Dominion, p.28
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       Dominion, p.28

           John Connolly
 

  “Enough,” said Ani loudly. “Do not compound your transgressions by insulting my intelligence!”

  For a brief moment, Ani heard Syrene in the words that came from her own mouth, and she was grateful for her apprenticeship. There was a time when she would have been far too timid and kindly to speak to anyone in that way, particularly one who had been her own teacher only a few years before, but now the words came out smoothly, as though she had been born to this life of rule. Even Syrene would have been impressed.

  “Enough of your lies!” Ani snapped, for good measure.

  Priety’s jowls quivered ever so slightly, and Ani thought her expression had changed, as if she might cry. Here it comes, she thought. Here comes the begging and the sniveling.

  “Please,” said Priety, and her head fell forward, her eyes to the floor. “You must understand, Archmage. I was merely concerned . . .”

  At this, Ani nodded over the top of Priety’s bent head, signaling to the others that this was it, this was the confession. The rest was a mere formality. In the shadows of the interrogation chamber, Kumuru, Chief Scribe of the Sisterhood, acknowledged Ani’s gesture, and continued annotating the record of proceedings on the screen that glowed before her. What transpired in the chamber was being recorded, but to the record Kumuru added observations about gestures, responses, tone.

  There was no triumph, though, but instead a sinking in Ani’s guts, for now she knew it to be true: she had been betrayed, yet again. She stared angrily at the top of Priety’s skull, at the carefully whorled pattern of her closely shorn scalp, at the stupid thin plait that sprouted forlornly from her crown, twisted and fashioned to curl back on itself.

  “Why, Priety?” interjected Valisus, the Marque’s formidable head of security. Today she looked fiercer than ever. Beyna’s death had infuriated her, and she blamed Liyal for bungling the arrest. Without Beyna to interrogate, one avenue of investigation had been closed off, and they would have nothing against which to compare Priety’s testimony. “What were you concerned about?”

  “I was worried about the Archmage.”

  “You were worried about me?” said Ani, momentarily confused, but even as the words left her lips, she understood what the lecturer had actually meant. She was not worried about the incumbent Archmage, but the previous one.

  “Am I not the Archmage, Sister?” continued Ani coldly. She felt little but contempt, tempered only by weariness that she’d been deceived by one whom she thought she could trust.

  The older woman looked up, appalled, her ears reddening as she realized what she’d said. “Indeed you are, Your Eminence,” she said.

  “Indeed I am,” repeated Ani. “But your concern was not for me, was it, Priety? I am not your Archmage.”

  “No. I mean yes—my concern is always for you, Archmage; you and only you. You are my esteemed Archmage.”

  Priety sniffed loudly, and phlegm rattled in her throat.

  “Yet you were also worried about my predecessor, about the former Archmage Syrene, correct?” said Ani. She spoke slowly, and never once did her chilly gaze waver. Ani could outstare anybody.

  “Only as a friend, Your Eminence,” muttered Priety, “I was only concerned as her old friend.”

  “But was I not selected personally by Syrene as her replacement?”

  “You were.”

  “Did she not announce this herself?”

  Priety nodded, her jaw tightening.

  “And yet you question this?”

  And suddenly Priety’s pretense of weakness and begging fell away, and she looked upon Ani with undisguised hatred.

  “You charlatan,” said Priety. “You are not fit to wash the Archmage’s feet. You have done something to her. She would not have surrendered her power so easily to one such as you, not after all that she had done to secure her position, and elevate the Sisterhood. Everything about you is a lie, and you will be exposed.”

  “Who told you to plant those transmitters?” asked Ani.

  Priety wouldn’t even look at her now. “I have nothing more to say. I demand a trial by my Sisters, as is my right. I demand—”

  “Look at me,” said Ani, and her voice changed. Although her attention was fixed on Priety, every Sister in the chamber turned her eyes on the Archmage, such was the force of her will. Priety, fixed in Ani’s gaze, was powerless to resist.

  “Who am I?” asked Ani.

  Priety stared at her.

  “You are Vena, of course,” said Priety, and in her mind she was no longer in an interrogation chamber on the Marque but in the offices of Vena, a place that she had never seen but which had now been constructed for her by Ani.

  “Who told you to plant the transmitters in the Marque?”

  “Why, you did,” said Priety.

  It had been a guess on Ani’s part, but a good one.

  “And who else besides Beyna did I entrust with this task?”

  “Coriol. Gara. Jenis.”

  Ani flicked her eyes to Valisus, but the security chief was already making for the door.

  “For what purpose?”

  “To establish the whereabouts of the Archmage Syrene,” said Priety, as though reciting a poem that she had learned long before. “To find evidence that Ani Cienda is engaged in activities against the best interests of the Illyri Empire, with the aim of removing her as Archmage and facilitating her arrest, trial, and execution.”

  Ani had heard enough. She allowed the false surroundings to fall away from Priety, and her own appearance to be restored in the older Sister’s eyes. Priety blinked hard, and immediately understood what had occurred. She bolted toward the door, but was restrained by Toria.

  “You have betrayed me,” said Ani.

  “My devotion is not to you but to the Nairenes,” replied Priety. “I am loyal to the Sisterhood before all else.”

  “Then we will hear from your Sisters.”

  The illumination in the interrogation chamber grew stronger, revealing the rest of the Council of Confidantes seated in a ring of raised seats. Aside from the now absent Valisus, there was Kumuru, the scribe; Cientia, the Nairene chief of science; Saecula, the head of celestial geography; Peritia, the engineering expert; Mjek, an aging doctor from the medical corps; Amera, Ani’s former biology lecturer; Illan, the Sisterhood’s chief designer; and finally, somewhat surprisingly, there was ancient Onwyn, former head of the Novice libraries, but now holder of the ceremonial post of chief librarian, for she was as knowledgeable as she was gnarled.

  There were others who served on smaller advisory, technological, and exploratory councils, but these eight females, along with Valisus, made up Ani’s handpicked inner circle of nine. Toria and Liyal provided muscle, when needed. Cocile, as Ani’s chief aide, was the only other Sister allowed into their meetings, and that was solely at Ani’s discretion.

  “Have you heard enough?” asked Ani.

  The eight answered in unison: “Yes.”

  “Are you satisfied of Sister Priety’s guilt?”

  “Yes.”

  “Are you content to leave her punishment to me?”

  And for a final time, the answer came: “Yes.”

  “Then you may go. Thank you, Sisters.”

  The Council departed, leaving Ani, Toria, and Liyal alone with the convicted Priety. Her countenance had changed once more; she had shrunken into herself, and her eyes watered with fear.

  “Please, Your Eminence,” said Priety, “don’t kill me.”

  “Why would I take your life?” said Ani.

  Priety seemed not to hear her. “And if you feel you must kill me,” she begged, “let it be quick, and not the cascids. I beg of you this one mercy.”

  The cascids were the ancient, hungry anthropods that patrolled the moon beyond the secure doors of the Marque. It was whispered that to be fed to them was the ancient punishment for treason.

  “You’re negotiating your punishment, so am I to presume that you freely admit your guilt?” Ani replied.

  “Anyt
hing I did was with the best of intentions,” said Priety, and Ani could almost see the calculations she was making. “My devotion is to the Nairenes—always to the Sisterhood before all else. This at least deserves consideration in my sentencing.”

  “Sister Priety,” said Ani, “I am not needlessly cruel. Your execution was never a possibility. I might have considered exile, once, but instead I decree that you shall spend the rest of your days here, on the Marque, where you shall be sequestered alongside your much-beloved friend Syrene. After all, you appear to want to be reunited with her more than anything.”

  Priety’s mouth gaped open in surprise.

  “This is my punishment?” she said.

  “Indeed it is. Henceforth, you will tread the path of the First Five. I only hope you will find the experience as illuminating as you might have wished. If you are in agreement, then I shall escort you there myself.”

  “I agree,” said Priety, her countenance one of awe.

  “Then gather your things, Sister Priety, and say your final farewells quickly . . .”

  • • •

  Liyal and Toria accompanied the Archmage Ani and the disgraced Priety through the lesser-used tunnels of the Marque’s inner realms. Liyal held Priety’s small bag of personal items, while Toria carried a length of black cloth folded across one arm, as if she were a waiter.

  “Nearly there now,” said Ani sweetly, quickening her step as they approached an apparently blank wall so that she reached it ahead of the others. She pressed the eye on her palm against one of the old rocks, and immediately a great groan issued forth, and the wall started sliding to one side.

  “Now, Priety,” she said, “Toria is going to blindfold you.”

  “What?”

  Ani smiled soothingly.

  “It is but a precaution, for the secrets of the Second Realm are known to only a few. Rest assured that they will all be revealed to you in time.”

  Without further ado, Toria stepped forward and wrapped the heavy fabric across Priety’s face.

  They continued quickly through the tunnels, Ani activating other doors as they went, Toria and Liyal holding Priety between them, moving her along, ensuring she didn’t stumble. Somewhere along the way, Liyal had disposed of Priety’s bag of belongings. She wouldn’t need it now.

  A final door opened, and Ani told her guards to go no farther.

  “We’re entering the Realm of the First Five,” she whispered enticingly to Priety, guiding the older Sister forward. Gradually Priety became aware of a new smell in the still air, a strange, sweet freshness. It took her a while to identify it: disinfectant. There was a low whirring noise, and a fine mist settled on her exposed forehead.

  “What was that?” she asked. Nobody answered, but a firm hand grasped her elbow, moving her on.

  She heard the hiss of an automatic door, and a mechanical voice spoke, reminding all personnel to adhere to safety procedures before entering. Another door slid softly open, and she was pushed inside. A thick, heavily scented spray enveloped Priety’s body, wetting her robes and making the blindfold stick to her face. She gagged.

  “What’s happening?” she asked, frightened, but Ani softly shushed her from close by, her voice now with a faintly mechanical tone to it, as though it were being fed through a speaking apparatus. Priety began to panic. Something was very wrong.

  “I don’t want to do this,” said Priety. “I’ve changed my mind. I choose exile.”

  “Hush, Priety,” whispered Ani. “Your Sister is sleeping. Do not wake her.”

  The sound of a final door opening reached the sodden lecturer, and immediately a strong odor cut through the overpowering reek of the disinfectant, a stench at once meaty and foul, tempered with decay and bodily waste. Before Priety could react, or even shout in alarm, a hand was clamped across her mouth, and she was propelled forward and pushed into a chair. Cuffs snapped around her wrists as she struggled, and then the blindfold was unwound from her eyes. Beside her she saw Syrene, but Syrene did not see her, for Syrene was otherwise occupied.

  The Red Witch sat statue-still in her chair, her body emaciated beneath her robes, her eyes the color of curdled milk. But worse—far worse—were the tendrils and filaments of red that twisted from inside her skull, which was open like a serving dish, exposing the brain within.

  But that was not all Priety saw, for it was only the beginning of the horror. A massive insectoid shape moved across the web above her as the first of its tendrils slowly snaked down toward her head.

  “Now you may scream, if you wish,” whispered Ani from behind her protective mask.

  And scream Priety did, over and over again, until that at which she screamed finally silenced her.

  CHAPTER 51

  Ani watched from behind the safety of the strengthened glass window as the One went about its work. Back on Earth, a young Illyri named Cedus had kept a tarantula as a pet, to which he would feed cockroaches. Ani felt uncomfortably like Cedus as the bulk of the One positioned itself above Priety, her skull already almost entirely concealed beneath a mass of tendrils. By now, the One was the size of a large dog, its black eyes like holes in its being, vestiges of the dark universe from which it had emerged. Still, its growth had slowed since Ani had separated it from the First Five, putting them out of their pain at last.

  Only here, in this repository for the foulest of secrets, was Ani truly alone. Only she had access to this place, and the burden of what was kept here was for her to bear. It was fate that had brought her here.

  Fate, and Syrene.

  • • •

  The Archmage Syrene used to disappear into the deep recesses of the Marque on a weekly basis—never more frequently, never less.

  “She’s going to meet with the First Five,” said Cocile haughtily when Ani, then still Syrene’s newest aide, asked where the Archmage went on such occasions, “though I doubt that it’s any of your business.”

  Cocile was a little cautious around Ani. She knew her to be Gifted, but remained unclear about her talents. She was aware that Ani had been one of the Chosen, a Blue Novice, and Cocile had feared these upstarts more than she cared to admit, for she felt that they threatened her own position as Syrene’s handmaiden. Cocile liked to be in charge, or at least in charge of holding the coat of whoever was actually in charge, and she took absolute pride in her stoicism, her hard work, her discretion, and her dedication to her mistress, even to the extent of putting Syrene’s needs before those of the Sisterhood itself. The Archmage would act for the Nairenes, she reasoned, and Cocile would act for the Archmage. That was how Cocile held her position. She didn’t question, she didn’t sulk, she took on any task, and she was willfully blind to that which she knew she should not see. Like the Gifted, Cocile was a creation of her mistress: the only one she was more concerned about than Syrene was herself.

  And then the Gifted had been wiped out—all but Ani Cienda. That blood-soaked day was one of the only times Cocile had seen her mistress cry, although her tears were not for the loss of so many young lives, but instead for the demise of her private army.

  “We can start again,” said Syrene’s new husband, Lord Andrus, with that strange emptiness that had become his default mode of speaking. The Other that Syrene had breathed into him so many months before, in a hot mouthful of poisonous spores, had destroyed the great Illyri he once had been, taking him over completely, although Cocile did not know that at the time. Only later would she find out about the Others . . .

  “No,” Syrene had replied vaguely, talking more to herself than her spouse. “It is too late to go back to the beginning, but they served their purpose, and many of our enemies are dead. And Ani Cienda has willingly offered herself to me. She believes deeply in the nobility of the Sisterhood’s cause—I know, for I have explored her mind—and that in itself is an excellent starting point. Her skills remain underdeveloped, but then she is still immature. She will only grow stronger as she flowers, particularly with me as her personal mentor.”

 
Hearing this, Cocile had been vaguely troubled, but it soon became clear to her—and to her relief—that the young Novice was intended to fill the role of the now-dead personal scribe and second handmaiden Layne, and was no threat. As time went by, Cocile grew more at ease with Ani’s presence. She saw that Syrene cared about her not so much as a Sister deserving of respect, but instead as a pretty pet being taught to fetch and sit and roll over at her mistress’s bidding, and a frustrating one to train at that. She appeared to grant Ani no special affection or care, besides their daily training sessions. From these, Ani would sometimes emerge sobbing, and on more than one occasion the clear, red outline of an angry hand was imprinted on her blazing cheek.

  But Ani was courteous to Cocile, and went out of her way to ask her opinion, to thank her, to be considerate, just as she was considerate to so many of the Novices and older Sisters alike. She appeared to have taken the trouble to learn the name and title of every Sister she came into contact with, and endeared herself with small kindnesses, and her clear devotion to the Nairene cause.

  As for Ani, she watched, and stayed quiet, for if she had learned anything from Syl, it was the usefulness of observation, and she held her usually chippy tongue and practiced, practiced, practiced. It wasn’t just her clouding abilities that she honed but also her skills as a scribe, requesting extra lessons with the bemused chief Nairene scribe Kumuru, in whose experience teenagers were all lazy and work-shy. Ani went out of her way to prove Kumuru wrong, just as she went out of her way to prove everybody who doubted her wrong, and to earn the friendship and trust of those who mattered most, including Cocile.

  In very little time, the young Novice was ordained as a full Sister, and the tears of joy Ani shed on that occasion were real, for she found she had grown to love the Nairene order, and her place in it. Having a role to play, being someone who mattered, who was relied upon, who was nurtured, all of this had slowly healed the part of her that had been all but broken on that dreadful day on Erebos, when those she loved had first betrayed her and then died around her. Her workload increased, and Syrene came to rely on her, and she knew she could be happy here.

 
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