Authors: Roshani Chokshi
Once she stepped into the gardens of L’Eden, she was inside Tristan’s imagination. Despite its name, the gardens were no paradise, but a labyrinth of sins. Seven, to be exact.
The first garden was Lust. Here, red flowers spilled from the hollow mouths of statues. In one corner, Cleopatra coughed up garnet amaryllis and pink-frilled anemone.
In another, Helen of Troy whispered zinnia and poppies. Laila moved quickly through the labyrinth. Past Gluttony, where a sky of glossy blooms that smelled of ambrosia closed tight the moment one reached for them. Then Greed, where a gold veneer encased each slender plant. Next came Sloth, with its slow-moving shrubs; Wrath with its fiery florals; then Pride with its gargantuan, moving topiaries
of green stags with flowering
antlers and regal lions with manes of jasmine, until finally she was in Envy. Here, a suffusion of greenery, the very shade of sin.
Laila stopped before the Tezcat door propped up near the entrance. To anyone who didn’t know its secrets, the Tezcat looked like an ordinary mirror, albeit with a lovely frame that resembled gilded ivy leaves. Tezcat doors were impossible
to distinguish from ordinary mirrors without, according to Zofia, a complicated test involving fire and phosphorous. Luckily, she didn’t have to go through that. To get to the other side, she simply unlocked it by pinching the fourth gilded ivy leaf on the left side of the frame. A hidden doorknob. Her reflection rippled as the silver of the Tezcat door’s mirror thinned to transparency.
was Tristan’s workplace. Laila breathed in the scent of earth and roots. All along the walls were small terrariums, landscapes squeezed into miniature form. Tristan made them almost obsessively. When she asked him once, he told her it was because he wished the world were easier. Small enough and manageable enough to fit in the hollow of one’s palm.
Tristan walked toward her with a wide
smile on his round face. There was dirt smudged on his clothes and—she breathed a sigh of relief—no sign of his gigantic pet spider.
But she did not return his smile. Instead, she lifted an eyebrow. Tristan wiped his hands down his smock.
“Oh … you’re still mad?” he asked.
“Would giving you a present make you less mad?”
Laila lifted her chin. “Depends on the present. But first, say
Tristan shifted on his feet. “I am sorry.”
“For putting Goliath on your dressing table.”
“Where does Goliath belong? And for that matter, where do
your pet insects and whatnot belong?”
Tristan looked wide-eyed. “Not in your room?”
He turned to the worktable beside him where a large, frosted glass terrarium took up half the space. He lifted the cover, revealing
a single, deep-purple flower. The slender petals looked like snippets of evening sky, a rich velvetine purple hungry for the light of stars. Laila traced their edges softly. The petals were almost exactly the same shade of S
verin’s eyes. The thought made her draw back her hand.
! Behold your present, Forged with a little bit of silk taken from one of your costumes—”
When he caught her
frantic gaze, he added, “One of the ones you were going to throw away, promise!”
Laila relaxed a bit.
“So … am I forgiven?”
He already knew he was. But she still decided to draw out the moment a little longer than necessary. She tapped her foot, biding her time and watching Tristan squirm. Then, “
Tristan let out a whoop of happiness, and Laila couldn’t help but smile. Tristan could
get away with anything with those wide, gray eyes.
“Oh! I came up with a new device. I wanted to show S
verin. Where is he?”
When he caught sight of her face, Tristan’s grin fell. “They’re not back yet?”
” emphasized Laila. “Don’t worry. You know these things take time. Why don’t you come inside? I’ll make you something to eat.”
Tristan shook his head. “Maybe later. I have to check on
Goliath. I don’t think he’s feeling well.”
Laila did not ask how Tristan would know the emotional states of a tarantula. Instead, she took her gift and headed back inside the hotel. As she walked, unease shaded her thoughts. At the top of the stairs, the grandfather clock struck the tenth hour. Laila felt the lost hour like an ache in her bones. They should have been back by now.
Enrique scowled as he held apart the bear’s jaws. “Remember when you said, ‘This will be fun’?”
“Can this wait?” S
verin grunted through clenched teeth.
Enrique’s tone was light, but every part of S
verin’s body felt leaden. The onyx bear held S
verin’s wrist between its teeth. Every passing second, the pressure heightened. Blood began to run down his arm. Soon,
the pressure of the creature’s jaws wouldn’t just trap his wrist.
It would snap it in half.
At least the emerald House Kore eagle hadn’t got involved. That particular stone creature could detect “suspicious” activity and come to life even when its own object was not in question. Enrique nearly muttered a prayer of thanks until he heard a soft caw. Air gusted over his face from the unmistakable
flap of wings.
“Was that the eagle?” S
verin said, wincing.
He couldn’t twist his body to turn.
No, not at all,” said Enrique.
In front of him, the eagle tilted its head to one side. Enrique pulled more strongly on S
verin’s trapped wrist. S
“Forget it,” he wheezed. “I’m stuck. We need to put it to sleep.”
Enrique agreed, but now the question was how. Because
Forged creatures were too dangerous to go unchecked, all artisans were legally required to add a failsafe known as somno, which put the object to sleep. But even if he found it, the somno might be further encrypted. Worse, if he let go of the jaws, they’d only crush S
verin’s wrist faster. And if they didn’t get out by the eight-minute limit, the Forged creatures would be the least of their worries.
verin grunted. “By all means, take your time. I love a good slow, painful death.”
Enrique let go. Steadying himself, he circled the onyx bear, ignoring the ever-closer jumping of the emerald eagle. He ran his hands along the bear’s body, the black haunches and shaggy feet. Nothing.
,” breathed S
verin fell to his knees. Rivulets of blood streamed, dripping down the creature’s
jaws. Enrique swore under his breath. He closed his eyes. Sight wouldn’t help him here. With so little light in the room, he would have to feel for any words. He trailed his fingers across the bear’s haunches and belly until he caught something near its ankles: chipped-away depressions in the stone; evenly spaced and close together as if it were a line of writing. The letters and words came to
life beneath his touch.
Fiduciam in domum
“Trust in the House,” translated Enrique. He whispered it again, running scenarios through his head. “I … I have an idea.”
“Do enlighten me,” managed S
The bear lifted one of its heavy, jet paws, casting a shadow over S
“You have to … to trust it!” cried Enrique. “Don’t fight it! Push your wrist farther!”
verin didn’t hesitate.
He stood and pushed. But his hand remained stuck. S
verin growled. He threw himself against the creature. His shoulder popped wetly. Every second felt like a blade pressed tight against Enrique’s skin. Just then, the eagle took off in the air. It circled the room, then swooped, talons out. Enrique ducked as the jewel claws grazed his neck. He wouldn’t be so lucky the next time. Once more, claws
rasped at his neck. The eagle’s talons tugged him upward, his heels lifted off the ground. Enrique shut his eyes tight.
“Mind the hair—” he started.
Abruptly, he was dropped to the ground. He opened his eyes a crack. A bare ceiling met his gaze. Behind him, he heard the shuffling of talons on a podium. He raised himself up on his elbows.
The eagle had gone statue still.
verin heaved and
rose to a stand. He clutched his wrist. Then, yanking his arm, he swung it forward. Enrique grimaced at the wet
of joints popping back into place. S
verin wiped the blood on his pants and plucked out the Forged compass from the mouth of the still, onyx bear. He slid it into his jacket and smoothed back his hair.
“Well,” he said finally. “At least it wasn’t like Nisyros Island.”
?” croaked Enrique. He trudged after his friend to the door. “It’ll be ‘like dreaming,’ you said. As ‘easy as sleep’!”
“Nightmares are part of sleeping.”
“Is that a joke?” demanded Enrique. “You do realize your hand is mangled.”
“I am aware.”
“You almost got eaten by a bear.”
“Not a real one.”
“The dismemberment would’ve been real enough.”
verin only grinned. “See you in a bit,”
he said, and slipped out the door.
Enrique lingered to give S
verin a head start.
In the dark, he felt the presence of the Order’s treasure like the eyes of the dead. Hate shivered through him. He couldn’t bring himself to look at the looming,
piles. He might help S
verin steal, but the greatest thief of all was the Order of Babel, for they stole more than just objects … They stole
histories, swallowed cultures whole, smuggled evidence of illustrious antiquity onto large ships and spirited them into indifferent lands.
“Indifferent lands,” mused Enrique. “That’s a good line for later.”
He could use it in the next article he submitted to the Spanish newspaper dedicated to Filipino nationalism. So far he didn’t have the connections that made anyone think his thoughts were
worth listening to. This acquisition could change that.
But first he had to finish the job.
Enrique counted down the thirty seconds. Then, he straightened the borrowed servant’s outfit, adjusted his mask, and stepped into the darkened hall. Between the gaps of the marble pillars, he could make out the flutter of fans stabbing the air.
Right on time for his meeting, the Vietnamese diplomat V
inh rounded the corner. A falsified letter poked out of his sleeve. Though he had hated doing it, Tristan was exceptionally good at faking people’s handwriting. That of the diplomat’s mistress was no exception.
Last week, Enrique and the diplomat had shared a drink at L’Eden. While the diplomat was distracted, Laila had fished out the
mistress’s letter from
inh’s jacket, and Tristan had
copied her penmanship to orchestrate this very meeting.
inh’s clothes. Like so many diplomats from colonized countries, he had outwardly allied with the Order. Once, there had been versions of the Order all over the world, each dedicated to their country’s source of Forging power—although not all of them called the artistry Forging and not all of them credited its power to the Babel
Fragments. But those versions no longer existed. Now, their treasures had been taken to different lands; their artistry changed; and their ancient guilds given two choices: ally or die.
Enrique straightened his false suit and bowed. “May I assist you with anything, sir?”
He extended his hand. Fresh panic reared inside him. Surely
inh would look. Surely he would
it was him. The very tips
of his fingers brushed
“Indeed you may not,” said
inh coldly, drawing away his arm.
Not once did he look him in the eye.
“Very well, sir.”
He bowed. With
inh still waiting on a meeting that would never take place, Enrique walked to the back of the ballroom. He dragged his fingers down his face and neck. A slight prickling sensation rolled down the skin he’d touched, and a
thin film of color floated above his skin and clothes, swirling to match the appearance and apparel of Ambassador V
Thanks to the mirror powder dusting his fingertips, he now looked identical to the ambassador.
Long ago, mirror powder had been banned and confiscated, and so the Order had not bothered to ward their meetings against it. They hadn’t counted on S
verin being friendly
with the officer of customs and immigrations.
Enrique moved quickly through the crowd. The mirror powder might be effective, but long-lasting it was not.
Enrique jogged down the main staircase. At the base was a Tezcat door that seemed to date back to a time when the Fallen House had not yet been ousted from the French faction of the Order of Babel, for its borders held the symbols of the original
four Houses of France. A crescent moon for House Nyx. Thorns for House Kore. A snake biting its own tail for House Vanth. A six-pointed star for the Fallen House. Of them, only Nyx and Kore still existed. Vanth’s bloodline had legally been declared dead. And the Fallen House had … fallen. Supposedly, its leaders found the West’s Babel Fragment and tried to use it to rebuild the biblical Tower
of Babel, thinking it might give them more than just a sliver of God’s power … but the actual power of God. Had they succeeded in removing the West’s Babel Fragment, they might have destroyed the known civilization. S
verin always said that was a rubbish rumor and believed the Order had destroyed the Fallen House as a power grab. Enrique wasn’t so sure. Of the four Houses, the Fallen House was
said to be the most advanced. Even the Tezcat doors Forged by the Fallen House did more than just camouflage an entrance. Rumor went that they were capable of bridging actual distances. Like a portal. But whatever the House had once possessed, no one knew. For years, the Order had tried to discover what had become of the Fallen House’s ring and massive treasure, but none had been able to find it.
Today, thought Enrique, that might change.
Through the Tezcat, Enrique could see glittering corridors, a handsomely dressed crowd, and the glint of far-off chandeliers. It always unnerved him that though he could see the people on the other side, all they would see was a slim, polished mirror. He felt strangely like a god in exile, filled with a kind of hollow omniscience. As much as he could
see the world, it would not see him.
Enrique stepped through the Tezcat and emerged in one of the opulent halls of the Palais Garnier, the most famous opera house in all of Europe.
One man looked up, stunned. He stared at the mirror, then Enrique, before scrutinizing his champagne flute.
Around Enrique, the crowd milled about obliviously. They had no idea about the Forged ballroom the Order
kept secret. Then again, everything about the Order was kept secret. Even their invitations only opened at the drop of an approved guest’s blood. Anyone else who accidentally received one would see nothing but blank paper.
To the public, the Order of Babel was nothing more than France’s research arm tasked with historical preservation. They knew nothing of the auctions, the treasures buried deep
beneath the ground. Half the public didn’t even believe the Babel Fragment was a physical object, but rather a dressed-up biblical metaphor.
Enrique strode through the crowd, tugging his lapel as he walked. His servant costume shifted, the threads unraveling and embroidering simultaneously until he was dressed in a fashionable evening jacket. He flicked his watch, and the slim band of Forged
leather burst into a silk top hat that he promptly spun onto his head.
Right before he stepped outside, Enrique hesitated before the verit stone bust. The verit bust wasn’t a decorative piece, but a detection device used to reveal hidden weapons. One ounce of verit rivaled a kilo of diamonds, and only palaces or banks could afford the stone. Enrique double-checked that he’d left his knife behind,
and then stepped over the threshold.
Outside, Paris was a touch humid for April. Night had sweated off its stars, and across the street, a black hansom glinted dully. Enrique got inside, and S
verin flashed him a wry grin.
The second S
verin rapped his knuckles against the hansom’s ceiling, the horses lurched into the night. Reaching into his coat
verin pulled out his ever-present
tin of cloves. Enrique wrinkled his nose. On its own, the clove smell was pleasant. A bit woodsy and spicy. But over the past two years he’d been working for S
verin, cloves had stopped being a scent and become more of a signal. It was the fragrance of S
verin’s decision-making, and it could be delightful or dangerous. Or both.
,” said S
verin, handing him the compass.
Enrique ran his
fingers over the cold metal, gently tracing the divots in the silver. Ancient Chinese compasses did not look like Western ones. They were magnetized bowls, with a depression in the center where a spoon-shaped dial would have spun back and forth. A thrill of wonder zipped through his veins. It was thousands of years old and here he was,
“No need to seduce the thing,” cut in S
“I’m appreciating it.”
“You’re fondling it.”
Enrique rolled his eyes. “It’s an authentic piece of history and should be savored.”
“You might at least buy it dinner first,” said S
verin, before pointing at the metal edges. “So? Is it like what we thought it’d be?”
Enrique weighed the half of the compass in his hand, studying the contours. As he felt the ridges, he noticed a slight deformity
in the metal. He tapped on the surface and then looked up.
“It’s hollow,” he said, breathless.
He didn’t know why he even felt surprised. He knew the compass would be hollow, and yet the possibilities of the map reared up fast and sharp in his head. Enrique didn’t know what, specifically, the map led to … only that it was rare enough to send the Order of Babel into a furtive clamoring. His bet,
though, was that it was a map to the lost treasures of the Fallen House.