Now that Ortus Nigenad is out of the picture, Harrowhark condescends to offer Gideon his job, the honour of which she fails to recognise. Will Gideon choose to aid her Lady in becoming a necromantic saint, putting aside her crude broadsword for the elegant rapier, or will she continue to issue poor quality one-liners to her betters? (The answer, alas, was both.)
The second letter that they received care of the Resurrecting King, the gentle Emperor, was somewhat less prolix than the first.
They were lurking in the personal Nonagesimus library, a stone-arched room packed tight with shelves of the musty and neglected books Harrowhark didn’t study and the musty, less neglected books that she did. Gideon sat at a broad, sagging desk piled high with pages covered in necromantic marginalia, most of them in Harrow’s cramped, impatient writing. She held the letter before her with one hand; with the other, she wearily painted her face with a piece of fibre wadding and a pot of alabaster paint, feeling absurdly young. The paint smelled acid and cold, and working the damn stuff into the creases next to her nose meant sucking globs of paint up her nostrils all day. Harrow was sprawled on a sofa spread with tattered brocade, robes abandoned, scrawny black-clad legs crossed at the ankles. In Gideon’s mind she looked like an evil stick.
Gideon reread the letter, then again, twice, before checking her face in a little cracked mirror. Gorgeous. Hot. “I know you said ‘First House’ like three times,” she said, “but I thought you were being metaphorical.”
“I thought it would fill you with a sense of adventure.”
“It damn well doesn’t,” said Gideon, rewetting the wadding, “you’re taking me to the planet where nobody lives. I thought we’d end up on the Third or the Fifth, or a sweet space station, or something. Not just another cave filled with old religious nut jobs.”
“Why would there be a necromantic gathering on a space station?”
This was a good point. If there was one thing Gideon knew about necromancers, it was that they needed power. Thanergy—death juice—was abundant wherever things had died or were dying. Deep space was a necro’s nightmare, because nothing had ever been alive out there, so there were no big puddles of death lying around for Harrow and her ilk to suck up with a straw. The brave men and women of the Cohort looked on this limitation with compassionate amusement: never send an adept to do a soldier’s job.
“Behold the last paragraph,” Harrow said from the sofa, “turning your benighted eyes to lines five and six.” Unwillingly, Gideon turned her benighted eyes to lines five and six. “Tell me the implications.”
Gideon stopped painting and leant back in her chair before thinking better of it, easing it back down to the chill tiles of the floor. There was something a little soggy about one of the legs. “‘No retainers. No attendants, no domestics.’ Well, you’d be shitted all to hell otherwise, you’d have to bring along Crux. Look—are you really saying that nobody’s going to be there but us and some crumbly old hierophants?”
“That,” said the Reverend Daughter, “is the implication.”
“For crying out loud! Then let me dress how I want and give me back my longsword.”
“Ten thousand years of tradition, Griddle.”
“I don’t have ten thousand years of tradition, bitch,” said Gideon, “I have ten years of two-hander training and a minor allergy to face paint. I’m worth so much less to you with pizza face and a toothpick.”
The Reverend Daughter’s fingers locked together, thumbs rotating in languid circles. She did not disagree. “Ten thousand years of tradition,” she said slowly, “dictates that the Ninth House should have been at its leisure to produce, at the very least, a cavalier with the correct sword, the correct training, and the correct attitude. Any implication that the Ninth House did not have the leisure to meet even that expectation is as good as giving up. I’d be better off by myself than taking you qua you. But I know how to fake this; I can provide the sword. I can provide a smattering of training. I cannot even slightly provide your attitude. Two out of three is still not three. The con depends on your shut mouth and your adoption of the minimal requirements, Griddle.”
“So nobody realises that we’re broke and nearly extinct, and that your parents topped themselves.”
“So nobody takes advantage of the fact that we lack conventional resources,” said Harrow, shooting Gideon a look that skipped warning and went straight to barrage. “So nobody realises that the House is under threat. So nobody realises that—my parents are no longer able to take care of its interests.”
Gideon folded the paper in half, in half again, and made it into corners. She rubbed it between her fingers for the rare joy of feeling paper crinkle, and then she dropped it on the desk and cleaned paint off her fingernails. She did not need to say or do anything except let the quiet roll out between them.
“We are not becoming an appendix of the Third or Fifth Houses,” continued the necromancer opposite. “Do you hear me, Griddle? If you do anything that suggests we’re out of order—if I even think you’re about to…” Here Harrow shrugged, quite calmly. “I’ll kill you.”
“Naturally. But you can’t keep this a secret forever.”
“When I am a Lyctor everything will be different,” said Harrowhark. “I’ll be in a position to fix things without fear of reprisal. As it is, our leverage now is that nobody knows anything about anything. I’ve had three separate communiques already from other Houses, asking if I’m coming, and they don’t even know my name.”
“What the hell are you going to tell them?”
“Nothing, idiot!” said Harrow. “This is the House of the Ninth, Griddle. We act accordingly.”
Gideon checked her face, and put down the paint and the wadding. Act accordingly meant that any attempt to talk to an outsider as a kid had led to her getting dragged away bodily; act accordingly meant the House had been closed to pilgrims for five years. Act accordingly had been her secret dread that ten years from now everyone else would be skeletons and explorers would find Ortus reading poetry next to her and Harrow’s bodies, their fingers still clasped around each other’s throats. Act accordingly, to Gideon, meant being secret and abstruse and super obsessed with tomes.
“I won’t have people asking questions. You’ll look the part. Give me that,” commanded Harrow, and she took the fat stick of black char from Gideon’s hand. She tried to turn Gideon’s face up to hers by force, fingers grasping beneath the chin, but Gideon promptly bit her. There was a simple joy in watching Harrow swear furiously and shake her hand and peel off the bitten glove, like in seeing sunlight or eating a good meal.
Harrow began fiddling ominously with one of the bone pins at her ear, so with extreme reluctance, as of an animal not wanting to take medicine, Gideon tilted her face up to get painted. Harrow took the black and stroked it beneath Gideon’s eyes—none too gently, making her anticipate an exciting jab in the cornea. “I don’t want to dress up like a goddamn nun again. I got enough of that when I was ten,” said Gideon.
“Everyone else will be dressing exactly how they ought to dress,” said Harrow, “and if the Ninth House contravenes that—the House least likely to do any such thing—then people will examine us a hell of a lot more closely than they ought. If you look just right then perhaps they won’t ask you any tricky questions. They may not discover that the cavalier of the House of the Ninth is an illiterate peon. Hold your mouth closed.”
Gideon held her mouth closed and, once Harrow was done, said: “I object to illiterate.”
“Pin-up rags aren’t literature, Nav.”
“I read them for the articles.”
When as a young and disinclined member of the Locked Tomb Gideon had painted her face, she had gone for the bare minimum of death’s-head that the role demanded: dark around the eyes, a bit around the nose, a slack black slash across the lips. Now as Harrowhark gave her a little palm of cracked mirror, she saw that she was painted like the ancient, tottering necromancers of the House: those ghastly and unsettling sages who never seemed to die, just disappear into the long galleries of books and coffins beneath Drearburh. She’d been slapped up to look like a grim-toothed, black-socketed skull, with big black holes on each side of the mandible.
Gideon said drearily, “I look like a douche.”
“I want you to appear before me every day, like this, until the day we leave,” said Harrowhark, and she leant against the desk to view her handiwork. “I won’t cut you bald—even though your hair is ridiculous—because I know you won’t shave your head daily. Learn this paint. Wear the robe.”
“I’m waiting for the and,” said Gideon. “You know. The payoff. If you let me have my head, I’d wear my breastplate and use my sword—you’re an imbecile if you think I’ll be able to fight properly wearing a robe—and I could cavalier until the rest of them went home. I could cavalier until they just made you a Hand on the first day and put sexy pictures of me on a calendar. Where’s the and, Nonagesimus?”
“There is no and,” Harrow said, and pushed herself away from Gideon’s chair to throw herself back down on the sofa once more. “If it were merely about getting what I wanted, I wouldn’t have bothered to take you at all. I would have you packed up in nine boxes and sent each box to a different House, the ninth box kept for Crux to comfort him in his old age. I will succeed with you in tow and nobody will ever know that there was aught amiss with the House of the Ninth. Paint your face. Train with the rapier. You’re dismissed.”
“Isn’t this the part where you give me intel,” Gideon said, standing up and flexing her stiff muscles, “tell me all you know of the tasks ahead, who we’re with, what to expect?”
“God, no!” said Harrow. “All you need to know is that you’ll do what I say, or I’ll mix bone meal in with your breakfast and punch my way through your gut.”
Which was, Gideon had to admit, entirely plausible.
Excerpted from Gideon the Ninth, copyright © 2019 by Tamsyn Muir.