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Authors: Roshani Chokshi

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Laila took a couple steps forward, pausing long enough to let the growing crowd outside the hall see her hand slide up his arm.

“I wanted to surprise you,” she said silkily. Then she turned to face the open door and the growing crowd of curious faces. “Are we to have an audience?”

Someone pulled the door shut.

The moment the door closed, S
é
verin stepped
out of her reach.
He glanced at the closed door. Behind it, gossip had probably infested the halls.

“What?”

He didn’t trust himself to speak more than that.

“You asked me to get you on the guest list. Voil
à
.”

Laila draped herself in one of the study chairs, then took off the headdress. At her touch, the Forged peacock plumes shrank into a green, silk choker with a resin pendant. Laila pulled
her hair to one side as she fiddled with the clasp of her necklace.

“It keeps coming undone,” she said, frowning. “I think Enrique clasped it wrong. Help me?”

Every line of her body seemed relaxed. Their fight had passed. It wasn’t their first clash, and it wouldn’t be their last, and so neither of them bothered to apologize. S
é
verin moved behind her.

“Explain how that display gets me on the
guest list?” he asked, taking the clasp in hand.

“All courtesans are allowed to invite a lover to stay in their private chambers during a performance,” she said. “Tonight, that man is you.” His fingers slipped, and Laila tensed.

“I haven’t forgotten the promise we made,” she said lightly.

A year and a half ago, he’d told her, “We can’t do this again.”

And she’d replied, “I know.”

He had a
House to reclaim, a whole future to lift out of the dark. He’d had girls in his bed before, but nothing like that night. Nothing that made him, for a moment, forget who he was. Who he was supposed to be.

No fancy was worth his future.

Since then, neither of them had mentioned the promise they’d struck. Both of them pretended that it never happened, and they’d succeeded. They could work together.
They could be friends. They could move on.

“This is just a planted rumor,” said Laila quickly. “I’ll be sure to appear with someone else the next night and thus free you of any association.”

He didn’t like how his thoughts snagged on the word “tonight.”

As he finished clasping her necklace, his thumb brushed against the nape of her neck. Laila shivered, leaning forward. The top of the long
scar next to her spine peeked out over the collar.

“Your hands are frigid,” she said, scowling. “What kind of lover has cold hands?”

“One who makes up for temperature with talent.”

He meant it jokingly, but his voice came out too rough. Laila turned in her seat. Unthinkingly, his eyes went to her mouth. She’d gotten ready in a hurry. A faint dust of white caught the edge of her red lip.
Sugar
dust.
Had she been baking when time got away from her? Or was it on purpose? An invitation for someone else to taste?

A burst of red light on his desk made them jump apart.

Laila startled, then winced. Her hand was stuck to the edge of the desk.

“I must have touched it by accident.”

S
é
verin’s desk was Forged to answer only to his handprint. If anyone else touched it while it was activated,
they would be stuck. He walked over, pressing his palm to the jade table. The red glow subsided, and Laila snatched back her hand. S
é
verin didn’t know what to say. The air was so full of her there was barely enough to draw into his lungs.

“The words you’re looking for,
Majnun
, are ‘thank you,’” said Laila, rising out of the chair.

And then she headed to the door. Right before Laila reached for
the handle, she touched her choker. Her Forged headdress unraveled, twining sinuously across her face and stealing whatever expression had flickered there. Once more, S
é
verin sat at his desk.

The words you’re looking for,
Majnun,
are “thank you
.

Laila was almost always right, a fact that he would not admit to her even on pain of death.

But today she was wrong.

 

8
LAIL
A

Laila was beginning to panic.

First, she had less than two hours before her performance at the Palais des R
ê
ves. Second, she hadn’t picked up her new gown at the couturier, and there was bound to be a line for her favorite tailor. Third, she could not find her Forged choker anywhere, and she refused to leave without it. The necklace held her peacock headdress, and if she didn’t
wear it, someone might recognize her.

Laila tossed aside one of the many pillows on her bed, then shook the gauzy drapes of her canopy.

“Where is it?” she said aloud. “Did you take it?”

“Why do
I
always get the blame?” demanded Tristan.

He was sprawled facedown on her bedroom floor. One of her pillows was propped under his chin as he painstakingly arranged her whole perfume collection in a
line in front of him. Laila recognized every bottle except one, a glass sphere holding a number of black marbles.

“You
could
make yourself useful and help me,” she grumbled. “What’re you doing in here anyway? You have your own room.”

“I’m researching,” he shot back.

“Can you research somewhere else?”

“If I go to Zofia’s lab, she’ll give me a math lesson. If I go to Enrique’s office, he’ll
give me a history lesson.”

“What about S
é
verin?”

Tristan made a face. Laila knew what that meant—the two boys were fighting. Typical.

“You know he cares about you, don’t you?” asked Laila.

Tristan ignored her. He reached forward, unstoppering one of her fragrances and taking a whiff. He grimaced.

“This one smells like a dying whale.”

Laila snatched the perfume bottle out of his hand.

“I
like that one,” she said primly.

She looked at her bedroom floor. There were silks from former costumes that she was thinking about turning into drapes, baskets full of unfinished necklaces, an entire assembly line of shoes, and a couple of sketches from the cabaret artists who had drawn her onstage.

Laila tugged on a strand of her hair, agitated. “I can’t leave without my choker. I thought
it was right—”

A pale glint of ribbon—just behind Tristan—caught her eye. Laila plucked it off the floor and dangled it in front of Tristan.

“Tristan! It was
right
next to you! You couldn’t look?”

He blinked at her, wide-eyed. “Sorry?”

“You are
not
sorry,” she huffed.

Laila spun on her heel, but the heel slipped … She fell backward. Tristan tried to catch her, but he didn’t move fast enough,
and her head thudded painfully against the floor. Tristan shoved a pillow under her scalp. “Laila! Are you all right?”

As she tried to push herself into a seated position, her arm knocked the glass sphere holding the small, black marbles.

“My experiment!” cried out Tristan.

The glass sphere shattered. Instead of scattering on the floor, the black marbles bounced into the air. She looked up,
her lips parted in shock as she stared at the hovering marbles. In a flash, they crashed down. Laila tried to shield her face, but one of them slipped past her lips. She instantly spat it out, and plumes of ink burst into the air, dousing her in thick shadows.


Tristan!
” she hollered.

Laila heard a scuffling sound right in front of her. She couldn’t tell from what since she couldn’t see anything.
But then, in a voice that was unmistakably Tristan’s, she heard, “Uh-oh.”

ONE HOUR LATER,
Laila was sitting in her carriage and wiping at a smudge of ink on her thumb.

The black marbles, it turned out, were Tristan’s newest Forged invention, combining cuttlefish ink and the cellulose within plant cells. When held in the mouth and spat out, they created a nighttime effect. Hence their name:
Night Bites. They had the ability to drench someone in ink and choke off their vision for nearly twenty minutes. This was a very useful thing when one was fighting enemies. It was not very useful when one was supposed to perform before a crowded audience in a matter of hours. At least Zofia had been there to mix a chemical solution to wipe off the ink. Enrique had also “helped,” but he mostly laughed
while Tristan ran around in circles shouting, “sorrysorrysorry.”

As her carriage jostled along the cobblestone road, Laila leaned out the window. In her headdress and mask, she was instantly recognizable. Even her carriage—which boasted a wrought-iron train
shaped like peacock feathers—was meant to announce her presence. She preferred it that way. Being loud in one life allowed her to be quiet
in others.

Paris expected drama from L’
É
nigme. L’
É
nigme burned jewels from ex-lovers (they were actually cleverly designed paste courtesy of Zofia). L’
É
nigme had rivals (all of whom were friends who agreed on a predetermined schedule of “spats” for the public). L’
É
nigme was a princess exiled for falling in love with a British nobleman; a demoness let loose upon the streets of Paris. L’
É
nigme
was a heartless temptress who danced because the snap of some poor man’s heart between her teeth was far better than any coin.

L’
É
nigme was Laila, but Laila was not L’
É
nigme.

The carriage pulled to a stop before 7, rue de la Paix, the fashionable address of Paris’s renowned couturier. Other carriages stopped too. Women in various states of costume, plumed hats, and jewel-studded reticules stepped
outside, lingering just long enough so the crowd knew where they were entering.

Even though it was unseasonably cold for spring, Laila made a show of shrugging off her black mink pelt. The fur slid down part of her shoulder, exposing the bejeweled strap of her
La Nuit et Les
É
toiles
costume. The Night and the Stars.

Dusk drew a shroud of velvet across the rue de la Paix. Faint music melted into
the sound of horse hooves on stone. In the distance, the Place Vend
ô
me column looked like a needle that had punctured the sky and stolen its rain. The slicked streets drank in the lantern light, painting streaks of gold down the cobblestones. Around Laila, the crowd surged, loud questioning taking place over the cheers and shouts of admiration.

“L’
É
nigme! Did you hear that La Belle Otero burned
peacock feathers on her stage last night?”

“L’
É
nigme!” shouted one man. “Is it true that you and La Belle Otero are no longer speaking?”

Laila laughed, covering her mouth with a gloved hand. Her Forged snake rings slithered down her fingers. “La Belle Otero can do many fabulous things with her mouth. Speaking is not one of them.”

The crowd gasped. Some scolded her. Others laughed and repeated
it. Laila paid them no mind. It was as she and Carolina wanted. Carolina, known by the public as La Belle Otero, had devised the insult herself. The star of the Folies Berg
è
re was a stunning performer, but an even more brilliant strategist when it came to publicity. They had come up with the plan last month over tea. Laila made a mental note to send Carolina her favorite box of dried pineapples.

Inside the salon, Laila walked briskly over the parquet floors and past the tall mirrors. As she walked, she heard the soft murmur of rumors chasing her shadow: “Did you hear who she took as a lover?”

All her “lovers” were either made up or spoken of as favors for male friends who had no interest in taking women to bed. It was a rule she’d kept since she arrived in France.

Only once had she
broken it.

With S
é
verin.

Just once she’d let an attraction turn to an indulgence. What was one time? That was the thought she held on to when she drew him to her. Lust was one thing, but what she’d felt that night was a pull … the kind that keeps stars from falling out of the night sky. It was vast. It was unlike what she’d imagined.

It was a mistake.

In the salon, Forged dresses floated down
a crystal runway, the fabrics rippling and stretching as if an invisible human body moved them. Couturiers clambered up ladders, hoisting yards of stiff, jewel-
toned crinoline or bolts of Forged silk that mimicked anything from a late autumn sky to a smoky twilight flecked with dimming stars.

Her couturier greeted her at the entrance.

“Is my evening gown ready?” she asked.

“Of course, Mademoiselle!
You will love it!” he said. “I worked on it all night long.”

“And it will match my costume?”

“Yes, yes,” he assured her.

Though her Night and Stars costume wouldn’t change, she needed an evening gown for her entrance to the Palais des R
ê
ves revolutionary party. The couturier ushered her to a dressing room. Inside, a Forged chandelier of champagne rotated above her. One flute broke off from
its companions and drifted down to her hand. Laila held it, but did not drink.

“Voil
à
!” said the man.

He clapped his hands, and a gown glided into her dressing room. It was ivory satin, with puffed sleeves, a crescent neckline beaded with small pearls, and a black lattice overlay that looked like iron scrollwork. She touched it lightly. At once, the scrollwork twisted, and the black silk lattice
seamlessly melded into a new pattern of inky florals.

“Exquisite,” she breathed.

“And perfectly themed for the Exposition Universelle,” he added. “I have modeled it after the tiered lattices of la Tour Eiffel. I will leave Mademoiselle to evaluate my handiwork. I do hope if Mademoiselle likes her garment, she might consider walking out of the store while wearing it?”

Laila already knew her
answer was yes. But her diva persona ruled her for the evening.

She shrugged. “I shall inspect it for myself and decide.”

The couturier hid his grimace behind a well-practiced smile. “Of course.”

And with that, he left her and the dress. When she was sure he had gone, Laila set down her champagne flute on the small ivory table and began to undress. She wished there were not so many mirrors.

She hated looking at her body.

In the mirrors, her ruined back was reflected a thousand times over. Gingerly, Laila reached over her shoulder, tracing the scar, pushing herself to
read
her own body. Each time she tried, she came away with nothing. Each time, she breathed a sigh of relief. She could read only objects. Not people. Did that mean she was truly human? Or was her own body mute in the
way she could read any object except one that had been Forged?

It was a question she had asked her mother every night in India. Before bed, her mother would rub sweet almond oil onto her back, massaging the scar tissue.

“It will fade,” she said.

“And then I’ll be real?” Laila would ask.

Her mother’s hands always stilled when she asked that question. “You are real, my girl, for you are loved.”

Her father’s hands had not always been so kind. He did not always know what to make of her. His crafted child.

Perhaps it was because she looked nothing like her parents. She had the dark eyes of a cygnet, an uncanny shade of animal black, and glossy hair like the wet pelt of a jungle cat. That had been what the
jaadugar
used after all. A chick stolen from a swan’s nest and an unlucky beast trapped
in a ditch.

The rest of her had been lifted from a child’s grave.

In India, those with the Forging affinity were called magicians.
Jaadugars
. For a price, they could perform complicated Forging tech
niques. It was said the
jaadugars
of Pondicherry were especially skilled in obscure arts because they possessed an ancient book in a language no longer spoken. Supposedly, the book held the secrets
of Forging the likes of which rivaled the powers of the gods themselves.

The
jaadugar
her parents visited was skilled in crafting a new body from broken ones. He could even tease out the consciousness and transfer it to a new vessel. Which was exactly what her parents had asked for when they had brought her—stillborn at birth—to the
jaadugar
’s hut outside the town.

Years later, Laila was told
that if she had been brought to the
jaadugar
even an hour later, her soul would have unraveled for good. This was a fact her mother loved to remember and her father longed to forget.

They had asked for the beautiful girl they dreamed their daughter would become, and ended up with her. Red and screaming as any newborn. She became stunning, true, but she always bore that seam along her spine. As
if she had been sewn together.

When her mother died, her father changed. He turned direction when he saw her, took his meals in his room, barely spoke to her except when she stood in front of him. Laila watched her father grow scared of her and took to wrapping her hands, so that she would not frighten him with her abilities. Her mother called her ability a gift. Her father called it a consequence
of her making, for they’d never heard of someone with her gifts. It wasn’t until she was sixteen and all her friends were preparing for weddings or agreeing to betrothals that she confronted her father.

One evening, she showed him the bangles her mother had left behind. “Father, may I wear these after you arrange my wedding?”

Her father sat in the dark, his eyes distant. When he looked at her,
he laughed.

“Wedding?”
he asked. He pointed at the length of her body. “The
jaadugar
who made you said his work won’t hold past your nineteenth birthday, child. What’s the point of arranging a marriage? Besides, you’re a made girl, not even real. Who would have you?”

Those words chased Laila to the ashram of the
jaadugars
, but the man who had crafted her body was long dead, and the book of secrets
they had guarded had been stolen … taken to a place called Paris by an organization known as the Order of Babel.

She combed for clues to the book’s whereabouts in every object she read, but so far her search had proven fruitless. If she could only have direct access to the Order’s knowledge, she was certain she’d find it immediately. She couldn’t do that, however, unless she had a patriarch at
her side. Acquiring the Horus Eye meant she finally would. It was the twisted humor of fate that the patriarch should be the only one who’d ever made her forget she was a crafted thing with an expiration date hanging over her head. Which was all the more reason to pretend that night had never happened.

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