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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.
Copyright © 2018 by Roshani Chokshi