Some time after Artaksis the King of Parshas and Mecede chose for himself Shahab the Atasan to love and protect, before the lands had truly recovered from the king’s years of weakness, was a time when the life of Artaksis the king was in peril. For in those years of neglect, certain persons had benefited greatly because of the apathy of the king and the greed of some small number of ministers. And although the people cried out because of the affliction of cruel masters who cared not for them but for silver, for too long those who would pay heed were unable to reach the heart of the king, so the people suffered.
But Shahab had returned strength to the king, and so these persons could no longer act in the ways to which they had become accustomed. And while Parshas and Mecede flourished therefore, those who had lost silver and power with the return of the king were discontent. And they came together, and voiced one to the other their grievances, and their anger and jealousy surged and grew as they drank bowl after bowl of sweet wine, and slowly, they formed for themselves a plan.
“You invited Mettechai?” shrieked Shahab, incredulous.
“Yes?” said Artaksis, not quite sure why Shahab seemed upset. He though the smaller man would like seeing his cousin, given how often he talked about her.
“She’s going to kill me.”
This was said in the same tone as a single man, facing the Parshan Army, might say, “I’m going to die.” But Artaksis most definitely did not flinch at that statement. This thing they had–and he wasn’t quite sure he was ready for it, but ready or not it was there and just as deep as his love fore Vashti had been–was barely month old. He was not this deathly afraid of losing Shahab.
He just had to convince the part of him looking for weapons of this fact.
Shahab apparently picked up on this, because the look on his face softened and he said, “She wouldn’t actually kill me. But she will yell. And probably shake me.”
“Shake you?” he asked. “Why would she shake you?”
Shahab rolled his eyes–incredible eyes, so brown as to be almost black, deep enough to fall into forever–and snorted. “You’re joking. Tell me you’re joking.”
Artaksis shook his head. “Why would she shake you?”
“Well, think about it from her position. The last contact she had with me was to give me my cloak–” the rough horrible woolen brown thing that Shahab wore everywhere “–and then, nothing. And then someone notices that you haven’t come out of your suite for a week and decides the entire thing must have worked, but they don’t know for certain because someone, and I point no fingers and certainly don’t point them at you, is paranoid. What would you think?”
“Oh,” said Artaksis. He had to admit Shahab had a point. “But if she’s afraid I’m going to kill her, why doesn’t she just run?”
“You have obviously never met Mettechai. When is she supposed to come?”
“Mettechai, wife of Obed, an Atasan,” announced a herald.
“Right now?” offered Artaksis.
Shahab gave him a look, and said, “Thanks,” drily, in the moment before there was no more time for speech.
“Cousin!” said a voice that was more or less exactly the same as Shahab’s would’ve had been if Shahab had been twelve years older and female. The herald gave her the same nasty look on his way out, too.
Mettechai turned her attention from the fleeing herald, and smiled thinly. There could be absolutely no doubt that this was Shahab’s cousin, not with those eyes and that hair. “Obed was my cousin, and he’s been dead for eight years. Shahab?” And that incredibly insolent way of speaking that nevertheless made him want to bow to them instead of the other way around, even though she inclined her head gracefully and didn’t kick his furniture around when she approached.
The fact that she completely ignored him wasn’t much better, but then, she seemed fixated on Shahab, who was sitting more or less in his lap; he could feel the younger man’s tremors. At least until she pulled him into a full body hug. “I’ve been so worried.”
“Mettechai,” said Shahab, pushing back the hood on his cloak. “I’m fine. Really.”
“Which is why you’re cooped up in here with the king.”
“‘Chaia, it’s not like tha–”
“Did he hurt you?”
“Because if he did I swear I will rip out his entrails and hang him up by them.” This was said to Shahab, but she was looking straight at him as she said it. “No offense meant, your Majesty.”
“None taken,” he murmured, shocked. Well. At least he knew where Shahab got it from.
“Mettechai!” broke in Shahab, laughing. “I solemnly swear, by the eight Great Gods, that I have not been hurt. Let me explain. Please?”
She sat back, saying nothing, so Shahab continued, “You know how they’ve been partying nonstop since someone decided that the entire provinces thing worked?”
“Well, it did. Andit’sme,” he continued in a hurry.
Mettechai turned her head mechanically to look at him, then turned back to look at Shahab, then him again. “You’re serious,” she said eventually.
“I would walk the blight for him,” Shahab replied. Artaksis knew of the blight, of course. Everyone knew of the blight, the huge and hostile land that allowed no human encroachment. Technically he, as king of Mecede, owned the land, but in reality no one could be said to own that land but the gods. There were always rumors of golden cities hidden in there, but no one walked the blight and lived.
“Oh. Well,” said Mettechai. “That still doesn’t exempt you from not telling me.”
He really had to admire her powers of equilibrium recovery. But it was time to take his part of the responsibility, as well. “Honorable lady, believe me when I say my Shahab wanted to tell you. I did not allow him. To tell you, or anyone. You are, in fact, the first person other than myself to see him for a month.”
Mettechai remained silent for a few moments, just long enough for the silence to become uncomfortable, before answering. “Well, I’m glad you at least recognize your duty. Shahab, you’re still in trouble.”
“Why me?!” sputtered Shahab.
“So how many languages do you speak?” he cut in, hoping to head off the impending storm of arguments, however well-worn. “Shahab told me all of them, but we can’t always believe him–”
“–and you seem like a level-headed woman in any case.”
She actually laughed at that, attention not so much diverted as politely allowed to be led. “Only seventy.”
“Only seventy?” He ignored the ‘told you so’ look Shahab was giving him.
“I’m trying to learn Shou, but this far west we rarely get Shou traders and I’m too busy most of the time anyway.”
“Shahab told me you record taxes.”
“Well, he’s not wrong, but . . . I don’t so much record taxes as record absence of taxes. Places where money should be and isn’t. That way, we know when someone is trying to cheat your most gracious self.”
“Please,” he snorted. “I don’t need another courtier.”
“Fine. So we know when someone is trying to cheat the king, that bastard.”
Artaksis nearly choked. Hadn’t met Mettechai, indeed. Once he successfully managed to regain his breath, he said to her, “You are a dangerous woman, Mettechai the Atasan.”
“Thank you. I believe, however, that I was invited to a meal?”
“Of course. If you will join us?” He patted Shahab to get him up, and then stood himself. Shahab, for his part, made a two-fingered beckoning motion to his cousin that seemed to have far more to do with the way that Mettechai relaxed and followed them.
Dinner was . . . interesting. Shahab obviously adored Mettechai, and it was easy to see why. She had the kind of brilliant personality and sword-edged wit that had him quickly arguing the merits of forming a trade treaty with the Ilyan states to the west versus merely conquering them. He argued for simply conquering, but Mettechai countered with the argument that they’d already rebuffed his father’s army twenty years earlier. It would be much easier to conquer them if they trusted the Parshas more than they trusted each other.
It was about the point that she was explaining to him how to go about breaking up the Ilyan confederacy, and Shahab was helpfully interrupting with points about how to turn their own gods against them, that he realized he really hadn’t met Mettechai.
After dinner, Shahab suggested that he play a game of chess with Mettechai. Actually, he realized sixteen moves in, Shahab had suggested that he lose a game of chess to Mettechai. After being thoroughly trounced, he suggested that they play a game of sene-kat, just to see how she’d respond. She beat him at that too.
They talked late into the night, the three of them, until Shahab was practically asleep, using his thigh for a pillow and only speaking rarely, to break in with salient political commentary. He roused himself so say goodbye to his cousin, kissing her on both cheeks before she left. Then he turned to Artaksis.
“So that was your cousin.”
“Yes. Don’t kill her.” Shahab seemed genuinely worried about this. Artaksis considered the fact that he could not show favoritism to Mettechai just because she was Shahab’s cousin. On the other hand, now that Shahab had reached majority, they were no longer related as a matter of public, if difficult to find, record. Someone would still find the information eventually, though.
“I wasn’t going to kill her,” said Artaksis.
“I was going to promote her.”
“Do that and she will hate you for eternity,” replied Shahab tonelessly. “You will not be able to eat at the same table as her ever again. She will watch you for the rest of your life. Her spirit will follow your spirit around until the gods remove the blight. She will never forgive you.”
“Oh. That’s all right then.” Shahab looked altogether too happy about this. Then again, the two most important people in his life seemed to be getting along, which must have been a relief.
He also looked delicious, half-asleep and golden. Artaksis leaned over and kissed him softly, and was awarded with a gaze not so much hot as smoldering. Shahab was far too tired right now to be his usual energetic self, but he was just as effortlessly sensual. “I think I’m going to carry you to bed now.”
“Mm. All right.”
On the bed, Shahab spread out, relaxed and perfectly trusting as he divested him of his clothing. Shahab, for reasons of his own, chose to wear simple shepherding garments, albeit fashioned from the same expensive cloth as his own stately robes. He liked it; in private, it showed more skin and was of course very easy to remove. And then it was just skin, warm and golden and covered with the fine white scars that made him wonder why, exactly, anyone had chosen Shahab as the most beautiful youth in Hasufi.
He leaned forward to lick one of them, and Shahab’s whole body shuddered, fingers convulsing into fists.
“You are wearing. Too much.”
He smiled. “All right,” and then he backed up enough to loosen the wide belt, and then quickly removed his own formal dress. Or not so quickly, because Shahab was watching with dark, dark eyes, and his tongue came out to wet his lips. And he was stroking himself slowly. Artaksis felt his face rearrange itself into a hungry smile, and crawled back up the bed until he could lick his way into Shahab’s mouth.
“Sweet,” he said, licking his lips, when they finally parted.
“Dragon,” demanded Shahab, arching and rubbing against him.
“Lion mine,” he replied, thrusting, leaking. Leaning down to lick one nipple, scrape it with his teeth, and felt Shahab buck.
“I want to taste you.”
“Please,” agreed Shahab.
Vashti had always been vaguely apologetic, as if he felt the king should not have to lower himself, but. He licked, gently, to feel Shahab shudder. But Shahab understood that it was a kind of greedy to take this, to have this, to open his mouth and sink down and hear Shahab whine. Feel it as sweat-damp hands landed on his shoulders and squeezed, in time to his motion. This wasn’t any kind of debasement, and never could be.
He kept it up, just little licks and light suction, until he heard Shahab gasp and moan a plea. Then he dove down, swallowing, feeling it in the way Shahab was writhing because he couldn’t buck and in the way his shoulders were going to be bruised the next day and in the way he went light-headed almost immediately. Hear it in the abortive screams and panting whimpers of a lover who could not get enough air, it was that good. He swallowed again, and again, because he was drooling too much, although Shahab didn’t seem to mind.
“Ohhn, yes, love-”
Really didn’t seem to mind.
“Dragon, can’t, need to-”
Suck hard, because it was absolutely fine, perfect and right that Shahab should convulse and scream and come. He swallowed, and then pulled off, licking his lips a little.
Shahab was flushed, scars standing out stark in comparison. Messy and mussed and debauched. Beautiful.
“I,” began Shahab, gasping for breath. He tried again. “Did you want me to-?”
“No, just watch. Let me.”
Shahab nodded, and propped himself up, and watched as he reached down to stroke himself, brutally fast and ruthlessly hard.
It didn’t take long.
After he came, he curled up behind his little lion and began to rub.
“Mm,” hummed Shahab, happily. He never seemed to mind Artaksis’ almost feral possessive streak, the way he’d cover the younger man in his seed and his scent, or the way he’d wallow in the same. Shahab was mostly asleep when he finished and shifted over to petting him, reassuring himself yet again that Shahab was here and his and real.
He fell asleep with an arm wrapped tightly around Shahab, holding them together through the night.
Mettechai went unremarked when she was promoted to assistant gatekeeper for two reasons. One, Artaksis was promoting a lot of people, almost as many as he was firing. Two, the gatekeeper was eighty years old and had been happily married for the last sixty of them, while Mettechai was just this scribe.
The only one who even bothered to comment, in fact, was Shahab. “You made her your gatekeeper?”
Artaksis resisted the urge to flinch. “In an officially unofficial capacity.”
“So she’s ‘aiding’ that wrinkled date you had doing it. By doing his job.” The gatekeeper slept most of the time, the actual work done by his numerous underlings. Who now included Shahab’s cousin, because Mettechai was the first person he’d ever met who could match the man for sheer encyclopedic knowledge, when he was awake. By all reports, the old man was even more terrifying now that he had a chess partner worth his time.
“More or less,” he agreed. “It will be good for her. She can learn how to work with more than dusty scrolls.” Mettechai had talent, but it needed training. The job of gatekeeper, overseer of anyone and anything that came into his palace, was an important post that people tended no longer to notice. The man might be old, but he’d been doing this job when Artaksis’ grandfather was young.
“And this way, no one will be surprised when I promote her after he dies.” People tended to underestimate women, he’d found. Especially strong minded women. It would probably be a shock for the idiots hoping to use her to find that she couldn’t be used; that she could, in fact, run circles around most of his courtiers. They’d have to learn to deal with it.
“You,” said Shahab, from the bed, “are a horrible man, doing that to unsuspecting corrupt bureaucrats.”
“Oh.” Shahab paused, and then gave him what he thought of as his ‘need sex now’ look.
He was completely willing to give that, walking over to the bed and kissing him. He meant to make it chaste, but Shahab didn’t let him, licking his lips until he opened his mouth, and then pressing up against him. He tried to talk, more than once, but every time he tried to stop Shahab pulled him in tighter and kissed him more.
“Clothes,” he finally managed to gasp out.
“Mm,” agreed Shahab. “Gods I need this. Get naked. Let me get you naked.”
“Yes,” he said, and then Shahab was pulling him down and kissing him again, while untying his sash. He reached down and palmed Shahab, feeling the hardness, and rubbing his thumb about the tip.
Shahab moaned, “dragon,” and then starting tugging at his clothing to get it open and off. He rolled onto his back when Shahab pushed and shoved, but smirked at the whimper he got when he pulled the young man down for more skin. And reached around to squeeze his ass.
Shahab immediately ground down against him, friction, and mouthed at his neck. He tilted for better access, and then said, “Oil?”
“I-yes. Already. Oh.” He was running a finger down the cleft, and Shahab was panting at his throat and when he pressed a finger inside, it was, indeed, slick.
Because Shahab wanted this.
He clenched around the finger, again and again, as if trying to pull him in. He rubbed the pad of his finger against the inner walls, and listened to Shahab’s whines increase in pitch. And then Shahab sat up and gasped as the finger was forced deep.
Artaksis blinked. The angle was entirely new and wonderful. Shahab was a flushed, panting shape above him, and he was working himself on the digit. “More!” he demanded, and, entranced by the sight, he gave another two fingers, stabbing in.
Shahab shuddered, his mouth falling open into a little whimper. Then he moved again, shifting, pressing down and down against the fingers, demanding to be filled and fingers weren’t just enough. “Lion,” he said, and pulled his fingers out until it was just the tips, pulling him into position and guiding him.
Shahab closed his eyes let out a long, low moan as he sank down. As the tight heat enveloped him, as he forced Shahab’s body to open and accept him. It was perfect, for a moment, Shahab impaled on his cock, head thrown back, and then he began to kneel up, force himself off again, until it was just the head inside.
And sink back again.
Do it again.
And after that, it was just natural to start thrusting up when Shahab was coming down, making it faster. Sicker. Hotter. Shahab gasped and shuddered, and kept on, muscles visibly staining to keep doing this, only this. He put his hands on Shahab’s hips to help lift him, pull him down, and Shahab said, “Please-touch me-”
He reached with his oiled fingers, keeping Shahab steady with his other hand and he gently rubbed at the head before enveloping him, stroking and squeezing in the same rhythm as Shahab was using.
The “yessss” was more a hiss than a word, and watching this, watching Shahab force himself, again and again, swiveling his hips and leaking and shouting with the pleasure, was obscene and wonderful.
He had enough time to register that he was going to come before he did, and Shahab shouted and stilled. And then rolled them carefully, so that he was underneath. He leaned forward to kiss while he resumed the motion of his hand, knuckles digging in against both of their stomachs.
For a few more strokes, at least. Until Shahab painted both of them with his seed, arching his back perfectly before collapsing back.
Artaksis carefully pulled out, but let himself remain sprawled over the younger man like a living blanket.
“Dragon,” said Shahab, once his breathing had slowed down enough.
Another beat of silence before Shahab squeezed him again and said, “Never mind.”
He squeezed back, a little, trusting that Shahab would be able to say the words at around the same time he could.
Mettechai didn’t come to visit every night, but nearly that often. She made Shahab laugh, and on occasion she and Shahab would play chess, which he would invariably loose. Mostly he liked to listen to her talk about the city, her job, whatever new and unusual and unbelievable yet true thing she learned that day.
And she had this wonderful ability to completely ignore the fact that he was, actually, the king. When he did something stupid, she told him about it, and also exactly why it was stupid. No one had done that since his father died, not even Vashti. Or Shahab. Or they did, but in a different way. Some of the time he agreed with her. Some of the time he didn’t, and they’d have a huge discussion. It never got loud enough, vehement enough, to stray into the realm of arguing.
Well, just the once. But Artaksis regarded it as completely unfair that both of them had teamed up on him with regards to Shahab’s military training. He hadn’t wanted it; Vashti had died on campaign, no matter how true Mettechai’s claims that Shahab was in a dangerous position if he couldn’t fight.
“He can fight,” said Artaksis, who knew Shahab’s scars.
“You don’t get scars like that from shepherding,” he joked, before realizing that neither of them thought that in the least bit amusing.
“No,” said Shahab, exchanging a glance with his cousin. “You get them from lions.”
He hadn’t known that. Shahab had once had a father and a brother, both of whom were dead because of a mauling by those beasts, but he’d never even considered how close Shahab might’ve been to the same death. He didn’t want to now, either. The widely spaced, almost perfectly parallel scars, faded nearly to whiteness by time, suddenly made so much more sense.
“I’m sorry,” he said, because what else could you say after opening a wound like that?
“I need to know how to fight,” said Shahab, “to protect myself.”
He’d relented then, which was why Shahab now had twice the muscle and didn’t quite fit in his arms anymore. It would soon be a strain to lift him.
But Mettechai was with them when, after dinner, he announced, “I will not be available tomorrow.”
“Why?” asked Shahab.
“I let a lot of things lapse while I was . . . and some people need to be reminded that I am the king.”
“Good,” said Mettechai firmly. “It might take some time.”
“All day, yes. Some of my more loyal advisors brought up the idea. Since other of my ministers seem reluctant to pay me any heed, I thought it a good idea.”
Shahab was smiling much like a cat about to net not only the bird, but the fish and some cream as well.
“Has anyone ever told you you’re far too vengeful for your own good?” he asked.
Shahab kept smirking. Loudly.
The next morning, Artaksis got up before the sun and was fully bathed and dressed before Shahab was even awake. Shahab did, however, kiss him good morning before going for his breakfast and wished him good luck. So he was in a good mood when he entered the medium meeting chamber, which comfortably accommodated his higher advisors and ministers, and the door shut behind him.
“Shahab, where’s Artaksis?”
“He left already. Why?”
“Blight. Come on, we’ve got to get to him before he gets in there!”
“What is it? ‘Chaia?”
Mettechai was not listening, and Shahab ran after her, and caught her by the arm. She shook it off. “Shahab, someone’s trying to kill him. Today. Right now, if they get him in that room.”
Shahab paled. “But the Immortals-”
“At least some of them are in on it. I heard two of them talking about it, that’s how I know. Apparently, they didn’t expect anyone to be able to understand Ukurran.” Then she stopped, and Shahab nearly walked into her. He peered around, and saw the two Immortals guarding the door. Of course they would be, but-
“That’s them,” said Mettechai. “We’re going to have to find another way around.”
“There’s the servant doors, but they have to have blocked the kitchens, too.” Shahab bit his lip, and then said, “The garret windows will be open.”
“Are you sure you’ll be able to fit through them?” Mettechai sounded uncertain. Those windows were high and narrow and never closed because they didn’t need to be to keep people out.
“I have to, don’t I?” said Shahab. “We need a rope.”
“Let’s go,” said Mettechai.
No one really paid much attention to them as they moved through the palace. It was too early for anyone not a servant to be moving, and two people who looked like they had somewhere to go were accepted. They made it onto the roof with no problems, although they did get an odd look for going up at that hour. Mettechai tied the rope to one of the roof palms, wrapping it around several times to be sure. Shahab tied the rope to himself, and then carefully lowered himself down the side of the building, rappelling until he was level with the windows.
“All right,” he said. “Hold.”
There was a grunt of acknowledgement as Mettechai dug her heels in. Shahab walked sideways, to the nearest window, which was indeed open.
Inside, he could see chaos. Dozens of people not moving in that way that said, beyond a doubt, that they were dead. A neat dozen Immortals were defending Artaksis from nearly twice their number. In other Immortals.
Shahab could see this all quite clearly through the open window.
It was, however, too narrow for him.
“Blight,” he muttered, and then, “‘Chaia?”
“Yes. I can’t-he can’t die. It will be-”
“-chaos, I know. Can you get an arm through?”
“Yes, but.” And then he stopped, because he knew what Mettechai was thinking as clearly as if she’d said it herself. “I’m not a knife thrower. I’m a slinger who can hit the target with an arrow half the time. And even if I could, at this distance-”
“Shahab, are you a Lion of Atas or aren’t you?”
Shahab stopped. It was just a tribe name, a pet name, and anyway there hadn’t been a true Lion born in Atas since the blighting, four hundred years previous. But also . . . in Hasufi, before the search, they’d taken to calling him the Lion of Atas. He’d killed fourteen and walked as far into the blight as anyone could go, and if that didn’t make him a real Lion, nothing would.
“I have one shot,” said Shahab. “Who do I aim for?”
“The Immortals said it was the Agag’s plan, but whoever he is, if he has any sense, he’s not down there. Who’s in charge?”
Shahab hung there, watching, as another Immortal fell. And one of the attackers turned his head just enough that Shahab could see where their leader was, if not who. Another Immortal down. Artaksis picking up one of their blades and turning to face the traitors.
He didn’t let himself think. He just pulled his dagger, the one that had, six and a half years ago, served as his claw, and let it fly.
There was no way he could hear it hit home, the sickening gurgle that said he’d hit the jugular, at this distance. But it didn’t matter, because he could, could see the moment when the attacking Immortals wavered and four of them died, and the moment after that when Artaksis grinned and pushed his way forward and-
And the Dragon of Sosu flew.
Artaksis woke up to find a blurry shape hanging above him, and was reaching for his dagger before his mind caught on to the fact that it was Shahab.
“Don’t try to talk,” said Shahab, before he could say anything. “Mettechai says you almost lost too much blood.” His voice cracked on that, and it was a long moment before he spoke again.
“Your Immortals-the ones loyal to you, not the traitors-are working on finding out how far it goes. ‘Chaia says she’ll be surprised if it’s less than one in twenty. We’re just lucky that she had the presence of mind to get the regular gate guard to get the door open, and not the Immortals. And that she has them so cowed. And that she can actually understand seventy languages, and that her taking over the gate spooked them into acting early.
“The garret windows need some kind of metal screen on them. I was able to get that dagger in without any problems, and what I could do can be done again.” Shahab was actually frightening with a sling, and fair with a bow. He was just learning how to hold a sword. He couldn’t have, but Artaksis knew, somewhere deeper than words, that he had.
“Don’t talk. I know, all right?”
“Stay.” It sounded absurdly weak and pathetic, even to his own ears.
The bed dipped as Shahab crawled on and curled up behind him. Six months ago, Shahab had been softer and smaller, but it felt now like he’d only been a Shahab-shaped sketch before and this was the real person. Holding him, mindful of all the places where, if he moved too much, he’d be bleeding, and kissing him soft and hard and alive.
Thus it was recorded in the Book of Days that, on a certain day of that year, it was the knowledge and loyalty of the Mettechai the Atasan, who was the underscribe to the Keeper of the Gate in the palace of Sosu the capitol, which saved the life of Artaksis the king. And therefore was it that a messenger was sent out, one to each province, each message in the language of that land, one hundred and thirty-seven in total, so that everyone might hear and understand. The tale was told, and by that the people knew that the fate of the traitors was to be hanged, and their wealth taken, and the names of their fathers and grandfathers stamped from the earth. After which there was peace.