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.
The crowd cleared space...