From the author: A con man. An immortal demigod. A chance at love that could save the universe. Good King Lyr is a slow-burn, genderfluid, ownvoices romance novel, serialized each week.
6: Barenin Lyr
Anais opened his mouth, but a hundred questions weighed down his tongue. The need to flee again was overpowering, jumbled with the growing need for answers. The corridor seemed too narrow, the lights that lined the walls too bright.
Por—Barenin—waited. They—he—wasn't going to make this easy, was he?
"What do you want?" Anais gasped. "What do you want with me? You—you've been here for years. Governor Por has a public record tracing back ten years and more—has a marriage—why—" He struggled to gather his thoughts. "You sent out for a contract king. You and the governors, asking specifically for someone who had experience with negotiations. You implied an Aezthena. Why? When you were here all along? Did—"
He stopped. His identity implant. He'd known it was likely not human-made tech—Aezthena-made, or maybe even alien. But it hadn't come across his radar by chance, had it? He'd considered the possibility it had been targeted to him, of course, but...not too hard. And Barenin acted as if he knew him. As if he could see every part of Anais' soul. And maybe he could. He knew about Anais' memory implant, so did he also know where Anais had grown up? Had he peeled back the layers and layers of dead-end identity trails Anais had covered himself with over the years? Had he traced Anais back to the station with its illegal augment community? Had he turned them all in?
Anais had to stop thinking about that. He'd trained to deal with Aezthena, as much as anyone could shield themselves from an Aezthena's ability to skim or rip through thoughts. Anais triggered a rapid series of protocols in his memory implant and his mind ebbed into a confusion of banal images and conversations he'd stored for just this purpose. Aezthena hated the ordinary nature of most human concerns, or so he'd gathered in his research. They'd naturally pass over minds filled with such things. It was the equivalent of a human shying away from someone with an annoying tic. In the few times he'd brushed up against actual Aezthena in his career, he'd stayed as far away from them as possible, and this protocol had served him well.
But he hadn't been the focus of those Aezthena's attentions. Anais felt the weight of Barenin's stare. He hadn't been running this protocol all the time he'd been around Por. And Barenin had known about him before he'd come here. He'd somehow found out about Anais' obsession with researching the Aezthena and him in particular. Had Barenin arranged for Anais to come across the implant, which he'd find irresistible, and then put out the call for Denz Dayar's contract king? Something which, with the right job for prodding, Anais would also find irresistible? Such intricate machinations were a stretch for any human, but they'd be second nature to an Aezthena.
"Are...are you my client?" Anais asked.
"No," Barenin said. "Though I have suspicions as to who is."
Anais spread his hands in exasperation. "Then did you bring me here? Why? Why go through whatever you did to get me here? Did you want me to impersonate you?" Anais drew back at the thought, drew in on himself. His memory implant continued to flood his mind with ordinary things, and now it was driving him to the edge. His thoughts jumbled, fragmenting into scenes from the last few days, the last few months. They landed on how Por had acted with him earlier in the robing room, the blatant flirtation, and...and he didn't know what to do with that.
Anais decided that whatever Barenin knew, he knew. And his memory implant's thought shield wouldn't deter an Aezthena's focused probe. He turned it off, and suppressed a shudder of relief. But though his thoughts shifted, they didn't calm. New fears shot up in the absence of white noise, and he pressed his hands to his sides to still the shakes. This was bad. This was so, so bad.
Barenin took a step back, his posture relaxing, becoming less threatening. "She," he said.
"My pronouns here are femme. She and her."
Anais blinked. Took in Barenin's—Por's—face paint, the tailored robes, the black curls tied back in careful fashion. But that could be any gender or different genders on different worlds. It was more in the way Por carried themself—how Anais watched them earlier, the fluid and graceful movements as they—she—had peeled off the layers of robes.
Anais' face burned. Gods. He'd played Barenin Lyr to her face. And Barenin Lyr had helped him pull off layers of clothing. Gods. This was not happening.
The quirk of a smile returned to Barenin's lips. "I find it fascinating that you, who obviously have a thing for me, would choose to impersonate me. Watching myself ogle me is a new experience, and I don't have new experiences very often."
Anais' face went so hot it hurt.
Barenin spread open her hands. "Forgive me. No, I am not your client, but I am a concerned party. I am on Denz Dayar for my own reasons. Yes, I arranged for you to come here, and knew the logical course that arrival would take—your impersonation of Barenin Lyr. Yes, I do have a purpose in that. And no, I have no interest or intention of doing anything about your augements. That's your business. For now, I wish you only to know that you have my support. Carry on with what you've come to do."
Barenin's gaze hardened, and though she didn't grow any taller, though she and Anais in the guard's persona were about the same height, Anais felt her looming over him.
"Also, know that you are dealing with a people I've made my own. I am Dayaran here. When I step into a role, I immerse myself fully—you can understand that. I am focused as human as I am able to be here. Don't mess that up. Or mess up the balance of government here. I will guide you as I can. But you are the contract king of Denz Dayar for as long as you are here. Take that with the weight you've been given." She nodded at Anais's head, which at the moment was absent the crown.
Anais coughed. What should he say? What did you say when you met a lifelong obsession in the worst possible moment, in the worst possible way?
"And be careful with that identity implant," Barenin said, voice softening. "It's Kaireyeh tech—it works on the sentient math of the universe. If you wear it long enough, you might start to become more like what you play than who you are."
Anais looked down at himself in the stocky body of the palace guard. Become more like the palace guard?
The Aezthena derived most of their abilities from their interface with Kaireyeh, one of the universe's great unknowns. Not magic. Kaireyeh was a force of nature that everyone agreed was there, but no one agreed on what it actually was. A network of dark energy that wound through everything? A primordial echo of the beginning of the universe? God?
The Aezthena called it the sentient source code of the holographic universe and treated it as such. Whatever it was, they used it to manipulate space and time, to read thoughts, to see things that no human could ever see.
A sudden thought paralyzed him. He'd been worried before that an Aezthena might sense his identity implant if it was Kaireyeh tech, but what if Barenin could see through it? Could she see him as he really was, not the guard persona he wore?
His toes curled in his boots. His mouth went so dry he couldn't swallow. There was more than one reason he'd buried himself under so many layers of identities, both mental and physical. And he never thought about the deepest of those reasons. That it was even broaching his mind spoke to how rattled he was, and how much he needed to wrench back control of his thoughts.
Barenin placed a hand on his shoulder. Anais flinched, and she drew away again.
"I'm focused mostly human now," she said. "You've come across that in your research on me, that I can move between mostly human and mostly Aezthena states."
It hadn't been a question. Anais managed a nod, because it seemed she expected one. "I don't know the particulars."
Barenin shrugged. "I am not a typical Aezthena. Not all the rules of an Aezthena's existence apply to me. But my point is that when I'm focused human, my Aezthena abilities and senses are dulled. I can sense the shape of your thoughts, I can sense your emotions, but I can't easily read your thoughts without concentration. Nor can I see things I might see if I was focused fully Aezthena. Do you understand?"
"No," Anais said. His voice shook, so he cleared it. Used long practice to force some weight back into it. "I don't get why you brought me here, or why you're helping me—or if you're helping me and have some other agenda." He threw up his hands. "Which of course you do."
Barenin tugged on the cuffs of her sleeves—gods, Anais recognized that gesture as one he'd rehearsed for coming here.
"I came to Denz Dayar for my own reasons," she said, "but I stayed because I wished to be human here. I have twelve, almost thirteen, thousand years of life and experience. But it's the tangible things like touch, sunlight, companionship—these things help me find my center."
Anais shifted uneasily, before he caught himself and stopped. Why was Barenin speaking so personally with him, someone she didn't know? Or did she know him? Had she researched his life as thoroughly as he had hers?
Another thought occurred to him. A ludicrous thought. Was Barenin Lyr lonely? Had her flirting earlier been more than something to throw him off his game? Was she looking for a lover, or even a friend? And why, by all the stars, would she focus on him?
He had to be wrong about that.
He was tired. His mind was already numb from the paces he'd put himself through that day. He needed perspective.
Barenin widened the space between them and gave a short courtesy bow. "Get your rest. Send for me if you need me." She turned, rumpled robes swirling, and strode for the lift doors.
Anais stared after her, even after the lift doors closed and he was alone in the corridor, with the off-gray paint and the off-white lights and the hollow drone of machinery.
He shook himself. It was too much to process, so he wouldn't. He was there in the sub-levels of the palace, in the guise of a guard, and he had a job to do. Barenin at least had told him to carry on with that.
7: The Best Weapon
Anais slipped through the double doors at the end of the corridor, nodding to the guards inside, who gave him odd looks but didn't question his presence there. Inside the doors, the sounds of machinery that had been background in the corridor became a steady roar.
Metal catwalks surrounded rows of huge, rounded generators—rows and columns, stretching out beyond, above, and below them. How big was this place? The generators' silvery casings and sinewy, spiraling design logic weren't like the sketches his client had given him, but they also weren't standard for generators, either. Neither was a darker, spherical component that nestled near their centers and pulsed with a rhythm that, as Anais drew closer on his pretend-patrol, resonated like a tangible presence at his core.
That definitely wasn't standard. Anais hid his shiver, pressing further into the cavernous space.
More guards patrolled the catwalks on this level and the levels above and below. Gray-coated people who Anais pegged as somewhere between tech, scientist, and acolyte moved with quiet efficiency, checking gauges and holo-displays. The whole thing had the feel of a chaotic, monastic library. And the rhythm from the generators was everywhere. A pulsing rhythm that got into his bones, shifting until it was a chant, and he could almost hear words.
Gods. What did the Dayarans use to power their city? He was starting to suspect it wasn't remotely legal on any human world, and that price tag on this job was making more sense, as was Barenin Lyr's involvement here.
He gritted his teeth and kept walking the long catwalk, the sounds of his footsteps lost in the din of everything else. Barenin had said to continue his job, and he was here. He would find out what he could.
Anais didn't dare check for manufacturing labels on the generators. He didn't dare get too close. The guards all stayed as far from the generators as they could, and only the tech-acolytes approached the machinery.
The rhythm began to lull Anais into a mellow trance. He noticed it as he was halfway around a catwalk circuit and couldn't remember coming that far. He looked back toward the entrance to this chamber and couldn't see it among the generators.
He licked his lips, feeling his skin prickle with a cold sweat. He wasn't lost. He could see others making similar circuits. Were their eyes as glazed as his had likely been a moment before?
Anais queried his memory implant. He at least had solid visual memories of the path he'd taken, but his thoughts in those times were more like sleep than anything else. What was this place that could make him lose track of time so easily? He never lost focus like that on a job. Especially not this job.
He completed one full circuit of the catwalk, judging that to be the minimum necessary patrol to avoid suspicion, then made for the double doors as quickly as he dared. Like before, the guards gave him odd looks as he approached but didn't question him.
He broke into the entry corridor, gasping. It was blessedly empty. But even when the doors closed behind him, the rhythm from the generators, the pulsing from those small, dark spheres, followed him.
It was in his head. It had tried to take over his thoughts. It felt like a drug.
He focused on the lift doors at the other end of the corridor and took one step at a time, gaining momentum. He willed that throbbing rhythm to ebb. And after a few steps, it began to.
He was almost sure now what those generators were, and he hoped he was wrong. Gods and stars above, he hoped he was wrong.
There were a lot of different ways to power things in the universe. But one way was outlawed by all human worlds—at least, he'd thought it was. Kaireyeh, that force that Aezthena called the sentient math of the universe, was a powerful and infinite energy source. But it was horrifically unstable to anyone but the Aezthena. Humans had used it in generators thousands of years ago and had corrupted pockets of space and time because of it. They'd used it in their engines for travel before they'd invented translight engines, and it had taken them to places they hadn't asked to go, or taken them years longer than a journey should have, or made them disappear altogether. Sometimes crews turned up twisted, or as different people, or completely out of their minds. It was a favorite plot point in period holo dramas. People still called anyone not right in the head K-touched.
Kaireyeh weapons were universally banned for disrupting spacetime wherever they were used, sometimes leaving areas of space fractured and uninhabitable for centuries or millennia. Because of this, because of all of this, Kaireyeh tech was banned for humans. Everyone agreed on that.
There were a few exceptions. The Aezthena used Kaireyeh in their tech, and humans didn't protest much because it was assumed the Aezthena had a handle on how to use it. Every now and then, the Aezthena would lease the use of some of their tech to a human government, but it was always and only operated by the Aezthena who accompanied it, never any humans. Never any chance that humans would get a close enough look to figure out how it worked or how to duplicate it.
The Aezthena themselves, as bio-synthetic lifeforms, functioned largely on Kaireyeh tech. It was the power they drew from. The humans had accepted the Aezthena's roles as shepherds of all things Kaireyeh with great reserve. But someone needed to keep track of the use of Kaireyeh, and better it be someone who understood it, enemies though they often were. And the humans didn't want to do anything to touch off another human-Aezthena war. Kaireyeh tech made the deadliest sort of weapons. Aezthena weren't as keen on following the no-Kaireyeh-weapons rule when it came to annihilating humans and their space.
Another exception was the halo staff weapons that many humans had implanted in their arms. Those were Kaireyeh-powered but on the smallest scale, and no one knew exactly how they worked or where they'd originally come from—human-built, Aezthena, or alien. But they were self-seeding, and they hadn't caused any problems in millennia of use, so no one questioned them. They were useful and they were tradition.
For everything else, use of Kaireyeh by humans to power or manipulate tech was taboo.
As he reached the lift doors, Anais could almost feel the tiny outline of his identity implant at the base of his neck. Kaireyeh tech, Barenin had said. And he the human operator of it. Even Barenin had warned him it was dangerous.
But he'd known that. He wasn't stupid—tech like that didn't just appear. It didn't work by the normal laws of physics, it wouldn't have been built by any legal lab. He'd very carefully not thought too far into it.
Even knowing what it was, even knowing it was dangerous and with a warning now from an Aezthena to be wary of it, he couldn't turn it off. He wouldn't take it out. And he would have still bought it, regardless. If Barenin wanted to take it from him, he'd go down fighting, for all that fight was worth against an Aezthena.
Anais stepped into the lift chamber and the doors closed behind him in the large, empty car. The rhythm of the generators whispered in his thoughts, slowly retreating. His heart, though, pounded a new and more insistent rhythm.
What had he gotten himself into?
If his suspicions were right, Denz Dayar powered their entire planetary grid off Kaireyeh generators. Large Kaireyeh generators. He'd studied the Dayarans' main religion as part of his research for this job, and now several components of it clicked into place. They worshiped a deity whose form was spread throughout the universe in what they called Yfeni. And the manufacture of their tech was a component of their religion.
He hadn't seen it before in all the liturgical layers, but Yfeni had to be an analog for Kaireyeh and a justification for building and using Kaireyeh tech. Did the Dayarans even know the fire they were playing with?
He'd been happy enough to ignore his clients' motives before—he had to do that with any job—but they'd just become more ominous. He hadn't found the tech he was supposed to steal in that generator chamber, but those generators had been similar. Someone had hired him to steal sophisticated Kaireyeh tech. And Barenin Lyr not only knew about it but wanted Anais to continue his job and find whatever this tech was.
What were Barenin's motives in this? Why was Barenin even allowing the Dayarans to use Kaireyeh tech? Those had been humans operating the tech beneath the palace, not Aezthena. That was already violating ten kinds of intergalactic laws. That could touch off another human-Aezthena war. Maybe even drag in a number of alien races as well.
Barenin was generally on the moral side of events throughout history...but that was a loose generally. Barenin made peace when there was war, and often prevented wars from starting. But Anais had seen evidence in history that Barenin wasn't above moving events as she saw fit, by any means she saw fit, to further her goals. That those goals usually involved peace didn't mean the way she reached them wasn't sometimes brutal.
Those generators hadn't been built overnight, and Barenin had been on Denz Dayar for years. Por, as this human version of Barenin, visibly Barenin Lyr once he'd seen it, had been here for years. She was Barenin, or a more human version of her—the facial structure, the voice, the mannerisms were there. This wasn't someone Barenin had swept in at a moment's notice and replaced, unless the game was even deeper than he'd thought. His mind could twist into knots chasing that trail. What was her endgame, here? And why bring him into it?
Anais shivered. He was way out of his depth. These were the affairs of Aezthena, not humans. Had he been so naïve to think he could impersonate an Aezthena and not get embroiled in Aezthena affairs? That he could buy that implant and actually live a free life, stay ahead of all that would chase him?
Could he run? If Barenin knew who he was, and that he had the identity implant, could he ever truly run?
The air in the lift felt too tight, too stale. Anais' mouth was dry, his throat constricted. He hadn't had anything to drink in over an hour, and he had the sudden intense need for water. For air. He had to get off this world. He couldn't handle five more days. He wasn't sure he could handle even one more. He'd been an idiot, taking this job instead of shoving the identity implant into his neck and running for all he was worth. He'd wanted to prove that with his skills he could impersonate an Aezthena. He'd wanted that small chance at some twisted sort of redemption. And he'd wanted the money, too, of course. All his reasons for taking this job, logical or not, felt as substantial now as smoke.
The lift doors opened. And under the watch of the guards outside, he kept his calm.
He hastened back to his rooms without incident, on the watch for Barenin, but blessedly not finding her. He told the guard at the door, the same one as before, that the king had called him back. He complained about having to go more rounds of explaining the local customs and shot enough nervous glances at the door and the supposed Aezthena behind it that he almost scared himself. Barenin Lyr might not be in that room, but she was in the palace. There was an Aezthena behind a closed door who might even now be listening in on his thoughts, whether she said she wouldn't or not.
The guard let him pass. He turned on the lights long enough to reach the bed, then in the dark tapped off the guard persona.
He sat there in his own skin, panting. His arms prickled with the bumps of his fear.
He should run anyway. He should steal a ship and flee the system. Take his chances—just run. That had to be better than whatever he was messed up in on Denz Dayar.
Gods. And could he even be sure that was Barenin Lyr? Now that he was out of the sub-levels, now that he was in the dark, the relative safety of these rooms, the thought that he'd actually met Barenin Lyr seemed less and less plausible. He had learned how to mimic Barenin Lyr as Aezthena. Someone else could have learned to mimic Barenin in his human form. Barenin had parted the air to step out right in front of him—but that could be smoke and mirrors. Holos and effects. If Anais was there with the promise of the amount of money his clients had offered, who was to say they hadn't hired someone else for redundancy? Had another person bought access to an implant like his, killed or otherwise shut away the real Governor Por, who might have a passing resemblance to Barenin, and then replaced them? Had Por been down there with the generators to do exactly what Anais had gone to do—look for clues on how to steal the tech? What better way to throw Anais off his game but get into his head?
All of that would explain Por's behavior, both earlier that day and that night. If that was the case, being hired to steal a Kaireyeh generator was still a problem, but the payout was high. And he wouldn't be in the middle of an Aezthena plot, just a plot by unsavory people. He didn't like it, but he'd made the choice to come Denz Dayar, knowing there had to be a catch somewhere. There was always a catch in jobs like this.
Anais' gut said that was one coincidence too many. Too neat a chain of events.
But was it any less plausible than Barenin Lyr arranging to have Anais come himself? Herself?
He was messing up the pronouns, another sign of his fatigue. He was always able to flow with gender in whatever form it took. But Barenin Lyr—Barenin had been a constant in his mind. A fixed element. Now, he had to rearrange his thoughts to include femme in Barenin's range of gender fluidity. And he should have seen the cues, shouldn't he? In thousands of years of history, Barenin had always publicly presented masc to neutral. But thinking back now to every appearance he'd ever watched, Anais saw the careful control. The marks of a person who was playing a role. There was sincerity, yes, but it was channeled through controlled filters. The best performances always were.
Like his own performances.
Anais rubbed at his eyes. No. He couldn't go there with himself. He needed sleep. He'd already had too much to process that day, and this was more than his mind could handle. But, he knew sleep wouldn't come. Not with that much adrenaline coursing through his veins. He wondered if Por also lay awake in her own quarters in the palace. And if she could reach and read his thoughts if she wanted to. If she was who she'd claimed to be.
Anais grunted and reached up to tap the implant back on, the sequence that would turn him into the Aezthena visage of Barenin Lyr. His fingers hesitated over the implant trigger.
Kaireyeh tech. Aezthena tech. Barenin—if that had been Barenin—had told him it might change him in the long run. That he might become more like whatever guise he wore.
He sat for a long, long moment in the dark, in the quiet, trying to decide if that was a bad thing.
In the end, he had no choice, at least not here. He tapped the implant and waited through the shift, suppressed a shiver at what definitely now felt like borrowed flesh. Then he closed his eyes, accessing his memory implant, and got to work familiarizing himself with as much of the local politics as he could in the time before dawn. Fatigued or not, he had to arm himself with everything he could, and the best weapon was always information.
Anais had long ago trained himself into not having nightmares. He'd had to—he couldn't be on a job and wake up screaming, or babbling in an accent or language he shouldn't know, about things he also shouldn't know. Even though his mind slept, his memory implant didn't, and when he was fourteen, he'd managed to program it to monitor for certain responses in his mind and body while he was sleeping and wake him immediately, before a nightmare could truly form. Over the years he'd refined the program so that he woke with only the vaguest sense of unease.
That morning, waking in the quiet dark in the massive bed, the sheets twisted around him and damp with sweat, he had much more than that vague sense of unease. His pulse pounded in his ears. He lay, staring up in the dim city light at the twisting geometric patterns of the bed curtains overhead, and tried to get a hold of his thoughts.
Barenin Lyr. If she was Barenin Lyr, if he hadn't been faked out by a con as expert or more expert than himself—could she listen in on his nightmares?
He queried his implant to see the nightmare that had been forming. Sometimes they got farther than others before the implant woke him. The skewed dream images the implant showed were of a nightmare he hadn't had for years. That he'd thought he'd finally rid himself of. Because he wasn't that scared kid anymore. He'd learned to move beyond those first few months of primal fear. He'd thought he'd buried that scared kid for good.
The nightmare hadn't gotten far, but his own memories welled up, filling in with every detail he didn't want to notice from the eidetic assault of his implant's storage.
He'd been twelve. His parent had recently been murdered, because on a station where the population was illegally augmented, no one could make any kind of living without being involved in some sort of crime. His parent had run afoul of one of the meaner syndicate bosses, and poof—his parent had been there in their cramped station apartment one day, and then the next day, they were gone, and Anais was on the run because syndicate bosses either killed or subjugated extended families. Anais had never found out why his parent had been killed, or what trouble they'd gotten into, but had it mattered? Trouble was trouble.
Anais had fled to one of the smuggler freighters docked at the station's outer rings. Their station was in a system without habitable planets, without commercially desirable resources, outside of all regular shipping lanes. Pirate and smuggling territory. There were always a few ships docked, ships trusted to keep the station out of any human authorities' questions because the profit in black market tech and augments from the colony's augmented population was much greater than any reward they might have got from handing the colony in. Anais had hacked his way into a freighter's bay, stowed himself, a portable air recycler, and a week's worth of rations in a shipping crate, and prayed for the ship to leave quickly.
It was six days later when they found him, shivering and delirious because he'd run through most of the water he'd brought, and stinking because he hadn't thought to bring anything to get rid of the waste. The face of the man who'd found him had been annoyed, but not cruel. They'd got him to the infirmary, and deep-scanned him for any augments, because working, integrated augments were worth more than the cost of their ship. And most smugglers weren't beyond removing them from the living, whether it killed the person or not.
Even in his muddled state, Anais' survival instincts had kicked in. He, like all children in his colony, had been given the first stage of his memory implant when he was three, the second stage when he was five, and the third and final stage when he was eight. He was a normal, healthy kid—albeit with an eidetic memory, and an augmented intellect that far surpassed most baseline humans'. But he'd known kids on the station whose parents had tried to tweak the usual memory implants, to make their kids even smarter, or enhance their awareness. To make them better. Every now and then, such modifications worked. Then, the community would test them, and if successful, incorporate them in the next generations. But too often, these attempts would leave the kids drooling. Vacant-eyed, or too locked into a shorted-out sensory overload to function. Anais had seen some of these kids trailing behind their parents, because it was one of the few laws on their station that if you made a mess, you had to live with it, and study and publish what had gone wrong.
The smugglers would also have seen these kids, if they'd been on the station. And if not, they would have heard rumors. So, even while he was lying on the cold plastic of a medical table with his head and body getting deep-scanned, Anais had let his mind wander. He'd unfocused his eyes. He'd slackened control of his mouth so the drool would slowly run down his cheek.
They watched him for weeks for any sign he was faking. Their scans said he was healthy, his brain activity normal, but they didn't know exactly how faulty augments worked, so that didn't mean much.
They watched him. Every minute. He stayed with the man who'd first found him, on an extra cot in an already tight cabin. He worked beside the man—an engineer—doing small, menial tasks that the crew had determined he was intelligent enough to do. Flubbing some of them. Enduring the cussing when he got them wrong.
"Boy," the engineer would say, "you just don't have anything up there, do you?"
Anais hadn't been raised as a boy. He hadn't been raised with any gender and only a vague concept of what it was. But the smugglers were from worlds where gender concepts were more rigid, and they'd called him a boy after their scans, so he'd accepted that, and the pronouns they gave him, and the way they expected him to act. He anchored to that part of his new identity, because it was something that was at least rational and stabilizing while he threw all of his efforts into cutting his intelligence in half.
He'd hoped to escape the freighter on the first new station they docked at. But he'd underestimated their desire to keep close free and semi-useful labor. He actually thought the engineer was growing fond of him, ruffling his hair, trying to teach him to say a few words which, over time, he relentingly began to slur out at random intervals.
Anais was keeping only barely sane because he'd hacked into the ship's net access a few weeks into his stay and set up a piggy-back account that granted him access whenever the ship's automated systems queried the net at large. He'd downloaded books and holovids, which he'd managed to configure a way to read or watch from his implant, or have his implant read them to him. He was careful, so careful, not to let any of these things run when anyone else was around. Or when cameras might be watching. The crew had grown used to being around him, but the captain still scanned him at regular intervals, and he suspected part of why she was keeping him around was because she hadn't decided yet if it might be profitable to sell a non-functional augment implant, too. If he showed any signs of intelligence, he was as good as dead, or his intelligence would be damaged for real.
It was seven months before he made his escape, accompanying the engineer who was by now relaxed enough that he took him on station with him, loading him down with packages to carry. Anais had known he'd only get one chance at escape, so he'd waited for just the moment when his chances would be best—when he managed to slip a toxin he'd swiped into the engineer's lunch, and when the engineer had him wait with packages in hand while he expunged his bowels in a washroom stall. Anais hadn't been there when the engineer came out.
He hadn't grown up loving the arts of acting and disguise. He hadn't grown up knowing how to steal. He learned them from necessity. He'd learned them from reading thousands of books and papers and memoirs and reports while in his self-made prison on the smuggler ship. He was scared, but not nervous, when he casually walked from the washroom with a purposeful gait, straight back, and sharp eyes, his rumpled hair slicked back from chemical-smelling sink water, his ship's jacket gone—tossed into a locked stall—and in a plain black shirt and gray pants that could have belonged to any crew or station business' uniform.
He'd learned more than one language on his way there, and he'd learned many accents, which he'd rehearsed in his head, and now forced his lips and tongue to form until he spoke with a cultured, trade world carelessness. He'd taken to stringing old and broken trade chips on a necklace and displaying it proudly to everyone in the crew months ago. That he'd since replaced one of the broken trade chips with a working one had never occurred to the crew. He had in that chip identity credentials he'd forged in his mind and bought verification for on the black market through a few siphoned credits from the ship's petty cash fund. He used his chip, his accent, his appearance, and his swagger to buy a passenger berth on a cheap liner heading as far from that station as he could afford to go.
Anais exhaled slowly, coming back to himself. He was still staring up at the patterns over his bed. The room lighted with a dim, gray pre-dawn.
He'd successfully forced those memories down for years. Why had they come up now? Why had he needed to play them out? Was it because of Barenin Lyr? If Barenin was who she said she was, and she knew enough about him to lure him here, then she knew more about him than any other living being. Did she know about this memory? Was she reading it from him now?
Anais knew how to make his thoughts less palatable to read, but he didn't know how to cloak them. No human really could, not from an Aezthena's prying mind.
She'd said she wasn't interested in turning him in for his augments. She knew that was a trigger for him. He didn't dare take her at her word for that.
But the same driving need to not just survive but thrive, which had carried him through years of pulling cons out of necessity, and then pulling cons because he genuinely enjoyed it, kept him from finding the fastest way off this world. Barenin had said to carry on. And after what he'd found in the generators below the palace...he was curious. And he was more than a little curious about Barenin herself. If it was truly Barenin. If he could dare to believe that.
Anais lingered on that thought, turning it over. If Por was Barenin Lyr, then Barenin Lyr had been flirting with him when she'd helped him remove the layers of robes. He'd been trying not to think about it at the time, and he'd been mortified to think about it the night before, but now his mind ran through that dizzy encounter again. He told himself it was to try and find her angle, to catch her in insincerity, but he was arrested again by the quirk of her smile. Blue eyes in the maze of indigo swirls. The lightest brush when her hand accidentally—or maybe not—touched his in her dance of unrobing.
He swallowed hard at a sudden rush of heat throughout his body, concentrating in his groin. No—no, he definitely couldn't think that. Not when—gods, he was still wearing Barenin's body. The Aezthena version, at least.
There was a bustle of servants in the outer rooms. Anais tore out of bed, breathing hard through his teeth, and forced himself breath by labored breath into his character.
Por was not Barenin Lyr. He was. He put Por and whatever she was trying to accomplish firmly from his mind.
Slowly, everything cooled. His body, his mind, his emotions. He had to be cold. Aezthena cold.
He was centered and in character by the time a soft knock came on the door, and then a servant entered with a platter of steaming breakfast. The Council meeting would be soon, and it was time to get some more answers.
9: The Council of Governors
The Council of Governors' meeting chamber was the size of a ballroom, high walls set with tall, narrow windows and draped with burgundy silk. Iridescent white stone framed the walls at the corners, extending down to the mosaic floor and up to large, swooping swirls across the ceiling. An enormous real wood table sat in the center, its dark surface set with a winding vine mosaic in the same iridescent stone. Thick wooden chairs were placed around it, each carved with a different floral or geometric motif. Like the governors' differing face paint patterns, Anais realized. Symbols that represented each governor's province. With all the governors in full paint and red robes seated around the table, there was an air that here important things were decided by important people.
The governors rose as he entered, smoothing down robes and scraping back chairs. They bowed in an uneven ripple.
Anais, expressionless as Barenin Lyr, took the seat at the head of the table.
As they all sat again, Anais noted Ijuka at the far end opposite him, and beside them, Por. He made his gaze move past Por to take a quick read of who sat where and their demeanors today. He had to look closely with some of the governors, as their face paint markings made their expressions look softer when they were actually severe, or the other way around. Clever, that. Another layer to the political maneuvering. Anais himself wore no face paint. As the contract king, he needed no markings of status. The status was implied in his person, or so the contract had read.
All the governors were here in person, not holo images projected from their provinces. They'd come to the capital to crown their contract king, and now they watched, and waited, for him to do what they'd hired him to do: find the root of their internal difficulties and broker a peace.
He squeezed his hands hard under the table, an unobtrusive venting of tension. He had a feeling he'd be doing a lot of that in this meeting.
The problem the governors had called him in to mediate—called Barenin Lyr in, that was—was a manufacturing feud between two of the largest provinces, now escalating. There were factory accidents. Sabotage. Riots. Provincial troops moved to borders. On a world where the manufacturing of technology was a holy act, a feud like this could lead to war. Other provinces were taking sides, too, and the governors who represented those sides cast steely glares at their rivals across the table. Anais wondered how much political maneuvering it took to move one of those heavy, customized chairs to another position around the table, and how much of that had been done in the last few weeks to get the current divided arrangement.
He couldn't help flicking a glance at Por. If Por was the real Barenin Lyr and had called him in as a contract king—and he wasn't fully ready to believe that, not without more proof—did that mean the situation was so dire that even the real Barenin Lyr couldn't untangle it? So how in hells was he supposed to do so?
Five more days. Five more days and he'd leave, whether he got what his clients were looking for or not.
Por gave the slightest incline of her head—their head, he corrected himself, he had to use neutral pronouns in public. Anais looked away. He couldn't wonder if Por was reading his thoughts.
He was going to try to make a difference here. He'd made up his mind to try even before Barenin or whoever she was had threatened him the night before. Even before he'd realized that these lunatics used Kaireyeh generators to power their world and all that might mean if planetary war broke out.
Anais met the gazes of those around the table, all who were waiting in silence for him to begin this meeting. People. Powerful people, but still just people. He never could see people as anything but. He always got too involved.
And if they used Kaireyeh to power their weapons...could he in good conscience not do everything he could to stop a war here? Kaireyeh weapons could destroy the planet. Maybe the whole system. And if anyone outside of Denz Dayar found out about it, the use of Kaireyeh weapons might start another human-Aezthena war. The deaths in those wars were uncountable.
Anais felt more than saw Por's gaze on him. Steady, demanding.
He didn't shrink, even though he wanted to. Wanted, so badly, just to run.
If his identity implant made him more like the personas he assumed, if he could channel some of Barenin Lyr's ability to see the whole of a situation and find the path to peace, maybe he could help the Dayarans. He wasn't up to this as himself. But he didn't have to be himself, did he?
Anais eased the clenching of his hands beneath the table. He drew a slow breath, not visible to those around him, and carefully placed his palms on the table in front of him. A grounding movement. He let go of himself and his fears and slipped fully into character.
"Well," he said into the silence. "I have reviewed the entirety of this situation, but I wish to hear the arguments of both sides involved and any governors who have yet to choose a side." He nodded to Farian, the grim, heavyset governor of one of the feuding provinces, then Edin, the willowy governor of the other. "Please. Begin." He pasted on that almost-smile and folded his hands in front of him.
With glances in Anais' direction, and doubtless thoughts that he could read their minds, the two feuding governors began to spill out their grievances.
Anais found himself able to quell rising heat in the arguments with a raised brow, or a well-timed movement of his hands or tilt of his head, subtle enough but telegraphed to get attention. To show that he was there and watching, listening.
He didn't look at Por. He sat straight and very still, hot in his heavy robes. The identity implant filtered any hoarseness in his voice, but though his throat burned, he didn't sip at the glass of water a servant had brought to the table more than once a half hour. Even that was too much. The crown weighed heavy on his head. So very heavy.
Por, Anais discovered, sat on the side of the pompous Farian, whom Anais had decided early into the list of grievances was in the wrong. Why would Por side with Farian? Was that an argument for or against if Por was Barenin Lyr? And if they were Barenin, what did that mean?
Despite his efforts, the arguments slowly escalated until Farian and Edin were so focused on each other across the table that they no longer looked at him. The conversation shifted to a heated debate about the regulation of Yfeni, that Dayaran religious analog to Kaireyeh. If Anais' attention had drifted in his growing fatigue, it now sharpened back into focus. This was important.
He'd been speaking and listening in the Dayaran's language all day with help from his memory implant and had begun to absorb the nuances of the language and use the implant less and less. But the word "Yfeni" was translating weirdly. He called up the implant's translations around the word and studied them in his mind's eye. It didn't quite translate as "Kaireyeh," a force of the universe, and it wasn't just a religious term—it had industrial connotations, too. It was also strangely plural. Was that because of its role in deity? A remnant of the Dayarans' view of gender and pronouns? Was he reading the plural wrong? Or was there another factor involved?
Anais' temples throbbed from memory implant fatigue, and he wasn't even two hours into the day. He needed to find out exactly what Yfeni was. It was at the heart of both the political mess and why he'd been hired to come here—there were too many coincidences otherwise. Everything—the tech he was hired to steal, the generators beneath the palace, the Dayarans' religious culture, his identity implant, and Por's place in all this, whatever that was—seemed to come back to Kaireyeh, or Yfeni, or however they fit together.
He opened his mouth to put a stop to the chaos. But Por, quiet until then, spoke first.
"There's only one course of action I can see." Por's voice, pitched perfectly, cut through Farian's and Edin's shouting.
Both governors hesitated, turning to Por. That was interesting. That kind of response from fellow planetary governors required a lot of respect.
"We will need to go out to Governor Edin's manufactories and see this misuse of Yfeni for ourselves," Por said. "Verify these claims."
Edin straightened. "You will be most welcome in my province, Governor Por." They turned to Anais as an afterthought. "My king."
Edin was one of the governors who'd been wary of him at the coronation the day before, and he understood why, now—much of their future depended on what he did and said here.
Anais' throat tightened, and some of his hold on his persona slipped, fear seeping back in. These people were looking to him to solve their planetary problems. Him. All of this was on him.
Damn you, Por, he thought. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Por's lips tug up in something not quite a smirk.
You're welcome, Por said.
He heard the words, but Por's mouth hadn't opened.
Anais made a choking sound that the implant almost filtered. Had Por just—had they spoken in his mind? Had he imagined that? But Por had reacted to his thought visually, too. Por had smirked. They were telling him they could, in fact, pick up his thoughts if they chose to. And Por could reply to them, too.
Por had said the night before that it was harder to read thoughts while they were focused human. But, not impossible? Aezthena were known to speak little out loud among themselves, only a few words in years, preferring mental communication.
Anais formed thoughts carefully, as he would if he was dictating into his memory implant. What is Yfeni? I don't understand this word and its connotations.
Por answered, their voice calm in Anais' mind. He wasn't a stranger to his memory implant playing audio in his thoughts, but this was the first time he'd had a person speak to him directly this way. It took all his training to keep his face and posture neutral. To not think of this as a mental invasion.
Yfeni is one of several words we—the Dayarans—use for the essential life flow of sentient spacetime, Por said. It's essentially Kaireyeh, but Yfeni is a part of several major religions on this world. It has connotations of a god, self-essence, and the power that drives the universe and therefore power that can be harnessed into machinery as a sacred gift from the gods. The heart of this argument is that Edin has been building more powerful, but also more dangerous Yfeni-based generators in their province, arguing that they're more efficient and environmentally friendly. They're non-sanctioned and therefore sacrilegious.
Anais turned to stare at Por. If you are Aezthena, and you know the Dayarans are using Kaireyeh as a power source in their machinery, how can you condone this? Any of it? Aezthena don't let humans use Kaireyeh tech. You yourself pushed for and helped write those accords for the human worlds to follow.
Kaireyeh, whether it was the source code of the universe or a force human physics hadn't caught up with yet, wasn't something to be messed with. Tampering with Kaireyeh was like trying to rewrite portions of a warship's operating code without ever having studied programming. Except this was tampering with the universe itself. And Edin had people researching and building new types of Kaireyeh generators? That would be sacrilegious on any world. The Aezthena might have mastered the manipulation of Kaireyeh to some degree, but no one thought humans messing with Kaireyeh was a good thing. The Dayarans had to know how dangerous this was. They weren't so isolated from the rest of humanity that they didn't know about the Kaireyeh Accords.
I have my reasons for allowing this, Por said, staring back at Anais. He had the sense that this conversation was to be continued, but not right now.
"I look forward to inspecting your manufactories, Governor," Farian said.
Anais blinked and brought himself back to the present. His conversation with Por had lasted only a few heartbeats. Farian was responding to Por's suggestion that they go to Edin's province.
So, with what Anais now knew about Kaireyeh use in Edin's district, it also made more sense why Por was on Farian's side. Barenin Lyr had helped write the Kaireyeh Accords, after all. Barenin would be opposed to any human development and use of Kaireyeh technology—whether she was currently allowing it or not, and those reasons had better be good. And maybe Farian, ass though they were, wasn't in the wrong in opposing Edin. Or at least, not the worst of the wrong.
"Of course, Governor," Edin said, with an icy glare at Farian. "I look forward to inspecting your facilities as well."
"Yes. We will tour both provinces," Anais said, and governors around the table let out subtle breaths.
A thorough inspection trip. Both feuding governors unhappy but on equal footing for the moment. Por had maneuvered this situation neatly. And Por had maneuvered him, too. Maneuvered him here to Denz Dayar, to be here at this moment and make this decision. Por wanted something from him, and Anais was damn well going to find out what that was.
He let no annoyance, rage, or frustration touch his face. Just perfect, Aezthena calm. Many jobs shifted midway, and he'd learned to move with their flow. He had to bend with the situation and adapt to these new parameters. It was something he was good at. But this situation felt like sand pouring through his hands.
"We will take three governors from each side in this discussion," Anais said. "Please choose who you wish to go and submit your decisions to my office." He stood. "I believe now is a good time to break for the day." Because he wasn't sure he could sit any longer and still keep the appearance of a calm and collected Aezthena.