The Council of Governors
The Council of Governors' meeting chamber was the size of a ballroom, high walls set with tall, narrow windows and draped with burgundy silk. Iridescent white stone framed the walls at the corners, extending down to the mosaic floor and up to large, swooping swirls across the ceiling. An enormous real wood table sat in the center, its dark surface set with a winding vine mosaic in the same iridescent stone. Thick wooden chairs were placed around it, each carved with a different floral or geometric motif. Like the governors' differing face paint patterns, Anais realized. Symbols that represented each governor's province. With all the governors in full paint and red robes seated around the table, there was an air that here important things were decided by important people.
The governors rose as he entered, smoothing down robes and scraping back chairs. They bowed in an uneven ripple.
Anais, expressionless as Barenin Lyr, took the seat at the head of the table.
As they all sat again, Anais noted Ijuka at the far end opposite him, and beside them, Por. He made his gaze move past Por to take a quick read of who sat where and their demeanors today. He had to look closely with some of the governors, as their face paint markings made their expressions look softer when they were actually severe, or the other way around. Clever, that. Another layer to the political maneuvering. Anais himself wore no face paint. As the contract king, he needed no markings of status. The status was implied in his person, or so the contract had read.
All the governors were here in person, not holo images projected from their provinces. They'd come to the capital to crown their contract king, and now they watched, and waited, for him to do what they'd hired him to do: find the root of their internal difficulties and broker a peace.
He squeezed his hands hard under the table, an unobtrusive venting of tension. He had a feeling he'd be doing a lot of that in this meeting.
The problem the governors had called him in to mediate—called Barenin Lyr in, that was—was a manufacturing feud between two of the largest provinces, now escalating. There were factory accidents. Sabotage. Riots. Provincial troops moved to borders. On a world where the manufacturing of technology was a holy act, a feud like this could lead to war. Other provinces were taking sides, too, and the governors who represented those sides cast steely glares at their rivals across the table. Anais wondered how much political maneuvering it took to move one of those heavy, customized chairs to another position around the table, and how much of that had been done in the last few weeks to get the current divided arrangement.
He couldn't help flicking a glance at Por. If Por was the real Barenin Lyr and had called him in as a contract king—and he wasn't fully ready to believe that, not without more proof—did that mean the situation was so dire that even the real Barenin Lyr couldn't untangle it? So how in hells was he supposed to do so?
Five more days. Five more days and he'd leave, whether he got what his clients were looking for or not.
Por gave the slightest incline of her head—their head, he corrected himself, he had to use neutral pronouns in public. Anais looked away. He couldn't wonder if Por was reading his thoughts.
He was going to try to make a difference here. He'd made up his mind to try even before Barenin or whoever she was had threatened him the night before. Even before he'd realized that these lunatics used Kaireyeh generators to power their world and all that might mean if planetary war broke out.
Anais met the gazes of those around the table, all who were waiting in silence for him to begin this meeting. People. Powerful people, but still just people. He never could see people as anything but. He always got too involved.
And if they used Kaireyeh to power their weapons...could he in good conscience not do everything he could to stop a war here? Kaireyeh weapons could destroy the planet. Maybe the whole system. And if anyone outside of Denz Dayar found out about it, the use of Kaireyeh weapons might start another human-Aezthena war. The deaths in those wars were uncountable.
Anais felt more than saw Por's gaze on him. Steady, demanding.
He didn't shrink, even though he wanted to. Wanted, so badly, just to run.
If his identity implant made him more like the personas he assumed, if he could channel some of Barenin Lyr's ability to see the whole of a situation and find the path to peace, maybe he could help the Dayarans. He wasn't up to this as himself. But he didn't have to be himself, did he?
Anais eased the clenching of his hands beneath the table. He drew a slow breath, not visible to those around him, and carefully placed his palms on the table in front of him. A grounding movement. He let go of himself and his fears and slipped fully into character.
"Well," he said into the silence. "I have reviewed the entirety of this situation, but I wish to hear the arguments of both sides involved and any governors who have yet to choose a side." He nodded to Farian, the grim, heavyset governor of one of the feuding provinces, then Edin, the willowy governor of the other. "Please. Begin." He pasted on that almost-smile and folded his hands in front of him.
With glances in Anais' direction, and doubtless thoughts that he could read their minds, the two feuding governors began to spill out their grievances.
Anais found himself able to quell rising heat in the arguments with a raised brow, or a well-timed movement of his hands or tilt of his head, subtle enough but telegraphed to get attention. To show that he was there and watching, listening.
He didn't look at Por. He sat straight and very still, hot in his heavy robes. The identity implant filtered any hoarseness in his voice, but though his throat burned, he didn't sip at the glass of water a servant had brought to the table more than once a half hour. Even that was too much. The crown weighed heavy on his head. So very heavy.
Por, Anais discovered, sat on the side of the pompous Farian, whom Anais had decided early into the list of grievances was in the wrong. Why would Por side with Farian? Was that an argument for or against if Por was Barenin Lyr? And if they were Barenin, what did that mean?
Despite his efforts, the arguments slowly escalated until Farian and Edin were so focused on each other across the table that they no longer looked at him. The conversation shifted to a heated debate about the regulation of Yfeni, that Dayaran religious analog to Kaireyeh. If Anais' attention had drifted in his growing fatigue, it now sharpened back into focus. This was important.
He'd been speaking and listening in the Dayaran's language all day with help from his memory implant and had begun to absorb the nuances of the language and use the implant less and less. But the word "Yfeni" was translating weirdly. He called up the implant's translations around the word and studied them in his mind's eye. It didn't quite translate as "Kaireyeh," a force of the universe, and it wasn't just a religious term—it had industrial connotations, too. It was also strangely plural. Was that because of its role in deity? A remnant of the Dayarans' view of gender and pronouns? Was he reading the plural wrong? Or was there another factor involved?
Anais' temples throbbed from memory implant fatigue, and he wasn't even two hours into the day. He needed to find out exactly what Yfeni was. It was at the heart of both the political mess and why he'd been hired to come here—there were too many coincidences otherwise. Everything—the tech he was hired to steal, the generators beneath the palace, the Dayarans' religious culture, his identity implant, and Por's place in all this, whatever that was—seemed to come back to Kaireyeh, or Yfeni, or however they fit together.
He opened his mouth to put a stop to the chaos. But Por, quiet until then, spoke first.
"There's only one course of action I can see." Por's voice, pitched perfectly, cut through Farian's and Edin's shouting.
Both governors hesitated, turning to Por. That was interesting. That kind of response from fellow planetary governors required a lot of respect.
"We will need to go out to Governor Edin's manufactories and see this misuse of Yfeni for ourselves," Por said. "Verify these claims."
Edin straightened. "You will be most welcome in my province, Governor Por." They turned to Anais as an afterthought. "My king."
Edin was one of the governors who'd been wary of him at the coronation the day before, and he understood why, now—much of their future depended on what he did and said here.
Anais' throat tightened, and some of his hold on his persona slipped, fear seeping back in. These people were looking to him to solve their planetary problems. Him. All of this was on him.
Damn you, Por, he thought. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Por's lips tug up in something not quite a smirk.
You're welcome, Por said.
He heard the words, but Por's mouth hadn't opened.
Anais made a choking sound that the implant almost filtered. Had Por just—had they spoken in his mind? Had he imagined that? But Por had reacted to his thought visually, too. Por had smirked. They were telling him they could, in fact, pick up his thoughts if they chose to. And Por could reply to them, too.
Por had said the night before that it was harder to read thoughts while they were focused human. But, not impossible? Aezthena were known to speak little out loud among themselves, only a few words in years, preferring mental communication.
Anais formed thoughts carefully, as he would if he was dictating into his memory implant. What is Yfeni? I don't understand this word and its connotations.
Por answered, their voice calm in Anais' mind. He wasn't a stranger to his memory implant playing audio in his thoughts, but this was the first time he'd had a person speak to him directly this way. It took all his training to keep his face and posture neutral. To not think of this as a mental invasion.
Yfeni is one of several words we—the Dayarans—use for the essential life flow of sentient spacetime, Por said. It's essentially Kaireyeh, but Yfeni is a part of several major religions on this world. It has connotations of a god, self-essence, and the power that drives the universe and therefore power that can be harnessed into machinery as a sacred gift from the gods. The heart of this argument is that Edin has been building more powerful, but also more dangerous Yfeni-based generators in their province, arguing that they're more efficient and environmentally friendly. They're non-sanctioned and therefore sacrilegious.
Anais turned to stare at Por. If you are Aezthena, and you know the Dayarans are using Kaireyeh as a power source in their machinery, how can you condone this? Any of it? Aezthena don't let humans use Kaireyeh tech. You yourself pushed for and helped write those accords for the human worlds to follow.
Kaireyeh, whether it was the source code of the universe or a force human physics hadn't caught up with yet, wasn't something to be messed with. Tampering with Kaireyeh was like trying to rewrite portions of a warship's operating code without ever having studied programming. Except this was tampering with the universe itself. And Edin had people researching and building new types of Kaireyeh generators? That would be sacrilegious on any world. The Aezthena might have mastered the manipulation of Kaireyeh to some degree, but no one thought humans messing with Kaireyeh was a good thing. The Dayarans had to know how dangerous this was. They weren't so isolated from the rest of humanity that they didn't know about the Kaireyeh Accords.
I have my reasons for allowing this, Por said, staring back at Anais. He had the sense that this conversation was to be continued, but not right now.
"I look forward to inspecting your manufactories, Governor," Farian said.
Anais blinked and brought himself back to the present. His conversation with Por had lasted only a few heartbeats. Farian was responding to Por's suggestion that they go to Edin's province.
So, with what Anais now knew about Kaireyeh use in Edin's district, it also made more sense why Por was on Farian's side. Barenin Lyr had helped write the Kaireyeh Accords, after all. Barenin would be opposed to any human development and use of Kaireyeh technology—whether she was currently allowing it or not, and those reasons had better be good. And maybe Farian, ass though they were, wasn't in the wrong in opposing Edin. Or at least, not the worst of the wrong.
"Of course, Governor," Edin said, with an icy glare at Farian. "I look forward to inspecting your facilities as well."
"Yes. We will tour both provinces," Anais said, and governors around the table let out subtle breaths.
A thorough inspection trip. Both feuding governors unhappy but on equal footing for the moment. Por had maneuvered this situation neatly. And Por had maneuvered him, too. Maneuvered him here to Denz Dayar, to be here at this moment and make this decision. Por wanted something from him, and Anais was damn well going to find out what that was.
He let no annoyance, rage, or frustration touch his face. Just perfect, Aezthena calm. Many jobs shifted midway, and he'd learned to move with their flow. He had to bend with the situation and adapt to these new parameters. It was something he was good at. But this situation felt like sand pouring through his hands.
"We will take three governors from each side in this discussion," Anais said. "Please choose who you wish to go and submit your decisions to my office." He stood. "I believe now is a good time to break for the day." Because he wasn't sure he could sit any longer and still keep the appearance of a calm and collected Aezthena.
Ijuka held up their hands. "Agreed. Council dismissed."
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