Gideon the Ninth Page 3

Back straight as a poker, Aiglamene walked away with her funny seesawing walk, and Gideon felt as though she’d failed a test. It didn’t matter, she told herself. Two down, none to go. Eleven minutes until landing, her clockwork told her, eleven minutes and she was out. That was the only thing that mattered. That was the only thing that had mattered since a much younger Gideon had realised that, unless she did something drastic, she was going to die here down in the dark.

And—worst of all—that would only be the beginning.


* * *


Nav was a Niner name, but Gideon didn’t know where she’d been born. The remote, insensate planet where she lived was home to both the stronghold of the House and a tiny prison, used only for those criminals whose crimes were too repugnant for their own Houses to rehabilitate them on home turf. She’d never seen the place. The Ninth House was an enormous hole cracked vertically into the planet’s core, and the prison a bubble installation set halfway up into the atmosphere where the living conditions were probably a hell of a lot more clement.

One day eighteen years ago, Gideon’s mother had tumbled down the middle of the shaft in a dragchute and a battered hazard suit, like some moth drifting slowly down into the dark. The suit had been out of power for a couple of minutes. The woman landed brain-dead. All the battery power had been sucked away by a bio-container plugged into the suit, the kind you’d carry a transplant limb in, and inside that container was Gideon, only a day old.

This was obviously mysterious as hell. Gideon had spent her life poring over the facts. The woman must have run out of juice an hour before landing; it was impossible that she would have cleared gravity from a drop above the planet, as her simple haz would have exploded. The prison, which recorded every coming and going obsessively, denied her as an escapee. Some of the nun-adepts of the Locked Tomb were sent for, those who knew the secrets for caging ghosts. Even they—old in their power then, seasoned necromancers of the dark and powerful House of the Ninth—couldn’t rip the woman’s shade back to explain herself. She would not be tempted back for fresh blood or old. She was too far gone by the time the exhausted nuns had tethered her by force, as though death had been a catalyst for the woman to hit the ground running, and they only got one word out of her: she had screamed Gideon! Gideon! Gideon! three times, and fled.

If the Ninth—enigmatic, uncanny Ninth, the House of the Sewn Tongue, the Anchorite’s House, the House of Heretical Secrets—was nonplussed at having an infant on their hands, they moved fast anyway. The Ninth had historically filled its halls with penitents from other houses, mystics and pilgrims who found the call of this dreary order more attractive than their own birthrights. In the antiquated rules of those supplicants who moved between the eight great households, she was taken as a very small bondswoman, not of the Ninth but beholden to it: What greater debt could be accrued than that of being brought up? What position more honourable than vassal to Drearburh? Let the baby grow up postulant. Push the child to be an oblate. They chipped her, surnamed her, and put her in the nursery. At that time, the tiny Ninth House boasted two hundred children between infancy and nineteen years of age, and Gideon was numbered two hundred and first.

Less than two years later, Gideon Nav would be one of only three children left: herself, a much older boy, and the infant heir of the Ninth House, daughter of its lord and lady. They knew by age five that she was not a necromancer, and suspected by eight that she would never be a nun. Certainly, they would have known by ten that she knew too much, and that she could never be allowed to go.

Gideon’s appeals to better natures, financial rewards, moral obligations, outlined plans, and simple attempts to run away numbered eighty-six by the time she was eighteen. She’d started when she was four.


THERE WERE FIVE MINUTES to go when Gideon’s eighty-seventh escape plan got messed up fantastically.

“I see that your genius strategy, Griddle,” said a final voice from the tierway, “was to order a shuttle and walk out the door.”

The Lady of the Ninth House stood before the drillshaft, wearing black and sneering. Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus had pretty much cornered the market on wearing black and sneering. It comprised 100 percent of her personality. Gideon marvelled that someone could live in the universe only seventeen years and yet wear black and sneer with such ancient self-assurance.

Gideon said, “Hey, what can I say? I’m a tactician.”

The ornate, slightly soiled robes of the House dragged in the dust as the Reverend Daughter approached. She’d brought her marshal along, and Aiglamene too. A few Sisters were behind her on the tier, having sunk down to their knees: the cloisterwomen painted their faces alabaster grey and drew black patterns on their cheeks and lips like death’s-heads. Dressed in breadths of rusty black cloth, they looked like a peanut gallery of sad old waist-high masks.

“It’s embarrassing that it had to come to this,” said the Lady of the Ninth, pulling back her hood. Her pale-painted face was a white blotch among all the black. Even her hands were gloved. “I don’t care that you run away. I care that you do it badly. Take your hand from your sword, you’re humiliating yourself.”

“In under ten minutes a shuttle’s going to come and take me to Trentham on the Second,” Gideon said, and did not take her hand from her sword. “I’m going to get on it. I’m going to close the door. I’m going to wave goodbye. There is literally nothing you can do anymore to stop me.”

Harrow put one gloved hand before her and massaged her fingers thoughtfully. The light fell on her painted face and black-daubed chin, and her short-cropped, dead-crow-coloured hair. “All right. Let’s play this one through for interest’s sake,” she said. “First objection: the Cohort won’t enlist an unreleased serf, you know.”

“I faked your signature on the release form,” said Gideon.

“But a single word from me and you’re brought back in cuffs.”

“You’ll say nothing.”

Harrowhark ringed two fingers around one wrist and slowly worked the hand up and down. “It’s a cute story, but badly characterised,” she said. “Why the sudden mercy on my part?”

“The moment you deny me leave to go,” said Gideon, hand unmoving on her scabbard, “the moment you call me back—the moment you give the Cohort cause, or, I don’t know, some list of trumped-up criminal charges…”

“Some of your magazines are very nasty,” admitted the Lady.

“That’s the moment I squeal,” said Gideon. “I squeal so long and so loud they hear me from the Eighth. I tell them everything. You know what I know. And I’ll tell them the numbers. They’d bring me home in cuffs, but I’d come back laughing my ass off.”

At that, Harrowhark stopped working her scaphoid and glanced at Gideon. She gave a rather brusque hand-wave to the geriatric fan club behind her and they scattered: tottering, kissing the floor and rattling both their prayer beads and their unlubricated knee joints, disappearing into the darkness and down the tier. Only Crux and Aiglamene stayed. Then Harrow cocked her head to the side like a quizzical bird and smiled a tiny, contemptuous smile.

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