Anais woke with a start to a servant hovering on the other side of the bed, holding a pitcher of water and a towel over one arm. The morning ritual wash. The servant looked uncertainly between Anais and...Por.
Oh, gods. His arm was draped over her. He shoved back and only then noticed that his hands were brown, not bone-white. He was himself, not Barenin Lyr.
But Por sat up, Aezthena pale. She rested a cold, quelling hand on Anais' arm. "Thank you, Reden, set the pitcher on the side table. I will not be disturbed until I enter the sitting room."
Reden bowed, set down the pitcher and towel, and almost ran out.
Por's hand on Anais' arm warmed. She was herself—her mostly human self—again. She vented a laugh. "That was entertaining. Playing you, playing me. And that will set one of the more rampant speculations about my love life to rest. On Denz Dayar, at least."
Anais felt the flush burn his face. The room was cast in morning sunlight—they hadn't closed the window curtains or the bed curtains the night before—and he was himself. He'd let someone else see him, his genetic baseline. Disheveled, clothed, but so exposed. Gods, how had he been so careless? He should have shifted the implant last night to one of the other personas he'd programmed into it. Why hadn't he done that immediately? How could he have forgotten he was only himself?
Por brushed his arm. "Did you sleep well? You weren't restless, at least."
Anais nodded, not sure what else to say. He had a headache, a bad headache, and memories of the day before were a blur that made his headache worse if he thought into them. An Aezthena hangover was so much worse and more disorienting than a night with the bottle.
Por sat very close to him. Her body heat radiated with her ease, her air of contentment.
Oh, no. They hadn't—had they? He didn't remember much of the night before beyond sobbing like a child onto Por.
Had he slept with Por? With—gods—Barenin Lyr?
Anais swallowed and his traitor mind had a sudden intense longing for the memory, if it had happened. He tried to quash that desire, to call it curiosity, or part of the hangover, but an embarrassing pressure started in his groin. He hoped to all the gods Por wouldn't notice, but little chance of that.
Por's lips ghosted the faintest smile. "No, I only slept beside you. I know how disorienting coming out of that state can be for a human. And I would never take advantage. But..." She hesitated, tilting her head to watch him. "I would like to, at a better time, if you'd like."
Heat rushed through Anais, and there was no hiding what was going on in his head and—other places—now. "I...I..." he stammered.
He jumped off the bed, turning away from Por. He was, at least, fully clothed, if rank with sweat and still greasy from since before he'd used the implant. Gah. She'd slept beside him like this? With her heightened senses?
He tried to shake off the thought, think into what had happened the night before. His memories of the day before might be foggy, but he did remember being furious with Por, at what she'd allowed to happen. That she'd used him.
He also remembered her reasons. And her regret.
And his reasons for getting involved in that Aezthena-hunting field trip in the first place, discovered in one blinding moment of clarity that was still with him: she was important to him.
He chanced a look back at her. The valance of curtains around the top of the bed cast the upper part of Por's face in shadow, the rest in vivid sunlight. Any face paint she'd worn the day before had been absorbed when she'd focused Aezthena, leaving only the sharp, elegant planes of her face. Her chest was flat now, the folds of her robe in different contours. Had she moved to another gender expression? She still wasn't focused fully human. Her blue eyes flecked gold, and her hair had the faintest metallic shimmer. Her lips were curved up, a hesitant smile. A mature smile.
She was almost thirteen thousand years old. What kind of...experience had she gained in that time? And what might it feel like to join her in that experience?
Her smile widened as he continued to stare.
Stars and gods above. For every reason he could think of, this line of thought was a bad idea. Every reason, including that he was still mad at what she'd done the day before. He still didn't have a hold on what he felt, or what he thought.
"Aren't you married?" Anais asked. "I mean, as a human, as Por?"
Por shrugged. "It's a contract marriage. I respect my spouse, we are friends. We sleep together occasionally. They know I'm polyamorous."
"And...Sela?" He remembered the incredibly intense ambiguity between them.
"Ha. Sela." Por wiped a hand across her mouth. "Sela is...a lover, a sometimes friend, a sometimes enemy. Sela is poly as well. It remains only if you would like to, Anais, and the answer to that question is fairly obvious."
Anais stepped to the window, the sunlit city. Golden domes shone with blinding light. The sky was pink in the east, the edge of one of Denz Dayar's moons visible over the buildings. He gathered a deep breath, forcing himself to calm. To center.
He didn't know what he wanted. He knew what his body wanted, but he didn't trust that. And he never slept with anyone as his base self, his base personality. He never had. It was easier to make sensations matter when he was fully immersed in being someone else. And he didn't fully trust Por yet, and while that wasn't a requirement in his relationships, it felt like it should be with this one.
If this was a relationship. If it ever could be.
But...gods. She was beautiful. And like no one he had met before. Would it hurt to kiss her, to see what those nuanced lips tasted like? Her scent, when she was focused more Aezthena, had a hint of the metallic. Would she taste like titanium? Or, like the earthy musk that lingered beneath her perfume?
He shuddered and shunted his thoughts in a different direction. He counted the aircars in the distance. He tried to figure out how many of them were red.
When that didn't work, he thought of being with her as himself, as only himself, just himself and no persona between, no layer to hide who he was—and that cooled him. His throat tightened, and he felt an infinite and yawning sense of loss, an old, old feeling that came over him in times when he let himself be too vulnerable.
Anais heard Por slide off the bed and pad around it on the thick red and gold carpet.
"Not now," she said, as if in agreement to his unspoken thoughts.
He wrapped his arms around himself. Was she reading his thoughts? His shoulders tightened. He dimly remembered sharing his emotions with her and feeling hers in return the night before. And deciding that wasn't like what Sela had done to him. But what about this? How deeply could she read into his old and deeply private wounds? And hadn't she told him before that she wouldn't do that?
Por touched his arm, a light touch that didn't linger. Her face was serious. "Whatever else, you may trust that your inner thoughts are your own. I might sometimes pick up stray emotions and surface thoughts, and I can't always help that, but my walls are tight. And I read body language better than almost anyone alive. But I will do my utmost not to intrude, inadvertently or not, without your permission."
Anais swallowed hard. No, he didn't want her in his thoughts. Not with or without permission. But with her close to him, he could still feel a sense of emotions outside himself. Was she projecting that consciously, or did that connection they'd formed the night before still linger? She was feeling...loss. A resigned and familiar loss.
He turned to search her eyes. Bits of the last few days, of his time in a simulation of Aezthena thought, jagged in his memories. The strength and ease of sharing thoughts without having to speak them. She'd been much more at ease in that mode of communication than she was now, speaking out loud. He could feel it, this undercurrent of tension that was always with her but had lessened for a time when his thoughts were Aezthena. When they'd shared a commonality they didn't have now. The tension was back.
This promise she was making him now, it was as uncomfortable to her as her dwelling in his thoughts was to him, wasn't it? Her native mode of communication as an Aezthena was non-verbal, in thoughts and emotions and sensory impressions. Sometimes with words, sometimes not. And even when he'd been in his heightened state, she'd still dumbed down her native speech so he could process it—spoken with him in a way his mind could handle. Sela...had not. But Sela's mode of communication was the real way Aezthena related to each other, wasn't it? Por hadn't been conscious of how he'd react to Sela's intrusion, because to Por, it was only a part of the Aezthena way of being. Everything played out in the vast expanses of their minds.
Gods. This was more than a glitch in understanding.
How did it feel to her to cut off her senses, her natural sharing of thoughts with him? To promise that she'd keep her walls tight and not dip into what he was thinking? He imagined that would feel like wearing a blindfold all day, every day, knowing that he could see if he just took it off. No matter how uncomfortable her natural mode of communication made him feel, could he even ask that of her?
Por touched his cheek, her reassurance a soothing warmth. "Anais. It's all right. It's always been important to me to respect the privacy of those around me, whether I'm focused human or not. It helps me maintain my connection to humanity. You are taking nothing from me."
Anais flexed his shoulders before releasing his breath. However he moved on from here, he had to move forward.
"So," Anais said, drawing the word out. "What now?"
Por straightened, smoothing her rumpled red robes from the day before. "Now, there will be a Council meeting. There must be, after yesterday's tour." She eyed Anais. "I told them—as the king—that I'd had a reaction to the Yfeni generators and needed time to re-center. They'll be edgy about that, wondering if I'll take offense. And now, rumors will be running through the palace after the servant found us this morning—I'm sorry, I should have been more vigilant, watching for anyone to enter." She hesitated, but whatever she was about to say, she held it back.
Anais scrubbed his face with both hands. The thought of sitting through a Council meeting, of trying to explain what had happened the day before without telling too much, and sifting through the politics of the situation, listening to the governors go at each other again, all while maintaining the straining presence of Barenin Lyr—all of it turned his headache into a roaring force.
"Let me be the king today," Por said. "You can be me. Por, I mean. Just for the Council meeting, and then we'll shift roles again. It's not good to overtax your mind after holding an Aezthena simulation in your thoughts. Not today at least. I am usually quiet at Council meetings, and if I feel you need a specific comment to keep up appearances, I can help you with that."
Anais frowned. "You want me to be you? As Por?" It felt wrong. It felt too close.
Por arched a sculpted brow. "You've been playing me as Aezthena. It's not so different. This meeting will be charged and volatile, with possible global repercussions. You might handle it well another day, but right now, you are not up for it as Barenin Lyr."
Anais swallowed. "But the implant, it took me days to program—"
Por took Anais' hand and tapped a slow sequence in his palm. "Tap the implant like this, then hold for thirty seconds. Keep hold of my hand while you're tapping."
His memory implant filed the sequence, but Por repeated it several times to make sure he had it.
"Fine, okay, I got it." He tapped the implant. When he got to the hold, he felt an odd shifting, then the usual overlay. He looked down at hands several shades darker than they'd been a moment before.
The implant gave two throbs.
"Tap again to assign a sequence to this pattern."
Anais did, following the next logical mathematical sequence in the pattern he'd set up so he could remember the implant keys. The overlay settled around him like new skin, a blanket identity.
He looked up at Por, whose skin was paling again as she focused Aezthena.
"Good," she said. "You remember my expressions, my gestures. It's not so different from what you studied to come here. Use them. Play the part."
She straightened, changing her own demeanor. Anais watched, momentarily arrested by the small adjustments she made to how she stood, how she held her hands. She seemed to freeze, and then the next moment, her hair, which had been messy from sleep, was arranged neatly in dozens of tiny silver braids that hung around her shoulders. Emotion bled from her face. She wasn't Por anymore, but Barenin Lyr. And it wasn't quite the same as Anais' interpretation of Barenin, but close enough that he doubted anyone—except maybe Sela—could tell the difference.
"Sela—" Anais said, and grimaced. A new voice was always the hardest to get used to with the identity implant. Por's base voice was almost identical to the voice he'd programmed for his version of Barenin, minus his own performance with Barenin's urbane, unclassifiable accent. He'd have to adopt the softer, lilting cadences she used as a Dayaran. But it still was too similar to not feel strange. And—it felt wrong. He could still see Por as she'd been earlier, sitting in bed, sunlight on her lips. And as she'd been in the robing room, in her dance of whirling fabrics.
He swallowed and looked down at himself. "Barenin? Uh..." He waved at her, vaguely, unsure how to ask what he needed to ask. "Uh, as Por, do you shift gender expressions often?"
She glanced over. "Ah. Yes. I sometimes wear prosthetic breasts, if that's what you mean. I'm not now, because my nanites are hyper-vigilant when I focus fully Aezthena. The same reason I no longer have my face paint." She flicked a hand at her pale, un-painted face. He couldn't imagine the indigo paint on her Aezthena face.
Anais took a breath. He'd played a lot of roles. Hundreds of roles. But he'd always played people who presented masc. He had to.
"But yes," Barenin went on, "I shift gender expressions often enough. The Council won't question you presenting neutral, or blended, or masc."
Anais turned and pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "I don't think I should look in a mirror." He turned again, running his words through his thoughts and shifting them into Por's accent. "What do I even call you? Is how you're acting now you? Did I get most of it right, or are you playing my version of you?" He got the accent mostly right. A few more minutes and he'd have it down.
One corner of Barenin's mouth quirked up in that almost-smile. But Anais had felt a bit of what it was like to think as an Aezthena did. If Barenin was feeling humor right now, as focused Aezthena as this, it wasn't in a human sense.
"King Lyr or 'my king' are appropriate," Barenin said, her own voice flat.
She was mocking him. Gods. Was that Aezthena humor?
"Come," Barenin said. "I need to dress, and so do you."
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