Anais tensed. He almost expected her to say this was a bad idea, that he was too ugly to make a convincing bed partner—she had to see that, didn’t she? Or even that he was too edgy as just himself, that this would never work.
But she held up the face paint. “It is necessary. Everyone is painted on Denz Dayar. But it won’t be as elaborate as mine was.”
Anais took the jar of paint and stared at the label, not reading the words. He was all about the challenge, wasn’t he? That was why he was here. The challenge of playing Barenin Lyr. The ultimate challenge of impersonating an Aezthena. And he had done it. It wasn’t quite the trade craft coup he had hoped for, but he’d done it. The Dayarans still didn’t suspect him.
But that wasn’t the ultimate challenge, was it? Of all the things he’d adapted to, all the people whose lives he’d borrowed, the characters he’d created, he’d yet to meet the challenge of playing himself.
He stared at the mirror, dark eyes staring back. The hardest role. The hardest role he’d ever play. And who was he, really? Who was Anais Cavere?
He suppressed a shudder and shoved down traitorous thoughts that wanted to rise again. Anais Cavere was whoever he wanted him to be.
He held up the jar. “Uh, can you put on the paint? I’m not sure how to get the stylistic tics, or what station markings I’d need.”
Barenin seemed to be expecting this, plucking the paint bottle from his hands and brandishing the brush. She stepped in front of him, blocking his view of the mirror, and began to apply the paint in quick, sure strokes.
The trill of the job rose in him, the excitement of stepping into a new character. He let it drown out his fear and misgivings. This character wasn’t completely himself—he himself wouldn’t wear this paint. But maybe he’d play himself playing this new character. He could do that. That was, at least, a buffer.
With Barenin this close to him, Anais wet his lips, gathering courage before he could talk himself out of his next question. “Can I ask you something?”
Her eyes flicked to his, neither encouragement nor dissuasion.
He forged ahead. “Why, if you don’t want people to know who you are, are you here on Denz Dayar as yourself?” He waved at her. “I mean, when you’re Por. You’ve done nothing to disguise your features, or even your eyes. The kynblue. I mean, yes, you have cosmetics, but…”
What he really wanted to ask was: Is that how you always do this, or did you, for some reason, do it because of me? So I could recognize you? So I could know you?
“I can’t encrypt,” Barenin said, switching her work to his other cheek. “My Aezthena nanites eat through the genetic encryption and revert me to my default genetic state within days. Very painful days.” Her strokes grew broader, the pressure of the brush more intense. “I can’t cast an Aezthena illusion over myself, and I can only make weak illusions over other people or things. I’ve never been able to determine why, except that it’s a condition of my being caught between Aezthena and human states. I can’t use an identity implant like you have, because my bio-synthetic systems interfere with its functions. And I can’t alter myself with surgical means, because…because.” With her this near, he could sense a shift in her emotions, a darker memory behind the words. “It’s the nanites. You’ve seen what happens to my face paint. And prosthetics. It would be the same for any surgical alterations.”
“So, you can’t be anyone but you. I mean, physically, you can’t be other than your genetic baseline?” He felt from her a cold and coiled pain. It wasn’t a human emotion. And it was endless. Anais caught his breath at the intensity of it.
She met his gaze.
He swallowed, looked away. She resumed painting.
Anais couldn’t imagine having to assume new identities without drastically changing his appearance. The mask was such an important part of the process and helped him separate himself from the roles he played. And…she was presenting as a Dayaran standard of femme on this world, and she’d said she used prosthetics, like the cosmetics--but she wasn’t able to make herself physically female if she wanted to, was she? Gods. Genetic encryption across sexes was so common that Anais had just assumed she’d felt no need, or had already encrypted as multi. But maybe she had felt the need and hadn’t been able.
It was on his lips to apologize for asking, to say something sympathetic, to say anything across that gulf, but she pulled back from him abruptly.
“There. I think that will do.”
Anais glanced in the mirror behind her. Indigo spread in a broad stripe across his mouth and traced arced lines around each eye. Not remotely as elaborate as Por’s paint had been, but still denoting a higher rank.
“Uh,” he said. “This is more than a servant.”
“Anais Cavere, Royal Consort,” Barenin said.
Anais drew in a sharp breath. He didn’t know what part of that statement to protest first, but the protest stuck in his throat.
Barenin set the brush down on the dressing room counter. “Whatever happens from here, you will need me to stick with you for a while. I fear the Aezthena who were your clients will wish you dead whether you come back with the tech or not. Yes, you can use the identity implant to disappear for a time, but Aezthena can see that there is a Kaireyeh-based implant at work, and see into your mind to find out why. I am truly sorry to have put you in this situation, Anais. I told you before. I am not a good person. I sometimes use people as a means to an end. But—I’m not sorry I met you. If you wish to leave, whenever you wish to leave, I’ll protect you from a distance, for however long you need. For the duration of your life if need be. You won’t see me. I’ll maintain my distance but monitor for Aezthena or any threats to you. But, if you wish to stay with me, I would welcome your company. And companionship.”
All of this was delivered stiffly in that flat Aezthena voice. But Barenin touched his arm, and through that touch, Anais knew the sincerity of her words. The resonance behind them.
He could be furious at Barenin for drawing him into this. For putting him in a danger that might stay with him for the rest of his life—and yeah, she’d only thought to tell him this now, when he was getting too involved to back out. That fury fought to rise.
But...why had he decided to impersonate Barenin Lyr? That had already been a life-threatening gambit. That had been all his decision. As had been the choice to take the job to find the Kaireyeh tech, even if he hadn’t known it was Kaireyeh tech at the time. He’d known there were huge risks involved in any job with that kind of fee. He’d known he’d be selling his soul with that fee, but he’d taken the job anyway. Because it had intersected with a chance to play Barenin Lyr. He could have chosen the persona of a human diplomat and still probably got hired as the Dayaran’s contract king. But he’d chosen Barenin.
The jobs he pulled were never about the money. They were about the people he became. The things he experienced. He learned how to be something by becoming that person for a while. And he’d wanted to learn how to be something that most of his life had never let him become: good.
Barenin said she was not a good person. And maybe in the day to day, she wasn’t. Not always. But she’d kept the humans and Aezthena from annihilating each other for almost thirteen thousand years. That was…he couldn’t wrap his mind around how huge a feat that was.
She’d said she’d become Aezthena to hold that balance. He’d felt the deep fatigue of her emotions. The bitterness of her struggle. How much had she given up or lost over so many years? How deeply had that struggle worn on her? And yet here she was on Denz Dayar, still working to keep the universe in balance. She could smile. She had compassion and empathy, he’d felt it pouring from her last night, for him. How did someone go through thirteen thousand years of the kind of history they’d had and remain optimistic?
Yes, he’d chosen to buy the identity implant. He’d chosen to come here. He’d chosen, when she’d asked him, to play deeper into her plans. He knew his mind—Barenin’s nudges or not, he had made all those choices. And she had made choices. She hadn’t brought him here by chance. And she’d known he wouldn’t run from the danger.
Anais swallowed, a strangled sound. There was something alien rising up inside him. Something he’d learned to stomp down years ago, along with so many other things. He’d been so many people throughout his life, surrounded by people who loved him, hated him, who believed he had loved them. All real emotions, but from borrowed lives.
But no one knew him. No one had ever looked at him and truly known who he was. Not since he was a child, and maybe not even then. He’d thought he liked it that way.
He met Barenin’s golden eyes. They glowed faintly, the metallic flecks in the irises shifting in fractal patterns he hadn’t known they had. He’d missed that in his recreation of her image for the identity implant. It was a detail he never would have had unless he’d been this close.
There were other small things he’d missed, too. The faint tracery of silver veins around her nose and eyes. The almost pearlescent sheen to her silver hair. He’d thought it was just metallic, but no, it had a shifting aura of palest color.
Anais breathed out, slowly. Somehow, in the last few moments, they’d drifted even closer.
He had never been this close to an Aezthena before. Not when she was fully Aezthena. And it was strange—even though he’d known Por first as the human version of herself, he saw her here, too. This person who was both Por and Barenin. And maybe neither. Her birth name was Damon. He was sure she’d had thousands of others.
She was Aezthena, a demigod. So many throughout history would call her a monster. Anais saw a person. An intense, extremely sensitive person. Someone who was older than most nations. But he’d seen how her face lit up when she talked about new experiences. She could still find joy in discovering something new.
She didn’t smile. It wouldn’t have been natural, or real, on her Aezthena face. And he sensed she needed this moment to be as real as he did. She needed him to see her, too. Without the layers, the humanity, the paint. Focused Aezthena, she was at her most powerful. He could feel her absolute belief in her apex place in the universe like a projecting aura. Yet she also seemed, in that moment, so vulnerable. Not moving, not breathing, just watching. Senses tuned to every nuance of his own movements and breath. Waiting to see how he’d respond to her as her most powerful self. The version of herself she most feared.
Anais tentatively touched her cheek. Cold like metal in an autumn wind, soft as silk. He hadn’t got that texture right, either. Not even remotely right. He smoothed back silver braids to tuck behind her ears, and his fingers lingered behind her head, on the skin of her neck.
The hairs on his own neck rose at her golden predator’s eyes, her unnatural calmness. Everything that was human in him told him to fear her. But he felt, through his touch, emotions that weren’t human but familiar. He’d known something similar in his simulated Aezthena thoughts, though that experience now felt clumsy and embarrassing next to the real thing. Still, he recognized the shapes of branching logic trees, racing so fast he could barely register they were there. Fear. That was Aezthena fear.
Barenin Lyr was afraid of him.
The shape of her emotions shifted at his realization. They opened, deepened, swirled around his own fears and blended with them, until Anais wasn’t sure which of them was feeling what, or which of them first started to feel that most dangerous of emotions: hope.
His fingers traced of their own volition back up her cheek to her lips. Her lips parted, and his fingertips chilled from her barest breath.
He pulled back before he left both of them burned.
“All right,” he said, voice hoarse. “Royal Consort.”
He knew the extra offer in that title, and the unspoken question. Publicly, it was an announcement that he was under Barenin’s protection—which in itself was huge. And she was right--if he’d been hired by Aezthena, they already knew who he was. Barenin wasn’t the only one who could research pasts. This protection was a promise to him, and a warning to others: keep off, he’s mine.
And privately, the title was asking if he wanted it to be more than a cover. Wanted this to be more than masks and jobs and games. The question implied that she wanted it, or she wouldn’t have asked. Wouldn’t be offering. And was still afraid of the answer.
All the hair on Anais’ body stood on end again, but it wasn’t fear. At least, not that kind of fear.
What did it mean to be close to Barenin Lyr? He still felt the overflow of her emotions as they stood close, not touching. Her logic trees branching out again, mixed with that other emotion he’d identified as hope. Swirling and swirling and swirling. As were his own emotions.
He keenly felt the shape of his own body. This familiar, hated body. He still heard the ring of his name, the name he’d chosen for himself after escaping his six months in hell to be his own, his anchor, on her lips. A precipice yawned open before him, promising great risks. And possibilities of great rewards.
He gripped both of her hands before the logical part of his brain could take back over and stop him. Put up every wall and barrier he could find. Tell him to run as far as he could and never look back. Bury himself again.
“Royal Consort,” he said again. And the words were his own tentative promise.
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