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Three weeks before Winter Conclave …
Séverin Montagnet-Alarie looked out over what had once been the Seven Sins Garden. Rare, coveted blossoms once coated the grounds—milk-petaled aureum and chartreuse golden moss, skeleton hyacinths and night-blooming cereus. And yet, it was the roses that his brother, Tristan, loved most. They were the first seeds planted, and he’d fussed over them until their petals ripened red and their fragrance bloomed to create something that looked and smelled like melted sin.
Now, in late December, the grounds appeared stripped and barren. When Séverin breathed deep, cold seared through his lungs.
The grounds were almost scentless.
If he wanted, he could have asked his factotum to hire a gardener with a Forging affinity for plant matter, someone who could maintain the garden’s splendor, but he didn’t want a gardener. He wanted Tristan.
But Tristan was dead, and the Seven Sins Garden had died with him.
In its place lay a hundred Forged reflection pools. Their mirror-still surfaces held images of desert landscapes or skies quilted with dawn light when nighttime had already stolen across the grounds. The guests of L’Eden Hotel applauded his artistry, not knowing that it was shame, not artistry, that had guided Séverin. When he looked in those pools, he didn’t want to catch sight of his own face staring back at him.
Séverin turned to see one of his guards striding toward him.
“Is he ready?” asked Séverin.
“Yes, Monsieur. We arranged the room precisely as you requested. Your … guest … is inside the office outside the stables, just as you asked.”
“And do we have tea to serve our guest?”
Séverin took a deep breath, his nose wrinkling. The rose canes had been burned and yanked out at the root. The grounds had been salted. And yet, even months later, he still caught the phantom scent of roses.
* * *
SÉVERIN HEADED TOWARD a small building near the horse stables. As he walked, he touched Tristan’s old penknife, now tucked into his jacket pocket. No matter how many times he washed the blade, he still imagined he could feel the small bird feathers and bone splinters that had once clung to the metal, remnants of Tristan’s kills … proof of the twisted violence his brother had tried so hard to hide.
Sometimes he wished he’d never known. Maybe then he would have never gone to Laila’s room. All he’d wanted was to dissolve her ludicrous oath to act as his mistress during the Winter Conclave.
But he didn’t find her. Instead, he had found letters addressed to Tristan, and his brother’s gardening satchel—the same one Laila swore had gone missing—untied beside them.
I had thought not reading your objects was for the best, my dearest Tristan. But every day I ask myself if I might’ve caught the darkness inside you earlier. Perhaps, then, you might not have turned to those poor birds. I see it in the blade. All those kills. All your tears. I may not have understood all of you, but I love you wholeheartedly and pray you might forgive me—
Even before this, Séverin knew he’d failed in his only promise to Tristan: to protect him. Now he saw how deep that failure stretched. All he saw were paths not taken. Every time Tristan wept, and he’d left the room to give him privacy. Every time Tristan had furiously stomped into his greenhouse and stayed there for days. He should’ve gone. Instead, he let his brother’s demons feed on him.
When he read those letters, it wasn’t just Tristan’s dead stare that swam before his eyes but everyone’s gazes—Enrique, Zofia, Hypnos. Laila. He saw their eyes milky with death, death that he’d let happen because he hadn’t been enough to protect them. Hadn’t known how.
Eventually, Laila caught him in her rooms. He’d never quite remembered all that she’d said to him, except for her last words: “You cannot protect everyone from everything. You’re only human, Séverin.”
Séverin closed his eyes, his hand on the doorknob of the office.
“Then that must change.”
* * *
SÉVERIN CONSIDERED HIMSELF something of an artist when it came to interrogation.
It came down to the details, all of which needed to look coincidental rather than controlled: the chair with uneven legs; the room’s cloying scent of too-sweet flowers; the too-salty snacks provided earlier. Even the lighting. Concealed glass shards refracted the sunlight, casting glares on everything from the walls to the ceiling, so that only the wooden table laden with a warm and fragrant tea service earned notice.
“Comfortable?” asked Séverin, taking a seat across from the man.
The man flinched. “Yes.”
Séverin smiled, pouring himself tea. The man before him was thin and pale, with a hunted look to his face. He eyed the tea warily until Séverin took a long sip.
“Would you like some?” asked Séverin.
The man hesitated, then nodded.
“Why … why am I here? Are you…” his voice dropped to a whisper, “… are you with the Order of Babel?”
“In a fashion.”
Months after they broke into House Kore’s home, the Order of Babel had hired Séverin’s crew to find the Fallen House’s hidden treasure, rumored to be in an estate called the Sleeping Palace, though no one knew where that was. In exchange, Séverin would be allowed to catalogue and analyze these treasures for himself, a privilege unheard of outside the Order. Then again, he should have been one of them, but he no longer wanted that mantle. Not after Tristan.
The Order claimed they wanted the treasure to gut whatever power the Fallen House still had left … but Séverin knew better. The Fallen House had shown their cards. They were snakes that cast large shadows. Without their treasure, they would be irredeemably weakened, true, but the real reason behind the Order’s search was simple. The colonies brimmed with treasure—rubber in the Congo, silver in the Potosi Mines, spices in Asia. The lost wonders inside the Fallen House’s hoard were too tantalizing not to pursue, and Séverin knew the members of the Order would fall upon it like wolves. Which meant he had to get to it first. He didn’t care for its gold or silver, he wanted something far more precious:
The Divine Lyrics.
A treasure the Order would not even notice had gone missing, for it had always been considered lost. The lore of the Order of Babel held that The Divine Lyrics contained the secret for joining the world’s Babel Fragments. Once joined, the book could rebuild the Tower of Babel and thus access the power of God. It was an effort that had gotten the Fallen House exiled fifty years ago. And yet, the book had long been missing, or that was what everyone had thought …
Until Roux-Joubert’s tongue slipped.
After the battle in the catacombs, the captured Fallen House members proved to be useless informants. Each had not only taken their lives, but also burned off their faces and fingertips, thus escaping recognition. Only Roux-Joubert had failed. After he killed Tristan, he bit down instead of swallowing the suicide pill required to take his secrets to the grave. He had died slowly over weeks, and in a fit of madness began to speak.
“The doctor’s papa is a bad man,” he said, laughing hysterically. “You know all about bad fathers, Monsieur, you sympathize I am sure … oh how unkind … he will not let the doctor into the Sleeping Palace … but the book is there, waiting for him. He will find it. He will give us life after death…”
He? The question haunted Séverin, but there was no surviving record of the last Fallen House patriarch, and though the Order seemed disappointed the Sleeping Palace could not be found … at least they felt reassurance in the knowledge the Fallen House could not find it either.
Only he and Hypnos, the patriarch of House Nyx, had continued searching, scouring records and receipts, hunting for any inconsistencies which eventually led them to the man who sat in front of Séverin. An old, shriveled man who had managed to hide for a very long time.
“I have paid my dues,” said the man. “I was not even part of the Fallen House, merely one of its many solicitors. And I told the Order before that when the House fell, they gave me a draught, and I remember nothing of its secrets. Why drag me here? I have no information worth knowing.”
Séverin set down his teacup. “I believe you can lead me to the Sleeping Palace.”
The man scoffed. “No one has seen it in—”
“Fifty years, I know,” said Séverin. “It’s well hidden, I understand. But my contacts tell me the Fallen House created a special pair of lenses. Tezcat spectacles, to be precise, which reveal the location of the Sleeping Palace and all its delicious treasures.” Séverin smiled. “However, they entrusted these spectacles to a unique person, someone who does not know what they guard.”
The man gaped at him.
“H-how—” He caught himself, then cleared his throat. “The Tezcat spectacles are mere rumor. I certainly don’t possess them. I know nothing, Monsieur. I swear on my life.”
“Poor choice of words,” said Séverin.
He removed Tristan’s penknife from his pocket, tracing the initials on it: T.M.A. Tristan had lost his surname, and so Séverin had shared his. At the base of the knife was an ouroboros, a snake biting its tail. It was once the symbol of House Vanth, the House he might have been patriarch of—if things had gone according to plan … if that dream of inheritance had not killed the person closest to him. Now it was a symbol of all he would change.
He knew that even if they found The Divine Lyrics, it would not be enough to protect the others … They’d wear targets on their backs for the rest of their lives, and that was unacceptable. And so, Séverin had nurtured a new dream. He dreamt of that night in the catacombs, when Roux-Joubert had smeared golden blood over his mouth; the sensation of his spine elongating, making room for sudden wings. He dreamt of the pressure in his forehead, the horns that bloomed and arced, lacquered tips brushing the tops of his ears.
We could be gods.
That was what The Divine Lyrics promised. If he had the book, he could be a god. A god did not know human pain or loss or guilt. A god could resurrect. He could share the book’s powers with the others, turn them invincible … protect them forever. And when they left him—as he knew they’d always planned to—he wouldn’t feel a thing.
For he would not be human.
“Are you going to stab me with that?” demanded the man, pushing back violently from the table. “How old are you, Monsieur? In your twenties? Don’t you think think that is too young to have such blood on your hands?”
“I’ve never known blood to discriminate between ages,” said Séverin, tilting the blade. “But I won’t stab you. What’s the point when I’ve already poisoned you?”
The man’s eyes flew to the tea. Sweat beaded on his brow. “You’re lying. If you poisoned the tea, then you’d be poisoned too.”
“Most assuredly,” said Séverin. “But the poison wasn’t the tea. It was your cup’s porcelain coating. Now.” From his pocket, he withdrew a clear vial and placed it on the table. “The antidote is right here. Is there really nothing you wish to tell me?”
* * *
TWO HOURS LATER, Séverin poured sealing wax onto several envelopes—one to be sent out immediately, the others to be sent out in two days. A small part of him hesitated, but he steeled himself. He was doing this for them. For his friends. The more he cared about their feelings, the harder his task became. And so he endeavored to feel nothing at all.
Copyright © 2020 by Roshani Chokshi