Good King Lyr: Por
There was a moment of silence as everyone turned to stare. Then the expected fuss of shouts and chairs scraping back, fingers pointing. Guards calling from the walls. Rifles whining to full charge.
Did Barenin ever do anything in half measures? Gods, and she’d barely given him warning. And they weren’t ready to present anything. He’d only given her the spark of an idea, not an actual plan. He struggled to maintain the barest composure.
“We have a proposal,” Barenin said calmly, though her voice was pitched to carry. “Please hear us out—we believe it will solve all our immediate difficulties.”
No apology for the entrance. No polite inanities. No, he noted, calling off the guards. If the guards fired at them, would Barenin blink them to safety? Slow time to stop the energy charges?
Anais thought of the guards’ tension in the meeting earlier, when Barenin had revealed herself as Por. But this was different. The room already had the stale smell of fear, the meeting had already been too taut. Now the guards’ eyes were wide, the focus intense. And the whine of those rifles could be heard over the shouting governors, an insistent threat.
Anais swallowed as another unfinished angle of his idea crashed over him.
He still gripped Barenin’s arm, so he thought at her, What about Sela? In his rushed brainstorming, he hadn’t factored in Sela. He hadn’t had time. But Barenin had run her calculations. She’d know what Sela would do if they tried this.
Barenin didn’t answer.
Later, she said.
Ijuka, as Anais was coming to expect, was the first to say anything coherent. They shouted, “You resigned, Ser Lyr! You and your consort have no legal grounds to be in this chamber—by all that’s holy, will you all quiet down? And weapons down, please. If Ser Lyr was going to harm us they would have done so already.”
Anais gritted his teeth, waiting as the shouting faded. The governors’ edged glares, though, didn’t lessen. The whine of the rifles, however, did. He flexed his shoulders in a twitch of that small relief.
“Yes, I have reason to be here when it could save your world,” Barenin said, voice clipped and sharp. “Reinstate the contract for one day. Or don’t. But listen to what I have to say.”
Edin’s voice cut through the renewed outbursts of argument. “You deceived us for years. How can we trust anything you have to say?”
There was no change in Barenin’s posture, no change in her focus, which was still somewhere between human and Aezthena. But she suddenly looked old, and far too weary. She touched her head where earlier she’d worn the Dayaran crown, and Anais knew, still holding her arm, that wasn’t an affectation. It wasn’t calculation. It wasn’t a reminder to the governors that she’d been their ruler less then three hours ago.
I can't hold this kind of power, she’d said earlier.
They, Barenin said in Anais’ thoughts.
He looked a question at her.
I need—my sense of gender shifts sometimes with stress. Please.
They looked back at him. A quick look. A silent entreaty.
He squeezed their arm.
Around the table, the governors continued to argue, more with themselves now than Barenin.
Halfway between human and Aezthena, Barenin looked more like Por than their imposing Aezthena self, face paint or not. Anais suspected if they were fully Aezthena, there wouldn’t be as much fuss. But they made no effort to change their appearance or demeanor.
They did, however, aim a solid stare at Edin that made the governor flinch back. Edin hadn’t been truthful about how they’d come up with their generator tech, either. Edin had been hiding an Aezthena in their back pocket. Edin had no right to judge.
“Trust me or not,” Barenin said softly, and the governors quieted again to hear them, “I am Aezthena. I will give you the facts.” They held up their hands and ticked off points on each finger. “The Aezthena are interested in your world, and that interest will escalate to destruction on your world. You can destroy all traces and knowledge of your Yfeni tech to protect against that, but that would destroy your society, your religion. That would destroy who you are. You brought me here to keep this world from falling into war. I’m going to do that, and the cost will be great, but it will leave your society intact.”
Barenin waited, scanning the room. Daring the governors to object. No one did.
“Here is what I propose,” they went on. “I have technology that can temporarily displace your world from normal spacetime. I want it to look like your world has been destroyed. That your Yfeni tech caused that destruction, so the Aezthena cannot take it from you, and they will be cautious of the use of any they’ve already taken taken.”
Voices rose in sharp protest.
Barenin held up their hands. “This will fully isolate you for at least a few centuries. There will be a scarred Kaireyeh barrier around your world. You may experience time differently than the rest of the universe. But, your society will remain. You will, after a time, be able to rejoin the rest of humanity. You can continue to develop your tech in peace. And the universe, for now, will remain mostly intact as well.”
Utter silence. Even the restless guards had gone still.
Ijuka shifted. “Por. Do you understand what you are asking us to do?” Their voice held a note of desperation. A plea from a friend to a friend for another option. Hurt clouded their face, crinkling the indigo paint that wound around their eyes in vines. The way they glared at Por, could they see beyond the betrayal of a friend?
The other governors shifted, faces echoing the same hurt, the same betrayal and anger. Barenin didn’t show it, but Anais sensed them stiffen. They knew, and he knew, they were losing this crowd. And Barenin was losing resolve, too, drowning in the hurt of these people who’d been their colleagues for nine years. Their friends.
Anais had to do something. And oh, hells. He had some idea of what that might be. Confession was not good for the soul. But maybe it was good for something.
He let go of Barenin and took a step forward, every eye tracking his movement. “I’m Anais Cavere. I make a living conning people out of their money, their possessions, their information. I was hired by the Aezthena to come to your world and steal either your new Yfeni generator, or detailed plans for it.”
Ijuka gave him a baffled look. “Is that supposed to make me trust you? Either of you? Por? Ser Lyr? Your consort is a confidence person?”
“I didn’t meet Ser Lyr until I came to this world,” Anais said. Another step forward. “I came here because you hired me to be your contract king.” He gave that a moment to sink in.
Farian shoved to their feet. “What? That’s preposterous. We hired Barenin Lyr—”
Anais reached up and tapped on the implant. It shifted to Barenin, still in the robes he’d worn the day he’d toured the factories. Well, the last two of them anyway—at least he was clothed. Had that only been the day before?
The council reacted as he’d expected—badly. Anais glanced at Barenin to see that small smile tugging at their lips. Even now. Even with their eyes tight with pain, or maybe worry, they were smiling. They gave him a barely perceptible nod.
It was enough. He tapped the implant back off and raised his voice. “You put out a call for a contract king, one that fit Barenin Lyr’s qualifications perfectly. But Barenin Lyr was already on your world, and you didn’t know it. So I came. I was going to stay six days. Steal your tech for my client. Make some excuse and depart. But Barenin—the real Barenin—showed me what an idiot I would have been to let the Aezthena who hired me play me, and all of us, like that.”
Ijuka looked between him and Barenin, their brows furrowing. They settled on Anais. Maybe the least complicated of the two. “Then it was you that we crowned?”
Anais nodded. “Yes.”
“And you remained the contract king until—until today.” They glanced at Por’s empty seat. “When Por was missing, and you came in as the Royal Consort. Ah.” Their eyes narrowed. “At least the problem of Por being in two places at once is solved,” they said bitterly. “That was not an Aezthena illusion, then?”
“No.” Anais shifted his weight, spreading his hands. “And look. You put out a call for a contract king. I answered that call. And—” he pulled up the relevant section of the contract in his memory implant and skimmed it again—yes, it did say what he’d thought it said “—and once you crown a contract king, that person, regardless of their identity, is the contract king until they fulfill the duration or terms of their contract, resign, or the two-thirds majority releases them.”
Anais took a breath. “I didn’t resign.” He pointed at Barenin. “She did.”
Shit. He was still seeing them as femme. Sorry, he thought at Barenin.
There was a collective wince at his use of Por’s private, gendered pronouns. The wrong ones, in any case.
He amended, “They did. And they had no legal grounds to do so.”
“You can’t be serious,” Edin said. “You came here under false pretenses. You aren’t the legitimate contract king.”
Anais read off the lengthy and thorough section of the contract. He’d made sure to study that one extra closely on his way to this world, for any tight situation that might come up.
The governors began to argue again, but Ijuka banged on the table.
“Quiet! Quiet. Ser Cavere is, unfortunately, in the right of the law, fates help us all. They are our contract king.” Ijuka’s face was sour.
“Then we should vote to release them.” One of the governors on Edin’s side of the table.
Barenin held up their hands. “I am also still governor of my province. I was never released from those duties, and I still owe the people I govern representation of their voices in this Council.”
“You,” Ijuka said hotly, “have no say in this Council anymore. Whatever you have done with Por—”
Barenin pointed at themself. “I am Por. I told you. I’ve been here for nine years, Ijuka. I know you. There has never been another—I created Por, inserted them into your records. I’ve lived with you. I’ve struggled with you. I’ve helped you as best I could and have only interfered as much as a human would.”
Anais doubted that was strictly true, but he wasn’t about to argue the point.
“I’ve been at your birth celebrations. Your death mournings. I’ve helped draft law and stayed up all night in the marathon budget sessions. My province elected me fairly—I gave no influence to that other than my own personality. I’ve lived as human among you. I gave you my best. And I’m giving you my best now, governors. Please. There is no other way I know to save your world. And to save humanity. To save everything we’ve all lived and hoped for. Yes, it will be hard being cut off from the rest of humanity. But you will remain. And you will grow. And one day, you will rejoin human society as a force of your own. Please, let me help you in this.”
“You deceived us, Por,” Ijuka snapped, “and that is not an easily forgivable thing.” They looked into Barenin’s blue eyes, and the heat of their anger wavered. “Truly, you have always been Por? There has never been another you replaced?”
“Truly. I have no way to prove it beyond my word, but...yes.”
Anais, who’d edged closer to the table, now gripped the back of the empty seat at its head. Time to shift the focus again while they were all off-balance. “You crowned me your contract king. And I intend to finish the job you hired me for. You need a mediator. Someone to resolve your differences when you can’t.” He took the seat. “So let me mediate. I suspect we don’t have much time.” He glanced at Barenin, who nodded. “Talk it through, but let me be the impartial voice.”
“You’re not impartial,” someone sneered.
“They have a point.” Ijuka turned their glare on Anais. “You were seen in bed with—” They stopped, shook their head, muttered a curse. “You’re not impartial.”
Anais placed his palms on the table, the same gesture he’d used as Barenin Lyr. Eyes followed the movement. “I’m not from your world. And yes, I’m a criminal, but I don’t like to see people die. I have no stake in the future of your world except the same that all of humanity does. Your world, right now, could tip the balance between a stable universe and a literally broken one. So, let me listen. Let me offer my input. You readily took it before.”
The governors rustled at their seats, uncomfortable with that fact. Likely uncomfortable they were mostly still standing and he, at the head of the table, was not. Protocol was a hard thing to break, even in crisis.
Barenin crossed the room and deliberately scraped the chair to their empty seat and sat down. As Por. Everyone turned to them. Tension hung in the air like a trip-wire.
Anais folded his hands together. The light rustle from his sleeves brought their attention back to him. “There is another Aezthena on this world. They will act, and soon, if we do not act first. Por. Please lay out again what you plan to do and why we should do it. Then, we will open to questions and rebuttals.” He nodded to Por. Who began again, settling into the rhythm of their human personality—albeit less femme in their gestures—to explain what needed to be done. And the Council, wonder of wonders, listened.
Anais leaned back in his chair. That had worked. That had actually worked. His stomach was in so many knots he might not eat for a week, but he’d bought Barenin the time to say what they needed to say, and the Council ears to hear them.
He hoped they would listen. And that whatever Barenin planned to do about Sela, the Council’s vote would not come too late.
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