Zantabraxus comes into their room and settles heavily on the bed with a quiet, ‘oof,’ before leaning back against him. She looks closer to nine months pregnant than two, but it doesn’t seem to worry her, at least not other than the fact it interferes with her running off to fight fafflenarg beasts. Klaus wonders whether he should ask about it. ‘I’ll be glad when this is over,’ she says, though.
‘Seven more months,’ Klaus says, running a hand through her sleek green hair.
‘Seven,’ says Zantabraxus, sounding horrified. ‘I should be laying the egg next week.’
Klaus stares at her for a moment. ‘Egg?’
‘Of course an egg,’ says Zantabraxus, shifting around to get a good look at his face. ‘…That’s not how it works where you come from?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Live birth only. After nine months. Really an egg?’
‘Those poor women,’ says Zantabraxus. ‘Really an egg.’ She taps his nose, playfully. ‘And the men do the incubating.’
Klaus had known men in Skifander did most of the childcare, and thought he was as prepared for that as he could be. But he’d expected it to happen after the child was born, not while it was still…potential, growing. Weren’t newborns vulnerable enough? ‘What do you do with eggs?’ he asks. ‘I can’t imagine it would be a good idea for me to sit on one.’ As an attempt at levity it comes out far too nervous, and gets him a pat on the shoulder and a fangy grin.
‘There’s a sandy place up by the nearest volcano where they can be left and still kept warm,’ she says. ‘But it’s good for eggs to be cuddled, it makes them feel loved.’ She says this entirely seriously, as if it’s a well known fact. Klaus wonders if it’s true — babies grow inside people, after all, maybe it’s not good for an egg to grow never hearing a heartbeat or a voice. Can eggs feel lonely? ‘When you’re holding one hold it close to your body, so it’s warm, and keep it well supported.’
‘Are they fragile?’ Klaus asks, already terrified of breaking his.
‘Nope,’ says Zantabraxus. ‘They’re leathery, and pretty tough, although it’s not a good idea to be rough with them. When the baby’s strong enough she’ll punch her way out.’
Klaus imagines a tiny fist breaking through shell, a tiny warrior already fighting her way into life. ‘That’s adorable.’
‘Of course it is, it’s an egg.’ Zantabraxus kneels up to kiss him, shifting awkwardly with the egg rounding her belly. Klaus puts a hand on it, wonderingly. ‘You’ll be a natural,’ she says.
Klaus is the only person present when Zantabraxus lays her egg. When he asks if there should be a midwife he has to explain what one is, and then she gives him a puzzled look and says, ‘Why? It’s not like this is difficult.’
She takes him up to the sand room, where the eggs are incubated. The building that houses it is decorated like a temple, stars in circles and strange lionine beasts, the symbols of Ashtara, are engraved deep on its facade. Goddess of fertility, Klaus thinks. Of course she’d be the guardian of their eggs.
Inside the floor is coated with red sand, a pathway marked out around the edges in black stone. At first Klaus can’t see any eggs, but then he realises they’re the same red as the sand, and speckled, half buried in it. Men must tread carefully here. Beside him Zantabraxus gasps, and presses a hand against her belly. He puts an arm around her, anxious, and she smiles up at him. ‘We’d better hurry,’ she says, and steps off the path, carefully walking around eggs until she finds a spot she likes. She crouches down, scraping sand back between her legs with her hands until she’s squatting over a hollow. Klaus kneels down behind her and wraps his arms around her waist, supporting her weight. He’s sure there should be someone besides him here.
Zantabraxus pushes, Klaus can feel her muscles tense, pauses for breath and pushes again. She doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Klaus can’t see what’s happening with the egg from here, he shifts forward, looking over her shoulder, and sees it compressed, long and thin, as she lays it. One more shuddering, sighing, breath and it’s done, the egg settling into a rounder form although still oval.
‘Don’t touch it yet,’ Zantabraxus says breathlessly, sounding as if it’s as much with excitement as exertion. ‘They take half an hour to harden.’
Klaus fetches her water while she sits over their egg watching it harden, and then they watch together. Finally Zantabraxus puts her cup down and lifts the egg gently into her arms. Klaus can see the surface move, a little, as she does.
‘Hold out your arms,’ she says.
Klaus isn’t sure whether to hold them out as if he was going to embrace it, or make a cradle of them, and he’s still trying to figure it out when Zantabraxus puts the egg into them. It’s warm, leathery, and a little like holding a very full waterskin; he pulls it back against his chest instinctively, carefully not holding it too tight. There are bits of sand sticking to it, coarse and gritty. Klaus settles back on his heels so he can cradle it more comfortably, thinking of the tiny child already growing in there. ‘It’s amazing,’ he says. ‘You’re amazing.’ He can feel himself blushing. He’s not good at saying things like that.
Zantabraxus is good at hearing them, though, and cheerfully wraps herself around him and the egg both. ‘I’m going to find a bath,’ she says, a little while later. ‘Are you going to leave it here, for now, or bring it back to the palace?’
‘Bring it,’ Klaus says, at once. Maybe he’ll be glad to put it down later, but…later. For now he wants it where he can see it.
Zantabraxus stands, and for all she never seemed to be in pain he can see the tremor in her legs as she does. She’s tired. ‘Come on, then,’ she says.
Klaus is perhaps more attentive to his egg than necessary. He does put it in the sand room sometimes, especially since Zantabraxus doesn’t consider, ‘I have an egg,’ a good reason to skip training, but if he’s doing something that can be done sitting down then it seems easy enough to do it with an egg cuddled in his lap. If he spends a bit more time than usual doing things that can be done sitting down, that’s his business. Sleeping with it, he’s told, is a bad idea, but it needs to be turned in the night to be sure the baby doesn’t stick to the shell. This means a trek to the sand room in the middle of the night, and no mercy from Zantabraxus when he’s sleepy in the morning.
He gets friendly teasing and sympathy from the other men, when they see him constantly with an egg in his arms, especially the ones caring for eggs themselves. Jaxar, several years older than Klaus, pats him on the shoulder, his own egg held expertly in one arm. ‘I was like that with my first,’ he says.
A few months on and Klaus can feel faint rippling motions in the egg, barely detectable through the leathery skin and then only if he’s staying so still it can’t have been his own movement that caused it. There’s something alive in there, something tiny swimming around in its liquid world. He tells Zantabraxus and they both sit with their hands on the egg, as still as they can manage, and Skifandrian training means that is very still indeed, until they feel the rippling and she laughs in delight.
It’s another few months before the kicking starts. And the punching. And jabbing him with sharp little elbows and knees. Klaus doesn’t stop cuddling it, this is evidence it’s nearly a child and if it needs love at any point then it’s now, but he does wonder how one child can have so many sharp bits. After a few days the recurring thought takes on a different tone, and he carefully, carefully, presses against the leather of the egg until he can feel the little limbs pushing against it. One, two, three, four, five, oof, six, seven, presumably one more that for once isn’t jabbing him in any way. There are two babies.
‘We’re having twins,’ he tells Zantabraxus, when he finds her, bursting with the news. She surprises him by looking horrified. ‘What’s wrong with that,’ he asks, clutching the egg tighter as if to shield it from whatever she’s about to say. It kicks him in response.
She looks down. ‘A double egg won’t usually survive. They’ll run out of food, or kill each other practising their punches…it takes force to break an egg shell. If we’re lucky one will survive.’
He shifts the egg to one arm and pulls her against him, tucking her head under his chin, and she wraps her arms around him. Neither of them cry.
‘I won’t let them die,’ Klaus says, steel in his voice. He doesn’t know how, but he won’t let the world take this from him. ‘I won’t.’
She sighs, and then nods against him. ‘Good.’
‘You believe me?’ he asks.
‘I believe that if anyone can, then you will, zumil,’ she says, and kisses him fiercely.
Everything changes. Before, the kicking and punching meant that the child was alive and well, now it means one of them might be dying. Klaus presses both hands into the centre of he egg, presses until the leathery shell dents and the babies are forced apart. He shoves and presses and tries to turn them so they’re facing outwards, or rubs soothingly until they still.
‘That’s no way to treat an egg,’ says Jaxar, disapproving.
Klaus winces. ‘They’re twins. If I leave them they might kill each other.’
There is shocked silence, not just from Jaxar but from all the men around them. They’re sorry for him, now, perhaps a bit guilty for what they’d been thinking of him a moment ago. Klaus doesn’t care what they think as long as he can keep his children safe.
‘I’m sorry,’ says Jaxar, not unkindly. ‘But you won’t do them any good like that. It’s best to hope one dies quick, so the other will have enough food.’
‘I won’t hope for either of them to die,’ says Klaus, glaring up until the older man steps back.
Jaxar shakes his head and goes to find company elsewhere.
Klaus spends the next week getting the same advice from everyone. It’s not good for the egg to be deformed the way he’s doing it, if he keeps stopping the babies from punching they’ll never get strong enough to break the shell, if they both live they’ll starve before they hatch. Until he roars, ‘Stop telling me one of my children should die!’ in tones that have too much of the madness place in them, and everyone actually backs off. He storms back to the palace and curls up on his and Zantabraxus’s bed, soothing the egg which appears to have been agitated by his outburst.
Zantabraxus finds him there and curls herself up against his back. ‘You haven’t been sleeping.’
‘They might hurt each other,’ he says, automatically. ‘And you’ve taught me to manage without sleep.’
‘For a few days, not a week. Not yet anyway, you only just learned,’ she kisses his shoulder. ‘I’ll take a turn. I should have offered sooner.’
Klaus relaxes against her, the egg has settled down for now. He hopes the children inside it are asleep. ‘Everyone thinks I should give up on them,’ he says.
She nuzzles against him, her hair sneaking over his shoulder and into his mouth. ‘It seems crazy to them, for you to do this.’
‘I’m used to people thinking I’m crazy,’ he says, dryly. ‘What do you think?’
‘I think you’re wonderful.’
Klaus comes back to the palace one day to see the royal physician being kicked out of the palace. Literally. She rolls over and on to her feet with the fluid grace that comes with the warrior training all Skifandrian women get and shouts at Zantabraxus, ‘I am trying to save your child! Your consort may be foreign, but you understand the ways of eggs, and even if both survive you know what it will mean!’ she takes a deep breath, visibly calming down. ‘You know it is for the best.’
‘No.’ Zantabraxus is furious, vibrating with it, and the word comes out a low growl. ‘I do not know that it is best for either of my children to have a needle jabbed through their neck and heart, to make sure that the other survives.’ She throws the two halves of a needle as long as a dagger at the physician’s feet. ‘My children will be strong, and my consort is determined. They will survive. Go, before I assure it by doing to you what you threatened them with.’
The physician runs. Klaus strides across to Zantabraxus, not able to hug her because it takes two arms to hold a squirming egg. She hugs him instead, breath still vibrating in a growl.
‘Would she really have done that?’ Klaus asks, almost too stunned to be angry.
‘They say it’s better than losing both,’ says Zantabraxus. ‘Maybe it is, but I’m not giving up on either of them now. And you wouldn’t let me.’
‘No,’ says Klaus, then, ‘What did she mean, even if both survive?’
Zantabraxus snorts, more like a warhorse than dismissively. ‘Superstitions about twins. If they survive to hatch, I won’t let the temple have them.’
Klaus loves Skifander, but suddenly everything here seems to be conspiring against his children. They’re only an egg, still, and it’s not fair. ‘Neither will I.’
When the children, both of them, start to press up against the edge of the egg, it feels like a personal victory. He spent ages positioning them as they grew, carefully turning them both outwards again and again, and now that they’re pressed too tightly against each other to move they’re back to back, as he intended, punching and kicking outward and unable to turn on each other.
He lies on the bed with the egg on his stomach, half dazed with exhaustion and relief, absorbing the sharp little punches unthinkingly. It’s been a long time since he’s left them in the sand room, and even now he doesn’t have to worry about turning them he worries about well meaning people with long needles. He doesn’t think they’d do that without Zantabraxus’s approval. Probably. But he can’t let the egg out of his sight.
‘Good,’ he says to it, as a harder punch hits him, even as he sounds slightly strangled from catching his breath. ‘Come on.’ It’s still nearly a month before an egg would usually be hatching but if they’re taking up that much room they must be low on food. He thinks they’ll be better off a little premature than staying in there. The force behind some of the punches suggests they think so too.
He sleeps, half-sleeps, despite the importance of not sleeping with an egg in case you roll over and squash it. He’s just so tired. He dips in and out, though, trying to stay aware enough to know he’s not moving. There’s a sound, a cracking tearing sound, and a trickle of liquid against his stomach, and he rouses himself to find a tiny red fist poking through the side of the shell.
‘Zantabraxus!’ he yells, elated and yet terrified. He doesn’t know what to do with newborns. Hatchlings. ‘It’s hatching.’
The gap gets bigger, an arm reaching out, and a fist punches through on the other side, too. They’re both making their own way out.
Zantabraxus rushes in, hair streaming behind her, looking frazzled. She jumps onto the bed, Klaus makes a sound of protest as it jiggles the egg, to kneel and peer at it, and then reach in with gentle hands to help enlarge the gaps until a pair of tiny, disgruntled faces are looking through. Klaus laughs, he can’t help it. They’re the cutest things.
He and Zantabraxus shift the egg from his stomach to the bed and each help one baby out. She’s holding a boy, he’s holding a girl, a downy fluff of green already on her head. As one the babies start to wail, and Zantabraxus easily puts the boy to her breast and holds out her other arm for the girl.
‘Now it’s my turn, for a while,’ she says, grinning at him.
‘How long a while?’ Klaus asks, staring contentedly at the babies. Wrinkled and pinkish red, covered in yolk, and beautiful.
‘Until they’re weaned. Then you get them back until adulthood.’
‘You make the men do all the work around here,’ Klaus complains, smiling.
She presses her foot against his knee. ‘You do a remarkable job.’
Now that they’ve hatched the babies have lost the impulse to punch and it’s safe to put them to bed in one cradle, curled around each other as innocently as if they’d never been a danger to one another at all. Zantabraxus names the girl Zeetha and tells him he can name the boy. Klaus picks Gilgamesh and it’s defiance, when their goddess is so close to being Astarte, but the temple is no friend to his son. If Zantabraxus knows the same stories she doesn’t comment. Maybe she feels the same way.
Klaus and Zantabraxus curl together on the bed, quiet to hear two light sets of breathing. Whatever else their children may have to face, they made it to hatching, and they rejoice.