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IN THE MYRIADIC YEAR OF OUR LORD—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.
She didn’t run. Gideon never ran unless she had to. In the absolute darkness before dawn she brushed her teeth without concern and splashed her face with water, and even went so far as to sweep the dust off the floor of her cell. She shook out her big black church robe and hung it from the hook. Having done this every day for over a decade, she no longer needed light to do it by. This late in the equinox no light would make it here for months, in any case; you could tell the season by how hard the heating vents were creaking. She dressed herself from head to toe in polymer and synthetic weave. She combed her hair. Then Gideon whistled through her teeth as she unlocked her security cuff, and arranged it and its stolen key considerately on her pillow, like a chocolate in a fancy hotel.
Leaving her cell and swinging her pack over one shoulder, she took the time to walk down five flights to her mother’s nameless catacomb niche. This was pure sentiment, as her mother hadn’t been there since Gideon was little and would never go back in it now. Then came the long hike up twenty-two flights the back way, not one light relieving the greasy dark, heading to the splitoff shaft and the pit where her ride would arrive: the shuttle was due in two hours.
Out here, you had an unimpeded view up to a pocket of Ninth sky. It was soupy white where the atmosphere was pumped in thickest, and thin and navy where it wasn’t. The bright bead of Dominicus winked benignly down from the mouth of the long vertical tunnel. In the dark, she made an opening amble of the field’s perimeter, and she pressed her hands up hard against the cold and oily rock of the cave walls. Once this was done, she spent a long time methodically kicking apart every single innocuous drift and hummock of dirt and rock that had been left on the worn floor of the landing field. She dug the shabby steel toe of her boot into the hard-packed floor, but satisfied with the sheer improbability of anyone digging through it, left it alone. Not an inch of that huge, empty space did Gideon leave unchecked, and as the generator lights grumbled to half-hearted life, she checked it twice by sight. She climbed up the wire-meshed frames of the floodlights and checked them too, blinded by the glare, feeling blindly behind the metal housing, grimly comforted by what she didn’t find.
She parked herself on one of the destroyed humps of rubble in the dead centre. The lamps made lacklustre any real light. They explosively birthed malform shadow all around. The shades of the Ninth were deep and shifty; they were bruise-coloured and cold. In these surrounds, Gideon rewarded herself with a little plastic bag of porridge. It tasted gorgeously grey and horrible.
The morning started as every other morning had started in the Ninth since the Ninth began. She took a turn around the vast landing site just for a change of pace, kicking absently at an untidy drift of grit as she went. She moved out to the balcony tier and looked down at the central cavern for signs of movement, worrying porridge from her molars with the tip of her tongue. After a while, there was the faraway upward clatter of the skeletons going to pick mindlessly at the snow leeks in the planter fields. Gideon saw them in her mind’s eye: mucky ivory in the sulfurous dim, picks clattering over the ground, eyes a multitude of wavering red pinpricks.
The First Bell clanged its uncanorous, complaining call for beginning prayers, sounding as always like it was getting kicked down some stairs; a sort of BLA-BLANG … BLA-BLANG … BLA-BLANG that had woken her up every morning that she could recall. Movement resulted. Gideon peered down at the bottom where shadows gathered over the cold white doors of Castle Drearburh, stately in the dirt, set into the rock three bodies wide and six bodies tall. Two braziers stood on either side of the door and perpetually burned fatty, crappy smoke. Over the doors were tiny white figures in a multitude of poses, hundreds to thousands of them, carved using some weird trick where their eyes seemed to look right at you. Whenever Gideon had been made to go through those doors as a kid, she’d screamed like she was dying.
More activity in the lowest tiers now. The light had settled into visibility. The Ninth would be coming out of their cells after morning contemplation, getting ready to head for orison, and the Drearburh retainers would be preparing for the day ahead. They would perform many a solemn and inane ritual in the lower recesses. Gideon tossed her empty porridge bag over the side of the tier and sat down with her sword over her knees, cleaning it with a bit of rag: forty minutes to go.
Suddenly, the unchanging tedium of a Ninth morning changed. The First Bell sounded again: BLANG … BLA-BLANG … BLA-BLANG … Gideon cocked her head to listen, finding her hands had stilled on her sword. It rang fully twenty times before stopping. Huh; muster call. After a while came the clatter of the skeletons again, having obediently tossed down pick and hoe to meet their summons. They streamed down the tiers in an angular current, broken up every so often by some limping figure in vestments of rusting black. Gideon picked up her sword and cloth again: it was a cute try, but she wasn’t buying.
She didn’t look up when heavy, stumping footsteps sounded on her tier, or for the rattle of rusting armour and the rusty rattle of breath.
“Thirty whole minutes since I took it off, Crux,” she said, hands busy. “It’s almost like you want me to leave here forever. Ohhhh shit, you absolutely do though.”
“You ordered a shuttle through deception,” bubbled the marshal of Drearburh, whose main claim to fame was that he was more decrepit alive than some of the legitimately dead. He stood before her on the landing field and gurgled with indignation. “You falsified documents. You stole a key. You removed your cuff. You wrong this house, you misuse its goods, you steal its stock.”
“Come on, Crux, we can come to some arrangement,” Gideon coaxed, flipping her sword over and looking at it critically for nicks. “You hate me, I hate you. Just let me go without a fight and you can retire in peace. Take up a hobby. Write your memoirs.”
“You wrong this house. You misuse its goods. You steal its stock.” Crux loved verbs.
“Say my shuttle exploded. I died, and it was such a shame. Give me a break, Crux, I’m begging you here—I’ll trade you a skin mag. Frontline Titties of the Fifth.” This rendered the marshal momentarily too aghast to respond. “Okay, okay. I take it back. Frontline Titties isn’t a real publication.”
Crux advanced like a glacier with an agenda. Gideon rolled backward off her seat as his antique fist came down, skidding out of his way with a shower of dust and gravel. Her sword she swiftly locked within its scabbard, and the scabbard she clutched in her arms like a child. She propelled herself backward, out of the way of his boot and his huge, hoary hands. Crux might have been very nearly dead, but he was built like gristle with what seemed like thirty knuckles to each fist. He was old, but he was goddamn ghastly.
“Easy, marshal,” she said, though she was the one floundering in the dirt. “Take this much further and you’re in danger of enjoying yourself.”
“You talk so loudly for chattel, Nav,” said the marshal. “You chatter so much for a debt. I hate you, and yet you are my wares and inventory. I have written up your lungs as lungs for the Ninth. I have measured your gall as gall for the Ninth. Your brain is a base and shrivelled sponge, but it too is for the Ninth. Come here, and I’ll black your eyes for you and knock you dead.”
Gideon slid backward, keeping her distance. “Crux,” she said, “a threat’s meant to be ‘Come here, or…’”
“Come here and I’ll black your eyes for you and knock you dead,” croaked the advancing old man, “and then the Lady has said that you will come to her.”
Only then did Gideon’s palms prickle. She looked up at the scarecrow towering before her and he stared back, one-eyed, horrible, baleful. The antiquated armour seemed to be rotting right off his body. Even though the livid, over-stretched skin on his skull looked in danger of peeling right off, he gave the impression that he simply wouldn’t care. Gideon suspected that—even though he had not a whit of necromancy in him—the day he died, Crux would keep going anyway out of sheer malice.
“Black my eyes and knock me dead,” she said slowly, “but your Lady can go right to hell.”
Crux spat on her. That was disgusting, but whatever. His hand went to the long knife kept over one shoulder in a mould-splattered sheath, which he twitched to show a thin slice of blade: but at that, Gideon was on her feet with her scabbard held before her like a shield. One hand was on the grip, the other on the locket of the sheath. They both faced each other in impasse, her very still, the old man’s breath loud and wet.
Gideon said, “Don’t make the mistake of drawing on me, Crux.”
“You are not half as good with that sword as you think you are, Gideon Nav,” said the marshal of Drearburh, “and one day I’ll flay you for disrespect. One day we will use your parts for paper. One day the sisters of the Locked Tomb will brush the oss with your bristles. One day your obedient bones will dust all places you disdain, and make the stones there shine with your fat. There is a muster, Nav, and I command you now to go.”
Gideon lost her temper. “You go, you dead old dog, and you damn well tell her I’m already gone.”
To her enormous surprise he wheeled around and stumped back to the dark and slippery tier. He rattled and cursed all the way, and she told herself that she had won before she even woke up that morning; that Crux was an impotent symbol of control, one last attempt to test if she was stupid enough or cowed enough to walk back behind the cold bars of her prison. The grey and putrid heart of Drearburh. The greyer and more putrid heart of its lady.
Copyright © 2019 by Tamsyn Muir