Anais opened his mouth, but a hundred questions weighed down his tongue. The need to flee again was overpowering, jumbled with the growing need for answers. The corridor seemed too narrow, the lights that lined the walls too bright.
Por—Barenin—waited. They—he—wasn't going to make this easy, was he?
"What do you want?" Anais gasped. "What do you want with me? You—you've been here for years. Governor Por has a public record tracing back ten years and more—has a marriage—why—" He struggled to gather his thoughts. "You sent out for a contract king. You and the governors, asking specifically for someone who had experience with negotiations. You implied an Aezthena. Why? When you were here all along? Did—"
He stopped. His identity implant. He'd known it was likely not human-made tech—Aezthena-made, or maybe even alien. But it hadn't come across his radar by chance, had it? He'd considered the possibility it had been targeted to him, of course, but...not too hard. And Barenin acted as if he knew him. As if he could see every part of Anais' soul. And maybe he could. He knew about Anais' memory implant, so did he also know where Anais had grown up? Had he peeled back the layers and layers of dead-end identity trails Anais had covered himself with over the years? Had he traced Anais back to the station with its illegal augment community? Had he turned them all in?
Anais had to stop thinking about that. He'd trained to deal with Aezthena, as much as anyone could shield themselves from an Aezthena's ability to skim or rip through thoughts. Anais triggered a rapid series of protocols in his memory implant and his mind ebbed into a confusion of banal images and conversations he'd stored for just this purpose. Aezthena hated the ordinary nature of most human concerns, or so he'd gathered in his research. They'd naturally pass over minds filled with such things. It was the equivalent of a human shying away from someone with an annoying tic. In the few times he'd brushed up against actual Aezthena in his career, he'd stayed as far away from them as possible, and this protocol had served him well.
But he hadn't been the focus of those Aezthena's attentions. Anais felt the weight of Barenin's stare. He hadn't been running this protocol all the time he'd been around Por. And Barenin had known about him before he'd come here. He'd somehow found out about Anais' obsession with researching the Aezthena and him in particular. Had Barenin arranged for Anais to come across the implant, which he'd find irresistible, and then put out the call for Denz Dayar's contract king? Something which, with the right job for prodding, Anais would also find irresistible? Such intricate machinations were a stretch for any human, but they'd be second nature to an Aezthena.
"Are...are you my client?" Anais asked.
"No," Barenin said. "Though I have suspicions as to who is."
Anais spread his hands in exasperation. "Then did you bring me here? Why? Why go through whatever you did to get me here? Did you want me to impersonate you?" Anais drew back at the thought, drew in on himself. His memory implant continued to flood his mind with ordinary things, and now it was driving him to the edge. His thoughts jumbled, fragmenting into scenes from the last few days, the last few months. They landed on how Por had acted with him earlier in the robing room, the blatant flirtation, and...and he didn't know what to do with that.
Anais decided that whatever Barenin knew, he knew. And his memory implant's thought shield wouldn't deter an Aezthena's focused probe. He turned it off, and suppressed a shudder of relief. But though his thoughts shifted, they didn't calm. New fears shot up in the absence of white noise, and he pressed his hands to his sides to still the shakes. This was bad. This was so, so bad.
Barenin took a step back, his posture relaxing, becoming less threatening. "She," he said.
"My pronouns here are femme. She and her."
Anais blinked. Took in Barenin's—Por's—face paint, the tailored robes, the black curls tied back in careful fashion. But that could be any gender or different genders on different worlds. It was more in the way Por carried themself—how Anais watched them earlier, the fluid and graceful movements as they—she—had peeled off the layers of robes.
Anais' face burned. Gods. He'd played Barenin Lyr to her face. And Barenin Lyr had helped him pull off layers of clothing. Gods. This was not happening.
The quirk of a smile returned to Barenin's lips. "I find it fascinating that you, who obviously have a thing for me, would choose to impersonate me. Watching myself ogle me is a new experience, and I don't have new experiences very often."
Anais' face went so hot it hurt.
Barenin spread open her hands. "Forgive me. No, I am not your client, but I am a concerned party. I am on Denz Dayar for my own reasons. Yes, I arranged for you to come here, and knew the logical course that arrival would take—your impersonation of Barenin Lyr. Yes, I do have a purpose in that. And no, I have no interest or intention of doing anything about your augements. That's your business. For now, I wish you only to know that you have my support. Carry on with what you've come to do."
Barenin's gaze hardened, and though she didn't grow any taller, though she and Anais in the guard's persona were about the same height, Anais felt her looming over him.
"Also, know that you are dealing with a people I've made my own. I am Dayaran here. When I step into a role, I immerse myself fully—you can understand that. I am focused as human as I am able to be here. Don't mess that up. Or mess up the balance of government here. I will guide you as I can. But you are the contract king of Denz Dayar for as long as you are here. Take that with the weight you've been given." She nodded at Anais's head, which at the moment was absent the crown.
Anais coughed. What should he say? What did you say when you met a lifelong obsession in the worst possible moment, in the worst possible way?
"And be careful with that identity implant," Barenin said, voice softening. "It's Kaireyeh tech—it works on the sentient math of the universe. If you wear it long enough, you might start to become more like what you play than who you are."
Anais looked down at himself in the stocky body of the palace guard. Become more like the palace guard?
The Aezthena derived most of their abilities from their interface with Kaireyeh, one of the universe's great unknowns. Not magic. Kaireyeh was a force of nature that everyone agreed was there, but no one agreed on what it actually was. A network of dark energy that wound through everything? A primordial echo of the beginning of the universe? God?
The Aezthena called it the sentient source code of the holographic universe and treated it as such. Whatever it was, they used it to manipulate space and time, to read thoughts, to see things that no human could ever see.
A sudden thought paralyzed him. He'd been worried before that an Aezthena might sense his identity implant if it was Kaireyeh tech, but what if Barenin could see through it? Could she see him as he really was, not the guard persona he wore?
His toes curled in his boots. His mouth went so dry he couldn't swallow. There was more than one reason he'd buried himself under so many layers of identities, both mental and physical. And he never thought about the deepest of those reasons. That it was even broaching his mind spoke to how rattled he was, and how much he needed to wrench back control of his thoughts.
Barenin placed a hand on his shoulder. Anais flinched, and she drew away again.
"I'm focused mostly human now," she said. "You've come across that in your research on me, that I can move between mostly human and mostly Aezthena states."
It hadn't been a question. Anais managed a nod, because it seemed she expected one. "I don't know the particulars."
Barenin shrugged. "I am not a typical Aezthena. Not all the rules of an Aezthena's existence apply to me. But my point is that when I'm focused human, my Aezthena abilities and senses are dulled. I can sense the shape of your thoughts, I can sense your emotions, but I can't easily read your thoughts without concentration. Nor can I see things I might see if I was focused fully Aezthena. Do you understand?"
"No," Anais said. His voice shook, so he cleared it. Used long practice to force some weight back into it. "I don't get why you brought me here, or why you're helping me—or if you're helping me and have some other agenda." He threw up his hands. "Which of course you do."
Barenin tugged on the cuffs of her sleeves—gods, Anais recognized that gesture as one he'd rehearsed for coming here.
"I came to Denz Dayar for my own reasons," she said, "but I stayed because I wished to be human here. I have twelve, almost thirteen, thousand years of life and experience. But it's the tangible things like touch, sunlight, companionship—these things help me find my center."
Anais shifted uneasily, before he caught himself and stopped. Why was Barenin speaking so personally with him, someone she didn't know? Or did she know him? Had she researched his life as thoroughly as he had hers?
Another thought occurred to him. A ludicrous thought. Was Barenin Lyr lonely? Had her flirting earlier been more than something to throw him off his game? Was she looking for a lover, or even a friend? And why, by all the stars, would she focus on him?
He had to be wrong about that.
He was tired. His mind was already numb from the paces he'd put himself through that day. He needed perspective.
Barenin widened the space between them and gave a short courtesy bow. "Get your rest. Send for me if you need me." She turned, rumpled robes swirling, and strode for the lift doors.
Anais stared after her, even after the lift doors closed and he was alone in the corridor, with the off-gray paint and the off-white lights and the hollow drone of machinery.
He shook himself. It was too much to process, so he wouldn't. He was there in the sub-levels of the palace, in the guise of a guard, and he had a job to do. Barenin at least had told him to carry on with that.
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