Good King Lyr: Contract King
After four grueling hours, the Council rose with grim purpose and scattered to carry out the plans they’d made. The vote had been a success, but no one was happy about it. Not even Anais. And certainly not Barenin.
As the others filed out, Barenin lingered by their chair, gripping the wooden back and looking around as if trying to memorize the room. Its ornate mosaic floors, the iridescent white stone that framed the walls and spread a river of vines across the governors’ table. They were saying goodbye, Anais realized. Saying goodbye to this part of their life. Not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Another sacrifice in their long quest to save the universe.
Anais made his slow and unobtrusive way over to them, shifting body language from authoritative to calmly neutral. He might have just mediated that session as contract king, but he knew he wasn’t, not really. Not in the eyes of anyone left in this room.
He placed his hand next to Barenin’s, skin just touching. Are you all right? He was learning to read the signs. The tightness around Barenin’s shoulders that didn’t quite show unless you were looking.
Barenin turned to him. “No. No, I’m not.”
The tall council chamber doors closed with echoing thuds. Only the two door guards, Barenin, Anais, and Ijuka remained.
Ijuka still stood by their own seat, near them at this end of the table. They seemed hesitant to move, studying Barenin. Or, for them, studying Por. What must they be thinking, trying to reconcile someone they’d known for years with someone who was almost unapproachable, a legend?
But then, Ijuka had never been that impressed when they’d thought Anais was Barenin Lyr. Maybe they’d have a better handle on this than most people would.
“You’ll be leaving after this?” Ijuka asked, voice echoing oddly in the emptiness of the room.
Barenin rocked on their heels, hands flexing on the chair back. “I must. Once we seal this system off, it would be physically painful for me to stay, or return in your lifetime. I’m too in tune with Kaireyeh.”
Ijuka tilted their head. “So you did actually get sick when we visited Edin’s generators? Or was that you, Ser Cavere?”
“Both,” Anais said. “We were both there.” He inclined his head in a slight bow. “But thank you, Ijuka, for looking after me.”
Ijuka snorted, then their face took on some of the weariness that was returning to Barenin’s, now that Barenin didn’t have to be a governor anymore. Or the contract king. Or anything but who they were in that moment.
“I do not like causing such a deep rift in the Yfeni energy that surrounds us,” Ijuka said softly. “It isn’t right. It goes against everything I believe. How will it affect us? Affect our souls?”
Barenin shifted, moving closer to Ijuka. There was only one chair separating them. “I’ve seen worlds hidden in Kaireyeh before. Not quite this scenario, but isolated. The cultures and technologies that developed from such worlds were unique. The people much more in tune with Kaireyeh—or Yfeni, here. I can’t tell you how it will play out, Ijuka. Only that it will. You’ll have a chance. You’ll all be alive.”
Throughout the Council session, Barenin had kept a tight mental conversation going with Anais, hashing out the details of their plan. The Dayarans would direct their people to disable as much Yfeni tech as possible. Small home generators or power supplies in devices weren’t likely to throw off what Barenin was about to do, but the generators under the palace—and in other cities and towns—would be shut down.
Only Edin’s Yfeni generators on the other side of the world would remain functional. Edin hadn’t just planned to use them for their own province. They’d meant to power the entire planetary grid with ten units and backups once fully tested. That might have been an incredible achievement if not for the danger the generators imposed.
Only Edin’s generators had enough power to make a planet disappear, holding it in stasis until it could return to normal spacetime. Anais had watched Edin’s grim face when Barenin relayed that part of the plan for any signs of vindication. But Edin had only nodded. And nodded again when Barenin said after this was done, those generators needed to be shut down. Edin might be an idealist, but they weren’t a fool. Whatever else Anais thought of them, their opinion of Edin’s integrity had risen.
“So you really think this will work?” Ijuka asked. Any pretense of confidence they’d held in the Council session was gone. This wasn’t a question for Barenin, immortal Aezthena. This was a question for Por.
“Yes,” they said, and met Ijuka’s eyes.
Ijuka, of all things, then looked to Anais. And, knowing this was as important a part of this job as any, he nodded.
“This will absolutely work, Ser Governor.”
But though he projected confidence, there was more hope in that statement than truth. Yes, they had a plan. A good plan. In part, his plan. But a big part of that plan hinged on Barenin using the Yfeni generators to power and amplify the modified identity implant. Barenin said they knew enough of Yfeni theory now to know how to use those generators. Anais knew a con well enough to know when someone else’s statement held more hope than truth, too.
Ijuka gave Barenin a long, questing stare. “I’ve known you for so long. It’s hard for me to imagine you as anyone other than Por. But you’ve had so many lifetimes beyond your life here. We must seem so small to you—”
Por pulled them into a tight embrace. “I will miss you, friend. Forgive me the deception. I can’t make it up to you. I wish there was time.”
Anais shifted. There wasn’t time. He wasn’t sure how long they had to act, but any time was too much.
Barenin must have sensed his restlessness, because they pulled away from Ijuka, turning to him.
“Anais. I need to prepare the tech.” They reached into a pocket and pulled out a metal disk, tossing it to him.
He caught it. It looked like a coin, bronze-colored, ancient and worn. He couldn’t read the writing just visible through the wear on one side, didn’t even know the script.
“Press the center and say my full name,” Barenin said. “That will take you to my ship.”
Anais nodded, then reached behind his neck. Time for him to hand over his contribution to this plan.
His fingers brushed the bump of the identity implant, a synthetic mole on his skin. He grimaced, already feeling its loss and the abilities it gave him. The loss of everything he’d sold and borrowed and stolen to afford such tech…was not consequential. Not nearly as much as the loss of what this meant to him. But this was necessary. This was his plan, after all. Barenin had given up much to help this world. They’d given up their cover identity, their own life here. They had given up friendships. They were giving up a marriage, even if it was a contract marriage. He’d seen the holos in Por’s apartments. Por was close to their Dayaran spouse.
Anais tapped the long code to release the implant from his body. For a heartbeat, his nervous system woke with phantom, moving sensations, fire raging throughout his body. Then it passed, and the implant poked up enough for him to gently pull it from the skin.
A tiny black cylinder, not half a centimeter long, almost the same size as the halo bead in his arm. The halo bead which used similar technology, holding the weapon in that stasis realm until it was called for use.
Anais rolled the implant in his palm, staring down at it. Barenin had said they could make another one. But…but this was the one he had. Maybe he didn’t feel naked in his own genetic skin in that moment, with his mind on everything else, but he would. He knew he would, when this all passed. If they survived. He’d go back to lesser cosmetics. To knowing that his body, his baseline body, was always underneath whatever layers he plastered over it.
Anais handed the implant to Barenin.
“I’ll bring this back or get you another one,” they said. “Promise.” They knew what he was giving up in handing that over to them.
He nodded, swallowing around a hard lump in his throat. And now he did feel naked and vulnerable. Exposed, with too much written on his face, too much emotion transmitted in that brief touch as Barenin’s fingers had brushed his.
“Get to the ship,” they said gently. “I’ll join you soon.”
Ijuka sighed. “This ship that’s been in our system undetected for nine years. Por. I don’t know what to do with you. Off with you, then.” Their eyes were shining as they looked between Barenin and Anais. “Keep our world safe.”
Barenin gripped Ijuka’s hands in the Dayaran fashion, that immediate intimacy. “Thank you, friend. I will.” They took a breath. “And yes, Anais, the time. I have time enough to say goodbye to my spouse.” Their eyes, shifting back to gold, locked on Anais. And he felt the wave of loss as it shifted into the cold, unyielding equations of Aezthena grief.
Barenin couldn’t slow time later around the Yfeni generators for fear of interfering with them, but they could slow time enough to have a few moments, or a few hours, with their spouse. Anais had never asked if Por’s spouse knew who they really were. He didn’t envy them the conversation either way.
Still holding Anais’ gaze, Barenin disappeared.
Anais cleared his tight throat, suppressing the urge to shiver in the draftiness of the large chamber. In the sudden absence of Barenin. He’d come to this world fully prepared to pull this con alone. But right then, he didn’t want to be alone. Didn’t want to be here among people who were hardly more than strangers. Even Ijuka, who was back to studying him now with that blunt intensity.
He licked his lips and looked down, smoothing out his over-robe.
Ijuka coughed and he realized what he was doing—he’d been wrapping a persona around himself again, hiding in the first safe role he could find. He’d been projecting Barenin’s posture and gestures.
“May I ask you a question?” Ijuka asked.
Anais pressed Barenin’s coin against his palm, anchoring himself in the cool metal. “Yes,” he said warily.
“Did you ever intend to take your duties as contract king seriously, or was that Por’s influence?”
Anais shifted. Did he owe Ijuka honesty? Yes, for once, he decided he did. “I thought I might do some good. I intended to try, for whatever that’s worth. But the real truth of it? No. I’m a con man. I was hoping to ride it out. It was a role to play. A difficult role, and a role I’d thought I’d enjoy.” He glanced to where Barenin had stood a moment before.
Ijuka snorted. “Por has always, as long as I’ve known them, had a way of shaking up the status quo. Bringing out the best—and worst—in people. I suppose those traits fit into a better context now. Or maybe not.” They looked back at Anais. “I can see you care for them. Take good care of them, will you? All-powerful or not, they are not without their blind spots.”
Anais nodded, his throat tightening again.
“Governor,” he said, remembering one last thing he had to do here. “Governor Ijuka, I formally resign my place as contract king.”
“I don’t accept it,” Ijuka said, not looking back. “Go carry out your mission, my king.”
Anais stood in place, unsure how to respond to that. Was that a gesture of respect or an insult? Maybe a bit of both.
He rubbed the coin in his hand, exploring the engraving and toothed edges worn smooth over time. This must be precious for Barenin to have kept it so long—he didn’t doubt for a minute it was a genuine artifact, not something fabricated to resemble one. It could be hundreds or thousands of years old, from any number of human cultures or worlds.
Barenin had given him the key to their ship. An Aezthena ship. The part of him that was him, for just a moment, thought of what a tremendous price that ship would go for in the right market. And just how much the Aezthena would hunt him for stealing it. And just how vulnerable he was without his identity implant.
Gods and stars above. Would he ever change?
Yes. What he was about to do would change him, he was sure of it. And what came after, whatever came after with Barenin and him…that was a whole other level of change. But they both had to live to get there. They had to pull off this one ludicrous job. This one possibly disastrous job. Possibly genocidal.
Anais swallowed hard, and pressed the center of the coin. He said in a low voice, “Damon ve Barenin ne Alyras Kynaston.”
A heartbeat later, he stood in a dimly-lit room with sleek, glossy white walls, white floor, and white ceiling. He drew a breath, or tried to—there was almost no air. The temperature was freezing—he shivered and started to panic.
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