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Authors: Roshani Chokshi

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A voice broke the illusion. “Goodness, how rude of me.”

The images melted. No more snow or poppies or sugar.

Enrique was on his knees, hands splayed on the scarlet rug as if he wanted to shred it apart. In front of him, a pair of polished shoes. He looked up before he realized he should have stood first. The patriarch of House Nyx stared down at him.

Until now, he had only seen Hypnos
at a distance. He knew the other boy’s skin, a deep umber like the rain-soaked bark of an oak tree. He knew the textured hair cropped close to his head. Even knew his strangely colored eyes, a blue so pale they looked like panes of frost. Hypnos was beautiful at a distance. Up close, he was just plain staggering. Enrique stumbled to his feet, hoping the other boy hadn’t noticed. When he looked
up, Hypnos’s eyes looked darker. The pupils blown out, as if he was trying to take in all of him too.

“Had I known what pretty company you keep, I might have met with you sooner, S
é
verin,” said Hypnos, not taking his eyes off Enrique.

S
é
verin let out a brittle laugh. “I doubt that. You’ve been a patriarch for two years, and you still have to run every inhale and
exhale by the Order of Babel.
I can’t imagine what they must make of your meeting with me. My understanding was that any Order member would be forbidden from speaking to me if they remembered my existence. Do they even know what you’re doing right now?”

Hypnos raised one eyebrow. “Do you want them to?”

S
é
verin didn’t answer, and Hypnos didn’t push it.

“You requested a meeting,” said S
é
verin. “Why?”

After all this time
, Enrique thought.

Hypnos grinned. “I wanted to meet my thieves.”

“Well, you found us.”

Hypnos made a
tsk
sound. “Now, now. I only did a little bit of the work.
You
did the rest.”

Enrique shook off the dregs of the illusion. He took a step closer to S
é
verin. All his awareness shifted around the inflection of Hypnos’s words.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Lo! It speaks,” exclaimed Hypnos.
He clapped his hands. “That fake compass you left me was a pretty decoy, but there was blood on it. And so I performed a little test … Whoever had stolen from me had bled all over my poor stone beastie. So, I added a bit of blood Forging to my letter to make sure that none but the thief could read it. I had my men deliver it to every person I could think of. Who, I wondered, would steal from
me
? And
why
? And then, of course, when I ran out of options, I sent it to you. The fancy hotelier with a reputation a
little
too spotless, who’s always a
little
too close to every theft of an Order object. So, you see,” he said, his expression suddenly quite serious, “I didn’t find you. You brought yourself to me.”

Enrique squeezed his eyes shut. Too late, he remembered glimpsing S
é
verin’s letter.
The curious expanse of blank page. No wonder he couldn’t read it.

S
é
verin betrayed nothing. “Clever.”

“One can always rely on a man’s hubris. I figured you wouldn’t share the letter.” Hypnos tilted his head. “How
devastating
for you. To let down your team and admit that you’d failed. Oh, don’t look at me like that, S
é
verin. The Order may not have looked in your direction all this time, but I
have.”

“I’m flattered you think I’m worth watching.”

Hypnos winked. “With a face like that? I must not be the only one.”

“What do you want, Hypnos?”

“You know what I can do to you. I can have you arrested, executed, tarred and feathered, et cetera. There’s no point, really, in detailing it.” Hypnos paused to smile. “But I don’t
want
to do any of that. I’m actually quite an exceptional human
being, and, I fancy myself rather generous. So instead, I ask only two things. First, that you return the compass. Second, that you turn your acquisition skills to an object I’ve long desired. In return, I’ll give you what you want.”

S
é
verin’s face had gone rigid, his mouth flattened to a line, his dark eyes nearly burning.

Slowly, Hypnos raised his hand. His Babel Ring, a thin crescent moon
that spread across the middle of his hand, caught the light. From where Enrique stood, it looked like a scythe.


Mon cher,
you and I always had so much in common,” said Hypnos. “Now, we have even more! Look at us. Two orphaned bastards with colored mothers.” He leaned closer to S
é
verin. “How strange … Yours doesn’t show up on the skin the way mine does. Mine was the daughter of slaves in a sugarcane
plantation my father owned in Martinique. Once I was born, my French aristocrat of a father left her. But I remember
you
had your mother. That always made me rather jealous, I admit. She had the loveliest hair … what was she? Egyptian? Algerian? Her name was so beautiful too—”

“Don’t,” said S
é
verin, clipped. A muscle in his jaw ticked.

Hypnos shrugged lightly and turned to Enrique, smiling as
if he were just another guest and this were just another day.

“Has he told you how the Order’s inheritance test works?”

Enrique shook his head.

“It’s like this,” said Hypnos, walking up to him. “May I, beautiful?”

Enrique managed a nod. Hypnos turned over his hand, sliding his brown thumb down his palm before stopping above his racing pulse.

“In each Babel Ring, there’s a core of the matriarch
or patriarch’s blood. The blood fuels the Ring’s ability to House-mark, among other things. When the matriarch or patriarch dies, or if they wish to retire their seat early, a head of House is summoned to administer the inheritance test. First, the Ring that will be passed on is cut into the heir’s hand.” Hypnos dragged one edge of the crescent moon across Enrique’s hand. Through his skin, he
felt a hum of power, like lightning traveling through his veins. “Then, the Ring of the witness is held over the bloodied Ring. If the heir is of the same blood as the matriarch or patriarch, both Rings turn blue. If the heir is not…”

“You are left with a handsome scar,” finished S
é
verin coldly.

Hypnos dropped Enrique’s hand.

“The Order is not above falsifying the inheritance test,” he said,
facing S
é
verin. “It’s been performed in the past by families wishing to pass over one heir for a different family member.”

“On what grounds would they deny an heir his inheritance?” asked Enrique.

Hypnos ticked off the reasons on his fingers. “They might not like how the child’s mind works, or who they love, or—”

“Or the Order might like their bloodlines nice and neat,” cut in S
é
verin, his
voice distant. “Two heirs of mixed blood would not do. An easy solution is to choose one over the other.”

Hypnos’s jaw tightened. Gone was his lax demeanor. Regret
twisted his handsome features. “If memory serves, you tried to tell me that years ago,” he said quietly.

“And if memory serves, you didn’t listen.”

Spots of color appeared on Hypnos’s cheeks. “As you so aptly pointed out, my very
breath has been monitored by the Order since the day my father died and passed the Ring to me. But if you acquire this artifact for me, I will administer the inheritance test myself. No falsifications like last time. I can return your Ring to you … I know where it’s kept.”

Enrique felt as though all the air had been drained from the room. S
é
verin refused to look at Hypnos as he spoke. “What do
you want?”

“A Horus Eye.”

Enrique sucked in his breath.

“Where is it?”

Hypnos hesitated for a moment, then said, “The vaults of House Kore.”

“No,” said S
é
verin immediately. “I am not stepping into that woman’s house.”

And no wonder, thought Enrique. The matriarch of House Kore must have helped falsify the results of the inheritance test that stole S
é
verin’s title.

“Just before the auction,
she was viciously attacked,” said Hypnos. “Her Ring was stolen.”

“Probably an inside job,” said S
é
verin. “We don’t get involved with those.”

We
. Enrique felt a thrill of pride.
That’s right!
he wanted to say. But he didn’t.

“I’m not asking you to find her Ring,” said Hypnos. “There are people already dedicated to that search. What I’d like your help for goes beyond that. As I’m sure you haven’t
forgotten, the Rings of our Houses guard the location of the West’s Babel Fragment.”

S
é
verin laughed. “And do you think this mastermind thief knows the Fragment’s location and wishes to perform some nefarious activity there with the stolen Ring? Because as I recall, revealing the Fragment’s location requires
two Ring
s, not
one
. Your precious knowledge should stay safe.”

Enrique knew little about
the inner workings of the Order, but S
é
verin had once told him that knowledge about the location of the West’s Fragment circulated among the Houses of different empires every century. France was the most recent possessor of the location’s knowledge. If the Ring of House Kore had truly been stolen, that knowledge would be in grave danger. And if S
é
verin was right and the theft was an inside job,
then that made all the more sense why Hypnos would want to steal rather than inquire after the Horus Eye.

If House Kore had been compromised from the inside, then no one in the House was trustworthy. And if, by some chance, the thief
had
taken the Ring to the Fragment’s location, then looking through the Horus Eye would immediately reveal its whereabouts.

“With a single Ring, the Fallen House
nearly threw the world off balance,” said Hypnos. “They paid the price, to be certain, but history always repeats itself.”

Enrique remembered the Forged threshold of the Palais Garnier as he was leaving the auction. An image stood out in his mind: a peeling hexagram on a gilt mirror. The symbol of the disgraced Fallen House. Something about that hexagram sat heavily in his thoughts.

“And, if
I may be so bold, which I am, so I will … you have no choice but to help me, S
é
verin.”

“You can threaten me with imprisonment, but I’ll get out. You could set your guards on us, but I’ve already planted an incendiary sphere, and I could have this place up in flames before you take a single step,” said S
é
verin.

Enrique bit back a grin. S
é
verin’s lie at the entrance. The small
knife he’d surrendered
without complaint. He’d distracted the guard with a false weapon while hiding the real one.

“When did you—”

S
é
verin smiled. “I had to do something to pass the time while you were making eyes at my historian.”

“Wait. I was
bait
?” demanded Enrique.

“You’re flattered.”

Maybe a little.

When Hypnos looked around the room, S
é
verin waved his hand. “Don’t bother. You won’t find it in time. And I
won’t go anywhere near that House,” said S
é
verin, turning on his heel. “Perhaps we can work out a different agreement. In the meantime, Enrique and I must be going.”

Hypnos loosed a breath. “I hate when I have to do this! Flaring tempers, veiled threats, ugh. It ages me,
mon cher,
and I detest that.”

Hypnos stomped his foot. An image rippled across the surface of the scarlet rug. Nausea twisted
through Enrique. Before him wavered an image of three kneeling bodies in the distance … their heads bent forward, hands bound … but the shapes were unmistakable.

Laila.

Zofia.

Tristan.

S
é
verin immediately paled.

“You see? You can walk out and survive. But I can’t say the same for the rest. I want an oath that you’ll return the compass, go to House Kore, and get me that Horus Eye,” said Hypnos,
holding out the Forged quill that tattooed oaths. “Do this, S
é
verin, and I can give you back your House.”

S
é
verin was rooted to the spot. “Are they alive?”

“Do we have a deal or no?” asked Hypnos in a singsong voice.


Are they alive?

“They won’t be if you don’t swear the oath. We’ll be equally bound, S
é
verin. I assure you, it’s for the best. You’ll like working with me, I promise! I’m fabulous
at parties, have excellent taste in menswear, et cetera, et cetera,” said Hypnos, waving his hand. “And if you don’t agree to this, then I will break every bone in their bodies, and etch your name onto the splinters. That way, your name will be all over their deaths.”

Hypnos’s smile was sharp as broken glass. “Still unwilling?”

 

7
S
É
V
ERI
N

Wrath was the second of S
é
verin’s seven fathers.

Some of his fathers lasted for months. Others for years. Some had wives who did not let him call them mother. Some fathers died before he could learn to hate them. Others died because he hated them
.

THE LAST TIME
S
é
verin saw his father’s Ring, he was seven years old. The Ring was a pinched oval of tarnished brass depicting a
snake biting its tail. The underside of the tail was a blade. After the fire killed his parents, the matriarch of House Kore dragged his father’s Ring across his palm, and the snake tail cut through his skin like a hot knife to a slab of butter. For a moment, he saw the flash of promised blue … the very glow his father had often talked of that proved he was the true heir of House Vanth … but then
it disappeared, obscured by the sweeping cloak of the patriarch of House Nyx. S
é
verin remembered how they talked in hushed whispers, these people who he had once called “Tante” and “Oncle.” When they turned to face him, it was as
if they had never bounced him on their knee or snuck him an extra plate of dessert. The mere span of a minute had rendered them strangers.

“We cannot let you be one
of us,” said the matriarch.

He would never forget how she had looked at him … how she had dared to show him pity.

“Tante—” he managed, but she cut him off with a sharp brush of her gloved hand.

“You may not call me that anymore.”

“A pity,” S
é
verin heard his former oncle say. “But we simply cannot have more than one.”

A group of lawyers later informed S
é
verin that he would be taken care of
until he came of age to inherit the trust funds of House Vanth, for though he was not the blood heir, his name appeared on every deed and contract, thus entitling him to the assets.

S
é
verin did not mourn the death of his father as much as he mourned the death of Kahina. His father had not allowed him to call her “Mother,” and in public she referred to him as “Monsieur S
é
verin.” But at night …
when she snuck into his room to sing his lullabies, she always whispered one thing before she left: “I am your Ummi. And I love you.”

His first day in Wrath’s home, S
é
verin wept and said, “I miss Kahina.” Wrath ignored him. By the second day, S
é
verin had not stopped weeping and once more said, “I miss my Kahina.”

Wrath had stopped on his way to the commode. He turned around. His eyes were so
light that sometimes his pupils looked colorless.

“Say her name again,” said the old man.

S
é
verin hesitated. But he loved her name. Her name sounded like how she smelled … like fruits from a fairy-tale garden. He loved how when he said her name, he remembered that she used to hunch over him, all that black hair curtaining over his small head, so he could pretend it was nighttime and therefore
story time.

The moment he spoke her name, Wrath backhanded him. He did it over
and over, demanding that he say “Kahina” until blood replaced the fairy-tale taste of his mother’s name.

“She’s dead, boy,” Wrath had said when he was finished. “Died in the fire along with your father. I don’t want to hear her name again.”

WRATH’S BASTARD BOY
also lived in the house, though he hardly treated him
like his own child. The boy was younger than S
é
verin and had wide, gray eyes. When Wrath was mad, he did not care which boy he took so long as one was taken.

In his study, Wrath kept a Phobus Helmet, a Forged object of mind affinity that coaxed out the wearer’s nightmares and played them on a loop …

Wrath only watched when the boys started screaming after the Phobus Helmet was secured to their
heads. He never touched them except his occasional blows.

“Your imagination hurts you far worse than anything I could ever do,” he once said.

One day, Wrath called for the other boy. By then, S
é
verin had learned his name was Tristan. That day, he saw Tristan crouched in the shadows. Neither boy moved.

“Have you seen him?” demanded Wrath.

S
é
verin had a choice. He made it.

“No.”

Wrath took
him instead.

The next day, Wrath called for both of them. S
é
verin was outside, wandering the grounds. Wrath’s footsteps echoed loudly. S
é
verin might have been caught if he hadn’t felt a small tug on his sleeve. The silent boy was hiding in the rosebushes. His lap was full of flowers. He scooted to the side to make room for S
é
verin.

“I protect you,” S
é
verin whispered.

I PROTECT YOU.

One promise.

One promise, and he couldn’t even keep it.

Every time he blinked, he saw their bodies. Zofia’s bright hair mussed by dirt. Tristan crouching, swaying … and Laila. Laila, who should have sugar in her hair, not shards of glass. Laila, who he …

He dug his nails into his palm, screaming at the driver to go faster. Beside him, Enrique was a ghost of himself, whispering and turning over rosary beads
in his hand. The second they got to L’Eden, Enrique leapt out of the carriage. “I’ll check for them inside.”

S
é
verin nodded, then broke into a run across the Seven Sins Garden.

He didn’t stop running until he arrived at Tristan’s workshop in Envy. Tristan’s back was to him. Hunched over. His neck bent. His worktable strewn with small fronds and snippets of petals … all the makings of the miniature
worlds he obsessively cobbled together.

S
é
verin couldn’t find his next breath. Had they strangled him? Propped him upright like a cruel joke? If so, then what about Laila and Zofia? Were they dead in the kitchens and the laboratory? Or—

Tristan turned.

“S
é
verin?”

S
é
verin stood there, swaying.

“Why do you look nauseous? Is it that sleepwalking guest in Room 7? I caught him sleepwalking
naked
in the servants’ quarters last night, and if that’s what happened, I honestly don’t blame you—”

“The others,” rasped S
é
verin. “Are they … are they…”

Tristan frowned. “I just saw Laila and Zofia in the kitchens. Why? What’s wrong?”

S
é
verin grabbed him abruptly in a hug.

“I feel like I’m missing something important,” wheezed Tristan.

“I thought you were dead.”

Tristan laughed. “Why would you
think that?” But when he caught the flat look in S
é
verin’s eyes, he paused. “What happened?”

S
é
verin told him everything from Hypnos’s proposition … to the reward waiting at the end.

“House
Kore
?” Tristan practically spat. “After what she—”

“I know.”

“Are you going to take the offer?”

S
é
verin held up his hand, showing the harsh slash of the oath tattoo. “I have no choice.”

In that moment,
Tristan’s face was inscrutable.

After what felt like forever, Tristan turned over his own hand. The silvery scar down his palm matched S
é
verin’s. Neither of them knew where Tristan had gotten his scar. But it didn’t matter.

Finally, Tristan placed his hand over S
é
verin’s, stacking their scars before saying:

“I protect you.”

ONE OF THE
greatest secrets of the Fallen House was where they had
held their meetings.

It was said the key both to their secret meeting locations and to their lost treasure lay in the bone clocks once given to each member of their House. In the fifty years since they had been exiled and executed by the Order, no one had cracked the clocks’ code. These days, it was considered nothing more than a rumor that time had smoothed down to the shape of a myth. But that
didn’t stop interest in acquiring the bone clocks. Of late, the clocks had become something of a collector’s item.

One of the few remaining ones sat on S
é
verin’s bookshelf.

In all the time that S
é
verin had kept the bone clock, it hadn’t
revealed any of its secrets. Although sometimes the clock stopped at six minutes past two o’clock, which he considered rather strange considering that there
was only one word found on the clock:
nocte.

Midnight
.

S
é
verin often looked at it when he was thinking.

Fifty years ago, it had seemed impossible for anything to ruin the Fallen House. And now … to S
é
verin, the clock was a reminder. Anything could fall. Towers that scraped the heavens, Houses with pockets deeper than empires’, shining seraphs who had once been in the confidence of God. Even
families who were supposed to love you. Nothing was invincible but change.

S
é
verin was still staring at the clock face when the letter from Hypnos arrived. He ripped open the envelope, scanned the first line, and scowled.

To be fair, you would have done the same.

S
é
verin’s knuckled grip paled.

Before you throw this in the fire, I do hope you listen to that seed of rationale deep within your
fury. We are to work together, and though I might not extract my promises the best way, I always keep them. As I know you do.

Tell me what you need from me
.

S
é
verin hated that word.
Need
. He hated how Hypnos’s promise of a new inheritance test had itched that very word to life.

Sometimes he wished he didn’t remember life before the Order. He wished someone with a mind affinity could root through
his memories and shred those years. He was haunted. Not even by people, but the phantoms of sensations—firelight limning the outlines of his fingers, a cat with a fluffy tail who napped at the foot of his bed, orange blossom water on Kahina’s skin, a spoon dipped in honey and smuggled into his waiting hand, wind on his face as he was tossed into the air and caught in warm arms, words that sank
into his soul like growing roots steeped in sunshine: “I am your
Ummi. And I love you.” S
é
verin squeezed his eyes shut. He wished he didn’t know what he had lost. Maybe then every day wouldn’t feel like this. As if he had once known how to fly, but the skies had shaken him loose and left him with nothing but the memory of wings.

S
é
verin rolled his shoulders. His fingers left damp impressions
on Hypnos’s letter. He crumpled it in his fist. He knew what he was going to do. What he needed to do. As he walked out the door of his study, a phantom ache curled between his shoulder blades.

As if they craved the weight of wings.

THROUGH THE FROSTED
glass door of the kitchen, he saw their shapes crowded around the high-top counters. He heard the chime of bone china, silver spoons hitting
tea saucers. The crisp snap of cookies. He could picture them with perfect clarity. Zofia carefully cutting her cookie in half, then dipping each half into the tea. Enrique demanding to know why she was torturing the cookies. Tristan scoffing that tea was hot, watered-down leaves and “Laila, is there any hot chocolate?” Laila. Laila, who moved like a sylph among them, watching them with those eyes
that said she knew their worst secrets and still forgave them. Laila, who always had sugar in her hair.

He could sense all of them, and it terrified him.

He placed his hand on the doorknob. The oath tattoos on his right hand glared back at him. They might owe him their service. But he was the one bound to them.

He was the one who would always be left behind. Soon, Zofia’s debt would be paid
off and leave her wealthy enough to start a new life. Soon, Enrique would join the inner circle of Filipino visionaries and move out of L’Eden. Soon, Laila would leave too. When she offered her services to him and trusted him with her story—as he
had trusted her with his—she told him there was an object she was searching for, and she would go wherever that search took her.

Which left Tristan.
The only one who would stay of his own free will.

But what if they acquired the Horus Eye …

Hypnos would be bound to perform the test, and this time, no one would cheat him. House Vanth would be resurrected. As patriarch, he could give them more than just the connections of the rich. He could get Zofia’s sister into medical school; give Enrique access and intelligence for his Ilustrados; help
Laila find the ancient book she searched for; keep his promise to Tristan.

He could give them more than just something to tide them over until the next acquisition. He could give them enough to stay.

The four of them stared when he entered. Judging from the empty teacup, they’d been expecting him for a while. After a long moment, Laila poured him tea. Even with her hair in front of her face,
he knew she was smiling. He hated that he knew that. Two years ago, he hadn’t thought such things were possible.

Back then, Laila had just started working at the Palais as his spy and in the kitchens as a pastry chef. One day she barged into his study, her hair streaked white with flour, carrying a glossy, jewel-bright fruit tart in her hand. Already she’d charmed half the staff and secured more
acquisitions than he’d ever been able to do on his own. That she spent most of her free time wandering the library or the kitchens wouldn’t have bothered him if she hadn’t kept trying to force her creations on him or spouting her opinions on every little thing when he was trying to work. Worse was that she wanted nothing in return. She would leave cakes on his desk, and if he tried to pay her,
she’d smack his hand.

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