About the Author
Read an Excerpt
He’s a dead thing. Celia shivered and wrapped her arms tight around her middle, clutching all her shattered pieces together so they didn’t spill out like an overturned cart on the cobblestones at her feet. Watching Griffin from across the busy market square of whatever town they were in, she held her thoughts at bay with knives. They didn’t know for sure whether Diavala possessed him. In all the days since they’d left the city of Asura, Diavala hadn’t made herself known; all Celia had was paranoia, suspicion, and nagging, ever-present regret. Perhaps this was what winning looked like, and Celia was just so broken she couldn’t recognize it. Still, the bees in her head insisted, He’s a dead thing. The words kept buzzing in her mind, repeated and repeated. It might look like they’d overcome the body-stealing devil, but Celia had been fooled by Diavala before. As a plague doctor, Griffin was certainly dressed the part. His costume was all black—hat, tight leather pants, coat of raven feathers, except for his bone-white mask with its long, stabby beak—and it seemed to give his inner death a face. Slowly rotting on the inside but whole on the outside, decomposing by degrees. The illness inside him festering, rattling his bones, humming to him: Diavala, Diavala, Diavala . . . Griffin scanned his growing audience—their baskets filled with bread and other market staples under their arms, harried looks on their faces, toes already pointed down the road they’d continue on if he didn’t hold their attention—and he turned up the shine of his smile. It looked as if he was trying hard to ignore that he was competing with bread, squash, and butcher cuts of meat, and how equal the match was. He’d been standing statue-still for a handful of moments, waiting for people to notice him before beginning his performance. It hadn’t taken long. The town lived in another world. Market day was a bustling affair, with people moving this way and that, laughter and conversation coming from every direction, a steady hum. Tenors—the visible, ever-changing markers that signaled gender identity—shone brightly around everyone’s head and shoulders, as individual as fingerprints. The sights, sounds, and smells of innocent daily life. Anything dark and beaked and ominously silent, evoking the plague and death and mystery, stood out like a bonfire. He hadn’t seen Celia yet. She stood on the steps of a bakery near the back, the scent of cinnamon and melted butter enveloping her. When the attention of his crowd wandered too far, he’d hand out one cheery yellow dandelion with a dramatic bow. Except for the tilt of his head when he aimed his beady-eyed goggles at someone, his deep bows were his only movement. Soon most of his small audience had one yellow tuft either tucked behind an ear, in a basket, or clutched in a hand. Who is he? Why would he give me a flower? And a few, Hack, capitalizing on fame, trying to wheedle hard-earned coin. There’s only one plague doctor. Most of Illinia knew of him now, and absurdly, his fame had grown so big, no one would have believed he was indeed that plague doctor. The one who had stood with the Divine when she’d revealed herself to her followers; the one who had calmly heralded her death. With the sun miraculously shining despite the crisp autumn season, and with whatever arbitrary crowd size he was waiting for finally assembled in front of him to his liking, he began. Celia held her breath. A slow nod. Unclasping his hands, he swept his gaze, hidden behind those dark lenses, across every intent face. For a moment his goggled gaze seemed to land on Celia, and even though she was well hidden, she had no doubt he’d managed to see her. He did that a lot: see her. Always Celia and Griffin, opposite each other, circling, two polar ends of a never-ending abyss. The setting around them didn’t matter at all. He nodded at her before he began. “‘Another dawn brings shadow!’” he boomed in his performer’s voice. One of the shoppers flinched, and the corner of Celia’s mouth quirked up. His volume control was still an issue, obviously. He shook himself off and adjusted, settling his voice into the rhythm of the poem. Dipping and lengthening and stretching. No longer words: a work of art, a painting, a story. He was used to speaking more with his body than with his words, but it was easy enough for him, animating poems already written. Celia stopped breathing as she listened to his voice: smooth and deep, soft but strong.
“Another dawn brings shadows Full of creeping things and claws. And our love for each other— Starving us and nourishing— Has found its perfect home.”
Celia didn’t recognize the poem he recited, but it seemed as if it were his own composition, just for them. Who else would understand that when love was born from the darkness, sunlight would only make it wither? Griffin cocked his head at her. The pointy beak of his white plague doctor mask aimed at the ground like a stake, his goggles reflecting the sunlight that mocked them. The crowd grew as he continued, his voice luring them more than his costume ever could. They tossed coins onto the purple and blue cloth at his feet; they clapped and smiled and gasped where they were supposed to. But many quickly moved on, no one staying for the whole monologue, no matter how much he inflected his voice to pierce them or lowered it to reel them in closer. A commotion in the crowd drew Celia’s attention. An elderly soul with wispy white hair like a dandelion puff shook a cane at Griffin, his peculiar tenor made of bright shades of silver with barely any nuance. Often, it took some measure of training to identify whether the proper pronoun for someone was he,she,they, or none at all—tenors were by nature fluid and complex, filled with an array of color and light—but this person’s tenor was so uniform it would have been easy even for a Kid just learning the skill. The plague doctor saw the shaker of the cane from the corner of his eye—Celia felt his hesitation, his reluctance to let go of their eye contact across the distance—and in that silent pause, the intruder said something. One word, over and over again, with a voice as wispy as his hair. “Abomination.” The crowd cleared space around the old soul, giving him more room to shout his awful word. The plague doctor turned his head away from Celia slowly and smiled at him, not looking upset at the interruption, nor about the word he shouted. The old silver-tenored soul may as well have yelled Codfish oil! for all the rise he got from the plague doctor. Celia had a different reaction. She pushed out of the bakery’s doorway and flew through the crowd, shoving people out of the way as she went. When the crowd parted just so, the plague doctor looked up, perhaps catching a glimpse of her familiar black top hat, ratty around the brim from overuse, a scrap of ocean-blue fabric pinned to the underside. Because of how tiny Celia was, he might not have seen anything but the disembodied top hat weaving its way through the market crowd, approaching fast. As Celia pushed her way to the front of the group, she reared to a stop. The couple she’d just wedged herself between murmured “Excuse us!” and shuffled aside. Celia stared at the old soul for a heartbeat, her heart in her chest hot and huge. “What did you say?” She stepped toward him. “What did you say?!” With both hands perched at the top of his cane, he frowned at her, then lifted a gnarled finger and pointed at the plague doctor. His lips parted. But before he could utter that vile word again, Celia was in his face, looking up at him despite how stooped he was. “Don’t you dare.” Something fierce had risen in her, and she had to concentrate on not unleashing a primal scream. At the old soul. At the sky. “‘For whatever’s inside you,’” the old soul said, quoting a passage from the Book of Profeta with a defiant tilt of his chin, “‘will be revealed in the end. So the Divine knows.’” “No,” Celia snapped. She’d heard enough self-righteous nonsense about the Divine’s grace in her lifetime. There was no Divine, only Diavala. The trickster of a thousand faces. The one who possessed souls, used them, and then abandoned them to madness when she was done. There was nothing graceful about her, nothing good. Her religion was built entirely on lies. Diavala was the true abomination. But perhaps the old soul had seen something of Diavala inside the plague doctor. They’d suspected that Diavala was inside him for weeks, biding her time, licking her wounds, planning revenge against them. It had become the perfect torture for Celia: sensing that her enemy was close, so close, but not having it confirmed. Maybe this stranger had just confirmed it. And oh, how Celia hated him for that. “How dare you!” The crowd pushed closer, eyes wider and conversation quieter. The way they looked at her, nervous and skittish, it was as if they expected a brawl. Some tentatively offered murmured explanations: He’s traditional, not a fan of Commedia, thinks art is evil, slightly mad hahaha . . . He straightened his hunched back, then looked from her to the plague doctor again. “Abomination,” he whispered one more time. It was a dare. A taunt. He wanted one of them to overreact. To prove him right. Celia’s hands clenched, close to giving him what he wanted. Close enough that Griffin took a step forward and put his hand out in front of her, snapping her attention back to him. With his hand still in front of Celia, the plague doctor tipped his hat to the intruder and smiled wide, defusing the battle with one sentence. Abomination, the old soul had accused. “Well, you’re not wrong,” Griffin said. Then he tilted his head back and laughed and laughed and laughed. The old soul blinked and shook his head, then hobbled away, casting glares over his shoulder and muttering under his breath until the crowd closed around him, leaving the plague doctor alone again. With another player, who’d just made a fiery entrance. Griffin tipped his hat at Celia and stared, silently acknowledging the fiery thing in her eyes. The fear. The sadness. The hate. He tilted his head, his long hair fluttering like a waterfall at his shoulders. “Welcome to the shadows. The creeping things. The claws.” He held out a hand, asking her to join him on that bare expanse of cobblestone he’d claimed as a stage. Celia shook her head. She would have backed away if the crowd hadn’t closed behind her, blocking off a retreat. So she gave them an awkward smile. Too bad for her, she’d placed herself right in the middle of his act, and she knew the plague doctor wouldn’t let her leave without a fuss. She stepped forward into the shadows, where they lived together. The plague doctor bowed deep. “My shadow bows to you—a tender poison, a sweet deceit—recognizing its one and only ruler.” Instead of dying, the fiery thing inside her grew bigger and hotter. It had started with the old soul and his shouts of abomination. The truth, bluntly stated by a stranger: There is something foul inside this plague doctor performer. But it grew and swelled beyond that initial surge of anger. It was the thing she’d held back for weeks, rising up in revolt all at once. This was her plague doctor, and Diavala couldn’t have him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an offering: a yellow flower. “Don’t be ashamed, good ruler,” he whispered. “I am your land and your possessions, your treasury and army. Claim me.” Celia met his eyes behind his mask. Despite the tint on his goggles, she could imagine the exact depth and breadth of his dark eyes. How they crinkled in the corners from his smile, how the constellation tattoo at his temple would move with the flex of his jaw. Her plague doctor. She found herself responding. Improvising. She’d been a performer too, once, and she’d been so good at it she’d cast a nation into chaos with her show. She too had been on the stage when the false Divine died. “I can claim Death himself ?” she asked. Wonder lacing her voice, she took the flower, brushing her fingertips against his as she did. Time stretched out like taffy, slowing everything down painfully. When was the last time they’d touched? So close all the time, traveling together, yet such a chasm between them. But now everything sparked. She pressed her hand to her chest. Slowly, like something long lost and now found, she smiled at her crowd. “If I am Death’s ruler, he must obey me.” She waited for people to nod, acknowledging her claim. She turned back to the plague doctor. “Tell me everything about my kingdom,” she commanded. “Tell me what it looks like, smells like, tastes like. For if I am to rule Death’s land, I must understand it.” It was her own dare. You know death. You’ve seen it. Tell me. Here. Now. More than a year earlier, he’d fallen out of a tree and died, then somehow miraculously returned. She’d asked him dozens of times—What is death like? Where are our friends? Where’s . . .—but he’d deflected every question. The closer they got to Wisteria Township and every impossible hope Celia had pinned there, the more restless she’d become. He knew exactly what she wanted, but he held his secrets close. Tell me where Anya is. “You seek reassurance,” he said sadly. They circled each other, as if dancing. “I seek understanding.” Celia’s voice cracked, and her arms wrapped around her middle again, tighter this time. Half of her was gone, and she needed to know what had happened to it. Where is Anya?! Tiny explosions as Celia’s mind bees slammed against the inside of her skull, stinging her, buzzing so loud they drowned out all other sound. You know what I need to know, and I’m your ruler, and you must tell me! They must have looked ridiculous, a plague doctor circling a tiny thing like her and calling her ruler. Her face was made of a pointy chin, small nose, and big dark eyes, all framed with hair like black grass. Her tenor generally toured through hues of red and bronze, she and sometimes they, in a lazy way, slow and steady, where other people’s tenors flickered and sparked. Truly, there was nothing regal or refined about Celia. Yet when she stopped moving with a hard stomp of her feet, staking a claim to the truth, the plague doctor paused, listening. “I command it,” she said. “I claimed you.” Some of the crowd became bored and moved on, but Griffin and Celia were too lost in their act to notice, weeks of tension coming out in subtext that flowed too easily, in innuendo and accusation that cut too deep. He shook his head, the beak of his mask swinging from side to side like a slow pendulum. Tell me where Anya is! the confused bees in her mind shouted. The plague doctor went down on his knees in front of her. “You ask for the one thing I can’t give you.” It was no longer a performance. He bowed his head. All she saw was the top of his black hat, the nape of his neck where his hair parted, and the movement of his shoulders as he breathed deep. She longed to rest her hand there, on that small glimpse of skin. She pulled her hand away before it could betray her and touch him. Death had broken both of them, but hers was a fresh, raw wound where his was an old, jagged scar. His head tilted, as if he were listening to the cadence of her booming heart. The ever-present pain behind Celia’s eyes got worse. “You’re my tender poison, my sweet deceit,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’ll always meet you here, in our home full of creeping things and claws.” It was just them, and darkness. The most terrible home, but their home now nonetheless. She barely registered when people began clapping at the finale. When it seemed that he’d never rise, content there on his knees in front of her, hugged by her shadow, Celia pulled him to his feet. The tinkling of coins as they fell to the purple and blue cloth meant that the curtain was drawn. They accepted congratulations, smiled at their well-wishers, and gathered their things. She didn’t look at him again. The trouble with every conversation they had now, the reason she had trouble looking at him, was that Celia didn’t know who he was at any particular moment. He could be himself: Griffin Kay of Rabble Mob fame, the person who’d died once, the smiler, the bull-shitter, the flirter, the illusionist. Her plague doctor. But the thing Celia hated most might lurk inside him. The thing that had forced Anya into a place so terrible, even a plague doctor couldn’t bear to talk about it. Diavala. It wasn’t Griffin who was the abomination, yet the two—Griffin and abomination—were inseparable. Celia closed her eyes—one slow, forever blink—before she opened them again and they walked away. He was a dead thing, and like all dead things, people had trouble looking at him for long.