Gideon has trained with the rapier and become adequate. In a very affecting goodbye, Harrowhark blesses her necromantic congregation of ageing faithful, and leaves the sacred darkness of the Locked Tomb, where lies that which must remain buried behind the rock that must not be moved.
From space, the House of the First shone like fire on water. Wreathed in the white smoke of its atmosphere, blue like the heart of a gas-ignited flame, it burned the eye. It was absolutely lousy with water, smothering it all in the bluest of blue conflagrations. Visible even up here were the floating chains of squares and rectangles and oblongs, smudging the blue with grey and green, brown and black: the tumbled-down cities and temples of a House both long dead and unkillable. A sleeping throne. Far away its king and emperor sat on his seat of office and waited, a sentinel protecting his home but never able to return to it. The Lord of the House of the First was the Lord Undying, and he had not come back in over nine thousand years.
Gideon Nav pressed her face up to the plexiform window of the shuttle and looked as if she couldn’t ever get enough of looking, until her eyes were red and streaming and huge migraine motes danced along the edge of her vision. All the other shutters were closed up tight and had been for most of the trip, which had taken about an hour of rapid travel. They had been surprised to find that, behind the plex privacy barrier Harrowhark had coolly slid up the moment they were inside, there was no pilot on board. The ship was being remotely piloted at great expense. There was no clearance for anybody to land at the First House without explicit invitation. There was a button to press if you needed to talk to the remote navigator, and Gideon had been eager to hear another voice, but Harrow had slid the barrier back down with an air of distinct finality.
She looked worn and exhausted, even vulnerable. For the journey’s length she had kept her prayer knuckles in her hands and moodily clinked them into each other. In Gideon’s comics, Cohort adepts always sat on plackets of grave dirt to ameliorate the effects of deep space and the loss of their power-source; trust Harrowhark not to take the placebo. Gideon had warmed herself with the thought that it was the perfect time to kick her ass up and down the shuttle, but in the end, the natural embarrassment of arriving with one’s necromancer’s elbows on backward saved Harrow’s life. All thoughts of ass-kicking had subsided as the approach of the First House reflected light through the open window, light that spilled into the passenger bay in fiery gouts; Gideon had to turn her face away, half-blind and breathless. Harrow was tying a piece of black voile around her eyes, as calm and uninterested as if what hung outside the window was dreary Ninth sky.
Gideon cupped her hands over her eyes to shade them and looked again, getting her fill of the explosive brilliance outside: the velvety blackness of space, with innumerable pinprick white stars; the First, a searing circle of incandescent blue, strewn with dazzling white; and—the outsides of seven more shuttles, lining up in orbit. Gideon gave a low whistle to see them. To an inhabitant of the sepulchrous Ninth House it seemed amazing that the whole thing didn’t just combust and crumble into flame. There were other Houses that made their homelands on planets closer to the burning star of Dominicus—the Seventh and the Sixth, for instance—but to Gideon they could not imaginably be anything else than 100 percent on fire.
It was incredible. It was exquisite. She wanted to throw up. It seemed stolid insanity that Harrowhark’s only reaction was to slide up the plexiform barrier and hold down the communication button to ask: “How long must we wait?”
The navigator’s voice crackled back: “We are securing your clearance to land, Your Grace.”
Harrow didn’t thank him. “How long?”
“They are scanning your craft now, Your Grace, and we’ll move the moment they have confirmed you’re free to leave orbit.”
The Reverend Daughter sank back into her chair, stuffing her prayer bones into a fold of her robe. Quite unwillingly Gideon caught her eye. The expression on the other girl’s face wasn’t disinterest or distraction, as she’d assumed; even through a layer of veiling, she could tell that Harrow was near-incapacitated with concentration. Her mouth was pinched in a tight ripple, worrying the black-painted blotch on the lower lip into blood.
It took less than five minutes for the thrusters to creak to life again, for the ship to slowly glide out of orbit. Next to them, in a line, seven other shuttles were drifting to one side, sliding into the atmosphere like dominoes falling. Harrow shook her head back into her hood and pinched the bridge of her nose, and said in tones between pleasure and pain: “This planet’s unbelievable.”
“It’s a grave,” said Harrowhark.
The shuttle broke orbit, haloed by coruscating light. This burn-off meant there was nothing to see but sky, but the sky of the First House was the same improbable, ludicrous blue as the water. Being on the outside of the planet was like living in a kaleidoscope. It was a lurching blur for long moments—a whine, as air pockets in the thick atmosphere made the engines scream, a jolt as the craft re-pressurized to match—and then the shuttle was a slingshot bullet, an accelerating shell. The brightness was too much to bear. Gideon got the impression of a hundred spires rising, choked with green stuff from blue-and-turquoise waters, before she had to squeeze her eyes shut and turn away wholesale. She pressed the fabric of the embroidered Ninth robes to her face and had to breathe through her nose.
“Idiot.” Harrowhark’s voice was distant and full of badly suppressed adrenaline. “Here. Take this veil.”
Gideon kept mopping at her eyes. “I’m all good.”
“I said put it on. I’m not having you struck blind when the door opens.”
“I came prepared, my sweet.”
“What are you even saying half the time—”
The glow changed, strobing, and now the shuttle was slowing down. The light cleared, brightened, dazzled. Harrowhark threw herself upon the shutter and slammed it down; she and Gideon stood in the centre of the passenger bay, staring at each other. Gideon realised that Harrow was trembling; little licks of hole-black hair were pasted to her pale-grey forehead with sweat, threatening to dissolve the paint. Gideon realised with a start that she was trembling and sweating in concert. They looked at each other with a wild surmise, and then started dabbing at their faces with the insides of their sleeves.
“Hood up,” breathed Harrowhark, “hide that ridiculous hair.”
“Your dead mummified mother’s got ridiculous hair.”
“Griddle, we’re within the planet’s halo now, and I will delight in violence.”
A final, thuddering clunk. Complete stillness. The seals on the outside were unlatched by some outside force, and as light blazed around the edges of the hatch, Gideon winked at her increasingly agitated companion. She said, sotto voce: “But then you couldn’t have admired… these,” and whipped on the glasses she’d unearthed back home. They were ancient smoked-glass sunglasses, with thin black frames and big mirrored lenses, and they greyed out Harrow’s expression of incredulous horror as she adjusted them on her nose. That was the last thing she saw before the light got in.
And then the outside of the First House was open to them, a rush of warm air ruffling their robes and drying the sweat on their faces. Before the hatch had even shuddered to a halt, Harrow, aggravated, had disappeared completely: Lady Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Reverend Daughter of the House of the Ninth, swept onto the docking ramp instead. Counting five full breaths to mark time, Gideon Nav, Cavalier of the Ninth House, came following behind, praying that her unfamiliar sword wouldn’t tangle in her robes.
They were on the enormous, metal-plated dock of what must have surely been the most impressive structure the First House had ever built. It might have been the most impressive structure anyone had ever built. Gideon didn’t have a lot to go on. Rearing up before them was a palace, a fortress, of white and shining stone. It spread out on the surface of the water like an island. You couldn’t see over it and you could hardly see around it. It lapped back in terraces of what must have once been fabulous gardens. It rose up in gracious towers that hurt the eye with their slenderness and precision. It was a monument to wealth and beauty.
Back in its day, at least, it would have been a monument to wealth and beauty. In the present it was a castle that had been killed. Many of its white and shining towers had crumbled and fallen down in miserable chunks. Jungling overgrowth rose from the sea and wrapped around the base of the building, both green slimes and thick vines. The gardens were grey, filmy canopies of dead trees and plants. They had overtaken the windows, the balconies, the balustrades, and clung there and died; they covered much of the frontage in a secretive mist of expired matter. Gold veins shone dully in the dirty white walls. The docking bay must have also been elegant in its era, a huge landing swath that could have held a hundred ships at a time; now ninety-two of the cradles were desolate and filthy. The metal was caked with salt from the water, salt that now assaulted Gideon’s nose: a thick, briny scent, overpowering and wild. The whole place had the look of a picked-at body. But hot damn! What a beautiful corpse.
The dock was alive with movement. Five other ships had landed and were expelling their contents. But there was no time for that: someone had come to meet them.
Harrowhark did not care for any herald. She had drifted out like a black ship in sail, a bony figure wreathed in layers and layers of night-coloured cloth with a lace overcloak trailing behind her; adorned with bones, painted like a dead woman, eyes blindfolded with black net. Now she dropped to her knees five paces from the shuttle door and began counting prayers on the knuckle beads in a click-clack monotone. Showtime. Gideon ambled over and knelt next to Harrow on the sun-warmed metal of the dock, her own robes pooling black around her, staring inscrutably at the tint-dimmed chaos of what was going on. The clacking beads made her almost feel normal.
“Hail to the Lady of the Ninth House,” warbled a voice delightedly, bringing the count of people who had ever been happy to see Harrow up to three. “Hail to her cavalier. Oh, hail, hail! Hail to the child of the far-off and shadowed jewel of our Empire! What a very—happy—day.”
A little old man stood in front of them. He was small and reedy, in the way that reminded Gideon of the oldest of the House of the Ninth, but he had the straightest back and rudest good health of any old man Gideon had ever seen. He was like an old and twisted oak still covered with leaves. He was bald, with a neat, clipped white beard and a golden circlet at his brow. His white robe had no hood and was long enough to brush his calves, and he wore a half-cloak of brushed white wool. Around his waist was a gorgeous belt: it was made of some shimmering gold stuff, and it was embroidered with a multitude of jewel colours in intricate patterns and shapes. They looked like flowers, or flourishes, or both. They looked as though they had been made a thousand years ago and kept in loving perfection. Everything about him was ageless and pristine.
Harrowhark pocketed her prayer beads. “Hail to the House of the First,” she intoned. “Hail to the King Undying.”
“Hail to the Lord Over the River,” quavered the little priest. “And welcome to his house! Blessed Lady of the Ninth, the Reverend Daughter! The Ninth has not visited the First House for most of this myriad! But your cavalier is not Ortus Nigenad.”
The slightest pause. “Ortus Nigenad has abdicated his post,” said Harrow, from the depths of her hood. “Gideon Nav has taken his place as cavalier primary. I am the Lady Harrowhark Nonagesimus.”
“Then welcome to the Lady Nonagesimus and to Gideon the Ninth. Once you have finished your prayers,” said the little priest effervescently, “you must stand and be honoured, and come into the sanctum. I am a keeper of the First House and a servant to the Necrolord Highest, and you must call me Teacher; not due to my own merits of learning, but because I stand in the stead of the merciful God Above Death, and I live in hope that one day you will call him Teacher. And may you call him Master, too, and may I call you then Harrowhark the First! Be at rest, Lady Nonagesimus; be at rest, Gideon the Ninth.”
Gideon the Ninth, who would have paid cash to be called absolutely anything else, rose as her mistress rose. They exchanged glances that even through one layer of veiling and one layer of tinted glass were violently hostile, but there was too much going on to stand and pull go-to-hell faces at each other. Gideon saw other white-robed figures darting to and fro between the shuttles, coming out of open double doors, but it took a moment to realise that these were skeletons in plain white, with white knots at their waists. They were using long metal poles to work the mechanisms that held the shuttles safely coupled to their latches, with that strange lockstep oneness in which the dead always worked. And then there were the living, waiting in twos, awkwardly shuffling their feet next to their ships. She had never seen so many different people—so many people not of the Ninth—and it almost dizzied her, but not enough so that she couldn’t pick out when something was amiss.
“I only count six shuttles,” said Gideon.
Harrowhark shot her a look for speaking out of turn, but the little priest Teacher cackled as though he were pleased.
“Oh, well noticed! Very good! Yes, there’s a discrepancy,” he said. “And we don’t much like discrepancies. This is holy land. We might be called over-careful, but we hold this House as sacred to the Emperor our Lord… we do not get many visitors, as you might think! There is nothing that much the matter,” he added, and with a confiding air: “It’s the House of the Third and the House of the Seventh. No matter, no matter. I’m sure they will be given clearance any moment now. We needed clarification. An inconsistency in both.”
“Inconsistency,” repeated Harrowhark, as though she were rolling the word around her mouth like a sweet.
“Yes; the House of the Third will, of course, push the boundaries… of course they would. And the House of the Seventh… well, it’s well known… Look; they’re landing now.”
Most of the other heirs and cavaliers had left their shuttles, and the skeletons were busy pulling luggage out from their holds. The last two shuttles slowly spiralled down to earth, a fresh gust of warm wind scything over everyone as they came to their fluttering rest. Skeletons with poles were already there to greet them, and other living priests, one for each arriving shuttle. They were alive and well, dressed in identical vestments to Teacher’s. This made just three priests total, which made Gideon wonder why the Ninth always scored so much geriatric attention. The two new shuttles had both alighted next to the Ninth’s, the Seventh’s closest and the Third’s one over, which was close enough to see who or what was inside as the Third’s hatch opened.
Gideon was hugely interested to see three figures emerge. The first was a rather sulky young man with an air of hair gel and filigree, an ornate rapier at the belt of his buttoned coat. The cavalier. The other two were young women, both blond, though the similarity ended there: one girl was tall and statuesque, with a star-white grin and masses of bright gold curls. The other girl seemed smaller, insubstantial, with a sheet of hair the anaemic colour of canned butter and an equally bloodless smirk. They were actually the same height, Gideon realised; her brain had just deemed that proposition too stupid to credit on first pass. It was as though the second girl were the starved shadow of the first, or the first an illuminated reflection. The boy just looked a bit of a dick.
Gideon rubbernecked until a white-robed priest with another parti-coloured belt hurried over from the trio to them, tapping on Teacher’s shoulder and murmuring in worried half-heard snatches: “—were inflexible—the household’s backing—born at the exact— both the adept—”
Teacher waved it off with an indulgent hand and a wheezing laugh: “What can we do, what can we do?”
“But it’s impossible—”
“Only trouble at the end of the line,” he said, “and a trouble confined to them.”
Once the other priest had gone, Harrowhark said repressively: “Twins are an ill omen.”
Teacher seemed tickled. “How delightful to hear someone say an ill omen could come from the Mouth of the Emperor!”
From the shuttle that carried the Seventh House came consternation. The skeletons had pried the hatch open, and someone tottered out. In what felt like painful slow-motion—like time had decided to slow to a gruesome crawl to show itself off—they had fainted dead away into the arms of the waiting priest, an old man who was singularly unprepared for it. His legs and arms were buckling. The figure was dragging on the ground, threatening to spill entirely. There was red blood on the priest’s front. He cried out.
Gideon never ran unless she had to, and Gideon ran now. Her legs moved as swiftly as her awful judgement, and all of a sudden she was scooping the crumpled, drooping figure out of the priest’s buckling arms, lowering his cargo to the ground as he murmured in amazement. In response, the ice-cold point of a blade bit gently through her hood to the back of her neck, right up to the base of her skull.
“Yo,” said Gideon, her head absolutely still. “Step off.”
The sword did not step off.
“This isn’t a warning,” she said. “I’m just saying. Give her some air.”
For the person folded up in Gideon’s arms seemed a her. It was a slender young thing whose mouth was a brilliant red with blood. Her dress was a frivolous concoction of seafoam green frills, the blood on it startling against such a backdrop. Her skin seemed transparent—horribly transparent, with the veins at her hands and the sides of her temples a visible cluster of mauve branches and stems. Her eyes fluttered open: they were huge and blue, with velvety brown lashes. The girl coughed up a clot, which ruined the tableau, and those big blue eyes widened in dismay.
“Protesilaus,” said the girl: “stand down.” When the sword didn’t move an inch, she coughed again and said unhappily: “Stand down, you goof. You’re going to get us in trouble.”
Gideon felt the pressure and the edge remove itself from her neck, and she let out a breath. Not for long, though; it was replaced with a gloved hand pressing over the place where the blade had been, a hand which was pressing down as though its owner would quite like to punch her occipital bone into crumbs. That hand could belong to only one person. Gideon braced to be dropped headfirst into the shitter, and Harrowhark’s voice emerged as though it had been dredged up from the bottom of a charnel house.
“Your cavalier,” said the Lady of the Ninth quietly, “drew on my cavalier.”
As Gideon died gently of shock, buoyed back to this life only by the weird bruises forming at the top of her spine, the other girl broke out into miserable coughs. “I’m so sorry!” she said. “He’s just overprotective— He never would have meant— Oh my God, you’re black vestals— Oh my God, you’re the Ninth cav!”
The girl in Gideon’s lap covered her face and seemed to break into sobs, but it became apparent that they were gurgles of mirth. “You’ve done it now, Pro!” she gasped. “They could demand satisfaction, and you’d end up a mausoleum centrepiece! Lady or Lord of the Ninth, please accept my heartfelt apologies. He was hasty, and I was a fool.”
“Come on,” said Gideon, “you fainted.”
“I do do that,” she admitted, and gave another wicked chuckle of delight. This appeared to be the greatest thing that had ever happened to her. She fluttered her hands like she was having the vapours. “Oh, God, I was rescued by a shadow cultist! I’m so sorry! Thank you! This is one for the history books.”
Now that the threat of violence had passed, the priest, with difficulty, had dropped to his knees. He unwound the exquisite prismatic scarf at his waist and hesitated before her. The girl gave an imperious little nod and he began wiping the blood away from her mouth, reverential, seeming far less worried about the entire mess than—Gideon didn’t know. Discouraged? Disconcerted?
“Ah, Duchess Septimus,” he said, in a tweedling old voice, “and is it so advanced as all that?”
“Oh, Lady,” he said sadly, “you should not have come.”
She gave a flashing, sudden smile, the edges of her teeth scarlet. “But isn’t it beautiful that I did?” she said, and looked up at Gideon, and strained past her to look at Harrow, and clasped her hands together. “Protesilaus, help me up so that we can apologise. I can’t believe I get to look real tomb maidens in the face.”
Great, rugged arms thrust past Gideon’s vision, and the girl in her lap was lifted up by a six-foot collection of sinews. The man who’d put the sword to her neck was uncomfortably buff. He had upsetting biceps. He didn’t look healthy; he looked like a collection of lemons in a sack. He was a dour, bulky person whose skin had something of the girl’s strange, translucent tinge. He was waxen looking in the sunlight, probably with sweat, and he wore the girl half-draped over his shoulder as though she were a baby or a rug. Gideon sized him up. He was dressed richly, but with clothes that looked as though they’d seen practical wear: a long cape of washed-out green, and a belted kilt and boots. There was a shining length of etched chain rolled up and over his arm, and a big swept-hilt rapier hung at his hip. He was staring at Gideon emptily. You’re gigantic, she thought, but you move awkwardly, and I bet I could take you.
The hand at the back of her neck relaxed a fraction. Gideon didn’t even get a hard flick to the skull, which boded ill. Whatever punishment Harrow was going to mete out would be meted out later, in private, and viciously. She’d screwed up but couldn’t quite regret it; as Gideon brushed herself off and picked herself up to stand, the Lady of the Seventh House was smiling. Her babyish face made it difficult to give her a timestamp. She might’ve been seventeen, or thirty-seven.
“What must I do to gain forgiveness?” she said. “If my House blasphemes against the House of the Ninth in the first five minutes, I’m going to feel like a boor.”
“Keep your sword off my cavalier,” said Harrow, in tones of the sepulchre.
“You heard her, Pro,” said the girl. “You can’t just get your rapier out willy-nilly.”
Protesilaus did not deign to reply, his gaze fixed on Gideon. In the awkward silence that resulted, the girl added: “But now I can thank you for your aid. I’m Lady Dulcinea Septimus, duchess of Castle Rhodes; and this is my cavalier primary, Protesilaus the Seventh. The Seventh House thanks you for your gracious assistance.”
Despite this pretty, even coaxing introduction, Gideon’s lady merely bowed her hooded head, her bound eyes giving away nothing. It was with glacial disregard that she said, “The Ninth House wishes health to the Lady Septimus, and prudence to Protesilaus the Seventh,” turned on her heel, and left in an abrupt swish of black cloth.
Gideon was obliged to turn heel and move after her. She wasn’t such a fool as to stay. But before she left, she caught the Lady Dulcinea’s eye. Rather than being missish or horrified, she looked as though giving offence to the House of the Ninth might prove the highlight of her life. Gideon swore that she was even favoured with a coy wink. They left the priest of the First House there to worry, brow furrowed, folding his scarf now encrusted with blood.
They’d caused a general ruckus. The curious eyes of the other adepts and their cavaliers rested upon the black-robed Ninth. Gideon was discomfited to find the gaze of the bloodless Third twin on her and Harrowhark both, her pale eyes like sniper sights, her mouth exquisitely chill. There was something in her stare that Gideon disliked on impact, and she held that gaze until the pale head was dropped. As for Teacher’s expression—well, that one was hard to fathom. In the end, it was something like melancholy and something like resignation, and he did not say a word about what Gideon had done. “A blood flaw runs through the ruling House of the Seventh,” was all he said, “sparing most who carry the gene… but fatal to a few.”
Harrowhark asked, “Teacher, was the Lady Septimus so diagnosed?”
“Dulcinea Septimus was not meant to live to twenty-five,” said the little priest. “Come along, come along… We are all here now, and we’ve had ample excitement. What a day, what a day! We will have something to talk about, won’t we?”
Twenty-five, thought Gideon, distantly ignoring the ugly twist beneath Harrow’s veil that promised that there would be much to talk about later and that it would not go well for Gideon. Twenty-five years, and Harrowhark was probably going to live forever. They billowed obediently into the priest’s wake, and Gideon remembered the coy wink, and felt terribly sad.
Excerpted from Gideon the Ninth, copyright © 2019 by Tamsyn Muir.