The vestibule behind the throne room was whisper silent, the air tight and close, cinnamon and lavender mingling with musty disuse. Alone in the room, Anais Cavere tugged on the lace-edged sleeves of his layers of brocade robes. He'd practiced the gesture so many times he could do it without thinking, which was good, because his nerves were doing their best to knot up his thoughts. He brought his hands carefully back to clasp in front of him, another centering gesture.
Afternoon sunlight flickered through the high red and clear glass windows, highlighting silvery veins on his bone-white, faintly metallic, Aezthena skin. Non-human skin. Step by step, he imagined himself facing a mirror and cleared his face of all but the imitation of emotion, an expression he'd held throughout the two-week translight trip to Denz Dayar.
A knock came on the door behind him, and he drew in a sharp breath. At least the Dayarans had heeded his request that the incense for the coronation ceremony be as mild as possible so as not to overwhelm his heightened Aezthena senses. Never mind that he didn't actually have those senses—he could not sneeze. Aezthena did not sneeze.
He breathed past his racing heart.
"Enter." The voice he spoke with was reedier than his own, Aezthena flat, but with an urbane, unclassifiable accent. Though he'd worn this form for two weeks now, and though he was used to hearing this voice come out of his mouth, he almost flinched now to hear it break the silence. Anais flicked his fingers in one of the ways he'd worked out to vent his emotions while making it look like a meaningful gesture.
In all the jobs he'd pulled and all the roles he'd played, he'd never before dared to impersonate an Aezthena, let alone this Aezthena. It was almost suicidal. The once-human, bio-synthetic race that had warred on and off with humanity for millennia wouldn't hesitate to kill a single human for such audacity. Or even a whole human world. They read minds. They bent space and time to their will, and on a purely physical level, were at least ten times stronger than the strongest human.
He, beneath the cloak of his identity implant, was none of those things.
The door creaked open. Anais swallowed on a dry throat even while he felt the manic thrill of being on a job surge through his veins like a drug. And oh, the rush of this job was intense.
He drew his spine straight but didn't turn to face who'd entered. He wasn't Anais here. He was Barenin Lyr, Aezthena demi-god and immortal legend, thousands of years old. He'd brokered impossible treaties to stop wars, and he'd started a few wars, too. He'd been a household name throughout most of recorded history. He would make whoever entered come to face him.
A plump figure in red robes stepped up to him. A sheer veil covered their face—for the Dayarans, it was taboo to meet a contract ruler before that ruler was officially confirmed. It was a polite fiction—let the isolationist society believe that their contract ruler was Dayaran to begin with and not an off-worlder.
Anais glanced through the veil at wide, dark eyes that shone in a careful labyrinth of painted indigo geometries. From their lips to their neck, the paint was solid. The effect was harsh, demanding attention to their rank. Their broad features and figure leaned toward supple, but not necessarily feminine.
Gender could never be assumed, and it was hardly a thing tied to the four physical sexes—female, male, null, multi—and their various offshoots. Here, the Dayarans recognized five official genders and a host of sub-genders. Everyone used neutral pronouns except among family or intimate friends. Here, it was cultural courtesy.
Anais recognized this person from the public—and private—records he'd hacked and studied. Governor Ijuka, one of twenty-three provincial rulers in the Dayaran Council of Governors. He'd spoken with Ijuka through an intermediary over the comm in their negotiations for his hiring as contract king. For Barenin Lyr's hiring.
When a client had come to him wanting the secrets of Denz Dayar's mysterious planetary generators and had put down a fee large enough to buy a planetary station, Anais had powered past the sour feeling in his gut and taken the job. He had debts. Oh, he had debts. The only way to gain access to the generators was to go to the top. He'd learned the Dayarans were looking to hire a contract king to settle a dispute in their governing body, and they'd hired Aezthena as contract kings before. Anais, in one of his few obsessions beyond his work, was an amateur scholar of the Aezthena race and their history—Barenin Lyr in particular. And so, his scheme had been hatched. He'd dangled the bait of Barenin Lyr, the great peacemaker, and the Dayarans had taken it.
Ijuka, despite the taboo, studied him with a cynical curiosity. Though Anais couldn't see the whole of their expression through the barrier of the veil, and though the paint obscured it, he was good enough at reading people to sense Ijuka's lack of awe.
Anais stared back, his own face expressionless, hiding his worry. Had Ijuka met an Aezthena before? Most humans, and many non-humans, feared the Aezthena. Some worlds and cultures worshiped them. Was Anais' humanity showing through? He resisted the urge to look down at himself. He knew what Ijuka saw—unnaturally bone-white skin, metallic silver hair, golden eyes that shone in the right light with an animal glow.
He had two pieces of tech on his person that beyond everything else could get him killed without a trial on any human world. The first was a memory implant, a tiny bio-tech chip that sat in his brain and stored and processed more information than a human brain should handle. The second was his identity implant, which sat at the base of his neck and phased his body and genetics out of reality while phasing a new identity in. It was absolutely uncrackable and undetectable. He hadn't known such a thing existed until three months ago, and he'd sold his ship and gone into five alias' worth of debt to buy what his contact advertised as the only prototype. Ancient tech. Aezthena tech.
He'd stopped his whole life for that identity implant. It was why he was here—one big job to pay everything off, buy another ship, and disappear. It was how this job, impersonating an Aezthena, something so improbable and dangerous that no one would think a human could do it, was even possible.
When he'd arrived at the station over Denz Dayar, he'd tapped the identity implant to this profile he'd so carefully crafted from years' worth of holo footage. He hadn't tapped it off since. To any genetic scanner—and he was sure the Dayarans had scanned him—he would appear to be fully Aezthena. And to anyone who'd ever seen a holo of Barenin Lyr, which was almost everyone across the three galaxies where humans lived, he was most certainly Barenin Lyr. Lean and trim build, sharply-chiseled features, silver hair in dozens of tiny braids pulled back into a knot.
No one had questioned him at the shuttle landing pad where the serving staff had met him and ushered him into the robing rooms. No one had said anything as they'd draped him in the heavy ceremonial robes. But Ijuka was hardly a servant, and hardly gullible. If Ijuka questioned him now, he'd made a fatal mistake in his planning. He ran his thoughts back and forth over every detail of his plans, trying to find a weak point.
Finally, Ijuka said, "Ser Lyr. If you are ready."
Anais blinked. The only reaction he allowed himself. He recognized Ijuka's voice--he hadn't spoken with them through an intermediary over the comm, he'd made his contract negotiations with Ijuka themself. So the test had begun weeks ago. Had he passed?
Well, he was here, wasn't he?
"Lead the way, Governor," Anais said, easing his face and voice into a simulation of human emotion. The effect was that of someone who did not feel or understand emotions but made an unsettling effort to try. It was signature Aezthena, and signature Barenin Lyr. He hoped it would be entirely off-putting.
Despite everything, he suppressed a shiver, and a grin. Gods and stars above, he was doing this. He was actually doing this.
Ijuka crossed the room, pausing only long enough to bow at the throne room door before they opened it.
Anais followed, pulling his focus back into his role. He would need it.
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