Harrow the Ninth Page 2

“They’re breaching,” said the Emperor. “Forgive me … and give it hell, children.”

Somewhere far off on the station there was a warping crunch of plex and metal. Your knees became jelly, and you would have collapsed to the floor in a spasm had you not been sitting. With your fingers you closed your eyes, and you wrestled yourself into stillness. The darkness got darker and cooler as the first shield of perpetual bone cocooned you—the act of a fool, meaningless, doomed to dissolve the moment you submerged—then the second, then the third, until you were lost in an airless and impregnable nest. Throughout the Mithraeum, five pairs of eyes closed in concert, one of them yours. Unlike theirs, yours would not open again. In half an hour, no matter what Teacher might hope, you would be dead. The Lyctors of the Resurrecting Emperor began their long wade into the River to where the Resurrection Beast squatted—just out of the orbit of the Mithraeum, half-alive, half-dead, a verminous liminal mass—and you waded with them, but your meat you left vulnerably behind.

“I pray the tomb is shut forever,” you heard yourself saying aloud, and you could not bring your voice above a choked whisper. “I pray the rock is never rolled away. I pray that which was buried remains buried, insensate, in perpetual rest with closed eye and stilled brain. I pray it lives … O corse of the Locked Tomb,” you extemporised wildly. “Beloved dead, hear your handmaiden. I loved you with my whole rotten, contemptible heart—I loved you to the exclusion of aught else—let me live long enough to die at your feet.”

Then you went under to make war on Hell.

* * *

Hell spat you back out. Fair enough.

You did not wake up having passed into the thanergetic space that was the sole province of the dead, and the necromantic saints who fought the dead; you woke up in the corridor outside your rooms, on your side and broiling, gasping for air, soaked right through with sweat—your own—and blood—your own; the blade of your rapier leered through your stomach, punctured through from behind. The wound was not a hallucination or a dream: the blood was wet, and the pain was terrible. Your vision was already curling up black at the edges as you tried to close the rent—tried to sew your viscera shut, cauterize the veins, stabilize the organs whimpering into shutdown—but you were far too gone already. Even if you had wanted it, the imminent death letter would not be yours to read. All you could do was lie gasping in a pool of your own fluids, too powerful to die quickly, too weak to save yourself. You were only half a Lyctor, and half a Lyctor was worse than not a Lyctor at all.

Outside the plex, the stars were blocked by the skittering, buzzing Heralds of the Resurrection Beast, beating their wings furiously to roast everything inside. From very far away you thought you heard the ring of swords, and you flinched at each bright scream of striking metal. You had loathed that sound from birth.

You prepared to die with the Locked Tomb on your lips. But your idiot dying mouth rounded out three totally different syllables, and they were three syllables you did not even understand.



IN THE MYRIADIC YEAR OF OUR LORD—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, our Resurrector, the full-pitying Prime!—the Reverend Daughter Harrowhark Nonagesimus sat on her mother’s sofa and watched her cavalier read. She idly fretted her thumbnail into a decaying brocade skull on the cover, carelessly destroying in a second long years of labour by some devoted anchorite. The mandible unravelled beneath the pad of her thumb.

Her cavalier sat very upright in the study chair. It had not taken anyone of comparable bulk since his father’s day, and was now in danger of a final fatal sag. He had tucked his considerable frame tight within its borders as though breaching them might cause Incident; and she knew full well that Ortus hated Incident.

“No retainers. No attendants, no domestics,” read Ortus Nigenad, folding the paper with obsequious care. “Then I will wait on you alone, my Lady Harrowhark?”

“Yes,” she said, vowing to keep her patience as long as possible.

“No Marshal Crux? No Captain Aiglamene?”

“In fact, no retainers, no attendants, and no domestics,” said Harrow, losing her patience. “I believe you’ve cracked the elaborate code. It will be you, the cavalier primary, and me, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House. That’s all. Which I find … suggestive.”

Ortus did not seem to find it suggestive. His dark eyes were downcast behind their thick black lashes, the sort Harrowhark had always fancied you might get on some nice domestic mammal, like a hog. He was perennially downcast, and not out of modesty; the faint crow’s feet trampling each eye were lines of sadness; the fine creases at his forehead were a careful act of tragedy. She was glad to see that someone—maybe his mother, the mawkish Sister Glaurica—had painted his face as his father had once painted his own, with a solid black jaw to represent the Mouthless Skull. This was not because she had any especial love for the Mouthless Skull, as paint sacrament went. It was merely because any jawéd skull he affected became a wide white skull with depression.

After a moment, he said abruptly: “Lady, I cannot help you become a Lyctor.”

She was only surprised that he dared to offer an opinion. “That’s as may be.”

“You agree with me. Good. I thank you for your mercy, Your Grace. I cannot represent you in a formal duel, not with the sword, nor the short sword, nor the chain. I cannot stand in a row of cavaliers primary and call myself their peer. The falsehood would crush me. I cannot begin to conceive of it. I will not be able to fight for you, my Lady Harrowhark.”

“Ortus,” she said, “I have known you my entire life. Did you really think I entertained any delusions that you could be mistaken, in the dark, by a dementia-ridden dog raised with no knowledge of bladed objects, for a swordsman?”

“Lady, it is only to honour my father that I call myself a cavalier,” said Ortus. “It is for my mother’s pride and my House’s scarcity that I call myself a cavalier. I have none of a cavalier’s virtues.”

“I am not sure how many times I must relay to you how truly I am aware of that,” said Harrowhark, picking a tiny fragment of jet thread from her fingernail. “Given that it has constituted one hundred percent of our exchanges over the years, I can only assume you are coming to some new point, and begin to feel excitement.”

Ortus leant forward on the edge of his chair, his restive, long-fingered hands locking together. His hands were big and soft—all of Ortus was big and soft, like a squashy black pillow—and he spread them open, beseeching. She was intrigued, despite herself. This was more than he had heretofore dared.

“Lady,” ventured Ortus, voice deepening with timidity, “I would not venture it—but if a cavalier’s duty is to hold the sword—if a cavalier’s duty is to protect with the sword—if a cavalier’s duty is to die by the sword—have you never considered ORTUS NIGENAD?”

“What?” said Harrow.

“Lady, it is only to honour my father that I call myself a cavalier,” said Ortus. “It is for my mother’s pride and my House’s scarcity that I call myself a cavalier. I have none of a cavalier’s virtues.”

“I feel as though we have had this conversation before,” said Harrowhark, pressing her thumbs together, testing with risky pleasure how malleable she might make her distal phalange. One misstep, and her nerves might split. It was an old exercise her parents had set her. “Each time, the news that you have not spent your life in acquiring martial virtues comes as a little less of a shock to me. But have a go. Surprise me. My body is ready.”

“I wish that our House had produced some swordsman more worthy of our glory days,” said Ortus meditatively, who always found enthusiasm for alternate histories where he was not pressed into service or asked to do anything he found difficult. “I wish that our House had not been diminished to ‘those who are fit but to hold their blade in the scabbard.’”

Harrowhark congratulated herself on not pointing out how this lack of production was directly due to three things: his mother, himself, and The Noniad, his ongoing verse epic devoted to Matthias Nonius. She had a vile suspicion that the quotation, around which he had somehow contrived to pronounce quotation marks, was from that very same verse epic, which she knew was already on its eighteenth book and showed no signs of slowing down. If anything it seemed to be gaining momentum, like a very boring avalanche. She was composing a rejoinder when she noticed that a serving sister had arrived in her father’s library.

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