This Kind of Power
"Well that didn't go well," Anais said as they reached Por's quarters. "How much of that did you plan?"
Por spread her hands, not stopping as they passed through two sitting rooms. "You know as well as I that the best plans dissolve when faced with reality."
Anais shrugged out of his outer robe and slung it over a wingback chair. He followed Por down a short hallway. "And you truly didn't know, even after all this time here, what the other Aezthena were after with this Yfeni tech?"
"No." Por didn't stop until she reached her bedroom. She tugged at her layers of royal robes, getting the top one off with two vicious yanks at the fastenings. She tossed the robe on the pristinely made bed and reached for the next one.
Anais advanced, reaching for the buttons. "Let me help—"
"No." She continued yanking off the layers, each more violently than the last. Her hands shook as she worked, her nostrils flared.
He drew back from the force of her anger. He didn't think it was directed at him. But, he wasn't sure.
Por yanked off the crown and held it, her breaths coming in short gasps. She turned it over in her hands, studying the rubies and sapphires, the intricate etching.
Anais licked his lips. He didn't know how to deal with this. Until now, Por had seemed unshakable, a force of nature. Maybe a bit vulnerable in the relationship department, and possibly also the human department, but everything else was put together.
She looked up at Anais and just stared. She seemed...not quite lost, but stunned. She was letting the shock show that she hadn't dared show the governors. The unshakable, twelve-almost-thirteen-thousand-year old Barenin Lyr. Staring at him, looking for answers.
She held out the crown to him.
Anais fended it off. "You resigned. I can't use that anymore."
"Get it out of my hands. I can't hold this kind of power."
Anais took it, running his fingers over the grooves and stones. "Why? Is that why you sent for me to be contract king? So that you could swoop in at the end but not have to do the hard part of building the trust?"
Por arched her brows. "Building the trust. The reason you got the job was because you were pretending to be me. I've built millennia of trust." She turned and, with more care than before, began stacking the discarded robes on the bed. She wore only the cream undershift now, and it swayed in gauzy waves about her. Hinting at her form underneath. Every dip and bulge.
That should have distracted Anais, but it didn't. His head was stuffed too full. Gods, his head was too full. He pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead.
Por was human now, or as human-focused as she could be. She tugged at the braids in her hair, working her fingers through the ends and up to undo them. Again, Anais moved to help, but she waved him back.
When her hair was a bushy, curly mess, she stopped, shuddered, and leaned against the bedpost.
Anais hovered, not sure what to do. Did she need to be alone? But where else would he go? He couldn't go back to his suites. They were the royal apartments, and Por had both just revealed herself and resigned. There was no more Barenin Lyr, contract king.
He had a few belongings still in the suites—those would likely be brought down to Por's apartments, but there wasn't anything there he needed to keep. He had everything he truly needed on him.
In his baseline genetic skin, covered only with a bit of sweat-smeared face paint.
Anais' fingers curled into his palms, the nails biting deep.
How had a day that had begun with hope and promise ended up here?
His memory implant called up the brush of Barenin's lips that morning. The shifting gold flecks in her eyes. The openness she'd shown him. Her almost shy vulnerability.
He suppressed a groan. Something had been lost in the last hour. Something buried before it had even begun to grow. He could sense how closed off she was now, her walls an impenetrable void. Waves of animosity poured off her. She hadn't wanted him to touch her, even to help. Anais could almost hear her thoughts: get out, get out, get out.
Should he even stay on this world? But if he left, the Aezthena would hunt him. With everything Barenin had said in the Council meeting, he was sure of that. Whether it was Sela who'd come after him, or another Aezthena, it hardly mattered. They would hunt him, and find him, and pull everything he knew from his thoughts. He had some of Barenin's secrets now, too. He was certain she'd told him things she rarely told others. Especially not Aezthena.
The aching loss of that intimacy, the start of a connection, deepened. Trust me, Barenin had said. But where should he put that trust now?
Por shuddered, her eyes unfocused.
Maybe he shouldn't leave the planet yet, but he needed to leave this room.
She shuddered again. "I have held the balance for twelve thousand years. Almost thirteen—in two years, I will be thirteen thousand Ajias Standard years old." She looked up at him, her eyes fierce and shining. "Did you know that? Thirteen thousand. I count birthdays by millennia, but I remember every single year. Every day. I remember everything I did right, and I remember every failure. I have so much experience behind me, Anais. How did I not see this? How could I not see this simple, stupid point of semantics that separates two divergent philosophies? And which one is correct? Maybe both are. But I can't accept that. They're too divergent. Non-compatible."
She grabbed one of the robes on the bed and wrapped it around her like a blanket. "My Aezthena mind does not want to understand the Dayaran version. Even my human-focused mind doesn't. And—I'm not often afraid. Not like this. But I'm afraid, Anais. Whatever the Aezthena are planning, they've been working up to a full split from humanity for millennia. We have our wars, we have our peace, but I'm not sure we will ever get along with humans. I'm afraid of what will happen when they finally execute their plan. I'm afraid I won't be able to stop them. I fear for Kaireyeh, I fear for the universe. The multiverse? I...I know some of what's coming. Not much, but some. And it doesn't end well. It can't end well. I know what's coming and I still managed to miss this connection. Is it futile for me to try and stop them? It's not possible. The end is inevitable. The Aezthena will break the universe."
She wound down, panting. Then burst out, "And gods above, I will always try to stop them."
Maybe he shouldn't leave this room yet, either. And maybe her animosity wasn't directed at him.
Anais edged toward her, as he might a wounded predator. "I'm here. Whatever you need to do, for whatever help it's worth, I'm here."
"You can't do half of what I'd need you to do to be of any use to me at all."
Anais tried not to let that sting as much as it did. He tried to ignore the dart and tell himself she was hurt and lashing out. But did that excuse her? Did that make it hurt less? Was that like the gaping mistakes she'd made in dealing with him and Sela?
He didn't know. He didn't know her that well. And he certainly didn't know this volatile version of her.
Gods, he couldn't believe she'd said that. And he didn't want to think that what she'd said was true, so he let his own anger rise.
"You're twelve—almost thirteen—thousand years old. You are one of the most powerful people in the universe, literally and figuratively, and right now you're throwing a tantrum like a two-year-old. Barenin Lyr. Grow the hell up!"
She stared at him, blue eyes widening.
He stared back, his own eyes wide. He swallowed, painfully loud.
Then she turned away, leaning against the bedpost with her back to him. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Anais. I didn't mean that."
He rubbed his hands against his sides. Did he believe her? He couldn't feel her emotions. They weren't near enough to touch, and if there was any overflow, she was still walling herself off.
Anais approached again, and this time, she didn't wave him away. He rested a hand on her shoulder, and she braced herself at the touch but let his hand stay. Waves of self-loathing poured off of her. He sensed she was trying to shield him from them, but he felt them all the same.
His breath went out in a quiet sigh. Ah. He knew all about self-loathing. "Hey. I'm with you."
The self-loathing intensified, but it came with a sense of relief, too.
Por squeezed his hand. "Can you wait in one of the outer rooms? I need to think. I need quiet."
Anais hesitated. He didn't want quiet or time to think. When things got too intense, he needed action. He chose a path and rammed himself down it full-bore. That's what he knew, how he scored his jobs, how he survived.
But this was different. Everything about Denz Dayar and Barenin was different. There was so much at stake here, and not just the fate of worlds.
He stepped outside the bedroom without a word and settled himself in the second sitting room, retrieving and re-donning his discarded robe.
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