Having landed on the waterlogged planet of the House of the First, hero G. Nav deals with some tiny Dumbledore-looking motherfucker called Teacher and gets a first look-in on the Third House, which consists of Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and a poser. She also heroically intervenes on the part of the lady of the Seventh House, who turns out to be quite cute but has Captain Trips, and is menaced by the lady’s cavalier primary, who is trepidatiously hench. Harrowhark is a useless goth as per usual.
They were bidden to sit in a vast atrium—a cavern of a room; a Ninth House mausoleum of a room, except that through the glorious wreck of the smeared and vaulted ceiling light streamed down in such quantities it made Gideon halfway blind again. There were deep couches and seating benches, with cracked covers and the stuffing coming out, with broken armguards and backs. Embroidered throws that clung to the seats like the skins of mummies, piebald where the light had touched them and dank where it hadn’t.
Everything in that room was beautiful, and all had gone to seed. It wasn’t like back in the Ninth where unbeautiful things were now old and ruined to boot—the Ninth must have always been a corpse, and corpses putrefied. The House of the First had been abandoned, and breathlessly waited to be used by someone other than time. The floors were of wood—where they weren’t of gold-shot marble, or a rainbow mosaic of tiles gone leprous with age and disrepair—and enormous twin staircases jutted up to the floor above, spread with narrow, moth-eaten rugs. Vines peeked through in number where the glass of the ceiling had cracked, spreading tendrils that had since gone grey and dry. The pillars that reached up to support the shining glass were carpeted thickly with moss, still alive, still radiant, all orange and green and brown. It obscured old portraits on the walls in spatters of black and tan. It hung atop an old, dry fountain made of marble and glass, three tiers deep, a little bit of standing water still skulking in the bottom bowl.
Harrowhark refused to sit. Gideon stood next to her, feeling the hot, wet air glue the black folds of her robe to her skin. The cavalier of the Seventh, Protesilaus, didn’t sit either, she noticed, not until his mistress patted the chair next to her own, and then he folded down with unhesitating obedience. The white-garbed skeletons circulated trays filled with cups of astringent tea, steaming green— funny little cups with no handles, hot and smooth to the touch, like stone but smoother and thinner. The Seventh cavalier held his but did not drink it. His adept tried to drink but had a minor coughing fit that lasted until she gestured for her cavalier to thump her on the back. As the other necromancers and cavaliers drank with varied enjoyment, Harrowhark held her cup as though it were a live slug. Gideon, who had never drunk a drink hot in all her days, knocked back half in one gulp. It burned all the way down her throat, more smell than flavour, and left a grassy tang on her cauterized taste buds. Some of her lip paint stayed on the rim. She choked discreetly: the Reverend Daughter gave her a look that withered the bowels.
All three priests sat at the lip of the fountain, holding their teacups unsipped in their hands. Unless they were hiding a bunch more in some cupboard, it seemed terrifically lonely to Gideon. The second was the tottery priest, his frail shoulders bowing as he fretted with his blood-stained belt; the third was mild of face and sported a long salt-and-pepper plait. They might have been a woman and might have been a man and might have been neither. All three wore the same clothes, which gave them the look of white birds on rainbow leashes, but somehow Teacher was the only one of the three who seemed real. He was eager, interested, vital, alive. The penitent calm of his fellows made them seem more like the robed skeletons arrayed at the sides of the room: silent and immovable, with a red speck of light dancing in each socket.
Once everyone was awkwardly perched on the exquisite wrecks of furniture, finishing their tea, clutching their cups with the gaucherie of people who didn’t know where to put them, making zero conversation, salt-and-pepper plait raised their pale voice and said: “Now let us pray for the lord of that which was destroyed, remembering the abundance of his pity, his power, and his love.”
Gideon and Harrowhark were silent during the ensuing chant: “Let the King Undying, ransomer of death, scourge of death, vindicator of death, look upon the Nine Houses and hear their thanks. Let the whole of everywhere entrust themselves to him. Let those across the river pledge beyond the tomb to the adept divine, the first among necromancers. Thanks be to the Ninefold Resurrection. Thanks be to the Lyctor divinely ordained. He is Emperor and he became God: he is God, and he became Emperor.”
Gideon had never heard this one. There was only one prayer on the Ninth. All other services were call-and-speaks or knucklebone orison. Most of the crowd rattled it off as though they’d been saying it from the cradle, but not all. The hulking mass of man-meat, Protesilaus, stared straight ahead without even mouthing the words, his lips as still as the pale Third twin’s. The others joined in without hesitation, though with varying fervour. Once the last word had sunk into silence, Teacher said: “And perhaps the devout of the Locked Tomb will favour us with their intercession?”
Everyone’s heads twisted their way. Gideon froze. It was the Reverend Daughter who maintained complete equanimity as she dropped her cup into Gideon’s hands and, before a sea of faces—some curious, some bored, and one (Dulcinea’s) enthusiastic—Harrow began: “I pray the tomb is shut forever. I pray the rock is never rolled away…”
Gideon had known on some basic level that the religion practiced in the dark depths of Drearburh was not quite the religion practiced by the other Houses. It was still a shock to the system to have it confirmed. By the expressions on some of the faces—bewildered or blank or long-suffering or, in at least one case, openly hostile—the others hadn’t been confronted with it either. By the time Harrow had finished the three priests looked softly delighted.
“Just as it always was,” sighed the little bent priest in ecstasy, despite the wretched dirge.
“Continuity is a marvellous thing,” said salt-and-pepper plait, proving themself insanely tedious.
Teacher said: “Now I’ll welcome you to Canaan House. Will someone bring me the box?”
The gangling silence focused on a robed skeleton who carried over a small chest made entirely of wood. It was no wider than a book and no deeper than two books stacked on top of each other, estimated Gideon, who thought of all books as being basically the same size. Teacher threw it open with aplomb, and announced: “Marta the Second!”
An intensely dark girl snapped to attention. Her salute was as crisp as her flawless Cohort uniform, and when Teacher beckoned, she marched forward with a gait as starched as her officer’s scarlets and snowy white necktie. As though bestowing a jewel upon her, he gave her a dull iron ring from the box, about as big around as the circle made by a thumb and forefinger. To her credit, she did not gawk or hesitate. She simply took it, saluted, and sat back down.
Teacher called out, “Naberius the Third!” and thus followed a rather tiresome parade of rapier-swinging cavaliers in varying attitudes coming up to receive their mysterious iron circles. Some of them took the Second’s cue in saluting. Others, including the man-hulk Protesilaus, bothered not at all.
Gideon’s tension grew with each name. When at last in this roll-call Teacher said, “Gideon the Ninth,” she ended up disappointed by the banality of the thing. It was not a perfect iron loop, as she had thought, but a twist that overlapped itself. It locked shut by means of a hole bored into one end and a ninety-degree bend at the other, so that you could prise it open simply by fiddling the bend back through the hole. The metal in her hand felt granular, heavy. When she sat back down she knew Harrow was sweating to snatch it off her, but she clutched it childishly tight.
Nobody asked what it was, which Gideon thought was fairly frigging dumb. She was near to asking herself when Teacher said: “Now the tenets of the First House, and the grief of the King Undying.”
Everyone got very focused again.
“I will not tell you what you already know,” said the little priest. “I seek only to add context. The Lyctors were not born immortal. They were given eternal life, which is not at all the same thing. Sixteen of them came here a myriad ago, eight adepts and the eight who would later be known as the first cavaliers, and it was here that they ascended. Those eight necromancers were first after the Lord of Resurrection; they have spread his assumption across the blackness of space, to those places where others could never reach. Each of them alone is more powerful than nine Cohorts acting as one. But even the divine Lyctors can pass away, despite their power and despite their sword… and they have done so, slowly, over these ten thousand years. The Emperor’s grief has waxed with time. It is only now, in the twilight of the original eight, that he has listened to his last Lyctors, who beg for reinforcement.”
He took his cup of tea and swirled the liquid with a twitch of his wrist. “You have been nominated to attempt the terrible challenge of replacing them,” he said, “and it is not at all a sure thing. If you ascend to Lyctor, or if you try and fail—the Kindly Lord knows what is being asked of you is titanic. You are the honoured heirs and guardians of the eight Houses. Great duties await you. If you do not find yourself a galaxy, it is not so bad to find yourself a star, nor to have the Emperor know that the both of you attempted this great ordeal.
“Or the all of you,” added the little priest brightly, nodding at the twins and their sullen-ass cavalier with a flash of amusement, “as the case may be. Cavaliers, if your adept is found wanting, you have failed! If you are found wanting, your adept has failed! And if one or both is wanting, then we will not ask you to wreck your lives against this impossible task. You will not be forced if you cannot continue onward—through single or mutual failure—or make the decision not to go on.”
He looked searchingly over the assembled faces, somewhat vague, as though seeing them for the first time. Gideon could hear Harrowhark chewing the inside of her cheek, fingers tightly knuckled over her prayer bones.
Teacher said: “This is not a pilgrimage where your safety is assured. You will undergo trials, possibly dangerous ones. You will work hard, you will suffer. I must speak candidly—you may even die… But I see no reason not to hope that I may behold eight new Lyctors by the end of this, joined together with their cavaliers, heir to a joy and power that has sung through ten thousand years.”
This sank into the room like water into sand. Even Gideon got a minute chill down the back of her neck.
He said, “To practical matters.
“Your every need will be met here. You will be given your own rooms, and will be waited on by the servants. There is space in abundance. Any chambers not given to others may be used as you will for your studies and your sitting-rooms, and you have the run of all open spaces and the use of all books. We live as penitents do—simple food, no letters, no visits. You shall never use a communication network. It is not allowed in this place. Now that you are here, you must understand that you are here until we send you home or until you succeed. We hope you will be too busy to be lonely or bored.
“As for your instruction here, this is what the First House asks of you.”
The room drew breath together—or at least, all the necromancers did, alongside a goodly proportion of their cavaliers. Harrow’s knuckles whitened. Gideon wished that she could flop into a seat or take a sly nap. Everybody was poised in readiness for the outlined syllabus, and scholarship made her want to die. There would be some litany of how breakfast would take place every morning at this time, and then there’d be study with the priests for an hour, and then Skeleton Analysis, and History of Some Blood, and Tomb Studies, and, like, lunchtime, and finally Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone. The most she could hope for was Swords, Swords II, and maybe Swords III.
“We ask,” began Teacher, “that you never open a locked door unless you have permission.”
Everyone waited. Nothing happened. They looked at the little priest and he looked back, completely at his ease, his hands resting on his white-clad thighs, smiling vaguely. A nail went ping out of a rotting picture frame somewhere in the corner.
“That’s it,” said Teacher helpfully.
Gideon saw lights dull in every eye that had gleamed for Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone. Someone ventured a bit timidly, “So what is the training, then—how to attain Lyctorhood?”
The little priest looked at them again. “Well, I don’t know,” he said.
His words went through them all like lightning. The very air chilled. Anticipation for Double Bones with Doctor Skelebone not only died, but was buried deep down in some forgotten catacomb. It only took one look at Teacher’s kind, open-hearted countenance to confirm that he was not, in fact, screwing with them. They were stupefied with confusion and outrage.
“You’re the ones who will ascend to Lyctor,” he said, “not me. I am certain the way will become clear to you without any input from us. Why, who are we to teach the first after the King Undying?”
Then he added smilingly, “Welcome to Canaan House!”
A skeleton took Gideon and Harrow to the wing that had been set aside for the Ninth. They were led deep into the fortress of the First, past ruined statuary within the gorgeous wreck of Canaan House, the wraithlike, mansionlike hulk lying sprawled and chipped around them. They passed rooms with vaulted ceilings, full of green light where the sun shone through thick algae on the glass. They passed broken windows and windows wrecked with salt and wind, and open shadowed arches where reeked rooms too musty to be believed. They said absolutely jack to each other.
Except when they were taken down flights of stairs to their rooms, and Gideon looked out the windows now into the featureless lumps of blackness and said thoughtlessly: “The lights are broken.”
Harrow turned to her for the first time since they left the shuttle, eyes glittering like beetles beneath the veil, mouth puckered up like a cat’s asshole.
“Griddle,” she said, “this planet spins much faster than ours.” At Gideon’s continued blank expression: “It’s night, you tool.”
They did not speak again.
The removal of the light, strangely, made Gideon feel very tired. She couldn’t escape its having been there, even though Drearburh’s brightest was darker than the darkest shadows of the First. Their wing turned out to be low on the level, right beneath the dock; there were a few lights here outside the huge windows, making big blue shadows out of the iron struts that held up the landing platform above them. Far below the sea roared invisibly. There was a bed for Harrow—an enormous platform with feathery, tattered drapes— and a bed for Gideon, except that it was placed at the foot of Harrowhark’s bed, which she could not have noped at harder. She set herself up with a mass of musty bedding and pillows in front of a huge window in the next room, and left Harrow back in the bedroom with a black expression and probably blacker thoughts. Gideon was too tired even to wash her face or undress properly. Exhaustion had spread upward through her toes, spiking up her calves, freezing the bottom of her spine.
As she stared out the window into the bluish blackness of night after a day, she heard a huge, overhead grinding sound: a big velvety pull of metal on metal, a rhythmic scrape. Gideon watched, paralysed, as one of the very expensive shuttles fell hugely and silently over the landing platform: it dropped like a suicide and seemed to hang, grey and shining, in the air. Then it fell from sight. To its left, another; farther left, another. The scraping ceased. Skeletal feet pattered away.
Gideon fell asleep.
Excerpted from Gideon the Ninth, copyright © 2019 by Tamsyn Muir.