The first word Ianthe Tridentarius said to Harrowhark was "Twinsies!" which would have made Harrow instantly despise her, if she hadn't already done so on principle. The scion of the Third House gestured to the bones of Harrow's right arm with her skeletal hand, and Harrow involuntarily tucked her own arm away in the shelter of her robes, safely out of sight. In a group of necromancers, having a skeleton arm wasn't exactly a social disaster, but it didn't mean she wanted to have it pointed out to everyone. Ianthe seemed to have the opposite attitude, flaunting her gold-plated bones by pointing and waving and twiddling her hair around her knobbly phalanges like some kind of hussy.
"How did you lose it?" Coronabeth asked, more softly than her sister's shrill voice. The group assembled at Canaan House barely knew her, and yet here they were, asking the most irritatingly personal questions, and acting as if they were being kind and thoughtful by prying into her secrets.
"I dropped my pen into a vat of acid and reached in to grab it without thinking," Harrow said dryly.
Coronabeth recoiled, screwing up her pretty nose. Ianthe looked unsure whether to believe her or not. Their meatslab of cavalier just stared blankly.
"The Daughter of the Ninth House was blessed in this manner from her birth, as a symbol of her strength and power over the mysteries of necromancy," Ortus interjected. Harrow glared at him.
"Oh," Coronabeth said, an expression of disgusting sympathy on her flawless face. "But then you would never have known who your soulmate was!"
Harrow's glare intensified. "My soulmate is bones."
"Suits you, really," Ianthe said. "Forever alone. I lost my arm in a shuttle accident when I was twelve, but of course I'd known who my soulmate was for years at that point."
"It's insensitive to talk about soulmates in front of her," her sister pointed out. "Since she doesn't have one."
Beneath its makeup, Harrow kept her face dispassionate. That she had been born missing an arm was a lie her parents had put about, and while she appreciated their flair for the dramatic, she also knew that they had done this to her themselves when she was a baby. They had told her as much, between lessons and lectures. When she had been younger, she had resented it at times - everyone else who had a soulmate's name written on their right forearm seemed to pity her, and too often it led to awkward conversations like this one. It was just one more way in which she was set apart from the ordinary world.
But as she had grown older, she had come to understand their reasons, or at least believe she did - they were no longer capable of explaining it, even if they had wanted to, but she could see the shape of their thinking in the lives of the people around her. Clearly they had done it to keep her from becoming distracted from her calling with emotional complications. They had spared her the fate of Aiglamene, whose soulmate had died when he was twenty, leaving her to live on for decades without him, or the fate of Ortus, his soulmate a man already dead for centuries. They had spared her their own fates, bound to one another so tightly that each could not bear to live without their other half.
"It should be possible to reconstruct the insignianima elsewhere," said a voice from behind her. Harrow turned to see the long, serious face of Palamedes Sextus, Warden of the Sixth House. His cavalier stood nearby, watching with mild interest.
"How do you mean?" Harrow asked, against her better judgment.
"Well, the thalergetic bond between soulmates isn't severed just because you happen to be missing some skin and flesh," he said. "The visible inscription of the insignianima - the actual writing of the name - is only a superficial manifestation of a much deeper connection. So it should be possible to tap into that energy resonance and rebuild the missing inscription somewhere else - on your other arm, for instance."
Harrow felt an unexpected tug of curiosity - call it academic interest - but there was no way in hell she was going to submit to the academic theories of Palamedes Sextus in front of everyone else at Canaan House. What if it was a trick to give him some kind of advantage over her in the upcoming trials? What if it revealed something embarrassing and awful, like that Ortus was her soulmate? What if it just proved that she had no soulmate, that she was destined to a life of lonely study and contemplation?
Aloud, she said, "I'm not going to be your lab rat, Sextus."
"If you don't think the theory is sound, I'd be happy to test it on myself first." Without waiting for her to agree, he rolled up his sleeve, exposing the pale skin of his inner arm. Written there, in an elegant script, was the name 'Dulcinea'. "Cam," he said, nodding to his cavalier, who drew her dagger and, without further instruction, cut into his arm. He held steady, the blood dripping down to his elbow and making a crimson puddle on the stone floor, as Camilla Hect impassively carved away the name of her necromancer's soulmate - which, Harrow couldn't help but notice, was also the name of the Seventh House's representative. She peeled back the flap of skin and severed it with a swift slice, and then neatly folded it up and tucked it into the pocket of her coat.
With his arm still bleeding freely, Palamedes Sextus placed his hand on his other arm, closing his eyes as he focused on the energy he was trying to control. Ianthe (and Harrow, despite her reservations) leaned in to observe, while Coronabeth looked away. When he removed his hand, the name had reappeared, in the same spidery script, and as a bonus round he had healed the incision, leaving his right arm whole once more. "Good as new," he said with just a hint of smug satisfaction, taking a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe himself clean.
Harrow still wasn't entirely convinced, but Ianthe beat her to it. "You already knew the name, though. You could have just manipulated your skin pigment to make a fake insignianima."
"If you like, I'll reconstruct yours," he suggested. "I don't know what it said, so I can't simply be pushing melanin around in a precise pattern."
"Fine," Ianthe said with a shrug. "Give it a try, then." She slid her sleeve up. The arm underneath was skinny and pallid, with a vaguely waxy tint to it.
Palamedes wiggled his fingers as if about to perform a card trick, and then placed his hands on her forearm, concentrating intently. He frowned slightly, as though the puzzle was harder than he'd expected, but then it seemed as if it slotted into place. He uncovered Ianthe's forearm, peering at it curiously. "Who's John?" he said.
"I don't know," Ianthe replied blithely. "I assume someone I haven't met yet. But it's right," she admitted. Then, in terrible unison, they all turned to look at Harrow. She stood up taller, deliberately counteracting the impulse to shrink beneath their combined gaze.
"It's not something I want to know. I would rather get on with my work."
Coronabeth seemed stunned that someone might not want to know the person who was going to consume their attention, their energy, their very life itself. "That's not very romantic."
"I don't care," Harrow said, even as Palamedes spoke up to say, pedantically, "It's a misconception that a soul bond is necessarily romantic. It's a thalergy bond of immense strength, but it could be between siblings, friends, research partners. It can be unidirectional or reciprocating. I've read of cases involving more complex configurations, triangles or pentagons..."
"It could be with someone you'll never even meet, or someone who's already dead," Harrow added, thinking of Ortus and his pointless love for Mattius Nonius. "I don't see why knowing the name - assuming there even is a name - would make any difference to me."
Camilla Hect said quietly, "You can't be prepared to defend against what you don't know about." It was a warrior's outlook, and in that moment Harrow would have placed a bet that whatever name was on the cavalier's arm, it was something she had chosen to - or needed to - guard herself against, rather than embrace. But her point was cynical, but accurate.
"Fine," Harrow said. "But not here." She glared at Coronabeth and Ianthe, willing them to go away.
Palamedes' hands were warm as he laid them gently on her left forearm. She could feel him rummaging around in her thalergy field, an uncomfortable sensation, but she gritted her teeth and bore it. At last he parted his fingers, just enough to let her begin to read the outline of a name, dark blocky letters stark against her skin, G-I-D-
"Not like this," Abigail Pent said, turning her around and tugging down her sleeve before she could make out the remainder of the name.