The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.
Tamsyn Muir’s heart-pounding epic science fantasy Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Available September 10th from Tor.com Publishing, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have with a skeleton. We’re excited to share the first chapter with you below—what are you waiting for?!
Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.
Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.
Of course, some things are better left dead.
In the myriadic year of our Lord—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!— Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.
She didn’t run. Gideon never ran unless she had to. In the absolute darkness before dawn she brushed her teeth without concern and splashed her face with water, and even went so far as to sweep the dust off the floor of her cell. She shook out her big black church robe and hung it from the hook. Having done this every day for over a decade, she no longer needed light to do it by. This late in the equinox no light would make it here for months, in any case; you could tell the season by how hard the heating vents were creaking. She dressed herself from head to toe in polymer and synthetic weave. She combed her hair. Then Gideon whistled through her teeth as she unlocked her security cuff, and arranged it and its stolen key considerately on her pillow, like a chocolate in a fancy hotel.
Leaving her cell and swinging her pack over one shoulder, she took the time to walk down five flights to her mother’s nameless catacomb niche. This was pure sentiment, as her mother hadn’t been there since Gideon was little and would never go back in it now. Then came the long hike up twenty-two flights the back way, not one light relieving the greasy dark, heading to the splitoff shaft and the pit where her ride would arrive: the shuttle was due in two hours.
Out here, you had an unimpeded view up to a pocket of Ninth sky. It was soupy white where the atmosphere was pumped in thickest, and thin and navy where it wasn’t. The bright bead of Dominicus winked benignly down from the mouth of the long vertical tunnel. In the dark, she made an opening amble of the field’s perimeter, and she pressed her hands up hard against the cold and oily rock of the cave walls. Once this was done, she spent a long time methodically kicking apart every single innocuous drift and hummock of dirt and rock that had been left on the worn floor of the landing field. She dug the shabby steel toe of her boot into the hard-packed floor, but satisfied with the sheer improbability of anyone digging through it, left it alone. Not an inch of that huge, empty space did Gideon leave unchecked, and as the generator lights grumbled to half-hearted life, she checked it twice by sight. She climbed up the wire-meshed frames of the floodlights and checked them too, blinded by the glare, feeling blindly behind the metal housing, grimly comforted by what she didn’t find.
She parked herself on one of the destroyed humps of rubble in the dead centre. The lamps made lacklustre any real light. They explosively birthed malform shadow all around. The shades of the Ninth were deep and shifty; they were bruise-coloured and cold. In these surrounds, Gideon rewarded herself with a little plastic bag of porridge. It tasted gorgeously grey and horrible.
The morning started as every other morning had started in the Ninth since the Ninth began. She took a turn around the vast landing site just for a change of pace, kicking absently at an untidy drift of grit as she went. She moved out to the balcony tier and looked down at the central cavern for signs of movement, worrying porridge from her molars with the tip of her tongue. After a while, there was the faraway upward clatter of the skeletons going to pick mindlessly at the snow leeks in the planter fields. Gideon saw them in her mind’s eye: mucky ivory in the sulfurous dim, picks clattering over the ground, eyes a multitude of wavering red pinpricks.
The First Bell clanged its uncanorous, complaining call for beginning prayers, sounding as always like it was getting kicked down some stairs; a sort of BLA-BLANG… BLA-BLANG… BLA-BLANG that had woken her up every morning that she could recall. Move-ment resulted. Gideon peered down at the bottom where shadows gathered over the cold white doors of Castle Drearburh, stately in the dirt, set into the rock three bodies wide and six bodies tall. Two braziers stood on either side of the door and perpetually burned fatty, crappy smoke. Over the doors were tiny white figures in a multitude of poses, hundreds to thousands of them, carved using some weird trick where their eyes seemed to look right at you. Whenever Gideon had been made to go through those doors as a kid, she’d screamed like she was dying.
More activity in the lowest tiers now. The light had settled into visibility. The Ninth would be coming out of their cells after morning contemplation, getting ready to head for orison, and the Drear-burh retainers would be preparing for the day ahead. They would perform many a solemn and inane ritual in the lower recesses. Gideon tossed her empty porridge bag over the side of the tier and sat down with her sword over her knees, cleaning it with a bit of rag: forty minutes to go.
Suddenly, the unchanging tedium of a Ninth morning changed. The First Bell sounded again: BLANG… BLA-BLANG… BLA-BLANG… Gideon cocked her head to listen, finding her hands had stilled on her sword. It rang fully twenty times before stopping. Huh; muster call. After a while came the clatter of the skeletons again, having obediently tossed down pick and hoe to meet their summons. They streamed down the tiers in an angular current, broken up every so often by some limping figure in vestments of rusting black. Gideon picked up her sword and cloth again: it was a cute try, but she wasn’t buying.
She didn’t look up when heavy, stumping footsteps sounded on her tier, or for the rattle of rusting armour and the rusty rattle of breath.
“Thirty whole minutes since I took it off, Crux,” she said, hands busy. “It’s almost like you want me to leave here forever. Ohhhh shit, you absolutely do though.”
“You ordered a shuttle through deception,” bubbled the marshal of Drearburh, whose main claim to fame was that he was more decrepit alive than some of the legitimately dead. He stood before her on the landing field and gurgled with indignation. “You falsified documents. You stole a key. You removed your cuff. You wrong this house, you misuse its goods, you steal its stock.”
“Come on, Crux, we can come to some arrangement,” Gideon coaxed, flipping her sword over and looking at it critically for nicks. “You hate me, I hate you. Just let me go without a fight and you can retire in peace. Take up a hobby. Write your memoirs.”
“You wrong this house. You misuse its goods. You steal its stock.” Crux loved verbs.
“Say my shuttle exploded. I died, and it was such a shame. Give me a break, Crux, I’m begging you here—I’ll trade you a skin mag. Frontline Titties of the Fifth.” This rendered the marshal momentarily too aghast to respond. “Okay, okay. I take it back. Frontline Titties isn’t a real publication.”
Crux advanced like a glacier with an agenda. Gideon rolled backward off her seat as his antique fist came down, skidding out of his way with a shower of dust and gravel. Her sword she swiftly locked within its scabbard, and the scabbard she clutched in her arms like a child. She propelled herself backward, out of the way of his boot and his huge, hoary hands. Crux might have been very nearly dead, but he was built like gristle with what seemed like thirty knuckles to each fist. He was old, but he was goddamn ghastly.
“Easy, marshal,” she said, though she was the one floundering in the dirt. “Take this much further and you’re in danger of enjoying yourself.”
“You talk so loudly for chattel, Nav,” said the marshal. “You chatter so much for a debt. I hate you, and yet you are my wares and inventory. I have written up your lungs as lungs for the Ninth. I have measured your gall as gall for the Ninth. Your brain is a base and shrivelled sponge, but it too is for the Ninth. Come here, and I’ll black your eyes for you and knock you dead.”
Gideon slid backward, keeping her distance. “Crux,” she said, “a threat’s meant to be ‘Come here, or…’”
“Come here and I’ll black your eyes for you and knock you dead,” croaked the advancing old man, “and then the Lady has said that you will come to her.”
Only then did Gideon’s palms prickle. She looked up at the scarecrow towering before her and he stared back, one-eyed, horrible, baleful. The antiquated armour seemed to be rotting right off his body. Even though the livid, over-stretched skin on his skull looked in danger of peeling right off, he gave the impression that he simply wouldn’t care. Gideon suspected that—even though he had not a whit of necromancy in him—the day he died, Crux would keep going anyway out of sheer malice.
“Black my eyes and knock me dead,” she said slowly, “but your Lady can go right to hell.”
Crux spat on her. That was disgusting, but whatever. His hand went to the long knife kept over one shoulder in a mould-splattered sheath, which he twitched to show a thin slice of blade: but at that, Gideon was on her feet with her scabbard held before her like a shield. One hand was on the grip, the other on the locket of the sheath. They both faced each other in impasse, her very still, the old man’s breath loud and wet.
Gideon said, “Don’t make the mistake of drawing on me, Crux.”
“You are not half as good with that sword as you think you are, Gideon Nav,” said the marshal of Drearburh, “and one day I’ll flay you for disrespect. One day we will use your parts for paper. One day the sisters of the Locked Tomb will brush the oss with your bristles. One day your obedient bones will dust all places you disdain, and make the stones there shine with your fat. There is a muster, Nav, and I command you now to go.”
Gideon lost her temper. “You go, you dead old dog, and you damn well tell her I’m already gone.”
To her enormous surprise he wheeled around and stumped back to the dark and slippery tier. He rattled and cursed all the way, and she told herself that she had won before she even woke up that morning; that Crux was an impotent symbol of control, one last attempt to test if she was stupid enough or cowed enough to walk back behind the cold bars of her prison. The grey and putrid heart of Drearburh. The greyer and more putrid heart of its lady.
She pulled her watch out of her pocket and checked it: twenty minutes to go, a quarter hour and change. Gideon was home free. Gideon was gone. Nothing and nobody could change that now.
“Crux is abusing you to anyone who will listen,” said a voice from the entryway, with fifteen minutes to go. “He said you made your blade naked to him. He said you offered him sick pornographies.”
Gideon’s palms prickled again. She’d sat back down on her awkward throne of rocks and balanced her watch between her knees, staring at the tiny mechanical hand that counted the minutes. “I’m not that dumb, Aiglamene,” she said. “Threaten a house official and I wouldn’t make toilet-wiper in the Cohort.”
“And the pornography?”
“I did offer him stupendous work of a titty nature, and he got offended,” said Gideon. “It was a very perfect moment. The Cohort’s not going to care about that though. Have I mentioned the Cohort? You do know the Cohort, right? The Cohort I’ve left to enlist in… thirty-three times?”
“Save the drama, you baby,” said her sword-master. “I know of your desires.”
Aiglamene dragged herself into the small light of the landing field. The captain of the House guard had a head of melty scars and a missing leg which an indifferently talented bone adept had replaced for her. It bowed horribly and gave her the appearance of a building with the foundations hastily shored up. She was younger than Crux, which was to say, old as balls: but she had a quickness to her, a liveliness, that was clean. The marshal was classic Ninth and he was filthy rotten all the way through.
“Thirty-three times,” repeated Gideon, somewhat wearily. She checked back on her clockwork: fourteen minutes to go. “The last time, she jammed me in the lift. The time before that she turned off the heating and I got frostbite in three toes. Time before that: she poisoned my food and had me crapping blood for a month. Need I go on.”
Her teacher was unmoved. “There was no disservice done. You didn’t get her permission.”
“I’m allowed to apply for the military, Captain. I’m indentured, not a slave. I’m no fiscal use to her here.”
“Beside the point. You chose a bad day to fly the coop.” Aiglamene jerked her head downward. “There’s House business, and you’re wanted downstairs.”
“This is her being sad and desperate,” said Gideon. “This is her obsession… this is her need for control. There’s nothing she can do. I’ll keep my nose clean. Keep my mouth shut. I’ll even—you can write this down, you can quote me here—do my duty to the Ninth House. But don’t pretend at me, Aiglamene, that the moment I go down there a sack won’t come down over my head and I won’t spend the next five weeks concussed in an oss.”
“You egotistical foetus, you think our Lady rang the muster call just for you?”
“So, here’s the thing, your Lady would set the Locked Tomb on fire if it meant I’d never see another sky,” Gideon said, looking up. “Your Lady would stone cold eat a baby if it meant she got to lock me up infinitely. Your Lady would slather burning turds on the great-aunts if she thought it would ruin my day. Your Lady is the nastiest b—”
When Aiglamene slapped her, it had none of the trembling affrontedness Crux might have slapped her with. She simply back-handed Gideon the way you might hit a barking animal. Gideon’s head was starry with pain.
“You forget yourself, Gideon Nav,” her teacher said shortly. “You’re no slave, but you’ll serve the House of the Ninth until the day you die and then thereafter, and you’ll commit no sin of perfidy in my air. The bell was real. Will you come to muster of your own accord, or will you disgrace me?”
There was a time when she had done many things to avoid disgracing Aiglamene. It was easy to be a disgrace in a vacuum, but she had a soft spot for the old soldier. Nobody had ever loved her in the House of the Ninth, and certainly Aiglamene did not love her and would have laughed herself to her overdue death at the idea: but in her had been a measure of tolerance, a willingness to loosen the leash and see what Gideon could do with free rein. Gideon loved free rein. Aiglamene had convinced the House to put a sword in Gideon’s hands, not to waste her on serving altar or drudging in the oss. Aiglamene wasn’t faithless. Gideon looked down and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and saw the blood in her saliva and saw her sword; and she loved her sword so much she could frigging marry it.
But she also saw her clock’s minute hand ticking, ticking down. Twelve minutes to go. You didn’t cut loose by getting soft. For all its mouldering brittleness, the Ninth was hard as iron.
“I guess I’ll disgrace you,” Gideon admitted easily. “I feel like I was born to it. I’m naturally demeaning.”
Her sword-master held her gaze with her aged hawk’s face and her pouchy socket of an eye, and it was grim, but Gideon didn’t look away. It would have made it somewhat easier if Aiglamene had made a Crux out of it and cursed her lavishly, but all she said was: “Such a quick study, and you still don’t understand. That’s on my head, I suppose. The more you struggle against the Ninth, Nav, the deeper it takes you; the louder you curse it, the louder they’ll have you scream.”
Back straight as a poker, Aiglamene walked away with her funny seesawing walk, and Gideon felt as though she’d failed a test. It didn’t matter, she told herself. Two down, none to go. Eleven minutes until landing, her clockwork told her, eleven minutes and she was out. That was the only thing that mattered. That was the only thing that had mattered since a much younger Gideon had realised that, unless she did something drastic, she was going to die here down in the dark.
And—worst of all—that would only be the beginning.
Nav was a Niner name, but Gideon didn’t know where she’d been born. The remote, insensate planet where she lived was home to both the stronghold of the House and a tiny prison, used only for those criminals whose crimes were too repugnant for their own Houses to rehabilitate them on home turf. She’d never seen the place. The Ninth House was an enormous hole cracked vertically into the planet’s core, and the prison a bubble installation set halfway up into the atmosphere where the living conditions were probably a hell of a lot more clement.
One day eighteen years ago, Gideon’s mother had tumbled down the middle of the shaft in a dragchute and a battered hazard suit, like some moth drifting slowly down into the dark. The suit had been out of power for a couple of minutes. The woman landed brain-dead. All the battery power had been sucked away by a bio-container plugged into the suit, the kind you’d carry a transplant limb in, and inside that container was Gideon, only a day old.
This was obviously mysterious as hell. Gideon had spent her life poring over the facts. The woman must have run out of juice an hour before landing; it was impossible that she would have cleared gravity from a drop above the planet, as her simple haz would have exploded. The prison, which recorded every coming and going obsessively, denied her as an escapee. Some of the nun-adepts of the Locked Tomb were sent for, those who knew the secrets for caging ghosts. Even they—old in their power then, seasoned necromancers of the dark and powerful House of the Ninth—couldn’t rip the woman’s shade back to explain herself. She would not be tempted back for fresh blood or old. She was too far gone by the time the exhausted nuns had tethered her by force, as though death had been a catalyst for the woman to hit the ground running, and they only got one word out of her: she had screamed Gideon! Gideon! Gideon! three times, and fled.
If the Ninth—enigmatic, uncanny Ninth, the House of the Sewn Tongue, the Anchorite’s House, the House of Heretical Secrets—was nonplussed at having an infant on their hands, they moved fast anyway. The Ninth had historically filled its halls with penitents from other houses, mystics and pilgrims who found the call of this dreary order more attractive than their own birthrights. In the antiquated rules of those supplicants who moved between the eight great households, she was taken as a very small bondswoman, not of the Ninth but beholden to it: what greater debt could be accrued than that of being brought up? What position more honourable than vassal to Drearburh? Let the baby grow up postulant. Push the child to be an oblate. They chipped her, surnamed her, and put her in the nursery. At that time, the tiny Ninth House boasted two hundred children between infancy and nineteen years of age, and Gideon was numbered two hundred and first.
Less than two years later, Gideon Nav would be one of only three children left: herself, a much older boy, and the infant heir of the Ninth House, daughter of its lord and lady. They knew by age five that she was not a necromancer, and suspected by eight that she would never be a nun. Certainly, they would have known by ten that she knew too much, and that she could never be allowed to go.
Gideon’s appeals to better natures, financial rewards, moral obligations, outlined plans, and simple attempts to run away numbered eighty-six by the time she was eighteen. She’d started when she was four.
Excerpted from Gideon the Ninth, copyright © 2019 by Tamsyn Muir.