Harrowhark adds religious piety to her growing list of virtues. Gideon is poorly behaved during a nice Locked Tomb mass wherein we learn that the Necrolord Prime, holy Emperor of the Reignited Sun, is offering all scions of the Nine Houses the chance to become his powerful Lyctors. Gideon, to whom this is all pearls before swine, is shown yet again the error of her ways.
It would have been neater, perhaps, if all of Gideon’s disappointments and woes from birth downward had used that moment as a catalyst: if, filled with a new and fiery determination, she had equipped herself down there in the dark with fresh ambition to become free. She didn’t. She got the depression. She lay in her cell, picking at life like it was a meal she didn’t want to eat. She didn’t touch her sword. She didn’t go and jog around the planter fields and dream of what days looked like to Cohort recruits. She stole a crate of the nutrient paste they put in the gruels and soups fed to the Ninth faithful and squirted them in her mouth when she got hungry, listlessly leafing through magazines or lying back on her bed, crunching her body into sit-ups to make time go away. Crux had snapped the security cuff back on her ankle and she rattled it when she moved, often not bothering to turn on the lights, clinking around in the dark.
A week’s grace was all she got. The Reverend Daughter turned up, as she always goddamn did, standing outside the locked door of her cell. Gideon knew she was there because the shadows in front of the little peephole changed, and because it would be nobody else. By way of hello she said, “Fuck you,” and switched to push-ups.
“Stop sulking, Griddle.”
“Go choke on a dick.”
“I have work for you,” said Harrowhark.
Gideon let herself rest on the apex extension of her arms, staring down sightlessly at the cold floor, the sweat frosting on her back. Her rib still hurt when she breathed, and the cuff was heavy on her ankle, and one of the nuns had jammed her tooth back in too hard and it was like the woe of the Emperor every time she sneezed. “Nonagesimus,” she said slowly, “the only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted someone to hold the sword as you fell on it. The only job I’d do for you would be if you wanted your ass kicked so hard, the Locked Tomb opened and a parade came out to sing, ‘Lo! A destructed ass.’ The only job I’d do would be if you wanted me to spot you while you backflipped off the top tier into Drearburh.”
“That’s three jobs,” said Harrowhark.
“Die in a fire, Nonagesimus.”
There was a rustle from outside; the light scrape of a pin being pulled from a stud before it was pushed through the mesh of the peephole. Belatedly, Gideon scrambled up to toss it back, as one did a grenade; but the bead of Harrow’s earring had landed in her cell, and from that tiny mote of bone sprang humerus, radius, and ulna. A skeletal hand groped blindly at the key in the lock and turned it even as Gideon swung her boot around to smash it into splintery bits. It crumbled away to dust, including the stud. Harrowhark Nonagesimus swung open the door, haloed faintly in the electric lights from the tier, her acerbic little face as welcome as a knee to the groin.
“If you want to do something interesting, come with me,” she commanded. “If you want to wallow in your shockingly vast reserves of self-pity, cut your throat and save me the food bill.”
“Oh damn! Then can I join your old man and lady in the puppet show?”
“How the world would suffer without your wit,” said Harrowhark blandly. “Get your robe. We’re going down to the catacomb.”
It was almost gratifying, Gideon reflected, struggling with the black folds of her church gown, that the heir to the House of the Ninth refused to walk with her on the inside of the tier: she walked close to the wall instead, keeping pace half a step behind Gideon, watching for Gideon’s hands and Gideon’s sword. Almost gratifying, but not quite. Harrow could make even overweening caution offensive. After long days with just her little reading lamp, Gideon’s eyes stung from the lukewarm light of the Ninth drillshaft: she blinked myopically as the lift rattled them down to the doors of Drearburh.
“We’re not going into the inner sanctuary, you recreant,” Harrow said as Gideon balked. “We’re going to the monument. Come.”
The lifts that went down into the foetid bowels of Drearburh were death traps. The ones they entered now, down to the crypts, were especially bad. This one was an open platform of oxygen-addled, creaking metal, tucked behind an iron door that Harrow opened with a tiny chipkey from around her neck. As they descended, the air that rushed up to meet them was so cold that it made Gideon’s eyes water; she pulled the hood of her cloak down over her head and shoved her hands up its sleeves. The central buried mechanism that made their pit on this planet possible sang its low, whining song, filling the elevator shaft, dying away as they went deeper and deeper into the rock. It was profoundly dark.
Stark, strong light swamped their landing, and they walked out into the labyrinth of cages filled with whirring generators that nobody knew how to work. The machines sat alone in their carved-out, chilly niches, garlanded with black crepe from Ninth devotees long dead, their barred housings keeping the two at arm’s length as they passed. The cave narrowed into a passageway and the passageway terminated in a pitted door: Harrow pushed this open and led the way into a long, oblong chamber of bone-choked niches and bad copies of funerary masks, of wrapped bundles and seriously ancient grave goods.
At one niche, Aiglamene kneeled, having set herself the task of ransacking as many of the wrapped bundles as she could. Instead of a Ninth robe she wore a thick wool jacket and gloves, which gave her the appearance of a marshmallow pierced with four toothpicks of differing lengths. She was wearing a particularly po-faced, battle-weary expression as she picked through around a hundred swords in varying stages of death; next to her was a basket of daggers and a handful of knuckle knives. Some were rusted to hell, some were halfway rusted to hell. She was examining a sword and gloomily rubbing at a bit of built-up plaque on the blade.
“This plan is doomed,” she said to them, without looking up.
“Success, Captain?” said Harrowhark.
“They’re all archaeology, my lady.”
“Unfortunate. What was Ortus preferring, these days?”
“Speaking freely,” said Aiglamene, “Ortus preferred his mother and a book of sad poems. His father trained him to fight sword-and-buckler, but after his death—” She gave a somewhat creaking shrug. “He was a damned poor swordsman at his peak. He was not his father’s son. I would have trained him sword-and-powder, but he said he had the catarrh.”
“But his sword must be good, surely.”
“God no,” said Aiglamene. “It was heavy oil amalgam, and it had a rubber tip. Lighter than Nav’s head.” (“Harsh!” said Gideon.) “No, lady; I’m looking for a blade in the style of his great-grandmother’s. And a knife—or a knuckle.”
“Powder,” said Harrowhark decidedly, “or chain.”
“A knife, I think, my lady,” her captain said again, with more gentle deference than Gideon had known the old woman possessed. “Knife or knuckle. The knife will be impossibly difficult to adjust to as it is. You fight in a crowd. A chain in close melee will be more of a danger to you than it will to anyone else.”
Gideon had long since decided that this was not a good place to be, and that the plans being hatched here were not plans she liked. She started to edge backward, toward the door, picking her path as lightly as possible. Suddenly there was Harrow, squeezing herself between two pillars and draping her arms above her head: long folds of black robe shook down from her arms, making her look like a roadblocking bat. “Oh, Nav, no,” she said calmly. “Not when you owe me.”
“Why, of course,” said Harrowhark. “It was your shuttle my cavalier ran off in.”
Gideon’s fist jacked out toward Harrow’s pointy nose. Less by design than accident, the other girl stumbled out of the way, half-tripping, dusting herself off and narrowing her eyes as she circled around the pillar. “If you’re going to start that again,” she said, “here.”
She reached down and hauled up one of the discarded blades. It was at least mildly hilarious to see Harrow have to heave with all the might of her, like, three muscles. Gideon took it while the necromancer rubbed fretfully at her wrists. “Try that,” she said.
Gideon unsheathed and examined the sword. Long, black pieces of crooked metal formed a decaying basket hilt. A terrifically worn black pommel seal depicted the Tomb wrapped in chains, the sign of the Ninth. The blade itself was notched and cracked. “Only way this kills someone is with lockjaw,” she said. “How are you going to get Ortus back, anyway?”
Did Harrow look momentarily troubled? “We’re not.”
“Aiglamene’s too old for this.”
“And that is why you, Griddle,” said the Lady, “are to act as cavalier primary of the House of the Ninth. You will accompany me to the First House as I study to become a Lyctor. You’ll be my personal guard and companion, dutiful and loyal, and uphold the sacred name of this House and its people.”
Once Gideon had stopped laughing, leaning against the icy pillar and beating on it with her fist, she had to breathe long and hard in order to not crack up again. The beleaguered grimace on Aiglamene’s hard-carved face had deepened into an outright sense of siege. “Whoo,” she managed, scrubbing away tears of mirth. “Oh damn. Give me a moment. Okay—like hell I will, Nonagesimus.”
Harrow ducked out from behind her pillar and she walked toward Gideon, hands still clasped together. Her face held the beatific, fire-white expression she’d had the day she told Gideon she was going off-planet: an unwavering resolve almost like joy. She stopped in front of the other girl and looked up at her, shaking the hood from her dark head, and she closed her eyes into slits. “Come on, Nav,” she said, and her voice was alight. “This is your chance. This is your opportunity to come into glory. Follow me through this, and you can go anywhere. House cavaliers can get any Cohort position they like. Do this for me and I won’t just set you free, I’ll set you free with a fortune, with a commission, with anything you want.”
This nettled her. “You don’t own me.”
“Oh, Griddle, but I do,” said Harrowhark. “You’re bound to the Locked Tomb… and at the end of the night, the Locked Tomb is me. The nominated Hands are to enter the First House, Nav; their names will be written in history as the new Imperial saints. Nothing like this has ever happened before, and it may never happen again. Nav, I am going to be a Lyctor.”
“‘Hello, I’m the woman who helped Harrowhark Nonagesimus’s fascist rise to power,’” said Gideon to nobody in particular. “‘Yes, the universe sucks now. I knew this going in. Also, she betrayed me afterward and now my body has been shot into the sun.’” Harrow came too close, and Gideon did what she had never done in the past: she raised the rusted sword so that its naked point was level with the other girl’s forehead. The necromancer adept did not flinch, just made her black-smeared mouth a mocking moue of shock. “I—will never—trust you. Your promises mean nothing. You’ve got nothing to give me. I know what you’d do, given half a chance.”
Harrow’s dark eyes were on Gideon’s, past the blade pointed at her skull. “Oh, I have hurt your heart,” she said.
Gideon kept it absolutely level. “I boohooed for hours.”
“It won’t be the last time I make you weep.”
Aiglamene’s voice rattled out: “Put that damn thing down. I can’t bear to see you hold it with that grip.” And, shocking Gideon: “Consider this offer, Nav.”
Gideon peered around Harrow’s shoulder, letting the blade drop, trashing the miserable thing scabbardless in the nearest niche. “Captain, please don’t be a proponent of this horseshit idea.”
“It’s the best idea we have. Nav,” said her teacher, “our Lady is going off-planet. That’s the long and short of it. You can stay here— in the House you hate—or go attain your liberty—in service to the House you hate. This is your one chance to leave, and to gain your freedom cleanly.”
Harrowhark opened her mouth to say something, but surprising Gideon further, Aiglamene silenced her with a gesture. The crappy swords were set aside with care, and the old woman pulled her bockety leg out from underneath her and leant the good one against the catacomb wall, pushing hard to stand with a clank of mail and bone disease. “You care nothing for the Ninth. That’s fine. This is your chance to prove yourself.”
“I’m not helping Nonagesimus become a Lyctor. She’ll make me into boots.”
“I have condemned your escapes,” said Aiglamene. “They were graceless and feeble. But.” She turned to the other girl. “With all due respect, you’ve dealt her too ill, my lady. I hate this idea. If I were ten years younger I would beg you to condescend to take me. But you won’t vouchsafe her, and so I must.”
“Must you?” said Harrow. There was a curious softness in her voice. Her black gaze was searching for something in the captain of her guard, and she did not seem to be finding it.
“I must,” said Aiglamene. “You’ll be leaving me and Crux in charge of the House. If I vouchsafe the freedom of Gideon Nav and it is not given to her, then—begging pardon for my ingratitude—it is a betrayal of myself, who is your retainer and was your mother’s retainer.”
Harrowhark said nothing. She wore a thin, pensive expression. Gideon wasn’t fooled: this look usually betokened Harrow’s brain percolating outrageous nastiness. But Gideon couldn’t think straight. A horrible dark-red heat was travelling up her neck and she knew it would go right to her cheeks if she let it, so she pulled the hood up over her head and said not a word, and couldn’t look at her swordmaster at all.
“If she satisfies you, you must let her go,” said Aiglamene firmly.
“With all the gracious promises of the Ninth.”
“Oh, if she pulls this off she can have whatever she likes,” said Harrowhark easily—way too easily. “She’ll have glory squirting out each orifice. She can do or be anything she pleases, preferably over on the other side of the galaxy from where I am.”
“Then I thank you for your mercy and your grace, and regard the matter settled,” said Aiglamene.
“How is it settled. I have patently not agreed to this shit.”
Both of them ignored Gideon. “Getting back to the original problem,” said the old woman, settling painfully back down among the swords and the knives, “Nav has had none of Ortus’s training—not in manners, nor in general scholarship—and she was trained in the sword of heavy infantry.”
“Ignore the first; her mental inadequacies can be compensated for. The second’s what I’m interested in. How difficult is it for a normal swordswoman to switch from a double-handed blade to a cavalier rapier?”
“For a normal swordswoman? To reach the standard of a House cavalier primary? You’d need years. For Nav? Three months—” (here Gideon died briefly of gratification; she revived only due to the rising horror consequent of everything else) “—and she’d be up to the standard of the meanest, most behind-hand cavalier alive.”
“Oh, nonsense!” said Harrow languorously. “She’s a genius. With the proper motivation, Griddle could wield two swords in each hand and one in her mouth. While we were developing common sense, she studied the blade. Am I right, Griddle?”
“I haven’t agreed to stone cold dick,” said Gideon. “And I don’t care how bad-ass cavaliers are meant to be, I hate rapiers. All that bouncing around makes me feel tired. Now, a two-hander, that’s a swordsman’s sword.”
“I don’t disagree,” said her teacher, “but a House cavalier—with all her proper training—is a handsomely dangerous thing. I saw the primary cavalier of the House of the Second fight in his youth, and my God! I never forgot it.”
Harrow was pacing in tiny circles now. “But she could get to the point where she might believably, possibly be mistaken for a trained cavalier of the House of the Ninth?”
“The reputation of the Ninth cavalier primary has not been what it was since the days of Matthias Nonius,” said Aiglamene. “And that was a thousand years ago. Expectations are very low. Even then, we’d be bloody lucky.”
Gideon pushed herself up from the pillar and cracked her knuckles, stretching her chill-stiff muscles out before her. She rolled her neck, testing her shoulders, and unwrapped her robe from around herself. “I live for those days when everyone stands around talking about how bad I am at what I do, but it also gives me hurt feelings,” she said, and took the sword she had abandoned for trash. She tested its weight in her hand, feeling what was to her an absurd lightness, and struck what she thought was a sensible stance. “How’s this, Captain?”
Her teacher made a noise in her throat somewhere between disgust and desolation. “What are you doing with your other hand?” Gideon compensated. “No! Oh, Lord. Put that down until I formally show you how.”
“The sword and the powder,” said Harrowhark eagerly.
“The sword and the knuckle, my lady,” said Aiglamene. “I’m dropping my expectations substantially.”
Gideon said, “I still have absolutely not agreed to any of this.”
The Reverend Daughter picked her way toward her over discarded swords, and stopped once she was level with the pillar that Gideon had reflexively flattened her back against. They regarded each other for long moments until the absolute chill of the monument made Gideon’s teeth involuntarily chatter, and then Harrow’s mouth twisted, fleetingly, indulgently. “I would have thought you would be happy that I needed you,” she admitted. “That I showed you my girlish and vulnerable heart.”
“Your heart is a party for five thousand nails,” said Gideon.
“That’s not a ‘no.’ Help Aiglamene find you a sword, Griddle. I’ll leave the door unlocked.” With that languid and imperious command, she left, leaving Gideon lolling her head back against the frigid stone of the pillar and chewing the inside of her cheek.
It was almost worse getting left alone with the sword-master. An awkward, chilly silence spread between them as the old woman grumpily picked through the pile, holding each rapier up to the light, pulling rancid strips of leather away from the grip.
“It’s a bad idea, but it’s a chance, you know,” said Aiglamene abruptly. “Take it or leave it.”
“I thought you said it was the best idea we have.”
“It is—for Lady Harrowhark. You’re the best swordsman that the Ninth House has produced—maybe ever. Can’t say. I never saw Nonius fight.”
“Yeah, you would have only been what, just born,” said Gideon, whose heart was hurting keenly.
“Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you.”
Swords rattled into a leather case as Aiglamene selected a couple at hand, shaking a few of the knuckle-knives in to boot. The case creaked and she creaked as she had to tip herself forward, painful with dignity, getting on her one half-good knee in order to pull herself up to stand. Gideon moved forward automatically, but one look from the woman’s working eye was enough to make her pretend she’d just been getting back into her robes. Aiglamene hauled the case over her shoulder, kicking unwanted swords back into a niche, yanking the useless sword from Gideon’s nerveless hand.
She paused as her fingers closed over the hilt, her haggard face caught up in her consideration, a titanic battle apparently going on somewhere deep inside her head. One side gained the upper hand, and she said gruffly: “Nav. A word of warning.”
There was something urgent in her voice: something worried, something new.
“Things are changing. I used to think we were waiting for something… and now I think we’re just waiting to die.”
Gideon’s heart sagged.
“You really want me to say yes.”
“Go on and say no,” said her captain. “It’s your choice… If she doesn’t take you, I’ll go with her and gladly. But she knows… and I know… and I think you damn well know… that if you don’t get out now, you won’t even get out in a box.”
“So what happens if I agree?”
Breaking the spell, Aiglamene roughly shouldered the leather case into Gideon’s arms, slapping it there before stalking back the way that Harrow had left them. “Then you hurry up. If I’m to turn you into the Ninth’s cavalier, I needed to start six years ago.”
Excerpted from Gideon the Ninth, copyright © 2019 by Tamsyn Muir.