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One week earlier …
Séverin glanced at the clock: two minutes left.
Around him, the masked members of the Order of Babel whipped out white fans, murmuring to themselves as they eagerly awaited the final auction bidding.
Séverin tipped back his head. On the frescoed ceiling, dead gods fixed the crowd with flat stares. He fought not to look at the walls, but failed. The symbols of the remaining two Houses of the French faction hemmed him on all sides. Crescent moons for House Nyx. Thorns for House Kore.
The other two symbols had been carefully lifted out of the design.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Order, our spring auction is at its close,” announced the auctioneer. “Thank you for bearing witness to this extraordinary exchange. As you know, the objects of this evening’s auction have been rescued from far-flung locales like the deserts of North Africa and dazzling palaces of Indo-Chine. Once more, we give thanks and honor to the two Houses of France who agreed to host this spring’s auction. House Nyx, we honor you. House Kore, we honor you.”
Séverin raised his hands, but refused to clap. The long scar down his palm silvered beneath the chandelier light, a reminder of the inheritance he had been denied.
Séverin, last of the Montagnet-Alarie line and heir to House Vanth, whispered its name anyway. House Vanth, I honor you.
Ten years ago, the Order had declared the line of House Vanth dead.
The Order had lied.
While the auctioneer launched into a long-winded speech about the hallowed and burdensome duties of the Order, Séverin touched his stolen mask. It was a tangle of metal thorns and roses gilded with frost, Forged so the ice never melted and the roses never wilted. The mask belonged to the House Kore courier who, if Séverin’s dosage had been correct, was currently drooling in a lavish suite at his hotel, L’Eden.
According to his intelligence, the object he had come here for would be on the auction block any moment now. He knew what would happen next. Light bidding would take place, but everyone suspected House Nyx had fixed the round to win the object. And though House Nyx would win, that artifact was going home with Séverin.
The corner of his lips tipped into a smile as he raised his fingers. At once, a glass from the champagne chandelier floating above him broke off and sailed into his hand. He lifted the flute to his lips, not sipping, but once more noting the ballroom’s layout and exits just over the glass rim. Tiers of pearly macarons in the shape of a giant swan marked the east exit. There, the young heir of House Nyx, Hypnos, drained a champagne flute and motioned for another. Séverin had not spoken to Hypnos since they were young. As children, they had been something of playmates and rivals, both raised almost identically, both groomed to take their fathers’ rings.
But that was a lifetime ago.
Séverin forced his gaze from Hypnos and looked instead to the lapis-blue columns guarding the south exit. At the west, four Sphinx authorities stood motionless in their suits and crocodile masks.
They were the reason no one could steal from the Order. The mask of a Sphinx could sniff out and follow any trace of an object that had been House-marked by a matriarch’s or patriarch’s ring.
But Séverin knew that all the artifacts came to the auction clean, and were only House-marked at the auction’s conclusion when they were claimed. Which left a few precious moments between time of sale and time of claiming in which an object could be stolen. And no one, not even a Sphinx, would be able to trace where it had gone.
A vulnerable unmarked object was not, however, without its protections.
Séverin glanced at the north end, diagonally from him, toward the holding room—the place where all unmarked objects awaited their new owners. At the entrance crouched a gigantic quartz lion. Its crystalline tail whipped lazily against the marble floor.
A gong rang. Séverin looked to the podium where a light-skinned man had stepped onto the stage.
“Our final object is one we are most delighted to showcase. Salvaged from the Summer Palace of China in 1860, this compass was Forged sometime during the Han Dynasty. Its abilities include navigating the stars and detecting lies from truth,” said the auctioneer. “It measures twelve by twelve centimeters, and weighs 1.2 kilograms.”
Above the auctioneer’s head, a hologram of the compass shimmered. It looked like a rectangular piece of metal, with a spherical indentation at its center. Chinese characters crimped the metal on all sides.
The list of the compass’s abilities was impressive, but it was not the compass that intrigued him. It was the treasure map hidden inside. Out the corner of his eye, Séverin watched Hypnos clap his hands together eagerly.
“Bidding starts at five hundred thousand francs.”
A man from the Italian faction raised his fan.
“Five hundred thousand to Monsieur Monserro. Do I see—”
Hypnos raised his hand.
“Six hundred thousand,” said the auctioneer. “Six hundred thousand going once, twice—”
The members began to talk amongst themselves. There was no point trying in a fixed round.
“Sold!” said the auctioneer with forced cheer. “To House Nyx for six hundred thousand. Patriarch Hypnos, at the conclusion of the auction, please have your House courier and designated servant sent to the holding room for the customary eight-minute appraisal. The object will be waiting in the designated vessel where you may mark it with your ring.”
Séverin waited a moment before excusing himself. He walked briskly along the edges of the atrium until he made it to the quartz lion. Behind the lion stretched a darkened hall lined with marble pillars. The quartz lion’s eyes slid indifferently to him, and Séverin fought the urge to touch his stolen mask. Disguised as the House Kore courier, he was allowed to enter the holding room and touch a single object for exactly eight minutes. He hoped the stolen mask would be enough to get him past the lion, but if the lion asked to see his catalogue coin for verification—a Forged coin that held the location of every object in House Kore’s possession—he’d be dead. He hadn’t been able to find the dratted thing anywhere on the courier.
Séverin bowed before the quartz lion, then held still. The lion did nothing. Its unblinking gaze burned his face as moments ticked past. His breath started to feel sticky in his lungs. He hated how much he wanted this artifact. There were so many wants inside him that he doubted there was room for blood in his body.
Séverin didn’t look up from the floor until he heard it—the scrape of stones rearranging. He let out his breath. His temples pulsed as the door to the holding room appeared. Without the lion’s permission, the Forged door would have remained unseen.
All along the walls of the holding room, marble statues of gods and creatures from myth leaned out of recessed niches. Séverin walked straight to a marble figure of the snarling, bull-headed minotaur. Séverin raised his pocket knife to the statue’s flared nostrils. Warm breath fogged the Forged blade. In one smooth line, Séverin dragged the blade’s tip down the statue’s face and body. It split open; the marble hissed and steamed as his historian stumbled out of it and fell against him. Enrique gasped, shaking himself.
“You hid me in a minotaur? Why couldn’t Tristan make a hiding dimension in a handsome Greek god?”
“His affinity is for liquid matter. Stone is difficult for him,” said Séverin, pocketing the knife. “So it was either the minotaur or an Etruscan vase decorated with bull testicles.”
Enrique shuddered. “Honestly. Who looks at a vase covered in bull testicles and says, ‘You. I must have you.’?”
“The bored, the rich, and the enigmatic.”
Enrique sighed. “All my life aspirations.”
The two of them turned to the circle of treasure, many of them Forged ancient relics looted from temples and palaces. Statues and strands of jewels, measuring devices and telescopes.
At the back of the room, an onyx bear representing House Nyx glowered at them, its jaws cracked wide. Beside it, an emerald eagle representing House Kore shook its wings. Animals representing the other Order factions all around the world stood at attention, including a brown bear carved of fire opal for Russia, a wolf sculpted of beryl for Italy, even an obsidian eagle for the German Empire.
Enrique dug inside his costume of an Order servant and pulled out a rectangular piece of metal identical to the compass House Nyx had won.
Séverin took the fake artifact.
“Still waiting on my thanks, you know,” huffed Enrique. “It took me ages to research and assemble that.”
“It would have taken less time if you didn’t antagonize Zofia.”
“It’s inevitable. If I breathe, your engineer is prepared to launch warships.”
“Then hold your breath.”
“That should be easy enough,” said Enrique, rolling his eyes. “I do it every time we acquire a new piece.”
Séverin laughed. Acquiring was what he called his particular hobby. It sounded … aristocratic. Wholesome, even. He had the Order to thank for his acquisition habit. After denying his claim as heir of House Vanth, they’d blackballed him from every auction house, so he could not legally purchase Forged antiquities. If they hadn’t done that, perhaps he wouldn’t have gotten so curious about what objects they were keeping him from in the first place. Some of those objects were, as it turned out, his family’s possessions. After the Montagnet-Alarie line was declared dead, all the possessions of House Vanth had been sold. In the months after Séverin turned sixteen and liquidated his legal trust, he had reclaimed each and every one. After that, he’d offered his acquisition services to international museums and colonial guilds, any organization that wished to take back what the Order had first stolen.
If the rumors about the compass were right, it might allow him to blackmail the Order, and then he could acquire the only thing he still wanted: his House.
“You’re doing it again,” said Enrique.
“That whole nefarious-whilst-looking-into-the-distance thing. What are you hiding, Séverin?”
“You and your secrets.”
“Secrets keep my hair lustrous,” said Séverin, running his hand through his curls. “Shall we?”
Enrique nodded. “Room check.”
He tossed a Forged sphere into the air where it hung, suspended. Light burst from the object, sliding down the walls and over the objects to scan them.
“No recording devices.”
At Séverin’s nod, they positioned themselves before the onyx bear of House Nyx. It stood on a raised dais, its jaws parted enough so the red velvet box holding the Chinese compass shone bright as an apple. The moment Séverin touched the box, he had less than eight minutes to return it. Or—his gaze went to the beast’s shining teeth—the creature would take it back forcefully.
He removed the red box. At the same time, Enrique drew out a pair of scales. First, they weighed the box with the original compass, then marked the number before preparing to switch it with the decoy.
Enrique cursed. “Off by a hair. But it should work. The difference is hardly discernible by the scales.”
Séverin’s jaw clenched. It didn’t matter if it was hardly discernible by the scales. It mattered if the difference was discernible to the onyx bear. But he’d come too far to back away now.
Séverin placed the box in the bear’s mouth, pushing it in until his wrist disappeared. Onyx teeth scraped against his arm. The statue’s throat was cool and dry, and entirely too still. His hand shook.
“Are you breathing?” whispered Enrique. “I’m definitely not.”
“Not helping,” growled Séverin.
Now he was up to his elbow. The bear was rigid. It didn’t even blink.
Why hasn’t it accepted the box?
A creaking sound lit up the silence. Séverin jerked his hand back. Too late. The bear’s teeth lengthened in a blink, forming narrow little bars. Enrique took one look at Séverin’s trapped hand, turned pale, and bit out a single word: “Shit.”
Copyright © 2018 by Roshani Chokshi