Good King Lyr
Chapter 5 of 11 · All · First · Last

Part 5: Masks (Chapters 17-21)

By Novae Caelum
May 12, 2019 · 12,034 words · 44 minutes

Hallway with many rooms

Photo by Peter Oswald via Unsplash.

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.


17: Safe

Anais had drawn back the curtains around his bed and he now sat in the middle of the rumpled sheets and blankets, waiting, his mind racing. The windows showed city lights in purple-gray twilight, but he hadn't moved to turn on any lights inside the room. An hour or two might have passed. He wasn't sure. Days on Denz Dayar were longer than Aijas Standard Time. Another part of him was certain that twenty-eight minutes and forty-three Aijas Standard seconds had passed since Barenin had sent him back to the palace.

He'd stripped out of all but the last two silken under-robes. The crown lay lopsided on the bed beside him. He rocked back and forth, trying to understand. Trying to make sense of everything he had seen, and thought, and was feeling now—or not feeling. Or feeling too strongly in a way that wasn't human. His mind wound around and around and around, and he couldn't stop it. His teeth chattered.

And then Por was there. She stepped out of the air without preamble. One moment not there, one moment, Por.

As she approached the bed, her bone-white skin darkened, her hair edging toward black, her eyes losing most of the golden sheen. But not all.

"Please," Anais said, pointing at his head. "Make it stop."

Por motioned him forward, but he stayed where he was. He clutched the pillow he'd been holding to his chest for the last eighteen minutes and twenty-three seconds.

"Gods, make it stop," Anais whispered. His voice was still Aezthena flat.

Por climbed onto the bed, settling cross-legged in front of him. "Can you turn off the implant?"

Anais reached wooden fingers and did so. He didn't even feel naked this time, only in his own skin and rumpled clothes. His mind was too full.

Por pressed her hands to his head, fingers cool, but not as cool as before.

Anais closed his eyes and waited. Gradually, the buzz of thoughts stopped. He sat, panting. It was like being in a room with ten different songs blaring, and then someone shut off the power.

He took a shuddering breath, then fell forward with a sob. Por caught him and wrapped her arms around him, resting his head on her shoulder. He couldn't stop the sobs. He never cried. He hated crying. But right now, he couldn't stop.

Por said nothing. Barely moved except a slow smoothing of his greasy hair. She waited until Anais wound down into the dry after-sobs, the shaking, the dizzy pulling for air.

Anais finally gathered the strength to push away. He swiped at his eyes, which were still streaming.

"I'm sorry," he rasped.

"No," Por said, and pulled him back toward her. "I'm sorry. You shouldn't have had to experience that."

Anais shoved away again. "What did I even accomplish? I didn't get a look at the tech my client hired me for, I totally blew my cover to the Aezthena, to Sela by the gods—she's really more than a legend. And I blew your cover and dragged you into this. That was the whole point of my going there, wasn't it? To keep you out of it. And I didn't even find out what Edin's doing building those generators, if there's anything beyond the obvious. So I can't do my duty as the contract king, either. I don't know what's going on. I—I—" He waved his hands, a helpless gesture.

With the simulation of an Aezthena mind gone from his thoughts, the memories of the last two days were blurring, losing color, ebbing away from him. His memory implant stored the facts, but he couldn't handle the sensations.

He remembered the feeling of the Kaireyeh generators, though. That rhythmic drone inside his bones, in his belly, in his mind. Those generators that had been over a hundred kilometers away. And he remembered Sela's sharp intrusion into his thoughts.

Raw fear he hadn't been able to process then washed over him in a cold sweat. His breaths came in ragged pants.

"Sela," he said. "That was Sela. The Sela. I never thought I'd—is she behind this? She made Edin build the new generators, didn't she? She's way deep in this. Is she your enemy?"

"I'm not sure," Por said. "She nudged Edin with manipulations and half-truths into researching and building a more efficient Kaireyeh generator—Sela could not have built them on her own. We Aezthena aren't like you humans. We are powerful, yes, but our minds move in logic. We can't see or make the intuitive leaps that humans do in their discoveries. Sela is here like I am here, interested in the Yfeni concept of Kaireyeh and what the Dayarans have developed with it. But while I watch passively, she's always liked to take an active role in shaping affairs."

Anais shivered, his teeth resuming their chatter. Por helped him bunch up the blankets around his shoulders.

"Did you," he asked through a jaw clenched over the chattering, "know it was Sela? Did you send me there knowing she'd be there?" Sela loomed in his thoughts like the Aezthena monsters of the holodramas. The worst of the unfeeling demigods—powerful, ancient, and uncaring for any life beyond her own.

Por's face was turned down, in too many shadows. "I suspected. But I didn't know for sure."

Anais' eyes welled up again, and he couldn't stop it. "She ripped through my thoughts, Por—"

Por caught his shaking hands and held them. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"But you knew it might happen."

"Yes."

"Don't you know how—" Anais swallowed. "My thoughts. That's—do you know how that feels?" He tasted acrid bile and closed his eyes against the memory of her tearing through his mind. It was different, so much different than fearing that Por might pick up on his stray thoughts. How much of his life had Sela seen? What did she know? Did she know the deepest pains he kept locked away? And she'd just broken into his mind and taken all of that.

"I'm sorry," Por said again, but the words felt hollow. An echo of an apology.

Silence stretched in the darkness.

Anais stirred in the nest of covers. He was losing his connection with Por. The closeness they'd had a moment before, that false sense of comfort when she'd held him, was sifting through a yawning chasm widening between them.

He shook his head. No. He couldn't lose her now. He couldn't be alone. Not now. Not after what had happened.

That Por was part of the cause of it—most of the cause of it—loomed large in his mind. But he had to bridge that gap between them. He had to understand. He had to know what she'd been thinking.

"Do you love her?" Anais shuddered at the thought. How could anyone love someone like that? But what Por and Sela played out in his mind had felt like a lover's quarrel between gods.

Por sighed and leaned back, pulling her hands away from him. He keenly felt the lack of touch. "Sela and I...we are constantly turning magnets. We attract and repel. Attract and repel. We seldom agree." She looked toward the lights of the skyscrapers outside, pinpoints reflected in her eyes. "I have influenced events to keep the peace between humans and Aezthena. To heal wounds in Kaireyeh when I find them, or when Kaireyeh guides me to them. I was made what I am to hold the balance between humanity and the Aezthena—it is why I am able to move between both states, not fully being either." She waved her hand back and forth, finally settling it on her lap where she clasped her hands together.

Anais didn't want a history. He didn't even want explanations. He wanted—what did he want? Her to tell him it had all happened for a reason. That they'd gained something more than a monster ripping through his thoughts. Was Por, even focused more human in that moment, so out of touch with actual humanity that she couldn't hear the catch in his voice?

He felt more exposed than he had in years, and it wasn't because he hadn't tapped the implant back on. He'd gone too deep with Por, too far and too fast. He was bruised on the inside. He was made of glass, like the merest touch could shatter him, and no matter that he tried to pull his wits, his identities, around him like shields, they wouldn't protect him.

"Sela is fully Aezthena," Por went on. "I have known her most of my life. She's fiercely protective of her ideals, not afraid to use any means to accomplish her goals, and never backs down once she sets her mind on a course of action. She plans centuries and millennia in advance. She's so very dangerous because she always believes her course of action is in the right, for the greater good. She tries to do what I do, holding her own type of balance between the Aezthena and humanity, but she's not human. Not for thousands of years now. There are things she will never understand."

Anais bit his lip as more tears fell. How Por had just described Sela was how Anais was feeling about Por. Gods. What had he got himself into?

He sniffed and wiped at his running nose. Por pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and he took it reluctantly, blew into it—quietly, so the guards outside his suites wouldn't hear.

Anais swayed—his sobs hadn't been quiet. And an Aezthena contract king would not sob like that. Shit. Shit.

He started to get up. He had to do damage control. If he even could. What had Por—what had Barenin—said or done as the contract king while he was here?

"Shh," Por said, pulling him back down. "It's all right. I have us in a bubble of sped-up time. No one can hear us here."

Past the bed, dust motes hung suspended. Anais looked out to the city. Something that had vaguely bothered him now came into sharp focus. The lights on the buildings would be mostly static, but the red and white streaks of aircar lights hadn't moved, either.

He gripped the blankets tightly around himself. This was too much. He'd thought he could handle coming to Denz Dayar, playing Barenin Lyr, and he'd thought he could handle Por's simulation of an Aezthena mind—he could handle anything. But his thoughts didn't know where to settle. He didn't know what to do.

Run, Sela had said.

Anais swallowed. Maybe he should. What he wanted to do was lash out, to rage at Por, to scream at her until he was hoarse. But the memory of Sela ripping through his thoughts restrained him. This person in front of him, she wasn't human. She could do what Sela did if she wanted to. If she was provoked.

Sela had acted like he was a bug on the floor. She'd called him Por's pet. Was that how Por saw him?

Could she even sense the turmoil boiling off him? She'd responded to lesser emotional cues than what he knew he was giving off now, but she seemed oblivious.

Closed off, he realized. He wasn't the only one who had walls. How tightly was she holding her own? And what had happened, in all that had happened, to make her draw so completely in on herself? What was she thinking? He could see just enough of her face to make out absolutely no expression.

Anais wiped his hand across his eyes. He didn't understand Por. He didn't remotely understand her, and how had he ever thought he'd had a grasp on what it meant to be Barenin Lyr?

He was exhausted. But he needed to move on from this moment. To do something—anything—to get past this sense of insignificance. This vulnerability. Por seemed to only be processing the surface of the situation, and all right, he could do that. He could shove everything else to the edges of his soul and hold the center. He could gather the facts he needed to draw his own conclusions.

He cleared his throat, pulling all his thoughts back to the issue at hand. "So you're saying Sela wants to help people, like you want to help, but she does the wrong things for the right reasons? Is that what you're saying?" Was that supposed to make it okay?

Por smoothed out the bedding, building a low wall around her. "She wants to take the new generator technology off-world. Find a way to use it. While it is crude in some ways, it exceeds our own Aezthena power cores in others. Sela showed me enough of how it works." She sighed. "Dayarans have had some of the most unique designs for Kaireyeh tech I've seen—it's why the Aezthena keep a close watch on this world. And why I have the tech barrier around it. The barrier holds, but Sela will find a way around it to bring that tech back to her faction of the Aezthena."

"Why?" Anais asked, his anger rising with exasperation. "Why is this so important? And why is it so dangerous if Sela does get this tech? I get why it's dangerous to the Dayarans, yeah, but I thought the Aezthena knew all there was to know about Kaireyeh tech. You said this was save-the-universe stuff. Why?"

Please, Anais silently pleaded, whether she heard him or not. Please, tell me this has all been worth something.

#

18: What It's Worth

Por was quiet for a long moment.

Anais still gripped Por's handkerchief, a snotty ball in his hand. He squeezed it, hoping she wouldn't ask for it.

"There is a movement within some factions of Aezthena to separate themselves completely from humanity," Por said. "It's not a new idea. I've fought it on and off over the years, and it was behind a number of the human-Aezthena wars and tensions. But these factions aren't following the same patterns they have before. They're consolidating power and guarding their secrets. They're acquiring new tech, both human and alien, at high expense and at a reckless rate."

Anais struggled to keep his thoughts on the facts. Follow Por's information. He knew it was important. Whether he wanted to hear it right now or not, it was important. "And Sela is a part of these factions?"

Por pursed her lips. "No, I don't think so. She seldom throws her loyalty into one faction, and she's opposed their ideas before. But she does often ally herself with—or more likely co-op—lesser factions for her own purposes."

Anais blew into the handkerchief again then tossed it at the wall. A much-needed release of kinetic energy. His trying to concentrate on the facts wasn't working when his whole self still felt so fragile.

"Por. Why did you send me there, knowing it was likely Sela, knowing what she'd do to me, knowing I wouldn't find anything that you couldn't? You think a thousand steps ahead—you knew you'd have to step in for me, didn't you?"

Por smoothed down the wall of covers. "My sending you, in your augmented state, would signal to any Aezthena you met that I knew they were here and wanted to talk. Sela's maneuvering to meet with you was her signal that she was ready to talk, too."

Anais gripped his knees, his fingers digging deep. "So I was a damned messenger?"

Por met his gaze, her eyes glowing the faintest gold. "When Aezthena meet, it is always with extreme care. A violent feud between us could destroy a continent, you understand. With that Kaireyeh generator nearby, it might destroy the world. Yes, you were a messenger. And an observer. I wanted your opinions. I wanted you to understand how Aezthena think. I wanted you to understand the severity of this situation—and you do, don't you? You're not playing with crime lords and petty thieves. You are playing on the scale of—"

"Gods?" Anais spat.

"No," Por said, her own voice heating up. Finally showing more emotion than that flat Aezthena calm. "Never gods. No matter how much any of us think we are, never that. We don't have the right to decide fates."

"You decided mine. You gave me the implant. You pointed the Aezthena toward me to hire me—"

"I set up for you to learn about the implant and saw what might happen from there. But the rest was all you. Your decisions. Your choices."

His choices? Anais shook as furious colors burst over his vision. "I didn't choose for Sela to invade my mind—Por, maybe you don't get it, maybe you can't understand, but that's me. My mind. That's what I have. That's all I am."

Por held out her hand. Anais stared at it. He'd already thrown the handkerchief at the wall.

When he didn't move, she nudged the blanket near his hand, then reached and gently pressed her palm to his.

Por's emotions flowed to him through her touch. She wasn't holding her walls against him now, and he felt strangely relieved. Then he felt her regret, and a sorrow so deep it made his eyes well up again. And it wasn't fair. He didn't want to feel her empathy for him, her anger at herself. He didn't want to feel like she was anything but Aezthena. Calculating and unfeeling. Because knowing what she was feeling would make everything worse.

"I live here as a human," Por said. "I look human. I can feel human emotions—but I'm not human. And I forget, sometimes, what it means to be a human. I forget how sacred the barrier of a human mind is. My augmenting you to function as an Aezthena would was an invitation for any Aezthena to treat you as they would another Aezthena, and I didn't think to prepare you for that. We aren't so sacred with our thoughts. Not the upper levels, at least. Anais, I didn't consider that would affect you like it did. I feel your pain. I feel it intensely, and I'm sorry."

Anais shook. He couldn't let go of what he'd experienced and say it was all right, because it wasn't. It had been an invasion, a purely spiteful show of power, and maybe the worst part was now that he thought about it, it probably hadn't even been a blow directed at him. Sela's intrusion had been calculated to get a rise out of Por.

His whole body tightened at the thought of it. Of being caught between these two feuding Aezthena.

The furious part of himself, the part that was raw with betrayal, wanted vindication that Por had planned this to harm him. Because then he could leave and not look back. Then he could run, and not have to sort through the flood in his mind.

But he could feel the strength of Por's emotions. She hadn't meant to harm him. She'd known there would be discomfort, and maybe she thought she'd warned him enough. She wasn't human—he'd known that, or he thought he'd known that. Por looked human, but he had seen her in the palace meeting room as Barenin Lyr, too. He'd known she was Aezthena. But he hadn't fully considered until now what that meant. What that meant for him.

His exhausted mind creaked as he strained once again to incorporate a new paradigm. He'd had to get used to the idea of Barenin Lyr as the very human-seeming, human-reacting Por; now he had to rearrange his view of her to combine both aspects, the human and Aezthena both. She was both. And as much as he thought he'd learned before about how Aezthena thought and acted and viewed the world, he hadn't learned the half of it. He knew better now. He could still sense the shape of what his mind had been like in those relentless tides of Aezthena logic. If he'd had years of that logic, millennia, how would he view the humans around him? Would he find any points of reference at all? Any reason to care?

Barenin was the most dangerous person he'd ever met, not because she was willing to rip through minds like Sela, but because she was both human and Aezthena. She tried to do good, and could still unknowingly do so much harm.

Por squeezed his hand, a gentle pressure. An attempt at reassurance, maybe. If he was feeling her emotions, she'd be feeling his, too.

Anais tensed, his thoughts flashing again to Sela invading his mind.

No. Por reading his emotions was nothing like what Sela had done. Maybe Por lacked human perspective. But she was trying.

Anais kept hold of Por's hand. He wanted to feel what she felt when he asked his next questions. Maybe this sharing of emotions was the only true way for them to communicate and understand each other.

"Did we do any good? Did your meeting with Sela do any good?"

"Yes," Por said softly. Her eyes no longer glowed. Her skin was warmer now, and she sounded tired. More human. "I learned that Sela is here. And that she's willing to talk, which means she's seen the danger lurking, too. She came here to cultivate new Kaireyeh tech, but the game has changed. We suspect your client, who hired you to steal the new generator tech, is an Aezthena from one of the isolationist factions. If they are willing to involve a human in their affairs, they are growing either bolder or desperate."

She paused, wetting her lips. "There was a chance, a small chance, that the other Aezthena I'd been watching for was a member of an isolationist faction, too. If that had been the case, they likely would have run. Whether they thought you were me or not, they'd have known it was unwise to attack you so near a Kaireyeh generator that functions on principles we don't fully understand."

She rubbed her thumb across the back of Anais' hand. The gesture was unexpected. It sent a shiver through him, even while he wasn't sure what to think about its intimacy. Not now, when everything was still so raw.

He swallowed, and knew she felt his need for separation through their shared touch. She kept hold of his hand, but the grip changed, something less personal. Less demanding.

So, they had done good. At least by Por's account. Could he trust that account? But he felt nothing but sincerity in her emotions. An earnestness. A bitterness, and deep, deep fatigue.

"This war never ends," she said softly. "I fight one head of the hydra, and it grows two more. The Aezthena never stop wanting to either separate from or eliminate humanity. Or enslave them. Or subjugate them—whatever the plot of the century is. I'm not sure our two races will ever get along. Our minds are too different, our goals too opposed."

What did that mean for her, if she lived between both worlds? How did she keep her sanity, trying to be both? Was that where the interface broke down? And if she finally did go insane, what would that mean for all the human worlds?

"So, are you saying we're headed for another human-Aezthena war?" Anais tensed at the thought. Even those who hadn't studied history as thoroughly as he had knew the utter destruction those wars brought. Worlds destroyed. Humanity set back centuries or beaten into chaos or another dark age. Sometimes there were centuries or millennia between the wars. Sometimes decades or only years. Sometimes there were near-wars or small scuffles in between.

The last true human-Aezthena war had ended over two hundred years before, and the human worlds were still rebuilding. Barenin had brokered the peace between the Aezthena and humanity, as she almost always did—one of the last times Barenin had been seen before now.

When he was nine, the Aezthena had fought a scuffle on the other side of the galaxy from the station where he'd grown up. He'd sat up in his tiny apartment, waiting for his parent to come home, passing the time by watching the holovid news stations, saving clips in his implant for study later. Barenin hadn't brokered the peace that ended that scuffle—not that he knew of—but the holovid had played parts of her speech at the end of the last human-Aezthena war two hundred years before. She'd presented masculine, as she always did in those public appearances, her silver hair in tiny, tight braids, loose around her shoulders. White Aezthena robes flowing, timeless. Golden eyes sharp and bright. Anais had watched the news cycle dozens of times just so he could see that speech again. A recording in his implant wasn't enough. He'd needed to watch someone who could be what they had to be to end a war.

His obsession with her had started then, but it had shifted over time. Grown into an ideal he held above all else. A conscience when he'd left his own behind.

Anais shifted his grip in Por's.

She was here. This was Barenin Lyr, sitting in front of him. Twin streams of shame and still-burning anger washed over him. She wasn't at all who he thought she'd be. She wasn't the heroic image he'd had of her.

Yet here she was, talking about events that might lead to catastrophic war. And bringing him into plots so deep they spanned centuries.

"Yes, it could mean war," Por said. "It could mean something worse. What these factions are doing doesn't fit the patterns. There are ripples of...unease...in Kaireyeh around their activities. The universe itself is paying close attention to what they're planning, but I don't have enough information yet to form a counter-plan." She rubbed the back of Anais' hand, another achingly gentle touch. But sensing her emotions, all Anais really felt was her exhaustion. Her own underlying fear. "But I know more now than I did before. Thank you, so much, for that."

Anais let out a long breath. The shakes had stopped, and now he just felt drained. He was tired of thinking of all of this. Of trying to decide what to think of Por.

He stifled a yawn into his shoulder. The twilight outside the windows had not changed. Por still had them in a bubble of sped-up time.

"I'll let you rest," Por said, and let go of him. The sudden absence of touch, the absence of her emotions, made him reel. He was too empty. He'd lived the last two days with everything in his head and now he just felt cold and small. Too small for all of this.

"Please." He reached for her again. "Please, stay?" Maybe she wasn't who he would have chosen for comfort. Or maybe she was. But he didn't want to be alone in this place, with Sela on this world, with talk of other Aezthena and their plans for him, and another possible war.

Por stood like a statue beside the bed, her face in shadow. Then she drew back the covers and climbed in beside him. She situated herself, lying on her back. "I'll be here. Go to sleep."

Anais settled back into the soft pillows. He tensed, embarrassed and annoyed with himself that he'd asked her to stay. But she reached for his hand again and held it gently. Her emotions washed over him, steady, reassuring. And in that warmth, he drifted into darkness.

19: Morning

"My...king?"

Anais woke with a start to a servant hovering on the other side of the bed, holding a pitcher of water and a towel over one arm. The morning ritual wash. The servant looked uncertainly between Anais and...Por.

Oh, gods. His arm was draped over her. He shoved back and only then noticed that his hands were brown, not bone-white. He was himself, not Barenin Lyr.

But Por sat up, Aezthena pale. She rested a cold, quelling hand on Anais' arm. "Thank you, Reden, set the pitcher on the side table. I will not be disturbed until I enter the sitting room."

Reden bowed, set down the pitcher and towel, and almost ran out.

Por's hand on Anais' arm warmed. She was herself—her mostly human self—again. She vented a laugh. "That was entertaining. Playing you, playing me. And that will set one of the more rampant speculations about my love life to rest. On Denz Dayar, at least."

Anais felt the flush burn his face. The room was cast in morning sunlight—they hadn't closed the window curtains or the bed curtains the night before—and he was himself. He'd let someone else see him, his genetic baseline. Disheveled, clothed, but so exposed. Gods, how had he been so careless? He should have shifted the implant last night to one of the other personas he'd programmed into it. Why hadn't he done that immediately? How could he have forgotten he was only himself?

Por brushed his arm. "Did you sleep well? You weren't restless, at least."

Anais nodded, not sure what else to say. He had a headache, a bad headache, and memories of the day before were a blur that made his headache worse if he thought into them. An Aezthena hangover was so much worse and more disorienting than a night with the bottle.

Por sat very close to him. Her body heat radiated with her ease, her air of contentment.

Oh, no. They hadn't—had they? He didn't remember much of the night before beyond sobbing like a child onto Por.

Had he slept with Por? With—gods—Barenin Lyr?

Anais swallowed and his traitor mind had a sudden intense longing for the memory, if it had happened. He tried to quash that desire, to call it curiosity, or part of the hangover, but an embarrassing pressure started in his groin. He hoped to all the gods Por wouldn't notice, but little chance of that.

Por's lips ghosted the faintest smile. "No, I only slept beside you. I know how disorienting coming out of that state can be for a human. And I would never take advantage. But..." She hesitated, tilting her head to watch him. "I would like to, at a better time, if you'd like."

Heat rushed through Anais, and there was no hiding what was going on in his head and—other places—now. "I...I..." he stammered.

He jumped off the bed, turning away from Por. He was, at least, fully clothed, if rank with sweat and still greasy from since before he'd used the implant. Gah. She'd slept beside him like this? With her heightened senses?

He tried to shake off the thought, think into what had happened the night before. His memories of the day before might be foggy, but he did remember being furious with Por, at what she'd allowed to happen. That she'd used him.

He also remembered her reasons. And her regret.

And his reasons for getting involved in that Aezthena-hunting field trip in the first place, discovered in one blinding moment of clarity that was still with him: she was important to him.

Oh, hells.

He chanced a look back at her. The valance of curtains around the top of the bed cast the upper part of Por's face in shadow, the rest in vivid sunlight. Any face paint she'd worn the day before had been absorbed when she'd focused Aezthena, leaving only the sharp, elegant planes of her face. Her chest was flat now, the folds of her robe in different contours. Had she moved to another gender expression? She still wasn't focused fully human. Her blue eyes flecked gold, and her hair had the faintest metallic shimmer. Her lips were curved up, a hesitant smile. A mature smile.

She was almost thirteen thousand years old. What kind of...experience had she gained in that time? And what might it feel like to join her in that experience?

Her smile widened as he continued to stare.

Stars and gods above. For every reason he could think of, this line of thought was a bad idea. Every reason, including that he was still mad at what she'd done the day before. He still didn't have a hold on what he felt, or what he thought.

"Aren't you married?" Anais asked. "I mean, as a human, as Por?"

Por shrugged. "It's a contract marriage. I respect my spouse, we are friends. We sleep together occasionally. They know I'm polyamorous."

"And...Sela?" He remembered the incredibly intense ambiguity between them.

"Ha. Sela." Por wiped a hand across her mouth. "Sela is...a lover, a sometimes friend, a sometimes enemy. Sela is poly as well. It remains only if you would like to, Anais, and the answer to that question is fairly obvious."

Anais stepped to the window, the sunlit city. Golden domes shone with blinding light. The sky was pink in the east, the edge of one of Denz Dayar's moons visible over the buildings. He gathered a deep breath, forcing himself to calm. To center.

He didn't know what he wanted. He knew what his body wanted, but he didn't trust that. And he never slept with anyone as his base self, his base personality. He never had. It was easier to make sensations matter when he was fully immersed in being someone else. And he didn't fully trust Por yet, and while that wasn't a requirement in his relationships, it felt like it should be with this one.

If this was a relationship. If it ever could be.

But...gods. She was beautiful. And like no one he had met before. Would it hurt to kiss her, to see what those nuanced lips tasted like? Her scent, when she was focused more Aezthena, had a hint of the metallic. Would she taste like titanium? Or, like the earthy musk that lingered beneath her perfume?

He shuddered and shunted his thoughts in a different direction. He counted the aircars in the distance. He tried to figure out how many of them were red.

When that didn't work, he thought of being with her as himself, as only himself, just himself and no persona between, no layer to hide who he was—and that cooled him. His throat tightened, and he felt an infinite and yawning sense of loss, an old, old feeling that came over him in times when he let himself be too vulnerable.

Anais heard Por slide off the bed and pad around it on the thick red and gold carpet.

"Not now," she said, as if in agreement to his unspoken thoughts.

He wrapped his arms around himself. Was she reading his thoughts? His shoulders tightened. He dimly remembered sharing his emotions with her and feeling hers in return the night before. And deciding that wasn't like what Sela had done to him. But what about this? How deeply could she read into his old and deeply private wounds? And hadn't she told him before that she wouldn't do that?

Por touched his arm, a light touch that didn't linger. Her face was serious. "Whatever else, you may trust that your inner thoughts are your own. I might sometimes pick up stray emotions and surface thoughts, and I can't always help that, but my walls are tight. And I read body language better than almost anyone alive. But I will do my utmost not to intrude, inadvertently or not, without your permission."

Anais swallowed hard. No, he didn't want her in his thoughts. Not with or without permission. But with her close to him, he could still feel a sense of emotions outside himself. Was she projecting that consciously, or did that connection they'd formed the night before still linger? She was feeling...loss. A resigned and familiar loss.

He turned to search her eyes. Bits of the last few days, of his time in a simulation of Aezthena thought, jagged in his memories. The strength and ease of sharing thoughts without having to speak them. She'd been much more at ease in that mode of communication than she was now, speaking out loud. He could feel it, this undercurrent of tension that was always with her but had lessened for a time when his thoughts were Aezthena. When they'd shared a commonality they didn't have now. The tension was back.

This promise she was making him now, it was as uncomfortable to her as her dwelling in his thoughts was to him, wasn't it? Her native mode of communication as an Aezthena was non-verbal, in thoughts and emotions and sensory impressions. Sometimes with words, sometimes not. And even when he'd been in his heightened state, she'd still dumbed down her native speech so he could process it—spoken with him in a way his mind could handle. Sela...had not. But Sela's mode of communication was the real way Aezthena related to each other, wasn't it? Por hadn't been conscious of how he'd react to Sela's intrusion, because to Por, it was only a part of the Aezthena way of being. Everything played out in the vast expanses of their minds.

Gods. This was more than a glitch in understanding.

How did it feel to her to cut off her senses, her natural sharing of thoughts with him? To promise that she'd keep her walls tight and not dip into what he was thinking? He imagined that would feel like wearing a blindfold all day, every day, knowing that he could see if he just took it off. No matter how uncomfortable her natural mode of communication made him feel, could he even ask that of her?

Por touched his cheek, her reassurance a soothing warmth. "Anais. It's all right. It's always been important to me to respect the privacy of those around me, whether I'm focused human or not. It helps me maintain my connection to humanity. You are taking nothing from me."

Anais flexed his shoulders before releasing his breath. However he moved on from here, he had to move forward.

"So," Anais said, drawing the word out. "What now?"

Por straightened, smoothing her rumpled red robes from the day before. "Now, there will be a Council meeting. There must be, after yesterday's tour." She eyed Anais. "I told them—as the king—that I'd had a reaction to the Yfeni generators and needed time to re-center. They'll be edgy about that, wondering if I'll take offense. And now, rumors will be running through the palace after the servant found us this morning—I'm sorry, I should have been more vigilant, watching for anyone to enter." She hesitated, but whatever she was about to say, she held it back.

Anais scrubbed his face with both hands. The thought of sitting through a Council meeting, of trying to explain what had happened the day before without telling too much, and sifting through the politics of the situation, listening to the governors go at each other again, all while maintaining the straining presence of Barenin Lyr—all of it turned his headache into a roaring force.

"Let me be the king today," Por said. "You can be me. Por, I mean. Just for the Council meeting, and then we'll shift roles again. It's not good to overtax your mind after holding an Aezthena simulation in your thoughts. Not today at least. I am usually quiet at Council meetings, and if I feel you need a specific comment to keep up appearances, I can help you with that."

Anais frowned. "You want me to be you? As Por?" It felt wrong. It felt too close.

Por arched a sculpted brow. "You've been playing me as Aezthena. It's not so different. This meeting will be charged and volatile, with possible global repercussions. You might handle it well another day, but right now, you are not up for it as Barenin Lyr."

Anais swallowed. "But the implant, it took me days to program—"

Por took Anais' hand and tapped a slow sequence in his palm. "Tap the implant like this, then hold for thirty seconds. Keep hold of my hand while you're tapping."

His memory implant filed the sequence, but Por repeated it several times to make sure he had it.

"Fine, okay, I got it." He tapped the implant. When he got to the hold, he felt an odd shifting, then the usual overlay. He looked down at hands several shades darker than they'd been a moment before.

The implant gave two throbs.

"Tap again to assign a sequence to this pattern."

Anais did, following the next logical mathematical sequence in the pattern he'd set up so he could remember the implant keys. The overlay settled around him like new skin, a blanket identity.

He looked up at Por, whose skin was paling again as she focused Aezthena.

"Good," she said. "You remember my expressions, my gestures. It's not so different from what you studied to come here. Use them. Play the part."

She straightened, changing her own demeanor. Anais watched, momentarily arrested by the small adjustments she made to how she stood, how she held her hands. She seemed to freeze, and then the next moment, her hair, which had been messy from sleep, was arranged neatly in dozens of tiny silver braids that hung around her shoulders. Emotion bled from her face. She wasn't Por anymore, but Barenin Lyr. And it wasn't quite the same as Anais' interpretation of Barenin, but close enough that he doubted anyone—except maybe Sela—could tell the difference.

"Sela—" Anais said, and grimaced. A new voice was always the hardest to get used to with the identity implant. Por's base voice was almost identical to the voice he'd programmed for his version of Barenin, minus his own performance with Barenin's urbane, unclassifiable accent. He'd have to adopt the softer, lilting cadences she used as a Dayaran. But it still was too similar to not feel strange. And—it felt wrong. He could still see Por as she'd been earlier, sitting in bed, sunlight on her lips. And as she'd been in the robing room, in her dance of whirling fabrics.

He swallowed and looked down at himself. "Barenin? Uh..." He waved at her, vaguely, unsure how to ask what he needed to ask. "Uh, as Por, do you shift gender expressions often?"

She glanced over. "Ah. Yes. I sometimes wear prosthetic breasts, if that's what you mean. I'm not now, because my nanites are hyper-vigilant when I focus fully Aezthena. The same reason I no longer have my face paint." She flicked a hand at her pale, un-painted face. He couldn't imagine the indigo paint on her Aezthena face.

Anais took a breath. He'd played a lot of roles. Hundreds of roles. But he'd always played people who presented masc. He had to.

"But yes," Barenin went on, "I shift gender expressions often enough. The Council won't question you presenting neutral, or blended, or masc."

Anais turned and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "I don't think I should look in a mirror." He turned again, running his words through his thoughts and shifting them into Por's accent. "What do I even call you? Is how you're acting now you? Did I get most of it right, or are you playing my version of you?" He got the accent mostly right. A few more minutes and he'd have it down.

One corner of Barenin's mouth quirked up in that almost-smile. But Anais had felt a bit of what it was like to think as an Aezthena did. If Barenin was feeling humor right now, as focused Aezthena as this, it wasn't in a human sense.

"King Lyr or 'my king' are appropriate," Barenin said, her own voice flat.

She was mocking him. Gods. Was that Aezthena humor?

"Come," Barenin said. "I need to dress, and so do you."

20: Not You

It was a strange ritual, pulling robes from the massive dressing room and helping Barenin layer them, as Por had done to take his off on the first day there.

Anais didn't trust himself to speak. Barenin also stayed unnaturally composed, breathing once every few minutes. There was only the rustle of fabric. Anais didn't have to direct her to move when he needed to pull up a sleeve or fasten a clasp—she just moved. He tried not to let that unnerve him.

Finally, Anais broke the silence with a question he'd aborted earlier. He was pretty sure of the answer, but he wanted to hear it. "Sela. Is she still on Denz Dayar?"

"Yes." As if that one word was enough.

Anais tried to formulate a way around that mono-syllabic wall as he laid the last robe over Barenin's shoulders.

Barenin tugged at the lace sleeves, then strode to the bed to retrieve the crown. She...they...he...?

"She," Barenin said. "I'm still the same person, and no, my sense of gender has not changed much from the day before. It is disconcerting to play myself as presenting male when I am not, but I have done it often enough before."

Anais hissed through his teeth. There was no way she could have followed that logic from his body language. Was there? "Barenin...you just said my thoughts were my own—"

"I'm sorry. I have my walls up, but sometimes the emotions leak over. It happens with those I'm close to. But I didn't read your thoughts. I felt your hesitant indecision and deduced from there, that is all." All of this was delivered with indifferent Aezthena calm. Barenin fit the crown on her head, and it sat there as if she was born to wear it.

Anais wet his lips. He was getting mental whiplash again, having to adjust faster than he usually could. He'd gotten used to the idea of Barenin as Por, as mostly human. And he vaguely remembered reorienting himself the night before to see her as both Aezthena and human. But he'd yet to fully incorporate his vision of her as Barenin Lyr, immortal Aezthena, ruler and dimplomat a thousand times over. A role she was now playing to its fullest. A role that was real.

He swallowed. Then his mind caught on something she'd said in that flat monologue: emotions leaked over with those she was close to.

Those she was close to.

His heart began to pound. She'd flirted with him, yes. She'd said she'd like to sleep with him—but that had all felt casual. Not like he was truly important to her, not in the way he'd discovered on the other side of the world—that she might mean something more to him, that he was already thinking of more than just casual sex. That he was thinking of the future, and wondering if she would be in it. And despite everything...he was still thinking of it.

Barenin met his gaze. He knew she'd picked up on some of what he was feeling through his emotions or body language. Hells, he knew from personal experience that she'd hear his elevated heartbeat, smell the sudden, more pungent tang of his sweat. Could he live this vulnerably with someone?

Barenin must have sensed, too, that he wasn't yet ready to have that conversation. "You want to know if Sela is a threat to you. To me."

Anais nodded, grateful to get on a different topic.

She held up open palms. "Sela is Sela. Now that she knows I know she's here, she might move more in the open. Or she might not. She prefers shadows, layers of subterfuge and misdirection."

"But—are you going to do something about her? She wants to take that tech off-world. And you said that's definitely not a good thing."

Barenin's face remained neutral. "Let's see what this Council meeting holds. Now. You must dress."

She touched Anais' arm, and in the next heartbeat they stood in another room. Anais stumbled in the sudden shift of surroundings.

"A little warning next time," he groused.

She smiled.

He fought to reground himself and looked around. The walls were pale green, the furniture—this had to be a sitting room—ornate, but not distasteful. The whole room was slightly disheveled: a throw blanket askew, a pile of actual paper books knocked over on a side table, a holopic in a tacky plain black frame on one wall, clashing with the opulence. The holopic looped through Por, smiling, as she threw her arm around another person with wild red-gold hair and a mischievous smirk. Por's Dayaran spouse. The air smelled like Por, human Por, like her honey and summer wine, and added to it nutmeg and cinnamon.

They were in Por's apartments. And though Anais had broken into more homes than he could count, he keenly felt his intrusion here.

"My spouse is in our provincial home," Barenin said, heading to another room. "They rarely venture to the capital. The city can be stifling, and our provincial home is a sprawling, country estate."

As he followed Barenin through another sitting room and into a bedroom, he had to shift his image of her yet again. He'd almost forgotten, after finding out Por was Barenin Lyr, that she was still a provincial governor and one of the most powerful people on the planet.

Barenin disappeared into a closet and came out holding layered, red robes. They were standard for a governor, though with Por's personal touches—a hint of wine-colored lace at the sleeves and collar, and delicate floral embroidery in reds up the sleeves. "Here. Wear this."

Anais's skin crawled, and he balked at the robes in a way he hadn't balked at a role in years. And it wasn't the thought of presenting more femme—the robes weren't necessarily femme, and anyhow, he could present how he wished, Barenin had said as much. It wasn't the robes, it was...Por. He held the robes out but made no move to put them on. When Barenin pulled out the paint and brush for the ceremonial face paint, Anais shook his head and backed away.

"No. I can't be you. Not...you." He rubbed his hands over his face. Her face. Her human face.

Barenin cupped Anais' cheek with a cold hand. "I see you. I have learned appearances mean far less than anyone wants to believe. The skin, the face, the mannerisms—those are the mask. It's the soul beneath that animates them. You know this."

Anais nodded. It was true. But he still couldn't be Por.

He reached up behind him and tapped the implant off. He started to tap it back on again into the visage of the palace guard he'd used on his first night there, then stopped.

"The servant this morning saw you with...me." Anais swallowed on a suddenly dry throat. Was he even thinking of going out there—anywhere—as himself? In the skin he was born in? With no cosmetics or filters to buffer who he was?

The thought should have terrified him. If there was anything he could do less than present femme, anything that more viciously woke the buried, knotted thoughts that he never looked at, it was being his baseline self.

He waited for the panic, but instead felt a growing, thrumming anticipation.

Barenin's brows rose. "And who do you wish to be, Anais Cavere?"

He was not a beautiful person. He was ordinary, maybe on the slope of ugly. He'd never liked his body. It had never felt like himself, not without the extra layers. Face a blank slate, a base on which to layer holo-projected images, cosmetics, or more recently, overlay his whole body with the identity implant. But with Barenin, it was suddenly, vitally, important not to have all of that in the way.

She saw him. Whoever he was, beneath it all.

That terrified him. How much did she see? Did she know why he always played masc roles and never femme, blended, or neutral? Could she see the things that haunted him? The thoughts that dogged his dreams and poisoned his relationships, what few he'd had?

The thoughts uncoiled from their shoved-down place and rose up in him now, shouting at him, racing his heart. He'd been raised without gender. But he'd been told when he was twelve, on that first awful escape, that he was male. And he'd kept that label like armor. He'd put everything into that fact, an anchor in his never-stable life. He couldn't rock that anchor. He couldn't question it. Even though the thoughts he held of himself, the thoughts that caught him off guard when he let his guard down, betrayed him.

He met Barenin's eyes. How much of this did she see? How could she not see it? It felt glaring and obvious and damning.

He coughed and looked away and began pulling his thoughts in another direction. He did a quick inventory of his emotions. Were any external factors at play? Was this line of thought another of Barenin's manipulations, conscious or not? Did she want him to be his baseline self, was there a purpose in this? He didn't feel any. He couldn't find any obvious threads she'd pulled to get him there. And why, after years spent trying to bury himself, and millions of credits spent on the implant so he never had to be his baseline self again, why did he not want to use it now? Even now, with this turmoil of emotions, why did he hesitate to turn the implant on?

He wasn't comfortable in his body. He didn't think he ever would be. And there was the matter of his DNA—if that was ever traced back to his original colony station, if the crime boss was still looking for him, however implausibly, twenty years later, this was a really bad idea. But again he hesitated at the thought of turning the implant back on.

"What's plausible?" he asked, covering the waver in his voice with a lighter tone. "A servant? A partner? A lover you brought from off-world? I mean, you're an Aezthena. They'll believe you can do almost anything."

"There is a limit to what they'll believe," Barenin said, "but yes, all of those are plausible."

Anais was suddenly very aware of his unwashed clothes and overripe body. With the implant on, he'd forgotten how much he needed a wash. "Uh...where's the shower?" It would buy him time. He could think. And if nothing else, get his baseline self clean again.

Barenin pointed to a door. "Through there. I have some of my spouse's clothes here, I think they will fit you. I'll place them just inside the door."

Anais scrambled into the shower and let the hot stream beat on his skin. He scrubbed like his life depended on it.

He tried to think through why he was still in his own skin, but those thoughts felt too deep, too dangerous, and his mind kept straying to Por, and the quirk of her lips when she was amused. Then her image shifted to the Barenin Lyr he'd seen as a child. Calm and composed, laying down the terms that would stop a genocide. He had, if he could admit it to himself, had a crush on Barenin even then. A fascination that had fueled years of research, culminating in this chance to impersonate his idol. He'd expected a challenge, but he'd thought it would be fun. He'd thought he was over the childhood crush.

But it was more than that, wasn't it?

He turned his face into the stinging surge of water, washing away the bitter memory of the day before. He'd always had the ability to move on from hard experiences, to keep going no matter what. He'd learned how to do that when he was twelve, that one day his parent hadn't come home. And...in the months after.

Anais had learned how to survive by adapting, improvising, being whoever he needed to be. And he'd always held that image of Barenin Lyr speaking at the treaty summit because he'd recognized in Barenin a truth he'd known even then. Self-adaptation was his only hope of peace in life. His only hope of life at all. He'd seen it in her—she made herself be who she needed to be. And he'd seen it in himself.

And maybe it hadn't started when he'd run away from the station. He'd had to be someone else when his parent was home because his parent didn't like the shy kid who'd rather pour through fashion catalogs and watch history dramas than socialize with the kids of his parents' friends. He'd taught himself how to relate to the people around him by adapting. And he'd known Barenin Lyr had to do that, too. All other footage he'd seen of Aezthena had been cold and frightening, but he'd felt that Barenin understood humans because she tried to. And if an Aezthena could learn to understand humans, then maybe Anais could learn to understand the people around him, too.

Anais turned off the shower and toweled off. In the dressing room beyond the washroom, he found a folded set of loose robes in dark gold and a pair of gray slacks. The robes fit well, and the slacks were a little tight but do-able. He ran his hair under the sonic dryer and brushed it back loosely. It fell in lank brown waves to his shoulders. His nose was too big, his eyes too narrow. His chin too sharp. His stomach began to knot again.

Barenin knocked and entered. 

21: Masks

Anais tensed. He almost expected her to say this was a bad idea, that he was too ugly to make a convincing bed partner—she had to see that, didn’t she? Or even that he was too edgy as just himself, that this would never work.

But she held up the face paint. “It is necessary. Everyone is painted on Denz Dayar. But it won’t be as elaborate as mine was.”

Anais took the jar of paint and stared at the label, not reading the words. He was all about the challenge, wasn’t he? That was why he was here. The challenge of playing Barenin Lyr. The ultimate challenge of impersonating an Aezthena. And he had done it. It wasn’t quite the trade craft coup he had hoped for, but he’d done it. The Dayarans still didn’t suspect him.

But that wasn’t the ultimate challenge, was it? Of all the things he’d adapted to, all the people whose lives he’d borrowed, the characters he’d created, he’d yet to meet the challenge of playing himself.

He stared at the mirror, dark eyes staring back. The hardest role. The hardest role he’d ever play. And who was he, really? Who was Anais Cavere?

He suppressed a shudder and shoved down traitorous thoughts that wanted to rise again. Anais Cavere was whoever he wanted him to be.

He held up the jar. “Uh, can you put on the paint? I’m not sure how to get the stylistic tics, or what station markings I’d need.”

Barenin seemed to be expecting this, plucking the paint bottle from his hands and brandishing the brush. She stepped in front of him, blocking his view of the mirror, and began to apply the paint in quick, sure strokes.

The trill of the job rose in him, the excitement of stepping into a new character. He let it drown out his fear and misgivings. This character wasn’t completely himself—he himself wouldn’t wear this paint. But maybe he’d play himself playing this new character. He could do that. That was, at least, a buffer.

With Barenin this close to him, Anais wet his lips, gathering courage before he could talk himself out of his next question. “Can I ask you something?”

Her eyes flicked to his, neither encouragement nor dissuasion.

He forged ahead. “Why, if you don’t want people to know who you are, are you here on Denz Dayar as yourself?” He waved at her. “I mean, when you’re Por. You’ve done nothing to disguise your features, or even your eyes. The kynblue. I mean, yes, you have cosmetics, but…”

What he really wanted to ask was: Is that how you always do this, or did you, for some reason, do it because of me? So I could recognize you? So I could know you?

“I can’t encrypt,” Barenin said, switching her work to his other cheek. “My Aezthena nanites eat through the genetic encryption and revert me to my default genetic state within days. Very painful days.” Her strokes grew broader, the pressure of the brush more intense. “I can’t cast an Aezthena illusion over myself, and I can only make weak illusions over other people or things. I’ve never been able to determine why, except that it’s a condition of my being caught between Aezthena and human states. I can’t use an identity implant like you have, because my bio-synthetic systems interfere with its functions. And I can’t alter myself with surgical means, because…because.” With her this near, he could sense a shift in her emotions, a darker memory behind the words. “It’s the nanites. You’ve seen what happens to my face paint. And prosthetics. It would be the same for any surgical alterations.”

“So, you can’t be anyone but you. I mean, physically, you can’t be other than your genetic baseline?” He felt from her a cold and coiled pain. It wasn’t a human emotion. And it was endless. Anais caught his breath at the intensity of it.

She met his gaze.

He swallowed, looked away. She resumed painting.

Anais couldn’t imagine having to assume new identities without drastically changing his appearance. The mask was such an important part of the process and helped him separate himself from the roles he played. And…she was presenting as a Dayaran standard of femme on this world, and she’d said she used prosthetics, like the cosmetics--but she wasn’t able to make herself physically female if she wanted to, was she? Gods. Genetic encryption across sexes was so common that Anais had just assumed she’d felt no need, or had already encrypted as multi. But maybe she had felt the need and hadn’t been able.

It was on his lips to apologize for asking, to say something sympathetic, to say anything across that gulf, but she pulled back from him abruptly.

“There. I think that will do.”

Anais glanced in the mirror behind her. Indigo spread in a broad stripe across his mouth and traced arced lines around each eye. Not remotely as elaborate as Por’s paint had been, but still denoting a higher rank.

“Uh,” he said. “This is more than a servant.”

“Anais Cavere, Royal Consort,” Barenin said.

Anais drew in a sharp breath. He didn’t know what part of that statement to protest first, but the protest stuck in his throat.

Barenin set the brush down on the dressing room counter. “Whatever happens from here, you will need me to stick with you for a while. I fear the Aezthena who were your clients will wish you dead whether you come back with the tech or not. Yes, you can use the identity implant to disappear for a time, but Aezthena can see that there is a Kaireyeh-based implant at work, and see into your mind to find out why. I am truly sorry to have put you in this situation, Anais. I told you before. I am not a good person. I sometimes use people as a means to an end. But—I’m not sorry I met you. If you wish to leave, whenever you wish to leave, I’ll protect you from a distance, for however long you need. For the duration of your life if need be. You won’t see me. I’ll maintain my distance but monitor for Aezthena or any threats to you. But, if you wish to stay with me, I would welcome your company. And companionship.”

All of this was delivered stiffly in that flat Aezthena voice. But Barenin touched his arm, and through that touch, Anais knew the sincerity of her words. The resonance behind them.

He could be furious at Barenin for drawing him into this. For putting him in a danger that might stay with him for the rest of his life—and yeah, she’d only thought to tell him this now, when he was getting too involved to back out. That fury fought to rise.

But...why had he decided to impersonate Barenin Lyr? That had already been a life-threatening gambit. That had been all his decision. As had been the choice to take the job to find the Kaireyeh tech, even if he hadn’t known it was Kaireyeh tech at the time. He’d known there were huge risks involved in any job with that kind of fee. He’d known he’d be selling his soul with that fee, but he’d taken the job anyway. Because it had intersected with a chance to play Barenin Lyr. He could have chosen the persona of a human diplomat and still probably got hired as the Dayaran’s contract king. But he’d chosen Barenin.

The jobs he pulled were never about the money. They were about the people he became. The things he experienced. He learned how to be something by becoming that person for a while. And he’d wanted to learn how to be something that most of his life had never let him become: good.

Barenin said she was not a good person. And maybe in the day to day, she wasn’t. Not  always. But she’d kept the humans and Aezthena from annihilating each other for almost thirteen thousand years. That was…he couldn’t wrap his mind around how huge a feat that was.

She’d said she’d become Aezthena to hold that balance. He’d felt the deep fatigue of her emotions. The bitterness of her struggle. How much had she given up or lost over so many years? How deeply had that struggle worn on her? And yet here she was on Denz Dayar, still working to keep the universe in balance. She could smile. She had compassion and empathy, he’d felt it pouring from her last night, for him. How did someone go through thirteen thousand years of the kind of history they’d had and remain optimistic?

Yes, he’d chosen to buy the identity implant. He’d chosen to come here. He’d chosen, when she’d asked him, to play deeper into her plans. He knew his mind—Barenin’s nudges or not, he had made all those choices. And she had made choices. She hadn’t brought him here by chance. And she’d known he wouldn’t run from the danger.

Anais swallowed, a strangled sound. There was something alien rising up inside him. Something he’d learned to stomp down years ago, along with so many other things. He’d been so many people throughout his life, surrounded by people who loved him, hated him, who believed he had loved them. All real emotions, but from borrowed lives.

But no one knew him. No one had ever looked at him and truly known who he was. Not since he was a child, and maybe not even then. He’d thought he liked it that way.

He met Barenin’s golden eyes. They glowed faintly, the metallic flecks in the irises shifting in fractal patterns he hadn’t known they had. He’d missed that in his recreation of her image for the identity implant. It was a detail he never would have had unless he’d been this close.

There were other small things he’d missed, too. The faint tracery of silver veins around her nose and eyes. The almost pearlescent sheen to her silver hair. He’d thought it was just metallic, but no, it had a shifting aura of palest color.

Anais breathed out, slowly. Somehow, in the last few moments, they’d drifted even closer.

He had never been this close to an Aezthena before. Not when she was fully Aezthena. And it was strange—even though he’d known Por first as the human version of herself, he saw her here, too. This person who was both Por and Barenin. And maybe neither. Her birth name was Damon. He was sure she’d had thousands of others.

She was Aezthena, a demigod. So many throughout history would call her a monster. Anais saw a person. An intense, extremely sensitive person. Someone who was older than most nations. But he’d seen how her face lit up when she talked about new experiences. She could still find joy in discovering something new.

She didn’t smile. It wouldn’t have been natural, or real, on her Aezthena face. And he sensed she needed this moment to be as real as he did. She needed him to see her, too. Without the layers, the humanity, the paint. Focused Aezthena, she was at her most powerful. He could feel her absolute belief in her apex place in the universe like a projecting aura. Yet she also seemed, in that moment, so vulnerable. Not moving, not breathing, just watching. Senses tuned to every nuance of his own movements and breath. Waiting to see how he’d respond to her as her most powerful self. The version of herself she most feared.

Anais tentatively touched her cheek. Cold like metal in an autumn wind, soft as silk. He hadn’t got that texture right, either. Not even remotely right. He smoothed back silver braids to tuck behind her ears, and his fingers lingered behind her head, on the skin of her neck.

The hairs on his own neck rose at her golden predator’s eyes, her unnatural calmness. Everything that was human in him told him to fear her. But he felt, through his touch, emotions that weren’t human but familiar. He’d known something similar in his simulated Aezthena thoughts, though that experience now felt clumsy and embarrassing next to the real thing. Still, he recognized the shapes of branching logic trees, racing so fast he could barely register they were there. Fear. That was Aezthena fear.

Barenin Lyr was afraid of him.

The shape of her emotions shifted at his realization. They opened, deepened, swirled around his own fears and blended with them, until Anais wasn’t sure which of them was feeling what, or which of them first started to feel that most dangerous of emotions: hope.

His fingers traced of their own volition back up her cheek to her lips. Her lips parted, and his fingertips chilled from her barest breath.

He pulled back before he left both of them burned.

“All right,” he said, voice hoarse. “Royal Consort.”

He knew the extra offer in that title, and the unspoken question. Publicly, it was an announcement that he was under Barenin’s protection—which in itself was huge. And she was right--if he’d been hired by Aezthena, they already knew who he was. Barenin wasn’t the only one who could research pasts. This protection was a promise to him, and a warning to others: keep off, he’s mine.

And privately, the title was asking if he wanted it to be more than a cover. Wanted this to be more than masks and jobs and games. The question implied that she wanted it, or she wouldn’t have asked. Wouldn’t be offering. And was still afraid of the answer.

All the hair on Anais’ body stood on end again, but it wasn’t fear. At least, not that kind of fear.

What did it mean to be close to Barenin Lyr? He still felt the overflow of her emotions as they stood close, not touching. Her logic trees branching out again, mixed with that other emotion he’d identified as hope. Swirling and swirling and swirling. As were his own emotions.

He keenly felt the shape of his own body. This familiar, hated body. He still heard the ring of his name, the name he’d chosen for himself after escaping his six months in hell to be his own, his anchor, on her lips. A precipice yawned open before him, promising great risks. And possibilities of great rewards.

He gripped both of her hands before the logical part of his brain could take back over and stop him. Put up every wall and barrier he could find. Tell him to run as far as he could and never look back. Bury himself again.

“Royal Consort,” he said again. And the words were his own tentative promise.

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