Ever since she was a girl, Raliel Dark-Smile’s best friend has been the great demon that lives in the palace.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Tessa Gratton’s Moon Dark Smile, a lush YA fantasy out from Margaret K. McElderry Books on August 30th.
Ever since she was a girl, Raliel Dark-Smile’s best friend has been the great demon that lives in the palace. As the daughter of the Emperor, Raliel appears cold and distant to those around her, but what no one understands is that she and the great demon, Moon, have a close and unbreakable bond and are together at all times. Moon is bound to the Emperor and his two consorts, Raliel’s parents, and when Raliel comes of age, she will be bound to Moon as well, constrained to live in the Palace for the rest of her days.
Raliel is desperate to see the Empire Between Five Mountains, and she feels a deep kinship with Moon, who longs to break free of its bonds. When the time finally arrives for Raliel’s coming of age journey, she discovers a dangerous way to take Moon with her, even as she hides this truth from her travel companion, the beautiful, demon-kissed bodyguard Osian Redpop. But Osian is hiding secrets of his own, and when a plot surfaces that threatens the Empire, Raliel will have to decide who she can trust and what she’ll sacrifice for the power to protect all that she loves.
From the author:
In the Empire Between Five Mountains, the heir to the throne is allowed to leave the palace once before they are magically bound to it and the great demon that inhabits it. Raliel takes her chance to change her fate by stealing the great demon with dangerous possession magic, taking it with her on her journey. They hope to find a way to free them both from the ancient magic trapping them in the palace. Too bad Raliel’s parents sent a bodyguard with her, definitely their spy, possibly a traitor…
Raliel was discovering that she loved to wake slowly with the whole world.
As the light changed, as the frogs and crickets ended their singing, she woke and listened to the shifting rhythm of dawn. She thought of her father the emperor who had told her the times and places between things were the realm of sorcerers. “Sorcerers step between life and death, between spirit and demon. They are shape-shifters because they loose themselves from dualities,” he’d said when they were alone one dawn, his voice wistful.
Raliel understood why he was sad when discussing sorcerers—he missed his friend Night Shine, and part of him would have liked to be a sorcerer, a shape-shifter, able to form his body daily to match his changing inner self. It was in those early mornings that the emperor would bring his silver box of rings, and while his tea steeped, while Raliel sighed with her head on his thigh, he tried on his rings, as if they were all new. Three on his first three fingers, one on his thumb, another on his second finger, a single ring gleaming on his forefinger. Then reverse them, or slip them on and off in a pattern that seemed to mean something to him, but to Raliel, dazedly watching the play of dawn against the rubies, it was a language she didn’t understand.
The scent of his tea would reach them, and he’d stop playing, sliding the day’s rings on with conviction and putting the rest away. Here is who I am today, those rings declared. Or who I think I will be today. Who I choose to be today. He served them tea with the exact amount of honey and watched her with a tenderness she saw in his gaze only when they were alone.
Waking up in the distant forest, to birdsong and gradual rising pink light, Raliel remembered those mornings as she breathed in the transitory space. Before anyone looked at her and decided who she was, when she was only herself: a being of thoughts and feelings, desires and fears, nothing that could be pinned into a body, into a word for physical impressions and instincts. Not boy or girl, not a princess or hero. Just herself. If only she knew what that meant. Who and what she was under all those trappings and titles.
She thought about her father the emperor, who had taught himself to wrap this liminal feeling around his body like a mantle. Made it real, and because he was the emperor, that rippled out into the world. Raliel wanted to do that, find herself and make it ripple out into the world. Find herself, change the world. That seemed like the only point in becoming an emperor.
But first she had to save the great demon. If she couldn’t, there would hardly be a throne to go home to. Not one she could comfortably claim. Raliel hoped the sorcerer of the First Mountain would be able to help. For finding information about great demons and ancient amulets, a sorcerer was the best bet: the twin sorcerers, A Dance of Stars and A Still Wind, were out of the question, being obviously suspicious, and Moon itself refused to seek aid from Night Shine and her sorcerer of the Fifth Mountain. So The Scale it would be. The Scale, who her father the emperor said was nearly trustworthy, who had lived for centuries in their mountain, in peace.
If they knew of any other great demons, besides Moon itself and Night Shine, they’d have more options.
“Moon,” she said quietly in the rising dawn.
She stood and stretched, glancing at Osian, who sat up already. He nodded and began poking the fire. Raliel offered him a fire-starting sigil, which he took. She put on her boots and grabbed her water skin before wandering toward the creek. “Moon,” she said again, picking around brambles and fallen branches. The demon answered by filling her with its tingling cold. Raliel’s skin burst into tiny bumps, and she shivered down her spine. She smiled. As she found a place to relieve herself—necessarily accustomed to Moon doing it with her now—she thought about moving through the forest with only Moon, changing her shape, taking aether from the world to feed the demon, to feed them both, moving on, moving through, moving everywhere.
you love it out in the world, the demon said.
Raliel smiled—and it was easy to smile feeling like this. “Don’t you?”
it feels like the ocean.
“Massive,” she murmured. “Limitless.”
yes. We need to get rid of the warrior. Go forward on our own.
“Soon.” she promised, still smiling. Moon certainly knew Osian’s name, and even liked him. Because Osian could make the demon laugh.
They’d discovered it three days into their journey, mid-afternoon when they reached the first primary fork in the Way of King Trees. Raliel intended to take the eastern-bending way toward the First Mountain, but she paused to sit and have a snack first. A large market popped up at the crossroads every day, with vendors selling anything from chicken on a stick to new boots and painted fans. There were stalls specializing in spirit-offerings too: blessing amulets and good-luck charms and strings of salted meat to save for any encounters with roadside demons. Several benches had been set up for eating and rest, and there was a pavilion serving wine, tea, and hearty broth. Beside it, a cluster of mossy boulders was currently occupied by children playing a loud wrestling game. Colorful flags fluttered in the wind, and the King Tree here had been carved through at its base into a shrine itself. Apparently, it was good luck to walk through and ring one of the bells hanging from a net across the ceiling of the hollow. Raliel did so, appreciating the clarity of the bell she chose, and behind her Osian hopped up to ring five in a row. The demon huddled inside the nest of aether that she’d constructed for it just under her heart, pretty as an amethyst geode, and grumbled it wanted to eat the entire resonant King Tree.
Raliel petted the silver amulet through her tunic, then moved toward spirit shrines stacked atop each other at the northeast corner of the crossroads. Each little arched shrine was inhabited by a shrill but happy raccoon spirit. Osian tossed pine nuts up into the shrines, one at a time, and Raliel watched the slippery spirits snatch them, invisible to any humans who could not see into the aether. Raliel remained back, uncertain how the spirits would react to the presence of the great demon—or if they could sense it.
try, the demon whispered mischievously.
But it wasn’t the moment for experimentation. She instructed Osian to light incense on her behalf, unsure whether or not he saw the raccoon spirits. Some demon-kissed—like Sky—did, but not all. Instead, Osian tried to coax her over with the promise of a pine nut for her, too.
“I prefer sugared petals,” she said.
“In that case,” Osian said, and dropped to his knees facing her, tilting up his head to offer his lips.
Raliel did not quite manage to silence the indignant half laugh she made. As she shook her head at Osian, she felt a long, low purr just beneath her heart.
And Osian laughed, too. It brightened his brown-purple eyes, and Raliel discovered she was not annoyed to be laughed at. He was too pretty—too good-natured—to be mean.
“My kiss would dissolve such sugar,” she said coldly. Osian laughed once more and nodded in agreement.
As they walked on, Raliel said, “Which of my fathers chose you?”
The demon-kissed warrior slid her a look, and before he could answer, Raliel guessed: “Sky.”
It made sense: her mother had given her three friends already, each interesting and good, and suited to court. Father Sky would choose such a blunt instrument as Osian Redpop.
When they’d first started out on the Way of King Trees, they’d constantly been surrounded by other travelers, and Osian made friends with them all. While Raliel was not often recognized as the heir, Osian wore his identity on his skin. Demon-kissed warriors always worked for the emperor, and despite his doll-like size, his warrior status was clear by the weapons he carried and his always moving eyes. Most assumed he escorted a refined son of a noble or rich merchant. Some looked long enough at Raliel to question the man’s topknot pulling all her hair off her face and neck, to wonder if the delicately curving sword at her hip meant she was a warrior too. Some suspected she was a very tall, very beautiful rich girl, but most were put off by her face, which she held in a mask of ice.
Raliel did not realize her expression was so cold, because she was working.
It was work to walk and walk for miles on end, to listen to every word spoken, to take in the passing villages and tiny roadside shrines, marking details of crops being harvested and already razed fields, the kinds of trees pressing under the towering red King Trees that lined the road. Raliel remembered the names of every village and every road that turned off (aided by memorization of maps, of course), putting colorful details into her memories of those maps: a flashed smile, a fox shrine nearly overtaken by a rose bramble, a village sign with recently carved graffiti, the laughter of their fellow travelers when someone recounted a tale about this particular tree and the jocular jay spirit that inhabited it during his grandmother’s time.
By early evening, she was exhausted. Her feet hurt, her entire body felt sore, and her mind narrowed to food and sleep before the sun had even touched the distant horizon.
The great demon paid attention with her, occasionally commenting on things that surprised it, or that had changed from what it thought it had known of the world. Once they left the Way of King Trees for the eastern Path of Fire Trees, the road remained paved with large stones for a few days, though it had naturally widened at either side into hard dirt, where people walked, out of the way of carts and caravans. Moon said, that is like a river, pushing at its boundaries when it is strong.
Most nights they camped in crossroads shelters with other travelers. The small huts and wells were kept up by imperial money, and wayfaring priests and witches usually invigorated the aether-wards protecting the thatch from rain or the corners from mice. Raliel always claimed a corner and meditated to soothe the ruffled edges of her aether caused by the very large presence of the great demon in her stomach, or if she was too exhausted from feeding it in fits and starts all day, fell directly to sleep. Osian woke her when there was food, and she ate, and sometimes she made little sigil papers for the people they shared shelter with. Fire sigils and blessings were the most common, and easiest. Raliel enjoyed silently drawing and imbuing the sigils, not required to say much. It was basic witch work. And helpful. Then she would go to sleep, and Osian stretched beside her, sometimes continuing whatever conversations with their fellows he’d been engaged in until fading into sleep himself, or the entire party decided it was bedtime. Raliel did not exactly make friends, but who needed to when Osian was right there.
“Why don’t you speak to anyone?” he asked her after enthusiastically waving farewell to a trio of brothers they’d sheltered with who were heading home after a summer of itinerant farming.
Raliel said, “You ask everything.”
Osian laughed of course. “I thought your Heir’s Journey was to allow you to get to know the people.”
“I am,” she said, surprised.
“But they aren’t getting to know you.” Raliel frowned.
He let it drop, and Raliel was grateful to mull on her own. Was that important? For people to know her? Yes, but… she couldn’t do that by pretending to be something she was not. She was learning what she was good at, though, out here in the world.
She liked helping people: hands-on, with the sigils or banishing cranky pond demons. Once she and Osian propped up part of a wagon while the owner fixed the cracked wheel. The satisfaction of watching it drive smoothly away had buzzed Raliel for hours. Raliel thought she’d have made a very good itinerant witch or graveyard priest in a different life. But she did not like having to talk to strangers, tell stories to them or explain the work, or flirt back, or endure the teasing of grandmas pinching her cheeks and telling her the names of their cleverest grandsons. The great demon liked it, too, because work like that generated aether, which it ate gleefully.
Once or twice they stayed at an inn for proper baths and to have their clothing washed, and there had been the night they’d slept in Crescent Meadow, when Raliel had drunk slightly too much beer. Otherwise, as they moved eastward, more and more often they camped under the forest canopy, either passing up crossroads shelters or stopping before they reached one. Camping was harder work, but Raliel enjoyed hauling water and building fires and seeking out soft needles for a bed. The chores gave her opportunities to mark sigils where Osian couldn’t see, in order to help feed the demon and relieve herself of the constant drag on her energy. Most of all, though, Raliel enjoyed the lack of roof, so she might sleepily watch the stars blink into existence one at a time through the high leaves of the canopy. Osian played his whistle, a surprisingly lonely, yearning instrument, even when he chose jigs and celebratory songs.
“You’re very good,” she said after a particularly intricate song that seemed to play over itself.
He nodded his thanks, ducking as if to hide a blush she doubted would show on his demon-kissed face. “My aunts taught me.”
“My mother taught me,” Raliel said, and Osian’s chin jerked up. “What?”
“You… offered something,” he said with a wry smile. “Shocking.”
She scowled by narrowing her eyes. “Everyone knows Second Consort Elegant Waters is skilled at many instruments and a composer.”
“Oh yes,” he said, laughing again before he put the whistle to his lips. This time his song was melancholy, and Raliel closed her eyes, drifting as she listened.
if I could eat music, his would be the kind I wanted, Moon said. Raliel hummed agreement under her breath.
but I cannot and so we need to leave him. If we are alone, I can feast, and you will be stronger. We can talk.
She frowned, but swept it away, centering herself again with hands folded in her lap.
Excerpted from Moon Dark Smile, copyright © 2022 by Tessa Gratton.