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Authors: Roshani Chokshi

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2
LAIL
A

Laila slipped into the hotel room of the House Kore courier.

Her dress, a discarded housekeeper uniform fished out of the dregs of storage, snagged on the doorframe. She grumbled, yanking it, only for a seam to unravel.

“Perfect,” she muttered.

She turned to face the room. Like all the L’Eden guest rooms, the courier’s suite was lavishly appointed and designed. The only piece
that looked out of place was the unconscious courier, lying facedown in a pool of his saliva. Laila frowned.

“They could’ve at least left you in your bed, poor thing,” she said, toeing him so he turned over onto his back.

For the next ten minutes, Laila redecorated. From the pockets of her housekeeper’s dress, she threw women’s earrings on the floor, draped torn stockings over lamp fixtures,
mussed the bed, and poured champagne over the sheets. When she was done, she knelt beside the courier.

“A parting gift,” she said. “Or apology. However you see fit.”

She took out her official cabaret calling card. Then she lifted the man’s thumb and pressed it to the paper. It shimmered iridescent, words blooming to life. The Palais des R
ê
ves’ calling cards were Forged to recognize a patron’s
thumbprint. Only the courier could read what it said, and only when he touched it. She slid the card into the breast pocket of his jacket, scanning the lettering before it melted into the cream paper:

Palais des R
ê
ves

90 boulevard de Clichy

Tell them L’Énigme sent you …

A party invitation sounded like a poor consolation prize for getting knocked unconscious, but this was different. The Palais
des R
ê
ves was Paris’s most exclusive cabaret, and next week they were throwing a party in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. Invitations currently sold on the black market for the price of diamonds. But it wasn’t just the cabaret that had people excited. In a few weeks’ time, the city would host the 1889 Exposition Universelle, a gigantic world fair celebrating the powers
of Europe and the inventions that would pave the way for the new century, which meant that L’Eden H
ô
tel was running at full capacity.

“I doubt you’ll remember this, but do try and order the chocolate-covered strawberries at the Palais,” she said to the courier. “They’re utterly divine.”

Laila checked the grandfather clock: half past eight. S
é
verin and Enrique weren’t due back for at least an
hour, but she couldn’t stop checking the time. Hope flared painfully behind her ribs. She’d spent two years looking for a breakthrough in her search for the ancient book, and this treasure map could be the answer to every prayer.
They’ll be fine
, she told herself. Acquisitions were hardly new to any
of them. When Laila had first started working with S
é
verin, he was trying to earn back his family’s
possessions. In return, he helped in her search for an ancient book. The book had no title she knew of … her only lead was that it belonged to the Order of Babel.

Going after a treasure map hidden inside a compass sounded rather tame in comparison to former trips. Laila still hadn’t forgotten the time she ended up dangling over Nisyros Island’s active volcano in pursuit of an ancient diadem.
But this acquisition was different. If Enrique’s research and S
é
verin’s intelligence reports were correct, that one tiny compass could change the direction of their lives. Or, in Laila’s case, let her keep this life.

Distracted, Laila smoothed her hands across her dress.

A mistake.

She should never touch anything when her thoughts were too frenzied. That single unguarded moment had allowed
the dress’s memories to knife into her thoughts:
chrysanthemum petals clinging to the wet hem, brocade stretched over the carriage footstool, hands folded in prayer, and then

Blood
.

Blood everywhere, the carriage overturned, bone snapping through the fabric

Laila winced, snatching back her hand. But it was too late. The dress’s memories caught her and held tight. Laila squeezed her eyes shut,
pinching her skin as hard as she could. The sharp pain felt like a red flame in her thoughts, and her consciousness wrapped around that pain as if it would lead her out of the dark. When the memories faded, she opened her eyes. Laila pulled down her sleeve, her hands shaking.

For a moment, Laila crouched on the floor, her arms around her knees. S
é
verin had called her ability “invaluable” before
she told him
why
she could read the objects around her. After that, he was too
startled, or perhaps too horrified, to say anything. Out of the whole group, only S
é
verin knew her touch could draw out an object’s secret history. Invaluable or not, this ability was not … normal.

She was not normal.

Laila gathered herself off the floor, her hands still shaking as she left the room.

In the servants’
stairway, Laila shucked off the housekeeper uniform and changed into her worn kitchen uniform. The hotel’s second kitchen was dedicated strictly to baking, and during the evening hours, it belonged to her. She wasn’t due on the Palais des R
ê
ves stage until next week, which left her with nothing but free time for her second job.

In the narrow hallway, L’Eden’s waitstaff bustled past her. They
carried chilled oysters on the half shell, quail eggs floating in bone marrow soup, steaming coq au vin that left the hall smelling like burgundy wine and buttery garlic. Without her trademark mask and headdress, not one of them recognized her as the cabaret star L’
É
nigme. Here, she was simply another person, another worker.

Alone in the baking kitchen, Laila surveyed the marble counter strewn
with culinary scales, paintbrushes, edible pearls in a glass dish, and—as of this afternoon—a croquembouche tower nearly two meters high. She had been up at dawn baking choux pastry balls, filling them with sweetened cream, and making sure that every sphere was the perfect coin-gold of dawn before rolling them in caramel and stacking them into a pyramid. All that was left was the decoration.

L’Eden had already won all manner of accolades for its fine dining—S
é
verin would accept nothing less—but it was the desserts that lit up the guests’ dreams. Laila’s desserts, though absent of Forging, were like edible magic. Her cakes took the shape of ballerinas
with outstretched arms—their hair spun sugar and edible gold, their skin pale as cream and strewn with sweet pearl dust.

Guests called
her creations “divine.” When she stepped into the kitchen, she felt like a deity surveying the slivers of a universe not yet made. She breathed easier in the kitchen. Sugar and flour and salt had no memory. Here, her touch was just that. A touch. A distance closed, an action brought to an end.

An hour later, she was putting the finishing touches on a cake when the door slammed open. Laila sighed,
but she didn’t look up. She knew who it was.

Six months after Laila had started working for S
é
verin, she and Enrique had been playing cards in the stargazing room when S
é
verin walked in carrying a dirty, underfed Polish girl with eyes bluer than a candle’s heart. S
é
verin set her down on the couch, introduced her as his engineer, and that was that. Only later did Laila discover more about her.
Arrested for arson and expelled from university, Zofia possessed a rare Forging affinity for all metals and a sharp mind for numbers.

When she first came to L’Eden, Zofia spoke only to S
é
verin and seemed utterly uncommunicative when anyone else approached her. One day, Laila noticed that when she brought desserts for meetings, Zofia only ate the pale sugar cookies, leaving all the colorfully
decorated desserts untouched. So, the next day, Laila left a plate of them outside Zofia’s door. She did that for three weeks before she got busy one day in the kitchens and forgot. When she opened the door to air the room, she found Zofia holding out an empty plate and staring at her expectantly. That had been a year ago.

Now, without saying a word, Zofia grabbed a clean mixing bowl, filled
it with water, and guzzled it on the spot. She dragged her arm across her mouth. Then she reached for a bowl of icing. Laila smacked
her hand, lightly, with a rolling pin. Zofia glowered, then dipped an ink-stained finger into the icing anyway. A moment later, she began absentmindedly stacking the measuring cups according to size. Laila waited patiently. With Zofia, conversations were not initiated
so much as caught at random and followed through until the other girl grew bored.

“I set some fires in the House Kore courier’s room.”

Laila dropped the paintbrush. “
What
? You were supposed to wake him up without being in the room!”

“I did? I set them off when I stepped outside. They’re tiny.” When met with Laila’s wide-eyed stare, Zofia abruptly changed the subject. Though, to her, it probably
did not seem abrupt at all. “I don’t like crocodile musculature. S
é
verin wants a decoy of those Sphinx masks—”

“Can we go back to the fire—”

“—the mask won’t meld to human facial expressions. I need to make it work. Oh, I also need a new drawing board.”

“What happened to the last one?”

Zofia inspected the icing bowl and shrugged.

“You broke it,” said Laila.

“My elbow fell into it.”

Laila
shook her head and threw Zofia a clean rag. She stared at it, befuddled.

“Why do I need a rag?”

“Because there’s gunpowder on your face.”

“And?”

“… and that is mildly alarming, my dear. Clean up.”

Zofia dragged the rag down her face. It seemed Zofia was always emerging from ashes or flames, which earned her the nickname “phoenix” among L’Eden. Not that Zofia minded, even though the
bird didn’t
exist. As she cleaned her face, the ends of the cloth caught on her unusual necklace, which looked like strung-together knifepoints.

“When will they be back?” asked Zofia.

Laila felt a sharp pang. “Enrique and S
é
verin should be here by nine.”

“I need to grab my letters.”

Laila frowned. “This late? It’s already dark out, Zofia.”

Zofia touched her necklace. “I know.”

Zofia tossed her the rag.
Laila caught it and threw it in the sink. When she turned around, Zofia had grabbed the spoon for the icing.

“Excuse me, phoenix, I need that!”

Zofia stuck the spoon in her mouth.

“Zofia!”

The engineer grinned. Then she swung open the door and ran off, the spoon still sticking out of her mouth.

ONCE SHE FINISHED
the dessert, Laila cleaned up and left the kitchen. She was not the official
pastry chef, nor did she wish to be, and half the allure of this hobby job was that it was only for pleasure. If she did not wish to make something, she didn’t.

The farther she walked down the main serving hall, the more the sounds of L’Eden came alive—laughter ribboning between the glassy murmur of the amber chandeliers and champagne flutes, the hum of Forged moths and their stained-glass wings
as they shed colored light in their flight. Laila stopped in front of the Mercury Cabinet, the hotel’s messaging service. Small metal boxes marked with the names of the hotel staff sat inside. Laila opened her box with her staff key, not expecting to find anything, when her fingers brushed against
something that felt like cold silk. It was a single black petal pinned to a one-word note:

Envy.

Even without the flower, Laila would have recognized that cramped and slanted handwriting anywhere: Tristan. She had to force herself not to smile. After all, she was still mad at him.

But that would not stop her from accepting a present.

Especially one he had Forged.

Forged
. It was a word that still sat strangely on her tongue even though she’d lived in Paris for two years. The empires and
kingdoms of the West called Tristan and Zofia’s abilities “Forging,” but the artistry had other names in other languages. In India, they called it
chhota saans
, the “small breath,” for while only gods breathed life into creation, this art was a small sip of such power. Yet, no matter its name, the rules guiding the affinity were the same.

There were two kinds of Forging affinities: mind and matter.
Someone with a matter affinity could influence one of three material states: liquids, solids, or gasses. Both Tristan and Zofia had matter affinities; Zofia’s Forging affinity was for solid matter—mostly metals and crystals—and Tristan had an affinity for liquid matter. Specifically, the liquid present in plants.

All Forging was bound by three conditions: the strength of the artisan’s will, the
clarity of the artistic goal, and the boundaries of their chosen mediums’ elemental properties. Which meant that someone with a Forging affinity for solid matter with a specificity in stone would go nowhere without understanding the attendant chemical formulas and properties of the stone they wished to manipulate.

As a rule, the affinity manifested in children no later than thirteen years of
age. If the child wished to hone the affinity, he or she could
pursue study. In Europe, most Forging artisans studied for years at renowned institutions or held lengthy apprenticeships. Zofia and Tristan, however, had followed neither of those paths. Zofia, because she had been kicked out of school before she had the chance. And Tristan, because, well, Tristan had no need of it. His landscape
artistry looked like the fever dream of a nature spirit. It was unsettling and beautiful, and Paris couldn’t get enough of him. At the age of sixteen, the waiting list to commission him stretched into the hundreds.

Laila used to wonder why Tristan stayed at L’Eden. Perhaps it was loyalty to S
é
verin. Or because L’Eden allowed Tristan to keep his bizarre arachnid displays. But when Laila stepped
into the gardens, she
felt
the reason. The perfume of the flowers thick in her lungs. The garden turning jagged and wild in the falling dark. And she understood. Tristan’s other clients had so many rules, like House Kore, which had commissioned extravagant topiaries for its upcoming celebration. L’Eden was different. Tristan loved S
é
verin like a brother, but he stayed here because only in L’Eden
could he lift marvels from his mind, free of any demands.

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