Chapter 36 LADY OF THE MANOR
Marcus sat back against the stainless steel. Of all the chairs he’d ever sat in, this one had to be the least comfortable. He looked down at the water bottle and cup sitting on the table. It’s not only the furniture. The drinks are better too.
“Something funny? You’re smiling,” the girl with the chestnut hair and beautiful green eyes said.
Marcus shook his head. “It’s nothing. I was thinking about Haides. He’s got better chairs—and better drinks. In there, I mean,” he added and pointed at the Maiden’s head.
“You should smile more, Marcus. You’ve got a pretty smile. Makes you look less intimidating. More human. Makes me want to get to know you instead of running away.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” he replied and rose. “We’re taking a break now.”
“Are you leaving me alone, Marcus?” she replied. “With only the pervs in the security crypt to watch over me?”
Marcus glanced up at the three drones hovering overhead. They were watching, but discretely, as Marcus had ordered. He reached out with his mind, trying to locate Cerberus Kwame and his companion, but failed. The crypt is warded against telepathy, as it should be.
“I’m sure our watchers are perfect gentlemen. You did well enough last night. I think you can survive lunch on your own. It’s not as if I can bring you on a date anyway.”
“So, you do like me? You’d ask me on a date if you could?” Her voice was eager.
“Of course. If I could, I’d whisk you away from this hole and treat you to lunch.”
“Liar,” she said, smiling. “You’d whisk me away, but you’d tie me up and put me in some other dungeon.”
“Some other time, Lizzie.” Marcus turned and left the chimera alone in the camber, with only the drones for company. The massive door sealed firmly shut behind his back. It would not open to anybody else, not even another wielder of the Dark Omega.
Marcus knew the Gatekeeper had been put there for a reason. He was guarding the Maiden’s secrets, playing the part he’d been given. Not a real man, a psychic shadow, a mental copy of a long-dead person. But still, he’s getting under my skin.
It wasn’t that Haides was a murderous bastard—he was guilty as charged on both counts—because Marcus could work with such persons if need be. I’m no saint, for that matter. Marcus had killed many times in the line of duty. Most had been active recidivists—or guilty by association or negligence—but not all. A few innocents—if there was such a thing—had died along the way. Some had been collateral, unfortunate bystanders in a war they didn’t even know about. Others had been put down to be sure the cancer of darkness had been well and truly cut away. When dealing with the taint of the Abyss, you had to be absolutely sure. Otherwise, it would return, ten times stronger than before. History had proved that, time and again. I will kill again. I will do what needs to be done. But I am a vessel for the Will of the Celestial Dragon. Haides murders for pleasure, caring nothing for the bigger picture. We’re very different, him and me.
No, it wasn’t the killings. It was Haides’ flippant attitude towards everything that mattered. The Celestial Dragon, the vital work the Order did. The way he made fun of Marcus’s efforts. Nothing was sacred to Haides. That’s what grated. I need to find a way to get rid of him. Cut the gatekeeper out of the loop. He’s driving me up the wall.
Marcus grudgingly admitted to himself that he was also way outside his comfort zone. In matters of the mind, it was usually Marcus that had the upper hand. To get to the Maiden’s secrets, he had to remain in telepathic contact with Haides, an opponent that always tried to manipulate him—and sometimes succeeded. What did he call me? The Prodigal Prefect. I’ll show him just how prodigal I can be.
Marcus walked the silent granite corridors of the Ninth Tier—funny how both the Pentacle and the Maiden had nine security levels—until he reached the broad winding stairs leading up to eight sub-level of the inverted pyramid. At the top, he had to pass through the Portal of Infinite Secrets, the security checkpoint leading down into the final tier. Two times he’d endured the scans going in, two times he’d done the same going out.
Nine helmeted and gold-armored Cerberi stood guard at the checkpoint. Their cloaks had high collars, but no hoods—you couldn’t pull one over those tall helmets anyway. The garments were sealed up the front and reached almost to the floor, protecting the guards from head to toe. Such armor offered excellent protection against ordinary handguns and melee weapons. Against coilguns and the like, not so much. Each man was tall and heavyset, clearly handpicked for playing the part of imposing, faceless guardian. Marcus wondered if Kwame stood guard here sometimes, or if he was exclusively monitoring from the crypt. Probably both. I don’t expect there are that many visitors on the Ninth that need watching.
The conical helmets looked like antiques, but appearances were deceiving: they contained psy-warding circuitry, meant to protect the wearer from telepathic interference. Marcus could make out the minds hidden behind the masks but couldn’t get into them. He could probably burn down the wards with witchfire like he had the thugs last night. I won’t have to. There will be no need for violence.
The Pentacle’s guards didn’t carry firearms. Guns were banned from the premises. Why such a rule would be applied to the men and women protecting the library, Marcus didn’t fully understand. It had to be a matter of tradition because it certainly had no practical function that he could see. Instead of guns, the Cerberi carried halberds—archaic polearms that looked like a cross between a spear and a poleaxe, with a hook added for good measure. This seemingly primitive weapon was quite lethal in skilled hands. Each contained a matter-disruptive energy projector, powerful enough to turn an unprotected human into a pile of bloody, charred goo with a single strike. It should be able to deal with exo-suited soldiers, provided the wielder lived long enough to use it—armored infantry invariably carried a variety of ranged weapons
The guards had checked him thoroughly on his way down. Now he had to patiently wait for them to check that he wasn’t carrying anything restricted up from the level below. As if I could put the Maiden in my pocket and walk out of here.
He left the armored stooges behind and continued his ascent. The Eight Tier held physical copies of restricted works that were just a tad bit less forbidden than those found at the lowest level. Among other things, it was supposed to have a written copy of Autarch Mikael’s personal diary, expertly illuminated and illustrated. Another rumor was that a forbidden version of the Liber Draconis—the Book of the Dragon—called the Liber Noctis—the Book of Shadows—was held there. Marcus doubted it was true. Any mention of the Black Dragon was sure to trigger an investigation by the Order.
Marcus went up another staircase, through another checkpoint, this one guarded by eight guards instead of nine. Marcus kept walking, kept going up. Through the Seventh and Sixth tiers, containing digital media stored in isolated infovaults, cut off from outside data streams.
When finally he reached the Fifth Tier, with its six guards manning the access point to the next lower level, Marcus paused at the top of the stairs and addressed the Cerberi. “I require access to a private query chamber. Where can I find one?”
“Just down the main artery,” the man replied in an electronically distorted voice and pointed down the wide hallway. “When you reach the Shrine of Thoth, turn down the left instead of going straight, and you’ll reach the Temple of Athena in no time at all. The librarians on duty can assign you a chamber, Sir.”
“Thank you,” Marcus replied and marched away, midnight cloak billowing in his wake.
The topmost level of the Pentacle was barely more than a well-stocked public info bank. The Fifth Tier, however, was ideal for Marcus’s needs. If the information existed in digital format and was connected to the Network, Nuovo Venezia’s equivalent of Haides’s Grid, Marcus could access it from here.
Following the guard’s directions, Marcus walked down the main thoroughfare, a long corridor lined with columns done in Dominion Classical. This architectural style, the perfect blend of utility and aesthetics, hadn’t changed much since Mikael’s day. Every so often, there would be a stone statue depicting one of the Paragons of Learning, an obscure group of sages, librarians, and researchers from across time and space, that in various ways, had championed the cultivation of knowledge. Marcus’s recognition software identified a few—none of them famous in any way—while the rest blurred together with the rest of the Pantheon’s vast number of paragon-saints.
After a hundred meters of columns and statues, the corridor opened into an octagonal room ringed with statues of Thoth, the ancient and very dead god of wisdom and learning—and sorcery, the disreputable sibling of psychics. There were a total of eight figures, each depicting Thoth with a different animal head. The classic ibis, baboon, and owl heads were there, along with five others Marcus neither recognized nor bothered to reference.
A woman stepped around the base of the ibis-headed figure, catching Marcus—impossibly—off guard. He recovered just in time to suppress the attack reflex Xerza had hammered into him. A fraction of a second later and the woman would be on the floor, larynx crushed, unable to breathe.
“Hello, young man. I am Librarian Calpurnia Pisonis, can I be of any assistance?”
Marcus stood face-to-face with a shapely mature woman, skin almost as smooth and creamy as the Maiden’s, and a mass of fabulous fake blonde hair cascading down her back, barely kept in check by pins and braiding. Hello there, beautiful. How did I not see you coming?
“I’m looking for the Temple of Athena,” he replied, tone neutral, but ready to take her out should she prove a threat. “To the left, right?”
She wasn’t just any librarian. Her robes of office told Marus she was high up in the Pentacle’s staff. Exactly how high up he couldn’t tell, but the custom, very feminine cut of her clothes—they gave her a neckline, left her back bare and showed off her legs—suggested she was well outside the rules that applied to the rest of staff. You’re more than a librarian, aren’t you?
“Left is right,” she replied, lifting her eyebrows just a little.
It was a dumb joke, a perfect counter to Marcus’s own pun, so he rewarded her with a smile. “Very clever, very clever, indeed.” He reached out and gently took her hand in his. It was warm and cold at the same time, alive, yet to his otherworldly senses, it was not. “Pardon my rudeness, Lady Pisonis. My name is Marcus Aurelian.” He bowed slightly at the waist, brought her hand to his lips, and lightly kissed it. She has no aura. No emotions.
“I know who you are, Marcus.”
He let go of her hand and looked her in the eyes again. “You do?” he said, stalling for time. His mind reached out for hers, but there was nothing. What is this? She’s not a machine, she’s human.
“I do. We don’t get many guests down at my level, Marcus Aurelian, bearer of the Dark Omega.” The final words were barely louder than a whisper. “It used to be only the High Servants of the Dragon carried it, you know. Back when the Order was strong, it’s authority absolute. All had to bow before its authority: commoners and Archons, AI, and legates. All were equal before the Dragon. Now,” she made a dismissive gesture with an elegant hand, bejeweled rings glittering, “the Order is broken, and anyone with enough money can buy one. How far the mighty have fallen.”
“I see, Lady Pisonis,” Marcus replied, not wanting to debate the state of the Order with an outsider. Especially one that already knew more than she should. “You are the chief librarian of the Ninth Tier. And you’ve been watching me.” It wasn’t a question.
“I have. You’re nice to look at,” the attempt at flirtation was so overt it was comical, “but that’s just a bonus. We don’t get many visitors down there, so we keep a close watch on those that do come. Especially one that actually has the authority to carry the Omega of old.”
“It’s exceedingly rare for someone to be allowed to see the Maiden, almost unheard of. She’s considered too dangerous. We keep it in stasis most of the time. A bona fide Dark Omega—and a special permit, co-singed by the High Hierophant of the Dragon and the Pontifex of the Conclave—are required to gain access to the chimera. And of course,” she lowered her voice again, “no one knows the thing is here in the first place, so color me interested, young man.”
Marcus looked at her without saying anything. It wasn’t her beauty, her fabulous hair, or her lofty position that made her intriguing. It was her lack of a psychic presence. When he looked at her with his own two eyes, he saw a living, breathing woman. When he looked at her with his mind’s eye, he saw nothing.
“It took a while to track her—it—down,” Marcus admitted. “And some effort was required to get those signatures—adding those of the Incantatrix and the Techno-Tetrarch for good measure.”
Marcus probed the blank spot where the woman’s mind should be. He came away none the wiser. She was no more alive to his otherworldly senses than the eight stone statues of Thoth.
“I just hope she’s worth it. Thus far, it’s been something of a disappointment.”
Is she a legate? Skilled in the discipline of abolition? A scion of Sobek or otherwise? A combination of the two? Something else entirely? Does she carry a technomancer artifact?
“I’d hate for you to be disappointed with what the Second Pentacle has to offer, Marcus. Let me know if there is anything I can do to make your stay worthwhile.”
Marcus wasn’t entirely sure she was suggesting they’d sleep together, which was probably the point. Flirting was no good if you were too obvious. “If I’m in need, and no one else is willing and able, I will call upon you, Lady Pisonis. You have my word of honor.”
“Excellent,” she exclaimed and hooked her arm under his. “My first service to you will be to escort you to the Temple of Athena. The road is long—and so very boring. Much better we go as a couple.”
“Then lead on, Lady Pisonis,” he replied, letting her guide him down the hallway to the left.
“The Fifth is yours as well?” Marcus asked his white-clad companion. Her arm was still clinging to his, her body a warm presence next to his. Despite her lack of a psychic aura, she was very much alive and breathing, no question about that.
“It’s a temporary arrangement. I was promoted to head the Ninth when the old Chief Librarian of that tier died suddenly.”
“He died?” Marcus feigned ignorance. The man had stood in the way of the Will of the Dragon. Killing him had been the quickest, most practical solution.
“A sudden seizure of the heart. Almost as if the sinus node had been fried. A rare neurological disorder, the doctors told us. He was very old, but it was still quite a shock.” She didn’t sound shocked at all, only pleased he was gone. Marcus didn’t need to read her aura or her mind to know.
“So now you head both tiers?”
“Only until I get my promotion confirmed. Or I should say ‘if.’ The board doesn’t like women or youth—relatively speaking—much. But the job will be mine, I assure you.” She stopped and pulled on Marcus’s arm. “We’re here, the Grand Temple of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge. Welcome to the heart of the Fifth Tier of the Second Pentacle.”
Marcus stood at the entrance of a grand chamber. Before him, shelves reaching fifty meters or more up into the air lined the great hall, arranged in multiple concentric circles. Countless books sat on those shelves.
“It looks more like a library than a temple,” Marcus said.
“It does,” Calpurnia Pisonis agreed. “But Athena isn’t just the wife of Horus and his most trusted general; she’s also the patron of those who seek out or wish to preserve knowledge. She’s also heir to Thoth’s portfolio, so even more books are needed for that. The library is the temple, so to speak.
“That’s why we have real books, by the way. They were given as offerings to Athena, all of them. Now they serve as physical symbols of all the knowledge contained within the Pentacle’s deep infovaults.”
“It is beautiful, Lady Pisonis,” Marcus said as he looked up at the immense mural of the Goddess Athena covering the domed ceiling.
“Thank you,” Calpurnia said. “The artist used me as a model, so the compliment is well received.”
Marcus tore his eyes away from the ceiling to look at her. I’ll be damned. It really is her.
“I was a bit younger back then,” she said wistfully. “Proud to be the muse of such a great man. Straight out of Versailles and a commission to decorate on the Archon’s new palaces.”
“It has kept well, Lady Pisonis,” Marcus said and gestured towards the ceiling.
“Flatterer,” she said, but her beaming smile told him the flattery had gone straight home. “Do call me Cal. ‘Lady Pisonis’ sounds so dreadfully formal, and Calpurnia is an old woman’s name. ‘Beautiful’ also works if you want to get informal.”
Only a handful of people were in sight, all of them either well-dressed visitors or Pentacle staff in their white robes. Marcus reached out with his mind, finding more visitors and staff hidden among the soaring bookshelves. He scanned their surface throughs. One man stood out, a household servant, dressed up and sent here on an errand for his master who had taken ill. Nothing to worry about.
“I require a query chamber, Cal,” Marcus said. “You know where I can find one?”
“Of course, Marcus. If you would follow me.”
He held his arm out for her to take. She smiled at him and fell in at his side.
He saw two younger librarians, engaged in a quiet but heated discussion, come around a shelf in the near future, crashing into him and Cal.
He pulled her closer, feeling her surprise—and her sudden anticipation—without needing his psychics. The pair rounded the shelf, barely missing Marcus and Cal. They apologized profusely. Cal waved them away.
“Did you make a move on me, young man? Or what was that?”
“Premonitions, nothing more,” he replied.
Her smile widened. “You’re a man of many talents. I like that.”
That was stupid. Prancing like a peacock. Now she knows I can look into the future.
They rounded another self. “Here we are,” she said and pointed towards a smaller corridor, hidden between the many bookcases. Radiating outwards, like the spokes of a wheel, were lesser corridors leading to the query chambers. “The third one on the right should be available all day. We had a cancellation,” Cal explained.
“I don’t plan on staying all day,” Marcus replied, “an hour, two tops.”
“I’ll reserve it for the day, just in case. Do you plan to keep visiting?” she added innocently. “I could hold the room for your indefinitely.”
“It won’t be necessary,” Marcus said. “But you can help me with another thing: how do I get hold of some food down here?”
“Food? We don’t allow that down here. The nearest eatery is on Third.” Before he could protest, she added: “But you invite me to lunch, and I’m sure I can arrange something. After all, I’m the head lady for this level.”
Marcus nodded his agreement. Why do I have the feeling I just got royally played?”
The query chamber was the same size and had the same basic layout as Maiden’s interrogation room. The flagstones were the same granite, but the walls were richly carved bluestone. The scenes were of aquatic monsters and heroic-looking humans battling each other—scions of Poseidon doing battle with Shadow-spawn.
The room held a large desk with a high-backed chair facing it. There were additional chairs of a different design lined along the wall. An old lectern towered in lonesome majesty on the other side of the room. It looked positively ancient and little used at the same time. In the center of the room sat a low table, surrounded by a leather couch and some plush chairs.
The desk was littered with tools of data retrieval: a holographic projector, several large flexi-screen portapads, a couple of digi-styluses, and three different models of immersion headbands. The desk also had an integrated computer terminal with a trio of fold-out screens.
“Why don’t you get settled,” Chief Librarian Pisonis said, “and I’ll go find us something to eat. And a nice bottle of red.” She touched him on the shoulder as she walked past and back into the corridor. The door closed behind her.
Marcus sat down in the chair and booted up the workstation. The three screens from the desk, folding out and linking to provide a single massive viewing surface. The chair wasn’t as good as Haides’s, but still lightyears ahead of the Maiden’s. He placed the signet ring against the station’s security scanner. It accepted the Dark Omega clearance and Pentacle-issued permissions without question. Marcus now had full access to every info-vault and meme-stack within the library. If that wasn’t sufficient, he could use his authority to interface with any external system. As long as the system was tied into Nuovo Venezia’s Network, there was no keeping him out. The Technocracy had made sure that every computer system in the Dominion—and the Successor Kingdoms—had to accept the authority of the Dark Omega.
“Computer, compile a level three systems report on the world of Akakios, Amalfian Sector, Seventh Astro-administrative Circle, Coalition of Democratic Star Republics.”
“Stand by for query,” a synthetic voice replied. “Query time estimated at two hours. Do you wish to proceed?” the computer added after a few seconds.
“Belay that. Go level two instead. Execute query.”
“Estimated time to completion: fifteen minutes. Executing.”
Marcus picked up one of the portapads and headed for the sofa. He shook the pad, and it unfolded, going from the size of an access card to a full-sized screenpad. “Activate, connect, and repeat center,” he told the pad. The transparent material of the pad lit up, replicating the data displayed on the computer terminal’s central screen.
Marcus made himself comfortable on the sofa. “Locate Chief Librarian Calpurnia Pisonis.”
“Chief Librarian Calpurnia Pisonis is currently located in her quarters in the upper structure,” the computer answered.
“She’s been there all day?”
“Statement or question?” the computer replied.
“Question. But I know the answer already.”
“I do not understand the query,” the computer said. “Please restate.”
“Never mind. Play me some music. The Epic of Mikael. Andrasta’s aria from their meeting. Vlada vocals, if you please.”
The Epic of Mikael was the most famous and most played piece of opera ever created. It told the story of how Mikael met Andrasta, fell in love, and declared he’d build an empire like no other and give it to her as a morning gift—if she would marry him. Most of it pure fiction, yet based on real people and real events that had shaped the early Dominion.
Music began playing from hidden speakers. The sound system was surprisingly good. Marcus closed his eyes as he heard the voice of Vlada Scheglova fill the role of Andrasta, wife-to-be of the First Autarch of the Dominion. There had never been a better singer than Vlada, and having heard her perform the Epic of Mikael live at the Globe on Solomon had been the pinnacle of perfection. Her song purged Marcus’s mind of all distractions in a way not even dry cereals or Collegium calming techniques could.
Haides had claimed that all traces of his homeworld had been deleted from Dominion records—the Edict of Excommunication had seen to that. Perhaps he spoke the truth. Maybe not. Soon I’ll know for sure. If there was ever an Akakios, the Pentacle will have some information. No information purge is so thorough as to obliterate all traces of an entire world. Not if you know what to look for—and how to go about it.
“Computer, holographic display of Protasian system and nearby space,” Marcus left the pad on the table and got to his feet.
The projector flickered to life and filled a two-meter sphere with a three-dimensional representation of space, centered on Protasia.
“Zoom out to also include the Amalfian system.” The image shifted in response.
“Show me the location of all collapsars in the region, both presently active and dormant.” A dozen dots of light appeared in the holograph.
“Differentiate by color. Green for active.” Three of the dots turned from amber to green.
“Rotate to place Earth behind me.” The hologram spun around.
“Query on Akakios complete. Populating virtual knowledge banks. Stand by,” the computer said.
“It doesn’t add up,” Marcus said, peering at the hologram. “It just doesn’t.”
“Unable to understand request. Please restate,” the computer said.
“Let’s try something. Computer, I want to simulate the voyage of the ark-ship Absalom. First Flowering era. Assume a miss-jump from the Kerberos gate or one of the other collapsars close to Earth. Egress into the material somewhere along a line running from the vicinity of the ingress gate to Amalfi. Then the ship stops by Protasia before continuing to Amalfi. Run simulation.”
Several minutes passed. The aria was loud on the speakers and nearing the climax. “Unable to simulate. No egress collapsar within parameters.”
“What are you trying to do?” Cal said, standing not two meters away. Marcus nearly jumped out of his skin. “Sorry,” she laughed. “Didn’t mean to scare you, but the door was open, so...”
“Computer, fade music.” He looked at Cal. She was carrying a makeshift picnic basket in her arms. “The music...I didn’t hear you.”
“And you didn’t sense me. I confess: I wanted to see if you could.”
Marcus shook his head. “I think my jump scare answered that question. So, you know I’m a telepath—and you already guessed I’ve mastered foresight. You have me at a disadvantage.”
Cal walked over to the sofa group and started setting the table. “It’s partially my bloodline—it’s feeble, barely gradable, but still. And, I’m an Abolitionist. I was never going to make a strong legate, so I gave all that up. A woman needs all the protection she can get.” She sounded a bit sad to Marcus. “But you already guessed, didn’t you?”
He tilted his head slightly. “You have me figured out, haven’t you?”
“I wouldn’t say that. But I know you have exquisite taste in music,” she said and turned to smile at Marcus. “Vlada is simply the best. I would die to hear her live.”
“I did,” Marcus told her. “Years ago, on Solomon.” He didn’t tell her what had brought him to Solomon in the first place: the hunt for the Maiden.
“Was it good?”
“Better. Sublime. Perfect.”
Cal continued setting the table, allowing Marcus to appreciate her curves in motion.
“Computer,” he said on a whim. “Add in a simulated collapsar. Place it so that the rest of the Absalom simulation becomes possible. Run simulation.”
Cal stopped what she was doing and looked at the hologram.
“Simulation complete.” A green haze appeared in an area stretching in a cone from Protasia and towards the edge of the galaxy.
“There are no collapsars in that region?” Marcus said. “None at all?”
“There are none registered in the infovaults.”
“What is the statistical chance for a volume that big to have no collapsars?”
“Less than point one percent,” the computer replied without delay.
“Computer, did the Akakios query produce anything on the Akakian dialect of Archaic?”
“Run a comparison with anything you have on the Amalfian branch of Archaic. I want to know if they have the same root, or if one stems from the other. Execute.”
“Executing. Base data collection initiated. Building knowledgebase. Estimated time to completion: twenty minutes.”
“Excellent,” Marcus said to Cal. “Let’s eat. I’m starving.”