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The Autarch sits on his throne, and watches, and waits. Before him stretches his new audience hall, blazing with torchlight from half an hundred sconces; before him a young man kneels, surrounded by soldiers, naked but for a bronze chain cuffing his hands behind his back. The light glints like westering sunlight from the bronze of cuffs and spears and helmet-fittings, from the sweat-sheened curves of muscle in the youth’s back and shoulders. The Autarch waits, caressing this prize with his eyes, until the young man raises his head, unbound hair falling across his brow, his full mouth flat and the brightest fire in his eyes.

And upon that cue… “So you found him,” the Autarch says, and his soldiers square their proud shoulders. “Alive and unmarked as I requested. Excellent work, my soldiers. Steward?” Who bustles swiftly forward despite his advanced age, his honorary garment brushing his ankles, the finely carved bones shaping the parchment skin of his face. The Autarch blinks away the memory of his current Steward as a beautiful smooth-limbed boy, and orders, “Give my soldiers here triple portions for the night. You are all dismissed.”

All but two soldiers, either side of the prisoner, turn to go. “My Lord?” asks Elushana, the Captain. “With respect, what of the prisoner?”

“Leave him to me,” the Autarch orders, and belatedly realizes by the wince-lines around the soldiers’ eyes that he let his voice boom with command. Patience he reminds himself with amusement, and makes certain his wrist flexes languidly as he waves them off.

Captain Elushana salutes, as does the other soldier, and they turn to follow their comrades from the hall, leaving nothing but echoes and light and the prisoner. Now the Autarch rises, and the youth watches him steadily with slow blinks as he descends, step by step.

For long moments he studies the young man, the lank hair and the snub nose and the square jaw, the breadth of his shoulders and back, the thickness of his thighs and the even tone of his skin, all his unfamiliar beauty with his entrancingly familiar eyes. Then the Autarch raises his hand, swiftly enough to flutter the nearest torch flames, but the young man doesn’t flinch.

The Autarch slices through the air and the spell, and the young man shifts in almost every particular, his beauty blooming into something far greater and more unusual. His hair pulls up into tousled waves, his nose rises to a sharp beak and the wine-dark birthmark spills down over its residing cheekbone. His shoulders and waist narrow, muscles now ropy rather than thick down all his limbs, and his mouth curves to a small smile as it plumps like a ripe berry. The Autarch has always particularly luxuriated in Neeshaan’s lush mouth.

The chains slide down narrowed wrists and with a twisting flick Neeshaan discards them, resting his hands on his knees, looking up steadily from his unshifted, shining eyes. “That hurt somewhat,” he observes mildly.

“It was excellently woven,” the Autarch replies, more proudly than he properly aught, but he still bears his human legacy, he still relishes his pleasures like the mortals do. “Took no small effort to undo.” He bends, reaching down, and Neeshaan lifts his hands, allows the Autarch to encircle those thin-boned wrists with reverent fingers and to tug him to his feet.

He sways upon them, and the Autarch resists the urge to wrap Neeshaan in his arms. The boy earned this weariness. By rights he’s earned a far more dire punishment, but the Autarch is willing to let his false face die with the name ‘Mehenna’ and the rebellion that mysterious firebrand led. Now he asks, mildly, indulgently, “How far did you intend to run?”

“Not so much a span of distance as of time,” Neeshaan replies, confidently, proudly. “I thought your ire could use some little while to cool.”

“Indeed?” The Autarch steps backwards, drawing Neeshaan along the path they both know sightlessly, beside the stairway, behind the plinth, into the dimness behind the throne. “And how heated is my anger now?”

“Cold as stone,” Neeshaan replies, even-voiced despite his limp. “Which I knew as soon as Captain Elushana’s spear stopped a hair’s breadth from my throat.”

“Ah, and what if I sought to punish you by my own hand?” The Autarch has practiced his stone face for hundreds of years, but faced with Neeshaan’s steady fearlessness shining from starbright eyes, his sternness cracks into a smile.

“I have never had reason to fear your hand,” Neeshaan says, and a massive wave of mortal emotion washes through the Autarch’s chest. He sweeps Neeshaan up in his arms as he nudges the hidden door open with his foot, and wins a gratifying little shout of surprise.

“Oh, my Lord!” Neeshaan cries out, finally perturbed, as the Autarch tightens his grasp on the slender living body, burying his nose in silken disarrayed waves, breathing in the rich musky scent. “Oh, I am filthy, I am—“

“Mine,” rumbles the Autarch over his pate, and Neeshaan quiets, trembling in his arms. The tunnel slopes downwards before them, and the Autarch absentmindedly pushes each rock and pillar aside by thought, carelessly leaving the obstacles strewn behind him. Neeshaan huffs, peering over his shoulder into the darkness, and groans deep in his rib-lined chest, dragging them back into their places with his smaller mortal strength.

The Autarch laughs quietly, for sound echoes mightily in this buried corridor. “A month ago you laid me siege and now you repair my defenses.”

“I merely sought to claim your attention,” Neeshaan puffs, his equilibrium swiftly recovering. “We had demands to submit, after all.” As he listens, smiling, Autarch opens the far door with his elbow, paces the short corridor, and enters his private chambers from behind the tapestry.

“Like proper rebels,” the Autarch agrees with solemn indulgence, and Neeshaan coughs up a laugh. He’s still trembling, so the Autarch never breaks stride until they reach his inmost chamber, bypassing the bed of state for the smaller room where he retires to sleep most soundly, alone or in rare trusted company.

“Do I still belong here?” Neeshaan asks quietly as the Autarch lays him upon his softest coverlet. “I would not advise you to bring a rebel into your bed.”

“The rebel Mehenna was dispatched by my own hand,” the Autarch replies as he sits, passing that hand over Neeshaan’s brow, feeling once again the fine-skinned breadth of it. “I have brought my lover back to me.”

Neeshaan’s eyes shine brighter than the lamps, though his “With a little help from a troop of hunters,” is as airy as a summer breeze. The Autarch smiles and Neeshaan smiles back before lowering his eyelids, looking away. “I did not originally intend a rebellion,” he murmurs.

“Indeed,” the Autarch replies drily, and watches Neeshaan’s smile spread wide, creasing his birthmarked cheek. “Did you realize that before or after you declared iron the metal of the people?”

“Somewhen around when the soldiers began burning down foundries,” Neeshaan replies with tartness, bracing as a balanced wine. “I needed to consolidate the idea, to rally the people.”

“To cause civil unrest and raise an insurrection,” the Autarch parries without any force. “So what did you accomplish?”

“I spread the knowledge of iron beyond all suppression,” Neeshaan says proudly, and the Autarch in truth shares his pride. “And if our benevolent leader will amend the laws, I believe that knowledge can take us all far forward.”

“This will severely affect the copper and tin trades,” the Autarch reminds him, mostly to prod forth his thoughts.

“We still need bronze,” Neeshaan replies wisely, and the Autarch smiles at him for it. “But iron can take us so much further. It’s less rare, it holds its edge longer, it —“

“All true,” the Autarch replies, for even an immortal can become impatient with news he has heard many times before. “You do know I had plans for its introduction?”

Neeshaan sighs, and smiles, and looks straight up at the Autarch, and says, “Yes, my Lord, but with respect, your plans take so long.”

The Autarch has to laugh at that, and lean down, setting his hand over Neeshaan’s heart, and kiss him.

Neeshaan’s chapped, blood-hot lips bloom open beneath his, and the Autarch tastes his beloved boy for a long moment before drawing back, just as far as the tips of their noses. “Due to your impatience,” he murmurs low, smiling into Neeshaan’s shining eyes, feeling Neeshaan’s heart beat beneath his palm and his own thumping counterpoint, sped to match the mortal pace, “I have amended my plans for the next half century. As we lie here my heralds ride out to announce post-insurrection amnesty and the promotion of iron.”

“Thank you!” Neeshaan cries out, bringing to mind a thousand memories of his happy shouts in bed, and takes a deep shuddering breath. “Thank you, my Lord,” he says with more poise. “I am certain your mercy and wisdom will be lauded to the borders and beyond.”

“You are ever welcome,” says the Autarch, “now, are you too sore or can you bear me? I have you back and I would have you.”

Neeshaan grips the Autarch’s arm above the elbow, face alight with eagerness, but blinks and says, “Surely my Lord did not lack for bedwarmth, being so handsome and so commanding?”

“No one these hundred years is like you,” the Autarch indulges him, and Neeshaan’s eyes crinkle as he shuts them in delight.

He opens them again as he pushes himself up on one trembling elbow. “Let me just sponge and anoint —“

The Autarch gently pushes him prone with a kiss to his wide brow. “I would have you exactly as you are. Dusty and gleaming and redolent of yourself.”

Neeshaan laughs, shocked and pleased, and finally dares to kiss the Autarch, beside his mouth, upon it. As their tongues languidly stroke the Autarch wonders when to tell Neeshaan that his insurrection neatly circled round the law the gods laid upon their appointed rulers to restrict and curb the mortals’ development. Possibly in another decade or two when middle years bring Neeshaan a fuller appreciation of deviousness.

For now the Autarch shifts fully into the bed and buries his face in the crook of Neeshaan’s throat, breathing his throat-coating musk for a long moment, stroking reverent hands down the fragile smooth skin of his sides. the erstwhile ‘Mehenna’ took the battle scars with the disguise. “Your plans?” Neeshaan asks, mostly to be stubborn.

“After,” the Autarch insists, curving his palms round Neeshaan’s slender hips, feeling his sleek limbs rise. “You always learn better after an effluence or two.”

Neeshaan laughs rousingly and rises to meet him.