Story art by Holly Heisey.
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.
Cover disclaimer: Individuals depicted in the images are models and used solely for illustrative purposes.
A con man. An immortal demigod. A chance at love that could save the universe.
In the far future, interstellar con man Anais Cavere takes the job of his life to impersonate his hero, immortal demigod Barenin Lyr. But his job as contract king to an unstable world takes a dangerous turn when he learns it was his hero who hired him. Barenin sweeps Anais into a web of cosmic intrigue with consequences spanning the universe. And genderfluid Barenin, while she's at it, might also sweep Anais off his feet.
Good King Lyr is a slow-burn, genderfluid, ownvoices romance novel, serialized each week.
Parts are posted in groups of chapters. To read from the beginning, start here.
1: The Vestibule
The vestibule behind the throne room was whisper silent, the air tight and close, cinnamon and lavender mingling with musty disuse. Alone in the room, Anais Cavere tugged on the lace-edged sleeves of his layers of brocade robes. He'd practiced the gesture so many times he could do it without thinking, which was good, because his nerves were doing their best to knot up his thoughts. He brought his hands carefully back to clasp in front of him, another centering gesture.
Afternoon sunlight flickered through the high red and clear glass windows, highlighting silvery veins on his bone-white, faintly metallic, Aezthena skin. Non-human skin. Step by step, he imagined himself facing a mirror and cleared his face of all but the imitation of emotion, an expression he'd held throughout the two-week translight trip to Denz Dayar.
A knock came on the door behind him, and he drew in a sharp breath. At least the Dayarans had heeded his request that the incense for the coronation ceremony be as mild as possible so as not to overwhelm his heightened Aezthena senses. Never mind that he didn't actually have those senses—he could not sneeze. Aezthena did not sneeze.
He breathed past his racing heart.
"Enter." The voice he spoke with was reedier than his own, Aezthena flat, but with an urbane, unclassifiable accent. Though he'd worn this form for two weeks now, and though he was used to hearing this voice come out of his mouth, he almost flinched now to hear it break the silence. Anais flicked his fingers in one of the ways he'd worked out to vent his emotions while making it look like a meaningful gesture.
In all the jobs he'd pulled and all the roles he'd played, he'd never before dared to impersonate an Aezthena, let alone this Aezthena. It was almost suicidal. The once-human, bio-synthetic race that had warred on and off with humanity for millennia wouldn't hesitate to kill a single human for such audacity. Or even a whole human world. They read minds. They bent space and time to their will, and on a purely physical level, were at least ten times stronger than the strongest human.
He, beneath the cloak of his identity implant, was none of those things.
The door creaked open. Anais swallowed on a dry throat even while he felt the manic thrill of being on a job surge through his veins like a drug. And oh, the rush of this job was intense.
He drew his spine straight but didn't turn to face who'd entered. He wasn't Anais here. He was Barenin Lyr, Aezthena demi-god and immortal legend, thousands of years old. He'd brokered impossible treaties to stop wars, and he'd started a few wars, too. He'd been a household name throughout most of recorded history. He would make whoever entered come to face him.
A plump figure in red robes stepped up to him. A sheer veil covered their face—for the Dayarans, it was taboo to meet a contract ruler before that ruler was officially confirmed. It was a polite fiction—let the isolationist society believe that their contract ruler was Dayaran to begin with and not an off-worlder.
Anais glanced through the veil at wide, dark eyes that shone in a careful labyrinth of painted indigo geometries. From their lips to their neck, the paint was solid. The effect was harsh, demanding attention to their rank. Their broad features and figure leaned toward supple, but not necessarily feminine.
Gender could never be assumed, and it was hardly a thing tied to the four physical sexes—female, male, null, multi—and their various offshoots. Here, the Dayarans recognized five official genders and a host of sub-genders. Everyone used neutral pronouns except among family or intimate friends. Here, it was cultural courtesy.
Anais recognized this person from the public—and private—records he'd hacked and studied. Governor Ijuka, one of twenty-three provincial rulers in the Dayaran Council of Governors. He'd spoken with Ijuka through an intermediary over the comm in their negotiations for his hiring as contract king. For Barenin Lyr's hiring.
When a client had come to him wanting the secrets of Denz Dayar's mysterious planetary generators and had put down a fee large enough to buy a planetary station, Anais had powered past the sour feeling in his gut and taken the job. He had debts. Oh, he had debts. The only way to gain access to the generators was to go to the top. He'd learned the Dayarans were looking to hire a contract king to settle a dispute in their governing body, and they'd hired Aezthena as contract kings before. Anais, in one of his few obsessions beyond his work, was an amateur scholar of the Aezthena race and their history—Barenin Lyr in particular. And so, his scheme had been hatched. He'd dangled the bait of Barenin Lyr, the great peacemaker, and the Dayarans had taken it.
Ijuka, despite the taboo, studied him with a cynical curiosity. Though Anais couldn't see the whole of their expression through the barrier of the veil, and though the paint obscured it, he was good enough at reading people to sense Ijuka's lack of awe.
Anais stared back, his own face expressionless, hiding his worry. Had Ijuka met an Aezthena before? Most humans, and many non-humans, feared the Aezthena. Some worlds and cultures worshiped them. Was Anais' humanity showing through? He resisted the urge to look down at himself. He knew what Ijuka saw—unnaturally bone-white skin, metallic silver hair, golden eyes that shone in the right light with an animal glow.
He had two pieces of tech on his person that beyond everything else could get him killed without a trial on any human world. The first was a memory implant, a tiny bio-tech chip that sat in his brain and stored and processed more information than a human brain should handle. The second was his identity implant, which sat at the base of his neck and phased his body and genetics out of reality while phasing a new identity in. It was absolutely uncrackable and undetectable. He hadn't known such a thing existed until three months ago, and he'd sold his ship and gone into five alias' worth of debt to buy what his contact advertised as the only prototype. Ancient tech. Aezthena tech.
He'd stopped his whole life for that identity implant. It was why he was here—one big job to pay everything off, buy another ship, and disappear. It was how this job, impersonating an Aezthena, something so improbable and dangerous that no one would think a human could do it, was even possible.
When he'd arrived at the station over Denz Dayar, he'd tapped the identity implant to this profile he'd so carefully crafted from years' worth of holo footage. He hadn't tapped it off since. To any genetic scanner—and he was sure the Dayarans had scanned him—he would appear to be fully Aezthena. And to anyone who'd ever seen a holo of Barenin Lyr, which was almost everyone across the three galaxies where humans lived, he was most certainly Barenin Lyr. Lean and trim build, sharply-chiseled features, silver hair in dozens of tiny braids pulled back into a knot.
No one had questioned him at the shuttle landing pad where the serving staff had met him and ushered him into the robing rooms. No one had said anything as they'd draped him in the heavy ceremonial robes. But Ijuka was hardly a servant, and hardly gullible. If Ijuka questioned him now, he'd made a fatal mistake in his planning. He ran his thoughts back and forth over every detail of his plans, trying to find a weak point.
Finally, Ijuka said, "Ser Lyr. If you are ready."
Anais blinked. The only reaction he allowed himself. He recognized Ijuka's voice--he hadn't spoken with them through an intermediary over the comm, he'd made his contract negotiations with Ijuka themself. So the test had begun weeks ago. Had he passed?
Well, he was here, wasn't he?
"Lead the way, Governor," Anais said, easing his face and voice into a simulation of human emotion. The effect was that of someone who did not feel or understand emotions but made an unsettling effort to try. It was signature Aezthena, and signature Barenin Lyr. He hoped it would be entirely off-putting.
Despite everything, he suppressed a shiver, and a grin. Gods and stars above, he was doing this. He was actually doing this.
Ijuka crossed the room, pausing only long enough to bow at the throne room door before they opened it.
Anais followed, pulling his focus back into his role. He would need it.
2: The Crowning
In the cavernous throne room, every movement, every swish of cloth echoed as if they were on stage. The floor swirled out in mosaic patterns. High pillars were carved with the visages of various Darayan gods, some beatific, some with expressions like storms. Incense burned in hematite bowls around the edges of the room, the same mild scent as the vestibule.
Twenty-two other planetary governors stood in a semi-circle facing Anais, and Ijuka moved to place themself in the center. All wore red robes, their faces veiled over shades of medium-brown skin, indigo paint swirled around their eyes and solid from the lips down. Though Ijuka was their nominal head, they were all the same rank.
Anais might not be Aezthena, but with his memory implant he could simulate the Aezthena ability to anticipate anything. He called up what he'd learned about the coronation ceremony and set the script firmly in his thoughts.
He held out his hands, palms down, in the prescribed gesture. The governors mimicked the movements. First would come the official introduction.
"Ser citizen of Denz Dayar," Ijuka said, "please state your name."
"My name is Barenin Lyr," Anais said solemnly. "I am a citizen of Denz Dayar."
And that legal necessity done, the governors lifted their veils to fully study him. Their faces, though politician's faces, didn't quite conceal their curiosity, or trepidation, or awe.
Ah—there was the awe. Ijuka was the outlier, and with their forceful personality, maybe they weren't impressed by anything. The governors took in his Aezthena-pale appearance, his metallic silver hair. They couldn't hide their flinches when they met his gold-irised eyes. A few lips curled in contempt or disgust. So, the vote hadn't been unanimous to bring the Aezthena Barenin Lyr in as their contract king. Well, he'd expected politicians, not solidarity.
"Are you prepared, Barenin Lyr, to uphold the terms of our contract?" Ijuka asked. "To serve out the term of this contract as our king?"
Anais turned his hands palms up. "I am."
"Then come forth."
Anais stepped forward, and the governors formed a circle around him. As they moved, he matched as many faces as he could to the holos in the dossiers he'd studied. He kept alert for any signs of their suspicion. Not at his motives as Barenin Lyr, accepting the role of contract king on this world—that would, for some, be a mystery to be pursued at all costs—but doubts that he was Barenin Lyr at all. He saw none.
The ceremony lasted over two hours. His memory implant tracked the time by the seconds. Anais, weighed down by the heavy ceremonial robes and growing hot, nonetheless stood with Aezthena stillness, playing out his part. He said what needed to be said. He acknowledged each governor's oath of service. He spoke his own. And he tried to ignore the growing ache in his gut about those oaths. This job was bigger, far bigger, than anything he'd attempted before. These people had hired him to be their contract king, to solve their urgent disputes. They had no idea that by hiring him, they could bring Aezthena wrath down on their heads.
He didn't think it would come to it. He had weighed all the risks and decided they were worth taking. He was gambling with his life, too. He was gambling for everything.
He'd sold everything to get that identity implant. He'd put himself permanently on the run from the worst kind of creditors. He suspected he'd been hired by the worst kind of clients. He'd gambled on the fact that Barenin Lyr hadn't been seen in the last two hundred years, and that Denz Dayar was isolationist enough they rarely aired anything but the most basic of their affairs to other worlds, and trade seldom came through their system. They wouldn't even publish the fact that it was Barenin Lyr who'd answered their call as contract king.
When Anais disappeared in six days—his calculated limit of mental and physical stress to play this part—with his clients' tech or not, the Dayarans would tell no one they'd been conned. Anais doubted it would even sour Barenin Lyr's reputation outside this world, and he hoped to the gods this never got back to Barenin himself. Though with his implant, he didn't think even Barenin could track him if he really wanted to disappear.
And what was it all for? With his implant, even though he'd be running all his life from creditors, he could evade them. They'd never find him, and he could make money as he always did. More jobs, more cons. This risk he was taking now, impersonating an Aezthena, was far greater than not taking it. And maybe he could convince himself that he was doing it for the challenge, the last pinnacle, the most impossible con of his career.
But what was it all for, really?
Anais scanned the unveiled faces of the governors, who all looked at him as if he was someone else.
He was doing this for freedom. For the ability to look in the mirror and never, ever have to see himself again. That's what the identity implant meant to him.
And maybe a little redemption, too. To feel, for just a few days, what it was like to be someone so pure they'd spent most of their thousands of years cleaning up everyone else's messes. Doing more good than harm.
Anais' gut churned. Maybe, he could do some good while he was here. Before he paid everything off and disappeared. He wasn't Barenin Lyr. He didn't have Barenin's years of experience. But maybe he could do some good.
The ceremony ended with a crown, a titanium band etched with geometric vine patterns, on his brow. His palms felt clammy, and that wasn't good, but he couldn't do anything about that now. Gods, he'd just been crowned. He had never been a king before—but Barenin Lyr had. Many times, over his thousands of years of life. Anais held his persona tightly around him, a shield against his growing dismay at his own audacity.
"From this moment until the end of your contract, you are Barenin Lyr, King of the sovereign world of Denz Dayar," Ijuka said. The governors bowed, took three steps back, then all but two turned. All but those two filed across the long room to the double doors at the far end, their steps echoing after them. It took them five minutes at a moderate walk.
The two who remained bowed again.
"I am Governor Ijuka," Ijuka said, as if this was the first time they'd met.
Anais nodded warily. "Governor."
The governor beside Ijuka was flowing in manner, with sharply planed features obscured by the heavy swirls of indigo paint around their eyes. Their eye color was striking—kynblue, deep cerulean. That genetically-engineered remnant of a long dead ruling class was common enough on some worlds. Denz Dayar was not one of those worlds. The researcher in Anais, that other part of his job that was more obsession than anything, filed the oddity away to examine later if he had the time.
The second governor's lips quirked. "I am Governor Por. So very pleased to make your acquaintance, King Lyr." There was something about the way they said that name, something about Por's smirk that made Anais' hair want to stand on end.
His hair didn't, though. He'd programmed his identity profile as Barenin Lyr to not react as visibly as a human would. Any surprise or fear he felt would be filtered and softened, though the implant couldn't filter it completely. He would have to make up the difference.
Anais gave the slow almost-smile he'd spent hours watching the real Barenin Lyr make in all available footage. "Thank you, Governor Ijuka. Governor Por. I hope for a beneficial contract for us all. Would you please have someone show me to my rooms? I will take the remainder of this day to access your systems and familiarize myself with all matters of your world's government and culture. Then, I would like to meet with the Council tomorrow, and we can begin to discuss the nature of your difficulties."
Ijuka and Por exchanged a glance. Uneasy? Skeptical? Something else? Anais couldn't tell, and he kept his spike of anxiety hidden. He had studied all of the governors from the public records he could find, but no matter the detail of a holo, a face was always different in person, the sense of a soul behind the mask. Ijuka was the nominal head of the Council, known for their ruthless scheming and tight control of whatever they could control. Por was less visible, but Anais had pegged them as a cobra—someone who hovered in the background until it was time to strike.
Ijuka said cautiously, "Will you, my king, be scanning our minds during Council meetings?"
Anais blinked slowly. Wasn't that part of why they'd accepted Barenin Lyr, an Aezthena, as their contract king? Aezthena, with their bio-synthetic minds, could process a whole roomful of thoughts at a time—maybe a whole planet full.
Anais shifted in his heavy robes before he caught the nervous gesture and quashed it. "Would you prefer I not read thoughts? I don't have to. And I usually don't without permission." He couldn't. And maybe it was good Ijuka had brought this up. This would all be a lot easier if he didn't have to pretend to know what everyone was thinking.
"Please," Por said. "We value your experience in resolving disputes. Rule as you see fit, within the bounds of the contract."
Anais gave a sharp nod. And he decided now was a good time to make an exit. He was getting hungry, and tired, and his throat was too dry. Playing a role, no matter how immersed, always took a mental and physical toll. This one more than most. “Tomorrow, then. I will message you the time."
Ijuka and Por bowed.
"If you permit, I will help you out of the ceremonial robes, and then show you to your rooms," Por said.
Wasn't that a job for servants? The servants had dressed him earlier. But Anais didn't see a gracious way around Por's offer, not when he didn't have a feel for all the political currents running here. He nodded and followed Por back through the vestibule and into the robing room behind it.
3: A Dance in Crimson
Where the colors in the throne room were sedate and regal, and the vestibule monastic, the robing room was an orgy of neon. Reds and violets splashed up the curtained walls to the ceiling and down again to swirl in patterns he recognized as Dayaran religious motifs across the thick carpet. In the center of the room stood twelve gray plastic clothing forms, the only neutral things in the room, and even those had elaborate swirls molded into them. Anais ignored everything else in the room and focused on the forms. Those forms would hold the robes that were threatening to suffocate him.
Soft, resonant music came through unseen speakers, a droning chant.
It was one thing too much. A headache throbbed at his temples, warning of greater pain to come. He'd used his memory implant too much, and he couldn't afford down time. Tomorrow, he'd have to be more clever, more sparing with the memory implant's access.
The Dayaran crown sat heavy on his head, adding to the weight of the headache. He felt a flutter in his chest, a skipped breath. The room swayed and he fought with everything he had to stay still, stay standing. He counted his breaths and waited for the swaying, the ringing in his ears, to pass.
"It is amazing," Por said, as they gently closed the door, "how true is the simulation of your breathing. Your breaths come exactly when they are supposed to. I have known other Aezthena who had not yet mastered the trick after thousands of years."
Anais looked at them sharply, and then dulled his gaze, carefully perusing the room. Por had known other Aezthena? The last time the Dayarans had hired a contract king was over eighty years ago, and while Anais had found references to the fact that the Dayarans had contracted Aezthena before, he hadn't known which of their contract kings were and which weren't. All were given Dayaran names in official records. Even if the last king had been Aezthena, Por wasn't old enough to have met them, and the Dayarans rarely traveled out of their own system.
Had Anais made it through that entire ceremony only for Por to expose him now?
He licked his lips, one of Barenin's few nervous tells. He had one thing he hadn't wanted to fall back on, because it was speculation at best and a cheap trick. But Por's gaze on him was sharper than Ijuka's. Por saw too much.
"It is an aspect of my humanity," Anais said. "I choose at times to live as a human, and some of those traits have blended over."
It was another gamble, something he'd found in all his years of research that not many people knew. People wanted to see Barenin Lyr as the grand hero—or grand nemesis, depending on the world and mythology—but they seldom wanted to see him as vulnerable. All Aezthena could cast illusions around themselves, manipulating the reality around them and the minds of those observing. They could appear human, but it was often too perfect a simulation. Many humans had learned to detect when an Aezthena was trying to pass themself off as human by the sheer lack of tells. Anais thought, though, that Barenin could do something else. There'd been very few recorded instances of Barenin showing himself in a human form, and those instances had real human ticks and inconsistencies. They didn't read like illusions.
There were many humans, too, who claimed to be his descendants with lines starting millennia after he'd been made Aezthena. Aezthena couldn't have children—they were made from living humans, not born—and humans and Aezthena were not biologically compatible for reproduction. Anais had a theory that Barenin didn't just simulate humanity with a mental overlay of his appearance and demeanor but had actually found a way to become human when he wished.
All speculation. All a gamble. But it was what he had, and he watched to see what Por would do with it.
Por's brows went up, distorting the indigo swirls of paint. "I can't imagine such a life. Such a stretch of experience. Please, stand here." They waved Anais over to the clothing forms with a magnanimous gesture. Was Por mocking him? Was Por bold enough, having met other Aezthena, to mock an Aezthena to his face?
Anais narrowed his eyes. What was Por playing at here? A planetary governor helping him with his robes wasn't an official part of the ceremony. He doubted it was unspoken tradition, either. This was something else.
"If you would hold out your arms?" Por asked.
Anais, uncomfortable, did so. He didn't like that he was alone with Por. Alone with the cobra among the governors.
Por, for their part, didn't seem phased by Anais' pale Aezthena appearance or sharp golden gaze. Por unwrapped the layers of thick brocade and lace, humming softly under their breath in counter-harmony to the droning music. They hung the layers on the forms, smoothing them out, taking obvious satisfaction in doing so.
Por had a contract marriage, though no children. But the way Por breezed around him, the graceful and unabashed peeling back of layers of clothing... Was Por flirting with him?
Anais was generally more attracted to those who presented masc or neutral than femme...but he couldn't keep from following Por's fluid movements. The grace of their lithe body, the small gestures that seemed casual at first—a flick of the wrist here, a swirl of cloth there, the occasional sharp glance from those arresting kynblue eyes, the wisps of dark curls that escaped from the elaborate knot at the nape of their neck—all put together, it felt like a dance of seduction.
Anais shook himself out of his stare. His heart was beating faster than it should be, and he hoped the identity implant hid any flush.
Gods, what was he doing? Here, of all places, he couldn't afford a fling. He made it a policy to never get involved with anyone on a job—those kinds of complications led to dark and dangerous places. And he couldn't go there with Por. Not when Por was so obviously taunting him with whatever this was. Here, he was Barenin Lyr. And he wouldn't put it past anyone here to try and get in bed with someone who they thought was one of the most powerful people in history. Especially Por.
As the layers came off, Anais felt lighter. Maybe a little light-headed. He hadn't drank enough that day—Aezthena didn't need as much water as humans did, and so he'd had to keep up that appearance, too. He felt the sticky, tingling sheen of sweat on his skin, the dampness of the inner layers of cloth. And those robes had felt like weights. He was in decent enough shape, but he could already feel the strain on his knees.
"King Lyr," Por said, pulling off yet another layer, this one of silky white material with gold embroidery tracing up the sides. They ran their hands over the silk, a small smile tugging at their lips. "I do believe this shall be an interesting year."
Anais swallowed on a dry throat. Six days, he told himself. Six days and he'd be gone, and Por would be a memory left far behind him. And he was just light-headed now, off-balance from the strain of the day and this gods-awful psychedelic room with its stomach-churning colors and head-numbing chants. He wasn't actually thinking of Por in that way. Gods. He'd get re-centered when he was alone. Soon.
Por stepped back, giving Anais a slow and obvious once-over.
He flushed furiously and covered it by looking down at himself. There were at least ten layers of robes on the forms, and probably another five under the top layer he now wore, a heavy tan robe with brocade in reds and golds. "Is that it? Is this the robe I use for daily wear?"
He caught the pique in his voice and checked himself. Calm. He had to be calm. He smoothed out his face again, relaxed his tensing muscles. Looked up into Por's blue eyes.
Por reached out and briefly touched his hands. Anais fought the jump, remembering it was the custom here. A show of respect.
"Thank you for this honor," Por said, voice unexpectedly soft. "And yes. This is what you wear for your daily robes. For you, it should not be a burden."
For an Aezthena, Por meant. For him, it would be a hot and uncomfortably weighed-down six days.
"Thank you," Anais managed. Then, because his mind was starting to short out and he had to fill the silence before that happened, "I hope to help resolve the difficulties you are facing."
He meant it, he really did, even though he didn't think he'd help. He wasn't the kind of person who brought people together. He was an agent of chaos, leaving destruction and devastation behind him wherever he went. It was the nature of the con.
"That's all we ask," Por said. "I know you will be a great help to us." They smiled, and then their perusal of him turned critical. That was almost a relief. "You are obviously not Dayaran, but the fiction is passable enough. Your servants will help you dress each morning and undress each night—I know you don't need this service, but please allow them this part of the protocol. As far as a meeting for tomorrow, eight in the morning is when Council sessions start. I suggest not changing the schedule. I might be in favor of an Aezthena as our contract king, but not all of us are. The last war with the Aezthena isn't that far gone in our minds. Please do remember that."
Anais gave his patented Barenin Lyr almost-smile. "Thank you, I will keep that in mind."
"As far as what the Council meeting will entail," Por went on, "I'm sure you have and will continue to familiarize yourself with our political situation, or else you wouldn't be here, but here is a quick summary of the most pressing concerns involved—" They switched now from Aijani, the most widely-used human language, to Densata, the common language of this world. Anais was prepared for that. He was good with languages, one of the traits that made him good at what he did. His memory implant helped, too, though he hid a wince is its use intensified his headache. He flipped his thoughts into the new cadences, a complex pattern of grammar over simple, almost monosyllabic words. And he was able to follow Por's speech clearly enough, with his implant dictionary filling in what he didn't know or couldn't grasp in time.
"I know you don't require sleep," Por said, "but I'd advise you to spend your time this night on learning the political situation with the industrial and planting districts as the basis for our meeting tomorrow."
Anais nodded. He hadn't caught all the details, but he would replay the conversation through his implant later. When he was alone and could think through everything without having to so closely play at being Barenin Lyr.
"I am sure whatever the governors have planned for this meeting will be adequate," he said, in Densata. His accent was off, but it would improve. This was within acceptable limits for Barenin Lyr. "And you are wrong, Governor Por. I do sleep, but not so often or as long as you. I do use the night hours to rest, however, and collate my thoughts. Please do not assume I am always available."
Por nodded. "Of course. Thank you for listening, my king. Shall I take you to your rooms?"
Anais made a mental note to parse every bit of that conversation later, more than once. If he was to survive the next six days, he had a growing suspicion he'd have to know Por's exact place in the web of Dayaran politics. Because for the next few days, he was in charge of this planet's politics.
4: Royal Penthouse
Anais' rooms were palatial—which was fitting, he supposed, since this skyscraper was a palace and he was the king. Open sitting rooms in creams and golds led to balcony gardens that overlooked the square roofs and sand-colored domes of the city. Short hallways led to baths with holographic scenery and enough bedrooms to house an extended family's family.
Anais gave up the tour after the nervous staff led him through yet another sitting room perfumed with local flowers and dedicated to some antiquated historical-religious theme. He settled in a smaller dining room (small being relative to the ballroom-sized dining room) and asked for a sampling of the local cuisine to be brought to him—for research purposes. Because Aezthena didn't need to eat more than once every few days. He sat in the most comfortably-padded chair he'd ever known a dining room to have with a glass of mild wine and the holo console the servants had left him, then got to work on more research.
The work was mostly a façade. While the servants in gray and gold palace livery bustled in and out, he had to be Barenin Lyr. Cold and focused, absolutely controlled. He could hardly concentrate on what was on his screen, though with his implant, he could play the information back later.
The food, at least, was excellent. Before the servants cleared the remainder of his meal, he glanced up and said, "While I'm here, bring me meals as you would a human king. Treat me as you would a human. Here, I am Dayaran."
The servants nodded vigorously, eager to please.
"But tonight," Anais added, "I wish to be undisturbed. Please inform the guards that I will spend the night alone. They will remain in the corridor—I am quite able to defend myself if necessary. And I'm sure it won't be necessary."
There were enough holo dramas about the various adventures and exploits of Barenin Lyr that the servants agreed without protest. Barenin Lyr could certainly defend himself, with his mental abilities and his enhanced physical strength.
When the servants left, Anais sat still, hands spread on the polished wood tabletop. The suite had a sudden hush, an absence of bustle. It was unnerving. Without moving, he glanced around the empty dining room. He had a few platters left as food for the night, and a pleasant mix of spices lingered in the air. The servants had left two bottles of the mild wine and one of something he suspected was stronger—he'd better not touch that, though his throat burned at the thought of some relief from the strain in his neck, his body. The tension of holding Barenin's character made his hand shake, a tiny tremor, as he reached for his glass.
Maybe he'd better drink water.
From the entry hall several rooms over, he heard the servants talking to the guards in the entryway. Then, the doors to his suite shut.
The holo display on the table gave off a soft hum. There were no sounds from outside the windows—the royal suite was on the hundred and fifth floor of the palace and sound-dampened. Even the balcony gardens were dampened to the outside world unless he turned the filters off. He debated if he should. His neck prickled. All these rooms, and he was alone. He'd never had a problem being alone in strange places before. He sometimes got nervous on jobs, yes, but this was different. He felt too small for this much space.
Anais squeezed his hands together, a small allowance of emotion even though he was certain no one was watching. He'd already checked for surveillance systems in the suite and had disabled the systems in this dining room, one of the sitting rooms he'd liked, and his bedroom. He was truly alone.
He'd made it through the day. Gods, they'd believed him. They all thought he was actually Barenin Lyr. His hands threatened to start shaking again.
Anais stood with care under the weight of the robes. He walked through to his favored sitting room and the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the capital city of Denz Dayar, the soft-hued skyscrapers now orange in sunset flames, swarming with the dark blurs and streaks of light that were aircars. There were hundreds and thousands of colonized human worlds spread across three galaxies, and countless non-human alien worlds between and beyond them. The universe was infinite, and he had come to be here, a contract king—a fake contract king—masquerading as someone he had idolized since childhood.
For the first time since he'd arrived, Anais let his face relax. He trembled, letting all of the emotion and tension that he'd had to conceal spool itself out.
Gods, what was he doing here? How insane was he to think he could pull this off? But it was working. The Dayarans had accepted him as Barenin Lyr and made him their king.
He studied his Aezthena-white hands. Barenin Lyr's hands. He had painstakingly constructed the image in the implant from both still holos and holovids, taking care to get every detail correct.
There were no actual genetic records of Barenin Lyr anywhere he could find—Barenin had to have seen to that. Anyone who scanned him would have to approximate his identity. And there were very few close images that showed more than half of Barenin's body, and almost never more skin than the face and hands. Anais had to hope he got it right. That the Dayarans had been willing to accept a contract with him at all had been a matter of illusion—they'd presented him in negotiations with a problem few humans could solve and given him five seconds to solve it. He'd done it in two. He had the hundreds of math and science texts he'd read stored in his memory implant and had used them to get out of tight situations before. He didn't have access to all his stored memories at once, but since he'd had the implant installed as a child, his mind had learned to make connections between random memories and information he needed quickly.
He wasn't a genius. At least, he hadn't been born a genius.
He stared at his hands again. What must it feel like to actually be Aezthena? What would it feel like to have your red blood drained out and replaced with the bio-synthetic mix the Aezthena used? To have your organs replaced with enhanced, stronger, not-quite-human organs, your skin paled to near translucency, your hair silvered, your eyes turned gold? To not have to breathe more than a few times an hour? To hear thoughts and parse information at unfathomable speeds? To manipulate spacetime around you, slow time, speed time, part the air and step out somewhere else altogether? What did it feel like to be a minor god?
He closed his hands into fists. What did it feel like to lose your humanity? To become immortal, but never again feel human emotions, human connection? He didn't like who he was, but his aversion wasn't so strong that he'd erase himself into an immortal sociopath.
He'd read accounts. There were some, buried deep within public—or private—archives. He'd paid dearly for some private accounts over the years. Some Aezthena regretted their decisions to become what they were. They missed their lost humanity. Many lost more than the ability to feel as humans—they lost the ability to identify with their human past at all and considered themselves far superior to humans. They didn't mind if a human world here or there was destroyed at their whims.
There was a reason more humans didn't try to become Aezthena. And of those who applied to the Aezthena to become one, only a minuscule number were accepted and turned.
It was illegal, on most human worlds, for anyone to even apply to the Aezthena. No humans wanted more of the threat that was just kept at bay. The cycle of wars between humans and Aezthena spanned back over ten thousand years. Since when Barenin Lyr had first shown up in history, or maybe before.
No, Anais did not want to be Aezthena. His only concession to his desire for knowledge was his memory implant—highly illegal or not, he'd never considered having it removed. And if he was honest with himself, he had become something more than just human in having it. Not Aezthena, not even close, but...more.
He straightened and tugged at the ends of his sleeves, smoothing out the wrinkles gained from sitting at the table earlier. A very Barenin gesture. A good reminder of where he was and who he was supposed to be. He was getting maudlin. And he had loads of information to sort through before the night ended, both the promised dive into local politics and, for his client's interests, a deeper look into the power generators that ran beneath the city. His client had given him rough sketches of the generators they were after, a very spare description, but nothing more. If he couldn't get the actual machinery or schematics—he didn't yet know the size of this tech he was supposed to steal—then his client would still offer a substantive price for as detailed a description of the generators as he could give them. With his memory implant, that detail would be exact.
Anais returned to the table and grabbed a bread roll from a plate the servants had left. He got to work.
5: To Play a Guard
His bed could have served as a landing pad for a small freighter. With the lights out, Anais lay still, focusing on the sounds around him. Nothing but the softest hush of air moving through the climate-control systems. All was quiet. No one had disturbed him all evening.
Blinking away fatigue from the day, he sat up. He reached for the back of his neck where the identity implant sat like a tiny mole-dot and tapped it in rapid sequence. His body hummed, and in the dim city light that shone through the bedroom windows, he watched the room blur and darken.
Slowly, the carved canopy posts and silky red and purple bed curtains formed around him again. He was in his own body. His own lanky, unattractive body—stringy hair, and sweat stink from neglecting to wash because if he didn't have to look at himself, he wouldn't. And with the implant, he only had to be in his body for seconds at a time.
He was still disoriented from the shift, but he reached to tap the implant again, a pattern for a different identity this time. He waited through the shift, forcing slow, deeps breaths until the feeling of disassociation with reality passed.
The space around his body changed to accommodate its new dimensions. The soft mattress sank further, and his clothes shifted to a different, coarser fabric. He had dressed in these carefully-procured garments the last time he'd loaded this physical profile—the uniform of a Dayaran palace guard. It had taken time to get this particular profile to match the guard in question, but unlike with Barenin, he'd had genetic data to work from. Anais had memorized this guard's mannerisms and speech patterns, and by now, he also had a good command of Densata. If he got stuck with the language, he could call up conversations he'd stripped from security vids throughout the palace corridors. He knew what to say. He was an excellent mimic.
Time to get on with the job.
Anais threw back the covers and scooted across the expanse of the bed. He paused as his feet hit the floor—the balls and heels of his feet touched the carpet in a different way than they had when he was Barenin. He ran his hands over thick muscle beneath the guards' uniform and grunted. This implant was worth everything he'd paid to get it and more. Everything he was paying now. He wasn't just playing the role of this palace guard, in cosmetics or detectable genetic encryption, he was this guard. No one but the guard themself could say otherwise.
Anais stretched up his arms, then stretched further. A good deal of the muscle pain he'd felt wearing Barenin's profile was gone. Actually, all of it. He was tired, but not worn. He'd feel the stress again when he resumed Barenin's profile, but at that moment, he had a completely new body and it felt good.
A thread of uneasiness wormed into his gut. He'd learned to be wary of when he felt good. This implant had come at a high price. And maybe it was the only prototype, as the seller had professed, or maybe there were others. It was the kind of tech that was beyond forbidden, the kind of tech that wouldn't get past the censors in most holodramas, because it didn't follow the natural laws of physics. Because even the idea of it was forbidden. Normal tech didn't take a body and displace it outside of normal spacetime. Normal tech didn't give you back another body that could absolutely not be detected as anything but the body you were born with.
It might be new tech, but Anais didn't think so. If this tech was circulating enough to hit a back corner of the black market, and not the deep pit Anais had found it in, the Aezthena would have found out about it and put an end to it. Humans and Aezthena were forever locked in a technological arms race—the humans to make tech that could thwart Aezthena skills and presence, and the Aezthena to blow them back to hunters and gatherers.
The tech in this implant—it was something old. Something ancient and forgotten. Something which used the primordial energy source from which Aezthena got their powers. Something made with Kaireyeh.
It wasn't magic. But it wasn't any science that humans were allowed to participate in.
He suppressed a shudder and moved into a set of the martial-arts warm-ups that the Dayaran guards trained in. He'd learned just the opening set, but it put him into the right mind. It cleared his thoughts of things he didn't need to be thinking about. Not here, in this palace, in the dark.
He bowed to the black air and headed for the entry door.
As he stepped into the corridor outside his suite, the tall, trim guard on duty raised thick brows at him. "The king said they weren't to be disturbed, yet here you are."
Anais scowled. "The king called me in on the last shift. They wanted someone to explain palace procedures to them, and I swear, they were reading my mind through everything I said." He shivered and darted a glance back at the door. "I think they just fell asleep."
"You mean they didn't release you? Should you still be in there? That's rough."
Anais jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'm not staying in there. They sleep with their eyes open. At least, I think they're asleep. I risked a look."
The guard's lips drew tight, puckering the single indigo stripe of paint across their mouth. They looked like they wanted to say more but a glance at the door quelled them. Anais looked again, too. He knew there was no one behind it, but even still he almost felt the ghost, the Aezthena waiting in the dark, sifting through his thoughts.
If his identity implant was Kaireyeh tech, whether human or Aezthena built, would an Aezthena be able to sense that?
Hair stood up all over his body.
"I'm way past shift," Anais said. "Later."
The guard gave a lazy salute, and Anais hurried off.
It had taken him three days of watching hacked palace footage to find the right persona to wear for this part of the job. He'd finally chosen this guard because they were usually in other parts of the palace but were also senior enough and respected enough to have wider access.
And now, out in the halls, he forced himself into the unhurried but purposeful stride of a guard on patrol. Down the corridor and into the service lift. He rode the lift down to the second sub-level, then stepped into a corridor where another lift would take him to the lower sub-levels. To the generators beneath the palace and the city. Hallowed ground, for the Dayarans.
The doors to the second lift were guarded, of course. The guards watched him approach with unreadable expressions.
Anais felt his fingers twitching for a weapon. He wore no pistol, which was the only thing missing from his guard persona's kit. He'd stored clothing in the identity implant's profile, but he hadn't successfully carried a weapon or tech over except for what was implanted in his own body.
He did have a third implant, one that among the three was entirely legal. It was also ancient tech, and the only acceptable use of Kaireyeh-powered tech that a human could have. It was common and so much a part of human tradition that neither the humans nor the Aezthena tried to interdict it. He had in his left bicep a tiny bead called a halo. When he clasped his right hand to the trigger, the bead would expand into a staff—or knife, or sword stick, or whatever sharp weapon he needed it to be. The halo weapons were implanted at birth, seeded from a parent's weapon and passed down parent to child. Most children who had them had some base training in their use, but never used them except in extreme emergencies. They were more ornamental than an actual weapon, usually forgotten.
Anais stilled his hand's upward reach for his halo. He'd used his implanted weapon more than most. But its biggest downfall—despite the fact that it couldn't shoot anything—was the mark of loyalty and identity it displayed when triggered or held. He didn't need his actual name and the insignia of the station where he'd grown up shining on the back of his hand for all to see. Not here. That he was even considering drawing it was a mark of how spooked this place made him feel.
He wasn't playing Barenin Lyr just now. He didn't have to pretend to be anything more than a guard, and he'd done that so many times before on so many stations and worlds that he'd lost count. With his research and his command of his persona, he would have no trouble passing these palace guards.
Anais forced himself to relax. He exchanged terse pleasantries with the other guards—they were all on duty, anyway—and they let him into the lift.
The doors shut and he punched in the pass code in the wide, curving Densata script. The lift plunged down.
The sounds of machinery grew louder, and the lift car shuddered twice, as if buffeted by strong winds. Anais gripped the rail on the lift wall. He hadn't expected turbulence. Though he knew most of the palace's above-ground floor plans, even with his royal access, he hadn't found many details on the sub-levels.
He thought of the sketches his client had shown him of the tech he was supposed to steal. The design was spiraling, snail-like, with overlapping plates. It was a generator, or at least part of a generator, but nothing about it said ordinary generator. Well. And if it had been standard, his client wouldn't have promised a fee that could buy a planetary station.
The first logical place to look for this tech was under the palace, where generators powered the grid for the city above and half the province. He didn't think he'd find it there—that would be too easy—but he might find clues in the design of the palace generators for where to look next. The Dayarans didn't patent prototypes or publish research. Their tech was sacred, their power generators having significance in their religion. They handled the development of their tech so close to their planetary industries that he'd be happy if he found manufacturing labels just to point him in the right direction.
Anais didn't like going on this little data with the stakes this high. But he'd gone on shakier plans before. He'd survived the Dayarans' scrutiny of Barenin Lyr earlier. He'd survived the walk through the corridors as a Dayaran guard. He had his memory implant, the identity implant, and years of honed experience. He would leave Denz Dayar with the goods.
The lift stopped, and the doors slid open. Anais found himself at one end of a long, empty utility corridor, the walls off-gray, overhead lights sparse and with a blueish cast. The floor vibrated with the hum of machinery. The air had a metallic, chemical tang. Doors lined the walls farther on, and wide double doors at the end had to lead further into the facility. That was where the sounds of machinery came from. That was where he needed to go.
Anais kept his purposeful guards' gait. His persona had access to these levels, but he wasn't sure what the guards did there. He wasn't sure how deep the access went, or what he'd be expected to answer if challenged. He flexed his fingers and wondered if he'd have to reach for his halo after all. At least, if he had to act, he wouldn't blow his identity as Barenin Lyr. He could change the identity implant, become someone else, slip away.
Gods, he loved this implant.
He was halfway down the corridor before the hairs on his neck and arms rose. He turned, and Governor Por detached themself from where they'd been leaning against the wall—except the corridor had been empty, and there were no doors between the lift and where he stood now. He would have heard the clack of the lift doors if they'd opened.
What had just happened? Where had Por come from? Had they had a holo cloak of some sort? A chameleon field? Had they been waiting for him?
Por stared at him, a look that seemed to see right through him. There was no flirtation in their demeanor now, just brutal coldness.
Anais clenched his teeth to stop a chatter. Everything in him screamed to run away, that this was deep shit danger, but he held his ground. That reaction wasn't logical. He wasn't playing Barenin Lyr. He wasn't in danger of being found out for that. He was a palace guard. Whatever Por wanted with him, it was as a palace guard. Whatever Por was down here for, it couldn't be for him. Still, his heart hammered.
Anais bowed, deep and reverent.
"Forgive me, Governor Por. You startled me. I did not think anyone else was down here. May I help you?"
Por smiled, the indigo swirls around their eyes creasing, and stalked toward him.
Anais' skin crawled. There was something very wrong here.
"Oh, you are good," Por said. "It takes great skill to imitate an Aezthena, and though I have seen a few attempts, I have to say, yours is the most impressive. And Barenin Lyr, of all people. You could have picked a less ambitious role to play. But then, that wouldn't have guaranteed a contract with the Dayarans, would it?"
Anais straightened, trusting in his immersion of his role to get past the panic. How did Por know? Gods, how could they know? Did Por know about the implant? How? He'd bought the implant through a broker, everything anonymous, the currency untraceable.
"Ser?" he asked, unable to hide the waver in his voice. "My commander told me to take this shift tonight—"
Por held up a hand. Their glare was so frigid that Anais stammered to a stop.
"Look at me," Por said.
Anais did. Their face paint was cracked, no longer the solid indigo from mouth to neck, the swirls around their eyes interrupted at random intervals. Black curls were tied up in an elegant but less elaborate knot than earlier. Their red governor's robes were clean, if lank from the day. Had Por waited up for this meeting? Had they known Anais would come here?
"No," Por said, "look at me. You've done your research. Look."
A hot lump crawled up his throat as he studied Por. Tried to see beyond the face paint, if that's what Por meant. The features were sharp, distinctive. Obscured by the paint—masterfully obscured at just the right angles. Anais knew another master of disguise when he saw one. And Por's distinctive cerulean blue eyes. Anais hadn't seen anyone else yet on this world with kynblue eyes.
He swallowed, his mind racing. "You're here on a job, too."
Por spread their arms wide. "Wrong. I am here on my own business. You're smart, Anais, smarter than you have a right to be. Put it together."
Shit. Shit, Por knew his name. His real name. He hadn't given that name to anyone in years. And that "smarter than you have a right to be" comment—Por knew. Por knew about his memory implant, his death-sentence augmentations. He didn't know how, but they knew.
Anais shot a glance up and down the corridor and only by intense effort resisted the urge to run—Por had known this would be the perfect place to confront him. The only certain way out was past them, so that left the doors leading to the generators. By the confidence of Por's stance, running into the warren of machinery wasn't the answer.
He forced himself to breathe. To push beyond the panic, because he had to. Because he'd always had to, it was survival. He'd kept his augments hidden for years, and he hadn't done it by giving in to panic.
Por's dropping that bit of information—had it been a threat? Possibly. But Por was as he'd pegged them, a viper. They'd lain in wait. They'd set their trap and thought through the angles. So, he had to think through them now, too.
They hadn't just come here to threaten him. The threat, he sensed, was ancillary. Por wanted him to look at them and see something. See what?
Por's blue eyes flickered, and for a moment, sheened gold.
Anais didn't breathe. He took in Por's face again. A familiar face, and how had he not seen it before? He'd spent hours studying that face in the highest detail—or the Aezthena version, at least. There were almost no images of Barenin Lyr in human form.
Oh, stars and gods above.
Before Anais could blink, Por somehow skipped the three meters of distance between them and stood right in front of him.
Anais jumped back but managed to stifle his yelp.
That was an Aezthena self-teleportation. Por was the real deal. Unless this was some Aezthena plot within a plot, in which case he was screwed anyway, Por was Barenin Lyr. The real Barenin Lyr.