Dominion, p.37
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       Dominion, p.37

           John Connolly
 

  “Okay,” she said. “Start with Paul, please.”

  “You and he are still an item, then, I gather?”

  “Yes,” said Syl, defensive now, “we are, very much so. More than ever.”

  Ani nodded, her features bland.

  “I don’t expect you to understand,” said Syl.

  “I understand perfectly well, Syl. I’m not made of stone. But I do think you’re making life very difficult for yourself.”

  “It hasn’t exactly been easy of late, you know, Ani—and it was Paul who made things bearable; it was Paul who pulled me through, who lifted me up every time. It was Paul who believed in me, even when I’d stopped believing in myself. It was Paul . . . it was always Paul.”

  As she said it she realized just how true it was, and she thought her heart would break at the thought of losing him. Her words dried up, and she felt as though there were pebbles in her throat. Ani watched her, and her eyes were kind.

  “Well,” she said briskly, after a few beats, “he took a really nasty bump on the head, but he’s got that thick Scottish skull, you know”—she smiled encouragingly—“and I guess that saved his life. Everything else that was broken or injured can be fixed. We’re fixing him now. But it will take time, Syl, lots of time, so we need to keep him asleep. He’s peaceful, he’s well cared for, and he’s having the best medical treatment available.”

  “When—”

  “Tomorrow. You can see him tomorrow.”

  Syl seemed about to argue, but then nodded.

  “That would be good. Thank you. Tell me about Thula, please.”

  “Thula’s fine. We’re rebuilding his foot—it was crushed during the boost—and he’s completely deaf in one ear, so he’s shouting rather a lot because of it, but Lista is taking extra-special care of him. He seems to have realized we’re not going to kill any of you, so he’s finally stopped threatening my staff. Or perhaps Lista has distracted him.”

  Lista: the name was familiar to Syl.

  “Lista? Do I know her?”

  “You certainly should. You took her white robes that last day on Erebos, and gave her your dress to wear. That’s how I met her. I saw your dress in the crowd during the evacuation. She was trying to hide, the poor thing—I felt so sorry for her. If Syrene had found out, she’d have had her exiled, or maybe even killed. Anyway, I hid Lista until I could get her some new service robes. She works for me now, and she’s intensely loyal. But she thought you were called Tanit because that was what you told her.”

  A cloud passed across Ani’s features as she spoke Tanit’s name, and the distance between Ani and Syl, which they were trying carefully to bridge, revealed itself once again. Syl knew that Ani had loved Tanit, had even been in love with her, and yet Syl had killed Tanit in front of her.

  “I’m sorry, Ani,” she said, because she was sorry, sorry for the pain she’d caused her friend, though she felt little actual remorse for Tanit’s death. What she’d done had been necessary—kill, or be killed. “I’m truly sorry for what happened that day. I wish there could have been another way.”

  She wanted to explain, to lay it all out body by body, corpse by corpse, detailing the killing spree that Tanit and the other Gifted had started, and had been hell-bent on finishing, beginning with Elda and ending, almost, with Paul Kerr. However, she knew an apology followed by an explanation would seem like no apology at all, so she left the words unsaid. Automatically, she reached for Elda’s amulet around her neck, the one with Archaeon scratched on its surface, but found that it wasn’t there. It must have been lost in the accident.

  “Are you looking for this?” said Ani. She slipped her fingers under the neckline of her own gown and pulled out the familiar necklace, its ugly brown locket flopping against her chest, all wrong against the sumptuousness of her robes. “I’ve been keeping it safe for you since they scanned you for internal injuries—no metal is allowed in the scanners.”

  She turned the locket over and over in her hand as she spoke, and it pivoted on its clasp.

  “I remember what you said about Elda, Syl, and I’m sorry that I didn’t believe you. I know all about Archaeon, all about Syrene’s plans and schemes, for how could I not? I hold her position now, and have access to everything that was once hers. I even sleep in her bed, but before that I was her scribe. I was her trusted aide, the last of her beloved Gifted, and she kept me close. I know how she warped the Gifted to suit her own purposes, but I also believe that Tanit was not to blame for what she was made to do. She was a child, Syl. We were all children, manipulated by adults for their own ends. And yes, I loved Tanit. I loved her deeply.”

  Syl stayed quiet while Ani spoke on, her voice flat and low, as if this was a story she’d repeated to herself many times.

  “I think that Tanit loved me back, Syl, in her way, but I know she worshiped Syrene above all others. I recognize now what kind of creature Syrene was trying to turn her into, and would have turned me into as well if she could. I have thought it through more often than you could know in the years since you killed—well, since Tanit died. I believe you did what you felt you had to do to stop Tanit. I wish it had not been so extreme, so final, but for the life of me I can’t imagine what the alternative might have been. In the end, perhaps Tanit’s death was a mercy. After the crimes that she and the other Gifted had committed—the murders, the burnings—they could not have been saved. Maybe they were corrupted beyond salvation, but they were corrupted by those who were older than them, and who should have protected them.”

  There were tears in Ani’s eyes, but they remained unshed as she talked, and she looked past Syl, twirling the amulet, her eyes focused on nothing at all.

  “I have had four years to mull it over, to come up with other endings to their tale, and I have, countless times, yet still I’ve never been able to completely convince myself of the possibility of any of them. But you—you had minutes, if not seconds to make a decision. And your life was threatened too. For what it’s worth, Syl, I understand what happened. I don’t like it one bit, but that’s neither here nor there. And I’m no longer the child I was. I have moved on, and I too have done things I’m not proud of in the interim. Many things. I now know the universe isn’t black and white. Sometimes it’s just gray. But then, sometimes, it’s filled with colors so beautiful you can’t even begin to imagine.”

  Ani stopped, and seemed to notice that she still held Elda’s locket between her fingers. Absently, she brought it to her lips, then slipped it back under her robes. Syl did not protest. Perhaps Ani now needed that reminder of the past more than she did. Instead she reached for Ani’s hand.

  “I’ve missed you, Ani Cienda,” was all she said.

  “It’s good to have you back, Syl Hellais,” said Ani, and they both smiled a little, and for that moment it was enough. Ani turned to leave, declaring that she did not wish to tire the patient out, and as she made for the door, Syl asked one last question, the one that she had been most afraid to have answered.

  “Ani, what of my father?”

  But Ani was gone.

  CHAPTER 70

  Syl remained on Erebos, confined to the medical suites over the days that followed. Her injuries were still healing, most visibly an immensely itchy but relatively superficial cut on her forehead. In addition her thighs were bruised black from the force of the collapsed panel that had kept her in place for the worst of the turbulence. However, for this she was vaguely grateful, because the chief medic, Velarit, said it was probably the anchoring weight of that panel that had saved her life. She found she was breathless too, as her lungs had been compromised, which left her more tired than she could recall ever being, seemingly able to hold a conversation for more than half an hour at most before she needed to lie down to sleep.

  It didn’t matter, because there was no one much to talk to anyway beyond the polite yet crisp staff in Nairene red, who were under strict orders from the Archmage to keep secret the fact that the fugitive Syl Hellais, and two wanted humans, we
re now recuperating under the care of the Sisterhood.

  Paul remained comatose, and Syl had to remind herself continually that it was drug induced, and for his own good. Naturally she drifted in to see him, sometimes twice a day, sitting alone by his bedside, but he was oblivious to her presence, his eyelids closed, their skin blue-tinted and fragile but unmarked, unlike the rest of his face, which was crosshatched with welts and cuts. His nose was obviously smashed, as was the socket bone above his left eye, and his hair was shaved away, revealing a long, angry gash on the side of his head, but the rest of him was hidden beneath temperature-controlling sheeting. On her first visit, Syl had carefully pushed back a corner of the covers and found Paul’s hand, but even that bore the scar of the burns that had been inflicted on him the last time he was on Erebos, and she swallowed hard as she stroked it, appalled at what had happened to him because of his contact with her people.

  Tenderly, carefully, she felt for him with her mind, but he was heavily medicated, so that she found nothing but cool, blue light.

  Thula was technically off-limits too. He remained in the rehabilitation wing of the facility and Syl was not allowed to visit him without protective clothing because the delicate rebuilding of his foot could be compromised by cross-contamination. Syl went to speak with him once or twice, but mostly she was content to wave at him through the thick window separating his room from the units, and chat with him over the intercom system. She tried not to wince when she saw the mangled stump of his leg, neatly crisscrossed with a cage of synthetic bone, and tubes pumping blood, but Thula appeared untroubled by it, and found the whole process fascinating. Lista was often with him, which Syl found . . . interesting. Lista always looked delighted to see Syl, greeting her enthusiastically, and Syl felt more than a little ashamed, for she had abused Lista’s trust and good nature twice. At least Lista didn’t hold grudges.

  But it was Ani to whom Syl wished to speak more than any other. However, her old friend had left after their first conversation, promising she’d be back when Syl was stronger, but she had not returned.

  “The Archmage has been called away on important business,” Velarit said briskly when Syl questioned her, but Syl wasn’t entirely sure this was true. She had so many questions to ask, questions that Ani would doubtless be uncomfortable answering, and perhaps this was why she stayed away. It was more than frustrating. Syl wanted to know how her father was. She wanted to know about Earth, about Steven, about the war.

  About the Others.

  As her body grew stronger, she grew more fearful that her enemies would discover her presence on Erebos. She was entirely reliant on Ani’s goodwill, and the discipline of the Sisters attending her, to prevent her from being taken by the Corps or the Securitats. She needed to get to the Marque, and she recalled Ani’s invitation to return to the Sisterhood.

  And then what? The Cayth believed that she had the power to destroy the Others, but they hadn’t exactly been clear on how she might go about doing that. And if Ani was Archmage, then she must surely know about the beast in the bowels of the Marque, the creature Syl needed to get to. How, wondered Syl, could the Ani she used to know smile so peacefully and speak so calmly when that abomination was buried deep in Avila Minor, infecting the very heart of everything over which Ani reigned and about which she professed to care so much? Was she in league with it? Had she, like Syrene, struck a bargain with the Others?

  Or was Ani herself perhaps infected by one of the parasites, a parting gift from Syrene before she so mysteriously retired? Syl had not sensed one of the creatures inside Ani, but Ani had registered her probing before she had time to get beyond superficial emotional responses. The very idea of her friend’s possible contamination caused her to jerk awake, stomach churning and heart pounding, in the deepest hours of the long, dark nights. Syl desperately wished to know why Ani had replaced Syrene, and how—how? Once that became clear, so too might the steps she had to take.

  As the days stretched on and Syl’s body healed, her capacity for concentration grew, and she began to play quiet games with her mind, burrowing into the heads of the unwitting medical staff, collecting misshapen segments of the truth, like jigsaw puzzle pieces that she attempted to fit together into a picture that made sense. She gently asked questions too, seemingly innocuous or innocent, but the answers she received surprised her:

  Syrene had declared to her Council of Confidantes her intention to relinquish the position of Archmage in favor of Ani Cienda. The news had been met with consternation, but Syrene would not be swayed, and confirmed that she intended to join the First Five in a life of isolation and contemplation. In the immediate aftermath, Ani had purged the Council of Syrene’s supporters, demoting some, sending others into exile, and replaced them with Sisters whose loyalty to the new Archmage was not in question. Ani had also retained Syrene’s handmaiden Cocile as an aide, along with loyal Lista, and she had two personal guards who were near her at all times, close and connected as shadows.

  Yet none of it made sense: How had a young upstart like Ani risen to the top so quickly?

  The answer, of course, must be because Ani could cloud minds, although when Syl had fled the Marque four years earlier, Ani’s powers were still in the process of development. As one of Syrene’s precious Gifted, she had been rigorously tutored, and encouraged to practice, and so it was probable that this training had continued—indeed, intensified—once the other Novices who possessed similar psychic abilities were all dead. Syrene must have invested all of her hopes in Ani, and all of her efforts. Perhaps Ani had ultimately become strong enough to manipulate the Archmage herself. In a piece of poetic justice, could Syrene have created the instrument of her own destruction?

  The more Syl thought about it, the more she became convinced that she’d stumbled across something that looked like a seam of truth; it was insane, but somehow Ani had clouded her way into Nairene history.

  • • •

  That afternoon, Syl awoke from a nap to find Ani standing at the end of her bed, as though the Archmage had somehow become aware of the direction of Syl’s thoughts. As Ani looked down on her friend with a concern that was almost motherly, Syl put her hypothesis to Ani, and asked if she had become Archmage through the use of her psychic gifts.

  “You mean like this?” said Ani.

  Syl felt a pang in her head, followed by a quiet, electrical buzzing, and Ani’s image blurred before her. As Syl’s vision refocused, the young Archmage shimmered out of view, and in her place stood Syrene, scarlet-robed, proud and terrifying, her overripe lips swollen to bursting point, her hairline shaved even farther back than before, the curlicued tattoos on her face squirming into her hair as if trying to escape the sharp gleam in her enormous eyes. Those orbs bored into Syl, and as she watched they enlarged and extended, turning black as if filling up with oil, and they grew deeper too, like caves burrowing into a mountain. The tattooed coils became a writhing infestation of thin, red snakes, and they turned and slithered out of the hair and back toward the hollow eyes, more and more of them, until the sockets became a tangled nest of vipers.

  “No!” shouted Syl, and immediately Syrene was gone. Only Ani stood before her, looking slightly put out.

  “Spoilsport,” she said. “I was just getting started.”

  “You’ve grown stronger,” said Syl, hoping her voice sounded steadier than she felt. “So much stronger.”

  “As have you, it seems,” replied Ani. “I sensed that you never once believed Syrene to be present. You knew what I was doing. Nobody else has been able to see through the illusions.”

  They regarded each other carefully.

  “Why did you come back here, Syl?” said Ani.

  “I will tell you, if you first tell me what happened to Syrene. I want to know everything.”

  Ani considered this, her head cocked to the side like a bird’s, a gesture Syl had grown familiar with over many years, and then Ani sighed and sat herself down on the edge of the bed.

  “I know I
can trust you, Syl, if only because you hate the Sisterhood, and you hate Syrene, and they are the only ones who would benefit if you revealed the truth I’m about to share with you. Anyway, who would believe you?”

  And so she told Syl all.

  • • •

  The light had changed by the time Ani’s story was done, and Syl looked upon her friend with fresh eyes—a child before the adult that was the Archmage. What Ani had done, what she had achieved, was both extraordinary and somehow terrible. In her way, Ani was the most formidable Archmage yet. Trapped in the Marque with the One, Syrene and Priety must have understood that better than anyone.

  “I wanted her to suffer as the First Five had suffered,” said Ani, speaking of Syrene, “but I also needed a channel of communication to remain open. The One is different. It’s more powerful than the rest. The Others are embedded in Illyri society. By keeping the One alive, and linking it to Syrene, I thought that I could learn more about them.”

  “And did you?”

  “In a way. Syrene told me what the One wants.”

  The room felt too small to Syl, too warm. She sensed the answer coming. Perhaps she had sensed it from the time of her first sighting of the One, and had heard it confirmed in the Cayth’s prophecy, but had chosen to remain deaf to it.

  “She says it wants you, Syl.”

  • • •

  There was silence for a time. It was Syl who broke it.

  “What will you do?” she asked.

  “What do you mean?”

  “About the One. And about me.”

  “Hide your presence from it, of course, just as I’ve kept you hidden from the Corps and the Securitats. We’ve been lucky: their attentions lie elsewhere. A great battle is imminent, Syl, perhaps the last battle. The Military—or what’s left of it—is preparing for an assault on Illyr. The Corps knows that the attack is coming, but not when, or where; it has marshaled its forces, but it can’t strike until it knows the location of the Military fleet, and so far that has been kept secret. Dyer is in charge, not Krake. Dyer is the real power behind the presidential throne. He has help too, because Vena is by his side. She’s now head of the Securitats, and she whispers in Dyer’s ear from the other side of his bed.”

 

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