The Walls of the Mind
Maybe it was a false sense of safety, but Anais felt a little better with this tight group of protection around him. They wouldn't do much good if the other Aezthena tried to fight him, but they were something. He wasn't completely in this alone.
As they crossed to the research building, Anais took a slow breath. On the exhale, he focused on channeling the endlessly branching logic of his fear energy into observation. Por had taught him that the day before, but he'd only gained enough focus to remember to try it now.
Heat radiated from the gritty ground material—the ground wasn't concrete, maybe some type of plastic. No, this was Edin's province, it would be an organic material. The clouds had moved on and now the sun beat down again, roasting him in his layers of robes. He checked the bottle of water he'd stored in a pocket of an inner robe and took a drink. Breaking character or not, he would not go into this without his full faculties.
Ahead, Edin and their retinue reached the building. Through lightly-tinted glass windows, Anais could make out a group of six people coming out to meet them, all dressed in gray and pale blue uniforms. They pushed out the doors to the shaded portico. All turned to him with varying degrees of curiosity and fear—a reaction he was coming to expect. He checked his walls. The station corridor in his mind was still empty, only showing his own reflection in the center. His mind was still his.
Then his attention caught on the arm patches these people wore on their right shoulders. The logo showed a design that could have been taken straight from the sketches his client had provided. A snail-like spiral.
"My king," Edin said, making a slight bow toward Anais. "May I introduce Liesen Girat, my head engineer on this project, and their team."
They waved to a short, stocky person, whose gaze darted from side to side. Liesen Girat bit their lip, their eyes a little too wide as they avoided making eye contact. As if an afterthought, they bowed. "My king. It is a pleasure to meet you." It sounded anything but.
Liesen Girat was supposed to be the Aezthena? It could be a convincing performance, but the person was overflowing with fear, and not a little annoyance.
Anais kept his face neutral. "The pleasure is mine." He scanned the faces of the others in Liesen's team. Were any of them the Aezthena? He looked for signs of perfection. Aezthena were often vain enough that the illusions they projected were almost too beautiful. Their simulation of humanity too perfect. But he saw no such signs in his first study. He turned back to Liesen.
The paint on their face, only a wide stripe of indigo across their mouth and not the full chin and eye ornamentation like the governors had, was smudged. Was that an affectation? Meant to look absent-minded, human? Were the nervousness and stammer affectations? Were the emotions simulations, meant for him to read as human?
"Liesen Girat," Anais said. "I am told you built the new—" he caught himself before he said "Kaireyeh," as the Dayarans wouldn't know it by that "—Yfeni generators. May I see your designs for such machines?"
Liesen shot a troubled look at Edin. They stammered, "My-my king, I know you have authority to look into our work, but...but the plans are proprietary. But I can show you the generators themselves." They looked over their shoulder, as if they could see through the building and to the mountains beyond.
Anais felt the gentlest touch of thought against his mental walls. It took all his skill and training as an actor not to jump. Barenin Lyr would not jump.
He checked the visualization of the station corridor in his mind. He was the only one there. His mirror image was only a reflection of himself.
But the other Aezthena was near. He knew they could see him, were watching. Anais focused on Liesen. Logic still pointed to them being the Aezthena, but his gut told him otherwise. He didn't dare look at the others. He didn't want to meet a steady gaze. He didn't want to see the signs.
Did the Aezthena know he was not Barenin Lyr? Was he playing his part well enough? Were his walls tight enough? Por had said if the other Aezthena didn't know her well, it might be possible to fool them.
The gentle brush against his thoughts became a—knock? It came not with a name, but a sense of feeling. An intimacy that felt far too deep for him to process. Memories and hints of personality, and intent.
The intent was...cold. But an Aezthena kind of cold, like the logic running through his thoughts. Devoid of emotion, but not menacing.
He couldn't let whoever it was into his mind. If they didn't already suspect he wasn't Aezthena, or at least wasn't Barenin Lyr, then they'd know the moment he dropped his walls.
He heard a voice outside his walls, like someone calling through the windows of a locked house.
Child, I know Barenin Lyr. I know you are not her. And I know she sent you to find me. Return to her, tell her I've received her message. Do not meddle further in my affairs.
"Let's tour the facility before we visit the generators," Edin said.
"My king?" Ijuka asked softly. He was showing his tension again. His guards stood stiffly, rifles humming, watching him for any signal that they should act.
He shook his head and found the strength to wave at Edin. "Yes. Continue."
He was dimly aware of his body moving with the rest into the research building, of Liesen beginning a stilted monologue of what this industrial research facility and adjoining factories did and had to offer.
The feel of that voice in his thoughts had been distinctly female—the sense of the person behind the words. Anais dared to study those in Liesen's team, and his eyes caught on a younger person, tall and thin with thick, artificially-straightened, black hair and pale, green eyes. Their eyes met. For a moment he would not have caught if he wasn't so hyper-aware, the image of the person flickered, showing the barest glimpse of white clothes, white face, silver hair underneath.
It didn't matter if Anais had Por's mental modifications or was supposed to be holding character as Barenin Lyr—he felt bile rising up his throat and wasn't sure he could get it back down again.
He felt a sudden wash of unnatural calm. It wasn't gentle, and he didn't think it was kind. This Aezthena blasted through his walls like they were paper and appeared in the mental space of his station corridor image.
She was average height, broad build, her face angular but not unpleasant. Or, it might have been pleasant if it wasn't so cold. Gold eyes flashed, and though he didn't feel her intent to harm him, he wasn't sure if he could trust what he was feeling. If she could shred his walls, she could surely make him think what she wanted.
Except, he didn't think he felt her anywhere else in his mind but in this room, and she was holding her own walls tight, letting out only what she wanted him to see. She wasn't invading him—at least, not more than she was now.
And she had knocked.
Anais swallowed, both in reality and in the visualization. She was everything he'd thought Barenin Lyr would be. She held the space around her with her presence, her force of personality, her power.
Should he call Por for help? Would this Aezthena even let him?
"Child," she said again, in the visualization this time.
Anais tried not to bristle, had to remind himself that he probably was a child to her. Though she looked no older than her early thirties, she had that feel of age about her that he'd sensed in Por. A sense of being apart from the normal stream of human time.
"You're caught up in a game you can't understand. I see your intent to carry on with your mission, but I assure you, it is over."
"The new Kaireyeh generators," Anais said, "did you design them?"
Her eyes flashed brighter gold. "Barenin elevated you. That purpose is now complete." She brought her hands up, and the edges of Anais' mind started to unravel.
Shit, what was she doing?
"No!" He bored through his already tattered walls to Por. Help. Aezthena. Help!
Por was in his mind in an instant. She held an image somewhere between human and Aezthena, her skin paler than her usual brown, upswept curls hovering between black and silver, eyes between blue and gold. She narrowed her eyes when she saw the other Aezthena.
"Sela," she said, voice flat. "I hoped it wasn't you."
Anais' blood ran cold. The vast majority of Aezthena kept to themselves. Those who did deal with humans had no concerns about leaving a trail of their presence wherever they went—they were almost gods, were they not? On some worlds, in some times, they were worshiped. But Sela was a much more elusive name in the legends throughout history. Seldom put on official records. Rarely seen as Aezthena, mostly only as the human illusions she cast, and then, those were speculation. The only things Anais was sure about Sela was that she was almost as old as Barenin and that she also liked to meddle in human affairs. But while Barenin mostly operated in the open, Anais suspected her machinations were behind a great number of major events and shifts throughout history, and not often for the better.
"So good to see you again, Barenin." Sela's voice dripped with sarcasm that had to be artificial. Her cold expression didn't change. "I met your pet." She waved at Anais. "He gave a passable impression of you. Quite the parody."
Barenin stared at Sela, her nostrils flaring.
Sela circled Barenin like a cat. "You knew I was here. You sent your pet to provoke me."
Barenin folded her arms. "I had several suspicions. And several reasons for asking Anais to do what he did. What are your reasons for being here?"
Anais watched them, not daring to move. Some part of him registered that this conversation wasn't happening in the real world. That it was taking place inside his mind. Gods and stars above, two Aezthena were staring each other down in his mind. What should he do? Was there anything he could do but wait it out?
He focused on where he was in the present. His arm was outstretched, supporting himself as he leaned against a wall in the glass and steel lobby of Edin's research building.
"King Lyr! My king, are you all right?" Ijuka stopped short of shaking him, their hands outstretched and trembling. "My king? Please. What's going on?" It was the first time Anais had heard Ijuka sound scared.
He looked past Ijuka to the young person from the engineering team—Sela. She gave a sweet smile.
"I'm fine," Anais managed. "The Kaireyeh, the Yfeni...is strong here."
Ijuka shot a panicked look at Edin, who stood stolidly behind them and looked worried, but not displeased, with Anais' discomfort.
Anais' anger flared. Edin hated Aezthena, that was painfully obvious. They certainly hated him. But they were just another human pawn caught up in this Aezthena game, weren't they?
In the station corridor in his mind, Barenin said, "You didn't design these generators. Influenced, maybe, but not designed. What I want to know is how you got this close to them and still maintained your illusion. For the past seven months, I haven't been able to get near that province without Kaireyeh edging me Aezthena."
Sela arched her brows. "And that's a bad thing? So instead you skulk about in the capital, luring in unsuspecting humans and sending them to do your digging for you?"
Anais glanced between them. The conversation was...off. Stilted. If this was happening in his head, was his perception distorted?
No, he realized. The conversation was stilted because the things being verbalized—mentally, at least—were only punctuation. The full conversation was going on furiously between Barenin and Sela in their minds, and that conversation wasn't in this visualization at all.
So why were they all still here?
Sela focused on him. "Run, human. Get away from Barenin Lyr. There's nothing but poison for you here."
Anais, in his panic—which had definitely kicked in again—decided several things in rapid succession.
One: Barenin and Sela knew each other well. Their body language, their sharp remarks, even as Aezthena, all bore the marks of long familiarity. Of buttons each knew how to push.
Two: Barenin and Sela didn't just know each other. They had an intimate history. Their body language said that, too—it was that of lovers who had never quite gotten over each other. Barenin was making no move to hide the growing anger on her face. It was cold, Aezthena cold, but human anger as well.
Three: Barenin was using him, like Sela was using Edin. And he'd known it. He'd even started to accept it, fool that he was. He should take Sela's advice and run. A lump swelled up his throat, and he swallowed it down. Shoved down that taste of bitter disappointment. He supposed it couldn't have gone any other way. Barenin was Aezthena. Aezthena always used every resource at hand, free will be damned. Barenin didn't care about him, but he'd fallen into the trap of that sweet illusion of intimacy. Of shared experience. Of hope.
Four: Sela was using her advice to him to isolate Barenin.
Five: Anais wasn't going anywhere. He was under no illusions that he could be of much help to Barenin, but he felt an undercurrent from Barenin, soft but there—a feeling more than words. An asking, please, for Anais to stay. To be patient. To trust.
Anais didn't fully trust Barenin. Less so now than ever. He should have followed his own rules of no involvement and not trusting anyone but his own wits. But despite all of this, despite everything, she was still important to him. He couldn't abandon her if she needed his help. And where would he run to, anyway? They were battling this out in his mind.
Sela continued to circle Barenin. "Your pet is in love with you."
Anais strode toward them. "Include me in the conversation or get out of my head."
Sela speared him with her glare. Her pretense of civility dropped, and her thoughts came at him in a sudden rush, tangling themselves in his. He reached to pull his walls back together, but they were here in this mental room—she was already past his walls. She rifled through his mind like she was perusing a holovid database.
"Sela," Barenin snapped, and stepped between them.
The rifling stopped. Barenin's image was fully Aezthena now. There was little of the human Por in her as she glanced at Anais.
"Anais, let me see where you are," Barenin said.
Anais nodded and Barenin's thoughts nudged against his outward perceptions. His vision, his hearing, all of his senses felt doubled as Barenin saw and heard and felt the situation through him. Saw Ijuka staring up at him, hand hovering like they wanted to shake him but not yet willing to try it. Saw all the governors and guards clustered around him, forming a perimeter and walling off Liesen's team and any other prying eyes or potential threats.
He felt Barenin's annoyance as she pulled back from his senses. "Well. I need to fix this, much as I wish not to. Anais, I'm going to blink you back to the capital. I'll take your place, briefly, and make your excuses. I'm already fully Aezthena focused." She didn't glare so much as stare with directed purpose at Sela. "You. We need to talk. Make your own excuses and meet me here in one hour." She flashed an image of her private meeting room in the palace, the room that was safe to talk in.
Sela stared back at Barenin. What else was passing between them, and did Anais even want to know? Then Sela was abruptly gone from his mind.
Barenin turned to him. "This is going to feel strange. I'll take you straight back to your apartments. Stay there. I'll come for you."
Anais didn't understand what was happening, not really. But he nodded. He did understand that explanations would have to come later.
And then he was in his apartments, by the curtained bed, reeling at the abruptness of the change in light and location. It was evening out the window, the sky ablaze with the sunset. There was a sudden ringing lack of sound and tension. The station corridor in his mind was empty, save for the reflection of himself, the mirror. He pulled those walls as closely as he could around him and didn't quite shiver.
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