A Dance in Crimson
Where the colors in the throne room were sedate and regal, and the vestibule monastic, the robing room was an orgy of neon. Reds and violets splashed up the curtained walls to the ceiling and down again to swirl in patterns he recognized as Dayaran religious motifs across the thick carpet. In the center of the room stood twelve gray plastic clothing forms, the only neutral things in the room, and even those had elaborate swirls molded into them. Anais ignored everything else in the room and focused on the forms. Those forms would hold the robes that were threatening to suffocate him.
Soft, resonant music came through unseen speakers, a droning chant.
It was one thing too much. A headache throbbed at his temples, warning of greater pain to come. He'd used his memory implant too much, and he couldn't afford down time. Tomorrow, he'd have to be more clever, more sparing with the memory implant's access.
The Dayaran crown sat heavy on his head, adding to the weight of the headache. He felt a flutter in his chest, a skipped breath. The room swayed and he fought with everything he had to stay still, stay standing. He counted his breaths and waited for the swaying, the ringing in his ears, to pass.
"It is amazing," Por said, as they gently closed the door, "how true is the simulation of your breathing. Your breaths come exactly when they are supposed to. I have known other Aezthena who had not yet mastered the trick after thousands of years."
Anais looked at them sharply, and then dulled his gaze, carefully perusing the room. Por had known other Aezthena? The last time the Dayarans had hired a contract king was over eighty years ago, and while Anais had found references to the fact that the Dayarans had contracted Aezthena before, he hadn't known which of their contract kings were and which weren't. All were given Dayaran names in official records. Even if the last king had been Aezthena, Por wasn't old enough to have met them, and the Dayarans rarely traveled out of their own system.
Had Anais made it through that entire ceremony only for Por to expose him now?
He licked his lips, one of Barenin's few nervous tells. He had one thing he hadn't wanted to fall back on, because it was speculation at best and a cheap trick. But Por's gaze on him was sharper than Ijuka's. Por saw too much.
"It is an aspect of my humanity," Anais said. "I choose at times to live as a human, and some of those traits have blended over."
It was another gamble, something he'd found in all his years of research that not many people knew. People wanted to see Barenin Lyr as the grand hero—or grand nemesis, depending on the world and mythology—but they seldom wanted to see him as vulnerable. All Aezthena could cast illusions around themselves, manipulating the reality around them and the minds of those observing. They could appear human, but it was often too perfect a simulation. Many humans had learned to detect when an Aezthena was trying to pass themself off as human by the sheer lack of tells. Anais thought, though, that Barenin could do something else. There'd been very few recorded instances of Barenin showing himself in a human form, and those instances had real human ticks and inconsistencies. They didn't read like illusions.
There were many humans, too, who claimed to be his descendants with lines starting millennia after he'd been made Aezthena. Aezthena couldn't have children—they were made from living humans, not born—and humans and Aezthena were not biologically compatible for reproduction. Anais had a theory that Barenin didn't just simulate humanity with a mental overlay of his appearance and demeanor but had actually found a way to become human when he wished.
All speculation. All a gamble. But it was what he had, and he watched to see what Por would do with it.
Por's brows went up, distorting the indigo swirls of paint. "I can't imagine such a life. Such a stretch of experience. Please, stand here." They waved Anais over to the clothing forms with a magnanimous gesture. Was Por mocking him? Was Por bold enough, having met other Aezthena, to mock an Aezthena to his face?
Anais narrowed his eyes. What was Por playing at here? A planetary governor helping him with his robes wasn't an official part of the ceremony. He doubted it was unspoken tradition, either. This was something else.
"If you would hold out your arms?" Por asked.
Anais, uncomfortable, did so. He didn't like that he was alone with Por. Alone with the cobra among the governors.
Por, for their part, didn't seem phased by Anais' pale Aezthena appearance or sharp golden gaze. Por unwrapped the layers of thick brocade and lace, humming softly under their breath in counter-harmony to the droning music. They hung the layers on the forms, smoothing them out, taking obvious satisfaction in doing so.
Por had a contract marriage, though no children. But the way Por breezed around him, the graceful and unabashed peeling back of layers of clothing... Was Por flirting with him?
Anais was generally more attracted to those who presented masc or neutral than femme...but he couldn't keep from following Por's fluid movements. The grace of their lithe body, the small gestures that seemed casual at first—a flick of the wrist here, a swirl of cloth there, the occasional sharp glance from those arresting kynblue eyes, the wisps of dark curls that escaped from the elaborate knot at the nape of their neck—all put together, it felt like a dance of seduction.
Anais shook himself out of his stare. His heart was beating faster than it should be, and he hoped the identity implant hid any flush.
Gods, what was he doing? Here, of all places, he couldn't afford a fling. He made it a policy to never get involved with anyone on a job—those kinds of complications led to dark and dangerous places. And he couldn't go there with Por. Not when Por was so obviously taunting him with whatever this was. Here, he was Barenin Lyr. And he wouldn't put it past anyone here to try and get in bed with someone who they thought was one of the most powerful people in history. Especially Por.
As the layers came off, Anais felt lighter. Maybe a little light-headed. He hadn't drank enough that day—Aezthena didn't need as much water as humans did, and so he'd had to keep up that appearance, too. He felt the sticky, tingling sheen of sweat on his skin, the dampness of the inner layers of cloth. And those robes had felt like weights. He was in decent enough shape, but he could already feel the strain on his knees.
"King Lyr," Por said, pulling off yet another layer, this one of silky white material with gold embroidery tracing up the sides. They ran their hands over the silk, a small smile tugging at their lips. "I do believe this shall be an interesting year."
Anais swallowed on a dry throat. Six days, he told himself. Six days and he'd be gone, and Por would be a memory left far behind him. And he was just light-headed now, off-balance from the strain of the day and this gods-awful psychedelic room with its stomach-churning colors and head-numbing chants. He wasn't actually thinking of Por in that way. Gods. He'd get re-centered when he was alone. Soon.
Por stepped back, giving Anais a slow and obvious once-over.
He flushed furiously and covered it by looking down at himself. There were at least ten layers of robes on the forms, and probably another five under the top layer he now wore, a heavy tan robe with brocade in reds and golds. "Is that it? Is this the robe I use for daily wear?"
He caught the pique in his voice and checked himself. Calm. He had to be calm. He smoothed out his face again, relaxed his tensing muscles. Looked up into Por's blue eyes.
Por reached out and briefly touched his hands. Anais fought the jump, remembering it was the custom here. A show of respect.
"Thank you for this honor," Por said, voice unexpectedly soft. "And yes. This is what you wear for your daily robes. For you, it should not be a burden."
For an Aezthena, Por meant. For him, it would be a hot and uncomfortably weighed-down six days.
"Thank you," Anais managed. Then, because his mind was starting to short out and he had to fill the silence before that happened, "I hope to help resolve the difficulties you are facing."
He meant it, he really did, even though he didn't think he'd help. He wasn't the kind of person who brought people together. He was an agent of chaos, leaving destruction and devastation behind him wherever he went. It was the nature of the con.
"That's all we ask," Por said. "I know you will be a great help to us." They smiled, and then their perusal of him turned critical. That was almost a relief. "You are obviously not Dayaran, but the fiction is passable enough. Your servants will help you dress each morning and undress each night—I know you don't need this service, but please allow them this part of the protocol. As far as a meeting for tomorrow, eight in the morning is when Council sessions start. I suggest not changing the schedule. I might be in favor of an Aezthena as our contract king, but not all of us are. The last war with the Aezthena isn't that far gone in our minds. Please do remember that."
Anais gave his patented Barenin Lyr almost-smile. "Thank you, I will keep that in mind."
"As far as what the Council meeting will entail," Por went on, "I'm sure you have and will continue to familiarize yourself with our political situation, or else you wouldn't be here, but here is a quick summary of the most pressing concerns involved—" They switched now from Aijani, the most widely-used human language, to Densata, the common language of this world. Anais was prepared for that. He was good with languages, one of the traits that made him good at what he did. His memory implant helped, too, though he hid a wince is its use intensified his headache. He flipped his thoughts into the new cadences, a complex pattern of grammar over simple, almost monosyllabic words. And he was able to follow Por's speech clearly enough, with his implant dictionary filling in what he didn't know or couldn't grasp in time.
"I know you don't require sleep," Por said, "but I'd advise you to spend your time this night on learning the political situation with the industrial and planting districts as the basis for our meeting tomorrow."
Anais nodded. He hadn't caught all the details, but he would replay the conversation through his implant later. When he was alone and could think through everything without having to so closely play at being Barenin Lyr.
"I am sure whatever the governors have planned for this meeting will be adequate," he said, in Densata. His accent was off, but it would improve. This was within acceptable limits for Barenin Lyr. "And you are wrong, Governor Por. I do sleep, but not so often or as long as you. I do use the night hours to rest, however, and collate my thoughts. Please do not assume I am always available."
Por nodded. "Of course. Thank you for listening, my king. Shall I take you to your rooms?"
Anais made a mental note to parse every bit of that conversation later, more than once. If he was to survive the next six days, he had a growing suspicion he'd have to know Por's exact place in the web of Dayaran politics. Because for the next few days, he was in charge of this planet's politics.
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