Dominion, p.23
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       Dominion, p.23

           John Connolly
 

  “No need for assistance, my dear President,” Ani said.

  She took a tiny silver bell from her pocket and rang it. Immediately several of her red-clad aides appeared to lead her away. She pressed her cheek briefly to Krake’s as she left in an attempt to make amends, kissing the air near his ear. He perked up immediately and his hand reached for her as if he wished to extend the embrace, but she was already gliding away.

  • • •

  Ani did not see Garin again before she left. She chose not to, for if Krake suspected their relationship then others did too, all scheming how best to use any attachment for their own purposes.

  But more importantly, she knew that the absence of farewells would annoy Garin. She only wished it didn’t make her feel quite so annoyed too.

  CHAPTER 42

  Mercifully, the Archmage Ani had little time to muse upon her bruised feelings, for she had other liaisons that afternoon and late into the night—liaisons that should prove more fruitful than her absurd dalliances with President Krake. More fruitful, and more dangerous.

  With political pawns like the President, audiences were public and came with fanfare, highlighted in his official diary for all to see. Images of Ani and Krake together would appear on news feeds afterward, and gossip would spread like flames in a drought, with details of what might have been said, how long they spent together, what meals were taken, what was eaten, and always what the Archmage wore, for the rise to power of the striking young Sister was an endless source of fascination for the chattering classes. Undoubtedly, the cutouts on her misjudged dress would be copied by fashionable folk of Tannis, but she knew it would be a short-lived trend for she herself would not wear that style again. Wryly, she hoped Krake had enjoyed it while it lasted.

  But there were others to whom a request to meet the Archmage was always delivered quietly and without public bells and whistles. Such invitations made the recipients feel special and valued, believing themselves to be singled out for favor. To these meetings Ani wore her red Nairene robes, and numbers were kept to an absolute minimum; the more influential the guest, the more private the audience. Ani understood full well that those whom she met under these circumstances were flattered to be the focus of the Archmage’s attention. She let it be known to them that they were part of her golden circle, irreplaceable, invaluable, worth their weight in precious stones. Sometimes it was actually true. She told them secrets, she told them truths, she told them half-truths and bald lies, and in return they spilled their own secrets, believing that the Sisterhood was the great, subtle, hidden power operating in the Illyri universe.

  But there were also those who convened with Ani who knew better, who knew about the Others, for they carried the ancient beings within themselves—those like Dyer. The Illyri who pulled the strings of figurehead politicians like Krake were themselves being manipulated. They might have believed themselves to have struck a deal with the parasites, convinced that they remained in control even as the Others extended their tendrils through them, but they were wrong. It was not so much the Sisterhood but the Others who were the hidden guiding force in Illyri affairs, and it was they that Ani feared most of all. They had corrupted the Illyri, and pushed the entire society into a costly, brutal civil war. And it was they who could ultimately tear her beloved Sisterhood apart, because one of the most powerful of all these Others waited like a malignancy deep within the heart of the Marque. Syl Hellais had discovered it there all those years before, and it had ultimately led to her presumed destruction.

  • • •

  Sometimes, when Ani thought of Syl, she felt young and foolish again, transported back to the teenager she had been: impressionable, gullible, and anxious to please. But was no longer that child, she told herself, and she knew better than Syl did about what the Sisterhood—indeed, what the entire Illyri race—was up against.

  She corrected herself: she knew better than Syl ever had, for there was no doubt in Ani’s mind that Syl was dead. More than four years had passed since she’d last seen her childhood playmate, four years since Syl had fled to the ends of the known universe, making her escape into the Derith wormhole from which no one ever returned.

  Like Syl before her, Ani now knew of the Other that dwelled in the Marque, and she had learned something of how the creature functioned—how the creatures functioned, for they were many, implanted in the heads of numerous host Illyri, morphing and changing as required. Now they were on Earth too, infecting, spawning, always growing in number, greedy for new life, for fresh hosts, for more terrain. But the earth would not keep them satisfied forever. Eventually, they would hunger for new flesh.

  By this point they must have thoroughly infested the blue planet. Of that there could be little doubt. Even though years had passed since she had left Earth, still Ani felt guilt and sadness at the thought of that lost world. It was the planet upon which her mother, Fian, had last been seen alive, and on which Fian’s husband—she could no longer easily bring herself to use the word “father” of him—had abandoned her. For that, Ani had not yet forgiven him, and saw little hope of doing so. She had been told that no life-form—no human, no Illyri, no Agron, and no Galatean—could possibly still survive on the planet that had once been her home. That meant Fremd was gone too, and Just Joe, and Heather and little Alice; all those in the Resistance who had saved her life had now been annihilated because the Others hungered for a new breeding ground, and the Illyri had gladly handed it to them.

  Ani understood that the Others were many, but they were also psychically connected—she could find no more apt description—to one another. This did not mean that they were equal. Some were clearly more powerful than the rest, and the entity that dwelled deep in the Marque was just such a creature.

  Ani thought of it as the One.

  In the beginning, the One had infiltrated the Nairenes and then the Illyri like a kind of feel-good drug, drip-feeding information to the elders of the Sisterhood, for they craved knowledge like an opioid. This single, alien organism, discovered lying dormant in a meteor, had come to life in the Marque. In reaching out to it, in trying to communicate, Ezil, the greatest of the Sisterhood, had become infected; a burst of spores, an intake of breath, and it was done.

  Yet at first it had seemed more like a visitation, a blessing, than an infestation. As the Other inside Ezil grew, the One communicated with this, the first of its offspring, and through it began sharing just a fraction of its great knowledge with the old Nairene. The Others were ancient, and the One had been traveling on its meteor for the time that it took stars to die, absorbing the stuff of the universe while maintaining contact with the rest of its kind, learning as they learned. For Ezil, the alien creature growing inside her became a point of connection with the secrets of existence, the arcana of creation. In turn, blinded by knowledge, she encouraged the rest of the First Five, the rulers of the Sisterhood, to allow the Others to enter them.

  And all the time the One grew. It became the control tower, receiving and relaying information, sending out instructions via a form of telepathy so old and complex as to be beyond all understanding. By now, the creatures with which it communicated were wrapped around the brain stems of key Illyri—the First Five, and an unknown number of senior members of the Diplomatic Corps, for as the Sisterhood thirsted for knowledge, so too did the Diplomats desire power, and it was promised to them by the Others.

  At the outset, it appeared to be a symbiotic relationship, for all the life-forms involved benefited, and the hosts remained autonomous, eating, sleeping, exercising, working, and reproducing unhindered while the Others settled quietly within them, surviving while the Illyri survived, thriving when they thrived. The Others experienced the universe through the senses of the Illyri who carried them and, as the Conquest expanded, so too did the invaluable information that the Others drip-fed to their thirsty hosts.

  However, as Ani wryly reminded herself, particularly as her meal with the unpalatable Krake sat like clay in her gut, there is no
such thing as a free lunch. In time, the Nairenes were to find out that the Others would remain benevolent only so long as they were not crossed, and the line between the identity of the host organisms and the parasites began to blur. Doing what needed to be done to preserve the One and the Others, to extend the reach and influence of this species, became second nature to the infected Illyri, and then first nature, and then the only thing that mattered.

  Yet by the time the Sisters understood the truth about their supposed benefactors, it was too late, for the clock had ticked onward on the Marque, and the time to remedy the situation had long passed, along, perhaps, with the will to do so. The First Five had tried to wriggle out of the bargain, and failed. In turn, they were sacrificed to the One, connected to it permanently as sacrifices, and reservoirs of knowledge, but also as a source of food and energy. The Others fed off their hosts, absorbing nutrients from them; not so much that the host organism would notice, or grow weak, but just enough to keep the Other alive. But the One was not like the rest, and its needs were greater. It required the five most powerful Sisters to feed it, and it drained them slowly and painfully as the years went by. A new deal had been made with the Others, and the Archmage Syrene had struck it. The beast was appeased, and both the Sisterhood and the Others were satisfied: the Sisters had increasingly vast stores of knowledge, and the power that came with it, and the Others had life.

  Under the leadership of Syrene, the infection spread. More and more of the key Diplomats succumbed, either willingly or by force, for Syrene reasoned that this was the best way for the Sisterhood to keep abreast of what was going on far below them on their homeworld of Illyr. Information would be relayed directly back to the One, and in turn fed by it to the Sisterhood, and so the Nairenes would always be one step ahead, always aware of what would be before it came to pass. And so, even when isolated on the Marque, they would know all.

  It was thus that Syrene had learned of the death of her ally Oriel at the hand of Syl Hellais, even before the body had been found, for the powerful Other that had lived for so long within Oriel had writhed and convulsed along with the old crone as she died. Nearby, in the cavern of the Marque where the One had its domain, this vile creature had felt the pain of its offspring’s passing and was filled with fury. As Oriel’s dying eyes had looked into Syl’s, the One within had registered Syl’s face, and relayed the information back to Syrene on Erebos, where she was already orchestrating the assassination of her enemies—and by extension, those of the Others. Her wedding to Syl’s widowed father had been the perfect ruse, for everyone was invited, and so everyone was vulnerable.

  Into this bloodbath had arrived Syl, fleeing from the consequences of what she had done to Oriel, and into the trap that would now be sprung on her by Syrene. But then the Kerr brothers had snatched Syl away before she could be punished for her crimes.

  Civil war had erupted, for the deaths on Erebos were merely the prelude to the great strike that would wipe out the Military and, theoretically, end the war almost as soon as it had begun, leaving an Illyri society ruled by the Diplomats, the Sisterhood and—through them—the Others.

  That, of course, was not what happened. The Military establishment was badly wounded but not destroyed, and now the war had been dragging on for years. What Ani sometimes wondered was if all this slaughter had occurred because the Others had wanted it, and had sown the seeds of ambition in the Diplomats and their allies, or because the Diplomats and their kind were already ambitious, already desirous of the annihilation of the Military, and the Others had simply provided them with the power to do so.

  Whatever the truth might be, Ani knew that all of this chaos would not have come to pass had the One not been found by Ezil all those years before. It was the original enemy, and yet she continued to feed it, for if she did not then it would devour her.

  It would devour them all.

  CHAPTER 43

  With Cocile at her side, and shadowed by her personal guards, Toria and Liyal, Ani arrived at the Tree of Lights. Illyri pedestrians stopped and gawked as the four Nairenes took the short walk between the compounds, scrabbling for devices to capture three-dimensional images of Ani and whatever fashion she was wearing that day, and the way the breeze turned her hair to waves, and they nudged each other and nodded approvingly as they stared after the young, beautiful Archmage and her vibrant entourage.

  Theirs was a pleasant stroll through a particularly elegant part of Upper Tannis, and Ani enjoyed the vista of sparkle and glass, the reflective spires like stalagmites growing from the white quartz streets. It was safe for one such as her to walk here, for in these rarefied confines Diplomatic rule was respected and the Sisterhood admired. Elsewhere, particularly among the poorer citizens, support still existed for the Military, and areas such as Gomor, Perl, and Dannat were hotbeds of Military sympathizers, from which bombings and assassinations were ordered on a regular basis, despite vicious crackdowns by the Securitats.

  But while Upper Tannis was far from such dens of unrest, still Ani formed a pleasant yet remote half smile on her lips, and with the force of her mind she willed the wealthy citizenry to keep their distance. They did, of course they did, although they did not know the reason, and later they would wonder why they had not greeted the Archmage, or even tried to introduce themselves and perhaps make an important connection.

  Within minutes, the branches of the Tree spread like a crown above the Sisters. As they waited to be granted entry, Ani understood why many who did not live here muttered privately that it had forever spoiled the iconic skyline of their beautiful, steepled city. By day it cast ungainly shadows over lesser buildings, while every waking hour a multitude of private craft buzzed about its numerous staggered landing bays like bugs around a gaudy plant, and by night its cloud of dotted lights was a random distortion amid Tannis’s spires of neat silver.

  Once inside, all of that was left behind. The interior, while undeniably luxurious, was muted and discreet. Everything was cool, fragrant, and hushed, from the melodious voice of the handsome concierge who welcomed them, to the pearl vases containing vast floral arrangements as white and fresh as flurries of tamed snow.

  “Her Eminence, the Archmage Ani of the Nairene Sisterhood, is here to visit the First Lady Merida,” announced Cocile as she stepped forward. Ani stood back, her chin raised, a practiced expression of unconcern on her face. She made it a habit not to speak to underlings in such situations, for this was all a game and she knew well enough how to play it.

  “Of course,” said the concierge. He looked at Ani in something like awe. “Archmage, it is my great pleasure to welcome you and your entourage to the Tree of Lights. We are charmed.”

  Ani sighed. It was one thing her knowing how to play the game, but another to expect everyone else to understand the rules too. Being haughty was an exhausting business.

  “We have been here before. Many times,” she said in a voice of cracking ice, leaving the concierge blushing and noticeably flustered as he turned from her to the screen in front of him, and tapped on it urgently.

  “I’m sorry,” he mumbled, more to himself than to her. “I’m new here.”

  There was a chiming noise and a glass pod alighted softly beside his station. At once the concierge regained his professionalism.

  “The First Lady awaits you, Your Eminence,” he said. “Please mind your step.”

  They all got in, Ani first, perching primly on the cushioned glass benches around the curved wall of the lift.

  “Very good,” said Cocile on behalf of the entourage as she brought up the rear. She smiled stiffly at the concierge, and Ani noted, with hidden amusement, that Cocile was the only one to accept his offered hand to assist her in entering the pod. The concierge was certainly terribly good-looking, but then why wouldn’t he be? Her people were vain, and pleasant features, like beautiful possessions, were held in high esteem. There were none who regarded themselves so highly as the residents of the Tree, and therefore their concierge would be expected
to look the part.

  For a moment the concierge seemed about to say something more, then changed his mind. He stepped back from the pod. The door closed, and they were off, calmly being carried through the still air of the place, the crystal artery of the central trunk narrowing around them as they were borne upward. Near the top, a neat gap opened in the clear wall of the inner crown, just as if the solid surface had liquefied, and the pod slipped through. Immediately the glass melted shut behind them again, and they came to rest in a wide corridor tiled in sheets of mother-of-pearl. The pod door opened. Waiting for them was a female Illyri swathed in familiar red, but the fabric could never be as vibrant as the blood-colored hair that clouded her angular skull and set off her eyes, for they were remarkable, redder yet than her hair, wide and vivid as enormous rubies pressed into the smooth golden skin of her face.

  She sparkled. She was like a jewel.

  “Merida,” breathed Cocile, with rare and genuine pleasure. She had been a Novice years before with the President’s wife, and they were close friends. Ultimately, Merida’s looks had resulted in her departure from the Marque and her delivery like a prize to Krake. Her sharp-faced friend Cocile had been left behind, initially forlorn and, truth be told, not a little jealous, but the affection had remained between them long after the youthful bitterness had gone.

  They alighted from the pod, Toria and Liyal leading, and Ani stepping out behind, though she could feel Cocile buzzing with energy and impatience at her back. Nonetheless, she moved slowly, regally, as befitted the serene leader of the Nairene Sisterhood, for Cocile needed to remember her place.

 
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