Anais had drawn back the curtains around his bed and he now sat in the middle of the rumpled sheets and blankets, waiting, his mind racing. The windows showed city lights in purple-gray twilight, but he hadn't moved to turn on any lights inside the room. An hour or two might have passed. He wasn't sure. Days on Denz Dayar were longer than Aijas Standard Time. Another part of him was certain that twenty-eight minutes and forty-three Aijas Standard seconds had passed since Barenin had sent him back to the palace.
He'd stripped out of all but the last two silken under-robes. The crown lay lopsided on the bed beside him. He rocked back and forth, trying to understand. Trying to make sense of everything he had seen, and thought, and was feeling now—or not feeling. Or feeling too strongly in a way that wasn't human. His mind wound around and around and around, and he couldn't stop it. His teeth chattered.
And then Por was there. She stepped out of the air without preamble. One moment not there, one moment, Por.
As she approached the bed, her bone-white skin darkened, her hair edging toward black, her eyes losing most of the golden sheen. But not all.
"Please," Anais said, pointing at his head. "Make it stop."
Por motioned him forward, but he stayed where he was. He clutched the pillow he'd been holding to his chest for the last eighteen minutes and twenty-three seconds.
"Gods, make it stop," Anais whispered. His voice was still Aezthena flat.
Por climbed onto the bed, settling cross-legged in front of him. "Can you turn off the implant?"
Anais reached wooden fingers and did so. He didn't even feel naked this time, only in his own skin and rumpled clothes. His mind was too full.
Por pressed her hands to his head, fingers cool, but not as cool as before.
Anais closed his eyes and waited. Gradually, the buzz of thoughts stopped. He sat, panting. It was like being in a room with ten different songs blaring, and then someone shut off the power.
He took a shuddering breath, then fell forward with a sob. Por caught him and wrapped her arms around him, resting his head on her shoulder. He couldn't stop the sobs. He never cried. He hated crying. But right now, he couldn't stop.
Por said nothing. Barely moved except a slow smoothing of his greasy hair. She waited until Anais wound down into the dry after-sobs, the shaking, the dizzy pulling for air.
Anais finally gathered the strength to push away. He swiped at his eyes, which were still streaming.
"I'm sorry," he rasped.
"No," Por said, and pulled him back toward her. "I'm sorry. You shouldn't have had to experience that."
Anais shoved away again. "What did I even accomplish? I didn't get a look at the tech my client hired me for, I totally blew my cover to the Aezthena, to Sela by the gods—she's really more than a legend. And I blew your cover and dragged you into this. That was the whole point of my going there, wasn't it? To keep you out of it. And I didn't even find out what Edin's doing building those generators, if there's anything beyond the obvious. So I can't do my duty as the contract king, either. I don't know what's going on. I—I—" He waved his hands, a helpless gesture.
With the simulation of an Aezthena mind gone from his thoughts, the memories of the last two days were blurring, losing color, ebbing away from him. His memory implant stored the facts, but he couldn't handle the sensations.
He remembered the feeling of the Kaireyeh generators, though. That rhythmic drone inside his bones, in his belly, in his mind. Those generators that had been over a hundred kilometers away. And he remembered Sela's sharp intrusion into his thoughts.
Raw fear he hadn't been able to process then washed over him in a cold sweat. His breaths came in ragged pants.
"Sela," he said. "That was Sela. The Sela. I never thought I'd—is she behind this? She made Edin build the new generators, didn't she? She's way deep in this. Is she your enemy?"
"I'm not sure," Por said. "She nudged Edin with manipulations and half-truths into researching and building a more efficient Kaireyeh generator—Sela could not have built them on her own. We Aezthena aren't like you humans. We are powerful, yes, but our minds move in logic. We can't see or make the intuitive leaps that humans do in their discoveries. Sela is here like I am here, interested in the Yfeni concept of Kaireyeh and what the Dayarans have developed with it. But while I watch passively, she's always liked to take an active role in shaping affairs."
Anais shivered, his teeth resuming their chatter. Por helped him bunch up the blankets around his shoulders.
"Did you," he asked through a jaw clenched over the chattering, "know it was Sela? Did you send me there knowing she'd be there?" Sela loomed in his thoughts like the Aezthena monsters of the holodramas. The worst of the unfeeling demigods—powerful, ancient, and uncaring for any life beyond her own.
Por's face was turned down, in too many shadows. "I suspected. But I didn't know for sure."
Anais' eyes welled up again, and he couldn't stop it. "She ripped through my thoughts, Por—"
Por caught his shaking hands and held them. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"But you knew it might happen."
"Don't you know how—" Anais swallowed. "My thoughts. That's—do you know how that feels?" He tasted acrid bile and closed his eyes against the memory of her tearing through his mind. It was different, so much different than fearing that Por might pick up on his stray thoughts. How much of his life had Sela seen? What did she know? Did she know the deepest pains he kept locked away? And she'd just broken into his mind and taken all of that.
"I'm sorry," Por said again, but the words felt hollow. An echo of an apology.
Silence stretched in the darkness.
Anais stirred in the nest of covers. He was losing his connection with Por. The closeness they'd had a moment before, that false sense of comfort when she'd held him, was sifting through a yawning chasm widening between them.
He shook his head. No. He couldn't lose her now. He couldn't be alone. Not now. Not after what had happened.
That Por was part of the cause of it—most of the cause of it—loomed large in his mind. But he had to bridge that gap between them. He had to understand. He had to know what she'd been thinking.
"Do you love her?" Anais shuddered at the thought. How could anyone love someone like that? But what Por and Sela played out in his mind had felt like a lover's quarrel between gods.
Por sighed and leaned back, pulling her hands away from him. He keenly felt the lack of touch. "Sela and I...we are constantly turning magnets. We attract and repel. Attract and repel. We seldom agree." She looked toward the lights of the skyscrapers outside, pinpoints reflected in her eyes. "I have influenced events to keep the peace between humans and Aezthena. To heal wounds in Kaireyeh when I find them, or when Kaireyeh guides me to them. I was made what I am to hold the balance between humanity and the Aezthena—it is why I am able to move between both states, not fully being either." She waved her hand back and forth, finally settling it on her lap where she clasped her hands together.
Anais didn't want a history. He didn't even want explanations. He wanted—what did he want? Her to tell him it had all happened for a reason. That they'd gained something more than a monster ripping through his thoughts. Was Por, even focused more human in that moment, so out of touch with actual humanity that she couldn't hear the catch in his voice?
He felt more exposed than he had in years, and it wasn't because he hadn't tapped the implant back on. He'd gone too deep with Por, too far and too fast. He was bruised on the inside. He was made of glass, like the merest touch could shatter him, and no matter that he tried to pull his wits, his identities, around him like shields, they wouldn't protect him.
"Sela is fully Aezthena," Por went on. "I have known her most of my life. She's fiercely protective of her ideals, not afraid to use any means to accomplish her goals, and never backs down once she sets her mind on a course of action. She plans centuries and millennia in advance. She's so very dangerous because she always believes her course of action is in the right, for the greater good. She tries to do what I do, holding her own type of balance between the Aezthena and humanity, but she's not human. Not for thousands of years now. There are things she will never understand."
Anais bit his lip as more tears fell. How Por had just described Sela was how Anais was feeling about Por. Gods. What had he got himself into?
He sniffed and wiped at his running nose. Por pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and he took it reluctantly, blew into it—quietly, so the guards outside his suites wouldn't hear.
Anais swayed—his sobs hadn't been quiet. And an Aezthena contract king would not sob like that. Shit. Shit.
He started to get up. He had to do damage control. If he even could. What had Por—what had Barenin—said or done as the contract king while he was here?
"Shh," Por said, pulling him back down. "It's all right. I have us in a bubble of sped-up time. No one can hear us here."
Past the bed, dust motes hung suspended. Anais looked out to the city. Something that had vaguely bothered him now came into sharp focus. The lights on the buildings would be mostly static, but the red and white streaks of aircar lights hadn't moved, either.
He gripped the blankets tightly around himself. This was too much. He'd thought he could handle coming to Denz Dayar, playing Barenin Lyr, and he'd thought he could handle Por's simulation of an Aezthena mind—he could handle anything. But his thoughts didn't know where to settle. He didn't know what to do.
Run, Sela had said.
Anais swallowed. Maybe he should. What he wanted to do was lash out, to rage at Por, to scream at her until he was hoarse. But the memory of Sela ripping through his thoughts restrained him. This person in front of him, she wasn't human. She could do what Sela did if she wanted to. If she was provoked.
Sela had acted like he was a bug on the floor. She'd called him Por's pet. Was that how Por saw him?
Could she even sense the turmoil boiling off him? She'd responded to lesser emotional cues than what he knew he was giving off now, but she seemed oblivious.
Closed off, he realized. He wasn't the only one who had walls. How tightly was she holding her own? And what had happened, in all that had happened, to make her draw so completely in on herself? What was she thinking? He could see just enough of her face to make out absolutely no expression.
Anais wiped his hand across his eyes. He didn't understand Por. He didn't remotely understand her, and how had he ever thought he'd had a grasp on what it meant to be Barenin Lyr?
He was exhausted. But he needed to move on from this moment. To do something—anything—to get past this sense of insignificance. This vulnerability. Por seemed to only be processing the surface of the situation, and all right, he could do that. He could shove everything else to the edges of his soul and hold the center. He could gather the facts he needed to draw his own conclusions.
He cleared his throat, pulling all his thoughts back to the issue at hand. "So you're saying Sela wants to help people, like you want to help, but she does the wrong things for the right reasons? Is that what you're saying?" Was that supposed to make it okay?
Por smoothed out the bedding, building a low wall around her. "She wants to take the new generator technology off-world. Find a way to use it. While it is crude in some ways, it exceeds our own Aezthena power cores in others. Sela showed me enough of how it works." She sighed. "Dayarans have had some of the most unique designs for Kaireyeh tech I've seen—it's why the Aezthena keep a close watch on this world. And why I have the tech barrier around it. The barrier holds, but Sela will find a way around it to bring that tech back to her faction of the Aezthena."
"Why?" Anais asked, his anger rising with exasperation. "Why is this so important? And why is it so dangerous if Sela does get this tech? I get why it's dangerous to the Dayarans, yeah, but I thought the Aezthena knew all there was to know about Kaireyeh tech. You said this was save-the-universe stuff. Why?"
Please, Anais silently pleaded, whether she heard him or not. Please, tell me this has all been worth something.
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