The governors stood like silent penitents in their red robes as Barenin strode into the ornate meeting chamber, Anais trailing behind her. Though the room was large, the air had a tightness, a sense of dread building beneath the cloying clash of perfumes. Their contract king had fallen ill—an Aezthena fallen ill—while trying to resolve their issues. Did the governors think Barenin would retaliate? Dissolve the contract? Destroy their world, or at least Edin's manufactories?
Governor Edin themself looked especially sick, their stoic expression and swirling face paint not hiding their unease. It had been their generators that had caused Barenin's illness—or so the king had said. But Edin would know there were deeper currents than that. They'd know that the contract king had likely found the Aezthena they were working with.
Did Edin know which of their workers Sela was posing as? Or had Sela had come to them as purely Aezthena? Maybe neither—games within games seemed to fit both Barenin's descriptions of Sela's style and what Anais had read in the sketchy accounts of Sela throughout history.
The governors tracked Barenin's progress to her place at the head of the table. While Anais knew he'd played the part of Barenin well, it wasn't a comparison to the real thing. Barenin had owned the room the moment she stepped into it. Every movement, every flick of her eyes as she reached the carved wooden chair and stood behind it were perfectly calculated to produce the effects she wanted. And she made no move at first to alleviate the tension.
Anais would have. But then, Anais wasn't Barenin.
He stood beside her, holding himself with a relaxed bearing, visually at ease among power. In reality, his heart was in his throat as eyes turned to study him with varying degrees of detachment or hostility. He was glad, oh so glad, for the face paint. It wasn't fully a mask, but in that moment, it was enough.
It was Ijuka who had the guts—or at least the responsibility—to speak up first. They didn't open with the big issue at hand, but instead stalled by focusing on Anais.
"My king, only yourself, the palace guards, and members of the Council are permitted in this chamber."
"And the Royal Consort," Barenin said. She gripped the back of the chair. The wood gave the faintest creak under her inhuman strength.
"And the Royal—" Ijuka stopped. Their mouth opened, closed. Opened again.
Even though Anais' nerves were on edge, he still watched with professional fascination as Barenin shifted the mood of the room from their tension at what she might do about the night before and toward matters of policy. He understood: tension with an edge of panic would make for irrational conversation. Barenin hadn't soothed it when she'd come in, because it wouldn't have been soothed. The strategy was to shift it to something more productive. Matters of policy, like what to do with the sudden appearance of a Royal Consort, they could handle.
Stances shifted from fear to the belligerence of lawmakers confronting an infraction of their code. Even an Aezthena, as their contract king and therefore a part of their system, wasn't beyond the law.
Ijuka held up a hand. "My king, a Royal Consort must be approved by the Council of Governors, or attached to the contract king before they are legally king."
"I understand that. Anais Cavere was my consort before I became king," Barenin said, and took her seat.
Anais tried, and failed, to suppress a twitch at hearing his name spoken in front of so many witnesses. But their attention was mostly on Barenin. He curled fingers into his palms and kept his breathing steady.
Ijuka, who continued to look between Anais and Barenin, flapped helpless hands before they sat at the far end.
Despite his curdling anxiety, Anais suppressed a snort. Technically, Barenin—this version of Barenin—had become king today. And technically, Anais had been attached to her before she'd stepped into this room.
Legally it was a wash—or maybe not. Who could disprove it?
Ijuka glanced down at their holopad. "There is no record of an Anais Cavere arriving officially. Therefore—"
"Governor," Barenin said coolly. "I brought Ser Cavere here myself. They are my consort. They have been here since the contract started." All true statements, more or less.
"Do you forget I don't need your transportation to move myself and others?"
Barenin stood abruptly, then disappeared. She reappeared, standing behind Ijuka.
Everyone jumped. Anais, who'd half expected something like this with all her other calculated theatrics, also jumped.
Around the room, guards shifted uneasily. Fear shone in the eyes of the governors. More than one made some sort of warding gesture. And now the tension they'd first walked into was back, because Barenin wanted it back. She was showing her total control of everything in the room, and those among the governors who were sharp enough to pick up on that had gone very still.
Anais had a sinking feeling that this move to take over the contract from him was also part of Barenin's plan. Or at least, Barenin was using it to full advantage. His grasp on where she was leading this meeting was slipping—he could think a double handful of steps ahead, but she could think thousands.
Doubt crept like a spider into his stomach, jittery and uneasy. Of course Barenin was using him again. What they'd just shared in the dressing room didn't make her stop being who she was. Aezthena used everything, every resource, to get the outcome they wanted. No matter the cost to others. No matter if the end was a noble one. He couldn't forget that.
Barenin appeared back beside him and resumed her seat. She reached behind her for Anais' hand.
He stiffened. Her touch wouldn't be personal, just another calculated move on her game board. It felt obscene, and he itched to pull away.
Then he felt her steady presence at the touch. With him. Acknowledging what he felt. Trust me.
Anais drew a long, unsteady breath.
"I am here," Barenin said, still holding Anais' hand, "because the nature of the conflict you wish me to resolve also has relevance to the affairs between humans and Aezthena. You asked for someone with skills as a negotiator and the ability to broker peace. I have investigated this conflict between the provinces of Governors Farian and Edin—" both of whom went rigid as she said their names "—and I've found neither to be at fault in this situation. Instead, let me explain why you are having an escalation that you haven't been able to resolve internally."
The governors looked at each other in surprise, and there was a general rustle in the room.
Farian half-rose. "My king," they said indignantly, "you saw yourself—Governor Edin is manufacturing technology that can make even you ill." That earned them glares from both sides of the table—Barenin had skipped over the illness, and the governors had hoped to keep it that way.
"It is Yfeni technology," Edin said coldly. "It is both blessed and practical. If I have increased the efficiency, isn't that even more blessed—"
Farian pointed a thick finger at Edin. "You made an Aezthena sick! How can that not be—"
"Sit," Barenin said, softly but with enough force that Farian fell back in their chair. "Governor Farian. You are not wrong. But you are also not in possession of all the facts." She looked around the table. "Let me be clear, first, that I take no offense at what happened at the site of the generators—in fact, I found my reaction to the generators enlightening."
Never mind that there had been no actual reaction. Edin shifted, the barest movement in their seat. Barenin pointedly did not look at them, projecting that point so the others noticed it as well. There would be a widening rift forming between Edin and even their own faction now. Anais forgot to be nervous—he was taking notes from a master.
"I've been watching your world for some time," Barenin continued. "As have other Aezthena, who do not have your best interests in mind. What you call Yfeni in your religion, we call Kaireyeh—"
Ijuka held up their hands with a grimace. "My king, forgive the interruption, but I believe you need all the facts as well. We are aware of Kaireyeh, and it is not the same concept as Yfeni. Kaireyeh is based on the theory that the universe is holographic, and that the source code of that hologram is sentient. We accept that Kaireyeh is a valid theory—Aezthena have used this theory in their functions for years. But to us, the theory is flawed and incomplete. In our religion, Yfeni is the living source of all things. It is not just the source code, the pure math. It is the hologram, too. It is the projection, and the possibilities inherent in all projections. All permutations of all possible realities, contained in one sentient multiverse. That is Yfeni."
Barenin stilled. Her hand holding Anais' tightened, and Anais felt her sudden focusing of thought. And a surge of Aezthena-flavored fear.
He reflexively clenched her hand in return. What would make someone like Barenin Lyr feel that much fear? What in the worlds could Ijuka have said to trigger that reaction? The explanations had sounded like two halves of the same chip to him.
"Yfeni," Barenin said slowly, "is the sentient multiverse? Not just the universe we are in now and branches off of it? All universes with no center? A whole?"
Ijuka nodded and sat back, looking satisfied that their explanation had been understood. "Yes."
"And does your tech that utilizes Yfeni theory pull just from the source code of this universe, or all of the sentient multiverse?"
Ijuka blinked. "All of it, of course."
Barenin took an audible breath. And then her skin darkened, her hand holding Anais' warming.
No. No, what was she doing? Gods and stars above. She was focusing human.
Stop, Anais thought at Barenin. You'll lose their trust. Everything I built here—
This is how I gain their trust, Barenin said.
Chairs shoved back from the table, scraping the floor. Guards around the room came to full and spine-prickling alertness, hands on weapons. The governors stood, a tangle of voices rising. A few pointed at Por's empty place at the table. Then at...Por.
Anais stood frozen beside Por. He never froze, and some part of him wondered if it was the lingering effects of the Aezthena hangover. But then, he'd also never worked with an Aezthena, either. He was used to having all the possibilities of a scenario mapped out ten or twenty steps ahead, all his provisions and contingencies, so he could improvise within them—but this was Barenin beside him. She could recalculate hundreds of steps ahead in less than a moment. She'd derailed his plans before, but never so publicly. And never when he was his baseline genetic self. Never when everyone in the room knew his name.
"Forgive me for the deception," Por said, voice pitched to carry. "I have been here for some time. And apparently, never fully understood you until now. Forgive me for that as well."
She stood and raised her hands, finally letting Anais' hand go. He didn't move, though. Didn't know if he should, or how the Council would react. Or what his place in all this meant now.
Run, run, run, his mind thrummed. Run, your cover is blown.
But there were guards around the edges of the room. Even with his identity implant ready for a quick disappearance and escape, he had to actually make it to the door to turn it on, or its abilities were useless.
Por—Barenin—had said to trust her.
I'm trusting, dammit. I'm trusting because you hold my life in your hands. He flung the thoughts out there, not knowing if she'd catch them in her human state. She didn't react.
Good King Lyr: Table of Contents | Next Part: Coming Soon
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.