Harrowhark Nonagesimus, a hardworking girl looking after her parents’ interests, cunningly tricked the boorish Gideon into a battle Gideon might have easily won had she only possessed forethought, virtue, or a spade. Gideon is handily beaten through the dark and beautiful necromancy of the bone, which she does not appreciate, and we are delighted by the moral.
Gideon willed herself to pass out as Crux’s cold, bony fingers closed around one of her ankles. It nearly worked. She woke up a few times to blink at the monotonous light that illuminated the lift down to the bottom of the main shaft, and stayed awake when the marshal dragged her like a sack of rotten goods across the bottom of the tier. She felt nothing: not pain, not anger, not disappointment, just a curious sense of wonder and disconnect as she was hauled bodily through the doors of Drearburh. She stirred to life for one last escape attempt, but when he saw her scrabbling at the threadbare carpets on the slick dark floor Crux kicked her in the head. Then she did pass out for a little while, for real, only waking up when she was heaped onto a forward pew. The pew was so cold her skin stuck to it, and each breath was like needles in the lung.
She came to, freezing, to the sound of the prayers. There was no spoken invocation in the Ninth service. There was only the clatter of bones—knucklebones, all threaded on woven cords, notched and worn—worked by nuns whose old fingers could pray on them so swiftly that the service became a murmurous rattle. It was a long, narrow hall, and she had been dumped right at the front of it. It was very dark: a rail of gas-discharged light ran all around the aisles, but it always lit like it didn’t like the idea and glowed dismally. The arches overhead had been dusted with bioluminescent powders that sometimes trickled down as pale green glitter into the nave, and in all the radiating chapels sat speechless skeletons, still dusty from the farming. Squinting blearily over her shoulder, she saw that most of the sanctum was skeletons. It was a skeleton party. There was room in this deep, long channel of a church for a thousand, and it was half full of skeletons and only very pockmarked with people.
The people mostly sat in the transept, veiled nuns and solitaires, shaven heads and cropped, the weary and scant inhabitants of the Ninth House. Mostly priests of the Locked Tomb, now; there hadn’t been soldiers or military friars since she was very young. The only member left of that order was Aiglamene, who’d left her leg and any hope of getting the hell out of here on some far-off front line. The clatter in the transept was occasionally interrupted by a wet, racking cough or the haggard clearing of somebody’s throat.
In the apse was a long bench, and there sat the last handful of the nobles of the House of the Ninth: Reverend Daughter Harrowhark, sitting modestly to the side, face dusted with a handful of luminescent powder that had stuck to the blood trails coming out her nose; her ghastly great-aunts; and her parents, the Lord and Lady of the House, the Reverend Father and the Reverend Mother. The latter two had pride of place, before the altar, side-on to the congregation. Crux had the honour of sitting on a chair in one of the dank chevets amid a sea of candles, half of them already out. Next to him sat the only house cavalier, Ortus, a wide and sad Ninth youngster of thirty-five, and next to Ortus sat his lady mother, an absolutely standard Ninth crone who kept fussing at his ear with a handkerchief.
Gideon blinked so that her vision would stop wobbling and focused on the apse. They hadn’t managed to cozen her inside Drearburh for a good two years, and she hadn’t seen the hideous great-aunts nor the Lord and Lady for a while. Blessed Sister Lachrimorta and Blessed Sister Aisamorta were unaltered. They were still tiny, their faces still tight, grey-painted dribbles, and as the Ninth was free from miracles, they were still blind. They had black bands tied over their faces with white, staring eyes painted on the front. Each preferred to pray two sets of beads, one string in each shrivelled hand, so they sat there clicking a four-part percussion with their suspiciously agile fingers.
Ortus hadn’t changed either. He was still lumpy and sad. Being the primary cavalier to the House of the Ninth had not for eras been a title of any renown. Cavaliers in other Houses might be revered and noble men and women of long genealogy or particular talent, frequent heroes of Gideon’s less prurient magazines, but in the Ninth everyone knew you were chosen for how many bones you could hump around. Ortus was basically a morbid donkey. His father—cavalier to Harrow’s father—had been an enormous, stony man of some gravity and devotion, with a sword and two huge panniers of fibulae, but Ortus wasn’t made in his mould. Coupling him to Harrow had been rather like yoking a doughnut to a cobra. Aiglamene had probably focused her frustrations on Gideon because Ortus was such a drip. He was a sensitive, awful young man, and his mother was obsessed with him; each time he caught a cold he was swaddled and made to lie still until he got bedsores.
The Lord and Lady she looked at too, though she honestly didn’t want to. Lady Pelleamena and Lord Priamhark sat side by side, one gloved hand placed on a knee, the other joined to their partner’s as they prayed simultaneously on a string of ornate bones. Black cloth swathed them toe to neck, and their faces were mostly obscured by dark hoods: Gideon could see their pale, waxy profiles, streaked with luminescent powder, the mark of Harrow’s handprint still visible on both. Their eyes were closed. Pelleamena’s face was still frozen and fine as it had been the last time Gideon had seen her, the dark wings of her brows unsilvered, the thin fretwork of lines next to each eye uncrowded by new. Priam’s jaw was still firm, his shoulder unstooped, his brow clear and unlined. They were utterly unchanged; less changed, even, than the shitty great-aunts. This was because they’d both been dead for years.
Their mummified faces did not yield to time because—as Gideon knew, and the marshal, and the captain of the guard, and nobody else in the universe—Harrowhark had frozen them forever. Ever the obsessive and secretive scholar, she had derived at great cost some forgotten way of preserving and puppeting the bodies. She had found a nasty, forbidden little book in the great Ninth repositories of nasty, forbidden little books, and all the Houses would have had a collective aneurysm if they knew she’d even read it. She hadn’t executed it very well—her parents were fine from the shoulders up, but from the shoulders down they were bad—though she had, admittedly, been ten.
Gideon had been eleven when the Lord and Lady of the House of the Ninth had slipped into death in sudden, awful secret. It was such a huge bag of ass how it had happened: what she’d found, what she’d seen. She hadn’t been sad. If she’d been stuck being Harrow’s parents she would have done the same years ago.
“Listen,” said the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth, rising to stand.
The enthroned Lord and Lady should have taken charge of the sacred ritual, but they couldn’t, because they were mega-dead. Harrowhark had handily gotten around this by giving them a vow of silence. Every year she added to their penitents’ vows—of fasting, of daily contemplation, of seclusion—so blandly and barefacedly that it seemed inevitable that someone would eventually say hang on a minute, this sounds like… A LOAD OF HOT GARBAGE, and she’d be found out. But she never was. Crux covered for her, and so did Aiglamene, and the Lord’s cavalier had helpfully decided to die the day that Priam died. And so Gideon covered too, hating every moment, saving up this last secret in the hopes that with it she could extort her freedom.
All prayer beads stopped clacking. The hands of Harrow’s parents stilled unnaturally in unison. Gideon slung her arms around the back of her pew and kicked one foot up atop the other, wishing her head would stop ringing.
“The noble House of the Ninth has called you here today,” said Harrowhark, “because we have been given a gift of enormous import. Our sacred Emperor—the Necrolord Prime, the King of the Nine Renewals, our Resurrector—has sent us summons.”
That got asses in seats. The skeletons remained perfectly still and attentive, but a querulous excitement arose from the assorted Ninth congregation. There were soft cries of joy. There were exclamations of praise and thankfulness. The letter could have been a drawing of a butt and they would have been lining up thrice to kiss the edge of the paper.
“I will share this letter with you,” said Harrowhark, “because nobody loves their people, their sacred brothers and sacred sisters, as the Ninth House loves her people—her devotees and her priests, her children and her faithful.” (Gideon thought Harrow was slathering it on pretty thick.) “If the Reverend Mother will permit her daughter to read?”
Like she’d say no with Harrow’s hands on her strings. With a pallid smile, Pelleamena gently inclined her head in a way she never had in life: alive, she had been as chill and remote as ice at the bottom of a cave. “With my gracious mother’s permission,” said Harrow, and began to read:
“ADDRESSING THE HOUSE OF THE NINTH, ITS REVEREND LADY PELLEAMENA HIGHT NOVENARIUS AND ITS REVEREND LORD PRIAM HIGHT NONIUSVIANUS:
“Salutations to the House of the Ninth, and blessings upon its tombs, its peaceful dead, and its manifold mysteries.
“His Celestial Kindliness, the First Reborn, begs this house to honour its love for the Creator, as set in the contract of tenderness made on the day of the Resurrection, and humbly asks for the first fruits of your household…
(“My name is listed here,” said Harrowhark, simpering modestly, then with less enthusiasm: “—and Ortus’s.”)
“For in need now are the Emperor’s Hands, the most blessed and beloved of the King Undying, the faithful and the everlasting! The Emperor calls now for postulants to the position of Lyctor, heirs to the eight stalwarts who have served these ten thousand years: as many of them now lie waiting for the rivers to rise on the day they wake to their King, those lonely Guard remaining petition for their numbers to be renewed and their Lord above Lords to find eight new liegemen.
“To this end we beg the first of your House and their cavalier to kneel in glory and attend the finest study, that of being the Emperor’s bones and joints, his fists and gestures…
“Eight we hope will meditate and ascend to the Emperor in glory in the temple of the First House, eight new Lyctors joined with their cavaliers; and if the Necrolord Highest blesses but does not take, they shall return home in full honour, with trump and timbrel.
“There is no dutiful gift so perfect, nor so lovely in his eyes.”
Harrowhark lowered the paper to a long silence; a real silence, without even the hint of a prayer knuckle clacking or a skeleton’s jaw falling off. The Ninth seemed completely taken aback. There was a wheezing squeal from one of the pews in the transept behind Gideon as one of the faithful decided to go the whole hog and have a heart attack, and this distracted everyone. The nuns tried their best, but a few minutes later it was confirmed that one of the hermits had died of shock, and everyone around him celebrated his sacred good fortune. Gideon failed to hide a snicker as Harrowhark sighed, obviously calculating inside her head what this did to the current Ninth census.
A second hand disturbed the community tomb as Ortus’s mother stood, finger trembling, her other arm draped around her son’s shoulders. He looked completely affrighted. She looked as though she were about to follow the faithful departed to an untimely grave, face frozen beneath her alabaster base paint, black skull paint slipping with sweat.
“My son—my son,” she cried out, shrill and cracked; “my firstborn sweet! His father’s endowment! My only joy!”
“Sister Glaurica, please,” said Harrow, looking bored.
Ortus’s mother had wrapped both arms around him now, and was weeping fully into his shoulder. Her own shook with very real fear and grief. He looked wetly depressed. She was saying, between sobs: “I gave you my husband—Lord Noniusvianus, I gave you my spouse—Lord Noniusvianus, do you demand my son of me? Do you demand my son? Surely not! Surely not now!”
“You forget yourself, Glaurica,” Crux snapped.
“I know the things that befall cavaliers, my lord, I know his fate!”
“Sister Glaurica,” Harrowhark said, “be calm.”
“He is young,” quavered Ortus’s mother, half-pulling him into the safety of the chevet when she realised Lord Noniusvianus would not intercede. “He is young, he is not robust.”
“Some would say otherwise,” said Harrowhark, sotto voce.
But Ortus said, with his big, sombre eyes and his squashed, disheartened voice: “I do fear death, my Lady Harrowhark.”
“A cavalier should welcome death,” said Aiglamene, affronted.
“Your father welcomed death unflinching,” said Crux.
At this tender piece of sympathy, his mother burst into tears. The congregation muttered, mostly reproachful, and Gideon started to perk up. It wasn’t quite the worst day of her life now. This was some A-grade entertainment. Ortus, not bothering to disentangle himself from his sobbing parent, was mumbling that he would make sure she was provided for; the heinous great-aunts had returned to prayer and were crooning a wordless hymn; Crux was loudly abusing Ortus’s mother; and Harrowhark stood in this sea, mute and contemptuous as a monument.
“—leave and pray for guidance, or I’ll have you, I’ll take you off the sanctuary,” Crux was saying.
“—I gave this house everything; I paid the highest price—”
“—what comes of Mortus marrying an immigrant Eighth, you shameful hag—”
Gideon was grinning so hugely that her split lips recommenced bleeding. Amid the massed heads of the uncaring dead and the disturbed devout, Harrowhark’s eyes found hers, and that disdainful mask slipped in its blankness; her lips thinned. The people clamoured. Gideon winked.
“Enough,” snapped the Reverend Daughter, voice like a knife’s edge. “Let us pray.”
Silence sank over the congregation, like the slowly falling flakes of luminescent dust. The sobbing of Ortus’s mother hushed into silent, shuddering tears, buried in her son’s chest as he put his doughy arm around her. He was crying soundlessly into her hair. The hymn of the nasty great-aunts ended on a high and tremulous note, never relieved, wasting away in midair; Harrow bowed her head and her parents did too, simultaneous in obedience. The great-aunts nodded their heads to their chests; Aiglamene and Crux followed suit. Gideon stared up at the ceiling and re-crossed her ankles over each other, blinked bits of luminescent grit from her eyes.
“I pray the tomb is shut forever,” recited Harrowhark, with the curious fervidity she always showed in prayer. “I pray the rock is never rolled away. I pray that which was buried remains buried, insensate, in perpetual rest with closed eye and stilled brain. I pray it lives, I pray it sleeps… I pray for the needs of the Emperor All-Giving, the Undying King, his Virtues and his men. I pray for the Second House, the Third, the Fourth, the Fifth; the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth. I pray for the Ninth House, and I pray for it to be fruitful. I pray for the soldiers and adepts far from home, and all those parts of the Empire that live in unrest and disquiet. Let it be so.”
They all prayed to let it be so, with much rattling of bones. Gideon had not prayed for a very long time. She looked over the bald, gleaming skulls of the assembled skeletons and the short-haired heads of the faithful Ninth, and wondered what she’d do first when she left for Trentham. The sobs of Ortus’s unfortunate mother interrupted the clatter and her less-than-realistic thoughts of doing chin-ups in front of a dozen clapping ensigns, and she saw Harrow whispering to Crux, gesturing at mother and son, her face a painting of bloodless patience. Crux led them off the sanctuary none too gently. They passed down the centre of the nave, Crux hustling, Ortus lumbering, Ortus’s mother barely able to stand in her misery. Gideon gave the unfortunate cavalier a thumbs-up as they passed: Ortus returned a brief and watery smile.
Muster broke up after that. Most of the congregation stayed to keep praying at their good fortune, knowing that the Secundarius Bell would be ringing in a scant hour anyway. Gideon would have vaulted up to leave and sprint back to her shuttle first thing, but the skeletons flooded out in neat, serried ranks down the centre of the nave, two abreast, blocking all other progress in their readiness to get back to their snow leeks and the heat lamps of their fields. The disgusting great-aunts removed themselves behind the parcloses to the claustrophobic family chapel off to one side, and Harrowhark ordered her parents’ complaisant mummies out of sight to wherever she usually hid them. Back in their lavish household cell, probably, and to bar the door after. Gideon was massaging sprains from her fingers as her sword-master came seesawing down the aisle.
“She lies,” said Gideon absently, by way of greeting. “If you hadn’t noticed. She never keeps her promises. Not a one.”
Aiglamene did not answer. Gideon didn’t expect her to. She just stood there, not yet meeting her student’s gaze, one liver-spotted hand clutched tight to the grip of her sword. Eventually, she said gruffly: “You have always suffered from a want of duty, Nav. You can’t argue that. You couldn’t spell obligation if I shoved the letters up your ass.”
“I gotta say, I don’t think that would help,” said Gideon. “God, I’m glad you didn’t teach me my spelling.”
“A soldier’s best quality is her sense of allegiance. Of loyalty. Nothing else survives.”
“I know,” said Gideon, and, experimenting, rose from the pew. She was standing fine, but her ribs ached; one was probably cracked. Her butt hurt from being dragged. She was going to be swollen with bruises before nightfall, and she needed to have a tooth put back in—not by one of the nuns, though, never again. The Cohort would have bone magicians aplenty. “I know. It’s fine. Don’t get me wrong, Captain. Where I’m going, I promise to piss fidelity all the livelong day. I have lots of fealty in me. I fealt the Emperor with every bone in my body. I fealt hard.”
“You wouldn’t know fealty if it—”
“Don’t hypothetically shove stuff up my butt again,” said Gideon, “it never does any good.”
The lopsided old woman took a scabbard off her back and wearily handed it over. It was Gideon’s. Her sword had been sheathed safely inside it. Aiglamene tossed her the abandoned suitcase, to boot. This would be the closest to an apology she would get. The woman would never touch her, and she would never give her a word that had no edges. But this was nearly tender for the captain of the guard, and Gideon would take it and run.
Determined footsteps sounded down the centre aisle, alongside the sound of ancient lace rustling over slick obsidian. Gideon’s gut tightened, but she said: “How the hell are you going to get out of this one, Nonagesimus?”
“I’m not,” said Harrow, surprising her. The Reverend Daughter’s sharp-angled, foxy chin was thrust out, and she still had a thick rime of blood circling each nostril, but with her burning black eyes she looked exalted as a bad bone saint. “I’m going. This is my chance for intercession. You couldn’t comprehend.”
“I can’t, but I also couldn’t care less,” said Gideon.
“We all get our chances, Nav. You got yours.”
Gideon wanted to punch her lights out, but she said instead, with forced jollity: “By the way, I worked out your nasty little trick, jackass.”
Aiglamene did not cuff her for this, which was also some sort of apology; she just jabbed a warning finger in her direction. Harrow cocked her chin up in genuine surprise, hood falling away from her dark, short-cropped head. “Did you?” she drawled. “Really?”
“Your mother’s signature on the commission. The sting in the tail. If I come clean,” she said, “that renders the signature null and void, doesn’t it? It buys my silence. Well played. I’ll have to keep my mouth shut when I hand that one over, and you know it.”
Harrowhark cocked her head the other way, lightly.
“I hadn’t even thought of that,” she said. “I thought you meant the shuttle.”
Alarm bells rang in Gideon’s head, like the First and Second Peal all mixed together. She could feel the heat drain from her face, and she was already backing out of the pew, into the aisle, wheeling away. Harrowhark’s face was a painted study of innocence, of perfect unconcern. At the expression on Gideon’s, Aiglamene had put a hand on her sword, moving herself between the two with a warning stump of the leg.
Gideon said, with difficulty: “What—about—the shuttle?”
“Oh, Ortus and his mother stole it,” said Harrowhark. “They must be gone already. She still has family back on the Eighth, and she thinks they’ll take them in.” At her expression, Harrow laughed: “You make it so easy, Griddle. You always do.”
Gideon had never confronted a broken heart before. She had never gotten far enough to have her heart broken. She knelt on the landing field, knees in the grit, arms clutched around herself. There was nothing left but blown-out, curly patterns in the pebbles where the shuttle had passed. A great dullness had sunk over her; a deep coldness, a thick stolidity. When her heart beat in her chest it was with a huge, steady grief. Every pulse seemed to be the space between insensibility and knives. For some moments she was awake, and she was filled with a slow-burning mine fire, the kind that never went out and crumbled everything from the inside; for all the other moments, it was as though she had gone somewhere else.
Behind her stood the Lady of the Ninth House, watching her with no satisfaction.
“I got wind of your plan only last week,” she admitted.
Gideon said nothing.
“A week before,” Harrow continued. “I wouldn’t have known at all, if I hadn’t gotten the summons. You’d done everything right. They said I could put my reply on the shuttle I had previously scheduled, if I wanted to write in paper. I will give you your due: there was no way you could have accounted for that. I could have spoiled it before, but I wanted to wait until now to do anything. I wanted to wait… for the very moment when you thought you’d gotten away… to take it from you.”
Gideon could only manage, “Why?”
The girl’s expression was the same as it was on the day that Gideon had found her parents, dangling from the roof of their cell. It was blank and white and still.
“Because I completely fucking hate you,” said Harrowhark, “no offence.”
Excerpted from Gideon the Ninth, copyright © 2019 by Tamsyn Muir.