Dominion, p.24John Connolly
“Archmage, you are very welcome,” said Merida, bowing a little at the hips, but her eyes darted to Cocile.
“Thank you, Sister,” replied Ani, inclining her head in response. “It is good of you to meet us in person.” Then she relented. “As you can see, today I am accompanied by my aide, Cocile. I’m sure that you are as anxious to renew acquaintance with her as she is with you.”
She turned and nodded graciously at Cocile. Unable to contain her joy, the usually reserved handmaiden pressed forward and threw herself into Merida’s outstretched arms.
“Cocile!” Merida said happily, and she laughed.
“How I’ve missed you,” said Cocile in response, and she kissed Merida three times, first on the left cheek, then on the right, and finally square on the lips. They both giggled. Something inside Ani felt like it was being stretched taut as she watched the little tableau play out: the touching of noses, the giggle, the foreheads pressed close together, at once so familiar yet so alien. She remembered Syl, and thought of Tanit: one friend slain by another. She looked away and swallowed down something she couldn’t name, something she’d spent years trying to forget, but it was still there, circling beneath the surface, waiting to consume her if she just allowed it to break through the ice and reveal itself.
“Merida,” she started to say, but it came out soft and damaged, so she cleared her throat and tried again—“Merida, shall we go in?”—and this time her voice was strong and commanding, and they all knew it was an instruction, not a request.
Instantly, Merida disentangled herself from Cocile.
“Certainly, Your Eminence.”
Once they were seated, Merida confirmed that all her staff had been dismissed for the day the moment that she learned of the Archmage’s impending visit. Without another word being said, as one, Toria and Liyal reached into their robes and withdrew small metal boxes from their pockets. Toria opened hers first, and out flocked a throng of tiny flying creatures in a multitude of colors, each no bigger than the tip of a pencil. Immediately they buzzed away, heading into all corners of the room, and then through the door into the presidential chambers beyond.
Liyal opened her box at the same time and tipped its contents onto the floor. A tangle of jet-black worms tumbled out and unknotted themselves before sliding off at high speed, blurring as their bodies shaped to every corner and nook that they explored.
“There’s really no need,” said Merida as the electronically modified creatures, designed to sniff out signs of surveillance, searched the rooms. “My staff are handpicked, independently vetted, and completely trustworthy. Our quarters are scanned for bugs daily anyway and there are surveillance blockers on all our entrances. We’re perfectly secure here.”
Ani ignored her. So too did Toria and Liyal as the searchers went about their business. Several silent, strained minutes passed.
“Clear,” said Toria at last as her swarm returned to their box, and were once again sealed inside. Liyal waited, her box open on the floor as worms slid back into it. She frowned as the counter inside its lid clicked to ninety-nine then stopped, and her head cocked expectantly, waiting. They all heard it at the same time, a quiet blip, getting louder and more urgent. It was coming from the vicinity of an ornate antique chest on stubby legs, intricately carved from a boulder of fiery blue opal. Liyal walked over to the chest, bent down, and retrieved a black spiral of worm from underneath it. Deftly, she uncoiled the worm, revealing a transmitter only a little bigger than a mustard seed. Without saying a word, she popped the transmitter into her mouth, ground it between her teeth and swallowed.
“Done?” said Ani.
“Done,” echoed Liyal, which was about as verbose as she ever got. She placed the worm back in the box, and closed it once more.
Ani and her guards looked at Merida expectantly. Cocile stared at her feet, as if sharing in her friend’s shame.
“I’m terribly sorry, Archmage,” blustered Merida. “Honestly, they scanned earlier. There was nothing. Are you sure that was even a bug? It was minuscule. I’ve never seen one that tiny. Is it even possible? I mean . . .”
Ani eyeballed her until she shut up, and then she gazed meaningfully around the opulent rooms. The only sound was a fountain in the corner as it splashed liquid silver into a bowl of hollow pearl.
“Sister Merida,” she said finally, “we must not allow ourselves to become complacent, even when our circumstances seem crafted only for our comfort and security. There are enemies everywhere. Now, we must narrow down our list of suspects. Have you welcomed any other Nairene visitors to these rooms of late?”
“No,” said Merida.
“Are you sure? Think carefully.”
“Not lately, Your Eminence. Priety dropped off her latest tome on manners, but she didn’t come up. I met her in the lobby and she handed the manuscript to me there.”
Priety was the applied diplomacy lecturer to the Nairene Novices, and was unpopular and prudish, and obsessed with manners, order, and hierarchy. But doubtless that came with the territory, for applied diplomacy dealt entirely with social behavior and conduct. Off the top of her head, Priety could list every member of every family of importance in Illyri society, from their historical lineage to the ages of their children. It was a great disappointment to her that nobody ever actually wanted her to reel off this information, and yet, despite the yawns that seemed to follow Priety wherever she went, Ani had found a place for her in the new order of the Marque. It was not a selfless act; Ani simply needed to know who was who in Illyri society, for her early years spent on Earth meant that she had come to the Sisterhood with no prior knowledge of the Illyri elite, or how they were interconnected. Priety had been indispensable in this regard.
“The manuscript was wrapped, I assume?” Ani said.
“Of course. You know Priety!”
“And you unwrapped it up here?”
Merida’s hand tugged at her worried mouth.
“I did,” she said, “right on this chair where I’m sitting. But—”
“That was a seed transmitter, Merida. They are made entirely of organic matter, and contain no metals or alloys whatsoever, so are undetectable by conventional means. The transmitters are not only biological, but they are designed to roll away from light; as soon as they find themselves in darkness, they automatically adhere to the underside of whatever object is nearby. When inspected, they appear no more threatening than a piece of grit. Over time, they deteriorate like any other organic matter. They are manufactured exclusively on the Marque, and have only recently gone beyond prototypes. We have chosen to keep them to ourselves, for obvious reasons, but our little searcher bugs and worms are now seed-enabled.”
She paused, and Merida shuffled uncomfortably.
“If they are only to be found on the Marque,” said Merida, “then that one—”
“Could only have come from the Marque,” Ani finished for her. “Unless, of course, our technology has been leaked, which is not itself beyond the bounds of possibility.”
“Priety,” said Merida.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” said Ani. “I’d ask only that you keep this to yourself until we’ve had a chance to question Priety. She might be an unwitting accomplice in this; the seed transmitter could have been placed in the package without her knowledge. No need to upset yourself, Merida. I am not angry. But remember: caution always.”
“Thank you, Your Eminence,” said Merida, and her face was woeful. “You know I only wish to be of service to my Sisters.”
“Well then,” said Ani, nodding encouragingly, “time is short, so tell me what you have learned that may be of use to our beloved Nairene Order.”
Merida poured cremos for her guests, and then shared with them her latest nuggets of Diplomatic gossip. Much of it was useful, as always, for Krake’s tongue loosened when he was with his wife in the privacy of their bedroom. What interested Ani most was news of large fleet movements by the forces of the Diplomatic Corps on a scale beyond an
Ani stood, thanked Merida, and requested the use of her pod.
“There are others upon whom I must call,” she said. “Privately.”
“Of course!” said Merida, happy that she had been forgiven, and to have proved useful. “Anything, Your Eminence. Anything at all.”
“Excellent. I shall leave my aides with you. You can enjoy a catch-up with Cocile.” She turned to Cocile. “But don’t let yourselves be seen, please. Stay in here until I return. And allow no one to enter.”
Cocile—steadfast, unimaginative Cocile—did not question Ani. It was not unusual for the Archmage to order her to stay hidden while she herself left to go about secret Sisterhood business. Cocile was just grateful that today she was to remain here, in the Tree, and be permitted some time alone with Merida.
Ani moved toward the doorway, and Toria and Liyal stepped in behind her.
“No,” she said. “Thank you, Sisters, but you must stay here too.”
They both looked vaguely surprised but said nothing, which was precisely why she’d selected the mismatched pair as her personal guard: tall, rangy, feral Toria and shorter, broad shouldered Liyal, with her unfortunate lizard-like features, were cousins in another life but now Sisters before anything else. They were loyal as hounds, and they never questioned her. In her own way, Ani found that she had grown terribly fond of them.
“You can have a seat,” she said. “You’ve earned a rest.”
Obedient as gundogs, they immediately sat.
Ani didn’t want to visit anyone else within the Tree of Lights—not yet, anyway. Instead, she took the pod back down to the entrance lobby, and there the same smooth young concierge greeted her, looking relieved when only one figure emerged from the capsule.
“Oh, hello again,” he said. “I’m so glad it’s you. I’m terribly sorry about earlier—I really didn’t mean to offend the Archmage by speaking out of turn.” He rubbed his palms together nervously. “Do you think she’ll report me?”
Ani looked at him and felt a prickle of guilt at his distress.
“Not at all,” she replied, but the words that he heard came from Cocile’s lips, and the face that looked back at him now was Cocile’s; he would have sworn as much if his life had depended on it, if an ax was swinging for his neck. After all, he did not know that Ani Cienda, Archmage of the Sisterhood, could cloud minds, and make others see what was not there. Few outside the Marque did, but her powers were the reason Syrene had been persuaded to keep the young Novice close once all the rest of the Gifted were dead. Ani was the last of the fledgling army of psychics, and so with a little pressing Syrene had made it her personal business to tutor Ani, to ensure her talents were nurtured and improved as far as possible. Even Syrene had not grasped that she was being manipulated, right until the end.
There had been some initial surprise when Syrene had departed suddenly for the depths of the Marque, leaving instructions naming Ani as her successor. Wisely, few of the Sisterhood had expressed any objection, and most transferred their allegiance quickly, and strategically, for they were of an order born from an instinct for self-preservation. On the whole they understood too that wisdom is not the sole preserve of the old, and while Syrene might have inspired respect and fear, she was not held in any affection by the vast mass of Sisters. Meanwhile, those Nairenes who dissented openly were quickly silenced—exiled to far-off colonies, for one of Ani’s first acts as Archmage was to announce plans to expand the Sisterhood’s mission. They had spent too long cooped up on Avila Minor, she told her Sisters. It was time to spread the Gospel of Knowledge, and she personally handpicked those who would be entrusted with this great, noble, and undoubtedly dangerous challenge—whereupon she named every plotter and schemer who had emerged since the death of Syrene, and within hours they found themselves bound for distant wormholes, and worlds that barely had names.
Of course, there were still those among Ani’s Sisterhood who tested her trust and whispered behind their hands, but they remained careful. At least on the Marque they understood now what the young Archmage was capable of, and so were mindful of what they said or did. Still, Ani knew that notes were passed, and secret drop points were to be found in the farthest reaches of her lair. Sometimes particularly reckless accusations were traced back to their creators, and the worst of the schemers to join their Sisters in barbarous lands. But mostly Ani simply read the notes and laughed at their ignorance and arrogance, then had her aides replace them with others written by herself for her own amusement; Ani had never grown out of her love of a good joke.
But here on Illyr, her clouding skills were only rumors, whispered ghosts of tales that swirled around the myth of her. They spoke of an Archmage who could shape-shift and read minds, and turn her enemies to stone or ice with her eyes; who caused creatures to devour their own young, and could summon flames to leap white-hot from within her enemies’ chests, burning them to ash. But Ani knew the truth of this last myth; it had not been her but instead her beloved Tanit who burned others, and now Tanit was dead because of it.
Her pained expression caused the concierge’s concern to increase.
“I did offend the Archmage, didn’t I?” he said, suddenly seeing himself burned to a cinder, or turned to ice.
“No. Do not fret so,” Ani replied, in her Cocile guise. “I can assure you that the Archmage does not feel offended or slighted.”
“Well, if you’re sure. But, truly, if there’s anything at all I can do . . . ?”
She looked at him as he moved his weight from one foot to the other: eager, energetic, and anxious to please. And he really was terribly handsome in a fresh-faced, soft way, if you liked that sort of thing. Suddenly she had an idea, and she smiled at the thought—Cocile’s rare smile—and he smiled back in relief. Slyly she stepped over to him, stretched out Cocile’s hand, and touched him on the elbow, allowing her fingers to linger. Cocile, Ani decided, had been alone for too long. Ultimately, she might be of more use to the Sisterhood if she had her own ties here on Illyr.
“I think there may well be something you can do,” she said, sweeter than Cocile knew how to be, “something for me. Something . . . personal. Something nice.”
The concierge looked flustered and his face grew pink, but she held his gaze, daring him to play her game, coaxing him with fingers drumming like moth wings on his sleeve.
“I don’t even know your name.”
“Cocile. And you are?”
“Rent. Rent Raydl.”
“Well, Rent Raydl, I’m glad that we have reached an understanding,” said Ani, and she allowed her hand to fall to her side. “I should like to see you again, so don’t let me down. Please.”
Rent bowed, going even pinker, then he seemed to make a decision. He reached out and took her hand. He held it in his own for a second while appearing to consider something, and then, with a new firmness, he lifted it to his lips and kissed the tips of her fingers.
“I should like that, Cocile,” he said, gazing at her over her knuckles. She supposed it was his attempt at an alluring look.
“I’m staying at Opula tonight—come to the staff entrance and ask for me,” said Ani, “but let’s pretend we haven’t had this conversation. I think that you should try to seduce me. It’ll be fun.”
Unable to hold her amusement inside any longer, Ani swept out the door, and Rent stared after the receding figure of Cocile as the bright light outside lit her up, an astonished grin teasing his lips.
“Seriously, the Archmage’s chief aide?” he said to nobody at all. “Score!”
Still chuckling to herself, Ani turned left out of the building and onto the path beyond, which soon lifted into a raised walkway with a curling silver balustrade. As she climbed higher she slowed down to admire the vista that unfolded, for here was the best viewpoint of the section of the vast city that spread before her; here was Opulatum, centerpiece of Upper Tannis and the wealthiest district in all the capital. Rainbows of light bounced of every gleaming surface, and clouds tinged with blue and red whipped like paper across the shredded sky high above. She took a quiet moment to breathe in the heady air and gather her thoughts, but then a couple walked behind her, two females arm in arm in Civilian garb. They stared, and Ani nodded at them politely.
“Good day to you, Sister,” they said, and their eyes drank her up greedily: a Sister of the Nairenes, standing alone on the walkway taking in the view. What a rare sight; what a story to tell.
Ani let them pass, then embarked with a new resolve and headed along the familiar route that took her directly to the sole black skyscraper in all of diamond-white Upper Tannis. It was shiny as polished onyx as it sliced through the skyline, one central tapered column with many more rising from it, like drips on a candle that had defied gravity and melted upward, into the air.
No words were written above its door, but none were needed. This was Securitat HQ.
And as she entered, resplendent in her red robes among so much angled, lacquered black, more eyes followed her, until the door slid closed behind her, shutting Tannis out, sealing her inside with the darkness.
Without breaking stride, Ani moved to the camera that served as a reception, and demanded that Vena be told of her presence.
“Oh, just Vena, is it?” said a female voice from the speaker, and the guard on the screen sneered at her. “And who the hell are you? Just Vena, indeed!”
Dominion by John Connolly / Science Fiction / Young Adult / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes