Harrowhark graciously shared correspondence from the King of Dead Kings with Gideon, detailing aspects of the holy sacrament they are about to partake of in the First House. Gideon continues to fail at perfectly reasonable things like painting herself in vestal skull paint and showing fealty to her Reverend Daughter, who is too well-bred to take offense.
If Gideon had worried that the next three months would see her in close proximity to the Reverend Daughter, she was dead wrong. She spent six hours a day learning where to put her feet when she wielded a one-handed sword, where to rest (what seemed to her to be) her useless, unused arm, how to suddenly make herself a sideways target and always move on the same stupid foot. At the end of each punishing session, Aiglamene would take her in a one-on-one fight and disarm her in three moves.
“Parry, damn you, parry!” was the daily refrain. “This isn’t your longsword, Nav, you block with it again and I’ll make you eat it!”
On the few early days when she had foregone the paint, Crux had appeared and turned off the heating to her cell: she would end up slumped on her tier, screaming with cold, numb and nearly dead. So she wore the goddamn paint. It was nearly worse than her pre-cavalier life, except that as a small mercy she could train instead of going to prayers and, as a bigger mercy, Crux and Harrow were nearly never around. The heir to the House had ordered her marshal to do something secret down in the bowels of Drearburh, where bowed and creaking Ninth brothers and sisters worked hour after hour at whatever grisly task Harrowhark had set.
As for the Lady of the Ninth herself, she locked herself in the library and didn’t come out. Very occasionally she would watch Gideon train, remark on the absolute lack of progress, make Gideon strip her paint off her face and command her to do it again. One day she and Aiglamene made Gideon walk behind Harrow, up and down the tiers, shadowing her until Gideon was nearly mad with impatience.
The only dubious advantage to this was that she would sometimes hear snatches of conversation, standing motionless and rigid-backed with her hand on the pommel of her sword and her sightline somewhere beyond Harrow’s shoulder. Gideon was hungry for intel, but these exchanges were never very illuminating. The most she got was the day Harrow, too fretful to modulate her voice, said outright: “Naturally it’s a competition, Captain, even if the wording…”
“Well, the Third House will naturally be the best equipped…”
“And the Second will have spent half their lives at the front and be covered in Cohort decorations. It doesn’t signify. I don’t care about soldiers or politicians or priests. It’s a greyer House I worry about.”
Aiglamene said something that Gideon did not catch. Harrow gave a short, hard laugh.
“Anyone can learn to fight. Hardly anyone learns to think.”
Otherwise Harrow stayed with her books and studied her necromancy, getting leaner and more haggard, crueller and more mean. Each night Gideon fell into bed and was asleep before she could tend her blistered feet and massage her bruised body. On days when she had behaved very well Aiglamene let her train with her longsword instead, which had to pass for fun.
The last week before they were due to leave came all at once, like startling awake from a half-remembered and unsettling dream. The marshal of Drearburh reappeared like a chronic disease to stand over Gideon as she loaded her trunk, all of it with old hand-me-downs of Ortus’s that could be hastily remade into three different Gideon-sized articles. These reclaimed robes were like her normal clothes, dour and black, but better made, dourer, and blacker. She spent a significant amount of time boring slats into the bottom of the trunk so that she could squirrel away her beloved, deserted longsword, packing it like precious contraband.
Aiglamene had found and reforged the sword of Ortus’s grand-mother’s mother, and presented it to a nonplussed Gideon. The blade was black metal, and it had a plain black guard and hilt, unlike the intricate messes of teeth and wires that adorned some of the other rapiers down at the monument. “Oh, this is boring,” Gideon had said in disappointment. “I wanted one with a skull puking another, smaller skull, and other skulls flying all around. But tasteful, you know?”
She was also given knuckles: they were even less ornate, being obsidian and steel set in thick and heavy bands. There were three black blades on the back of the gauntlet, rigidly fixed in place. “But for God’s sake don’t use them for anything but a parry,” said her teacher.
“This is confusing. You made me train empty-handed.”
“Gideon,” said her teacher, “after eleven ghoulish weeks of training you, beating you senseless, and watching you fall around like a dropsical infant, you are on a miraculous day up to the standard of a bad cavalier, one who’s terrible.” (This was great praise.) “But you fall apart as soon as you start to overthink your offhand. Use the knuckles to balance. Give yourself options if someone gets inside your guard—though better yet, don’t let them get inside your guard. Keep moving. Be fluid. Remember that your hands are now sisters, not twins; one executes your primary action and the other supports the move. Pray they don’t watch you fight too closely. And stop blocking every blow.”
On the final day the entire House of the Ninth filled the tier of the landing field, and they left room to spare: it was sad to watch their eagerness, their kissing Harrowhark’s hem over and over. They all knelt in prayer with the godawful great-aunts as their Reverend Daughter stood and watched, tranquil and bloodless as the skeletons ploughing in the tiers above.
Gideon had noticed the absence of the ex-Reverend Father and Mother, but hadn’t thought anything of it. She was too busy thinking about her itchy secondhand clothes and the rapier buckled at her side, and the paint that was now a second skin on her face. But she was still surprised when Harrow said: “Brothers and sisters, listen. My mother and father will not be with you. My father has sealed shut the passageway to the tomb that must always be locked, and they have decided to continue their penitence behind that wall until I return. The marshal will act as seneschal for me, and my captain will act as marshal.”
Testament to Harrow’s timing for drama, the Secundarius Bell began ringing. From above the drillshaft the shuttle started to make its descent, blotting out the ever-fainter light of the equinox. For the very first time Gideon did not feel the overwhelming sense of dread and suspicion: a pinprick of anticipation curled in her gut instead. Round two. Go.
Harrowhark looked out at the people of the Ninth. So did Gideon. There were all the assorted nuns and brethren; old pilgrims and ageing vassals; every gloomy, severe, and stern face of adept and mystic, of joyless and wasted men and women, of the grey and monotonous population that had made up Gideon’s life and never shown her one single moment of sympathy or kindness. Harrow’s face was bright with elation and fervour. Gideon would have sworn there were tears in her eyes, except that no such liquid existed: Harrow was a desiccated mummy of hate.
“You are my beloved House,” she said. “Rest assured that wherever I go, my heart is interred here.”
It sounded like she really meant it.
Harrow began, “We pray the tomb is shut forever…” and Gideon found herself reciting simply because it was the only prayer she’d ever known, enduring the words by saying them as sounds without meaning. She stopped when Harrowhark stopped, her hands clasped, and added: “I pray for our success for the House; I pray for the Lyctors, devoted Hands of the Emperor; I pray to be found pleasing in his eyes. I pray for the cavalier…”
At this Gideon caught the dark, black-rimmed eye, and could imagine the mental accompaniment: …to choke to death on her own vomit.
“Let it be so,” said the Lady of the Ninth House.
The rattling of the assorted prayer bones very nearly drowned out the clank of the shuttle, docking. Gideon turned away, not meaning to make any kind of goodbye; but she saw Aiglamene, hand crooked into a stiff salute, and realised for the first time that she might never see the woman again. God help her, she might never come back. For a moment everything seemed dizzyingly unsure. The House continued on in grand and grisly majesty because you were always looking at it; it continued because you watched it continue, changeless and black, before your eyes. The idea of leaving it made it seem so fragile as to crumble the moment they turned their backs. Harrowhark turned toward the shuttle and Gideon realised with an unwelcome jolt that she was crying: her paint was wet with tears.
And then the whole idea became beautiful. The moment Gideon turned her back on it, the House would die. The moment Gideon walked away, it would all disappear like an impossibly bad dream. She mentally staved in the sides of the enormous, shadowy cave and buried Drearburh in rock, and for good measure exploded Crux like a garbage bag full of soup. But she saluted Aiglamene as crisply and as enthusiastically as a soldier on her first day of service, and was pleased when her teacher rolled her eyes.
As they pulled themselves into the shuttle, the door mechanism sliding down with a pleasingly final whunk, she leaned into Harrow: Harrow, who was dabbing her eyes with enormous gravity. The necromancer flinched outright.
“Do you want,” Gideon whispered huskily, “my hanky.”
“I want to watch you die.”
“Maybe, Nonagesimus,” she said with deep satisfaction, “maybe. But you sure as hell won’t do it here.”
Excerpted from Gideon the Ninth, copyright © 2019 by Tamsyn Muir.