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Authors: Roshani Chokshi

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PART II

Excerpt from
Reports of New Caledonia

Admiral Th
é
ophile du Casse, French faction Order of Babel 1863, Second Republic of France under Napoleon III

T
he indigenous population, the Canaque, are becoming rather agitated. Through our translators, we have surmised that Forging is considered the provenance of native priests. None of their artisans appear to possess an affinity for mind.
Instead, they are mostly gifted in matter affinity of salt water or wood. Each of their homes is adorned with a
fl
é
che fa
î
ti
è
re,
a carved finial where their ancestors—whom they worship—supposedly reside
.
But we have discovered another use of these finials.

As you know, sir, we discovered the presence of nickel along the banks of the Diahot River. While our colonists have taken great pains to
extract the mineral, the best instrument for detecting its presence comes from their supposed sacred finial monuments. Regretfully, I must inform you of an event that occurred last week. During the hours of dawn, one of my men had been working hard to tear down the finial from the top of a Canaque hut. Though he
was successful in removing the finial, the family refused to tell us how to make the
Forged finial respond to nickel. A skirmish arose. The Canaque man took his own life, declaring that “some knowledge is not meant to be known.”

We have not found a way to make the Forged finials work.

But I will persevere.

 

6
ENRIQUE

Enrique had been summoned to the bar of the grand lobby.

In different circumstances, that might be his favorite summons of all time, but S
é
verin’s note had been uncharacteristically brusque. Enrique checked the grand clock of the lobby. Five sharp. His appointment with S
é
verin wasn’t until half past five, which left
just
enough time for one cocktail.

Encircling the lobby was
a grand ouroboros, an infinity symbol represented by a snake biting its tail. A huge, Forged brass serpent twined in an endless circle, candlelight rippling off its metal body. Refreshments and bouquets were nestled in the golden scales of its back, and every day at noon and midnight, it finally snapped hold of its tail and shining confetti rained from the ceiling. Around him, heiresses wearing plumed
capes and artists with ink-smudged fingers strolled toward the gardens or the dining room. In one corner, politicians schemed together, their heads bent, eyes obscured by the clouds of smoke from their pipes. As usual, Enrique tuned out the sounds. There were too many languages to keep track of, so
it was easier to let the sounds wash over him. Here and there, he caught dialects sharpened by the
desert sun, languid vowels worn smooth by the waves of coastal regions. All of it unfamiliar music until one phrase caught his ear: “
Magandang gabi po
.”
Good evening
. The language was his native Tagalog. Enrique swiveled toward the speaker and recognized him instantly: Marcelo Ponce. From across the room, Ponce caught his eye and waved a hand in welcome.

Along with Dr. Rizal, Ponce was a member
of the Ilustrados, a group Enrique had joined because, like him, all the members were European-educated Filipinos who dreamed of reform to their Spanish-controlled country. But to them, he was only just a member … not a visionary. Not someone who charted the course of a new future no matter how much he wanted to be part of their inner circle.


Kuya
Marcelo,” said Enrique respectfully.

He still
felt a flash of awe that he got to call the great Marcelo “brother,” but it was more tradition than intimacy.


Kuya
Enrique,” said Marcelo warmly. His gaze dropped to the pen in Enrique’s hand. “Working on another article to submit to
La Solidaridad
? Or translating a new language?”

“Um, some of both,” said Enrique, flushing. “Actually, if you have time, perhaps I might share my new writing with
you? I—”

“That’s wonderful news, truly. Keep up the good work,” said Marcelo distractedly. He looked over Enrique’s shoulder. “I’m actually meeting someone who might help us petition the queen of Spain.”

“Oh!” said Enrique. “I-I could help?”

Marcelo smiled. “Ah, but of course! Enrique Mercado-Lopez: journalist, historian, and debonaire spy.” Before Enrique could answer, Marcelo patted his cheek.
“Of course, it must be easy to spy when you hardly look like one of us. We’ll see you at the next meeting.
Ingat ka, kuya
.”

Marcelo squeezed his shoulder as he walked past him. Enrique forced himself to keep walking, even though his face burned and his limbs felt leaden.

Of course, it must be easy to spy when you hardly look like one of us.

Marcelo spoke with no malice. In a way, that was worse.
At birth, Enrique had favored his father, a full-blooded Spaniard. In the Philippines, many considered this a good trait. They called him
mestizo
. His aunts and uncles even joked that his dark-skinned mother must not have been in the room when he was conceived. Perhaps this was why the Ilustrados did not let him into their inner circle.

It wasn’t his intellect that made him unwanted.

It was
his face.

ENRIQUE SAGGED AGAINST
the bar counter. One should never drink champagne unhappy, so instead, he tipped his flute back and forth, watching the bubbles slosh down the sides. L’Eden’s secret bar was small, designed more like a crypt than a gathering place, and hidden behind a bookcase. Inside, flowering vines crawled down the walls. Their buds put forth no flowers, only dainty teacups
or champagne coupes of cut quartz, depending on the time of day. Tristan and Zofia’s inventions dominated the room. When building officials deemed a glass chandelier a hazard, Tristan Forged one out of moonflowers and anemone. When the officials declared that lanterns would be a fire risk, Zofia collected phosphorescent stones from the Brittany coast and Forged them into a ceiling net that looked
like softly blooming stars.

Looking at the designs, Enrique felt a familiar stab of envy. He had always wanted to Forge. When he was little, he thought it was like magic. Now he knew there was no such thing—neither fairies in the forests nor maidens in the sea. But there was this art, this
connection to the ancient world, to the myth of creation itself, and Enrique longed to be part of it. He’d
hoped Forging might make him a hero like the kind his grandmother told him about when he was younger. After all, if Forging could reshape objects of the world, why couldn’t it reshape the world itself? Why couldn’t he be the artist—architect—of change? But his thirteenth birthday came and went, and neither the affinity of mind nor matter called to him. When he realized he didn’t have the talent,
he chose to study the subjects that felt closest to Forging: history and language. He could still change the world … maybe not with something as dramatic or grand as Forging, but in more intimate ways. Writing. Speaking. Human connection.

When he came to Paris, the rallying cry of the French Revolution fitted into the hollows of his dreams:
libert
é
, egalit
é
, fraternit
é
.

Liberty, equality, brotherhood
.

Those words sang to him as they sang to other students like him. Students who had begun to question the tight grip Spain had kept on the Philippines for nearly three hundred years. In Paris, Enrique had found others like him, but it was S
é
verin who changed his life, who took a chance on his abilities as a historian when no one else had. S
é
verin listened to his dreams of changing the world and
showed him what needed changing. With one older brother primed to take over the family’s lucrative merchant business and the other older brother promised to the church, Enrique had been allowed to pursue whatever he wanted. He knew what he wanted … he just had to make the Ilustrados want him too.

Maybe threatening the Order with the Horus Eye’s secret was the answer. Enrique let himself daydream
what might happen next: Maybe he and S
é
verin could tell the Order that civilization hung in the balance … maybe they could confront them on a stage. Lighting was critical for any dramatic showdown. And there had to be
champagne. Obviously. Then S
é
verin would become patriarch—Enrique could make some speech about lineage resurrected, that would sound nice, perhaps with confetti raining down—House
Vanth would be restored, and,
naturally,
the House would need a historian.
Him
. Then, the Ilustrados would clamor for his attention because they’d finally have an insider who could report on the Order of Babel’s workings. It was the only blindspot in their intelligence. After that, he and S
é
verin and their whole crew could change the world! Maybe they could get swords … Enrique had no clue what
to do with one, but just holding one sounded rather epic. What if someone made a statue of him—

“Let’s go.”

Enrique startled, and his champagne flute fell.

“My drink!” he cried as it smashed on the ground.

“You weren’t even drinking. You were daydreaming.”

“But I liked holding it—”

“Come on.”

S
é
verin didn’t wait for him as he jogged up the short staircase. Scowling, Enrique muttered something
in Tagalog that would have made his grandmother smack him with her slipper. It wasn’t like S
é
verin to be that brusque. His shoulders were up to his ears as they walked past the grand lobby and the entrance to the Seven Sins Garden.

Near the stables, a carriage discreetly pulled up to the road. Unlike the usual fleet of L’Eden’s carriages, this one bore neither name nor insignia. Enrique clambered
in after S
é
verin. The driver closed the door, and dark curtains unraveled to block the windows.

Enrique fidgeted with his sleeves. “So …
now
do I get to know what’s happening?”

From his pocket, S
é
verin withdrew an envelope. The bloodred
seal had been split down the middle, but the wax-stamped letter was clear enough.
H
.

Enrique stilled. A beat passed. “Hypnos?”

He knew the moment he spoke
the name that it was true. The very air seemed to affirm his suspicions. Wind crept through a tear in the curtain, chilling his skin.

S
é
verin clenched his jaw. “He knows we stole from him. He’s asked for a meeting.”


What?

He thought the plan had been foolproof. No prints. No recording devices. Nothing to give away their presence in the auction’s holding room.

As an Order patriarch, Hypnos
could have had them arrested. Or worse. That he wanted a meeting spoke of something else … a game of give and take and blackmail. Enrique wasn’t sure what to make of the fact that S
é
verin had chosen only him to come along. Was he expendable or invaluable?

Enrique didn’t know much about the patriarch of House Nyx, but Tristan had once slipped that Hypnos and S
é
verin had been playmates, back when
both boys were raised as heirs to their Houses. One quick glance at S
é
verin confirmed they hadn’t been in contact since then. S
é
verin’s expression was stony, his eyes drawn. His thumb dragged up and down the silvery scar on his palm.

“What if he…” Enrique couldn’t bring himself to say the words “kills us.”

S
é
verin seemed to guess his meaning anyway. “Hypnos was always clever,” he said slowly.
“But if he tries anything, I have dirt on him that could destroy his standing with the Order the moment he lays a hand on us.”

“True, but one can’t exactly savor vengeance when one is dead.”

S
é
verin pulled down the brim of his hat. “I have no intention of dying.”

When the carriage stopped, S
é
verin leaned forward to unlock the door. As he did so, Enrique caught a glimpse of the letter held in
his bandaged hand. He frowned.

It was blank.

HYPNOS HAD NAMED
his residence Erebus, after a place in Greek myth where nightmares bloomed next to red poppies. Ridiculous. Enrique found his nickname, Hypnos, just as pretentious. No one would have named an infant after the god of sleep. At least, for the sake of that poor child, Enrique hoped not.

While most of the Houses of the Western world
used and collected Forging objects made from both affinities, House Nyx collected treasures of a particular strain: those that showcased an affinity of the mind. House Nyx had objects that spliced memory, soaked dreams, gathered someone’s will in a tight fist, and brought forth vivid illusions. Mind was the most regulated form of artistry, used as much in pleasure houses and entertainment venues
as it was for prison camps. It was the only affinity that universally required registration, whether or not a person chose to hone that talent. Some mind affinity techniques were even banned. And for good reason. Until about twenty years ago, mind-manipulation objects had been especially popular in the Southern states of the Americas where wealthy landowners kept slaves.

Up ahead loomed the entrance
to Erebus. At either side stood two lions carved of diorite, and above the threshold shone a milky jade strip of verit stone. Like the verit entrance at the Palais Garnier, the stone could detect any weapon or harmful Forged object. The only
way to neutralize its effect was to carry verit stone on one’s person, like two magnets repelling one another. Supposedly, there was nothing in the world
like verit, although Enrique had recently come across a treatise on a North African artifact that made him wonder otherwise.

“He’s known for his illusions,” said S
é
verin, interrupting his thoughts. “Focus on one thing, and don’t lose yourself in his tricks.”

The door swung open. Without hesitating, S
é
verin walked between the two lions. When he passed beneath the verit stone, it glowed bright
red and the stone lions growled, their heads whipping toward him. A bulky guard appeared at the entrance.

“Reveal your weapon,” he said.

“My apologies,” said S
é
verin mildly. He withdrew a small knife from his pocket. “I always keep one on hand for cutting apples.”

Enrique kept his face blank. S
é
verin was lying.

“You’ll have to pass through the verit entrance again—”

“We’re already late,”
said S
é
verin. “Patriarch Hypnos won’t like that, and I can assure you there’s nothing else on my person. Here, I’ll turn out my pockets in front of you.”

S
é
verin made a show of lifting the bottoms of his trousers and insides of his sleeves. When he got to his pockets, a card fluttered to the floor. The guard picked it up, his eyes widening.

“Ah, and that’s a credit for two free nights at the
hotel I own. You may have heard of it. It’s called L’Eden.”

The guard had certainly heard of it.

“Why don’t you hold on to it and let me through? Or I could take it for safekeeping as I go through a silly entrance yet again?”

The guard hesitated, then waved S
é
verin through the doors. Enrique followed after him without incident. He never had reason to carry a weapon.

Erebus, he soon discovered,
was aptly named. No sooner had they
crossed into the hall than it shifted. One moment, he glimpsed parquet floors, ebony pillars covered in golden filigree, a sumptuous rug close to his toes. He should have kept his gaze on the floor, but a flicker of movement distracted him. He looked up. Instantly, the room transformed into a wildwood. Silver dusk seeped between frosted tree branches. The chandelier
dissolved into a snowdrift. What pieces he could see of the carpet looked sugared. Cold touched his skin. He could smell it. The mineral tang of snow. The inside of his nose burned from cold. He was in a world of ice and sugar. Blood spatter on white silk. No, not blood. Poppies. Poppies blooming, shriveling, budding in glyph-like patterns. Secrets just beneath the petals and the snow, if
he only—

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