Anais' rooms were palatial—which was fitting, he supposed, since this skyscraper was a palace and he was the king. Open sitting rooms in creams and golds led to balcony gardens that overlooked the square roofs and sand-colored domes of the city. Short hallways led to baths with holographic scenery and enough bedrooms to house an extended family's family.
Anais gave up the tour after the nervous staff led him through yet another sitting room perfumed with local flowers and dedicated to some antiquated historical-religious theme. He settled in a smaller dining room (small being relative to the ballroom-sized dining room) and asked for a sampling of the local cuisine to be brought to him—for research purposes. Because Aezthena didn't need to eat more than once every few days. He sat in the most comfortably-padded chair he'd ever known a dining room to have with a glass of mild wine and the holo console the servants had left him, then got to work on more research.
The work was mostly a façade. While the servants in gray and gold palace livery bustled in and out, he had to be Barenin Lyr. Cold and focused, absolutely controlled. He could hardly concentrate on what was on his screen, though with his implant, he could play the information back later.
The food, at least, was excellent. Before the servants cleared the remainder of his meal, he glanced up and said, "While I'm here, bring me meals as you would a human king. Treat me as you would a human. Here, I am Dayaran."
The servants nodded vigorously, eager to please.
"But tonight," Anais added, "I wish to be undisturbed. Please inform the guards that I will spend the night alone. They will remain in the corridor—I am quite able to defend myself if necessary. And I'm sure it won't be necessary."
There were enough holo dramas about the various adventures and exploits of Barenin Lyr that the servants agreed without protest. Barenin Lyr could certainly defend himself, with his mental abilities and his enhanced physical strength.
When the servants left, Anais sat still, hands spread on the polished wood tabletop. The suite had a sudden hush, an absence of bustle. It was unnerving. Without moving, he glanced around the empty dining room. He had a few platters left as food for the night, and a pleasant mix of spices lingered in the air. The servants had left two bottles of the mild wine and one of something he suspected was stronger—he'd better not touch that, though his throat burned at the thought of some relief from the strain in his neck, his body. The tension of holding Barenin's character made his hand shake, a tiny tremor, as he reached for his glass.
Maybe he'd better drink water.
From the entry hall several rooms over, he heard the servants talking to the guards in the entryway. Then, the doors to his suite shut.
The holo display on the table gave off a soft hum. There were no sounds from outside the windows—the royal suite was on the hundred and fifth floor of the palace and sound-dampened. Even the balcony gardens were dampened to the outside world unless he turned the filters off. He debated if he should. His neck prickled. All these rooms, and he was alone. He'd never had a problem being alone in strange places before. He sometimes got nervous on jobs, yes, but this was different. He felt too small for this much space.
Anais squeezed his hands together, a small allowance of emotion even though he was certain no one was watching. He'd already checked for surveillance systems in the suite and had disabled the systems in this dining room, one of the sitting rooms he'd liked, and his bedroom. He was truly alone.
He'd made it through the day. Gods, they'd believed him. They all thought he was actually Barenin Lyr. His hands threatened to start shaking again.
Anais stood with care under the weight of the robes. He walked through to his favored sitting room and the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the capital city of Denz Dayar, the soft-hued skyscrapers now orange in sunset flames, swarming with the dark blurs and streaks of light that were aircars. There were hundreds and thousands of colonized human worlds spread across three galaxies, and countless non-human alien worlds between and beyond them. The universe was infinite, and he had come to be here, a contract king—a fake contract king—masquerading as someone he had idolized since childhood.
For the first time since he'd arrived, Anais let his face relax. He trembled, letting all of the emotion and tension that he'd had to conceal spool itself out.
Gods, what was he doing here? How insane was he to think he could pull this off? But it was working. The Dayarans had accepted him as Barenin Lyr and made him their king.
He studied his Aezthena-white hands. Barenin Lyr's hands. He had painstakingly constructed the image in the implant from both still holos and holovids, taking care to get every detail correct.
There were no actual genetic records of Barenin Lyr anywhere he could find—Barenin had to have seen to that. Anyone who scanned him would have to approximate his identity. And there were very few close images that showed more than half of Barenin's body, and almost never more skin than the face and hands. Anais had to hope he got it right. That the Dayarans had been willing to accept a contract with him at all had been a matter of illusion—they'd presented him in negotiations with a problem few humans could solve and given him five seconds to solve it. He'd done it in two. He had the hundreds of math and science texts he'd read stored in his memory implant and had used them to get out of tight situations before. He didn't have access to all his stored memories at once, but since he'd had the implant installed as a child, his mind had learned to make connections between random memories and information he needed quickly.
He wasn't a genius. At least, he hadn't been born a genius.
He stared at his hands again. What must it feel like to actually be Aezthena? What would it feel like to have your red blood drained out and replaced with the bio-synthetic mix the Aezthena used? To have your organs replaced with enhanced, stronger, not-quite-human organs, your skin paled to near translucency, your hair silvered, your eyes turned gold? To not have to breathe more than a few times an hour? To hear thoughts and parse information at unfathomable speeds? To manipulate spacetime around you, slow time, speed time, part the air and step out somewhere else altogether? What did it feel like to be a minor god?
He closed his hands into fists. What did it feel like to lose your humanity? To become immortal, but never again feel human emotions, human connection? He didn't like who he was, but his aversion wasn't so strong that he'd erase himself into an immortal sociopath.
He'd read accounts. There were some, buried deep within public—or private—archives. He'd paid dearly for some private accounts over the years. Some Aezthena regretted their decisions to become what they were. They missed their lost humanity. Many lost more than the ability to feel as humans—they lost the ability to identify with their human past at all and considered themselves far superior to humans. They didn't mind if a human world here or there was destroyed at their whims.
There was a reason more humans didn't try to become Aezthena. And of those who applied to the Aezthena to become one, only a minuscule number were accepted and turned.
It was illegal, on most human worlds, for anyone to even apply to the Aezthena. No humans wanted more of the threat that was just kept at bay. The cycle of wars between humans and Aezthena spanned back over ten thousand years. Since when Barenin Lyr had first shown up in history, or maybe before.
No, Anais did not want to be Aezthena. His only concession to his desire for knowledge was his memory implant—highly illegal or not, he'd never considered having it removed. And if he was honest with himself, he had become something more than just human in having it. Not Aezthena, not even close, but...more.
He straightened and tugged at the ends of his sleeves, smoothing out the wrinkles gained from sitting at the table earlier. A very Barenin gesture. A good reminder of where he was and who he was supposed to be. He was getting maudlin. And he had loads of information to sort through before the night ended, both the promised dive into local politics and, for his client's interests, a deeper look into the power generators that ran beneath the city. His client had given him rough sketches of the generators they were after, a very spare description, but nothing more. If he couldn't get the actual machinery or schematics—he didn't yet know the size of this tech he was supposed to steal—then his client would still offer a substantive price for as detailed a description of the generators as he could give them. With his memory implant, that detail would be exact.
Anais returned to the table and grabbed a bread roll from a plate the servants had left. He got to work.
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