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.
14: Leaving the Palace
Anais strode with a retinue of governors and guards through the corridors toward the palace landing pads. Just ahead, Ijuka led the two feuding governors and their picks for the inspection tour. The order was Por's idea. There was a psychological threat that if any of the governors misbehaved, the Aezthena king behind them would be the first to see it. Anais filed that tactic away for future use. Around them, palace guards formed a moving perimeter, eight of which would accompany them in the flyer to Farian's and Edin's provinces on the other side of the planet.
Por kept pace beside Anais, elegant as always. She had small sapphires woven into her hair, sparking in the soft corridor light. Bringing out the blue in her eyes. Anais tried not to notice. Tried not to stare.
He himself was dressed as usual for this role. Even jaunts across the planet, he'd found, did not free him of the heavy and stifling robes, though he didn't let the discomfort show on his face.
He wasn't annoyed. Not in the human sense. He was aware, vaguely, of human emotions below the surface of his thoughts, but the cold—and not-so-alien after a few days with them—Aezthena emotions threaded through his thoughts. That had been an interesting and unsettling discovery. Unlike what most humans assumed, the Aezthena didn't lack emotions. They felt deeply, but on different levels. Those levels had threatened to drown him until Por had shown him how to loop his thoughts into separate logic trees. To set aside anything he didn't need at the moment. Same with his senses. He felt everything too much—but he didn't have to. He did keep that vague awareness on his human emotions, though. Watching them, trying to interpret them through this different lens of reality. If he kept watch on them, he didn't think he'd become fully sociopathic.
He wasn't nervous, either. Could he even be nervous now? Probes into his subsurface human emotions couldn't answer that. But he did feel a deep apprehension of the lack of solid variables to parse.
His walls were tight. Por had checked them exhaustively the day before until he could hold them well and keep his own identity hidden. Project just enough of the mental illusion that he was, in fact, the Aezthena Barenin Lyr.
He was going into a situation where he might come into contact with another Aezthena. The odds of that contact, he'd calculated, were 83.983%. He also knew, even with Por training him intensely the day before, he was nowhere near prepared for this.
You will do well, Por said in his thoughts. Por had taught him how to hold a pinhole conversation through his mental walls.
What if the other Aezthena threatens me? Anais asked, his mental voice flatly calm. They had been over this, but still the thoughts rose, insistent. Should I let them capture me? Will you come if they take me? I don't want to be turned Aezthena.
He examined the calm with which he'd asked those uncalm statements, trying to assess the full boundaries of the matrix between his human and simulated Aezthena selves.
We don't change our prisoners, Por said. A bitter taste came through the mental link. Amusement, perhaps. One of Por's human emotions that he might have easily identified before but could only guess at now.
For a stretched moment, his mind caught on the irony that she, a real Aezthena, was more human than he, a simulated one. And then he tried to puzzle out the intricacies of what she'd told him about her ability to focus into mostly-human and mostly-Aezthena states. How had that happened? What made her unique among the Aezthena? He didn't have enough variables, and was about to ask, when Por said, Keep your mind on task, as we practiced. I will protect you as best I can.
As best she could. Anais wasn't sure if that was supposed to be reassuring. But he refocused his thoughts on the task ahead, letting everything extraneous—and there were a lot of extraneous things he wanted to think about—stream by him.
They passed through a guarded doorway and onto a walkway that led to the raised, circular landing pads. Their lander squatted like an overstuffed beetle, attended by a bustling crew. With his senses heightened, and not skilled enough to filter all of it, Anais struggled not to squint in the brightness of sun on metal. Barenin Lyr wouldn't squint.
I wish you'd come with me, Anais said.
But they'd been over that, too. The other Aezthena likely knew Por was Barenin. She might not be recognizable to most humans, but an Aezthena would know about her ability to focus human and see through her obscuring face paint. The other Aezthena might not know, though, that Por knew they were here.
And that was the game. Anais was both scout and provocation. Identify the other Aezthena and let them identify him—either as Barenin Lyr, or as himself. The response would tell Por much of what she needed to know of who this other was and their intentions.
His other mission was to observe what was happening in Edin's province. To gather information on why her research was provoking the other governors into taking sides. Por hadn't been able to go herself, and not just because of the threat of another Aezthena. There was a concentration of Kaireyeh energy in Edin's province that might do unpredictable things to Por's human focus and expose her as Aezthena to the Dayarans.
His own objective was to see what connection Edin's research had with the tech he'd been hired to steal. Because he was certain there was a connection. And he wanted to know just how much he'd been played.
Of all the probable scenarios of these missions, the one Anais had calculated most and was still assessing was his meeting the other Aezthena. He was certain he would live through it. Aezthena didn't go around attacking each other, even if they were enemies—another myth much lauded in holodramas that Por had shown him was untrue. The Aezthena maneuvered. They didn't use their abilities for violence except as a last resort. Weaponized Kaireyeh, even if wielded in an Aezthena's mind, would still warp and destroy space and time around it. It would warp the minds of those who wielded it, taking days, months, or years to fully recover. If the wielder ever recovered.
That the Aezthena had limits to their abilities and how they could use them, and that the power they wielded wasn't entirely in their control, was an unsettling discovery. But in his mission now, it was also vastly comforting.
"My king," Ijuka said, "it's time to board the lander."
Anais started from his thoughts. "Go on, get the others on board. I would like a word with Governor Por."
Ijuka nodded and herded the rest of the group into the waiting craft while Anais turned to Por.
His mind flicked through possible things to say, but he discarded them. He was still connected to her, could still feel some small part of her emotions, but she was already backing from that link. They'd need to sever it for this mission to work. He looked between Por's eyes, trying to read the expression there. Trying to gauge her intentions, though it was hard, so much harder than it should have been for him, with his mind entangled in this simulation of Aezthena thought. He was doing this for her, because she'd asked him to. Because she'd said it was important.
Come if I call? he asked, a tentative demand. She couldn't monitor him directly, as the other Aezthena would pick that up immediately, but he could reach her if he needed by casting out a mental link like they shared now.
Por bowed. "My king. You had best board. Safe travels, and I look forward to your return."
It wasn't an answer, or was it? Was she saying that of course he would return? Had Por even heard the question? He couldn't feel her, now. She'd cut the connection between them.
"My king?" Ijuka called, now at the open lander hatch. The others were waiting.
Anais licked dry lips—an acceptable Barenin gesture—then nodded to Por.
The lander's engines whined to life, hot wind rippling the air and pulling at his braids. But the crown held everything in place. The crown moved him onward, that responsibility that he'd taken on himself. The crown made him think that he could do this, because Por felt it necessary for the safety of this world and humanity. And if Barenin Lyr thought that, he had to as well. Because right now, he was Barenin Lyr.
Seated on board the lander, Anais cast a last look through the small windows at Por, who was still watching him. Who held his gaze even as the lander lifted.
Trust yourself, Por whispered in his thoughts, then her presence was gone. He'd thought she'd already cut the connection, but maybe not. Anais scrambled in the station corridor in his mind, probed at the edges of his walls, desperate for her to still be there. But he felt no trace of her.
The lander banked and shot upward, leaving the palace, and Por, behind.
15: Rumors of War
The two hour and twenty-eight-minute trip to the first of Governor Farian's factories was a monotony of controlled conversation. The governors seated around the lander's spacious rows wanted to argue, but no one dared with Barenin Lyr sitting at their center. He felt like the patriarch at an extended family dinner, holding down the tension. No, he was the outsider. He listened and took in all the conversation. He sorted and categorized people's movements, their expressions, their tones of voices. Beyond what Por had charged him with, beyond what his client had hired him for, as contract king he'd be the ultimate judge in this inspection. He was the balance between war and no war for this world.
At least he now had the mental capacity to process all this information. He might actually be able to help them in this state. The Dayarans had wanted an Aezthena contract king, and right now, they almost had one.
The tours of three of Farian's manufacturing facilities were even more tedious than the ride. Farian bragged about the efficiency of their factories while Edin and their supporters looked on tight-lipped, waiting to pounce on anything less than standard. Farian's factories might be efficient, but the walls were faded and grimy, the machinery run-down, the workers haggard. Anais kept only the smallest part of his attention on Farian's words as he studied everything around him, but while Farian's factories made casings and some of the internal parts for Kaireyeh generators like the ones he'd seen beneath the palace, they didn't handle the integration of those parts into full generators. The priesthood in a neighboring city did that, and not even that was open to the eyes of a contract king.
Anais saw nothing that looked like the tech his client had hired him to steal. Nothing beyond what he calculated he should expect in Dayaran manufacturing. Large warehouses and factory complexes in a moderately temperate steppe climate. Older but functional interiors and equipment, with no indications of doing anything off the books. The worker morale didn't seem great, but under Farian's pompous governance, that wasn't surprising. It also wasn't criminal. And that seemed to be much of the issue at hand—Farian followed protocol. Edin did not.
It was past noon when their lander crossed the border into Edin's province. Out the window, the sky was clear enough to see the buildup of troops far below. Temporary military structures in dark grays dotted the brown landscape that had melded over the kilometers from grassland steppe to desert.
Lines of hover-tank behemoths glistened black, larger specks among the normal-sized vehicles. Did the tanks run on Kaireyeh engines? Did they use Kaireyeh weapons? The Dayarans' religion did not permit the use of Kaireyeh weapons, but that didn't mean the Dayarans didn't have them or wouldn't use them. Anais had studied history all his life, and one constant was that greed and fear made people do stupid things.
Anais glanced at Edin, who sat ahead of him in the loose rows of seats. They also stared out the windows, their expression opaque beneath the geometric lines of their face paint.
Did Anais dare try to touch their thoughts? Por had strongly warned against it, for his own sanity and so he wouldn't give himself away to any Aezthena nearby, but Anais needed relief from the constant spinning around unknown variable points. He had to know why Edin was building these new Kaireyeh generators that were sacrilegious to most Dayarans. Why they would risk it and risk these escalations toward a war that might destroy their planet.
From everything he'd read about and observed from them, Edin was not motivated more than usual by profit. They funneled much of their province's budget into sustainability projects and programs to help their citizens. Of all the governors provinces, Edin's was the one Anais might actually want to live in, if he'd been Dayaran. Their cities had low crime and poverty rates. Their industries weren't the best on Denz Dayar, but they held steady, and by all accounts he'd read, the population was happy with Edin as their governor. Sustainably-grown crops were a big export to other provinces and off-world as well, for the few traders that came through this system. Edin was the ideal governor—or would be, if they weren't tampering with Kaireyeh.
Edin stirred in their seat, then turned and stared straight at him.
Anais stared back. He'd grown fatigued throughout the day, his body trying to keep up with the strain of both holding this character and processing every input his enhanced mind was giving him, including constant alertness for any sign an Aezthena might be near. His senses went on alert now, and he checked to make sure his walls were holding tight. Had Edin randomly looked back at him just as he'd focused his attention on them?
Maybe. The look they gave him was a bald challenge. Daring him to put a stop to what they were doing with their research into Kaireyeh generators. Or maybe daring him to try to break into their thoughts, one Aezthena to another.
Was it possible Edin could be the Aezthena Por was looking for? Could they have kept themself hidden from Por in her human state for all those years?
Possible? Yes. Probable? Anais wasn't sure. He didn't know how Por's strength measured in comparison to other Aezthena, especially when she was focused human. He needed more information. There were just too many variables.
His temples throbbed with the beginnings of a migraine.
The tension in the lander was nearly unbearable by the time they descended toward Edin's first and main manufactory complex. Anais had tracked the shift in mood—the governors had begun to sober from their argumentative states when they'd crossed the border and seen the buildup of troops. Conversation had dwindled and become quieter. The general feel was one of dread, a sharp anticipation of something ominous to come. They'd found nothing untoward at Farian's factories. No one had really expected them to—that inspection tour had been a concession to Edin's pride. And maybe Farian's as well, with how much they'd puffed up their industries and elaborated on the losses that riots and sabotage had given them. But Edin's factory was an unknown.
Anais watched the guards stationed around the lander shifting their stances, checking their rifles.
Anais caught Ijuka's eye across the aisle from him, and they came to sit next to him.
"Are we expecting an attack?" he asked in a low voice.
"That would be political suicide for Edin," Ijuka said. Then after a moment's thought, they added, "Or the trigger to civil war. But no, I don't think so. Edin is protective of their province. They don't know what would come down on them if they attacked an Aezthena. But be on your guard. Edin doesn't like you, and while I don't think they'd make an outward move against you, there will be other games afoot. They might try to hide the full extent of their heresy."
Anais nodded. Ijuka's read was his own—if Edin was human. If they were actually Aezthena, the rules would be different.
Anais discovered that even though he couldn't feel human fear as strongly as before, the Aezthena equivalent was there and very real. His mind kicked into a dizzying increase in calculations, logic trees that could not be taken to their conclusions because of contradicting variables. His mind tripped back over them again and again, layering outcome over outcome until the unfavorable possibilities far outweighed the favorable. That was Aezthena fear. Aezthena fear was terrifying.
The lander set down, and unlike in Farian's province where Anais had been content to let the guards pile out first, he led the party off the ramp onto rough tarmac. Hot desert air hit him like a physical force, the sun oppressive in its brightness. But he didn't squint, didn't waver in his calm demeanor.
No one protested his leading the party out. Even the guards seemed relieved—though he was the king and should technically be protected, he was supposed to be Aezthena. As Aezthena, he could slow time and blink himself through spacetime like Por had done in the corridor beneath the palace. He'd sense any attack before it came and calculate the best course to deal with it. And he would deal with it. Everyone, even those on Denz Dayar who were more sheltered from the mainstream of human society, knew Aezthena could end battles before they started. You didn't mess with an Aezthena who was on the alert for trouble.
It was bluff. It was all bluff. And Anais himself was doing exactly that—moving in on an Aezthena's turf. Trying to provoke a reaction. His human heart was beating too fast for his Aezthena-enhanced mind, but if Edin was Aezthena, if anyone here or at Edin's factory was Aezthena, they needed to see this display of confidence. It was always the small details that made or broke believability in a persona. He had the strongest feeling that he'd just stepped onto the real stage of this particular mission.
His shoes crunched on gravel bits strewn across the tarmac. The light layer of clouds moved across the sun, and made not squinting a little less painful.
This manufactory complex, like most of Farian's, was isolated from any city. Dayarans took environmental concerns seriously. Squat, cleanly modern gray buildings spread across a compound surrounded by a force field just visible to his enhanced senses as a shimmer of blue light. Beyond the buildings, sparse scrub brush extended to a line of red-gray mountains in the distance. While one part of his mind kept an eye on Edin, other parts cataloged the taste of sulfur in the air, the fine grit of sand on the wind. And a faint hum in his body that he'd attributed on the landing to the lander's engines. But he wasn't on the lander now.
He focused on the hum and found a faint rhythm in it. Similar to what he'd felt when he'd approached the generators beneath the palace but not the same. Higher-pitched and droning deeper. It was like the memory of an ancient song played with rock and air.
A very human chill swept through him, despite the heat that was making him sweat in his robes. He didn't see any generators in the open, and the buildings around them didn't seem tall enough to house the kinds of large generators that were underneath the palace. Were there smaller generators here? Cloaked, or underground? Where was the hum coming from?
"You feel the generators, don't you?" Edin asked.
Anais' gaze snapped to them. It was the first time that day they had spoken to him directly. If his mind had still been human—or even just augmented with his memory implant—he might have missed the subtle cues in their look. A light crease of the brow, the faintest narrowing of the eyes: contempt. A downward tightening of the mouth. Troubled fear. Fear of him? Or of something else? The fear was strong enough that he could sense some of it even through his walls, and it was a very human fear.
He had the sudden certainty that if he did reach out and touch Edin's thoughts, he would be met with walls. Not because they were Aezthena, but because Edin knew there was another Aezthena on Denz Dayar, and they were working with them. Edin's contempt of him fit much more neatly into that context; Edin saw Barenin Lyr as a threat to their venture. A threat to the Aezthena they'd aligned themself with.
Of course Edin's people wouldn't have done this research into Kaireyeh tech on their own. It was heresy, after all. It upset the balance of the Dayarans' main religion, and that was not something a governor focused on enhancing the lives of their people would do lightly. The other Aezthena must have promised Edin something they couldn't refuse. The generators Edin was building were high-efficiency. With Edin's focus on sustainability, would the promise of a high-efficiency energy grid be enough to make them get in bed with an Aezthena?
Edin hadn't spoken to him until now. Why? Was Edin distracting him so the Aezthena could get away?
Anais took another look around. Then he paused and felt into the droning rhythm. Could he sense what direction it was coming from? He looked north, to the mountains in the distance. He had the strong sense that whatever he was feeling wasn't close. He couldn't see anything, but he knew there were Kaireyeh generators out there. Near the mountains, or maybe even beyond them. He made rapid calculations of how much more heightened his awareness was now compared to when he'd been under the palace and the distance to the mountains compared to how far he'd stood from the Kaireyeh generators two nights before.
His stomach constricted as his enhanced mind gave him a probability range of how powerful those generators might be.
He was so glad at that moment for what Por had done to his mind. He would have given too many tells of his fear otherwise. Even still, he felt those around him, governors who had paused when Edin spoke, tense in response to his own tension.
He thought fast, much faster than he should have been able to. Por had sent him here to find out about both the generators and the Aezthena who might have had a hand in building them. Por would have run through calculations similar to those he was running now, with fewer variables than he had to work with—even in her human focus, Por was truly Aezthena, not a simulation of one like he was. Por might not know all the particulars of how this day would turn out, but she would have known all the scenarios she could be sending him into. She'd known the Aezthena might be pulling Edin's strings. And she hadn't told him.
If Edin was stalling, then the Aezthena they were working with wasn't ready to come out in the open and do anything drastic that Anais, as an Aezthena, would feel—like blinking themself away.
He wanted, in that moment, to be able to blink himself away. Por hadn't told him the whole truth, had she? But he was here. The governors were looking to him, waiting to see what he would do. And she had said this was important. Anais could feel that. Feel it in his bones with the humming of those super-charged generators.
"Governor Edin," Anais said. "I would like to meet the engineers who designed these new generators."
"Of course," Edin said without blinking.
Anais' thoughts took a sharp right turn. No, Edin wasn't stalling. They'd wanted him to ask this. The Aezthena wanted him to come to them.
And—Anais backtracked. Edin's lips had tightened further. There had been a flaw in his earlier logic. Edin hated him, but it wasn't personal. He didn't think it was just because he was a disruption. That tightening of the lips when he'd mentioned the engineers was pure contempt. Edin hated Aezthena in general.
So why would they have worked with one willingly, regardless of the promised benefits? Or had an Aezthena infiltrated their industrial research facilities as thoroughly as Por had infiltrated the Dayaran government? He was certain Edin knew they were working with an Aezthena, but how long had they known? Regardless, they felt they didn't have a choice in whatever they were planning now.
Edin nodded toward a blocky, squat building. "Liesen Giret is the head of the project. We'll meet them in the research building." They started for the building at a brisk walk.
Anais stood rooted to the tarmac. This Liesen Giret had to be the Aezthena. All his logic, bolstered with Edin's body language, reactions, and emotions, pointed toward that conclusion.
Por had sent him here to find the other Aezthena, and he'd agreed. Why had he agreed? Why by stars and gods above had he agreed to any of this? This was realms out of his league, and Por hadn't given him all the variables he needed. Maybe on purpose so he wouln't project knowledge he shouldn't have, but still, that was in poor taste. He felt caught in a vast game, and even with his augmented mind, he was already ten steps behind. This was messing with Aezthena politics, and any human knew you didn't mess with Aezthena politics if you wanted to keep breathing.
He thought of sending a pinhole message to Por, saying he'd found where the Aezthena was and that Por should come and take his place, take it from here. But would the other Aezthena sense that? Did the other know he wasn't Barenin Lyr? Would he be exposing Por to danger if he did that?
Why did he feel like he should protect Por? Por had lied to him about what she knew about this mission, or at least omitted part of the truth. And he was a human. Por was a millennia-old demigod. Por didn't need protecting. Did she?
Trust yourself, Por had said.
Anais didn't know what that meant anymore. Logic trees branched out in all directions, but they were just noise. Whatever he did next couldn't be a decision born from that logic, that Aezthena logic. Almost every path from here could go horribly wrong. He saw all those outcomes much too vividly, his mind categorizing them complete with mental footnotes in its rapid calculations.
He hooded his eyes, trying to push past the logic toward his gut sense. His gut had got him through more dicey situations than he could count.
"My king?" Ijuka hovered beside him. Their stern face was knitted with concern and not a little fear. "My king, what's wrong?"
Anais found his gut. He found his choice. It surprised him, and it made more sense than it should have. Por had asked him for help because whatever was going on here, she couldn't handle it on her own. And he had to protect Por, no matter what else. Por was important.
He thought of when Por had helped him build his mental walls. He'd felt her patience, her encouragement. A light taste of guilt that she hadn't tried to hide. She'd known the process was uncomfortable.
He thought of how gently she'd placed her fingers against his head—not a caress, but not...not, either. Her shameless flirting while she'd pulled off his layers of robes. Her hand on his face, calm and cooling.
She'd brought him to Denz Dayar. She'd known he would come. She'd counted on it. Por knew who he was and still trusted him with a mission as vital as this—whatever this mission really was. Whatever the variables and danger were that she hadn't told him about, and there were too many holes in his logic trees now for there not to be so much more depth to this than she'd let on. And they would have words about that.
But she'd trusted him to wear her image. To be her to those around him. Whatever her reasons for not giving him all the information he'd needed, she'd still sent him on this mission, and he knew in his gut she would never have done that with someone she didn't trust. He'd seen the differences between her performing a role for the masses of humanity and her speaking to him. He'd seen her sincerity and her need. Por trusted him. While that baffled him, he acknowledged it was true.
He needed to protect Por because Por was important—not just to history or the worlds, but to him. He didn't have the capacity just then to sort out the reasons, or what that might mean moving forward. If that meant there could ever be anything between him...and Barenin Lyr.
But it was suddenly and vitally important that they both live to find out.
"Ijuka," Anais said quietly, and glanced both at them and the cluster of guards near them. The rest of the party had gone after Edin, some trailing behind and looking back but still walking. Farian and their retinue wouldn't want to let Edin out of their sight, in case Edin tried to hide something from the inspection. "Be on your guard. I sense...a malice in the minds of this facility. I don't know what or from whom yet. But be on your guard."
Ijuka inhaled a sharp breath, eyes narrowing as they scanned the complex. "Yes, my king." They gave a hand signal, and the guards shifted to ready positions. Rifles gave a soft whine as their power amped up.
16: The Walls of the Mind
Maybe it was a false sense of safety, but Anais felt a little better with this tight group of protection around him. They wouldn't do much good if the other Aezthena tried to fight him, but they were something. He wasn't completely in this alone.
As they crossed to the research building, Anais took a slow breath. On the exhale, he focused on channeling the endlessly branching logic of his fear energy into observation. Por had taught him that the day before, but he'd only gained enough focus to remember to try it now.
Heat radiated from the gritty ground material—the ground wasn't concrete, maybe some type of plastic. No, this was Edin's province, it would be an organic material. The clouds had moved on and now the sun beat down again, roasting him in his layers of robes. He checked the bottle of water he'd stored in a pocket of an inner robe and took a drink. Breaking character or not, he would not go into this without his full faculties.
Ahead, Edin and their retinue reached the building. Through lightly-tinted glass windows, Anais could make out a group of six people coming out to meet them, all dressed in gray and pale blue uniforms. They pushed out the doors to the shaded portico. All turned to him with varying degrees of curiosity and fear—a reaction he was coming to expect. He checked his walls. The station corridor in his mind was still empty, only showing his own reflection in the center. His mind was still his.
Then his attention caught on the arm patches these people wore on their right shoulders. The logo showed a design that could have been taken straight from the sketches his client had provided. A snail-like spiral.
"My king," Edin said, making a slight bow toward Anais. "May I introduce Liesen Girat, my head engineer on this project, and their team."
They waved to a short, stocky person, whose gaze darted from side to side. Liesen Girat bit their lip, their eyes a little too wide as they avoided making eye contact. As if an afterthought, they bowed. "My king. It is a pleasure to meet you." It sounded anything but.
Liesen Girat was supposed to be the Aezthena? It could be a convincing performance, but the person was overflowing with fear, and not a little annoyance.
Anais kept his face neutral. "The pleasure is mine." He scanned the faces of the others in Liesen's team. Were any of them the Aezthena? He looked for signs of perfection. Aezthena were often vain enough that the illusions they projected were almost too beautiful. Their simulation of humanity too perfect. But he saw no such signs in his first study. He turned back to Liesen.
The paint on their face, only a wide stripe of indigo across their mouth and not the full chin and eye ornamentation like the governors had, was smudged. Was that an affectation? Meant to look absent-minded, human? Were the nervousness and stammer affectations? Were the emotions simulations, meant for him to read as human?
"Liesen Girat," Anais said. "I am told you built the new—" he caught himself before he said "Kaireyeh," as the Dayarans wouldn't know it by that "—Yfeni generators. May I see your designs for such machines?"
Liesen shot a troubled look at Edin. They stammered, "My-my king, I know you have authority to look into our work, but...but the plans are proprietary. But I can show you the generators themselves." They looked over their shoulder, as if they could see through the building and to the mountains beyond.
Anais felt the gentlest touch of thought against his mental walls. It took all his skill and training as an actor not to jump. Barenin Lyr would not jump.
He checked the visualization of the station corridor in his mind. He was the only one there. His mirror image was only a reflection of himself.
But the other Aezthena was near. He knew they could see him, were watching. Anais focused on Liesen. Logic still pointed to them being the Aezthena, but his gut told him otherwise. He didn't dare look at the others. He didn't want to meet a steady gaze. He didn't want to see the signs.
Did the Aezthena know he was not Barenin Lyr? Was he playing his part well enough? Were his walls tight enough? Por had said if the other Aezthena didn't know her well, it might be possible to fool them.
The gentle brush against his thoughts became a—knock? It came not with a name, but a sense of feeling. An intimacy that felt far too deep for him to process. Memories and hints of personality, and intent.
The intent was...cold. But an Aezthena kind of cold, like the logic running through his thoughts. Devoid of emotion, but not menacing.
He couldn't let whoever it was into his mind. If they didn't already suspect he wasn't Aezthena, or at least wasn't Barenin Lyr, then they'd know the moment he dropped his walls.
He heard a voice outside his walls, like someone calling through the windows of a locked house.
Child, I know Barenin Lyr. I know you are not her. And I know she sent you to find me. Return to her, tell her I've received her message. Do not meddle further in my affairs.
"Let's tour the facility before we visit the generators," Edin said.
"My king?" Ijuka asked softly. He was showing his tension again. His guards stood stiffly, rifles humming, watching him for any signal that they should act.
He shook his head and found the strength to wave at Edin. "Yes. Continue."
He was dimly aware of his body moving with the rest into the research building, of Liesen beginning a stilted monologue of what this industrial research facility and adjoining factories did and had to offer.
The feel of that voice in his thoughts had been distinctly female—the sense of the person behind the words. Anais dared to study those in Liesen's team, and his eyes caught on a younger person, tall and thin with thick, artificially-straightened, black hair and pale, green eyes. Their eyes met. For a moment he would not have caught if he wasn't so hyper-aware, the image of the person flickered, showing the barest glimpse of white clothes, white face, silver hair underneath.
It didn't matter if Anais had Por's mental modifications or was supposed to be holding character as Barenin Lyr—he felt bile rising up his throat and wasn't sure he could get it back down again.
He felt a sudden wash of unnatural calm. It wasn't gentle, and he didn't think it was kind. This Aezthena blasted through his walls like they were paper and appeared in the mental space of his station corridor image.
She was average height, broad build, her face angular but not unpleasant. Or, it might have been pleasant if it wasn't so cold. Gold eyes flashed, and though he didn't feel her intent to harm him, he wasn't sure if he could trust what he was feeling. If she could shred his walls, she could surely make him think what she wanted.
Except, he didn't think he felt her anywhere else in his mind but in this room, and she was holding her own walls tight, letting out only what she wanted him to see. She wasn't invading him—at least, not more than she was now.
And she had knocked.
Anais swallowed, both in reality and in the visualization. She was everything he'd thought Barenin Lyr would be. She held the space around her with her presence, her force of personality, her power.
Should he call Por for help? Would this Aezthena even let him?
"Child," she said again, in the visualization this time.
Anais tried not to bristle, had to remind himself that he probably was a child to her. Though she looked no older than her early thirties, she had that feel of age about her that he'd sensed in Por. A sense of being apart from the normal stream of human time.
"You're caught up in a game you can't understand. I see your intent to carry on with your mission, but I assure you, it is over."
"The new Kaireyeh generators," Anais said, "did you design them?"
Her eyes flashed brighter gold. "Barenin elevated you. That purpose is now complete." She brought her hands up, and the edges of Anais' mind started to unravel.
Shit, what was she doing?
"No!" He bored through his already tattered walls to Por. Help. Aezthena. Help!
Por was in his mind in an instant. She held an image somewhere between human and Aezthena, her skin paler than her usual brown, upswept curls hovering between black and silver, eyes between blue and gold. She narrowed her eyes when she saw the other Aezthena.
"Sela," she said, voice flat. "I hoped it wasn't you."
Anais' blood ran cold. The vast majority of Aezthena kept to themselves. Those who did deal with humans had no concerns about leaving a trail of their presence wherever they went—they were almost gods, were they not? On some worlds, in some times, they were worshiped. But Sela was a much more elusive name in the legends throughout history. Seldom put on official records. Rarely seen as Aezthena, mostly only as the human illusions she cast, and then, those were speculation. The only things Anais was sure about Sela was that she was almost as old as Barenin and that she also liked to meddle in human affairs. But while Barenin mostly operated in the open, Anais suspected her machinations were behind a great number of major events and shifts throughout history, and not often for the better.
"So good to see you again, Barenin." Sela's voice dripped with sarcasm that had to be artificial. Her cold expression didn't change. "I met your pet." She waved at Anais. "He gave a passable impression of you. Quite the parody."
Barenin stared at Sela, her nostrils flaring.
Sela circled Barenin like a cat. "You knew I was here. You sent your pet to provoke me."
Barenin folded her arms. "I had several suspicions. And several reasons for asking Anais to do what he did. What are your reasons for being here?"
Anais watched them, not daring to move. Some part of him registered that this conversation wasn't happening in the real world. That it was taking place inside his mind. Gods and stars above, two Aezthena were staring each other down in his mind. What should he do? Was there anything he could do but wait it out?
He focused on where he was in the present. His arm was outstretched, supporting himself as he leaned against a wall in the glass and steel lobby of Edin's research building.
"King Lyr! My king, are you all right?" Ijuka stopped short of shaking him, their hands outstretched and trembling. "My king? Please. What's going on?" It was the first time Anais had heard Ijuka sound scared.
He looked past Ijuka to the young person from the engineering team—Sela. She gave a sweet smile.
"I'm fine," Anais managed. "The Kaireyeh, the Yfeni...is strong here."
Ijuka shot a panicked look at Edin, who stood stolidly behind them and looked worried, but not displeased, with Anais' discomfort.
Anais' anger flared. Edin hated Aezthena, that was painfully obvious. They certainly hated him. But they were just another human pawn caught up in this Aezthena game, weren't they?
In the station corridor in his mind, Barenin said, "You didn't design these generators. Influenced, maybe, but not designed. What I want to know is how you got this close to them and still maintained your illusion. For the past seven months, I haven't been able to get near that province without Kaireyeh edging me Aezthena."
Sela arched her brows. "And that's a bad thing? So instead you skulk about in the capital, luring in unsuspecting humans and sending them to do your digging for you?"
Anais glanced between them. The conversation was...off. Stilted. If this was happening in his head, was his perception distorted?
No, he realized. The conversation was stilted because the things being verbalized—mentally, at least—were only punctuation. The full conversation was going on furiously between Barenin and Sela in their minds, and that conversation wasn't in this visualization at all.
So why were they all still here?
Sela focused on him. "Run, human. Get away from Barenin Lyr. There's nothing but poison for you here."
Anais, in his panic—which had definitely kicked in again—decided several things in rapid succession.
One: Barenin and Sela knew each other well. Their body language, their sharp remarks, even as Aezthena, all bore the marks of long familiarity. Of buttons each knew how to push.
Two: Barenin and Sela didn't just know each other. They had an intimate history. Their body language said that, too—it was that of lovers who had never quite gotten over each other. Barenin was making no move to hide the growing anger on her face. It was cold, Aezthena cold, but human anger as well.
Three: Barenin was using him, like Sela was using Edin. And he'd known it. He'd even started to accept it, fool that he was. He should take Sela's advice and run. A lump swelled up his throat, and he swallowed it down. Shoved down that taste of bitter disappointment. He supposed it couldn't have gone any other way. Barenin was Aezthena. Aezthena always used every resource at hand, free will be damned. Barenin didn't care about him, but he'd fallen into the trap of that sweet illusion of intimacy. Of shared experience. Of hope.
Four: Sela was using her advice to him to isolate Barenin.
Five: Anais wasn't going anywhere. He was under no illusions that he could be of much help to Barenin, but he felt an undercurrent from Barenin, soft but there—a feeling more than words. An asking, please, for Anais to stay. To be patient. To trust.
Anais didn't fully trust Barenin. Less so now than ever. He should have followed his own rules of no involvement and not trusting anyone but his own wits. But despite all of this, despite everything, she was still important to him. He couldn't abandon her if she needed his help. And where would he run to, anyway? They were battling this out in his mind.
Sela continued to circle Barenin. "Your pet is in love with you."
Anais strode toward them. "Include me in the conversation or get out of my head."
Sela speared him with her glare. Her pretense of civility dropped, and her thoughts came at him in a sudden rush, tangling themselves in his. He reached to pull his walls back together, but they were here in this mental room—she was already past his walls. She rifled through his mind like she was perusing a holovid database.
"Sela," Barenin snapped, and stepped between them.
The rifling stopped. Barenin's image was fully Aezthena now. There was little of the human Por in her as she glanced at Anais.
"Anais, let me see where you are," Barenin said.
Anais nodded and Barenin's thoughts nudged against his outward perceptions. His vision, his hearing, all of his senses felt doubled as Barenin saw and heard and felt the situation through him. Saw Ijuka staring up at him, hand hovering like they wanted to shake him but not yet willing to try it. Saw all the governors and guards clustered around him, forming a perimeter and walling off Liesen's team and any other prying eyes or potential threats.
He felt Barenin's annoyance as she pulled back from his senses. "Well. I need to fix this, much as I wish not to. Anais, I'm going to blink you back to the capital. I'll take your place, briefly, and make your excuses. I'm already fully Aezthena focused." She didn't glare so much as stare with directed purpose at Sela. "You. We need to talk. Make your own excuses and meet me here in one hour." She flashed an image of her private meeting room in the palace, the room that was safe to talk in.
Sela stared back at Barenin. What else was passing between them, and did Anais even want to know? Then Sela was abruptly gone from his mind.
Barenin turned to him. "This is going to feel strange. I'll take you straight back to your apartments. Stay there. I'll come for you."
Anais didn't understand what was happening, not really. But he nodded. He did understand that explanations would have to come later.
And then he was in his apartments, by the curtained bed, reeling at the abruptness of the change in light and location. It was evening out the window, the sky ablaze with the sunset. There was a sudden ringing lack of sound and tension. The station corridor in his mind was empty, save for the reflection of himself, the mirror. He pulled those walls as closely as he could around him and didn't quite shiver.