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.
22: The Facts
The governors stood like silent penitents in their red robes as Barenin strode into the ornate meeting chamber, Anais trailing behind her. Though the room was large, the air had a tightness, a sense of dread building beneath the cloying clash of perfumes. Their contract king had fallen ill—an Aezthena fallen ill—while trying to resolve their issues. Did the governors think Barenin would retaliate? Dissolve the contract? Destroy their world, or at least Edin's manufactories?
Governor Edin themself looked especially sick, their stoic expression and swirling face paint not hiding their unease. It had been their generators that had caused Barenin's illness—or so the king had said. But Edin would know there were deeper currents than that. They'd know that the contract king had likely found the Aezthena they were working with.
Did Edin know which of their workers Sela was posing as? Or had Sela had come to them as purely Aezthena? Maybe neither—games within games seemed to fit both Barenin's descriptions of Sela's style and what Anais had read in the sketchy accounts of Sela throughout history.
The governors tracked Barenin's progress to her place at the head of the table. While Anais knew he'd played the part of Barenin well, it wasn't a comparison to the real thing. Barenin had owned the room the moment she stepped into it. Every movement, every flick of her eyes as she reached the carved wooden chair and stood behind it were perfectly calculated to produce the effects she wanted. And she made no move at first to alleviate the tension.
Anais would have. But then, Anais wasn't Barenin.
He stood beside her, holding himself with a relaxed bearing, visually at ease among power. In reality, his heart was in his throat as eyes turned to study him with varying degrees of detachment or hostility. He was glad, oh so glad, for the face paint. It wasn't fully a mask, but in that moment, it was enough.
It was Ijuka who had the guts—or at least the responsibility—to speak up first. They didn't open with the big issue at hand, but instead stalled by focusing on Anais.
"My king, only yourself, the palace guards, and members of the Council are permitted in this chamber."
"And the Royal Consort," Barenin said. She gripped the back of the chair. The wood gave the faintest creak under her inhuman strength.
"And the Royal—" Ijuka stopped. Their mouth opened, closed. Opened again.
Even though Anais' nerves were on edge, he still watched with professional fascination as Barenin shifted the mood of the room from their tension at what she might do about the night before and toward matters of policy. He understood: tension with an edge of panic would make for irrational conversation. Barenin hadn't soothed it when she'd come in, because it wouldn't have been soothed. The strategy was to shift it to something more productive. Matters of policy, like what to do with the sudden appearance of a Royal Consort, they could handle.
Stances shifted from fear to the belligerence of lawmakers confronting an infraction of their code. Even an Aezthena, as their contract king and therefore a part of their system, wasn't beyond the law.
Ijuka held up a hand. "My king, a Royal Consort must be approved by the Council of Governors, or attached to the contract king before they are legally king."
"I understand that. Anais Cavere was my consort before I became king," Barenin said, and took her seat.
Anais tried, and failed, to suppress a twitch at hearing his name spoken in front of so many witnesses. But their attention was mostly on Barenin. He curled fingers into his palms and kept his breathing steady.
Ijuka, who continued to look between Anais and Barenin, flapped helpless hands before they sat at the far end.
Despite his curdling anxiety, Anais suppressed a snort. Technically, Barenin—this version of Barenin—had become king today. And technically, Anais had been attached to her before she'd stepped into this room.
Legally it was a wash—or maybe not. Who could disprove it?
Ijuka glanced down at their holopad. "There is no record of an Anais Cavere arriving officially. Therefore—"
"Governor," Barenin said coolly. "I brought Ser Cavere here myself. They are my consort. They have been here since the contract started." All true statements, more or less.
"Do you forget I don't need your transportation to move myself and others?"
Barenin stood abruptly, then disappeared. She reappeared, standing behind Ijuka.
Everyone jumped. Anais, who'd half expected something like this with all her other calculated theatrics, also jumped.
Around the room, guards shifted uneasily. Fear shone in the eyes of the governors. More than one made some sort of warding gesture. And now the tension they'd first walked into was back, because Barenin wanted it back. She was showing her total control of everything in the room, and those among the governors who were sharp enough to pick up on that had gone very still.
Anais had a sinking feeling that this move to take over the contract from him was also part of Barenin's plan. Or at least, Barenin was using it to full advantage. His grasp on where she was leading this meeting was slipping—he could think a double handful of steps ahead, but she could think thousands.
Doubt crept like a spider into his stomach, jittery and uneasy. Of course Barenin was using him again. What they'd just shared in the dressing room didn't make her stop being who she was. Aezthena used everything, every resource, to get the outcome they wanted. No matter the cost to others. No matter if the end was a noble one. He couldn't forget that.
Barenin appeared back beside him and resumed her seat. She reached behind her for Anais' hand.
He stiffened. Her touch wouldn't be personal, just another calculated move on her game board. It felt obscene, and he itched to pull away.
Then he felt her steady presence at the touch. With him. Acknowledging what he felt. Trust me.
Anais drew a long, unsteady breath.
"I am here," Barenin said, still holding Anais' hand, "because the nature of the conflict you wish me to resolve also has relevance to the affairs between humans and Aezthena. You asked for someone with skills as a negotiator and the ability to broker peace. I have investigated this conflict between the provinces of Governors Farian and Edin—" both of whom went rigid as she said their names "—and I've found neither to be at fault in this situation. Instead, let me explain why you are having an escalation that you haven't been able to resolve internally."
The governors looked at each other in surprise, and there was a general rustle in the room.
Farian half-rose. "My king," they said indignantly, "you saw yourself—Governor Edin is manufacturing technology that can make even you ill." That earned them glares from both sides of the table—Barenin had skipped over the illness, and the governors had hoped to keep it that way.
"It is Yfeni technology," Edin said coldly. "It is both blessed and practical. If I have increased the efficiency, isn't that even more blessed—"
Farian pointed a thick finger at Edin. "You made an Aezthena sick! How can that not be—"
"Sit," Barenin said, softly but with enough force that Farian fell back in their chair. "Governor Farian. You are not wrong. But you are also not in possession of all the facts." She looked around the table. "Let me be clear, first, that I take no offense at what happened at the site of the generators—in fact, I found my reaction to the generators enlightening."
Never mind that there had been no actual reaction. Edin shifted, the barest movement in their seat. Barenin pointedly did not look at them, projecting that point so the others noticed it as well. There would be a widening rift forming between Edin and even their own faction now. Anais forgot to be nervous—he was taking notes from a master.
"I've been watching your world for some time," Barenin continued. "As have other Aezthena, who do not have your best interests in mind. What you call Yfeni in your religion, we call Kaireyeh—"
Ijuka held up their hands with a grimace. "My king, forgive the interruption, but I believe you need all the facts as well. We are aware of Kaireyeh, and it is not the same concept as Yfeni. Kaireyeh is based on the theory that the universe is holographic, and that the source code of that hologram is sentient. We accept that Kaireyeh is a valid theory—Aezthena have used this theory in their functions for years. But to us, the theory is flawed and incomplete. In our religion, Yfeni is the living source of all things. It is not just the source code, the pure math. It is the hologram, too. It is the projection, and the possibilities inherent in all projections. All permutations of all possible realities, contained in one sentient multiverse. That is Yfeni."
Barenin stilled. Her hand holding Anais' tightened, and Anais felt her sudden focusing of thought. And a surge of Aezthena-flavored fear.
He reflexively clenched her hand in return. What would make someone like Barenin Lyr feel that much fear? What in the worlds could Ijuka have said to trigger that reaction? The explanations had sounded like two halves of the same chip to him.
"Yfeni," Barenin said slowly, "is the sentient multiverse? Not just the universe we are in now and branches off of it? All universes with no center? A whole?"
Ijuka nodded and sat back, looking satisfied that their explanation had been understood. "Yes."
"And does your tech that utilizes Yfeni theory pull just from the source code of this universe, or all of the sentient multiverse?"
Ijuka blinked. "All of it, of course."
Barenin took an audible breath. And then her skin darkened, her hand holding Anais' warming.
No. No, what was she doing? Gods and stars above. She was focusing human.
Stop, Anais thought at Barenin. You'll lose their trust. Everything I built here—
This is how I gain their trust, Barenin said.
Chairs shoved back from the table, scraping the floor. Guards around the room came to full and spine-prickling alertness, hands on weapons. The governors stood, a tangle of voices rising. A few pointed at Por's empty place at the table. Then at...Por.
Anais stood frozen beside Por. He never froze, and some part of him wondered if it was the lingering effects of the Aezthena hangover. But then, he'd also never worked with an Aezthena, either. He was used to having all the possibilities of a scenario mapped out ten or twenty steps ahead, all his provisions and contingencies, so he could improvise within them—but this was Barenin beside him. She could recalculate hundreds of steps ahead in less than a moment. She'd derailed his plans before, but never so publicly. And never when he was his baseline genetic self. Never when everyone in the room knew his name.
"Forgive me for the deception," Por said, voice pitched to carry. "I have been here for some time. And apparently, never fully understood you until now. Forgive me for that as well."
She stood and raised her hands, finally letting Anais' hand go. He didn't move, though. Didn't know if he should, or how the Council would react. Or what his place in all this meant now.
Run, run, run, his mind thrummed. Run, your cover is blown.
But there were guards around the edges of the room. Even with his identity implant ready for a quick disappearance and escape, he had to actually make it to the door to turn it on, or its abilities were useless.
Por—Barenin—had said to trust her.
I'm trusting, dammit. I'm trusting because you hold my life in your hands. He flung the thoughts out there, not knowing if she'd catch them in her human state. She didn't react.
At Por's raised hands, those still talking hushed. Por wore the crown. And though she didn't have the face paint, and was weighted with the heavy royal robes, and though her hair was in braids, not the elaborate knots she favored, she was very obviously Por. Her mannerisms had changed again, shifting cues from Aezthena to human. From Dayaran masculine to feminine.
"Aezthena," Edin hissed. "This is a deception. What have you done with Governor Por?"
"I'm right here, Edin. Please. Sit. I will explain all I can."
"I should hope so," Ijuka said, their voice like ice.
Por looked their way, and Ijuka drew back, though to their credit, they held Por's gaze.
Anais barely chanced a breath, afraid it would shatter the silence.
"Ser Governor," a guard called. "Should we escort these people from the room?" They sounded unsure. How did anyone escort an Aezthena if they didn't want to go? And Por, as Barenin, had clearly demonstrated earlier that she was Aezthena.
Ijuka made a quelling gesture. "No. Thank you, no. I want to hear this out." But they didn't tell the guards to fully stand down.
Around the room, guards and governors alike shifted in agitation, a circle of movements centered around Por. And around Anais, though he had become tangential in the intense focus on Por. That, at least, allowed him to breathe. And knowing that Por could blink them out of this if she had to—at least, he hoped she could.
Por's hand brushed his as she sat back down. Again that reassurance, though her emotions in her human focus were muted.
"Thank you, Governor," Por said formally, and waited as the others returned to their seats, however uneasily, before she spoke again. She did not take off the crown.
"For centuries, the Aezthena have watched your world. I have watched it for centuries. Because of your religion, the Kaireyeh tech you make is unique, and though we have found ways to incorporate your tech in some of our own advances, we've never been able to see to the heart of how most of it works, or build it for ourselves. You can imagine, for an Aezthena, how infuriating that might be. That a world of humans has gained mastery of Kaireyeh that they, a race built from Kaireyeh and built to use it, don't have. I came here nine years ago because Aezthena interest in your world has intensified. I've personally protected this world for more than eighty years, since just after the time of your last contract king. That Aezthena king brought back technology from you that pushed several factions of Aezthena in a direction that could be disastrous for humans. And I didn't understand why until you explained just now, Ijuka, the difference between Kaireyeh and Yfeni."
Ijuka looked baffled. "But if you've been here all this time—if you are really Por—then how could you not know that?"
Por held up her palms. "Because I made the mistake of integrating with you as a Dayaran. I could only compare my view of Kaireyeh with your view of Yfeni, and I thought, from my perspective, they were the same. I've read all of your holy books. They agree with much of my own philosophy. But your language and concepts did not solidify for me until you used them with my concept of Kaireyeh in tandem. Aezthena process information in different ways than humans. There are some facts that we can deduce from the barest data, and some that will take an extremely unique perspective for us to grasp."
"Why is this important?" Edin asked. Their face, even beneath the heavy paint, had gone a shade of gray. Sweat stood out on their high brow. "Why—beyond the factor of more advanced technology—should this matter to the Aezthena? We make generators. You make generators. It's all the same tech at its heart." But they didn't sound convinced of their own argument. Were they finally understanding just how much danger was in their association with an Aezthena? That Sela definitely didn't have their best interest at heart? Or had they suspected all along, and thought it worth the risk of realizing their plans for a utopia?
Anais decided he'd never want to live in a province that Edin governed. They might be an idealist, but they were also an idiot, and willfully ignorant.
"No," Por said, "it's not the same. Aezthena Kaireyeh tech is based on our absolute knowledge that the universe and all its branches are sentient, but our universe is at the core of that sentience. The brain of the body, if you will. But Yfeni tech as I now understand it is based on the sentience of the entire multiverse. The body as an intelligent whole, no part more important than the others. As you said, all possibilities from all perspectives, not just one."
Beside Por, Anais regained enough of his composure to start rapidly running theories and numbers through his memory implant. He had studied advanced Kaireyeh theories—as much as one could study theories of using the source code of a sentient universe—and he just followed, barely, the differences Por was talking about. He ran back through what Por had said the night before, about several factions of Aezthena wanting to become more separate from humanity. And he thought about the exact moment Barenin had shifted from surety to fear. It was when Ijuka had said the word "multiverse."
Most human Kaireyeh theories centered on Kaireyeh being one universe with infinite possible fluctuations within it—different timelines, different branches of possibilities, etc—but always with a constant center. An immutable baseline universe from which all possibilities branched. When ships traveled using Kaireyeh engines—something banned a long time ago, but which smugglers and some less-resource-rich worlds still used—the travel didn't obey any kind of normal physical laws. Flows of Kaireyeh could stretch travel time for the travelers and shrink it for the rest of the universe, or the other way around, depending on the variables put into the engines. Even that method was not exact. The best guesses were that small pocket possibilities were created and discarded with every trip through Kaireyeh. It's what Barenin did whenever she parted the fabric of spacetime and blinked herself from one place to another. It's what she did when she created a bubble of slowed or sped-up time. The way Kaireyeh functioned might never change, but Kaireyeh itself was always changing.
But with the Dayarans' concept of Yfeni, if he understood it correctly, they didn't view the universe as one continuous sentient program constantly writing patches for itself, but as an infinite multitude of programs that formed one continuous intelligence. Not a universe of infinite possibilities, but a true, uncentered multiverse.
It was almost the same thing. Almost.
And the Aezthena wanted this tech, badly. If they'd hired Anais to get it out, and if Sela had also come for her own reasons, other Aezthena knew or suspected what Barenin was just understanding now. And those Aezthena's goals were to separate themselves from humanity.
"Fuck," Anais said. Were the Aezthena going to try and split humans and Aezthena into separate universes? Or maybe create a pocket universe all for themselves, like what was created when a ship traveled through Kaireyeh—except with the concept of Yfeni and the math that followed, maybe it was possible to make a permanent pocket universe.
"Yes," Por agreed. "Fuck."
Anais shifted under the eyes of the governors' renewed attention to him, but his questions were too pressing not to ask. "Do they know what they might do with something like this? With an Yfeni engine?"
"I suspect if they don't know yet, they're getting there," Por said. "You've followed the logic. It is not...logic that we handle well. Not even I, when I'm focused human, can truly think like a human. I'm still Aezthena in nature."
The din of voices rose, fear mixing with angry speculation.
Ijuka's voice cut through the rest. "Por, I'm glad you're understanding all of this, but please explain for the rest of us how this affects our world. Yes, you've said you've protected us. Yes, you've said the Aezthena have an interest in and have taken some of our tech. We know the Kaireyeh Accords ban the development and use of Kaireyeh tech, but we don't use Kaireyeh. We use Yfeni. We've kept our trade and social profiles low among other worlds—we prefer our own religions. You know this. So how does this affect us now? What has changed?"
Por straightened, waving at both sides of the table. Governors on both opposing sides wore equal expressions of dismay and distrust. "This conflict between Farian and Edin is manufactured. There is an Aezthena—not me, and possibly more than one—at the heart of it. It's a smokescreen, and a prod to get you to go to war. If you go to war, you focus on developing more weaponized versions of your Yfeni technology. Smaller and more portable versions."
Edin huffed, crossing their arms. "That is against our religion. I would never develop weapons of war. You should know that. If you are Por."
Por shrugged. "A lot of things happen in war that are against our religions. War breeds a certain kind of necessity that disregards morality."
Edin opened a hand to acknowledge the point, though they looked far from happy. Maybe, in their buildup of troops, they'd already begun to use Yfeni technology to power already developed weapons. And that was just a hair away from using Yfeni as a weapon itself.
Anais thought of the troops he had seen from above as they'd crossed the militarized border. How much Yfeni tech was there, waiting to be unleashed on the world? Was any of it from the new high-efficiency designs? And even if it was only used to power otherwise non-Kaireyeh or non-Yfeni weapons, how much damage could that still do? If the math that wrote the universe—or the multiverse—was truly sentient, as both the Aezthena and the Dayarans believed, what would it think of being used in such a way?
He shivered. The walls of the room suddenly felt paper thin. If Kaireyeh or Yfeni, or whatever version was right, made up everything—absolutely everything—how could anyone escape the consequences of using it wrongly?
There were whole sections of space devastated from previous human-Aezthena wars that remained impassable, because space and time within them had been so horribly twisted and fractured by the use of Kaireyeh weapons. Anais thought he better understood now what that meant, and it chilled him to his core.
Even the guards, who'd remained stoicly alert, shifted uneasily at this turn in the conversation.
"So we have at least two Aezthena meddling in the affairs of our world," Ijuka said, staring flatly at Por.
Por nodded, ignoring their jab. "And it will continue, until they get what they want."
Ijuka pinched the bridge of their nose. "Then why don't we just trade with them? Why all the subterfuge? The Aezthena have never posed a threat to our world before. Why don't they come to us openly and ask for our tech?" They considered Por a moment before adding, "Why didn't you?"
Por let some of her focus go Aezthena again, her black hair taking on a silver sheen, her skin paling but not assuming the full Aezthena palour.
"I'm not infallible," she said. "And Aezthena like patterns. It has been our pattern, with your world, to wage our own cold war around it. And I did not feel I had enough information to act openly." She tilted her head. "On consideration, and from what I learned from you today, that was a mistake. If I had asked you from the start the difference between Kaireyeh and Yfeni, we would be having a much different conversation now."
Ijuka opened their mouth.
Por held up a hand and went on quickly, "But I'm asking your help now. I'm revealing myself now because I need your help. Humanity and Aezthena both—to keep the peace, to survive—need your help. I fear the Aezthena can use this tech to try and split off a universe for themselves. No humans, no extra-terrestrials. Only them. Or however they envision it. But if they use this tech wrongly, if they don't fully understand the meaning of Yfeni versus Kaireyeh—which is very possible—they could shatter the universe. They could shatter all universes."
"Shatter...how?" Edin asked, leaning forward. Their eyes had gone wide, mouth pinched tight. Anais might have felt some satisfaction at their consternation, this upending of what they'd thought were noble goals, if he wasn't feeling that same fear himself.
"I've seen fractures in the universe before," Por said. "I'm sure you've heard of them. They happen when Kaireyeh is used as a weapon, or with ill-intent. When the source code of the universe is turned against itself. The pockets of impassable spacetime we call eddies are from such large-scale events that took place centuries or millennia ago. I've watched them happen. But what I'm talking about here is on the infinite scale—if the Aezthena try to split off a universe and do it wrong, everything could become like the eddies. Fractured, shattered, worlds destroyed or split into multiple shards of spacetime. And the universe might never heal."
A new chill swept over Anais. He wasn't touching Por, and he wasn't sure if it was his own churning gut or the mood in the room, but he thought he felt a deeper, more ancient fear in her words. A plea for understanding.
He was close enough that he subtly stretched his hand toward her shoulder, hoping to brush it and get a better sense of what she was feeling. Without looking, she sat forward, out of his reach.
"So, what do you want us to do?" Farian asked. Their voice was surprisingly clear, most of the posturing gone. How much of their pomposity was an affectation? Did it matter, now? "We can't defend against the Aezthena. You said you've protected us, but another Aezthena got past you, didn't they? And that's why there's sabotage in my factories and workers on strike?"
"Yes," Por said. "And no, I can no longer protect you as I have before. I am one person. I am strong and highly experienced as an Aezthena, but I am only one person. More will come, and keep coming. Many indirectly, but some might come directly as they get more desperate for the secrets of your tech. They might demand it from you. They might destroy cities before you hand it over. They might take it and destroy your world so no one else can have the secret of it." She paused, letting that sink in. "That is the danger of having something the Aezthena desperately want."
Por had told him, when she'd asked him to take on a simulation of an Aezthena mind, that this was save-the-universe kind of stuff. She hadn't been kidding. And this world, by nature of its religion, had found itself in the crosshairs of a millennia-long struggle between humans and demigods.
He hoped Por had a plan. He desperately hoped Por had a plan, because he was blanking on all fronts.
"What I ask you now," Por said, "is to destroy every piece of Yfeni tech on your world. I'll help you rebuild your infrastructure with non-Yfeni tech. Destroy the knowledge of how to build such tech. I know—I know—this is a part of your sacred heritage. I know it's an essential component of your religions. But this tech could destroy the universe. It literally could destroy the universe, and that is a near-inevitable outcome if we don't do something now. It will, at the very least, destroy your world as the Aezthena fight to acquire it. That has already begun."
No one said a word. No whispers, no angry voices. The air felt weighted with fear and anger. Searing defiance, and a growing sense of loss.
Anais realized he was feeling all of this through Por. Though she still wasn't touching him, and wasn't fully Aezthena, her emotions bled over to him, whether that was intentional or not.
Intentional, he decided, as he felt some of her own grief coming through. She'd needed to keep herself separate from him, maybe because of this grief. If they were touching, she had less control over what he picked up from her. But she also needed someone to share it, or at least to feel what she was feeling.
He turned to study Por. She'd lived on this world for nine years, and she was a lot like him in the way she played her roles—she immersed herself fully. More than he ever had. She'd let herself become Dayaran. She wore no face paint now, but she carried herself like them, and it wasn't an affectation. Not anymore. She spoke with their language, their accent. She was desperately trying to save her world, and the only way to do that was also to destroy it.
"You are asking us," Ijuka said slowly, echoing Anais' thoughts, "to destroy our culture, or let them destroy our world. Do you understand what you are asking, Por?" Their eyes shone. "I thought I knew you. I thought I understood who you were. I thought you were my friend. How can you ask this of me?"
"Because I must," Por said, voice hoarse.
Por's emotions spiked with regret, but settled into a monolithic resolve. She was Aezthena. She was Barenin Lyr. And she would do what she had to do, by any means necessary. But she was giving them the choice, first.
Por cleared her throat, straightened. The sense of her emotions faded from Anais as her posture became more formal. "I have presented my investigation into your internal conflict, my assessment of its threats and effects, and given you a resolution. I now resign my contract as your king and call it fulfilled." She paused. "I will not accept any further payment on this contract. I consider all debts fulfilled as well. I only ask that you allow me and my consort to stay on your world—I will stay as Por—until you reach your decision, and if you require my help thereafter."
Slowly, looking both pissed and exhausted, Ijuka nodded. "I can't very well let you go after dropping that bomb." Then they winced at their choice of words, shaking their head. "Yes, Por. Stay. For now." There was a threat in that, but what that threat was exactly and how Ijuka thought they might enforce it with an Aezthena was beyond Anais.
Por bowed, glanced at Anais, then headed for the doors.
Anais shot one last look at the Council of Governors, who were in various states of shock. He felt not a small bit of shock himself.
He hurried after Por.
25: This Kind of Power
"Well that didn't go well," Anais said as they reached Por's quarters. "How much of that did you plan?"
Por spread her hands, not stopping as they passed through two sitting rooms. "You know as well as I that the best plans dissolve when faced with reality."
Anais shrugged out of his outer robe and slung it over a wingback chair. He followed Por down a short hallway. "And you truly didn't know, even after all this time here, what the other Aezthena were after with this Yfeni tech?"
"No." Por didn't stop until she reached her bedroom. She tugged at her layers of royal robes, getting the top one off with two vicious yanks at the fastenings. She tossed the robe on the pristinely made bed and reached for the next one.
Anais advanced, reaching for the buttons. "Let me help—"
"No." She continued yanking off the layers, each more violently than the last. Her hands shook as she worked, her nostrils flared.
He drew back from the force of her anger. He didn't think it was directed at him. But, he wasn't sure.
Por yanked off the crown and held it, her breaths coming in short gasps. She turned it over in her hands, studying the rubies and sapphires, the intricate etching.
Anais licked his lips. He didn't know how to deal with this. Until now, Por had seemed unshakable, a force of nature. Maybe a bit vulnerable in the relationship department, and possibly also the human department, but everything else was put together.
She looked up at Anais and just stared. She seemed...not quite lost, but stunned. She was letting the shock show that she hadn't dared show the governors. The unshakable, twelve-almost-thirteen-thousand-year old Barenin Lyr. Staring at him, looking for answers.
She held out the crown to him.
Anais fended it off. "You resigned. I can't use that anymore."
"Get it out of my hands. I can't hold this kind of power."
Anais took it, running his fingers over the grooves and stones. "Why? Is that why you sent for me to be contract king? So that you could swoop in at the end but not have to do the hard part of building the trust?"
Por arched her brows. "Building the trust. The reason you got the job was because you were pretending to be me. I've built millennia of trust." She turned and, with more care than before, began stacking the discarded robes on the bed. She wore only the cream undershift now, and it swayed in gauzy waves about her. Hinting at her form underneath. Every dip and bulge.
That should have distracted Anais, but it didn't. His head was stuffed too full. Gods, his head was too full. He pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead.
Por was human now, or as human-focused as she could be. She tugged at the braids in her hair, working her fingers through the ends and up to undo them. Again, Anais moved to help, but she waved him back.
When her hair was a bushy, curly mess, she stopped, shuddered, and leaned against the bedpost.
Anais hovered, not sure what to do. Did she need to be alone? But where else would he go? He couldn't go back to his suites. They were the royal apartments, and Por had both just revealed herself and resigned. There was no more Barenin Lyr, contract king.
He had a few belongings still in the suites—those would likely be brought down to Por's apartments, but there wasn't anything there he needed to keep. He had everything he truly needed on him.
In his baseline genetic skin, covered only with a bit of sweat-smeared face paint.
Anais' fingers curled into his palms, the nails biting deep.
How had a day that had begun with hope and promise ended up here?
His memory implant called up the brush of Barenin's lips that morning. The shifting gold flecks in her eyes. The openness she'd shown him. Her almost shy vulnerability.
He suppressed a groan. Something had been lost in the last hour. Something buried before it had even begun to grow. He could sense how closed off she was now, her walls an impenetrable void. Waves of animosity poured off her. She hadn't wanted him to touch her, even to help. Anais could almost hear her thoughts: get out, get out, get out.
Should he even stay on this world? But if he left, the Aezthena would hunt him. With everything Barenin had said in the Council meeting, he was sure of that. Whether it was Sela who'd come after him, or another Aezthena, it hardly mattered. They would hunt him, and find him, and pull everything he knew from his thoughts. He had some of Barenin's secrets now, too. He was certain she'd told him things she rarely told others. Especially not Aezthena.
The aching loss of that intimacy, the start of a connection, deepened. Trust me, Barenin had said. But where should he put that trust now?
Por shuddered, her eyes unfocused.
Maybe he shouldn't leave the planet yet, but he needed to leave this room.
She shuddered again. "I have held the balance for twelve thousand years. Almost thirteen—in two years, I will be thirteen thousand Ajias Standard years old." She looked up at him, her eyes fierce and shining. "Did you know that? Thirteen thousand. I count birthdays by millennia, but I remember every single year. Every day. I remember everything I did right, and I remember every failure. I have so much experience behind me, Anais. How did I not see this? How could I not see this simple, stupid point of semantics that separates two divergent philosophies? And which one is correct? Maybe both are. But I can't accept that. They're too divergent. Non-compatible."
She grabbed one of the robes on the bed and wrapped it around her like a blanket. "My Aezthena mind does not want to understand the Dayaran version. Even my human-focused mind doesn't. And—I'm not often afraid. Not like this. But I'm afraid, Anais. Whatever the Aezthena are planning, they've been working up to a full split from humanity for millennia. We have our wars, we have our peace, but I'm not sure we will ever get along with humans. I'm afraid of what will happen when they finally execute their plan. I'm afraid I won't be able to stop them. I fear for Kaireyeh, I fear for the universe. The multiverse? I...I know some of what's coming. Not much, but some. And it doesn't end well. It can't end well. I know what's coming and I still managed to miss this connection. Is it futile for me to try and stop them? It's not possible. The end is inevitable. The Aezthena will break the universe."
She wound down, panting. Then burst out, "And gods above, I will always try to stop them."
Maybe he shouldn't leave this room yet, either. And maybe her animosity wasn't directed at him.
Anais edged toward her, as he might a wounded predator. "I'm here. Whatever you need to do, for whatever help it's worth, I'm here."
"You can't do half of what I'd need you to do to be of any use to me at all."
Anais tried not to let that sting as much as it did. He tried to ignore the dart and tell himself she was hurt and lashing out. But did that excuse her? Did that make it hurt less? Was that like the gaping mistakes she'd made in dealing with him and Sela?
He didn't know. He didn't know her that well. And he certainly didn't know this volatile version of her.
Gods, he couldn't believe she'd said that. And he didn't want to think that what she'd said was true, so he let his own anger rise.
"You're twelve—almost thirteen—thousand years old. You are one of the most powerful people in the universe, literally and figuratively, and right now you're throwing a tantrum like a two-year-old. Barenin Lyr. Grow the hell up!"
She stared at him, blue eyes widening.
He stared back, his own eyes wide. He swallowed, painfully loud.
Then she turned away, leaning against the bedpost with her back to him. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Anais. I didn't mean that."
He rubbed his hands against his sides. Did he believe her? He couldn't feel her emotions. They weren't near enough to touch, and if there was any overflow, she was still walling herself off.
Anais approached again, and this time, she didn't wave him away. He rested a hand on her shoulder, and she braced herself at the touch but let his hand stay. Waves of self-loathing poured off of her. He sensed she was trying to shield him from them, but he felt them all the same.
His breath went out in a quiet sigh. Ah. He knew all about self-loathing. "Hey. I'm with you."
The self-loathing intensified, but it came with a sense of relief, too.
Por squeezed his hand. "Can you wait in one of the outer rooms? I need to think. I need quiet."
Anais hesitated. He didn't want quiet or time to think. When things got too intense, he needed action. He chose a path and rammed himself down it full-bore. That's what he knew, how he scored his jobs, how he survived.
But this was different. Everything about Denz Dayar and Barenin was different. There was so much at stake here, and not just the fate of worlds.
He stepped outside the bedroom without a word and settled himself in the second sitting room, retrieving and re-donning his discarded robe.