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What Barren, What Beauty

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Harrowhark's parents, the Reverend Mother and Father, would have turned down the request immediately. Visiting the sepulchral halls of the Ninth? Picking the Reverend Daughter's brain and the library on some absolutely boneheaded medical necromancy research vector that would serve at best as a novelty if it even worked? Absolutely not. The interlopers might be spies out to reveal the Ninth's secrets, or worse, as the scion of the promiscuous Sixth and his Cavalier Primary, they might be out to take the hallowed halls and the Locked Tomb for themselves.

The Reverend Daughter, who the message had caught on a particularly bad day, had a moment of hesitation at the disaster visitors could bring, and then just thought—

Well. Fuck it.

Which is how Harrowhark Nonagesimus found herself awaiting the shuttle on the singular landing pad at ass o' clock, Gideon Nav hovering a sullen, buff-armed chicken-legged shadow behind her.

Nav, of course, wasn't her Cav Primary. It would be absolutely stupid to pick someone who hated you as your Cav Primary. Ortus Nigenad was the Cav Primary, and he had lived down to all of Harrow's low expectations by having his mum call him in "down with a cold." Griddle was the only decently-intimidating option remaining.

Of course, the upside of pressing Griddle into service was that it meant Harrow could keep a weather eye on her in the presence of a shuttle. Very little escaped Harrow in the halls of the Ninth; she knew the only other interesting living person on this horrible little rock longed to escape it.

...Which Griddle deserved, and which Harrow deserved, and if Harrow had it her way, neither of them were going to get that. And both of them were going to have to deal with whatever Harrow had brought on herself by getting into arguments on the net about necromancy.

What Harrow turned out to have brought on herself was a weedy, bespectacled young man every inch the stereotype of the Sixth, looking more excited to be on the Ninth than anyone ever had, his own lean shadow clad in dull grey sticking near to his shoulder.

The Warden extended a hand, briskly. "Reverend Daughter," he said. "Master Warden Palamedes Sextus, pleasure to meet you in the flesh at last. Erm—" He glanced both ways, as if crossing a busy landing field. "I shouldn't be expecting the Reverend Mother and Father, should I?"

"The Reverend Mother and Father have undertaken a vow of cloistered prayer," Harrow intoned, while trying to glare daggers through the back of her head in Griddle's direction, to remind her of precisely how many jaw privileges could be lost. "They will not see you. For the time being, I am the authority on the Ninth."

"Well! Fine enough," said the Warden, not deterred whatsoever. "Cam, help me unpack so we can send the shuttle off."

Awfully friendly with his cavalier, thought Harrow, disapprovingly, though "Cam" at least treated her Ninth counterparts with an air of professional disinterest. True that there were not any real rules to it, apart from the mandated rapier which Griddle was flipping idly in one hand in a way that was deeply obnoxious. Still, though; the Ninth valued tradition, even if it violated every last bit of it for its own survival. The Ninth at least knew shame.

She watched with continued dismay as they unpacked a great deal more luggage than she'd expected. And not for the first time, thought: I'm in over my head.

The Sixth wasted no time in making themselves at home, which made Harrow testy. They carted in with them some boxes of "Sustenance!" as the Warden proclaimed, while promising to have his cavalier pass on some recipes to the kitchen. "To supplement the local snow leeks." This endeared Griddle to them greatly and made Harrow irritable for reasons she couldn't explain.

Worse still, even apart from asking Harrow incessant questions about her expertise in different kinds of bones, the Warden also kept waylaying her eagerly in the hallways on some topic or another and steering her toward the library.

"Though, if I may ask a clarifying question," he was saying, with at least three books tucked under each arm, "specifically, I've understood marrow to have a slightly different thanergic signature than osseus substance due to decay rates, which I'd guess would make it easier to separate the two. If you have time later I'd like to get your help testing a theory, but I know you haven't gotten much sleep recently—"

She took the cup of coffee he pressed into her hands silently. That time, she didn't drink it, nor did she the next. But after enough of them, getting used to the feeling of a warm gesture between her palms—eventually, on reflex, she found herself following him in sipping the stuff over reading.

At first, Harrow didn't realize what was happening. But then it crept upon her with the slow certainty of a skeleton from the bleaching chambers.

Indeed, to Harrow's dawning horror, she realized that what she had perceived to be a blistering net argument, he had considered a lively academic discussion, and furthermore, that he was laboring under the impression that they were friends. Worse still, she hadn't noticed in time to head it off.

And the worst part was—

The worst part was, it wasn't the worst at all. Harrow had spent her entire life with no one her age but Gideon Fucking Nav to talk to, by her parents' design. There were a lot of things she absolutely was not going to say to that old bastard Crux or leathery Aiglamene, no matter how well or how poorly they did their jobs. The Reverend Daughter speaking was always an Event among the Ninth House, but with the Master Warden of the Sixth it was strange to realize she could just—say things. Sometimes she even felt like a real person.

"What do you even need with bones?" she finally asked the Warden, looking up at his spindly frame from beneath the Skull of the Slow-Withering Priestess. "The only use case I can think for your batshit plan to decay marrow and grow it at the same rate would be to patch up some Seventh House pile of can—"

The Warden froze, a nervous little wobble in his expression, and Harrow felt a hot flush of shame that previously only Griddle's existence had managed to inspire in her. "I, ah," he started, abortively.

"Never mind," said Harrow, with a hasty brusqueness that she thought would at least end the conversation.

He studied her for a moment, and then—collapsed with a suddenness into the chair opposite, looking suddenly bone-tired. "The Duchess of Rhodes is an... old friend," he said, carefully, with the weary, bedraggled hope of someone who is not going to get anything they want.

Harrow bit down a deeply uncharacteristic sorry that nonetheless tried to bubble up her throat, and did her best to compose herself into the visage of a tomb priestess rather than an embarrassed teenager. "Those things that are most fleeting are often the most valuable," she managed, though her heart wasn't in it.

She got a hard, stony look from him in response. "Nonagesimus," he said, with a severity that surprised her, "even if you don't actually like me, at least do me the favor of sparing me the pity. And don't pity her. Dulcie's heard enough about the potential of her gifts. She'd rather live."

There was a long, long pause, during which Harrow thought a great deal about how it would be kind of the universe to just enact its vengeance on her right then and there and save her the humiliation. "The Ninth has few traditional words for life or the living," she said, at long last, looking down at her hands.

Something in the Warden's face changed—a softening that she flinched from. "...not a whole lot of it you've had around, I guess," he said, in a gentle, too-familiar way that she'd ordinarily have someone flogged for.

But she was tired. She'd left the gates open and now all sorts of stupid feelings were getting in, and she couldn't crush all of them underfoot like so many skeletons.

She pinched her nose at the bridge. "Well, maybe we'll save your duchess, and I'll get a little more familiar with it," Harrow grumbled, and didn't even begrudge the little smile that animated the Warden's otherwise plain face.

A sense of deep unease followed Harrow thereafter at her general lack of unease—which meant it evened out in the end, technically. At first, she thought it centered on Gideon Nav, who was suspiciously in far less trouble than usual.

But then she said something of the sort to the Master Warden, who looked surprised, and then laughed. "Cam says her swordsmanship is surprisingly decent but is still going to get her ass kicked someday if she doesn't get her ass kicked right now," he said, by way of explanation.

Harrow chucked her book at his shoulder, which, due to the fact that it was one of the Ninth's ancient hardcovers, left a bruise which he insisted on trying to heal using his piss-poor understanding of flesh magic, only a notch above Harrow's even worse understanding. By the time Cam wandered in with a surprisingly jolly Griddle in tow, they'd managed to get the purple to fade a smidge. They were very sure.

"No, I'm certain that the theorem is intended to be enacted like this, Sextus," Harrow put forth, prodding at the injury. "It's a cousin to bones. Bones are still organic matter, and therefore flesh magic should hardly be any different."

"Ow—no, I think not entirely, Nonagesimus—"

"You're having fun," said the Sixth cavalier's dry voice, and Harrow sat bolt upright in perfect penitential posture.

"We're engaging in very serious necromantic research," she and the Warden said, at once, but in very different tones, and Gideon Nav's silent black-cloaked shadow (somehow diminished by the curious loss of sleeves to better show off her ridiculous biceps) nearly doubled over in closemouthed wheezing.

Harrow had half a mind to fuse her jaw shut—or, rather, she was finding, more like a quarter of a mind, coming in behind odd, troubling thoughts like But why spoil the mood and, traitorously, It was in fact pretty funny.

She was losing her edge. The trouble was that no one seemed to think that was a problem at all; once she even thought she heard Crux humming, and one day Aiglamene pulled her aside to say that she seemed to be doing well?

The Reverend Daughter was the guardian of the Locked Tomb; the Reverend Daughter was the keeper of the Ninth's terrible, terrible secrets. And it turned out that the Reverend Daughter actually fucking hated all that shit, and she'd just never noticed, burying herself alive in the catacombs along with the body that haunted her.

This would be a really convoluted way to get around the Ninth's defenses. It would be absolutely stupid to read a plot into it, and yet, it was so effective, that—the idea still nagged.

It still nagged, even when she and the Warden stopped sitting an uncomfortably far distance apart and started huddling around the same book; it nagged when the Warden's cavalier brought round dinner "to make sure both of you remember to actually eat"; it nagged when a supply shuttle came and went and Griddle didn't even glance up from the training grounds.

Even Ortus Nigenad was seen conversing enthusiastically with the Warden of the Sixth, who managed to listen enthusiastically to his treatise on Matthias Nonius. There was just something suspicious to how everything felt neat and tidily... fine.

The Master Warden tapped the top of the ancient leatherbound book she was studying to get her attention, causing Harrow to startle so fully that she nearly dropped the thing—a hair from it collapsing into a pile of awful-smelling dust. "What?" she snapped.

"Well—" He pushed his glasses up his nose. "I was going to ask if you'd found anything about bridging the lymphoid—but, then I thought I ought to ask if you'd like to spit out whatever lemon you swallowed. What's the matter?"

No one in her entire life had asked Harrow if anything was the matter and now people asked it all the time—and every time, it was like a chisel taken to her exoskeleton, jammed right against a nerve. "What the hell is a lemon, Sixth?"

He snorted. "Right. Listen—" A quick glance sideways, and a sigh. "I'm not overstepping, am I?"

Harrow paused to consider this, and frowned. Why are you still here? stayed stuck in her throat. She shook her head, and rubbed at her temples, frowning. "It's only a headache. I think I'd best turn in for the night," she said, shutting the book carefully and tucking it back in its slipcase.

"See you in the morning," he said, casually, and her stomach lurched.

She didn't go to bed. Instead she stayed stalking the Drearburh halls, pacing, waiting for some axe to fall. And then she heard the soft pad of footsteps.

Harrow was capable of being invisible when it suited her, largely due to the fact that anyone who'd met her was used to her radiating an aura of gloom. In its absence, people tended to assume she wasn't present. It was the only reason she managed to out-stealth Camilla Hect and her monochrome understated self coming up the long stairs from the low, low depths of the Ninth.

A second set of footsteps. Harrow's heart was already leaping into her throat to try and choke her; she counted the bones adorning her ears, imagining, if Hect had seen too much—

No. If Hect had seen too much, that was the Ninth House undone at long last; it would not survive the disappearance of the Master Warden, whose presence was undeniably known. She had accepted this, letting them in; now and then, she had welcomed it. Let them free her.

"Cam," came the Warden's voice. "What's the report."

"So far I have found: bones, bones, bones, and more bones," said Hect, flatly, "and a bunch of creaky tomb cultists who still live in fear of their bosses like they're alive." A long pause, and then: "Pal. It's suspicious as hell. We could get a murder pinned on us"

Another moment of quiet, and a shuffle of feet. Then, a sigh. "I know," said the Warden. Harrow tried to imitate a corpse as best she could, which was pretty damn good in her opinion. "It was suspicious from the start. Obviously."

A rustle; Hect putting her hands in her pockets, probably. Which meant neither on her weapons, but—no. No.

She heard Hect say something akin to "What's the plan?" and then, decided—whatever.

"The fuck, Sextus," she said, manifesting from around the corner.

He yelped, which made up for the indignity a little. His cavalier made a gesture like she was going to reach for a weapon, but the Master Warden gave a little shake of his head. "Nonagesimus," he said. "It's not what it looks like."

"Then what is it," said Harrow, fiercely, pointing a finger. "If you intend to turn me over to the Emperor's justice—"

The Master Warden pinched the bridge of his nose. "Harrowhark Nonagesimus," he said, looking faintly baffled. "Nav asked if there was anything we could do for you on the matter of... your parents, on account of she feels responsible—"

What? What? Oh, no. No fucking way. Not only did Griddle talk, but worse—

—worse, everyone was pitying her. "Griddle's full of shit," she spat. "She's full of shit and she doesn't know anything, and of course she's dim enough to put the axe above her own head and the whole damn house and not where it ought to be—"

And it all came spilling out. Every last bit of the story, wrung from her throat until she was hoarse. She couldn't bear pity or kindness, and in her station she should need neither, so with any luck she could set the record straight.

But the Master Warden and his Cavalier just looked at each other. "Well, fuck," said the Warden, looking faintly sideswiped. "Cam, why don't you, er—go get Nav, all right, and I'm just going to get Nonagesimus here settled in the library and make some coffee—"

Harrow started to protest that she would fuse her own jaw shut and all of theirs besides before she'd speak to Gideon Nav, but she realized her crucial mistake too late: letting people get to know her enough to know when not to listen to her.

And, she supposed, she was doing a piss-poor job of making herself out to be serious when she was letting the Warden steer her down the hall and into the least-decayed chair the library had to offer. She took the seat; she took the cup of coffee offered to her, and stared at her brown reflection in the mug while wondering if she had finally snapped completely.

"When the Ninth stands for our crimes—" she started, and the Warden slid onto the bench seat next to her, putting a hand across both of hers.

"Nonagesimus," he said, "I'm normally fond of this feature of your personality, but if you could stop making it weird for a single fucking second, we're not the Eighth."

She was suddenly afflicted with a hacking cough that caused her to nearly spit out a mouthful of her coffee, which was only compounded by the fact that the Warden got one of those obnoxiously infectious smiles on his face in response, and said, "And furthermore, we're, you know, your friends."

Harrow couldn't even choke out a sensible response to that, and was ironically saved by Hect arriviving with a bleary Griddle in tow. She felt like she was going mad. In what world would Gideon Nav drag herself out of bed for a scene like this except to revel in Harrowhark Nonagesimus's complete humiliation—and she wasn't doing that, just hovering awkwardly.

Harrow looked up at all of them, who for some godforsaken reason had decided that... what? That there was something to be gained by her presence? and felt her head swim. She tried to summon something dignified to say, but instead just came out with:

"I'm so fucking tired."

"It's because you don't sleep, you just wait, you dread hag," Griddle muttered, and followed up the indignity by wandering over and tucking a shawl around Harrow's shoulders.

Or, Harrow realized, a bedsheet. Harrow picked at it, irritably. "I don't need it," she said.

"Yeah," said her nemesis, thoughtfully, and offered her an awkward shoulder pat. "Doesn't mean you can't have it, though."

Camilla Hect, leaning on one palm against the back of the chair, turned her sharp features down to look at Harrow. "The Warden trusts you," she said, clipped and matter-of-fact. "And even though we worked out your parents were suspiciously absent before Nav spilled her guts, I figured if you were some kind of murderer you'd have done us in sometime during theorem arguments ten through fifteen."

Harrow didn't laugh, half because she had never done so in her entire life and had no idea how to do it, and half because at that point her body decided that the only way to handle the unusually high volume of emotions happening to her was to pass the fuck out.

And for the first time she could remember, she slept quiet, calm and dreamless.

By the time the shuttle for the Sixth's departure arrived, Harrow found herself dreading the day. Not least because she had no idea what she'd do with all her time after.

She had no idea what to do with herself, either, when the Master Warden flung his arms around her in a hug in front of the shuttle ramp, and his Cav cuffed her gently on the shoulder. "You've been invaluable, Nonagesimus," said the Warden. "I'll send word as soon as we reach the Seventh, and with any luck—our research will bear fruit."

"When are you coming back to bring us some more of that fruit stuff?" called Griddle, who was worryingly growing on Harrow like damp black mold, and elbowed Harrow in the side, giving her a look, like, c'mon, tell them they should come back.

Harrow cleared her throat. "Don't listen to her. But—" She was the Lady Reverend of the Ninth House. And, as it turned out, she could do whatever the hell she wanted. "—the Sixth shall be remembered as friend to the Ninth."

Of course Griddle snickered at that, and Harrow found herself suddenly fond of Camilla Hect, who took that moment to lob an apple from her pack directly at Nav's head. The Master Warden simply took that in, and then swept a bow. "It's been an honor," he said. "And—say. I gather things will be busy for you, from here on out, but—"

He glanced to the sky. "I think, regardless—I'm sure Dulcie'd like to meet you because of all you've done, and furthermore..." A brief glance passed between him and Hect. "You're always welcome on the Sixth. In fact, we'll have to insist, to properly return the favor you've shown us."

Harrow sputtered. "Wh—you—"

"And bring Nav," said Hect, folding her arms across her waist. "Don't let your sword get dull."

"She's not even my cav," said Harrow, indignant, at the same time Griddle said, "Yeah, yeah, sure."

And as she watched the shuttle take off, the Master Warden's final words of, "Two months! Don't forget!" echoing in her head—for the first time in her life, Harrow realized she was looking forward to something.

What the hell. Why not.