that a skeleton had set down beside Harrow without being asked. She took a piece and popped it into her mouth. Harrow had no plans to eat the cheese. She pushed the entire plate closer to Gideon. “Still working on that theorem?”

“What gave it away?” Harrow asked. She’d dabbed at her face as best she could without removing any more of her paint and the napkin beside her was splotched with red and a spectrum of grays.

“I was hoping you’d changed your mind.”

“I haven’t,” Harrow said. She gestured to her face, then down at her robes. She’d been sipping the broth straight from the bowl, but now that she had company she switched to a spoon. She should have just added the soup to her cup of water instead of the water to the soup. Sipping a cup of luke-warm watery soup seemed a little less barbaric than sipping a bowl of luke-warm watery soup using both hands. She set the spoon down and decided to just wait it out. The soup wasn’t hot anymore anyway and Gideon would have to get back to her party before too long.

“I’m starting to think you’re down there having exotic bloodletting parties with the Sixth and half the Third.”

Harrow hadn’t seen the Sixth since the previous day, but she wasn’t surprised to hear that they hadn’t made an appearance at the pool. “Half the Third?”

“Yeah, Ianthe also skipped the pool and the picnic. I think maybe it’s a sister thing? They don’t want to compete with each other or something.” Gideon shrugged.

“I haven’t seen her,” Harrow said. She didn’t like the idea of another very quiet necromancer lurking in the basement undetected.

Gideon ate another piece of cheese. Harrow could hear the water dripping from Gideon onto the floor. Sitting at the table Gideon was all exposed arms, long neck, blood-dark hair and blazing eyes. “Maybe she just stays in her room then, I don’t know. You weren’t in the training room this morning."

Harrow paused at that. “I told you I wouldn’t be there. Why the hell did you wait?”

“You might have changed your mind.”

Gideon’s shoulders were covered in freckles, just a shade or two darker than her skin. The freckles were spattered across her chest as well, and something about the constellations of marks infuriated Harrow, angered her toward Gideon so that when she spoke again, her voice was sharp, the irritation audible and her words unfiltered: “I’m not going to change my mind, you clueless idiot.”

Gideon was clearly thick if she couldn’t understand that Harrow was not interested in any of this, that she was here for two reasons and two reasons only: to acquire enough souls to pay a fraction of the debt she to her House, to give the Ninth a small amount of hope, and if she’s lucky, enough time in the basement to work through a few of the tests there, to get some idea of what it was that the Emperor’s Lyctors left behind.

Gideon sat back, her hands held up in surrender, her biceps bulging prominently. She whistled, but voiced no rebuttal other than that. She didn’t have to, Harrow already felt like enough of an ass. Harrow opened her mouth to speak, but Gideon beat her to it.

“Don’t apologize,” Gideon said. Her voice was low, quiet, and Harrow felt the words curl and twist in her gut. Gideon stood and leaned toward Harrow, one knee on a chair, forearms pressed to the table and the neckline of her bathing suit gaping just enough to see the slight swell at the tops of small breasts. Harrow realized that she was holding her breath. “Call me all the names you want, Harrow. I’m not offended.”

"Gideon."

Gideon smiled at that. She tilted her head, inviting Harrow closer, as though she had a secret and she was ready to share. Harrow wanted to refuse, felt certain that as soon as she came close Gideon would retaliate, would spew vile filth designed to rival Harrow’s most heinous thoughts. Despite this, she found that she was rising from her chair. She leaned in toward Gideon, her robe dangerously close to dragging in her soup.

When Harrow was close enough, Gideon spoke in a low whisper meant for Harrow and Harrow alone: “I have an idea. It’s a good one and I think it’ll change your mind.”

Harrow sighed and sat back in her seat, whatever spell that Gideon had tried to cast broken. “I very much doubt that, but go ahead and try me. What’s this irresistibly genius idea?”

Gideon sucked at her teeth. She stood up to her full height and looked back over her shoulder at the empty dining room. There was no one there, but Gideon shook her head and said, "Not here. I have to get back."

Harrow narrowed her eyes. “I’m not following you back to that pool if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I might be an idiot, but I’m not that much of an idiot,” Gideon said. “I couldn’t tell you there anyway. Too many people and it’s not an idea that’s meant to be shared.”

“You’re playing with me,” Harrow accused.

“A little, but look, I’ve still got a few more Houses to eliminate before I get to you, just like we agreed, all right? I might as well keep things interesting for you in the meantime.”

“I don’t want things to be interesting,” Harrow protested. Gideon responded with a wink, just like she had that night at the ball. Harrow bristled. “You’re an arrogant ass.”

Gideon laughed at that, looked absolutely delighted by Harrow’s assessment.

Harrow continued: “You made me believe you were participating in this against your will, but look at you. You’re a strutting peacock. You’re loving this.”

And there Gideon went again, a flash of misaligned teeth in a beautifully asymmetric smile, and when Gideon made it to the doorway she stopped long enough to bow to Harrow, one hand folded in front of her, the other behind, and then she disappeared, her bare feet loud against the floor as she ran back toward the pool.

**

“If we’re eliminated today,” Aiglamene warned. She was already shaking her head, so sure that this was it for them, that Harrow had hidden away an entire week and Her Divine Highness would have no choice but to send the Ninth home.

“We won’t be eliminated,” Harrow assured her captain. Ortus was standing at attention, exactly one step behind Harrow. He was not in the mood for writing. Instead he stood with worried eyes, his teeth working bits of skin from his bottom lip. Harrow remembered how delighted he’d seemed in that pool and regretted that she’d left him so unsure of their position now, but if they just listened to her, they’d understand. “I told you, we have an arrangement.”

“Surely, any arrangement that you thought you had with Her Divine Highness was predicated on a modicum of participation. A mere ounce of interest, my Lady, but you could not bring yourself to endure even something so small for the good of your House.”

“You forget your place, Captain,” Harrow warned. “You have no idea what I would do for my House.”

“Fill out a survey, sit on the sidelines of a pool. It’s really very little that the First asks of you. Ortus had a very good time.”

“I did, actually,” Ortus agreed.

“Good for Ortus. Perhaps his good time will save the Ninth.”

They were back in the amphitheater, though their numbers had dwindled considerably. It appeared that several of the houses had sent their sizable contingencies home after the ball, keeping only their cavaliers and a few retainers on the First with them. The Third had dressed for the occasion, both sisters and their cavalier resplendent in lavender and gold. The Seventh lounged in seafoam green and the Cohort soldiers looked as buttoned up as ever, hands on their rapiers and backs straight. Harrow did not dress up for the occasion, but her face was clear of blood, which was a considerable step up from the rest of her meetings with her Divine Highness throughout that week. It would have to do.

After an unnecessarily long wait, Gideon appeared on the small stage beside the little priest. She was back in her white suit, as though all of this pomp and fanfare really mattered. They could have conducted this ceremony in the dining room. There was no reason to gather them all here.

The priest prattled on for much longer than anyone cared to listen, but eventually Gideon stepped forward, another set of keys in her hand, white this time, and Harrow felt her heart jump at the sight of them. She turned to her right, searched for Palamedes Sextus in the crowd. She found him and his cavalier standing beside the Seventh. He stood exactly as she expected, eyes on the keys and nothing else, mouth set in a thin line.

Gideon called the Second House first. Deuteros was all stiff business as she stepped forward to take her key, but when she turned back to the crowd she was smiling, and for the first time Harrow realized that she was beautiful.

Gideon waited for the Second to get back to her place and then she held up the second key. “Ninth House!”

“What?” Harrow said, before she could stop herself. Aiglamene nudged her forward and Harrow stumbled, her cavalier close at her side as she stepped to the front to accept the key from Gideon’s hand. Gideon’s eyes burned into her and Harrow felt flushed, had to turn away and stumble back. The Third whispered to each other as Harrow passed, their eyes hard as jewels. The Third had nothing to worry about. Their House was called as soon as Harrow was back in place.

She’d been called second. She spent the entire week doing her best to avoid Gideon, giving the little priest’s events the most minimal attention she could manage. She’d snapped at Gideon, called her an idiot, labelled her an ass. She’d stalked the halls dripping with her own blood. Was this Gideon’s bright idea? Did she really think calling Harrow second would warm Harrow’s heart? Harrow refused to look at the others in the room. She refused to look at their faces, at their surprise that the Ninth had risen the ranks to second in one short week.

They waited as the other Houses were called, one by one, until finally it was only the Eighth left standing. This conclusion was unsurprising, uninspired and obvious. In fact, the only real surprise of the evening was that the Ninth House had jumped from last chosen to second place, ahead of the winsome princess from the Third. The others all glanced her way, eyes pausing just long enough to take her in, to size her up, before moving on lest they be caught. Harrow unpinned her veil. When Aiglamene tried to stop her, Harrow slapped her hand away, a child’s fit, embarrassing but necessary. The veil fell over her eyes and the world settled, the frantic beating of her heart slowed to a more manageable gallop.

“Well done, my Lady,” said Aiglamene.

“Thank the Emperor,” said Ortus.

“What the fuck," said Harrow.

Chapter Text

She arrived at the locked door at precisely the same moment as the Sixth House.

“Congratulations,” Sextus said. He stood beside her as she tried her key in the lock, certain that it would turn. “That was quite the jump in standing within a single week.”

The key missed the hole and slid across the metal panel with a shriek that made them all wince. Camilla the Sixth took a step closer to her necromancer, as though Harrow’s fumbling hands might present some type of threat.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Harrow said. Her face felt hot, her words sounded words pinched. The last thing she wanted to do was to discuss the key ceremony with the Sixth. It was bad enough that she had to share this moment of discovery without having to relive that evening as well, the eyes of the other houses, the whispers.

“Guess she didn’t like the Eighth after all,” Camilla the Sixth said from behind them. Palamedes smiled. Harrow did not. The key slid into the keyhole and turned with a satisfying click, a mechanical shift that resonated through her hand and sent a little shiver of anticipation up her arm.

The Sixth and the Ninth stood in front of the open doorway for a moment. Harrow and Palamedes stepped forward at the same time, and then stopped, neither of them willing to cede their claim. Eventually they stepped forward together, just barely fit through the door side-by-side, their robes brushing as they slid past. The Sixth cavalier stepped in behind them and turned on the light.

“I think we’re the first,” Harrow said, low and quiet. The illuminated room appeared to be a very tidy study done up in various shades of white and beige. Camilla started toward the far end of the room, which had been arranged into some semblance of a living space, two narrow beds, a wardrobe, a pair of carefully placed shoes with short heels. Harrow turned in the other direction, toward a desk of neatly stacked papers.

Palamedes stood by another desk. He leaned over it, his hands behind his back.

“Damn,” he said. “Siphoning. Of course.”

“Eighth House?” Harrow asked, pulling the pieces together. She moved to stand beside Sextus, pushed his robe aside to get a better look.

“Hm,” Sextus said. He was staring down at an intricate theorem scrawled in a very neat but extremely tense hand. “You saw the siphoning challenge in the laboratory downstairs?”

“I did,” Harrow said. She’d dismissed it immediately. It was obvious that Harrow could not complete the challenge on her own and she had no interest in spending more time than necessary with her cavalier. Ortus was in high spirits following the key ceremony. He’d asked her if she wanted to hear an excerpt from the epic love poem he’d started just that morning. Excruciating. Harrow had not responded. She merely held up the key and walked away.

“Did you attempt it?” Harrow asked. She pulled her book and her pen from the pocket inside her robe and stabbed the inside of her cheek with the pen tip.

“Of course not,” Sextus said. He sounded just slightly indignant. He did not look at her when he said, “Did you?”

“No,” she said around the familiar taste of blood. She did not elaborate, though the reason had to be plain enough to even the most casual observer. She had yet to encounter Sextus while in the company of her own cavalier.

They were silent for a long time as they took notes in their respective journals. Occasionally Sextus made small noises, which Harrow guessed must be necessary for his brain to function at capacity. He tapped his fingers against the pages of his journal, took off his glasses and then put them back on, then said, “hm,” in a way that made his whole upper body rock with the exertion of it. Behind them Camilla the Sixth carefully opened drawers and peered at bookcases. She scratched her own notes onto a pad of flimsy. Harrow was willing to bet her entire house that Camilla the Sixth’s pad of flimsy was empty of poetry.

It would, perhaps, be beneficial to have Ortus with her for this. She couldn’t rely on him for something as complex and dangerous as siphoning, but he was rather observant and would surely find items of note within these rooms that Harrow might miss on first inspection. Perhaps she would return with him in tow at a later time.

Eventually Sextus and his cavalier concluded their investigation of the Lyctor’s study--surely that was what this was--and moved on to other things with a simple, “We’ll leave you to it.”

It was another hour before Harrow heard a noise in the corridor. She set down the stack of books she’d pulled from the shelves and rushed to the door, as quietly as she could manage given the bones in her pockets, the bones around her wrists and the bones around her neck. She pulled the door open and found Ianthe Tridentarius disappearing around a corner at the far end of the corridor. Ianthe moved sideways, in a manner that made it clear that she intended to wait there, that she was hiding from Harrow rather than simply walking away.

“I saw you,” Harrow called out. She was not in the mood to play games with the Third. “I know you’re standing right there.”

The Third princess re-appeared and said, “You could have pretended you didn’t. Now we have to talk.

Ianthe had a point.

“I don’t like spies.”

Ianthe shrugged. “I don’t like traitors or cultists.”

They stood there for a long time, staring at each other, neither one of them able to come up with anything else to say. Eventually Ianthe rolled her eyes and with a long-suffering sigh said, “I have absolutely no idea what she sees in you, Nonagesimus. You must really be something behind closed doors.”

Harrow did not stick around long enough to find out what Ianthe Tridentarius might decide to say next.

**

Harrow glowered over her breakfast. Beside her, Aiglamene and Ortus were cheerful, content, which only made Harrow glower harder. The Ninth House should present as a united front and the energy that radiated from her captain and cavalier were the exact opposite of what Harrow wished them to exude. Their relaxed faces and pleasant smiles were extremely un-Ninth and if they kept it up, Harrow would have no choice but to sit them down and lecture them on appropriate behavior. It would start a fight. There would be unnecessary words said about ‘duty’ and ‘debt’. Aiglamene would shout and bang her bone foot against the floor and Harrow would get a pounding headache, but in the end, the captain’s mood would be well and truly soured, so goal achieved.

Harrow nudged Ortus. “Stop smiling.”

Ortus jumped at Harrow’s touch, turned toward her as though he was seeing her for the first time that morning. “I’m not smiling.”

“You are,” Harrow said. Ortus looked away and Harrow followed his gaze. “Stop smiling at the Seventh cavalier.”

Ortus choked on his porridge. “My Lady Harrowhark, I--”

“Don’t my Lady me, Ortus. We aren’t here to have fun. We aren’t here to flirt.”

“You are, in fact, here to flirt,” Aiglamene said, her tone matter-of-fact, her eyes forward. She didn’t so much as glance at Harrow or Ortus. “That is the name of this game. You would do well to consider applying the Smiling Skull to your face instead of the Chain, my Lady.”

“Yes, the painted appearance of a rictus grin is sure to win hearts,” Harrow said. “I have made it this far on my own instincts. I have acquired thirty for the Ninth without flirting. Another week and we will return home with forty-five.” This couldn’t last more than another week. The playing field was beginning to thin. If Sextus was correct about brooms and brides, and thus far it appeared that he was, then she had to assume that he would be the next to go. With the Sixth sent home, that left the following week for Harrow’s turn.

Aiglamene looked like she had more to say, but she was cut short by the arrival of Her Divine Highness looking half-asleep but still somehow maintaining her usual inexplicable magnetism. She was followed closely by the three priests. The two unnamed priests took their seats at an empty table. The Third and the Fifth had both chosen to sit at Gideon’s usual breakfast table and Harrow thought she caught Gideon pause for just a second, hardly noticeable, before she smiled and sat down in their midst. They began talking to her at once with smiles that tightened when Gideon turned from one House to the next. Lady Abigail Pent reached out and brushed something from the collar of Gideon’s shirt and Gideon started and took the Fifth necromancer’s hand in hers, Harrow guessed in some strange attempt to it move away.

The entire scene was painful to watch. Desperate. Harrow couldn’t understand why the Fifth even had a horse in this race. They were already married. And the Third--was Ianthe just there as the sneering wingwoman for her sister?

When Gideon looked up and searched the room, Harrow averted her eyes. She did not want to know if Gideon was looking for her, but she felt that look as soon as it found her anyway. Anger flooded her gut and she took an angry bite of porridge. She needed to speak with Gideon, to tell her what it was like for her in that crowd at the key ceremony, to tell her why it could not happen again. She needed to do everything in her power to avoid Gideon and make sure it didn’t happen again. She had yet to determine how she could meet both objectives. Perhaps a strongly worded letter?

Teacher cleared his throat.

“Our first week gone and what a week it was! We’ve said our goodbyes to to the Eighth and today we welcome the start of a new chapter full of surprises, both challenging and entertaining! This week Her Divine Highness shall attend a series of one-on-one dates--I know, I know.” Teacher clapped his hands to calm the murmuring of the crowd. “We have also learned that this week marks a very happy occasion, the wedding anniversary of Lady Abigail Pent and Magnus the Fifth.”

Harrow and Ortus twitched simultaneously. No words were needed.

“Wonderful news. Something to celebrate!”

Cue immediate audible grumbling from the two-thirds of the Third that weren’t sitting directly beside Gideon. Coronabeth smiled brightly and remained silent.

“No need for any of that, my good man,” Magnus the Fifth said, and then Abigail Pent cut in, a gentle hand on her husband’s shoulder.

“We are, of course, honored that you would acknowledge us.”

Teacher nodded, a little too enthusiastically. ”No feathers, no feathers. Good wishes all around!”

This did not seem to satisfy the Third, who were most likely fabricating a new date for the twins’ birthdays to be announced and celebrated next week.

“Now, the moment I know you’ve all been anxiously awaiting. The one-on-one dates! Who will be joining Her Divine Highness for this highly coveted solo time, an entire evening to get to know each other without the interruption of another heir? For this, we returned to the survey questionnaires that were provided to you at the start of our journey.”

Harrow relaxed. She sat back in her seat, sure that she was safe for another week.

Teacher continued: “Three heirs were chosen and three heirs shall embark on an evening of intimate connection--” The Second necromancer snorted and then attempted to make it seem like she was choking on her tea. Her cavalier tapped her on the back. Gideon grinned, apparently appreciating that the Second found juvenile humor in poor word choices.

“Not like that,” Teacher said, hardly missing a beat. Magnus the Fifth erupted with a hearty guffaw, which sent the Seventh into giggles. All of these people seemed to be having so much fun.

Harrow turned to glare at her cavalier.

Ortus shook his head. “I’m still not smiling, my Lady.”

“Good.”

“The three Houses that will spend an evening with Her Divine Highness are the Fifth House, the Seventh House, and last but certainly not least, the Ninth House. Congratulations! Congratulations to you all.”

Harrow stiffened in her seat. “That can’t be.” Ianthe Tridenterius was staring at her and Harrow remembered the way her eyes rolled at Harrow in the corridor upstairs.

Teacher said, “Details about your evening will be delivered to your rooms. Her Highness will make her rounds today, so keep an eye out. A special encounter may happen at any time!”

“How can this be?”

“Is it so unexpected, my Lady?’ Aiglamene asked. She seemed suspiciously calm. “After all, you were chosen second at last week’s ceremony.”

“But that’s--the priest said they chose the houses based on those silly surveys. I did not fill out a survey.”

Ortus was trying very hard not to smile again. Aiglamene’s mouth twitched.

Harrow seethed. “What?”

**

Harrow ignored her food, her captain, her cavalier, the cold lingering looks from the Third, and the less cold yet somehow worse lingering looks from the First Reborn’s First Born. She needed to speak with Gideon. She needed to fix this, make sure they understood each other and, more importantly, understood that this could not continue. A strongly worded letter was not enough. This had to be dealt with immediately.

Aiglamene and Ortus rushed away as soon as they finished their meals. Harrow let them go. That fight could wait.

In the corridor, Harrow covered her face with her veil and stood back against a wall, well away from the crowds that still gathered around her Divine Highness, in a location where she could still see Gideon and Gideon could still see her. She waited as the other houses slowly trickled out of the room, heading off in different directions to whatever mundane things they found to fill their days here.

Coronabeth Tridentarius waited until she was standing directly in front of Harrow before she turned to her cavalier and said, “I am, without a doubt, falling head over heels in love with Her Highness.” She said it loud enough for everyone in her vicinity to hear, confirming to all that the statement was meant to be read as a territorial claim.

“Who would blame you,” Naberius the Third returned, with a disgusting little laugh.

Ianthe looked directly at Harrow and said, “You’re lucky, sister, that the other houses failed to send adequate competition.”

The Third was very obviously reeling from the events of the last two days. First they were surpassed by the Ninth in a key ceremony--coming in third was an insult to the Third--and before they had a chance to recover from this blow, they were denied an evening of intimate connection with her Divine Highness. What an awful week it must be for the Third.

Eventually the crowd diminished and Gideon emerged from the dining hall to stand before Harrow, tall and smiling.

“Morning,” she said, with a duck of her head.

“It’s a terrible morning,” Harrow corrected from behind her veil. “Which is why I need to speak with you right away.”

Gideon paused at that. “What happened?”

“What happened?” Harrow repeated, incredulous that Her Divine Highness did not understand exactly why the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House was standing before her in distressed frustration. “Where do I start? All right, how about this: you chose me second.”

The corner of Gideon’s mouth twitched. Her eyebrows furrowed, just slightly. She crossed her arms across her chest. Her shirt was pushed up to her elbows and even through the veil, Harrow could see how the light caught on the pale hair on her forearms. In the light, the hair on her arms looked less the color of the hair on her head, and more the blond of the Tridentarius twins.

“I don’t--that’s all?”

“You can’t choose me second.”

“Why not?”

“Did you hit your head on your way out of bed this morning?” Harrow snapped. “You can’t choose me second because people will talk. They’re talking already.”

“Let them talk, who cares?”

In that moment Harrow was sure that it was one of the most infuriating conversations she’d ever had, topped only by the fight with her parents that sent Harrow to the First. “Your Highness, people will say that I am--that we have been inappropriate behind closed doors and out of the public eye.” She heard Ianthe’s judgement on replay as she spoke these words.

Gideon laughed. “It’s Gideon. And also, come on, I don’t see why they would think that.”

Gideon was dense. An imbecile. No wonder God had locked her in a tower with a bunch of batty old priests.

“Your Highness--Gideon--why else would you choose a black vestal from the Ninth?”

Gideon shrugged. “I can think of several reasons.”

“Name them,” Harrow challenged.

“Have dinner with me and I will.”

“I don’t like dinner,” Harrow said, immediately. “That reminds me! I never filled out your questionnaire, which means by your own rules you must choose another house.”

“Yes, you did,” Gideon said.

“I certainly did not. I burned the thing.”

“Harsh,” Gideon said. “Well, then the Ninth did. Your captain and your cavalier did.”

Harrow froze. “They did what?” She’d suspected, of course. She’d seen their faces. She’d watched them rush away from her--as much as Aiglamene or Ortus could rush. She hadn’t expected that Gideon--”You were involved?”

“Not directly,” Gideon said. “I knew Teacher had delivered another survey to your quarters. When it was returned and all the questions were answered, I guessed it probably wasn’t you, so I assumed--Ortus the Ninth always has a pen in his hand. Captain Aiglamene looks like she’d rather hold something else, if you know what I mean.”

“I’m sure I don’t,” Harrow said, slightly aghast at the thought that Her Divine Highness would voice such an innuendo about a woman as old and accomplished as Aiglamene.

“A sword. I meant she’d rather hold a sword. Ortus looks like he’d do anything to avoid holding his own sword.” She paused. “You know what I mean.”

“I don’t,” Harrow said again, more than slightly aghast that Gideon could have meant anything other than his rapier.

“Do you want to read what he wrote?”

Harrow squeezed her eyes shut. She did. She also really didn’t.

“I don’t.” She paused a beat, reconsidered, and said, “Just tell me the very worst of it.”

“I’m not sure what you’d consider the worst of it, but if I had to guess, it was probably the very flattering things you had to say about me,” Gideon said. “A real way with words. You think my hair ‘burns with the rays of Dominicus?’ It goes on to say things like, ‘I see you and I am lit.’ Really beautiful stuff, but also, an awful lot of words just to say you think I’m hot.”

Harrow’s entire body was screaming. Ortus. “I never said you were hot.”

“I know.”

There was a sound at the end of the corridor and Gideon looked up, turned toward the noise so Harrow was left staring at the long line of her neck, the shorn hair behind her ear. Gideon had a small scar there, a short line where no hair grew.

Harrow cleared her throat and turned to look at their intruder.

It was Teacher standing at the end of the corridor. He waved when he saw that she’d noticed.

“Reverend Daughter, always a pleasure!” he said, his voice loud. “If I might steal Her Highness away for her morning meetings?”

“Anyway,” Gideon said with a sigh. “Dinner’s just how it’s going to read on the paper. We can do something else. I have an idea for something else.”

This time, Harrow felt fairly certain that Gideon’s idea for something else involved Harrow raising a bunch of constructs so that Gideon could fight them. That was fine. It was a better idea than dinner. It would involve some bleeding, but blessedly little opportunity for flirting.

“If I attend, you’ll tell me what you meant when you said you had an idea that would change my mind about all of this,” Harrow said, and then before Gideon could counter: “It isn’t a request. It’s a prerequisite. I will attend on the condition that you stop playing with me and tell me why you think you have information that would make me want to stay.”

Gideon bowed to Harrow, one hand against her stomach, the other behind her. She looked up at Harrow and flashed that brilliant, infectious, and completely frustrating smile. “Done.”

Harrow watched as Gideon strode off toward Teacher, with long legs and clomping boots, a hint of a swagger to her step. Ridiculous.

Harrow had a meeting of her own to attend.

**

“Her hair burns with the rays of Dominicus, Ortus? I see her and I am lit? This is the epic love poem you started writing, isn’t it? I should kill you for this. I should kill you both!”

She was standing in the center of the main room and she was flanked by skeletons, four on either side. The one furthest to her left took two steps toward Ortus. Her cavalier flinched and took a stumbling step back, then one more step, closer to Aiglamene.

“I’m sorry, my Lady Harrowhark,” Ortus said, in a tone that sounded to Harrow like he’d rehearsed for this moment. “It was for the good of the House.”

“I’ll show you ‘the good of the House.’” Harrow said. She wasn’t even sure what she meant by that. It didn’t matter, it pushed some kind of button, because Aiglamene drew her sword.

“All right. Very dramatic,” Aiglamene said. “You sound enough like one of Ortus’s characters to make his words seem believable. Put the constructs away.”

“Her Divine Highness knew that it wasn’t written with my hand. No one here would believe I’d ever write such a drivel.”

“No one here knows the first thing about you,” Aiglamene said.

Ortus’s face went red. He found an ounce of courage somewhere within himself and stepped toward Harrow. “Drivel! Go on, my Lady. Say that again. I’ll show you drivel.”

Aiglamene held out a hand to still Ortus. She turned to Harrow.

“The questionnaire was completed, and because the questionnaire was completed, you were chosen for a one-on-one date with Her Divine Highness,” Aiglamene explained. She said it all very slowly as though speaking to a very small and very stupid child. Harrow pulled up two more constructs. Aiglamene did not flinch or even look at them. Aiglamene had never felt threatened by any of Harrow’s armies before, why start now?

“Mission accomplished,” Aiglamene finished.

“I am not the Ninth’s whore,” Harrow said, and as soon as it was out of her mouth she felt exactly like the very small and very stupid child Aiglamene was addressing. She pushed the feeling aside and forged ahead. “I will not be sold off to the highest bidder.”

“No one expects to earn a cent for you.” Aiglamene’s words were far more harsh than they needed to be. “It’s the Ninth House doing the bidding, and the House will spend what little it has to ensure we have the highest bid.”

Harrow laughed. As though the Ninth House could ever outbid the Third or the Fifth.

“It isn’t personal, my Lady,” Aiglamene concluded. “We’ve all received our orders.”

Harrow imagined her constructs rushing Aiglamene, imagined them pulling Aiglamene and Ortus down to the floor, holding them there with skeletal hands and skeletal feet. She imagined pressing her boot to Aiglamene’s wrist until the captain’s sword fell from her hand and clattered to the floor.

She didn’t do it. She didn’t pull constructs from Aiglamene’s toe bones or rip up Ortus’s journals.

She didn’t do it, because when it came down to it, they were right. They were doing exactly what they’d been instructed to do. Harrow was here to flirt and to win and the fact that Harrow was unwilling or unable to complete the task at hand did not change the nature of their orders. It did not change their goal.

Forty-five souls for the Ninth was not enough, but it had to be enough. Harrow had to make sure that it was enough. She could not manage more.

She released the constructs and they clattered to the floor.

**

That night Harrow slept in the library.

Correction: That night Harrow tried to sleep in the library.

She pulled one of the dusty old armchairs into a secluded corner and had just dozed off when Lady Abigail Pent appeared to turn on the lights.

“Oh!” Abigail said. She held a stack of books and she dropped them on the nearest table with a heavy thump. “Apologies, I didn’t realize anyone was here.”

Harrow shifted in the chair, lifted the book she’d deliberately set in her lap. “I fell asleep while reading.”

“Happens to the best of us.” Abigail leaned forward to read the title of Harrow’s book. “Oh! Marriage traditions of the Eighth House. Interesting choice.”

Harrow snapped the book shut and shoved it against the arm of the chair. She hadn’t read a single word of the text. She knew almost nothing about the marriage traditions of the Eighth, but she said:. “It is, actually. Though perhaps not as interesting as the marriage traditions of the Fifth.”

Abigail smiled like she had heard this line before. “Ah, you mean a necromancer marrying her cavalier. It really throws people into a tizzy, doesn’t it?”

“Of course. It would,” Harrow said. It was perverse. She bit down on her tongue before she said that part out loud.

“It happened the other way around, actually,” Abigail explained. “Marriage first, cavalier second, but it could have happened either way, I suppose. I think we would have ended up in the exact same place.”

Harrow didn’t know what to say to that. She had nothing good to say to that. She kept her mouth shut.

“Is it unheard of on the Ninth?” Lady Abigail asked. “I thought, given the diminished population following that unfortunate outbreak of crèche flu that--well.”

That the Ninth couldn’t afford to be so picky? That Harrow’s parents would demand that she either marry her cavalier or compete in a marriage competition for the hand of Her Divine Highness?

“Unheard of,” Harrow confirmed. She shoved her book back onto the shelf, abandoned the library to Abigail Pent, and returned to her rooms. She found Aiglamene sitting up at the large table, sipping a cup of water, her skeletal leg stretched out to one side.

“Good night,” Harrow said. Her plan was to cross the room without another word, shutting herself into the bedroom, where she’d still have to deal with Ortus’s snoring, but that would drown out Aiglamene’s reprimands.

Aiglamene stopped her passage with a hand on her arm.

“The invitation arrived,” she said, and nodded toward a thick square of paper set out on the table.

Harrow moved toward the paper and read the text. An intimate dinner with Her Divine Highness, two days from now, with directions to a terrace on one of the upper levels. Two days from now. Gideon must have scheduled their date for last.

“It’s a ridiculous scheme they’ve got going here,” Aiglamene said, her voice low. “We all understand that. It’s humiliating, but it is a chance for you. Probably the best chance you’ll get. You can return with a few souls and you’re right, that’ll buy you a couple more years, but the House will push for an heir. The Ninth needs an heir.”

“You really want me to do this,” Harrow said. It was the first time that Aiglamene had personalized the conversation, the first time it was more than just the orders she’d received.

Aiglamene shrugged. “It’s your choice. But you know and I know that if you don’t come out of this with a wife, you’ll end up married to your cavalier. Her Divine Highness has an agreeable enough personality, she’s easy on the eyes, and she’s the daughter of the King Undying. It’s your choice, but if you ask me, she’s someone to consider despite these silly circumstances.”

Harrow tapped her fingers against the table. She’d never thought much about the course of Aiglamene’s life, but she thought about it now. She wondered who Aiglamene had loved and lost, who she’d left behind to return to the Ninth. It didn’t matter. Harrow would never ask.

“I could look for a…” she trailed off when she realized that her suggestion--to look for a suitable match in another House--would make the Ninth an appendage of that House. It could not happen, would never be allowed. “There must be another way.”

“If the Ninth believed in the Third’s brand of fairy tale, you could hope for an influx of young visitors, pilgrims to the Ninth.”

Harrow shook her head. No one had looked to join the ranks of the Ninth since before Harrow was born. They made their pilgrimage, they stopped to gawp and gape, to watch the nuns pray to the Tomb, and then they left without a backward glance. An entire generation wiped out by a mysterious flu that no one could explain or promise to prevent could do that.

“I’ll find another way,” Harrow insisted. Aiglamene might be right. Harrow still couldn’t do it. She had to believe there was another way.

Aiglamene nodded her head, took another sip of her water. “I trust that you will, my Lady. I will leave you to your plans.”

“Thank you,” Harrow said, happy to stop butting heads with her captain. She slipped the invitation into the pocket of her robe and retreated to the bedroom, shutting the door softly behind her. Ortus was a large lump on the cot at the base of her bed. He didn’t stir when she entered and his snores rumbled through the room.

She moved into the room until she was standing beside him, until she could see his slack face. His hair was turning gray at the temples. It was a relatively new development, a change she only noticed after her parents put forth the subject of marriage. It had instantly aged him. Or perhaps it had simply reminded Harrow of his age.

In the morning she would apologize to her cavalier. In the morning she would assure him that they would never marry each other, that she would do everything in her power to make sure that it never happened, that he was safe from that fate.

In the morning, she would show him the laboratories. She would find out what was destroying her constructs.

**

The next few days passed in a blur of destroyed skeletons, in several arguments with Ortus (who succeeded in identifying the enormous construct that was destroying Harrow’s skeletons, but had completely failed at making some necessary observation that Harrow needed to destroy it). When, in an interesting turn of events, Ortus started disappearing before dawn in an attempt to avoid his necromancer, Harrow occupied herself with other things, with a second examination of the Lyctor study, with wandering the halls and completing a recount of the locked doors. She saw a lot of the Fifth (who practically lived in the library) and the Sixth (who practically lived in the laboratories below the hatch), and occasional glimpses of the others. Coronabeth Tridentarius swimming laps with her cavalier. Palamedes Sextus and Camilla the Sixth laughing on a courtyard terrace with Dulcinea Septimus and Protesilaus the Seventh. Abigail Pent bent over an increasingly massive stack of books. Gideon laughing with Magnus the Fifth and Marta the Second, her head thrown back, her hand pressed tight against her stomach. Ortus staring out at the sea on a tucked away terrace, scribbling furiously on a piece of flimsy and glancing over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t found.

The night of her date with Gideon arrived sooner than expected. Ortus reappeared from one of his many hiding places just in time to suggest that Harrow dress in the robes she’d worn the night of the commencement ball. She pulled the lace veil down over her eyes and didn’t fight when Aiglamene stepped in and pinned it back on her hood.

“It’s no use if she can’t see your face,” Aiglamene reminded her. There was a note of kindness in her voice now that Harrow had never heard there before. It was strangely comforting to feel like they were on the same side. Harrow wondered how long it could last.

Ortus walked beside her as she traversed Canaan House, climbing the endless stairs toward the upper floors. She memorized the path to the terrace earlier in the week and did not need the escort, but Ortus was adamant. When they arrived at the exit that led to the terrace, Ortus stood beside her in the corridor and looked at her with big black-ringed eyes. She stiffened, suddenly afraid he might try to hug her. He’d turned this into a much more momentous occasion than it actually was. All of his hopes seemed to be riding on this night.

Harrow resisted the urge to lash out.

Ortus resisted the urge to hug her.

Instead Ortus nodded his head in approval and said, “Good luck, my Lady,” in a tone that did nothing but remind Harrow that she held both of their fates in her hands, that he was counting on her to save him from imminent marriage to the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House.

“Thank you,” Harrow said, despite herself.

She approached the door and two skeletal constructs rushed to open it for her. She stepped out onto the terrace. It appeared to be one of the more stable Canaan House terraces and a small table was set at its center. Candles burned along the edges where the stones were slowly crumbling into the sea.

She’d arrived early, and she made her way to the table. She was about to sit down when the skeletons clamored to open the door and Her Divine Highness stepped outside. Gideon wore white trousers--for residents of a dusty crumbling old tower, the First wore an awful lot of white--and a dark shirt that she’d rolled up at the sleeves and unbuttoned at the neck, like a deconstructed version of the suit she’d worn to the commencement ball. She looked like she’d started the evening with more clothes, but they’d been removed somewhere along the way until she arrived here, disheveled, a little ruffled. It was an attractive look, even Harrow could admit that..

“You’re here,” Gideon said, by way of greeting. She pushed at her sleeves again, a nervous habit, and when she approached Harrow, it was with hands out, as though she expected to take Harrow’s hands in her own.

Harrow kept her arms hidden within her robes, but she nodded at Gideon and said, “We had a deal, did we not?”

“We did,” Gideon agreed. She gave up on the hand-holding and stepped behind Harrow, pulled out a chair and gestured for Harrow to sit down. “We did, and I’m going to get to that. There are just a few things that we have to get out of the way first.”

Once Harrow was seated, Gideon stepped away to speak with the constructs. Harrow had never seen anyone converse with constructs before and she wondered whether this was some strange nervous act--Gideon stepping aside to psyche herself up under the pretense of giving instruction--or if Harrow needed to look more closely at the First’s skeletal servants.

Eventually Gideon returned to the table and the two skeletons disappeared into the tower.

“Okay,” Gideon said. “They’re going to bring the food and then we’re on our own and we can talk.”

“You were speaking to them?” Harrow asked.

“Yeah,” Gideon said. “Of course.”

Harrow stared at the spot where the skeletons had disappeared. “But they can’t understand. They’re constructs.”

“They understand well enough,” Gideon said. “They aren’t really constructs. They are and they aren’t. I don’t know the specifics.”

It was a frustrating response. Harrow needed more. She’d been distracted, preoccupied by other things, she hadn’t--she made a note to speak with Sextus about this. She’d have to be quick about it. He didn’t have much time left.

The skeletons returned with plates of food, which they set on the table. They lingered there until Gideon nodded and then they turned and disappeared back through the doors. They really were extraordinary.

“What is this?” Harrow asked. The soup she recognized. The beige pile of shapes on a plate she did not.

“That’s the same seaweed soup we have all the time,” Gideon said, pointing at the bowl, “but I saw you like it watered down so it’s less salty. I had them dilute it for you. That’s--well, it’s just pasta. You haven’t had it? There’s a sauce, but I didn’t think you’d want it, so it’s in this bowl if you decide you do.” She lifted the lid on a bowl to show Harrow it’s bright red contents.

“Oh,” Harrow said. She was surprised by the soup, surprised that Gideon had noticed.

Gideon was watching her with those extraordinary gold eyes, but when Harrow carefully picked up her fork, Gideon looked toward her own plate and began eating her soup. Harrow was grateful for that. She wasn’t very hungry, wasn’t sure that she would like pasta, and didn’t want to try it while Gideon watched.

She speared a slippery white-ish chunk on her fork and brought it to her mouth. There was something on it, salt and some kind of oil, but not too much salt or too much oil. She chewed it slowly, contemplating its texture.

Gideon did not ask her how it was. Harrow did not offer her opinion.

It wasn’t bad. It was fine. She picked at it for a few minutes, and then stopped to watch Gideon eat instead. Before they left Drearburh, Harrow imagined how this would go. She imagined sitting across from some faceless necromancer, the powerful and unknowable daughter of God. She imagined tests of her skill, competitions to prove which House had produced a necromancer worthy of the second greatest necromancer in the Nine Houses.

She hadn’t imagined anything like this.

“Forgive me if this is too forward, Your Highness--”(“Gideon,” Gideon interjected.)”--but, am I correct in assuming you aren’t an adept?” Harrow asked. It was very strange, incomprehensible, really, that the daughter of the Emperor Undying would not present as a necromancer. Harrow couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“That’s right,” Gideon said. She shrugged, seemed just slightly uncomfortable with the question, but she buried that immediately and the edge of discomfort disappeared from her posture.

“It’s funny how that works, isn’t it?” Harrow asked. She had more questions. She had lots of questions, such as, why did God fail where her parents succeeded? Wouldn’t God want his child to be a necromancer? What was the point of the Emperor Undying having a daughter with no power? Was there any proof that this woman actually did share the Emperor’s blood? And if she was the Emperor’s daughter and was not an adept, why lock her up here? What were they afraid of? Why wasn’t she in the Cohort climbing the ranks like Aiglamene had said?

Harrow obviously didn’t ask any of these questions. The one she had asked was bad enough. She did have some tact.

“Funny,” Gideon agreed, though she didn’t look like she thought it was all that funny really. She leaned in toward Harrow. Harrow held her breath. “Are you ready to discuss, you know, the thing?”

“Beyond.”

Gideon smiled, but it seemed tentative, a little shy. Harrow hadn’t seen that smile before. “Okay, so here goes. What if I told you that I wanted you to win this?”

Harrow laughed, a short unexpected little bark. She covered her mouth with her hand.

“I’ve heard the rumors about your House. The Ninth needs an injection of Undying Lord into its line more than anyone else here.”

What the--Her Divine Highness was a pervert.

“No, thank you!” Harrow said, immediately. She dropped her napkin over the plate of pasta and stood to leave.

“Reverend Daughter,” Gideon said. She caught Harrow’s hand in hers. Harrow shook her hand free. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have--”

“Divine Highness,” Harrow said, clearing her throat. “The Ninth cannot compete on the grounds of beauty or wealth or--or interest!”

“Then why did you come?” Gideon asked. It was the look on her face that stopped Harrow from stalking off. Despite her words, she didn’t appear arrogant here. She didn’t look smug or knowing or superior. Her forehead was furrowed with concern at Harrow’s rejection. The hand that had stopped Harrow sat curled against her knee. Her other hand scratched at her wrist. Her eyes never left Harrow, so when Harrow stopped staring down at her hands and looked back at Gideon’s face, it lit up, just a little, the creases in her forehead settling out, her mouth just a little slack.

Harrow sat back down. She was loathe to admit it. She had to admit it. “I need souls. I need enough souls to kickstart a generation.”

“And you thought the fifteen soul consolation prize would be enough?” Gideon asked. “Don’t answer that. I can already tell it’s going to involve some colorful names so I’ll just get to the point, which is that I wasn’t kidding last week. I have an idea and I really think you might like it.”

“What is it?” Harrow asked. “You’ve kept me waiting long enough.”

“Okay, here goes: We pretend we’re in love.”

“No,” Harrow said, immediately, unwilling to give it even a moment’s consideration. Then she did consider it, and she started to laugh. It wasn’t an attractive laugh, it was sad and it was mean and when she got herself back under control again, she said, “No,” once more for good measure.

Gideon was not deterred. She just leaned closer and forged on.

“It’s perfect. I choose you, we get married, you get your souls, we can have a kid if you need it, and then I’m out.”

We can have a kid if you need it. “We can have a kid if I need it?!”

“That’s part of the deal. Their home shall be my home, blessed by the Lord Undying and imbued by his seed--by his seed he means me. You get that, right? It’s fucking gross. Our union will rejuvenate the House line, etcetera etcetera. It’s pretty freaky and so fucking obvious he never expected to have a kid and had to scramble to figure out what to do with me.” Here Gideon shrugged.

Harrow wasn’t sure what to say to this. She hadn’t expected Her Divine Highness to be so coarse. She’d never heard anyone speak so casually about the Emperor. She settled on the logistical questions, as these seemed the most pressing.

“Are you giving birth to the child? Is the First providing the reproductive technology required for you and I to produce an heir together, because the Ninth does not have the means.”

“Yes,” Gideon said. “Yes, of course. That has to be part of the deal. Except that first part. I’m not giving birth.”

“Me neither,” Harrow said in a rush, hardly thinking about the implications.

“Okay, so that’s settled.” It wasn’t, unless by settled Gideon meant that that technology would be provided to the Ninth as well.

Gideon continued: “Listen, I have failed to get myself off this rock eighty-seven times, so far. If you come up with a better plan, please let me know. Right now I’m banking on marrying the least offensive person here, whoever doesn’t mind me doing the bare minimum to produce an heir with some exciting blood connections and spend the rest of my time off-world finally living a life I choose. Good bye Nine Houses and fuck you.”

This additional insight into Gideon’s plans was surprising--eighty-seven escape attempts!--but it relaxed Harrow. What Gideon was suggesting was a marriage in name only--that could spare Harrow and benefit the Ninth. And in truth, she was still hung up on Gideon’s easy response to Harrow’s statement that she would not give birth. That was a thrilling thought. It was the first time that Harrow had ever allowed herself the freedom to say it out loud, that she would not choose to give birth. She’d been raised with the assumption that one day she would follow in the footsteps of her mother. She would provide the Ninth with an heir by whatever means necessary, and with the limited resources of her House, she would necessarily be expected to carry the child herself. To have a choice in the course of her life--that was exhilarating. That was not something she considered when she arrived here.

Gideon shifted in her seat and Harrow realized it had been some time since she had spoken. Before she could decide what to say, Gideon filled the silence and started speaking again.

“So this is the part you probably won’t like, because the thing is, I can’t be that obvious, so whoever wins this thing, it has to seem like--it has to seem like it makes sense. And for it to make sense, I need you to start participating, because look, I know what I said before, but I said that when I still thought I could pull this off with someone else. I can’t pretend I’m falling for the Sixth, no one would believe that. The Fifth is just--the whole thing is a little too weird for me. The Second, the Third, and the Seventh are actually in this, like really taking this seriously, so if I marry one of them, I’m stuck on the Third, the Second, or the Seventh, which is a huge upgrade from here, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not what I’m after.”

“You want freedom,” Harrow said.

“Don’t you?”

“No,” Harrow said, and it tasted like a lie. “I want to replenish my House, pull it back from the brink of disaster.”

Gideon contemplated that for a long moment and then said, “If you succeed, then isn’t that the same thing?”

The Ninth House replenished, Harrow’s future secured with a spouse who would allow her to make her own choices, a spouse who would not demand or expect something that Harrow was not inclined to give. It did sound an awful lot like the same thing.

“Who do you need to convince?” Harrow asked. “The other houses?”

“Teacher,” Gideon said. “The other priests. The skeletons.” (The skeletons.) “Good old Dad, if he’s watching or listening or who the fuck even knows anymore. At the very least he’s getting nightly reports from Teacher.”

“Okay,” Harrow said, because she wasn’t sure what else to say.

Gideon leaned in, reached out like she might try to take Harrow’s hand again. Harrow must have flinched because Gideon pulled back at the last moment and let her hand fall onto the table beside Harrow’s, close enough that Harrow could almost feel her fingers without their hands actually touching. Harrow resisted the urge to pull her hand away. If she was going to agree to this--and she was starting to think that she might--she needed to make sure that she could follow through.

Gideon said: “I have actually thought about this, I’m not just throwing shit at the wall to see what’s going to stick. I really think we’d be good for each other. Not like...in a married with babies way. I think that we have complementary goals and we should take advantage of that. The Ninth needs souls and eventually you’re going to need an heir, right? I’ve got a whole lotta souls just waiting to go to the last House standing. I can give you an heir--we don’t have to dwell on the details. We can work that out. And you don’t actually want me as a wife, which is perfect, because it means you won’t mind if I don’t stick around.”

“This is cheating,” Harrow said, and she honestly couldn’t believe that this was the aspect of it all that she was suddenly stuck on.

“No, it’s not. I’m choosing the Ninth, that’s not cheating. I’m just telling you that before I’m supposed to so you stop freaking out every time I hand you a key.”

“What if you change your mind?” Harrow had a hard time imagining a scenario in which Gideon would not change her mind. She would wake up one morning and she would see Harrowhark Nonagesimus standing between Judith Deuteros and Coronabeth Tridentarius and she would realize she’d made a huge mistake, that she could have her pick of anyone, and living permanently on the Third or the Second was leagues better than spending even a single day on the Ninth.

“I won’t,” Gideon said.

“But what if you do?” Harrow pressed.

“If I do, we’ll talk about it,” Gideon said. “You might change your mind too, and if you do, we’ll talk about it. Even if one of us changes our mind, what’s the worst case scenario here? Worst case you stay here a little longer, and you still go home better off than you would have if you’d gone the first week, right?”

She made it sound so logical, but thinking about it and doing it were two different things. What Gideon proposed required Harrow to do the one thing she promised herself she would not do upon her arrival. It required her to stand in front of the other houses at Her Divine Highness’s side and proclaim that she was in this race, that she believed she had the means to attract this woman to herself and her House. It required her to seem charming, to play along. Harrow had serious doubts she was physically capable of pulling this off. As it was, her heart fluttered and her hands shook a little at just the proximity of Gideon’s hand to her own. And that was with no one there to witness. How could she manage this in a crowd?

“I don’t know if I can do it,” Harrow admitted.

“You can’t pretend to like me?”

“I can’t transform myself into a Princess of Ida,” Harrow said. “I can’t do what she does. I can’t be a person you might convincingly be attracted to. I cannot compete with my face or my physical attributes. I can’t compete with a uniform or a sword. I have nothing to offer and if I can’t believe it’s possible, how would anyone else?”

Gideon whistled. “Okay, that’s a whole lot of--I’m not sure what to say to any of that right now except that you’re wrong, but this doesn’t sound like something I’m going to be able to convince you of in one night, so maybe just… let me do the work? You be you, but a more there you, and I’ll do the rest.”

That sounded terrifying, almost worse than the thought of acting as someone other than herself. But. Five hundred souls. The thought that she could actually return to the Ninth with five hundred had seemed unimaginable before, so far out of the realm of possibility that it wasn’t worth serious contemplation, but Gideon sat here now and told her that it could be done, that it was the outcome that Her Divine Highness wanted and that she would help Harrow to achieve that for her House. It was--

It was absolutely cheating. It was not at all how this was supposed to go.

But the decision was Gideon’s to make.

“I need time to think about this,” Harrow said.

“Yeah, of course. We’ve got some time.” She said it casually, but Harrow understood that Gideon would need to plan accordingly. If Harrow could not do this, she had to give Gideon enough time to determine an alternate course of action.

“I do have one more question,” Gideon said. “Do you have the hots for the Third? You bring them up a lot.”

Harrow squeezed her eyes shut. “I think I might actually hate you.”

Gideon laughed. “As long as you hate me so much you’ll marry me and then agree to hardly ever see me again, then I’m good. Also I’m calling that a yes.” She leaned in, still smiling, all collarbone and muscled forearms. If she leaned over any further her gaping shirt would fall into the red mess on her plate. “So I was thinking…”

“Yes,” Harrow said. She couldn’t help it. She rolled her eyes and clarified. “Wait, I’m sorry, an emphatic no to the Third. Yes, I’ll raise some constructs for you.”

Gideon flopped back against her seat, a triumphant smile on her face. “Finally,” she moaned. Her head fell back, face up toward the sky, that long neck once again on display.

Harrow looked away. “Here?” she asked.

Gideon was out of her seat in seconds. “Here’s good. I actually--” she held up a hand as she walked to a corner of the terrace. She pulled her sword out from behind a row of potted plants. “I came prepared.”

It should be a little strange, Harrow’s date pulling a giant sword from its hiding place, but then, Harrow had come armed with pockets full of bone chips. Gideon pulled the table and chairs away from the center of the terrace, circled the area, kicking away loose cobbles, and then she returned to Harrow’s side.

“I really want you to lay it on me,” Gideon said, the excitement clear on her face. She was breathing a little heavy with the anticipation of it all. “How many can you hold at once? Ten?”

“Ten? You insult me.”

“Twenty?” Gideon amended, and then at the look on Harrow’s face, she amended again. “Twenty-five?”

Harrow wrapped her hand around a fistful of bone. She smiled. “You really have no idea what you’re getting into.”

**

Harrow wiped blood from her face and watched as the last of her skeletons fell apart beneath Gideon’s blade. She swayed on her feet and knew it was time to sit down.

Gideon, thankfully, did not call out for more. Instead she stumbled toward Harrow, found an area of the terrace that was not absolutely littered with chunks of bone, and collapsed heavily onto her back, her sword at her side, her chest heaving with the effort of the fight.

“That was fucking amazing,” Gideon gasped, and if Harrow could speak without feeling like she might faint, she’d likely agree. She’d lost count of the constructs around sixty. She’d fought with everything she had--to a point--had pulled back only when she thought she might do real or lasting damage. Gideon might be desperate for a challenge, but Harrow refused to be responsible for knocking out Her Divine Highness’s teeth or breaking her bones. She did not need Gideon to wake up bruised and battered, to have the other houses looking at her for answers. She could only imagine what they might think.

That said--Gideon was extremely skilled with a sword. She really was astonishingly good.

“You should be in the Cohort,” Harrow said as she surveyed Gideon’s work, the destruction of bone.

“So should you,” Gideon said.

Harrow looked down at Gideon, at the sweat that sparkled on her skin in the candlelight, the mess of red hair, the movement of her chest and her stomach as she took in big gulps of air. A drop of blood fell from somewhere on Harrow’s face and landed on the shining skin of Gideon’s arm. Gideon wiped it against her trousers, a smear of red on white.

“I’d like to ask something of you,” Harrow said. If Gideon agreed to this, Harrow would tell Ortus immediately. It wasn’t a betrayal or a rejection. It was a release. It was just that--“I need help from someone who… likes to hold their own sword.”

Gideon grinned up at Harrow. “You’ve come to the right place.”

Harrow folded down onto her knees beside Gideon. She kept her voice low as she explained about the facility, the laboratories, the construct that destroyed every skeleton that she threw at it. She explained that she’d rather not kill her cavalier, and that her captain might be able to handle it, but it didn’t feel right to ask. Gideon held up a hand at that point.

“I’ll do it,” she said. “I’m in.”

“Really?”

“Of course. Fuck, I should have tried much harder to pick that lock.”

Harrow froze. “You pick locks? Have you picked other locks in Canaan House?”

Gideon shrugged. “Sure. What else am I going to do? Break into locked rooms, fight every single skeleton--literally every. Single. Skeleton. I’ve dueled Teacher, the TA, the RA--TA is Teacher’s Assistant. RA is the Canaan House Residential Assistant. They’re the other priests. Anyway, I built a boat once, tried to get out that way. You know what’s out there? Bone sharks. All in all I’ve tried to get out of here...eight-six times?”

“Eighty-seven,” Harrow corrected. “You said eighty-seven earlier.”

“Eighty-seven,” Gideon agreed with a nod. Then she smiled and shook her head. She looked like she wanted to say something--probably a comment about the fact that Harrow had been listening, as though that meant anything at all--but she thought better of it and just kept smiling instead. The smiling was bad enough, but the lock picking--

“I’ll marry you,” Harrow said in a rush. “I’ll play along and I’ll marry you, but I have one condition.”

“Yes,” Gideon said, immediately. “Whatever it is, the answer is yes.”

“I want you to get me into the remaining Lyctor studies,” Harrow said. “I don’t want to wait for a key.”

“That’s cheating,” Gideon said, immediately. Then she corrected. “Just kidding, who cares. You want to be a Lyctor?”

Harrow shrugged. “I can’t say until I know what the process entails. I want to know how it came to be.”

Gideon was no longer smiling. She chewed on her lip lower lip, and then shrugged and said, “Fine, okay.”

“Really?” Harrow asked.

Gideon shrugged again. “Sure. You’re my ticket out of here. Anything for the future Mrs. Divine Highness.”

Harrow’s face twisted. Gideon tried again. “Anything for The Sepulchral Key to my Divine Lock?”

Harrow felt like she might gag. “Worse, gross.”

“Definitely worse,” Gideon agreed, smiling wide, dimples on full display.

**

The night of the ceremony, the Ninth House was called first and Harrow did not freeze. She did stand there and curse in stupefied surprise. She did not glare. She managed to hide how her body shook as she stepped forward with her head high and her eyes on Gideon’s smiling face. She accepted her key.

Ortus gaped.

Aiglamene smiled, and for once it was a smile that looked real.

Harrow returned to them, took her place beside them. Aiglamene nudged her shoulder, just once, gently in a way that might have been mistaken for the captain losing balance on her mismatched legs. Harrow ignored the heat on her face, ignored the rest of the room.

When the Fifth was sent home, Harrow’s eyes found the Sixth and she nodded. Sextus raised his eyebrows in surprise, tilted his head toward his cavalier with a shrug, and nodded back.

Gideon hugged the two halves of the Fifth tightly, even going so far as to lift Abigail Pent off the ground. Before they left, Abigail came up beside Harrow. She leaned in and said, “I’ll miss seeing you in the library, but you see, good things happen when you stop hiding behind stacks of books. Good luck, Reverend Daughter. I’m rooting for you.”

The Fifth necromancer pressed a hand to Harrow’s arm, firm over the layers of black cloth. Her cavalier clapped Ortus on the back hard enough that Ortus stumbled. Magnus the Fifth laughed. Harrow thought she might actually miss that laugh.

“Happy anniversary,” Harrow said, and meant it.

Chapter Text

When Harrow arrived at Canaan House, she thought she understood what Hell was.

She didn’t have to traverse the River to find it. Hell was standing in front of her parents as they threatened to marry her off to her cavalier if she did not accept the First’s invitation. Hell was watching Ortus Nigenad grovel and beg her to save him a lifetime by her side. Hell was arriving at Canaan House and seeing her competition, realizing that she did not have even the slightest chance of winning this, that fifteen souls would never be enough and that she was going to have to marry Ortus despite it all.

That was nothing compared to this.

Hell was being stuck on a boat in an endless sea. It was sitting on a bench between Ianthe Tridentarius and Dulcinea Septimus, so close she could feel Ianthe’s sharp elbow pressing into her side, with nowhere to go to get away from it. Hell was watching Coronabeth Tridentarius flirt with Her Divine Highness and realizing this was what Harrow had signed up for. Hell was remembering that she willingly agreed to take part in this, that in some strange turn of events, she’d decided to do the very thing she promised herself she would not do when she arrived on the First. She was on a boat in the middle of the sea with her veil and her hood and her face paint. Coronabeth basked in the sun, arms and legs exposed, thighs amazingly meaty for a necromancer, strong and robust, and she pressed one of those thighs up against Gideon’s (clothed) leg and Harrow watched Gideon swallow and avert her eyes, watched the flush threaten to creep up her neck. There was no mistaking any of it.

Harrow was competing in a fucking marriage competition.

Gideon’s eyes found Harrow’s and settled on her, like some sort of lifeline, like Harrow was the only thing that might save her from the press of Corona’s attractively thick thigh. Gideon’s eyes were a little too wide, a little too dark considering the inescapable blinding light of the afternoon. They stared at each other for one prolonged moment and then Gideon coughed, cleared her throat and stood to check the fishing poles.

“Anything?” Corona asked. She stood too, of course. She was taller than Gideon, or her hair was taller, it was hard to say for sure.

Beside Harrow, Dulcinea Septimus nudged Harrow’s arm, the one that wasn’t being stabbed by Ianthe’s bony elbow. Harrow jumped, startled.

Dulcinea leaned in, her shoulder pushed up against Harrow’s shoulder, and said: “Can I tell you a secret?” She didn’t wait for Harrow to respond. “I hope she wins this.”

Dulcinea’s secret sounded like a trap. “Oh?”

“Unless you want to win,” Dulcinea said in a rush, “then I’ll change teams. I’ll root for you, but this is the very first time you haven’t run off alone, so I thought--”

“No,” Harrow said. “I simply meant, don’t you want to win?”

Dulcinea considered that. “My House would like to see me married,” she said. “I did come here intending to win. Didn’t we all? But the longer I’m here, the more I think I misjudged myself. The more I think I came for a different reason altogether.”

Harrow turned away. She wasn’t interested in hearing anything more about that, whatever that might be. Dulcinea nudged her again.

“Do you know how to swim, Reverend Daughter?”

There was nowhere for Harrow to move to put space between herself and Dulcinea, so she closed her eyes, steeled herself, and said, “Yes.”

“You do?” Gideon asked, turning to look at them over her shoulder. Beside Harrow, Ianthe sighed. She was wearing a large wide-brimmed hat that hit Harrow in the side of the face when she turned.

“Yes,” Harrow said, matter-of-fact, though she wished she had not responded at all. “We have a pool.”

Ianthe’s hat knocked her in the head and she said, “They do say water aerobics is gentle on old joints.”

Corona laughed. It was a stupid jab. Yes, ha ha, Aiglamene was just so old. Hilarious. The Third probably killed their own at the first appearance of gray hair.

“I don’t know how to swim,” Dulcinea said. She sounded surprisingly cheerful about it. “I’ve never been on a boat.”

Harrow had never been on a boat either, but her parents pushed her into a salt water pool before she learned how to walk. Harrow knew how to swim.

“Pal says you’ve been spending a great deal of time with him in those laboratories.”

Harrow stilled at that. So, notably, did Ianthe. Dulcinea was still smiling. She didn’t seem to have any ulterior motive beyond making small talk to pass the time. Harrow glanced up at Gideon and Coronabeth. They were absorbed in each other again, Corona’s hand coming to rest on Gideon’s arm as she laughed. Harrow realized with not the smallest amount of horror, that Corona was feeling the shifting of Gideon’s biceps as Gideon reeled in the fishing line. Is this what these dates had been like from the start? Get a room!

“Not with him,” Harrow said. She tried her hardest not to show her disgust at the Third’s display. She tried her hardest not to sound defensive.

“Oh, of course. I didn’t think--” Dulcinea laughed and shook her head, swallowed and shrugged.

They’d spent the entire morning fishing--for their dinner, apparently. Harrow wasn’t eating any of it--and early on Dulcinea had run into trouble pulling in a large fish. Gideon helped her, Gideon’s strong arms around Dulcinea, her hands over Dulcinea’s on the fishing pole. When Dulcinea said something ridiculous, something overly complimentary about Gideon’s strength, Her Divine Highness blushed and deflected. Harrow watched it keenly and wondered if that was how she was supposed to act. Corona’s performance now just confirmed it.

Harrow would rather drown. Feed her to the fish. Chum the waters with her meat.

Sending a group of necromancers out on a boat to go fishing was the stupidest idea that Harrow had ever heard. It was clearly designed to display Gideon’s physicality in comparison, to make the rest of them look weak and pathetic. The thing was, Coronabeth Tridentarius was not weak or pathetic. She handled a fishing pole admirably, everyone could see that, and so she had to look for a different way to get Gideon’s hands on her. She decided to be squeamish about the actual fish, though when no one was looking, Harrow saw that Corona could handle a sharp and squirming fish just fine, her hands strong and sure as they slid the fins back and gripped the writhing body of the thing. With Gideon at her side, Corona shrieked as the fish bounced off her jeweled fingers and flopping helplessly across the deck.

This, Harrow realized after the second time it happened, had the added benefit of forcing Gideon to bend over while she laughed and tried to catch the flapping body, her trousers stretching tight over her ass. Everyone on the boat craned their necks to watch. Harrow huffed in disgust and closed her eyes.

She missed the laboratories. She missed the strain of the theorems pulling at her, the hot slide of the blood that dripped from her nose and her ears as she listened to something enormous demolish skeleton after skeleton after skeleton.

She even missed Aiglamene and Ortus, though Ortus was with her in a way. A second boat, captained by a second crew of skeleton servants, was trailing theirs and carrying their cavaliers. Naberius the Third, Protesilaus the Seventh, Ortus the Ninth. It sounded only marginally worse than Harrow’s own situation. Harrow tried to glance back over her shoulder at the other boat, but only managed to hit her eye on the brim of Ianthe’s hat.

Ianthe glared. She reached up and touched her fingers to the brim, then brought them back down to check for paint.

Harrow did not apologize. The boat was still there, not far behind. Behind the boat rose the tower of the First, waves breaking against its stone base like white lace.

Ianthe muttered something about Harrow breathing on her neck. She stood to look at Corona’s (Gideon’s) catch. Most of the time Ianthe seemed terminally uninterested in Her Divine Highness, content to stalk the halls with the Sixth and the Ninth while her sister basked in the sun. Occasionally she decided to get in on the action. Harrow was grateful for Ianthe’s surge of competitive spirit that got her sharp elbows and enormous hat up off the bench and away from Harrow’s bruised arm and battered face. Harrow took the chance to slide away from Dulcinea, to feel open air on both sides. It did not last long. It was only a moment, a few seconds, before Gideon fell heavily onto the bench beside her, rocking the boat just a little with the force of her dive onto the seat.

“Sorry,” she said, shrugging at the startled faces of Ianthe, Coronabeth, and Dulcinea. “Tripped.” She gestured to a loose line at their feet and then turned to Harrow with a smile. “Hi.”

Corona and Ianthe shared a look, Ianthe’s version a little more sour than Corona’s reflection. Dulcinea laughed and said, “Oh my!”

Harrow was too stunned by the whole thing to say much of anything. The whole boat stunk of fish and Gideon was no exception. She wiped her hands on a fish-soaked towel and then tossed it aside.

“You aren’t seasick, are you?”

Harrow cleared her throat and gathered herself. “No, your Highness. I was just wondering whose idea a fishing trip was? It’s very creative.”

“Inspired,” Corona agreed.

“Absolutely pungent,” Ianthe said, as though this was a compliment and not a complaint. It was a correct assessment either way.

Gideon screwed up her nose. “Yeah, it’s maybe not the most--”

“--romantic?” Dulcinea supplied, though by the look on her face as she stared out at the waves, she did seem to find it just a little romantic.

“--romantic,” Gideon said with a nod. “It’s not the most romantic setting. It’s just that there isn’t a whole lot to do on the First. Maybe you’ve noticed.”

“I’ve found a myriad ways to keep myself entertained,” Ianthe said, immediately. “Haven’t you, Reverend Daughter?”

Harrow wasn’t sure if Ianthe’s question pertained to the basement or the Lyctor studies or Ianthe’s shitty comment the prior week about the things Harrow might be doing behind closed doors.

Gideon shifted closer, her thigh pressing up against Harrow’s in a way that had to be intentional, had to be a response to the way Corona had sat beside Gideon not long ago. Harrow shifted back toward Dulcinea’s bony knees. Dominicus was high now and she felt sweat collecting in the small of her back, at the center of her chest. Even the backs of her knees were slippery.

“Your Highness,” Harrow ventured. “Last week you told me about a raft you once built, and I--”

“--this boat?” Corona cut in, immediately. “You built this boat?” That wasn’t at all what Harrow had planned to say. It was a ridiculous question. These boats were relics, ancient fiberglass hulls and real wood finishing.

Gideon laughed, her leg bouncing nervously against Harrow’s. “Not this boat. I built like--well, it was more like a raft?”

“I didn’t think--I did say a raft,” Harrow clarified with a sharp look toward the Third. “Let me finish. What I was going to say was that, when you recounted your story, you mentioned that this sea was full of…was it bone sharks?”

“Bone sharks!” Dulcinea sounded like she might spill over with excitement. “Surely that’s just a fairy tale.”

“Oh, it’s real,” Gideon said. She leaned forward so that she could see Dulcinea past Harrow as she said it. It made Harrow feel boxed in, claustrophobic, though she’d spent her entire life in actual enclosed places without ever feeling a twinge of fear.

“I was hoping we might see one,” Harrow admitted. It was the only part of this entire outing that she was actually anticipating. “And since we haven’t seen one, I was thinking that perhaps you might describe it for us, and I could attempt to construct a reasonable facsimile?” Harrow pulled a handful of bone fragments from her pockets to show Gideon.

Ianthe’s eyebrows shot up, her head tilted a little toward the side. Corona seemed less intrigued. Harrow couldn’t see Dulcinea without turning, but it felt like the woman was vibrating beside Harrow, which Harrow took as either fear or giddy excitement. And then there was Gideon. Gideon was staring back at her, her eyes bright in the afternoon sun. The corner of her mouth twitched once and then Gideon let it go and it stretched into a smile.

“You could do that?”

“Of course,” Harrow said. If Harrow was going to be trapped on a boat and forced to watch the Third and the Seventh flirt, she might as well make it interesting. “And if you’d like, I could have the thing try to jump on board, so you could attack it and save us all while we scream for our lives.” And if they were really lucky, maybe they’d lose the Third to the sea. Dulcinea, Harrow decided, could stay. For now, but only because the Sixth seemed fond of her. And because she’d already announced that she didn’t know how to swim.

Gideon was looking at Harrow like she was a revelation, a complete surprise, and if she didn’t stop it right that instant, Harrow was going to shove her over the side.

“Stop that,” she said, as though they were alone, just the two of them, and it didn’t matter how she spoke to royalty. Gideon didn’t seem to notice. She also didn’t seem to know how to stop that.

Ianthe said, “This is silly. While we’re paying attention to some bone fish, the Ninth is going to stand here and bleed all over everyone’s dinner. Can’t we go a single day without the Reverend Daughter bleeding all over everything?” Harrow knew--had seen it while pressed back into a shadowed corner to avoid detection--that Ianthe Tridentarius did her share of walking the maze of Canaan House with a forehead slick with blood sweat and drops of it staining her beautiful clothes. Ianthe was not as different as she liked to pretend.

Corona said, “Do you have another sword?”

“What would you do with that?” Ianthe asked. She used the same tone she had when she lamented Harrow’s propensity for bleeding, as though she couldn’t imagine anything more disgusting than her sister holding a rapier or a drop of Harrow’s blood on a boat already smeared with fish guts.

“Pro will think we’re being attacked,” Dulcinea said, breathlessly. “They’ll be here with swords drawn in no time.”

Dulcinea’s words just seemed to get Gideon even more into this idea. The skeletal servant standing behind Gideon looked bored.

“Are we going to do this?” Gideon asked, and everything about her screamed yes. She moved to retrieve her sword before anyone had a chance to respond.

“You do have an extra sword?” Corona pressed. Gideon handed her a rapier and Corona’s smile was as bright as Dominicus. “Then yes, let’s do this.”

Ianthe huffed a little, but eventually drawled, “Fine, why not.”

Dulcinea said, “Tell me where I should sit so that I’m completely out of the way, but have a perfect view of everything.” Gideon escorted her to the front of the boat, to a seat beside their bony captain. She surveyed the boat and directed another skeleton to stash the fish (”Nobody wants to bite down on a piece of shark bone.”) and then she huddled close to Harrow, too close, and explained in detail what she remembered of the shark.

Gideon explained it terribly. She described its “big round bone eyes” and a “pointy nose” and “flappy bone hands” and Harrow had never seen a shark before in her life. She hadn’t seen a shark because sharks no longer existed, at least not as far as Harrow knew, and they certainly never existed on the Ninth. There was a drawing in a book she once read, but it was a shark with flesh and not a shark of bone.

“I can’t believe you’re going to do this,” Gideon said. “Actually, I can’t believe you can do this. This thing scared the shit out of me when I was out here alone, but that was--I didn’t even have a real boat. I could barely move without capsizing the raft. This time.” She tightened her grip on her sword.

“I can’t promise it will look good,” Harrow said. “I’m not sure I can do more than create a likeness crafted out of human bone forms, but I will try my best.”

“No, that’s good actually, that sounds terrifying,” Gideon said, passionately. “I can’t wait to fight it.” Here she paused to nudge Harrow, her voice even lower than it had been a moment before. “It can be a warm up for, you know, that thing you need me to take care of downstairs.”

With the way Gideon lowered her eyes as she said this, it took Harrow a long moment of flustered confusion before she realized that that thing you need me to take care of downstairs was not some perverted euphemism. Gideon was referring to whatever it was that kept destroying Harrow’s skeletons in the Canaan House basement.

“Don’t say it like that.”

“Like what?” Gideon asked, but her smile told Harrow that Gideon knew exactly what she’d said.

“Don’t say it at all.” Harrow looked up at the others, but the sea was so loud and Gideon had kept her voice low. Everyone was staring--glaring, really--but it didn’t appear that they had heard.

“Well?” Ianthe asked. She had her arms folded tight over her chest. Harrow fully expected that the Third would spend the rest of their day coming up with some spectacular way to show off their own necromantic acumen. Good, at least things would get more interesting.

“It would help if we had flimsy, so that you could draw the thing,” Harrow said.

Gideon shook her head. “Seriously, whatever. Make it vaguely fish-shaped, but like really big. I’m the only one here who will know if it’s wrong.”

All right, sure. Harrow could do that. She threw a handful of knucklebones overboard and she got to work. The water churned and bubbled. She felt blood welling in her left ear as the theorem pulled at her, as her well of thanergy twisted. Ianthe leaned over the edge to look down in the water, and when her violet eyes grew wider, Harrow knew that she had created something impressive. She added more spines fashioned out of human ribs, and a drop of blood slid from her nose.

Ianthe looked up toward Harrow and her face twisted when she saw Harrow’s focus, saw the blood at the edges of Harrow’s forehead. Harrow licked a drop from the corner of her mouth. Ianthe turned away, but it didn’t matter. Gideon was there, and she reached out, a hand on Harrow’s arm, and she said, “You’re a genius, Nonagesimus,” loud enough for all to hear.

Harrow couldn’t help herself, couldn’t stop the smile that stretched across her face as she took a step back. The construct made its first loop, swimming around their boat, its spines breaking the surface and leaving a wake before disappearing again. Dulcinea gasped and Gideon raised her sword. Ianthe sat down and tried to look bored, but her eyes kept darting back toward the water, giving herself away. Corona was standing close to Harrow and the sound of her breathing was loud enough that Harrow could hear it over the surrounding sea.

The construct made one more pass around the boat, and then it was time.

Harrow sent the construct out toward the boat that held their cavaliers. The construct turned and then swam back, coming at them fast. When it was nearly on them, Harrow pulled the skeletal fish from the water, propelling it onto the deck.

Gideon shouted in unmistakable triumph. Dulcinea shrieked with gleeful abandon.

The construct was huge, assembled using an intersecting array human bone, yes, but Harrow had pushed each one to enormous exaggeration. She was honestly very impressed with herself. She’d never tried to push proportions so far before and the effect, rearranged into the general shape of a sea monster, was unsettling to say the least.

Coronabeth was ready, standing with better form than Ortus had ever assumed, her rapier in hand. Aiglamene might find something to critique there, but she looked perfect in Harrow’s eyes. Gideon, on the other hand, was not concerned with form, didn’t seem interested in looking the part at all. Gideon was just itching for a fight.

Harrow intended to give her one.

The construct flailed, jaw working, sharp teeth snapping. It swiped toward Corona’s legs and Gideon blocked it with her big two-hander, half the jaw shattering beneath steel.

That wouldn’t do. Harrow knew that Gideon probably wasn’t thinking much about Corona in that moment--all of her focus was on the construct, but Her Divine Highness saving Coronabeth Tridentarius from the crazed bone construct of the Ninth was a story neither of them needed. It did not fit with the plan. Harrow pulled the construct away from the Third and pushed it toward Gideon instead. It made sense. Gideon was, after all, the real threat on this boat. Corona was an exhibitionist who’d learned how to hold a rapier to impress, a neat little necromancer’s party trick.

Harrow allowed Gideon to get in one more big blow, shattering bone spines off the monster’s back, and then she propelled it off the boat and back into the water. Once the construct was beneath the waves, she narrowed her focus, tossed more bone over the side and rebuilt those areas that had been destroyed, so that when it breached the surface again, the monster was whole, as impressive as it had been the first time, and the entire boat gasped.

There was shouting from the second boat now, their cavaliers springing into action, fighting their bone captain to bring the boat up close. Harrow didn’t have much time. She went for Gideon with thrashing jaws and flailing fins. Gideon tore into it with her sword, let her momentum carry her into a downward strike that cleaved the shark’s head in two.

Corona jumped back away from the beating tail and knocked into Harrow. Harrow stumbled back against the bench, her legs hitting the edge in a way that gave her no choice but to sit. She made sure the bone tail whipped toward Corona the next time the construct surged up from the sea, this time with only half its head.

By the time the second boat pulled up beside theirs, by the time Protesilaus the Seventh lept aboard, closely followed by a red-faced Naberius the Third, Her Divine Highness had demolished the bone beast, and she stood amidst the wreckage, with sweat on her brow and an enormous smile on her face.

“Are you hurt?” Corona asked, as she turned her back toward Naberius and reached for Gideon. Gideon barely seemed to notice. Her eyes were on Harrow and Harrow alone.

Naberius the Third kicked at a pile of oss and said, “What the hell was that?”

Harrow pushed herself into the corner of the bench she’d fallen onto. She wiped blood from her face, and looked toward the second boat for her cavalier. Ortus stood at the side, flanked by two bone servants. He waved.

“I told them it was you!” he said. “I told them there was nothing to fear.”

“You should have seen it, Babs,” Ianthe drawled. “The Ninth lost control of her construct. If Her Divine Highness hadn’t been there, the Ninth’s ineptitude would have resulted in our dear Corona lost to the sea.”

Everyone, thankfully, ignored her.

Gideon, finally, came back from her post-battle haze and said, “That. Was. Amazing.” She pushed past Corona and Naberius, swept bone aside with her foot and then slid onto the bench beside Harrow. “That was--number one, those were the largest ribs I’ve ever seen outside of, like, books about dinosaurs? And those spines. You’re a fucking genius, you know that?”

“It looked like your shark?” Harrow asked. She felt dizzy. She pressed her hands tight to the edge of the bench.

“It looked nothing like the shark I saw,” Gideon said. “Which is good, because if I’d seen that, I would have pissed my pants immediately. That was--” She released her sword and lifted her hands, fingers splayed like she didn’t have the words for what she was feeling, but didn’t know quite how to physically express it either.

For a moment, Harrow feared that Gideon might try to hug her. She braced for it, her shoulders tense, her hands gripping tight to her seat.

What Gideon did instead was so much worse.

She leaned in and she kissed Harrow on the side of her face, high up near her eye, and when she pulled away, there was a small smear of paint on her mouth, a bit of blood sweat on her lip, and Gideon either did not notice, or she did not care. She didn’t seem to feel it, didn’t try to rub it away. She stood and grabbed Naberius by his shoulders and said, “Did you see that?” and then moved on before the Third could sputter an answer. Harrow wiped her fingers against the side of her head, smeared the paint there in an attempt to cover up the place that Gideon had pressed her lips. She felt like she was on fire, felt like she would combust with embarrassment.

Harrow stared down into the water and wondered if she could swim back to shore. She could at least make it to Ortus and hope he’d pull her out. He’d probably pull her out, though the accidental drowning of the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House would also achieve Ortus’s goal of never being required to marry Harrow. No, he would pull her out. And she may have misjudged earlier. Sharing a boat with Naberius the Third was probably marginally better than this.

Harrow didn’t throw herself overboard. She sat there in her corner while Dulcinea assured Protesilaus the Seventh that she was fine, really, that she’d always been perfectly safe. She sat through the Third’s looks and Gideon’s smiles and eventually the cavaliers jumped back to their own boat and the leftover shark was swept aside. The captain turned their boat back toward the tower.

Harrow did not look up until Gideon sat down beside her again, and then Harrow cleared her throat and said, “Your Highness, I’m glad to see you so pleased.”

Gideon leaned in, smelling of sea and sweat, still a little like fish. It was honestly disgusting, but when she leaned closer, Harrow’s heart skipped with a strange betrayal. Gideon did not try to kiss her again. Instead she said, “Gideon. It’s Gideon.”

Harrow had not heard a single person call Gideon by her first name. Did the others even know it?

“Gideon,” Harrow said, and Harrow saw the way that Corona snapped to attention and realized that she was right. This was the first time for the others, but that couldn’t be right, could it? Gideon had introduced herself by name to Aiglamene at the ball on their very first night, and it hadn’t been a mistake. She’d given Harrow her name again that very night, alone with Harrow on a terrace.

Ianthe’s eyes were on Harrow as though she could hear the familiarity of the name on Harrow’s tongue.

“Gideon,” Corona repeated. She turned to her sister. “What an unusual name. How did the King of the Resurrected Sun choose it?”

“I’m named after a saint,” Gideon said. Corona stood and came to sit beside Gideon, crowding in at the other end of the bench. Gideon pushed in toward Harrow in an attempt to make room. “Gideon the First, his Saint of Duty.”

“You’re named after a Lyctor,” Ianthe said, leaning forward in her seat. Harrow understood the impulse. It was interesting information. It was new.

“Of course she is,” Corona said. “That makes sense, doesn’t it? What better namesake for the daughter of a King, for the daughter of God, than a Saint?”

“It’s fine,” Gideon said. “It’s just a name.”

“It suits you. Gideon.” She said this carefully, like she was tasting it on her tongue, savoring the flavor. When she spoke again she sounded a little breathless, a little--frankly a little turned on. Harrow’s face twisted in disgust before she could stop herself. Only Ianthe seemed to notice, and they both looked away from each other fast. “It suits you beautifully, doesn’t it suit her, Ianthe?”

“Mm,” Ianthe said. She sounded bored. “I’m not sure that beautiful is the word I’d use.”

Harrow, once again, had no idea whether that was meant to be a complement or an insult. Gideon shrugged it off either way. Dulcinea said, “It’s very charming, isn’t it? To be named after one of the Saints?”

“Not really,” Gideon said. “Been years since I’ve seen him, but from what I remember, the Saint of Duty’s a dick, just like, a giant dick with a sword.”

Coronabeth laughed at that, a big laugh from her chest that she tried to cover with the palm of her hand.

Harrow was doing her part. She had agreed to this, and she intended to keep to her agreement. She would marry Her Divine Highness. She would replenish her house. Gideon had presented the idea and Harrow had agreed. That didn’t mean she understood it. Harrow wasn’t sure she’d ever understand why Gideon wasn’t planning to marry Coronabeth Tridentarius. It wasn’t that Gideon wasn’t attracted to her. Gideon was very clearly attracted to Corona, it was plain on her face, in the way that she gravitated toward Corona, her body leaning away from Harrow now, toward the princess. It was obvious in the way that Gideon smiled, crooked and nervous, whenever Corona crooned a complement. The Seventh saw it, and she was won over. Everyone had to see that chemistry, that magnetism. They saw it and they wondered why the hell Gideon would ever choose the Ninth.

Harrow turned away from the conversation, which had turned to the subject of swords, and Gideon’s sword in particular. When Corona asked to hold it, Harrow closed her eyes.

**

It was a terrible thing, being right all the time.

Harrow suspected something was up as soon as the Ninth arrived for the fish dinner where Harrow did not plan to eat a single bite of a single fish last seen flopping around the deck at Coronabeth’s feet. From the corridor, the dining room rumbled with lively conversation, but it all fled right out through the big gaping hole in the ceiling as soon as the Ninth entered the room. If this was still the start of this stupid competion, that would have seemed entirely normal. No one was used to them then; they were a novelty, a black-draped spectacle peering out at the crowd from behind painted faces. They clicked bones over their breakfast and then disappeared back into the shadows.

And then Ortus participated in a pool party, his paint all washed off, and everyone realized there was nothing at all to fear from the Ninth.

“I’ll find out what’s happened, my lady,” Ortus assured her.

Ortus shuffled off as Aiglamene leaned down to pluck a card from one of the tables. “Assigned seats,” she said, with a roll of her good eye.

Harrow felt all warmth drain from her face. “You can’t be serious.”

She looked back toward the door and contemplated making her escape, but stopped herself before she could give in to the impulse. She wanted this. She wanted this marriage that gave her everything she needed without really requiring a single thing of her...besides sitting through this dinner and subjecting herself to a few more weeks of group dates. She could do this.

Aiglamene found her seat between a retainer from the Third and Dulcinea Septimus. Ortus was deep in conversation with Protesilaus the Seventh, and while he was sitting, she suspected it was not his assigned position. Harrow scanned the room until Camilla the Sixth caught her eye. She started over toward the cavalier, but Camilla shook her head, then nodded Harrow toward her adept. All right. Palamedes Sextus. That wasn’t so bad.

Harrow slipped silently into the seat beside Sextus, checked the placard to confirm she was in the right place. At the next table, Coronabeth Tridentarius sat beside Judith Deuteros. Ianthe was at the other side of the room, close enough to Protesilaus that Harrow hoped Ortus was being discreet with his words. Probably not discreet enough based on the little wave and the smile from Ianthe when she caught Harrow looking.

Harrow knew what this was. There was only one thing that hush could be about. Harrowhark Nonagesimus had actively avoided all of these people, had participated in exactly one (1) date, and had risen the ranks despite that, despite her sour attitude, her tattered black robes and her painted face. The other houses weren’t entirely stupid. They knew there had to be something happening behind the scenes, something that they were not privy to, that they had not witnessed. They were merely filling in the blanks with the most obvious answers.

“Kill me,” Harrow sighed. “Just end me already.”

“Hello to you too,” Sextus said. “If you keep up like that, I just might.”

That cheered Harrow up, but only slightly. After all, Ortus might actually be able to take Camilla the Sixth. She was the only other cavalier there that seemed to find her purpose in pursuits beyond the sword.

Harrow had not seen much of the Sixth since their encounter in the Eighth Lyctor study. She inspected the Fifth study on her own, no sign of the Sixth or the sneakiest third of the Third during her visit. She had plans to meet with Gideon in mere days to open the remaining doors, so she was unlikely to bump into the Sixth much at all going forward, if Sextus even managed to stay another week. She felt a little thrill of anticipation at the reminder that by morning she’d have the rest of the pieces she needed. She would understand one of the greatest mysteries of the Empire.

And the Sixth--well, once she knew what she was dealing with, she’d make her decisions there. They were not friends. She owed the Sixth nothing, yet she couldn’t help but feel that they were the only House that would stand beside her if lines were drawn. She didn’t trust Sextus, of course--she wasn’t a complete moron--but she thought she understood him. She understood a necromancer who arrived at the First and turned all of his attention and focus to the secrets locked up behind the tower’s doors. She understood Sextus’s focus on Lyctorhood. Her primary focus was not on becoming one of the Emperor’s fists and gestures, but this was only because it would not do enough to save her House from the destruction she had inflicted on it by being born. Harrow knew enough to know that there were no Lyctors in residence on the Second or the Third or the Seventh. She’d never found an account of a Lyctor visiting Drearburh. Harrow needed an heir and more than that she needed people and her arrangement with Gideon would provide her with both. All she had to do was let Gideon leave once the work was done.

“You’ve been on an impressive trajectory,” Sextus said beside her. He said it a little too carefully. His tone pulled Harrow back to the present, to the knowing glances, to Ortus anxiously sucking information from the Seventh at the other side of the room.

“I’m surprised you beat out the Fifth,” Harrow returned, because she had to say something and the only other thing she could think to say was ‘Brooms and brides aside, I at least expected a necromancer’ (yes, she was still stuck on that). She hastily added: “but I’m glad to see you’re still here.”

Sextus smiled. “All it takes is the right cavalier. Without Camilla, I would have been on my way home right after the Eighth.”

“Nah,” Gideon said, appearing behind them with the usual line of little priests. “Camilla the Sixth does help though.” She said it with a familiarity that reminded Harrow again that there was a lot going on here that no one got to see. Harrow had never seen Gideon with the Sixth, not for a single moment since the ball, but it was clear that they’d spent time together. Either that, or Gideon was simply very good at seeming intimately acquainted with everyone around her despite barely knowing them at all.

Ortus, who was also inexplicably good at seeming intimately acquainted with everyone around him despite barely knowing them at all, returned to Harrow’s side, a little red around the paint and breathing fast. He was flustered and when he bowed to Gideon, a small bend at the middle, Harrow saw that his hands were shaking and knew instantly that it was worse than she’d guessed. Gideon made a noise of protest in her throat at Ortus’s bow, and pushed a fist at his arm, as though they’d been ribbing each other their entire lives.

“I wish you’d quit that.”

Ortus, who never had a comeback for anything, failed to come up with a comeback for that too. Instead, he gestured toward the empty chair beside Harrow and offered it to Her Divine Highness.

“Oh,” Gideon said, surprised. “Um, okay, I’ll be--” she picked up the card “--Menelea Sette until she arrives to claim her seat.”

Harrow started to shake her head, but Gideon wasn’t paying attention. She was waving at Teacher, and when she caught his eyes, she tilted her head down toward Harrow and the Master Warden.

“This seems like a breach of protocol,” Harrow said, feeling a little helpless.

“It totally is,” Gideon agreed. She kept her voice low as she took a seat beside Harrow. “Or it would be.”

“Would be?”

Gideon reached across the table to grab another card. She turned it toward Harrow to show her the seal of the First. “This is my assigned table too.”

Behind Harrow, Ortus cleared his throat, but it sounded a little…gleeful?

“Ortus, sit down.”

“My seat is beside the Third adept, my lady. Naberius the Third is currently occupying it.”

Always on cue, Coronabeth yelped from her spot beside her cavalier and then said, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Babs, if you pinch me again, I’ll cut out your heart and serve it as an appetizer before this dinner.” This was the first relatable thing Corona had uttered during the entire competition.

“No, thank you,” Palamedes said, low enough that his voice wouldn’t carry beyond their immediate group.

Ortus cleared his throat again, and then began to fake a coughing fit.

“What is it?” Harrow asked. She was flustered by Gideon’s presence. The seating arrangement was cruel. Harrow would have preferred to see Gideon sitting beside the Third or the Seventh or the Second. It would be better than this, all of their eyes on her, glancing and sliding away. She pulled at the hood of her robe and felt Aiglamene’s elbow in her side from all the way across the room.

Behind her Ortus said, “It’s nothing, my lady,” and Harrow felt the words on the back of her neck as her entire body entered into a Fight-or-Flight panic, her heart pounding in her chest, her skin crawling, nerves flaring on the back of her neck. She shoved her hands into her pockets and was comforted by the bones she found there.

“It’s something,” Palamedes corrected. He stilled, then looked up, as though he expected his cavalier to continue his thought and only just remembered that she was not at his side.

“Right,” Ortus said. “The Master Warden is right. I suppose it is something, but perhaps we could discuss it with Captain Aiglamene following the dinner?”

“What is something?” Harrow pressed. “Tell me this instant or I will kill you in your sleep, strip off your meat, and puppet your skeleton around this tower, half a step behind me at all times like a true Ninth cavalier.”

Gideon nodded with what appeared to be quiet appreciation, as though that was something she might like to see Harrow try.

“There’s a rumor,” Ortus said, carefully. “That you and Her Divine Highness--” he cleared his throat for what felt the millionth time and glanced at Gideon--”The rumor is that you have been intimate with Her Divine Highness behind closed doors and this is the reason for your rapid rise in rank. They’ve speculated that you’re a pious shadow cultist in the ‘streets’ and a ‘bone-wielding necro-freak in the sheets.’”

Gideon laughed, loud and abrupt. It was a big full-throated laugh and Harrow had to close her eyes in an attempt to drown it out. How long had it been? Four days? Five? Less than a week since she’d conspired to marry this woman for the good of her House and she was already regretting it. Less than a week and Gideon was publicly breaking protocol and Harrow was--

“A bone-wielding freak in the sheets.” Harrow repeated.

“Necro-freak,” Gideon corrected.

She opened her eyes and turned to glare at Gideon. She knew this would happen. Ianthe warned her of exactly this and Harrow warned Gideon, and then that fucking terrace dinner, and Gideon’s eyes lighting up with this silly plan that could fix absolutely everything but also could never work. It had only been a few days and the entire thing was already fucked. They might as well throw away the idea here and now.

“Come on,” Gideon said. She nudged Harrow. “It’s funny. Look, even Sex Pal is smiling.”

It took a moment for Harrow to translate that, and when she did, she turned her head toward Palemedes Sextus to find that he was, in fact, smiling just a little.

Sex Pal?

**

Harrow emerged from the dining room fuming and flustered, having spent the entire evening wedged between the good natured First and Sixth, neither of whom found anything wrong with the horrific things that were being whispered about them--about the Ninth--at every other table in the room. Menelea Sette barely looked up from her plate the entire evening. She looked like she’d prefer to die on the spot. She was Harrow’s only friend.

“You aren’t upset by this?” Harrow asked Aiglamene, back in their rooms.

Aiglamene shrugged her shoulders in a controlled way that reminded Harrow that though the captain had been on the Ninth for a long time, she’d lived an entire life off world before that. Salacious rumors weren’t common among the geriatric population of the Ninth House, which made this seem particularly appalling, but Aiglamene was Cohort once. Her face with its missing eye, her body with its missing leg, even her stance, suggested to Harrow that she had seen it all.

“Are you getting--how did Ortus put it?--freaky in Her Divine Highness’s sheets?” Aiglamene asked. It destroyed Harrow a little that there was no heat there, no judgment.

Harrow exploded anyway, horrified that her retainer would need to ask. “Of course not!”

Aiglamene remained calm. “Well then, it might be something to consider, but no, I’m not upset. The rumor may have been started with malicious intent, but it’s backfired almost immediately. This will do nothing but help the Ninth. We should play it to our advantage.”

How?” Harrow asked, though in truth her mind was still stuck on ‘It might be something to consider.’ The Ninth really did think of Harrow as their-- “I’m sorry, did you say something to consider?”

“Her Divine Highness did seem rather delighted by the idea, didn’t she?”

“I assure you, she is not,” Harrow said. She should not have asked. She should not have said a thing. “And let me remind you, since everyone keeps conveniently forgetting--”

“Yes, yes, I know, my lady. You’re the Reverend Daughter, not the Ninth’s whore.”

“Precisely.”

“Which is why I was suggesting you might consider it outside of our official capacities,” Aiglamene clarified. “Might be fun.”

Harrow felt the blood drain from her face. She could do nothing but turn on her heel and flee the scene. She grabbed Ortus by the arm and pulled him along.

“Ortus, with me, please.”

Ortus took one last look back at Aiglamene and then followed Harrow through their main door and out into the hallway, his footsteps a heavy comforting presence behind her.

“I’ve started writing our retaliation rumors, my lady,” Ortus said. “Having read my prior work, I know you’ll be--”

“We aren’t spreading retaliation rumors, Ortus.”

“Oh,” Ortus said, disappointment audible in that one syllable. “You know, it might be...something to consider.”

Harrow whirled around, a finger sharp in Ortus’s face.

“Do not try that with me. I will kill you without a moment’s hesitation. You know I’m capable of it.”

“I do know, my lady,” Ortus said. “And I don’t wish to die.”

“Then you’ll keep quiet and you’ll accompany me as my cavalier. You will act as my chaperone throughout the rest of our time here.”

Ortus stopped walking. “Your chaperone, my lady?”

“My chaperone,” Harrow repeated. “You will go where I go and remain where I remain. You shall be my witness so that, if asked, I can defend my honor.”

Ortus’s mouth worked as though he was trying to understand her words. Eventually he said, “This is a marriage competition. I didn’t realize anyone here cared about honor.”

**

The following evening, Harrow arrived at the designated meeting place with Ortus in tow. Her Divine Highness was already there, leaning against a wall of peeling wallpaper, her hands pushed into the pockets of her jacket. Gideon was wearing one of her many white suits, the jacket unbuttoned, the shirt perpetually open at the collar--she hadn’t buttoned all the way up since the commencement ball. Perhaps she couldn’t stand having anything tight against her neck. Her smile was bright when she saw Harrowhark approaching and she pushed herself away from the wall. It dimmed just a bit when Ortus rounded the corner, rapier bouncing against his side.

“Your Highness.” Harrow tilted her chin up at Gideon as the Ninth came to a halt in this particularly decrepit corner of the First.

“Reverend Daughter,” she said with a formal bow. Her smile had tightened, just a little, into something more formal as well. “Ortus the Ninth.”

Ortus echoed Harrow’s words and Gideon’s bow. “Your Highness.”

“My cavalier has agreed to act as chaperone,” Harrow explained, as she carefully removed her gloves, “for the duration of our stay here.”

“Oh,” Gideon said, simply.

Gideon looked at Ortus. Ortus looked back at Gideon.

They looked at each other long enough that Harrow started to suspect there was a silent conversation happening, though Harrow could not begin to guess the content based on either of their faces. “What are you--”

“Good!” Gideon burst out, suddenly. Ortus visibly exhaled.

“Good,” Harrow agreed.

Gideon gestured toward the intersecting corridor. “Ortus can stay here and keep an eye out for bone servants. If you see anyone coming down this way, warn me, okay?”

Ortus opened his mouth to respond and then glanced toward Harrow. “My lady?”

“It’s fine, Ortus. She’s not sending you away so that we can commit untoward acts--we’re breaking a lock. That one right there.” She pointed toward the door at the end of the corridor.

“I’ve done this before,” Gideon agreed. “Several times actually, but when you get down to it Teacher’s a stand-in for my absent father, and he’s a busy-body. He doesn’t need to keep poking his nose in my business just because it’s been a boring myriad. You don’t want to know the things they get up to just to pass the time around here. You don’t even want to know what I get up to just to pass the time around here.”

“Yes, the Ninth is the same,” Ortus said, unsolicited.

Harrow made a show of examining the seams of her gloves.

“I shall keep watch,” Ortus corrected. “I have extraordinarily good vision.”

At that, Ortus turned away and did as had been requested of him. He remained at the end of the corridor, his eyes on the intersecting passage. Occasionally he glanced back toward Harrow and Gideon. That was good. He was taking the position very seriously, which meant Harrow’s threats on his life had worked.

Gideon was quiet as she led Harrow toward the ornate door. Once there, she pulled a wrapped bundle from her pocket and dropped it onto the floor. It hit with a heavy thump. Next she shrugged out of her jacket. This she handed to Harrow. Harrow took it and draped it carefully over her forearm.

Harrow’s chest felt tight. Standing there beside Gideon, she found that her heart kept losing its rhythm, fluttering in her chest, pounding irregularly. She’d wondered about Lyctorhood for years, since receiving her first letter from a young Palamedes Sextus questioning the theory behind it. She’d asked her parents, who responded with unsatisfying religious dogma about Saints and the Necrolord’s fingers and thumbs. She searched the books in the Ninth’s libraries and came up empty. She wrote letters back to Sextus and never sent a single one. In the end, she determined that Lyctorhood would not solve the Ninth’s problems, regardless of how it was accomplished.

The solution to the Ninth’s problem was standing too close to Harrow, her eyes dark in the shadows, her presence a warmth that tickled at Harrow’s skin even beneath the layers of Ninth robes.

Lyctorhood was never going to give Harrow what she needed, but Harrow still craved the knowledge. She collected secrets--everyone on the Ninth did--and she could not think of a more highly coveted secret than this. She would know the truth before Sextus, before the Third or the Seventh or the Second, though the Seventh and the Second hardly seemed to care.

Gideon was still standing there as though waiting for Harrow to speak.

Harrow spoke: “I still don’t understand how the keys and these doors, the theorems and the trials downstairs tie into our purpose here. Does the Emperor intend for you to marry a Lyctor? Why not just say so?”

Gideon snorted.

“That’s funny?”

“A little,” Gideon said. She was still standing far too close. Harrow was starting to wonder if Ortus was right to hesitate at Gideon’s request to send him to the end of the hallway.

“I don’t see how,” Harrow sniffed.

Gideon shrugged. She took a step back from Harrow. The air cooled and Harrow sucked in a deep steadying breath.

Gideon leaned her back against the wall. She shifted her bundle a little closer to the door with the toe of her boot. “It’s funny because I’m not marrying one of his Lyctors. No fucking way.”

Harrow felt Gideon shutting down, and she took a step closer, determined to finish the conversation even if it meant suffocating within her robes. “Why not?”

“Because they’re all a bunch of weirdos,” Gideon said. “It fucks people up, and also I’m going to get old and my Lyctor wife is going to stay looking the same as she always did, except she’s going to get weirder and more fucked up. Who would want that?”

Harrow frowned, unable to fit this in with the conversation they had days ago on the terrace. “Does that matter? You don’t plan to be there to see it happen.”

Gideon shook her head. “If I marry a Lyctor, I’m not going anywhere except the Mithraeum, and I’m not voluntarily spending the rest of my life on that boring empty space station. Anyway, if he wanted me there, then I’d be stuck there right now and not here, so I guess he must not want me to marry a Lyctor, thank God.”

Gideon slid down the wall until she was crouched at eye level with the keyhole. This also put her down around Harrow’s middle. She picked up her bundle and then looked up at Harrow. Some of the heat had left her face. Her gaze felt softer now, and Harrow’s stomach gave a strange twist. She knew she shouldn’t have consumed that fish. She’d felt off ever since.

Gideon tilted her head toward where Ortus was stationed. She smiled. “A chaperone for the duration of your stay?” This was followed by a wink.

Harrow tightened her grip on Gideon’s jacket and tilted her own head toward the door. “Is there something wrong with your eye?”

“Come on, don’t be like that.”

“I suppose I should feel honored that you find this all funny,” Harrow said. “What kind of weird bone sex rituals are the cultists cooking up way out there in their lonely corner of space, is that it?”

“Look, I grew up surrounded by skeletons too,” Gideon said. “For all anyone knows, I’m the one with the weird bone sex rituals.”

Harrow sighed.

“I’m not though,” Gideon amended, quickly.

Harrow studied Gideon’s face, the smooth expanse of her forehead, the shape of her eyebrows. In the dim light, her yellow eyes looked metallic, like polished gold coins. Gideon did not turn her attention to the lock. She barely touched her mysterious bundle, and eventually Harrow, unsure what to say or do, managed to get out, “The door?”

Gideon twitched as though startled. She nodded, her eyes leaving Harrow’s face as she began to unwrap her little bundle of tools, her thigh serving as a makeshift table. Harrow wrapped her arms around herself, pulling her robes tight against her. Once the tools were out and balanced precariously on Gideon’s thigh, Gideon leaned back against the wall and said, her voice low, “You know people are going to spend the rest of their lives assuming we’re getting it on behind closed doors, right? That’s kind of expected.”

“We aren’t married and that was never part of our agreement.”

“I know, but--” Gideon checked some scribbled words on a scrap of flimsy and then picked up what looked to Harrow like a bit of trash, like a piece of rusted metal. “We want them to think so, don’t we?”

“I most certainly do not want them to think that.”

“Well, I do.” Everything in Gideon’s bundle looked like rusting rotting bits of Canaan House collected by a bored child and bundled together into a sad little treasure trove of trash. It was pathetic, but Harrow understood. She had a collection of favorite Ninth fingerbones.

Gideon got to work on the lock, but she paused after a moment and looked back up at Harrow. Harrow was losing patience.

“This is good, Harrow. They already think we’re screwing, so how can anyone be surprised when I keep picking you first?”

Harrow shook her head vehemently. She didn’t understand how everyone could be so comfortable with salacious lies. What kind of woman was Gideon to laugh in the face of a scandal that questioned her very character?

“No one in the Ninth would ever dare to say such things,” Harrow said, practically seething.

“No one in the First would either, but like...look around. Who could? There’s no one here. Honestly though, do you really care what the Third or the Second or the Seventh thinks about you? Who did you come here to impress, the Third or, like…well, me?”

“I didn’t come here to impress anyone. I came here to help my House and repay a debt.”

Gideon shrugged and swapped out her rusty wire for something that looked like a rusty hook. “And this will help your House, right, so who cares if they think you’re a kinky little shadow cultist?”

Your Highness!”

She saw Ortus spin back toward them out of the corner of her eye. She did not take her eyes off Gideon as she snapped, “Ortus, mind your business. Turn around and keep watch!”

Ortus did as he was told.

Gideon continued, hardly fazed: “And like, think about it. If anyone should be upset here, it’s me. This is really a judgement on me, isn’t it?”

“I don’t see how,” Harrow said, but of course she saw how. The entire point was to highlight how insufficient Harrow was, to assess the Ninth House and find her wanting, to insinuate that Harrow must be committing lewd and perverted acts to get as far as she had, but that was only half of it. There was the other side of this, which shouted that Her Divine Highness could be bought with base pleasure, that she could be turned by a blasphemous black vestal, her mind clouded, heart twisted. Her Divine Highness said she wanted a wife, but she was content with a--with a--kinky little shadow cultist. Next they’d be crying blasphemy and treason.

This competition was rotten at its core, the entire thing designed to debase, to humiliate and cast aside. If Harrow didn’t so desperately need what was promised, she would walk away from this without another word. She clutched Gideon’s jacket in her hands, her fingers tight in the fabric. She was going to leave a crease. The jacket smelled like Gideon, like dust and salt and cold wet stone. Harrow did, in fact, desperately need what Gideon was promising.

The day before, toward the end of their fishing trip as the boat approached the tower, Ianthe leaned forward and said, “Gideon, you have a bit of the Ninth’s paint, just there.” She ran her finger across her bottom lip.

Corona was ready. She jumped to accept the opportunity presented by her sister.

“Oh, you do,” she said. “And some of the Ninth’s blood too.”

Gideon moved to wipe her face on the back of her hand, but Corona shook her head and caught Gideon’s hand in hers. She licked the pad of her other thumb and swiped it across Gideon’s lower lip, carefully smudging the paint away. From Harrow’s spot on the bench she couldn’t see how it looked, but she saw the excitement of the moment reflected in Dulcinea’s wide eyes, and she knew it looked lewd and, most likely, very beautiful at the same time.

“If anyone is being inappropriately intimate in this competition, it’s the Third,” Harrow said, and regretted saying it as soon as the words left her mouth. She sounded pathetic, wretchedly nonsensically jealous.

“Okay,” Gideon ceded from her crouched position at the door. “Okay, I get it, but like--for the record, the thing with Corona’s thumb was weird, I know, and I should have realized your paint would transfer.”

“You shouldn’t have kissed me at all.”

“I know, I wasn’t thinking, but Harrow, that shark was so fucking good. Can you really blame me? God, I swear you’re coming on every group date until the end of this, and on every one I will beg you to make something monstrous and have it try to kill us all. Fishing fucking sucks, but that.” She shivered, as though a little thrill had coursed through her just at the thought of fighting the construct again. “You earned this room, is what I’m saying. And the next. And the next. And then, after there are no more doors to unlock, you’re showing me that thing that’s destroying your skeletons in the basement. I haven’t forgotten that.”

Gideon wasn’t actually doing anything, not really, but this entire thing seemed so inappropriate that Harrow couldn’t look at her. It was that little shiver, the way Gideon’s eyes fell shut at the thought of every date turning into a fight for her life. It was Harrow still holding the jacket that Gideon handed her, the fabric warm against Harrow’s bare fingers, and Gideon with the sleeves of her shirt rolled up to her elbows as she picked the lock on the big black ornate door. When Harrow didn’t say anything, Gideon got back to work and turned her focus from Harrow to the keyhole. Harrow felt some of the tension leave her shoulders, but when she dared another glance, she found a Gideon in focus, all her attention on the door. It wasn’t an easier sight. Gideon’s brow was furrowed in concentration and the tip of her pink tongue poked out between her lips.

Harrow shut her eyes and didn’t open them again until she heard the click of the door.

**

Dominicus was rising by the time Harrow entered the last of the Lyctor studies and stood before the final theorem. Her eyes burned and she blinked hard to clear her head.

Ortus kept yawning, big cavernous aaaahhhhh-hhhaaaaaaas, which set Gideon yawning, which set Harrow yawning, which set Ortus yawning all over again.

As soon as Gideon opened the door of this last study, she went straight to one of the narrow beds and collapsed back against the sheets. Harrow expected to see a cloud of dust puff around her, but these rooms were somehow shielded by the settling of time. Harrow couldn’t allow herself to linger long on the prone form of Her Divine Highness. She turned straight toward the area set up as a laboratory, her tired eyes passing hungrily over the theorem spelled out there. She held her hand out toward Ortus and Ortus placed her journal into her open palm. Harrow jabbed her pen into her sore cheek and wrote this theorem beside the others, rearranged them, turned them over again to look at them from another angle. Her lips felt dry, cracked, and she pressed her tongue to her lower lip and felt the scratch of her flaking skin.

Something was missing.

“Lady Harrowhark?” Ortus asked. He pulled out a chair so that she could sit down. Harrow ignored him.

“This can’t be right.” She pressed her fingers to her eyes and then she read through the theorems again.

“What?” Gideon asked from the bed, pushing herself up on her elbows so that she could see them from across the room.

“This is--if these theorems are correct--this can’t be Lyctorhood. There are only eight theorems here. There are ten laboratories down in the basement.”

Gideon shrugged her shoulders. The collar of her shirt was rumpled. It gaped at her neck where she’d unbuttoned it. “This is it, as far as I know. If there were two more laboratories they might have been his and--but it was so long ago. If they didn’t set them like they did these, there might be nothing left.”

“No,” Harrow said. She crossed the room and held her journal open before Gideon, invited Gideon to see for herself.

Gideon merely shook her head and looked up at Harrow with another shrug.

Harrow huffed and pulled the book back. “I’m supposed to believe that Lyctorhood is a necromancer incorporating the soul of her cavalier and using it to fuel an enhanced eternal life?”

There was a pause. Ortus stopped mid-yawn, his mouth snapping shut on the hhhaaaaa.

Gideon’s eyebrows rose, and Harrow assumed that meant that she understood that the theory was incomplete, but when she spoke she said, “That sounds about right, actually,” and she sounded impressed.

Harrow shook her head. “No, something is missing. Who would do this? I don’t even like Ortus, but I’d never kill and consume him. I’d never willingly pin his soul to mine.”

Ortus, whose blood had all drained from his face leaving his skin the same color as his faded paint, removed his hand from the hilt of his rapier as though that could ever save him from Harrow. “Thank you, my lady.”

Harrow sat on the bed beside Gideon, the mattress sinking beneath their combined weight. She looked around the room, took in the shelves of books, the rapiers and antique pistols on the walls. The room was quiet except for the sound of Gideon’s breathing, which seemed loud and fast, like Gideon had just returned from a jog or bested an opponent in a training match.

Ortus sat down on the other bed and looked at the pillows longingly.

Harrow asked, “Whose room is this?”

“Fourth,” Gideon said. She pointed to a banner on the opposite wall.

Harrow looked up at it, then down at Gideon, then decided she couldn’t look at Gideon, and returned her eyes to her journal. She realized that, in sitting down on the bed, she’d positioned herself so that Gideon’s hip was pressed against her lower back. She shook her head and focused on the task at hand. “There is no room in the design of this game for the Fourth key to ever be obtained. Whoever makes it to the very end of this--” (“That would be you,” Gideon reminded her) “--the key to this room would still be missing from their collection. Are there other keys that are also absent from this competition?”

“I’ve been all over this place. This is the last one.”

Harrow stared down at her journal and began to read her notes aloud. “Look. I’ve placed them in the only order that makes sense. I won’t read you the full theorem--neither of you would understand it--but I will summarize the goal of each. First, preserve the soul with intellect and memory intact. Second, analyze it and understand its structure and shape. Third, remove the soul and absorb it, take it into yourself without consuming--no. If this is everything then it’s--then they never finished what they started, but why wouldn’t they? Why would they end it here?”

She could feel Gideon watching her, those rich yellow eyes searching her face. “What?”

“Nothing,” Gideon said, then: “You really think it’s horrific and far-fetched? One flesh, one end, Harrow. It’s right there in the oath.”

Ortus emitted a pathetic strangled sound. He looked like a sad old dog about to be put down.

One flesh, one end is an oath of fealty,” Harrow said. “It is not a contractual agreement to murder.”

“Not murder,” Ortus said, from the other bed. Gideon and Harrow both startled at his voice. “But sacrifice is surely implied.”

Gideon nodded as Harrow shook her head.

“Stop talking, Ortus. You aren’t sacrificing anything for me today, nor ever if I have anything to say about it.”

“I’m grateful,” Ortus said, earnestly, and then his sad eyes shifted to Gideon. “We were nearly engaged, you know.”

Gideon’s eyes grew wide and bright at this news. “Whoa, okay, am I stepping on toes here?” She shifted back toward the other side of the bed, her body pulling away from Harrow’s until Harrow could no longer feel the press of Gideon’s hip against her back.

“No!” Harrow and Ortus said, with force and in perfect unison.

“I’m not a homewrecker,” Gideon pressed, but she’d seen the horror on their faces and she relaxed just a little in response.

“Hardly,” Harrow sniffed. “Ortus, I understand your point. Rest assured I have no intention of testing these theorems or demanding that you submit to this, nor do I have any intention of…marrying you.”

“Good,” said Ortus and Gideon, with force and in perfect unison.

Harrow stood. “I think we’re done here, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” Gideon agreed. She reached out her hand toward Harrow.

Harrow moved to take the offered hand without thinking, ready to pull Gideon back up into a sitting position. Her hand was nearly there when she caught herself and paused, brain catching and heart hitching on the imminent press of her bare palm to Gideon’s bare palm. Gideon was strong and healthy, that was evident from one glance at her arm muscles straining against the fabric of her white shirt. She did not need Harrow’s help, which pushed the request back into the realm of inappropriate and calculated. Gideon was still poking fun at Harrow for being offended by the rumor.

Harrow pulled herself in, her hand pressed firm to her side, hidden within the folds of her robe. “Ortus, please help Her Highness to her feet.”

Gideon did not wait for Ortus to stand and help her up. Her extraordinary eyes sparkled with mirth as she pushed herself up and off the bed without any assistance.

“Chaperones,” she said, in mock lament.

Harrow refused to find it funny, which wasn’t that difficult. She was still caught up in the theorems, still turning them over in her head. She did not have time for Gideon’s games. “Are you planning to send Sextus home this week?”

Gideon stilled at the question. It was unexpected. Harrow had never asked for intel on key ceremonies before.

Gideon smoothed her hands over her wrinkled shirt, then down across her thighs. She picked up her jacket from where she’d discarded it on the bed and said, “I haven’t decided yet. Does it matter?”

“Not at all,” Harrow said, and led the group from the room.

**

Harrow did not see much of Gideon the rest of that week. The priests seemed to have Gideon on a set schedule with very little time for uninterrupted mingling. Harrow supposed it was part of the plan for keeping her in high demand, or perhaps to hide the fact that she was a lewd pervert, coarse and untoward. Maybe they knew she was desperate to marry the first person willing to tie themselves to her without any expectation of love or affection or permanence. Surely they must know she had some scheme if Gideon was so eager for everyone to assume she could be sullied and seduced by a--what was it?--necro-freak. What little Harrow did see of Gideon consisted of passing moments in corridors during which Gideon always reached a hand out for Harrow’s and Harrow always refused. The third time this happened, Gideon dramatically slapped her rejected hand back against her heart, as though fatally wounded by Harrow’s rebuff.

“I’m happy to see you having so much fun,” Ortus said after this final encounter.

Harrow was unable to find an appropriate response and settled for a lengthy death glare.

Gideon, she knew, had solo dates with both the Second and the Sixth. Harrow, meanwhile, spent her time mulling over the theorems, trying to come up with any other explanation, any other way that they could possibly fit together that didn’t seem so wrong and reprehensible. She wanted nothing more than to talk with Palamedes Sextus, but she could not disclose the arrangement that had provided her access to the information.

Instead, she dragged Ortus down into the basement facility, guided him along the terrace, carefully coaxed him past crumbling ledges and watched the way his legs shook on the ladder with trepidation. She returned to each of the trials and recognized now how they fit in with the theorems, saw that they were designed to test the practical application of each step. But there was something missing. There must be something missing. If this was Lyctorhood, who would want it?

She presented it to Aiglamene, spelled the entire process out while Aiglamene listened, calm and collected, and when Harrow said, “This doesn’t seem horrid to you? It doesn’t seem incomplete?” Aiglamene merely shrugged.

“I’ve seen the lengths that we will go to achieve our necessary ends.”

That was what did it. That was the moment that made Harrow consider that maybe Gideon and Aiglamene were seeing this more clearly than Harrow herself. Why wouldn’t a necromancer consume the soul of her cavalier? Why wouldn’t she pin it in place and run and run and run for a myriad or longer?

Why wouldn’t they murder two hundred children to produce the perfect heir?

Harrow had consumed her share of souls. She was stuffed and had no desire to add any more to her collection. She understood it now, that was enough. She understood it and she rejected it. It was worse than the competition. It was unthinkable. She could hold Gideon’s hand and kiss Gideon’s cheek and look on her face with a smile for the rest of her days, and she would be thankful everyday that she was afforded the chance to repay her House this way, a way that did not require an acceptance of Lyctorhood.

At the close of the week, the Ninth waited beside the Sixth as Gideon stood with keys ready, prepared to send another house home.

“You’ll write this time?” Sextus asked. He kept his eyes to the front as he said it, but his cavalier glanced toward Harrow and nodded.

“I’ll consider it,” Harrow acquiesced.

The Seventh was situated to Camilla’s right and Dulcinea looked like she was shaking in her wheelchair. In fact, she had her hand gripped tight to Camilla’s arm. Protesilaus the Seventh stood behind his adept, conversing quietly with Ortus about The Noniad of all things. Ortus, it seemed, had found himself a fan.

At the front of the room, Teacher cleared his throat and Gideon stepped forward.

“We’re getting down to it now,” Gideon began, with a warm smile. “If I’m honest, I wouldn’t choose to let any of you go. I’d keep you all here with me as one big disfunctional family, but that’s not how I’m told this works. A choice must be made, and Teacher insists that choice must be made tonight.” Teacher chuckled and waved his hands at that. “And we will get there, sooner than I’d like, but first: Ninth House, would you please come forward and accept the first key?”

Harrow stepped forward to accept the key, nervous and certain that Gideon would try to take her hand again. Gideon did not attempt it and Harrow stepped back to her place feeling satisfied and relieved. The Third was called second and Dulcinea gasped as though this was a surprise. Coronabeth stepped forward with her coiffed head held high to accept her key. She caught Gideon’s hand along with the key and pulled Gideon’s knuckles in to brush against her lips in a reverent kiss. When she stepped back she did so with a little bow.

“Wow,” Gideon said with a laugh. “That was--thanks!”

“You know it was the Third spreading those rumors,” Palemedes murmured beside Harrow.

“Of course, I know.”

The Seventh House was next. Dulcinea settled back into her wheelchair and Protesilaus brought her to the front to accept her key.

Gideon took a deep breath. She scanned the dwindling crowd, and then her eyes fell on Harrow and she said, “And now we come to the Sixth House. Sixth, will you accept this key?”

Palamedes and Camilla both looked a little stunned. When Palamedes hesitated, his cavalier gave him a gentle push on the shoulder to get him moving.

The Second took their loss well, with straight backs and perfectly cordial smiles on their faces. Gideon, for her part, hugged both the necromancer and the cavalier tightly, a warmer embrace than Harrow would have thought the Second likely to accept. The hug was further than Gideon had ever dared try with the Ninth, despite the rumors.

“Well. It appears we live to see another week,” Palamedes said. “Judging by that smoldering look, I suspect I have you to thank for that?”

“I’d hardly describe it as smoldering,” Harrow countered. “And I assure you I have no idea what any of that was about. I am, however, pleased by the results.”

“As am I,” Palemedes agreed. “I look forward to seeing what the Third plans for you next. In the meantime…” He held up his key. “Shall we see what the Second House study has in store?”

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.”

Chapter Text

Harrow adjusted her veil in an attempt to be discreet as she watched Gideon stare out the window at an endless expanse of star-speckled space. Gideon’s hand was resting on the narrow table between their seats. The rest of her body had shifted away from Harrow and toward the wall of the shuttle, her face pressed close to the plex. There was no mistaking Gideon’s eagerness to take it all in, every inch of space, as though there was anything to see, as though it wasn’t all just uninterrupted empty groundless nothing.

If Gideon truly thought this scenery was interesting, maybe this trip wouldn’t be embarrassingly dreadful after all.

Harrow had hardly been anywhere in her entire life. She took one brief trip to the prison that orbited the Ninth with her parents as a child, and then nine years later she stepped onto the shuttle that transported her to Canaan House.

It was enough to know she hated it.

Nothing but metal and plex to contain her, she was cut off from everything she knew and all she relied upon. She had nothing to ground herself with, not even the smallest bag of dirt. She was surrounded by her House and the Cohort--there was unlikely to be an incident that would result in a fight--but beside her, Gideon’s fingers tentatively brushed against Harrow’s gloved skin, and Harrow had never felt so untethered.

Gideon’s entire focus appeared to be on the plex, but as Harrow studied the short hairs at the back of Gideon’s neck, Gideon’s fingers brushed hers again. Gideon just barely touched the outside edge of Harrow’s hand, but Harrow felt the proximity spark through her, felt it tingle up her arm, across her chest, down into her gut. She took a deep breath and attempted again to ground herself in this place with no ground.

Right, well. Time for an important reminder: She’d agreed to this game.

Harrow steeled herself, straightened her shoulders, turned up her chin. Fortified, she reached out and touched the tip of her fifth finger to Gideon’s. Gideon held steady, no discernible change in her breathing, in her posture or her expression. Harrow closed her eyes and tried to control her own breathing, her own posture and expression. Aiglamene and Ortus sat in the seats ahead of Harrow and Gideon. Two Cohort officers sat in the seats behind. No one was paying them any attention.

The pad of Gideon’s finger traced up the fabric that covered Harrow’s middle finger, brushing along the bones. That morning Gideon looked around to make sure no one was watching and leaned in to press a kiss to Harrow’s mouth. Harrow allowed it and felt her body’s impending betrayal, the thrill that snapped within her at the press of Gideon’s dry lips.

Now Gideon plucked at the fabric of Harrow’s glove. Gideon was still staring out the window and the request went unstated, but it was unmistakably clear.

Harrow opened her eyes and considered. She looked at the back of Aiglamene’s head. Based on its tilt, she suspected the captain had her eyes closed and was taking advantage of the hour-long trip to catch up on some sleep. Beside her, Ortus was consumed in his writing, hunched over a stack of flimsy, the scratch of his pen audible over the low hum of the shuttle.

Harrow removed her hand from the table and plucked at the fabric that gathered at the tip of each of her fingers. If she refused to continue this round of their game, Gideon would not press. She’d stay just as she was, absorbed by the full black stretch of space. Perhaps she’d catch a glimpse of the Eighth House as they passed. If Harrow refused to continue this round of their game, it wouldn’t change a thing.

But then neither would the removal of Harrow’s glove.

She did it before she could second guess herself. She remembered the warmth of Gideon’s shoulder beneath her fingertips, of Gideon’s neck and Gideon’s cheek, and she pulled the glove off and savored the slide of the fabric over her wrists and the palm of her hand. Once removed, she smoothed the fabric over her thigh and then carefully set her hand back on the table beside Gideon’s. When Gideon’s fingers found hers again, Gideon stilled, then pulled away from the plex and settled back into her seat. Harrow felt a glorious swell of triumph in her chest at managing such a response. She wondered if this was how it felt to be born on the Third.

Gideon’s hand covered hers, lightly, casually. Her palm landed gently over the dorsal side of Harrow’s hand, a careful press of flesh. Eventually Gideon slid her hand back until the base of her palm was pressed against the table. Her fingers carefully traced over the ridges of Harrow’s metacarpals, tucked away beneath the layer of Harrow’s skin.

Harrow kept her face forward. She focused on her breathing, on the scratch of Ortus’s pen to flimsy.

This was all supposed to be practice. They were testing themselves, making sure they could present as a convincing match. It was supposed to be an act, and perhaps it really was for Gideon--an act and a willing warm body--but Harrow felt her meat’s betrayal in her throat and her heart and her gut. Gideon was too much for her and every moment they touched, Harrow was in danger. Gideon pulled her closer and closer to an invisible edge, and once Harrow slipped over, who knew where she might land.

She could think of little else but that landing.

Lyctorhood? What was that?

Coronabeth Tridentari-who?

A carefully unchaperoned kiss outside the Ninth’s quarters. Another a few days later, hidden outside the dining room. Last night, again outside the Ninth’s rooms. That morning. It was quick to become a game for Gideon: distract Ortus--”Was that a bird?”--and when Ortus looked the other way, eyes wide with fright: a stolen kiss, two if the distraction was good. After all, there were no birds on the Ninth.

They were all very chaste. Careful dry kisses, a simple press of bare lips to painted mouth.

It didn’t matter. Every nerve in Harrow’s body lit up each and every time. Absolute awful betrayal.

She was going to make a complete and utter fool of herself if they kept up like this.

“Hometown dates,” Teacher announced at the start of the week. “Her Divine Highness shall travel to the Third and to the Ninth to be introduced to the great House that may become her future home. Two nights will be spent in Drearburh. Two nights in Ida.

The Third House was chosen first by the First Daughter, so the Ninth House will be her first stop on this tour. The Third will remain with me here while Her Celestial Highness makes the journey alongside the Reverend Daughter. They will be accompanied by the Ninth’s retinue and our esteemed guests--” here Teacher nodded to the two Cohort soldiers in their midst-- “Captain Viisimus and Lieutenant Hamza of the Fifth House. Welcome, welcome!”

Captain Viisimus was cut closer to the cloth of Deuteros and Dyas than Pent and Quinn. She was an imposing figure, much younger than Aiglamene, but with similar sharp edges. Her Lieutenant was a younger man with sad brown eyes and slumping shoulders. The Lieutenant was clearly a necromancer. Viisimus very obviously was not. Was she his cavalier? It seemed a strange match in rank and age.

Teacher continued: “Once they return from the Ninth, Her Divine Highness will depart again, this time with the Third to experience the splendor of Ida. Now as you know, last week we lost not one, but two of our heirs, most unexpected. The competition schedule shall not be altered. Neither the Third nor the Ninth will be sent home at the end of this week of travel, rather you’ve both made it to the end, and Her Divine Highness shall be granted these next two weeks to make her final decision.”

Now, on the shuttle, the Cohort officers were silent behind Gideon and Harrow. Harrow had to strain to confirm they were still breathing. They did not react to Gideon’s blatant caress, but then, why would they? They were assigned as bodyguards in a marriage competition, no more, no less. A little caress here, some flirting there. They must expect it.

The tip of Gideon’s finger slipped down between the third and fourth fingers of Harrow’s hand. It lingered strangely there, like grit in a shoe that lodged itself between toes. Good. That was good. It was good until a moment later when Gideon slid the finger up to press at the spot where Harrow’s fingers met the fleshy webbing that bound her metacarpals. Gideon pressed her finger gently against the spot, once, then again.

That was too much. That was--Harrow yanked her hand away and glared over at Gideon. Gideon wasn’t looking back. Gideon was staring carefully toward the front of the shuttle, at the back of Ortus’s round head. She knew exactly what she’d done, exactly how suggestive it felt. Her cheek pulled back and dimpled with her smile.

“Too far?” Gideon asked.

The question did not deserve a response. Harrow felt hot enough to melt the shuttle, hot enough to eat away at plastic and metal and plex. She pulled at the collar of her shirt. Her fingers itched to adjust her veil and she resisted, instead focused on shoving her hand unceremoniously back into the safety of her glove. Once covered, she kept it firmly, resolutely, in her lap.

Gideon did not turn back toward the window for the remainder of the trip.

**

The Ninth House greeted the return of their Reverend Daughter and the arrival of Her Divine Highness as they did the arrival of any pilgrim. They were met by Marshal Crux--good old crumbling Crux--and by Crux’s side stood Ortus’s father, Mortus the Ninth. Behind Crux and Mortus were several kneeling penitents, prayer bones clicking in their fingers, mouths murmuring prayers to the Tomb.

Crux bowed before Her Divine Highness--as deeply as Crux could bow, which admittedly, was not all that deep. Mortus the Ninth bowed deeper and swept out his arm with a welcoming flourish. What was more, when he straightened up from his bow, he very nearly smiled!

“Oh,” Ortus said behind Harrow. She recognized the surprise in his tone. Ortus, for perhaps the first time in his life, had managed to rise in the ranks of his father’s esteem. He’d accompanied his necromancer to the First House and now he’d returned home accompanied by Her Divine Highness, having brought the Reverend Daughter closer to her goal than anyone could possibly expect.

Well--no, that wasn’t quite true. The Ninth House had very high expectations of Harrow. When she left, they seemed to think that she had this entire thing in the bag. It warmed Harrow’s heart that they should put their faith in her, though she knew before she stepped on that shuttle that it was sorely misplaced. Never did she expect to be back here with Gideon by her side. Never did she expect to get so far that the Emperor Undying’s progeny would be brought home to meet the Reverend Mother and Reverend Father, or to be given an official tour of the House, in the event that it might become her future home.

Mortus cleared his throat (he’d always had an abundance of phlegm) and said: “Welcome to Drearburh, your Highness. I’m Mortus Nigenad, cavalier to the Reverend Mother and Reverend Father.”

“I see the family resemblance,” Gideon said with a warm smile. “It’s an honor.”

“The honor is ours, Divine Highness. We have waited and we have prayed and now the moment has come.” Crux let out a warning grunt and Mortus nodded. “By the moment, of course we mean the moment before the moment, when nothing has truly been decided and yet we feel infinitely honored that Her Divine Highness looked upon Drearburh’s Daughter and saw in her all the sepulchral splendor and potential of the Ninth.”

Gideon’s eyebrows rose in increments as Mortus delivered his short speech. When she snuck a glance toward Harrow it was a glance that assured Harrow that she would be forced to endure Gideon repeating sepulchral splendor ad nauseam for the rest of the visit.

Crux untwisted his mouth long enough to say, “Marshal Crux, at your service, your Highness.” He turned to Harrow. “The Ninth House wilts at your leaving, my lady. The House rots and decays with your absence. The House goes into arrest without its Daughter and is resurrected by your return.”

It appeared that Crux and Mortus were trying to outdo one another. Harrow put a stop to it before Ortus decided to join in. “Yes,” Harrow agreed. “We’re all exceedingly happy to be home. My parents are waiting?”

“They are, my lady,” Mortus said. “Your Celestial Highness, my lady Harrowhark, if you’ll follow me.”

Crux added: “Follow me.”

Harrow could almost hear Aiglamene rolling her one good eye.

The procession moved frustratingly slowly, with Mortus and Crux walking at a pace slow enough to ensure the tottering nuns and penitents that followed behind the Reverend Daughter’s entourage could keep up. Gideon’s eyes were wide as she took in the fissure, the tiers and the stairs and the skeletons. Harrow tried to imagine how Drearburh might seem through Gideon’s eyes, how it sounded to Gideon’s ears. The constant hum of the oxygen-sealant machines, so much more noticeable now that Harrow knew its absence. The buzz of the yellow lights that created circular pools of brightness amidst inky blacks and deep deep blues. It must seem incredibly dark to Gideon’s golden eyes, so used to the sun and the sea. Harrow watched the way Gideon blinked and thought that perhaps Gideon couldn’t make out the details at all. As they approached the stairs and began to descend, Harrow shifted to position herself along the outside edge. She let her fingers carefully brush Gideon’s, subtly offering a guiding hand.

Gideon accepted the offer and held on tight.

She stumbled only once, on the crumbling steps of the eleventh tier. Gideon, after all, was used to a House decaying, to the erosion of time and the smell of damp rock and bone.

Perhaps this visit really wouldn’t go as poorly as Harrow expected.

Crux and Mortus stopped just outside the cold white doors of the castle. Mortus stepped to the side and swept up his arms as though presenting Her Divine Highness with heaps of gold treasure instead of flickering candles and a macabre assortment of carved skeletons--hundreds of them, thousands. In truth, Harrow found them quite beautiful. She always loved how they caught in the light from the braziers, how their eyes seemed to look right at her, how they witnessed her passing. Now though, she saw them and she couldn’t help but compare them to the likely sights on the Third, to gleaming gold and soothing lavender, to a bright red splash of blood. They were such opposites, the Third and the Ninth. Life and flesh to death and bone. And Gideon--Harrow looked at Gideon and she saw life and she saw flesh, beating heart and bright red muscle.

Gideon squeezed her hand and when Harrow looked up, she found Gideon watching her with wide eyes, pupils big black pits in the dark.

“You’re shaking,” Gideon observed.

“Am I?” Harrow asked, but even as she said it, she realized that she was. Harrow was nervous, trembling, and she took a deep shaking breath to still herself. She itched to pull her hand from Gideon’s, to adjust the fit of her gloves, but Gideon’s hand was warm against hers, and Gideon’s grip was firm. Harrow didn’t want to make a scene. She said: “It must be all this sepulchral splendor,” and then she cleared her throat and glared toward Mortus. “We’ve seen it, Mortus, let’s move on.”

They were escorted through the great white doors and onto the worn carpets of the castle interior. Harrow’s ears caught the familiar notes of the appropriately titled hymn, her great-aunts’ favorite, Eyes Have Not Seen. Her parents were waiting in the hall. One faced the other, on their knees in their most elaborate robes, with necks bent and faces veiled, the beads of bone clicking between their fingers. Behind them knelt the great aunts, eyes drawn onto their closed eyelids, bright white in the black sockets of their painted faces.

Beside Harrow, Gideon sucked in a breath. Harrow couldn’t tell if it was horror or wonder, not even when Gideon murmured, “Sepulchral splendor, indeed.”

This time, when Harrow slipped her hand from Gideon’s, Gideon did not attempt to keep a hold on her.

Harrow sank to her knees. Crux and Mortus sank onto the pew and bowed their heads. Behind Gideon and Harrow the procession followed suit until only Gideon remained standing.

“Oh,” Gideon said, low, barely audible. She folded to her knees beside Harrow.

“I pray that the Tomb is shut forever,” Harrow said. Her voice rang loud and clear throughout the hall. “I pray that the rock is never rolled away.”

As she continued through the prayer, her parents' voices joined her own. Her aunts’ joined theirs, then Mortus and Ortus and the whole of the congregation. At the end of the prayer, Harrow stood. This time Gideon was quick to follow.

“Stay here,” Harrow whispered. She touched her gloved fingers to Gideon’s wrist in a gesture she hoped came off as reassuring, and then she left Gideon’s side and approached her parents. Aiglamene ushered Gideon and the Cohort officers to a pew as Harrowhark adjusted her veil and approached the dais.

She looked out at the rows of aging penitents, at Ortus sitting beside his father, at the skeletons that filled in the many wide gaps. Her eyes fell on Gideon who looked a little awed, though it was still so hard to say from her face if it was the good kind of awe, or the horrified kind. Gideon’s eyes shifted away from the candles, from the green glow of dust that sprinkled down from the ceiling, and when she found Harrow watching her, she flashed Harrow a crooked grin, irresistibly brash, and then she winked.

Harrow cleared her throat and looked away. She kept her eyes off Gideon during the sermon, knew that if she looked at Gideon’s face again she was likely to trip over her words. Worse yet, she might forget them entirely, words she’d known as long as she could talk. She didn’t look at Gideon and she did not forget. She prayed to the Tomb and she felt her heart swell with her home, with its crumbling halls and crumbling people. She was the future of her House. She was their hopes and their dreams. Every penitent was as much her mother as her mother was her mother. Each and every one was as much her father as her father was her father. Their children were stolen and the Reverend Daughter was offered in their place. How could she not love them as her own? How could she not loathe and fear the sight of them?

Harrow’s lips closed over the final prayer of the service, and her shoulders relaxed. She looked back at Gideon and found Gideon staring back, eyebrows high. “Wow,” Gideon mouthed, her head nodding in approval. She lifted her hands as though she might clap for Harrow’s performance, and then remembered where she was and shook her head. The “sorry” was easy to read on her lips, even accompanied by a sheepish smile. It took some effort not to smile in return, but Harrow managed it, restrained herself to a mere nod of acknowledgement instead.

**

“That was really something else,” Gideon said afterward, on the way to dinner. “After seeing that, I’m telling Teacher I’m stepping aside. If he wants a presenter with passion, he should contact Drearburh’s Daughter.”

“Stop,” Harrow said, though her face felt hot, and she was grateful, as always, for her paint.

Gideon snorted. “Look, we already have our deal, so it’s not like I need to butter you up. I’m not exaggerating. You’re something else, Harrow.”

“Mm,” Harrow said, in stiff acknowledgement. “Well, I’m glad the service impressed you.”

You impress me,” Gideon clarified.

“All right,” Harrow said, impatience slipping into her words. “You’ve made your point. Please stop before you make a scene.”

Gideon let out a short breath and shook her head in disbelief, but she did, at least, stop for the time being.

They were ushered into the dining room by several constructs, who directed them to their assigned seats. Harrow’s parents sat at the center of the table on the left side, as they always did, Priamhark to the left and Pelleamena to the right. To Priamhark’s left sat Mortus the Ninth and Sister Glaurica, who seemed thrilled and more than a little stunned to be included in the proceedings. To Pelleamena’s right sat Harrow’s great aunts and Aiglamene. Harrow and Gideon were seated opposite Harrow’s parents, Gideon on the left and Harrow on the right. To the left of Gideon sat Captain Viisimus and Lieutenant Hamza. To Harrow’s right sat Ortus the Ninth and Marshal Crux.

Gideon smiled at Harrow’s parents--both of them--and said: “I see where Harrow gets her good looks.” It was so similar to the line she’d used on Mortus, practically recycled, but no one at the table seemed to notice, not even Mortus himself. Glaurica, who hadn’t heard the line the first time, tittered with approval.

“We’re honored that you’ve graced the gates of Drearburh,” Priamhark said, seriously. “We’re humbled by your pilgrimage.”

Gideon blushed a little at these words, kinder than any Harrow had heard from her father before. Ortus took over from there, regaling the group with stories of their time at Canaan House, of the construct in the facility and Harrow’s impressive feat on the sea.

Gideon made barely concealed faces at the food, twisting her features with some difficulty into an expression of pleased approval.

“Mm,” she said, her head bobbing. “Delicious.” She gagged a little as she said it, tried to cover it by choking out a cough. No one but Harrow seemed to notice. When Gideon swallowed it looked like she was swallowing a handful of pebbles.

Harrow watched with interest as Gideon took a second bite. This one seemed to go down a little easier. She smiled at Harrow. In the end, Gideon cleaned her plate and accepted seconds when offered. It was the first time Harrow had ever seen seconds offered. Her parents were really pulling out all the stops.

After dinner, Captain Viisimus (who had apparently received instructions from Teacher) announced that it was time for the Reverend Daughter to lead Her Divine Highness on a tour of the Ninth.

Harrow, who had never had reason to provide anyone with a tour of her home before, was unsure where to start. “You’ve seen the landing field,” Harrow said, carefully. “You’ve seen the castle. Let’s start with the planting fields, and then we’ll work our way down to the catacombs, the Anastasian monument, and the Tomb.”

Gideon waited until they were standing on the edge of the planting fields, until they were watching the constructs working up and down the rows of leeks, breathing in the ureal smell of the recyc, before she said: “I thought when everyone joked that there were no young on the Ninth that it was, you know, like just a mean exaggeration. But it’s accurate, isn’t it. It’s really just you and Ortus--who isn’t even young, really.”

Captain Viisimus and Lieutenant Hamza held back away from them, keeping watch at the edge of the tier, out of earshot.

“It’s just me,” Harrow confirmed. “And Ortus, who isn’t really young at all.”

“So without this, the Ninth--”

“Yes,” Harrow confirmed.

Gideon laughed. “And you still showed up stubborn as all hell.”

Harrow blinked, unsure how to respond to that.

“Well, it worked,” Gideon concluded after a long moment of taking in the surrounding Ninth, the lights buzzing over the fields, the uric smell of the irrigation system. “Can’t really argue your methods there. Okay, fields. Check. What else?”

Gideon held Harrow’s hand as they descended down each tier. At one point she said: “There are so many constructs here it makes Canaan House seem really empty.”

Canaan House, of course, was empty. It was just Gideon and the three priests. If there was anyone who could understand the situation on the Ninth, it was the First Reborn’s First Born.

Gideon was appropriately impressed by the catacombs and the Anastasian. Sepulchral splendor this and sepulchral splendor that. The Cohort officers were appropriately disinterested. And then, finally, there was nothing left of the Ninth to tour and Harrow found herself standing outside the locked door before the passageway to the Tomb.

“This is it,” she said. She unravelled her prayer beads from around her wrist. She closed her eyes, pressed her forehead to the cool stone of the wall, and she prayed. When she opened her eyes, Gideon was watching her. Viisimus and Hamza had moved away again, giving them space to speak freely.

“Do you know what he has locked up here?” Gideon asked.

Harrow stilled, immediately suspicious. Gideon had no questions about the catacombs. She had few comments in the monument beyond “shame about the state of these weapons,” but outside the Tomb, Gideon seemed brighter, as though fueled by sudden curiosity. Harrow supposed any pilgrim would be. This was what they all came to see, to watch the Ninth’s penitents press their foreheads to the stone of the wall, to the damp steel of the door.

Gideon was not any pilgrim. She did not stare greedily at the marks left by centuries of painted foreheads. She did not press her hand to the steel or the stone. She was looking at Harrow and Harrow alone.

Harrow sputtered, stumbled over her answering question. “Do you?”

Gideon shrugged. “Actually, yeah. I mean, I know what he tells us anyway.”

She knew more than Harrow then. Harrow’s heart skipped a beat and then began to race. She tried to control her voice when next she spoke, but she sounded breathless, like she’d just run up twenty-three tiers. “What does he tell you?”

“Claims she was once his bodyguard.”

Harrow felt herself deflate. It was more than she’d ever been able to find out on her own, but it sounded so ordinary, so-- “His bodyguard? But why...No, that can’t be right. The Tomb contains the one true enemy of the King Undying. It contains something older than time, the cost of the Resurrection. The beast that he defeated once but can’t defeat twice. The abyss of the First. The death of the Lord.”

This was an entire House whose purpose was to watch and worship the corpse of a super old version of Ortus the Ninth? Harrow shook her head and pressed her hands to the steel door. Gideon moved closer and leaned her side against the wall. She was going to have paint smeared on her suit again, but she did not seem concerned by this. Gideon looked up toward the top of the door and said: “It seems like there must be more to it, doesn’t there? Have you ever tried to get inside?”

Harrow looked up at Gideon, surprised. “Of course not.”

The lie was a reflex, exactly what she knew she was supposed to say as the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House. In truth, she’d spent a year trying to get in. It took her a year to go ten steps, and then she spent another on the blood ward. It nearly killed her; she almost welcomed it. It was the only thing that kept her going at the time, the only thing that made it all bearable, and to have Gideon ask now felt--it felt like a trap. It felt like a test.

It wasn’t though, was it?

Gideon had never done anything to suggest an ulterior motive with Harrow. If anything, Gideon went out of her way to show that she was not her father. She was working to escape the Nine Houses entirely, to leave the Empire behind for good. It was as far as one could get from a ringing endorsement.

There was more to it than that though. Harrow understood family. She understood duty. Gideon could want to flip her father the bird and fly thousands of light years away more than she wanted anything else in the world, but the first hint of a threat toward him or his empire might set her fighting for it more viciously than she’d ever fought for anything before. Harrow would be wise to tread lightly. She knew how easy it would be to twist what she’d done into treason.

Gideon continued to study the door. “I would have tried,” she said.

“There are no locks to pick here.”

“There are, though. I was born to pick these particular locks.”

Harrow snorted and relaxed a fraction. “Funny,” she said. “I think I’d like to see you try.”

“No, I’m serious,” Gideon said. She glanced down the hallway toward the Cohort. Satisfied with what she saw there, she leaned in closer to Harrow and continued: “There’s a blood ward somewhere past this door. I was conceived with the intention of breaking the ward and opening the Tomb.”

Harrow stepped back away from the door. “I don’t understand.”

“Okay, I--” Gideon cleared her throat. Her brow was furrowed and when she looked up at Harrow her eyes were bright and her mouth was set. “This is going to be awkward to explain. It’s kind of like--I don’t know. It’s like a big family secret, I guess?”

Harrow understood big family secrets. She turned toward the Cohort officers. They didn’t seem to be paying attention. It didn’t matter. Harrow reached out and set a hand on Gideon’s arm. “Don’t tell me,” she said.

Gideon’s eyes lost some of their brightness. “No, it’s okay. I think you should know.”

“Not here,” Harrow said, urgently, and when Gideon didn’t seem like she planned to stop, Harrow leaned in until they were pressed together. She reached up and clamped a hand over Gideon’s mouth. Gideon froze, blinking down at Harrow with those big yellow eyes. She stopped talking though. It worked.

“Not here,” Harrow repeated. She stared up at Gideon until finally Gideon blinked once and then nodded beneath Harrow’s hand. Before Harrow could be certain it was safe to pull away, Gideon’s eyes warmed, and she felt the wet press of Gideon’s lips against the inside of her palm. Harrow yanked her hand away as though burned. “Your Highness!”

“Sorry,” Gideon said. “Couldn’t resist. So...we’ll talk later?”

“You can tell me now,” Harrow said. “You just can’t tell me here. Come on, follow me.”

**

In what had to be one of the most poorly timed interferences in the history of the Ninth House, they were intercepted by Mortus the Ninth before they could reach Harrow’s intended destination. Her parents’ cavalier ushered them into her mother’s library, where her mother, father, and the great-aunts were already waiting. Harrow’s mother gestured silently to a chaise lounge, just large enough for Harrow and Gideon to sit together side by side. The ancient wooden legs swayed and creaked beneath their combined weight, and Gideon slipped her fingers beneath Harrow’s elbow, presumably in preparation to catch her should the chaise give out beneath them.

“How have you found the Ninth?” Pelleamena asked. Harrow found it strange, watching her parents attempt to engage in pleasantries. They seemed awkward, off like this in a way that Harrow never would have recognized before her time at Canaan House. Harrow shifted in her seat, desperate to put Gideon at ease and at a complete loss at how to manage it. Gideon grew up with the insufferably pleasant Teacher. The manner of the Ninth had to be something of a shock.

“My teacher always loved the particular character of the Ninth and spoke of the House often” Gideon said, with a gracious nod of her head. “I find he spoke the truth. The Ninth House is beautiful in its darkness, in the stark severity of the fissure, ornate with history and faithfully rooted in its founding purpose.”

Harrow looked up at Gideon, startled by her words and wondering, suddenly, if perhaps Gideon was spending too much time in the company of Harrow’s cavalier. She did not, at least, pull out sepulchral splendor again.

“Most exquisite of all, in my eyes, is the Reverend Daughter,” Gideon continued, except now she turned toward Harrow and latched on with those intense eyes. Harrow blinked, stunned by the display. “She’s a testament to your House, a remarkable necromancer, and a dedicated friend.”

Harrow shifted back at that. She was not a dedicated friend. She’d never even had a friend.

Harrow’s mother smiled and nodded her veiled head. “Your words are very kind,” she said. “Our House is neither as grand as it once was, nor does it thrive as it once did, but we remain dedicated to the Tomb and the Emperor, ever present, ever faithful, ever keeping.”

Primahark cleared his throat. “We would like to entertain Her Divine Highness with a reading.”

Harrow felt her mouth go tight, suddenly certain that her parents’ would allow Ortus to recite from The Noniad, but Ortus did not stand. Instead it was Harrow’s father who moved toward the desk. He picked up a stack of letters and Harrow shifted and relaxed. No, not The Noniad. Harrow’s father intended to read his favorite letters from dead relatives. Or rather, he would read his favorites among the letters that were appropriate for Her Divine Highness and two Cohort officers to hear, which was most of them, as those that could not be read in front of Her Divine Highness and two Cohort officers were never read in a library or sitting room to begin with.

Harrow’s personal favorites were a series of letters written by her ninth great grandmother, the Reverend Mother Stasia Nonamus. Stasia Nonamus lived a life in the Ninth House that seemed so completely impossible to Harrowhark, it defied her young imagination so completely, that Harrow couldn’t help but obsess over every detail. Stasia Nonamus married Harrow’s ninth great grandfather, the Reverend Father Thalus Novenna. Around the same time, or perhaps before, Stasia took a lover named Sister Devetica. Eventually Devetica was invited to join Stasia and Thalus in their marriage, and thus became the Second Reverend Mother Devetica Anastus, also Harrow’s ninth great grandmother. Together the three dedicated their lives and their devotions to the Tomb and raised Harrow’s eighth great grandfather to be the greatest necromancer the Ninth had yet produced. The letters written by Devetica to Stasia, prior to Devetica accepting Stasia and Thalus’s marriage proposal, put Ortus’s poetry to shame. They were beautiful, somehow both pious and scandalously heated at the same time, but that wasn’t what amazed Harrow about the letters.

What amazed Harrow the most was the thought of the Ninth having enough people for such a thing to come to pass in the first place. For Stasia Nonamus to find two partners over the course of her life. This seemed more fantastical to Harrow as a child than anything she could dream up on her own, having at that time only ever been presented with one singular and horrific option for her own marital future. It seemed an impossibly rich life, a remarkably decadent age in the Ninth’s history. It was unfathomable.

It hit Harrow, suddenly, that it was almost within the realm of possibility again now.

Once Harrow married Gideon and the Ninth was replenished, Harrow would fulfill her end of the bargain. She would allow Gideon to leave, and when Gideon left, she would leave Harrow in a House bursting with people and with possibility. She would, perhaps, leave Harrow within a resurrection of that decadent age. Maybe she’d leave Harrow with a craving for more company than an absent wife could provide too.

Harrow still couldn’t imagine it. A few weeks ago she could hardly imagine wanting anyone, let alone Gideon. She still wasn’t certain that she did want Gideon, outside of the problems that Gideon could fix and the fortune of souls the union would provide. Wanting someone in addition to Gideon seemed a bit laughable. Both possible and impossible all at once.

Harrow’s father didn’t choose to read the letters of Stasia Nonamus and Devetica Anastus. Why would he? The letters that he did choose to read were dull in comparison, particularly to an outsider looking in. They were letters of devotion, love letters to the Tomb, nothing more. The Ninth was stuffed full of love letters to the Tomb. Harrow, herself, had written many over the years. Letter after letter that confessed everything to the unknown contained within.

The Emperor’s bodyguard. A woman, if Gideon’s words were to be believed.

When this was over, she would take Gideon to the pool, and she would listen. Gideon claimed she was born to pick the Tomb’s lock, and Harrow knew better than almost anyone how hard a lock that was to pick. Harrow would listen to Gideon’s confession, and then, maybe--

“Harrow?” Gideon asked.

Harrow looked up. Her father had put down the letters. Her mother was staring at her with dark Drearburh eyes.

“Oh,” Harrow said. “I’m sorry, it’s been so long I--my thoughts turned to the Tomb and I seem to have lost myself in my prayers.”

In the shadows behind Pelleamena, Sister Lachrimorta began to click the beads on her rosary. Harrow recognized this as judgment.

**

By the time they’d travelled through the locked inner corridors of Drearburh and arrived at their destination, Harrow’s heart was beating fast and there was a strange lump in her throat. The Ninth specialized in secrets, collected them, and Gideon had secrets she was ready and willing to share.

Harrow hadn’t decided if she planned to share any of her own.

She pushed open the heavy door and was greeted with the familiar smell of mold and salt water. It was the smell of secrets, the smell of responsibility. It seemed a very Ninth smell, which had made all of the mold and salt water on the First very disconcerting.

“Oh,” Gideon said, surprised. And then, stating the obvious: “It’s the pool.”

Harrow and Gideon waited as the two Cohort soldiers inspected the pool and the shadowy corners of the room. They flashed their torches at the tiles and the stone, looking for alternate entrances and hidden dangers. Eventually Viisimus announced the ‘all clear’ and Hamza echoed her assessment. Gideon gestured back out into the corridor. The Cohort soldiers nodded and stationed themselves in the hallway. Gideon shut the door behind them and turned to Harrow with eyebrows high.

“I thought you hated pool parties.”

“I do,” Harrow agreed, suddenly nervous to be shut in this space alone with Gideon. “This isn’t a party. It’s a ritual.”

“I didn’t bring my bathing suit.”

Harrow turned toward the pool. She unhooked her cloak and let it fall to the floor. Behind her, Gideon uttered a breathy curse that Harrow chose to ignore, even as it echoed through her, lighting up the nerves in her fingers and her toes. Harrow sowed the damp tiles with bone fragments from her pockets. She barely needed to concentrate on the theorem. She’d been raising constructs so often and for so long, it hardly felt like it required a theorem at all. The thanergy popped against her skull as she pushed each construct up from the ground. Thirteen skeletons. Ten to guard the doors, and the other three to attend Harrow.

“Okay,” Gideon laughed. “I’m pretty sure you aren’t planning to attack me, and also pretty sure I could take these constructs if you were, but the Cohort clearly isn’t used to checking bone adepts for potential threats. Can you imagine? They check the mold in the corners, announce everything’s fine, and then later they open the doors to find you’ve taken me out with some bone dust you had hidden in your pocket? Talk about a bad day at work.”

Harrow smiled as she moved to stand at the edge of the pool. “Are you coming?”

She didn’t need to ask twice. Gideon unhooked her rapier. She yanked at her jacket, discarding it on the floor without a thought to the grime. Her fingers rushed down the buttons of her shirt, undoing each one until it draped open and exposed the black strip of her bandeau beneath. Harrow averted her eyes, and when she looked up again, Gideon was there wearing nothing but the bandeau and her shorts, the rest of her long lines of muscle and warm brown skin.

Perhaps not that warm. Gideon shivered and goosebumps rose up on her arms. She ignored it and looked over toward Harrow with gleaming gold eyes. “What next?”

“Next we get in the water,” Harrow said. She barely finished her sentence before Gideon was in the pool, the water splashing up against Harrow’s feet.

Harrow’s constructs lifted Harrow by her arms and lowered her into the pool.

“Show off,” Gideon grinned, treading water. “So this ritual...”

“The Ninth House has secrets,” Harrow began, “and those secrets are never to be discussed unless we are immersed in salt water. We keep this ceremonial pool for the purpose. It’s hidden from the rest of the House.”

“I thought this was where you held the water aerobics classes,” Gideon said.

Harrow bit down on what she’d intended to say next. “I’m not sure I can take you repeating Ianthe Tridentarius’s jokes as though they are funny right now.”

“Sorry,” Gideon said. “Sorry, okay, so you brought us here so we could get wet over my secrets.”

That joke wasn’t much better.

“I brought you here because I’ll consider telling you mine if you tell me yours. And also because--though I don’t necessarily understand the purpose of the salt water, if it can contain the Ninth’s secrets, and it can contain my secrets, I hope that it can contain the First’s as well.”

“You have secrets?”

“Are you surprised?”

“No,” Gideon said. She dipped under the surface of the water and then came back up and pushed her hair back away from her face.

Harrow’s lungs felt tight and her limbs felt stiff and she pushed back toward the edge of the pool while she considered her next move. There was a chance that Gideon might reject her once she learned Harrow’s secret. There was a chance Gideon would choose to break their deal. Gideon had already told Harrow the condensed version of her own admission. Harrow did not think the details would change Harrow’s mind, but Gideon--

“Perhaps I should go first,” Harrow said.

Gideon swam up to grip the wall beside Harrow. It was almost unbearable, the proximity, Gideon’s lack of clothing. She needed Ortus for this. She needed Viisimus and Hamza. She needed all three.

“Sure, I mean, it is your ritual swimming pool of secrets after all.”

None of what she was about to say was intended for her cavalier’s ears. None of it was intended for Viisimus or Hamza. This was between Harrow and Gideon.

It was easier not to look at Gideon’s face, except that not looking at Gideon’s face meant looking at the freckles spattered across Gideon’s bare shoulders or the smooth expanse of bare chest above Gideon’s bandeau instead. Gideon seemed so comfortable in a few scraps of wet fabric and Harrow felt naked, laid completely bare despite the heavy weight of her clothes. She took a deep breath and then she looked Gideon in those extraordinary eyes.

The chest or the shoulders would have been safer. Gideon’s gaze set her on fire. It wouldn’t be long before the pool began to boil. Harrow rushed straight to the point: “My secret also pertains to the circumstances of my birth.”

Gideon let out a breath. “I guess that’s something else we have in common then.”

“My parents needed to conceive a child,” Harrow went on. “By that point my mother had miscarried several times. She needed to make sure she would carry the child to term. More than that, they needed to ensure that that child was a necromancer. My mother was getting old, and my parents realized they had one more chance to produce a child to fill the role of true heir to the Locked Tomb. You knew before you arrived that the Ninth does not have access to the technology that would be required to ensure the necessary outcome. We discussed this as part of our deal. My parents could make no such bargain, and so they turned to an alternate method.”

She pushed through the rest of the story, her eyes locked on Gideon’s as she told Her Divine Highness about the gas, the forty-four infants, the eight-one children, the sixty-five teenagers. She held Gideon’s gaze as she spoke of the thanergy ignition. She waited for Gideon to flinch.

Gideon didn’t flinch. She listened without cracking a joke, without saying a single word.

“Say something,” Harrow said, certain that this confession would mean the end of her options, the end of all hope for her House. She knew what the others thought. She knew what the Eighth House said openly and what the other Houses said in whispers. The Ninth House was never meant to survive. The Ninth House was never intended to live. The Ninth did not deserve to be saved.

“I’m not sure what to say,” Gideon said with a small shrug. “I’m not sure there’s anything to say, except that I’m sorry you had to bear it alone.”

“That’s it?” Harrow asked. Where was the disgust? Where was the rage?

“You thought I’d be angry?”

“I thought you’d be horrified! I’ve known the facts of my conception since I was young enough to understand, and still I am--I am a war crime. I am quite literally every daughter and every son of my House.”

“Except Ortus.”

“Yes!” Harrow burst out. “Obviously, except Ortus!” She curled her hands into fists and pressed them to Gideon’s chest to expel an excess of frustration and feeling.

Gideon was quiet. She was still beneath the curled fists of Harrow’s hands. Harrow couldn’t stand this lack of appropriate reaction from Gideon. She needed Gideon to knock Harrow’s hands away in disgust, to pull herself up and out of the pool, to tell Harrow that she needed time to think, that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go through with any of it at all, not anymore. She needed Gideon to confirm what Harrow already knew: this Reverend Daughter was a monstrosity, a nonsense, a sin and a debt.

Gideon was quiet beneath Harrow’s hands. Gideon was still.

And then, when Harrow truly didn’t think she could stand Gideon’s stillness a second longer, Gideon moved. She lifted her arms and her big hands folded over Harrow’s shoulders. She pulled Harrow in and Harrow sighed out with relief. Gideon would not pass the Emperor’s judgement with words. They were beyond that. Gideon would pass the Emperor’s judgement by physical means instead. She would end Harrow, and with her the Ninth House. Harrow dropped her hands away from Gideon’s chest. When Gideon placed a hand to the back of Harrow’s head, Harrow pressed her cheek to the stretch of skin over Gideon’s sternum. She closed her eyes and she held her breath and she waited for the rush of the water, for the sting of the salt in her nose and her lungs.

She wondered if she would fight. She wondered if she would try.

She did not get to find out.

Instead of the water, it was the press of her cheek to Gideon’s bare chest, it was Gideon’s arms solid against the wet clothes at her back, holding her close, pressing Harrow tight against her. No more.

Harrow did not fight. She did not try to escape. It was too late for that.

“My turn?” Gideon whispered. Her face was pressed close to Harrow’s head, and Harrow shivered at the warm brush of Gideon’s breath against her ear. She grunted, helpless, in response.

The story Gideon told was convoluted, something out of a dramatic novel, though Harrow couldn’t begin to guess which House might have come up with such a plot. It involved treason, a lascivious coupling (or an “old people’s threeway” as Gideon put it) that would make even Stasia, Thalus, and Devetica blush. It involved the theft of the Emperor’s seed (or “my dad’s jizz”) followed by impregnation of a ruthless enemy. All of it in the name of opening the Tomb!

The year Harrow spent on her own endeavor suddenly seemed a trifle in comparison!

Gideon’s heart was beating fast by the time she came to the end of her confession. It pounded somewhere below Harrow’s cheek, shouted into Harrow’s ear. Harrow’s brow furrowed. She said: “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Okay, so my mother was the commander of this group called Blood of Eden and she was hellbent on opening the Tomb, so she teamed up with two of his Lyctors to steal his--”

“Yes,” Harrow said, “that part I understood. I don’t understand the part where you are the key to the Tomb.”

“Oh,” Gideon said. “It’s the blood ward. The only way to open it is with his blood, so obviously he’s always been super careful about that. They figured out that there was a loophole.”

The pieces clicked together in Harrow’s head. “An immediate relative,” Harrow said.

“Yeah, the thing is, my mother wasn’t a necromancer, so for her to use me, she was going to have to destroy me in the process. I was basically just a bomb she planned to detonate in front of the ward.”

“Awful,” Harrow murmured, as though she was one to judge.

Gideon hummed in agreement and then said, “I think you have it worse. People died in the mess of my birth, but not in a way that makes me feel responsible, you know?”

Harrow pulled away from Gideon’s embrace, extracted herself finally from Gideon’s arms, just far enough that she could see Gideon’s face. “How could our Lord--could your father, his Celestial Kindliness--allow you to choose the Ninth?”

Gideon shrugged. She reached up and brushed damp hair from Harrow’s temple. Harrow managed not to flinch. “He invited you.”

Yes, he invited her, but she couldn’t imagine him thinking of her as anything more than...filler. Surely he didn’t think--”If you were born to open the Tomb, and you know you were born to open the Tomb, then how can you ever choose me? How can the Emperor let you spend the rest of your life so close to temptation?”

“Easy,” Gideon said. “He changed the locks.”

Harrow laughed and the sound caught her by surprise, her hand flying up to cover her own throat, water splashing onto her face. “That’s impossible. How? When?”

Gideon sank down into the water, only her head and the tops of her shoulders visible above the surface. “Around the time I was born, I guess. One of his Lyctors figured it out--Gideon, actually, which was how I got my name. Like some kind of weird thank you? I don’t know all the details, but there was a big showdown. He was forced to end two of his Hands, but before he did he brought them to the Ninth, disguised as pilgrims. He reset the wards using his traitorous Fingers as the replacement keys. Then he killed them. That’s why--so full disclosure, they’ve been fighting this war for ten thousand years, and between that and this whole traitor thing, there are only two Lyctors left. There have only been two Lyctors for as long as I can remember. I think that’s why he--well, I don’t know. I thought that was why he had me giving you all those keys, but then I keep sending everyone home before anyone has all of the pieces--except for you.”

Harrow’s head hurt. “That doesn’t make any sense at all. We would have known. This isn’t the Fifth, we don’t get so many pilgrims that--my parents would have known!”

“No one knew,” Gideon insisted. She looked around at the stone of the ceiling and the walls of the room. “Maybe he’s got like a secret tunnel to get around here undetected. Could be anything.”

“I still don’t understand how he could allow you to tie yourself to this place after all of that.”

“It’s easy to understand if you think of it like an enormous fuck you to everyone involved in the mess twenty years also. A giant fuck you even though he made sure they were all dead and gone.”

“Is that the Emperor’s style?” Harrow asked. “Giant fuck yous to the dead?”

“I think in this case, yes, absolutely.” Gideon said. She pushed back away from Harrow a little. Harrow watched her, all lean muscle and long lines, and then she felt something touch her foot, and she yelped in surprise and yanked her legs away.

It was, of course, just Gideon, just Gideon attempting to caress Harrow’s calves with the pointed curve of her foot. Gideon grinned. Harrow grabbed Gideon’s foot with both of her hands, and pulled, hard and abrupt so that Gideon disappeared beneath the surface for just a second before she reappeared, laughing and sputtering, wiping the water from her eyes and her nose.

Composure somewhat regained, Gideon swam close, moved right up beside Harrow, close enough that Harrow thought Gideon might kiss her. Gideon looked down at Harrow’s mouth, obvious, awful. Her fingers brushed the wet fabric at Harrow’s shoulder. She said: “It took what basically amounts to a bomb for you to be born. And I was born to be a bomb. That sounds like a perfect match to me.”

That wasn’t going to work on Harrow. She knocked Gideon’s hand away and raised her chin to look Gideon in the eye. “I don’t understand you. I don’t understand how you can act like...”

“Like what?”

“Like this is easy,” Harrow said. “I’m standing here telling you I’m an abomination. You’re a bomb meant to blast open the Tomb, and you still make it seem like your choice is easy.”

“You aren’t standing,” Gideon said. “Your feet aren’t anywhere near the ground.”

“You know what I--”

“None of this is easy,” Gideon cut in. “But we talked about it. We have a deal, don’t we?”

Right. That was why. That was how. It didn’t matter that Harrow was a genocide. She was still a means to an end. Gideon would marry Harrow, she would make everyone believe it was all real, and then Harrow would let her go. Gideon was upholding her end of the bargain. She was doing a bang up job of it. And Harrow needed the marriage. She needed the souls and the heir and all of the rest.

She didn’t need to flirt with Gideon in the Ninth’s ritual pool.

“Let’s go,” Harrow said, her voice steady and cool, “before your bodyguards start to talk.”

**

They placed Gideon in a set of rarely used rooms in the same section of Drearburh as Harrow’s cell. The rooms were large for the Ninth, but the furnishings were standard: sagging wardrobes and cots just barely wide enough for a single person each. The anteroom was set up with two cots set perpendicular. Harrow wondered how that worked when the cavalier technically outranked the necromancer. She would leave it to them to work it out.

In the inner room, meant for Her Divine Highness, there were three cots pushed together into one...it still wasn’t a bed really, but it looked like someone had tried. There were also two dressers and two skeletal servants waiting to pull down the sheets.

“Ah,” Gideon said, her hands on her hips. “Just like home.”

“Don’t make fun.” Harrow was dripping on the floor. One of the skeletons pulled a towel from the wardrobe and began mopping up their wet footsteps.

“Is this how the Ninth handles marital beds?” Gideon asked.

“Of course not,” Harrow said, though she honestly wasn’t sure. She never had reason to consider sharing a bed with another person before. Harrow stepped aside while a skeleton wiped the floor beneath her feet.

Gideon’s underclothes were soaking through her dry (though somewhat stained) overclothes. Her white shirt was wet and rendered translucent where it brushed over the slight swell of Gideon’s breasts. The black of Gideon’s bandeau was visible underneath. Harrow found it hard to look at her, so she dropped her eyes to Gideon’s shoes and tried to pass it off as a nod of her head. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Gideon echoed. She stepped forward and Harrow stepped back, unprepared for Gideon to kiss her, sure that was Gideon’s intention.

“I’m wet,” Harrow explained.

“Yeah, me too,” Gideon said, and Harrow didn’t have to look at her to know that she was smiling.

Harrow cleared her throat. She refused to look. She could picture it precisely: Gideon’s grin, crooked and cocky. Gideon’s eyes, bright and shining. Gideon probably spent twenty years staring in a mirror perfecting that smile. She didn’t need Harrow’s confirmation that it was irresistible.

Harrow did not look, but it didn’t matter. She could picture it all. She could still feel the paint on her face, but she couldn’t begin to guess the state of it. Her ears felt hot. She mumbled one more, “Good night, Highness,” and then she rushed from the room.

**

“How did you sleep?” Gideon asked after morning contemplation.

Harrow assumed that meant she looked very tired.

“Well enough,” Harrow lied.

She could not say how much she slept. She could not guess how long she spent staring up at the ceiling, her beads clicking between her fingers, her lips forming around those old familiar prayers. She closed her eyes and she saw Gideon in the pool. She felt Gideon’s foot brush her calf. She heard Gideon’s heart beating fast against her cheek.

She closed her eyes and she imagined another cot pushed up flush against her own, imagined Gideon propped up on her elbow, leaning in to press a kiss to Harrow’s lips.

Her cell was too quiet. She could hear water dripping somewhere, most likely from the clothes that she’d thrown in a heap over the bench in her tiny bathroom.

She found she missed the comforting sound of Ortus’s snores. She missed the way her bed shook when he shifted or turned, the way he sometimes choked a little when he dozed off on his back. When that happened, Harrow pushed herself to the end of the enormous bed, and she pressed the tips of her toes to his arm, really dug them in. That usually got Ortus to shift, and his breathing leveled out into a more uniform scratching rattle.

Harrow knew now that Aiglamene rarely slept through the entire night. She knew the uneven sound of Aiglamene’s pacing, the knock of her skeletal foot against the floor. She knew that Aiglamene held a sword in her hand, that she liked to practice in the early hours before dawn.

Now, in the gloom of late morning, Harrow closed her eyes and she saw a flash of Gideon’s smile. She heard the crash of waves against stone. She opened her eyes and she saw Gideon’s smile, a little more hesitant than the one in her head.

“I’m sorry,” Harrow said. “I should be asking you that question.”

“I slept great,” Gideon said. “The cot agreed with me.”

Harrow nodded. “Good.”

Gideon stepped closer. “I was thinking,” she started, and then her voice caught in her throat and she stopped. She cleared it, but did not go on.

“About?” Harrow prodded.

“I was thinking you might show me what’s involved with a marriage ceremony on the Ninth?”

“What’s involved in a wedding?”

“Yeah,” Gideon said. “It’s hard not to notice the importance of rituals here. Even your pool is used for rituals. I think it would be good for me to start familiarizing myself with your marriage rituals now, so when the time comes, I’m not standing while everyone is kneeling or speaking while everyone else is silent. I don’t want to embarrass you.”

“You wouldn’t embarrass me,” Harrow said, though Gideon, of all people, knew how easy it was to fluster her.

Harrow was loath to admit that she’d been to countless funerals, but she’d never witnessed a single wedding. There was no one left on the Ninth to wed. Everything she knew, she’d read in a letter or a book. She thought back on her reading now, through what she knew of the ceremony, the main elements that would be important to know in advance. She should have reacquainted herself with the material before her departure to Canaan House, but she never thought--not in ten thousand years did she think she could make it this far.

Harrow reached for Gideon’s hand. “Come with me.”

They didn’t need to go far. The small chapel was hidden away behind the apse, accessed from a narrow stone corridor. Viisimus and Hamza took one look, saw that there was nowhere for anyone to hide, and took their positions in the corridor. Gideon shut her and Harrow in, and all of the air in the room out. Harrow felt like she might faint on the spot. She’d been so careful those last weeks at Canaan House. She’d kept Ortus by her side at all times, spent as little time alone with Gideon as she could manage. It didn’t save her. One kiss in a corridor, another outside the dining room, hands on a shuttle, hugs in a pool, and now here they were, shut alone together to discuss the details of a marriage ceremony.

Harrow was unsure where to start, so she started with the awful truth: “I’ve never actually been to a wedding, but I have read of countless through the documented history of my ancestors. What I could not learn there, I searched out in our library until the process became clear.”

“I’ve never been to a wedding either.” No, of course Gideon hadn’t been to a wedding. Who was there to get married at Canaan House? Teacher and the skeletons?

Harrow nodded. “On the day of our wedding, we will be separated and each brought to separate chapels for preparation. This is one of those chapels. The other is further down the corridor. Once sequestered within, we shall prepare our bodies for the ceremony.”

“Prepare our bodies,” Gideon repeated. The comment was accompanied by an entirely inappropriate waggle of her eyebrows.

“Yes,” agreed Harrow, “with sacramental paint.”

Gideon leaned back against a table and gestured toward Harrow. “Our faces.”

Harrow shook her head. “No, the entire body. Each and every bone must be painted onto the skin.”

“Each and every one of them painted white like your face? And the space between the bones are done with the black?” She gestured toward Harrow’s cheeks and eyes. “That’s a lot of paint.”

No, that wasn’t--Harrow wasn’t explaining it correctly at all. “I’m sorry, I haven’t been clear.” She stepped to the table beside Gideon and reached for a lidded jar. “The sacramental paint for a wedding is not the same as the paint worn daily by a Ninth penitent.” Harrow opened the jar and pushed it toward Gideon. “Here, look. The paint is made from this bioluminescent powder. It’s the same powder you might have observed dusted over the arches above the sanctum. When applied to skin, the paint will glow. It’s very beautiful.”

Gideon pressed a finger into the powder and then rubbed the pad of her thumb over her powdered finger, examining the pale green glow of it. “That sounds pretty cool, actually. But why the entire body? It sounds like difficult work and no one will see most of it. I mean...I assume we’re going to be wearing clothes, right?”

“Of course we’re going to be wearing clothes,” Harrow said, and then she amended: “During the ceremony. The rest of the paint is for…afterward.”

Gideon smiled. She reached out and touched her powdered finger to Harrow’s nose. “Now we’re talking.”

Harrow cleared her throat. “The consummation will take place the night of the wedding, following the ceremony and the vows spoken before the Tomb. From there, we will be escorted to our marital cell. The room will be set, with no light except for the light of the paint adorning our bodies.”

“We’re going to be glowing skeletons getting it on in the dark,” Gideon translated. “Okay, sure. Yeah, I’m--it makes sense.”

“Does it?”

Gideon looked around. “I mean, I think it fits the theme, right? Sepulchral splendor and all that?”

“I suppose it does.”

Gideon looked back down at her fingers. She wiped them on her dark trousers and then brushed at the shine of it against the fabric. “I’ve never painted my face. Other than copying what I see each day on your face, I have no idea where I’d even begin.”

“We will show you what to do. I can show you.”

Gideon nodded toward the jar of powder. “How about now?”

“That is powder,” Harrow pointed out, “not paint.”

Gideon hummed. She reached a long arm toward the wall, her fingers pressing the button to snap off the electric light overhead. There were two candles dripping with fat and their light illuminated the room with a flickering shadow-dancing light. Gideon knelt before Harrow and closed her eyes.

“It isn’t paint,” Harrow said again, but she was already moving toward Gideon and the jar of powder that glowed in the shadows. She carefully removed her glove and dipped two fingers into the glow.

Harrow reached up and began to trace the powder over Gideon’s cheek. The opalescent green dust looked beautiful on the brown warmth of Gideon’s skin. Harrow traced over the lines of Gideon’s cheek bones, around the sockets that held her golden eyes. The areas she would have painted black on a normal day, she left bare. She dusted the powder over the rest. When her finger traced a line down the center of Gideon’s long neck, Gideon’s breath went ragged and Harrow felt her swallow, her throat working beneath the tips of Harrow’s fingers.

Gideon was beautiful in a way that Harrow could barely understand, having spent her entire life in a place like the Ninth. She glowed with vibrant youth and good health. When Harrow’s fingers stopped moving, resting just below the jugular notch, Gideon opened her eyes. It was disastrous for Harrow. The warmth in that golden gaze threatened to topple her completely.

Gideon’s eyelashes were thick and auburn, her eyes that arresting shade of yellow-gold. Gideon’s nose was composed of straight sure lines and angles, accentuated by the glowing dust, and her mouth--

Harrow leaned down and kissed Gideon.

This was not a practice kiss. It wasn’t like any kiss they’d shared before. Harrow lingered, her mouth pressed soft and sure against Gideon’s lips, and when Gideon didn’t pull away, Harrow shifted, fit her mouth to Gideon’s lower lip, so that there was no layer of paint between Gideon’s mouth and her own. Gideon startled at the tentative touch of Harrow’s tongue to her lip.

“I’m sorry, I don’t--” Harrow pulled away and attempted to shake sense back into her head.

Gideon’s mouth was wet with Harrow’s kiss, her face luminous with powder. Her lips parted as she leaned in. “No, don’t apologize. Please, kiss me again.”

Harrow was embarrassed by how quickly she moved to comply, kissing Gideon’s wanting mouth with all of the longing she’d worked so hard to suppress. Gideon opened beneath her lips, blossomed beneath Harrow’s fingers, and Harrow’s knees went weak at the next press of her tongue. The noise she made was like nothing she’d ever heard from herself, and she knew she would die to think of it later, but in that moment in the chapel, something lit within her and she reached for Gideon, her fingers on Gideon’s neck as she kissed into Gideon’s mouth.

These kisses made every kiss that came before them seem childish, two people stumbling to guess how it was supposed to be done. They’d stumbled on the answer now. Harrow had never been more certain that she’d found the correct path.

Harrow started to fold down onto her knees before Gideon, to meet Gideon on the floor of the chapel, but Gideon grunted and shook her head. She pushed Harrow back and Harrow went, one step and then two, until Harrow’s back was pressed to the stones of the wall. Gideon shuffled forward on her knees. It would be comical if Gideon wasn’t the most beautiful thing Harrow had ever seen.

She crowded in against Harrow. She pressed her face into Harrow’s robe, the pressure of her face warm against Harrow’s abdomen even through the layers of fabric.

“What are you doing?” Harrow asked. Her voice came out as a whisper, but even that sounded too loud in the confines of the chapel.

“I don’t know,” Gideon said, against Harrow’s stomach, just below the expanse of bone ribs that wrapped over Harrow’s chest. “Should I stop?”

Harrow’s hands curled around the back of Gideon’s head, fingers brushing the soft hair there. Gideon made a low noise at Harrow’s touch and Harrow said, “You don’t have to stop.”

Gideon pressed her mouth to Harrow’s robes, the powder on her cheeks smearing onto the black fabric in streaks that reminded Harrow of so many mornings standing at the altar. They were out there now. Her House in contemplation. Her House clicking its prayers to the Tomb. In the chapel, Gideon kissed down over Harrow’s side and Harrow’s hip. Harrow pulled at Gideon, curled down to meet Gideon’s mouth in another kiss. The bone ribs pressed sharp against her waist and she ignored the pain, ignored everything except Gideon’s eyes and Gideon’s lips and Gideon’s tongue. Gideon’s fingers twisted in the fabric of Harrow’s robes, pushed them up as Harrow kissed down into Gideon’s mouth until eventually Gideon’s hand found Harrow's trousers underneath and she pressed her palm to Harrow’s thigh.

Gideon’s hand slid higher.

“Harrow?” It sounded like Gideon was gasping for breath.

“You don’t have to stop.”

And when Gideon’s fingers found the button at the waist of Harrow’s trousers: “You don’t have to stop.”

When the cold air of the chapel hit the bare skin of her hips, low on her stomach, Harrow gasped, and shifted, and then settled again beneath the warm press of Gideon’s hand. Gideon pressed her face against the place where Harrow’s thigh met torso, mouth open against Harrow’s bare skin, her breath so damn hot compared to the cold Ninth air.

Harrow leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes.

“Tell me if you want me to stop,” Gideon said, and Harrow should, she really should. She should care that in doing this, the rumors spread about her became true. She should care that she was proving the Third right. A pious shadow cultist in the streets and a bone-wielding necro-freak in the sheets. That was it, wasn’t it? That was the truth.

It didn’t matter. Maybe it was the truth. She still didn’t want to stop.

“Don’t stop.” The words scratched at her throat, low, pathetic, and when Gideon said, “Oh God, Harrow, you smell so damn good,” Harrow clamped a hand over her own mouth to muffle the horrific sound she made in response.

Gideon’s hand pushed at Harrow’s thigh, and then her mouth was on Harrow’s mons and her tongue was--”Oh,” Harrow breathed, surprised, before she could press her hand harder over her own lips.

Gideon stilled and Harrow shook her head, her other hand coming to press against the back of Gideon’s, urging her on.

Viisimus and Hamza were right outside, but they weren’t there to protect anyone’s virtue. The Nine Houses had never cared about virtue, and this was a marriage competition. No one cared about honor. They were bodyguards, not chaperones, and as long as the sounds coming from this chapel were pleasure instead of pain, they would go ignored. Harrow and Gideon would not be disturbed.

Gideon’s hand was firm against Harrow’s hip and Gideon’s tongue seemed sure against Harrow’s clit, but Harrow could see that Gideon was shaking, her entire body trembling beneath Harrow’s hand, and Harrow was--Harrow was lost. She’d never find her way back.

And where was Harrow’s chaperone? Where was her cavalier?

In his cell, no doubt, reunited with his true love. All eighteen finished volumes of The Noniad.

Harrow felt Gideon’s fingers on her ankles and shoes and before Harrow knew it, Gideon was slipping her foot from her boot, all while keeping her mouth on Harrow’s sex, her breath hot and her tongue teasing. Harrow’s fingers scrabbled against the wall, unsure what Gideon was planning, but once she’d maneuvered Harrow’s leg from her trousers and shoe, Gideon said, “Get your thigh up on my shoulder. Use as much pressure as you need, I can hold you.”

Harrow wasn’t sure why she did as instructed without even a moment’s protest, without even a thought to her reputation with Gideon or her promise that she would not get caught up in this very thing. She had her leg up on Gideon’s shoulder before Gideon finished the second sentence, and when Gideon grunted her approval and returned her attention to Harrow’s sex, it was at a new angle that made Harrow gasp and shake.

Gideon had Harrow writhing, her whole body moving in an indecent dance. She shifted against the wall, one booted foot pushed up on her toes, one bare leg draped over Gideon’s arm, and Harrow bore down on Gideon, her thigh tight to Gideon’s shoulder, her body straining to push against Gideon’s lips. Gideon pressed the flat of her tongue over Harrow’s clit and she moaned as Harrow rocked against her. Her hands were on Harrow’s backside, fingers tight against the backs of Harrow’s thighs, holding her firmly, making sure she didn’t fall.

Harrow desperately wanted to fall.

Each awkward push toward Gideon sent a thrill through Harrow, each push pulled closer to some elusive precipice. Harrow could feel that it was close, and she worked toward it, but couldn’t quite--

“I don’t think I can--” Harrow started. She didn’t want to disappoint Gideon. She’d touched herself before, experimentally. She once read a very dry text on the subject, so of course she had tried, but she’d never managed to bring herself to orgasm. She didn’t think she was capable. She assumed she-- “I’ve never--oh. It’s too much.”

She pushed at Gideon’s head and Gideon obediently moved back, but just as quickly Harrow was pulling Gideon in, bringing her closer again. She held Gideon where she needed her, and Gideon followed where Harrow led.

That was it.

It’d been too much before, too much pressure, too much movement, but Gideon adjusted, beautiful and eager beneath Harrow’s hands. Harrow found the precipice. She found herself there at the very edge, and she shook apart, pieces dropping away. Falling, falling, weight lifting, shackles breaking.

And then she was herself again. Or a version of herself.

She brought her foot down to stand on unsteady legs. Her inner thighs were smeared with the powder from Gideon’s face and her exposed skin glowed in the dim flickering light. Harrow’s sex felt swollen and slick. She reached down to touch herself, carefully, wet curls of hair and too sensitive skin. Gideon made a sound low in her throat at the sight of it, and it was so beautiful, but as Harrow bent to pull up her trousers and slip her foot into her boot, she felt the inevitable shame settle over her, chilling her skin.

It didn’t matter. It couldn’t matter. They’d made a deal and none of this changed that.

And Gideon was there. Gideon was there to press her face into Harrow’s neck, to smile against Harrow’s skin. She was speaking; a slew of disjointed words. “God,” and “Oh, god,” and “Harrow.”

It changed everything. It was always going to change everything.

“I thought I would love that,” Gideon said. “But I didn’t realize I would love that.” She stood and paced the small space within the chapel. She ran her hand back through her hair. “Fuck, fuck.”

Gideon’s chest was puffed out, triumphant and golden. The bioluminescent powder illuminated her forehead and cheeks. When her pacing brought her toward Harrow again, she fell back to her knees and pressed her cheek to Harrow’s belly, hidden once again behind trousers and robe. Harrow relished that grounding pressure. She carefully combed her fingers through Gideon’s hair.

“Hold on,” Gideon said. She looked up at Harrow. “I feel like I might--is it okay if I just--”

She gestured down toward herself, and when Harrow swallowed and nodded, Gideon moved quickly. She held tight to Harrow as she used one hand to unbutton her trousers and then slipped that hand deep inside. She gasped when her fingers found herself. Harrow knew how it must feel. Wet curls of hair and too sensitive skin. Her fingers curled against the back of Gideon’s neck. She watched it all on Gideon’s face and she felt pieces of herself rearranged. She watched Gideon’s eyes glaze as Harrow’s own insides twisted and shifted, as she became someone entirely new. As she became herself again.

It was over in an instant. Gideon shuddered against her fingers. She pressed her face tight to Harrow’s waist. Harrow held Gideon and she didn’t ever want to let go.

**

The rest of the day went by in a blur of stolen moments, kisses in dark corners, hands on waists. Harrow’s fingers traced down the ridges of Gideon’s vertebrae, over skin and shirt, until they settled low on Gideon’s back, just above the iliac crest. Gideon huffed delighted laughter into the decaying lace of Harrow’s veil. There was dust that glowed beneath their fingernails, at their wrists and on their necks. They spent an hour sitting in the pews as it fell gently from the rafters, blending in with the dust splattered penitents. They sat in the pews and they pretended to pray, and each time that Harrow looked up she found Gideon watching, a smile tugging at the corner of Gideon’s lips, a bright new light in Gideon’s eyes.

Late in the day they sat together again on the sagging chaise lounge, their knees tucked together and Gideon’s hand low on Harrow’s back. Harrow’s father read aloud, the drone of his voice a familiar comfort, though Harrow would not remember a single word said. She knew those letters like she knew herself--or more precisely, like she thought she’d known herself before Gideon--and yet she would not recognize the subject or year, would not recall the name of the relation read. All she would remember was the warm press of Gideon’s hand, and the catch in Gideon’s voice when she leaned in close to Harrow’s ear and said, “Stay with me tonight.”

Harrow laughed, abrupt and too loud, before she remembered herself and clapped a gloved hand to her lips.

“Harrowhark,” Sister Aisamorta said in surprised dismay.

Harrow’s father cleared his throat. Harrow’s mother averted her eyes.

“My fault,” Gideon said, quickly, with a wide smile and an embarrassed duck of her chin. “The story documented by the Reverend Mother in her letter from long ago reminded me of the afternoon Harrow impressed several Houses with a necromantic feat the likes of which they’d never seen. The Reverend Mother describes teeth like those of the ancient shark and I couldn’t help but imagine a young Reverend Daughter reading these letters and bringing their memory with her to the First. We were sent out on a fishing trip, a very boring affair, until Harrow sprinkled the sea with a bit of bone dust from her pockets and constructed an enormous shark from the pieces. It was a moment the Third House and the Seventh will never forget, and neither will the First.”

Ortus had told this story once before already, though his version was longer, and Harrow had watched the table’s attention drift.

After this recount of events, the room was silent for a long moment. Gideon sat with her spine straight and her hand firm on Harrow’s back, certain of her place, of her ability to save face, to rescue Harrow from her humiliating laughter. Harrow’s face felt hot beneath her paint. Her blood felt cold in her veins. And then Harrow’s father said, “The Third House? Really?”

And Harrow’s mother uttered a strange and surprising, “Well,” the room moved on.

It moved on until Gideon politely interrupted the oration to ask if there were any letters pertaining to weddings that might be read, at which point Harrow had to pinch the skin between her own thumb and forefinger to keep still and seemingly serene.

That night Harrow stared at the ceiling of her cell, alone (of course she was still alone) on her cot. When she closed her eyes, she saw Gideon’s face, cheek pressed to Harrow’s stomach, turning to look up at Harrow with satisfaction in her eyes. Harrow imagined what it might be like, just as she had the night before. Gideon’s warm body pressed up beside hers, Gideon’s arm slung across her chest and Gideon’s warm breath on her shoulder. Harrow imagined what it might be like, and she fell asleep.

She didn’t wake up until the first bell began to chime.

**

Reality returned by the time they boarded the shuttle that would take them back to Canaan House. They settled into the same seats they’d chosen on the way to the Ninth: Ortus and Captain Aiglamene first, Gideon and Harrow, Captain Viisimus and Lieutenant Hamza.

Harrow adjusted her veil in an attempt to be discreet as she watched Gideon stare out the window at an endless expanse of star-speckled space. Gideon’s hand was resting over Harrow’s on the table between their seats. Harrow felt the warmth of Gideon’s palm through the fabric of her glove. Occasionally Gideon swiped her thumb over Harrow’s knuckles, a casual caress, a not-so-subtle reminder.

Harrow stared at the short red hair at the nape of Gideon’s neck and she wondered how it might feel against her lips. A moment later, Gideon reached up to scratch the spot with her free hand, as though she felt Harrow’s focus, the whisper of a contemplated kiss. She turned to smile at Harrow and when she saw that Harrow was already looking back, the smile stretched wider as she tilted her head and—Gideon looked flushed suddenly. Even the tips of her ears seemed to redden.

Gideon’s face twisted a little in self deprecation, and she waved a hand over her cheeks. “Hot in here,” she noted.

“Really?” Ortus asked from the row ahead. He didn’t turn to look back at them. “I thought it was a bit too cool actually.”

Harrow said nothing. She didn’t trust the words that might come out.

The thing was--the reality was that Harrow knew herself. She hadn’t changed, not really, and she knew herself now just as she had known herself before the chapel. She wasn’t strong enough to have this, to hold it so close and still promise to let it go. If Harrow got too far into this, she would do everything in her power to keep Gideon chained by her side. Gideon would never leave the Nine Houses. She’d see nothing more than the dark fissure, the caves and corridors of the Ninth. It was lucky, for Gideon, that they’d tested these waters now, that Harrow knew now her heart and knew when to retreat.

If Harrow was really honest with herself (and Harrow usually was as honest with herself as she could reasonably be expected to be), she also knew that she would never be able to hold Gideon--Gideon was Her Divine Highness, after all. Gideon was not a necromancer, but she wouldn’t need necromancy to charm the aging penitents of the Ninth. That didn’t matter. If they were tied to each other in marriage, Harrow knew that she would try with everything she had, with all the power of a Reverend Daughter on her home turf.

The simple truth was that they were here together because they had made a deal. Gideon would choose Harrow and Harrow would receive exactly what she needed to save her House, nothing more. Once the House was saved, Gideon would be allowed to leave. The Ninth House would aid her in leaving, would cover her absence, and await her eventual return. Their deal did not involve feelings. The deal had nothing to do with love.

Harrow could not abide by the terms of their deal. No, she wasn’t in love--too preposterous! Too soon!--but if she could not abide by the terms of their deal, if she could not have Gideon, marry Gideon, and be certain she could then let Gideon go, then Gideon must reconsider the Third. She must consider the Third and the Ninth on equal footing, with no secrets and no special terms.

Gideon’s thumb circled the knuckles of Harrow’s middle finger.

Gideon would soon be on her way to Ida with Coronabeth and Ianthe Tridentarius. There would be no damp caves there, no dark corridors, no prayers hunched down in pews. That wouldn’t matter at all. There would be doors to close and walls to lean against. No bioluminescent powder, but there was so much more to shine on the Third.

Harrow imagined it. She imagined the marriage chapel, the greys and blacks washed over in gilt and gold, the shadowed corners bursting with light. She imagined Coronabeth up against the wall, her long leg slung over Gideon’s shoulder, the thick meat of her thigh pressed up against Gideon’s cheek and her bare foot curved artfully over Gideon’s rear. She imagined Ianthe bored in a chair out in the corridor, examining her nails, checking her watch and rolling her eyes at Viisimus and Hamza. Ianthe was more interesting than Corona, undoubtedly the stronger necromancer, but that wouldn’t matter, would it? This was a marriage completion, not a Lyctorhood trial, and Ianthe wouldn’t matter when Corona was right there.

More than all of that, the Third had an entire fleet of shuttles, large and well maintained. They had money. They had parties and museums. All the promise of Ida was reflected in the princesses, in their awful cavalier.

Harrow wouldn’t choose it, but Gideon--Gideon must consider the Third and the Ninth on equal footing. There was no other way.

The Third’s shuttle was already waiting on the platform when the Ninth’s shuttle landed. There was movement on the platform, skeletons carrying bags, priests pacing patiently. Dominicus caught on the Third cavalier’s rapier and Harrow shielded her eyes against the glare. Teacher rushed to them as soon as they stepped from their shuttle, words of welcome and words of parting all rushing out of his mouth in a confused and excited jumble. Harrow stared at his rumpled mouth until the words began to make sense.

“You’re leaving now?” Harrow asked, looking up at Gideon. “Right now?”

“Yeah,” Gideon said. Her hand brushed Harrow’s, but she didn’t try to take Harrow’s hand in hers. They were back at Canaan House and the competition was not over yet. “One right after the other, but it’s fine. I’ll be back in two days.”

Harrow glanced over toward the shuttle that would transport Gideon, Viisimus and Hamza to Ida. Corona stood beside the shuttle door, her hip pressed attractively against the hull. Beside her stood her cavalier, Naberius the Third. His mouth was twisted in concentration as he studied the handle of his knife. Corona’s sister was nowhere to be seen, perhaps on the shuttle already, buckled in, with a face that ensured everyone knew exactly how bored she was by the entire thing.

“I need to speak to you before you leave,” Harrow said, the urgency rising in her voice. “It’s important. It’s absolutely essential that I speak with you before you travel to the Third.”

Gideon’s eyebrows went up, just slightly, and she gestured for Harrow to follow her toward the Canaan House tower, as far down the tier as they could get without entering the building, away from prying ears. She led Harrow back behind a row of crumbling planters, slightly shielded from prying eyes. Finally, Gideon pressed her side to the stone of the tower and took one of Harrow’s gloved hands in both of hers. She studied the way her fingers moved over Harrow’s glove for one long moment and then she looked up at Harrow, brow slightly furrowed, eyes as bright as ever. “You know Ida isn’t going to change anything, right?”

“You can’t know that,” Harrow countered. She adjusted the set of her veil, shifted within the confines of her bones, straightened her back and cleared her throat. “That’s what I need to speak to you about, in fact.”

Gideon shook her head. “I do know that. We have a deal.”

“We don’t. The deal is off.” Harrow’s voice sounded harder than she intended it to. She flinched at her words.

Gideon released Harrow’s hand. “I don’t understand.”

“I can’t do this,” Harrow said. She didn’t sound hard now. She didn’t even sound sure, though she’d never been so sure of anything before. “I can’t go through with it.”

“Harrow.” Gideon reached for her. She tried to take Harrow’s hands in hers again, but this time Harrow was ready. This time Harrow shook her off. Gideon forged ahead anyway. “Of course you can. I thought we were--”

“No,” Harrow cut in. She took a step back, away from Gideon, resolute. “This was part of the deal. If one of us changed our minds, we would let the other know. I am allowed to change my mind at any time.”

“Yeah, you are,” Gideon agreed. “But I thought--”

Harrow shook her head, adamant. Gideon thought right, but that was exactly why this had to happen now. A moment longer and Harrow wouldn’t be able to do it. A moment longer and Harrow was afraid of where it might lead. She took a deep slow breath.

“Go to the Third with Coronabeth Tridentarius. You’ll see that it’s the better choice. You’ll see that I’ve done you a favor.”

Gideon laughed, surprised. “A favor, Harrow? Look, I’ll go. Obviously, I’m going because I have to go, and when I come back I’ll tell you the same thing I’m going to tell you now. You’re wrong. You’re the right pick. I’ve made my choice.”

Harrow clenched her fists. “I don’t want this.” Not like this.

“You don’t--Harrow, that’s--okay, this is about what happened, isn’t it? You’re freaking out, but I thought--fuck, I’m so damn sorry, I thought we were both into it, and I never meant to--”

“No,” Harrow said, unable to listen to Gideon’s doubts. She squeezed her eyes shut. It was about what happened, yes, but she couldn’t let Gideon think that she regretted it. She didn’t regret it. It exposed her, revealed her limits. The moment switched on the lights, showed Harrow where they were headed, showed her exactly why she could not keep her end of the deal.

“What about the souls?” Gideon asked, gently. “What about the future of the Ninth?”

“I can find another way,” Harrow said. “It won’t be five hundred, but second place should be more than enough to get by. It’s far more than I hoped for when I arrived here. We’ll make due.” It would be enough to keep them going. It’d be enough to ensure she never had to marry her cavalier.

They were interrupted by the voice of Teacher. “The time has come, Divine Highness. The hour is late!” He was still a ways down the platform but he was approaching fast.

Gideon ignored Teacher. She shifted so that her back was toward the little priest, so he couldn’t see Gideon’s face and couldn’t see much of Harrow at all. When she spoke again, her voice was low: “And if I go to the Third and you’re still my choice?”

“Come along now, hurry up! The time for the Ninth has ended, time for the Third has just begun.”

Gideon did not respond to Teacher. She waited for Harrow’s answer, her eyes searching Harrow’s face, through the veil and beneath the paint. Harrow stood her ground, sure and defiant.

“The deal is off. Choosing me is no different for you than choosing the Third.”

“We mustn’t keep all of Ida waiting!” Teacher said, finally arriving at their side. “Whatever you’re discussing with the Reverend Daughter will still be here when you return, but now Ida awaits. Welcome back, Reverend Daughter! Au revoir, Our Celestial Highness!” Teacher ushered Gideon away, and Gideon, Harrow noted, did not look back. She turned her attention toward the Third. She did not look up at Ortus or Captain Aiglamene as she passed by them. She did exactly as she should.

Ortus was smiling when he and Aiglamene arrived at Harrow’s side. He shifted Harrow’s bag on his shoulder.

“Well,” he said. “I think we can all agree that that went much better than we’d hoped!”

**

Harrow went straight from the landing platform to the Ninth’s quarters and from the Ninth’s quarters she went straight to the bedroom she shared with Ortus, slamming the door shut in poor Ortus’s face.

“I’d like to be alone to gather my thoughts, please!” she announced and put her trust in Aiglamene to keep Ortus away. Ortus, she knew, was dying to know the details of her time spent in Drearburh with Gideon. How could he turn it into an epic poem without Harrow helping him fill in all of the blanks?

It wouldn’t matter. The poem would undoubtedly put all of its focus on the moment Mortus smiled on the landing field anyway.

She had two days before Gideon returned with the Third, two days before Harrow had to face her again. Two days and she couldn’t remember how she used to spend her time here, why she ever cared about Lyctorhood, how she focused on the books in the library. She haunted Canaan House like a ghost, walking the halls in the dark hours of the night, avoiding her captain and her cavalier, avoiding the smiling faces of the Canaan House priests, who never tried to talk to her, and Teacher, who always did.

The House seemed so empty now that there was no one left but the Third and the Ninth. She imagined Gideon growing up here, alone with the priests and the skeletons and so many empty and decaying rooms. The Ninth was dying, but by those standards the First was already dead and had been for ten thousand years. And somehow, even surrounded by death, Gideon blossomed and flourished. Gideon grew to be a shining beacon of light, bright enough to light all of Drearburh, but intended to stand beneath the sun.

On the second day, having barely slept, Harrow wandered into the dining room and found Ianthe Tridentarius sitting alone.

“You’ve returned early,” Harrow said with surprise.

Ianthe sat back in her seat, all long limbs that could have been graceful, if Ianthe knew how to move them gracefully. She looked Harrow up and down, and then she said: “I never left.”

Harrow pulled herself in, tight and controlled. Canaan House wasn’t as empty as she’d believed it to be. Where was Ianthe while Harrow wandered the floors? In the basement facility? In the Lyctor studies? In the Third’s quarters?

“The food is somehow even worse when she’s gone,” Ianthe noted. “You might find it an improvement.”

“I don’t care about the food.” She didn’t bother to ask why Ianthe stayed. They’d had this conversation before, the night of the tournament. Ianthe wasn’t here for marriage. Ianthe was still searching for another prize, one that Harrow had found and rejected weeks ago.

“I still don’t understand why you’re bothering with her,” Ianthe said, apparently unable to help herself.

Harrow sat down at the opposite end of the table and ignored the skeleton that brought her a bowl of the porridge they usually served at breakfast, though it was now late into the afternoon. “Am I to assume that by her, you mean the First Reborn’s First Born? Her Celestial Highness, the First Daughter of the First House?”

“I just always imagined she’d be more,” Ianthe admitted. The contents of her bowl looked more colorful than Harrow’s. Harrow wondered, not for the first time, if the priests observed their eating habits and modified the menu accordingly. “More powerful, more attractive, more divine.”

“Your sister doesn’t seem disappointed,” Harrow said, unwilling to show her cards, to admit that while she once thought the same, after all these weeks Harrow found it nearly impossible to imagine anyone more powerful, more attractive, or more divine than Gideon. She took a sip of water. It had a strong mineral taste to it, almost metallic, and she set it back down.

“These days, neither do you,” Ianthe said, reading Harrow’s entire hand. “I don’t know why. Even your friends from the Sixth realized she wasn’t the real prize to be won in this tower.”

That was it then. Ianthe missed her own competition. She continued: “You’re running out of time. If you’re going to lose, at least lose with Lyctorhood.”

“Are you trying to convince me to collaborate with you?” Harrow asked. “You insist on projecting your own lack of understanding onto me. It’s sad. It’s embarrassing for you.”

Ianthe stood from her seat, the chair screeching against the cracked slate floor, and moved down to stand opposite of Harrow. She wore a thin lavender robe over her shirt and trousers, open at the waist and hanging off her thin shoulders. She towered over Harrow and Harrow guessed it was probably intended as a threat.

Ianthe pressed a dull butter knife to her lower lip, her pale purple eyes assessing Harrow from the tips of her toes to the very top of her unveiled head. “It would be something,” Ianthe said, “the two of us as Lyctors. From a marriage standpoint, it’s ridiculous that you’re still here, but as a necromancer, you’re not half bad. The shark was almost impressive. For a party trick, of course. Think of it, Harry. Her Divine Highness weds my sister, both golden, both royalty already. But you and I, we have so much more potential. Gideon weds my sister, and you and I ascend to our rightful place as Lyctors, as Saints.”

Harrow could do nothing in the face of this proposition but sit there and stare in disbelief. “You’re suggesting that I marry you?”

Ianthe threw back her head and laughed, an abrupt bark of a laugh that sounded much more natural coming out of her sister’s throat. “You suggested that, not me.” Ianthe shrugged. “If marriage is a requirement for the Ninth, well--I’m sure we could work something out there as well.”

Harrow tried to imagine Ianthe Tridentarius as a Reverend Mother of the Ninth House. It wasn’t what Ianthe had in mind, surely--she was thinking solely of Lyctorhood, which seemed unlikely to return them to either of their houses. Still, the thought was laughable, Ianthe was right about that.

“I’ll let myself be stripped to the bone by the entropy field in the basement before I ever consider a future with you,” Harrow said. “I’ll let myself be ground down to a bloody paste by the construct in the Winnowing trial. I’ll pierce my own heart, throw myself down on the rusting metal rails on the terrace, before I ever consider you.”

Ianthe arranged her face into a tight little pout, but her cheeks kept threatening to betray her with a smile. “Ouch,” she said, and then she sighed. “You do have a way with words, but somehow I doubt their sincerity.”

Said as though Ianthe Tridentarius knew the first thing about Harrowhark Nonagesimus.

“Help me decide,” Ianthe said. “Would watching you disintegrate in the entropy field be more or less pleasant than an eternity of Lyctorhood by your side. It’s hard to say, but then I’m not the one who has to choose. As it happens, either option would serve me just fine.”

Of course it would. Either option would end with Coronabeth standing at the altar beside Her Divine Highness. That was all any of this was about in the end. It was tempting to tell Ianthe she needn’t try so hard. Harrow had already made her choice, and it wasn’t the First, and it wasn’t the Third. Harrow was the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House. She would choose as the Ninth House had always chosen. She would choose the Tomb. She would choose the click of the prayer beads between her fingers, the cool press of stone against her skin.

Harrow stood from the table, feeling more confident in her decision than she had been before. She should thank Ianthe for that.

“Good luck working out that Lyctorhood puzzle. I suspect you’ll need it.”

Following her lunch with Ianthe, Harrow managed to avoid almost everyone right until the key ceremony. It felt like her earliest days at Canaan House. Eventually she locked herself away in the unused rooms that were once the Second’s quarters. She had no connection to the Second and she did not think Ortus or Ianthe would guess to check for her there. Hidden away, Harrow wrote to the Sixth, documenting everything she’d learned the night Gideon picked the locks. She wrote it all down in her own personal crypt-script. Palamedes would never be able to break her cipher, and she was not sure she would send the letters as they were, but the confession still felt like relief. By the end, her fingers were stained and the insides of her cheeks were wonderfully sore. By the end, Gideon and the rest of the Third had returned and if Gideon had come looking for Harrow in her rooms, she would have found them empty and left again.

When Harrow stopped writing, when she settled down on the unmade beds of the Second, she was back in the chapel on the Ninth, Gideon on her knees, her fingers in the hair at Gideon’s neck. When her hands stopped scratching at the flimsy, she saw bioluminescent dust on Gideon’s skin and she imagined what it might be like when applied correctly, applied fully. She imagined how it might smear on their skin following their consummation.

So Harrow did not close her eyes! She did not stop writing. kept her thoughts on her writing, on her House, on the Tomb. And when the time came for the ceremony, she arrived in the hall at the correct hour to stand with her House.

“She lives,” said Aiglamene, blandly.

“There you are, my lady,” said Ortus with relief. “I’ve looked everywhere.” This second part he said in a tone that made it obvious he had not, in fact, looked everywhere, for which Harrow was grateful.

“Her Divine Highness has been at our door three times looking for you,” noted Aiglamene. “Three times since returning home from the Third.”

“Oh?” asked Harrow. She did not want to look up to check if Gideon had noticed her arrival. Gideon had noticed. She could feel it.

“Her first visit was less than an hour after landing.”

“Oh?”

The corner of Aiglamene’s mouth pulled back. She responded with a subtle nod of her head and adjusted her hand on her rapier. Her thoughts were clear enough. Well done, my lady. Now bring home the win.

This particular key ceremony was particularly ridiculous. They already knew that no choice would be made for another week. No one was going home. So when the houses were called to accept the key that would have been received if the Seventh was still there to send home, Gideon called the Third and the Ninth up at the same time. Harrow stepped forward with her eyes on the floor. She was heavily painted and heavily veiled, but her veils were not so long that she missed that two sets of feet from the Third stepped forward. For the first time, Ianthe approached the front of the room at Corona’s side.

Harrow did not look up as she accepted her key. She did not look up when Gideon’s hand lingered on hers.

Choosing Harrow could be no different from choosing the Third. The Ninth was not a charity case and it did not partake in treason. The Ninth would not be used as an escape hatch.

The deal was off.