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.
10: The Genetic Crest
With the meeting adjourned, conversation in the Council chamber rose in a chaotic murmur to pound against Anais' headache.
He stood, trying not to sway. Governors in their robes and face paint hovered nearby, waiting to swoop in on him for their own private arguments and favor-currying sessions. But Por was swiftly by his side as well.
"May I speak with you privately, my king?" they asked.
Anais hadn't thought his stomach could clench any tighter. He didn't have any energy left for this, but he did want answers. And he needed to rest. Por knew who he was—he didn't have to hold this persona as tightly around Por.
Stars and gods above, he was aghast at holding this act with Por now.
"Of course." Anais looked around him. "If you will all excuse me." He ignored the disappointed or outright hostile looks and walked with Por out of the Council chamber. Por was careful not to appear to lead him, but walked beside him, as was protocol, guiding with subtle hand gestures.
They reached a small sitting room. Por bowed Anais inside then eased the door shut behind them. The room was windowless, pale blue walls covered in light geometric patterns, thick white carpet on the floor. Small, framed prints of flowers hung in rows on each wall. The only furniture was a cluster of overstuffed chairs around a low wooden table in the center. By the standards of everything else in this palace, it almost looked...cozy.
All Anais wanted to do was sink into one of those chairs, but he hesitated by the door. His mind blanked as he looked at the chairs, then at Por. He should be gathering his thoughts, not wanting to rest. He was about to battle wits with an Aezthena.
Por waited, giving him time to decide how he'd start this conversation. He didn't know if that was a courtesy or a test. Probably both.
Finally, Anais removed the heavy crown and looped it over his arm, crossed to the center of the room, and sank into the most comfortable-looking chair there. His robes fanned out around him with a soft shush. He rested his head back and made a sound of relief—something he would never have done with anyone here but this person.
He might be matching wits with an Aezthena, but he couldn't do it while concentrating on playing Barenin Lyr.
Por snorted and sat across from him. "Well, you survived the first day." She arranged her red robes in careful folds before settling. "So. You've finally decided I'm who I said I am."
Anais stiffened. How openly were they going to talk? Had any cameras just seen him sigh? Fatigue or not, he couldn't afford to be sloppy. He shouldn't have let his guard down, they could be monitored anywhere in the palace, and he hadn't yet checked this room—
"We're secure," Por said. "I monitor this room's security personally. All governors have their preferred meeting rooms, and this is mine." She paused. "And I disabled two of the other governors' bugs before you entered."
Despite Por's assurances, Anais pulled his role back around him. It was his only armor, as painfully awkward as it was, as exhausting as it was. But it was armor enough that he could quell some of his roiling emotions. So he wouldn't run from the room in a panic because of who it was who sat across from him. Who'd been watching him all day. No doubt studying him. Who knew far too much about him.
He'd agreed to Por's suggestion of this private meeting because he couldn't say no without unknown consequences. And because he was pissed and wanted answers. And because...he was curious. So very curious, and too tired for much more at this moment than his curiosity.
Por sat forward suddenly. "Let me show you something. That will give you the definitive proof you need." She clasped her right hand to her left bicep.
Anais' lips parted, and he sat forward, too. His body heated with a fresh surge of adrenaline. She was going to draw her halo weapon and show him the genetic crest on her hand, wasn't she? He hadn't known she had one—or that any Aezthena had them. He'd assumed it was just a human tradition. But all Aezthena had been human once, hadn't they?
"You have a halo weapon?" Anais stared as gold lines etched themselves across the brown of Por's hand. The lines swirled up her wrist and down to her fingertips, then coalesced into a circular sigil on the back of her hand. The sigil was supposed to display the nation, family, or religion you felt most loyal to—which sometimes shifted if those loyalties changed—but the sigil on the back of Por's hand drew itself, and then drew over itself with another sigil, and another, and another, and another. There were so many layers and lines that it became a mandala of loyalties.
Anais looked up. "What—"
But Por's concentration was on the crest. Finally, around the outer circle of the crest, words appeared in a script that Anais couldn't read. He queried his implant, but though he got some familiarity with the long, flowing symbols, he couldn't make out much more than an archaeological origin. A dead language, or at least, a heavily mutated one.
The writing shifted into Aijani.
A silver rod cracked out in Por's hand, a meter's length. Not the full staff, and she didn't draw the blades within it. The staff could expand to two meters, with blades as long as half a meter on each end, as the bearer wished. At least, that was how Anais' halo staff worked. His was golden, though. He'd seen a few people with silver, but very few with the rippling metal grain patterns that shimmered on Por's halo staff.
Por held out her hand so Anais could read the crest more clearly.
He squinted at the words. "Damon ve Barenin ne Alyras Kynaston."
Por winced. "More or less. Pronunciation is a little off. But that's to be expected."
The name sounded archaic. Anais recognized the Barenin Lyr part of it, though. And—he blinked, the hair raising on his arms.
"Damon Kynaston. That's your name. Were you Emperor Daemonus Kyn?" In his studies, he'd come across the name in the earliest history of humanity. When there were only a handful of human governments spread across a thousand or so stars. There were varying accounts of the first wars and treaties between the humans and Aezthena, ranging from implausible to mystical, but the name Daemonus Kyn had stood out to him. In the few snippets he'd found with the name, historians had mentioned it was often seen with Aezthena honorifics, which was an oddity for a human. Most considered it to be a diplomatic honor, not a statement of race. Daemonus was mentioned as a human ruler. And most historians counted Barenin Lyr as showing up a few centuries later. But...Daemonus had brokered a treaty with the Aezthena, one of the first of such treaties mentioned throughout history. And Barenin Lyr was known for such treaties. Anais had wondered.
The corners of Por's eyes crinkled. "That caught your interest. I was just called Damon Kynaston, actually. Amazing what is lost and changed over the millennia. But yes, I brokered a treaty with the Aezthena around that time."
"Ha," Anais said. "While you were still human?"
"I was Aezthena when I brokered that treaty." Por tilted her head. "But I was rather new to being Aezthena."
Anais absorbed that—and the fact she had just told him that part of her origin—to fully unpack later. His gaze flicked over the name again. "And Kynaston? Isn't that one of one of the pre-Aezthena human dynasties? So that's the same lineage as Kyn?" Another thing historians speculated on, but had never pinned down.
"Not pre-Aezthena," Por said, "but there at the beginning of the split into humans and Aezthena. And yes. That is my family name." She pointed to her eyes, those very vivid blue eyes. "My Kynaston heritage. Kynblue. Hear the origin? Anyone you see with this eye color has Kynaston ancestry."
"Ah," Anais said. He hadn't known that, and the part of him that loved the discovery in researching a role hoarded that fact away. "So, you were important? Your family, I mean. Before you became Aezthena."
"And here I thought you'd done all your research on me." Her smile faded as she studied Anais. "You're dehydrated. You've been sweltering in those robes all day and barely drinking." She retracted her halo weapon to a bead and sheathed it in her arm, then rubbed a thumb over one side of the center table. A holo menu popped up. She tapped a quick series of commands, and a second later, a pitcher of water and two clear blue glasses materialized.
Anais licked dry lips and accepted the glass without protest. He took a few sips, let the water settle, then a few more swallows.
His head began to clear. The robes he wore were still too hot and too heavy, but some of the weight of fatigue lifted. He drank the glass and filled half of another. Maybe it had helped his role that he'd barely drank anything that day, or maybe no one noticed. But everyone would notice if he passed out.
"Thank you," he said after a few moments. Then, feeling Por's gaze on him, looked down and said, "There are huge gaps in the records of you. Anything before the last five or six thousand years is obscure, bordering on mythological. I don't believe half of what I've found."
"Good," Por said dryly. Then, "You're breaking character in your enthusiasm. And it's disconcerting to be talking to a facsimile of myself. Please turn off the identity implant."
Anais froze mid-drink. He had the same feeling of exposure he'd had the night before. Could Por see through his implant, see him underneath—or wherever his actual body went when he had it on?
"I'll shift it to another profile," Anais said. "The guard from last night."
Por held up her hand where the genetic crest had been a few moments ago. "Do you know how many people I've shown this to? Do you know how many even know my birth name, or that it's different from the name I use now? Maybe two or three people a century, if even."
Anais bristled. "So, 'I show you mine, you show me yours,' is that it? You're divulging secrets, so I should, too?"
Por shook her head, a few curls breaking loose from her upswept knot. She made a helpless gesture with one hand. It was so incongruous with the picture Anais had always held of Barenin Lyr, who he'd seen as aloof, in control, every move calculated. That was how Anais was playing this role for the Dayarans. That was what they expected, too.
There were so few records of Barenin Lyr in a more human guise that Anais hardly knew how to deal with this. Was it all an act? Or was this real?
"I'm sorry," Por said, wiping a hand across her face and smearing some of the blue paint on her cheek. "I'm sorry, I have no right to demand anything from you. I only meant—I want you to know I trust you. I want you to know you can trust me, too."
Anais gaped. She trusted him? Barenin Lyr trusting him, a con artist?
No. The Barenin Lyr he'd researched wouldn't trust anyone. She might be on the better side of history, but she wasn't a fool. She had to be playing him.
The anger he'd set aside earlier came back in full force. "So why in all the hells should I trust you?" The identity implant was still at work, lowering the heat in his voice, smoothing out the expressions, edging them toward Aezthena coldness. Anais scowled. The implant was annoying him now, too. He couldn't have a decent argument like this.
"Turn around," he demanded. "And don't look mentally, either."
Por complied without a word, drawing up her legs and turning in her chair so her back was to him.
He stopped, his attention arrested. Gods, she was not what he'd expected in so many ways, but in her posture, the way she carried herself, she was everything he'd studied. Effortlessly elegant and poised. Her neck curved gently into her broad back. Black curls frayed around the knot of her hair, quivering with her breaths.
He had an urge to reach out and run a hand along her neck. Feel her skin, see if it was as smooth and soft as it looked. Tuck her hair back into its knot and work his way around to her face, with its gorgeous planes—his body began to heat.
Anais shook himself and shoved those thoughts away. What was he doing? Was he that tired to be so reckless? This couldn't be a dalliance. This was Barenin Lyr.
Had she felt his thoughts? He'd told her not to look mentally. He hoped she hadn't seen that spike in his emotions.
Anais pulled the anger around himself again. He let it build, another shield around him.
He tapped the implant off, waited impatiently through the disorientation of the shift, in the vulnerability of his own skin, then tapped it back on again into the visage of the guard he'd worn the night before. That was, at least, somewhat safe. And excusable if someone discovered him there.
His hands were no longer bone-white but a natural, human brown. "Fine. Turn around."
Por glanced over her shoulder, then settled herself like she had before. More composed. Maybe a little more wary. She surveyed him, face impassive, though not quite Aezthena cold.
His earlier question, why he should trust her, hung like a wall between them, and Anais found himself not wanting to break it just yet. Instead, he shifted tact.
"Can I ask you something?"
He gestured at her. "You are so...human. And yet, not. I've met Aezthena who were projecting an illusion of humanity, and it was too perfect. Like in a good holo drama when the acting is heightened enough that it feels real, but it's a stylized version of the truth. But that's not you. I get the impression that you actually are breathing normally, that your heartbeat is normal. Human, I mean. That you have red blood in your veins, not that silver silicate mix. That you understand and feel as a human would."
Nothing in Por's posture changed, but Anais sensed her heightened tension.
"I do feel as a human, mostly," she said. "When I'm focused human, I am...human. Mostly human, as human as I can be. My Aezthena senses and abilities are dulled. So are my Aezthena emotions."
"I didn't know Aezthena could do that. Could—do you shift your actual biological state? I thought Aezthena were bio-synthetic?"
"We are," Por said. "And I am, when I'm focused Aezthena. But I'm not like normal Aezthena. I'm not, in the most technical sense, truly Aezthena, any more than I'm truly human. I exist in between, able to move between states at will, or as Kaireyeh, the universe, wills it."
She stared at him. "Now that's something I have not told anyone in over two hundred years."
Anais blinked, taking all of that in, fitting it with what he knew of Barenin Lyr.
She went on, "I know you're wondering about my gender, too. In most visible records, I present culturally and physically male. And for some of my life, I identify as some variety of male. Right now, I am more female than not. Other times, I'm neutral, agender, dual- or tri-gendered, or other-gendered, any number of genders both identified and non-identified."
Anais took that in, too.
Por's quirk of a smile returned. "Humanity has collectively decided I'm male, though, and I've never disavowed them of the notion. It affords me certain...freedoms." She waved down at herself, her human self. "Even you, who've studied me with meticulous care, didn't recognize me."
Anais' lips drew tight. "The face paint."
"It obscures, yes. But we both know identity runs much deeper than that." She held his gaze. And he felt again, even with the implant on and fairly certain she wasn't trying to see through it, that she saw too much. Too much that was more than skin deep.
He looked down at his hands, at the pale geometric patterns on the rug.
He was beginning to feel an intimacy, a confidence with Por. He wasn't sure he liked it. Even while a part of him thrilled to it, this strange mixture of hero worship and intensely confusing attraction.
Anais swallowed on a dry throat and poured himself another glass of water. He needed a clear head. Barenin Lyr had brought him here for a reason and it wasn't for companionship. It couldn't be. There were far too many other factors at play. This illusion of intimacy had to be a diversion, or a way to get him to trust her. She'd even said as much.
"Why does it matter what I think?" he asked. "You're ageless. You could demand an audience with the most important people on any world—even among the Aezthena—and have it within minutes. Why are you interested in me? Why did you bring me here?"
Why had Por shown him her genetic crest, opened herself up like that? It was such a private thing, among those who had them. Seeing someone's crest on their hand while they used a halo weapon was one thing, as most people could mentally obscure the crest, just like they could control the shape of the weapon. But showing someone the actual clear crest was an act of trust, of vulnerability.
So much more for the person who sat in front of him. A genetic crest couldn't lie, and it was one thing Aezthena with all their power of illusion had never been able to fake—not with all its swirling subtleties. You could tell, in your gut, if a crest was real. And though her crest didn't say Barenin Lyr, it was damn close. It said more. And so many overlays of loyalties was the most telling thing of all. He'd met only one other person who had more than one loyalty on their crest, and that person had been a spy.
This person, he was certain, was not. No one could be loyal to that many governments, and he'd caught glimpses of more than a few obsolete sigils among those that had drawn themselves before they'd faded into the whole.
Anais shifted in his chair. Genetic crests didn't lie, and maybe it was possible that Por had shown him an Aezthena illusion, another Aezthena pretending to be Barenin Lyr...but he didn't think so. He'd learned over the years to trust his gut, and his gut said right now that the real Barenin Lyr had given him an unprecedented view into who she really was.
"Why you? Because I think you're a lot like me," Por said quietly. The impassive mask she'd put up was cracking. "You go from place to place, becoming other people to do your jobs. You like playing with other identities. You prefer it to your own. And you are good at it. And, you don't have many solid connections because of it."
Anais' skin crawled. "I've had relationships." This was getting far too personal.
Por clasped her hands and leaned toward him. "I need your help. I want you to trust me and help me of your own free will."
Anais barked a laugh. "What could I possibly do that you can't? And how is it free will if you orchestrated my coming here? You studied me, you manipulated me. Dangled the identity implant in front of me, then set up this job so I would come here—"
"No," Por said. "I'm not your client. That's why I need your help. I believe there is another Aezthena on Denz Dayar, and that Aezthena might be behind the research into high-efficiency Kaireyeh generators that's sparked this internal conflict. Do you understand how dangerous such technology can be? With Kaireyeh a part of the Dayarans' religion, in a way unique among the worlds, they use it technologically in ways even I haven't seen before."
Por stopped to let that sink in.
Anais suppressed a shiver. And Barenin would have seen much. Would have seen almost everything after so many years of life.
If Kaireyeh tech that humans didn't know how to handle was bad, Kaireyeh tech that Aezthena didn't know how to handle was very bad. And there was another Aezthena on Denz Dayar? Gods. What had he fallen into?
"So...you get me to come here and impersonate you as the contract king," Anais said. "Why? If it was to fool another Aezthena, no one who was actually Aezthena would believe I was you. I can't do whatever you do in speaking mind to mind." He waved a finger between them.
"You could, with a little more augmentation. Your long acclimation with your memory implant would make that transition fairly easy."
Anais shot up from his chair, senses spiking. He pushed past his initial rush of fear of her mentioning his augments to the more pressing concern. "You're not making me Aezthena. You said you want my help of my own free will—"
Por made a quelling gesture. "Of course I'm not making you Aezthena. But I can temporarily enhance your mind so that while the identity implant gives an outward impression of me, your augmented mind will give a mental impression as well. I can teach you enough to hold your mental walls tight, project just enough of my own mental signature, that most Aezthena would not be able to tell without close examination. Because I'm known to pop up in random places, and because I've taken contracts as contract rulers before, another Aezthena likely wouldn't push the boundaries of politeness and examine too closely."
Anais's legs felt weak. He reached down behind him for the arms of the chair, perching on the edge of the seat. "Most Aezthena, you said. So some would see through me. And why not just be yourself? Why not do—" he waved a hand "whatever you do—to be Aezthena? Take over the contract from me. I can even program the implant to play Por for a while, until whatever you need to do is done."
Por shook her head. "There is something else I need to check here. And I'm not ready yet to resume an Aezthena focus."
Anais kicked at the table leg. Nervous energy. Too much nervous energy, and he'd been too contained these last two days. It all wanted to come out. "So, I'm...what. Bait? The scapegoat? A distraction while you maneuver behind the scenes?" Of course he was. How could he be anything but a pawn in an Aezthena's plans?
Por held up her hands. "I won't deny it. But this is important. I'm deeply troubled by what's happening in the rural provinces, and I don't want to tip my hand yet. This may not be what I suspect, but if it is, I need more than myself on task with this. If you are Aezthena-augmented, you can assume part of the functions of an Aezthena as well, and we can work quickly and efficiently."
Anais rubbed his face. This was crazy. And he didn't believe for a second that Por didn't have all kinds of ulterior motives. He was already this deep in an Aezthena mess, should he go any further?
Why was he even thinking about it?
Because Por knew him. Por had obviously studied him. Por knew which buttons to push—appealing to his insatiable curiosity for new experiences, new ways to play a role. His hubris at knowing he could play such a role and pull it off, and his pathological need to try. Like he'd done in coming here, playing the role of Barenin Lyr, which he was doing well, thank you very much. And then there was the chance to know what it felt like to be an Aezthena without actually becoming one. Who ever had the chance to discover that?
And...to work with Barenin Lyr. The real Barenin Lyr. Actually work with her.
He kicked the table again, shaking the pitcher. This time it was less nervous energy and more childish petulance that he'd been played. Was still being played. And what was it about Por that brought out that side of him, too? That sulky kid he'd thought was gone years ago. That wasn't who he was now.
Por caught the pitcher to still its movement. "This is important," she said, holding his gaze.
What she was really saying was: You know who I am. You know what I've done in my life. You might not trust me, but you know I ultimately work for good. And if I say this is important, you can be damn well sure it's important.
Anais swallowed and broke her gaze. She was appealing as well to the side of him he so often tried to deny. The side that had his stomach in knots over the thought of the Dayarans blowing themselves up with Kaireyeh weapons. And that he might, just possibly, be able to stop it if he tried hard enough. The side that always, inevitably, got involved in local affairs, got emotionally invested, no matter how hard he fought not to. He usually left only ruins behind him—emotional or otherwise. But this time, here, with Barenin, he might have a chance to stop those ruins. To turn the tide of lives for the better.
And why in the worlds would she trust him, a liar and a thief, for anything like that? Was he her last choice? A last-ditch effort? "Gods. What do you even want to do to me? Put another implant in my head? You said it's temporary?"
Por sat back, smoothing down the stray curls that had escaped her knot. Her slim fingers deftly redid the knot. "I'll entangle both your neural functions and those of your memory implant into Kaireyeh in the pattern of an Aezthena mind. It's something I can do mentally, it would require no surgery. And it would be temporary because your mind and body wouldn't be able to sustain it for more than a few days without serious consequences. Be assured, though, that I would not let that happen. I would restore you to your original state, and you'll be free to carry on as you choose."
Anais watched her tuck the final strands back into her knot, then refold her hands in her lap.
"I...but...isn't that how you make Aezthena?" he asked. "That sounds like something you'd do to turn someone into an Aezthena."
"It's part of the process," Por acknowledged. "But again, it would be temporary. No physical changes, which would be permanent. And because your mind and body are not bio-synthetically enhanced, I would not give you the full range of Aezthena mental capabilities. You couldn't handle them. As it is, you will have a hell of a hangover coming out of this when we're done, but the enhancement will be enough for our purposes."
Despite himself, despite the insanity of this, Anais was intrigued—in a horrified way, but intrigued. Barenin knew his buttons.
He shifted in his seat.
"When would you do this?" he asked cautiously.
"Now," Por said. "Sooner is better. You'll leave for the provinces in two days. I would need all the time we had to train you—"
Anais swore, sitting up straight. He wasn't ready for this. This was going too deep, too fast. He was still wrapping his head around being a contract ruler. Around trying to divert a war. He was still wrapping his head around Barenin Lyr.
But, the thrill of the job was crawling up inside him again, pushing everything else to the side. If a plan went crazy, and they usually did, he improvised. He always improvised. It was what made life fun, and bearable. It was these moment-to-moment decisions, the full immersion in a new role, that made him come alive. It all worked out in the end. He made it work out.
He could still fulfill his client's job, too, couldn't he? His best chance of finding the tech from the sketches had to be in Edin's research facilities.
Anais eyed Por. She'd told him the night before to carry on with his job. But he knew a lot more now than he had then. Maybe the question wasn't could he fulfill his client's job, but should he?
"And my client?" he asked. "What about the fee I was promised?"
A hint of Por's smirk returned. "Do you imagine I've lived twelve thousand years on empty accounts?"
Anais felt a surge of excitement so sharp it made his hands and face numb. "You speak my language, Por."
Por snorted, then regained her seriousness. "I fear your clients might also be Aezthena. Who have also not lived as long as they have on empty accounts."
Anais curled his fingers into his palms. The Aezthena seldom hired humans to do anything more than the most basic jobs, the ones they felt were beneath them. But yes, that thought had occurred to him. It always occurred to him when the price was high enough. He'd thought it an acceptable risk in coming to Denz Dayar. But now, knowing about the tech he'd been hired to steal...he didn't like that at all.
"This is saving-the-universe kind of stuff, or it might be," Por said, "as ridiculous as that sounds."
Saving-the-universe kind of stuff.
A different and more desperate kind of thrill hummed through him. Part of the thrill he'd felt in coming to Denz Dayar. In playing the role of Barenin Lyr. In hoping that he might, in some way, learn to be better.
"All right," he said, a little breathless. "I'm curious. And willing to try what you have in mind."
12: Good People
Por rose. "Just so you know, this will not be comfortable. Not painful, but not comfortable. And as I said before, when I reverse the process, it will also be unpleasant. It might take a day or so for you to fully reorient to yourself again."
Anais had the feeling that "unpleasant" was an understatement. He gripped the arms of his chair. "As long as you won't abandon me mid-job."
She smiled tightly. "I won't. Now. I need you to drop the identity implant."
Anais froze. No. No, that he couldn't do. Not with her looking.
"I promise it won't be for long," she said, voice gentling.
He didn't move. His pulse was pounding in his ears. He reached for the glass of water, his mouth suddenly too dry.
He looked up at her, meeting those deep, kynblue eyes. He expected pity, and he was ready to flinch and draw back if he saw it. Instead, her gaze was sharp, calculating.
"I understand," she said. "I do understand."
For a moment, his world tottered on its axis. No one understood him. No one ever had. No one could. Not his parent, not every revolving face that had come through his life since his parent's death. No one knew him, and that was the point.
He didn't think she was reading his thoughts. It wasn't that kind of look. And whatever she knew of his past, it wasn't that kind of look, either. In her eyes was a searing knowledge of her own self. Of how she viewed herself.
It was a look familiar to him. He'd seen it in his own eyes, on the very few occasions he'd looked closer in the mirror rather than surveying his face for a new round of cosmetics and appliances to cover it all up. It was the look of someone haunted by things most people took for granted. Someone who could never fully escape themself.
Por had said, "Why you? Because I think you're a lot like me."
She'd said that, and he'd heard it, but he saw it now. That shared knowing, shared experience. Shared haunting.
He drew a shaky breath, then stood, gripping the chair back.
Por waited until she saw something in his face, some signal maybe, or permission, then approached.
"This will feel disorienting at first," she said, voice calm and soothing. "I will speak to you with my mind and guide you to set your boundaries and walls, then we can proceed from there."
Anais felt his stomach floating. And it didn't help that he caught Por's scent as she neared him. A light and shimmering perfume that reminded him of honey and summer wine.
Por's skin paled. Not completely Aezthena bone-white, but it took on a metallic sheen. Her kynblue eyes flecked heavily with gold and for a moment sheened golden light. Her black curls silvered.
It should have been like looking in a mirror, as Anais had worn those features for the last two weeks. As Por shifted to a more Aezthena appearance, the indigo paint on her face faded, absorbed into her skin—the work of her Aezthena nanites, he guessed—showing her sharply handsome features beneath. High cheekbones, angular lips, and strong, narrow nose. Planes to make an artist swoon. And he'd gotten them right with his own imitation. But it wasn't the same. Technically, yes, but not the personality. Not the same person. He wore the mask, but this was the soul.
He felt suddenly and completely chagrined.
Swallowing hard, and not taking his gaze from hers, Anais reached up to tap off the identity implant. He felt the shift and then held very still. If she hadn't before, Por now saw him at his genetic default.
Ordinary. Lank, unkempt brown hair. Medium-brown skin, a shade or two lighter than Por's had been a few moments ago. Narrow eyes, and the scruff of an unshaven face. He wore an on-ship dark blue jumpsuit that smelled like it hadn't been washed for a few days, because it hadn't. Even his scuffed leather boots were untied. This was the state that the implant kept in stasis for him while he was someone else. Anyone else.
"Thank you," Por said, her voice Aezthena-flat. But not, he sensed, mocking. And not unkind.
She reached for Anais' head.
He instinctively jerked back, and Por hesitated.
Anais stood, heart pounding. Why was he hesitating? Because she'd have to touch him? Because he didn't want to do whatever she was about to do?
His brow furrowed. "I don't know who you think I am, but...I'm not good." He wasn't sure that was what he'd meant to say. Fear rose with bile in his throat. He wasn't sure of anything. He was still calling her Por, and he'd been lulled by that spark of recognition between them, but this was Barenin Lyr. Nearly immortal. Aezthena. A god on some worlds. And she'd singled him out for whatever they were about to do next. She'd sought him out and chosen him. That was...terrifying.
Por turned her palm up. "I'm focused 63.89% Aezthena at this moment. You need to know that, because you need to know I'm not deliberately reading your thoughts. But my senses are heightened and I'm acutely aware of the nuances playing out on your face, in your body language. And though I try to avoid it, sometimes with certain people I can't quite shield from the flow of their emotions and surface thoughts. I'm sorry for that."
She lowered her hand. "You think I'm a good person? And who are you that I singled you out? I'm not good, Anais. You've studied me. You should know that. I'm on my own quest for a redemption I'm almost certain I'll never find. You don't have to be good to change things, hopefully for the better. You only have to be willing."
Anais' eyes stung with sudden hot tears. And rage surged up again. No. She was manipulating him again, playing on his vulnerabilities. On his emotions. He was bare to her, he'd dropped his implant. And still she was manipulating him. She had to be.
He swiped at his eyes. "No, you're not a good person. You show everyone this saintly face but you lie and manipulate your way through everything, don't you? You take whatever side suits you, and use whoever suits your purpose, and then you just leave destruction in your wake, except no one knows it was you. Reputation in tact. Like the Dayarans. You haven't stopped whatever's going on here. You're using them, like you're using me."
Por didn't blink. Didn't argue. Didn't react at all.
Anais gasped for breath, fingers fluttering. He knew he was panicking and he hated it—he rarely panicked. He'd trained himself out of it years ago, but he'd done far too much of it since coming here. He tilted his head back, gripping the chair back with both hands now, room wavering. The air just wouldn't come.
Por took two steps and pressed a hand to his cheek. The touch was cool, the texture of her skin unnaturally smooth. He hooded his eyes and leaned into the touch. Por's calm flooded into him, washing back the panic.
His eyes opened wide. She was calming his thoughts. Anais knocked Por's hand away and was aware that he could only do it because she let him. He'd just touched an Aezthena. Been aggressive toward an Aezthena. Shouldn't he be more scared? "Don't do that to me. Don't manipulate me."
Por didn't step back. She stared steadily into his eyes, her Aezthena eyes faintly glowing. "I chose you on your skills, on your personality, on your merit. You are uniquely qualified to do what I ask, and I don't take lightly what I'm asking you to do or your risk in it. There is, I suspect, an Aezthena faction that wants to use the Kaireyeh generator technology developed by this province to do something that might have devastating consequences for the universe as a whole. Yes, I'll use everything at my command to see that doesn't happen. Including you. Including myself."
In this more Aezthena state, Por's jauntier personality had bled off into this driving barrage of cold statements. It was a familiar rhythm, one he'd studied and used himself in playing Barenin Lyr. But in this moment, the change didn't feel reassuring. Not when he saw the contrast between this and her human self. Not when she was about to do something similar to him.
He tried not to blink with Por so close. "Can't the Aezthena just get this tech for themselves?"
"No. This world uses Kaireyeh in its worship. There is Kaireyeh tech in so many things here, and there is a certain...protection...around this world. I set up a protective barrier around Denz Dayar centuries ago that would make it hard for any Aezthena to bring Kaireyeh technology back through it. I wanted this world's use of Kaireyeh to develop naturally, in a healthy way so we can observe and learn from it, and it has—until now. I came back to live here nine years ago when I got an alert that someone breached my system. That an Aezthena had made it onto the world but had not gone out again. My system is still in place, and other Aezthena might be trying to breach it now, but my barrier system constricts my ability to sense Aezthena minds beyond it. I can only assume that, with the job you were hired to do, this Aezthena faction decided on a low-tech way to circumvent my barrier. A human can pass through it unharmed, with both technology and knowledge of that technology in tact."
Anais struggled to keep up with the onslaught of information. He waved a hand. "But you set me up. You helped me find the implant, or manipulated the events to get me here—"
Por's gaze intensified. "Yes. Because you're not a good person, and neither am I. But I care about what happens to the universe, and I think you do, too. You've never killed anyone, though most in your profession have. You've quietly donated large portions of your earnings to medical aid funds and education on poor stations, and even larger portions to stop human trafficking. You've stayed behind on jobs to finish out situations that might otherwise have collapsed the life of the person you were impersonating, or risked yourself to save people you didn't know. You might not be a good person, but you know who you are where it counts, on the inside." Por tapped at her chest. "And so do I. I need your help, Anais. I don't think any other human can do what I'm asking, not at the moment I need you. If this technology gets off Denz Dayar, and if it gets into the wrong Aezthena hands, or even human hands for that matter...this is one of those times I do desperate things to prevent the loss of trillions of lives."
Anais tried not to wilt under the intensity of her stare. He knew he was stalling. He'd already said yes to what she'd asked him to do. And despite it all, despite her machinations, he still wanted to do this. Still wanted to help. Even with these stakes, especially with these stakes. Even if he was terrified that he wouldn't be up to playing on her level, with the fates of—gods help him, it was only growing more daunting—trillions on the line. He didn't think that number was an exaggeration, not with her in this state. So what other choice did he have?
He didn't fully trust her. He couldn't. But he did trust her sincerity, and maybe that had to be enough.
She reached for his head again.
And panic rose again.
He made a desperate stab for levity, something to break up the tension coiling inside him. He pasted on a parody of a smile. "Should I be worried that you've been stalking me all this time?"
Por arched manicured brows. That had come out more accusatory than he'd liked. With more of his own fear than he'd liked.
Por's lips parted into that almost-smile, that same smile he'd perfected in his own portrayal of Barenin Lyr. "Should I be worried you've been stalking me?"
Anais breathed something that might have been a laugh. Might have.
Por reached, and he closed his eyes and let her.
Her cool fingers pressed gently into his hair. He dug fingernails into his palms at the thought of her having to touch his greasy hair, but he said nothing. And neither did Por.
He waited, counting beneath his breath, for something to happen. But they just stood there, Por unmoving, possibly not even breathing.
Anais opened his eyes and found Por staring somewhere above him, her eyes unfocused. He started to ask if she was doing anything—
His mind exploded into sound and color and smell and touch and too much light, too much of everything. He felt the texture of his jumpsuit, gritty and abrasive. He heard Por's heart, an inhumanly slow drum. He heard his own, racing too fast. He smelled his own sweat and sour fear, and the titanium-musky smell of Por beneath her perfume. The lights of the room blinded him, and he squeezed his eyes shut, but the colors and lights continued like fireworks in his head.
He heard voices. So many voices, all jumbled like walking through a crowded station thoroughfare, except every one of them was as loud as his own, all of them urgent. He felt emotions—annoyance, rage, happiness, contentment, resentment, loathing. Were they his own? There were too many emotions, changing too quickly. He heard signals, transmissions—not the words but the digital waves themselves. Screeching noises, all in his head. His hands curled and his back arched and he tried to scream.
One voice came to him, slightly louder than the rest. He clung to its familiarity.
Anais, listen to my voice. Come toward my voice. Let the others fade.
He found himself in a dream-like trance, walking through the station corridors of his mind. The walls were gray-green and filthy, covered in fresh and half-scrubbed graffiti in ten or more languages. He could smell food vendors ahead, a chaotic mix of human and alien spices. Anais waded through the thick crowds—mostly human, but with a gilled Gan-jethe over there, an orange-ruffed Bagatar to the left, and, gods, even the telepathic, intuitive pair of a winged Eshi and his human-but-not-quite-human partner. Then he saw Por ahead of him, fully Aezthena and dressed in white Aezthena-cut clothes, a knee-length tunic split into panels at the waist and flowing trousers. Por, in her enigmatic Aezthena grace, stood out among the sea of others, human and alien alike. She was a singular entity in the universe.
I'm shielding your mind from anything outside the palace, Por said, but I'll help you build your walls so you can pull them tighter. Here, take my hand. It will strengthen our connection.
Anais reached Por and took her hand. It was frigid. But then so was his own. He looked down at himself and saw Aezthena-white hands. And he didn't panic. He couldn't. His thoughts just would not go in that direction. He looked back up at Por.
Focus on me, Por said. On my voice. Let everyone else fade. Observe them becoming colorless and insubstantial.
His surroundings dimmed. He gripped Por's hand as tightly as he'd held his parent's as a child.
They were alone in the station corridor. The people were gone—no, some were still there, but now as ghost-like outlines. Faces with Dayaran paint in various ranks and intensities. His gaze lingered on one, and a person's voice came into focus, a running litany of anxiety about what food they should prepare for an Aezthena king, would anything possibly be good enough, and what if they didn't like it?
Anais shuddered and focused back on Por. Those people, those are minds? he asked. That sounded like a servant.
Por nodded. You can listen to them if you wish to. But I recommend not doing so. Not only does it violate privacy, it takes months to master Aezthena mental abilities, and you only have a subset.
And the aliens? Anais asked. Are they also on Denz Dayar? I thought it was almost only humans here. They don't like human outsiders, let alone aliens.
Por didn't quite frown. No. They're not on Denz Dayar. Not everyone in your mind is a person in the now—some are memories. Some are aspects of you. You'll learn to tell which is which. Now. Focus on me again. Focus on me, and imagine I'm a mirror. I am not me, I am you. Shift this image of me until it is you standing here, and only you.
Anais tried to do as she said and focused on Por, but though the edges of the image wavered, Por remained.
He felt a ripple of something from Por, cold and alien. Was it an emotion? It felt like frustration, and yet at the same time it was not. It was a logical disturbance, an unappreciation of errors. He was feeling Por's thoughts. Aezthena thoughts.
I need to play the role, Anais said. I can't be me. And I can't be like—he gestured at Por—but I can be...he hesitated.
You can be Barenin Lyr. Your version, in any case. Por nodded. All right. Then use that as your mirror.
It was as Anais had practiced, schooling himself into the role of Barenin Lyr in his ship cabin on the way here. He saw the image in front of him as a holo mirror and made the small tweaks his mind found to make the image match his image of himself as Barenin Lyr.
He turned, and the image turned. He spoke, and the image spoke.
Por? he asked. Is that still you?
No answer. He looked around for Por but didn't see her. And the image was definitely not Por—that mask held his soul, not hers.
Anais opened his eyes. In the blue-walled meeting room in the palace, Por stood in front of him, not as Aezthena as in the dream-like vision, but not human, either.
Por? he asked. His voice sounded flat. Too flat. But he hadn't even opened his mouth.
Again, he tried to panic and found he couldn't. His mind spooled up like it sometimes did with his memory implant, searching for data, collating raw information, but this time the information wasn't just static memory files. This time the information wound in logic trees, and loops, and hypotheses, and facts, and probabilities. On and on and on.
Por gripped his arm. Her touch was light, but he could feel and calculate the exact pressure of her fingers. The temperature of her skin. He felt the emotions of her uncertainty through the touch.
He looked down at his hand and saw it was his human brown hand, and he reeled at that improbability when he'd just seen himself as Aezthena bone-pale.
"Turn on the implant," Por said, and Anais flinched. Her voice was too loud. She shifted to mental speech. Tap the implant to Barenin Lyr.
Anais reached up and tapped the implant sequence. The world unfocused and refocused. He looked down at his Aezthena-pale, silver-veined hands and let out a slow breath.
The light was still too bright. He felt the heavy robes he now wore again, felt every millimeter of texture and weight. But he could look around. He could see without wanting to scream at the brightness of all the color and sensation and light.
He found himself gripping Por's arm. "I...that was..."
Por vented a laugh. Had she been as nervous as he'd been? His mind calculated the probabilities of that and came up with a range of sixty-three to seventy-nine percent positive. He watched as her skin darkened back to its human color, her eyes returning to their vivid kynblue.
He found himself analyzing his attraction to her with one part of his mind that he couldn't shut off while another part of him probed at the edges of the station corridor in his mind—his mental walls—and yet another part of him cataloged every crevice, every pore, every curve on Por's face. She wore no face paint. That had been absorbed when she'd focused more Aezthena. He saw her face clearly now, the strong lines and soft edges. So much more clearly than he could have seen it moments before.
"Did you give me Aezthena senses?" he asked.
"No, but you now have heightened awareness of your human senses."
His whole body was buzzing. His mind processing so much input. Cataloging everything. It was amazing, he found himself thinking, fear slipping away. Was this what Aezthena felt like all the time? And how much more could he do and experience and be—how much more money could he make—if this was his life all the time?
"You are not Aezthena," Por said sharply.
Anais' attention snapped back to her.
"You might feel a simulation of Aezthena emotions, and your thoughts might be moving too fast to process human emotions, but those emotions are still there. You are still human. There will be a toll, both mental and physical, when I return your mind to its original state—recoverable, but not pleasant. This is a simulation of an Aezthena mind, like Aezthena simulate humanity. You do not want to be one of us. Trust me. You'll understand that once this is over."
Anais' head throbbed with sudden pain, and he pressed his fingers to his temples. "Should I have a headache?" His words slurred together.
"Your mind is still processing, integrating with your previous patterns and your biological systems. I suggest you rest. Order that you not be disturbed. Tomorrow, I will train you as best as I can, but now, you must rest."
Right. Right, he was the contract king. Here on Denz Dayar, he was Barenin Lyr. For a moment, even wearing the identity implant's profile of Barenin, he'd forgotten he had a role to play.
Anais pressed both hands to his head. "My mind's all—I can't rest. My mind won't stop. There's too much." He shook his head as if hoping that would fix it.
"Here," Por said, and Anais felt a soft intrusion on his thoughts, a gentle knock.
He answered it.
The thought Por sent him was like a software package. He opened it, and it unfolded into a pre-set knowledge of three different calming exercises to do in succession. It was somewhere between math and meditation.
"It might take an hour or two before you calm enough to try these," Por said. "But then sit or lie down and run through them until you sleep. You aren't Aezthena—you need to eat and drink and sleep. Remember that."
Anais nodded. His attention strayed back to the calculations running through his mind. Memories of a kiss from two years ago—a shuttle pilot who'd smelled like grease and tasted like the orange candy they'd always chewed. Memories of the cramped station quarters he'd shared with his parent as a small child. The hours he'd spent alone, waiting for his parent to come home. Afraid that his parent wouldn't come home.
Por touched his cheek, pulling him back. "If you need me, summon me. Summon Por. If you find yourself lost or feel your walls slipping, go back to the mental corridor. Empty it of people. Build yourself in the mirror until it's only you in the corridor."
Anais nodded. He understood. It was logical that Por couldn't help him anymore, not until he'd finished integrating with this new mental interface to reality.
Por straightened the collar of one of Anais' under-robes, tugged at the lace on his sleeves, and brushed his swaying, tiny silver braids back behind his ears. She reached for the crown discarded on the chair and gently placed it on his head. "Now. Go out, speak only if you must, get to your rooms. Play the part. It should be easier for you to play now than it has been."
Anais gave a soft snort that felt odd with his mind running in ten directions. Human. Yes, beyond all this, he was still human.
He turned to Por and touched her cheek as she had his, his emotions crystallizing. They weren't quite human feelings. But they weren't not human, either. "Thank you. For the chance to understand this."
Por sucked in a breath. Her own emotions spiked at the touch. Something he couldn't read. But he felt the pounding of her heart.
"Just...go rest," she said, voice thicker than it should have been. "We'll speak more tomorrow."
Anais nodded, pulling the edges of his role around himself. Por was right, he hardly had to go through the steps to dim his emotions. Now Barenin Lyr again, more Barenin than he'd ever been before, he stepped out into the palace corridor.