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what the devil knows

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The crystal shards hanging in the large window cast fractions of rainbow light along the forest painted walls of the nursery. It illuminates the tigers, elephants, and large birds from the darker vines and tree trunks, highlighting large pink and red flowers. Wolves and silver moons dance in a mobile above the cradle, spinning in a lazy circle, lethargic and sleepy in the early morning light. A rocking chair is propped in the corner, the white blanket covering the back intricately designed with a pattern of silver moons, green snakes, and vines.

Outside the room, Galena and the town below are just beginning to wake. The morning sun peaking over the mountain tops reflects off the snow, casting areas of shadow into a dim blue and the rest into glaring brilliance. Markets slowly fill will noise, tents being thrown back and product being revealed. A row of bakeries fills the streets with the scent of fresh rolls and opened jam. The butchers throwing back shutters and hanging long stocks of boar, deer, and cows in their windows. The kingdom goes on, silently continuing after the plum of blue smoke had dispersed from the castle towers – a sign of a new royal being born.

Malik lays in the center of it all, the crowned prince of all of Alptraum. He's been dressed in extravagant clothes fitting for court, emeralds and silvers interwoven with a small wolf seal pinned to one shoulder, his legs covered in another wolf blanket as he lays on his back in the crib. He's awake, sleepy eyes staring up at the mobile above him, and straying every few moments to the man in the corner - checking that his father still sits there. Agron hasn't moved except to sway back and forth with the chair, absent mindedly taking short pulls from his cup of tea.

Barefoot and half dressed, Nasir pads into the doorway, fiddling with his cuffs. He's wearing a loose tunic, the type that buttons small and close along the front, fabric thin and soft. Through it, Agron can see the many necklaces looped around him, some leading longer to wrap around his waist, a teasing glint at his navel. Though Nasir is back to his small size, fitting into his old Pythonissan clothes, he is still recovering. A deep soreness has settled into him as he slowly begins to heal from using so much magic to bring Malik into this world. It will be some time before he feels fully recovered.

Agron doesn't say anything, just sets his cup down on the small side table nearby, motioning with his hand and half lidded eyes. Nasir moves around the crib, smiling down at Malik when the baby meets his eye, cooing at him with a shimmer of light across his fingertips. Reacting instantly, Malik waves his hands, mouth gumming and pulling wide, grin forming two little dimples in his cheeks. Nasir brushes his fingers over the baby’s hair, across his brow, and down his nose, watching as Malik yawns, eyelids drooping as he nuzzles against the mattress.

Leaning forward, Agron eases his hands across Nasir's waist, down to grip his hips. He guides him back by them, innocently checking out the curve of Nasir's body under his pants. A brush of guilt makes its way down Agron’s spine when he catches himself, forcing his gaze away. It’s not really fair to focus on darker thoughts, not when Nasir can barely move across the room without flinching, still healing. Still, Agron’s appetite for his husband has not lessened in the aftermath of the birth of their son. Easing him down, Agron guides Nasir into his lap, being careful to avoid the bruises that still line Nasir's stomach, fingers instead finding their familiar path along Nasir’s hips. He takes over where Nasir left off, finishing the small silver clasps on his wrist, pressing a soft kiss to his palm when he's done.

“Good morning.” Agron’s voice is rough, gravely and thick as he nuzzles blearily at his husband, burying his nose in the soft line where his neck meets his hair.

“Morning.” Nasir curls his fingers around Agron’s jaw, caressing the stubble. “Did you sleep okay?”

“Yeah,” Agron guides his hands up from Nasir’s waist to his chest, ghosting over where his nipples press tender and sore against the fabric of his tunic. He lets them rest on Nasir’s collarbones, Agron curving his body along Nasir’s back. “You were talking in your sleep again.”

“Was I?” Nasir glances over his shoulder, cheeks rosy and brow furrowed. “What did I say?”

“Something in Pythonissan.” Agron leans his head back against the chair so he can better study his husband. “And…” Agron trails off, pulling his own shirt aside to show Nasir where there is a dark mark on his chest, a straight row of teeth marks in a circle. The flesh is an angry red, darker crimson where the canines have nearly punctured.

“I bit you?” Startled, Nasir freezes his hand halfway to the mark, eyes widening.

“And scratched me when I tried to wake you up,” Agron grimaces a little, motioning towards his back. “I didn’t want to but you were nearly screaming.”

“I don’t even remember,” Nasir mutters, pursing his lips in distaste. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. Not the first time we’ve been rough in bed, won’t be the last.” Agron breaks some of the tension with a lewd wink, “Probably just left over from the pregnancy.”

“Did I wake Malik up or did he just not want to get out of bed either?” He motions towards the crib where Malik is slowly blinking at the ceiling, passively gumming at his fist.

“He didn't wake all night, not even a whimper.” Agron yawns. “When I got him up and dressed this morning, he kept nodding off so I thought I'd let him rest. We can't have Malik's big debut ruined by him sleeping.”

Nasir makes a noncommittal noise, “Being a prince can be exhausting.”

They sit there in silence for a moment, nuzzling against one another, slowly letting their exhaustion melt away. The light from outside is filtering in stronger, the castle is awake and moving, but secluded in their own space, the royals allow for some lethargy.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Agron eases an arm around Nasir's waist, kissing just below his ear. “We can always wait.”

Agron had not let Nasir leave the room in the past week, demanding that he stay in bed and rest. Nasir, of course, had protested, but after nearly fainting when he tried to stand, he had been forced to relent. Malik had spent most of the week sleeping in the bed beside Nasir, cooing at anyone who came to visit as long as Nasir was nearby. No one outside their immediate group of friends had been allowed inside, Pietros and Naevia scaring away any of the other nobility that tried to sneak into the suite before the royal announcement. Agron had hated every moment he was called away, forced to go over old documents and treaties that Gerulf had left unattended for years.

"We need to present him. And I cannot hide up here forever. The kingdom needs to trust in us, our strength."

Nasir hooks his knees over Agron's thigh, turning in his lap. He would not sit like this before other people, already aware of the size difference between Agron and himself and the implications. Tove had joked before of Nasir appearing small and child-like before the brute and warrior minded Alptraum, and returned to his smaller build and clothing, it has become clear that this is the case. But for now, in the comfort in their own rooms with only their drowsy son as their audience, Nasir allows himself to sink into the comfort of Agron's arms.

"You do not have to stay the whole time," Agron uses his fingers to turn Nasir's chin. “No one will think less of you. You have done no small feat in bringing Malik into this world.”

"I know. I'm okay." Reassuringly, Nasir leans forward and kisses Agron, slow and sweet. He grins after, blushing a little when Agron stares up at him, dazed and bleary eyed. There is the hint of crimson along the slopes of Agron’s cheeks, flushed and bright. “What?”

“I just can’t get over it. You are so beautiful.” Agron murmurs, caressing over and over Nasir’s spine. “You really are.”

Flushing, Nasir looks away towards the crib. He still doesn't know what to do when Agron compliments him, easy and open with his adoration. He had expected things to fade, to change as time moves forward, so many things have been left unstable in the past. And yet, there is no one threat that lingers on the horizon. No creatures linger in the dark, plotting to attack, to tear apart everything. Nasir, quietly and secret, is hoping that this is it. That is this their ever after.

“I have been meaning to thank you," Nasir hooks his wrists around the back of Agron's neck, gently stroking through his hair. "But with everyone coming by to see Malik and visit with us and bring presents, I feel like I’ve hardly had a moment alone with you.”

“Thank me? For what?” Agron’s scoff is light, hands wandering along Nasir’s sides. “You deserve the praise, not me.”

"I know you didn't want to trust Ashur," Nasir's gaze flickers to Agron's, "that you wanted to kick him out. His appearance appeared opportune, but he is here for our help. He has nowhere else to turn to. There is no saying where my father and the twins are. The rest of us are scattered over the lands, lost to each other."

"I cannot always let my affections rule my decisions, Nasir," Agron chooses his words carefully, watching Nasir's face. He does not want to fight, not about this, but Agron is not happy that Ashur is here. He cannot erase the memory of Pietros' words, the fear in his eyes, of what Ashur may know from all of his years being with the vampires. "I am a husband and I am a king."

“You bear the weight of many mantles,” Nasir shifts, the fabric of his shirt twisting around his waist. It lifts enough to show a trail of black bruises down Nasir’s stomach, relics of his body stretched beyond capacity.

“As do you.”

Agron swallows thickly, glancing up to where Nasir’s crown fits across his forehead. The small crystals and pearls woven together like a thousand stars – the symbols of their people. He is new to this title, new to this world of royalty – smiling with one look and slaughtering in the other. Agron has no illusions that Nasir will master this game, but it is something he himself has learned over years and years of watching Gerulf. Everything now is carefully orchestrated, ever friendship and alliance. Agron cannot even touch Nasir without the whole kingdom knowing.

"You let him stay though." Nasir pulls back, curling his hands against his chest. A sliver of gold dances over his knuckles, magic playing though still weak. "You allowed it when you could have sent him away. Ashur has barely spoken of the horrors he has faced those many years. I fear that the man I once knew may be lost, but that does not mean he is lost. Agron, I believe that there is good in him – that he just needs someone to believe."

"I-" Agron draws in a breath, set on carefully laying out his concerns, when a voice at the door interrupts him.

"Deepest apologies your majesties for the intrusion," Chadara bows lowly, a crown of small pink flowers woven into her blond curls. "Lady Laeta is requesting an audience about Prince Malik's announcement and Spartacus wishes to discuss the extra security implemented in the hall. Crixus and Mira are here as well. They all seem very adamant about having words with you promptly."

"We will be out in a moment," Agron does not miss the way Nasir is quick to stand, blushing slightly at being caught sitting in such a relaxed position. He attempts to hide it by straightening his clothes, but Agron can read him well enough to know what has caused his swift departure. “Tell them to wait.”

"Yes, your highness. Oh, and King Nasir?" Chadara glances between the two men, hesitating. There is a strange sort of look on her face, as if she’s trying to smooth a recoil out but it still lifts her lips.

"What is it?" Agron answers for him, standing from his chair.

"Bagoas brought a message from your brother this morning. He wishes to come to court as well." Chadara doesn't say what her face does, nose wrinkled slightly. Bagoas had also brought a scowl and tales of Ashur’s lingering hands on him – a crime punishable by death to touch part of the royal consort’s household without expressed permission from the royals themselves. "He requested permission to be part of the royal party’s entrance as it is ‘most appropriate’ and he wishes not to miss the announcement of his nephew."

Raising his head slightly, Nasir glances at Agron through his hair. He doesn't say anything, but his eyes are earnest and wanting. Agron's chest twists, already knowing he's going to give in, regardless of what he feels is right, regardless of the creeping suspicion that seems to surround the newest member of their small group. How can he say no when Nasir has given a thousand times what is required of him? Malik exists and lays within his crib because of Nasir. Agron will never be able to repay such a wonderful gift. If Ashur is a villain than Agron will strike him down, but Nasir's hope would shrivel if Agron doesn't give him the chance first.

"Make sure he is ready then." Agron dismisses her, shooting a placating and gentle smile at his husband.

Chadara has the forethought to shut the door behind her, quiet in her retreat. Whatever Agron was going to say is lost, the moment cut short at the need for them grows. This is their life now, few and short moments caught in the solace of their rooms. They are the most important people in the kingdom, the celebrities of the court. There will be no rest now, no moments extended by themselves.

From inside the crib, Malik lets out a loud cry, waving his hands up at Nasir when he leans over to pick him up. It’s clear from Malik’s long body that he’s going to be tall, wild curls and gleaming eyes hinting at Agron’s strong genes. He latches on instantly to a piece of Nasir’s hair, blinking up at him as he gums at the strands, quieting when his father makes a soothing sort of noise, humming gently. Nasir, for his part, doesn’t flinch when Malik tugs, instead leans down to pepper gentle kisses over his rosy cheeks.

“This whole party is for you, what do you think about that baby?” Nasir bounces Malik a little, watches as the little prince doesn’t turn his gaze away from his father, staring adoringly up at Nasir. He releases the hair just for a moment, long enough to press his palm to Nasir’s cheek, delighted when Agron comes into view over Nasir’s shoulder.

“He better get used to it.” Leaning down, Agron presses a loud and wet kiss to plumpest part of Malik’s cheek, sending the baby into a wiggling fit. “Alptraum will take any excuse to throw a party. And for a new prince? We will be celebrating every night for at least a year.”

“Then let us not keep them waiting.” Nasir shifts Malik in his arms, resituates him until he rests comfortably in the fold of his elbow.

Agron spares them one last look, one lingering memory of this happy and carefree moment, before guiding them towards the door. He knows that everything will change. Outside of this room, things are no longer going to be as easy, as simple. Things have begun to change in the court, especially now that the royal line is secured. Alliances and treachery build upon times of calm, drama encroaching. The game has begun, whether either man is ready for it or not.

- - -

"Are you sure this is going to work?" Ariadne asks softly. She's finished weaving the willow branches into a circle, setting it in the center of the altar. Beside it, two white candles burn with flickering purple flames, the air smelling of jasmine.

"It has to. Nothing else has," Lido pours the nectar from the coiled lily into a small cup, lapping the excess off his finger when it spills. “Mika and Jem sent word that they have tried for many nights to share dreams with Nasir. He somehow cannot be reached or is letting his magic block them. He has grown stronger since his marriage. It sometimes happens that way.”

“Wolf magic stronger than yours?” Ariadne shakes her head, “I have seen you call a storm with just a look.”

“Nasir’s magic is mine tenfold,” Lido clenches his fist around a small pouch, pouring the shimmering contents over the sweet smelling liquid. “Pythonissan magic is a gift from the gods. Everyone is born with some symbol tattooed upon them that links to their magic.” Lido turns, letting Ariadne see the triangle inked onto his lower back, a thin line through the upper portion. There is a swirl from the base towards the top, metallic white against his tan skin.

“I understand that, but didn’t you say Nasir’s magic isn’t real magic?” Ariadne does not let her eyes linger on the curve of Lido’s hipbones, his bare chest smooth and sculpted.

“It is the most real magic. He is the physical embodiment of a god,” Lido waves his hand in a small circle. “He has all of our powers, all the elements and then the one most coveted, only given to those in direction lineage of the gods themselves. Whatever god is reincarnated; their specific power is given to their human vessel.”

“So because Nasir is Alkhaliq, he was given the power of life.” Ariadne makes the connection, eyes straying just for a moment towards Lido’s tattoo again. “But you have the power of more than just air and wind. You can see the future.”

“And the past,” Lido agrees. There are two silver bands around each of Lido’s biceps, silver fabric flowing down from each, perfectly matching his pants. It is the color of the highest seers, only the most gifted and prized allowed to adorn them. “The gods work in mysterious ways, I suppose.”

"Lido," Ariadne gently reaches out, taking the other man's hand. She is not bold enough to touch him anywhere else, keeping her eyes at the soft contrast of their knuckles, his lighter toned tan but heavy with rings. "What are you going to do if you find out that what you think is going on isn't?"

"What do you mean?" Lido turns to study her profile, the slope of Ariadne's nose, the soft curl of her mouth, her tightly curled hair.

"What if Nasir's marriage is like yours?" Ariadne wrinkles her nose, cursing her lack of tact. She cannot be blamed though. She has heard Lido's crying in the depth of the night, the shuttered eyes and the thin fabric that can only do so much to hide the bruises. They are not from Albinius' rageful hands though, but his lust for the younger man.

“Albinius and I-“ Lido pauses, stroking his fingers for a moment over his short beard and onto his jaw. In the dim light of the forest, the contrasts play along his features, darkening his expression. “Our relationship is complicated. I have been with him for nearly eight years now.”

“Complicated?” Ariadne scoffs loudly, “Seeing into the future is complicated. Praying old spells that you barely remember will call your brothers together is complicated. Albinius’ fucking devouring of you is simple.”

“Don’t be so crash.” Lido continues to work on the spell, setting a row of small god statues along the altar. “He does not devour me. Our relationship is just built of a different kind. Not all of us are made for love stories, Ariadne.”

“You are more powerful than him.” Ariadne adjusts the thin cloak of lilac velvet around herself, fighting against the chill and the words that are coming too quick to catch out of her mouth. “You don’t love him. You don’t want him. How can you? Albinius is nearly a hundred years old and you are so lovely. You must know that nearly all of the court eats out of the palm of your hand. Alibinius is just the shade that lingers around you. It is you that we follow.”

“So many references to consuming.” Lido casts a knowing gaze towards Ariadne. “If you hunger, there is still bread in the bag.”

“Lido, you must know that there are others who could fill your bed and please you, treat you with the respect and honor you deserve.” Ariadne sighs deeply, twisting her hands together. “I have seen Albinius cast a blind eye to how Pyth looks at you, follows you around waiting for you to notice how much he desires your favor.”

“My husband,” Lido cuts him, gaze sharp as he turns to his friend, “is not our concern right now nor are the panting breath of men. I know my place and they should learn theirs.”

“Just tell me you are happy with him, that he brings you joy and pleasure,” Ariadne boldly steps forward, clasping both of Lido’s hands in her own. It is not an acceptable action given her status, still ranked lower than the High Seer’s husband, but Ariadne has known Lido since he first arrived. Their friendship extends past titles and woven crown of fabric.

“I-“ Lido’s gaze drops, a guilty and exhausted expression passing over his face. “I am happy to do my duty to our people and our kingdom.”

“Oh Lido.” Ariadne cannot keep the sympathy out of her tone.

“He is our master and the highest of our people.” Lido glances around, checking their solitude, before continuing. “I am happy to be his.”

The two stare at each other, close enough that they are sharing ghosted breath. Around them, the woods press dark and long, an infinite sea of hidden animals and beasts, creatures watching them with silence and intrigue. They seem to sense the magic being called, the purple flickering light of the candles, the thick smoke of burning sage and eucalyptus.

“We cannot let ourselves be distracted,” Lido draws away from her, brushing his long hair over his shoulder. He twists his wrist towards the sky, a bitterly cold wind swirling through their clearing, carrying it a small horde of petals.

“You never answered my question,” Ariadne catches them on the breeze, holding them close to her chest. “Of Nasir?”

Lido glances up again, drawing a small dagger from the folds of his robes. He thinks of how to answer, to put into words what he has seen. Whenever he dreams of Nasir, it is always fire and heat, gasping breath with sweat slick skin, the hissing voices of Pythonissan prayers. It is as if a candle held inside of a lantern, shining bright and suffocating against the glass. In the shadows, pawing and howling, wolves call out to him, sharp teeth and claws that dig into the earth. And there, in the very center, a cool oasis springs, frosted and ever blooming. Lido has not seen Nasir since the younger man was thirteen, but he is not so distanced he does not realize what the glowing green eyes in the dark mean to him. Nor the man that lingers near Nasir in every dream, in every vision, blood splattered and teeth sharp.

“I have seen them.” Lido finally answers, “Nasir and his wolf king and the price they will pay.”

“And?” Ariadne steps up to the altar adding the essence of roses and honeysuckle to the nectar already in the cup.

“We must do all we can to protect them. Their sacrifice will be great to save our world. It is our duty to repay them in any way that we can.”

Clasping his hands together, Lido lowers himself onto his knees before the altar, letting the chill slowly seep into his skin. These spells are ancient, nearly lost in old Pythonissan, etching of words with symbols that Lido can barely understand. He can only pray that his translation proves true and that by some twist of divine intervention and faith, this will work.

He begins by focusing all of his energy forward, building it and shaping it with his mind. It is a small orb, bluish gray in color, that fills as if Lido is pouring into it from a pitcher. He adds pieces of himself, memories and feelings of the brothers. Lido places Kalmar's daring gaze, his bold mouth and smirk. From inside of him, he puts that curl of Mika's hands when he's holding a vessel of water, creating it even in the driest of climates. Jem's love for his younger twin, the laughter he gives freely with balls of fire dancing around him. Then Nasir with his sweet smile and the way his hands healed, sought out pain and washed it away. He does not focus on Ashur, his cruel mouth or the knowing eyes. He does not want that magic here.

Slowly, through the fog, Lido can sense another presence with him. It's the reflection of the moon on a bowl of crystals, fabric billowing with snow and the artic wind. Ariadne's warm skin pressed against his side, the chanting of the other seers around them and the burning incense of sage and sandalwood. She lends him her strength, her magic, her will to help form the orb into something bigger, swirling with light.

“Brothers,” Lido murmurs, Pythonissan tongue soft from lack of use. He has not spoken his home language in many years, nearly forgotten the sound of his voice hissing and curling around ancient vowels. “Let Sator fill you, remember our blood, our bond. Sons of sun and desert, air and sky.”

Lido pulls memories of previous times, focuses on one particular that shines special and significant. Before, back when all of them were young, Ashur barely thirteen, the eldest and just beginning to turn bitter. The brothers huddled around a fire on the outskirt of a forest, laughing to one another and allowing magic to fill them. Someone had been playing music, a harp that Pietros and Nasir are singing to in tiny childlike voices.

“Darkness is growing, brothers.” Lido begs, allowing the feelings of love – that fleeting warmth – to breathe into him. “We must stop it. If we don’t, all will be lost.”

Gripping the edge of the altar, Lido presses his forehead down onto the soft crimson cloth. He can feel the magic coursing through him, curling hot and acidic along his spine. It is unlike the light flashes of light that bring the visions of the future, the past. No, Pythonissan magic is sharp, needy and hot. It does not allow for weakness, for ignorance. This particular spell book was only acquired through necessary and dangerous means, sending messages to Fatin’s old temple, begging for assistance for her son. Lido lets it take its course through him, awaken old halls and pathways, before it all mounts to one blistering light.

He falls back, collapsing into the grass, eyes shuttered before slowly Ariadne’s lovely face focuses into view. Her curls are spilling around her rainbow headband, nose ring glinting in the dying forest light. Behind her, the leaves flutter through the breeze, trees moaning. It’s still cold here, perched on the edge of the mountain, snow threatening with dark clouds above the canopy.

From the very edge of his vision, Lido can see a flash of golden light growing quick and sharp, as if someone has just struck a match in the darkness. It flares bright and warm for a moment, a flicker of red in the center, and the woods around them still. The evening birds fail to sing, the deer pause in their grazing, even the soft purring of the silvanus pause to listen as a creature steps out of the burning aura.

The man is fairly short, wearing a chartreuse tunic covered in a pattern of embroidered leaves and birds, an emerald sash around his waist. His dark hair hangs around his shoulders, filled with small leaves, branches with berries, and what appears to be moss. They cascade from a crown of twigs, the ends poised up as if spikes, a strand of lights woven between them. Around his neck, an amulet gleams silver and pink, the stones flittering through colors as if light through a prism.

“Well, isn’t this a surprise.” The man steps closer to Lido, bare feet caked in mud. “Would it not have been easier to send a letter, brother?”

“Kalmar,” Lido is quick to stand, graceful and poised. He adjusts the bracelets around his arms, the fabric fluttering smooth against his bare chest. “I did not think you would answer me, if I did write. It has been too long.”

“Eight years,” Kalmar raise an eyebrow, “Is that a long time?”

“It is.” Lido glances over at Ariadne who is staring with her mouth half open, eyes huge. She does not know what to make of this magic. “I called for you because-“

“I know why you called for me. The forest has told me of what shit Nasir has gotten into. Always was too curious for his own good. A little too beautiful to end up as ordinary. Could you settle for anything other than the best. Still, our blood does not mean fidelity. I don’t know why I should care for his troubles now,” Kalmar shrugs one shoulder. His dark lined eyes move over the pair, full mouth twisted in disinterest.

“The future of the world rests on the prophecy being fulfilled.” Lido answers calmly, reaching over to gently touch Ariadne’s shoulder. “My people have seen it. We must act. Do not let old crimes cloud your judgement. You know that Nasir was too young to do anything for us.”

“You speak boldly. Always so passionate, weren’t you brother? Lido, who burns brighter than the rest of the world. I think if I had looked I could have seen you blazing from your mountain, watching the rest of the world, knowing our future – our triumphs, our pain.” Kalmar nods, crossing his arms over his chest. “And yet I can’t seem to find the reason why your vision of Nasir and his wolf pack will affect me? My faes? We do not care for the battles of men. We are untouched by such greedy thoughts.”

Lido frowns, wrinkling his mouth in distaste as he tries to think of something to say. Even as children, Kalmar had always been this way – easy to judge and quicker to say his thoughts on matters he does not fully understand. They are no longer running teenagers competing for prizes they did not realize were ruining them. This is not a game. This is the fate of the world.

“Time may have moved forward, days have melted into months to years, but it seems some things do not change.”

A different voice breaks from the trees to the right, two identical men stepping forward, hands clasped. It appears as if a mirror image has been brought to life, everything from the curls in their hair to their smooth brows to the even rising of their chest is done in sync. They’re wearing matching outfits, thin dancing pants of turquoise and seafoam, wrapped in gold chains that overlap in an intricate pattern of triangles and swirls. In one of their hands, the twins hold a small, flickering red candle.

“Lido, still made of ice.” Mika grin matches Jem’s, both of them walking together into the clearing. Jem nods along, finishing the thought. “Kalmar still an ass.”

“And I suppose you two are still fucking?” Kalmar asks, pointedly looking at where the twins are holding hands, loosely entwined fingers. “Refusing to make father any money because you waste all your talent on each other?”

“Yes.” Jem easily moves his arm around Mika’s hips, pulling his twin against his side.

“It’s good to know that nothing has changed then.”

The brothers pause, sharing glances between each other. They seem to be sizing each other up, considering and contemplating, attempting to recognize each other. It has been so long, so many years have separated them, and now they stand men when last they were boys. Slowly, as if lifting a veil, Mika begins to giggle, his twin echoing half a moment later. Lido cannot contain himself once the other men start, tossing his head back as Kalmar finally gets in, put upon grinning as his older brother pulls him into a tight hug.

“It has been too fucking long,” Mika cups Lido’s face, kissing both of his cheeks. “Look at you! You could be a vision of a sky spirit. And so thin! Do they not have food in your frozen kingdom?”

“It is cold in the mountains but we burn our fires warm,” Lido laughs, allowing himself to be spun, allowing the twins to marvel at the soft glimmers of light woven into his loose pants. The fabric is so thin that if it brushes his skin, it is practically translucent.

“And you!” Jem waves his hand dramatically at Kalmar, “Covered in leaves and twigs? Do they aim to make you into a tree as well? Punishment for your reckless magic?”

“We, unlike most, don’t need to show our skin to be taken seriously.” Kalmar makes quick work of the three silver buttons on the front of his tunic, opening the coat to reveal his chest. He is wearing a canopy of necklaces as well, all of them heavy with golden beads, wooden bobbles, and lights. “Though I suppose I cannot forget the Pythonissan in me.”

“You minx! The last time I saw you, you were barely up to my hip. Now look at you!” Kalmar shies away from Jem’s fingers with a snap of his teeth, patting his brother’s cheek instead. “Still as rotten and spoiled as ever.”

“And the two of you? Princes of the Pythonissa?” Lido admonishes gently, “As if you have not been handed gold and sapphires just for the beauty of your face.”

“Yeah, yeah.” The twins draw back together, matching smiles pulling wide across their face. “If only we had more time to catch up. I wish to hear all about your adventures.”

“We have all lived at least six campfires worth of stories.” Kalmar agrees, straightening his tunic. The glitter under his cheeks reflects in his eyes, a million golden lights reflecting in the dark.

“Perhaps one day, when all of us are united, we shall.”

Lido’s words sober the mood immediately, a cold sort of longing settling over the clearing. Mika and Jem stand wrapped around one another, eyes downcast and hair billowing in the frozen wind. Kalmar and Lido both shutter their eyes, not looking at one another, but staring in opposite directions. The gaping spot where Nasir belongs in this gathering is clear, darkened by the reason they are gathered here.

“I do not mean to interrupt your happy reunion,” Ariadne speaks up, all of the men turning as if just realizing she is there, “but we do not have much time. Lido, you said the spell would only keep everyone together for an hour.”

“You are right.” Lido nods his head, sadly turning back to his brothers with his hands clasped. “This is old magic and not meant to last. I had to go to extremes to even manage to get us together for a few moments.”

“I appreciate the effort and this reunion is far overdue, but as I said before, I do not see purpose in this mission. The affairs of wolves and vampires do not affect us. The fae are safe in our forests and our kingdoms.” Kalmar shakes his head, sighing deeply. “I sympathize, but I will not risk my people’s safety.”

“You sympathize? You fuck!” Mika steps forward, halting in his movements when Jem grabs his arm. “This is not some game. Nasir’s fate is linked to all of ours!”

“If what I’ve seen is allowed to happen,” Lido’s voice is calm, though there is an edge along it. “we all will burn. No one will be safe from the darkness.”

“Darkness-“ Kalmar begins, only to be cut off by Ariadne this time, stepping up beside Lido.

“You do not understand, fae bride, but let me educate you.” Her expression is pointed, fierce as she latches a hand onto Kalmar’s neck. She doesn’t squeeze, but lets her magic flow sharp and fierce through him.

The vision is brief, burning hot and unforgiving as Ariadne forces Kalmar to look upon the future. Charred lands still billowing flames, creatures of all factions screaming and crying out in pain. Ghouls, shifters, shadows, and mages ravage the land, killing anything that stands in their way. Blood has stained the rivers, the earth, everything smothered to ash and soot. They are led by a dark figure, a crown of woven black thorns on his head, a decapitated wolf head on the end of his long staff.

“That is your nephew,” Ariadne hisses as she yanks both of them back into the present, “That is of your blood.”

“Ariadne,” Lido warningly puts a hand on her shoulder, guiding her back against his side. “My companion’s words are harsh but true. Nasir has been foretold to be the one to give birth to the slayer of darkness. This will only be true though if the child is raised to be a warrior for the living.”

“And?” Kalmar asks, breath short and fast. “Nasir is safe with his wolf king. There is no reason to-“

“Ashur has suddenly appeared in their kingdom. Ariadne and I have both seen it.” Lido interrupts, mouth twisting in disdain. “He is not there for pleasantries. We have reason to believe that he is working with Caesar and the other vampires to procure the child.”

Mika and Jem share a look, identically frowning. “We have tried to reach out to Nasir through dreams. Every attempt has been stopped as if-“ Mika hesitates, floundering for the word.

“It is not his magic. It is something else.” Jem concludes, sighing deeply. “Every dream is as if blurry, unable to connect. His magic is willing. Nasir is there. But there is something blocking it every time.”

“And what does father have to say about this?” Kalmar asks, raising an eyebrow. He has not seen the man in a long time.

“Father is dying.” Mika and Jem say together, soft and aching.

The brothers fall into silence again, each of them plagued by the implications of this and the knowledge that there is little they can do at this exact moment. None of the brothers are really sure where the Alptra are now, Mika and Jem having sent messages to the summer camp only to come back unanswered, birds exhausted but still heavy with paper.

“How can Nasir not know what Ashur is planning? He isn’t exactly a role model for brotherly love and affection.” Kalmar asks, looking over at the twins. They’re the ones closest to him, in both age and relationship.

“He doesn’t remember Ashur,” Jem speaks softly, almost as if he’s afraid to say it, “not the correct way. Whenever he came up, Nasir always said nice things about him. How it wasn’t fair he got stolen.”

“Oh.”

“Regardless of what he suspects or what he knows, we know this.” Ariadne glances at each brother before continuing. “Nasir and his baby are in danger, and we seem to be the only people who know Ashur’s plot and the results if he succeeds. It is up to us to warn them and put a stop to it.”

“But how? We don’t even know where they are. Mika and I have looked. Every attempt is shot down.” Jem rubs a hand into his hair. “We do not have the means to find them.”

“There may be a way,” Lido begins to grin, a plan already forming in his mind. “If Nasir is pregnant, that means his magic must have bonded with his husband’s, right?”

The brothers nod, shrugging lightly.

“Then perhaps, we are looking in the wrong place. We don’t need to reach Nasir exactly, but perhaps we can through his husband.”

Mika and Jem’s eyes alight, sharing a knowing look between them as they begin to catch onto the plan.

“If we can reach Nasir’s king, then we can figure out where they are, and if we can find their hidden castle, then we can go and reveal Ashur for the snake that he is.”

Lido finishes, nodding as Ariadne clasps her hands, encouraged and hopeful.

“That still doesn’t answer the question how we’re going to make Nasir believe us and how we’re going to prove that Ashur is trying to steal the baby.”

Kalmar crosses his arms over his chest again, brow furrowed in concentration. It sobers the mood again, but Lido will not allow them to fall back into despair. They have a plan, shaky but growing, and they can’t let that hope fleet away – regardless of how thin it may be.

“We will find a way.”

- - -

Tove can't stop himself from lightly tapping his foot to the drum beat, eyes trained on the throne room door. They've been pounding a steady pulse now for a few minutes now, steadily speeding up into a full fledge song with horns in time. It's the song of the king, of celebration, the fight song. There is no one to stand between Agron and the throne now, secured in place by the birth of his son.

"This is so exciting," Mira mutters, clasping her hands before her. "I cannot wait for the games."

"Are you to compete?" Naevia, next to her, turns to look at her friend.

"In archery and hand to hand,” Mira adjusts the strap of her bow across her shoulder. “Saxa and I have been practicing. She has only gotten better since her time in the North, so it's mostly been kicking my ass, but we make a good team.”

“Dietrich has always been a fan of allowing her to train and fight with our best soldiers and hunters," Tove thinks fondly of his sister, fierce and ruthless, and the best fighter they have in the Northern hunting grounds.

"And you? Are you competing this time?" Naevia asks lightly. She knows that Tove's preferred sport is wrestling, but she does not know if he's participated in it in a while.

"I am." Tove nods, pushing out his chest. "It's my duty to represent the royal family. Duro wants to do the horse sports and Agron can't play."

"Well," Mira shrugs one shoulder, "that's not necessarily true."

"I heard that he still wants to do sword," Naevia adds in.

"You think Nasir is going to let him? You know everyone who plays ends up with a broken bone or bleeding." Tove scoffs roughly, "Nah. Nasir had that baby and Agron's fun is all over."

"Nasir is aiming to compete in hand to hand." Naevia's expression darkens. "And don't presume to know what he's capable of. Crixus, Spartacus, and I have all agreed to help train him."

Mira mutters, pursing her lips. "I am sure that Nasir could kill a man before he even realized blade was pressed to his skin."

Tove raises his hands in easy submission, smiling widely at both women. "You have both bested nearly every man and woman in this kingdom. I doubt that Nasir will be any less than a fierce warrior."

"It may be necessary," Naevia rubs a hand over her braids, "Did you read the report this morning?"

Tove looks guilty as he shakes his head. If he was honest with himself, Tove would admit that he hasn't really bothered to follow through on any of his royal duties lately. He's lost all interest in it, practically obsolete now that the line of succession has shifted.

"Wolves were found slaughtered on a mountain pass a day's journey from here," Naevia lowers her voice, leaning in, "Crixus said that it was Donar's party that came across them. Blood everywhere. Massacred."

"And?" Mira probes, sensing there is more to the story.

"Apparently, Donar saw three wolf heads placed together, ripped from their bodies, and on their heads were crowns on thorns." Naevia curls her lips, noticing that the musicians along the wall have grown louder, a faster heartbeat ringing over and over. The air seems to be changing, charged and hot as the royals must be approaching down the hallway.

"A message then?" Tove asks, turning his body towards the door.

"But for what?"

"I fear we'll find out sooner than later." Naevia sighs, grimacing. She has not even begun to tell the others of the real threat, how the creatures have gotten closer in an incredibly short amount of time. How Crixus and Spartacus have been fielding soldiers’ concerns, the mountains once standing for safety and security turning more into a risk. With the way the vampires are moving, hunting, it would appear they are looking for the fastest way to the castle.

Whatever Mira is about to say is lost as the crowed breaks into a loud cry, irrupting the trio as the doors to the room slowly open, groaning on their hinges. In the front, Crixus leads the King’s Guard, a mix of familiar faces – Barca, Auctus, Saxa – and others that Tove barely recalls. They all wearing matching armor, though Crixus’ is more elaborate, chest pieces engraved with a large wolf rearing on its hind legs. The cloaks clasped at their shoulders are a brilliant royal blue. Behind, Spartacus escorts the royal couple, armor silver and etched in a pattern of rearing wolves. On his breast, the hand of the king pin shines golden and bright.

It all falls in comparison to the royal couple moving together just behind. Agron is holding Malik, the baby curled in his large arms, a tiny circlet of gold around the baby’s head to match his fathers’. They’ve wrapped him in a white wolf fur blanket, a ribbon of red silk etched along the edge. Nasir is radiant just to the right, dressed in pale white and silver, looking small and perfect with one hand looped around Agron’s bicep. He can’t seem to keep the smile from his face, Agron whispering something to him that has Nasir throwing his head back to laugh. Moving half a step forward, Nasir waves his hand in a long half arch before the couple, a thousand rainbow colored lights bursting from his palm. They linger in the air before floating out over the crowd, the cheers only gaining volume.

It is not just joy and excitement that fills the room. Two lines of royal servants march in time behind the royal couple, dressed in red and blue respectively. Pietros leads one while Duro leads the other, close enough to be holding hands but they refrain. The whole group walks with purpose, with a grace that has the crowd falling back, cheering but something else. Something close to fear but not quite there. The nobility might not realize but the peasants know, the superstitious praying common folk that see what power Agron and Nasir hold. They are untouchable.

The throne is under a large circle oculus cut into the ceiling, shining bright sunlight and the drifting of snow down upon the royal seats. When the moon shifts across the sky, it is common for the two to line up and a bright heavily light to circle where the silver wolves are carved into the dais of the kings. The king's guard surrounds the circular platform, opening enough for the royal couple to ascend the steps, Agron's hand looking huge on the small of Nasir's back as his other cradles their son to his chest.

"People of Alptra, I come before you as your king, your alpha wolf, to share my joy and triumph!"

Agron's voice booms over the chanting of the crowd, ricocheting off the acoustics of the room to echo far out into the court yard beyond. Slowly, the voices fall into a soft murmur, heads and eyes bobbing as they shift to gain a better view of the kings.

"These past view months have been a time of change within our kingdom. First, I was blessed beyond all other men by the joining of my house with another’s and my marriage to Prince Nasir of Pythonissa."

Agron turns to Nasir, smiling wide and bright as he lifts their joint hands to his mouth. He presses his mouth to Nasir's knuckles, a clear indication of his devotion to the man as the king bows his head to no one. In response, Nasir bows lower, bending his knee and head, a pretty blush across his cheeks. The crowd screams in joy, the drums beating again in a quick staccato that silences the peasants and nobility back to their hum.

"Then, my dear father was poisoned by allies we invited into our home and our city. A fate that was swiftly revenged by my hand's own sword."

Turning to his left, Agron motions towards Spartacus, who bows low under the recognition. The truth will never be revealed now, kept secret by the royalty and the those closest to them. No one will think to betray Agron now, considering how powerful and important he is as king over Alptra.

"Today, I stand before you a humbled and changed man. Not for the crown that rests upon my head nor the moon's power bestowed upon me as your alpha."

The crowd falls nearly silent over Agron's softer tone, knowing what is coming and craning forward to see. It does not escape those closest to the throne that the bundle in Agron's arms has started to wiggle, blanket fluttering.

"I come before you with the most precious gift. I present for official announcement and recognition as the first heir and son of King Agron and King Nasir."

Agron turns the bundle, allowing the baby to rest against his chest, blankets falling away from his dark curls, his tan skin, the brilliant color of his eyes. It is no question whose child this is.

"Prince Malik."

The roar of the crowd is deafening, screaming voices as hands raise and clap, praises being shouted in thick Alptra. The music begins again, louder and more ferocious as the peasants begin the chanting of the prince's name. They will not be calmed, not subdued now, hysterical with the joy of the birth of a new princeling.

Stationed just below the throne dais, to the right, Tove can hear when Malik begins to get fussy, startled by the loud noise. He lets out a shattering cry, half hidden by the roar of the crowd around them, tiny fists waving angrily. Agron is quick to act, curling the week old against his chest and cooing at him, pressing his mouth down against Malik cheek. The baby instantly stops screaming, one little fist touching Agron’s face, staring at him unblinkingly. Malik’s attention is only distracted when Nasir reaches forward too, smoothing the curls from Malik's temple. He glances between his parents before settling down, one fist wrapped tightly around the leather cord that lay down from Agron’s neck.

"Your majesty, do you wish us to bring the sacrifices out now?" Spartacus poses the question, leaning down to talk to the royal couple.

"We will move to the courtyard for it. No point in getting blood on the floor." Agron nods towards Crixus, allowing the captain to assemble his men with a short whistle. He then eases Malik out of his arms and into Nasir's, accepting his sword from Spartacus' hand and buckling it to his belt.

"Sacrifices?" Nasir shifts Malik around, supporting his head against his shoulder as the king's guard begins their formation, cutting a path across the room. They are not kind when they push the peasants back to the edges of the room, allowing space for the royals to exit.

"It is Alptra tradition to offer a sacrifice to the gods on the announcement of the new prince or princess." Tove answers for him. "The captives were chosen and prepped while you were recovering with Malik. It will be a good showing."

"Wait," Nasir's eyes have gone huge as Naevia and Mira flank his either side, ushering him with gentle but prompt hands to walk beside Agron. "What? Who is being sacrificed?"

"Previous council members that would not swear loyalty to Agron." The answer comes from an unlikely source, Ashur speaking over Pietros to his brother. Pietros is quick to slam his shoulder back into Ashur's chest, making the move look accidental as they move under the throne room doorway and out into the hall, heading towards the balcony. Nasir does not catch the movement, instead turning his head abruptly to stare at Agron.

“Council members,” Nasir’s voice trails off as the doors are opened in front of him again, the booming sound of the waiting crowd flooding in and down the hall.

True to his word, a line of wooden posts has been arranged in a line in the center of the courtyard outside of the castle, a short three step stair leading up to it. The snow has already begun to accumulate on the bases, flanking the whole platform in crystal and white, almost like a forest of bare trees. The image is ruined by the large standing off to the side, a hood of black velvet covering his face except for his eyes.

“Come, my love. It is only the beginning of the festivities for our son.”

With a hand on Nasir's back, Agron leads them from the door to the balcony to the railing, peering down at the gathering crowd and courtyard below. They continue to cheer, the pounding of the music deafening as it ricochets off the stone walls, echoing down until it seems that is one continual loop - one cry for blood and glory. It will not be too long now until the prisoners are brought out, sacrificed and executed in Malik's honor.

“Agron, I do not think-“ Nasir begins to say, one hand tightening the blanket around Malik.

“They were given the chance to swear loyalty. They refused.” Duro shrugs one shoulder, indifferent and cold. He stands on the other side of Agron, leaning further out to see the executioner. “It will be a good showing.”

“It is a gift for our son.” Agron adds in, watching as the guards open the door the dungeon, the first prisoner being lead out into the billowing snow. “Both for his honor and his safety.”

“You would murder people in celebration of your child’s life?”

Agron turns to glance down at his husband, raising an eyebrow at him when he finds Nasir’s horrified expression. The wind casts strands of his hair over Nasir’s face, eyes huge and unblinking. Curled in his arms, Malik stares up at his parents, tiny fist curled in the satin lining of his blanket. He is too young to really understand expressions, but he still makes a sound of distress as Nasir begins to tremble. To his side, Ashur lingers just beyond, mouth in a grim line as he takes in the pair too.

“It is Alptraum tradition to offer sacrifices towards the moon and gods to ensure that the child grows safe and strong.” Agron sooths, caressing the blanket that surrounds Malik’s body. “It is for his own good and the good of the people. Once it is done, we will hold feasts and games in honor of our newest Alptraum prince.”

“Malik is not just Alptraum though.”

Nasir turns back towards the crowd, visibly startling as the sacrifices are lined up one by one. They’ve been dressed in gray, dirty rags basically, faces clean but bodies clearing having been beaten. A line of younger guards step forward to meet them, fitting circlets of pale flowers around their heads. It is a mockery of a crown, honored one last time. Nasir does not recognize all of them, knowing some of them served on Gerulf’s council before he arrived, but he knows some of them - Vettius, Ovidius, Licinia, and Pericles.

“Solonius pledged loyalty and servitude and bowed to me.” Agron explains, taking Nasir’s expression for confusion.

“Why is Castus down there?” Nasir’s eyes dart from where the man has been led up on the dais to his husband’s face. “He swore loyalty to you after Gerulf died! I was there!”

“I do not trust him.” Agron answers simply, indifferent and sharp. “His gaze still lingers over you as if my father will rise from the grave and grant him his wish.”

“You cannot kill people just because you think they desire me.” Handing Malik over to Pietros, Nasir draws closer to Agron, looping his hands around the king’s bicep. “Agron, think of what you are doing.”

“He was on my father’s council. The Pontas shits have done nothing but feed off our generosity since they arrived.” Agron replies, not turning to look at Nasir. Instead, he watches as the executioner move to the first person, Licinia’s face streaked with tears as she begs for mercy. “I have no control over this now. It is tradition and an important sacrifice to the gods.”

“You weren’t even here when they arrived,” Nasir’s tone has moved from fearful to desperate. Anyone down below would see it as the smaller king clinging to his husband, talking about the execution in excitement. Up on the balcony itself, the royals are beginning to shift uncomfortably, Spartacus clearing his throat.

“Your command, highness.”

No one had bothered to inform Nasir of this part of their culture, their tradition, even though Spartacus had highly suggested it last council meeting. Instead, no one thought it would affect him. Nasir has taken to all other aspects of Alptraum history – the language, the gods, the food. Why would he not just accept this as well? Except, Spartacus has seen the royal king bow before an altar covered in snakes and crystals, not wolves before. Nasir whispers prayers over Malik in Pythonissan, allows his snake to curl around his sleeping son. He has not partaken in meat again since Malik was born. They cannot ignore Nasir and Pietros’ heritage for the sake of their own.

“Agron.” Nasir’s fingers curl tighter as Agron raises his other hand, dropping it in one shift motion.

The executioner pulls his axe back in one broad stroke. The crowd’s screams of excitement, for blood, for the carnage of murder, overpower the sounds of anything else in the courtyard. A thousand hands clap to the same beat as the drums pound in a frenzy, a rapid heartbeat. Yet, by some feat alone, the volume seems to raise even higher as Licinia’s head falls, a shatter of blood erupting over the top of the pole.

“Good showing!” Tove cheers with Duro, both of the cousins clapping each other on the back.

“She bleeds well. Good sign,” Mira comments to Saxa, both women nodding in agreement.

White robed priestesses quickly gather her body, rushing it into a cart. The canopy overhead is emblazoned with a silver moon. They will take the bodies to be burnt in sacrifice later on. The executioner turns his head up to look at Agron again, red covered axe now pressed to Pericles throat.

One of Agron's long arms has moved to wrap around Nasir, holding him against his side. He can feel Nasir shaking, nails digging into Agron's bicep where he holds onto him. He cannot stop once they've begun though, and with another motion of his hand, Agron releases the executioner to swing.

"Please, don't do this." Nasir begs, his words nearly swallowed by the roar of the crowd as Pericles' head falls as well. “You don’t have to do this.”

"I cannot deny our people tradition and good fortune for our son." Agron turns Nasir, brow furrowed. "You have to understand what this means. It is our offering to the moon and to the gods to guarantee Malik’s health, his safety, his strength. If I stop it, they will think I don’t want to honor the gods.”"

"Spare Castus then. Do not let him fall just because you think he has some plot for me. He pledged his servitude to you and this royal house!" Nasir tries desperately, flinching when behind the sound of the executioner's blade rings as Ovidius joins his comrades in death.

"Spare that shit? You know what he wanted to do to you," Agron snarls, lip curling up over unnaturally sharp canines. “You think I should forgive him for that? That you should allow him to live when he thirsted after you like you were some piece of fucking meat?”

"It is in the past. He has done nothing to me since Gerulf has died, has barely looked at me. We need his men in case of battle, we need him to lead them. You always are speaking of allies." Nasir grips Agron's face, imploringly. "Don't do this."

"He wanted to fuck-" Agron begins, the gleaming of his eyes only highlighted as the snow begins to catch on his lashes.

"If you kill every man who has ever fucked me or wanted to, you'd be slaughtering half the world." Nasir states bluntly, leaning up to press his palm to Agron's cheek, "Please don't do this. Show your people mercy, kindness, something that have not seen in many years."

Agron hesitates, the swinging of the executioner’s blade ringing out over the roaring of the crowd one more time as Pericles falls. All that is left is Castus, who stands with hair uncovered and eyes huge. Someone has gagged him, probably to keep his tongue from wagging too much, but he does not seem too eager to speak now. Instead, he lifts his head towards the balcony, face dry from tears but sweat has collected at his temples.

Acid twists in Agron’s stomach, the disgust of letting this leech live another fucking day. It is not just his desire for Nasir that fuels Agron’s rage, but the way Castus slinks around, secretive and ever changing as the ocean he calls home. The sea is an ally to no one, and Agron does not trust the pirate shits. That being said, Nasir speaks truth that if they are to battle, they will need all the allies they can and the Pontas do have a strong connection to the sea.

Raising his hand, Agron does not give the motion for the executioner to continue, but instead halts it, palm flat to the heaven. Instantly the crowd falls into confused shouting, the beating of the drum ending abrupt. It cuts through the crowd as Agron begins to speak, the commoners falling into murmurs once again.

“My good people,” Agron can feel Nasir’s clammy hands once more wrapped around his arm, “I promised you a new day, a new era of joy and prosperity. I stand before you as your new king, not the old. I will not bow to the memory nor the shadow of my father. I will show mercy and forgiveness when it is due.”

The crowd’s distrust begins to take on a new sound, one of surprise, of endearment to their young kings.

“Release the Pontas captain,” Agron waves a hand, carefully speaking his next words. “And see this day remembered as a showing of my mercy to those who only need to bow and proclaim me lord and king over them.”

Castus is handed off to his people, a gathering of men and women dressed in teals and blues that linger along the edge of the crowd. Agron does not bother to watch him retreat, instead turns towards Nasir, kissing his damp forehead. Malik has been oddly quiet this whole time, and when Agron glances over, he sees that Pietros is sitting on the ground, and the little prince is actually grasped in Duro’s arms instead. It’s not until Agron fully pulls back that he realizes Nasir’s eyes are wet, blinking rapidly against the tears that cling against his lashes.

“Nasir,“ Agron murmurs, cupping his fingers under Nasir’s chin and lifting his head. “Don’t be upset. I know this is confusing, but let me explain.”

“How could you do this? How could you just kill them for no reason?” Nasir hisses, trying to pull away but Agron adjusts himself, wrapping one arm around Nasir’s waist instead.

“It wasn’t for no reason. Each of them pose a threat to us and this family. They would not swear loyalty to me, which means they wouldn’t swear to this family. We always sacrifice an offering in honor of the birth of a royal. This time, it had double intentions. I know you don’t understand, I should have told you, but it’s important to us, to the Alptraum people.” Agron brushes a tear from Nasir’s cheek away. “It is in tribute to the gods and to our son.”

“You don't even pray! And our son is not just an Alptraum." Nasir snaps, earnestly pressing his hands to Agron's chest. "He is half Pythonissan as well, and we do not fucking kill people as tribute to our gods. We don't even kill to eat. We do not kill because someone doesn’t want to be our ally."

"But we are not in Pythonissa," Agron frowns, sighing deeply. He seems worn out from this argument already, shaking his head. "We do not have to agree with it but we must give our people faith and not ignore what they believe in. We can’t just dismiss what they expect and need because we don’t see it as true. And I will not stand idle or let anyone say they are against us or give them the opportunity to hurt one of us.”

Curling Malik closer to his chest, Nasir wraps the blanket around him to fight against the chill. Down below them, a kingdom of a strangers scream their love, their adoration for their kings. They don't know what Agron and Nasir have gone through, had to sacrifice, had to survive in order to get to this point. They only see what they want to see - their faith restored by Agron's unfailing strength and his ability to give them what they want.

"You could have warned me before expecting me to perform as if I am happy my son is the cause of four murders,” Nasir mutters, bouncing Malik a little to stop his fussing. He gives a high pitched whine, fingers curling into tiny fists and waving. He soothes when Agron slides his finger between Malik’s, letting him grip down on him instead.

I didn’t realize. I should have. Agron presses his apology in the form of a kiss to Nasir’s temple. I was so worried about you and Malik and your recovery that I didn’t think of some stupid fucking tradition, nor what you would think of it.

Nasir can do nothing but nod, nuzzling his nose against Agron’s. No more surprises.

I swear. It’s all just royalty bullshit. Everything will calm down soon. Agron nods, flashing a smile at him as he draws back. Still with me?”

“Wouldn’t be anywhere else,” Nasir nods, taking in a shuddering breath. The tears that were clinging to his eyelashes are blinked away, wiped at by a quick swipe of Agron’s thumb. He offers up a reassuring smile, turning to see Laeta watching them.

“Shall we proceed, highnesses? We have a lot to cover today.” She pointedly glances at Nasir, and then Pietros behind, who is being supported by Barca’s arm around his waist. Pietros isn’t crying, but he looks dazed, unfocused.

“Yes, let us go.” Agron uses his arm around Nasir to guide him forward with a nod of his head. “At least this part only includes accepting presents and dull conversation, nothing else.”

- - -

Caesar clutches the faded scrap of paper in his hand tight enough it begins to wrinkle, the small, looping font blurring into one smudge. It's how he feels about the author, a black mark on the ever changing plan. When Caesar had started this, he thought that things would go easily. Gerulf made promises, plans, and Caesar expected time to whittle him away until Caesar was given all the power. Now though, Gerulf is cold ash and his son is ever further away.

When the original bargain had been struck, it was an even exchange. Glaber would procure the prophesized warrior for the vampires and gain the power over the light dwelling creatures. Gerulf would trade his son for immortality. But then, Agron had gone through the trials and been found wanting. He was not the king of kings as everyone had thought.

Glaber had thought of killing them both, slaughtering the Alptraum for game, but the bargaining wasn’t one. Gerulf promised to know who the real warrior was, and swore that he would procure the child for the vampires. Thus, the deal stuck, but now Gerulf lays dead and all of his plans are whittled down to putting his trust in Ashur's ability to control his youngest brother.

“You seem troubled,” Lucretia comes out of the fog, a shadow amongst the shadows. Only her pale face seems to be illuminated, mouth stained crimson. “Did the letter from Ashur not prove valuable?”

“Yes.” Caesar can sense his mother is too, opposite of her companion in every way, shimmering in a cloak of silver. Vampires do not feel the extremes of heat or cold, but they dress as if they do. Old memories kept in spite of their immortality.

“It is valuable information. His poison proved useful. Nasir has had his child – a boy. According to Ashur, he is the spitting image of his fathers and was born just shy of ten pounds. The Alptraum will be celebrating for at least half the year because of it.” Caesar drawls, uninspiringly and simple. “King Agron is over joyed.”

“You are not happy though,” Ilithyia guesses, wrapping a pale arm around Lucretia’s waist. They are polar opposites, a shade and a gleam. “You must remember, my son, that all things take time.”

Caesar folds the paper carefully, tucking into a pocket in his cloak. He does not bother in relaying the rest of the message, how Ashur thinks it best to wait until the child is a month old if not longer, that Nasir feeds it from his body, nor the fact that Ashur is still struggling to secure his place at Nasir’s side. Caesar does not want to do this brutishly, to go in and take what he wants without allowing the plans to take effect. He could have left it up to Glaber if he wanted to try that tactic.

No, Caesar has always preferred to play with his prey before he took it, watch as it scrambles to understand, to attempt escape, only for Caesar to ultimately win the end. He is both savior and killer in the same breath. Agron cannot escape what has already been put into motion. No, he will come to Caesar when the last hope has faded and there is nothing he can do but surrender to this fate.

“What is time to immortals? A passing of moments, a breath between one century and the next, waiting for the child to be weaned means more time for the child to grow, to become stronger.” Lucretia soothes, taking his frustration for something else entirely. “They are preparing him for you.”

Caesar cannot deny what she says. He has been waiting for this prophesized warrior since before Agron was born, twenty-eight years, nearly twenty-nine. Waiting a few months for the child to be prepared is nothing. Yet, Caesar cannot sit quietly while the whole fate of their world rests on fucking Ashur.

“I want that child and I want our map of entrance into that castle. I do not care if it takes time. Ashur will get it for me or I will go in and get it myself.”

Turning, Caesar descends from the cliff, leaving the fog and his companions behind, patience almost worn thin.

- - -

Cupping his hand in the warm water, Nasir guides it across Malik's chest, washing the soap bubbles off his small rounded belly, his already broad shoulders. The baby coos up at Nasir, kicking lightly in the bath, a wet curl clinging between his eyebrows. Around them, small candles flicker golden light in the dim room, the setting sun having just winked from behind the mountains.

Nasir can feel his chest constricting when Malik gives a high pitched shriek, delighted at the tiny lights Nasir lets linger over them. It's simple magic, a playing of Nasir's fingers through the air, but it delights Malik to no end, always reaching to catch them. In moments like this, Nasir knows beyond all other that there is nothing he won't do for his son, to keeping him happy, to ensure his safety.

"His eyes are Agron and his dimples, but his easy delight belongs to you." Pietros leans over Nasir's shoulder to smile down at his nephew, cascading a few petals from his fingertips to mix with the water. Malik lets out a gummy shriek, pulling one curl of pink towards his face. Nasir gently pries it away before he can try and eat it.

"He is the best of both us. There will never be a child as perfect or as wonderful as this one.” Nasir coos, grin stretching across his face wide enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes. Malik answers with a sharp kick of his legs, sending waves to the edges of the tub, delighted.

Scooping his fingers under Malik, Nasir lifts the babe up and into his arms, quickly wrapping him in a large, plush towel. Malik makes quiet little cooing noises, nuzzling his nose against Nasir’s throat. He has a tendency to do this sometimes, as if searching out Nasir’s scent, the comfort of his warmth. Agron claims it is the wolf inside of him, the need to be close and comforted by his parents in a physical way.

Nasir dries the water in small circles from Malik’s hair, long strokes down his back. Malik nuzzles against the ministrations, yawning and seeking out the comfort of pressing his face into the junction of Nasir’s neck and shoulder. The hour is growing late for the baby, nearly asleep from all the excitement of the day.

“Excuse me, highness,” Chadara’s voice is soft from the door, hair a golden halo of loose curls around her. “I do not mean to interrupt, but Lord Castus is here to see you.”

Nasir shutters a glance towards Pietros, careful to keep his expression neutral. They both know that Nasir did not beg for Castus life out of feelings of friendship or some longing for kinship. Nasir’s life will always be haunted by Fatin’s last scream, the blood coating her dress. It is because of this that Nasir couldn’t bare it, couldn’t have one more person murdered because of him.

“Allow him in. I will be out in a moment to deal with it.” Nasir sighs, annoyed already at the occurrence. He knows that Agron is caught up in a meeting, stuck discussing future celebrations for their son and the invitations being sent to other nations. Still, the last thing that Nasir wants or needs is for Agron to come back and find Castus sitting within Nasir’s rooms.

“Pietros, will you take Malik into his rooms and dress him? I do not think this meeting will take very long.” Nasir eases his son into Pietros’ arms, brushing his fingers along the babe’s curls.

Pietros curls his nephew close to his chest, eyes betraying what his mouth will not say. He does not like this meeting, does not like the pirate asking for an audience at such an inappropriate hour. He does not have the right to say anything though, nodding him head slightly as he moves towards the nursery.

“Chadara,” Nasir eases his arms through a long jacket, the fabric loose and thin to the floor, patterned with wolves and trees. "Will you fetch Naevia and both join me in the main room? I do not think it is proper for such a meeting to be held without witnesses. Is that true?"

"Yes, majesty. A consort is only allowed to be alone with his house or his husband." Chadara nods, easing her fingers along the carved wooden door. "It is for your protection."

"Well, as an Alptraum consort, I can do nothing but comply with the rules and laws of my husband." If there is an underlying sharpness to Nasir's words it is lost as he smooths out any wrinkles in his clothes before proceeding towards the door.

Castus is sitting at a small table in the center of a room, look oddly out of place with his clothes of turquoise and cerulean, a large medallion of an octopus around his neck. He is an ocean being surrounded by forests and mountains now, landlocked and held captive. Castus doesn’t seem bothered by it though, lazily drumming his fingers along the table.

"You appear unperturbed for a man who nearly lost his head this morning," Nasir states in way of greeting, moving through the room to a long sideboard, plucking a few grapes, strawberries, and cucumbers from a platter.

"Your majesty," Castus stands, bowing low, "Apologies, I did not hear you enter."

"No, I doubt that you have the ears for such a thing. You're more water than beast," Nasir sits across from Castus' chair, waving a hand to allow him to do the same. He begins to pick at his food, slow and methodically chewing.

"I suppose not," Castus smiles ruefully, sitting back down. "Though I do have many who have better ears than me. One of my men stood guard on the royal balcony today, and came to me after. You begged for my life today. You saved me. I came to thank you."

Castus leans forward, placing a box before Nasir's feet. It's plain, unadorned wood except for two golden straps over the front, clasping the whole things shut tightly.

"What is this?" Amused, Nasir presses a grape to his mouth, gaze flickering to the doorway where Naevia and Chadara have just stepped in.

"I did not get a chance to give my present to the newborn prince."

Castus undoes the clasps with a quick flick of his hand, easing the chest open. Inside, nestled in royal blue velvet, a dozen wooden figures lay. There are intricately carved fish, an octopus, a mermaid with flaming red hair painted around her smiling face, a ship with intricately carved sail, and more. They all have been lovingly created, even the gills on the fish are expertly carved. Nasir considers marveling at them, the artistic technique that must have gone into crafting such beautiful toys, but the man before him ruins the affect.

"Your talent for toy making cannot be disputed, and these are lovely, but I think you mistake my intent." Nasir holds up a hand when Castus tries to speak, shaking his head. "I did not spare your life for some notion of kinship or loyalty. I did not let you die as an act of mercy and because I have need of your expertise. Nothing else."

"Nasir, I cannot begin to-" Castus begins, cut off again as Naevia steps forward.

"You will address the majesty with the highest regard or see yourself from these rooms and to one in the dungeon for treason." Her words are biting and sharp, fingers dangerously tracing down the hilt of her sword. Castus cows under the reprimand, bowing again.

“Apologies, your highness,” he begins again, eyes trained low. “I cannot apologize for the things that I have done in the past, but I aim to show you the man that I am, not the one that I once was. I want to offer you my companionship.”

“Companionship?” Nasir laughs, pressing another strawberry to his mouth, “Is that what you called it when you were my captor? When you paraded me around as a dog on a leash for all of my people? You watched me as if starving man, my every move, my every waking moment. I could not bathe without your eyes upon me. I know you have stolen glances when your eyes should not have seen what they have. And all the while, you thought it was companionship I sought from you? I had no other choice but bite my tongue and bear your lust.”

“What Gerulf did to you was not my fault,” Castus frowns, shaking his head. “I did not know what his plot was. Only Heracleo was privy to that. Heracleo and the shadows people Gerulf gained as alibis. I only wanted to offer you comfort in your distress.”

“Comfort? From your cock inside me?” Nasir rolls his eyes. He can see Chadara and Naevia shifting by the door, both aware and uncomfortable of the way this conversation has shifted. “You once asked me to describe my husband to you, do you remember?”

Castus nods silently, cowed by Nasir’s harsh tone and indifference to his words.

“You were undeterred then, so eager to fill a place you do not even understand. You must realize now, that Agron’s place beside me is not just for his role as husband. We have been created for one another by forces beyond this world to bring more power into the world.” Nasir motions towards his bedroom door, where beyond the nursery lays. “My son has been prophesized for years, my family chosen and shaped by gods so ancient they remember when the world was nothing but sand. And yet you speak of sex and your cock like they are some coveted thing.”

“You must realize what you looked like, so gorgeous and so sad, a prince without any one to ease your pain” Castus leans forward, hand crawling across the table. “You needed something more than a kind word or a gentle friend. It was clear to me from the moment that I saw you. I was only offering what I thought would help.”

“Oh?” Nasir laughs, sharp and thick, “My breaking heart was your open door? I did not realize I offered you entrance onto that path. I must have been distracted by the child growing inside of me, the magic that was draining from me to bring another life into being as my husband toyed with death.”

“You do not need me to tell you that your power is above all others,” Castus somehow manages to smile, wrinkling the soft lines of his attractive face. “I do not wish to fill any role but one of friendship now. You are my king. I aim only to serve you and right the wrongs that I have done against you and your family.”

“I do not care,” Nasir waves his hand again, pausing to swallow a grape before he continues. “Your apologies, regardless of how heartfelt or honest, mean nothing. You nearly aided a man in assaulting me and stealing the child that grew inside of me, all so you could get yours. You pried on a weak and traumatized boy, but I am no longer that person.”

“Majesty, I did not know how fate would change us, both of us. The old king is dead and I have sworn loyalty to the new one,” Castus implores, leaning forward on with his elbows on the table. “Is there nothing I can do to make up for my sins?”

“I am not a priest nor am I your god. Do not bother me with your own guilt or some illusion that I can clear you of it, forgive the past.” Nasir dismisses with a wave of his hand.

Standing, Nasir flips the lid to the box shut, eyeing Castus with a sharp gaze. Even without the crown upon his head, he looks ever the part of royalty, back straight and proud. It has never been more clear that Nasir’s power has placed him at Agron’s side for a purpose, the joining of power that exceeds all others.

“Instead, I would put your skills to use for something I desire,” Nasir moves towards the fire, throwing another log on it. “There are springs that run under this castle, hot rivers that run far North to the land of the Seers. Do you know this?”

“I recall being told as such. They heat the castle in the winter months,” Castus nods, staying where he is.

“I was told that there are some lanes that are travelable,” Nasir turns to look over his shoulder at Castus, guarding his words carefully, “I need you to build me a boat fit to make the passage.”

“A boat? For what purpose?” Castus cannot keep the surprise from his voice.

“A purpose of my own. It must be a simple boat, a peasant vessel with no insignia or markings.” Nasir continues, drawing closer to keep his voice soft. “It must be kept secret. I want no one to know of what you build or for whom.”

Castus nods, though his face crinkles in confusion, gaze darting towards the two women standing guard. It seems as if some plot, some plan is being formed for something that he cannot understand. Yet it seems dire and Nasir’s eyes flash when he presses a hand to Castus’ shoulder.

“It only needs to be able to hold three.”

“Highness?” Castus asks, whispering the word in disbelief.

“Your majesty, someone approaches from down the hall.” Naevia speaks up, one hand pressed to the main door. She has taken to warning when anyone approaches, considering that many seem to come and go as they please, always seeking the royal’s attention.

“See it done and done in secret.” Nasir pats Castus’ shoulder one last time before drawing away.

“Make sure Lord Castus is escorted back to his rooms, Naevia. I would hate for his path to become lost in this vast castle.” Nasir nods towards her, keeping an eye on them as she grips Castus’ shoulder, escorting him out of a side door just as the main opens, Ashur stepping inside.

“Brother! I did not expect you to retire from celebration so early. It was for you, after all, was it not?” Ashur smiles widely, arms extended as if he means to hug his younger brother. Nasir allows it, eyes dark and looming over his shoulder as he motions for Chadara to leave. There is no need for protection now.

“Malik is still very young and he needs his sleep,” Nasir smiles warmly as he draws away, pouring himself and then Ashur a cup of wine. “Where he goes, I go as well.”

“You are a good father,” Ashur sinks into a large plush chair, kicking his feet up on a stool by the fire, “And yet your partner seems continuously absent. Has Agron decided since you made him, Malik is your responsibility?”

“Agron is busy with other duties now, other things that need to be taken care of to secure our kingdom. I do not expect him to be here every evening to put our son to bed. He comes in when he is finished and is always the one to rise when Malik cries out during the night.” Nasir eases himself down on the rug, pressing his back against the warm stones on the side of the fireplace. “He is a king.”

“You are also a king, little brother. What duties do you have?” Ashur raises an eyebrow, testing him. He does it teasingly, but Nasir still narrows his eyes.

“I am protector, healer, the faith of these people. I have saved them from illness, disease, have shown them that there is someone who cares for them.” Nasir motions towards the nursery again. “My life is for that little boy in there. Malik’s safety, his happiness, his needs rise above all others.”

Ashur continues to watch his brother, examining him as one would look at something rare, unique, a blossom in the dead of winter. In the deepest parts of Ashur’s heart, he wonders sometimes if he could have loved Nasir. If he would have seen him as something to be cherished, protected. Nasir and Ashur share blood, share history, share the relics of ancient creatures far beyond this world, and yet. Ashur’s heart has been black since the first breath he took in this world, since the moment rejection touched him. There is nothing darker than the feeling of inadequacy.

“You play the role well, but I wonder how well he plays his,” Ashur murmurs over the rim of his cup. “He is the master of such things. Changing shape, I mean.”

“You do not know Agron as I know him.” Nasir shakes his head. “He is a good man.”

Ashur nods along, easy agreement. He does not have the power that Nasir has, to create life and bring into this world that which was not already there. A dark festering wound has grown out of that contempt, only lightened now that Nasir is not prepared to power through this game. This is Ashur’s power, his magic, to twist the mind with choice words, the applying of tone when it best needed.

“He is not a man though is he?” Ashur asks the question with a knowingness that pulls the room down, darkens the corners. “Not all of him.”

Nasir’s eyes reflect the fire in them when he looks up at Ashur. There is no hostility there, no lingering, no knowing of fates or ill will. In contrast, Nasir looks excruciatingly young, earnest in his gestures. Then, as if a veil cast over his gaze, the venom eases through Nasir’s veins, the snake once again reclaiming its throne.

“Are any of us?”

Uncurling from his place beside the fire, Nasir sets his cup near Ashur, pressing his lips in a gentle kiss to Ashur’s cheek. It is familial, gentle in its placement, and yet Ashur cannot help pulling back, eyes widening.

“My son is in need of me. Hour is late and he will not fall to slumber without being fed. Goodnight, brother.”

“Goodnight.”

Ashur echoes, watching the slow retreat of Nasir’s figure, slinking between the bedroom doors and closing them behind. It only ten minutes later that the main door opens again, Agron’s long shadow stretching along one wall as he moves across the floor. There is always something so strange about him to Ashur, this coiled tight strength that snaps and pulses with the easiest provocation. Ashur has barely been here a two weeks, and yet he has seen the thrumming of Agron’s anger turn from a spark into a blaze, gnashing teeth and supernaturally glowing eyes. There are stories whispered around the vampire caves, murmurs of the Alptraum’s true power, the shifting fully into beats and monsters, but Ashur has yet to see that.

Tossing his cloak over a chair, Agron pauses when he spots Ashur, one hand wrapped around his opposite wrist, tugging off the cuff there. He pivots, a strange twisting of his mouth pulling his expression cocky and severe.

“Ashur,” Agron’s voice doesn’t bother for softness, expression calculating as he stares at his brother-in-law, “lingering in the shadows again?”

“Old habits.” Reaching into his pocket, Ashur pulls out an ornate pipe, using his thumb to press leaves into the small opening on the end.

“Oh I can imagine all sorts of old habits you have,” Agron raises an eyebrow carefully, the flame of Ashur’s match reflecting in his eyes for a moment, flickering them gold. “The tricks your vampire shits taught you.”

“I was their captive-“ Agron cuts him off with a sharp snapping of his teeth.

“Caesar doesn’t keep pets living for long.” Agron narrows his eyes. “Which means that you belong to Lucretia. It’s debatable who is more dangerous, the beast or the venom.”

Ashur makes a considering noise, inhaling slow and carefully. He supposes in this light, with the way the flames cast playful shadows across Agron, highlighting muscle and armor, power tensed tight and barely contained, he can understand all of Caesar’s obsession. There is something very alluring about him, feral even, in a way that makes Ashur’s skin prick with danger.

“Tell me,” Ashur exhales the smoke into a wavy ring, grinning, “does my dearest younger brother know of your involvement with the vampire prince?”

The scowl that cuts across Agron’s face is twisted with disgust as he steps forward, pointing sharply at Ashur’s chest. “That was many years ago.”

“What is time for a vampire?” Ashur inhales again, slow and steady. “I wonder if he remembers as well as you do. You do remember though, don’t you?”

“You fucking shit,” Agron’s growl is deep, echoing through his chest.

“Do you still have his marks, I wonder?” Ashur follows the words with smoke rings. “Tell me, wolf, did he use an iron or his teeth?”

Slowly, the grin spreads across Ashur’s face, gloating and cocky. “He wouldn’t let anyone else do it though, would he. No, I bet Caesar put his teeth in you and you loved it.”

Before Agron can reply, he is cut off by the bedroom door creaking slowly open. Pietros slips out, ducking his head in hello before scurrying towards the front door, not bothering to look at either man. His intentions are clear as before the main door is shut, he’s turning left towards Duro’s rooms, a faint giggle echoing up the hall.

“Your meeting ended early?” Nasir has made his way to the bedroom door, leaning against the frame of it. He hasn’t bothered to get dressed after feeding Malik, a pair of thin sleeping pants hanging low on his hips. There are still dark bruises along his stomach, his hips, but he’s managed to put his navel ring back in, a hint of gold in the center of all that tan skin.

The whole room seems to change, Agron twisting his body and shifting. It’s completely animal, the way he thrusts his chest just barely forward, staking his claim as mate and alpha. Ashur wants to make a snide comment, something about pride and ego, but he bites his tongue if only in remembrance of the task given to him. Nasir responds in like, drawing his fingers down his side in what would be a lazy caress except for the way his eyes track over Agron, hungry and warm.

“I found that my time was better spent here with you, then there discussing paper colors and patterns,” Agron’s dimples erase the severity of his previous scowl, attention solely for his husband now.

“Come to bed.”

Grinning, Nasir slinks back into the darkness of his bedroom with a flick of his hair and a coy, beckoning finger. Agron waits until he is completely from view before stepping over to Ashur, leaning down and gripping his chin in a tight fist. The two men stare at each other before Agron leans closer, breath hot across Ashur’s cheeks and eyes gleaming.

“You breathe one word of what you know to Nasir, and I will personally remove your ability to speak.”

And then he’s gone, closing the heavily engraved door behind in with a sound click.

- - -

An oil lamp burns low on the bedside table, a dizzying pattern of little lights reflecting from it dance along the wall, bouncing off the strings of golden coins and charms looped over the bed canopy. It creates a strange affect upon the room, as if a hundred tiny suns move and sway around them. They catch on Nasir’s skin, his hair, his face, when he draws closer to Agron, agile fingers helping to undo the clasps holding his chest plate in place.

"You are lovely and I want you." Agron praises, setting his armor and sword to the side. Humming, Agron lets Nasir's hands ease over him, massaging over his chest and down onto his stomach. "But you and I both know you are too sore for anything other than sleep."

"I am healing." Slowly, Nasir traces the outlines of Agron's shoulders, down across his collarbone, easing his fingernails in light lines across Agron's pecs and onto his stomach and back up.

“You are.” Hissing, Agron tries to keep himself from arching into the touch, reacting to the sharp spark of pleasure as Nasir teases a finger around his nipple. “But bruises on your skin tell me you need more rest.”

“Perhaps,” Nasir agrees easily, leaning forward to suck a kiss into Agron’s skin, threatening teeth enough to leave a bruise. He moves an inch lower, creating a path down the center of Agron’s chest, “but I do not aim for my own pleasure.”

“Nasir,” Agron groans, holding Nasir’s face between his hands and gently guiding him back. He knows that expression, the blistering heat in Nasir's eyes as he slowly pulls his bottom lip into his mouth. "You don't-”

“And yet all the time the time since I grew heavy with your child, you gave into my begging and my moaning” Nasir steps until he can fit Agron’s thigh between his legs, slowly grinding his hips forward in a practiced move. “And brought me to the highest pleasure again and again without allowing yourself to do the same. How is it fair that you can provide such a service and I not do the same now that I am able?”

Easing one hand down, Nasir traces his fingers over the ties on the front of Agron’s pants, eyes dark and knowing. He slides the loops of the knot around his knuckles, tugging and Agron's hips lean forward, the outline of him one long line. Smirking, Nasir can feel it when Agron’s cock twitches, twisting his wrist to press his palm there, massaging in careful strokes.

 

“Eating you out,” Agron groans, watching as Nasir grips him tighter, “has never been a service that I need repaid.” He eases his hand down over Nasir’s ass, gripping it in one of his palms. “In fact, I am happy to do so now. And again and again. Until I have my fill of you.”

“Ah!” Nasir shakes his head, chewing on his bottom lip. He uses Agron’s distraction to advantage, untying the strings on the front of Agron’s pants, separating leather until he can wrap his fist around the crown of Agron’s cock.

Drawing his thumb in small circles, Nasir gathers the moisture already leaking there, teasing with silt with his finger before slowly raising his finger to his mouth. Keeping his gaze on Agron, Nasir licks the precome off the digit, sucking it into his mouth after with a whimper. He hallows his cheeks for a moment, pulling it out with a wet pop before lowering his hand back down, tracing his fingers along the thick vein running the length before wrapping around the tip again.

Agron's hand naturally falls to the back of Nasir's neck, gripping him there hot and firm and he pulls them together. This close, Nasir can turn his head up, accepting Agron's scalding kiss with an open mouth and a groan. Agron dominates the kiss, tongue heavy and quick, tracing along the ridges of the roof of Nasir’s mouth. Nasir melts under the attention, mouth insistent and hot as he leans up on his toes.

It’s overwhelming, the press of them together, the way their bodies fit together again after so long. They had been so careful, Agron so conscious whenever he put his hands on Nasir, to ghost his palms over Nasir’s stomach, to ease careful finger over the cut of Nasir’s hips. Now though, he can grip all he wants, hands all over Nasir’s back, his waist, his ass, dragging him closer and tight. There is barely air between then. Nasir’s quick and sure grip over Agron’s cock. He hasn’t even pushed his pants down, only enough to get Agron’s cock out, desperate to feel him.

“Agron.”

Panting, Nasir pulls back. His mouth is bruised and puffy, eyes getting hazy and sparking. Gold lines flash over his skin, a flame licking up the side of his neck as Agron slips his palm over Agron’s mouth.

“Don’t wake the baby.”

Agron nearly bites through his lip to keep from growling when Nasir’s mouth wraps around the tip of his cock. It’s so fucking hot, slick and wet, one hand wrapped around the base to keep him steady and one on Agron’s hip. Nasir doesn’t waste time, eager and expert, eyes dark as they stare up at Agron through the fringe of his eyelashes. Tongue laving back and forth, he sucks in little pulls, easing pearls of precome out and drinking them down.

Gathering his hair into a loose fist, Agron watches as Nasir begins to slide down, agonizing inch by inch. It stretches his mouth wide, lips taut around the girth. It doesn’t stop him though, beginning to bob his head in slow drags, a teasing flash of teeth before Nasir hallows his cheeks. Heat coils sharp and poignant at the base of Agron’s spine, travels in short waves of sparks along his spine, over his chest, coils like a flame in the pit of his stomach. He could drown in this feeling, easing his hips in a slow thrust.

It’s been so long since the magic stretched between them, and it’s vicious and biting now. Golden strands lace up Nasir’s back, a net that eases across his shoulders and onto Agron’s hips, wrapping him tightly in the glow. It’s still not strong enough to grow flowers or entice flames but Nasir’s eyes are gleaming that green gold, a shimmer of scales across the bridge of his nose, over his forehead. Agron traces them with his thumb, gathering more of Nasir’s hair in his hand and tugging, insistent and just tight enough to make Nasir moan dirty and low.

Nasir takes it all, tears in his eyes as he deep throats Agron, fingers desperate as they claw at the leather stretched over his thighs. He wants more, rhythm getting sloppy and dirty. There isn’t enough space for him to pull off, to breathe quick and gasping. Nasir rolls Agron’s balls in the palm of his hands, staring up at him while a tear traces down over the curve of his cheek, getting lost in the spit on his chin.

“Fuck the gods,” Agron growls, a whispered exhale between clenched teeth. He needs to remember to pray to whatever higher being brought him Nasir, give a million thanks, a thousand sacrifices of gratitude. There is no one else in the world like the man kneeling before him.

The front of Nasir’s pants are tented, damp in a circle from his grinding up against the fabric, looking for friction that the thin fabric doesn’t allow. He doesn’t even seem aware of it, taking Agron back into his throat, swallowing rough and thick around him, body trembling as he holds still, lets his throat coax Agron’s orgasm from him.

Agron doesn’t even get a chance to warn Nasir, a shattering of nerve endings firing along his back, an inferno between his hips. He draws blood on his fist when he shoves it in his mouth to keep from shouting, cock twitching hard as he suddenly starts coming. Agron manages to grip one of the posters to the bed, keeping himself from toppling forward as his cock pulses, squirting thick and hot into Nasir’s mouth.

Nasir swallows it, drawings up slowly until just the tip presses between his lips, letting the last few drops drool onto his bottom lip. There is a sheen of sweat across him, body trembling as he gasps in breath, tongue darting out to lick across his lips. Nasir doesn’t stop staring at Agron though, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand.

Dropping to his knees, Agron is quick to pepper kisses across Nasir’s forehead, his cheeks, down his nose, until he captures his mouth. He kisses him slow, carefully lapping over Nasir’s teeth, tangling with his tongue, sucking on his bottom lip. Nuzzling against him, Agron moves to reach for Nasir’s pants, but stops when Nasir pushes against his wrist.

“No.” Wrapping his arms around Agron’s neck, Nasir hugs him tightly, leaning his whole body into it. “I just wanted to make you feel good, to show you how much I love you.”

Agron centers his knees under him, pulling Nasir off of the floor and into his lap. “You were so good for me. So good.”

He manages to lift both of them, easing Nasir down onto the bed before stripping and joining him under the thick fur blankets. It doesn’t take long for Nasir to kick his own pants off, curling up on his side with Agron’s body along his back, drawing one of his large arms down and across him. Pressed together like this, barely a breath between them, it seems the rest of the world fades away for Nasir. He feels perfect, safe and warm, knowing that Agron will never let anything happen to him.

“Love you so much.” Agron kisses him behind his ear, leaning over just enough to extinguish the light, casting them both into darkness and sleep.

- - -

Uddin finds himself walking the castle most nights, unable to sleep and too exhausted to just lay in bed. He will peruse the long hallways of portraits, through the hall of artifacts and history, and sometimes out into the gardens where snow has covered everything and yet the fountain steams hot water in a constant stream. It is peaceful here, a frozen oasis after a summer of heat and sweat.

As he rounds the corner of this particular hallway, he is surprised to hear a voice. This tower is usually unoccupied, filled with old rooms and huge, dusty furniture. The room that the voice is coming from is completely empty except for a large fireplace and long, open windows. It would appear that the glass was broken from them long ago, and no one bothered to replace them.

Peaking around the door, Uddin can just make out the words, whispered and thick.

The baby is still nursing. Has not revealed any powers.

Agron grows distrustful, but he has not revealed past to Nasir. Secret is safe.

Solonius has pledged fidelity and has troops he will supply as guide over mountains and into castle.

“What are you doing?” Uddin can’t stop himself any longer, shoving the door open wide as he moves towards Ashur.

He’s holding a small switching bat in one hand, a piece of paper in the other. It’s an old trick, whispering words to an animal from a page, and then sending the messenger animal with both. It guarantees the intended gets the message as all they have to do is spill the blood of the animal over the page and the words will appear. To use a bat is uncommon though, unless, and Uddin realizes it quickly.

“Are you sending messages back to the fucking vampires?”

His voice does not shake, but instead comes out sharp and accusatory. He does not have the power to fight Ashur with magic, but he is pretty sure in a fight he would have the upper hand. Uddin’s body is thick with muscles, trained by Alptraum soldiers to fight with fists and strength.

“My master requires updates.”

Ashur nods, securing the small piece of parchment to the bat’s leg before moving towards an open window and releasing it. It makes sense that he would use an animal so prone to being found at night, hiding in the shadows. It was probably trained from the vampire’s own lair.

“Master?” A hot, sinking realization begins to grow anew in Uddin’s stomach. “You aren’t here for help at all, are you?”

“Well,” Ashur levels the other man with a smile, “you might not be as dumb as I remember after all.”

“Why though? Why are you doing all of this? Nasir has welcomed you into his life, his table even. How could you betray him like that?” Uddin steps up to Ashur, drawing himself to his full height. “I won’t let you do this to him!”

“Thankfully, I wasn’t asking you for permission.”

Turning, Ashur shoves his hands roughly into Uddin’s shoulders, using his full strength in the blow. It sends the other man toppling backwards, pin wheeling just to break the skin over his knuckles as he fails to catch the window frame, falling out into the night air. It takes him a moment to reach the ground, the height staggering, but when Ashur peeks over the edge, he can see the dark shadow of where Uddin has landed, blood already staining the snow.

“Oh no. How tragic.”

Straitening his tunic, Ashur heads towards the door, not sparing a glance behind him.