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Authors: Roshani Chokshi

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“Good-bye!” he shouted, waving.

But Ammit kept charging.

S
é
verin saw Zofia frowning, looking up, then looking back at the book. She opened it and closed it again, but nothing happened. He pushed away the panic. Sometimes Forging defense mechanisms took time. Just
another moment and it would work. It
had
to work. Ammit ran closer. S
é
verin could smell its rank breath, like flesh left to curdle in the sun’s heat. He gagged. Ammit raised its paw, opening its mouth. Blood-flecked teeth shone in the light. At the back of its mouth was a blazing, sunken furnace in the precise shape of a feather that reminded him of a lock awaiting a key. S
é
verin paused. For a
single moment, he took his gaze off Ammit, searching the floor for the white feather, which must be the key to triggering the creature’s somno. All he had to do was force the white feather into its mouth.

But he had looked away from the creature a second too long.

Its shadow engulfed him. Before he could throw up his hands, Laila dove from the shelves, shoving him out of the way just in time.

He grunted, stumbling backward. Laila pulled his arm, dragging him behind another shelf in the same instant that Ammit charged into the wall. It snorted, shaking its head.

“Feather,” said S
é
verin. “Get the feather.”

Laila darted off to grab it. Seconds later, Ammit had freed itself from the wall. It reared back on its legs, turning to face the hall. S
é
verin crawled forward. Enrique and Zofia
were holding spears they must’ve grabbed from a nearby shelf. Hypnos clutched the Horus Eye to his chest. Laila was closest to the creature. In her hands gleamed the white feather. Ammit eyed Laila like prey, tilting its head to one side. As if considering.

The rest of the world seemed to fall away in that moment.

Not her
.

“No … No no no,” S
é
verin rasped, forcing himself to stand. He waved
his hands. “Over here!”

But Ammit was not distracted.

Laila’s gaze darted to S
é
verin’s, then back at the creature. She squeezed her eyes shut. There was no way she could get the feather to him. She held out her hand and the creature charged at her. Distantly, S
é
verin heard the others shout. He didn’t think he made a single sound even as every ounce of his body screamed. Ammit charged at Laila,
pinning her down with a paw. Pain twisted across her face, but she fought back, thrusting the feather forward where it disappeared into Ammit’s mouth. Ammit’s head swung, blocking Laila’s face from view. A loud howl rumbled through the shelves, and then Laila’s hand fell slack on the floor.

S
é
verin’s mind numbed at the edges, zeroing in on her fallen hand. It was silly how well he knew her hands.
He knew her hands were always cold even when it was blazing hot outside. He knew there was a small burn on the tip of her index finger. He remembered because he’d been in the kitchens with her when she yelped after touching a scalding pan. S
é
verin wanted to call a doctor, a retinue of nurses, declare a war on pans if he could … but Laila refused.

“It’s a tiny burn,
Majnun,
” she’d said, laughing
off his panic.

“I know,” he’d said.

But I cannot stand to see you hurt
.

Ammit tossed back its head. The world turned weightless. Cracks showed through the creature’s body, the eerie blue of twilight. Then, in a burst of light, the creature vanished. But Laila didn’t stir on the floor.

He rushed to her, gathering her body close. She felt too light in his arms. The others approached warily,
but he didn’t turn.

“Laila?” he called, shaking her.

Open your eyes.

Her head lolled to one side, and something in him snapped. He brought his lips to her ear and whispered, “Laila, it’s your
majnun
.”
Your madman
, he thought, though he did not say it. “And you will drive me well and truly mad if you do not wake up this instant—”

She stirred, groaning. Then she opened her dark, fathomless eyes.

“Thank
God
,” breathed Enrique, crossing himself.

Zofia looked stricken and pale. Even Hypnos, who S
é
verin thought had only seen them as a means to an end, had tears in his eyes. Enrique helped Laila to stand, and S
é
verin stood too. He brushed himself off and straightened his suit. He didn’t trust himself to look in Laila’s direction.

“Thank every pantheon of deities for Laila and Zofia because
you two”—S
é
verin pointed at Enrique and Hypnos—“are useless.”

Hypnos’s hand fluttered to his throat. “I was frightened. You know what fear does to one’s complexion?”

“Enlighten me.”

Hypnos blinked. “Well, I don’t know
precisely
, but it’s nothing good, I can tell you that much.”

“We got the Eye?” tried Enrique.

He turned, as if he was going to give the artifact to Hypnos when S
é
verin held
out a hand.

“Don’t give that to him,” he said.

“Why ever not?” demanded Hypnos.

“You’ll perform the inheritance test,
then
you may have your Eye—”

Hypnos crossed his arms. “My conditions were—”

“Acquire the eye and in return I will have my inheritance restored,” recited S
é
verin. “You never once specified that in acquiring the Eye, it had to be passed over to your possession immediately.”

Hypnos opened his mouth and closed it. Finally, he grinned. He wasn’t angry at all. In fact, he seemed relieved.

“Touch
é
.”

Hypnos wandered off in search of the black box he’d placed in House Kore’s care. Minutes later, he returned with a heavy black box.

“For you, my lovelies.”

He took off the top. Inside gleamed five pairs of guard uniforms and hats. They pulled on the clothes quickly. Then,
hats adjusted, they made their way to the exit separately.

“I shall be at L’Eden day after next to honor my promise,” said Hypnos. His gaze rested on each of them, something hungry and searching in his gaze. “I look forward to being in the presence of another patriarch.”

THE STAIRCASE TO
the greenhouse was a short distance away, and yet even that made S
é
verin impatient. He wanted to be on that
step already. He wanted to be in L’Eden, wandering through his grand lobby, holding out his scarred palm for the two Rings test and watching the matriarch of House Kore’s face as she declared him blood heir of House Vanth. When he blinked, he saw the future poured out before him, rich and golden as mythic honey, each taste an edible prophecy—Tristan smiling, his pockets full of flowers; Enrique
buried under the weight of books; Zofia and her spontaneous combustions; Laila, her heart’s quest satisfied, lounging across from him with a smile fashioned just for him. Pain lanced through S
é
verin and he winced at the sharpness of it. Unripe, untested joy. The kind that doesn’t know any better than to explode furiously behind the ribs. He didn’t know what to do with it. He wanted to hold it
at arm’s length before it could devour any more of him, but then he felt Enrique tugging at his sleeve.

“Zofia has a spear.”

S
é
verin looked behind him. “Zofia, I said not to take anything but the Horus Eye.” He pointed at the spear. “You can’t keep it.”

Zofia glared at him. “You stole a silver cloth and it’s in your jacket pocket.”

S
é
verin considered this. “You can keep the spear.”

“Not fair!”
said Enrique. “
I
didn’t take anything!”

“You’re getting a completely different reward.”

“Ah, yes,” said Enrique dreamily. “Destiny. Deliverance.
Dessert
.”

“No more debt,” added Zofia.

“What will you do, Laila?” asked Enrique.

“Oh, you know. I’ll go wherever my search takes me,” said Laila, with a secret smile.

The others thought she was looking for the means to return home, her arms loaded
with treasure. But S
é
verin knew what she sought. He knew that Paris was merely a stop along the way, and the thought folded his joy in half even as it steeled his resolve. If he let her, she could lay waste to his heart.
What a foolish thought.
She was Laila. The famous L’
É
nigme. Who was to say she’d even have him again?

“What about Tristan?” mused Enrique. “What’s he going to do?”

Zofia lifted
her spear. “Build an army of spiders.”

Everyone laughed, even S
é
verin, but his cheer had an edge to it now. At the top of the staircase, he pushed open the door.

“Tristan?” called Laila.

“We got attacked by a hippo!” shouted Enrique.

S
é
verin didn’t move. He swept his gaze across the greenhouse. Something was wrong. Heavy fumes and veils shadowed the ground, moving slowly across the acid-scorched
dirt. A black sheen caught S
é
verin’s eye. Mist rolled out of the way. A faint ringing built up in his ears. The sound of fear howling in the mind.

“Tristan,” he said softly.

Now the mist disappeared entirely, revealing a small garden chair dragged in the middle of the room. Atop it, his head lolled to one side, sat Tristan. And on his head, a contraption that haunted S
é
verin’s every nightmare.
A pale metal diadem, blue light snapping back and forth. A Phobus Helmet. The words of Wrath flared through his head.

Your imagination hurts you far worse than anything I could ever do.

Under enough pressure, the mind might even … crack.

S
é
verin tried to run to him, but Forged knives materialized in the air, a blade grazing his throat. A second later, the Horus Eye was torn from his hand.

“Thank you, dear boy,” said a weak voice.

S
é
verin slowly turned his head to the side. Roux-Joubert stood before him, thin and quivering. He dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief flecked with blood. A honeybee pin gleamed unmistakably on his lapel.

“Though really, I should be thanking your friend here,” he said. He tapped the side of his own temple. “His love and his fear and his own cracked mind
made it easy to convince him that betraying you was saving you. Though he did have some help from the lovely baroness. It was her very hands that led me to you.”

Zofia slowly lifted her hands, horror clear on her face. Roux-Joubert must have slipped something on her … but how?

Roux-Joubert bowed. “Thank you, Mademoiselle, for being such a willing participant. I do love an idiot girl.”

From
behind the garden chair, the Forged knives drifted toward Tristan’s neck.


Stop!
” shouted S
é
verin.

“You don’t wish to put him out of his misery?” asked Roux-Joubert mildly. “I must admit I was not always as, well,
kind
as I might have been. But if you wish him alive, then let us make a deal,
Monsieur Montagnet-Alarie. According to Tristan, you are in contact with Hypnos, the patriarch of House
Nyx.”

S
é
verin said nothing.

“I take your silence as agreement,” he said, with a terrible smile. “In three days’ time, you will meet me and my associate inside the Exhibition on Colonial Superstitions at midnight. At that time, you will bring me the Babel Ring of House Nyx. I already have House Kore’s, but now I desire the matched set … Do we have an agreement?”

Tristan shook violently in the
chair. His eyes were shut tight. One of the knives started to rotate, its point brushing the topmost button of his shirt—


Yes
,” said S
é
verin, breathless. “Yes, I agree.”

The knife halted.

Beside him, Laila trembled with rage. “You’ll never find the Babel Fragment—”


Find
it?” Roux-Joubert laughed. “Oh, my dear. I already know where it is.” He paused to cough into his blood-flecked handkerchief.
“Three days, Monsieur Montagnet-Alarie. Three days to give me the Ring. Or I will burn down your world and everything that you love with it.”

Roux-Joubert checked his watch.

“You made a very detailed schedule, Monsieur. Best to be on that guard convoy now. I wouldn’t want you to miss your ride home,” he said, waving the stolen Horus Eye in his hand. “Not when you have so much to do.”

“I—”

“—will find me?” guessed Roux-Joubert, laughing softly. “No, you won’t. We have been hiding for ages, and none have found us yet. When the time comes, we’ll make ourselves known. After all, this is the start of a revolution.”

 

PART IV

From the archival records of the Order of Babel
The Origins of Empire

Mistress Marie Ludwig Victor, House Frigg of the Order’s Prussian faction 1828, reign of Frederick Wilhelm IV

I
n olden times, there was some debate as to whether the Babel Fragments were separate and distinct artifacts, or whether they were once part of something greater … something that was then hewn apart
and flung across the soils of different kingdoms.

It is my belief that if they fell from the heavens separately, they were never meant to be joined.

God always has His reasons.

 

20
LAIL
A

Laila stood in the Seven Sins Garden.

Tristan’s workshop deep within Envy looked as it always had. There was his old trowel, the wood gone dark and sculpted by the pressure of his fingers. An unfinished terrarium holding a single golden flower. The ruler Zofia had made him because he didn’t like uneven spaces between his plants. The packet of seeds from the Philippines, a gift
from Enrique that Tristan was planning to plant in summer. A plate from the kitchens where a thin film of mold grew over a cookie. He must have stolen it when she wasn’t looking, gotten distracted, and forgotten all about it.

The tips of Laila’s fingers buzzed numb. Cold touched their edges blue. It was too much, her body protested. But Laila couldn’t stop. Roux-Joubert’s words about Tristan
haunted her.

His love and his fear and his own cracked mind made it easy to convince him that betraying you was saving you …

Cracked mind. It was true that some were more susceptible to the effects of mind affinity Forging than others, but Tristan …

Tristan hated Hypnos.

Tristan washed blood from his palms every time he dug his nails into his skin.

Tristan ached.

Guilt grabbed her by the
throat.

All of yesterday had passed in a blur. The convoy. The switch. The guards in Tristan and Enrique’s disguise placed onto an infirmary bus, their clothes exchanged, and none the wiser. Then came the carriage ride home. Empty-handed and raw.

In the carriage, S
é
verin looked each of them in the eye as he spoke:

“This acquisition is not done. We’re going to get the Horus Eye back, and we’re
going to do it before those three days are up. And when we do, we’ll rescue Tristan from this mess,” he said. “Our number one priority is finding out who Roux-Joubert is and where he’s hiding. We can’t save Tristan if we don’t know who has him.”

Laila had come here to look for clues of Roux-Joubert’s location or identity. But she had ended up trying to answer the question of Tristan. She read
everything in his workshop, but found nothing. Nothing but what she had known the whole time. His laughter. His shyness. His curiosity. His
love
. For all of them. S
é
verin, especially.

Behind her, Laila heard the soft crunch of branches. She turned around sharply. S
é
verin had changed out of the guard uniform and into a dark suit. His hair was mussed, dark waves falling across his forehead. With
the dawn rising around them, he looked like a stubborn vestige of night, and her breath caught.

“Well?”

He leaned against the threshold. But he did not enter.

“Nothing,” she said.

Laila looked at him closely. His jaw was clenched tight. The sweep of his shoulders brittle. She could not see his eyes, but she imagined they burned in that moment.

Laila crossed over to where he stood. He didn’t
move. Didn’t change his position at all. She didn’t even realize what she was doing until she’d done it. She touched him … folding his hands between hers. She held tight even when a tremor ran through his fingers. As if his soul had flinched.

“I found nothing
at all
. Do you understand me?”

Look at me
, she willed.
Look at me
.

He did.

S
é
verin’s violet eyes burned cold. In his gaze, she saw her
guilt mirrored. What had they missed that let Roux-Joubert capture—and
hurt—
Tristan? What had they done wrong? They let each other stand like this, mutually clasped. Maybe it was just because it was still dark out, and the memory of this moment would dissolve with the sunlight. Or maybe it was because in that vast silence of uncertainty, they could feel each other’s pulse against their fingertips,
and that cadence meant they could be many things, but not alone.

A second passed. Then two. There was relief in this second, in holding and being held, but then he let go. He always let go first.

Laila shoved her hands into the pockets of her guard disguise, her face burning.

S
é
verin nodded in the direction of L’Eden. “Hypnos is on his way.”

“Are you … are you going to tell him Roux-Joubert
wants his Ring in exchange for Tristan?”

S
é
verin’s gaze went flat. “Are you asking whether I’m going to sell him out?”

Yes
.

“No, of course not!” she said hurriedly. “You aren’t, right?”

He raised his eyebrow. “Do I look like a wolf to you, Laila?”

“That depends on the lighting.”

The corner of his mouth lifted. A ghost of a grin.

“I’m not planning to walk into a trap,” he said. “I am, however,
planning to set one.”

IN THE STARGAZING
room, Hypnos sat utterly frozen in his chair.

He looked at each of them in turn. His hands were flat against the tops of his thighs. Pity twisted through her. Though Hypnos was the tallest out of all of them, he looked like a child. His shoulders caved. He had worn that same bemused expression ever since they told him what happened to the Horus Eye. But
that hadn’t shocked him nearly as much as S
é
verin admitting that Roux-Joubert had proposed an exchange. Hypnos’s Babel Ring, for Tristan.

Hypnos laced his hands tight. “So. Am I to understand that you brought me here to inform me you’re going to turn over my Babel Ring to Roux-Joubert because you prefer to stab me in the front versus the back?”

Zofia tilted her to head to one side. “Does that
make a difference?”

Laila winced. Hypnos looked horrified and then … hurt.

“Why are you telling me this?” he demanded.

S
é
verin leaned forward in his chair. “I’m telling you this to gauge whether or not you would be interested in being bait.”

Hypnos regarded them, his expression curiously blank. “You … you aren’t going to give me to him?”

“And end up with two Rings gone? No.”

Hypnos rose
to his feet slowly. “But the easier option is to protect yourselves.”

“I’m confused. Do you
want
me to?”

“Of course not,
mon cher
! I just want to make sure I understand what’s going on here.”

Laila frowned. Why did Hypnos seem so delighted? She knew he wasn’t happy about Tristan being captured. His whole face had
crumpled with sorrow when he heard the news. She’d even read his jacket to be
absolutely certain, but the objects didn’t lie. Hypnos had nothing to do with Tristan’s imprisonment.

“What’s going on here is that I need you to play bait,” said S
é
verin, enunciating his words carefully.

Pure, unfettered relief spread across Hypnos’s face.

“What’s going on here”—said Hypnos, his voice rising as a bizarre grin spread across his face, —“is that you
care
for me. We’re all
friends
. We’re friends going to save another friend! This is … this is
amazing
.”

Laila wanted to hug him.

“I never said that,” said S
é
verin, alarmed.

“Actions have a better voice than words.”

Enrique, who had been assembling the last bits of a projection, looked up and shook his head.

“It’s
actions speak louder than words
.”

“Whatever. I like my version better. Now. Let’s discuss this friend bait
business.”


Bait
business,” S
é
verin corrected under his breath. He reached for his tins of cloves. “Before we plan anything, we need to know who it is we’re dealing with. And you need to start telling the truth.”

Hypnos blinked. “… Truth?”

S
é
verin’s tin of cloves shut with a decided snap.

“Roux-Joubert not only admitted to stealing the matriarch of House Kore’s Ring, but also said that he
already
knows
where the West’s Babel Fragment is hidden, so then what’s the point of the Horus Eye? What else might it do if not to see a Babel Fragment?”

“How do we know he’s not lying?” asked Enrique.

Laila knew he wasn’t. Roux-Joubert had thrown his handkerchief into the dirt when he left. Lies always left a slimy film to her readings, as she measured up what the object had seen and what
the
person had said whilst holding it. But there was none of that to the handkerchief.

“Instinct,” said S
é
verin glibly, but his eyes cut to hers for confirmation. “Besides, I know Hypnos is lying. Even in the library when the Horus Eye came up, his gaze shifted. So, tell us the truth,
friend
.”

Hypnos sighed. “Fine. I wasn’t particularly forthcoming, but that’s not my fault … It was a secret
my father told me not long before he died. He never told me what, exactly, the Horus Eye did, but he said that should House Kore’s Ring ever be taken, I must find the Horus Eye and keep it safe. He said the Eye had an effect on the Fragment.”

“As in … it reveals a Fragment’s location?”

“I’m not sure.”

“He never said what
kind
of effect?”

Hypnos swallowed hard. “He never had the chance.”

“Then why did you want the compass in the auction?” asked Enrique.

“My father had been after it,” said Hypnos tightly. “He said he didn’t want even rumors of the Eye’s ability getting in the wrong hands.”

“Did House Kore know what the Horus Eye could do?”

“Not quite,” Hypnos admitted. “My father told me House Kore was under the impression that looking through the Horus Eye would reveal all somnos
in weaponry, and that’s why they were destroyed during Napoleon’s campaign.”

“What about the Order? Do they know?” asked Enrique.

“No,” said Hypnos, a touch smugly. “The secret was only with the French faction and as far as I understood, only House Nyx.”

“What does Roux-Joubert want with the Horus Eye then, if he knows where the West’s Fragment lies?” asked Laila. “Not to mention that he has
House Kore’s Babel Ring and now wants yours too.”

Hypnos worried his lower lip between his teeth and then looked up at them. He held up his hand, and his Babel Ring, a simple crescent moon with a pale blue sheen, briefly flared with light.

“My Ring does not just guard the location of the Babel Fragment … it is said to have another capacity, though I confess I’m not sure how it works…”

“What?”

“It, well, it supposedly
awakens
the West’s Babel Fragment itself.”

“Awakens?” repeated Laila slowly. “What, so a Babel Fragment is something slumbering beneath the ground? I thought it was a rock.”

“That’s what most people think, but the truth is no one knows what it looks like.” Hypnos shrugged. “It’s also why every hundred years, the knowledge of the Fragment’s location changes, moving to
another group of Houses within the West. The Order uses a special mind-affinity tool where those who know the knowledge forget it instantly after one hundred years. They even use it upon themselves. It’s not supposed to be beheld.”

All of them fell silent, and then Enrique spoke. “But you don’t know if awakening the West’s Fragment requires, say, both Babel Rings or just one?’

Hypnos shook his
head. “The Order has never specified. Sometimes the stories say it’s three Rings. Sometimes it takes just one. Who can say? The Babel Fragments haven’t been disturbed in thousands of years. No one would dare.”

“What happened the last time someone succeeded in disturbing a country’s Fragment?” asked Laila.

“Ever heard of Atlantis?”

“No,” said Zofia.

“Exactly.”

“It’s a mythical city,” said
Enrique.

“Well,
now
it is.”

“But we still don’t understand what Roux-Joubert wants with the West’s Fragment,” said S
é
verin. “The last group that tried to disturb the Fragment was the Fallen House, and they sought to join all the Fragments together. Maybe Roux-Joubert wants to emulate them, but we don’t even know why the Fallen House tried what they did in the first place. Do you?”

“I do,” sighed
Hypnos, looking around the room. “But first, where’s the wine? I can’t discuss the end of civilization without wine.”

“You can have it after,” said S
é
verin.

Hypnos grumbled. “The Fallen House believed that Forging was a subset of alchemy. You know, transforming matter and turning things to gold and such. But that was only one part of mastering their secrets. The most important aspect was theurgy.”

“Which is?” asked Zofia.

Enrique pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. “
Theurgy
means ‘the working of the gods.’”

Zofia frowned. “So, the Fallen House wanted to understand how gods work?”

“No,” said S
é
verin. A terrible smile bent his mouth. “They wanted to become gods.”

Laila shuddered. Silence fell over them, broken only by the metallic chime of S
é
verin opening his tin of cloves.

“We’re not going to find Tristan without figuring out who Roux-Joubert is,” he said. “We know he’s not with either House Nyx or House Kore. When he was at the dinner, the matriarch didn’t acknowledge him, and he didn’t sit with the other House members. So, we presume that he’s functioning outside the Order, or that someone in the Order is acting through him. We also know he has access to the Exposition
Universelle because that’s where he first laid a trap for Enrique and Zofia, and it’s where he’s demanded that we do an exchange.”

“In three days,” said Enrique. “Perfectly timed for the opening of the Exposition Universelle.”

“So?” asked Zofia.

“So, it means he’s waiting for a built-in audience,” said S
é
verin. “There’s something he’s planning on that date. You heard him. All his talk of ‘revolution’?
What better stage to launch one than the world fair?”

Hypnos deflated. “That tells us nothing.”

“We also know that Roux-Joubert wears a honeybee pin,” said Enrique.

“So? Today I’m wearing underwear. It’s hardly monumental.”

Zofia frowned. “Why did you specify
today
—”

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