With the meeting adjourned, conversation in the Council chamber rose in a chaotic murmur to pound against Anais' headache.
He stood, trying not to sway. Governors in their robes and face paint hovered nearby, waiting to swoop in on him for their own private arguments and favor-currying sessions. But Por was swiftly by his side as well.
"May I speak with you privately, my king?" they asked.
Anais hadn't thought his stomach could clench any tighter. He didn't have any energy left for this, but he did want answers. And he needed to rest. Por knew who he was—he didn't have to hold this persona as tightly around Por.
Stars and gods above, he was aghast at holding this act with Por now.
"Of course." Anais looked around him. "If you will all excuse me." He ignored the disappointed or outright hostile looks and walked with Por out of the Council chamber. Por was careful not to appear to lead him, but walked beside him, as was protocol, guiding with subtle hand gestures.
They reached a small sitting room. Por bowed Anais inside then eased the door shut behind them. The room was windowless, pale blue walls covered in light geometric patterns, thick white carpet on the floor. Small, framed prints of flowers hung in rows on each wall. The only furniture was a cluster of overstuffed chairs around a low wooden table in the center. By the standards of everything else in this palace, it almost looked...cozy.
All Anais wanted to do was sink into one of those chairs, but he hesitated by the door. His mind blanked as he looked at the chairs, then at Por. He should be gathering his thoughts, not wanting to rest. He was about to battle wits with an Aezthena.
Por waited, giving him time to decide how he'd start this conversation. He didn't know if that was a courtesy or a test. Probably both.
Finally, Anais removed the heavy crown and looped it over his arm, crossed to the center of the room, and sank into the most comfortable-looking chair there. His robes fanned out around him with a soft shush. He rested his head back and made a sound of relief—something he would never have done with anyone here but this person.
He might be matching wits with an Aezthena, but he couldn't do it while concentrating on playing Barenin Lyr.
Por snorted and sat across from him. "Well, you survived the first day." She arranged her red robes in careful folds before settling. "So. You've finally decided I'm who I said I am."
Anais stiffened. How openly were they going to talk? Had any cameras just seen him sigh? Fatigue or not, he couldn't afford to be sloppy. He shouldn't have let his guard down, they could be monitored anywhere in the palace, and he hadn't yet checked this room—
"We're secure," Por said. "I monitor this room's security personally. All governors have their preferred meeting rooms, and this is mine." She paused. "And I disabled two of the other governors' bugs before you entered."
Despite Por's assurances, Anais pulled his role back around him. It was his only armor, as painfully awkward as it was, as exhausting as it was. But it was armor enough that he could quell some of his roiling emotions. So he wouldn't run from the room in a panic because of who it was who sat across from him. Who'd been watching him all day. No doubt studying him. Who knew far too much about him.
He'd agreed to Por's suggestion of this private meeting because he couldn't say no without unknown consequences. And because he was pissed and wanted answers. And because...he was curious. So very curious, and too tired for much more at this moment than his curiosity.
Por sat forward suddenly. "Let me show you something. That will give you the definitive proof you need." She clasped her right hand to her left bicep.
Anais' lips parted, and he sat forward, too. His body heated with a fresh surge of adrenaline. She was going to draw her halo weapon and show him the genetic crest on her hand, wasn't she? He hadn't known she had one—or that any Aezthena had them. He'd assumed it was just a human tradition. But all Aezthena had been human once, hadn't they?
"You have a halo weapon?" Anais stared as gold lines etched themselves across the brown of Por's hand. The lines swirled up her wrist and down to her fingertips, then coalesced into a circular sigil on the back of her hand. The sigil was supposed to display the nation, family, or religion you felt most loyal to—which sometimes shifted if those loyalties changed—but the sigil on the back of Por's hand drew itself, and then drew over itself with another sigil, and another, and another, and another. There were so many layers and lines that it became a mandala of loyalties.
Anais looked up. "What—"
But Por's concentration was on the crest. Finally, around the outer circle of the crest, words appeared in a script that Anais couldn't read. He queried his implant, but though he got some familiarity with the long, flowing symbols, he couldn't make out much more than an archaeological origin. A dead language, or at least, a heavily mutated one.
The writing shifted into Aijani.
A silver rod cracked out in Por's hand, a meter's length. Not the full staff, and she didn't draw the blades within it. The staff could expand to two meters, with blades as long as half a meter on each end, as the bearer wished. At least, that was how Anais' halo staff worked. His was golden, though. He'd seen a few people with silver, but very few with the rippling metal grain patterns that shimmered on Por's halo staff.
Por held out her hand so Anais could read the crest more clearly.
He squinted at the words. "Damon ve Barenin ne Alyras Kynaston."
Por winced. "More or less. Pronunciation is a little off. But that's to be expected."
The name sounded archaic. Anais recognized the Barenin Lyr part of it, though. And—he blinked, the hair raising on his arms.
"Damon Kynaston. That's your name. Were you Emperor Daemonus Kyn?" In his studies, he'd come across the name in the earliest history of humanity. When there were only a handful of human governments spread across a thousand or so stars. There were varying accounts of the first wars and treaties between the humans and Aezthena, ranging from implausible to mystical, but the name Daemonus Kyn had stood out to him. In the few snippets he'd found with the name, historians had mentioned it was often seen with Aezthena honorifics, which was an oddity for a human. Most considered it to be a diplomatic honor, not a statement of race. Daemonus was mentioned as a human ruler. And most historians counted Barenin Lyr as showing up a few centuries later. But...Daemonus had brokered a treaty with the Aezthena, one of the first of such treaties mentioned throughout history. And Barenin Lyr was known for such treaties. Anais had wondered.
The corners of Por's eyes crinkled. "That caught your interest. I was just called Damon Kynaston, actually. Amazing what is lost and changed over the millennia. But yes, I brokered a treaty with the Aezthena around that time."
"Ha," Anais said. "While you were still human?"
"I was Aezthena when I brokered that treaty." Por tilted her head. "But I was rather new to being Aezthena."
Anais absorbed that—and the fact she had just told him that part of her origin—to fully unpack later. His gaze flicked over the name again. "And Kynaston? Isn't that one of one of the pre-Aezthena human dynasties? So that's the same lineage as Kyn?" Another thing historians speculated on, but had never pinned down.
"Not pre-Aezthena," Por said, "but there at the beginning of the split into humans and Aezthena. And yes. That is my family name." She pointed to her eyes, those very vivid blue eyes. "My Kynaston heritage. Kynblue. Hear the origin? Anyone you see with this eye color has Kynaston ancestry."
"Ah," Anais said. He hadn't known that, and the part of him that loved the discovery in researching a role hoarded that fact away. "So, you were important? Your family, I mean. Before you became Aezthena."
"And here I thought you'd done all your research on me." Her smile faded as she studied Anais. "You're dehydrated. You've been sweltering in those robes all day and barely drinking." She retracted her halo weapon to a bead and sheathed it in her arm, then rubbed a thumb over one side of the center table. A holo menu popped up. She tapped a quick series of commands, and a second later, a pitcher of water and two clear blue glasses materialized.
Anais licked dry lips and accepted the glass without protest. He took a few sips, let the water settle, then a few more swallows.
His head began to clear. The robes he wore were still too hot and too heavy, but some of the weight of fatigue lifted. He drank the glass and filled half of another. Maybe it had helped his role that he'd barely drank anything that day, or maybe no one noticed. But everyone would notice if he passed out.
"Thank you," he said after a few moments. Then, feeling Por's gaze on him, looked down and said, "There are huge gaps in the records of you. Anything before the last five or six thousand years is obscure, bordering on mythological. I don't believe half of what I've found."
"Good," Por said dryly. Then, "You're breaking character in your enthusiasm. And it's disconcerting to be talking to a facsimile of myself. Please turn off the identity implant."
Anais froze mid-drink. He had the same feeling of exposure he'd had the night before. Could Por see through his implant, see him underneath—or wherever his actual body went when he had it on?
"I'll shift it to another profile," Anais said. "The guard from last night."
Por held up her hand where the genetic crest had been a few moments ago. "Do you know how many people I've shown this to? Do you know how many even know my birth name, or that it's different from the name I use now? Maybe two or three people a century, if even."
Anais bristled. "So, 'I show you mine, you show me yours,' is that it? You're divulging secrets, so I should, too?"
Por shook her head, a few curls breaking loose from her upswept knot. She made a helpless gesture with one hand. It was so incongruous with the picture Anais had always held of Barenin Lyr, who he'd seen as aloof, in control, every move calculated. That was how Anais was playing this role for the Dayarans. That was what they expected, too.
There were so few records of Barenin Lyr in a more human guise that Anais hardly knew how to deal with this. Was it all an act? Or was this real?
"I'm sorry," Por said, wiping a hand across her face and smearing some of the blue paint on her cheek. "I'm sorry, I have no right to demand anything from you. I only meant—I want you to know I trust you. I want you to know you can trust me, too."
Anais gaped. She trusted him? Barenin Lyr trusting him, a con artist?
No. The Barenin Lyr he'd researched wouldn't trust anyone. She might be on the better side of history, but she wasn't a fool. She had to be playing him.
The anger he'd set aside earlier came back in full force. "So why in all the hells should I trust you?" The identity implant was still at work, lowering the heat in his voice, smoothing out the expressions, edging them toward Aezthena coldness. Anais scowled. The implant was annoying him now, too. He couldn't have a decent argument like this.
"Turn around," he demanded. "And don't look mentally, either."
Por complied without a word, drawing up her legs and turning in her chair so her back was to him.
He stopped, his attention arrested. Gods, she was not what he'd expected in so many ways, but in her posture, the way she carried herself, she was everything he'd studied. Effortlessly elegant and poised. Her neck curved gently into her broad back. Black curls frayed around the knot of her hair, quivering with her breaths.
He had an urge to reach out and run a hand along her neck. Feel her skin, see if it was as smooth and soft as it looked. Tuck her hair back into its knot and work his way around to her face, with its gorgeous planes—his body began to heat.
Anais shook himself and shoved those thoughts away. What was he doing? Was he that tired to be so reckless? This couldn't be a dalliance. This was Barenin Lyr.
Had she felt his thoughts? He'd told her not to look mentally. He hoped she hadn't seen that spike in his emotions.
Anais pulled the anger around himself again. He let it build, another shield around him.
He tapped the implant off, waited impatiently through the disorientation of the shift, in the vulnerability of his own skin, then tapped it back on again into the visage of the guard he'd worn the night before. That was, at least, somewhat safe. And excusable if someone discovered him there.
His hands were no longer bone-white but a natural, human brown. "Fine. Turn around."
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