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Another question mark bloomed on Celia’s forearm, bigger and bolder than the others. The ink unfurled in an oily black stretched-out tentacle, wrist to elbow, the dot on the bottom a furious splatter. An hour ago Celia had still tried to hide Anya’s messages by tugging her shirtsleeve down. An hour ago she’d still cared that she was in a busy shisha lounge, surrounded by people who might notice the strangeness of Divine tattoos appearing, then vanishing, on her skin. But lovely absinthe made cares like that disappear. Celia pressed her finger to the angry splotch on the bottom. I’d tell you where I am, Anny, if only I knew! Her gaze drifted over the haphazard collection of empty glasses on the table in front of her. “Huzzah, absinthe.” The rest of the room was alive with clusters of pretty people doing flirty things: enjoying their drinks and smoke, unwinding after a long day of doing whatever it was normal people did all day. Shimmering tenors, as individual as fingerprints and much more visible, shone around each body. Tenors were usually the boldest thing about a person’s look, but there in the lounge their glint and vibrancy blended in the fog of shisha smoke that swirled from the colorful hookahs. Glasses clinked, laughter swelled, and everything fluttered: colorful sleeves, loose pants, long hair, light from a hundred candles, jingly jewelry hanging from ears and wrists and necks. With her black everythingshort hair, suspenders, tie, top hat, attitudeCelia stuck out like a monochrome stain amid all the color and life. Judging by the lounge owner’s fluency in scowls, they’d finally noticed. Not bothering to right her awkward sprawl, Celia smiled as they approached. Or maybe it wasn’t a smile, but a frown. Whichever way was up. Whichever way was down. “Time to move on,” they said, their voice a deep baritone. No, time to take a hostage. Pulling the hookah to the floor, Celia clamped the large bowl between her legs and hugged tight around its neck. They wouldn’t muscle her out with so much expensive blown glass at risk. “A few more blasts, good soul,” she said, jiggling the mouthpiece in her hand and then putting it to her lips. The smoke trapped in the bowl tasted like all the people who’d touched the pipe that day, swirling together. Dia, how long had she been sitting there, doing nothing but staring? The owner raised their caterpillar eyebrows as Celia struggled to hold in a violent cough. “You’ve had the green fairy; you’ve had some shisha. Now out you go, Lalita.” A flush crept up Celia’s neck. Fragile bird, my nimble little ass. A few people had turned their attention toward the standoff, and as Celia hugged her hookah tighter, the lounge owner’s lips formed a grim line. “Here, hire a gondola and get home.” As they dropped her own kropi back on the tableeach copper coin etched with the creepy four-faced image of the Divinethe edge of a black tattoo peeked out from under their sleeve. Both reminders of “home,” the place no amount of absinthe could erase. Their big hands found her armpits. They lifted her up, an arm wrapped around her waist, and eased her out of the lounge. On the wet street, mist replaced pink smoke, darkness replaced candlelight, gray streets replaced warmth and color. Someone shouted nonsense or poetry from a nearby balcony, their voice echoing in the night. As they rambled about a love gone wrong, (or perhaps their cat was missing?), Celia considered transforming the lament into a duet. Woe to the inklings who cannot escape! Mumble, mumble, rhymes with escape . . . Another voice interrupted. “Cece!” Anya. That same angry friend who’d messaged Celia all night. A twinge of guilt flared to life, and Celia stifled the urge to dart back into the lounge. As she strode toward Celia and the owner of the lounge, Anya’s black hair lapped at her shoulders in tidy waves, her midnight-blue top hat perched perfectly straight. A buttoned-up trench coat flared out behind her thighs, and her umbrella doubled as a walking stick, tapping a rhythm into the cobblestones. Anya looked perfectly composed. Then, and always. Long and low, Anya muttered “Dia . . .” under her breath as she approached. The lounge owner startled at the curse, dropped Celia’s arm, and took a step back, reacting as if Celia was the devil Anya had just named. Their look of shock was quickly replaced by one of anger and youth these days . . . no respect. They turned and stalked back into their bar, violently brushing the stain of blasphemers off their coats as they went. If Celia’s loitering hadn’t banned her from coming back, Anya’s curse just had. Stifling a smirk, Celia bowed. “My love, my love, you’ve found me. The smoke was pink tonight. The shisha was happy.” She swore the smoke changed color depending on the shisha’s mood, logic be damned. Anya steered her away, but they made it only around the first corner before Celia grabbed the nearest wall and painted her boots with a swirl of green fairy absinthe. Huh, looks exactly the same coming up as going down. She knocked her feet against the brick wall and wondered if someone would lick it later, grateful for a free drink. Anya rubbed Celia’s back, her words tight despite the calming gesture. “You’re a disgusting creature, Celia Sand.” That wasn’t news. Groaning, she pushed away from the wall and prepared herself for the lecture. The air around Anya flickered in an aura of red hues. Everyone projected a tenoran oscillating personal spectrum of gender in myriad colors. Tenors showed something infinite about a person and gave it over to concrete, manageable language: He, They, She, or No Thanks to Any of That. There were as many tenors as people in the world, and Anya’s tenor burned so familiar that Celia would have recognized it in a crowd of thousands. She knew Anya better than she knew herself, which meant that even before meeting Anya’s gaze, Celia knew she’d find a withering stare. “You’re almost at the docks,” Anya said, grinding her teeth so the sound crunched its way up Celia’s spine. Celia blinked in surpriseand a fair bit of pridethat she’d made it so far from the temple without remembering any of it. That explained the stronger than usual stench of fish. “I know you got my messages,” Anya said. “Why did you ignore them?” “I didn’t have my quill?” Celia ventured. Inklings always had a quill. Usually many. One day Celia and Anya would wake up to find the raven feather fused to their fingers. More horrible grinding, Anya’s whole jaw working hard until her nostrils flared with a deliberate exhale. About the biggest tantrum Anya was capable of throwing. But no lecture came. Instead, “You have to get back.” It took a moment for Celia to process Anya’s words. “What? Another one?” Her mind sputtered. She’d assumed that after the afternoon she’d had, she wouldn’t be missed for a while. She should have known better. Anya nodded, and Celia’s cloud of guilt blossomed into a wild thing, growing heavier as Anya turned tender: tucking Celia’s hair behind her ears, straightening her top hat (a losing battle), and adjusting her blouse. “Vomit everywhere,” Anya whispered. She wiped her fingers on the bricks beside them, her frustration fading away to sighs. She wrapped an arm around Celia’s smaller shoulders and squeezed. “You can’t keep doing this to me, Cece. When it’s over, when you’re okay, I need to know.” Only a short lecture, then. A familiar one. Celia stared blankly, ignoring the occasional claps of arguments or drunken laughter assaulting her on the otherwise dead streets. The buildings were tightly pressed together and built upward, competing for space amid a crisscross of canals and bridges. More gondolas than rickshaws ferried the few people still about. So much water everywhere: it fell endlessly from the sky, was constantly underfoot, and . . . Earlier that day, the temple had punished Celia with water. Cleansing, they called it: only a little, strategically poured, but enough to perfectly mimic drowning. The stories said that the Divine had drowned a millennium ago, which somehow justified repeating the horror on misbehaving inklings. The punishment itself didn’t last long. A few minutes after she’d stood up from the wooden floor, soaking and gasping, Celia could have found Anya and told her it was over. She should have. But it wasn’t the first time she’d experienced that particular punishment, and it wouldn’t be the last, so what if the point was that she was never okay? Celia took Anya’s hand and laced their fingers together, squinting into the creeping fog swirling over the canal and searching for a wayward gondolier for hire. If she could stretch her gaze around corners and westward, away from the Lassina Sea that hemmed them in, the stagnant Asuran canal must eventually find a real river. Far beyond the masses of buildings, docks, and mold, the land would gradually lift around her. Eventually they would leave the sogginess of Illinia behind and enter Kinallen, with its famous plateaus and spectacular hills. She tried to imagine itcrisp, dry air, bright sunshine, green cliffs, a country so breathtaking poets wrote songs about itbut it was like trying to savor a slice of ripe, rare apricot on your tongue while standing at the gallows. The temple had more work for her: another Divine tattoo to complete, another person’s life to affect. If she took too long to answer the summons, she just might end the night as she’d started it: on a wooden plank floor with water pouring down her nose and throat, breaking off breath. Woe to the inklings who cannot escape . . . The prow of a dilapidated gondola broke through the thick gray fogall peeling red paint, rotten wood, and ragged gondolier at the helm to match. His tenor flickered in silver hues, its natural brilliance dulled by the heavy air. Celia raised her arm to him. “Does anything rhyme with escape?” she asked Anya. Taking poetic license, Anya came up with quite a list as she stepped onto the boat: “Scrape, reshape, agape, agitate.” She helped Celia in, continuing, “Translate, mistake, urinate, charade . . .” as the gondola sailed off into the mist. Any of Anya’s words could have fit into the next line.
The Profetan temple stood atop the only hill in the waterlogged delta. Every alleyway, building, and canal in Asura boasted a good view of the looming stone turrets and waving flags. The algae-coated bulk was the city’s pride, the biggest red dot on every map of Illinia. The giant statue of the Divinethe temple’s marble crownperched on the highest tower, up so high it pierced through clouds. Human shaped enough to be familiar, inhuman enough to be sinister, the omniscient Divine was depicted as a robed figure with one head but four faces, each facing a different horizon. The Divine’s outstretched hands had one palm facing up to the angeli in the heavens and the other turned toward the diavoli of hell. Each face and both palms boasted one large eye. Those six eyes, gazing into all worldly horizons and the hidden realms of the afterlife, somehow comforted believers, as if omniscience equaled altruism. Celia had realized long ago that the Divine was either wildly malicious or didn’t exist to see anything at all. If she was so pure, all-knowing, and compassionate, how could she let her own religion turn so crooked? Where the Divine supposedly guided the temple’s followers toward heaven, Diavala, the wicked trickster, lured victims toward hell. Carved into the same marble centerpiece as the Divine, Diavala peeked out in anguish from beneath the Divine’s robes. Reaching one crooked hand out for help, her lips hung open as if she’d been squashed mid-sentence. The pathetic look was part of Diavala’s con, but Celia had always related to her position. She tipped her hat to Diavala in greeting, since her existence was far more likely. Then she tipped her hat to the guards, who let them in after checking their expertly forged permission papers. Authentic passes giving inklings permission to leave the temple grounds were as rare as an Illinian sunny day, but the guards didn’t know that. Arm in arm, Celia and Anya approached the main square. Their footsteps slowed, their chins dropped, their heartbeats dimmed, the temple and terrible statue casting its familiar heavy blanket over them. Even so late into the night, the perpetual hive of activity proved that those serving the Divine never paused for sleep. The lamplight throughout the square reflected off the damp cobblestones and lengthened the shadows of the rushing crowd. How fast people moved showed the temple pecking order. The long-robed misticothe holiest and most powerful of the Divine’s workerswalked as if they waded through water, graceful and composed. They could travel with their eyes closed and not bump into anything; paths cleared for them. Everyone else who contributed to the maintenance of the temple, such as guards, cooks, and servants, strode around with purposeful steps, no-nonsense. At the bottom of the hierarchy, inklings such as Celia and Anya scurried like mice, weaving around those destined to walk in straighter lines. Inklings possessed the only real magic in the world, but that didn’t count for much. They had only enough of it to prop everyone else up on their backs. On the bright side, being so low meant not having to wear a uniform. The temple relied on clothing donations for inklings, and as a result of a healthy benefactor rivalry, inklings were probably the sharpest-dressed underlings in the world. If Celia ever had to forfeit her top hat for a robe, that would be the last straw. Celia and Anya didn’t walk any faster once the crowd swallowed them. A small cluster of apprentice inklings passed, each sporting dark circles under their eyes and balancing a stack of books and papers with tired arms. “But can the tattoo change size once we send it to the receiver’s body?” one asked. The others were too tired to answer his desperate questions. They must have been the oldest eight-year-olds in Illinia. “Celia!” A raven-haired apprentice trailing at the back of the group lit up, shrugging their shoulders and bobbing, trying to wave a greeting without the use of their arms. “Celia! Celia!” Anya chuckled and lifted her hand in a wave. “They were frantic earlier,” she said, and called out, “Hey, Wallis. Yes, we see you!” Wallis was torn, clearly debating whether they should abandon their group. Their gaze swung with the beat of a metronome between their friends and the two older inklings. Celia didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. For whatever reason, small, bubbly Wallis liked her. “You’d better study hard, Flea!” Celia called, gesturing for them to keep moving. “Off you go.” Walking backwards to keep eye contact, Wallis nodded. After only a brief hesitation Celia crossed her fingers and held them up to her chest, exactly what Wallis had been waiting for. Their entire face stretched into a wide smile before turning around to catch up with their group. Looked like Celia was telling bedtime stories to the fleas again. Whereas full-fledged inklings slept alone in small, stark rooms, apparently needing no company except their Divine, the apprentices still had communal dorms. They were a rapt audience for Celia to unleash her imagination on. And somehow that particular flea had a keen ability to wheedle story time out of Celia more often than not. Anya delivered Celia all the way to the doors that led to the workroom. “Tomorrow might not suck,” she said with a sarcastic smile. So casual, as if she hadn’t had to break a dozen rules in order to make sure that Celia answered the summons that night. Celia didn’t believe in the Divine, the all-knowing, and she highly doubted Diavala, the pitiful step stool, but if she stretched her imagination, she could believe in angels and devils; for years, Anya had been too good to be true. Celia inhaled deeply and straightened her top hat (again). Only a little vomit still clung to her bootsjust enough to scandalize whoever noticed it, but not enough to get a full reprimand. The line between what they could and couldn’t get away with had taken ten years to sketch out, but both she and Anya had it perfectly memorized.