Good King Lyr
Chapter 8 of 11 · All · First · Last

Part 8: Inevitable (Chapters 29-31)

By Novae Caelum
May 31, 2019 · 6,719 words · 25 minutes

Chess

Photo by O12 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.


29: Inevitable

Anais blinked into the sudden vacuum of Sela’s presence. A moment before, the room had felt too crowded. Now, early afternoon sunlight fell on the bed, showing too much of the space between them. There was only him, and Barenin.

“What the hell?” Anais turned a slow circle, struggling for something solid to hold onto. He settled on a brush sitting on a bedside table and strode to pick it up. Pressed its tines into his hand, a physical reminder that he was still here. That whatever had happened had just happened.

Did Aezthena always communicate at hurricane intensity? Several thoughts raced through him at once. He settled on the most concrete. “You said before that whatever the Aezthena want to do—splinter off their own universe, whatever—is inevitable. I thought you meant that in the dramatic, abstract way, like war is inevitable, but we might prevent it if we try. That sort of way. Not that it is literally something you can’t stop. And why are you even trying if you know it’s inevitable? I felt your words—you say there’s a chance to save the universe, but you don’t really believe that. And does Yfeni change the equation? Or does it only make it more inevitable?”

He knew he was hyperventilating. Barenin would feel that, too, and before she could do anything about it, he shoved a finger at her. “And don’t you try to calm me.”

“It is inevitable,” she said with that maddening Aezthena passivity. So devoid of human emotion. But not without Aezthena emotion. He’d felt the conflict there, the desperation. “How I know that is a longer story than we have time for. But in all my years, I have never found time to be malleable beyond short manipulations with Kaireyeh—and those always heal themselves over quickly. Like elastic snapping back to its original form. The universe will always be fractured beyond recovery. And yes, it will happen soon.”

“How soon is soon? Like, my soon, or Aezthena soon?”

“In the next ten to twenty years, I’ve been predicting. But, with what we know now, it might be five years, or as little as one. Or less.”

Anais held out his hands, waving helplessly around him. “You can’t not try to stop it. That’s what you meant when you said Sela had given up.” He dug fingers into his hair. “You have to try, even if you think it won’t help.”

“I might keep it from being as bad as it could be,” Barenin agreed. “Or I might do nothing. But it’s not in my nature not to try. Of course I have to try.” Her intensity was back. The strength of her determination jolted through him.

“And there might be a chance you can change it? Change this inevitable destruction and save the universe?”

“An incredibly small chance,” Barenin said. She focused more human again, her rigid features relaxing into furrows of worry. “So small it is like one star against the entire universe.”

Anais pursed his lips. “So, we have a year? Or a few months, maybe? To stop whatever’s going to happen?”

“Or lessen the cataclysm. That might be the best we can hope for.” Barenin paused. “This is why no one should know their own future.”

Anais stood in the center of a whirlwind. When had this gone from helping Barenin search out an Aezthena interloper to stopping a human-Aezthena war to literally saving the universe?

He decided to accept it. Like in the conversation with Sela, he couldn’t move forward from this moment to the next without accepting this fact as a given. Yes, they were going to try and save the universe. And they were going to likely fail.

He was panting, his breaths coming too fast. Slowly, he focused as best he could and calmed them. He found himself staring at Barenin, steadying himself in her eyes.

Her eyes held infinite regret. And that resolve that had stopped raging wars.

This was how it was going to be, wasn’t it? Taking up with Barenin. This was his life from now on. He wasn’t a petty thief—he’d been playing in the pro circles for years now—but this was a whole different galaxy of levels above the kind of jobs he’d pulled before.

Save-the-universe-kind-of-stuff.

“How long?” he asked. “How long have you known about this?”

“Since the beginning,” she said quietly. “Since before I was made Aezthena. This—this is truly why I asked Kaireyeh to make me Aezthena. So that I could hold the balance, so that I could do all I could to stop the universe from fracturing.”

Thirteen thousand years. How had she kept going with that hanging over her head? He’d only just found out and he was having trouble breathing.

Anais gripped her shoulder. He didn’t know if he was bracing her or himself. “Did you know about me? From your knowing about the future? Is that why you sought me out? Do—I have something to do with this?”

She tilted her head. “No.” The hint of a smile came back but didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I tracked you down all on my own.”

He swallowed past the rush of relief, and also disappointment. No, he wasn’t important enough to have left such a mark in history.

“Me, a con artist. I’m the one you chose in the last days of the universe.” Anais snorted. Or maybe sniffed. His eyes were watering, and he couldn’t stop it. It was ridiculous. It was all so ridiculous.

“You’re one of the best,” she said.

“I know it.” The statement wasn’t bravado. It was fact.

He sniffed again, grabbing a cloth handkerchief off the bedside table. He’d already ruined one of Barenin’s the night before, another wouldn’t make a difference. “So, whatever job we need to pull, we’ll get it done.”

Her smile widened. “I don’t doubt it.” She moved closer, brushed an uncooperative lock of hair out of his eyes. Her fingers trailed like fire across his skin and he shivered. “What are your plans? I’m out of ideas, Anais. Out of any good ones. I know every permutation of the bad ones.”

She was asking him? Did she really mean that, it wasn’t condescension? But he felt only earnestness at her request.

Anais’s lips stretched in a rictus grin. Laugh in the face of death, right? If it’s all going to burn—and his life could have burned at any point in all his thirty-three years—face it and go down laughing. Go down with fireworks. Go down in a show no one will ever forget.

Did Barenin really not know what to do next? He read no deception in her sharp features. Aezthena minds had plenty of logic. But maybe, just maybe, human minds had more imagination. Or maybe Anais was just plain crazy, and Barenin knew it. Or maybe she was trying to distract him from the pit that was trying to consume him.

He didn’t care what her reasons were. He bit his lip. The beginnings of a crazy plan began to form.

“You know how my identity implant works?” His hands tingled with electricity. Never mind that the universe was about to go down in flames. He was who he was. This part of a job, the ludicrous invention, always made him feel alive. And right now, he needed to feel alive.

“Yes,” Barenin said. “I didn’t design it, but it’s of Aezthena manufacture. I could make more.”

Anais squinted. “Could you make it...bigger?”

She leaned back against the bed, folding her arms. “Huh. You mean a cloak? Chameleon tech, to disguise a ship? Yes, Aezthena have that tech as well, though it’s not quite the same.”

“Not a cloak. Not even really a disguise.” Anais walked a tight circle as he thought out loud. “When I shift my implant on, me—the me that I am genetically—is placed into another pseudo-reality, correct? Like a holding space? I always come back in the exact same state that I left, like no time has passed for that version of me.”

Barenin’s brows knit. “That’s not entirely true. Time does pass on the other side of the implant. Maybe at a different rate, but if you wore it for a hundred years, your other body would age some of those years.”

Anais waved that off. “Fine. Good to know. But it does go into another reality. And no one can force me out of that reality unless they have the tap code, correct?”

“Correct. And not even if they have the tap code. It’s your hand in that other reality that does the tapping.”

Anais blinked. That was interesting. He’d think about it later. Too much to think about later. He shook his head, shook it off. “So...can you make something big enough to send this planet to that other holding space? And make it so almost no time passes there? And so that the planet and people on it don’t appear to be on this side?”

Barenin’s brows shot up. “The Aezthena would see through an illusion like that. And I’m not sure it’s a good idea, with so much tech on this world using Yfeni energy.”

“So get everyone to turn it off, for just a little while. You won’t destroy it, they’ll just—” He waved around him. “—turn it off.”

“And then what?” Barenin asked. “If I do this, the people would be frozen on that side of the—” She stopped. “You want to make it look like this world has been destroyed. Like the Yfeni generators destroyed themselves. Make the system uninhabitable—or appear so from the outside. The Aezthena wouldn’t know there were minds left to plunder. There are ways to scar Kaireyeh, enough that an Aezthena would hesitate to travel here. But a planet might still inhabit this space.” She frowned. “I don’t want to do it. It physically hurts me to hurt Kaireyeh. To scar spacetime.”

Anais spread his hands. “But save the universe. And the people here would be alive.”

“But cut off from the rest of humanity. And there is no guarantee an Aezthena wouldn’t investigate further, eventually. We are a persistent lot.” It sounded less like Barenin was objecting than trying to talk herself out of going along with this. She had that look, too, that focused gleam. The thrill of the job.

Anais grinned, a manic grin. Oh yes, they were very alike where it counted.

“It would buy time,” he said, standing straighter. “Maybe a few years. Maybe more. Buy the time you need to come up with a better, more long-term solution. And it would let the Dayarans keep their religion and their tech. They’re not too keen on trade with other worlds, anyway. Maybe their tech will save you in the end and not destroy you. Destroy us.”

Barenin’s eyes lost focus. Even in this more human state, she was running through every calculation.

Anais waited. He wiped damp palms on his pants as he tried very hard not to think about what he was proposing. He’d been talking out his ass. Wild improvisation. Throwing out ideas to see if they were even possible. He wasn’t sure what to think, even as he jittered with excitement at the thought they might do this, they might temporarily hide an entire planet. Make it look like it was gone. As crazy schemes went, this one far outshot anything else he’d ever done before.

But if there was a chance it could work, a chance for a solution where there wasn’t one before, Barenin would know how to make it a reality.

“Yes,” she said finally. “Yes. We can do this. Let’s take it to the governors. It’s drastic. But Denz Dayar has always been apart from humanity. There’s a strong chance they will agree to this, if it saves their religion and society.”

Anais inhaled sharply. “Okay. Okay, then let’s do this.” He was too wound, ungrounded, but his mind was working. He could work with that.

“Thank you,” Barenin said. “Thank you for your perspective.”

“Ha. That’s not something I hear often.”

Barenin vented a laugh. Then she gripped Anais’ arm and blinked them into the Council chamber.

Anais reeled, catching Barenin’s wrist as they were abruptly not in Por’s bedroom and instead facing a table full of arguing governors.

30: Por

There was a moment of silence as everyone turned to stare. Then the expected fuss of shouts and chairs scraping back, fingers pointing. Guards calling from the walls. Rifles whining to full charge.

Did Barenin ever do anything in half measures? Gods, and she’d barely given him warning. And they weren’t ready to present anything. He’d only given her the spark of an idea, not an actual plan. He struggled to maintain the barest composure.

“We have a proposal,” Barenin said calmly, though her voice was pitched to carry. “Please hear us out—we believe it will solve all our immediate difficulties.”

No apology for the entrance. No polite inanities. No, he noted, calling off the guards. If the guards fired at them, would Barenin blink them to safety? Slow time to stop the energy charges?

Anais thought of the guards’ tension in the meeting earlier, when Barenin had revealed herself as Por. But this was different. The room already had the stale smell of fear, the meeting had already been too taut. Now the guards’ eyes were wide, the focus intense. And the whine of those rifles could be heard over the shouting governors, an insistent threat.

Anais swallowed as another unfinished angle of his idea crashed over him.

He still gripped Barenin’s arm, so he thought at her, What about Sela? In his rushed brainstorming, he hadn’t factored in Sela. He hadn’t had time. But Barenin had run her calculations. She’d know what Sela would do if they tried this.

Barenin didn’t answer.

Barenin? Por?

Later, she said.

Ijuka, as Anais was coming to expect, was the first to say anything coherent. They shouted, “You resigned, Ser Lyr! You and your consort have no legal grounds to be in this chamber—by all that’s holy, will you all quiet down? And weapons down, please. If Ser Lyr was going to harm us they would have done so already.”

Anais gritted his teeth, waiting as the shouting faded. The governors’ edged glares, though, didn’t lessen. The whine of the rifles, however, did. He flexed his shoulders in a twitch of that small relief.

“Yes, I have reason to be here when it could save your world,” Barenin said, voice clipped and sharp. “Reinstate the contract for one day. Or don’t. But listen to what I have to say.”

Edin’s voice cut through the renewed outbursts of argument. “You deceived us for years. How can we trust anything you have to say?”

There was no change in Barenin’s posture, no change in her focus, which was still somewhere between human and Aezthena. But she suddenly looked old, and far too weary. She touched her head where earlier she’d worn the Dayaran crown, and Anais knew, still holding her arm, that wasn’t an affectation. It wasn’t calculation. It wasn’t a reminder to the governors that she’d been their ruler less then three hours ago.

I can't hold this kind of power, she’d said earlier.

They, Barenin said in Anais’ thoughts.

He looked a question at her.

I need—my sense of gender shifts sometimes with stress. Please.

They looked back at him. A quick look. A silent entreaty.

He squeezed their arm.

Around the table, the governors continued to argue, more with themselves now than Barenin.

Halfway between human and Aezthena, Barenin looked more like Por than their imposing Aezthena self, face paint or not. Anais suspected if they were fully Aezthena, there wouldn’t be as much fuss. But they made no effort to change their appearance or demeanor.

They did, however, aim a solid stare at Edin that made the governor flinch back. Edin hadn’t been truthful about how they’d come up with their generator tech, either. Edin had been hiding an Aezthena in their back pocket. Edin had no right to judge.

“Trust me or not,” Barenin said softly, and the governors quieted again to hear them, “I am Aezthena. I will give you the facts.” They held up their hands and ticked off points on each finger. “The Aezthena are interested in your world, and that interest will escalate to destruction on your world. You can destroy all traces and knowledge of your Yfeni tech to protect against that, but that would destroy your society, your religion. That would destroy who you are. You brought me here to keep this world from falling into war. I’m going to do that, and the cost will be great, but it will leave your society intact.”

Barenin waited, scanning the room. Daring the governors to object. No one did.

“Here is what I propose,” they went on. “I have technology that can temporarily displace your world from normal spacetime. I want it to look like your world has been destroyed. That your Yfeni tech caused that destruction, so the Aezthena cannot take it from you, and they will be cautious of the use of any they’ve already taken taken.”

Voices rose in sharp protest.

Barenin held up their hands. “This will fully isolate you for at least a few centuries. There will be a scarred Kaireyeh barrier around your world. You may experience time differently than the rest of the universe. But, your society will remain. You will, after a time, be able to rejoin the rest of humanity. You can continue to develop your tech in peace. And the universe, for now, will remain mostly intact as well.”

Utter silence. Even the restless guards had gone still.

Ijuka shifted. “Por. Do you understand what you are asking us to do?” Their voice held a note of desperation. A plea from a friend to a friend for another option. Hurt clouded their face, crinkling the indigo paint that wound around their eyes in vines. The way they glared at Por, could they see beyond the betrayal of a friend?

The other governors shifted, faces echoing the same hurt, the same betrayal and anger. Barenin didn’t show it, but Anais sensed them stiffen. They knew, and he knew, they were losing this crowd. And Barenin was losing resolve, too, drowning in the hurt of these people who’d been their colleagues for nine years. Their friends.

Anais had to do something. And oh, hells. He had some idea of what that might be. Confession was not good for the soul. But maybe it was good for something.

He let go of Barenin and took a step forward, every eye tracking his movement. “I’m Anais Cavere. I make a living conning people out of their money, their possessions, their information. I was hired by the Aezthena to come to your world and steal either your new Yfeni generator, or detailed plans for it.”

Ijuka gave him a baffled look. “Is that supposed to make me trust you? Either of you? Por? Ser Lyr? Your consort is a confidence person?”

“I didn’t meet Ser Lyr until I came to this world,” Anais said. Another step forward. “I came here because you hired me to be your contract king.” He gave that a moment to sink in.

Farian shoved to their feet. “What? That’s preposterous. We hired Barenin Lyr—”

Anais reached up and tapped on the implant. It shifted to Barenin, still in the robes he’d worn the day he’d toured the factories. Well, the last two of them anyway—at least he was clothed. Had that only been the day before?

The council reacted as he’d expected—badly. Anais glanced at Barenin to see that small smile tugging at their lips. Even now. Even with their eyes tight with pain, or maybe worry, they were smiling. They gave him a barely perceptible nod.

It was enough. He tapped the implant back off and raised his voice. “You put out a call for a contract king, one that fit Barenin Lyr’s qualifications perfectly. But Barenin Lyr was already on your world, and you didn’t know it. So I came. I was going to stay six days. Steal your tech for my client. Make some excuse and depart. But Barenin—the real Barenin—showed me what an idiot I would have been to let the Aezthena who hired me play me, and all of us, like that.”

Ijuka looked between him and Barenin, their brows furrowing. They settled on Anais. Maybe the least complicated of the two. “Then it was you that we crowned?”

Anais nodded. “Yes.”

“And you remained the contract king until—until today.” They glanced at Por’s empty seat. “When Por was missing, and you came in as the Royal Consort. Ah.” Their eyes narrowed. “At least the problem of Por being in two places at once is solved,” they said bitterly. “That was not an Aezthena illusion, then?”

“No.” Anais shifted his weight, spreading his hands. “And look. You put out a call for a contract king. I answered that call. And—” he pulled up the relevant section of the contract in his memory implant and skimmed it again—yes, it did say what he’d thought it said “—and once you crown a contract king, that person, regardless of their identity, is the contract king until they fulfill the duration or terms of their contract, resign, or the two-thirds majority releases them.”

Anais took a breath. “I didn’t resign.” He pointed at Barenin. “She did.”

Shit. He was still seeing them as femme. Sorry, he thought at Barenin.

There was a collective wince at his use of Por’s private, gendered pronouns. The wrong ones, in any case.

He amended, “They did. And they had no legal grounds to do so.”

“You can’t be serious,” Edin said. “You came here under false pretenses. You aren’t the legitimate contract king.”

Anais read off the lengthy and thorough section of the contract. He’d made sure to study that one extra closely on his way to this world, for any tight situation that might come up.

The governors began to argue again, but Ijuka banged on the table.

“Quiet! Quiet. Ser Cavere is, unfortunately, in the right of the law, fates help us all. They are our contract king.” Ijuka’s face was sour.

“Then we should vote to release them.” One of the governors on Edin’s side of the table.

Barenin held up their hands. “I am also still governor of my province. I was never released from those duties, and I still owe the people I govern representation of their voices in this Council.”

“You,” Ijuka said hotly, “have no say in this Council anymore. Whatever you have done with Por—”

Barenin pointed at themself. “I am Por. I told you. I’ve been here for nine years, Ijuka. I know you. There has never been another—I created Por, inserted them into your records. I’ve lived with you. I’ve struggled with you. I’ve helped you as best I could and have only interfered as much as a human would.”

Anais doubted that was strictly true, but he wasn’t about to argue the point.

“I’ve been at your birth celebrations. Your death mournings. I’ve helped draft law and stayed up all night in the marathon budget sessions. My province elected me fairly—I gave no influence to that other than my own personality. I’ve lived as human among you. I gave you my best. And I’m giving you my best now, governors. Please. There is no other way I know to save your world. And to save humanity. To save everything we’ve all lived and hoped for. Yes, it will be hard being cut off from the rest of humanity. But you will remain. And you will grow. And one day, you will rejoin human society as a force of your own. Please, let me help you in this.”

“You deceived us, Por,” Ijuka snapped, “and that is not an easily forgivable thing.” They looked into Barenin’s blue eyes, and the heat of their anger wavered. “Truly, you have always been Por? There has never been another you replaced?”

“Truly. I have no way to prove it beyond my word, but...yes.”

Anais, who’d edged closer to the table, now gripped the back of the empty seat at its head. Time to shift the focus again while they were all off-balance. “You crowned me your contract king. And I intend to finish the job you hired me for. You need a mediator. Someone to resolve your differences when you can’t.” He took the seat. “So let me mediate. I suspect we don’t have much time.” He glanced at Barenin, who nodded. “Talk it through, but let me be the impartial voice.”

“You’re not impartial,” someone sneered.

“They have a point.” Ijuka turned their glare on Anais. “You were seen in bed with—” They stopped, shook their head, muttered a curse. “You’re not impartial.”

Anais placed his palms on the table, the same gesture he’d used as Barenin Lyr. Eyes followed the movement. “I’m not from your world. And yes, I’m a criminal, but I don’t like to see people die. I have no stake in the future of your world except the same that all of humanity does. Your world, right now, could tip the balance between a stable universe and a literally broken one. So, let me listen. Let me offer my input. You readily took it before.”

The governors rustled at their seats, uncomfortable with that fact. Likely uncomfortable they were mostly still standing and he, at the head of the table, was not. Protocol was a hard thing to break, even in crisis.

Barenin crossed the room and deliberately scraped the chair to their empty seat and sat down. As Por. Everyone turned to them. Tension hung in the air like a trip-wire.

Anais folded his hands together. The light rustle from his sleeves brought their attention back to him. “There is another Aezthena on this world. They will act, and soon, if we do not act first. Por. Please lay out again what you plan to do and why we should do it. Then, we will open to questions and rebuttals.” He nodded to Por. Who began again, settling into the rhythm of their human personality—albeit less femme in their gestures—to explain what needed to be done. And the Council, wonder of wonders, listened.

Anais leaned back in his chair. That had worked. That had actually worked. His stomach was in so many knots he might not eat for a week, but he’d bought Barenin the time to say what they needed to say, and the Council ears to hear them.

He hoped they would listen. And that whatever Barenin planned to do about Sela, the Council’s vote would not come too late.

31: Contract King

After four grueling hours, the Council rose with grim purpose and scattered to carry out the plans they’d made. The vote had been a success, but no one was happy about it. Not even Anais. And certainly not Barenin.

As the others filed out, Barenin lingered by their chair, gripping the wooden back and looking around as if trying to memorize the room. Its ornate mosaic floors, the iridescent white stone that framed the walls and spread a river of vines across the governors’ table. They were saying goodbye, Anais realized. Saying goodbye to this part of their life. Not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Another sacrifice in their long quest to save the universe.

Anais made his slow and unobtrusive way over to them, shifting body language from authoritative to calmly neutral. He might have just mediated that session as contract king, but he knew he wasn’t, not really. Not in the eyes of anyone left in this room.

He placed his hand next to Barenin’s, skin just touching. Are you all right? He was learning to read the signs. The tightness around Barenin’s shoulders that didn’t quite show unless you were looking.

Barenin turned to him. “No. No, I’m not.”

The tall council chamber doors closed with echoing thuds. Only the two door guards, Barenin, Anais, and Ijuka remained.

Ijuka still stood by their own seat, near them at this end of the table. They seemed hesitant to move, studying Barenin. Or, for them, studying Por. What must they be thinking, trying to reconcile someone they’d known for years with someone who was almost unapproachable, a legend?

But then, Ijuka had never been that impressed when they’d thought Anais was Barenin Lyr. Maybe they’d have a better handle on this than most people would.

“You’ll be leaving after this?” Ijuka asked, voice echoing oddly in the emptiness of the room.

Barenin rocked on their heels, hands flexing on the chair back. “I must. Once we seal this system off, it would be physically painful for me to stay, or return in your lifetime. I’m too in tune with Kaireyeh.”

Ijuka tilted their head. “So you did actually get sick when we visited Edin’s generators? Or was that you, Ser Cavere?”

“Both,” Anais said. “We were both there.” He inclined his head in a slight bow. “But thank you, Ijuka, for looking after me.”

Ijuka snorted, then their face took on some of the weariness that was returning to Barenin’s, now that Barenin didn’t have to be a governor anymore. Or the contract king. Or anything but who they were in that moment.

“I do not like causing such a deep rift in the Yfeni energy that surrounds us,” Ijuka said softly. “It isn’t right. It goes against everything I believe. How will it affect us? Affect our souls?”

Barenin shifted, moving closer to Ijuka. There was only one chair separating them. “I’ve seen worlds hidden in Kaireyeh before. Not quite this scenario, but isolated. The cultures and technologies that developed from such worlds were unique. The people much more in tune with Kaireyeh—or Yfeni, here. I can’t tell you how it will play out, Ijuka. Only that it will. You’ll have a chance. You’ll all be alive.”

Throughout the Council session, Barenin had kept a tight mental conversation going with Anais, hashing out the details of their plan. The Dayarans would direct their people to disable as much Yfeni tech as possible. Small home generators or power supplies in devices weren’t likely to throw off what Barenin was about to do, but the generators under the palace—and in other cities and towns—would be shut down.

Only Edin’s Yfeni generators on the other side of the world would remain functional. Edin hadn’t just planned to use them for their own province. They’d meant to power the entire planetary grid with ten units and backups once fully tested. That might have been an incredible achievement if not for the danger the generators imposed.

Only Edin’s generators had enough power to make a planet disappear, holding it in stasis until it could return to normal spacetime. Anais had watched Edin’s grim face when Barenin relayed that part of the plan for any signs of vindication. But Edin had only nodded. And nodded again when Barenin said after this was done, those generators needed to be shut down. Edin might be an idealist, but they weren’t a fool. Whatever else Anais thought of them, their opinion of Edin’s integrity had risen.

“So you really think this will work?” Ijuka asked. Any pretense of confidence they’d held in the Council session was gone. This wasn’t a question for Barenin, immortal Aezthena. This was a question for Por.

“Yes,” they said, and met Ijuka’s eyes.

Ijuka, of all things, then looked to Anais. And, knowing this was as important a part of this job as any, he nodded.

“This will absolutely work, Ser Governor.”

But though he projected confidence, there was more hope in that statement than truth. Yes, they had a plan. A good plan. In part, his plan. But a big part of that plan hinged on Barenin using the Yfeni generators to power and amplify the modified identity implant. Barenin said they knew enough of Yfeni theory now to know how to use those generators. Anais knew a con well enough to know when someone else’s statement held more hope than truth, too.

Ijuka gave Barenin a long, questing stare. “I’ve known you for so long. It’s hard for me to imagine you as anyone other than Por. But you’ve had so many lifetimes beyond your life here. We must seem so small to you—”

Por pulled them into a tight embrace. “I will miss you, friend. Forgive me the deception. I can’t make it up to you. I wish there was time.”

Anais shifted. There wasn’t time. He wasn’t sure how long they had to act, but any time was too much.

Barenin must have sensed his restlessness, because they pulled away from Ijuka, turning to him.

“Anais. I need to prepare the tech.” They reached into a pocket and pulled out a metal disk, tossing it to him.

He caught it. It looked like a coin, bronze-colored, ancient and worn. He couldn’t read the writing just visible through the wear on one side, didn’t even know the script.

“Press the center and say my full name,” Barenin said. “That will take you to my ship.”

Anais nodded, then reached behind his neck. Time for him to hand over his contribution to this plan.

His fingers brushed the bump of the identity implant, a synthetic mole on his skin. He grimaced, already feeling its loss and the abilities it gave him. The loss of everything he’d sold and borrowed and stolen to afford such tech…was not consequential. Not nearly as much as the loss of what this meant to him. But this was necessary. This was his plan, after all. Barenin had given up much to help this world. They’d given up their cover identity, their own life here. They had given up friendships. They were giving up a marriage, even if it was a contract marriage. He’d seen the holos in Por’s apartments. Por was close to their Dayaran spouse.

Anais tapped the long code to release the implant from his body. For a heartbeat, his nervous system woke with phantom, moving sensations, fire raging throughout his body. Then it passed, and the implant poked up enough for him to gently pull it from the skin.

A tiny black cylinder, not half a centimeter long, almost the same size as the halo bead in his arm. The halo bead which used similar technology, holding the weapon in that stasis realm until it was called for use.

Anais rolled the implant in his palm, staring down at it. Barenin had said they could make another one. But…but this was the one he had. Maybe he didn’t feel naked in his own genetic skin in that moment, with his mind on everything else, but he would. He knew he would, when this all passed. If they survived. He’d go back to lesser cosmetics. To knowing that his body, his baseline body, was always underneath whatever layers he plastered over it.

Anais handed the implant to Barenin.

“I’ll bring this back or get you another one,” they said. “Promise.” They knew what he was giving up in handing that over to them.

He nodded, swallowing around a hard lump in his throat. And now he did feel naked and vulnerable. Exposed, with too much written on his face, too much emotion transmitted in that brief touch as Barenin’s fingers had brushed his.

“Get to the ship,” they said gently. “I’ll join you soon.”

Ijuka sighed. “This ship that’s been in our system undetected for nine years. Por. I don’t know what to do with you. Off with you, then.” Their eyes were shining as they looked between Barenin and Anais. “Keep our world safe.”

Barenin gripped Ijuka’s hands in the Dayaran fashion, that immediate intimacy. “Thank you, friend. I will.” They took a breath. “And yes, Anais, the time. I have time enough to say goodbye to my spouse.” Their eyes, shifting back to gold, locked on Anais. And he felt the wave of loss as it shifted into the cold, unyielding equations of Aezthena grief.

Barenin couldn’t slow time later around the Yfeni generators for fear of interfering with them, but they could slow time enough to have a few moments, or a few hours, with their spouse. Anais had never asked if Por’s spouse knew who they really were. He didn’t envy them the conversation either way.

Still holding Anais’ gaze, Barenin disappeared.

Anais cleared his tight throat, suppressing the urge to shiver in the draftiness of the large chamber. In the sudden absence of Barenin. He’d come to this world fully prepared to pull this con alone. But right then, he didn’t want to be alone. Didn’t want to be here among people who were hardly more than strangers. Even Ijuka, who was back to studying him now with that blunt intensity.

He licked his lips and looked down, smoothing out his over-robe.

Ijuka coughed and he realized what he was doing—he’d been wrapping a persona around himself again, hiding in the first safe role he could find. He’d been projecting Barenin’s posture and gestures.

“May I ask you a question?” Ijuka asked.

Anais pressed Barenin’s coin against his palm, anchoring himself in the cool metal. “Yes,” he said warily.

“Did you ever intend to take your duties as contract king seriously, or was that Por’s influence?”

Anais shifted. Did he owe Ijuka honesty? Yes, for once, he decided he did. “I thought I might do some good. I intended to try, for whatever that’s worth. But the real truth of it? No. I’m a con man. I was hoping to ride it out. It was a role to play. A difficult role, and a role I’d thought I’d enjoy.” He glanced to where Barenin had stood a moment before.

Ijuka snorted. “Por has always, as long as I’ve known them, had a way of shaking up the status quo. Bringing out the best—and worst—in people. I suppose those traits fit into a better context now. Or maybe not.” They looked back at Anais. “I can see you care for them. Take good care of them, will you? All-powerful or not, they are not without their blind spots.”

Anais nodded, his throat tightening again.

Ijuka turned.

“Governor,” he said, remembering one last thing he had to do here. “Governor Ijuka, I formally resign my place as contract king.”

“I don’t accept it,” Ijuka said, not looking back. “Go carry out your mission, my king.”

Anais stood in place, unsure how to respond to that. Was that a gesture of respect or an insult? Maybe a bit of both.

He rubbed the coin in his hand, exploring the engraving and toothed edges worn smooth over time. This must be precious for Barenin to have kept it so long—he didn’t doubt for a minute it was a genuine artifact, not something fabricated to resemble one. It could be hundreds or thousands of years old, from any number of human cultures or worlds.

Barenin had given him the key to their ship. An Aezthena ship. The part of him that was him, for just a moment, thought of what a tremendous price that ship would go for in the right market. And just how much the Aezthena would hunt him for stealing it. And just how vulnerable he was without his identity implant.

Gods and stars above. Would he ever change?

Yes. What he was about to do would change him, he was sure of it. And what came after, whatever came after with Barenin and him…that was a whole other level of change. But they both had to live to get there. They had to pull off this one ludicrous job. This one possibly disastrous job. Possibly genocidal.

Anais swallowed hard, and pressed the center of the coin. He said in a low voice, “Damon ve Barenin ne Alyras Kynaston.”

A heartbeat later, he stood in a dimly-lit room with sleek, glossy white walls, white floor, and white ceiling. He drew a breath, or tried to—there was almost no air. The temperature was freezing—he shivered and started to panic.

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