In the cavernous throne room, every movement, every swish of cloth echoed as if they were on stage. The floor swirled out in mosaic patterns. High pillars were carved with the visages of various Darayan gods, some beatific, some with expressions like storms. Incense burned in hematite bowls around the edges of the room, the same mild scent as the vestibule.
Twenty-two other planetary governors stood in a semi-circle facing Anais, and Ijuka moved to place themself in the center. All wore red robes, their faces veiled over shades of medium-brown skin, indigo paint swirled around their eyes and solid from the lips down. Though Ijuka was their nominal head, they were all the same rank.
Anais might not be Aezthena, but with his memory implant he could simulate the Aezthena ability to anticipate anything. He called up what he'd learned about the coronation ceremony and set the script firmly in his thoughts.
He held out his hands, palms down, in the prescribed gesture. The governors mimicked the movements. First would come the official introduction.
"Ser citizen of Denz Dayar," Ijuka said, "please state your name."
"My name is Barenin Lyr," Anais said solemnly. "I am a citizen of Denz Dayar."
And that legal necessity done, the governors lifted their veils to fully study him. Their faces, though politician's faces, didn't quite conceal their curiosity, or trepidation, or awe.
Ah—there was the awe. Ijuka was the outlier, and with their forceful personality, maybe they weren't impressed by anything. The governors took in his Aezthena-pale appearance, his metallic silver hair. They couldn't hide their flinches when they met his gold-irised eyes. A few lips curled in contempt or disgust. So, the vote hadn't been unanimous to bring the Aezthena Barenin Lyr in as their contract king. Well, he'd expected politicians, not solidarity.
"Are you prepared, Barenin Lyr, to uphold the terms of our contract?" Ijuka asked. "To serve out the term of this contract as our king?"
Anais turned his hands palms up. "I am."
"Then come forth."
Anais stepped forward, and the governors formed a circle around him. As they moved, he matched as many faces as he could to the holos in the dossiers he'd studied. He kept alert for any signs of their suspicion. Not at his motives as Barenin Lyr, accepting the role of contract king on this world—that would, for some, be a mystery to be pursued at all costs—but doubts that he was Barenin Lyr at all. He saw none.
The ceremony lasted over two hours. His memory implant tracked the time by the seconds. Anais, weighed down by the heavy ceremonial robes and growing hot, nonetheless stood with Aezthena stillness, playing out his part. He said what needed to be said. He acknowledged each governor's oath of service. He spoke his own. And he tried to ignore the growing ache in his gut about those oaths. This job was bigger, far bigger, than anything he'd attempted before. These people had hired him to be their contract king, to solve their urgent disputes. They had no idea that by hiring him, they could bring Aezthena wrath down on their heads.
He didn't think it would come to it. He had weighed all the risks and decided they were worth taking. He was gambling with his life, too. He was gambling for everything.
He'd sold everything to get that identity implant. He'd put himself permanently on the run from the worst kind of creditors. He suspected he'd been hired by the worst kind of clients. He'd gambled on the fact that Barenin Lyr hadn't been seen in the last two hundred years, and that Denz Dayar was isolationist enough they rarely aired anything but the most basic of their affairs to other worlds, and trade seldom came through their system. They wouldn't even publish the fact that it was Barenin Lyr who'd answered their call as contract king.
When Anais disappeared in six days—his calculated limit of mental and physical stress to play this part—with his clients' tech or not, the Dayarans would tell no one they'd been conned. Anais doubted it would even sour Barenin Lyr's reputation outside this world, and he hoped to the gods this never got back to Barenin himself. Though with his implant, he didn't think even Barenin could track him if he really wanted to disappear.
And what was it all for? With his implant, even though he'd be running all his life from creditors, he could evade them. They'd never find him, and he could make money as he always did. More jobs, more cons. This risk he was taking now, impersonating an Aezthena, was far greater than not taking it. And maybe he could convince himself that he was doing it for the challenge, the last pinnacle, the most impossible con of his career.
But what was it all for, really?
Anais scanned the unveiled faces of the governors, who all looked at him as if he was someone else.
He was doing this for freedom. For the ability to look in the mirror and never, ever have to see himself again. That's what the identity implant meant to him.
And maybe a little redemption, too. To feel, for just a few days, what it was like to be someone so pure they'd spent most of their thousands of years cleaning up everyone else's messes. Doing more good than harm.
Anais' gut churned. Maybe, he could do some good while he was here. Before he paid everything off and disappeared. He wasn't Barenin Lyr. He didn't have Barenin's years of experience. But maybe he could do some good.
The ceremony ended with a crown, a titanium band etched with geometric vine patterns, on his brow. His palms felt clammy, and that wasn't good, but he couldn't do anything about that now. Gods, he'd just been crowned. He had never been a king before—but Barenin Lyr had. Many times, over his thousands of years of life. Anais held his persona tightly around him, a shield against his growing dismay at his own audacity.
"From this moment until the end of your contract, you are Barenin Lyr, King of the sovereign world of Denz Dayar," Ijuka said. The governors bowed, took three steps back, then all but two turned. All but those two filed across the long room to the double doors at the far end, their steps echoing after them. It took them five minutes at a moderate walk.
The two who remained bowed again.
"I am Governor Ijuka," Ijuka said, as if this was the first time they'd met.
Anais nodded warily. "Governor."
The governor beside Ijuka was flowing in manner, with sharply planed features obscured by the heavy swirls of indigo paint around their eyes. Their eye color was striking—kynblue, deep cerulean. That genetically-engineered remnant of a long dead ruling class was common enough on some worlds. Denz Dayar was not one of those worlds. The researcher in Anais, that other part of his job that was more obsession than anything, filed the oddity away to examine later if he had the time.
The second governor's lips quirked. "I am Governor Por. So very pleased to make your acquaintance, King Lyr." There was something about the way they said that name, something about Por's smirk that made Anais' hair want to stand on end.
His hair didn't, though. He'd programmed his identity profile as Barenin Lyr to not react as visibly as a human would. Any surprise or fear he felt would be filtered and softened, though the implant couldn't filter it completely. He would have to make up the difference.
Anais gave the slow almost-smile he'd spent hours watching the real Barenin Lyr make in all available footage. "Thank you, Governor Ijuka. Governor Por. I hope for a beneficial contract for us all. Would you please have someone show me to my rooms? I will take the remainder of this day to access your systems and familiarize myself with all matters of your world's government and culture. Then, I would like to meet with the Council tomorrow, and we can begin to discuss the nature of your difficulties."
Ijuka and Por exchanged a glance. Uneasy? Skeptical? Something else? Anais couldn't tell, and he kept his spike of anxiety hidden. He had studied all of the governors from the public records he could find, but no matter the detail of a holo, a face was always different in person, the sense of a soul behind the mask. Ijuka was the nominal head of the Council, known for their ruthless scheming and tight control of whatever they could control. Por was less visible, but Anais had pegged them as a cobra—someone who hovered in the background until it was time to strike.
Ijuka said cautiously, "Will you, my king, be scanning our minds during Council meetings?"
Anais blinked slowly. Wasn't that part of why they'd accepted Barenin Lyr, an Aezthena, as their contract king? Aezthena, with their bio-synthetic minds, could process a whole roomful of thoughts at a time—maybe a whole planet full.
Anais shifted in his heavy robes before he caught the nervous gesture and quashed it. "Would you prefer I not read thoughts? I don't have to. And I usually don't without permission." He couldn't. And maybe it was good Ijuka had brought this up. This would all be a lot easier if he didn't have to pretend to know what everyone was thinking.
"Please," Por said. "We value your experience in resolving disputes. Rule as you see fit, within the bounds of the contract."
Anais gave a sharp nod. And he decided now was a good time to make an exit. He was getting hungry, and tired, and his throat was too dry. Playing a role, no matter how immersed, always took a mental and physical toll. This one more than most. “Tomorrow, then. I will message you the time."
Ijuka and Por bowed.
"If you permit, I will help you out of the ceremonial robes, and then show you to your rooms," Por said.
Wasn't that a job for servants? The servants had dressed him earlier. But Anais didn't see a gracious way around Por's offer, not when he didn't have a feel for all the political currents running here. He nodded and followed Por back through the vestibule and into the robing room behind it.
Support my work!
By supporting my work, you're helping me create and illustrate new works for everyone to freely read, share, adapt, and remix.