Dominion, p.22
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       Dominion, p.22

           John Connolly
 

  “Are the children well?” Ani now asked Krake.

  “Very well. Little Syrene is already talking about becoming a Sister. She’s only seven!”

  “Well, you know there’s a place for her as soon as she is old enough, if you can bear to part with her. We’d be honored to welcome her. And what of the baby, Gradus?”

  Ani tried not to wince as she said the name. It was one thing naming a child after Syrene—after all, at the time of the child’s birth, Syrene had been Archmage, and Krake would have been anxious to remain in her good graces—but naming his son after her first, and now deceased, husband was quite another. It said much about the limits of Krake’s power that nobody of any consequence was naming children after him.

  She let Krake rattle on about his young son as they slowly made their way from the anteroom into the chamber where their official meetings always took place. It was a vast space, carved out of a mountainous chunk of deep blue crystal that jutted at an angle from the ground, as if it had burst from the earth aeons before. Whether it had, or if it was but a whimsical piece of architecture, Ani could not say—the chamber was ancient, its origins unknown—but the effect was startling. Its jagged spires cut into the air, fading from deepest ocean blue through sapphire to the palest aquamarine, and then the topmost shards melted into clear glass, letting in sunlight dappled with shadows of violet. They were striking surroundings, but that was of no consequence to Krake. It was obvious to Ani why he chose these rooms, and only these rooms, for her meetings with him; they were in a direct line of sight from the Tree of Lights, the shining skyscraper that was home to five thousand of Illyr’s most wealthy and powerful citizens. Those peering curiously out of their Tree of Light windows toward the presidential palace of Opula—perhaps scanning it with their spyglasses—were more than likely to glimpse Krake in the blue room beneath the clear shards of the roof, talking to the female in telltale red. It offered visible proof that he was having yet another private audience with the public face of the mighty Sisterhood, and evidence of his importance.

  As if to confirm Ani’s suspicions, Krake now sat with his big face in a shaft of light, carefully angled toward the Tree, and insisted that Ani was seated with her back to it, her silver hair catching the lazy Illyr sun, the sweep of her red cape on vibrant display down the back of her chair like the tail of a bloodied peacock.

  She tossed her head: let them look. Let Krake think that he mattered more than he did: such displays wouldn’t cause the cleverest Illyri, the ones who really mattered, to alter their view of the puppet President. When compared to everything else Ani had to contend with, stroking Krake’s ego was but a piece of grit in her shoe. She knew this and so she tolerated him. Anyway, she reasoned, she would have her reward later. She glanced surreptitiously toward Garin, and immediately looked away again to hide her secret pleasure. It was the only true inducement for keeping up this charade of consultation with Krake.

  As usual, Krake had nothing of interest to share with Ani. He merely told her of developments about which she already knew, and of secrets to which she was already privy. No matter—at the very least, her presence here was a reminder of the influence of the Sisterhood. It would also serve as a useful check to Krake’s deputy, Vice President Dyer, who was the true power in the government of Illyr. Ani’s regular visits to Illyr served notice to Dyer that the young Archmage of the Nairene Sisterhood was not content merely to be a passive observer, but was an active participant in Illyri life, and a figure of power in the ongoing conflict.

  Dyer was a shrewd Diplomat, but, more importantly, he had cargo on board, for one of the Others lived in his head. Krake was little better than the greeter at an upmarket restaurant, but Dyer—Dyer was something else. When he and Ani met it was always by design disguised as accident, on both their parts, and they circled each other politely, giving a little here, getting a little there, holding their proverbial cards tightly to their chests, and playing their hands carefully. In public, at banquets and balls, both kept up the charade that Krake was in charge. In private, his name was rarely mentioned between them.

  “And how, Archmage, is my old friend Syrene?” asked Krake as the conversation foundered. “Do you see much of her now that she has sequestered herself in the Marque? The Archmage was so very involved in our processes, and so very social. The Sisterhood must miss her terribly. I know that down here we certainly do.”

  “Do you, now?” said Ani coolly, and Krake squirmed as she lanced him with a stare. “I remind you, sir, that Mage Syrene elected to remove herself from public life in order that she might dedicate the remainder of her days to the pursuit of deeper, more profound knowledge. It was her choice, as was I as her replacement, selected by her personally. And as far as the Sisterhood is concerned, we can only benefit from the Mage’s selfless immersion in learning, even amid her personal grief.”

  “Ah yes, of course. Poor Andrus. That was shocking, just shocking . . .”

  And it had been, although Ani preferred not to dwell on the death of the former Governor of Great Britain, and the father of the girl who had once been her closest friend, Syl Hellais. The Other that was wrapped around Andrus’s brain stem—implanted in him by Syrene, as a means of making Andrus hers—had been driven into an apparently inexplicable frenzy at about the time of Syrene’s retreat from public life, with the result that Syl’s father had died of a massive, explosive hemorrhage to the brain. Those at the Opera House with whom he had been sharing a bottle—or several—of cremos at the time of the incident had needed treatment for shock. One witness, the career politician Sevi, still carried a disinfectant cloth with her at all times, and obsessively wiped imaginary gore from her permanently horrified face. Needless to say, her career was not what it once had been. Few knew the true cause of Andrus’s death, though. Officially, it was blamed on an undiagnosed illness caused by a bacterial infection from his time on Earth.

  Ani wondered how much of the truth was known to Krake. She wasn’t certain what he knew about the Others, or whether he had simply chosen not to know. Sometimes she wondered if Krake might not be cleverer than he was given credit for, although Merida assured her that this was not the case.

  “But of course, Syrene did tell me personally of her intention to retire before it was made public,” boasted Krake, “and she whispered your name as her choice of successor. She regularly confided in me, and I like to think that you and I continue this special relationship, Archmage Ani.”

  “Naturally,” said Ani, who shared no confidences with Krake that she would not also have broadcast on every available Illyri channel of communication.

  The President preened for a while longer, talking of nothing, as Garin watched Ani quietly over his boss’s shoulder, occasionally pulling a face. She thought she might laugh, so, as soon as it seemed decent, she asked to be shown to her quarters, suggesting that the President had given her rather a lot to mull over, and it would take her some time to process the ramifications of this new information.

  “I need to make some notes now, to let all of this sink in,” she said solemnly. “I’d also like to discuss what you’ve told me with my aides. But may I again express my deep personal gratitude for your efforts, President Krake? You are unfailingly generous with your time and expertise. And please know that I will quite understand if you don’t have the time to spare for luncheon this afternoon. I realize how busy and in demand you are, and I have already monopolized you for far too long.”

  Please cancel, she thought, please just cancel.

  “Fear not, Your Eminence,” he said, expansively, “for I have allowed myself a little time later, and I am very much looking forward to dining with you, though your humility is charming.”

  Oh. Oh damn.

  “Wonderful,” she said, and she hoped that her face did not give the lie to the word. Just to be safe, she clouded a little as she smiled. “I look forward to it. Now perhaps Lord Garin can show me to my rooms?”

  “Certainly,” said Krake, snapping his
fingers at the young Diplomat arrogantly. “Come now! You heard the Archmage, Garin. And do ensure that you look after our esteemed guest, or you’ll have me to deal with.”

  “Of course,” said the young Lord. “I guarantee that the Archmage will have no cause for complaint.”

  CHAPTER 41

  With a final leer at Ani, Krake left the room. Garin escorted Ani to the sweet privacy of her usual chambers and joined her inside, the door sliding quietly shut behind him. With hands like silk, he unwound the cape she held around her, and slid his fingers into the cutouts at her waist.

  “I’ve been wanting to do that all morning,” he whispered.

  Ani raised an eyebrow at him.

  “Really, Lord Garin,” she teased, “I’m not sure that’s quite what President Krake meant when he said you should look after his guest.”

  She reached out and unclipped the first clasp on his uniform, the one covering the golden dip below his throat. Watching him for a response, she stroked her fingers over his exposed skin.

  “Well,” he replied, husky with anticipation, “you of all Illyri should know that I believe in going above and beyond the call of duty . . .”

  • • •

  Some time later, Ani lay back on her pillows and listened as Garin grumbled about having to get back to work, yet made no move to leave. Ani was sated and satisfied. This time, however, Garin was not.

  “Why,” Garin said as he kissed her full on the lips, yet again, “can you not acknowledge me in public? I want to marry you, but I’m not even allowed to take hold of your hand beyond these walls. Do you not feel what we have as deeply as I, Ani? Whenever I leave you I want to shout it from the highest mountains—‘I’m in love with the Archmage Ani!’—for all to hear.”

  That, thought Ani, would be very bad. Already rumors were circulating about the closeness of the relationship between the Archmage and the President’s senior aide. If Garin did start broadcasting the truth of it—and Ani’s spies assured her that, so far, he had not discussed it even with his closest friends, but who knew how long his discretion would last?—then she might be forced to silence him. She did not want that to happen. She cared for him, but she cared more to protect her power and her position. She could see no advantage to a public union with Garin, or not yet. When, or if, the time came, it would be her decision to make. Garin, she sometimes suspected, did not fully understand where the true power lay in their relationship.

  “Oh, Garin,” she said, “you say you love me, but would you be so willing to shout it if I were merely Ani Cienda, a girl who had nothing?”

  “What do you mean?” He stroked her shoulder, absently using his thumb to ease a fold from the sheet that was wrapped around her, his face close to hers, his eyes not moving from her own. They were an unusual color, she thought, even for an Illyri: as dark as evergreen leaves, as clear as water.

  “What I mean is, would you be so anxious to tie your happily-ever-afters to mine if I were a creature with no power, and with no influence?”

  He nuzzled his face into her hair, and spoke against her ear, quiet yet insistent.

  “But you’re not that creature,” he purred. His lips played on her lobe, and she shivered with pleasure despite herself. “You’re not, any more than I am a pauper from the alleys of Lower Tannis. Were you that nobody, and were I that pauper, then yes, I would feel the same about you. Of course I would feel the same. How could I not?”

  His breath brushed delicately against the little hairs on her neck. “But, Ani, we’re not those beings. We are what we are; we both hold high stations. Why fight it?”

  “But what if I didn’t hold a high station?” she persisted.

  “But you do!”

  He pressed his mouth against her throat now, open, velvety and tender, and she almost gave in, for his touch was that compelling. But then she pulled away, angry at her own weakness.

  “Garin! I mean it.”

  “My lovely Ani . . . Archmage Ani . . . Ani Cienda, whoever you choose to believe you are, whatever you choose to call yourself, ultimately it does not matter to me. I only dream of what we could be together.”

  He brushed a strand of her hair away from her eyes, twirling it delicately between his fingers, before tucking it behind her ear as she stared down at her hands.

  “Please, most precious one,” he said, tracing his fingers around the spiral of leaves tattooed on her cheek, stopping at the ever-watchful eye at its center, “don’t let the things that we are not be what hold us back. Instead, let what we are be that which drives us forward. Marry me! Please, marry me!”

  She paused, appearing to consider it, then looked at him straight on, unflinching, a challenge on her face.

  “But do you actually love me, Garin,” she asked starkly, “or am I just a good career move?”

  His gaze wavered very briefly, but it was enough for Ani to doubt his answer.

  “Of course I do!” he responded. “Didn’t I just tell you so?”

  She shifted position, moving slightly away from him. He bent toward her to kiss her again, aware that the atmosphere between them had changed and anxious to bridge the distance.

  “No,” she said, placing her hand on his chest and pushing lightly. “Enough now. You must go. I have things to attend to. I think we’re done here.”

  His temple twitched as he regarded her and he appeared about to ignore her protestations—she watched him start to call up that winning smile of his, the one that always got him what he wanted—but before he could finish, she, in turn, summoned her most practiced glare, and let it blaze cold and bright.

  “I am sure your President needs you, Lord Garin,” she said, her tone tolerating no dissent. “I fear you’ve attended to his guest’s needs for far too long.”

  At that, Garin moved away, letting go of her shoulder as if it were nothing, giving a shrug, dismissing the intimacy of their time together. His wonderful mouth turned down at the corners, displeased, and she found herself contemplating—momentarily, horribly—what it would feel like to smack him in that same beautiful mouth, to split his lip as if it were a balloon filled with blood. She wanted to hurt him, for she hated that he could hurt her.

  “I’m not your plaything, Archmage Ani,” he said. His voice was chilly.

  He had that much correct, at least: she, Ani Cienda, was the Archmage, even if Garin couldn’t quite grasp what that meant in real terms. Even in the great, advanced Illyri society, there were those who believed that females were essentially a form of adornment, and even the greatest of them would sacrifice all at the altar of the right male suitor.

  “Be that as it may,” she replied, “you forget that I am not to be toyed with either. Before you propose marriage to me again, try to ensure that your motives are pure. Sometimes I fear that you underestimate my intelligence, and my position. I am no mere pawn in your game. I am a queen in all but name . . . but then I guess you’ve never played chess.”

  “Chess?” repeated Garin. He looked annoyed. He didn’t like not knowing things.

  “An Earth game. The queen is the most powerful piece, not the king. Perhaps you might start considering the implications of this—in solitude—while Krake lunches with me, in private. You shall inform him that you will not be joining us, for urgent business requires you to eat later, and alone.”

  Garin opened his mouth to speak, but she held up her hands and clapped them together lightly.

  “Thank you, Lord Garin. That will be all. You are free to go.”

  Quivering with rage, Garin stood and stared down at her, his chest heaving, before he turned and strode from the room, slamming the button that activated the exit and nearly falling over Cocile as he left, for she was crouched outside, listening, or attempting to listen, for the doors of Opula were thick and the walls impregnable. Together the two Sisters watched Garin leave, his jacket still unfastened and billowing behind him. Ani was grim, but her attendant was openmouthed in shock.

  “Sister Cocile,” snarled Ani as she
rose to shut the door on her aide’s appalled, blushing face, “go find entertainment of your own, damn you. Your voyeurism is beginning to give me the creeps.”

  • • •

  Ani had lunch with the President in a glamorous dining room beside his office, under yet another glass roof. However, this one was held aloft by old, gnarled trees, echoing the great Palace of Erebos, and their chairs were presumptuously placed at right angles to each other, close and rather too intimate under the cozy curve of branches, hidden beneath a curtain of leaves, like lovers in a bower. How had Syrene handled him? she wondered, but then Syrene was substantially older than her young replacement, and significantly more experienced. Ani ate quickly, anxious to be gone from the presidential palace. The formal meetings with Krake were tedious enough, but the ritual of an informal lunch was nearly more than she could bear.

  “Give me a kiss in parting, my dear Archmage Ani,” Krake said as she took her leave, and his limps plumped out of his shining broad face like the peeled segments of a saliva-sticky plum. “Give me a kiss that I may pass on to your beloved Sister Merida.”

  Ani’s cold laughter tinkled around them, and instead she plucked the clutch of avatis blooms from where they’d been placed in a vase on the farthest corner of the table.

  “Here,” she said, pressing the flowers into Krake’s outstretched arms so that their heavy blossoms were crushed into his chin, their wet stems dripping onto his robes, “give Merida these instead. I’m sure your loving wife would prefer flowers from the glasshouses of the Marque to secondhand kisses bestowed on her loyal husband by another.”

  You slimeball, she added to herself as Krake regarded her drunkenly.

  “Now I really must take my leave of you, President Krake,” she continued, more sweetly, as she gathered her cape around her.

  “Let me call Garin to assist you,” said Krake, his features souring. He spoke Garin’s name as if issuing a challenge, and Ani knew then that he had heard the rumors too. Perhaps this added to his notion that she was available to . . . play. Her flesh crawled at the thought, but it also reminded her of how incautious she had been with Garin. She might have been the Archmage, but her youth made her vulnerable, and she knew that powerful forces on Illyr were looking for an excuse to dismiss her as inconsequential and inexperienced—dismiss her, and worse, for there was no shortage of candidates in the Marque who might wish to replace her should any harm befall her.

 

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