Read The Gilded Wolves Online

Authors: Roshani Chokshi

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“Try it, try it,” she had insisted that day, pushing back his chair and holding out a piece.

He’d been too startled by the unexpected way she kept manifesting—like a dream recurring when it was just forgotten—that he didn’t have time to say, “I don’t want any damn sweets.” Her fingers parted his lips. Flavors turned incandescent on his tongue. He might have moaned. He couldn’t
remember anymore.

“Taste that?” she had whispered. “There’s zested yuzu from the orchards, instead of lemon rind, and vanilla bean, instead of only vanilla extract. The glaze is hibiscus jam I made myself. Not some boring apricot. What do you think? Doesn’t it taste like a dream?”

That was the first time he realized he could
feel
her smile. Like light pressing against closed lids. He blinked,
opening his eyes, watching how her lips pulled into a grinning crescent. Since then, whenever she smiled, he remembered the flavor of that fruit tart, the tang of hibiscus and soft vanilla. Unexpected and sweet.

Enrique cleared his throat, and S
é
verin shook himself.


Finally
,” said Enrique. He popped the last cookie in his mouth. “Consider that a penalty for showing up so late,” he said with
his mouth full.

S
é
verin pulled up a chair, feeling their eyes on him. Of course, Laila was the first to speak.

“S
é
verin … what are we going to do? Enrique told us what happened back there.”

Enrique blushed a guilty red and took a well-timed gulp of tea.

“You’re
bound
to Hypnos,” said Laila.

He flexed his fingers, watching his scar stretch.

“What happens next is not up to me,” he said. “This
won’t be like our acquisitions of the past. It’ll be even more dangerous. And if you choose a different path, I won’t hold it against you. I’ll deactivate the oath tattoos and pay you accordingly.”

S
é
verin didn’t trust himself to look at them until he heard Enrique’s resigned sigh.

“I’m in,” said Enrique, after a long moment.

“Me too,” said Laila.

Zofia nodded her assent.

Tristan swallowed
hard, eyes fixed on the counter. He took the longest to raise his gaze to S
é
verin and nod.

A hot pain spread through S
é
verin’s chest. No physical ache, but the ripping teeth of something cruel.
Hope
. He refused to show it. Instead, he forced a smile.

“Good. Now. To get the Horus Eye out of the vault, we have to focus on two things. First, finding the Eye’s exact location inside Kore’s vault.
For that, we’re going to need the catalogue coin so we’ll be paying a visit to our old friend, the House Kore courier. Thanks to Laila, we know exactly where he’ll be tomorrow.”

“The Palais des R
ê
ves,” said Laila, smiling.

Enrique made a high-pitched sound. “Wait, no! I want to go there! It’s the party of the year!”

Zofia frowned. “What’s so great about a party?”

“It’s going to be
lavish
,”
said Enrique, sighing.

“Who said I can get any of you in?” asked Laila.

“Wait wait wait …
How
, exactly, are you planning on getting the House Kore courier to part with his catalogue coin?” asked Enrique. “We couldn’t even find it when we needed it for the auction.”

“That’s where the Sphinx mask comes into play, courtesy of Zofia. I pose as a Sphinx. But I’ll need someone dressed as a S
û
ret
é
officer.”

The S
û
ret
é
was the detective branch of the armed forces. The only ones authorized to hold an Order member in for questioning. S
é
verin turned to Tristan, who groaned.

“Why
me
?”

“You have an excellent face.”

“What’s wrong with my face?” demanded Enrique. “Can I go?”

“He wants to go!” pointed out Tristan. “Why can’t he go?”

“Because I chose you.”

Enrique whined, “S
é
verin doesn’t
think I’m pretty.”

“S
é
verin, tell him he’s pretty,” said Laila.

S
é
verin crossed his arms. “Zofia, tell him he’s pretty.”

Zofia didn’t look up from her tea. “I am personally undecided, but if we’re assessing based on objectivity, then according to the principles of the golden ratio, also known as
phi
, which is approximately 1.618, your facial beauty is mathematically pleasing.”

“I’m swooning,”
grumbled Enrique.

“It has to be Tristan,” said S
é
verin. “It has to be an honest face. The kind that demands trust.”

S
é
verin heard a thud as Tristan kicked a table leg. A tiny temper tantrum could only mean he was partially persuaded. Tristan glared at him.

“Will it be during the day?”

“Night.”

“What about Goliath?”

Everyone sighed.

“Goliath has a very strict feeding schedule. He likes his
crickets exactly at midnight. Not before or after. Who’s going to feed him?”

“Isn’t Goliath big enough?” asked Laila.

“He’s probably the one eating all the birds in the garden,” said Enrique. “Have you noticed they’re all gone?”

Tristan cleared his throat. “
Who will feed Goliath?

Enrique raised his hand limply. “Me.”

But Tristan wasn’t done. “If I do this,
everyone
has to help me with my
next miniature project.”

Everyone groaned.

Tristan crossed his arms. “Fine, then I won’t do it—”


You win
,” said S
é
verin.

Tristan smugly sipped his cocoa.

“Getting the Eye’s location sets us up, but that leaves us with House Kore itself. Their Spring Festival is in two weeks’ time. Tristan is the only one of us who has been to House Kore multiple times for landscaping Forging, so he’ll handle
the external layout.”

“What about the invitations?” asked Enrique. “They were delivered months ago.”

“Hypnos will take care of it,” allowed S
é
verin. “He has to be good for something.”

“Our instruments can’t get past verit stone,” pointed out Zofia.

“She’s right,” said Enrique. “We’ll get stopped at the front door. The only thing that repels verit stone is
verit stone
. And it’s not like anyone
has a spare piece of verit lying around that would throw off the sensors.”

S
é
verin popped a clove into his mouth.

“Oh no,” said Enrique. “I hate when you do that. Now what?”

“I seem to recall you mentioning some North African artifact that purported similar properties.”

Enrique’s eyes went wide. “I had
no
idea you listened to me.”

“Surprise.”

“But, uh, yes … there’s an artifact I wanted
to examine, but it’s being kept under lock and key at an exhibition. It’s part of some exhibit on superstitions from the colonies, but it’s not going to open until the Exposition Universelle.”

“Very well.”

Enrique blinked. “Wait. Do you want
me
to break into the exhibition?”

“Of course not—”

“Thank God.”

“—Zofia is going with you.”


What?
” said Zofia and Enrique at the same time.

“I work
alone,” said Zofia.

Enrique rolled his eyes. “Most women kill to be alone with me.”

“I have learned that something does not have to be animate in order to use the word ‘kill,’” said Zofia. “Like how some people say ‘kill time.’ Perhaps these women you are referencing are killing their expectations?”

Tristan snorted half his cocoa, then looked at the clock and blanched.

“I have to go,” he said.
“I’ve got a commission due.”

Enrique sighed. “I need to do more research on the artifact. Zofia, you might as well come with me. You’ll need to know this too.”

Zofia scowled and slid off her chair, leaving S
é
verin and Laila in the kitchen. S
é
verin reached for his tea. He was glad the kitchen was bright and that they sat on opposite sides of a wide table. It wasn’t as though the circumstances
of that one night had ever repeated themselves, but every time he was alone with her, it was as if his thoughts slipped over a cliff … where images best left forgotten reared up like ghostly waves.

“Laila.”


Majnun
,” she said mildly.

Only Laila called him
Majnun
, or madman. Usually, it was said with something like affection, but her tone was cold.

S
é
verin looked around the kitchen. Laila preferred
warm, bubbling chaos in her workspace. Stained recipes papering the walls. Chipped mixing bowls that she insisted had soaked in happiness and were therefore superior to something new. Wooden spoons engraved with the names of the people she cared about, swinging and clanging from the ceiling. But today, everything looked pristine. Nothing on the surface. Everything tucked away. It was the
opposite of happy.

“You never learn,” she said, sipping her tea. “Perhaps this could have been avoided had you just let me read your correspondence.”

“The letter was Forged, there’s no way—”

“The
seal
was Forged. The paper itself was ordinary. I could have told you where it had been, how many homes it had traveled to before finding you. I could have told you it was a trap.”

She was right,
and he knew it. But sharing it with everyone would have only proven that he’d placed them in danger.

“What would you have me do?”

“I would have you trust me,” she said. “As I have trusted you.”

That trust was the reason why there was no contract or oath tattoo between them. Two years ago, Laila had saved his life by reading the pocket watch of a hotelier who wished him dead just so he could
take over the property. She’d proved her abilities to him by reading an old ouroboros pendant passed down from his father … and once she’d drawn out the depths of him, she’d offered her own secrets in return. She could have lorded her findings over him, but instead, she gave him a knife of his own, and that was how it was. The two of them smiling, the damning unknown things held like knives at each
other’s throats.

Barring Tristan, it was the most secure friendship he’d ever known.

“You’re making this a far greater deal than it is,” said S
é
verin.

One look at Laila, and he knew he’d said exactly the wrong thing.

“It’s my life, S
é
verin,” she said stonily. “And it means a great deal to me.”

He flushed. “I didn’t mean it like that—”

“I don’t care what you meant. I care about something
getting in the way of my search,” said Laila fiercely. “Your ego included.”

Always, Laila returned to her search for the Forged book with the answers to her existence, though not even Laila knew its contents. Just as she was unstoppable and relentless for the ones she loved, she embodied that with her search too. Nothing could hold her
back. Not the family she’d left behind in India and, some
day soon, not the family she’d made here.

“All I’m asking is that you trust us the way we trust you,” she said. “Do you know what I am?”

“Angry?” he tried, with a weak smile.

Laila was not amused. “I’m an instrument. I know that. You know that.”

“Don’t call yourself that—” he started.

But Laila spoke over him. “And yet you refuse to use me even when I ask it of you. So, it would seem like
you’re in need of reminding.”

Her hand darted forward, reaching for his wrist.

“Laila—” he warned.

“You spilled your box of cloves on your sleeves this morning. You hid one of Zofia’s incendiary devices in Hypnos’s hall. You stared at the bone clock in your office for nearly an hour. Want more? Because I can do more,” said Laila, her voice nearly breaking. “This suit was made by a woman who
sobbed into the cloth upon finding that she was pregnant out of wedlock. This suit—”


Stop
,” he said, standing so fast that his chair smacked the glass behind him.

He looked down to where her fingers still touched his wrist. Neither of them moved. He could hear her breath, shallow and fast, from across the table. Not once since they had agreed to work together three years ago had she read his
objects. At her touch, he felt dangerously exposed. He had to leave. Now.

“You’re not an instrument. Not to me,” he said, not looking at her. “But if you’re so insistent, then put yourself to use. Get me on that guest list to the Palais des R
ê
ves.”

AS EVENING APPROACHED,
S
é
verin heard commotions outside his office. This was nothing new. He ignored it and focused on the papers before him. For
some reason, he thought he could smell sugar and rosewater in the air. The perfume Laila kept in a rose quartz bottle. Morning and night, she’d swipe the crystal stopper across her wrists, down the line of her bronze throat. It was a faint scent … one he’d only caught when his lips had skimmed down her neck.

S
é
verin pinched the bridge of his nose.

Get the hell out of my head.

To one side of
his desk lay the blueprints of House Kore’s palatial layout. To the other side lay Zofia’s mock-up of a Sphinx mask. But then he heard a name called out in the corridor: “L’
É
nigme!”

Oh no
, thought S
é
verin.

“Leave us,” said an imperious voice.

Us
?

S
é
verin pushed back his chair, ready to cross the room and lock the door when Laila—not that anyone recognized her at the moment—entered. S
é
verin
had never seen her as L’
É
nigme. He never went to the cabaret. But he knew the rumors of her effect on the audience. Looking at her now, the rumors were a shadow to the reality. With her peacock headdress and mask, L’
É
nigme looked more myth than girl. Jewel-toned plumes swept down her back. Pale silk clung to her legs, Forged to billow as if an unseen wind was her constant companion. Her blouse
was little more than a corset of pearls.

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