The palace felt too quiet. Sunlight shone through a window on one wall, sparkling lazy dust motes. Was it still morning? He was exhausted. He could almost sense the turmoil of the governors as they deliberated thirty floors down—not through Barenin's senses, but a tension in the air. Anais knew the taste of a job gone sour.
He sat in the uncomfortable, wingback chair, his leg jittering, straining to hear anything from Barenin. But there wasn't even the shuffle of steps.
After a while, he got up and paced. Locking his hands behind his neck, he prowled the sitting room, touching lamps to turn them on and off, looking at the various knick knacks and holopics in frames. There was a large image on the wall of Por and her Dayaran spouse—Anais had seen the smaller holopic earlier, but this was a more natural picture, large enough to examine closely. Their heads were pressed together, both smiling in elaborate face paint. Por's spouse was plump, ordinary despite the swirls of their face paint, except for eyes that sparked with wicked mischief. Oh, Por. She would pick someone who knew how to enjoy trouble, wouldn't she? Did her spouse know who she was? Had she ever trusted this person with her true identity?
Anais jinked away from the image, his fingers rubbing over the identity implant trigger on the back of his neck. The urge to run, that primal self-preservation drive, hadn't lessened. But all the reasons why he wasn't going to run had grown.
He glanced at the open doorway to the hall. Por was just beyond that wall. In a state of utter discomposure.
Anais drew himself up short, sucking in a breath.
Barenin Lyr was a master manipulator. In the Council chamber, he'd been mesmerized by her skills in action. She moved the flow of room effortlessly. How was he to know all of that hadn't been rehearsed? That she wasn't playing both him and the Dayarans? And what about her breakdown now? Was that real, or was she pulling him ever closer into her influence, playing on his empathy? She'd shown him her emotions, yes. But could he even believe that those were real?
He thought of her breath, frigid on his fingers on her lips. He licked his own suddenly dry lips.
Could there ever be trust between them?
In the holo dramas, relationships between Aezthena and humans never worked out. The Aezthena were all presented as sociopaths—in the holo dramas, it was just their nature. They inevitably ended up leaving their lovers on some point of understanding they couldn't share, or, more dramatically, ended up being the enemy, and the lover had to decide if they could in good conscience stay with the Aezthena. They almost never did. And those where they did stay were considered tragedies.
These were human dramas, of course. Did the Aezthena even have dramas? Did they have fun? Could they love as a human needed love?
Anais resumed his pacing until he stood in front of the room's one window. This view of the city was lower than the king's suites. Aircars flitted about at eye-level. There was a layer of smog here that hadn't reached the penthouse. The walls of the buildings had more wear, more grime. Less glitter and more reality.
It wasn't fair to say all Aezthena were sociopaths—he knew that now. It wasn't that they didn't feel empathy or emotion, they felt it differently. But were those different emotions compatible with human emotions? Barenin said she could feel human emotions, but she wasn't truly human. And she'd already shown her disconnect with humanity, no matter how human she seemed. What did Anais do when she wished to be focused Aezthena? Could he ever truly understand her or her motives? Would she ever stop manipulating?
He didn't think so. That was in an Aezthena's nature. Everything was a problem to be solved, and it was only a matter of moving the variables for the desired outcome.
Maybe the greatest gift Barenin had given him was showing him, briefly, how it felt to be Aezthena. Maybe that gift was so he'd know to stay away.
Run, Sela had said. Sela, an Aezthena, had told him to run. Right before she'd shredded through his thoughts.
Anais growled. He ran when a job got too hot. When the gains of leaving outweighed the gains of staying. But he didn't calculate gains in terms of money earned or stolen. Money had never been what he was after.
He approached Por's door and knocked. There was a shuffle inside, then she opened it.
She wasn't fully Por but in that halfway state, hair somewhere between black and silver, skin between brown and bone-white, eyes shifting between blue and gold. She stood composed, face expressionless. Silently, she stepped aside for Anais to enter.
And now he came in gingerly, like he was intruding on her private space. How much of what he'd just thought had she heard? Had she been listening, even if she'd said she wouldn't? Could she even help it?
"How can I trust you?" he blurted. "You'll always put me where you want me to be. It'll look like my choice, it'll feel like my choice, but it'll be you, pulling the strings. You know I can't live like that."
Por—no, Barenin, her mannerisms were subtly different, not Dayaran—nodded. She sat on the edge of the bed and folded her hands in her lap, staring down at them.
"I've had this conversation, or some variation of it, so many times," she said. "I've told you more than I tell most. Shown you more. I can't change who or what I am. I can't promise not to hurt you—in my experience, that is where things go wrong. I won't set up false expectations."
She looked up, eyes hovering on blue. "Kindred souls are rare, maybe one or two per human lifetime. But echoed souls? It's been a long, long time since I've found someone like you." She shook her head. "No. I have never found anyone like you. You are unique. And while I know myself well enough to know I'm not yet in love with you, I know I will be."
Anais swallowed on a dry throat. The space around him seemed to constrict. His pulse pounded in his ears. Had he heard that right?
He played the words back in his memory implant. Yes. Yes, he had.
But could he trust it? What did it mean to be loved by an Aezthena? To love an Aezthena? This Aezthena?
"Anais," she said softly, "we're very alike. Maybe more than any I've met or loved. Think on that before you decide if this is something you want. I've seen my strengths and my weaknesses in you. And...I think you've seen your own in me."
He swallowed again.
Gods. He couldn't stop the tremor that passed through his bones. He'd been alone for almost as long as he could remember. The thought of not being alone, of having someone else who understood why he needed to so fully immerse himself in his roles, the isolation he lived with even among crowds, the bitterness about his past and his dire need to protect his identity—would he ever find anyone else who understood that?
And yet, he still felt that impassable gulf between them. She was Aezthena. She would always be Aezthena—and she'd known how he'd react to her saying she would fall in love with him. That's why she'd said it. She couldn't stop being who she was.
But manipulation was in his nature too. Everything he did was a manipulation. Every role he played. Every person he influenced so a job would go more smoothly, an outcome altered in his favor. He'd done and said things while in character that he'd sorely regretted later. When he left with the goods, and the people he'd left behind had to deal with the wake of his manipulations and lies. He tried not to think about that part of what he did. If he kept moving from role to role, he didn't have time to think about it.
Was that what she meant when she said they were alike?
He had a flash of Ijuka's tight look when Por revealed herself as Aezthena. The dark betrayal in their eyes. Was that the kind of echo Anais wanted, someone who embodied the worst of what he did?
Barenin faced away from him, giving him space to think, but he knew she'd be picking up on his emotions in her half-Aezthena state. And that bothered him. Gods, it bothered him. Would he ever be able to get beyond that?
He locked his hands behind his neck, turning a tight circle of frustration. Why was he so obsessed with Barenin Lyr? Why had he spent such a significant portion of his life idolizing her, studying everything about her? Yes, she was a near-mythical figure. Yes, she'd brokered most of the treaties between the humans and Aezthena throughout history. She helped keep the peace. She was magnificent at dealing with the big picture.
But he'd seen the imperfections, too. No one could study a life that deeply and not see the cracks in the veneer. Like when she'd consigned three human star systems to the Aezthena in order to save twenty more. But those three systems had been utterly lost. Or when she'd started a war between human nations in order to escalate the threat they posed to the Aezthena, so the Aezthena would back off for another ten years. Billions had died in that human war. But she'd bought trillions ten more years of relative safety. And yet...billions had died.
Not many knew she'd done those things. It was in the subtext, the things she said that made the humans involved make those decisions, and she'd come out the untouchable hero. But he'd seen the patterns of her manipulations. Seeds sometimes planted over months or years. She was a master, and damn him, he admired her for that. These were horrible things, but she'd done them for the greater good.
That's what he told himself. That's probably what she told herself, too. And he didn't think she believed it. He'd felt the intensity of her self-loathing.
Why had he thought that playing Barenin Lyr would make him a better person? Beneath all the glory and the hype, she was just another person doing what she could to make a harsh universe a little more livable. He'd thought she did what she did selflessly, the tireless protector of humanity, but...he'd known even before he'd come to Denz Dayar that couldn't be true. Not fully.
Yes, he'd seen himself in her, too. Too much of himself, in the greater, deeper picture few others had dug deep enough to find. Still, he'd hoped. Hoped she was as good as he wished. That there was hope for someone like him.
But Barenin Lyr was broken. Her own universe was shattered, and she was desperately putting the pieces of herself back together in whatever way she could. If keeping the peace was a means to that end, then that's what she did. She threw herself fully into her own survival.
Like he did, on every job, just trying to hold on to a sense of meaning. Of being a version of himself he could live with.
Their eyes locked. She rose and he stepped closer, and closer again, until their faces almost touched, and he could see the gold fractals shifting in her eyes.
Floors below them, the Council debated whether or not to destroy their own culture, and somewhere out there, the Aezthena were moving everyone toward disaster. And some of that was his fault, and some of it was Barenin's. And maybe a lot of it was just that harsh universe living on. But he and Barenin, they couldn't not try to fix it, could they? No matter how tired they were. No matter how much they thought it couldn't be fixed. It was part of who they were.
He had tried, on so many jobs, to fully detach himself. And many times he had made the lives he'd disrupted a lot more complicated for his having been there—but he tried to balance it out. He couldn't not do good where he saw a chance to do good. The stars had been an uncaring place for him. He wanted it to be a little less so for others. He needed to try.
Anais' fingers curled into his hands. He wanted redemption. And so, he knew, did Barenin. Desperately.
But that wasn't why he wanted her.
Their heads bent at the same time. Their lips came together, warm and cool, rough and soft. The kiss wasn't gentle, the building hunger and need for release rippling between them. It burned out like a flare, peaking in a hot burst and then fading. This wasn't the time. But there would be a time.
They broke the kiss but stayed close. Anais didn't talk. He didn't want words interrupting the flow of emotions that ran between them, passing through shifting fingers clenched tightly together. Foreheads pressed, swaying a tuneless dance. The emotions felt truer than anything either of them could say.
They drifted back together, a long, slow, familiar kiss. The comfort of those who knew each others' souls, but had also just met. There was a newness. And an ancient promise.
Anais pulled away first, finding his breath. No, there wasn't love now. Not yet. But there would be.
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