Chapter 51 COUNCIL OF DRAGONS
“Gather around, people,” Marcus said.
Balack and his wife, Imogen, met halfway across the floor, her flesh hand joining with his metal one. She didn’t seem to mind the clotted blood clinging to the chrome. Hand in hand, they walked over to where Marcus was sitting on the couch.
Balack wore the same black-and-emerald security officer’s uniform as his younger colleague. The only difference was some additional decorations and symbols of rank. And a lack of dirt and blood. He was the oldest person in the room, with the possible exception being Chief Librarian Pisonis—there was no telling how old she was or how many rejuvenation treatments she’d taken—well into his fifties, maybe pushing the sixty mark. Past retirement for a street cop, but not too old for other security work. His thinning hair was grey and cut short. He had no beard, but two days in the crypt and stubble was creeping across his face. His eyes were metal but made to look like flesh, but both his hands were skeletal chrome. He was taller than Haides but shorter than Marcus, with the build of a prime bull. He had a compact handgun in an ankle holster. A man used to violence. He has tried to move on, but the past clings to his soul.
His wife was quite a bit younger, around Kwame’s age. She was tall for a woman, a bit heavyset. Marcus imagined she had worked out a lot in previous years but had let it slide. It was all too easy to compare her to Jarra, but it was an unfair comparison. Imogen’s skin was pale and freckled, her hair ruddy. Marcus found her attractive in a sweet, unpretentious manner. She had no visible cybernetics, save a data port at the base of her skull, concealed by her red locks.
Kwame took up a spot next to the low coffee table with the polished bluestone top, where he could keep an eye on his companions, the door, and the ear-less librarian.
Marcus called out the challenges of the Draconic Creed, with Kwame echoing him. Balack and Imogen responded in unison. There was gravitas, but no pomp and circumstance. Not the ideal way to do it, but it will suffice.
“Now that you’ve sworn the oath, you should know what’s going on. My name is Marcus. I use the surname Aurelian, but it’s obviously not my birth name. I’m a legate, the best there is. I work for the Dragon Order. More specifically, I work for a woman called Xerza. She’s a high-ranking Quaestor.”
“Quaestor?” Imogen said.
“Spymaster,” Marcus explained. “The Quaestors run the clandestine part of the Order. Long ago, the Order learned that our enemies are cunning and that no amount of battle prowess can win the day if we’re not prepared to deal with spies, saboteurs, and recidivists. I was sent here to speak with a prisoner,” Marcus continued.
“Prisoner?” Imogen said. “This isn’t a jail, is it?”
“It’s not,” Balack cut in. “But the prisoner isn’t really a prisoner. She’s a kind of walking, talking library.”
“Please, Balack. This is my story to tell,” Marcus said. The older man shut up. “It’s more complicated than that. The prisoner is a chimaera: part woman, part machine. But she’s also—like your husband said—an interactive psychic library. The contents of which brought me here.”
Imogen looked confused. “Why a chimaera? And what’s inside her?”
“Long ago, several centuries in the past, she served another Quaestor. His name was Samael—Sam for short. He dabbled into the forbidden. Then he refused to heed the demands of the Assembly. He was declared rogue, hunted down, and killed. But not before creating her, the Maiden,” Marcus said and pointed at the monitor protruding from Cal’s exquisite wooden desk.
Imogen turned around to look at the monitor. The angle was bad, but it was still possible to make out a woman with chestnut hair, sitting cross-legged on the steel table, eyes closed, hands in her lap.
“That’s a machine? She looks human to me,” Imogen replied.
“A magnificent machine. No expense was spared. But I assure you, there is very little flesh in the Maiden. But it’s her archives that are important, not her body.”
“What do they contain?” the red-head asked.
“Weapons to fight wars against the Shadow. Terrible weapons. Also, the secrets of immortality. All the ways by which you might cheat death. Turns out, there are quite a few. Including apotheosis: how a mortal might become a god. Or so I’m told.”
Imogen’s face was a study of confusion. “You can log into that,” she pointed in the direction of the monitor, “and learn how to become a God? I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it.”
Marcus gave her an appraising look before replying. “What you believe or not isn’t important. I’m telling you how things are, and you’re expected to behave accordingly. You may ask questions, and you may doubt, but at the end of the day, I call the shots, and you obey, no matter what your objections are. Understood?”
“Sir, yes, Sir!” she replied flippantly, but the tone of her voice told Marcus she understood what he had just told them and would act accordingly. When I’ve recovered, I’ll reinforce their commitment psychically. Can’t have the recruits getting cold feet. Not when I’m this close to success.
“There is a war coming,” Marcus continued. “Or actually, it’s a war that has raged since time immemorial. A war between Shadow and Light. A war with the dark powers of the Abyss on one side, and the Dragon and his human servants on the other. But Ragnarök, the Final Battle, draws near. Very soon, less than a hundred years from now, it will all be decided. If we—the Ordo Draconis—can’t stop the Shadow from plunging the universe into perpetual darkness, the Celestial Dragon will have no choice but to destroy everything, so that the cycle might begin anew.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Imogen said.
She turned her head to look at her husband. “And you believe him, husband?”
Balack rubbed the stubble on his skull with one metal hand. His other hand still clung to his wife’s. “I don’t know, Imogen. Were it not for the things I’ve experienced these past few days, I would have laughed in his face. But now? I don’t know. But he believes,” Balack said and pointed at his protégé. “And that’s good enough for me.”
“It’s just too much for me. I can’t take it in. Not right now. But don’t worry. I’m with you guys all the way.”
“I appreciate your honesty, Imogen. You’ve already gone further than most. Put Ragnarök out of your mind; focus on the now.”
“Who gets to become a God then? Who decides?” Balack said.
He’s got an inquisitive mind, able to see things from different perspectives. Marcus gave him a disarming smile. “Not me or you, Balack. That’s for sure.”
“Who then?” the old cop pressed.
“It’s a pyramid of authority. I report my findings to my mistress, Xerza. Then she decides what to do. Presumably, she’ll take it to the Assembly. That’s the Order’s ruling council,” Marcus added for Imogen’s benefit—she didn’t seem to know a lot about the Order. “What the Assembly will do, I cannot say. Ask the Dragon for guidance, perhaps?”
“How will the Conclave react?” Imogen interrupted.
Marcus shook his head. “That’s way above my pay grade. I focus on my mission. Let Xerza worry about the Assembly. Let the Assembly deal with the Conclave.”
“Fair enough,” Balack said. “So basically, the Order will turn someone into a God, and the new God will beat up the bad guys?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a demi-god, or several of them,” Marcus said. “Like the ancient champions of the Shadow Wars, to lead the Knights and their auxiliaries into battle. But I don’t know exactly how it’s supposed to work.
“I haven’t gotten to the bottom of it. The Maiden has a lot of security systems. I have to pass through a total of nine checkpoints to get what I’m after. I’ve already learned several ways to immortality, but not the ones I’m after.” He kept looking at Cal as he said it. Her head came up a fraction, her attention fixed on their conversation. A flicker of hope—or desire?
It was hard to tell if the bait had the desired effect. Cal was a difficult person to read—and as a null, she was immune to Marcus’s legate powers. Some very few nulls were born that way, but most were former legates who had given up their abilities, either voluntarily or forcibly. What’s her story? If things were different, I could have asked her. Now, it shall remain a mystery.
Marcus got to his feet. The dizzy spells were gone. He took a cautious step. The room swayed, but he stayed on his feet. Mostly gone. He walked over to where Cal sat. She was slumped in a comfortable looking high-backed office chair. It looked like real leather. Marcus sniffed. It smelled like genuine leather. The librarian’s hands had been secured behind her back with Kwame’s handcuffs. Funny thing, he guards a library, but still carries handcuffs.
The librarian’s mane of lustrous fake-blonde hair was caked with blood from the severed ear and repeated strikes from Balack’s metal fists. Half her face was covered by bruises and cuts, her lower lip was cut open, revealing a mess of shattered teeth. And still, you are an attractive woman, Cal.
Her elegant white robes had been torn to reveal the golden dragon over her heart. Now cloth and skin were covered with half-dried blood and saliva. I wonder what drove you to this?
Marcus Aurelian stood in front of the injured woman, looking at her face, her chest, trying to peer into her mind, into her soul, but he could not. “Why?” he finally said. There was no anger in his voice, no menace, no hint of violence to come.
“Why what?” she replied. The words were a little slurred—no wonder with a broken face like that. Speaking must be quite painful.
“Why turn against me?”
“I didn’t betray the Dragon,” Cal replied. “I never will. I am true in this life, and the ones to come.”
“Fuck the Dragon,” he said, voice free of emotion. “I asked why you turned against me. I was sure we had a good report, that we had a connection. Yet the moment I turn my back on you, the only null I’ve ever been tempted to trust, I get stabbed. It stings, Cal. It really does.”
“The dice had been cast long before we ever met, Marcus.” She looked at him, one eye almost swollen shut. There was some anger in there and a bit of defiance, but mostly there was pride. “I didn’t know you until we met. And we only met because Xerza’s people told me to make contact. They had learned a Reaper cell was on-site...”
“You’re saying it wasn’t personal?”
“It wasn’t. I really enjoyed our lunch. To the extent that I contemplated seducing you. Too bad it wasn’t meant to be.”
“Then you won’t take this,” he gestured at her face, “personally, I hope?” She didn’t reply, but the look he got told more than a thousand words. Marcus had another dizzy spell. Rather than hit the floor headfirst, he sat down on the edge of the desk. “So what’s it going to be, Chief Librarian Calpurnia Pisonis the Dragonsworn? Do you want a shot at redemption—or just a shot? And before you answer: I know you’re a survivor, Cal, so don’t let the pride I see in your pretty eyes get in the way of your instincts.”
“You can’t offer me redemption. Only the Dragon can. And besides, I’ve done nothing wrong in His eyes.”
Marcus sighed. “I see you’re still full of spirit. That’s to be expected. But we’re not here to mince words. We’re here to find out if you’re willing to help us.”
“With what?” she spat. There was a pause. “What would I get in return? A bullet in the head?”
“We need the Maiden brought here, to your apartment in the Pentacle, so that I might finish my interrogation of her and the examination of her archives. In return, you get to continue living.”
“Hove generous of you, Marcus. Unfortunately, it’s impossible. I have a great deal of influence within the Pentacle, that’s a fact, but I do not have that power.”
“Not impossible. With your aid, it’s entirely doable.”
“Even if it did work out, I would be in a lot of trouble.”
“You’d be alive, but yes, I see your point. It’s probably better to die and be reborn, rather than spend life in jail. But I suspect you’re rather fond of your life and want to cling to it as best you can. And that makes jail time even less attractive, no?”
The librarian nodded.
“Can somebody do something about her lip? First aid kit or something? I’ve trouble hearing what she says.” It wasn’t true, but it was a good time to show some compassion. Not too much, just a hint.
“I brought my old kit and the one from the wrecked hopper,” Imogen replied. “I used a good deal to patch you guys up, but there is some left. Too good for the bitch, but I’ll fix her up.”
“Do it,” Marcus said. He needed a five-minute break right about now. I need to lie down. But it will have to wait. Imogen started patching up Cal’s face to the best of her abilities. She was no surgeon, but she did a solid enough job. “You have medical training?” Marcus asked.
“Some. Trained as a combat medic.”
“That’s how we met,” Kwame added. “She was attached to my unit. At some point, I made the mistake of introducing her to that old fart,” he said and pointed at his boss.
“No woman can resist my charms,” Balack said. His grin faded as soon as he saw the look on his wife’s face. Seconds later, both Imogen and Kwame were giggling like schoolgirls.
“You should have seen your face, boss,” Kwame managed.
Marcus killed the gaiety. “Assuming you’re willing to help us, we can access the Maiden without causing a ruckus.”
“If I say no?”
Marcus ignored her. “The way I see it, Cal, the real problem here is your pride. Your missing ear, the face, it can all be fixed. Made better even. Your anger has faded; you have it under control. And you can appreciate that I’m just as angry with you, as you are with me. But your immense pride has been wounded. That pride is currently like a cornered beast. It’s preparing to fight to the last with unrelenting ferocity. No rational thought, just lash out at everything. Unless you can bring your pride under control, I don’t see this working out. I can’t have you turning on us, first chance you get.”
“What do you want me to say? That I’m on your team now? That everything will be fine?”
“I’m begging you, Calpurnia, give me some reason to believe in you again. Don’t make me put you down like the treasonous bitch you are.”
Imogen finished patching together Cal’s face and moved away to stand by her man. Marcus inspected her handiwork. She’d done an excellent job. Cauterant and synthskin had been applied to the injured face, effectively covering up most of the cuts and bruises. The torn lips had been sealed together. It was a functional fix, but it wouldn’t heal pretty without further attention. The swollen eye was still swollen, but not as severely. Her sawed-off ear had been reattached with nanoclips, and the severed connections regenerated. Like the lip, it was functional but would need looking after.
“This is excellent fieldwork, Imogen. I didn’t think you could save the ear without specialized equipment. You’re a good addition to the team.”
Marcus looked at Cal. He could see that she was thinking hard. Come on, Cal, don’t force me to put you down. Grow a pair and reach for that which is your deepest, darkest desire.
“I want what’s inside her,” Cal finally said, looking past Marcus at the monitor. “I want immortality. Eternal youth.”
Hook, line, and sink. Marcus pretended to consider her outrageous demands. “Very well, if that is what it takes to bring you back into the light. You have my word: in return for your aid—and undivided loyalty —you shall have the secrets of immortality contained within the Maiden. But before you get greedy: apotheosis is off the table. I don’t have that kind of authority. But eternal youth...that I can do. I could even fulfill your wish here and now.” Cal’s reaction was minute, but to Marcus, it couldn’t be more obvious. “But I don’t think you’d be content with that kind of immortality.”
Cal’s eyes had taken on a feverish gleam—the fountain of youth was within reach. “What do you mean.”
“There are many kinds of immortality. The Maiden holds the secret to all of them—but she hasn’t yet revealed them to me. When you talk of immortality, Cal, you desire eternal youth, in a human body. You’re not interested in having your soul transferred into a machine body, to become a new...I was going to say Maiden, but that doesn’t suit you. If you want the premium package, you have to see me through to the end. Your help, for what you truly desire.”
“You have it. My aid and my loyalty both. In this life...well, just in this life then. There won’t be any after.”
Marcus nodded but didn’t reply. You just promised me eternal service, Cal. Do you really intend to keep that promise?
“I demand full access to the Maiden. She will be moved here, to this apartment. Here she will remain for the duration of my stay. It should only take a day or two to breach her final security protocols.
“When that’s been accomplished, the Maiden returns to storage, Cal gets her immortality, and I leave. You three will have to come with me,” Marcus said to his companions. “You’ve been sworn in, but it needs to be confirmed by my mistress, Xerza. After that, I hope you’ll all stay on and work for the Order. You’re Dragonsworn, after all.”
“Management is in an uproar,” Cal said. “The security breach is unprecedented. Many on the board of directors fear it will be the end of us. That the Order might go as far as to call an Incision. And the police have recovered from Kwame’s bluff and is demanding to carry out an investigation.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I can stall the police and sweet-talk the backers. That gives me leverage against the board and the management. If I handle it right, they’ll release the Maiden and let you interrogate her in this room.”
“A few minutes ago, you said it couldn’t be done,” Marcus said.
“I lied,” Cal admitted.
No surprise there.
“Or maybe I wasn’t properly motivated. Now I am. I’m not saying it will be easy. But, unlike your insanely convoluted excuse for a plan, it will work.”
Marcus pretended to consider her proposals. Finally, he nodded reluctantly. “We’ll try your plan.”
“Then unhand me. I can’t do it looking like this.”
Marcus nodded to Kwame, who had Cal uncuffed and on her feet in no time. They watched the treasonous librarian as she made her way to the bathroom.
Only after she had shut the door did Marcus sit in the chair she’d just vacated and closed his eyes.
The world was dark and featureless, except for a ring of light, with four people standing in it. Marcus had created a mind-scape for them to speak privately in.
“I never believed she could be redeemed. Perhaps in the next life,” Marcus told his three co-conspirators.
“Then why did you say those things?” Kwame said.
“He did what he had to do,” Balack replied. His head was nodding as if he’d discovered some universal truth he could not wait to share with the world. “She’s a proud woman, the librarian. But most of all, she desires youth and beauty. True?” he said and looked at Marcus.
“True. All I have said, it was designed to lead Cal to the belief she could demand something. The very thing she desires most of all. The thing our enemies in the Cabal surely promised her but had no intention of delivering on. It was the only way around her pride.”
“Immortality,” Imogen said. “Is it possible?”
“Yes. I didn’t lie when I said I’ve learned more than one way. And there are other ways still not known to me. Not yet.”
“I wouldn’t mind eternal youth,” Imogen said and smiled.
That’s not how it works for us. We serve until we die. Then we do it again. Immortality is an illusion. Even gods die. Only the Dragon is eternal. Marcus didn’t say it out loud, though. This was not the time to debate the niceties of Draconic service.
“But how can you trust her?” Kwame asked.
“I don’t. But as long as Cal believes we’re her best shot at getting what she wants, she’ll be supremely motivated.”
“But you’re not going to give her immortality,” Balack said. It wasn’t a question.
“No. Treason is not to be rewarded with immortality, only death. Or in her case, something worse, that also makes me not a liar.”
Balack gave Marcus a grim smile. He understands. Impressive.
“What do you mean?” Kwame said.
“At the end of the day, when we break out the Maiden from the Pentacle and take her with us to see Xerza, Cal goes into the stasis tomb.”
“And none the wiser,” Imogen concluded, eyes sparkling.
And your wife is just as clever.
“What are you three talking about?” Kwame said.
“You’ll see, soon enough,” Marcus replied.