The lingering feel of her kiss was electric ice.
Anais cleared his throat. Then cleared it again, trying to think cooling thoughts. He gestured vaguely around him. But gods, they were in her bedroom. His thigh brushed the side of the made bed. Best not to focus on his surroundings.
He triggered a numeric sequence in his memory implant and focused his attention on that while he pulled the rest of himself back together.
"So—how does this work?" he asked, voice huskier than he expected. He coughed. "Where do we go from here? What boundaries do we set, because I'm telling you right now, I don't like that you can read my thoughts. I don't like that you'll push me in directions I might not want to go."
Barenin gripped his hand tightly, her eyes flashing with sudden heat. "I will never influence your thoughts directly. Never. As far as reading your thoughts—I hold my walls tight, but I will always feel some of your emotions when I'm near you—I've told you that before. But not the thoughts behind them, not unless I have a lapse, or we are touching, or the thought is particularly strong. I can't promise not to hear it." She drew in a breath. "But that goes both ways. You have already felt my emotions. That is not something I've ever been able to hold back from those I love, either. I can reign them in tightly enough that they seem like passing thoughts, but I don't want to. I am Aezthena, and we communicate natively by emotion, impressions, thoughts without words. That part of my communication with you is a part of who I am. And I know you understand that."
Anais sighed down onto the bed, and she sit stiffly beside him. Not close enough to touch, but not too far, either. He studied his fingers, picking at the cuticles.
Barenin continued, "And as far as it's in my conscious power not to, I won't manipulate you into anything. But...I can't deny that is also in my nature. It takes thought and effort not to move all the pieces on the board as I will it. But you have my word that as far as I'm able, I won't do that with you."
"You have to talk to me," Anais said. "We have to discuss things before any big decision. Like your decision to end my stint as the contract king." He met Barenin's gaze, hoping his own conveyed his seriousness.
"You didn't want to continue your contract," Barenin said. "You made it clear you could not continue to play my role."
"That's not the point." He tried to quell his rising anger. Would she ever understand? She had so much power. She was used to power, even living as a human. But power was something he fought for, or borrowed, or stole. "I'm—I need to be me. And I need you to respect me and my decisions. Even if you think you know what I'll decide, ask me. Please."
Barenin vented a soft, bitter laugh. "And I've had this conversation, too. I'm sorry, Anais. I'm truly sorry. I should have let you close that out in your own way."
Anais scrubbed at his chin. He was so tired. And he had to keep reminding himself he still wasn't over the toll having simulated Aezthena thoughts had taken on his body and emotions. Though his memory implant steadied him, he still felt odd twinges in his mind, like his thoughts wanted to run up mental stairways that just weren't there anymore. There was a twitchiness to his fatigue, a sense that his body and mind had not quite re-integrated with his human normalcy. But there wasn't time to rest, was there? Never time to rest.
"We need to be equals or it won't work," he finally said. A galling statement. Maybe they did echo each other in their natures, but he keenly felt the differences between Barenin and him, sitting beside her, watching her almost-silver curls sway with her breaths. Her simulated breaths that she didn't truly need.
"Tell me when I overstep or don't trust you enough," Barenin said. "The only way I've ever found to make this work is with as complete honesty as possible." She drew Anais' hand toward her heart. It beat too slow for a human's, but he suspected too fast for what it should be beating right now. He felt, through her touch, the self-loathing that had been there before. But it was mixed with the optimism they'd gained that morning. Anxiety, anticipation, hope.
Hope, that most treacherous, beautiful emotion.
"It is not often I trust someone with myself." Her words were quiet now, almost too soft to hear. They echoed more in his mind than his ears. "It will take time for both of us to adjust to each other. At times it will be difficult. But be honest with me. I'll be honest with you. And if at any point you are unhappy and think that being with me is not what you want, tell me. I will do everything I can to smooth our transition apart."
Absolute sincerity in those words.
Anais trembled. He didn't know what to feel right now. He didn't know how to sort any of this out. He only knew—he needed to see wherever this went. The thought of leaving now made his whole body ache in protest.
His mind tried to spin up into logic trees again. Logic trees that went nowhere. He had to shift the conversation.
"So. So, what are we going to do when the Council decides not to destroy their own religious heritage in favor of humanity?" He tried to make his tone light. He didn't think he succeeded. And Barenin could feel his true feelings, as he could hers. There was no levity in either of them. Not right now. Not yet.
But Barenin's lips quirked in that almost-smile. "Congratulations. In your short stint as contract king, you have learned to read our esteemed Council of Governors well. We will, I think, wait until nightfall, then I have a job in mind for you and I to do." She paused. "Unless you have a plan?"
Anais laughed, a venting of tension. "In this, right now, I defer to you. I suspect your plan will involve a lot of blinking about the planet and either destroying or neutralizing the Dayaran tech?"
"No," Barenin said, smoothing out the folds of the bed covers around her. "Only one type of tech." Anais watched her long, thin fingers build the folds back up again. Like she'd built a wall around herself in his bed the night before.
"Edin's high-efficiency generators," he said, only half paying attention. His mind, ever helpful, was wandering to what those fingers could do. What they might feel like running over his skin, his chest, his—
Barenin stopped her movements and raised her brows.
Anais bit his lip against the furious heat in his face. But he didn't look away from her.
Again that small smile.
"I can't destroy a culture without their approval, as much as that would be helpful," she said. "And I can't use Kaireyeh to destroy. I'm not sure what would happen, either, if we destroyed those generators by conventional explosives, even if they are powered down. To blow up a Kaireyeh generator would create a localized ripple in spacetime that would take centuries to heal. To do so with these Yfeni generators...I fear the consequences would be dire."
"So..." Anais said, forcefully pulling his thoughts back to sift through possibilities. He rubbed his hands on his knees, the too-complex emotions of the moments before giving way to familiar anticipation—the thrill of the job. He reached for it with all he had. He could handle the thrill. That was familiar. "So, we steal them? Destroy what we can of the schematics and how they are built—but they'll have backups. Dayarans use actual physical plasti prints for hard copy backups. Gods. Unless you have a virus that can destroy plasti prints, we can't erase knowledge of how to build these generators."
"No," Barenin agreed. "And we won't stop the Aezthena from coming here. I can strengthen my planetary barrier as much as possible, but it won't hold against a concentrated assault."
"Wait. Can you even get past the barrier yourself? Can you take these generators out of here?"
"No. You'll have to do that."
Anais eyed her, suspicion twisting his gut. But he was still near enough he could feel her emotions. He sensed nothing from her that gave his suspicion merit.
She brushed his knee. She'd felt the suspicion and accepted it. "We'll take the generators deep into space. I have ways that will help mask their unique signatures."
"If these are as important as you say, the Aezthena will chase us."
"Most certainly," Barenin said. "But you'll still be following the outlines of your job contract. They might give us some lead time before they realize you're running. Or that I'm with you."
"Or they might have a ship waiting to intercept us as soon as we leave the system. Or maybe they already have a ship in-system. Watching." That was a new and unpleasant thought. He shifted. "And anyhow, the barrier doesn't protect against an Aezthena bringing out the schematics, does it? It's not a mental barrier? It doesn't make you sick if you think about the tech, or anything like that?"
"No. Although the Aezthena won't be able to use the schematics without knowing the distinction between Kaireyeh and Yfeni. And even if they already do, they can't build the tech themselves. That's why Sela's still here, though she has the schematics. There's something else she's missing, some essential piece to all this. Maybe it's what we just learned, the distinction between Kaireyeh and Yfeni. But even knowing what I know now, I'm not sure I'd be able to build such a generator. Not without time and careful study. And I might not ever be able to build it without flaws, as Edin's human engineers can. The concept of Yfeni is so foreign to what I know about Kaireyeh. But that won't stop the Aezthena from trying."
Anais rocked back, staring up at the ceiling and its plaster geometries. "So, nothing we do here's going to do more than delay the Aezthena, right? If we hide the generators, they'll find them. And even if not, they'll keep coming back here. They'll demand more generators be built. They'll demand the specs for the tech. Like you said, Sela already knows the schematics, even if she doesn't know whatever else it is she needs to know. But how long will it take for her to figure that out? Or to figure out what we know, if she doesn't know already?"
He vented a humorless laugh. "Hells, Barenin, everyone on the Council now knows there's a distinction between Kaireyeh and Yfeni and that it's important. The Aezthena could just sweep in and rip it from their minds. Sela and Edin pushed all this into the open. If you don't want the Aezthena to get that tech..."
Anais stilled, ice running down his spine. "Shit," he said softly. "Shit. I'm augmented. Having my kind of memory capacity makes me really good at math. At tech. I get this stuff, Barenin. If I saw the schematics, if I saw the generators up close—and I've seen enough now to already have some theories on how they work, just from what's below the palace—I could go a long way to understanding how to build them. And now I know the distinction between Kaireyeh and Yfeni, too. My clients knew me. They researched me as thoroughly as you did. Barenin—they didn't want me to steal the tech, they wanted me to hack the idea of it. So they can take it from my mind. Shit!"
He stood. He couldn't sit anymore with his adrenaline surging again. "There's no way to stop this. If not me, it will be someone else. Whether we steal the generators or destroy them—or the Dayarans, against all odds, destroy all the records of this—it's still in people's minds."
Barenin stood, too, her gaze focused elsewhere, eyes still hovering between gold and blue. "Sela is coming. She's heard of the current deliberation of the Council." Barenin's lips twisted into a humorless smile. "She gave us the courtesy of a warning."
Not much of one. Sela appeared a heartbeat later, barely a meter away from Barenin.
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