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Authors: Roshani Chokshi

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“That’s what we planned for weeks to acquire?” asked Tristan. “What is it? A game? I thought we were after a treasure map hidden in a compass?”

“So did I,” sighed Enrique.

“My bet was that it was a map to the Fallen House’s lost stash,” said Tristan.

“My bet was on an ancient book the Order lost years ago,” said Laila, looking terribly disappointed. “Zofia? What’d you think it’d be?”

“Not
that,” she answered, pointing at the diagram.

“Looks like all of us were wrong,” said Tristan. “So much for blackmailing the Order.”

“At least because all of us were wrong, none of us have to play test subjects to whatever strange poison Tristan makes next,” Laila pointed out.

“Touch
é
!” said Enrique, raising a glass.

“I resent that,” said Tristan.

“Don’t call it a loss yet,” said S
é
verin,
pacing. “This diagram could still be useful. There has to be a reason why the patriarch of House Nyx wanted it. Just like there has to be a reason why all of our intelligence was on high alert with this transaction. Enrique, care to enlighten us on what this diagram is? Or are you too preoccupied with praying for my immortal soul?”

Enrique scowled and closed the book on his lap. Zofia glanced
at the spine. He was holding the Bible. Instinctively, she leaned away.

“I’ve given up on your soul,” said Enrique. He cleared his throat and pointed at the hologram. “What you see before you might look like a board game, but it’s actually an example of Chinese cleromancy. Cleromancy is a type of divination that produces random numbers that are then interpreted as the will of God or some other
supernatural force. What you see in this silver diagram are the sixty-
four hexagrams found in the I Ching, which is an ancient Chinese divination text that loosely translates to ‘Book of Changes.’ These hexagrams”—he pointed at the small squares composed of six stacked lines in an eight-by-eight arrangement—“correspond to certain cryptic words, like ‘force’ or ‘diminishing.’ Supposedly, these
arrangements translate fate.”

“What about the spiral things on the edge?” asked Tristan.

The four symbols bore no resemblance to the Chinese characters or sharp lines forming the hexagrams.

“That … That, I’m not entirely sure,” admitted Enrique. “It doesn’t match anything recognizable from Chinese augury. Perhaps it’s an added-on signature from whoever possessed the compass after it’d been made? Either way, it doesn’t seem like a map to anything. Which, honestly, is disappointing, but that doesn’t mean it won’t fetch a good price on the market.”

Laila drew herself up on her elbows,
tilting her head to the side a little more. “Unless it’s a map in disguise.”

The room fell silent. S
é
verin shrugged.

“Why not?” he asked softly. “Any ideas?”

Zofia counted the lines. Then she counted them again. A pattern nudged against her thoughts.

“This is nothing we haven’t seen before,” tried S
é
verin cheerfully. “Remember that underwater Isis temple?”

“Distinctly,” said Enrique. “You
said there wouldn’t be any sharks.”

“There weren’t.”

“Right. Just mechanical leviathans with dorsal fins,” said Enrique. “Forgive me.”

“Apology accepted,” said S
é
verin, inclining his head. “Now. When it came to that code, we had to rethink the direction. We had to question our assumption. What if what we’re looking at is not just a map, but a hint to what it might lead to?”

Tristan frowned.
“A bunch of divination lines do not a treasure make, dear brother.”

“Lines,” said Zofia distractedly. She tugged at her necklace. “Are they lines?”


That
,” said S
é
verin, pointing at her, “is exactly the type of reasoning I’m talking about. Question the very assumptions. Good thinking.”

“What if you shine it under a different light?” mused Tristan.

“Or do those symbols at the four corners correspond
to something that’s a hint?” asked Enrique.

Zofia kept quiet, but it was as if the pattern had peeled off the metal square. She squinted at it.

“Numbers,” she said suddenly. “If you change the lines to numbers … it becomes something else. We did a similar procedure last year with the coded Greek alphabet riddle. I remember because that was when S
é
verin took us on that expedition to Nisyros Island.”

All five of them collectively shuddered.

Tristan drew his knees to his chest. “I hate volcanoes.”

Zofia sat up, excited. A pattern had finally taken shape in her mind.

“Each of those hexagrams is made up only of broken and unbroken lines. If you make every unbroken line a zero, and every broken line a one, then it’s a pattern of zeroes and ones. It looks like some kind of binary calculus.”

“But that doesn’t tell us anything about the treasure,” said Tristan.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that. The ancients
were
obsessed with numbers,” said Enrique thoughtfully. “It’s clear in their art. Which makes me wonder what else might be here. Maybe it’s not a strange calculus after all.” Enrique tilted his head. “Hmm…”

He pointed at the symbols tucked into the four corners.

“S
é
verin, can you alter the image and break off the four corners?”

S
é
verin manipulated the mnemo hologram so the four corners broke off. Then, he shrank the I Ching diagram, enlarged the four corners, and placed them beside one another.


There
,” said Enrique. “I see it now. S
é
verin, place them in a block
and rearrange the order. Turn the first symbol sideways, attach it to symbol two, symbol
three should hang down, and the fourth symbol goes on the left.”

S
é
verin did as asked, and when he stepped back, a new symbol took shape:

“The Eye of Horus,” breathed Enrique.

Envy flashed through Zofia.

“How…” she said. “How did you see that?”

“The same way you saw numbers in lines,” said Enrique smugly. “You’re impressed. Admit it.”

Zofia crossed her arms. “No.”

“I dazzle you with my intelligence.”

Zofia turned to Laila. “Make him stop.”

Enrique bowed and gestured back to the image. “The Eye of Horus is also known as a
wadjet
. It’s an ancient Egyptian symbol of royal power and protection. Over time, most Horus Eyes have been lost to history—”

“No,” said S
é
verin. “Not lost.
Destroyed
. During Napoleon’s 1798 campaign to Egypt, the Order sent a delegation tasked specifically with finding and confiscating all Horus Eyes. House Kore sent half its members, which is why they have the largest supply of Egyptian Forged
treasures in Europe. If there’s any Forged Horus Eyes left from that campaign, it’s with them.”

“But why was it destroyed?” asked Laila.

“That’s a secret between the government and the Order,” said
S
é
verin. “My guess is that certain Forged Horus Eyes showed all the somno locations on Napoleon’s artillery. If everyone knew how to make his weapons useless, where would he be?”

“What’s the other
theory?” asked Laila.

“Napoleon thought all the Horus Eyes were looking at him funny and so he had them destroyed,” said Tristan.

Enrique laughed.

“But then why have a Horus Eye on an I Ching diagram?” pressed Zofia. “If it’s a calculus of zeroes and ones, what would it even see?”

Enrique went still. “
See
.” His eyes widened. “Zero and one … and
seeing
. Zofia, you’re a genius.”

She raised
her shoulder. “I know.”

Enrique reached for the Bible he’d left on the coffee table and started flipping through the pages.

“I was reading this earlier for a translation I’m working on, but Zofia’s mathematical connection is perfect,” he said. He stopped flipping. “Ah. Here we are. Genesis 11:4-9, also known as the Tower of Babel passage. We all know it. It’s an etiological tale not just meant
to explain why people speak different languages, but also to explain the presence of Forging in our world. The basic story is that people tried to build a tower to heaven, God didn’t want that, so He made new languages, and the confusion of tongues prevented the building’s completion. But He didn’t just strike down the building,” he said, before reading aloud: “‘… and they ceased building the city.
Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth, but the Lord delighted in His creation’s ingenuity and deposited upon the land the bricks of the tower. Each brick bore his touch, and thus left an impression of the power of God to create something from nothing
.
’”

Something from nothing.

She’d heard that phrase before …


Ex nihilo
,” said S
é
verin,
smiling widely. “Latin for ‘out of nothing.’ What’s the mathematical representation of nothing?”

“Zero,” said Zofia.

“Thus, the movement of zero to one is the power of God, because out of nothing,
something
is created. The Babel Fragments are considered slivers of God’s powers. They bring things to life, excluding, of course, the power to bring back the dead and create
actual
life,” said Enrique.

Across from her, Zofia noticed that Laila’s smile fell.

Enrique leaned out of his chair, his eyes uncannily bright.

“If
that’s
what the diagram is really about, then what does that mean about the Horus Eye?”

Laila let out a long breath. “You said looking through the Horus Eye revealed something … whatever it could see had to be dangerous enough that the instrument couldn’t be kept in existence.
What would be dangerous enough to threaten an entire empire? Something that has to do with the power of God? Because only one thing comes to my mind.”

S
é
verin sank into his chair. Zofia felt a numb buzzing at the edge of her thoughts. She felt as if she’d leaned over a vast precipice. As if the next words would change her life.

“In other words,” said S
é
verin slowly, “you think this might be
telling us that looking through a Horus Eye reveals a Babel Fragment.”

 

5
S
É
V
ERI
N

S
é
verin stared at the luminous dark of the Eye of Horus. In that second, the air smelled metallic. He could almost see it. Gray rippling the sky as if it were hectic with fever. Fanged teeth of light flashing in the clouds—a taunt to snap. This realization felt like watching a storm. He couldn’t stop what would come next.

And he didn’t want to.

When he first heard about the
compass, he imagined it would lead them to the lost treasure of the Fallen House, the only cache of treasure that the Order would do anything to possess. But this … this was like reaching for a match only to come out holding a torch. The Order had covered up their hunt for Horus Eyes, and now he knew why. If someone found the West’s Fragment, they could disrupt all Forging not just in France, but
Europe, for without a Fragment to power the art of Forging, civilizations died. And while the Order might know the Horus Eye’s secret, the rest of the world didn’t. Including many colonial guilds that had been forced into hiding by the Order. Guilds whose knowledge of the Babel Fragments’ inner
workings rivaled the Order’s. S
é
verin could only imagine what they’d do to get their hands on this information,
and what the Order would do to keep it from them.

“We’re not…” Enrique couldn’t finish his sentence. “Right?”

“You can’t be serious,” said Laila. She was pinching the tips of her fingers repeatedly, a nervous habit of hers. When she was unhappily distracted, she couldn’t touch an object without accidentally reading it and the whole world became dangerously visible to her. When she was blissfully
distracted, though, the rest of the world disappeared. Something he couldn’t quite forget. “This could
kill
us.”

S
é
verin didn’t meet Laila’s gaze, but he could feel her dark eyes pinning him. He looked only to Tristan, his brother in everything but blood. In the dark, he seemed younger than his sixteen years. Memory bit into S
é
verin. The two of them crouched behind a rosebush, thorns ripping
at the soft skin of their necks, their hands clutching each other’s while the father they called Wrath screamed their names. S
é
verin opened and closed his hand. A long, silver scar ran down his right palm and caught the light. Tristan had a matching one.

“Are you?” asked Tristan softly. “Serious?”

All this time, they’d been after an artifact that would be a bargaining chip to the Order. An artifact
that would force the Order to restore his lost inheritance. Instead, he had information that was either a dream or a death sentence … depending on how he played this game. S
é
verin reached for his tin of cloves.

“I don’t know enough to be serious,” he said carefully. “But I’d like to know enough to have options.”

Tristan swore under his breath. The others looked shocked, even Zofia blankly stared
into her lap.

“This information is dangerous,” said Tristan. “We’d be better off if you just threw the compass at House Nyx’s door.”

“Dangerous, yes, but the most rewarding things are,” said S
é
verin.
“I’m not saying we approach the Order tomorrow and tell them we’ve got hold of one of their secrets. I have no intention to rush anything.”

Enrique snorted. “Slow and painful death is far better
than getting it over with quickly, sure.”

S
é
verin rose to his feet. For a decision like this, he didn’t want to be eye level. He wanted them to look up. They did.

“Think about what this could mean for us. It could bring us everything we wanted.”

Enrique dragged his palm down his face. “You know how moths look at a fire and think, ‘
Oooh! shiny!
’ and then die in a burst of flames and regret?”

“Vaguely.”

“Right. Just checking to be sure.”

“What about Hypnos?” asked Laila.

“What about him?”

“You don’t think he’ll notice what went missing? He has quite the reputation for … zealousness when it comes to his possessions. And what if he
knows
what the compass really contained?”

“I doubt it,” said S
é
verin.

“You don’t think he could figure it out?” asked Laila.

“He can’t. He doesn’t have
you.” When Laila’s eyes widened, he caught himself and gestured to the whole group: “
All
of you.”

“Awww…” said Enrique. “What a sweet sentiment. I shall take it to my grave. Literally.”

“Besides, Zofia and Enrique made a perfect fake artifact. There’s no way Hypnos can trace it back to us.”

Enrique sighed. “God, I’m brilliant.”

Zofia crossed her arms. “I am too.”

“Of course you are,” soothed
Laila. “You’re both brilliant.”

“Yes, but I’m
more
—” huffed Enrique.

S
é
verin interrupted them with two sharp claps. “Now that we
have the piece, let’s examine it thoroughly. We make no plans beyond that. We make no speculation about what comes next. We don’t do
anything
until it’s clear what we’re working with. Understood?”

The four of them nodded. Just like that, the meeting was concluded.
They rose slowly. Enrique was the first to head to the door.

He paused in front of S
é
verin. “Remember…”

And then Enrique hooked his thumbs together and made a strange waving motion with his hands.

“You’re a bird?”

“A moth!”
said Enrique. “A moth approaching a flame!”

“That’s a very alarming moth.”

“It’s a metaphor.”

“It’s an alarming metaphor too.”

Enrique rolled his eyes. Behind him,
Zofia smuggled more cookies on her plate before brushing past him.

“How are the Sphinx masks coming along?”

Zofia did not break her gait or even turn as she said, “Why?”

“Might need them sooner than later,” Enrique called after her.

“Mmf.”

When S
é
verin turned back to the room, he went still. Though the room was nearly dark, whatever light clung to its corners now raced to illuminate Laila.
It seemed the world couldn’t help but want to be near her … every beam of light, pair of eyes, atom of air. Maybe that’s why sometimes he couldn’t breathe around her.

Or maybe it was memory that choked him in those seconds. Memories of one night they’d both sworn to put behind them. Laila had. It was fate that, of course, he couldn’t.

Laila practically stormed toward him. Usually, she had a
habit of being relentlessly radiant. She hated seeing someone hold an empty plate and always thought everyone was hungry. She knew everyone’s secrets even without having to read their objects. At the Palais des
R
ê
ves, she turned that radiance into an allure that earned her star billing and the name, L’
É
nigme.
The Mystery
. But this evening, she spared him no smile. Her dark eyes looked like chips
of stone.

Uh-oh.

“No tea and sympathy for me?” he asked. He lifted his hand. “I am wounded, you know.”

“How thoughtful of you to delay the hour of your death so that I might witness it firsthand,” she said coldly. But the longer she looked at his wrist, the more her shoulders softened. “You could’ve been hurt.”

“It’s the price one pays for chasing wants,” he said lightly. “The problem is,
I have too many of them.”

Laila shook her head. “You only want one thing.”

“Is that so?”

He meant it teasingly. But Laila’s posture changed almost immediately. More languid, somehow.

She moved closer, sliding her hand down the front of his jacket. “I will tell you what you want.”

S
é
verin held still. This close, he could count her eyelashes, the starlight gilding her face. He remembered the
soft flutter of her eyelashes against his cheek when she’d brought him down to her long ago. The heat of her skin seeped through the linen of his shirt. What game was she playing? Laila’s fingers slipped into the inner breast pocket of his jacket. She pulled out his silver tin, popped the latch, and withdrew a clove. Eyes still locked on his, she dragged her thumb across his lower lip. The motion
felt like the afterburn of sunshine on his retina. Two images lazily superimposed: Laila touching his mouth then, Laila touching his mouth now. It jarred him so much, he didn’t remember parting his lips. But he must have because a moment later, a sharp clove hit his tongue. Laila drew back. Cold rushed in to fill the space. All in all, it took no more than a few
seconds. The whole time her composure
had stayed the same. Detached and sensual, like the performer she was. The performer she had always been. He could see her staging an identical routine at the Palais des R
ê
ves—reaching into a patron’s jacket for his cigarette case, placing it on the man’s lips, and lighting it before she took it for herself.


That’s
what you want,” she said darkly. “You want an excuse to go hunting. But you have
mistaken the predator for prey.”

With that, her skirts swirled around her heels as she left. S
é
verin bit down on the clove and watched her leave. She was right. He was hunting. And so was she. Neither of them could afford to lose sight of their prize, so one night in each other’s arms stayed as one mistake, and the memory of it was shoved into the dark. He waited a moment before turning back
to Tristan.

He knew what argument he’d have with his brother. He had prepared for it, and yet it still wrenched something from him to see the shine in Tristan’s eyes.

“Just tell me,” he said wearily.

Tristan looked away from him. “I wish this were enough for you.”

S
é
verin closed his eyes. It wasn’t about
enough
. Tristan would never understand. He had never felt the pulse of an entirely different
future, only to see it ripped from his grasp and smothered in front of him. He didn’t understand that sometimes the only way to take down what had destroyed you was to disguise yourself as part of it.

“It’s not about enough,” said S
é
verin. “It’s about balancing the scales. Fairness.”

Tristan didn’t look at him. “You promised you would protect us.”

S
é
verin hadn’t forgotten. The day he said that
was the day he realized some memories have a taste. That day, his mouth was full of blood, and so his promise tasted like salt and iron.

“Let’s say this whole venture doesn’t kill us. What if you get what
you want? If you get back your House, you’ll be a patriarch…” His voice pitched higher. “Sometimes I wished you didn’t even want to
be
a patriarch. What if you become like—”

“Don’t.” He hadn’t
meant for his voice to sound so cold, but it did, and Tristan flinched. “I will
never
be like our fathers.”

Tristan and S
é
verin had seven fathers. An assembly line of foster fathers and guardians, all of whom had been fringe members of the Order of Babel. All of whom had made S
é
verin who he was, for better or worse.

“Being part of the Order won’t make me one of them,” said S
é
verin, his voice
icy. “I don’t want to be their equal. I don’t want them to look us in the eye. I want them to look away, to blink harshly, as if they’ve stared at the sun itself. I don’t want them standing across from us. I want them kneeling.”

Tristan said nothing.

“I protect you,” said S
é
verin softly. “Remember that promise? I said I’d protect you. I said I’d make us a paradise of our own.”

“L’Eden,” said
Tristan miserably.

S
é
verin had named his hotel not just for the Garden of Paradise, but for the promise that had been struck long ago when the two of them were nothing but wary eyes and skinned knees, while the houses and fathers and lessons moved about them as relentless as seasons.

“I protect you,” said S
é
verin again, this time quieter. “Always.”

Finally, Tristan’s shoulders fell. He leaned
against S
é
verin, the top of his blond head tickling the inside of S
é
verin’s nose until he sneezed.

“Fine,” grumbled Tristan.

S
é
verin tried to think of something else to say. Something that would take Tristan’s mind off what the five of them were planning to do next.

“I hear Goliath molted?”

“Don’t pretend like you care about Goliath. I know you tried to set a cat on him last month.”

“To be
fair, Goliath is the stuff of nightmares.”

Tristan didn’t laugh.

OVER THE NEXT
week and a half, Laila spied on the Order members who frequented the Palais des R
ê
ves, keeping an ear out for any rumors of theft following the auction. But all was quiet. Even the notorious Sphinx guards who could follow the trail of any House-marked artifact had not been glimpsed outside the city residences of
House Kore and House Nyx.

Everything was fine …

It was a hope S
é
verin was still clinging to when his butler came in with the mail.

“For you.”

S
é
verin glanced at the envelope. An elaborate letter
H
was emblazoned on the front.

Hypnos.

He dismissed the butler, and then stared down at the envelope. Bits of brown flecked the front, like dried blood. S
é
verin touched the seal. Instantly, something
sharp stabbed into the pad of his finger, a Forged thorn concealed in the melted wax. He hissed, drawing back his hand, but a drop of blood hit the paper. It sank into the envelope, and the elaborate letter
H
shivered, unraveling before his eyes until it opened into a short missive.

I know you stole from me.

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