It’s a night of celebration for Valfrey. The taverns are warm and bright, and music and merriment fill the city’s streets. Hermann passes multiple revelers on his way back to the castle. He had just made it to the apothecary before they had closed for the evening, but now he needs to rush back home before his father thinks too much of his absence. He clutches a vial of powder in the pocket of his robe and walks as quickly as he can.
By the time Hermann arrives, the great hall is full to bursting. He pushes through the crowds and approaches the dais, taking his seat at the end of the table and ignoring a not-so-subtle frown from his father. His sister, Karla, smiles at him and passes over a basket of warm rolls that were just out of Hermann’s reach.
“Thank you,” he mutters.
“You missed Bastien’s return,” Karla says. “He was bragging about his slaying before he even stepped foot inside the castle.”
Hermann rolls his eyes, and Karla laughs teasingly, knowing her brother’s dislike for their kingdom’s coming-of-age tradition.
The youngest Gottlieb prince, Bastien, is seated in the place of honor at his father’s right hand. There is a purpling bruise on one of his cheeks, and he’s missing his left eyebrow, but he’s smiling so wide that it’s as if he doesn’t notice. He gesticulates wildly as he explains a scar on his forearm. It’s a relatively small wound, considering the circumstances. Hermann silently thanks the gods that his little brother still has his life.
“That shield spell you taught him really helped,” says Karla, scooping a spoonful of buttered greens onto her plate. “The dragon broke his pike, and breathed fire when Bastien reached for his sword. He used the shield spell before he was burnt to a crisp.”
Hermann hums. “Pity about the eyebrow.”
“It’ll grow back,” Karla laughs. “The scullery maids think he looks dashing.”
Hermann shakes his head.
The hall is filled with voices and laughter as the kingdom celebrates Bastien’s victory. There’s a much-needed sense of joy in the air—a welcome feeling after the disaster of Hermann’s own ceremony just a year before. A few people glance up at him, whispering behind their hands, but by now, Hermann is used to ignoring them. He enjoys his meal and listens to Karla, who continues to talk animatedly at his side.
The feast is enormous—larger than usual. The air is thick with the scent of fish: fried or baked, drizzled with vinegar and olive oil. There are heaping bowls of boiled potatoes, fresh garden greens, and crisp slices of onion. There’s shrimp dressed with squeezed lemon and garlic, and even seabirds roasted whole and sprinkled with herbs. Hermann has a small appetite, but he can’t help indulging; there won’t be another feast like this until summer solstice, and that’s still months away.
“Looks like father’s about to start the speech,” Karla says, leaning in to whisper by Hermann’s shoulder. Hermann looks up.
Lars Gottlieb, king of Valfrey, is rising from the table with a goblet of wine in one hand. The townspeople immediately begin to fall silent, and the king speaks in a voice that booms through the entire hall.
“We’re gathered here tonight to celebrate the highest of honors: the coming-of-age of my youngest son, Bastien.” The hall bursts into applause, and Lars tugs his son up by one arm, pulling him to stand beside his father. “Bastien was sent to slay the Reed Wyrm of the southern swamps. He arrived home victorious, with the beast’s head on a spear!”
There is more applause; hooting and hollering echoes among the rafters. Hermann claps politely.
“My son is now a man. Not only did he slay the dragon, but he arrived home with nary a scratch on him. Many would falter—come home crying or crippled, but Bastien is strong, he has brought honor to the Gottlieb name!”
The crowd continues to clap, but it has become muted and awkward. Hermann sinks down a bit in his chair, his face burning with shame. He can feel people looking at him to see his reaction to his father’s words.
“Forget him,” Karla whispers. “He’s just—you know how he can be. He doesn’t think before he speaks, sometimes.”
Hermann doesn’t say anything. He looks down at the table, then at his lap, then at the cane by his side. He listens to his father extol the virtues of brawn and courage.
When the speech is over, there is more cheering, and private conversations begin anew. Dinner is replaced with dessert, and Hermann wills his anger away while sipping at a mug of hot tea.
“It’s just a speech,” Karla says, patting Hermann’s arm. “It’s all exaggeration and bombast.”
Hermann huffs. “The Reed Wyrm,” he says, irritated. “That thing is barely a snake compared to what I had to—” He stops himself and stabs a strawberry with his fork. “The Wyrm killed how many? A dozen cows and a flock of sheep?”
“It took the miller’s boy—Tomlin.”
Hermann purses his lips.
“Hermann, I know how you feel about what happened, but please try to be happy for Bastien’s sake.”
Hermann looks up at his brother, who has left the dais to sit with a group of friends, regaling them with his story for what is surely the third or fourth time.
“I’ll congratulate him,” Hermann says. “But I won’t speak of it to father.”
It must be enough, because Karla doesn’t answer. Hermann prods at a seedcake on his plate and gazes around the hall, feeling mildly spiteful towards the joyous revelers. His eye is caught by a woman at the corner of one of the noble’s tables. She is wrapped in heavy furs and wool cloaks. There is a crown made of dragon’s teeth in her wild red hair, and she is peeling a piece of fruit with a bone-handled knife.
“Is that Queen Monica?” Hermann asks. “I didn’t know she would be here.”
“Of course she’s here. It would hardly be diplomatic if she missed something so important to father.”
Monica Schwartz, queen of Aelcliff, has been visiting for ten days, trying to come to a mutually beneficial arrangement that will end decades of discord with Valfrey. Aelcliff is miles away, tucked high among the mountains. It is a large city—much larger than Valfrey—where knights ride atop dragons rather than fight them. Hermann has heard stories of the mountain breed—they are strong but gentle, wiser than any other and domesticated over dozens of centuries. They aren’t like the dragons that Hermann knows—vicious and cruel, with a thirst for blood.
“I heard a rumor,” Karla says. “One of the kitchen maids said that the peace talks are coming to an end. There’s discussion of joining the kingdoms with a marriage.”
Hermann raises a skeptical eyebrow. “A marriage? Who at Aelcliff would be married?”
“The queen’s son, Newton.”
Hermann frowns. Newton is near his own age, set to take over the throne once he finds a spouse. Hermann doesn’t know anything about him, besides that he’s of royal blood.
“Which of us would be chosen?” he asks.
Karla glances down the table, where their brother Dietrich is helping himself to a heaping portion of pie.
“Dietrich is eldest, so he holds the most power,” she says. “His swordsmanship is enviable, and he’s clever enough.”
“Bastien is...unlikely. A bit too young and naive, I think.”
“You would make a good match,” Hermann says.
Karla laughs. “Why me?”
“You’ve slain more dragons than any of us—”
“Not on my own—”
“You’re good in a battle, and your skill with languages would be useful in a political position.”
“And what about yourself?”
“I—” Hermann shakes his head. “No. That’s completely out of the question.”
“They don’t want me. I can’t fight, what use would I be to them?”
“Your knowledge of magic—”
“My knowledge of magic is irrelevant,” Hermann snaps. “Father’s said as much himself.”
Karla falls silent. Hermann glances over at the queen, who is sipping ale from a silver goblet.
“We’re a kingdom of warriors,” he says. “It only makes sense for her to choose the strongest one.”
The queen glances up, and Hermann looks away before they make eye contact. He signals for a refill of wine, and drinks it quickly in hopes that it will dull his memory.
The announcement is made just after noon the next day. The belltower signals the end of the peace talks, and the throne room fills with hundreds of people. Voices echo beneath the domed ceiling while Hermann and his siblings wait for their father to arrive.
When King Lars walks into the room, the crowd immediately falls silent. All eyes are drawn to Queen Monica, who follows soon after. She is still wearing fur and wool as if she were traveling in the middle of a snowstorm. She stands with her chin up and her back straight. Despite her rough appearance, she looks more like royalty than anyone Hermann has known.
“The negotiations with Aelcliff have come to a resolution,” says the king. He looks around the room, making sure he has full command of everyone’s attention. “We are putting an end to years of war, and as a symbol of harmony between our kingdoms, Queen Monica and I have decided that our royal families will be united in marriage.”
There is quiet murmuring in the crowded hall. Hermann looks at Karla, who gives him an “I told you so” expression. He rolls his eyes.
“Though there are differences between our cultures, and many miles between our lands, we are confident that this is the best choice for the people. It is a symbol of the trust, good will, and partnership that will bring strength to our kingdoms.”
By now, the townspeople have become restless with curiosity. Hermann notices their stares as many start whispering behind their hands, making guesses as to who will be married off.
“Hermann, if you would come forward.”
The room falls silent, and Hermann’s heart stops. There is a moment where he doubts his own ears, but when he realizes that everyone is looking at him, he knows he couldn’t have been mistaken. He looks desperately at Karla. Her eyes are wide, but she nods her head, urging him forward. Hermann leans on his cane more heavily than usual as he approaches the throne.
“My son Hermann will be wed to the prince of Aelcliff, Newton Geiszler.”
Lars claps a strong hand to Hermann’s back, causing Hermann to stumble forward. He feels light-headed, and silently prays that he doesn’t faint.
“The wedding preparations are to begin immediately! The ceremony will take place one month from today, in Aelcliff, with celebration in both kingdoms—feasting, music, and dance to lift the spirits and unite us all in the start of a new era of peace and prosperity.”
The crowd bursts into applause, but Hermann barely hears a thing. His inner monologue is running non-stop—why me? How could they possibly have chosen me? He looks back at his siblings, all of whom look surprised. Queen Monica takes a few steps closer. She puts a hand on Hermann’s shoulder and squeezes, tightly. Hermann closes his eyes and prays for it all to be over.
That evening, the sky is dove-feather grey. Strong winds throw white-crested waves against the coast as Hermann gazes out from the window of his lab. There’s a storm coming; he can feel ocean spray in the air.
“Thought I’d find you here.”
Hermann looks up to see Karla standing in the doorway. She tucks a strand of mousey brown hair behind her ear and pulls a shawl close around her shoulders.
“You’ll catch a chill,” she says.
Hermann turns to look back at the ocean. A fisherman is rowing in from the distance, net tangled in the bottom of his boat. His oars dip in and out of the water at a rapid pace.
Karla sits down on the window ledge and reaches past Hermann to pull the window closed. The glass is dirty, and the fisherman is soon obscured by a smudge.
“He did it to get rid of me,” says Hermann. “The dragon didn’t kill me, so he’s sending me off the only way he can.”
“That’s not—” Hermann gives Karla a look, and she sighs. “It had to be one of us, Hermann. And it’ll be better for you there.”
Hermann looks back out the window. It’s begun to rain.
“They’re not like us. They don’t get attacked by dragons all the time. Life is safer.” Karla nudges Hermann’s arm with her elbow. “And I hear Newton is rather handsome.”
Hermann rolls his eyes. “How would you know that?”
“Just because you hole yourself up in the lab and don’t speak to anyone doesn’t mean we all do.”
“Oh come on, it’s not all that bad. I’ll come to visit you. And if this does bring peace to the kingdoms, then isn’t it worth it?”
Hermann doesn’t answer. The rain starts pouring down heavily. Karla squeezes his hand and sits with him until it begins to thunder.
The next week is a flurry of etiquette lessons and history classes. Hermann learns more about Aelcliff and their customs than he ever thought he would need to know. He is measured for new robes befitting a prince consort, and is made to try on a wide variety of traditional veils.
It’s mid-afternoon ten days after the marriage announcement when Hermann hears from his fiancé for the first time. His father bursts into the room as a tailor is taking Hermann’s arm length. There is a page fast on his heels, holding a cream-colored envelope in both hands.
“Something’s arrived for you from Aelcliff,” his father says. He nods to the tailor, who notes down a measurement and scurries from the room. “It’s probably the letter of introduction that we’ve been expecting.”
Hermann takes the letter from the page, who quickly follows the tailor out the door. The envelope is sealed with green wax and stamped with Aelcliff’s sigil. When he peeks inside, Hermann finds a sheet of parchment folded three ways and a small piece of canvas folded into two. He looks up at his father.
“Could I have a moment alone, please?”
Lars looks mildly taken aback. “I think not,” he says. “This is my arrangement, and I’m going to see it through.”
Hermann sighs and takes a few steps away, half-turning from his father for a bit of privacy. He takes the canvas out first. When he unfolds it, he finds a small sheet of mica, only a couple of inches across. His breath catches, and he quickly hides it in his palm. Hermann can feel the tingle of magic in his fingertips. He can tell that the mica is enchanted—the mineral’s sheet-like crystal structure makes it ideal for correspondence spells. He slips it into his pocket while retrieving his glasses, and decides to read the spell later.
The canvas turns out to be a portrait of the prince, cut just the right size to fit into a cameo frame. It’s the first time Hermann has ever seen his fiancé, or even known what he looks like. The man isn’t smiling, because smiling isn’t customary. His hair is dark and wild, sticking up at unruly angles around a crown similar to his mother’s. He’s wearing a thick fur around his shoulders and a large pair of glasses on his nose. His eyes are a bright green that Hermann assumes is exaggerated with a vibrant paint.
Hermann’s heart lightens just a bit. Newton is not unattractive. He would even go so far as to say his sister was right—Newton is rather handsome. However, that doesn’t mean that their match will be a pleasant one.
Hermann unfolds the letter and begins to read. It’s incredibly formal—almost definitely not the prince’s own words. Hermann needs to read it over again once he’s finished just to make sense of it. It says nothing but diplomatic pleasantries.
“This is good,” says Lars, once he’s read through on his own. “They’re following our protocol.” He folds the letter and puts it in his pocket. “You’ll have to have your own cameo painted before you send your response. I’ve scheduled a sitting for tomorrow morning.”
Hermann nods, obediently.
“Don’t start the letter without myself and my advisor present. We’ll work on it tonight.” With that, Lars leaves the room. The tailor immediately returns once he’s gone, and Hermann stretches out his arm for another measurement.
He isn’t able to read the mica until later that night. When the castle is quiet, and the rest of his family has gone to sleep, Hermann pulls a warm cloak around his shoulders and slips out of his room for the lab. The guards nod as he passes—it’s not unusual for Hermann to be studying long after the sun goes down. The guards are used to seeing him return to the lab at unusual hours when struck with a new idea.
Hermann lights enough torches to illuminate the room, then takes the mica out of his pocket, clearing a spot on his worktable to set it down atop of a blank sheet of parchment.
“Alright,” he murmurs. “Let’s see what you’re hiding.”
The revelation spell is quick and easy. Hermann takes a moment to regulate his breathing, then meditates to raise energy. Once he’s concentrated enough energy in his palms, he picks up the mica, whispers a few words, and folds the parchment over it. He passes one hand over the folded paper, and begins to see letters forming on the inside. When he feels the glow of magic fade, he unfolds the paper and reads the words now inscribed on the parchment.
This is the first time I’ve done a correspondence spell. I hope I didn’t mess it up. Don’t show this to your dad!
So I guess we’re going to be married. Arranged marriages are pretty common around here, but I don’t think they are in your kingdom, right? Anyway, I figure you probably want to know something about me that doesn’t have to do with my pedigree.
My name’s Newton, but call me Newt. By now you’ve seen the cameo, so you know what I look like. My favorite color is orange and my favorite food is sticky buns. You know—just in case you were thinking of bringing a gift.
You should probably know that I’m a little obsessed with dragons. I ride pretty often, and I also speak their language, which is rare. I know that it’s outlawed where you’re from. Have you ever even heard it before?
Anyway, I’m looking forward to meeting you. I want to talk to you about magic! It’s not hugely popular here, and I’ve already learned pretty much all that the scholars can teach me. If you’re as good as they say you are, maybe you can teach me a bit more.
See you soon,
Hermann reads the letter twice over. He’s struck by its playful tone—it’s not the sort of thing he would imagine a prince writing. After a third read-through, he realizes he’s smiling. He quickly folds the letter up and shoves it into his pocket, then hides the evidence of his spellcasting and uses a locking charm on the door as he leaves.
The trip to Aelcliff is expected to take four days. Hermann rides in a coach with Karla while their brothers ride behind them, their father on his own up front. They travel along the main road, then branch off towards the west, where mountains can be seen in the distance. Hermann amuses himself with a book. When he finishes it, he casts small fingerspells. Karla marvels over the brilliant bursts of light as they dance and swirl through the air.
Hermann can tell they're getting close when the first dragon soars overhead. He is staring out the window when he sees its shadow pass over the grass. He looks up at the sky to find an enormous green dragon without a rider. For a moment he panics, thinking it may attack, but the beast does no such thing. It rides the winds in a lazy swirl, watching the activity below, but not coming close enough to investigate. It loops around their party twice, then takes off into the distance. Hermann watches it go, his heart racing, his whole body tense.
The entrance to Aelcliff’s capital is an enormous stone gateway larger than any man-made work of art Hermann has ever seen. Two long, serpent-like dragons are carved into its sides, their bodies curving over the top so that their heads meet in the middle. They stare down at all who approach, protective of the kingdom they guard. The gate’s doors creak and groan open. Hermann and Karla strain their necks out the windows to take in the sights of the city.
Aelcliff is obviously wealthy, and much, much larger than Valfrey. The city is built of mountain stone—thickly-thatched roofs keeping houses warm. Buildings are staggered uphill, and horse hooves clatter against white cobblestone. People begin to gather on the sides of the streets to watch the procession. Hermann pulls back into the carriage, not wanting to be ogled.
When he catches his first glimpse of the castle, Hermann sucks in a shocked gasp. Half of the building is carved into the mountain’s side, and there's no way to tell how far in it goes. Dragons slink around the entry gate and fly around the towers like monstrous birds. They scowl down at the coach as Hermann passes beneath. Hermann‘s hands fidget in his lap. He feels his shoulders tense, and tries to relax, but it’s impossible. The coach stops in front of the castle, and Hermann takes a deep, steadying breath.
Queen Monica is sitting on a large throne built of stone, dragon’s teeth, and carved crystal. She rises as they approach and walks down to greet them.
“How was your journey?” she asks.
“Long,” says Lars. “But bearable.”
The queen nods. She looks over at Hermann, who is staring around the room in awe.
“My son is not home,” she says. “He and his father are away on a ride. They’ll be back later tonight, in time for tomorrow’s ceremony.
Hermann’s attention snaps back. “To—we’ll be married tomorrow?”
“Yes, immediately.” The queen frowns, confused. “You didn’t know?”
Hermann is about to speak, but his father is staring at him, so he blinks away his surprise and shuts his mouth. He doesn’t give an answer, and the queen doesn’t pursue one. She glances at Lars, then turns back to Hermann.
“You must be tired after your travels,” she says. “I’ll have someone bring you to your room.” She signals for a nearby servant, who motions for Hermann to follow.
The next morning, Hermann is woken earlier than usual, but it hardly matters, because he had barely slept the night before. His stomach is in knots all through breakfast, and as his attendants help him into his wedding robes, he’s so jittery that he’s poked with pins three times. Everything happens in such a rush that Hermann can’t even take in what’s going on around him. When the attendants finally leave, he sits in front of his dressing room mirror, trying to catch his breath and finding it near impossible.
There’s a soft knock at the door.
Hermann looks up in surprise. The voice that calls his name is unfamiliar, and the door was supposed to be guarded by two knights.
Hermann’s heart starts to race. The betrothed are not supposed to see each other at all before the ceremony. This is the first time Hermann has even heard his fiancé’s voice. He takes his cane from the table and clutches it tightly as he walks to the door.
“What are you doing here?” he whispers through the wood. “Where are my guards?”
“They’ll be back. Open the door.”
Against his better judgement, Hermann does as Newt asked. He glances down the hall to make sure no one had seen, then closes the door quickly.
“What’s so important that you had to—” Hermann stops.
The first thing he notices is that the artist who had done Newt’s cameo did not exaggerate the color of his eyes. They’re a deep, vivid green that reminds Hermann of seaweed floating in a tidepool. Newt is wearing his wedding robes, but his hair is a mess, and Hermann honestly can’t tell if it’s supposed to be like that, or if his attendants haven’t gotten around to combing it yet.
“I just wanted to meet you,” Newt says. “I like surprises, but not on my wedding day.” He holds out a hand for Hermann to shake.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Hermann says, politely. Newt’s handshake is firm, though his palm is a little clammy, and his fingers are cold, like Hermann’s own.
“Did you get my letter?” Newt asks.
“Yes. I was able to read the mica alone in my lab.”
“Good!” Newt smiles, and a bit of Hermann’s nervousness regarding their partnership instantly slips away. “When you didn’t send one back, I thought—well I thought maybe you didn’t get it, or—”
“No, I did. It’s just that my father was over my shoulder while I was sending my response. There was no way to sneak anything additional inside.”
“Oh. Okay, that’s...good.”
There’s an awkward silence during which they both look at each other as much as possible while simultaneously avoiding eye contact.
“So marriage, huh?” Newt asks.
“Is there a reason you came to visit me, or—”
“Uh, no—I just—like I said, I just wanted to meet you. I mean, we’re expected to spend the rest of our lives together, and I don’t know anything about you other than your face and your handwriting.”
“So like—tell me something about yourself.”
Newt is rocking back and forth on his heels. Hermann frowns. He’s about to ask what Newt wants to know when the sound of running is heard distantly down the hall.
“And those would be your guards,” says Newt. He slips out the door.
“Wait!” Hermann peers out after him, grabbing Newt’s sleeve to hold him back. “My favorite color is blue. Dark blue.”
Newt smiles. He gives Hermann a wink and disappears down the hall just as the guards turn the corner.
The wedding decor is opulent, but the ceremony is fast and efficient. Hermann stands on the dais across from Newt and in front of the officiator. He zones out through the speech about joining the kingdoms and bringing peace and happiness and families together, but when the time comes to recite the wedding vows, he jerks back to attention.
“Repeat after me,” says the officiator.
Hermann and Newt join hands over a crystal pedestal carved with the sigils of their respective kingdoms. They recite their vows while facing each other, but neither of them makes eye contact. Hermann isn’t sure where to look, so he stares down at their hands, noticing for the first time a stripe of blue on Newt’s skin, just peeking out from underneath his shirt sleeve. He glances up at the end of the vows, and Newt gives him a sheepish grin.
“In the eyes of the ancient ones, these two are hereby joined in marriage.”
There’s an awkward pause. Hermann knows what comes next, and everyone seems to be waiting. Newt shuffles closer and throws back the veil covering Hermann’s face. They both lean over the pedestal for a quick kiss. Newt closes his eyes, but Hermann keeps his own open. When Newt pulls back, his cheeks have flushed pink, and Hermann stares, the audience’s applause reduced to background noise.
Hermann and Newt are still holding hands, and Newt gives a squeeze that Hermann is sure must be a nervous reflex. They both turn to face the crowd, and start walking down the aisle.
As soon as they’re out of the ceremony, they’re whisked away by guards and quickly joined by their parents. No one speaks to them. Newt’s father, whom Hermann hasn’t yet met, is chattering to Lars Gottlieb in an overly friendly way that Hermann can tell his father dislikes.
“Where are we going?” Hermann whispers.
“They have to present you to the kingdom,” says Newt. “It’s tradition. Don’t worry, you just have to stand on the balcony and wave.”
Everyone is walking at a swift pace that Hermann can’t quite keep up with. His wedding robes are too long and in the way of his feet and his cane. He curses himself when he realizes that he’s lagging behind, and stops to adjust the robes before he trips. When he looks up, Newt is in front of him, waiting. Hermann frowns.
“Didn’t they tell you you were marrying a cripp—”
“So I hear you’re good with magic.”
The change of subject is so unexpected that Hermann is initially struck speechless.
“Wha—I—yes,” he stutters. “I—I have some skill.”
“Would you be able to help me with a protection spell for my main flyer?”
“A protection spell?”
“Yeah, just a simple one, because right now I carry a few amulets around whenever I ride, but it’s really kind of hassle, because it’s like I have to remember to bring them, which I never do, and then I’m always afraid they’ll fall out of my pocket or something if I flip—”
“Yeah, so it would be really handy if I could like—if there were some sort of spell that I could cast on myself or the dragon, instead of carrying around these amulets? I asked our war mage about it, but the mages around here are pretty much useless, so I was hoping maybe—”
Hermann and Newt both look up to find Newt’s mother giving him a stern frown. Everyone is standing in front of a large velvet curtain with sunlight peeking around the edges. A crowd of people can be heard on the other side, chattering away below the balcony as they wait for the royal couple to make their first public appearance.
“Sorry,” Newt whispers. “Sometimes I get carried away.” He smiles and takes Hermann’s hand. “Remember, all you have to do is wave.”
A guard on the balcony pulls the curtain back from the other side, and the crowd’s cheers grow louder. The King and Queen of Aelcliff walk out first, followed by Hermann’s father. Queen Monica turns to look over her shoulder, then motions Newt and Hermann forward.
Hermann has stood in front of crowds before—raised as a prince, he is accustomed to it—but this time, the sheer number of people he sees before him is almost enough to turn his legs to jelly. He has never seen so many people in his life.
“This is your kingdom?” he stage-whispers.
Newt is happily waving to the public, a huge grin on his face.
“Yeah,” he says. “I mean, not the whole kingdom, obviously, but a big portion. Why?”
“It’s much bigger than my own.”
Newt chuckles to himself. Someone throws a rose at his feet, and he drops Hermann’s hand to pick it up and smell the rose’s fragrance dramatically.
“What are you doing?”
“Playing the crowd, what does it look like I’m doing?”
Hermann frowns. “I don’t understand the point of this showmanship.”
“Hey, what do you think they’re here to see? I’m just giving them what they want.”
Newt doesn’t take Hermann’s hand again, choosing instead to continue waving. Hermann gets the feeling he’s angry.
That evening, there is a celebratory feast unlike anything Hermann has ever seen before. Aelcliff’s great hall is at least three times the size of Valfrey’s. It smells like roast meat and alcohol, and it’s rowdier than a pub past midnight. Hermann and Newt are seated at the center of the main table, their families on either side. The table is stacked high with food—hot savory pies, thick vegetable stews, even a whole pig roast on a spit. Servants scurry about the room, refilling goblets with sparkling ciders and dark, amber ale. The sauces are rich and the butter is herbed and the wine glasses never seem to empty. The food is delicious, but Hermann is so nervous he can barely enjoy it.
“You alright?” Newt asks. He pulls apart a biscuit and soaks up a pool of gravy before it drips off his plate. Hermann gives a nod, and pushes his own dish a little further away.
“You should have some ginger beer to settle your stomach,” Newt says.
“That’s what helps me when I get nervous.” Newt abruptly turns to grab the attention of a passing servant. “Could we get some ginger beer for the prince consort?” he asks. The man bows his head and hurries away.
“Thank you,” Hermann says.
Newt smiles, and the servant returns almost immediately with a huge cup, filled to the brim. The crisp, refreshing taste of the ginger beer bites playfully at Hermann’s tongue. His stomach starts to settle after only a few sips.
“So that went better than I was expecting,” Newt says.
“The wedding? Why?”
“I just thought it might be a complete disaster.”
Hermann puts down his goblet.
“I mean—not because of you or anything, just me. I kept expecting to fuck up the vows or trip over my robe or—I don’t know. I just—” Newt takes off his crown and musses his hair, then puts it back on. “Sorry, I’m trying to make conversation and I’m kind of shit at it.”
Herman shakes his head. “No, it’s fine. The attempt is appreciated.”
Newt smiles. Hermann is feeling a bit better after half a cup of ginger beer and Newt’s awkward attempt at friendliness, so he manages to finish eating his dinner, and his plate is quickly whisked away. He is pleased by the selection of teas available with dessert, and he settles comfortably into his chair to enjoy a cup of chamomile.
Newt starts nibbling at an oat cookie, but his gaze is focused on something down the table, and he seems to be chewing purely out of reflex. He’s leaning forward, looking past Hermann. Hermann turns to see what has caught Newt’s attention.
Dietrich and Bastien are talking about Bastien’s coming-of-age slaying. The conversation involves gratuitous swinging arm movements and sound effects. Bastein’s description of slicing off the dragon’s head is a bit more graphic than is perhaps polite for dinner conversation.
“I’m just glad it happened when it did,” he says. “My arm hurt like hell by the end. I don’t know how much longer I could have kept swinging that sword.”
Newt leans in closer, causing Hermann to pull back.
“That was required of you?” Newt asks. “Killing a dragon?”
Bastien looks up, his face blank, on the verge of confusion.
“Um—yes, sir. To mark my eighteenth year.”
“It’s custom in our kingdom,” Hermann says quietly. “All those who are high-born must do it.”
“You did it, too?”
Hermann’s hand drops to his leg. “Of course.”
Newt stares at him, then shakes his head.
“They didn’t tell me I was marrying a murderer.”
No one hears except for Hermann and his brothers. The crowd is still rowdy, but to Hermann, it seems as though there is a sudden hush. The air between himself and his husband is still and tense.
“I think you heard what I said.”
“I’m not a murderer.”
“You took a life, didn’t you?”
“Your knights take lives every time they go into battle!”
“Yes, but the life of a dragon is—”
“Oh, so human beings mean nothing to you?”
Newt rolls his eyes. “Of course they do, but they were enemies of our kingdom! Dragons aren’t—dragons are to be revered, not—”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Are you kidding?” By now, Newt’s voice has risen, and several people have begun to stare. “I’ve grown up around dragons. I was learning to ride as soon as I could walk!”
Hermann takes a deep breath. “What do you know of sea dragons?”
“Have you ever encountered a sea dragon?”
It takes Newt a moment to answer. When he finally does, his anger has tempered, and there’s a flicker of doubt in his eyes.
“No,” he says.
“I didn’t think so. Sea dragons are not like the flying kittens you have here. Sea dragons are vicious, murderous creatures that threaten our fisherman and spew fire on the thatching of our roofs. They live in caves along the coast, and attack our kingdom when they feel bored. They kill for a laugh, they destroy people’s livelihoods, and they are reason why we live in fear. So don’t tell me I’m a murderer for killing one. Where I come from, dragons don’t curl up in corners of the castle for our amusement. It’s either kill or be killed, and no one can shame us for that.”
Newt stares in mild shock. The whole front of the hall has fallen silent. Hermann sits up straight in his chair, ignoring the slight tremble of his fingers.
“I didn’t realize,” Newt says.
“You spoke before you had all the information.”
“I—” Newt huffs a laugh. “I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be reassuring or not.”
When it becomes evident that the quarrel is over, people lose interest, and conversations begin anew. Newt fiddles with his napkin, toying with a loose thread along the edge.
“How did you kill it?” he asks.
“A variety of them.” Hermann doesn’t elaborate, and is relieved when Newt doesn’t ask it of him.
“You really have to teach me some. We’re not big on magic around here, so I don’t know much.”
“It’s a challenge. Not everyone is up to it.”
“I can do it.”
Newt’s eyes flicker with confidence, and Hermann nods, believing him.
At the end of the night, just as Hermann begins to feel tired, Newt’s father rises from the table and garners the attention of the room by banging the side of his goblet with a butter knife.
“Hello,” he yells. “Excuse me, good evening!” His voice is loud, but doesn’t have the same confident authority as Newt’s mother. “If you could bring your attention to the front of the room, I believe it’s time to present the wedding gifts.”
There is murmuring among the townspeople as two of Valfrey’s servants enter the room, carrying a large, heavy object between them. Hermann knows what the gift is, though he hadn’t chosen it himself. Wedding gifts are typically chosen by one’s parents, and Hermann’s father went the traditional route.
A silk sheet is pulled away to reveal an ornate carved box, glittering with gold gilt and encrusted with gems. Newt raises his eyebrows, clearly impressed by the craftsmanship. One of the servants lifts the lid of the box, and Hermann holds his breath.
Nestled inside, on a pillow of red velvet, is a perfectly preserved dragon’s heart. It’s about the size of two fists pressed together, and is the same color as the inside of an oyster’s shell. Hermann looks over to his husband to find that Newt’s mouth has fallen slightly open. He is leaning forward to get a closer look, one hand hovering in the air as if he wants to reach out and touch it.
“This is the heart of the serpent that Hermann slew for his coming-of-age,” says Lars Gottlieb. “It was a difficult kill for him. It took patience.”
Newt presses two fingers to the heart and feels its texture.
“In our kingdom, this is a traditional symbol of devotion,” Hermann says quietly. “The implication is that this is something one risked one’s life to obtain.”
Newt purses his lips and pulls his hand away. “Thank you,” he says.
The servants close the box and cover it before taking it away.
“And now, for the prince consort.” Newt’s father signals to two men at a doorway on the left side of the room. One carries a brown leather saddle, the other a matching bridle. They are accompanied by a large female dragon with scales that almost match the green of Newt’s eyes.
“This is Darla,” says King Jacob. “The most talented training dragon we know.”
Hermann is frozen to his seat, staring up at the dragon before him. She stares back with eyes more intelligent than he is comfortable with.
“Dragons choose their riders,” Newt explains. “I can’t give you a dragon, because dragons belong to no one. But I do want you to learn to ride, and Darla offered to help.”
Hermann’s face is pale. The dragon doesn’t stay still—her neck bobs and swivels like a snake’s. She takes a few steps forward, and the servants allow her. She walks right up to the table and lowers her head to see Hermann more clearly.
Darla makes a loud, sharp sound that causes Hermann to jump in his seat, then she turns to Newt and starts speaking animatedly in a language that Hermann couldn’t hope to understand. Newt smiles and says something back—speaking in a mix of guttural sounds and short cries. He laughs quietly.
“What did she say?” asks Hermann.
“She can tell you’re nervous,” Newt says. “But she also thinks you’re kind of cute.”
Darla pulls her head back sharply, as if incredulous. She huffs a breath and walks away from the table, muttering in her own mysterious language. It makes Hermann doubt at least half of Newt’s translation.
At the end of the night, King Jacob encourages the royal couple to kiss before they depart for their quarters. Hermann is a bit taken aback, and judging by his reaction, so is Newt. He shoots a quick glare at his father before turning to Hermann.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers as he leans closer.
This kiss is longer than their first, and less awkward. Newt rests one hand on Hermann’s shoulder. The audience before them coos and applauds.
They are led from the room by two guards, who accompany them on the walk to Newt’s bedchamber. There is already a fire lit in the hearth. Hermann’s trunk is in a corner of the room, and when he peeks inside a wardrobe, he finds that it is filled with his clothing.
“We don’t have to—” Newt’s voice cracks. He clears his throat, and when he speaks again, he sounds slightly less nervous. “If you want me to sleep in the adjoining room, that’s fine, I don’t mind. There’s a comfortable chair I can curl up in, and then I can just sneak back in here before the servant arrives in the morning.” He bites his lip.
Hermann glances towards the four-poster bed. “Do they expect us to—”
“Sleep together? Yeah. Have sex? Uh...not really. I mean, the public is going to assume that we’re having sex, but it’s not like people will be coming in checking the bedsheets or anything.”
Hermann feels his cheeks turn pink. “I see.”
There’s a short period of silence. Newt clears his throat again.
“I’m not going to make you do anything you’re uncomfortable with. If you want to sleep alone—”
“No.” Hermann shakes his head. “It’s alright. I don’t mind sharing a bed. That is, unless you—”
“No, no I don’t mind, either.” Newt gives a shaky smile, and they suffer through another awkward silence. “Okay then.”
Hermann finds his nightshirt folded beneath one pillow. He slips behind a screen to change. Realizing that the nightshirt doesn’t quite fall low enough to cover the scars on his legs, he decides to keep his stockings on, and pulls them up as high as they will go.
When he comes out from behind the curtain, Newt has stripped down to a pair of drawers and a loose linen shirt. His bare arms are swirls of tattooed color, and Hermann finds himself staring.
“Didn’t hear about these, huh?” Newt asks.
Hermann shakes his head and steps closer. There are dragons spiraling over Newt’s skin. He lifts his arms to let Hermann see, and Hermann touches him without thinking.
“The artistry is impressive,” he says. He turns over Newt’s arm to see the other side. “Do you know these dragons?”
“No.” Newt keeps his eyes fixed on Hermann’s face. “I wish, but—no, these are dragons of legend. They were all important to the kingdom in some way.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well—this one here is Trespasser—the first dragon to ever approach the capital. And this is Reckoner. Some people actually worship him like a god.”
Hermann drops his hand, suddenly realizing that he had been touching Newt’s skin.
“They’re very...unique,” he says.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
They walk over to the bed, and pull down the bedcovers.
“I thought you noticed during the wedding,” says Newt. “I saw you looking at my wrist.”
“I did notice, but I was a little distracted by our wedding vows.”
Newt laughs. “Yeah, I know what you mean.”
They lie in bed side-by-side. The only light in the room comes from the candles flickering on each nightstand. Newt leans over to blow his out.
“Well...goodnight,” he says. He turns over onto his side, facing the wall.
Hermann wakes when a servant pulls the bedroom curtains open, allowing bright sunlight to shine onto his face. He groans and pulls a blanket over his head until the servant leaves. Newt is still asleep, his breathing slow and steady. His mouth is slightly open, and there’s a spot of drool by his lips. With all the tension gone from his face, he has the innocent look of a child. Hermann gets out of bed. He pulls the blankets up to cover his husband, then heads downstairs for breakfast.
Breakfast is served buffet-style in the great hall. Diners eat at round tables scattered across the room, social groups keeping mainly to themselves. A few people look up when Hermann walks in, but most pay him no mind. He starts filling a plate with golden cheese and sweet, ripe fruit.
“Good morning,” says a familiar voice.
Hermann looks up to find Newt’s uncle Illia at his side. “Good morning,” he says.
Illia bears a strong physical resemblance to Newt; both have dark hair, a short stature, and highly expressive eyes. Illia keeps his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, and has a short beard that he scratches while he thinks. Hermann took an instant liking to him—the man has an aura of friendliness, but is quiet and reserved in a way that Newt is not.
There is a moment of silence between them as Hermann pours his tea and wonders how he’s going to balance plate and mug in one hand as he walks to a table. Illia solves his problem by pulling the tray out from under a basket of bread and sliding it in Hermann’s direction.
“I want to tell you to be careful,” he says. At first, Hermann thinks he’s referring to the tray, but then the man continues. “Regarding my nephew, but also with regards to yourself. It isn’t easy to be part of an arranged marriage. I should know.”
Hermann frowns, thinking. “I don’t recall meeting your spouse.”
“You didn’t. She passed away two years ago.”
“Oh.” Hermann looks back down at his tea. An apology is on the tip of his tongue when Illia speaks again.
“We were a good match—partners, if not lovers, and proof that the arrangement system is not entirely broken. I know you need to secure your own happiness, but please try not to hurt my nephew in the process.”
Hermann is silent, but nods.
There is the soft tapping of footsteps against stone, and Newt appears in the doorway. He’s fully dressed, but his hair still looks a mess. His cloak sits crooked on his shoulders, and he rubs at one eye sleepily as he walks towards the buffet.
“You’ll have to wake up earlier than that if you want to rule the kingdom,” says Illia.
Newt shrugs. “When I’m king I’ll sleep as late as I want. Who’ll stop me?”
Illia rolls his eyes fondly and leaves to sit at an empty table. Newt smiles at Hermann as Hermann arranges the dishes on his tray.
“You did sleep late,” Hermann says quietly. “It would be irresponsible for a king to stay in bed half the morning while there is work to be done.”
Newt grumbles. “Spoilsport.” He fills a plate with hotcakes and an excessive amount of cream. “I suppose you woke with the sun?”
Newt chuckles. “Then you have no room to speak.” He winks playfully, and sits down next to his uncle. Hermann is about to join them when his eye is caught by a nearby table. Karla is sitting alone, waving to him. He changes course immediately.
“I didn’t see you when I walked in,” he says, as he sits.
“Must have been too distracted by the food.” Karla bites a strawberry to the green and gives a grin that’s almost as mischievous as Newt’s. “How’s married life?”
“I’ve been married for all of—what, twenty hours? Hardly long enough to tell.”
“Well how was the wedding night?” Karla’s grin grows diabolical, and Hermann blushes red.
“Nothing happened, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Mmm, I didn’t think so.”
“We slept beside each other.”
Karla’s gaze wanders off to Newt, and Hermann’s follows. Newt is sitting across from his uncle, talking animatedly. He seems to sense that someone is watching him, and looks up. When he catches Hermann’s eyes, he smiles, gets flustered, and quickly looks away.
“He likes you,” Karla says, returning to her bowl of fruit.
“Well I’d certainly hope so. We’re married now.”
“No, I mean he’s attracted to you.”
Hermann looks again at Newt. He’s concentrating very hard on something his uncle is saying, as if he’s determined not to look elsewhere in the room. The tips of his ears are turning pink.
“What is he like?” Karla asks.
“He’s...friendly. He laughs easily. He’s very passionate about dragons.”
Karla nods. “I saw you arguing last night at the dinner table.”
“We didn’t see eye-to-eye.”
“And do you now?”
Hermann pauses, stirring his tea. “He’s naive. Though he’s very knowledgeable about the mountain breed, he doesn’t have experience with anything else. Everything he knows was learned from stories. But when we argued, he accepted what I said and seemed to recognize that I had more knowledge on the topic than he. I think he respected that.”
They finish their breakfast in companionable silence.
Hermann’s family stays for the week. He spends more time with his sister than with his husband, and for seven blissful days, he forgets that he’s gotten married at all. He brings some of his books to Karla’s bedroom, and alternates between spending his time there and spending it walking around the castle, exploring the grounds.
When it’s time for the Gottliebs to leave, Hermann shakes his father’s hand and hugs each of his siblings goodbye.
“I’ll visit,” says Karla, blinking quickly. “I’ll come to see you again soon.”
Hermann gives her a shaky smile. His family piles into a series of carriages, and they begin to drive away.
“Are you alright?” Newt asks, as Hermann watches his family disappear.
Hermann doesn’t reply. He turns around and heads inside. Newt takes a few steps towards him, but ultimately decides not to follow.
Homesickness sets in immediately. It began to tickle as the carriages drove away, and now it comes upon Hermann like waves on the sand. He wanders through the castle alone.
Hermann feels like a castaway banished from his kingdom. He’s without his siblings, his lab—he’s not even certain where they’ve put his research materials. He’s married to a man whom he’s known for a week, and he’s expected to learn to ride a dragon when the only contact he’s had with one resulted in permanent injury. Hermann keeps his eyes straight ahead and ignores the servants walking through the halls. A few bow as he walks by, but Hermann doesn’t acknowledge their presence.
Everything happened so quickly—the announcement, the planning, the marriage; Hermann was barely a part of it all. He had no say in the preparations for his own wedding; he had no choice over whether or not to go through with it. Now it’s all over and done with, and there’s no going back, and this is going to be the rest of his life. He bites his lip and wonders how this happened to him—his entire life changed, and he barely had a say in it.
The sound of thunder echoes from outside, and wall sconces make the hallways warm and bright. Hermann walks until he’s so far into mountain, he’s sure he’ll come out the other side. He peers into rooms to find deserted guest suites and dusty storage areas. He comes to a short spiral staircase and finds a single door left ajar at the bottom. Curious, he peeks inside.
The room is a small private library, abandoned after years of disuse. Bookshelves line the walls, and scrolls are rolled up and shoved into piles of wooden crates. A small table sits in the center of the room, a half-melted candlestick the only evidence of the room’s former occupant. Hermann looks at a pile of books: Hathaway’s Guide to Legends and Lore. Visual Encyclopedia of Northeastern Wildflowers, Tenth Edition. The Stars and Their Pictures: Constellations of the Modern and Primitive Worlds.
The room feels like an answer—a haven. It reminds Hermann of his lab back in Valfrey, and a bit of his homesickness begins to fade away instantly. He opens the book on constellations and sits in a plush velvet chair. He begins to read by candlelight.
There is a project that Hermann has been working on, and the thought of having new information sparks a flicker of hope inside of him. He’s been at a standstill with his research, but if he can just figure out this last piece of magic…
Hermann flips through a book on enchantments and thinks about his work. There were many in Valfrey who knew what he was trying to accomplish, but most believed it to be a waste of time—a fool’s errand. It’s a noble pursuit—searching for a better and safer way to fight dragons—but the magical technique is far beyond the skill level of anyone he has known. Hermann remembers when he first introduced the idea to the war mages in his city.
“We’re thinking about it the wrong way,” he had said. “We can enchant the knights’ armor all we want, but even with our most powerful spells of strength and protection, people are still dying.”
“Then we need better armor,” the head mage had said. “We’ll tell the smiths to try a new design, search for stronger metals—”
“No. We need to get rid of the problem altogether. We need to take the knight out of the armor.”
Hermann had gone on to explain his theory: if they could enchant the armor to move on its own, controlled by a knight from behind a psychic shield, then the knight would be kept safe, away from the dragon, while the armor fought on its own.
The mages had looked at each other with doubt, and turned down his ideas, albeit politely. They offered a reward to any blacksmith who could create a dragonproof suit.
Now, Hermann closes his book and sighs. The techniques described within are all too simple. The book is geared towards beginners, and he already knows all of the information it offers. He pushes it aside and sifts through the bookshelves, hoping to find something new.
By the end of the week, the wedding decorations have been taken down, and life around the castle has returned to normal. Newt begins taking over leadership of the kingdom. He attends political meetings, first with his parents, then without. Hermann is expected to accompany him, to stay updated on current events, should he ever need to take over in Newt’s stead.
Hermann is slowly assimilated into Aelcliff life, and it isn’t long before he wakes up one morning to find a black leather uniform folded by their bed, and a note in the king’s handwriting about a meeting with a riding teacher. Newt is overjoyed, but Hermann is mildly terrified.
“Don’t worry,” Newt says. “It’s the most fun you’ll ever have—trust me.”
The path to the dragon stables winds slowly and steadily up the side of the mountain. It’s tiring, but not undoable. Hermann pauses at the end of the wide dirt road, looking down at the city below, then up at the mountain’s peak, still miles and miles away. He wonders if anyone’s ever climbed to the top.
The stables are made up of a few small wooden buildings sharing a fenced-in dirt arena. They look just like horse stables, but Hermann sees clear evidence of dragons. Scales and feathers are scattered into corners, and distinctive claw-marks can be seen on tree trunks. Hermann remembers what Newt had told him—that dragons are their own beings, and aren’t kept. As a result, the stables are empty. They are more of a storage area and training ground than a barn.
The door to one of the smaller buildings opens, and two men walk out, both holding bridles. The taller of the two sees him first. He has dark skin and close-cropped hair. His face is serious and no-nonsense, and his blue uniform marks him as a member of Aelcliff’s army.
“Your highness,” he says, nodding his head politely.
The second man looks up and quickly makes a short bow. His skin and hair are light, and he has a scruff of beard on his face as if he hasn’t had time to shave for a few days. He holds out a hand for Hermann to shake.
“Right on time,” he says. “I’m Herc Hansen, I’ll be your riding instructor. This is Marshal Stacker Pentecost, of Aelcliff’s dragonflight division.”
“It’s good to meet you,” Hermann says.
“Darla’s out back, already got your saddle on her. Are you ready?”
“Good luck,” says Pentecost. “Remember to let yourself move with the dragon and you’ll be just fine.”
“Thank you.” Hermann gives a tight smile, and Hansen leads him in through the stable.
Darla remembers Hermann from the wedding feast and greets him in the arena with a friendly chirp. She’s somehow bigger than Hermann remembered, and his stomach is instantly aflutter with nerves.
“Now, have you ever ridden before?” Hansen asks, leading him around to Darla’s side.
Hermann shakes his head. “Of course not, where would I have ridden?”
Hansen smirks. “Alright, well it’s a lot like riding horseback, except, obviously, you’re in the air. The saddle sits on her back, behind the wings. You’ll feel the muscles move underneath you—just try to move with them.”
Hermann nods. Darla is looking straight ahead.
“Now, I don’t mean to be uh—rude,” says Hansen, nodding towards Hermann’s cane. “But have you ever ridden horseback?”
“I prefer sidesaddle.”
“Okay.” Hansen strokes his beard. “Okay, well that’s not really possible in this situation. There’s no way to--”
“It’s fine, I‘m sure I can manage.” In an effort to prove himself, Hermann tosses his cane to the ground and steps into the saddle’s foothold. Darla stays completely still as he pulls himself up to sit on top of her, and swings his good leg around to her other side.
“Is that working for you?” asks Hansen.
It’s not perfect. Hermann can stay in position, but his bad leg is stiff and cramped into an angle that’s uncomfortable. There’s the promise of future pain, but he ignores it. He bites his lip and nods.
“Alright. Then let’s have her walk you around.”
By the end of the first lesson, Hermann is limping heavily and muttering healing spells under his breath. He stares at the steadily declining path leading back to the castle, and tries to look on the bright side—at least he isn’t going uphill.
“Want a ride?”
Hermann turns to find Pentecost standing nearby, next to a horse-drawn wagon. There’s a young girl by his side, finger-combing her windswept black hair into place. “Sit next to me. Mako actually prefers to sit in back with the hay.”
Hermann thanks him, and climbs into the wagon. After moving atop a flying lizard for the past hour and a half, it feels good to have solid wood and wheels beneath him.
“It gets easier,” says Pentecost, as they start riding down the hill. “Most of us learn as children, but there are some who start later in life.”
Hermann watches the trees pass by and tries to subtly massage the pain from his thigh.
“You’ll have it mastered in time for the Couple’s Flight.”
“The—what?” Hermann startles, and Pentecost raises an eyebrow.
“The Couple’s Flight,” he repeats. “The royal couple is expected to feast at each of the five cities in the kingdom after their wedding—travelling on dragonback. Didn’t anyone tell you about this before you arrived?”
“Well yes, but I was told it was a ritual of the past. You still do that?”
Mako sits up in the back of the wagon and leans on her elbows to look at Hermann.
“I’ve never seen one before,” she says. “Yours will be my first.”
Hermann feels like he’s going to be sick.
“It’s nothing to worry about,’ says Pentecost. “If you can ride by yourself, you can ride with a partner.”
“Newt’s really good at riding double,” says Mako. “He used to take me, before I could go on my own.”
Pentecost gives his daughter a frown. “Mako, that’s not the proper way to refer to the prince.”
“Sorry—Prince Newton. His royal highness.”
Hermann catches the sarcastic lilt to Mako’s voice, but Pentecost either doesn’t notice, or ignores it. When Hermann sees the edge of his lips turn up just slightly, he realizes it must be the latter. He suppresses a smile of his own, charmed by the relationship between these two—not related by blood, but closer than many fathers and children that Hermann has known.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Pentecost says again. “You have months to learn, and Newton is easily the best rider in the kingdom. If there’s one person I would pair with a novice, it’s him.”
Mako grins. “Just hold on really tight if he decides to dive.”
“Excuse me, dive?”
Pentecost reassures Hermann repeatedly that Newt would never dive during their Couple’s Flight. Hermann is still a little startled when they drop him off in front of the castle, but he calms himself down and grabs some lunch from the kitchen to carry to the library. The warmth and quiet of the small room is a comfort after the wild of the mountain, and Hermann settles himself into his chair with a deep sigh of contentment.
By the time he comes out, it’s late into the evening, and dinner has already been served. A young scullery maid makes Hermann a plate of leftovers, and he eats quickly before making his way up the short flight of stairs to the bedroom.
Newt isn’t there. Hermann pauses in the doorway, uncertain as to why that is, but upon looking around the room, he notices that Newt’s riding goggles are missing. He assumes that Newt is out flying.
The night sky is clear and bright. Hermann stares out at the stars, then prepares for bed. He changes into his nightshirt, and uses the rare private moment to rub juniper oil into his sore muscles. He’s just about ready to sleep when Newt walks in with windswept hair and a sheepish smile. He closes the door softly behind him.
“How was your ride?” Hermann asks, propping up his pillow so he can write in his journal before bed.
“It was great!” Newt smiles. He’s dressed differently from the way Hermann usually sees him. His robes and furs have been traded for form-fitting leather, and the goggles pushed to the top of his head look completely at odds with the glasses on his face. He’s holding a pair of gloves in one hand, and he’s tracking mud onto the floor with his boots. Hermann raises an eyebrow at the mess. Newt doesn’t notice.
“I was out with Otachi—she’s my main—and we stayed out longer than I thought we would, but there’s really nothing like night riding. It’s my favorite—the cool air, and the quiet up there in the sky, and the little lights you can see down below. It’s really—”
“Please take off your boots before you track dirt onto the rug.”
“What? Oh—” Newt unbuckles his boots and kicks them off one by one. “Anyway, night riding? You totally have to try it some time. I’ll take you.”
“I have no interest.”
“You say that now…” Newt undoes the straps on his jacket, then takes it off and tosses it onto a nearby chair. The shirt underneath is thin and has sweat stains under the arms and on the chest. He starts unbuttoning his pants. Hermann looks down at his journal.
“So speaking of flying, how was your lesson?”
“It was fine.”
“I was kind of worried, since I knew you were scared.”
“I said it was fine.”
Newt falls silent, and slides into bed in a loose shirt and drawers. He smiles, but it’s a nervous smile that looks ready to break lest Hermann say the wrong thing.
“Did you have fun? Was Darla good to you? Tell me about it,” he begs, eyes wide and hopeful.
Hermann lays his journal on the nightstand, irritated at Newt’s enthusiasm for something in which Hermann had found no pleasure.
“I’m tired,” he says, shifting down to lie on his back. He wets the tips of his fingers and pinches out his candle.
“Okay then.” Newt sighs, softly. It sounds like resignation.
Riding lessons take place three times per week. Hermann picks up the basics fairly quickly, and it isn’t too long before Hansen has him flying through the air, if only as high as the treetops.
“Staying on the saddle isn’t the hard part,” Hansen says. “The real trick is in communicating with the dragon. You’re not doing a whole lot of work right now, because Darla’s taking you wherever she’d like. In the real world, you’ve got to have an understanding with the dragon, and be able to easily communicate in the air.”
When Hermann can fly around the arena without any trouble, Hansen tells him that he’s ready to begin the next step—learning to ride double with Newt to prepare for their Couple’s Flight.
“Bring him next week,” Hansen says. “He’s already a pro at it, but you two should get some time in together before the real thing.”
Newt insists on riding Otachi. Hermann is nervous—he hasn’t had experience with any dragon but Darla, and he knows how much Otachi means to Newt. He feels a pressure to perform—to be liked. He knows that if Otachi ends up hating him, it will be disastrous for his marriage.
On Monday the next week, Newt arranges for Otachi to meet them in the training arena before their lesson. Newt keeps his eyes on the sky as they walk through the shorn grass. Hermann stares down at the ground, worrying the edge of his robes between the fingers of one hand. He sees a shadow pass over them, and Newt takes a few hurried steps forward.
“That’s her!” he says, excitedly.
Otachi circles the meadow once, then flies back and swoops down to settle on a rock at the edge of the clearing. Newt runs right towards her and reaches up to put a hand on the side of her face. He strokes, lovingly, then turns to call to Hermann.
“Come on!” he says. “She really wants to meet you.”
Hermann feels his legs turn to jelly as he nears the dragon. Her eyes are wide and bright, and Hermann can tell just by looking that she’s intelligent and perceptive. She stares into Hermann’s eyes, then looks at his robes and his cane. She lifts her head up and looks behind him, as if wanting to see him from all angles. Once she’s satisfied, she pulls back and settles down. She makes a deep rumbling sound like a cat’s purr. Hermann frowns.
“Is she—is she pleased?”
“Well she doesn’t really know you yet, but that’s a good sound.”
Hermann relaxes a bit. He strokes the side of Otachi’s face as Newt had done. She leans into him and steps a little closer, then turns to Newt and says something in a quick, clipped voice. Newt smiles, and they talk back and forth for a few moments as Hermann looks on in confusion.
“How did you learn their language?” he asks. “Can you teach me?”
Newt shakes his head. “Sorry. It’s not something you can learn. My mother says it’s carried through the blood.”
Hermann nods, disappointed.
“She and I are both able to speak it, but my father and uncle can’t.”
Newt and Otachi continue to converse as Hermann stares out across the field, waiting for Hansen to arrive. He pokes at the dirt and awkwardly shuffles his feet. Otachi makes a long, rumbling cry, and Newt lets out a laugh.
“Must you do this in front of me?” Hermann mutters, irritated. “It’s a bit rude.”
Newt looks at him. “We’re not talking about you, if that’s what you—”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s just—”
“This is the only language Otachi can speak. You want her to just shut up?”
“That’s not what I meant.” Newt frowns, and Hermann sighs. “Never mind.” He pokes at the dirt and tries to ignore the feeling of hollowness that’s growing larger in his chest.
The lesson doesn’t go as well as Hermann would have liked. They use a new saddle built for two, and it places Hermann in a different position on the dragon—farther back, where the beast’s body is wider. It forces Hermann’s leg into a harsher and more unforgiving angle. When they leave the field, he is struggling to hide the pain from his face. Newt looks at him with a concerned expression that makes Hermann feel miserable.
For the rest of the week, Hermann sequesters himself away in the library. It’s the only place he feels comfortable. He likes being surrounded by books, and he likes being able to continue his studies. There are a few practical grimoires in the library’s collection, and he busies himself by practicing simple spells that don’t require too many odd materials.
Hermann doesn’t see his husband very often, since Newt spends a lot of time with his dragons. Hermann can tell because he often arrives at dinner in his riding clothes, his cheeks ruddy from the cool air, and his hair sticking up in wild swoops. Sometimes he tells Hermann where he has been—exploring caves in the mountain range, or rescuing a nest of eggs after a mother had been killed. He sometimes asks where Hermann had been, but Hermann keeps his answers short and clipped. Newt waits for him to explain, but Hermann never bothers. Eventually, Newt stops asking.
The next time they arrive on the training field, Hansen is nowhere to be seen.
“He had to leave in a hurry,” says a stable boy. “Chuck took Leatherback down to the quarry, and Hansen went to go fetch him.”
This seems to make sense to Newt, who chuckles.
“It’s fine,” he says. “I’ll take over.” He leads the way out back, where Otachi is stretching her wings. She walks towards them, expectantly, and Hermann doesn’t even flinch. It makes him realize how comfortable he’s become around dragons.
“Before we start,” Newt says. “I got us something.” He goes into a nearby trunk and takes out a new riding saddle that Hermann has never seen before.
“What was wrong with the old one?” Hermann asks.
“Um, it was hurting you?”
“I don’t recall complaining about it.”
“You didn’t have to.” Otachi leans down, and Newt straps the saddle around her shoulders. “It was obvious when you sat down behind me. You were breathing funny and limping afterward. And you smell like juniper when you get out of the bath. My mother used to use juniper oil when she came home from battle. It relieves aches and pains, right?”
Hermann bites his lip.
“Did Hansen ever say anything about it?”
“I encouraged him not to.”
Newt snorts. “You’re so stubborn.”
Newt finishes strapping the saddle into place. It’s smaller than the first, and Hermann can already see the benefit of positioning it on the shoulders rather than the back. He won’t need to open his legs quite so wide, and the saddle is built so that he won’t need to bend his knees as much.
“Where did you find this?” he asks.
“I know a guy.” Newt grins. “You’re hardly the only person who needs an accommodation. There’s a knight down by the bridge who lost half his leg in the Battle of the Southern Fields. He still rides, though. He designed a new saddle for himself, and now he makes them to order. He wanted to give it to me, but I shoved the coins in his mailbox when he wasn’t looking.”
Hermann stares, not knowing how to feel. He’s surprised that he never thought of this solution before.
“The only thing is that we’ll have to switch positions,” Newt says. “I’ll still hold the reins, but you’ll be in front. It should be more comfortable for you that way, anyway.”
Hermann nods. He puts one foot in the foothold and lifts himself up. When he’s sitting in place, he’s surprised to find that it doesn’t hurt at all.
“How is it?” Newt asks.
Newt’s smile is bright and proud.
Once they’re back at the castle, Hermann says he’d like some time to rest before dinner. He walks away towards the library before Newt can ask where he’s headed. Sitting quietly in front of his books, Hermann realizes that he’s completely unable to concentrate.
Flying felt different today. Usually, Hermann is very focused on his body, worrying about whether or not his mobility will be limited by the decisions he makes in flight. Thanks to the new saddle, Hermann was able to let go—to focus on the wind in his face and the exhilaration of flying through the air. It was enjoyable. Dare he say it—it was even fun.
Hermann closes the book in front of him. He thinks about Newt—his passion for flying, and his desire to share it with others. The new saddle had seated them closer than the last, and with Newt in back, but still controlling the reins, his arms had brushed against Hermann’s waist more often than—
“Is this where you’ve been hiding these past weeks?”
Hermann’s head jerks up. Newt is standing in the doorway, peering into the room with one careful hand on the wall.
Hermann opens his book. “I haven’t been hiding,” he says. “Simply pursuing my studies.”
Hermann frowns. He pulls his chair in close to the desk, but it’s nearly impossible to focus while Newt is lingering by the bookshelves. He glances up to find him reading spine labels.
“Is there something you wanted?” he asks.
Newt looks awkward, and it makes Hermann feel a bit bad for him.
“It’s just—you ran off really quickly. Did I cross a line? I was only trying to help but—”
“No. No, you didn’t cross a line.”
“Okay, well…” Newt shuffles his feet like a shy child. “You know, I never really see you anymore. Ever. You run off as soon as the sun rises, and you stay in here, I guess, until it sets, and the only time I get to see you is when you come to bed at night. Even then, you barely speak to me.”
Hermann swallows. Newt is staring hard at a row of books.
“I really liked you when we first met. At the wedding. I wanted to get to know you, but you feel more like a stranger now than you did back then. ...Are you seeing someone else?”
“What?” Hermann’s eyes widen. He’s startled to find that Newt looks absolutely miserable.
“It’s alright if you are. It’s perfectly legal. Consorts are allowed to have someone on the side, since it’s hardly your fault that you were chosen to—”
“I’m not seeing anyone. Whatever made you think that?”
“Well it’s just—since you seemed to be avoiding me, and the other day you were talking to Pentecost at dinner, so I thought maybe—”
“You thought I was interested in him?”
“He’s a good-looking guy.” Newt shrugs.
There are a few beats of silence, then Hermann starts to laugh. Newt stares at him in surprise, but Hermann can’t hold back. The laughter starts low, then it spills over and tumbles out.
“I’m not seeing anyone else,” he says. “And I’m not interested in doing so.”
Newt’s lips twitch upward. His shoulders loosen, and he comes closer to lean against the opposite side of the desk.
“Pentecost was giving me flying advice, there was nothing more to it than that. And I’ve been spending a lot of time here because this is where I’m most comfortable. There’s a project I’ve been working on, and when I found these new research materials, I thought they might help me complete it.”
Newt nods. “Alright. So you weren’t actively avoiding me?” There’s a self-deprecating twist to his lips.
“No, I was not actively avoiding you.”
“Okay. Good. Because I kind of like you.”
Hermann’s heart flutters. Newt immediately starts speaking again, as though he’s trying to hide what he just revealed.
“So it looks like you moved in some of the stuff from your old lab, huh?” His cheeks are faintly pink as he pokes at a mortar and pestle. “Can you show me what you’re working on?”
Hermann moves the mortar away, lest the herbs overmix.
“What do you know about raising power?” he asks.
Newt is impressed by Hermann’s work. He doesn’t discard ideas for being too grandiose, and he even encourages Hermann to teach him things, and show him examples of whatever concept Hermann tries to explain.
“So if you can enchant the armor, and you can create the psychic shield, then what’s stopping you from putting this practice into place?” he asks.
Hermann sighs. “Energy.” He points to a small model of a knight’s armor—no bigger than a hand’s length from comb to sabaton. “I can enchant this to do whatever I will, but I’d like the armor for dragon fighting to be at least twice the size of a grown man, and it’s near impossible for me to create that amount of energy and contain it in a stable object over an extended period of time.”
“What about a crystal, like this one, only bigger?”
“No, they’re too delicate and easily broken. They wouldn’t stand a chance in a fight against a dragon.”
“Stone doesn’t work well with metal. The spell would be unstable.”
Newt is silent, thinking.
“I’ve been searching for the solution for months.”
“You’ll get it. We both will. Let me help.”
This time, instead of guiltily slinking from the library at midnight, Hermann and Newt come out around dinnertime and sit in the great hall with Newt’s family. They spend all of dinner talking to each other about magic—about Newt’s ideas for experimentation, and about how they could improve Hermann’s results with new techniques or materials. Newt is interested and eager, and it makes Hermann wonder why he never thought to include his husband in his studies before.
They spend over an hour at dinner, staying seated at the table even after most of the room has emptied.
“Do you want to have tea?” Newt asks. “We could take it back to the library.”
Hermann shakes his head. “I wouldn’t mind tea, but let’s stay here. I’d like to retire early tonight.”
A servant brings them a tray from the kitchen, and Newt pours two cups of hot tea, fixing Hermann’s just the way he likes it without Hermann having to say a word.
Hermann can feel himself growing closer to Newt. Newt’s passion and energy are infectious; his smile and laughter endearing. Hermann genuinely enjoys spending time with him, and he’s pleased to realize that this growing interest seems to go both ways. He notices when Newt gazes at him from across the room; when Newt touches his shoulder as they sit down to dinner.
Now that he knows what Hermann is doing, Newt throws himself into their work. He has an eagerness to learn that Hermann finds charming, but he can also be overly ambitious, leading him to take on more than he can realistically accomplish. They argue more than once, often over risks that Newt has taken, or steps that he has skipped while in the pursuit of something bigger. Hermann rolls his eyes and cleans up the resulting mess, lecturing on safety and moderation.
They spend a lot of time at the library, but they also continue their riding lessons once a week. Hermann finds that he’s developed a healthy love for flying. It’s hard not to, with the promise of summer around the corner. The sun warms his skin, and the mountain air smells so fresh. The green of the trees is a pleasant sight down below.
Since Newt is an experienced rider, Hansen allows them to go high, but he still asks that they stay within eyesight. Newt sighs loudly as if he’s being held back. His breath rustles Hermann’s hair.
“Once we’ve mastered this,” he says quietly. “I’ll take you flying for real.”
Hermann smiles. He finds Newt’s hand and squeezes it, and Newt presses his forehead to Hermann’s nape.
It’s four months after the wedding when preparations begin for Newt’s coronation. A servant arrives one morning at breakfast, and tells Hermann that the tailor would like to see him so that he may be fitted for his coronation robes. Hermann nods politely, and says that he’ll see the man when he’s finished eating.
The tailor’s quarters are made up of three small rooms in a bright corner of the castle. The sun shines through an open window, lighting swathes of fabric and buckets filled with buttons. Deep cranberry reds are layered over dandelion yellows, piled on top of ceruleans and carnelians, purples like wine stains and crisp whites like blank canvas.
Hermann stands on a short wooden crate, naked but for his loose-fit drawers and the stockings pulled to his knees. There are goosepimples on his outstretched arms. The breeze coming through the window doesn’t feel so sweet when he’s baring this much skin.
There’s a sharp knock at the door that makes Hermann jump. The door swings open almost immediately, and Newt barges in, mid-sentence.
“Hermann, I—” He takes only a few steps before dropping his gaze to Hermann’s chest, his eyes wide and startled. He stutters on his words and looks at the ground. “I uh—wanted to know if you’d meet me later—after—when you’re done. For lunch.”
The tailor snickers quietly behind Hermann’s back. Hermann feels the need to smack the man.
“Of course,” he says coolly. “Will we be taking our lunch in the hall?”
“Yeah. And then after that, I have something to show you. So don’t make plans.”
Hermann nods, curious. There’s a look of hopeful delight on Newt’s face.
After lunch, Newt leads them through the castle, along the mountain’s outer edge. They reach two tall wooden doors in a hallway that Hermann has never explored.
“Okay, close your eyes,” Newt says.
Hermann is hesitant. He closes his eyes, and hears Newt pulling the doors open to either side.
“You have to follow me, now. Give me your hand.”
“Come on, it’s okay.”
Hermann lifts his hand into the air, and feels Newt take it. Newt holds onto him firmly, but Hermann only walks two steps before stopping.
“I don’t like not seeing where I’m stepping.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Here—”
He feels Newt come closer and link their arms together.
“Just trust me,” Newt says, voice hushed. Hermann keeps him close, and they walk into the room.
“Alright, that’s good, just a few more steps. There! Stay right there.”
The room is bright—Hermann can tell. Newt pulls away, then slips behind Hermann and puts both hands on his waist to turn him to one side.
“Okay, stay like that,” he says. He’s smiling, and it shows in his voice. When he takes his hands off Hermann’s waist, his fingertips linger as if they’re reluctant. “Now open your eyes.”
Hermann blinks repeatedly against the sunlight. The room before him nearly takes his breath away.
It’s another library, completely unlike the one they had been using. It’s huge and bright, with tall narrow windows that let in more light than Hermann has ever seen indoors. The bookshelves stretch from floor to ceiling, and a large table sits right in the middle, perfect for using as a workspace. By the side of the table is a suit of armor—twice the size of a grown man, and built precisely to Hermann’s specifications. He walks over to it and touches one vambrace. It shines as if it’s recently been polished.
“When did you do this?” he asks, reverence in his tone.
“I ordered the armor the day after you showed me your diagrams. And it only took a few days for the library to be cleaned up.” Newt watches as Hermann circles the suit. “This place used to belong to my great-grandfather, but it’s been abandoned since before I was born.”
Hermann turns to him. Newt still has that careful look of not knowing quite what to expect. His shaky smile is growing stronger.
“Do you like it?” he asks.
Hermann isn’t sure there are words for just how much he likes the library. He’s never had a place like this to himself before. He gazes around the room at the organized bookshelves and bright natural light—the inviting cushioned chairs, and the armor ready for enchantment.
“It’s wonderful,” he murmurs. “Thank you.”
Newt beams, and Hermann is of half a mind to lean down and kiss him on the spot.
They spend the whole afternoon in their new workspace. Hermann examines every inch of the armor, impressed by the quality of the workmanship. He runs his fingers along the edge of each plate and talks about the design, pointing out how this suit differs from any other, and explaining the reasons behind changes in proportion and measurement. He starts to get overexcited, and looks at Newt to find him gazing back with a distant smile. Newt doesn’t say anything to make Hermann stop, just points out something else and asks a question that Hermann is all too eager to answer.
When the sun begins to go down, Newt rises from the table to close the curtains.
“Do you want to stay much longer?” he asks. “We could light a fire in the hearth.”
Hermann looks up. A sliver of fading sunlight shines gold through the curtains. It hits Newt’s face, and Newt shields his eyes.
“No,” Hermann says, thinking. “We should go to dinner. Would you like to walk with me?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Outside, around the tourney field?”
Newt pauses. “The long way?”
“Yes. The quiet and secluded way, where we’re not likely to be interrupted.”
Newt’s eyes widen just slightly. He nods his head.
“Alright. Good.” Hermann closes his book.
Dusk has fallen, casting the sky in grey and pink. The moon has risen, waxing towards full, and the chirping of insects fills the air. Hermann leads the way outside, along the outer edge of a grassy field next to the castle. At this time of day, it’s abandoned, and they’re the only two people in sight.
“Thank you for the library,” Hermann says. “I’ve never had one of my own before.”
“It’s no problem.”
Their hands brush between them as they walk. Hermann reaches out and entwines their fingers.
“One of my biggest fears, when coming here, was that you wouldn’t see the value in my work. I was afraid you would prevent me from doing it. See it as a waste of time.”
Newt shakes his head. “I’d never prevent you from—”
“I know that now.”
Hermann strokes the side of Newt’s hand with his thumb. Newt is obviously nervous. He glances at Hermann furtively out of the corner of his eye.
“It’s not that I didn’t trust you,” Hermann continues. “It’s just that I’m so used to being dismissed. Even the mages in Valfrey doubted my research. I never imagined that you would be so...”
They’re on the other side of the tourney field now. Hermann looks out across the green at the candle lights twinkling in the castle’s windows.
“I’m glad I was married to you,” he says softly.
Newt stops walking.
The sun has sunk completely below the horizon; the field is lit only by the moon and stars. Newt is looking at Hermann with longing in his eyes and conflict in the set of his jaw. He glances down at Hermann’s mouth.
“Why did you bring me here?” he asks.
Hermann steps closer. “To ensure we would be alone.”
“Because this time, it isn’t for an audience.”
Hermann leans down, and Newt stretches up, and it’s hard to tell who kissed who first. Hermann puts a hand on Newt’s cheek. The kiss is short and chaste, but he feels warmed to the tips of his toes.
Newt sighs when they part. Hermann kisses him again.
There’s a moment that night when they’re getting ready for bed and they’re not sure what to do. Hermann changes behind his folding screen, and comes out to find Newt hovering by the bedside, fiddling with the sheets awkwardly. They give each other hesitant smiles. The candles are blown out, and the moon casts blue light between the curtains.
“Come closer,” Hermann whispers.
Newt shifts onto his side and wraps an arm around Hermann’s waist. The next morning, when they wake, his face is pressed to Hermann’s chest.
Life in the castle becomes bliss. Hermann is fully aware that he’s begun acting like a lovesick adolescent, but he doesn’t bother to feel ashamed of it. He sees it as a victory: companionship after being alone, freedom after living under the strict rule of his father. He has a place here. He has a job and a partner. Aelcliff has become more than just a political commitment—Aelcliff has become his home.
If Hermann is blissful, then Newt is ecstatic. He’s proud and boastful, and he doesn’t hesitate to show affection in public. It gives Hermann a frisson of pleasure. He’s never been treated like something precious. He’s never been with anyone who wanted to show him off. It makes him feel attractive and desirable--wanted. Deep down, he prays that Newt’s enthusiasm will last.
The week before the Couple’s Flight, Hermann and Newt are having breakfast together in the hall when they are approached by a nervous-looking page in a military uniform.
“Marshal Pentecost would like to see you, sirs. As soon as possible, after your meal.”
The page runs off, and Hermann looks at his husband with a questioning frown.
“Were we expecting a meeting?” he asks. “Did you request something of him?”
Newt shakes his head and scratches the stubble on his chin that he refuses to have shaved. He shrugs and takes another bite of toast.
Pentecost is waiting when they arrive at Newt’s private cabinet. Hermann can tell immediately that it’s more serious than they’d expected. There is tension in every line of the marshal’s body. He’s holding a map in one hand, and his expression is dark and serious. Hermann feels the room go cold.
As soon as the door clicks closed, Pentecost begins speaking.
“Onibaba had a child,” he says. “She’s a female, about thirteen years old, and she’s been attacking the hermit villages on the peak of Ashbriar. They call her ‘Slattern.’ She recently left the mountain and has been heading towards the castle.”
Newt purses his lips. Pentecost unrolls the map, and Hermann leans into the table to see.
“She’s currently settled here, by the west bank of the river. All who have seen her say she’s wild and feral—vengeful. Something needs to be done before she breaches our walls and attacks the city.”
“How fast is she moving?” Newt asks.
“Not fast, but she’s unpredictable. I don’t trust her to stay in one place for long.”
“Hmm.” Newt bites his lip. He looks serious and stern—contemplative. It isn’t often that Hermann sees him so focused. “What do you recommend?”
“I recommend we destroy her.”
“No. You know how I feel about—”
“Your highness, she’s feral, she can’t be tamed. She’s more animal than intelligent beast. It’s best just to—”
Pentecost’s jaw tightens. Hermann can see that the argument is about to explode, so he interrupts.
“I’m sorry, who are we talking about? Do you know this dragon?”
“Not Slattern, no,” says Pentecost. His voice is bitter. “But her mother, Onibaba, killed Mako’s parents five years ago.”
The room falls silent. Newt refuses to make eye contact and Pentecost scowls down at the map.
“What were the circumstances?” Hermann asks, quietly.
“Mako’s father was a bladesmith in Ashbriar,” says Newt. “Her family was attacked by Onibaba while they were exploring caves, looking for a rare metal. Mako was small and able to hide, but her parents couldn’t get to shelter before the dragon—” He cuts himself off. “Pentecost was training new recruits nearby. He was able to slay Onibaba before anyone else was harmed.”
Hermann looks at Pentecost, who has fire in his eyes.
“We won’t be safe until she’s gone,” Pentecost says. “We have volunteers willing to go after her, if you’ll just—”
“I’m not going to do that.”
“Newton.” Hermann shakes his head. “I know you have respect for these creatures, but feral dragons are dangerous. I would know.”
“This is different. She’s one of the mountain breed—they’re not predisposed to violence.”
“Then why did her mother attack?”
“Because she was protecting her child!” Newt sighs loudly, looking up at the ceiling as if it will provide answers. “I’ve been asking myself that question for years, and now we know. She didn’t attack because she was violent, she attacked because she was protecting her daughter. Slattern is just—”
Newt opens his mouth to speak, but closes it without saying anything.
“She’s looking for revenge,” finishes Pentecost.
Hermann finds himself sitting on the edge of his chair, leaning forward with his knuckles white on the chair’s arms.
“Newton, you’re going to be the king. Are you going to put your kingdom in danger because you don’t want to harm a wild beast? Listen to reason.”
Newt bites his lip. “Hermann, it’s not only that.”
“Then what is it?”
“Our people aren’t trained to fight dragons. These volunteers don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. I’m not about to say the word to send dozens of people to their deaths.”
There is a moment of silence, then Pentecost speaks. “With all due respect, your highness, if you don’t at least allow them to try, the entire city will be destroyed.”
Hermann watches a variety of emotions flicker across Newt’s face—sadness, reluctance, concern, and determination.
“Give us time,” Newt says.
“We don’t have—”
“Hermann and I are working on a project that could help. If we can get his spell to work, we might be able to stop Slattern without sacrificing innocent lives.”
“We have a way. We just need to figure out the magic.”
Pentecost looks contemplative. He looks from Newt to Hermann, then back again.
“The Couple’s Flight is this weekend,” he says. “You’ll be visiting the four other cities in the kingdom?”
“I have a sister in Ashbriar—Luna. She was my second-in-command when I led their dragonflight division, and she was there when Mako’s parents were killed. She volunteers at the city archives. If you speak to her, she may be able to get you in.”
Hermann’s interest is piqued. “What sort of resources do they have?”
“I’m not entirely sure, but it’s the oldest city in the kingdom. If there’s any place where you’re likely to find arcane magic, it’s Ashbriar.”
Hermann looks at his husband.
“Do the Couple’s Flight as if nothing is wrong,” Pentecost continues. “The people are looking forward to the celebration, and it will keep them at peace. If you visit Ashbriar last, you’ll have a few solid hours to research before you’re expected back for the midnight feast.”
Newt nods, and Pentecost rolls up the map.
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t find anything in the archives, we will have to prepare the volunteers.”
Slattern hangs over them like a shadow for the rest of the day. Later that night, they lie in bed face-to-face, whispering softly to each other as a gentle rain patters against the window.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” Hermann confesses. “And even if I can, by the time I figure it out, it could be too late.”
Newt refuses to listen. He shakes his head and takes Hermann’s hand in his own.
“I believe in you,” he says, smiling sweetly. “I believe in us.”
Karla comes to visit the day before the Couple’s Flight. She arrives at mid-morning, dressed in robes the color of the sky, chains of silver decorating her hair. Hermann meets her at the castle’s entrance and opens his arms to greet her.
“You look well!” she says, hugging him with a wide smile.
“Thank you.” He signals for the servants to take her bags, and leads the way into the castle and towards the room that has been prepared for her.
“Dieterich and Bastien send their love. They’re busy helping the cove cities rebuild after last month’s attack.”
“How is that going?”
“It’s slow work, but they’re coming along.”
“Good. And father?”
Karla looks at Hermann out of the corner of her eye. “He had business to attend to in the castle.”
“Of course he did.”
Once they’re alone in the guest room, Karla flops down on the bed and asks the question that Hermann saw coming the entire time.
“So how’s the marriage? You didn’t say much in your last letter.”
“It’s going well.”
“I like him.”
“Is that all?” Hermann purses his lips against a smile, and Karla rolls her eyes. “You’re no fun.”
“We’ve kissed,” Hermann confesses. “By choice. More than once.”
Karla’s ears perk up, and she pats the space next to her for Hermann to sit down.
“That’s more like it!” she says. “Now come here and tell me everything.”
At dinner that night, Hermann sits between his husband and his sister. They make conversation easily, and Hermann is happy to see how well the two get along. Karla laughs at Newt’s jokes and tells stories about Hermann’s childhood that cause Newt to look at him with a dopey smile. He puts a hand on Hermann’s knee and squeezes, while Karla bites back a grin.
They show Karla the library, and Hermann talks a bit about their work, but Karla was never very interested in magic. She listens politely, praising what they’ve done together, but Hermann can tell that it isn’t exactly her area. They chat by the fire until it starts to die, then Karla yawns.
“I need to go to sleep,” she says.
Hermann stands. “I’ll walk you to your room. Newton, will you close up the library?”
Hermann leans down to kiss Newt’s forehead, then leads Karla out the door.
The silence is like a weight between them as they walk. Karla doesn’t say a word until they reach the end of the hallway.
“He’s in love with you,” she blurts, abruptly. “Wow, he is so in love with you.” She laughs as if she can’t contain it—as if she’s in on a joke that Hermann doesn’t see.
Hermann looks up and down the hallway to make sure no one can hear. “What? You barely—how can you tell?”
“It’s so obvious! Did you see how many times he gazed at you in just the last hour alone? He looks at you like you’re the stars in his sky.”
Hermann flushes. He wants to encourage Karla to go on, but he also doesn’t want to get his hopes up.
“Trust me, little brother—he’s in love with you. Have you slept with him yet?”
“Well, then the countdown has begun.”
Hermann frowns, and Karla smiles, and Hermann is sure that he’s never loved his sister more than he does in this moment.
Hermann wakes on the morning of the Couple’s Flight to find Newt’s head resting on his arm, and all the circulation gone from his hand. His fingers tingle when he wiggles them, but even so, he is loathe to move. He watches the rise and fall of Newt’s chest and waits, drifting in and out of sleep until a servant comes in to open the curtains.
The sun is strong, casting pale rays into the room and warming it with a soft yellow glow. They couldn’t have asked for a better day; there’s a light breeze in the air, just enough to keep the weather comfortable without making flying difficult.
Hermann dresses in the outfit that has been set out for him: a leather riding uniform, dyed a deep sapphire that reminds him of the sea by his homeland. Newt had insisted on black with golden detail, a fancier version of his usual riding attire. The outfit is form-fitting and flattering, and Hermann can’t help but stare.
“I got you something,” Newt says, taking a parcel out from his wardrobe.
The gift is wrapped in plain brown paper and tied with a bright red bow. Hermann unravels it to find a loosely-folded scarf.
“Do you like it?” Newt asks, impatient. “It will be chilly when we’re in the air, and you get cold really easily.”
Hermann nods and turns the fabric over in his hands. The scarf is made of a soft black cashmere, embroidered with tiny golden stars.
“I saw the astronomy book on your nightstand. That’s what gave me the idea.”
Hermann wraps the scarf around his neck.
“It matches your uniform,” he says. “Thank you.” He kisses Newt’s mouth.
The Couple’s Flight ceremony is set to begin on a high cliff overlooking the city square. Hermann and Newt are brought there in an open carriage, sitting close together and waving at the townspeople that line the streets. The people look happy and cheerful, delighted by the warm summer weather and glad to have a cause for celebration. There are flowers littering the road. The air smells of ground coffee and spice-roasted nuts.
Newt is as enthusiastic about the audience as he was on the day of their wedding, but this time, Hermann isn’t bothered by it. As they reach the top of the cliff, he takes Newt’s hand and gives it a gentle squeeze. Newt squeezes back, smiling.
Newt’s parents are waiting, along with Illia, Pentecost, and Hansen. Pentecost has Mako by his side, and Hansen is standing next to a young boy near Mako’s age. Hermann can tell instantly that it’s Hansen’s son—the boy has a strong physical resemblance to his father. Their hair is the same straw shade, and their white skin similarly tanned from outdoor activity. They’re both dressed formally for the occasion, though the boy’s clothes sit awkwardly on his body, as if he’s going through a growth spurt.
“The speeches will begin in ten minutes,” says the king.
Newt ignores the people around him in favor of greeting Otachi. She is already outfitted with her saddle and bridle, and huffs a breath as Newt touches her cheek. He speaks softly in the dragon language, and she leans into him, lovingly.
“Are you still scared?” asks a voice.
Hermann turns to find Mako by his side.
“No,” he says, honestly. “Nervous, maybe. But not scared.”
“I like your outfit. My dad says he’ll get me new riding leathers for my next birthday.”
“Is that so?”
“I’ll be eleven. I want blue ones like yours.”
Hermann smiles. The other adults are occupied, and the Hansen boy is yawning dramatically and complaining of being bored. Hermann closes one hand and raises energy in his palm.
“Would you like to see some magic?” he asks, quietly. Mako’s eyes brighten, and she nods with enthusiasm. Hermann takes some of her hair between his thumb and forefinger, and lets it slide through his grip. It turns from black to blue between his fingertips. He frames her face with two streaks of color, and Mako goggles at it, excitedly.
Pentecost frowns, and Hermann scrambles to explain himself.
“It will only last a few hours,” he says.
Newt is watching nearby with a soft smile on his face. He walks over to Hermann and toys with the star-patterned scarf. One finger slips beneath to stroke Hermann’s skin.
“You’re sweet,” he says.
A trumpeter on the cliff’s stone-carved balcony plays a few notes, calling attention to the king and queen as they approach.
“Are you ready for the flight?”
Hermann nods. He takes the hand that Newt offers, and they follow behind as the queen begins her speech.
The Couple’s Flight formalities take half an hour. Most of this time is filled with political speeches, and Hermann finds his attention wandering more than it should. He worries about the visit to Ashbriar. He wonders whether they’ll find what they’re looking for. He knows there’s nothing to be done until they get there.
Newt is just as distracted, though for different reasons. He had mentioned being nervous about the speeches he is scheduled to deliver. His foot taps against the chair leg, and he shifts in his seat repeatedly. Hermann reaches for his hand and watches out of the corner of his eye as Newt takes a deep, calming breath.
“Thank you,” Newt murmurs. He stands up to deliver his speech.
The crowd cheers when the flight is ready to begin. This is the part they had been looking forward to, and it’s much more interesting than listening to royalty drone on about peace and politics in the kingdom.
Hermann puts on his goggles and loops his scarf around his neck a second time. He settles into place on the dragon’s saddle.
“Are you comfortable?” Newt asks, sliding in behind him.
Hermann nods. “I’m more concerned about Ashbriar.” It’s only a half-truth. He glances over at the cliff they’re about to plummet from, and feels a little sick. Newt slips an arm around his waist, then tugs at the reins twice.
Otachi takes a running start, and Hermann holds his breath. They’re so close to the edge—soon, it’s only three steps away, two steps, one—
Otachi jumps. The wind howls past as they dive, and Hermann feels his stomach drop in free-fall. Otachi spreads spreads her wings, and they glide at an angle. She beats them, and they lift higher into the air. The crowd below starts cheering louder. Hermann feels elated. Newt laughs and pulls him close.
Otachi flies clockwise in a wide circle. The height is easier to handle while she’s flying steady, but Hermann still doesn’t want to look straight down. He closes his eyes and tilts his face up to enjoy the warmth of the sun on his skin. His hair whips back on his forehead. The ends of his scarf are almost surely in Newt’s eyes.
When they’ve looped around the crowd twice, Newt tugs on the reins, and they lift off into the sky. The world below falls away, and the sound of the crowd grows distant. They fly up so high that they skim through the clouds. Otachi’s body levels out, and Newt loosens his grip on the reins as they glide.
“Wasn’t so bad, was it?” Newt asks. His mouth is behind Hermann ear; the feeling of his breath makes Hermann shiver.
“No,” Hermann says. He speaks in a voice so quiet that he’s certain Newt couldn’t hear, but he doesn’t repeat himself, and Newt doesn’t ask again.
They fly through the clouds in silence. Hermann feels dew on his face, and wipes at his goggles with one hand to clear them. The world seems blue and bright. Newt presses a kiss to his hair.
There are five major cities in Aelcliff’s kingdom, including the capital. Otachi starts out by heading west, away from the mountain and towards the valley known fondly as “the green lands.” It’s home to the smallest of the five cities, and is lush and vibrant with life. As they pass its border, they see people working in the fields, tiny specks on the ground below.
“Bit lower,” Newt says. He calls for Otachi to descend.
They pass villages, then towns. The valley’s city comes into view, and it isn’t long before they can see the city square, and the large gathering that is waiting for them to appear.
“Our first stop,” says Newt. He lets go of Hermann’s waist to take the reins in both hands. “Let’s try to be quick.”
Their landing platform is on the roof of the city’s tallest inn. Otachi flies straight towards it, then lowers down gently, the wind from her wings fluttering the robes of the officials that are there to greet them. Hermann slides down Otachi’s side and onto the ground. He pulls his cane from a strap on the side of the saddle. Newt has a speech prepared, and there’s a feast scheduled afterward. It’s the first of the four remaining cities, and Hermann feels tired already.
The second city is on another mountain, smaller than the capital, but with stunning views of the valley below. They are greeted with wildflower crowns and beaded necklaces. The feast is vegetarian—salads and stuffed mushrooms and wheels of cheese. There are fruits and nuts and warm breads and creamy butters, and Hermann eats more than his fill before they’re off again.
At the third city, he barely eats at all. He sits on the edge of his seat, watching the river rapids behind them and whispering into Newt’s ear as politely as he can.
“How long are we required to stay?” he asks.
Newt’s smile is tight. “Just another hour, then we can go.”
Hermann thanks a servant as she refills his cup, and tried not to tap his foot too obviously beneath the table.
By the time they approach Ashbriar, the sun has begun to go down. The city is on one of the smaller peaks in the mountain range—rockier than the others, and known more for its mines than its agriculture. Although much of the city is stone, it’s more drab grey than shining white, like the capital. It looks cold, unhappy, and tired. Hermann gets the feeling it never recovered from the tragedy of five years ago.
Otachi circles the city square as the people below shield their eyes and gaze up. The landing platform is not raised, but is marked right in the middle of the square, with people standing all around. Otachi hovers in place, then beats her wings a few final times, and lands.
As he’s unstrapping from the saddle, Hermann notices that Newt’s knuckles are white on Otachi’s reins. He looks tense and nervous, though Hermann suspects that this time, it isn’t due to the speech he is required to deliver.
“Welcome!” says a man nearby. He opens his arms as he walks forward to greet them. His formal dress suggests that he’s a city official. Newt bows his head politely.
“It’s a pleasure to be here.”
“No, no, it’s our honor to have the future King Newton himself dine at our tables tonight.”
Newt glances at Hermann, and the man amends his statement.
“And also the prince consort, of course. Of course, it’s wonderful to have both of you.”
Hermann rolls his eyes, sick to death of diplomatic pleasantries. Newt sees him, and smirks.
“I have an address to deliver to the people,” he says to the official. “I’d like to do that before the dinner and entertainment.”
“Yes, alright, whatever you say, come along.”
“Also, there’s a friend I’d like to speak to. Do you know where Luna Pentecost might be?”
The official gives a sniff of disapproval, and Hermann finds himself instantly hating the man.
“The marshal?” he asks. “She’s probably out riding Silas. She doesn’t normally come to formal events.”
“Do you know when she’ll be back?”
“I don’t know all her whims and fancies, no.”
“Is there anyone who would?”
For a moment, the official looks annoyed. He frowns openly, and pauses in his march to the stage.
“I’ll ask her second-in-command,” he says, with a sigh. “Is there anything else you’d like before you begin?”
Newt smiles, slightly smug. “No, that will be all.”
The official continues walking, and Hermann snickers.
This time, Newt’s speech is rushed and short. He stumbles over his words in a hurry, and the sun sets while he speaks.
By the time everyone is inside, the stars are coming out. The city official returns, stooping down next to them at the dinner table.
“No one’s seen Luna,” he says. “But I wouldn’t worry—like I said, she never shows up for these sorts of things. You can find her afterwards, or leave a note if she’s not home.”
Hermann and Newt look at each other, and the official wanders away.
“What now?” whispers Hermann.
Newt bites his lip and doesn’t answer.
For the fourth time that day, they are presented with a mouth-watering feast of local dishes. Hermann stares down at the stew steaming hot in his bowl, and wishes he had an appetite. He eats a potato and a piece of meat, but can barely bring himself to chew.
“We can ask someone else to let us in,” says Newt. “They can hardly deny me, I’m the—”
“I heard you were looking for me?”
They both look up to find a woman standing on the other side of the table, arms crossed in front of her chest, and a hint of a smile on her face. She is dressed in deep purple riding leathers, well-worn from use. Her braided hair is pulled back into a bun, and she has tired wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“Luna?” Newt asks.
Luna nods. “My brother sent a raven telling me to expect you. Would you like to slip out for a moment?”
Newt almost knocks over his chair in his rush to stand. Hermann glances around the hall, but no one seems to be sparing them any more than a passing glance. They follow Luna out of the room and onto a quiet dirt pathway.
“I was out riding when you arrived,” she says. “I had no interest in the speech or the feast, but I knew you would be required to do both.”
They start taking twisting roads through the city. There are a few lit street lamps, but most of the way is dark. Luna is clearly familiar with the route. She chooses paths without looking at signs, and barely spares a glance for anything irrelevant to the task at hand.
“So what exactly did your brother tell you?” Newt asks. “Because I wasn’t too specific when we had our meeting.”
“Not much,” Luna says. “He said you needed access to the archives, and asked if I could let you in. I know all our resources like the back of my hand, so just give me a subject and I’ll find you a book on it.”
“What about magic?” Hermann asks. “Specifically the art of charging an object with energy?”
Luna’s steps begin to slow. She frowns a bit, thinking, then speeds up again.
“Haven’t had that request for a while. We have a few older tomes that might be of use, but I can’t make any promises.”
“That’s alright, at this point we’ll take anything you have. We’ve exhausted our own library.”
Luna nods. She turns a sharp corner, opens a wooden gate, and motions them inside.
“This way,” she says.
The archives are dark, dank, and dusty, housed in the basement of a decrepit wooden building that smells of rot. Hermann immediately worries over the safety of the parchment. There are stacks of books lining the walls, and scrolls haphazardly left in piles on a table.
“Don’t worry, it’s more organized than it looks,” Luna says. She walks to a stack of crates and starts shifting things around.
Newt glances at Hermann. “This is it.” He lights a lantern, casting the room in a warm golden glow. “Remember, we have to be back by midnight.”
Hermann nods. His body feels exhausted from the day’s activity, but his mind is bright and alert. He sits down at the table and clears a space out in front of him.
Luna hands him an overflowing crate. “This is all we have on magic. There are some pretty old books in the bottom. Rare things; you might want to take a look.”
Hermann nods. He heaves a deep sigh and starts sifting through.
Luna was right—there are some rare and obscure books in the bottom of the crate. Hermann finds quite a few of them to be interesting, but he knows he doesn’t have time for pleasure reading. He scans over chapter titles and indexes, skimming pages in hopes that something will jump out at him. He feels like he’s been sitting in one spot for hours, but in reality, he has no idea how long they’ve been there.
“Look at this,” Newt says. He points to a passage in the book in front of him. “It’s a description of the attack by Onibaba.”
Luna looks up. “Oh, that’s mine. I started compiling eyewitness accounts from people who were there, but—well, I got distracted with other things. And everyone else seemed to want to forget it.”
“You were there, weren’t you?” asks Hermann.
“Yes. I was my brother’s second-in-command at the time. I saw him when he struck the blow.”
“How did he manage it?”
“Luck, mostly. Being in the right place at the right time. Taking a chance and not cowering back, like so many others.” Luna’s eyes are distant. She leans on the table, resting her head in one hand. “It was a very brave move. I’m proud of him.” She grins. “Also a little jealous. I’ve wanted to slay a dragon ever since.”
“What did he use to strike it?” Newt asks.
“A pike. That’s what they were practicing with at the time. My brother was knocked off his flier, but instead of running, he used the opportunity to slip beneath Onibaba so that he could stab the pike into her chest.”
Hermann raises his eyebrows. “That takes a lot of strength.”
“Yes, well. Stacker is a strong man. He got it in deep enough to pierce the heart. I remember seeing the orange glow before she died.”
Hermann looks down at the book in front of him. There’s a sketch on one page—a crude drawing of a man stabbing a dragon. He thinks for a moment about his coming-of-age, and wonders if Pentecost is living with similar memories.
By the time Hermann has finished going through the crate, his head is nodding, and moving his arms feels like swimming through quicksand. He glances at Newt to find him facing a book with his eyes closed, his breaths slow and steady as he dozes. Hermann is crushed with a sense of failure.
“Newton,” he whispers, shaking his husband’s arm. “Wake up.”
Newt takes a sharp breath and lifts his head, suddenly alert.
“What? Did you find—”
“No. But it’s time for us to leave.”
Newt’s face falls. Hermann sees a hint of fear in his eyes.
“Would you like to take some books with you?” Luna asks. “I know you have to get back.”
Hermann stares down at a pile in front of Newt. “I’m not sure how much we can carry—”
“Yes,” Newt interrupts. “We’ll take some with us.”
Hermann feels hopeless. He can’t tell if Newt honestly expects to find something, or if he’s desperately grasping at straws.
The flight back to the capital is quiet and peaceful. Hermann remembers what Newt had told him months ago, about how much he enjoys flying at night. Hermann can see the appeal. The sky glitters with stars, and nothing can be heard but the slow beating of Otachi’s wings. Everything seems soft and soothing. Hermann thinks for a moment how funny it is that this is Newt’s favorite type of flying. He would have expected daring dives off the mountainside or speeding over treetops. Night flying is like neither of these things. It’s solitary and silent, more about thought than about action.
When the castle comes into view, Newt drops his forehead against Hermann’s shoulder and groans.
“I don’t want to go to to midnight feast,” he says.
Hermann reaches for his hand. “We can leave early. They’ll hardly blame us after the events of the day.”
“We could take those books down to the library, if you want. Try to find anything we can.”
“Yes, I’d like that.” Hermann purses his lips. The feeling of failure clings to him like mold on rotten food.
After making a brief appearance at the feast, they research for another few hours, pouring over the books that Luna had given them and finding nothing of use. Hermann feels despair in the pit of his stomach. He clenches a fist on the table and pushes one useless book aside to grab for another.
Hermann flips through the pages with such force that one of them tears. He closes his eyes and lowers his face into one hand.
“Hermann.” Newt touches his back, and Hermann opens his eyes. “Let’s get some sleep. Please.”
The castle is quiet. Not even echoes can be heard in the halls. Newt stands up and massages Hermann’s shoulders.
By the time they reach their room, Hermann is exhausted. He feels dead on his feet, like a strong wind could knock him to the ground. He stumbles on his way inside, and Newt puts a hand on his arm to steady him.
“I should have known,” Hermann murmurs. “I should have known better than to get my hopes up.”
Newt frowns. He opens his arms and pulls Hermann towards him. Hermann lowers his head to Newt’s shoulder, hiding his face in the crook of Newt’s neck.
“It’s alright,” Newt murmurs. “We did the best we could.” He smoothes his hand up and down Hermann’s back. Hermann sighs.
They stand like that for a few moments: Hermann wrapped up in his husband’s arms as Newt soothes him calm. Hermann feels warm and comforted—cherished. He kisses Newt’s neck. Newt’s breath hitches, and they pause. The mood between them begins to shift.
Hermann kisses Newt again, slightly more open-mouthed. Newt whispers something that could possibly be Hermann’s name, but he speaks too softly to make out the syllables. Hermann pulls back just enough to look into Newt’s eyes. They kiss full and slow on the lips. Newt whispers when they part.
“We don’t have to do this now, if you—”
“Shhh. I want to.”
Newt’s lips are wet and plumped. Hermann can see the tip of his tongue inside his open mouth, and before either of them can think, he leans down again.
They stumble backwards towards the bed. Hermann takes off Newt’s dragon-tooth crown and runs fingers through his hair.
“You didn’t kiss me like this at our wedding,” Newt says, closing his eyes with the hint of a smile on his face.
Hermann chuckles softly. He opens Newt’s collar and strokes the base of his throat.
“You’re really good at it,” Newt continues. “We could have given those people a show.”
Hermann shakes his head. “Kissing you like this makes me want to do much more than I’m willing to show.”
Newt pushes him onto his back.
In this moment, the weight of their responsibility disappears. Hermann feels a bone-deep longing, but it isn't something new; he’s been aware of it for a while. It’s a dull hunger when he sees Newt smile, a thirst when he touches Newt’s skin. He thinks about all the times they’ve shared this bed, all the times they’ve gone to sleep and woken up by each other’s side.
Newt’s eyes are dark. He lays over Hermann’s body and braces his arms by Hermann’s head. His waist lines up with the dip of Hermann’s hipbone. Newt has an erection, and Hermann sucks in a breath when he feels it.
“What do you think about consummating our marriage?” Newt asks. His voice is like gravel, and Hermann licks his lips.
“I think we should have done it ages ago.”
They shift up until they’re lying in bed properly, the sheets bunched around them like a warm nest. They lie down facing each other. Newt takes off his own shirt, then tugs at the edge of Hermann’s.
“I want to see you,” he says. “May I see you?”
Hermann nods. He feels nervous and self-conscious. His ribs are visible when he stretches, and his body doesn’t have the same gentle curves as Newt’s. Newt doesn’t seem to mind. He runs his hand down Hermann’s side—first just his fingers, then the warmth of his palm. When he sees the bulge in Hermann’s trousers, he looks back up as if incredulous over his luck. Hermann holds his breath.
“Touch me,” he murmurs. He takes Newt’s hand in his own and guides it between his legs. Newt gives him a gentle rub.
“Oh—” Hermann closes his eyes and turns his face into the pillow.
They’re both still in their riding trousers, and the leather is hot and sticky. Hermann wants to take them off, but a part of him is hesitant—he hasn’t had a lover since his coming-of-age ceremony. No one but his family and the healers have ever seen his scars.
Newt is breathing harshly through parted lips. Hermann opens his eyes to find that his trousers are open, his free hand wedged inside. The head of his cock is just peeking out, darkening a deep pink-red. The sight alone is nearly enough to make Hermann spill. He fumbles for his own buttons.
“Take these off,” he gasps. His fingers are slow and clumsy. Newt laughs and unbuttons for him.
There are scratches on Hermann’s shins. One knee is misshapen and there are burns on both thighs. He is covered in scar tissue. Newt doesn’t flinch—it’s as if he doesn’t notice. He tosses Hermann’s pants and undergarments to the side. Hermann swallows against the lump in his throat.
“How does this feel?” Newt asks, taking Hermann’s cock in his hand. The words sound thick in his mouth. Hermann is unable to answer with anything but a strangled moan.
They kiss even as Hermann gasps for breath. Newt kicks off his own pants, then rolls Hermann onto his back. He lies over him, stroking them both in one hand while sucking red marks into Hermann’s neck.
“Newton, I’m not going to last.” Hermann digs his nails into Newt’s shoulders. Newt exhales a needy whine.
It feels like the room has gotten smaller and hot. All of Hermann’s focus narrows down to this one moment. Newt starts kissing his chest—wet, open-mouthed kisses over his collarbone, then ribs, then sternum. Hermann digs one heel into the mattress. His hips lift up. Newt nuzzles into his concave stomach. He shifts lower, kissing Hermann’s hipbone, nosing at coarse brown hair. Hermann feels Newt’s breath against his seldom-touched skin, and a shiver rolls down his spine. Newt wraps a hand around Hermann’s cock and opens his mouth. Hermann comes.
“I’m sorry!” he blurts. Newt starts laughing. Hermann groans as Newt strokes him through the rest of his orgasm, still chuckling and wiping semen from his cheek with his other hand.
“You didn’t even give me a chance,” he says. His voice is pure joy, and his smile is like the sun. Hermann feels mild embarrassment, but Newt looks so happy, it’s hard to feel bad.
“I’m sorry,” Hermann says, again, only because he can’t think of anything else to say.
Newt crawls up and kisses him.
Hermann realizes distantly that Newt is still hard. He takes him in hand and watches the expression on Newt’s face: Newt’s eyes close, his smile grows wider. Hermann starts to stroke him, and Newt purses his lips. His eyebrows knit, then he gasps for breath. He opens his eyes halfway and looks at Hermann’s face.
“Harder,” he breathes.
Hermann tightens his grip just a bit. Newt whines and clutches Hermann’s shoulder. He gasps out a word that Hermann can’t quite make out.
“What is it?” Hermann asks. “Is this good?” He soon realizes that Newt isn’t speaking the common tongue—he’s speaking dragon. Newt starts to babble under his breath, and Hermann leans in to listen closer.
Newt gasps and comes with a low groan. He mouths at Hermann’s skin in a series of messy kisses. His eyes are squeezed shut, and one hand grips tightly to the bedsheets. He rolls onto his back as he catches his breath. Hermann turns to face him, but Newt just stares up at the canopy with a smile. He rolls in to kiss Hermann’s cheek before getting out of bed.
Hermann looks down at the tangled sheets. Their clothes are in piles on the floor. There’s a stack of books about to fall from Newt’s nightstand. He thinks about straightening them, but he can’t be bothered. He feels light and happy, like he's drifting. He wants nothing more than to curl into Newt and fall asleep by his side.
The bed dips beside him, and Newt cleans Hermann’s stomach with a wet cloth.
“You’re beautiful,” Newt murmurs. He climbs back beneath the covers.
They lie together in silence, Hermann’s head tucked under Newt’s chin, Newt’s hand smoothing over Hermann’s back in a calming repetition. Hermann closes his eyes.
“Did you know that dragons don’t have a word for ‘love?’” Newt whispers.
Hermann is half asleep. He thinks about the question, but it’s soft and fuzzy in his head. He wonders if it’s rhetorical.
Their bed is warm and comfortable. Newt’s skin is smooth. His chest moves up and down like waves on the shore. Hermann feels the world growing distant. It's not long before he drifts off to sleep.
“Hermann. Hey, Herms.”
Hermann feels a gentle hand shaking his shoulder. He flutters his eyelids, but decides to keep them closed.
“Wake up, I have to ask you something.”
It’s the kiss pressed to his cheek that convinces him. Hermann opens his eyes and tilts his face, hoping for more.
“Are you up? This is really important.”
“Mmm, of course.”
“Okay, have you ever considered using a dragon’s heart?”
“A dragon’s heart. As an energy source.”
Hermann’s still sleepy, staring at Newt’s lips like he can will a kiss into existence. It’s a few moments before the words sink in.
“Wait, what are you talking about?” He starts to sit up. The bed sheet pools into his lap. Newt is lying on his stomach, a book propped on the pillow. The sheets slips from his shoulders and bare the tattoos on his back.
“Dragon hearts are a source of energy, if you can activate them. You just need enough fire magic.”
“What do you mean ‘activate’ them? They die with the dragon.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Newt grins, and points to the book. Hermann pulls it towards himself. “They only die because the fire in the dragon’s chest has gone out. Fire magic will activate a dead heart. And a dragon’s heart will provide—”
“What do you mean ‘fire magic?’ A simple incendiary spell?”
“Yeah. Done by a strong enough mage.”
“But where would we get a dragon’s—”
“You’ve already given me one.”
Hermann’s eyes open wide. “Newton, would it be terribly rude of me to go down to the library right now and try it?”
Newt barks out a laugh. “Not if you take me with you.”
They’re overexcited and overstimulated, in a half run, half walk to the library. They’ve pulled on nightclothes and robes, but didn’t bother to wash. They lean heavily into each other, laughing and giggling like children, shushing each other when they feel that they’re being too loud. They’re holding hands tightly, and every now and then, Newt raises them to his lips to kiss Hermann’s fingers.
“Were you researching in bed?” Hermann laughs. “Did I not tire you out enough?”
Newt squeezes his hand. “I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep. I thought about what Luna had said about the heart glowing orange.”
They make a quick stop into the throne room, where Newt’s wedding gift is on display.
“It’s a good thing you gave me this,” Newt says, plucking the heart from it’s velvet cushion and cradling it in one arm. “There’d be no way to get one, otherwise. At least not before Slattern—”
Hermann shakes his head. “It wasn’t even my decision.”
“You know, if this works, we’ll need to make more. Hermann, this could ensure peace between our kingdoms. We’ll need Valfrey to supply the hearts of sea dragons, and Aelcliff to supply the metals. If this becomes a viable industry—”
“Shh.” They reach the library’s tall wooden doors, and Hermann pushes them open. “Let’s make sure it works, first.”
There is a hole in the chest of the armor. Hermann had placed crystals and amulets and potions inside, but none had ever been strong enough. Now, he stands at the top of a ladder and takes the dragon’s heart from Newt’s hands. He rests it right in the middle.
“If it works, we’ll seal it inside,” he says. “Just the edges—enough to keep it from falling out.”
Newt nods. His eyes flicker back and forth between Hermann and the armor.
“Alright,” Hermann murmurs. “Stand back a bit.”
Raising energy requires meditation. Hermann closes his eyes and takes slow, deep breaths. His heart is pounding with excitement and anticipation, but he is practiced enough that controlling his breathing is all he needs to do to calm himself. When he finds his mind at peace, he begins raising power.
Hermann feels his fingertips tingle. He opens his eyes, seeing nothing but the armor in front of him. He concentrates energy in the palms of his hands, and wills it to heat.
Newt is standing a distance away, but Hermann pays him no mind. He can’t have distractions, not now, in a moment of such importance. He raises his hands, then presses them to the heart and begins to transfer the energy.
He can feel heat seeping into the heart. There are no immediate visible changes, but Hermann keeps trying. He raises more and more power, pushing everything out of his palms. He feels a spark, and hears Newt gasp.
The dragon’s heart is glowing bright orange. It radiates so much heat that Hermann can feel sweat dripping down his forehead. He pushes a final burst of energy inside the heart, then lowers his hands and steps back.
“You did it!” Newt says. He rushes forward. “Hermann, you—”
Hermann lifts a hand to keep him still, then murmurs a spell under his breath. He descends the ladder and grabs crystals and herbal salves from the table. He uses them to direct his magic as he enchants the armor. The orange glow begins to dim, but Hermann closes his eyes and concentrates until the light returns. When it does, he breathes a sigh of relief.
“Newton,” he says. “Move your arm.”
Newt frowns in confusion, but lifts his arm into the air. The armor copies the movement.
“Oh my god,” he whispers. He lifts his other arm, and the suit does the same.
Hermann smiles. He stays focused on the armor, reaching out to feel its energy, making sure the magic stays strong and stable. Newt takes a step forward, then a step back. He turns in a circle. The armor copies his every movement.
Hermann starts to feel tired. It takes a lot of effort to keep the magic intact, and he’s running on three hours’ sleep after a whole day of flying. He climbs the ladder, puts his hand on the heart, and directs the energy back out, grounding himself so that it goes straight through his body like a conduit. The heart dims back to white, and Hermann turns to his husband.
“It works,” he says, simply.
Newt pushes him against the desk and kisses him.
The spell isn’t perfect—Hermann thinks about strengthening the connection with mint oil and a sprinkling of herbs—but for now, at least the biggest hurdle has been leapt.
They lie in bed late the next morning, only waking when a pair of birds settle on the windowsill and begin to twitter. Hermann smiles to himself. He stares up at the bed’s canopy as Newt nuzzles into his neck.
"You're amazing," Newt murmurs. "You're brilliant." He leaves tiny kisses over the soft spot below Hermann's ear.
Hermann closes his eyes and sighs. They don't make it down to lunch for at least an hour.
Pentecost is already in the great hall when they arrive. He is chatting with Hansen over a bowl of cottage pie, and looks up in surprise when Hermann and Newt sit down across from him.
“We did it,” Newt blurts, immediately. “Hermann did it. He got the spell to work.”
Pentecost and Hansen listen with patience as Newt tells them everything. He’s breathless and giddy, high off their recent success. He stumbles over his words, and Hermann interrupts to correct facts or add details, but together, they make it through.
“Is this a viable solution?” Pentecost asks, when it’s over. “The armor is equipped to fight something that size?”
“This is what I created it for,” says Hermann. “Its design is tailored to this specific situation. It has everything, the only thing it needs is—”
“A pilot. Someone to control it in battle.”
“It’s enchanted to move, but it can’t do so on its own, nor can it make decisions. I’ll psychically connect it to a knight on the ground, who will be able to see through the armor’s eyes and direct it to move.”
“So who’s going to be your pilot?” asks Hansen.
“I was hoping to ask Marshal Pentecost.”
Everyone looks at Pentecost, who doesn’t seem surprised at all.
“Newton and I aren’t warriors,” Hermann explains. “There are plenty of knights available, but you’re the only one who already has experience with killing a dragon.”
Pentecost had agreed as soon as his name had been spoken—Hermann can tell. He nods his head firmly, and the decision is made.
“This design,” says Hansen. “Does it have a name?”
Hermann smiles. “Yes,” he says. “I call it a jaeger.”
Pentecost wants to deploy the jaeger right away, but Hermann insists that the magic isn’t yet perfected. There are minor kinks to be worked out, and methods of spell-strengthening that could be tested. He and Newt spend the next few days pouring over books, combining techniques and experimenting.
Hermann begs for the end of the week, but in the end, it’s no one’s choice when to go after the dragon. Instead, the dragon comes to them.
Hermann wakes just as the sun begins to rise. He’s still tired, and Newt is still sleeping, so he closes his eyes and tries to rest. He feels strange, like some part of his brain is telling him to get up. He feels the ground shake lightly.
Hermann opens his eyes. Newt snuffles in his sleep and shifts, but he doesn’t wake. Hermann’s heart starts to pound.
This time, there was no mistaking it. Newt is instantly awake, and Hermann is already throwing the covers off of the bed, stumbling to the window stark naked.
“Dragon,” he whispers.
He can see the shadow of wings over the city. He watches the dragon dip to the ground, fly too close over rooftops, then arch back up into the sky.
“It’s her,” Hermann says. “It’s Slattern.”
Newt comes up behind him and puts a blanket over Hermann’s shoulders. Hermann hadn’t even realized he was shaking. It has nothing to do with the cold.
“We have to get the jaeger,” he says. He turns quickly and pushes past Newt. The blanket falls to the ground. He pulls on the first set of robes he sees and grabs his cane from the nightstand. “We have to find Pentecost. Do you know where he’d be?”
Newt stares out the window, distracted.
“She’s shouting,” he says. “She’s saying ‘vengeance.’”
Hermann closes his eyes and takes a breath to steady himself. “Get dressed,” he says. “We need to go.”
They rush through the hallways and down to the library. By now, others have woken. Torches have been lit, and the hallways are busy with people running past. Some lock themselves in their rooms, others carry bags of belongs towards the nearest exit.
“My family!” Newt says. “I have to find them!”
“I need you with the jaeger!”
Newt falters, but keeps walking behind Hermann.
“Your mother’s probably readying for battle,” Hermann says. “Does your father fight?”
“Then he’ll find shelter. He’s the king!”
Newt is still preoccupied—Hermann can tell. As they pass the throne room, Newt peeks his head inside, and immediately stops walking.
“Illia!” He runs inside the room, where his uncle is directing a group of servants to safety.
“Newt,” says Illia. “Lead Hermann to the tunnels, tell everyone you pass—”
“No, Hermann and I have a plan.”
“What do you—”
“Where are my parents?”
“Your mother is going to fight, your father is helping with the evacuation.”
“Find my mother. Tell her to stand down—no one needs to fight. Have you seen Stacker Pentecost?”
Illia purses his lips and shakes his head.
“If you do, tell him to meet us in the library. Or out in front of the castle.”
Illia claps Newt on the shoulder.
“Good luck,” he says.
When they reach the library, the curtains are still pulled shut from the night before. Hermann is glad; he’s not ready to see the destruction outside.
The jaeger is silver and shining. Hermann had rubbed mint oil over the metal the previous morning. Normally he would wipe away the excess, but now there’s no time. He raises as much power as he can and pushes it into the heart of the jaeger. He casts the enchantment spells and links the armor with Newt.
“You’ll have to lead it outside,” he says. There’s a heavy crash, and the scream of a dragon cuts through the air. “Now!”
Newt turns and starts to walk. The jaeger follows. As they exit the library, Newt’s eyes are slightly distant, his brow furrowed.
“Newton, are you alright?”
Newt nods and keeps walking. They move quickly down the now-abandoned hallway. Newt stumbles, and Hermann looks at him with concern.
His attention snaps away when there’s a shout from the other end of the hall. Pentecost and Hansen are running towards them.
“We need the jaeger!” Pentecost yells. “Slattern is in the southwest corner of the city. She’s headed this way.”
Hermann nods. “Let’s just get out in front of the castle, then I’ll—”
“Your highness?” Hansen reaches out to touch Newt’s shoulder. Newt is swaying unsteadily. His eyes roll back into his head, and Hansen rushes forward to catch him as he falls.
“Newton!” Hermann’s heart nearly stops.
Hansen lowers Newt to the floor as a trickle of blood runs from his nose.
“What’s happening?” Pentecost asks.
Hermann looks back at the jaeger, which has crumbled to the ground behind them. He puts a hand over Newt’s chest.
“It’s too much,” he says. “He can’t channel this much energy.” He severs the psychic connection.
“Why can’t he? Is the spell not going to work?
There’s a loud roar from outside. Pentecost and Hansen look towards the nearest window. Hermann puts a hand to Newt’s cheek as Newt’s eyes flutter open.
“I’m sorry,” Hermann says, softly. Newt smiles.
“Is he going to be alright?” Pentecost stands from his crouched position, sword half-pulled from the sheath at his waist. He looks between Newt and the window.
“I’m fine,” Newt says, weakly. He wipes the blood from his nose and stands. “I’m okay now.”
Hermann puts a hand on Newt’s shoulder as if to steady him. He touches Newt’s neck, then his hair.
“Is the spell not going to work?” Pentecost asks again.
Hermann looks back at the jaeger, still crumpled in the middle of the hall. He prepares to cast the enchantment a second time.
“It will work,” he says. “But I’ll have to use a drift spell. We’ll need two pilots working in tandem.”
There’s a beat of silence, then they all look at Hansen.
Hermann gazes out at the city from the gates of Aelcliff’s castle. By now, most people have run for shelter. The streets are empty and Slattern flies in a wide circle overhead. Her wings part clouds. Her body shadows the cobblestone. She huffs a steamy breath and looks down at the jaeger as it moves forward.
Pentecost and Hansen take well to the drift. They move as a unit and seem to understand each other’s minds and motives. Hermann is surprised by the strength of their connection. He casts a few battle spells, encasing the pilots in a bubble of blue protective energy.
“You’re ready to engage,” he says. “Go on.”
The energy bubble keeps Pentecost and Hansen rooted firmly in place, even as they continue to walk. The jaeger copies their movements. It breaks through the castle’s stone gate and heads towards the city’s center, where Slattern hovers in the air. She flies down just low enough to get a closer look.
“She’s interested!” Newt says. “I think she’s attracted to the shine of the metal.”
The jaeger’s feet cast clouds of dust into the air with each step. She moves like an oiled machine. Hermann feels a surge of pride over her design.
Slattern begins to growl. She flies up high, then dives down towards the jaeger.
“Prepare for impact!” Pentecost yells. He and Hansen steady themselves and raise their arms in defensive positions. The jaeger copies their movement, and Slattern flies right into its arms. The jaeger is pushed back—sliding across the ground—but it doesn’t topple. Slattern gives a snort of frustration before giving up.
“Good!” Hermann says. “Now try using the sword.”
The jaeger draws its sword. Slattern seems to recognize this as a threat. She hovers in the air, then begins to pull her neck back.
“Fire!” Newt yells. “She’s going to breathe fire!”
Hermann closes his eyes and casts a quick spell. His hands draw sigils in the air. He finishes just as Slattern opens her mouth.
The jaeger glows a bright blue. Slattern releases a breath. The fire bends away from the jaeger, flames reflecting off Hermann’s spell like a magnet being propelled away.
“Good timing,” Newt says.
Pentecost and Hansen take advantage of the precious seconds in which Slattern tries to catch her breath. The jaeger swings its giant arm, and Slattern flies back clumsily, as if she didn’t see the sword strike coming.
“That’ll make her angry.”
Slattern yells, and Newt flinches at her words. The dragon beats her wings, directing the wind towards the ground. Dirt and dust create a cloud that obscures her shape.
“Clever,” Newt mutters. He’s biting at his lips, making them turn a bright red. His face is pale with worry.
Nothing can be seen now except dust and Slattern’s dark silhouette in the sky. Hermann can’t make out the jaeger at all.
“Can you see anything?” he calls to the pilots.
Hansen answers. “Just barely.”
Hermann sees a ray of light glinting off the jaeger’s sword. It shines twice--on the second flash, it seems to strike its target. Slattern roars. When she flies into the air, Hermann can see blood dripping from her stomach.
“Is there anything we can do?” Newt asks urgently. “Is there any way we can help them?”
Hermann shakes his head. “We’ve played our part,” he says. “All we can do is wait.”
The jaeger runs forward, stretching up into the sky to take another swing at Slattern.
“I feel useless!” Newt is on edge, pacing back and forth to get an unobstructed view of the battle.
“You’re not a fighter, Newton—”
“I know, but I must be able to do something!”
The jaeger swings for Slattern again, but she flies higher, out of the way. She prepares another breath of fire, and Hermann quickly casts another deflection spell. Once Slattern is done, she flies up into the air.
“She’s too high!” Pentecost says. “We can’t reach her like this!”
Hermann has an idea, but he’s reluctant to share it. His heart clenches when he thinks of putting Newt in harm’s way. He looks out at the jaeger, standing uselessly on the ground as Slattern flies above. He looks at Newt, who is wringing his hands, staring at the battle with a furrowed brow and tense muscles. Hermann sighs.
“Newton,” he says. “There is something you can do.”
Hermann explains his idea, and Newt’s eyes light up at being able to help. He’s nervous—Hermann can tell—but he’s glad to be able to do something besides stand by the sidelines and watch. Before he leaves, Hermann leans in to hug him tighter than he ever has before.
“Come back to me,” he whispers.
Now, Hermann waits. He deflects another two fire breaths, and periodically checks the stability of the enchantment. Everything seems to be going smoothly. Pentecost and Hansen’s connection is still strong, and the dragon’s heart is still supplying enough energy to power the jaeger. Hermann feels a swelling sense of pride.
Slattern has realized now that she’s safest while in the air. She flies in a circle, staring down at the jaeger threateningly. She seems to have lost interest in the rest of the city, and for that, at least, Hermann is thankful. He scans the skies, waiting.
A speeding grey blur flies overhead, quickly followed by four others. Hermann recognizes Otachi from below. He watches as she heads straight for Slattern, weaving around the dragon like an irritating mosquito.
“Is that the prince?” Hansen asks, in disbelief.
“Yes,” Hermann answers. “He’s going to help.”
Newt leads the other riders in a fast zig-zag pattern around Slattern. They dodge in and out, circling her and swerving around her wings. Slattern looks baffled. She makes a few attempts to swat at them, but they move too quickly—they dodge out of the way.
“That’s the Kaidonovskys,” says Pentecost. “And the Wei triplets.”
The Kaidonovskys ride together on a large dragon that’s such a deep, dark green, it’s almost black. The triplets ride on three small bearded dragons that amaze Hermann with their speed and dexterity. Together, all five of them prevent Slattern from flying any higher. She cowers down towards the ground, close to the jaeger.
“It’s working!” says Hansen.
The jaeger takes another swing and clips Slattern’s wing. She howls in anger. Her wing starts flapping awkwardly, as if it can’t move the way it should.
“If you strike her again, she may go down,” says Hermann. He keeps his eyes on Newt, distracted. It’s the first time he’s seen Newt fly on his own. Newt is obviously talented. He twists and flips and spins in the sky, anticipating Slattern’s movements as if he’s reading her mind.
The jaeger slashes through the air with less dexterity than before. It grazes Slattern’s stomach, and she howls in pain. She takes a deep inhale, preparing.
“Newton!” Hermann yells, though he knows Newt can’t hear him. Otachi and the other four dragons fly out of the way as quickly as possible. Hermann casts a deflection spell, but isn’t sure where to aim it.
The fire breath is a desperate attack by a creature that knows it’s in a losing battle. Slattern aims it in a half-circle around herself. Newt hovers in the air behind her, but one of the triplets doesn’t make it out in time, and his dragon roars with pain as its tail is singed. It lands on the nearest rooftop to recover.
Slattern is in a rage. She spins around and breathes again. Hermann can barely throw a shield up fast enough to protect the jaeger. Newt narrowly misses the flame.
Slattern stumbles in the sky, her eyes flashing with panic. She beats her wings, but the damaged one can’t keep her in the air. She falls closer to the ground.
“Watch out!” yells Pentecost. Slattern flounders. She gets one good gust of air, and lifts up into the sky, but then screams out and twists as she falls. Newt is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Newton!” Hermann sees it all in slow-motion: Slattern’s wing jerks back just as Newt is flying past. Otachi is struck in the side, and tumbles. Hermann’s heart races. Otachi falls out of view.
“No—” Hermann doesn’t know what to do. He racks his brain, trying to think of a seeing spell that doesn’t require crystal. He shouts Newt’s name, but they’re much too far away. His heart thuds loud and painfully in his chest.
By now, Slattern is nearly on the ground. It is all too easy for the jaeger to step forward and stab its sword into her heart. Hermann can barely enjoy the moment. He stares at the place where Otachi fell, waiting for anything—any sign of life.
Hermann can feel Pentecost and Hansen’s eyes on him. He ignores them completely. He dispels their shield bubble and starts walking forward, down the stairs in front of the castle. He’s not even sure where he’s going. He scans the horizon, until—
Otachi flies through the sky, much closer than before. Hermann can see Newt on her back, holding on tight as she approaches. He is filled with such relief he nearly falls to the ground.
Otachi flies right up to Hermann and lands half-inside the rose garden. Newt tumbles off her back.
“We did it!” he shouts, scrambling to his feet with a wide grin on his face. His hair is a mess, and there is soot smeared into his riding leathers. Hermann doesn’t care. His lets his cane clatter to the ground, and pulls Newt into his arms.
“I thought you had fallen,” he says. “I was so—I thought—”
Newt pats Hermann’s back. His voice turns soft and quiet.
“No, no I’m fine.”
Hermann realizes that his breathing has gone ragged. He tries to pull back, suddenly self-conscious, but Newt keeps him close.
“We’re okay,” Newt whispers.
Hermann relaxes. Their success hits him all at once, and he starts laughing into Newt’s hair.
“We did it,” he says, proudly. “We did it.”
Slattern’s lifeless body is draped across the city center. One wing has fallen on a forge. Her tail has crushed the roofs of four houses. Hermann has been part of the cleanup process before; he knows it isn’t going to be pretty.
It takes seven people to move Slattern’s wing and nine to move her tail. The buildings were all evacuated by the time she fell, but Hermann still feels a pang of guilt when the families who lived there see the destruction. Their eyes are empty and their faces look hollow. He has seen the same expression on so many people in Valfrey.
“We’ll rebuild,” Newt says, watching. “I know it won’t be the same, but…” His voice trails off. “It’s all we can do.”
Hermann takes his hand. “We’ll be alright.”
When they get back to the castle, they request for the bath to be filled. Hermann strips Newt of his clothes, gently touching tears and burn marks in the fabric. He runs his fingers slowly down Newt’s side. There are bruises that hadn’t been there before.
“Flying was a little rough,” Newt says. “Weaving around like that, at such a high speed.”
Hermann kisses his shoulder.
“But it helped, so I don’t care. That’s why I did it.”
Hermann hushes him. Newt kisses like he’s scared, but trying to hide it.
“We won,” Hermann reminds him, for the hundredth time that day. “It’s over.”
“I know. That’s—I know that.”
The bathwater is scented with sprigs of lavender. There’s just enough room for the two of them, Hermann pulling Newt into his lap like a child. He takes a washcloth from a nearby chair and creates a lather of soap. He washes Newt slowly and carefully. When he dips into the water to rinse the cloth, Newt’s eyes are closed, and his breaths come slowly. Hermann kisses his nape.
“How did you defeat one on your own?” Newt asks.
“I was much better prepared than you.”
“But I can’t even imagine—”
“Slattern was bigger than the dragon I was sent to destroy.”
They’re quiet for a few moments, Hermann nuzzling into the back of Newt’s head while Newt stares off into thin air.
“Karla told me you almost died,” Newt says.
Hermann thinks about his answer before he replies. He chooses his words with diplomacy. “My father did not intend for me to return.”
Newt’s hand tightens where it rests on Hermann’s knee. “I could have lost you before I ever had you.”
Newt turns around. Bathwater sloshes around the sides of the tub, but they both ignore the mess. Newt leans in and kisses Hermann, more bold now than before.
They stay in the bath until their skin is wrinkled. The air feels heavy and thick.
Chapter 13: Epilogue
Newt’s coronation takes place six months after the wedding. There are fittings and rehearsals and decisions to be made. Newt is nervous, but excited. Hermann can tell by the size of his grin and the number of times he brings up the ceremony on any given day.
The morning of, they have breakfast delivered to their room. They eat on top of the bedsheets and request that they not be disturbed.
“I think cutting the speech at the end is really for the best,” Newt says, reclining into the pillows and talking around a mouthful of crumbling scone. “People don’t want to stick around, they want to start the celebration. Afterward comes the fun part.”
“But the ‘fun part’ has nothing to do with you. It’s all street food and entertainment.”
“I judge the contests. And I’ll be taking part in the dragonflight races.”
“Is that all?”
“That’s all I care about.” Newt smiles, and Hermann finds it contagious.
“I like seeing you fly,” he says. He sips his tea quietly.
Newt looks at him. “You know, we haven’t gone out for a while. There are tons of places I still haven’t shown you.”
“We’ll be busy after the coronation. I start teaching classes next week, and those mages have a lot to learn.”
“There’s a hot spring on the peak of Mount Lae.”
Hermann raises an eyebrow. “Well I suppose we could get away for a couple days.”
A servant knocks on the door as they finish eating, but Newt declines all offers of assistance. He and Hermann help each other into their formal outfits—Hermann all dramatic drapes of robe, Newt in belted layers and furs. They kiss each other’s skin, then cover it up with fabric. Once they’re dressed, Hermann goes to the window and looks out at the growing crowd in the distance.
“I think there are more people here than even live in our kingdom.”
Hermann catches sight of his star-embroidered scarf. It’s lying on his trunk, loosely folded into a square. He picks it up and wraps it around his neck.
“Do you think anyone will stop me if I decide to wear this?” he asks.
“They can’t stop you. You’ll be the king consort today.”
The scarf doesn’t match. Hermann is in green, and the scarf is all black. Even so, he wraps it around his neck once more and considers tucking the ends into his collar. As he’s checking to see how much length he has to work with, something in the embroidery catches his eye.
“This is a constellation,” he says. He takes off the scarf and examines it closer. “Oh, here’s another.”
Newt is across the room, fixing his hair in the mirror. He looks at Hermann in the reflection, then turns around with a soft smile.
“Did you know these were included in the design?” Hermann asks.
Newt nods. “Yeah, it’s actually—that’s the night sky on the day we got married.”
Hermann’s arms drop to his sides. He takes a few steps closer, staring at Newt in silence.
“I wanted it to be accurate, so I had a scholar at Erenhall draw the star chart for me, and then I took it to a seamstress for the embroidery. I mean, it’s not the whole sky, since that wouldn’t really fit. But it’s—well, it’s the best they could—”
“It’s perfect.” Hermann feels himself getting choked up. He pulls Newt closer with one arm.
“I love you,” Newt says.
Hermann kisses his lips.
The coronation ceremony is the perfect length. When they are announced king and consort, they are given new crowns and draped with red velvet cloaks. Newt’s crown is made of two layers of dragon’s teeth on a band of pure gold. Hermann’s is more delicate: silver and crystal with chains that hang over his hair. They are presented to the crowd, and the people before them cheer and applaud.
As they walk down the aisle, Hermann suppresses a smile. He is reminded of the last time they walked this way--the day of their wedding, right after their first kiss. Newt slips his arm around Hermann’s waist. Hermann can tell that he is thinking the same.
Outside, flowers are thrown like confetti. Birds are released from gilt cages overhead. Newt’s face is flushed and happy, and as they head for the city square, Hermann thinks about renewing their marriage vows. He takes Newt’s hand in his own. He’ll inquire about it later.