It was a strange ritual, pulling robes from the massive dressing room and helping Barenin layer them, as Por had done to take his off on the first day there.
Anais didn't trust himself to speak. Barenin also stayed unnaturally composed, breathing once every few minutes. There was only the rustle of fabric. Anais didn't have to direct her to move when he needed to pull up a sleeve or fasten a clasp—she just moved. He tried not to let that unnerve him.
Finally, Anais broke the silence with a question he'd aborted earlier. He was pretty sure of the answer, but he wanted to hear it. "Sela. Is she still on Denz Dayar?"
"Yes." As if that one word was enough.
Anais tried to formulate a way around that mono-syllabic wall as he laid the last robe over Barenin's shoulders.
Barenin tugged at the lace sleeves, then strode to the bed to retrieve the crown. She...they...he...?
"She," Barenin said. "I'm still the same person, and no, my sense of gender has not changed much from the day before. It is disconcerting to play myself as presenting male when I am not, but I have done it often enough before."
Anais hissed through his teeth. There was no way she could have followed that logic from his body language. Was there? "Barenin...you just said my thoughts were my own—"
"I'm sorry. I have my walls up, but sometimes the emotions leak over. It happens with those I'm close to. But I didn't read your thoughts. I felt your hesitant indecision and deduced from there, that is all." All of this was delivered with indifferent Aezthena calm. Barenin fit the crown on her head, and it sat there as if she was born to wear it.
Anais wet his lips. He was getting mental whiplash again, having to adjust faster than he usually could. He'd gotten used to the idea of Barenin as Por, as mostly human. And he vaguely remembered reorienting himself the night before to see her as both Aezthena and human. But he'd yet to fully incorporate his vision of her as Barenin Lyr, immortal Aezthena, ruler and dimplomat a thousand times over. A role she was now playing to its fullest. A role that was real.
He swallowed. Then his mind caught on something she'd said in that flat monologue: emotions leaked over with those she was close to.
Those she was close to.
His heart began to pound. She'd flirted with him, yes. She'd said she'd like to sleep with him—but that had all felt casual. Not like he was truly important to her, not in the way he'd discovered on the other side of the world—that she might mean something more to him, that he was already thinking of more than just casual sex. That he was thinking of the future, and wondering if she would be in it. And despite everything...he was still thinking of it.
Barenin met his gaze. He knew she'd picked up on some of what he was feeling through his emotions or body language. Hells, he knew from personal experience that she'd hear his elevated heartbeat, smell the sudden, more pungent tang of his sweat. Could he live this vulnerably with someone?
Barenin must have sensed, too, that he wasn't yet ready to have that conversation. "You want to know if Sela is a threat to you. To me."
Anais nodded, grateful to get on a different topic.
She held up open palms. "Sela is Sela. Now that she knows I know she's here, she might move more in the open. Or she might not. She prefers shadows, layers of subterfuge and misdirection."
"But—are you going to do something about her? She wants to take that tech off-world. And you said that's definitely not a good thing."
Barenin's face remained neutral. "Let's see what this Council meeting holds. Now. You must dress."
She touched Anais' arm, and in the next heartbeat they stood in another room. Anais stumbled in the sudden shift of surroundings.
"A little warning next time," he groused.
He fought to reground himself and looked around. The walls were pale green, the furniture—this had to be a sitting room—ornate, but not distasteful. The whole room was slightly disheveled: a throw blanket askew, a pile of actual paper books knocked over on a side table, a holopic in a tacky plain black frame on one wall, clashing with the opulence. The holopic looped through Por, smiling, as she threw her arm around another person with wild red-gold hair and a mischievous smirk. Por's Dayaran spouse. The air smelled like Por, human Por, like her honey and summer wine, and added to it nutmeg and cinnamon.
They were in Por's apartments. And though Anais had broken into more homes than he could count, he keenly felt his intrusion here.
"My spouse is in our provincial home," Barenin said, heading to another room. "They rarely venture to the capital. The city can be stifling, and our provincial home is a sprawling, country estate."
As he followed Barenin through another sitting room and into a bedroom, he had to shift his image of her yet again. He'd almost forgotten, after finding out Por was Barenin Lyr, that she was still a provincial governor and one of the most powerful people on the planet.
Barenin disappeared into a closet and came out holding layered, red robes. They were standard for a governor, though with Por's personal touches—a hint of wine-colored lace at the sleeves and collar, and delicate floral embroidery in reds up the sleeves. "Here. Wear this."
Anais's skin crawled, and he balked at the robes in a way he hadn't balked at a role in years. And it wasn't the thought of presenting more femme—the robes weren't necessarily femme, and anyhow, he could present how he wished, Barenin had said as much. It wasn't the robes, it was...Por. He held the robes out but made no move to put them on. When Barenin pulled out the paint and brush for the ceremonial face paint, Anais shook his head and backed away.
"No. I can't be you. Not...you." He rubbed his hands over his face. Her face. Her human face.
Barenin cupped Anais' cheek with a cold hand. "I see you. I have learned appearances mean far less than anyone wants to believe. The skin, the face, the mannerisms—those are the mask. It's the soul beneath that animates them. You know this."
Anais nodded. It was true. But he still couldn't be Por.
He reached up behind him and tapped the implant off. He started to tap it back on again into the visage of the palace guard he'd used on his first night there, then stopped.
"The servant this morning saw you with...me." Anais swallowed on a suddenly dry throat. Was he even thinking of going out there—anywhere—as himself? In the skin he was born in? With no cosmetics or filters to buffer who he was?
The thought should have terrified him. If there was anything he could do less than present femme, anything that more viciously woke the buried, knotted thoughts that he never looked at, it was being his baseline self.
He waited for the panic, but instead felt a growing, thrumming anticipation.
Barenin's brows rose. "And who do you wish to be, Anais Cavere?"
He was not a beautiful person. He was ordinary, maybe on the slope of ugly. He'd never liked his body. It had never felt like himself, not without the extra layers. Face a blank slate, a base on which to layer holo-projected images, cosmetics, or more recently, overlay his whole body with the identity implant. But with Barenin, it was suddenly, vitally, important not to have all of that in the way.
She saw him. Whoever he was, beneath it all.
That terrified him. How much did she see? Did she know why he always played masc roles and never femme, blended, or neutral? Could she see the things that haunted him? The thoughts that dogged his dreams and poisoned his relationships, what few he'd had?
The thoughts uncoiled from their shoved-down place and rose up in him now, shouting at him, racing his heart. He'd been raised without gender. But he'd been told when he was twelve, on that first awful escape, that he was male. And he'd kept that label like armor. He'd put everything into that fact, an anchor in his never-stable life. He couldn't rock that anchor. He couldn't question it. Even though the thoughts he held of himself, the thoughts that caught him off guard when he let his guard down, betrayed him.
He met Barenin's eyes. How much of this did she see? How could she not see it? It felt glaring and obvious and damning.
He coughed and looked away and began pulling his thoughts in another direction. He did a quick inventory of his emotions. Were any external factors at play? Was this line of thought another of Barenin's manipulations, conscious or not? Did she want him to be his baseline self, was there a purpose in this? He didn't feel any. He couldn't find any obvious threads she'd pulled to get him there. And why, after years spent trying to bury himself, and millions of credits spent on the implant so he never had to be his baseline self again, why did he not want to use it now? Even now, with this turmoil of emotions, why did he hesitate to turn the implant on?
He wasn't comfortable in his body. He didn't think he ever would be. And there was the matter of his DNA—if that was ever traced back to his original colony station, if the crime boss was still looking for him, however implausibly, twenty years later, this was a really bad idea. But again he hesitated at the thought of turning the implant back on.
"What's plausible?" he asked, covering the waver in his voice with a lighter tone. "A servant? A partner? A lover you brought from off-world? I mean, you're an Aezthena. They'll believe you can do almost anything."
"There is a limit to what they'll believe," Barenin said, "but yes, all of those are plausible."
Anais was suddenly very aware of his unwashed clothes and overripe body. With the implant on, he'd forgotten how much he needed a wash. "Uh...where's the shower?" It would buy him time. He could think. And if nothing else, get his baseline self clean again.
Barenin pointed to a door. "Through there. I have some of my spouse's clothes here, I think they will fit you. I'll place them just inside the door."
Anais scrambled into the shower and let the hot stream beat on his skin. He scrubbed like his life depended on it.
He tried to think through why he was still in his own skin, but those thoughts felt too deep, too dangerous, and his mind kept straying to Por, and the quirk of her lips when she was amused. Then her image shifted to the Barenin Lyr he'd seen as a child. Calm and composed, laying down the terms that would stop a genocide. He had, if he could admit it to himself, had a crush on Barenin even then. A fascination that had fueled years of research, culminating in this chance to impersonate his idol. He'd expected a challenge, but he'd thought it would be fun. He'd thought he was over the childhood crush.
But it was more than that, wasn't it?
He turned his face into the stinging surge of water, washing away the bitter memory of the day before. He'd always had the ability to move on from hard experiences, to keep going no matter what. He'd learned how to do that when he was twelve, that one day his parent hadn't come home. And...in the months after.
Anais had learned how to survive by adapting, improvising, being whoever he needed to be. And he'd always held that image of Barenin Lyr speaking at the treaty summit because he'd recognized in Barenin a truth he'd known even then. Self-adaptation was his only hope of peace in life. His only hope of life at all. He'd seen it in her—she made herself be who she needed to be. And he'd seen it in himself.
And maybe it hadn't started when he'd run away from the station. He'd had to be someone else when his parent was home because his parent didn't like the shy kid who'd rather pour through fashion catalogs and watch history dramas than socialize with the kids of his parents' friends. He'd taught himself how to relate to the people around him by adapting. And he'd known Barenin Lyr had to do that, too. All other footage he'd seen of Aezthena had been cold and frightening, but he'd felt that Barenin understood humans because she tried to. And if an Aezthena could learn to understand humans, then maybe Anais could learn to understand the people around him, too.
Anais turned off the shower and toweled off. In the dressing room beyond the washroom, he found a folded set of loose robes in dark gold and a pair of gray slacks. The robes fit well, and the slacks were a little tight but do-able. He ran his hair under the sonic dryer and brushed it back loosely. It fell in lank brown waves to his shoulders. His nose was too big, his eyes too narrow. His chin too sharp. His stomach began to knot again.
Barenin knocked and entered.
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