Leaving the Palace
Anais strode with a retinue of governors and guards through the corridors toward the palace landing pads. Just ahead, Ijuka led the two feuding governors and their picks for the inspection tour. The order was Por's idea. There was a psychological threat that if any of the governors misbehaved, the Aezthena king behind them would be the first to see it. Anais filed that tactic away for future use. Around them, palace guards formed a moving perimeter, eight of which would accompany them in the flyer to Farian's and Edin's provinces on the other side of the planet.
Por kept pace beside Anais, elegant as always. She had small sapphires woven into her hair, sparking in the soft corridor light. Bringing out the blue in her eyes. Anais tried not to notice. Tried not to stare.
He himself was dressed as usual for this role. Even jaunts across the planet, he'd found, did not free him of the heavy and stifling robes, though he didn't let the discomfort show on his face.
He wasn't annoyed. Not in the human sense. He was aware, vaguely, of human emotions below the surface of his thoughts, but the cold—and not-so-alien after a few days with them—Aezthena emotions threaded through his thoughts. That had been an interesting and unsettling discovery. Unlike what most humans assumed, the Aezthena didn't lack emotions. They felt deeply, but on different levels. Those levels had threatened to drown him until Por had shown him how to loop his thoughts into separate logic trees. To set aside anything he didn't need at the moment. Same with his senses. He felt everything too much—but he didn't have to. He did keep that vague awareness on his human emotions, though. Watching them, trying to interpret them through this different lens of reality. If he kept watch on them, he didn't think he'd become fully sociopathic.
He wasn't nervous, either. Could he even be nervous now? Probes into his subsurface human emotions couldn't answer that. But he did feel a deep apprehension of the lack of solid variables to parse.
His walls were tight. Por had checked them exhaustively the day before until he could hold them well and keep his own identity hidden. Project just enough of the mental illusion that he was, in fact, the Aezthena Barenin Lyr.
He was going into a situation where he might come into contact with another Aezthena. The odds of that contact, he'd calculated, were 83.983%. He also knew, even with Por training him intensely the day before, he was nowhere near prepared for this.
You will do well, Por said in his thoughts. Por had taught him how to hold a pinhole conversation through his mental walls.
What if the other Aezthena threatens me? Anais asked, his mental voice flatly calm. They had been over this, but still the thoughts rose, insistent. Should I let them capture me? Will you come if they take me? I don't want to be turned Aezthena.
He examined the calm with which he'd asked those uncalm statements, trying to assess the full boundaries of the matrix between his human and simulated Aezthena selves.
We don't change our prisoners, Por said. A bitter taste came through the mental link. Amusement, perhaps. One of Por's human emotions that he might have easily identified before but could only guess at now.
For a stretched moment, his mind caught on the irony that she, a real Aezthena, was more human than he, a simulated one. And then he tried to puzzle out the intricacies of what she'd told him about her ability to focus into mostly-human and mostly-Aezthena states. How had that happened? What made her unique among the Aezthena? He didn't have enough variables, and was about to ask, when Por said, Keep your mind on task, as we practiced. I will protect you as best I can.
As best she could. Anais wasn't sure if that was supposed to be reassuring. But he refocused his thoughts on the task ahead, letting everything extraneous—and there were a lot of extraneous things he wanted to think about—stream by him.
They passed through a guarded doorway and onto a walkway that led to the raised, circular landing pads. Their lander squatted like an overstuffed beetle, attended by a bustling crew. With his senses heightened, and not skilled enough to filter all of it, Anais struggled not to squint in the brightness of sun on metal. Barenin Lyr wouldn't squint.
I wish you'd come with me, Anais said.
But they'd been over that, too. The other Aezthena likely knew Por was Barenin. She might not be recognizable to most humans, but an Aezthena would know about her ability to focus human and see through her obscuring face paint. The other Aezthena might not know, though, that Por knew they were here.
And that was the game. Anais was both scout and provocation. Identify the other Aezthena and let them identify him—either as Barenin Lyr, or as himself. The response would tell Por much of what she needed to know of who this other was and their intentions.
His other mission was to observe what was happening in Edin's province. To gather information on why her research was provoking the other governors into taking sides. Por hadn't been able to go herself, and not just because of the threat of another Aezthena. There was a concentration of Kaireyeh energy in Edin's province that might do unpredictable things to Por's human focus and expose her as Aezthena to the Dayarans.
His own objective was to see what connection Edin's research had with the tech he'd been hired to steal. Because he was certain there was a connection. And he wanted to know just how much he'd been played.
Of all the probable scenarios of these missions, the one Anais had calculated most and was still assessing was his meeting the other Aezthena. He was certain he would live through it. Aezthena didn't go around attacking each other, even if they were enemies—another myth much lauded in holodramas that Por had shown him was untrue. The Aezthena maneuvered. They didn't use their abilities for violence except as a last resort. Weaponized Kaireyeh, even if wielded in an Aezthena's mind, would still warp and destroy space and time around it. It would warp the minds of those who wielded it, taking days, months, or years to fully recover. If the wielder ever recovered.
That the Aezthena had limits to their abilities and how they could use them, and that the power they wielded wasn't entirely in their control, was an unsettling discovery. But in his mission now, it was also vastly comforting.
"My king," Ijuka said, "it's time to board the lander."
Anais started from his thoughts. "Go on, get the others on board. I would like a word with Governor Por."
Ijuka nodded and herded the rest of the group into the waiting craft while Anais turned to Por.
His mind flicked through possible things to say, but he discarded them. He was still connected to her, could still feel some small part of her emotions, but she was already backing from that link. They'd need to sever it for this mission to work. He looked between Por's eyes, trying to read the expression there. Trying to gauge her intentions, though it was hard, so much harder than it should have been for him, with his mind entangled in this simulation of Aezthena thought. He was doing this for her, because she'd asked him to. Because she'd said it was important.
Come if I call? he asked, a tentative demand. She couldn't monitor him directly, as the other Aezthena would pick that up immediately, but he could reach her if he needed by casting out a mental link like they shared now.
Por bowed. "My king. You had best board. Safe travels, and I look forward to your return."
It wasn't an answer, or was it? Was she saying that of course he would return? Had Por even heard the question? He couldn't feel her, now. She'd cut the connection between them.
"My king?" Ijuka called, now at the open lander hatch. The others were waiting.
Anais licked dry lips—an acceptable Barenin gesture—then nodded to Por.
The lander's engines whined to life, hot wind rippling the air and pulling at his braids. But the crown held everything in place. The crown moved him onward, that responsibility that he'd taken on himself. The crown made him think that he could do this, because Por felt it necessary for the safety of this world and humanity. And if Barenin Lyr thought that, he had to as well. Because right now, he was Barenin Lyr.
Seated on board the lander, Anais cast a last look through the small windows at Por, who was still watching him. Who held his gaze even as the lander lifted.
Trust yourself, Por whispered in his thoughts, then her presence was gone. He'd thought she'd already cut the connection, but maybe not. Anais scrambled in the station corridor in his mind, probed at the edges of his walls, desperate for her to still be there. But he felt no trace of her.
The lander banked and shot upward, leaving the palace, and Por, behind.
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