Dominion, p.34
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       Dominion, p.34

           John Connolly
 

  Ani nodded slowly. She put out her hand to touch the picture, and it buzzed and distorted where her fingers moved.

  “Steven Kerr,” she whispered. “That’s Steven Kerr.”

  CHAPTER 60

  Vena emerged from the washroom to find Dyer already dressed. She didn’t particularly mind. While she enjoyed being with him, theirs was no great love affair, and she was certain that he felt the same way. It was a relationship of convenience between two Illyri, based on many things—ambition, shared enemies, common goals, occasional physical needs—but not on any deep affection, and not on any particular trust either. They were both too experienced to really trust anyone, but they were also clever enough to realize that neither of them would ever give away anything that might endanger themselves or weaken their position. Unlike Krake and Merida, there would be no careless pillow talk. If they shared any information, they would do so deliberately, and with a purpose.

  Dyer was handsome in a vague way; his features were slightly too regular to be truly interesting. He was also small for an Illyri—just a little over six feet in height—but his ascent to power had been steady and careful, until he was now, to the eyes of outsiders, just one step away from the highest position in the Empire. Those outside observers were mistaken, of course: Dyer was president in all but name, and Krake knew it. Dyer let Krake have the presidential palace, his luxurious apartment in the Tree of Light, his fine foods, liquors, and clothing. All Krake had to do in return was whatever Dyer told him.

  In essence, Dyer was the true power in the Illyri Empire, and the responsibility for the conduct of the war was largely his alone. It was unfortunate, therefore, that Dyer was a better politician than military tactician. He had assumed that one would equip him for the other, but he had been wrong. The attack on Melos Station, which was Dyer’s idea, encouraged by Syrene, had not been matched by similar successes against the Military elsewhere, for which Dyer was to blame. His failure lay in his belief that the destruction of Melos would leave the Military powerless, that by cutting off its head, the body would simply fall dead to the ground. Instead, the Military had fragmented, scattering itself to safe havens throughout near and distant galaxies while its remaining leadership regrouped. Now Dyer and the Diplomatic forces were fighting a war on a dozen different fronts, wasting valuable resources trying to hunt down small guerrilla units while Military ships struck at supply lines and vulnerable outlying bases. Despite the confident public pronouncements of President Krake—relayed through him by Dyer in the manner of a ventriloquist controlling a dummy—the reality was that the Diplomatic Corps had begun to question Dyer’s abilities.

  For the first time, he was in real danger of being usurped and replaced, but recent days had brought new information his way: the Military was just as weakened by the war as the Diplomats, if not more so, and was readying itself for a counterstrike directly at the home system. Its fleet was assembling, although Dyer had yet to learn the precise location of the rendezvous point. In anticipation of just such a move, Dyer was recalling his own ships and preparing to fortify the wormholes near Illyr. The problem was that there were many wormholes surrounding the Illyr system, and he could not defend them all. If he divided his forces among them, then no single Diplomatic battle group would be able to resist an incursion by the entire Military fleet. If he gambled on one or two likely wormholes, and chose wrongly, the Military would enter the Illyr system unopposed. He needed to know the Military’s plans.

  This was why, through Vena, he had chosen to spy on the Archmage Ani, because he was convinced that she had secretly allied herself with the Military. He had felt no great fondness for her predecessor, Syrene, but at least he knew where her loyalties lay. Since her replacement by Ani, all such certainties had fallen by the wayside. Dyer did not believe that Syrene had willingly given up her position as Archmage, and his Nairene spies who had witnessed it had described her last public appearance, in which she had announced her abdication as Archmage, and her selection of Ani Cienda to succeed her, as most odd.

  But all of those spies were gone now. Sister Priety had vanished into the depths of the Marque, Beyna had committed suicide, and Coriol, Gara, and Jenis had been suddenly dispatched to Morir—exiled, in other words—to found a new Nairene convent and spread the Gospel of Knowledge, although from what Dyer knew of Morir, the only thing they’d be converting on the planet were rocks and dirt. The new Archmage had deprived him of all information from inside the Marque, and she had similarly secured Erebos. She was proving far too clever and adept for Dyer’s liking.

  Vena appeared behind him. He did not turn, but watched her reflection in the glass. She was striking, he thought, and cold, like a dagger in Illyri form.

  “What are you thinking?” she asked, and he knew that she was not expecting a lover’s answer.

  “I’m thinking that we have tolerated the Archmage for long enough. Either she is actively plotting against us, or she has chosen to distance herself from our cause. Whichever is true, she is not on our side, and those who are not with us . . .”

  “Are against us,” Vena finished for him. “What do you propose?”

  “The Sisterhood has served its purpose. The Diplomatic fleet is massing, and we are preparing to strike a final killer blow against our enemies. It’s time to add the Sisterhood to that list.”

  “You will target the Marque?”

  This was unheard of. The Marque was sacrosanct.

  “Its defenses are not impregnable—and it may not even be necessary to bypass them. Ships land on the Marque all the time. If we are clever, the Sisterhood will willingly admit the instruments of its downfall; a small force may be all that is required. We take the Marque, and depose the Archmage. Once she is captured—or better yet, dead—we can purge the Sisterhood, and install a new Archmage to institute a rule more amenable to our own.”

  Vena pressed herself against him. This was more than she could have hoped for: not just the downfall of Ani Cienda, but the end of the old Sisterhood, and the birth of the new.

  “And who will be the new Archmage?” she asked. Even as she spoke she knew the answer, but still she thrilled to hear it from his lips.

  “You will.”

  CHAPTER 61

  Vena was still buttoning her service uniform as she left the Tree of Lights, her fingers trembling with excitement. Suddenly the impossible now seemed within her grasp: revenge on Ani Cienda, who, with Syl Hellais, had led her former lover Sedulus to his death on Earth; and dominion over the Sisterhood, which had rejected her in her youth, deeming her too “unstable” to wear Nairene robes. With Dyer effectively ruling on Illyr, and Vena at the head of a new Sisterhood, they would change Illyri society—and the known universe—forever.

  Yet she and Dyer remained different from each other in one crucial respect: unlike Dyer, Vena did not carry one of the Others in her skull. She had always resisted implantation, as had many of the higher Securitats. Like most of her kind, Vena was a spy at heart, and a spy knew better than to give another spy access to her secrets. The Securitats remained wary of the Others. Some of them carried the aliens in their heads, but those who did were carefully monitored, and much vital information was not shared with them.

  Vena found her moments of intimacy with Dyer peculiar because of her awareness of the thing that dwelled inside him. Sometimes she imagined it watching her while she was with him, experiencing these deeply physical and sensual moments at one remove, exploring her through him. In a way, it was useful for her to know that Dyer was infected; it made it easier for her to maintain her emotional distance from him.

  Vena barely registered the presence of the young concierge who watched her depart, and Rent Raydl gave no sign that he noticed her. He had decided early in his concierge career that it was always better to pretend that the Securitats, and Vena in particular, were invisible. If you paid attention to them, they might in turn pay attention to you, and that would be most unfortunate.

  Regrettably, his deepening relat
ionship with Cocile had forced him to reassess this position. It hadn’t taken them long to figure out that it was the Archmage who had brought them together, but she had simply accelerated what might otherwise have been a natural, if slow, process for two innately shy, reticent Illyri. Rent and Cocile were by now very much in love, but Rent was already coming to realize that any involvement with the Sisterhood brought with it layers of intrigue. Sometimes, in his more cynical moments, he wondered if one of the reasons why the Archmage had encouraged the relationship between her handmaiden and himself was because the concierge’s work at the Tree of Lights made him a potentially useful source of information, and more.

  It was Rent’s own fault, he supposed. It was he who had let slip to Cocile that Vena paid regular visits to Dyer at the Tree of Lights, and was widely assumed to be sleeping with the Vice President. He shouldn’t have been surprised when Cocile chose to share this nugget with the Archmage—if she was not already aware of it—but he was shocked when Cocile met Rent for dinner a week later, and presented him with several tiny seed transmitters. She had then encouraged him, if that was the right term for a combination of seduction and bribery, to gain entry to Dyer’s apartments and scatter the seeds where he could. Most disturbing of all, Rent had agreed to do so.

  Rent had no idea what Dyer and the Securitat chief talked about in Dyer’s apartment, and didn’t want to know. He only hoped that, if worse came to worst, and his treachery was discovered, the Sisterhood would find a way to hide him before Vena began skinning him alive.

  And deep in the Marque, listening ears took in all that had been said by Vena and her lover, and it was immediately communicated, word for word, to the Archmage.

  CHAPTER 62

  As Aron was preparing to leave Erebos, strapping his precious hoard of Meldrae securely into the back seat of the red craft while the Nairene pilot impatiently drummed her fingers on the control panel, there was a flurry of action on the landing pad.

  “Wait, wait!” called a voice.

  Aron turned to see Ani’s gentle handmaiden running toward him, her red robes flapping like ragged wings. He couldn’t remember her name. She was a meek and retiring creature—kindly and polite enough, but she’d never said more than a few words to him, and was not the sort to make any lasting impression.

  “Yes, er . . . ?” he said.

  “Lista. I’m Lista,” she said, before adding “Sir!” as an afterthought.

  “What can I do for you, Lista?”

  “I’m coming with you,” she said, nodding emphatically.

  “What? Why?” said Aron, but already Lista was clambering in through the rear door of the vessel, pushing his valuable cargo out of her way as she settled in. Clearly he had misjudged her.

  “Because the Archmage said I must,” she replied once she’d made herself at home. “I’m to stay in the craft and you’re to bring me to Steven Kerr.”

  “Oh, I am, am I?” said Aron. “Why did the Archmage not inform me of this herself?”

  On receiving the revelation about Steven Kerr, Ani had seemed genuinely shaken. Their meeting had ended rather quickly after that, for she was clearly bewildered by his news, and she’d asked to be excused so that she could lie down. Of course, it had been more an instruction than a request, but he’d obliged anyway, and watched curiously as she left the room, Lista trotting anxiously behind her. Now this same Lista was staring at him in a manner that suggested any arguments about her presence would be most unwelcome.

  “The Archmage only just decided,” she said. “She’s resting at the moment. You’re not going to make me fetch her, are you?”

  “How do I know she sent you, though? You may mean the Kerr boy some harm. I can’t go trusting every Nairene that comes running along, making demands.”

  Lista sighed. Out of the corner of his eye Aron was sure he saw the pilot, Sessily, grinning, but she turned her head away when he looked directly at her, concealing her expression from him.

  “The Archmage anticipated you might say as much. She said you’d know I was genuinely sent by her if I told you the following: Nemo me impune lacessit. It means—”

  “I know what it means,” said Aron. “ ‘No one who harms me will go unpunished.’ I suspect the Archmage should have it printed on her business cards.”

  Aron still didn’t assent to Lista’s presence on the flight. This was a complicated business. The usual procedure was for the Nairene ship carrying Aron to rendezvous with a Military cruiser, returning him to his own kind before heading back through the wormhole. This was done for the protection of all: Aron might have trusted Ani, but he still believed that it was better if the Archmage knew as little about the Military’s operations as possible, and that included denying her and any of her Sisters access to Military vessels, for Military vessels contained Military secrets. Some of his superiors would press to have Aron thrown out of an airlock if it was found that he had allowed a Nairene access to any part of the fleet.

  Aron stared at Lista. She continued to stare back at him. It struck him that she looked trustworthy, although he had no idea where he might have gotten that impression. Yes, said a voice in his head that sounded like an echo of his own, it might be a good idea to take her to see Steven Kerr after all. But just in case, maybe he could have her instruct Sessily to disable all controls once they had boosted through the wormhole, so that their ship would be entirely in the hands of the Military, and he could be certain that it was not engaged in any form of surveillance. It would make him feel better.

  “All right,” said Aron. “You can come, but you’ll instruct Sessily to hand over control of this ship to my cruiser as soon as we leave the wormhole.”

  “If it makes you feel better,” said Lista, which was odd, because that’s just what he’d been thinking . . .

  Aron was starting to feel highly confused.

  “Right,” he said.

  With that, Lista turned to the pilot, who had made no protest during any of this.

  “Let’s fly, Sessily,” she instructed.

  “Yes, ma’am,” said the pilot.

  Aron buckled himself in, still perplexed. He really had underestimated this Lista—she was obviously a force to be reckoned with.

  But later, as Lista gagged and vomited repeatedly as they bumped and rocked their way through the nasty little wormhole, Aron couldn’t help feeling a little pleasure at her discomfort.

  • • •

  Once they had completed the boost, a large, battered-looking cruiser came into view. All identifying marks had been removed from its matte-black bodywork, and it floated menacingly like a shark in empty dark waters. As they approached, a bay opened beneath the bow of the cruiser, and their red ship was consumed by it. Perhaps it wasn’t a shark so much as a whale, drinking in a cloud of red plankton.

  Lista looked up from her sick bag.

  “Thank heavens,” she said, and again Aron felt that odd bafflement, for he only ever heard that expression from humans, or those Illyri who’d spent time on Earth. The handmaiden must have picked it up from the Archmage.

  Docking locks secured the Nairene vessel, and the all clear sounded as the bay doors closed.

  “Steven should be waiting in the control room,” Aron told Lista. She wiped her mouth, looking distinctly pale.

  “You can come inside if you wish,” urged Aron, “and freshen up.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous. You can hardly have me running around inside a Military cruiser, can you? Just send Steven to me and I’ll let him know what Ani says,” replied Lista, then, remembering her manners, she added a reluctant “please.”

  She really was quite above herself, Aron decided as he left the craft. He glanced back just before the door closed: Lista was looking at her reflection in the shiny glass of the shuttle, smoothing her hair with her hands like a teenager awaiting the arrival of her date. For a moment, she reminded him a little of Ani.

  • • •

  When Aron returned with Steven Kerr, Sessily was waiting
outside the shuttle, leaning against her craft like an outsized teenager spoiling for a fight. A scattering of human men gathered on the edges of the bay stared at her, and she glared back, her hand hovering near a pulser strapped to her waist.

  “It’s okay,” said the Earth boy in Illyri, “they won’t bother you,” but Sessily ignored him. She’d never actually spoken to a human before, and it didn’t appear as if she’d missed much; this one’s attempt at the Illyri tongue was rough and unpleasing to her ear. Sessily simply activated the shuttle door, barely looking at him.

  As Steven disappeared inside and the door slid shut on his back, Aron could have sworn that he heard the young man whoop.

  • • •

  “Ani!” said Steven as his eyes began to focus in the gloom, for there it was: that unmistakable silver hair, glowing like a band of cirrus over the moon. He’d fancied he’d been in love with her once, a long time ago, but then it was easy to imagine as much of someone who’d saved your life, especially when they were beautiful, and even more so when they spoke to you as if you mattered at a time when everyone else still treated you like a child. “I never expected you! I thought Aron said a handmaiden . . .”

  But then he stopped. His old friend—now fully grown, and clearly significantly taller than him, even seated—was pointing a pulser at him. She watched him carefully, and the eye of the Sisterhood regarded him too from a tattoo on her cheek, peering like a face from behind a wall of ornate foliage.

  “What the hell are you doing, Ani?” he asked.

  Momentarily her lip seemed to quiver, or perhaps that was just a shadow thrown by the tiny lights blinking on the control panel.

  “Who are you?” she said finally. “What are you? Steven Kerr is dead.”

  “No,” said Steven, “but if you use that pulser, then he very soon will be.”

 

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