Chapter 1: Courtship Letters
The couriers had been in and out several times, over the past weeks, as far as Hermann could recall, bearing the royal seal of their neighboring nation. When there had been three visits, Dietrich had snorted and asked what the Dragon King could possibly want, but each time, Lars had merely swept off to his most private study and emerged some time later with a reply, and off the courier of the day had gone.
Their father hadn’t explained much to Hermann, nor to Karla and Bastien, but he’d said something to Dietrich, at least, at some point, because Dietrich had brushed off Bastien’s later question with a matter-of-fact statement about a new king taking the throne soon, and the possibility of a formal treaty.
When this courier comes, Hermann expects it to go exactly the same way as it had every other time, but the young man announces a letter for Prince Hermann of House Gottlieb, and Lars betrays no surprise whatsoever.
“Me?” Hermann takes the letter, curious, half-timid. It must be a mistake, that anything should come to him, but when he turns to look at his father, Lars merely nods, dismissing the courier to rest until he had a return letter to bear back.
“I should have mentioned, I suppose. It’s a tradition there, even for political alliances. Your ‘courtship’ letter, should you agree to the terms of the treaty.”
For a long moment, he doesn’t understand. This sort of responsibility should come to Dietrich and not to him, Hermann was never meant to hold any political power, of all of them he was the most ‘spare’. It hits him suddenly that while ‘courtship’ had been the word his father had sneered around, ‘political alliance’ was the one he might have accented, to let Hermann know he was talking about a proposed marriage.
His head spins, his stomach swirls. He can feel himself go hot and cold in broad stripes, no idea how to feel or what to think, and he only distantly hears himself thank his father, distantly feels himself nod deeply and take his leave. Had he even been dismissed?
Marriage had never been a goal, in Hermann’s mind. A childish dream, now and then, utterly unrealistic in scope and description, whenever he did bother to imagine it. He was a scholar through and through, and considered it likely he would advise Dietrich on any matters related to his areas of study, perhaps advance scientific theory or puzzle out some mathematical secret of the universe and bring prestige to his family and nation that way. It was not princely, but it was not frowned upon, either. His father prided himself on having the best tutors for his children in all things, including Hermann’s favorite, an astronomer and mathematician from the west, who’d studied at the continent’s foremost university, and at the observatory high in the Dragon’s Jaw mountains.
Suppose he married into that kingdom, then… suppose he was granted access to those halls of learning– to the Dragon’s Eye Observatory itself! As Prince Consort, would it not be possible? Generations there had focused on science and learning, on building up their nation as one at the forefront of thought, discovery, education… King Lars had some scholarly ambitions of his own, and had the power to woo over those tutors, and to pass that onto his children, but it had never been the same. There were no institutions quite so great, and certainly no observatory so high or with instruments so advanced.
He carefully slides a dagger beneath the wax seal, his hands trembling yet again as he unfolds the letter.
Health and Happiness, Crown Prince Hermann of House Gottlieb, it began. Formal, but not in the style to which Hermann was accustomed– their etiquette tutors had always been local.
My father has spoken with yours, and I have been granted permission to write you an official letter of courtship. They had agreed there was no barrier in a political marriage between two princes, though I think only after my father explained our own long tradition of surrogate mothers within the royal family.
If I may write honestly, I am relieved. The prospect of marriage seems somehow less a looming threat when I think of another prince. When I think of what little I have been told of you, the prospect might be pleasant, even. I know only that you are a scholar, and have been sent no portrait, but I need no portrait. I am a scholar as well. If I marry, it must be to someone I can talk with about interesting problems, about higher things and the world’s mysteries, and not only courtly life or the littler problems of politics and trade.
If you do not feel the same way, then you must write me to say so, and we will find another way of binding a treaty. I do not mean to bribe you with peace into something disagreeable. But only let us write once or twice before your mind is final on it, for if our minds are like, I would be eager to host you here in any capacity.
I am, Humbled and Hoping to be Yours,
Crown Prince Newt on House Geiszler, Dracorex Keep
Newt (which is friendlier, if it pleases you)
Hermann reads the letter over twice, and half again a third time, before he replies, his hand flying between inkwell and parchment, his thoughts flying as well.
If it Pleases You, Crown Prince Newton of House Geiszler,
I confess I found your letter a comfort. It was not at all what I had imagined, should my father have ever spared a thought to selling me into marriage. I only mean, I never thought I would be able to communicate ahead of the event, let alone as freely as a sealed letter allows.
Someday I think I will confess more. My thoughts are not yet ordered, so you must forgive me. Yes, it will be agreeable to me for us to marry in order to secure a treaty. I have always dreamed of visiting the Dragon’s Eye, and the great university down the mountain from it. Without a formal treaty in place, such a journey was always deemed too dangerous for me, and here we are… I never thought it might be solved so neatly. I have heard little else about your kingdom, beyond the places of learning where my tutor was, though he spoke elusively of even grander libraries there. With the descriptions I had of those he studied in, I can hardly imagine better.
Let us not send portraits, then. He wrote, with guilty relief. They are rarely accurate and it is better not to be disappointed in the flesh, after being wooed by an overly kind artist. And anyway, will we not know each other without them? Formal introductions will surely be made. And I am sure you will only have to see who among our delegation is pale and shaking like a bridegroom to know which is me.
When you write again, tell me about your own studies. I know I have mentioned the observatory, but I am normally occupied with the study of mathematics.
Prince Hermann of House Gottlieb
(but you may also drop those formalities now that we have written each other and call me only Hermann)
He folds and seals the letter with hands shaking once more, feels unsteady for reasons he suspects are not the usual ones as he goes in search of the courier.
Prince Newton– Newt– may have been eager to know that he agreed to the marriage, but Hermann doubts his father has any such compunctions. It was a treaty with a kingdom prosperous in gems and minerals, and for all that the landscape looked foreboding from the borderlands, Hermann had heard they were never in famine. The kingdom proper must have fertile lands as well, that can’t be seen from the outside. And, perhaps the greatest motivator for a binding treaty, they had the dragon cavalry. Were they sworn to come to Lars’ aid in matters of war, they would make for an unstoppable combined force.
Whatever Newton may be like, Hermann is perfectly willing to marry him. His seat on the dais here is stifling, his place under Lars’ eye, under Lars’ thumb… The Dragons’ Jaw represents freedom, the freedom of the open night sky to explore. Newt represents freedom. Let Lars Gottlieb think it is all his doing, his cowed thirdborn accepting the force of his will. Let him think Hermann hadn’t always dreamed of a prince who would take him away from all of this.
Newt writes back as quickly as Hermann’s letter reaches him, the speed seems impossible for the distance, but Hermann doesn’t question it, he only falls deeper into their correspondence, and surer that Newt is the answer to any secret prayer he might have dreamt of making.
Chapter 2: The Journey to Dracorex Keep
In which Hermann is a little anxious about his new marriage, and Newt is not at all what he expected.
Hermann is half-giddy, when the day comes, and half petrified. With the rapid exchange of letters with Newt, while their fathers ironed out the political details, he feels sure he will be comfortable with his new husband, even if it turns out not to be a deep and mutual romantic love.
The issues, as he sees them, are: First, that he won’t get to meet Newt until he is taken to Newt’s palace, and he would have liked for them to make the journey together– though he can understand the logic behind the plan. Second, that as he worries about his luggage, Dietrich keeps teasing him about how awful his new marriage will be, and he can’t counter it, worried that his father would call the whole thing off out of spite if he heard Hermann admit to preferring this arrangement to something more traditional. Third, he has never really seen a dragon before, except from a great distance, and he’ll be traveling with a small guard from Newt’s cavalry.
Well, and once he gets there, there will be dragons all over, he imagines. If not as common as horses are in his own homeland, at least he imagines they would be like the Hellpigs he’s used to– some trained for military service, some wild in the woods, and all of them huge and horrifying to behold.
And of course, he will be sorry to miss his sister’s wedding– a bigger affair, and then he doesn’t know when he will see her again, when she goes off with her husband and he with his, but he’s happy for her. Her fiance is the lord of a small island chain, prosperous and with a fine navy, a good political and trade ally, and better for having Karla to oversee naval strategy, one of the specialties she had studied. He will be sorry to miss Bastien’s, when it’s arranged. He’ll miss his family, for the most part, but he won’t miss them enough to regret his freedom.
When the envoy arrives, the dragons are impossible to ignore– there are three or four or five of them, though most land outside the palace walls and remain there, and so Hermann doesn’t get a close look at first. Two or three great red wyrms, and perhaps there is another he can’t see so well, all guarding a large flying palanquin.
And then, through the palace gates, a single great silvery dragon, with a mane and beard of russet quills, and another great set of quills fanning out at the tip of its tail. Most of the castle denizens who’d gathered to witness the big event shrink back, or rush off outright. Only the elite of the royal guard manage not to flinch as it approaches, passes, reaches the royal family.
The dragon kneels, bowing its head, and a man slides down from the polished leather saddle, two others coming from the procession’s rear to stand with him, and Hermann is dazzled.
One of the other two men he recognizes– he’d been a courier, bearing some of Newt’s messages, a man with sleek black hair and a charming smile that almost hid a look of perpetual weariness, the sort Hermann imagines comes from making long journeys quickly. He is, admittedly, quite handsome, but he’d never really caught Hermann’s eye.
The man who’d ridden in on dragon-back does. Even though he is in courtly finery rather than full armor for the occasion, he seems every inch the heroic knight. Tall, broad-shouldered, a silver clasp shaped like a dragon’s wings pinned near one shoulder, connected by a fine chain to the opposite epaulet, a look of steadfast nobility…
It feels wrong to feel even a fleeting attraction to a stranger on his wedding day, and Hermann pushes it aside as best he can, assuring himself that once he and Newt meet in the flesh, he will feel all this and more for him, however he looks.
The third member of the envoy is a small man bearing a the royal seal. His glasses are smudged and crooked, and his voice is hoarse and all but inaudible, and he stares, awed, at Hermann’s family, when he is prompted to approach.
He shuffles forward, lets the dragonrider introduce him as the only one with the authority to sign Lars’ copy of the treaty on the Dragon King’s behalf, and the marriage record copy as well. He fumbles nervously throughout, with a soft admission to never having done anything so important, and seems relieved to retreat back to the side of the dragon, placing a hand up on its great shoulder and peering past as Hermann says his goodbyes.
A small landau bears Hermann and his luggage out to the palanquin– more the size of a very large wheel-less flying carriage, now that he sees it close up– and the courier quickly loads his things for him, flashing him a sympathetic smile.
Hermann wonders if he looks as terrified as he feels. There are three of the wyrms, plus a second of the silvery dragons, and he recoils when it tosses its head, even with the distance between him and it. There’s another rider, who had remained behind with them, a young woman in leather armor, her hair chopped short, her bearing that of a professional soldier, and Hermann wonders how on earth only two riders could control the five dragons, even with the training he’s sure they must have.
The courier– Tendo– rides with him inside, the seal-bearer shaking his head, whispering a quick apology and an ‘I’ll fly’, but three humans to five dragons doesn’t inspire more confidence than two. Still, Tendo seems utterly unconcerned, as he helps Hermann to get comfortable.
The flying carriage has no bench seats, only enormous cushions everywhere, and straps to hold onto, attached to the floor rather than the ceiling. Hermann is immensely grateful for the straps, as the dragons take off, the carriage leaping suddenly straight up into the air.
“You’ll get used to things.” Tendo assures him. “I’ve been asked to personally see to your settling-in– a personal servant, if you will.”
“Oh.” Hermann nods, feeling stupid– he barely has any idea how to talk to people under the best circumstances, and his stomach is still lurching from the takeoff, head spinning. “Er, that’s a step up from courier.”
“Well, that was really only under the circumstances– sensitive correspondence. I’ve always worked in the palace, three generations of my family have, ever since my grandfather saved the life of the old Dragon King.” Tendo nods proudly. “If anyone can help you adjust to it, I can.”
“Thank you.” Hermann adjusts his grip on the strap. The ride is smoother than he’d imagined, but they seem to be going so fast… “The– the dragons… You’ve grown up around them, then?”
“Yes. But I’m sure you’ll grow accustomed to them in time, once you know a dragon, you’ll see they aren’t fearsome. Only when it’s necessary, like the cavalry dragons, but… most just live in peace, really.”
It feels as if it’s all very easy for Tendo to feel that way, when he’s been around them all his life, but Hermann tries to let himself be calmed.
They stop once, at a small stronghold in the mountains, and when Hermann exits the carriage on shaky legs, there’s no sign of the smaller silver dragon, nor the seal-bearer, who must have flown on ahead, planning to journey overnight.
A meal is served, small and informal compared to what Hermann is used to, but pleasant– the food is good, and no one burdens him with conversation he can’t keep up with. Tendo talks, with enough confidence for the both of them, filling Hermann in on some of the things he can expect from his new home, and the bed he’s shown to is warm. In the morning, a hot bath is prepared for him, and a light breakfast– another thing to be grateful for, for Hermann doubts he could fly again on a full stomach, even with the relative protection of the carriage, curtains drawn over the windows to protect him from dizzying views or strong winds.
From the stronghold, it’s a short journey indeed to Dracorex Keep, the great palace. It’s built into the mountains as if it was springing organically from the mountainside, with beautiful rising spires, and Hermann dares to draw back the curtains to see it from the sky. What looked delicate from afar looms when they get closer– there’s no part of the palace which was not built to accommodate a dragon, he realizes. It seems curious, but then, there must be advantages to it– in a siege, the dragon cavalry would be able to fall back into the palace that way, if they had to… and perhaps there were other reasons he had not thought of, places in a palace where a dragon would be useful.
When they land and disembark, it’s a row of riderless dragons that greet them– in the center, the largest of them, deep forest green with dark horns, with a long face. A smaller, similar dragon to one side, and at the other, the smallest of the three, and Hermann stares.
It has catlike green eyes, and enormous glasses, the earpieces of which end in loops that affix to its horns, and the sight is almost comical, but Hermann can’t quite laugh. A few large scales plate over certain spots, but aside from that, it just looks smooth, nearly black and glittering, with a mane somewhere between quills and feathers and fur– from looking at it, Hermann can’t imagine how it feels, it looks spiky and soft all at once, and not like any animal he knows. Along its tail is a great fin.
Hermann looks around, as best he can without taking his eyes off of the three dragons, wondering where his husband is and who was meant to greet them, but he doesn’t have much time to wonder before the largest of the three dragons nods to him and speaks.
The words hardly register, the shock of it has his head swimming and his blood pounding. It has a genial voice, warm and surprisingly human, the greeting is standard enough stuff, but… it speaks.
Do they all speak? None had addressed him on the journey, but then, it had fallen almost entirely to Tendo to do that, had they just kept silent because of his status, or because they sensed his discomfort?
“–and my son, who I’m sure you’re eager to meet properly.” The dragon finishes, stepping back, motioning the smallest of the three forward.
“Hermann.” It says– he says– with all the joy Hermann would have hoped to hear from Newt, but this… everything is wrong. Newt is a dragon, why had Newt never told him that he was a dragon?
Chapter 3: The Wedding Present
Some things fall apart. Hermann's worldview chief among them.
“–time to adjust.”
“–just want to see him!”
Hermann’s head is swimming, and his hip and back radiate with fresh pain in time with his heartbeat, and everything is dark, but pain aside, he’s not uncomfortable. It feels like a longer moment than he’s sure it is, his thoughts swimming through the thick sludge of disbelief and confusion, for him to realize that his eyes are closed, and that he’s lying on something soft, that he must have fainted, embarrassing as that is, and been moved.
Tendo’s voice had been the first to cut through the pounding in his head, and he feels a roiling mix of fear and anger when he realizes it’s Newt’s voice arguing with him from some distance. Newt, who had kept this from him– and why? He must have realized that once they were in the same place, it would be worse… or didn’t he think for one minute about what Hermann would feel? That it should be Newt’s voice is still strange to him, but it’s the same as that last voice he’d heard before, calling his name out. High for all Newt’s size, rough and excitable and uncomfortably human.
“When he wakes up. When he’s ready.” Tendo says firmly, and Hermann feels a surge of appreciation and wonder, that Tendo would argue with his king– or at least his future king– on Hermann’s behalf, when that king happens to be a dragon. Even if he’s not as large a dragon as the others Hermann had seen so far.
He waits until he hears the retreat of Newt’s talons across the stone floor, and the closing of a door, before he opens his eyes. He’s been brought inside to a room that he assumes is small by dragon standards, a sitting room or perhaps a sewing room. The couch he’s been laid out on is enormous, built like a dainty settee, only there would be room enough for Newt to lounge comfortably on it without feeling at all cramped.
“Thank you.” He groans, when Tendo hurries back over to his side.
“It’s no trouble to me. Had you ever flown before this trip? Sometimes it all catches up with you at once.”
Hermann shakes his head. “Of course I haven’t– I mean– No. But that’s not…”
“I know. He’s worried about you– Newt is. He gets overexcited about things, but he means well. He’s a good man, under all of the…” Tendo waves a hand.
“What? No– under all the Newt.” Tendo looks at him as though he’s suddenly become a dragon himself. “Only child of the crown, never able to socialize, too interested in his scientific studies and not really interested enough in being politic or polite… the moods, the anxiety, the way he’ll talk your ear off for days when something interests him, the way he writes off anyone less than some kind of genius… I won’t lie, your new husband can be obnoxious, but… well, for a dragon, he’s still young. And even though he’ll be king once the marriage is finalized before the kingdom here, King Jacob isn’t going anywhere until Newt has the hang of ruling, so there’s no real harm in his not being ready yet…”
Hermann nods dumbly. Newt had explained it in one of the letters. The throne was passed down on the occasion of an heir’s marriage, rather than on the previous king’s death, a system which allowed for a smoother transition. Newt would be able to turn to an experienced ruler for assistance, the people were content knowing the kingdom would change very little under a newly-minted monarch.
Newt had explained all that, but never took even a moment to explain being a completely different species. Hermann feels the bitterness creeping back stronger.
He can hear him pacing outside, the clicking of his claws and the heavy sound of his tail cutting through the air, the weight of his tread…
“What are his moods like?” Hermann asks, weighing out his options before committing himself.
“Too happy, or too sad, most of the time. Agitated, sometimes. I don’t want you to worry, or be afraid of him– I’m the closest thing he has to a normal friend, growing up like he did without any real peers, and he’s not shy about arguing if he feels he’s right and you’re wrong, but he knows his size, and he knows his strength, next to a human. And he’s never been in a mood that’s made me afraid to argue right back if I didn’t agree with him. And he respects that. He… he doesn’t sound like he holds all the power, when he shouts. But it helps him to work things out sometimes, just to go through the motions. Just to shout some of the feelings out of himself when he feels too much.”
Hermann distantly recognizes jealousy, in among all the other things he feels. He’d never been free to argue with anyone– he could have shouted down at servants, but it wouldn’t have done him any good to, it would only have made him a bully. He doesn’t know if he’s jealous of Newt for having someone he could be free with his feelings around, or if he’s jealous of Tendo for feeling so safe in yelling back to a king– or to an heir to the throne, anyway.
“If he’s so worried, let him in, then.” Hermann nods, steeling himself. “There’s no point in putting it off.”
For a moment, he thinks Tendo is going to say something, but instead, he quietly lets himself out and Newt in.
“Hermann!” Newt bounds up to him, stopping short when Hermann flinches, his relief turning to hurt.
“Newton.” He says coldly. Newt is difficult to read, but he feels like a confused pout, even if he just looks like a dragon.
“Hermann, are you all right? Was the journey a hard one, is there anything–? Do you need a drink, or–?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? You let me imagine– You let me think–” Hermann reaches for his cane and fails to find it close at hand, and he can only stay seated on the enormous sofa across from Newt.
“Tell you what?”
“This!” He explodes, gesturing from Newt’s horns to his wings to his tail. “You didn’t tell me you were a dragon! Imagine my surprise, Newton! Coming to meet you, to be married to you, and you are not even human!”
He can’t be sure what emotions are flashing across Newt’s face– most of it remains immobile, though there are clear shifts in his eyes, before his brow draws down and he puffs himself up a bit from his earlier submissive posture.
“I didn’t think I needed to tell you what species I was, Hermann. I live in Dracorex Keep, my father is the Dragon King, I did think you knew!” He fires back, his tail lashing with agitation once more. It reminds Hermann of an angry cat. “It’s certainly common knowledge on this side of the mountain. You told me your tutor was one of my countrymen, I was supposed to imagine you never heard anything about me, or about my father? You didn’t request a portrait from me, either. You said we would know each other without any of that. I assumed you were more concerned with mental compatibility than with appearances!”
“I am not talking about appearances!” Hermann shouts, nostrils flaring. He knows he’s no prize, not next to his siblings, that he takes too much after their father and not so much after their mother. He’d spent enough time worrying that Newt would be disappointed by his looks, and he doesn’t care for the implication that he’s shallow, when the issue is a fair sight larger.
“Oh?” Newt challenges, his chin jutting forward as best it can, given the shape of his head.
“We’re not the same species!”
“As if that stops people! People who– who really see eye-to-eye, who–” He turns away from Hermann at last, clamping down on the next word with a choked sound. “It never bothered me you would be a human.”
“Well, you’re used to humans! I was all the way here before anyone even informed me dragons could speak!”
“Then your education is more lacking than I anticipated.” Newt sneers. “So now what– you want to forget everything? Go back home, marry some human from some piddling little nation, or from some– some lesser clan in your father’s kingdom? Pretend I never happened?”
He doesn’t– the thought fills him with dread, even more than the thought of living among dragons does. Would his father demand retribution from Newt’s, over the broken treaty, or would the blame fall on Hermann’s shoulders– would Newt’s father demand satisfaction, for it would obviously be Hermann’s fault? And then… and then a wife, for whom he would be expected to perform… No. Perhaps Newt had no opinions on what made a human attractive or unattractive, anyway, and perhaps they could be content to avoid each other in what was a very large palace, and Newt could father his heirs with a surrogate, could do whatever he liked with a surrogate and Hermann could leave for the observatory!
“I agreed to a political marriage.” He shrugs. “I am a man of my word, regardless of setbacks and surprises.”
Newt gives a curt nod. “I’ll have the wedding feast arranged for tomorrow night and let everyone know you’ll spend tonight recovering from the journey. Tendo can let you know what’s expected. And Tendo can give you the tour you no longer want from me, too. I have work to get back to.”
He sweeps out, leaving Hermann temporarily alone, and at a loss.
He’d been too entrenched in defending his own side of the argument to allow for Newt’s truths to filter through, but now that it’s over and Newt is out of the room, he can admit there were good points there– why had his tutor never once said that dragons were thinking creatures, speaking creatures? That his own homeland was ruled by them? Why had he submitted to the great lie that these were mere beasts who might be tamed, but not truly trusted? Was he ordered not to speak of it? Surely the men in the borderlands knew, even if those far from the mountains didn’t, surely they saw dragons on the other side.
No… whole swaths of history needed to be re-written, for the mistake or the lie to be perpetuated. Had it been long enough since his father’s kingdom had been populated with dragons for humans to forget that they were sentient? Long enough since they had done any dealings with the Dragon King, to forget that he was a dragon?
Did Lars know? Did– did Dietrich? If Lars knew, then Hermann is sure Dietrich would as well. What he doesn’t know is if his father had forbade their tutor from bringing the subject up. He was no longer at the palace, by the time Hermann was to be married to Newt, so it wasn’t as if a sudden crisis of conscience could have made him speak the truth. But… had Dietrich meant to warn him? Things his older brother had said leading up to his journey come to mind, but making sense of them is not so easy. If the topic was a forbidden one, Dietrich would have had to hide it in teasing, in innocuous statements, in jokes. But had he known, and had he really meant to tell Hermann in secret?
Hermann cannot come to an adequate conclusion. All he can think is that he’s made a mess of things, no matter how justified his surprise. Still, after their argument, he isn’t willing to shoulder all blame, either. Newt might still have mentioned something that would clue Hermann into his being not human, if not a mention of his being dragon. Newt might have been sympathetic to Hermann’s shock and not insulted his education, but given him time to adjust before…
Before what, fighting again?
Tendo comes in before Hermann can either content himself with things or drive himself mad, and he asks for his cane without any stab of injured pride, follows Tendo meekly and quietly. At least he will not have to worry about where he will sleep– a personal suite of rooms has been arranged for him.
The bed makes him nervous, it’s too large to have been built for a human, but there is a small desk against the wall, between a tall bookcase and a glass door out onto a balcony, heavy curtains drawn back. There is an enormous fireplace, and a small breakfast table sat between the foot of the bed and the fire. Across from the balcony, a wardrobe and an open door, and through that, a bath, with a vast stone tub, and more amenities than Hermann really knows what to do with yet. He knows the plumbing systems here are second to none in the world, though he’d initially scoffed at the descriptions his tutor had given him when he was a boy. He just hadn’t quite been prepared to live in a world where he could summon a hot bath for himself, rather than waiting on servants to ferry boiling water from the kitchens up to a small tub, the indignity of sitting in it naked, hoping that by the time it was all taken care of, the water would equal out to a comfortable temperature.
He leaves the bath quickly, and turns back to the balcony, to really take in the view of the mountains, white-capped when he looks up, with rocky stretches, but green further down, leading into the valley. Wildflowers cluster tight together, looking like a giant paintbrush has made strokes across the foothills.
It’s not the view that steals Hermann’s breath, but the telescope– that, if not the bed nor the bathtub, is made for a human’s use. The wood is dark and warm in color, polished to a fine sheen. The brass fittings gleam. The cradle is flanked by decorative panels set with small gems. On one side, their placement mimics the stars that Hermann was born beneath, it could not be clearer that this was made for him alone. A wedding present, commissioned when the letters between them were full of hope… when Newt had been so eager for Hermann to come, to be able to speak face to face.
Hermann swallows thickly, dismissing Tendo in a mumble. He can’t look at the telescope, nor is he ready to contemplate the bed. He goes to the desk and sits, slumping forward against it.
Chapter 4: View From the Writing Desk
Hermann finds reaching out again isn't so easy.
Hermann’s thoughts race in circles, and he remains slumped against the writing desk, smelling the dark wood and the thick leather blotter beneath his cheek, and the ink in the pretty little bottle his eyes don’t quite focus on.
It reminds him of his grandfather’s desk– humble, by his family’s standards, because it had been the one to travel with him, and because Lars had inherited the great stationary one, moved it into his own study. Hermann never met the man, he was the first child born after King Hermann’s death, and so he bore his name instead. He knows that it had been King Hermann who had first brokered a peace between his kingdom and Newt’s, for his great grandfather had been at war with the Dragon King’s kingdom before then, and an uneasy peace had been in place throughout Lars’ reign…
His grandfather would have known the truth about the dragons, if he’d met with them… or had they sent a human envoy, like the seal-bearer who’d come in place of any royals, to avoid having some panicked soldier on the border shoot the king down because no one had told him not to attack dragons that day?
Hermann’s grandfather’s study had been just as forbidden to the children as Lars’ study always was… it had been turned into an archive room, once it was no longer needed for its old purpose, to house books and papers and artifacts that needed some home where Lars could get to them, and a scattering of old things about which he was not particularly sentimental, but would not throw out without reason. Even though they hadn’t been allowed, Dietrich had gotten the key once, and taken Hermann in, where they’d crouched low and whispered, and where Dietrich had told frightening stories about the war with the dragons, greatly embellished from his history lessons. There had been a trophy on the wall, which must have been their great grandfather’s, an enormous pair of horns, and at the time, listening to Dietrich’s stories and seeing the shadows thrown by their small lantern, he had been terrified.
Now, thinking back to it, his stomach turns. It wasn’t like mounting a stag’s antlers, but like keeping the bones of a person you had killed… The trade in dragon-hide and claws and horns, and even vials of blood, that all came from– from people, really, people like Newt, whose letters had only frightened Hermann in that he’d felt the stirrings of something that he couldn’t talk to anyone about, and he didn’t know if Newt felt the same.
His back aches and he pushes himself up, forces his eyes to focus again on the faceted glass of the inkwell, the decorative flourishes of metal around the base and the neck, the quill… The cubbyholes for keeping correspondence, and where there was parchment waiting for him to use, should he need it.
He hovered over the paper, ink dripping– was the proper term of address now ‘king’, after he had signed the treaty, or was it ‘crown prince’ until the wedding feast? He abandoned the formality, sure it wouldn’t truly be appreciated whether or not he had it right.
My deepest apologies for the offense I caused. In my shock, I lost the bearing appropriate to my station, and I behaved shamefully. This I regret. Of course after I told you of my former tutor, you had every reason to believe I would have been more informed, and I should have been.
I hope that we may at least behave amicably for tomorrow night’s ceremonies. If after that time, you do not wish for us to be close, I will take my leave of the palace and continue my studies, whether at university or at the Dragon’s Eye observatory, I am happy to leave to your discretion. I will remain here in my new kingdom, and I will do everything in my power to uphold my end of the treaty and the arrangement between us two. If you will be happier without my being here, it need not undo the peace.
I have thought long and hard, and to little avail. The world I once knew is now so small in the face of things I am only beginning to know. I am neither simple nor saintly, and I cannot promise to be so quickly changed. I can only tell you I regret that I did not understand, and that you were hurt by
Hermann scowls down at the paper, and strikes out the ‘by’ as well, unsatisfied.
I can promise to do better, even if I cannot guarantee to what degree I will succeed, nor how quickly. And if you believe the time apart would be for the best, I sincerely hope you will allow me to resume writing you, from whatever new post I take.
Your humble servant,
He blows at the page, willing the ink to dry more quickly, finally abandoning it to the desk and hobbling to the bell-pull. Tendo answers his summons, and Hermann can hardly blame him for seeming uncertain, after his earlier scene.
“Can you deliver my apology?” He asks, cutting right to the chase, folding the letter hurriedly but neatly before handing it over to Tendo’s care.
Hermann bites back the sarcastic reply on the tip of his tongue, nodding, and Tendo merely nods in return, before disappearing with the letter. Hermann limps to the desk once more, the potential comfort of the bed not worth dealing with the enormous size. Even if he felt ready to navigate the issue, sitting with no support for his lower back is out of the question, and he has never liked the crawling feel of unwanted intimacy from having anyone come in while he lies in bed. Servants or doctors, it never failed to make him uncomfortable, and Tendo is becoming familiar in a way that no servants of the Gottlieb clan ever were, but he is still not so familiar that Hermann would welcome the intrusion. It feels better to remain seated, to pretend he anticipates writing another letter.
In fact, Tendo does return bearing a response, though his expression does not bode well.
“He wrote me back?” Hermann reaches out to take the letter, hoping his own had not been returned unread, and Tendo nods, but his worried frown does not waver.
“He wasn’t happy as he wrote it.” He cautions, before melting back towards the doorway to allow Hermann some privacy with Newt’s reply.
If the topic is to be regrets, I regret the way my heart leapt when I first began to read your apology. It must be so easy to spin some pleasant words out for me when you think after tomorrow night we may never see each other face to face. Did you think to make me the unreasonable party who sends you away? Rich, when you are the one flinching from me, quailing at the sight of me.
If you want to go away, you might say as much to me. I know of your academic ambitions. I would never have been so mean as to bar you from pursuing them. You had only to state the desire and I would have arranged your passage, there was no call to make it an issue of my not wishing to see you again!
I will not stop you from writing letters, either, though you may find yourself discouraged if the replies are not what you wished for. Would you rather be parted and write and pretend we had never met, pretend I am some human prince again, wish away your knowledge of me? I cannot say the same. I am who I am, and I will still be, no matter how far from me you go. Your letters will still come to a dragon. Any reply you get will be written in a dragon’s hand. You do not get to wish me away from afar.
I will send you a thousand portraits if you think you can forget me so easily
I will not make a scene at the wedding feast, if you will not. On that we are in agreement, more important things are at stake than marital happiness. After that, if you wish to go, that is your decision and not mine. I will not hold it against you to pursue your own goals, but I am sore over the thought you would manipulate me to ease your guilt. It’s not the man I thought you were. But then, you were the one who thought perhaps we never knew each other so well as we thought.
(the university and the observatory will have dragons just as surely as the palace does, so your decision may be a fully informed one)
Hermann feels a flare of anger– he’d wanted to do the right thing, after all, and here Newt was throwing it back in his face. He feels guilt as well, though, over the thought that Newt might not be entirely wrong… Still, he is partly wrong, Hermann will fight him on that. The idea he might have imagined he would be escaping ever having to see a dragon again by going to a university in a land that seemed to be half dragons, as if Newt imagined him a simpleton or a child, or so blinded by his earlier upset as to be ignorant of reality…
There is a pang of loss as well, to think they will wear the same dull mask of civility he’d hoped to never live under again, and then never again be to each other what they’d begun to be in letters… but his quill is flying before he can process all the things he feels about Newt or his response.
I am perfectly aware I will be living among dragons wherever I go, thank you. But my apologies for offending you yet again with my attempts at putting your feelings at the forefront of my thoughts. After how I behaved upon my arrival, I should have thought you would want my absence.
He sighs, staring at the paragraph. It is heated, snippy… he will regret it, he knows, and yet he cannot bring himself to strike it out when it is what he feels, and there is such a heady freedom in seeing his emotions on the page.
I am accustomed to being more polished than honest. Should I have stressed my own desires more? I did not wish to be rude, by making it seem I could not wait to get away from you, for that is still not the whole truth. The truth is that I first agreed to marry you in hopes of furthering my education. The truth is that I value the mind I found in our correspondence greatly. The truth is that your letters were among the treasures I packed, to keep your words even as I anticipated meeting you. The truth is, I was surprised, and I was frightened, and I was unenlightened when I did meet you. The truth is, I was overcome with shame at my words when I discovered the telescope you must have arranged for my room, and when I thought of how you had not changed one bit except in my perception of you, and how I had not been taught the truth.
I am insulted, and yet I know I have also given insult. I wish to see the Dragon’s Eye, and I wish to further my studies. I also wish to repair the things between us, and I am better on paper than I am in the flesh. I am a disappointment, as much as you are a shock. If you asked me to stay, I still would.
Yours, Even So
This time, Tendo is in the open doorway before Hermann’s hand has left the bell-pull, and he hands the fresh letter over, scarlet-faced at having been that predictable. This time, he collapses onto the uncomfortably large bed once the door is closed, and Tendo does not return until the sky outside is dark, to light the fire and the lamps, and then to bring in Hermann’s dinner.
He is disappointed– even more than he thinks he would have been by more argument from Newt. The silence weighs heavy on him, and he barely tastes the food, though it is filling and– unlike his husband– does not argue with him.
Chapter 5: The Wedding Feast
Time for Newt and Hermann to face each other again, and this time there's a crowd to impress...
Tendo had briefed Hermann on everything that was required of him-- it wasn't much, there were no speeches to memorize. He merely has to affirm that he wants the best for Newt's kingdom and would be faithful to the people as their new Prince Consort, he will not be tested on his personal fealty to Newt himself, nor forced to spout some false romantic promise, they will merely seal the arrangement and their commitment to the political partnership. And...
And there's the crowning. He is to be responsible for that-- placing Newt's new crown, and holding still for Newt to do the same. And then to sit next to Newt throughout the feast. He has managed, so far, not to witness any dragons actually eating, but his grace period is at an end, and after all, it is Newt. Hadn't he promised he would be better? Except it isn't only Newt, it's an entire court, it's the sight of food disappearing behind great sharp teeth and down enormous gullets, and isn't it only normal to be a little uneasy, when he's not used to living with dragons?
Tendo will be at the feast-- he's one of the servants who has that privilege, though he will be at the far end of the great hall. Others still will be free to witness, even if they will not have seats there, and may have to wait and eat later, when the guests have all moved on. Hermann can't imagine his father allowing a thing like that-- oh, servants had their own festival days and little freedoms, they were not so hard-used as they might still have borne happily just to be working in the palace and not outside it, but eating in the hall with the royal family... A hired professional might, of course, the tutors did, if there was occasion to host them, and other learned or skilled men who worked for Lars but did not serve him the way that cooks and valets and footmen and such did. Tendo never would have been allowed to, though.
Hermann only wishes Tendo could be sat near him, he would have liked the comfort of a friendly, familiar person he could talk to, and he doubts Newt will really be in the mood to try. Newt will need to host the entire hall, anyway.
They do need to enter together, and Tendo accompanies Hermann to the hallway, the back entrance through which he and Newt will enter when announced, to sit at the King's Table, while most enter through the main doors. Hermann is dressed in the finery expected of a human member of the royal court of Dracorex Keep-- silk robes, for spring, warm enough for the mountain air without being too heavy for the weather, and he supposes it is nice not to have needed to stand through a fitting, being jabbed with pins by accident should he move from the perfect statue position the royal tailor required of him... dealing with the invasive level of touch, which his family never seemed to be thrown by and which Hermann had never grown accustomed to.
He likes them-- they are so like a scholar's robes, if fancier. Perhaps he thinks so because in his father's kingdom, only scholars ever dressed that way. It's comfortable, and the volume and the looseness allows him to feel protected even when he knows he will be very much on display. A loose trouser beneath, and Hermann had opted for a tunic as well, though Tendo had told him it was early in the year for so much layering. He'd been provided with several sets, in the wardrobe of his suite, and Tendo had guided him a little, narrowing the choice down to the two finest, but Hermann had still had a choice.
He'd chosen the pale silver, which had surprised Tendo a little. The darker robes had been in the colors of his kingdom's flags and his family's standard, deep forest green with embroidery in gold and wine red-- paired with the right underclothes, he'd have represented them perfectly. But... that was his old kingdom. Newt's kingdom is his now. And the silver had been so different from everything Hermann had always worn before. As comfortable as he'd always been in darker colors, as much as he'd always preferred to blend into the background as much as possible, he finds himself attracted to the idea of striding into the room and being... admired, perhaps, by someone in the crowd at least. Even if it was only to be one person, the idea appeals.
He doesn't want to enter with his cane. It's handsome-- when it had become clear it would be necessary, Lars had insisted upon nothing less. The shaft is a dark wood, polished to a gleam, and the tip and head are brass, but they'd gleamed like gold when it had first been presented to him. The head is a round knob, and if it wasn't constantly smudged with ink and chalk and the oil from Hermann's hand, he imagines it would gleam still. It doesn't suit his outfit, though, and he hates using it, an unexpected late growth spurt meant that it was slightly too short for him, and awkward to grip. Still, it's better than the replacement he'd been offered, with the bone handle, the cane that had belonged to his great-grandfather, and Hermann had never been entirely sure what sort of bone it was... No, best he had not made that switch, all considered.
"Is the walk long?" He asks Tendo, as they wait in the hallway. It's dimly lit, and might feel oppressive, if it had not been built to accommodate dragons. He can hear the echo of Newt's approach, around the corner where the halls branch. "To get to the table from the door, at least-- I could hand this off to you there, and you might bring it back to me after everything is finished? I don't mind waiting for you to take your time with dinner, I'm sure I'm expected to be up there until it's all over..."
"I've seen you walk as long without using it." Tendo nods.
Hermann appreciates the man's confidence, but Tendo had seen him walk without his cane before the travel had sent his pain and stiffness flaring up. He had not needed it except for a moment's balance, back at his father's palace, when they had met. He'd walked with his family to meet the delegation, and walked to the coach, and mostly only carried it beneath his arm. He'd favored it more since, still adjusting to the elevation, still recovering from the journey... He certainly had made it across his room without the cane, but not elegantly or smoothly. If he went slowly enough, might it be all right, and look fine to the crowd? But keeping up with Newt, could he slow his pace down enough to hide the limp?
Newt comes around the corner as Hermann is pondering the possibility-- low-- of matching his gait, but he does seem more subdued. He turns to Newt to bring up their entrance, and finds himself tripping over his words as Newt refuses to meet his eyes.
"Would it lend the right pomp, do you think, if we-- if we walked in at a... a measured pace? Slow, I mean-- I-- I would have to be slower than you, if-- That is, I can't walk very fast--" Hermann's voice threatens to crack, and he coughs to cover it, and finally Newt turns to really look at him, instead of studying the corner where the wall meets the floor as if it was fascinating but also somewhat upsetting to him.
He gives a slightly jerky nod, tucking his wings in even more tightly against his sides. There is a light, diaphanous cape settled down his back between them, trailing behind him, and it's clasped across the keel of him with a bright silver chain, the metal standing out like moonlight against Newt's dark hide. He isn't all scaled, though at first Hermann had assumed there must be small scales, between all the big plates that armored his most vulnerable places. Much of him was nearly smooth, like a soft-but-thick pebbly leather. As close as they are now, Hermann can see it even with the low light around them. Newt gestures towards the door before them with his head, and brings his tail around between them, lifting it up to the height of Hermann's elbow.
He has turned it to the side, so that the fin faces in towards his own body, and after a moment, Hermann realizes what is being offered. Swallowing, he lays his forearm along the end of Newt's tail, his hand draping over the tip the way he'd seen his mother walk with his father, the way he'd seen his sister practice to take an escort's arm politely, the way he'd seen perhaps every couple walk when entering any formal court event. It rankles slightly that he should be relegated to the female part just because this is Newt's kingdom, or just because Newt is larger, or... or for any reason, except that Newt's tail is almost solid muscle, and even at the end, strong enough for Hermann to lean on when he needs to.
Newt flashes him a tight smile, and for how different his face may be from a human's, somehow that smile is still recognizable. Hermann returns it, handing his cane over to Tendo, and he is still sorry that Tendo has to disappear on ahead of them, but he is not afraid to be alone in Newt's company... and as strange as he'd feared the touch of him would be... well, it may be strange, but it is not loathsome.
And then, together, they both raise their heads and turn to the door, and wait for the announcement, entering the great hall to the sound of cheers.
The dais is strewn with cushions for lounging upon. Only Hermann has been set a throne-- a fine one, slim and made of dark wood, and cushioned in velvet. It had clearly been made for a smaller adult human, long ago, but he likes it. It does not dwarf him the way his old prince's throne had always seemed to do. It is tall, but not too broad. He feels right, sitting in it, doesn't feel the old, poison urge to look to his larger brother and wonder if he ought to have been different, or wonder how a father with much the same build seemed to fill an even larger throne without looking too small for it. He fills the space. He looks regal.
At least, he feels regal. He is at Newt's left, Jacob at Newt's right, and Newt's uncle is further down the King's Table still, looking very relaxed outside the crowd's focus. To Hermann's own left is another dragon, which he supposes is not a surprise, though this one had not been there to meet him when he'd arrived. It's darker than the night sky, darker than Newt, with a shorter, rounder head, a frill of the same not-fur-not-feathers-not-quills that does not extend to a mane nor to a beard. Unlike Newt, this dragon bears no armored scales, but has that same thick hide, and when it rearranges its wings, they are more muscled-- like a large flipper almost, rather than a thin membrane. It's what he would imagine a bird's wing to look like with no feathers, except he has seen roasted fowl and knows the feather makes up more of the wing.
There is clearly more variety in dragons than he'd ever imagined, but he nods politely as he can and tries not to stare at any of the differences. Down at the far end of the hall Tendo is joining the lucky servants and commoners to have earned or won or been gifted seats for the main event, and between the two ends, there are long flanking tables with courtiers and officers, and what Hermann imagines to be the elite of the royal guard and dragon cavalry. He certainly recognizes the man who'd been in charge of security on the journey, alongside the dragon he'd ridden on.
He thinks the dragon to his left might be a lady, based on the draped silks and jewels, except Newt is dressed somewhat similarly... the dress code does not seem divided by sex so much as class.
Newt turns from a low-voiced conversation with his father and moves around Hermann to greet the other dragon, allowing himself to be pulled in with one small, strong wing and nuzzled at, and then preened upon his release.
"Hermann, this is my surrogate-mother." He introduces stiffly-- how much stiffness is the aftereffect of their fight and how much is embarrassment, Hermann doesn't know. "My only living mother. I present Lady Monica. Mother, I present Crown Prince Hermann."
"Of course." She lowers her head, wings fluttering out to the side in something like a curtsy. "A pleasure to meet you at last. I'm so happy to have been able to return to the palace in time for the ceremony, and I thank you for holding it to tonight."
"Of course." Hermann echoes, slowly processing everything she'd said after that. He doesn't think there's any point in telling her he was the reason for the delay, and not her. Perhaps Newt had been grateful to push the ceremony one more night for her. Clearly she had warm feelings for him, and he deferred to her as any grown son to a loving mother. Had she also been a... a nanny? It was absurd to think dragons had wet nurses, so it may not have been necessary. Newt had never elaborated on the reason for his being born to a surrogate, he'd only been told it was done often enough. For the gene pool, perhaps. His parents were clearly different types of dragon, and yet clearly capable of producing offspring, and Newt looked very much like a mix of the two. Hermann doesn't know much about dragon biology, and he doubts Newt is eager to explain it to him now.
Newt returns to his own place, and he and Hermann sit, mostly still, while Jacob speaks before the crowded hall, about the joy of new unions-- of finding new opportunities with allied nations, and with finding unexpected friendships in arranged marriages. Hermann wants to laugh, bitterly, and say that that ship has sailed, but he holds his tongue and reprimands himself. Newt is still unhappy with him now, yes, but hadn't he hoped to repair things, when he'd promised Newt he would do better?
The crowns come out, carried upon cushions by human servants, and he is glad for even a fleeting moment of being near someone of his own species, while he still feels so adrift on the dais, a clear outsider. His crown is carried out by one young man, and Newt's between two girls, who might have been twins of fifteen or so, decked out beautifully and clearly on the verge of nervous laughter, self-conscious of their role in the ceremony. He'd half like to tell them he knows just how they feel, but that isn't in his script.
"And so, the passing of the crown goes." Jacob intones, turning to Newt. "To my son Newton, on the occasion of his marriage to a suitable partner and helpmeet. Newton, are you ready for the burden of the kingship? With the support of your family, old and new, are you prepared to uphold your duties, guide your kingdom, and protect your people?"
"I do so affirm." Newt nods-- as jerky as it had been in the hallway, his voice jangling with nerves, and Hermann feels a bit better knowing they both feel at least a little adrift.
"Then it is my privilege and happiness to call you King Newton, on the day I preside over your marriage. To your consort and to your crown." Jacob nods deeply. The two girls approach Hermann, holding forward the cushion. One man could have done so easily, he thinks. One of the girls alone might have found it an awkward burden, but not a heavy one. Still, there's something more pleasing to the eye in the symmetry of it, having them carry the cushion between them, and the larger cushion allows for Newt's crown to be spread out.
Newt's crown is composed of two curved filigreed cones, delicate and lightweight, made to fit over his horns, and a light chain comes down from each, to hold the center piece over his brow. Swirls of silver dancing around a great golden stone. The light dances in the heart of the gem, the facets shine.
"You are crowned with the Breath of Light." Jacob continues, as Newt lowers his head and Hermann struggles to place it gracefully, without dropping any of the three connected parts. The last thing the ceremony needs is for the new Prince Consort to smack the new King in the face with his crown, or break his glasses on the hard edge of the faceted stone. "One of the seven Breath Stones of the royal family. It has been chosen for you, for the light that has always come through you, and for the quick mind with which you will lead your people."
Newt says nothing, though Hermann can feel the heat radiating from his face as he gets the crown fixed in place properly, the stone centered. He shuffles back a step, to allow Jacob to move between them, to form the head of a triangle for their watchful audience.
"Crown Prince Hermann." Jacob nods to him now, and Hermann can barely keep on his feet without his knees buckling, his legs going out from under him. "Are you ready to share the burden of leadership? Do you give your heart over to your new homeland, with your promise to act in her best interests? Do you lend your strength and your wisdom to the king you consent to marry, to aid in his ruling and to protect his people?"
Hermann's mouth opens once, soundlessly, and he imagines saying no, running at a lopsided lope from the hall. He was not born for this responsibility, not the way Dietrich and Karla had been. How can he lend Newt his strength when he doubts it? How can he promise to protect anyone, let alone an entire kingdom full of people-- some of them dragons-- when he only wants to hide away in the mountains to study the stars anyway?
And just as quickly as he imagines running, he imagines Newt, hurt all over again, humiliated in front of his court on the day he was to have been crowned king. On the day he had given Hermann the dignity of appearing before that same crowd without hunching over a too-short cane?
"I do so affirm." He answers, the words coming out stronger and louder than he'd thought himself capable of.
"Then it is my honor and pleasure to call you Prince Consort Hermann." Jacob smiles. It is not a politician's smile, nor a cold and distant leader's. It is strange, fitted to his long face, true, but it is the smile of a proud father at his son's wedding before it is the smile of a king-- or a king's adviser, now. "On the day I preside over your marriage, to your king and to your new country."
Hermann grips the side of his throne's back to stay upright, as Newt carefully takes up the slim diadem presented to him in his claws. Silver, like Newt's, and he's pleased it matches the robes he'd chosen. The stone is blue, a round cabochon, and it is enormous compared to the crown itself, pale blue giving way to a deeper heart, like watching light filter through the ocean, or watching day fade to night. He would not have to wear it every day, Tendo had promised him. Only for court appearances, official ones and feast days. The stone could not be cut down to fit a human's crown, it would always seem oversized, but Hermann would be allowed to wear a plain circlet for most public occasions if he desired, the true crown kept safe for him.
"You are crowned with the Breath of Water." Jacob tells him, as the weight of the stone settles, Newt's claws brushing past his hair oh-so-delicately in the laying of the crown. "One of the seven Breath Stones of the royal family. It has been chosen for you by your new husband, on the reading of your courtship letters and on deep contemplation of the stones and their significance, that you might find ease in your new home, and that you might share with him wisdom as deep as the seas are deep, and strength in flexibility, should hard times come, and that you might share the water's cool peace when hard times have once again passed."
It sounds too grand, and Hermann feels his own face burn, sure he does not deserve so much trust, and sure that Newt had never told his father of how Hermann had already broken that trust. But that is the ceremony, and he and Newt take their seats to the cheers of the crowd, and then the food is brought out to them.
There are two soups, one with fish and melon and threads of deep green from some leafy vegetable, spinach or kale, and the broth is thick and almost oily on Hermann's tongue, as rich as any he's ever had from beef. He'd heard there was no beef in the mountains, only fowl and goats, and he does not know if that is true, but there are many rivers, and a long jagged coastline, and Hermann doesn't feel the soup is wanting in any way, except for being slightly saltier than he would like.
The other is almost a very thin porridge, for how thick it is, smooth and creamy without being heavy or over-rich on Hermann's stomach. He has no idea what's in it, though if there is cream, and that cream comes from a goat or a mountain sheep and not a cow, he doesn't see himself caring. It doesn't offend the palate in any way, seems designed for a very sensitive one, in fact. Perhaps there are dragons with extraordinary powers of smell and taste, another thing Hermann doesn't know, but even being a mere human, he has sensitivity enough to appreciate the delicate flavor. It verges on a sweetness, but only the way a roll of bread might seem sweet beside a roast. As a palate cleanser, it seems ideal-- between the small taste he'd taken of the saltier, more flavorful soup, and the coming dishes, Hermann feels it's completely prepared him to taste something new, with no fear of being overwhelmed by prior fishiness.
There are vegetables roasted to complete tenderness, and soft potato dumplings much the same as he might have enjoyed back in his old home, but there are also dishes which Hermann finds more exotic. Filled dumplings of some shredded meat, enormous fish brought to the table roasted and whole, platters of strange fruits and small iced buns arranged attractively... He eats in silence, except to comment politely and quietly to the servants bringing the food in that each prior dish had been wonderful. Newt mostly leans down to his right to speak with his uncle about some shared project, though he does warn Hermann when some sauce might be spiced too hotly for him, before turning away again. They both keep their promise not to make a scene, and though he feels overwhelmingly awkward each time their eyes meet, Hermann feels that warmth for Newt returning, dragon or not.
He looks around the room, when he is not fixed on his plate. The servants and commoners at the far end are too difficult to see, though he can make Tendo out-- with the height of his hair and the way he has of gesturing, and Hermann having seen how he was dressed, he's the one person who stands out easily at such a distance, the others all just form... well, a crowd. The easiest places to look are the midway points of the flanking tables, the spots he thinks might be taken by ranking officers. The humans and dragons alike seem to have some military bearing, and rather than robes, they wear stiff-tunicked uniforms, or half-armor, or leather vests and vambrances.
His gaze mostly strays over to the very knightly commander who'd led his journey, seated between his mount and the female rider who'd accompanied them. For the feast, he wears a large medal, and a similar medal on a longer ribbon adorns his mount, who Hermann supposes he should stop thinking of as a steed, and more as a... a partner? He would have to ask about the reason for the arrangement another time.
If he looks around between the two tables, he can spot most of his traveling entourage-- the smaller silver dragon who'd flown ahead is to the other side of the large one, the three wyrms are across the hall from them... the seal-bearer is not seated with the officers or the elite guard, which makes sense, and Hermann scans for him once, briefly, but the tables are so crowded that he knows towards the end he would never be able to see a small human past some of the large dragons. Or, more likely, the man is at the head of one of the flanking tables, closer to the King's Table, but hidden away in a blind spot, as each table is capped by an enormous dragon acting as a guard.
Newt eventually excuses himself from Hermann's side, something else Tendo had prepped him for-- he would be able to stay seated and relax as best he could, but Newt would need to make a circuit of the room, to greet all visiting dignitaries, important nobles, high-ranking officers... it was all a part of his taking his place as king, but Newt seemed to extend it to greeting every single guest at least with a brief word, and Hermann wonders if it's because he would rather have a little more space from his new husband. At least with Newt filling his first duty, it doesn't look strange for them to sit in silence side by side.
"I am pleased with my son's choice." Jacob says softly, leaning across Newt's empty space to speak to Hermann. The hall is as quiet as it has been since the feast's start, with all eyes following Newt around the room, and all ears waiting for his personal greeting.
"I-- That is--" Hermann stammers. 'Very kind of you', he'd meant to say, but it's so much more than that, and he feels a fresh wave of guilt, the urge to confess to their argument.
"Your crown. I don't know if he told you the significance of it..."
He shakes his head. Another man might have felt slighted, might have called it a bait-and-switch, but Hermann imagines another man would not have treated Newt's confidence and care so lightly. He is relieved that the praise is not for him.
Jacob nods. "The last bearer of the Breath of Water was Newt's mother. The queen, not-- Was my late wife. I made the same choice for her, nearly a hundred years ago now."
Among dragons, Jacob does not seem old. It begs the question of how old Newt is-- yes, it had been treated as plain fact that dragons aged differently, and Hermann had accepted without question that they grew to be very old, but somehow it had not struck him that he and Newt might be starting together from very different points. It begs the question of how old Newt will be when Hermann dies, and that's when things drop into place.
"Was the late queen-- human?"
Jacob nods. "From an island kingdom to our west, one of our oldest allies. Of course Newt might have chosen differently, there are not hard rules to the choosing of Breath. Any stone might be given new meaning for new bearers... and any bearer might make for themselves new meanings. Still, it is a good choice. At least in the western islands, there are still dragons, but it is very different for a town to have one dragon, and then to suddenly be surrounded by half a population of us. You came from a land with very few..."
"Yes. None in cities-- only out in the borderlands." Hermann nods mechanically. Out in the borderlands, where anyone living in the great human cities, or even in small townships, would imagine them to be wild beasts. Even the human men dwelling in the borderlands had a reputation for wildness... how much worse would it be? "I had never truly seen one before your envoy came bearing the treaty to my father. It-- it is an impressive sight."
Jacob chuckles, nodding, gesturing with his chin towards one of the guards, an absolutely massive dragon, grey-green scales overlapping, thick and shining, covering nearly every inch-- save for a bristling mane and beard of quills, much like the silvery dragons, except these were porcupine-like, striped in brown and palest cornsilk yellow-white, and save for the powerful wings, not folded down as Newt's were, but held back out of the way of anyone passing near.
"Some of us are more impressive than others." Jacob allows. "I count myself fortunate to have so many in my employ. Newt's employ, now. He wanted to fly out to meet you himself, but... Even with news of the arrangement and the treaty, crossing through the borderlands is dangerous. It takes the best that there are to make such a trip safely. The swiftest and strongest fliers, those who are able to focus without blocking out the rest of the world... and those who have strong partners on their backs, to keep the party safe. Newt is not trained as a cavalry dragon... Newt is so bright, but so distractable, and so sure of himself... and he is my only child. Perhaps I always worried for him too much, but I took my last opportunity to put my foot down. I don't think he spoke to me an entire day when I told him he wouldn't fly with the envoy, out in the open, but then, your journey wasn't long." He chuckles again, softly.
Hermann mulls this over. If Newt had come to meet him at Lars' palace, would it have changed things? Perhaps, but perhaps not for the better.
"I think you made the best decision that you could." Hermann says at last. "If you worried about dragon-hunters still working in the borderlands... It would be one thing for them not to shoot down a caravan bringing a human prince to your kingdom, they would know it would bring my father's wrath down on them as well as your own. But if one dragon was separated from the group, they wouldn't recognize a prince, or think it was connected. And... as much as I had once hoped he might be the first to greet me... I am not sure if my mother knew. About-- about your being dragons. My father would, but... he might have wished not to worry her with it, if she didn't."
It isn't an outright lie-- he believes it's true, and believes she would have been as shocked as he, and less willing to let him agree to the treaty in spite of it, out of fear for him. But, it is easier than to admit he had not known, either.
"And she would be unused to dragons, yes..." Jacob hums. "Well, if you don't feel my decision was too selfish or too controlling, then. It is my hope that with the new treaty, the time will come when having a dragon married to your family will not be a frightening prospect, but these changes do not come overnight. Still, they come. Generations past, my own kingdom was no paragon of peace and happiness. Families fought, sometimes hard, and bringing so many clans under one banner was the work of long years. All things before my own time, but all truths passed on to me, so that I might hope to make a new peace someday."
"That sounds lovely." Hermann smiles, though it's sad. Newt is down at the other end of the hall now, almost onto the servants' table, taking his time, and Hermann finds he actually misses having Newt beside him. It was all strange and frightening, and even if they were no longer anything to each other beyond politics, they were both new to it together. "I would also like to-- to make a new peace, or... to remake an old peace, with my time ruling with Newt."
"I'm sure that you will. If you were not determined to do so, I doubt your father would have written back to me to say that you would be the best choice. He sounded very sure in his letters that we would find you to be not only acceptable, but exceptional."
"He did?" Hermann's heart leaps. He'd thought all along he'd been chosen because his father considered him expendable... and perhaps Lars had only meant to lie and foist his worst child off on a neighboring kingdom, but perhaps... perhaps he had recognized that something in Hermann was a better fit here than it ever had been there.
Either way, Jacob's deep, solemn nod, and the following quick, warm smile spark a new happiness in him.
Chapter 6: The Wedding Night
It isn't the way Hermann had envisioned his wedding night going. It's not the best case scenario, but it also isn't the worst...
(so that the chapter title does not mislead, I'm going to tell you up front that they don't jump into bed together)
Newt escorts Hermann out when the feast is over, the way that he'd escorted him in, and Tendo meets them in the hallway with Hermann's cane, as the rest of the King's Table follows behind, scooting delicately around them in the wide corridor, or in Jacob's case, merely waiting patiently.
Hermann thinks the glance his cane is given might be disapproving, but there's no hostility aimed his way.
Newt turns to Jacob and clears his throat, and Hermann thinks he should probably move along with Tendo so that they can discuss state business, but he really would rather linger. If it is state business, is it his right to know now? Or does he forfeit that right by planning his 'escape'? Will it disappoint Jacob? He feels very suddenly and very strongly that he doesn't want to do that.
But it seems he and Newt are on the same page-- when Newt speaks, it's in a rambling rush of apologies, leading up to the mention of the observatory, and Hermann's interest in it.
Jacob nods, leaning forward to gently touch his nose to Newt's, silencing him.
"I think that you should take Hermann to see it. You can set off tomorrow and go by way of Moon's Crag and the springs. Consider the trip a honeymoon-- an opportunity for the two of you to know each other better. If you have different ideas and plans, different ways of ruling, it's good to learn right away how best to work as a team." He says, and Hermann feels his stomach sink.
Newt fails to say that that wasn't what he'd meant, but he certainly tries to say something, only to give up with a sigh. He turns, realizing Hermann is still with them, and gives him a pained look that seems to say 'I tried'.
Hermann chews at the inside of his lip a moment, before falling in step with Newt, who moves at a slow trudge that Hermann still has to do his best to keep up with.
"We could travel together... You'll come up to the observatory, we'll... we'll arrange for me to stay if-- if we agree that it's best. If we both agree. You'll come back and say that I was invited to continue my studies, and-- won't your father understand? I'll send letters as often as I can, if it helps."
"My father would understand your staying. He believes very strongly in continual self-improvement and study."
"All dragons do." Tendo adds, joining them. He exchanges a smile with Newt, patting his shoulder just below the joint of the wing. "Well done, Sire."
Newt groans, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. The looping wires that hold his glasses in place clink lightly against his crown, and Hermann almost laughs at the absurdity. Of Newt, of a dragon wearing glasses, of his own situation...
"Don't start being formal with me now, I can't stand it... someone's got to treat me as if I was regular."
"True... a genius with three, five hundred years ahead of him should be brought down a peg every now and then just to keep him bearable." Tendo does laugh. "I'll make sure my children and their children know to be asses to you for as long as my line continues."
"Promise?" Newt jokes weakly.
"I didn't know all dragons were committed to lifelong studying." Hermann says, the only thing he can really think of to reintroduce himself to the conversation.
"Well... it's an important ideal in dragon society. Maybe it isn't true in the borderlands, or in small populations spread out in other countries, off in the islands..." Newt shrugs, careful to keep his wings in. "But... I mean, we live for so long compared to most, and... it would be a shame to stagnate."
Newt doesn't say it would be a shame the way he might say 'it would be a shame to let that cake go to waste' or 'it would be a shame if we never used this vase', but the way he might say 'it would be a shame to feed scraps of offal to a guest like he was a dog, while we ourselves ate this cake', or 'it would be a shame if I ran naked and howling through the streets, trampling peasants, just for fun'. A shame, not for a brief moment, but that would hang over his house for a very long time, and heavily.
"I like that." Hermann nods. "I... I don't have so long to live, but I would not wish to stagnate."
Newt looks away, when Hermann mentions his briefer lifespan, and he stops walking altogether. His tail lashes for a moment.
"No, I guess not." He says. "I guess not."
"I'm sorry-- I didn't think it would... bother you so much. I fully expect to live to a good age for a human, and... and--" His face falls. And Newt's mother, the one who'd been his father's wife, had been human, and must have died many years ago. How well would he have known her? "Newton, forgive me. It was an impolite subject, in poor taste."
"Forget it, it-- it isn't important yet, is it?" He brushes forward, down the hall, and Hermann hobbles to keep up with him.
Newt does slow again, when he realizes Hermann still means to walk together, hanging his head sheepishly and mumbling an apology.
"Forget it." Hermann tries to smile. "Newt, would it be a bad thing, to travel together? I... I do want to know you. I appreciate-- Tonight was-- Oh, goodness' sake, we're both in the same place with this arrangement, we should work together. We should make decisions together. I-- I want you to."
He nods, wishing he was the type who could act impulsively, who could push aside his thoughts and worries so that he could prove himself. He wishes he was the kind who could reach out and touch someone to show he cared, to express camaraderie. Newt seems to be pleased, at least. He nods back, just barely smiling.
"It would be nice to travel... It would be nice to just... to run away for a couple of days. My father is so good at running a kingdom, and I don't know if I ever can be, and I know that I'll have to, but I wish... I wish I was a second son, so I could stick to science and leave the kingdom to someone else." The faint smile fades away. "Suppose it was hard enough to have me, though. You are lucky, Hermann..."
"You are as well. You've never needed to compete for your father's attention, with other children. He seems to make no secrets of his feelings... and to be able to keep his guidance as you take the throne, that is something." Hermann argues. Arguing comes easy-- Newt has no idea what it was like to be overshadowed by an older brother who seemed to excel at all things, an older sister who married beauty and grace to a sharp strategic mind... and then to have a younger brother as well, so you could not even take the part of being the baby of the family. And it comes easy because he needs to do something to keep from dwelling on the sudden spike of guilt that shoots through his belly. Researching in his chosen field is his dream, but Newt shares a similar one, and Hermann is talking about leaving him to sit on the throne by himself...
There's no heat to the argument, however-- he can't bear to turn it to a fight, when Newt mentions his parents' struggle to produce an heir, apparently even through a surrogate mother of an appropriate species.
Newt lets out a soft huff and nods. "So we're both lucky, then."
"Yes. It seems we are."
"I will enjoy the Moon's Crag..." Newt sighs, his gaze drifting off. "I'm sure I'll need it, to start leading."
"Yes, tell me about the Moon's Crag, I'm afraid it was never mentioned in any of my studies."
"It wouldn't be." He laughs, glasses and crown once more clinking softly with the swinging of his head. "It's a little refuge built over these cavern hot springs, half buried in the mountain. Well, not so little, really. The therapeutic properties are real-- not so miraculous as some will claim, but if the only miracle you need is the relaxing of tight muscles, or a little weight off of your mind... and there is enough weight on my mind."
Hermann hadn't thought he would be in any mood to prolong his 'honeymoon' by stopping anywhere on the way to the observatory, but Newt spoke so longingly of it, and he has to admit, it would feel good. The bath he'd taken that morning had been good, but he knows it wouldn't measure up to a hot spring. The mineral baths his family had traveled to in the woods beyond the Summer Palace had been the site of rare relief, when Hermann had first begun suffering from his condition, he remembers the royal guard closing them off to the usual crowd of holiday-makers and pilgrims, for the royal family to use, and that he'd felt sorry for those whose plans suffered, but too grateful for the privacy to ever suggest a complete closing-down might not be necessary. No bath in an ordinary tub matched the way the relief would last hours... nor were ordinary baths nearly so private, for Hermann, which made them anything but relaxing, with servants going in and out. At the mineral baths, he would share a pool with Dietrich, with enough room that there was no feeling cramped about it, and walls erected around them for privacy, and Dietrich may have enjoyed teasing his siblings often, back then, but he always had the sense that relaxation was not to be interrupted...
"It sounds like a fine place to stop, if it is on the way." He smiles.
"We don't have to, if you don't really want to. I can go on the way back, I know a honeymoon was never your plan, we can speak on the journey and make what decisions we need to, and we'll always have letters..."
"No, I would like to. I do have muscles which need relaxing."
"Oh. Oh, yes... of course, then-- then you'll love it! Hermann... would you like to see the Vault of Breath?"
"I was going to have my crown stored. I know that I could keep it in my chambers, but I think I might damage it by mistake if I did... You can see the rest of the stones, if you would like. And you can have them hold yours, I know it is a little ridiculous... Well, they all would have been!"
"That would be nice." He agrees. The crown was noticeably heavy against his brow, where the stone sat. Beautiful as it was, it would be a relief to go without it.
Newt offers his tail again, and though Hermann has his cane now, he accepts. It allows him to straighten up, and it's a way he now knows that he can touch Newt without things being awkward. A way that he can show he isn't afraid the way he had been at first, that he wants to be closer again.
The Vault of Breath is a great room, well-guarded, and ringed with seven places-- each spot has one high pedestal, where a velvet cushion holds one of the gemstones in its most recent setting, and in front of that, one lower pedestal bearing a thick open book.
"The bearers of each are recorded." Newt explains, as he goes to an attendant guard to have his crown removed and replaced beneath the plaque reading 'Breath of Life'. "Names, the years they took up their Breath, and then any great deeds."
So far, upon Newt's page, there is only his name and the year, and the word MARRIED.
Once Newt and Hermann have turned in their crowns for safekeeping, there are only two empty cushions, and Hermann approaches the first. 'Breath of Flame', the plaque reads, and the open page is full. At the bottom, in the same hand that had written out Newt's name, but not the one which had previously recorded Flame's bearer's deeds, it reads 'Flame is the sister-stone to the Breath of Life, for there is no life nor love without warmth. Flame can have a great and terrible power in it, but the good it can do is just as great, for Flame is what brings a bright Light to guide people'.
It must be, Hermann realizes, the crown that Jacob had worn. He had not looked closely, but the stone had been fire-colored, to his recollection. Illia had not had a crown, but had worn a fine silver collar with a dark stone, and Hermann goes to the next empty pillar. 'Breath of Earth', and next to Illia's year, the book says that he received the stone upon completing his initial studies and taking his place working below his brother. He doesn't take time on all of Illia's deeds, though there are a few, but follows Newt around the room, looking at all of the crowns, and on one cushion, a cracked stone with no setting.
It had been beautiful once-- it's beautiful still-- but it seems wrong, next to all the others.
"This is the Breath of Spirit." Newt whispers solemnly. "It was last worn during the first years of the wars, at the great ambush... the crown had been stolen and the king at the time had been killed, and the Breath was taken to your kingdom for years and years. Your grandfather returned it to us when he made peace with my father."
Hermann nods. "I was named for him. I never knew him, though."
"My father respected him very much... so he must have been a good king. He must have been, he did return the Breath of Spirit to us. Some people say it's cursed, but I don't believe in that kind of magic... Still, it can't be cut down to remove the crack, so it's not likely to be passed on unless someday there are so many members of the royal family we run out."
Hermann thinks of the great horns in the archive room, that had once been his grandfather's study, and wonders if they had belonged to the king who'd worn the Breath of Spirit. He pushes the thought aside.
Newt shows him the rest-- Life, a deep ruby, then Air, smooth and colorless, and then they're back to their own.
"There used to be eight, but even though we recovered Spirit, no one has ever found Shade. Illia says that one really is cursed, but he doesn't truly believe that, either. It was so long ago it might be only a story, anyway. It's only in some of the books that talk about them."
"They're all very nice. These seven, at any rate."
"They are. They feel different from other gems, somehow." Newt agrees. "I don't much care for most, but whether it's all the stories or just how important my family's always kept them, I do think the Breath Stones are special."
"Oh, I find them fascinating. Not as fascinating as the stars, and not only precious ones, but... something about stones, I don't know. They're... they're strong, and so permanent... you might pick up a stone that's been around since the earth was young and never really know it."
Newt taps Hermann's crown gently with one claw, grinning. "Rocks are pretty strong, then, in your estimation?"
"Well, yes. To differing degrees, but clearly rocks are strong, I mean--"
Hermann huffs, but Newt speaks again before he has the chance to ask what the point is in teasing him.
"If you found a stone as old as the earth, water will have made it very small. Rocks might be hard, but water is determined, and water won't be stopped forever. Water goes around or water goes through... and maybe water changes its shape to fit where it's put, but don't forget, it changes the shape of the world, too. That's... that's what I thought from your letters."
Newt's smile disappears fast, and Hermann touches his shoulder.
Newt shakes his head and his glasses wobble slightly, but there is nothing for them to clink against now. "We should both sleep. Tomorrow we will need to prepare for the trip... I-- Would you like me to walk you to your room?"
Hermann turns to look for Tendo, and realizes that he's slipped off at some point, perhaps was not permitted in the vault.
"That would be all right." He nods. Newt's tail is not yet a familiar support, but it's getting to be. It really is more comfortable than his cane, to be able to walk erect.
Chapter 7: Honeymoon
The journey up towards the observatory-- stopping, of course, at the springs.
Tendo wakes Hermann early in the morning, bearing steaming hot tea and warm buns. While Hermann begins the slow process of stretching, breakfasting, and performing his toilet, albeit rushed and not particularly stringent, Tendo helps with the packing, getting the appropriate clothing ready, and asking after which personal items Hermann wished to keep with him.
He doubts he needs many-- there will be writing supplies at the Dragon's Eye, for note-taking and for sending letters. He does pack his comb and shaving kit, and the small brass ornament bearing his name, which he'd been granted when he'd come of age. It was not itself the gift-- the gift was that his father permitted him to enter the archive room, unaware that Dietrich had brought him to it before. That infraction didn't matter, Hermann had been suitably impressed with things he'd never noticed when Dietrich's stories had distracted him, had been grown up and more interested in all of the books and the papers. He'd been allowed to take something, any item he liked which was not historically important enough to be denied him, and he'd chosen the little statuette. Historically unimportant, and clearly not so sentimental for any of the others to have been claimed before he had the chance, but it had the name he shared with his grandfather, and so it had seemed only right. He'd wondered then what treasure Dietrich would have made off with, and wondered if Karla had been granted the same little rite or if it was different for girls.
It may be functionally useless, but it is a link to his family, and to his heritage-- to the parts of his family history that do not make him an outsider in his new home, as King Hermann the Peacemaker seems well-regarded among dragons. Tendo confirms it, when asked, mentioning that he'd heard several dragons old enough to remember the old peace treaty say they had some confidence in Hermann just for sharing the name.
"Silly to trust me based just on that..." Hermann shakes his head, looking over the bookshelf. He feels a pang, seeing some of the titles gilded onto the thick spines. They were tailored to him just as the telescope had been, things that Newt must have selected or at least asked after the basic subject, based on the interests Hermann had shared in his letters. They are not all about stars and numbers, there are works of literature as well, but so much of the space is taken up by math and physics and astronomy texts... He wishes he could take them all, but he leaves anything which mentions astronomy, counting on the observatory to have copies.
"Names have a power." Tendo shrugs. "Even if it is not exactly magic, it's something. Doesn't being named for a great man make you want to live up to him?"
"Perhaps. But it's no guarantee that I can or that I will... I only have his name because I was the first to be born after his death. It's coincidence."
"Still. Let the people have faith in you."
Hermann doesn't respond. He takes one book on calculus and another on physics, and then takes one more. It seems to be literature, as far as he can tell by the title, but the cover is well-loved, the thick leather nicked all over by talons, and the edges of the pages themselves are soft. Whatever the book's contents, they had merited years of re-reading before being passed along to him, and that seems a ringing endorsement.
Tendo carries his things, up to the same spot along the palace walls where they had first arrived, and where the flying palanquin is once again prepared for travel, an even greater detail surrounding it as Newt and his father and uncle arrive.
Newt crowds into a large farewell embrace of necks and wings, and there are some low murmurs which Hermann does not attempt to eavesdrop on, instead watching his luggage being strapped into place. His own father had not embraced him so warmly when he was to be leaving to spend the rest of his life in a strange kingdom... he is not sure how to feel. He had not thought it was something one could miss, at the time. With Newt, and those close to him, the physicality seems to be the new normal, something natural and comfortable to all except Hermann.
His attention snaps back to the present and to the royal family when Jacob addresses him.
"I'm afraid on such short notice, I could have nothing custom made to fit you, but Illia asked after anything available, and he has an eye for such things... so it should be sized correctly." He says, half-apologetic as he presents a cane.
It is indeed at the right height, not forcing Hermann to bend low, and the handle is a beautiful swirl which fits his hand. In most ways, it is plainer than his old cane, but he likes it. It's far more functional, and not without its own elegance. And after all, it was not as if he wanted it to be bejeweled or anything-- sturdy wood, smoothed and lacquered, the shaft still bearing some twists and knobs where it had not been lathed into uniformity... If Jacob is embarrassed that it is less fine than what Hermann is accustomed to, he need not be.
"Thank you, very much." He nods. He is all but overcome, that the look he'd thought had been some vague disapproval had been in Hermann's interest rather than some judgment passed on Lars sending a cripple for a son-in-law, that Jacob would have set immediately to finding something better even when he it meant scrambling the night before a journey... and that he seems to so sincerely wish to do more than what he has done.
"Of course when you return, I will introduce you to a workman who can mimic your old one, if you wish it..."
"Not at all, please-- it's very good of you, but there's no need. I like what you've chosen, it will serve me very well. I hardly need something so ornamental for ordinary use, really."
"If you are satisfied." Jacob nods, taking Hermann's old cane from him. "I will have this returned to your rooms, should you still prefer its use on formal occasions, or should you wish to keep it as decoration or a keepsake. It is very finely made, but for a shorter man."
"I was not much more than a child." Hermann admits. "And thank you-- but please, if anyone in your court has sudden need of it in my absence, make free with it."
Jacob nods again, and Tendo ushers Hermann to the palanquin.
Newt is already inside, curled tight into one far corner and looking rather miserable. Hermann imagines he would rather fly, but has been told he ought to ride instead, either because it is more kingly, or for safety, or for speed. Hermann doubts safety is such an issue on this journey, they'll be going up the mountain range where no dragon hunters dare venture.
There is not much room which Newt does not take up, and Hermann realizes there must be proper large flying carriages should the royal family ever need to travel as a group, to be carried by several larger dragons, or there must otherwise be a procession of palanquins, some being even slightly larger than this. He accepts a hand from Tendo and the offer of Newt's tail, carefully lowering himself to the cushions near Newt's hindquarters, and winding the strap around his forearm and gripping it tight as he waits to take off.
The lurch is just as unsettling as he remembers, and Tendo keeps the curtains drawn in deference to how pale Hermann goes at the sight of the sky rushing past.
They discuss policies a bit, when Hermann feels a little more capable, and Hermann argues a bit-- sometimes just for the sake of arguing, though he finds Newt's positions sound, and sometimes to moderate some grand idea down to what he considers a feasible level. Newt's ideals he can agree with, at the very least, but he is yet unseasoned, and Hermann thinks it may be better to oppose him now and force him into making sound arguments which can be followed through on, than to let him fly off with some half-made plan only to crash with it. Midway through the voyage, Tendo unpacks a small lunch, but the idea of swallowing anything makes Hermann's stomach churn, and he is only too happy for Newt to swallow his portion down like it was nothing.
"Will they need to stop?" He asks, gesturing up to where the poles for bearing the palanquin were, clutched in the claws of four dragons.
"No, they'll have eaten enough in the morning to last them. And besides, those are all the most highly trained and disciplined flyers in the kingdom. Even the riders won't need to stop before we reach Moon's Crag-- even if we wanted to, there are few places to set down. Oh, in an emergency, they would find a spot, no need to worry, but without one, it's not worth the searching." Tendo assures him.
"And dragons are suited to feast-and-famine." Newt adds. "Though with modern living, most eat smaller regular meals, our bodies are all capable of it. It's best to fuel long journeys that way, as we've few enemies in the air, and crossing over mountain ranges or bodies of water is better done without stopping. The things we still have the ability for... before the forming of the great terraced farms, you know, we all had to be migratory. And the way that different kinds of dragons-- Well." He glances away. "You know the important parts now, then."
Hermann nods, a little sorry that Newt had stopped-- that he'd felt the need to stop himself so abruptly. Knowing so little about dragons-- knowing so much false information and almost no truths-- he would like to have heard a little more.
They reach Moon's Crag in the evening, and again, Hermann brings himself to look out the window when he feels the change in angle, and when Tendo and Newt draw back the curtains at the other side of the palanquin to look.
There is a crescent-shaped gouge in the side of one high, sheer peak, through which a shining white wall dotted with softly-glowing windows can be see, seeming to glow blue in the moonlight as if it was a reflection of the moon itself. There are no doors that Hermann can see, down at the base, no trails visible from the sky, there is only a wide balcony halfway up where they come in for a landing. Hermann grips the strap tighter and squeezes his eyes shut as they touch down, the bump that doesn't faze Newt at all feeling jarring to Hermann-- though Tendo also seems to consider the landing perfectly gentle, so perhaps it is not a question of relative size so much as a matter of Hermann's aching hip and lower back.
They are welcomed inside quickly, and led to a great table, and even with his cane in one hand, Hermann accepts Newt's tail again at his other side.
"You are just in time for dinner, your majesties." The attendant bows to Newt and then to Hermann, before acknowledging their troop of guards and Tendo with a few shallower nods. "The royal dining hall is reserved for you and your guard."
Newt is at a clear loss, turning to the commander, dismounted from the great silver dragon, and he steps forward to handle the decorum on Newt's behalf, his voice smooth and rich and beautiful.
"We thank you, and thank you for making the King's Rooms ready. My team will take up shifts, we are all happy to bathe and sleep communally, wherever you have the room for us. Your welcome will be remembered."
Newt relaxes a little at Hermann's side, at having this handled on his behalf, giving the attendant a grateful nod and smile to back up the commander's words, and Hermann does his best to stretch without calling any attention to himself, before they move to the table and he takes his seat. There are chairs and cushions alike, and the few cavalry riders and the dragons all find seats which leave Newt and Hermann in the place of honor at the head.
It is far less formal than the wedding feast, and far less subdued than the dinner had been on the night's stop between Lars' palace and Newt's, and it is strange to Hermann, but not unpleasant. The food is nearly as fine as it had been at Dracorex Keep, with the same delicate porridge-like soup served in tiny bowls between courses as a palate-cleanser, and Hermann thinks he would honestly be happy eating only a bowl of that, as a breakfast. It would make his tea the focus, as far as flavor went, an idea he likes, and he wonders if he could request it.
After dinner, he is led along with Newt to the royal suite, a small anteroom leading to a large bedroom, and off to one side a comparatively small water closet. With the springs beneath them, he imagines there's little need for more than the bare necessities on that front, but he hadn't been prepared for a single bed.
The bed is far larger than his own-- which still would have had room for Newt in it, though he'd done his best to ignore that fact. This bed might have held the entire royal family, provided they all squeezed in. He would be able to have space to himself, true, but suppose Newt rolled over in his sleep? If he thrashed about?
"Which side would you like?" Newt asks, apparently resigned.
"Pardon?" Hermann blinks. Side? He hardly needs even a corner to himself...
"We're not likely to face any kind of danger, but it's a lot easier to guard only one door... unless you wanted the sofa?"
There had been one, in the anteroom, too small for Newt to take. Meant perhaps for waiting servants to use, or commissioned for Newt's mother, as it was clearly human-sized. He could... it would not be comfortable, his feet would hang off the one end, but it would not be comfortable to lie awake all night wondering if his husband might accidentally crush him in his sleep, and too much space was just as daunting as too little space was comfortable.
"I think I had best." He nods, gesturing between them. "After all, this..."
"We haven't exactly become so close since our argument that I would imagine us sharing. You should keep your bed. Besides... the flight was more cramped for you than for me. Now you can stretch out."
Newt snorts, flopping out onto the bed and stretching out in every direction just to show how ridiculously overlarge the bed was.
There were blankets of every size, and pillows as well, and while Newt makes a show of taking up as much room as he can and having more than as much left over, Hermann gathers up the bedding that will be sized to him, making up the sofa for himself.
Newt gives him the first turn in the water closet, where there are two of the necessaries, and two sinks-- one regular and one clearly designed from the bottom up for a dragon's use. The sink is easy enough, it only needs to be larger, the faucet operable with a dragon's claws, dexterous as they are. The other, Hermann tries not to imagine in use. It had never before occurred to him that a dragon would use indoor facilities at all, even with learning they thought and spoke and ran an entire country, and he feels a bit stupid in hindsight.
The sofa is not comfortable, but with the pillows and blankets he'd selected, it is bearable. Still, he wakes with a deep ache slung across his back from one hip to the other, and it makes his morning toilet a difficult process. Newt is in the same position Hermann had last seen him in, curled up at the foot of the bed like a cat, supported by multiple cushions, a large blanket draped haphazardly over him. Hermann had thought of it more as a doglike position the night before, but when he'd learned that Newt's light snore was practically a purr, he'd altered his opinion. A cat suited Newt's eyes better, anyway.
Breakfast does consist of a porridge, though it is heavier than the soup, and served with fruit and smoked fish. Still, a bite or two of the porridge is enough to clear his palate from the fish, and Hermann does enjoy his tea as purely as he thinks it is possible to. Newt drinks something hot and dark from a shallow bowl, the steam slowly dissipating as it cools and is consumed, and Hermann turns down the offer of a taste for himself, even in a cup, though Tendo seems to be drinking deeply of the same beverage every time Hermann looks towards him.
The others have all taken tea, and Hermann falls into a conversation with one of the red dragons about the quality of the Moon Crag's particular blend, feeling more at ease with not only Newt but with being surrounded by dragons in general. He imagines he'll grow more and more used to it.
"Do they have hot springs where you come from?" A young woman asks-- she had been one of the riders when Hermann had been brought to Dracorex Keep for the first time, he recognizes her, though he still does not really know her. She is one of two female riders in their current group of guards.
Hermann nods, setting his teacup aside. "Yes, some. Mineral springs, near my family's summer palace. Well... we used it for traveling, it let my father spend time at both ends of the kingdom, but it wasn't as if we spent an entire season a year there, more small holidays for the children while business was attended to. I imagine that when my younger brother marries, he will move his family in there, though... They were out in the open air, not like this, though walls had been put up for privacy in most places. But you could still look up and see the trees overhead."
"That does sound very lovely." She smiles. "I hope you will enjoy the springs here, even if they are very different. They are a popular destination."
"Yes, the mineral baths were always, as well, I believe. It's nice that our countries have that in common..."
"What was it like? I mean, after the trees and the open air, but--" Newt shakes his head, reorganizing his thoughts. "Did you bathe communally, or in family groups only?"
"Well... I prefer to be alone, though with two brothers, I rarely had the opportunity." Hermann says, feeling unaccountably embarrassed.
"Alone-alone?" Newt's brow furrows, and he blinks.
"Dragons are more for communal bathing." The commander interjects. "Family or friends together, or in a public room-- cavalry flyers with their partners, as well. But I believe the meditation spring can be arranged for you to bathe alone in, it will be the smallest. I expect that humans who have not lived so closely with dragons for so long have different rituals."
"I would appreciate that, thank you, it sounds very serene."
"Right." Newt's tail curls neatly around his feet, and he folds over, his chin resting on the table beside his empty bowl. "Serenity. You probably love serenity." He lifts his head again, turning to the commander. "Could I join the main bath?"
"As king, your orders stand now, not mine, but your father would say he would prefer you to remain in security of the royal bath. You have your pick among my flyers, for who will join you there."
"You wouldn't like it as much as you think you will." Tendo chuckles, patting Newt's shoulder. "You might scoff at serenity now, but the main bath would overwhelm you. Too much going on and too many bathers."
Newt grumbles, but accepts the cold comfort, and when they head downstairs to the springs after breakfast has been cleared away, he goes off one way with Tendo and another dragon, while an attendant leads Hermann to the meditation spring.
For a dragon, Hermann imagines it would be small, but it doesn't feel small. The ceiling is high, the walls tiled in cool, pale blues and greens, the sconces flickering against the walls and the water. Pots of salts and oils are laid out along one edge of the natural pool, along with brushes and sponges and cloths. There are no steps nor seats carved into the stone, the way Hermann is accustomed to-- for a dragon, neither would be necessary in a pool this size, he supposes. Still, he can grip the edge and lower himself in, and with one hand on the edge to keep himself anchored, he's able to float on his back. The water is clear and hot, and the ache across his back that had burned down his thighs when he'd taken the stairs is quick to ease now that he's soaking in it. The pain is never truly gone, but when he has soaked long enough, it's so far below the usual mark that it might as well be. Hermann is able to haul himself back out without thinking about how best to move to avoid a spike of pain, his body just moves, it's marvelous.
He sits on the edge with his feet still in the pool, scrubbing the dead skin from his arms, massaging oil into his shoulders and thighs, and wiping away all he can with one of the washcloths before returning to the water for a second, shorter soak. He watches the steam rise up into the shadows of the vaulted ceiling, up past where the flickering sconces can light, and only gets out when he feels too lightheaded to remain.
His guard leads him back up to the room where they'd eaten, tables moved aside and lounges moved to the center, and there is tea, steaming, from big silver samovars. The rest of their party trickles in, Newt coming to flop down onto some cushions near Hermann's lounge.
"Did you enjoy your bath?" He asks-- Newt certainly looks comfortable, warm and slightly-damp, water glistening in the mane down the back of his neck, a big, thick towel draped around his shoulders. His horns even look as if they've been polished.
"Suppose." Newt sighs, his eyes closed. After a moment, he curls his tail in around himself, and seems to have fallen asleep, and Hermann thinks he might even consider it cute. It's encouraging that Newt would choose to come and lie near him, if it isn't only for appearances. They've fallen into a pattern of debating without shouting at each other, over their political discussions, which Hermann thinks is a heartening sign as well, that they might regain their friendship. At least he no longer feels as if Newt hates him.
"I enjoyed mine very much." He says, though he hasn't been asked. Newt makes a little hum of acknowledgment, before the soft purr-snores start.
Chapter 8: The Dragon's Eye
Hermann finally makes it to the greatest observatory in the world! It's everything he ever dreamed... but does he really want to move in?
The rest of their day at the hot springs had been pleasant-- lunch had been informal, and Newt had picked his head up, suddenly awake, just before it was served to them, making Hermann struggle to stifle a laugh. The tables hadn't even been brought back out, everyone had just lounged where they liked and passed trays around. Hermann had managed to take some time in a private steam room after, again staying until he'd felt lightheaded, and even spending the night on the sofa hadn't undone the good his soak had done him.
Still, lovely as it all was, he's happy when Tendo wakes them in the morning for the last leg of the journey-- even if Newt grumbles and tucks himself even tighter into a ball. It means Hermann gets the water closet first again, anyway.
The flight is quieter, Newt silent save for the occasional heavy sigh. Once or twice he lifts his head and noses the curtain aside to peer out the window at the clouds and the mountains, but when Hermann asks him a question, he pretends to be asleep.
'Ignore him', Tendo mouths, rolling his eyes, and Hermann lets the slight go. Newt had every right to be uncomfortable if the palanquin felt cramped and he wished to fly instead, and he had every right to be unhappy about leaving the hot springs so soon when he clearly enjoyed it there, and there's the chance he'll feel more polite after they land, when he has the chance to stretch his wings and eat a proper meal...
It's a shorter journey, and while Hermann is grateful for that, he feels anxious for night to fall now that they have reached the Dragon's Eye. From the ground, the observatory is a beautiful sight, the late afternoon sun glinting off the white stone exterior of the main building. There is a broad deck for unaided viewing, surrounding the main dome like a moat and connecting out to each side to two smaller rotundas.
They enter from the ground, where a dragon scholar meets them in the open foyer and leads them on a tour, chatting merrily about the star maps and the current ongoing debates, the theory and speculation, the hopes for improvement to their instruments. One of the smaller rotundas houses the living quarters, with kitchens and bath below and communal sleeping above, she explains, the other is two high stories of library. And in the center, beneath the dome that houses the great telescope, there is space for writing at long tables curving along the back wall, lamps alternating with tall windows, and space all about for lounging and debating. Hermann and Tendo alone take the spiral stairs up to the dome, though Hermann realizes halfway up that either of them could have requested a ride-- there is an open hatch that the dragons-- and the cavalry riders-- use to get upstairs.
"It has been some time since we have had a human scholar with us, but when we received the message you might stay with us a night or two before journeying back, we made sure there would be a proper bed for you." The scholar inclines her shining russet head to Hermann. "I am afraid there is no separate chamber, but I hope it will be comfortable-- oh!" She turns to the commander. "But it is the only one. Will your other humans be comfortable with cushions on the floor? It is how we all sleep here."
"Milady, I assure you my flyers can endure harder conditions than that." He smiles, nodding to her in a near-bow. "Thank you. Mister Choi?"
"I'll be fine." Tendo grins, giving their host a wink. "I would love to see the star maps you mentioned, before we worry about sleeping arrangements."
Hermann isn't sure if he is actually flirting with her or if it is only his regular charm. With Tendo, he finds it difficult to tell-- with Tendo and a dragon, even moreso.
"I'll see them later... Newt, will you come onto the observation deck with me a moment?"
Newt looks puzzled for a moment, but trots out onto the deck just the same, moving with Hermann to the low wall-- low for him, at least, though for Hermann it is at a good height to rest a hand on, the stone sun-warm even when the air around them is chill and thin. They are above some of the clouds, can look down upon them resting low and silvery in the valley like a bowlful of smoke, almost obscuring even the highest treetops, and it is dizzying to contemplate anything below, so Hermann looks out instead.
"I have been thinking... Newt, I can't stay here."
"I'm sure they would arrange you something if communal sleeping is too much. Moving the bed down into the kitchen may not be glamorous, but it will be warm at least... A hassle, but for Prince Consort, they'll agree to it."
"It's not that. Well, not only. I've been thinking since yesterday... you and I, in all our letters, in all we shared... our dreams were the same, or nearly. You never asked to inherit the throne, but now you have, you'll need to give up so much of what you wanted."
"Only for a while." Newt shrugs. "Only until we have an heir ready to rule without me. After that, I'm free to study for the rest of my life, for no other reason than wanting to learn."
"Still... it-- it's unfair for me to have this while you can't, when I promised to be there to help. I want to have some time here. I want to study-- and I want to arrange to correspond with the scholars here regularly, and perhaps to visit again in the future. If I am not going to have the future you do, I want this much now. But I don't want to abandon you if you do want me. By your side. To govern."
"Do you mean that?" Newt asks, his voice small.
Hermann turns to see him sitting with his tail wrapped tight around himself again, as small as he thinks Newt can make himself, his eyes impossibly wide.
"I do. I think it's right. I was angry before-- hurt. We both were, and I assumed you would want me out of your way. If I thought we could both run off to university instead, I would ask that, but we did take a vow... and I don't want to be angry with you, Newt, I want us to be-- I want to be your friend. I... I want your father to be pleased with, with my decisions, to not be disappointed in me. I want to finish all of the books that were sent to my room in the palace. The journey here is quick, by air, I could go back and forth and still be able to carry out my duties to you-- to your kingdom."
"Even if I am not the husband you wanted?"
"You are still the friend who wrote me. My duty to my husband is political, Newton. My duty to my friend is real."
Newt beams, his wings unfolding and fluttering as he gets to his feet. "So you mean it?"
"Yes." Hermann spreads his arms. He's not sure how much plainer he could make it, he already feels like he's let out a lifetime of words and emotions.
"Then when we do make the journey back, after two or three nights here, when we stop at Moon's Crag one more time, you will not snub me?"
Snub? Hermann shakes his head. "I'm sure I didn't mean to."
"It's all right if you like some time to yourself as well, but you'll join me?"
Hermann feels his mouth go dry. Had Newt been sulking the entire flight because Hermann had chosen not to bathe with him? "Will I-- I didn't think we were quite-- I mean, I hadn't imagined..."
"Hadn't imagined what?" Newt cocks his head to the side, glasses sliding a bit.
"Being naked. Together."
"Well... you've seen what I look like."
Perhaps it's a fair point to a dragon, but it's not as if Hermann has had a look at Newt's exposed genitals, and it seems as if clothing of any sort is entirely optional to dragons. Hermann thinks his own point remains just as fair when he points out that it isn't the same thing.
"I don't see why not." Newt scoffs, flopping down onto the stone tile, his tail flicking once. "I've bathed with humans before."
Hermann feels a flash of irritation. "Well, where I'm from, it isn't the same, and you might bathe with your brothers as a child, but you certainly don't bathe with the person you've been married to unless--"
"Unless what?" Newt presses, when Hermann clams up and goes red-faced.
"Unless you plan on consummating the whole arrangement!" He spits the words out in spite of himself, turning to look out at the sky again, rosy along the mountaintops.
"Oh." To his credit, Newt sounds a little bit embarrassed. "You never take a bath with others just to relax and bond, as adults?"
"No, you-- we don't!"
"And... you never share a bed for the same reasons, as adults?"
"Perhaps if you only had one bed, but not in a palace full of them."
"Then... what do you do?" Newt asks, perplexed.
"We don't!" Hermann spreads his arms again, feeling helpless, feeling angry-- though this time, not at Newt. "We don't lean on each other in big piles, we don't hug each other goodbye when we leave forever, we don't speak freely between classes or even between family members, we don't do any of it! We're supposed to just outgrow it."
"Hermann..." Newt creeps closer, Hermann can feel the nearness of him at his back. "I don't know about humans, but-- that sounds awful. I only know from dragons, but we live to be hundreds of years old, and we never outgrow it."
"Neither do we." Hermann admits, shoulders sagging. "But we pretend that we do."
"Not here, though." Newt's wing-tip touches Hermann's shoulder, and he turns, surprised, only for Newt to lead him back to a window into the observatory. Tendo is sitting in a tangle of the three red wyrms, all three laughing. Through two of the windows around the observatory and out to the other side of the observation deck, Hermann can see the largest of the dragons, the one who'd been pointed out to him as chief among the King's personal bodyguard, his human partner stroking the quills of his beard and smiling. The commander has one arm around the neck of his dragon partner, and the other around the shoulders of one of his flyers, as the three of them are shown a star chart. It seems so easy for all of them, but it still isn't the same. It isn't about being human, it's about what one is used to, and Hermann isn't used to this. He doesn't know how to become used to it, how to stop seeing it as strange.
"Once. I will try, once." He nods. "At least... I will come and sit and let my feet hang in the water, and I might remain in my robe, and you mustn't sulk over that. And-- and only you and I, with the guards waiting outside. I am not ready for the full communal bath experience. If it is important to you, I will try with just us. But first... tonight, you will let me explain to you what it is I see in the night sky. And no arguing with me about the miracles of life down here. You'll have your chance to lecture someday, this is mine."
Newt smiles, and does his best to nod very solemnly. "I accept the terms of your bargain. Shall we go in?"
"No, I think I'd like to stay out here a bit longer. I've never seen a sunset in the mountains, I-- I haven't really looked yet. It hasn't occurred to me yet that I could, and that it might be different. And it happens so early here even in springtime."
Newt nods again, and when Hermann returns to the low wall along the deck, Newt joins him, settling down and spreading a wing to protect Hermann from a sudden gust of wind. Newt is warm, and it is tempting, to just lean against him the way everyone else seems to feel comfortable doing, but... imagining it still makes his stomach churn with discomfort. The constant touch is still too alien to him, and to lean in without an explicit invitation still feels rude to him, even if Newt would likely see it differently. He tugs his robes tighter around himself, and remains as he is, until Tendo summons them in to eat.
It's the simplest dinner he has had since the first night of his journey to Dracorex Keep-- this high in the mountains, everything must be preserved and brought up from somewhere below, making a spring dinner indistinguishable from a winter one. The food has flavor, though, and it is filling, and this time Hermann accepts a mug of something which is not tea, when Newt tells him it will better help to open up his lungs to cope with the thin air.
It is bitter and dark, but it warms him, and he does find it a little easier to breathe as he finishes it, and finds it a little easier to pick out the subtle fruitiness of it. Newt confirms that it is made with a sort of berry, more or less, and Hermann feels proud to have managed to recognize the general source, under the initial bitterness.
When they return to the observatory, an attachment is fitted to the telescope for Hermann's ease, as it had not been necessary for so long for a human to use it. Newt settles beside him, fulfilling his side of the bargain and listening intently to Hermann's lectures on the movements of the spheres and the meaning in the vastness of space, the potential in each distant glimmering star, in the swirling patterns and clouds that they form.
They cross the deck to the rotunda housing the living quarters in a tight group, for protection against the cold, but inside, Hermann feels wonderfully warm, as he sinks down onto the simple bed that has been made for him. The scholars have dragged out all the extra bedding kept on hand for true winter, to accommodate their guests, and Hermann is able to wrap himself in thick blankets.
Newt and Tendo both set up near him, making their beds and quickly drifting off, but Hermann is still unused to being so surrounded while he sleeps. He listens as the guard shifts are discussed and the first guard posted, and as the scholars and the palanquin-bearers and cavalry partners all settle in for the night.
"Do you think this one is going to undergo the Trial?" An unfamiliar voice, hushed-- the shape of the rotunda carries the words to Hermann's ears, and he does not stir to reveal he's heard it. The asker is hushed before he can learn what the trial is, whether its nature is scientific or other. But neither Newt nor Tendo stirs, both gently snoring here and there.
He asks Newt in the morning, when they're alone on the second floor of the library, Newt flying up to fetch books outside Hermann's reach for him.
"You don't have to." Newt says, without explaining anything at all. "Nobody has to. It's something they do in the cavalry, mostly, anyway. My parents didn't."
"Didn't do the Trial." Newt lands with a thud, handing Hermann's book over with too much haste and too little attention.
"Why would your parents undergo a military trial? Unless-- is it something the people want their leaders to be able to do?" Hermann frowns. He's glad he doesn't have to, as it sounds like it must be physically taxing to be worth calling a trial for the cavalry, but he wishes Newt wouldn't brush it off as something he needn't do without any explanation. He'd like to be offered the choice even if he is too infirm to agree to it.
"It doesn't matter to the people." Newt turns away, his tail twitching. "They don't know, if they haven't, and they know better if they have. If you aren't ready or you aren't right, it's dangerous, deadly even, so... you don't have to. They just wonder because you're human."
Newt flies down to the first story after that, so Hermann lets him, taking the observation deck back to the main dome instead of going downstairs to read. There are cushions scattered here and there, around the dais for the current telescope operator, and it's as good a place as any, peaceful but with an air of scientific industry. One of the dragon scholars is using the telescope for daytime observations, and another is quietly amending notes in an out-of-date text, with the occasional thoughtful hum. Eventually both retreat to the chamber below, to join the others in a debate, faintly heard from where Hermann sits, and he has the room to himself until Tendo comes up the stairs.
"Am I requested somewhere?"
"No, Newt. I thought he was with you today."
Hermann shakes his head. "He got upset over some trial, failed to explain anything, and took off, but he can't have actually gone anywhere without a bodyguard spotting him."
"Then I'll check the kitchens and the baths. I came here first, just because I thought-- what trial would he be upset about? Is this something a messenger brought news about, or...?"
"Something I overheard last night. He just says it isn't important and I don't need to bother about it, and that it's dangerous, but the cavalry does it--"
Tendo lets out a low whistle, and Hermann stops, watching him expectantly.
"You mean the Trial."
"It's what I said." Hermann says, a little snippily, though he thinks Tendo had better forgive him for it and get on with an explanation, after everything he's been through trying to get a straight answer.
"If Newt didn't ask you to do it, I don't think I should talk about it." Tendo says uneasily. "It's only going to lead to trouble, brother, believe me."
"I think I ought to be able to make my own decision on the matter." He snaps. "Or do you just want to tell me it's too dangerous and I ought to leave it to someone more capable?"
"It's not just your decision! It's his. You don't do it alone. The cavalry partners who do it don't take it lightly, and they don't take it on within a week of meeting. And I'd like to have a word with whoever put the idea in your head in the first place."
"Well I don't know who."
"If Newt asks you, then that's one thing. If he thinks it's right, he'll ask you. But he's right about it being dangerous, and you might get mad at him over not asking, if I tried to explain it, if I explained it poorly, but the risk is something else. To hear it told, the queen was terrified of it, I don't blame him for being cautious."
Hermann does not feel any less curious after Tendo's warning, but the brief, stubborn urge to prove himself at least has abated. He just wants to know what it is, what about it is so terrifying and dangerous, and why his being human is what brought the whole question of his participating up-- cavalry partnerships may be formed by one human and one dragon, but was it expected that any human-dragon duo, whatever the reason for or nature of their alliance, be willing to undergo it?
He returns to his book as Tendo goes down to look for Newt, and they see each other again at dinner, though Newt is still in a royal sulk, downing several bowlfuls of hot, bitter beverage and not speaking to anyone except to request more, or the passing of some dish. He has made up his bed in a 'corner' by the time Hermann comes to the communal bedchamber from the observatory, pressed tight to the wall in a nest of bedding.
Chapter 9: Gaps and Bridges
Hermann learns to let Newt sulk.
Newt is less than inclined to be sociable in the morning, and as much as Hermann had wanted them to get back to friendship on this trip, he has little patience for it. As curious as he is about the trial that Newt won't speak of, he is too busy making the most of his time at the observatory to badger his recalcitrant husband. Should the subject ever become immediately important, he thinks said husband had damn well better tell him all about it, but he can't waste time. He feels more aware than ever of how brief and precious time is.
They spend the better part of two days at the observatory not speaking with each other, though while Hermann absorbs himself in his studies, Tendo does his best to cajole Newt out of his sulk. Over meals, Hermann finally manages to get the names straight, of the humans and dragons in their traveling guard, for at first so many new names had just been a blur to him, as so much newness had to be. He is still sure he will never keep the nigh-identical trio of red dragons straight, and he isn't entirely sure who between dragon and rider is Sasha and who Alexis, but he has the units straight at least, and he knows a bit more about the difference between Fledgling and True partnerships, some being on a trial basis or made up of new recruits still learning cavalry maneuvers, and subject to change.
He'd considered asking Pentecost about what the trial entailed over their last dinner at the observatory, but with Newt hunched over the table still in his funk, thought better of it. They plan to fly by night, the dragons and their riders having taken shifts getting their rest in during the day, and it gives Hermann the opportunity for one last after-dinner viewing at the great telescope, before he's called out to the palanquin. He extracts a promise, to have copies of the star maps sent to him at the palace, and promises in return to send his own work to them, to keep up a scholarly dialogue, and then he joins the others, climbing in while Tendo secures the luggage.
Newt looks up sheepishly from where he has already curled into his corner, giving Hermann a wary little smile.
"Thank you, for not pressing me. I apologize if I behaved badly... or if you thought it was rude. I still don't think I truly understand etiquette where you come from. Any guides we have are woefully out of date, or else they come from reports of the borderlands and not the heart of the kingdom..."
"I suppose I have learned more of academic etiquette than the courtly variety, myself. It has been some time since our kingdoms truly interacted, and there was no proper exchange, was there? A peace treaty, but no open trade flourished, no real... no real dialogues opened. What did occur was hardly usual for either side, was it?"
"S'pose not." Newt lays his head back down, an inch or two nearer to Hermann.
Tendo raps on the door before entering, and Hermann appreciates the short warning, though it's just as well Tendo interrupt now, while he can think of nothing to say anyway. He goes straight to his own corner, propping himself in against a cushion and wrapping a strap a couple of times around his arm before settling in to sleep, to keep him bumping around or rolling into the others. Hermann doesn't know how he'll sleep dipping and soaring above the jagged range in a gilded box, but he does his best to make himself comfortable, lying on his side and tucking his knees up towards his chest, and anchoring himself as securely as he can with just the strap around his own forearm and the cushions wedged in between him, the walls, and Newt. The position eases the ache in his back, and he finds the flight less jarring than when he'd attempted to sit up throughout. In the dark, with Newt's little snore purring away nearby, and the palanquin gliding gently along, sleep finds him.
It is not yet dawn when they arrive at Moon's Crag, but dawn must be close. The sun was quick to set in the mountains, it would be slow to rise... but they can't have traveled so quickly that it would be night still, when Hermann had delayed their leaving. The attendant who had met them before is already awake, and before too long, Hermann has a cup of tea in his hands, warming him from within and without. The whole party is silent, gathering on the balcony and at windows to watch the sky grow light. It begins with pink and gold, and slowly fades to the palest blue. At Hermann's side, Newt flags, clearly not ready to be awake, and so rather than wait for breakfast, Hermann accompanies him to the royal suite.
Newt collapses with a huff and a happy sigh onto the enormous bed, rolling himself in a blanket, and he looks expectantly to Hermann.
They had not really discussed the bed, only the bath, but as assured as he now is that Newt is a still sleeper, Hermann joins him, making up a bed for himself with pillows and blankets, a respectable distance between them-- as much as there had been between his bed at the observatory and the spot that Newt had first taken up. Room enough for them both to stretch a bit and relax after the palanquin's cramped quarters, but he can't imagine Newt will feel snubbed. He doesn't intend to really sleep again, but Newt's gentle snores have a soporific effect on him, and before he knows, he is waking again, his bladder insistent about the earlier cup of tea and his stomach inquiring as to breakfast. He wakes Newt only once he is done with the water closet and dressed in fresh clothes, and when Newt is ready, they return to the main hall.
There is one more long table, and there are strangers at it-- a pair of dragons, one adult and one child, who seem to be guests rather than staff, another in the uniform of a courier, seemingly on a brief rest, and a handful of men, two looking particularly soft and finely-dressed, and one looking as if he belonged out in the wilds on the side of the mountain rather than relaxing in a well-appointed hot spring. The last falls between the two extremes, unmemorable in every way, and Hermann turns his attention back from the new table. It hardly matters if there are other patrons, he reminds himself-- any of them could request the privacy of the meditation spring today, he will be with Newt, in the spring which he gathers is always set aside for the royal family, or at least always to be cleared out and readied for them at short notice.
He finds he is growing used to breakfasts, to meals in general, in Newt's kingdom. He misses the familiar breads and wursts a bit, but the little smoked fish are fine, and he quite likes some things. There is enough similarity in cuisine from sharing a continent, foods that had crossed through the borderlands and had close variations to either side, that he never grows so homesick, but breakfasts are wholly different from what he had been used to before.
After the leisurely meal, mostly spent just listening to the others chat, Hermann follows Newt down to the royal spring. The pool is large enough to take the whole of the royal family plus two or three guests-- or more, depending on species-- and along one side, there is a carved bench, though no other steps. The assortment of scrubs and oils is greater than what Hermann had been given before-- or at least, in greater amounts, and there are even more implements, as well as a veritable mountain of towels, and Hermann ducks behind them to shed his clothes in exchange for a shorter robe, soft and white.
Newt enters the water slowly, lowering himself in at the bench, his glasses fogging up as he struggles to remain balanced there while he adjusts to the heat. In the end, there's nothing for him to do but go in completely, hissing and sighing and spreading his wings out above the water until the temperature is comfortable enough to relax in. Hermann lays a large folded towel down at the edge of the pool and sits there, letting his legs float down into the water, his heels hitting the stone bench before the water buoys him up a bit again.
"Come here," He tuts, holding out a hand, and Newt moves blindly towards him, the water making gentle sounds as it slaps the sides of the spring with the motion. Hermann carefully removes Newt's glasses, once he has his head in close enough, and Newt willingly tilts as directed to make the job easier, blinking as Hermann lays them aside on the edge of the folded towel.
"Oh. Ah, thank you."
"Is that better?"
"Close up. After a ways it's all blurry with or without them, when they're foggy." He laughs, resting his chin on the stone floor beside Hermann. "If I could beg another favor?"
"You can try."
"Do you see the stiff brush, it should be long and narrow? A bristle-y one. No, don't hand it to me, I can't reach except very awkwardly-- but would you mind brushing it along my horns?"
It doesn't sound like something Hermann couldn't do-- it doesn't smack of intimacy in a way he can't handle. He's touched Newt's horns to crown him, and to remove his glasses. Newt has to mime the correct motion for him, when he attempts to simply run the brush along a horn as if he was brushing hair. It's a faster motion, in short strokes, and Newt closes his eyes tight as Hermann works.
"Am I hurting you?"
"No-- it's just the sound it always makes."
"I hadn't noticed."
"Well, it isn't attached to your skull." Newt chuckles. "It's fine, it's fine."
"As long as it's not painful."
"No, it's the same as filing down talons, it will only ever hurt if it's broken to the quick. Well, it isn't quite the same as filing, except I've had that done recently enough I don't need the full treatment. All right, now-- the soft bit of leather? Put some oil on it, the green jar, and just rub it in in circles for me?"
Hermann nods, complying.
"It's why we bathe in groups. Partly." Newt says, when the silence has stretched on seemingly too long for his nature to bear. "Most dragons find it a little easier to help a neighbor than to reach everything ourselves. There are always awkward spots. Oh-- but you don't need-- the soak and the horns, that will be fine for now. Your people consider it very personal, don't they?"
"Yes. Bathing is almost as personal as anything can be."
"Odd." Newt slips back into the water, floating on his belly, neck and chin stretched out on the water. After a while, he rolls over in a full spin, his mane soaking when he rights himself, and then he lets his back end sink down, so that he sits in the center of the spring on his haunches, wings and tail spread out for balance. He blinks a few times, not quite able to focus on Hermann, but he's too comfortable in his spot to move closer just to be able to squint at him.
Newt asks about pastimes and foods and culture where Hermann is from, for their letters had been too personal in scope to cover culture, a too-recently realized failure, and Hermann does his best to answer, but when he realizes how poor Newt's vision is at this distance, he bites his lip and slips out of his robe and into the water. Newt's head turns back to him at the disruption in the water, but his vision doesn't fix on Hermann precisely, he merely smiles at the blurry pinkish shape across the water and goes back to talking about music, and Hermann lets him. It seems to be a particular passion, if not on the same level as the life sciences and automata, and Hermann is still so new as to be fascinated by the notion of instruments built for dragons to use.
He finds he cannot stay in the water as long as Newt can, but he towels off a little and slips his robe back on, and the room is peaceful even out of the water, just listening to it and to Newt, and watching the ripples reflecting up onto the walls and ceiling around them.
It had been intimate, Hermann thinks, but it had not been intolerable.
Chapter 10: Discoveries
Hermann learns to relax, and learns a few other things besides. Not all of them are so relaxing.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
It's amazing how quickly Newt's mane sheds water once they've dried and dressed-- in Hermann's case-- and left the room with the spring. There are still beads of water on the surface, but it looks as dry and fluffy as ever beneath that, and Hermann has to shake off the impulse to reach up and touch it, as they walk back up to the main hall.
As before, it's set up for lounging and for tea, and as before, Newt goes to nap beside a settee, saving it for Hermann to lounge upon once he has his tea ready. There's a shift change in their guard, and when Hermann can't make himself comfortable napping in a public space, he asks Tendo for a favor, wanting one of the books from his luggage. There's no reason to wake Newt to take part in some other activity when naps are clearly part of his enjoyment of the retreat, and no need to split their guard up farther by leaving Newt's side-- certainly not to take stairs, at any rate. Tendo, finished with his own drink, is happy to fetch it. He mentions enjoying the view from the royal suite, and Hermann hums an agreement and some vague permission to linger at the task if he likes. It gives him the opportunity to refresh his cup of tea, and to sip slowly at it and breathe in the steam, while he waits.
He had not specified which book, and he realizes that Tendo might not know which he'd started on, but it's too late, and so Hermann tells himself he won't worry-- there are only three to choose between, and if Tendo brings one of the other two, there's no harm in reading two books at once. He makes himself comfortable and waits.
Tendo brings him the talon-nicked book, faded gilt title reading 'Tales of Dragon's Spine'. It wasn't the text he'd last been absorbed in, but it felt appropriate enough to be reading, as long as they were up in the mountains, along the proper ridge. If the observatory was the dragon's eye and the ridge the spine, Moon's Crag seems to Hermann to be about where the tail and body must meet, and the long snout would end in the cliffs over the North Sea, and the palace itself was to the southwest, facing the ridge from the next range over, with the mountains protecting it from the borderlands and surrounded by the terraced farms Newt and Tendo had both now told him about.
The book is difficult to read. There is a common tongue across the continent, but the stories are old ones, and some words are of an old, localized variety. Others are too old to be used anymore, but at least Hermann can recognize them from his own studies, from old poems and stories. Still, they are compelling enough for him to slog through the unfamiliar language. He has difficulty forming accurate pictures of all of the characters in the story, when there seems to be five sets of pronouns across the whole of the book so far, and when there are so many names he doesn't know, but he makes things up where he has to.
The hero of the second short tale is a man named Gendo, and it being one letter off, Newt just imagines Tendo in his place, and quite enjoys the story of how he came to dwell in the forest, low on the mountains, and how he learned to speak with the mountain. It might be a children's story, but it's new to Hermann, and he's delighted when he hits the point where the old language makes sense to him more than it confuses him.
Again, Newt wakes at the smell of lunch, the moment before it's brought into the hall, and though it requires being followed by the palate-cleansing soup, Hermann does enjoy the array of pickled vegetables and fruits, surprised by how many different flavors there are to them. Newt warns him off of anything too spicy, and Hermann notices that those tend to be enjoyed only sparingly by two of the dragon-riders, and with gusto by some of the dragons, but by none of the other human travelers.
"Do dragons like spicy things?"
"Some do. Fire dragons, as you'd imagine." Newt snorts. "But some others. The thrill seekers, you know?"
"Fire dragons?" Hermann blinks. If 'fire dragons' were a thing, then were not all dragons fiery?
"Mm." Newt swallows a large smoked fish, tossing his head back, glasses bouncing once and resettling on his snout. "Dragons all have an element-- not saying you couldn't learn another kind of breath magic if you studied it, because you can. But there's always something that comes to you. Most dragons have a good chance of being a fire dragon, air would be second most common. It doesn't matter what kind of dragon you are for those, truly. Some combinations might be more or less common, but for the most part, it's just what's in you. Only water dragons are different-- I mean, if you're a water dragon, if that's your race, then that's your element, more or less. I'm half, my surrogate mother's side, so it's mine."
"Then you don't breathe fire?"
"It isn't easy and I don't like to." Newt shrugs. "I could if I had to. I can blow steam all right, which I don't know anyone else who does, but I imagine if you're half water dragon and half something else, your other parent being a fire dragon, you could learn that... Mostly, though, the breath magic for a water dragon is control. As long as I'm underwater, I could go a long time not breathing."
"What are the other kinds?"
Newt puffs up a bit and forgets his lunch at the opportunity to lecture on one of his areas of study. "Air dragons' breath magic is just a strong gust, a bit stronger than earth dragons... but it isn't only breath magic, it's body magic. An air dragon will be a better flyer with less work, swifter, higher... able to go longer without landing, as long as they call on that piece of themselves. A fire dragon can walk through flames without being burnt and through ice and snow without feeling cold. An earth dragon is more body magic than breath magic, with breath magic you're a jack of all trades but a master of none if you're an earth dragon. But you can't be moved, and if you study your discipline long enough and well enough, you can move the earth itself. Well, it's said. You can tell an earth dragon by his armor-- whatever his race, he'll have the thickest, hardest scales of all."
"And water?" Hermann asks. He feels a certain affinity for it, between having it chosen for his crown, and learning that it's personal to Newt in so many ways.
"The diving, mostly." Newt shifts and looks back at his plate, and Hermann gets the sense he's embarrassed, either over his lack of inherent abilities or over the idea of boasting about them. "Never losing sense of what's up and what's down when you're deep underwater, never suffering from the pressure changes the way others do. There's more, but-- It's not important really. But the steam, that's what I can do that no one else does, if-- If you want to see. Not at luncheon, I mean, but... Would you like to have a steam room after? And I could show you there, and then we'll just relax?"
Hermann turns over the invitation in his mind a bit, and nods. He doesn't want another soak in one day, but the steam sounds nice. It seems to help his lungs, with the altitude, and helps with not getting little nosebleeds. And Newt does seem eager to show off his trick-- so, likely he had not been embarrassed to boast, Hermann thinks, but perhaps he thinks his own inherent magic less impressive than others'. Learning about breath and body magic in dragons made sense of some comments Newt had made before, something Hermann vaguely remembers about some type of magic or other not being real. Hermann would have said there was no such thing as 'real' magic once before, only science, but in dragons, Newt believes the two to go hand in hand.
"Steam sounds lovely. I'll have to drop the book I've been reading back in our suite first."
"I'll take it, it's out of your way if you're going to a steam room." Tendo offers, and Hermann feels slightly embarrassed over accepting-- the view is not so lovely as to merit another trip, when there are views from every room that faces out of the mountain-- but if Tendo means it would involve extra flights of stairs, he thinks he should accept.
Newt is just happy to have Hermann's attention all to himself all the quicker, and he polishes off his meal and his dish of tea, standing and offering Hermann his tail. Hermann accepts, and there are no staircases required to find a steam room, one set aside for them in the space Hermann thinks must be right over the royal spring. First, Hermann stops in the anteroom to again strip and change into a soft, light bathing-robe, with Newt gone on ahead to leave him the privacy, and then he follows. There are great wide benches, and a certain amount of steam which comes up through a chimney in the floor, though not enough to fill the room by any means. For that, there is a little stone pit and buckets of water, and there are some of the now-familiar jars and bottles.
Newt carefully mixes one of the bottle into the waiting buckets of water, but he then leaves them and the pit of stones in order to show off to Hermann. A moment of intense concentration, and then he tilts his face up to the ceiling and breathes, a thick, warm plume of steam coming out. It reminds Hermann of wintertime, and seeing your breath, but moreso, with Newt's control over his body's heat and moisture, his own personal mix of magics and his own close study of them.
Newt beams, proudly, at Hermann, as the steam dissipates overhead and the room feels just slightly warmer, and then he turns to the pit and summons up an even greater concentration, and Hermann lies down on one of the benches, his head turned to watch.
Hermann has never seen a dragon breathe flame before, though he'd certainly grown up assuming that all did. He thinks even now, had it been anyone but Newt, he might have still been afraid. But it is Newt, trying desperately hard to breathe the fire to heat the stones, his tail lashing when it takes him several tries to heat them until they turn red and he can pour water over them without dousing the heat.
The steam rises up and joins the spreading steam that Newt had breathed, and Newt works at it until the room feels sufficiently filled with it, collapsing down onto the bench next to Hermann's. The steam smells sweet, from whatever Newt had added into the water-- it's a resin-and-fruit sweetness, like some distant orchard, though for all Hermann knows, the scents are unrelated, the forest tree smell different from whatever tree bore the fruit. Whatever the individual components, the effect is marvelous. Hermann feels himself relax, but he also feels a fresh energy fill him, one that does not need to be used right away but will stay in him and make whatever else comes in the day feel bearable and doable, and whether used or not, allow him to sleep when he wishes to.
"What's in that?" He asks, craning his neck a bit to see Newt lying on his belly on the longest bench.
"Mm, just a sort of a perfume, I think. It said it would have an orange smell, orange and something... I wanted a pick-up kind of smell after heating the rocks up. You don't mind it?"
"No, it's nice." Hermann relaxes his neck. He doesn't need to see Newt, he knows that he's there. "Oranges... yes, that seems right, orange and something. Do you have oranges here?"
"No, except in winter they come from the islands and we buy some, and send them things... Do you?"
"No, except from the islands." Hermann nods, closing his eyes. "In winter... Father would have them for the palace sometimes, but... mostly for important guests. But... we have cherries, apples, plums... pears. Those things."
"We have some, apples and pears. In the lowlands, where fruit trees grow better. Berries-- we have lots of those." Newt says, his voice slow and sleepy. "There are berries all up and down the mountains, right up to where everything stops growing. Elderberries and blackthorn, and blueberries... some others."
"Blueberries... yes, we have those, and strawberries. Blackthorn... I don't know that one, but perhaps in the hills in the borderlands. What else do you grow?"
"Potato, it grows well on terrace-farms. And rice. Melons and squashes, many vegetables grow through summer..."
"Potatoes, oh yes... I'm happy you have those, or I would have missed them. Wheat-- do you grow wheat?"
"No, I don't think so. I don't know it." Newt shakes his head, Hermann can hear the soft sound of it in the steam-heavy room, the creak of the bench as he lifts it and the sound of his glasses against the scales down the bridge of his snout.
"Oh. We grew wheat... the fields of it are golden. But... it wants the broad, flat fields out east, I suppose, and in the south. We don't grow anything in our mountains."
"You don't need to. That's all right. Perhaps we'll trade for it now... what is it?"
"Grain. For bread-- do you use potato flour for all of yours?"
"Or rice, or corn, or oats. Corn and oats, in the valleys, those grow..."
"Corn." Hermann nods. "That's good. We raise cattle, are there any in your lowlands?"
"Mm. Not now, but once maybe someone tried... You eat them, or you milk them?"
"Both. We should trade for cheese." Hermann smiles softly at the thought, though he's not sure if Newt would like it, or if there are goat cheeses that he has yet to try. "We should trade for beef someday, so you can try it. We don't need to raise them here, you get on fine without, but... I want for you to try it, cooked the way I know... some of what we eat is the same as here, but... I've had so much of your country. I want to give you something of mine, something new to you."
"I would like that very much." Newt sighs, and then all is silent for a long time, except for when Newt refreshes their supply of steam.
After, they return to their suite, Newt stretching his wings and lolling around and Hermann returning to his book. And then, he sees it. There, amid all the other dragon fairy stories, 'The First Trial'.
Hermann's heart quickens, and he forces himself to think rationally. A mere word is no reason to believe this story has anything to do with the trial no one has deigned to tell him about, and even if it was some mythic origin story, he has no reason to believe the modern version will be at all the same. Even so, he dives into reading it with an even greater gusto.
The story follows two men-- or to one man and one woman, possibly, for there are still three pronouns Hermann is not sure he has deciphered, and one of them is in use, but he knows one character must be a man, for he had starred in a previous story. By their brief descriptions, all he can know for certain is that one of them has bright eyes and thick hair, and the other possesses small brown hands, and that as they are traveling the Dragon's Spine by foot, both must be human. It is, the story tells him, in the time of hunters, in the time of the war between dragons and men which knew no nation and obeyed no king.
To cross the ridge means to leave the habitable zone, to go where nothing grows. No evergreens to strip bark from, nor thorny bushes to hunt berries from, and so no small animals to hunt either. To go up one side and down the other with nothing but a flint and a knife and a skin tent for two. At Raven's Mouth, a deep gouge in the middle of the ridge-- Hermann had not dared to look out and down at it flying over, but by description it lies between Moon's Crag and the Dragon's Eye-- the heroes found themselves beset by bandit-hunters, who had come up the mountain after dragons, and been driven desperate by their own dwindling supplies, willing to turn against their fellow-human for the mere hope of stealing something. Possibly, Hermann thinks, the bandit-hunters are desperate enough to turn cannibal, if they had become stranded by a rockslide and could not go back the way they'd come immediately. It seems a bald plot device for the men to press on ahead with nothing when they might as well go back and resupply. The story's heroes, at least, had no choice but to cross the mountain ridge in order to avoid the shifting tides of war and to find peace.
In a book of stories for dragons, written during darker times, perhaps the only human heroes could be men who would risk their lives crossing the highest mountain range just to avoid taking innocent lives in a contested land.
He doesn't think this can be the same trial after all-- perhaps the two will be in a future story facing some other ordeal, and that is the reason for the title, for nothing about the story now seems like it can be related to the trial Newt would not speak of. He'd first thought perhaps it was a survival test, out on the bare ridge, but now it just seems to be a story about fighting bandits. Still, he has to admit it is exciting, is too engaged in it to be disappointed.
Aluru stepped wrongly in the struggle, and the ground gave way at the mouth of the chasm. A great shout burned at (their) companion's throat, the loudest sound he had made since the trees were behind them, but with bandit-hunters between them it did not matter. It was too late, and if a rockslide or a (thing) came because of his cry, he cared not at all. Aluru disappeared from sight and all that could be seen was the cold gaping Raven's Mouth as it seemed to rise to swallow (them), to swallow even Aluru's own cry.
The bandit-hunters seized Gendo's (thing) coat, prepared to strike him dead, and in his grief he was unresisting. Their own anger was only heightened at having lost one of the pair to the chasm, for any food or tools Aluru carried were lost as well. The sharp (thing) knife gone forever, and they knew not what else. Before they could act upon the murderous impulse, a dragon rose from the chasm, (their) wings blinding in the sharp light. (Their) wings were as ice in the dead of winter, and the sun shone through them and off them. (Their) eyes were as the sun when it shines full on the mountain. Ivory horns studded the ridges of cheek and brow, and thick black (thing) ran down (their) neck. Each talon was as dark and sharp as the (thing) knife which had fallen, and (their) cry answered Gendo's grief with rage. It was a rage as cold as ice and as hot as full sunlight beating on the mountain and as hard as stone.
For the first time, (they) breathed fire into the sky, and it burned blue, and the bandit hunters scrambled to grab up their harpoons and their axes, but the dragon's cry had brought Gendo back to waking life. He threw one man into the chasm, and the tail of the dragon swept another down. The Raven's Mouth swallowed every bandit-hunter that day, and Gendo stood to face the dragon at the edge of the mouth.
(They) were the greatest dragon he had ever beheld, in size and in power. Nothing in his life had ever thrilled such a terror into him as to be the last man standing before this dragon, who had so easily toppled all others into the pit, and who could do the same to him if (they) wished. But he was bigger than his fear, for he had learned to speak to the mountains, and he had crossed the most dangerous with that knowledge, and he had paid for Aluru's life with another. But (they) did not strike at him in fear or in rage, on the edge of the Raven's Mouth. They did not breathe that blue fire upon him nor sweep him into the abyss.
"Will you know me?" (They) asked him instead, and Gendo stepped forward, amazed, for the answer was yes, and the mountain beneath his feet sang it to him.
"I know you." He said, and he opened his arms. In the (thing), cold air of the Dragon's Spine, to touch (their) scales and skin was like a brand, but this was of no consequence. He had heard the voice of the mountain for the first time in a fortnight, and it spoke the truth to him.
(Their) wings, burning still like ice against bare skin in wintertime, folded around his body, but he bore the heat of that embrace.
"And love me still?" Aluru asked him, in a voice clear and high, unlike his (thing)'s hoarse rasp from before.
"Until my death." He said, and thought it might have been very soon, but he meant the promise still.
"Your death will be my death." Said Aluru. "My life will be your life. Will you have it so?"
Gendo burned. All across his skin he burned, and in his lungs he burned. There was no air, there was no light or dark, there was only Aluru enveloping him and the mountain beneath them.
"I will have it so!" He cried, and Aluru's mouth met his.
Hermann slams the book closed, mid-paragraph. He'd gone into the book expecting children's tales and myths and perhaps some light adventure stories, but the burning, the interspecies kiss...
Newt's head lifts from the pile of bedding he's rolled himself into, expression curious, and Hermann clears his throat, flushing.
"Excuse me." He manages, and sets the book aside, making his way to their water closet. It allays any suspicion from Newt, and Hermann splashes water on his face and waits until he can hear the soft purr-like snore start up.
He creeps out, back to his spot, and his abandoned book, and he lifts it again as if handling a venomous snake, but Newt doesn't stir. Hermann hadn't marked his place, but he finds it just the same. No one has to know, if he has read this one thing. He could claim to have returned to his studies and never reached this story, and why should anyone want to ask?
"I will have it so!" He cried, and Aluru's mouth met his. The flame consumed them both together and there was light again, and dark. Aluru breathed into him and fire seemed to pass between them with each breath. When the agony reached its most unbearable peak and Gendo felt as if all life would leave him, it ceased in a flash, and he discovered himself whole. Not even his clothing had been burnt. The touch of scales and skin no longer burned him, but felt only as warm as life was warm. There was a new strength in him which he had thought gone. All that had waned as they had trekked over the ridge was returned to him in body and in spirit.
He knew, whether through the breath they had shared or the mountain below his feet, that it was Aluru's gift which gave him strength, but it was his gift which had brought (them) through it safely, too. In their moment of connectedness, no one had more power than the other to give or to take.
"It will not be easy for you to love a dragon." Aluru told him, with familiar smile and the old wry tone he so loved to hear.
"You flatter yourself to think you were easy to love as a human. Learning the mountain has made me strong enough to love you still." Gendo laughed. "Fly us to a new place where no man will mind who you or I love. Fly us to a place where blackthorns grow and the (thing) will run, and I will name it yours. No one will take from you anything the mountains have power to protect."
And so it happened, and so by hand they built a palace. For three hundred years stones were moved by hand and mortar mixed, and Gendo worked alongside Aluru with the strength of a man of thirty, and for two hundred years they lived in their palace together and welcomed any who sought a place of peace and understanding. And so Gendo named this palace for Aluru the dragon and made it the spirit of a new kingdom for dragons and men.
Hermann finds his breath is coming rapid and shallow when he has finished, and that his eyes are wet and chest tight, but what it means he couldn't say, and won't probe at.
Okay, I really, really enjoyed writing some dragon literature for this chapter, and figuring out where Hermann wouldn't know the word used, and just... everything about writing that whole bit.
His trouble with the pronouns, btw, comes from dragons having had separate pronouns in older written works, abandoned as unnecessary the more their society merged with human society, but had Hermann known all that, he'd have guessed Aluru was a dragon from the start...
Chapter 11: Incident at Moon's Crag
The most peaceful spot in the kingdom doesn't stay that way.
Yeah, been building up to this chapter for a while... the first serious problem to befall our nerds. It had to happen sooner or later... much as I might have been happy for them to relax and take baths forever.
Hermann can't bring himself to read further, after that. He returns to the water closet and washes his face, and checks and re-checks his reflection in the glass. It helps, but not enough-- he has to get out.
He lets Newt know, waking him back up from his nap to say he's going for a walk and some tea, that he'll see him at dinner if not before, and Newt gives a sleepy noise of agreement, so Hermann lets one of the guards posted outside their suite escort him down to the main hall. Most of their retinue is gathered there relaxing, so his escort leaves him in their capable company and returns to watch the door.
Tea helps, a little. It centers him, just to stare into the cup and breathe the steam. It keeps him in the present to have it scald his tongue just slightly on the first sip, and to pay attention as the heat rolls down his throat and fills him from belly out. It calms him to have his hands wrapped around the mug, soaking in the warmth.
He takes a seat close to Pentecost, who sits in a loose circle of dragons and riders. A couple are enjoying the baths or the steam, or perhaps some other form of relaxation, and Tendo is taking his own opportunity to be free from duty, Hermann doesn't know where, but at least he can settle down near familiar, trusted faces. Not only the two human faces, but the three dragons there as well-- the brother of the two who were on duty at the doors of the royal suite, Alexis-and-Sasha, though which was which remains a mystery to Hermann, and Hercules, the large silver dragon, Pentecost's usually-silent partner.
"Prince Consort Hermann." Pentecost nods to him in greeting. "Has your day passed pleasantly?"
"Oh-- yes, thank you."
"And the king is well?"
"I think so. Relaxing." Hermann nods. A knowing smile seems to pass around the group, as Tendo joins them, finding a spot on the floor near Hermann's settee.
"His highness couldn't seem to wait a moment between the steam baths and bed." Tendo says merrily, and Hermann feels a choking embarrassment at the possible implication.
"The steam baths?" Pentecost's gaze turns to Tendo. Someone chuckles, but Hermann can't focus to pick out who.
"No wonder if he sleeps until dinner, after wearing himself out." Alexis-or-Sasha nods, and Hermann wishes the floor would swallow him up, wishes there was some dignified way to make an exit. This sort of talk would have been considered practically treasonous from nearly any member of Lars' court, but things were so relaxed and free from constraints of class in Newt's traveling party... were they really so free to talk as they pleased about royalty that they would do so in front of Hermann? No one's tone was slanderous or snide so much as fond, but the subject hardly seemed meet no matter how much they liked Newt.
"Yes, he did not call for fire." Sasha-or-Alexis adds sagely, before turning to Hermann. "Our little king... In Newt's case, you must not mistake size for power. He has great magic. But to breathe much fire takes much from him."
"Oh. Oh! Ah, yes." Hermann breathes, for what feels like the first time in long moments. In his own oversensitivity, he'd mistaken the joke, then. "He did breathe some fire, a good deal, I think. He's considered powerful, then, among dragons?"
They all nod, grave where they had been so recently joking.
"Not in body, but in breath." Pentecost tells him. "Well... in magic of both kinds. Not in might nor flight, but he's studied keenly and honed his own powers since he was a fledgling, and of all the skills he has studied, only fire comes hard for him. Without that focus, he might not have been given the crown. It's not unheard of for a king to choose an heir not of royal blood-- though in those cases, formal adoptions must be made, and with enough time for formal lessons in kingship before the heir's marriage. The Dragon King has never given the throne to one who was not fit to lead, and wisdom has always been favored over strength, in appointing heirs. Your husband is untested now, but not a man nor woman under me views him with less than proper respect. Most have watched him grow from hatching. He learned the arts of physical defense and flight from my flyers. When he steps into his role, we will serve him with pride. And we will stake our lives on his command, if it comes to that."
"When the time comes." Hercules nods. "He won't head up military command right away just because he's taken the throne... he still has to pass his strategy courses. He would have, too, ages ago, if he didn't have so many special projects."
"We're at peace, and not likely to change that. He has time to pass them." Pentecost smiles, reaching up and patting the side of his partner's neck. "And advisors to steer him. And commanders capable of calling orders on the field without word from a king, we all know what to do when communication is cut off and we can operate the same even if it's only indecision or inexperience halting the lines."
Hermann nods. He'd never stopped to consider what the dragons thought of their king, and whether they would refuse to serve one they considered not powerful enough... but he had begun to consider Newt to be-- as dragons went-- fairly harmless and ineffectual. Meek, almost, with his big, round glasses and his odd, awkward voice, and the way he came up short next to almost every other dragon Hermann had seen. If asked, he'd have said it was a good thing, that he trusted Newt because of how harmless he seemed beside others of his species, but now, thinking about it, it isn't true. Hermann feels safe in the presence of their guards, who are anything but harmless-seeming. Knowing Newt to be powerful, seeing him breathe fire, those things didn't make Newt fearsome.
"Enough military hypotheticals, though." Pentecost waves a hand, turning back to Hermann. "Those things are only interesting to us old battlers, and the last thing we wish is for you to be bored with your time at Moon's Crag."
"I haven't been." Hermann shakes his head. The attention makes him feel breathless and starry-eyed. It is not the same way that Newt's letters once made him feel, though he thinks the feelings are related. It is more the way he'd felt as a boy of twelve, when a new tutor had been brought to him from the west, over the mountains, and he'd brimmed with questions about the university there but not expected to have them answered. The way he'd felt when the tutor had been for him alone, not for Dietrich and Karla and then Hermann at the very end, with no time or true attention. He'd thought he wanted to feel that way about Newt, wanted Newt to be that same sort of man, tall and handsome and perhaps a bit older, who had some manner wisdom and experience which Hermann lacked and admired, and an unruffled and regal bearing. He still likes attention-- innocent attention-- from those sorts of men, likes it enough that he's felt guilty once or twice at wanting anyone's attention more than his husband's, but he's happy with Newt being as he is. He's happy not to feel stunned or outclassed in Newt's presence... for theirs to be a dialogue of equals, more or less.
"Good. And the food agrees with you?"
"Very well. I've enjoyed every meal I've eaten since coming here."
"We're all glad to hear it."
"And you haven't even been bored listening to Newt snore all afternoon?" Tendo adds, elbowing at the settee in lieu of trying to reach Hermann himself.
"I've been reading." He says, rolling his eyes, but taking the teasing in the vein in which it was intended. He doesn't know when he'll be used to it, but he wants to be. He glances back to Pentecost, and to Hercules, and briefly to Sasha-and-Alexis. "The, ah... the-- Tales of Dragon's Spine, I think it is?"
"With the Gendo stories?" Pentecost smiles-- they all do. "Is it a copy with the songs in it?"
"I can't read them, if that's what they are. Or poems. There were one or two, but in no language I can read."
"That's true, they'll be in Old Dragon, the songs will be. You'll hear them at court and get them as they were meant to be, then, and the royal library will have a modern translation if you wish to read them. The poetry is lost, but it's important to have the meaning. For poetry, there's listening. It's a good choice-- those are stories we grow up with. To live here, you'll want to know them. You'll want to look up the Song of Dracorex Keep at the palace, I think."
"I'll be sure to, then. I, er... I've enjoyed the book so far. Are the places in the story all real places? Silent Mountain and Traitor's Bridge and-- and Raven's Mouth?"
Tendo looks up sharply at him, and then looks across to Pentecost, and Hermann can see Pentecost's eyes dip down to meet his, a look between them.
"Traitor's Bridge is a real place." Hercules nods and grins, teeth sharp and glinting. "Is that in one of the Gendo stories, I'd forgotten..."
"It's in The Brother's Tale-- it's not a Gendo story, but it's in Tales of Dragon's Spine." Tendo says, trying to sound carefree.
"Well, I don't know why, since it's not on the Spine." Hercules rolls his eyes, chin dropping down to rest on his folded claws. "It's across the valley, on the Keep's side. Not a pleasant place, but it's a real one."
"They all are. We've flown over Raven's Mouth, Silent Mountain is north of the Eye, just before the cliffs. You'll be able to study proper maps any time you like, at the palace. Why do you ask?"
"I just wondered, I suppose. Legends ought to have... a little something true in them, oughtn't they?"
"The ones that stick around to become legends always do. They tell us things about ourselves, even when they don't tell us things about the world. Some do both."
Hermann nods, falling silent. With Tendo joining them, he doubts he'll be able to ask about the trial he'd read about-- if the one in the book was related, Tendo would only say that Newt hadn't wanted it discussed, and if it was only a fairy story, he'd be laughed at, and Hermann has no practice being laughed at kindly.
He relaxes into his settee, watches travelers come and go. The dragon mother and child take off from the balcony together, men come up from downstairs and pass off bags and coats to attendants...
Newt comes down as the room is being rearranged for dinner, looking rested, but not entirely energetic. His tail twitches with interest at the first whiff of food, and they all gather around their table as the platters are brought out. The discussion never touches on Hermann's earlier questions, but remains animated, allowing Newt to watch lazily and Hermann to listen. It's a table of equals, but Hermann has seen the respect the whole group holds for Newt, the things they express easily when he is not there to demur and ask to be 'just Newt'. It's odd, the way he will boast and preen one moment, but shy away from any mention of his station...
It's after they've left the table to be cleared that he hears a voice saying 'Crown Prince Hermann?', and when he turns, the strange traveler meets him with the smile one gives a fellow-countryman met in a faraway place, a shallow bow. They have never met, but Hermann thinks it is more than possible he would be familiar, to any man from Lars' kingdom who cared to know who his rulers were. He thinks it somehow less right that any man should be pleased to see him just for all that, but he has no time to do more than stammer out an attempt at a reply before everything happens.
First, the man straightens, and Hermann sees the long knife drawn from his waistcoat.
Second, something yanks Hermann back from his waist.
Third, Newt yowls, an unholy sound, and his tail unwinds from around Hermann.
Fourth, the traveler is on the ground beneath Sasha-or-Alexis, whichever is the enormous dragon-- and whichever is the human, with Tendo's help, sets to taking him prisoner, rushing to gather rope from a store-room, getting the man bound and his knife kicked away.
Fifth, the triplets have surrounded Newt and Hermann, and Pentecost is giving orders, but hardly needs to with how well his team knows their parts in a potential incident. Hermann, his ears ringing, his head pounding and reeling, is the only one who doesn't snap to obey them.
Hermann feels as if his heart has stopped. The prisoner, his knife kicked away, and drops of blood trailing after it in arcs as it spins across the stone floor, Hermann touches himself all over to check for a wound he can't feel.
Hermann rushes around to Newt's front, sees the gash coming down from his shoulder across his chest-- short, on Newt's body. If it had been Hermann, he thinks his throat might have been slit, otherwise his chest torn open from shoulder to shoulder, or down his belly, so many things might have happened without Newt's intervention... but with how quickly it had gone, and with Newt's size, the wound is less grave. It doesn't stop Hermann worrying, tearing off his robe without a moment's thought and pressing it to the bleeding gash, the pale color quickly soaked through with deep red.
Newt whimpers, lowering himself to the floor carefully-- a sharp wince as he moves his right foreleg and opens the wound, as the pressure eases up while Hermann struggles to keep his robe pressed in place.
Pentecost strides into the circle, Hercules and his son joining the ranks keeping Newt and Hermann safeguarded. His hand goes to Hermann's shoulder, firm and steady.
"It's going to be all right, Highness. The chief healer here is second to none-- even the royal physician at Dracorex Keep considers himself no more than an apprentice in comparison. How bad is the wound?"
Newt just whimpers, but Hermann allows Pentecost to take over, to take the robe and to carefully peel back the bundled, bloodied fabric to see.
"Ah, it will take some stitching up, but it's not dire. Think of it this way-- your first mark of honor! And earned nobly. They'll record your deed for posterity. Call you Brave King Newt."
Newt nods a little, but doesn't seem much cheered, and Hermann slides to the floor, feeling as if all the strength had gone out of him. Newt's blood is so red, is the same as his, but the smell is different, is deeper somehow and hotter, and turns Hermann's stomach, or the sight of it does.
"Alexis!" Pentecost thunders, turning to where Sasha-and-Alexis have the prisoner. "Fly carefully. Send back at least three dragons and two riders in your stead and see to it the prisoner is secured in the dungeons-- that means don't drop him on the way, I need him alive to give us some answers."
"And what do we tell King Jacob?" Sasha-or-Alexis asks.
"Tell him King Newton is safe and all will be well, but we don't travel until I believe it to be safe. We hole up here until then, the king recovers here. We cannot afford to let panic reign in his absence-- King Jacob will learn the rest in time. Mako, see the other guests are all right, and I want the ground-level doors barred. No one enters or leaves except by balcony, nor without my knowing about it."
Sasha-and-Alexis take off-- Hermann can see them carry the prisoner off into the distance, in the gaps between the legs of their circle of guards. Mako hurries off, Tendo hurries close, and Hermann can only lean against Newt's side, feeling the heaving of his breaths, until the circle opens again to admit the healer and two assistants-- one dragon, and one human, bearing clean towels, a bowl of steaming water, and a small medical kit.
Newt cranes his neck, seeking Hermann out, and Tendo helps him move, so that Newt can see him without aggravating his injury. Newt drops his chin to Hermann's lap, though even with the pain he's in, he doesn't force Hermann's legs to bear the full weight of his head. Hermann strokes his brow and tries to murmur something soothing, but his voice sounds distant and frightened in his own ears, and Newt's eyes shut tight as the chief healer bends over him to inspect the wound.
The needle drawn out from the kit is enormous-- perhaps that's what's necessary for piercing a dragon's hide, but Hermann feels faint looking at it, and fixes his eyes down on Newt's head. Tendo leans over him there, and gently removes Newt's glasses, and at that, Newt burrows his snout into the space between Hermann's body and his arm, like a frightened animal seeking comfort, keening sounds muffled slightly, sharp every time the needle drags the heavy thread through to close the gash, one stitch at a time.
It's such a great row of them, dragons and human working together seamlessly to treat, but there must be so many, it seems to stretch on forever as Newt hides against him and cries at it.
"I've done what I can for his pain, but he's resistant to another's magic." The healer tuts, addressing Pentecost more than Hermann-- he feels a flash of irritation and a wave of relief at that. "It complicates matters-- but it won't affect his healing. That will be done with time most of all, with routine cleaning, and I'll see the right poultices are made up when he's ready for them, and the proper teas and broths brewed. I will see to everything that I can personally for as long as you remain at Moon's Crag, but my apprentices are able as well."
Long bandages are wrapped intricately around Newt's chest, winding about foreleg and wing and neck to keep one towel in place over the stitched-up gash, and there is blood on Hermann's hands, transferred in sticky dabs to Newt's face and mane. The bowl of water is cool and pink. Two more towels lie on the floor with Hermann's discarded robe, all bloody, Hermann's under-layer of clothing is streaked with it in places... He shudders, choking back a sob.
"Oh-- oh..." Newt's voice is hoarse, weak and trembling but gentle, and he noses at Hermann, stopping him from accidentally transferring more of the dried blood to his own face and hair. "Hermann, hush, it's all right."
"It's not." He shakes his head.
"I'm being a complete fledgling... it's a small wound for a dragon. Really."
This may be true, Hermann thinks, for a more heavily armored dragon. For Newt's father or his uncle, and certainly for the least armored of the cavalry dragons. But Newt, with so much of his body free from hard scales, it doesn't seem at all small. After the long row of stitches that had taken so long and all the keening and gasping and crying, it doesn't seem at all small.
"Hercules." Pentecost speaks softly. "Gather some spring attendants. Make the antechamber of the royal spring into a bed, and return with a stretcher. We fall back there. The king and prince consort will not go a moment unguarded. Meals can be brought to them there. No flights of stairs between sleeping and bathing, no traveling the open corridors. I wish to know which men arrived at the same time as the attacker or near it, and I wish to speak to each guest personally."
"How many do we suspect?"
"I suspect no dragons. I need to know more of the men... they might be from any country. We are not thinking only of our own enemies, but those of our nearest neighbor. But any guest might have information."
"Didn't know we had any enemies." Hercules says wryly, with a glance to the balcony and out over the mountains. He gives a nod and heads off to follow orders.
Tendo leaves Hermann's side, and returns again with a fresh bowl of spring-water and more towels, and allowing Hermann to take charge from there. It helps to clear the blood from his hands, and with that job done, Hermann tends to Newt, gently dabbing away any smears of blood. Removing it from his mane is difficult-- the strange fur resists the water, but the blood dries quickly in it, and Hermann worries he might be rough in working it out, but Newt doesn't wince once at his efforts, merely curls his tail in around Hermann as best he can and closes his eyes, and bears it.
Chapter 12: Retreat
The gang holes up and Hermann tries to piece everything together for himself.
Loading Newt onto a dragon-sized stretcher is a slow and careful affair, once the stretcher arrives, and Tendo and Pentecost help Hermann up and guide him out of the way-- it seems to take both of them, one at each arm, to keep him upright. He feels lost and leaden, watching the triplets and two attendants nudge and roll and inch his husband into a safe position in the center, before bearing him off in as protective a knot as could travel down the stairs. Newt had been exhausted nearly to the point of passing out, but never quite lapsed into any kind of peaceful state, mewling and groaning with each shift.
"Don't fret, Highness. He won't be able to use his wing for a good while, but the muscles there are thick and strong, they'll heal."
"Yes-- yes, they must be." Hermann nods, still rattled, but ready to agree with anything that Pentecost told him. "I was only-- at first I feared maybe-- If it had gone deeper, or-- If his heart--"
"Not likely." Pentecost laughs, but it's a soft sound, a kind sound. "His heart's lower down than that, and better protected. I hadn't considered he might not take to a healer's magic because of his own... but in a while she'll be able to get real medicine into him. And you, Highness? Would a cup of tea help settle you?"
"I don't think so. I don't think I could swallow anything now, without-- Thank you, no." Hermann shakes his head.
With his tasks completed and Newt borne off on a stretcher by the others, Hercules has retaken his customary position at Pentecost's side, and Hermann lets his attention lapse when the two speak to each other in low voices, grateful for a moment without any conversational demands. He's too worn out, and not ready to think about the investigation they must be mounting, or who would want him dead, or how Newt should have been so quick and so brave and so certain that protecting Hermann was the right choice when it ended as it did.
His stomach twists. Newt had always known that Hermann was human. He'd always assumed, in their letters, that Newt was as well, and had read each one closely hoping to find support for the idea that Newt's letters were flirtatious as well as political, scholarly, a necessary tradition. He'd always found the evidence he sought, it was only after his disastrous arrival that Hermann had put that idea out of his head and told himself Newt's interest had always been merely friendly. Was it possible Newt could have begun to love him once, and could in any small way love him still? Or would he have leapt to the immediate defense of any human he was close to, or to anyone not trained to handle his own protection? Was it merely cold calculation, knowing he would survive what Hermann could not? Without emotion involved, could Newt have acted so quickly?
"Highness?" Pentecost's voice calls him back to the main hall, where Hermann is also well surrounded, but where he knows the commander is eager to reunite him with his husband so that the guard can operate as a single unit.
"I'm sorry, of course, what is it?"
"We wondered if you would prefer to ride." Pentecost motioned to Hercules, who had knelt to allow a rider to mount him. "If you felt too faint to take the stairs down."
"Oh-- No. No, I had better walk." Hermann shakes his head, vehement. Even if the silver dragon had been fitted with his cavalry saddle, Hermann would have had to refuse. The idea sits uneasy with him, and it isn't only a fear of falling off or being too dizzy or ill to his stomach, it's the sense of disloyalty it causes in him. "I mean, I will feel better in a bit if I walk."
Hercules, far from offended, nods to him with an approving smile. "I'm sure you will. Might be some time before you want to take the skies outside a palanquin, your first time should be for pleasure. Time you're ready to try it, Newt might be ready to be the one to take you up."
"Perhaps. I've become comfortable enough riding in the palanquin, though, I... I don't really think I need to feel the wind on my face." He blushes, shrugging.
"As you like." Another nod, and Hercules stays down for the next round of orders, Mako replacing Pentecost at Hermann's elbow, the last of the dragons taking point, and Pentecost swinging up onto Hercules' back to take up the rear.
Tendo remains a constant, as everyone else moves around Hermann to form a protective phalanx, and he's grateful for it. His cane is returned to his hand, but even so, he's glad to have someone at each side to support him when he falters. The steps all seem to be wrong, he feels too much as if he's floating, as if he's not quite real as they inch at his pace down to the royal spring.
The little anteroom really has been made up as a bed, cushions and blankets covering the floor, slippers lined up outside the door. Hermann has to hand off his cane, finding it useless, and he relies on human help to reach Newt's side, sinking down beside him. The room is delightfully warm, at least, and so is Newt, when Hermann leans against his solid body and finds his heartbeat, low in his abdomen, normally underneath him. It's faint, through so much thick muscle and the tough hide protecting it, and a little layer of sleek fat between, but it's steady. Slow, slower than a horse's heart, Hermann thinks, but that makes sense to him even without a lecture on biology from Newt to explain it.
It's comforting, and it's comforting when Newt's tail comes up to circle around him, his head inching in closer until Hermann strokes his fingers through Newt's thick mane. It's softer than he'd once thought it would be, though it's still rather stiff compared to any other hair or fur Hermann's had experience with, save perhaps bearskin.
Newt makes a low, pitiful whine, when he realizes one wing is truly incapacitated, wrapped to keep him from moving it wrong, and his other wing is partially trapped between his body and a wall of cushions to keep him positioned comfortably as possible, his injury facing more upward to make it easy for the healers to see to it again later.
"Can I do something for you?"
"Nno..." Newt whines, looking away, his wrapped wing shuddering once. "I just wanted to-- No."
Hermann shifts, sitting up and turning in towards Newt's body more, reaching up to stroke an exposed stretch. "Is it a cramp? Here... direct me where, I've had a million. I'll work it out for you, it's hard when you can't move."
"It's not that. I just thought if I had my wing free, I might-- That I could-- You were close, I thought to... cover you, a little."
"Oh." Hermann feels his face flood with sudden heat, but he doesn't pull back, continuing to stroke along the leathery membrane, feeling one of the slender 'ribs'-- more of a finger, he supposes, the wings less like a second pair of arms and more like a second set of webbed hands, enormous and connected direct to the other shoulder. Was the impulse like an embrace? Protective? A way of thanking Hermann for comfort, or keeping him close? Or was it merely natural, for a species who enjoyed sleeping in close and cozy piles, to touch that way? Newt had put a wing almost around him once, at the observatory, seemingly to keep the chill away. It hadn't been so close as to touch, to be an embrace, but couldn't it have been?
"It was... stupid..."
"No. No, it was-- nice. I mean, wasn't it?"
Newt manages a pained smile, lifting his head and coming up closer again. "I hoped."
"Thank you, Newton. You've saved my life." Hermann turns, his hand leaving Newt's wing so that he might cup the long face in both his hands, his voice and manner grave but far from cold. "I may never be able to repay you in kind, but I hope I can make your heroics worth the pain."
"You're already worth the pain. You're alive, aren't you?"
"Newt..." Hermann's voice fails him. Newt is so earnest, and there is nothing that Hermann can give or do or say-- worse, Newt expects nothing, wants nothing. Rather, wants only to be able to be close to Hermann. No one has ever considered being near to Hermann to be a prize in its own right. He has never considered himself handsome, he knows he is written off in physical terms, and he has never been good at being pleasant, for all that he has always tried to be polite. His favor has been sought, once or twice, his patronage, his ear in hopes he would influence the king-- as if he had ever had the power to influence Lars-- but no one had ever considered Hermann himself to be the prize, in all his fumbling, failing, emotionally stunted glory. Only Newt, who could match him in an argument, meet him in an intellectual debate, rival him for lack of suavity, and completely outdo his ability to sulk, has ever looked at him like this.
For all the faults they share that he's hated in himself, Hermann can't say he hates Newt for them, no matter how exasperating the sulks have been.
He leans down, touching his forehead to the smooth, armored plate over Newt's snout, his own eyes closing. He can feel Newt's breath, warm as the air from the entryway into the spring itself, fanning his face.
Newt could love him, as he'd barely ever hoped to be loved. But Newt is still a dragon, and as fond and as trusting as he's grown, it still seems a significant barrier. He can admit that Newt's eyes capture his attention easily, that there is something elegant to the curve of his long neck and his tail. He can certainly say that Newt's midnight-dark skin is beautiful where the studding of protective scales glint like starlight, that many of his mannerisms are amusing or even cute, that his mane invites touch... but all of those things, taken separately or together, are not the same as saying he wishes to make love to him. He has no idea how to even approach the question of consummation, he can imagine a kiss but knows it would be awkward...
There is still a fire in his belly at the thought, awkward though it may be, a knot of shame and confusion and desire.
This closeness, though... he can desire this, and not second-guess his own feelings. The simple comfort of touch, and being touched by someone who values him, he can want that and take it.
He doesn't realize he's begun to weep until Newt is nuzzling the tears on his cheek and whispering, bewildered and anxious, asking him to stop.
"It's all right." Newt insists, and repeats it when Hermann wraps both arms about his neck and holds on.
"It's not, but thank you. Husband." He sniffs, burying his fingers in Newt's mane once more.
"Lie down and rest here with me. Lie down and rest. If it's not all right, it will be. If it won't be, I'll make it so. Only don't, don't cry, Hermann, it worries me."
"I'm sorry-- you'll be fine, of course you will be, they've promised me that. I only-- I never imagined this, for my life. I never imagined you. I never had such grand plans for myself as you've given me. I'm only grateful to you, Newt, that's all. I wish that I had always had a Prince Newt in my life, I might have thought to dream grandly sooner."
"Even with all the dragon parts?"
"I am especially grateful you are a dragon. Otherwise you might have saved my life at the cost of your own, and then you would not be able to stop my crying for anything." He laughs, hugging Newt tighter a moment before pulling back to cradle his face again, and look him in the eye. "Yes, even so. As you are. Every letter you wrote me, you were a dragon. Every kind thing you have done to make me at home in your kingdom. I would not change you for a hundred handsome human princes."
"If you could change me, though... would you?"
There's an odd weight to Newt's question, which Hermann chalks up to his being injured and not entirely himself. "Not if it would change a thing about your brilliant mind or your enormous spirit. Would you change me?"
"No. I would allow you to change yourself. I would help you to change yourself, to grow. But I would not change you. There's a difference, isn't there?"
"There is. I suppose you have changed me, in that way. You've made me bigger... you've made me more open. And more willing to admit it, on the rare occasions when I might be wrong..." Hermann can't help teasing just a little, as he releases Newt and settles down, moving a pillow into place, and pulling a blanket over himself. "Of course I would support your changing yourself as well, in those ways."
"I've hoped..." Newt yawns, dropping his head down beside Hermann's. "I've hoped to hear it. I didn't want to, you know... I didn't want to change because you could only have me that way. But... now you could know and I could sometimes."
"Yes, of course." Hermann pats his snout gently, and strokes his cheek, urging him to chase down the impulse to sleep. They both needed to recover from the excitement, and the hour did grow late... and he tells himself Newt will make more sense once he's rested.
He wakes once, in the middle of the night-- there's a change in shifts among their guard, and the healer returns to wake Newt and to encourage him to drink as much of some medicinal tea as he could bear before falling back asleep.
Hermann would fall back asleep himself, except for the insistent pressure in his bladder, and he realizes that in all the excitement, he hadn't even thought about his customary evening ablutions. They didn't have their usual water closet, and a bit of poking around uncovered a side chamber off the royal spring's anteroom, but all the fittings there were sized and shaped for a dragon. A not-insurmountable task perhaps, for a man in fit condition who was used to working around the incompatibilities, but an impossibility for Hermann, feeling stiff and half-asleep and still completely baffled by the workings of the things-- the human model was unfamiliar enough just for being so different from the privvies he was used to, with the plumbing that had been standard across his new kingdom.
In the end, he has to wake Tendo, to ask and then to wake an additional guard to accompany him down the hall, but at least there was a human water closet only down the hall, near one of the public bathing springs.
Newt's eyes are bright in the dim room when he returns, and he carefully settles back down, stretching out his hip with a pop.
"I thought you were sleeping again." Hermann tuts, as Newt squints at him and focuses-- his glasses have been put up someplace safe, Hermann imagines. He'd lost track of them, but Tendo must have kept them, and they would be returned to him eventually.
"A bit. I only just woke." Newt whispers back, relaxing as Hermann turns and presses a hand over his heart. "You were gone."
"Only down the hall. I'm here now."
Newt nods, his eyes closing. "You're here now. You're safe..."
"Yes. I'm safe. Hush, now, and rest."
Chapter 13: Bonding
With everything on lockdown, and Newt temporarily hobbled, there's little else to do... and little else that seems as worth doing.
Breakfast is brought to them, which Newt does his best to be cheerful about. Hermann can tell he's in pain, and not thrilled with the special meal that's been prepared for him, but he admires his resolve not to give into misery. Privately, Hermann doesn't think Newt's breakfast seems so bad-- the medicinal tea, true, does not smell as good as any regular tea he's ever had the pleasure of trying, and certainly doesn't appeal to Newt the way his customary morning beverage does, but the palate-cleansing soup is nothing to complain about, and the thin, green broth Newt keeps making a face over, Hermann thinks he would quite enjoy if it was a different meal, perhaps as the base for a proper soup. After some complaining and refusing, Newt agrees to drink the entire bowlful with only the addition of some smoked fish.
There's another bowl for him, a soft, pale mush which seems to be some mix of grain and fruit, and when Newt whines that this is food for an invalid, the chief healer reminds him quite bluntly that an invalid is exactly what he is, king or not, and Hermann has to laugh when Newt winds up enjoying that dish most of all.
After breakfast, Newt's wound is checked and cleaned, his bandages changed, and Hermann sits nearby and holds Newt's head in his lap again, stroking his mane and murmuring softly, and not looking at the healers' work. He's cautioned to use any magic sparingly, to allow his body to put the energy into healing, and he nods and promises-- the only thing he really cares about is whether or not he's even allowed to use the spring, it seems, but he has to be satisfied with waiting.
"The wound's not ready, and those bandages are to stay dry." The healer shakes her head, turning for the door. "Of course you may rest by the spring to socialize, and to be carefully groomed, but only that."
Hermann strokes the side of Newt's neck reassuringly. "We can still go in if you like-- if you'd like for me to do your horns again, like before, or something else... It would be all right to dip your tail in, anyhow, and it's peaceful."
Newt nods, wincing and freezing when he begins to stand, and Tendo ushers Hermann back from him, so that two dragons can come in at either side and support him, walking with him the way that Tendo and Mako had walked Hermann down the stairs. Newt's gait is the awkward halfway point between a gallop and a shuffle, three-legged, while he holds one foreleg tight to his body, the muscles from his shoulder across his chest pulling too painfully should he try to use it. Hermann follows along, with Tendo's help until he gets to flat stone where his cane will be of use to him.
Hermann doesn't imagine there's any chance of privacy-- even though Newt couldn't be attacked again in the spring, with the anteroom filled with his elite guard, he lacks Hermann's familiarity with moving about without the full use of all limbs, and being unable to use one leg at all is different from mere weakness and poor feeling and balance. Even if he'd had some enormous crutch, it would have done little good if the same muscles were stressed. At least one of the dragons would have to remain close at hand just to help him in ways Hermann cannot.
As it happens, all three of the triplets join them, one remaining out of the water entirely while the other two begin going through a co-grooming routine, at Newt's insistence that they not all avoid having a nice time. He has some rolled up towels and one cushion, to make lounging near the spring's edge more comfortable, and he seems to gain some vicarious happiness from watching them at ease. At least, Hermann thinks that's what it is. He doesn't imagine it's any kind of prurient interest, with how shocked Newt had been to learn that in Hermann's country, bathing together between adults was seen as sexual.
Hermann is fascinated. He'd gathered a little, from what Newt had said on the subject, and from being guided through the act of horn-polishing. It seems to him to be somewhat ritualized, but he has no idea if that's standard or not. The missed beats are when each turns to where the third is not, only to be reminded that one of them at a time needs to remain dry should their king need them. They do a certain amount of grooming for themselves, and then certain things are done for each other, which seems to be a mix of hard-to-reach places, and things which hold some significance. Bonding rituals, in caring for talons as well as horns, in carefully brushing out a mane or in rubbing some balm around the second-shoulder of the wing, an act which has its own implement, like a great wooden spoon, carved with a dozen smooth raised rounds all over the bowl of it.
Hermann takes the stiff brush, coaxing Newt's chin over to a folded towel at his side. With the triplets there, he's been too embarrassed to strip down, but he had slipped his trousers off from beneath his robe, and hiked that up over his knees so that he might sit on the spring's edge and dangle his legs over, staying close to Newt.
Newt hums happily as his horns are polished after the brushing, and then as Hermann wets a comb to run through his mane. It slips through the short, thick, strange fur with ease, wetness remaining beaded up along the surface to be patted dry. Hermann lets the triplets see to caring for Newt's claws, afraid to do that job wrong, and they work together to make sure his bandages stay dry while still helping him to bathe.
Newt takes a fine comb in hand-- not the one used on his own mane, but perhaps designed for some other type of dragon. Or, Hermann realizes, designed for a dragon to be able to handle, but for a human's hair. He had been told that cavalry partners bathed together frequently. It makes as much sense as anything else. Newt hesitates, looking to him, and Hermann nods.
Newt is gentle. He dips the comb into a jar of sweet-scented water, and he worries at each tangle he finds with deliberate slowness until it is gone, and Hermann has to lean in awkwardly, so that Newt can use his good arm, but he doesn't mind at all. The closeness is a suitable reward.
"Is there anything else, that I could do for you?" He offers, and Hermann is so tempted, but he can't...
Even if he shrugged out of his robe and removed his undershirt, leaving the robes bunched up around his waist for some modesty, to let Newt scrub his back as best he could reach, he thinks there's too much risk of wetting Newt's bandages or straining at his stitches, only to drip water down Hermann's lower back and get his robes all wet, and never really reach his shoulders.
"Another time." He pats Newt's snout. "I'll do the rest of my bathing alone-- I'm afraid I'm not ready for more company than only you. Perhaps as I get more accustomed to the way things are done here, I will change. But if you head back and get comfortable, I'll join you. I-- I'll read to you, if you like."
"No, stories. One of the books I packed, from my shelf. If you would like me to."
Newt nods, and Hermann watches him hobble out, feeling a pang of sympathy. At least for Newt, the situation is temporary, and he bears it well knowing that fact. His pain is better managed, thanks perhaps to the teas, and Hermann is grateful for that. He doesn't think of his own physical limitations often, unless he is reminded of them, by pain or by coming up against something he cannot easily do, or by someone's look of pity-- or refusal to look at him at all. The rest of the time it is merely his life. But life had eased him into it, and naturally, it was not as if his old body was taken from him. And he had not always been graceful towards it, towards himself. He'd learned that. He feels for Newt, thrust into a sudden physical helplessness, and he admires how easily he accepts aid without pride, without wallowing in self-pity. Perhaps the difference is in feeling he'd earned some badge of honor for his bravery, or perhaps because Newt is no longer a child, for Hermann was barely more than a child when he'd first struggled with pain and weakness, and his leg going out from under him when overtaxed.
Hermann bathes quickly, once he has the main room to himself, redressing and rejoining his husband, and letting their retinue take turns at using the spring in ones-- for Mako and Tendo-- or in pairs, the last triplet returning to bathe with the last partner-less dragon among the group.
Hermann reads to Newt throughout, pausing only for sips of hot tea when his throat feels the need for it, and Newt helps Hermann with the words he had not been able to decipher, pointing out to him the term for a certain kind of stone carved from the mountains, that had been the basis for many tools, before metalworking had become so prevalent, and the names of the Breath Stones in the old dragon language, and the pronouns. There are words specific to flight, too, and one for the type of near-fur that made up manes like Newt's, different from the finer horsehair-like manes and tail-tufts of some wyrms-- those which had manes, anyhow-- and the quill-like manes of more than one race of larger dragon.
By the time Hermann can read no more without going hoarse, he and Newt are curled up together quite close and cozy, and it feels easy, natural even, to let the book go and stroke the tail draped over his lap instead, his fingers trailing lightly over the fin at the end. It's funny to think how it had looked sharp-edged to him at first, now that he finds it almost soft... delicate. Newt had likely always kept it turned away when he offered his tail not to avoid causing Hermann discomfort, but because it would hurt him to have it leaned on heavily.
"In the stories..." Newt yawns. "In the stories, Aluru was the very first Dragon King, and Gendo was the first Prince Consort, and the first human to ever marry a dragon. And it's encouraged, for the king to marry a human, to keep the kingdom united. Otherwise, humans might think, oh... oh, the Dragon King, he's only king for dragons, maybe he doesn't care about humans at all. So there's meant to be a dragon and a human on the dais together to rule fairly."
Hermann smiles, leaning his head back against Newt's side. There had been some unrelated stories, one adventure pitting a clever young dragon against a team of bandit-hunters high in the mountains, and one fairy tale about the child of the mountain, a dragon who hatched from a large geode, and was raised by human farmers. But the last story he'd read had been one of the Gendo stories, about the finding of the Breath Stones. Gendo had, according to legend, been the first to wear the Breath of Light, and Newt had smiled all through the tale and ignored his injury, engrossed in the story behind his own crown. Even if it was only fiction, it was no different than the mythic kings that Hermann had learned about as a boy, who might not have done all the things in stories, but who had probably been real long ago, and done enough to be cemented in popular thought as the type of king who had legends told about him.
"I'm glad, then... to help you to be a fair king."
"Hermann... could you-- no, never mind. You will help. I hope for a very long time." Newt swallows.
"Yes, for years and years, I'm sure." Hermann takes up stroking Newt's tail again. "Newt... I suppose it's not necessary, to marry again. But if you wished to, in the future, of course you know I-- I don't expect you to be beholden to my memory for centuries. If you're worried, if the time comes you think the kingdom needs it when I'm gone, then you should. But it won't be for decades, so don't worry about it now."
"Someone might try and kill you again." Newt says, his voice quiet.
"Not likely with all the protection I have now. Not likely anyone could succeed. I'm here with you, and I will be, for a long time."
"I just don't want to lose you. Now we're-- now we're close again. Closer than ever. I don't want to lose you."
"Hush..." Hermann turns, pressing his cheek to Newt's side. "Hush. Of course not, and you won't. Not any time soon. Nor I you, I should hope. Rest a while, I'll wake you when it's time to eat."
He thinks Newt might protest, for a moment, but instead he merely nods and closes his eyes, and soon, Hermann finds himself drifting off to the gentle sounds of Newt's slumber.
Chapter 14: Truths
Newt has a lot of things to tell Hermann about.
Their stay at Moon's Crag drags on longer than Hermann had wanted, though he at least has two more books to occupy himself with during all the times that Newt sleeps-- fitfully, sometimes, but he always stills when Hermann strokes his mane or his side. Hermann tries not to notice the looks that the others sometimes give them, at those times, the quiet approval that radiates from Pentecost or Tendo whenever they catch him being tender with his husband.
He supposes they want what's best for Newt, and best for their kingdom. A royal couple learning to love each other footed the bill, probably. He doesn't really know how to feel about that. He doesn't know how to view himself through the eyes of Newt's retainers. He certainly doesn't know how to view himself through the eyes of the common people, what they might expect or wonder. He knows the face his father would have wanted him to wear, as crown prince of his old kingdom... but he's still learning how to carry himself for his new one. Newt wants nothing at all except for his genuine self-- those close to the crown are the same. They don't expect him to put on some mask, they see too much to, but they treat him kindly for it. Still, the closest retainers and the kingdom as a whole, he knows those are two different things.
At least with Newt, he isn't rudderless. Newt is there to set some example, to show him how a king behaves here. Well, when Newt is well, at any rate... and as anxious as Hermann is to leave the place where they were attacked, with the security measures that are in place, he accepts that he's safest here-- that Newt is. No one could reach them without a small army at least, and no army could enter Moon's Crag, with her lower doors barred, unless they came on dragon-back. And while Hermann was not entirely confident there wasn't a dragon in the world who wouldn't have a price for treason, he is confident that there are not many, and none who could hold their own against the cavalry's elite.
Newt rests most of the time, and when he is awake, he listens to Hermann read, or asks to hear what stories are told in Hermann's old home, or else he mopes. He makes faces over his medicine, but no arguments, and he no longer has anything to say about the special meals prepared for him except to thank the healer and her aides. He still tucks his snout beneath Hermann's arm when his bandages are changed and his wound daubed with ointments, or cleaned with steamed towels and some clear, strong alcohol. Hermann doesn't look, either-- it's enough to see the towels and old bandages come away dotted with blood, any more and he's sure he would faint. But, it's less blood each time, and finally, the healer bows to Pentecost's own impatience and says that Newt is well enough for the journey home.
Mako is paired with one of the fresh dragons to have flown up from the palace, allowing the triplets to handle bearing the palanquin without the added encumbrance of a rider, and allowing her former trial-mount to take point, as the swiftest partner-less flyer. Pentecost gives them all their positions, and agrees that Tendo should fly on the back of the other dragon to have come up rider-less.
"You two will flank the palanquin. If there's danger, you'll touch down with it and stay close to the king. Mister Choi, you'll dismount when they do, I expect you to remain safe and avoid combat, unless you have no other option." He orders, placing a large sheathed dagger in Tendo's hand. "But, if you have no other option, you will have this. Hercules and I bring up the rear. Highness."
He turns to Newt with a very crisp salute, which Newt merely nods to, uncomfortable.
"If we are set upon, if it feels as if the Weis are losing hold on the palanquin, you are to take Prince Consort Hermann and you are to fly-- to the ground, if you can't make it to true safety. You'll be covered, whatever happens, so there's no need to look for a cave, or natural cover, just a safe landing spot. Highness... it will hurt, if it comes to that. But you will be capable. I don't expect we will face such an attack-- they'd need a ballista to bring us down, and it's no picnic to push such a thing through the mountains. But we all must be prepared even for the least likely. Are you prepared?"
Newt nods gravely, his good wing coming up around Hermann, a protective little tent that keeps him covered as they limp together to the palanquin.
They curl up together inside, this time without Tendo. Newt lies on his stomach, his good wing and his tail both around Hermann now, and Hermann forgoes the straps he's grown used to using, instead anchoring himself to the secure bulk of his husband. The little jar of taking off doesn't jostle Newt, and Hermann knows from experience that landing hardly affects him. And if it did come to breaking out of a plummeting palanquin, he wants them to have a secure hold on each other. Newt's bandages no longer keep his wing from moving, though he has yet to use it, has yet to do more than barely put a bit of weight on the afflicted foreleg. The healer wouldn't have given them the all-clear to travel, Hermann hopes, if she did not believe as Pentecost did, that Newt could manage a brief flight. Hermann has seen how riders mount dragons, even without saddle... he's not so sure that he could do the same, not in an emergency situation-- more likely he would cling to Newt's neck, and Newt would hold him there with his good foreleg. He'd never make it onto Newt's back in time.
Instead, he tells himself they won't need to-- not likely!-- and that he could practice someday. When Newt is fully recovered, when he has flown without any encumbrance a few times and his shoulders are strong on his bad side. Then, Hermann could learn to swing himself up, to lie along Newt's back and tuck his knees carefully down past the webbing of the wing, to hold onto a saddle or to hug Newt's strong neck... A saddle would be best, with his inexperience-- there would be a place to put his feet for support, he wouldn't have to rely entirely on the muscles of his calves and thighs, something he very much doubts would work for too long. His legs would wind up dangling wildly, unsafe for both of them. Were there saddles which would fit Newt comfortably? Had he ever worn one when he'd taken lessons in flight and defense, or had he not needed to partner with a rider?
Perhaps it's silly for Hermann to hope that he never had, especially when it reduces the odds of a saddle already existing, but he likes to think they might both come to it fresh. If there is no need for a marriage bed to enter pure and leave knowing, then let them have this, he thinks.
Newt nuzzles at his hair, breath stirring it, and Hermann smiles in spite of himself-- in spite of his worries, in spite of his suddenly-warm face, he smiles and reaches up to caress Newt's long snout.
"What are you thinking about?" Newt asks softly. The palanquin takes to the air, Hermann's stomach lurching only briefly with it-- it is easier lying down, he'd known that, but it's easier still when he holds onto Newt, and is held onto in return. The reliable tail curled around him, the wing a tent that makes the space even smaller around him, nowhere to tumble to.
"Nothing important. Why, can you distract me?"
There's a heavy pause, and Hermann can hear Newt swallow, a long sound traveling down his throat.
"I think I can. I can begin to-- I'm still not allowed to use magic. Not until this is better." He shrugs with his bad wing, about as far as he can without wincing. If he had to fly, he'd be re-opening the wound, but nothing the royal physician wouldn't be able to repair... nothing so deep Hermann wouldn't be able to tend it, with the loss of his traveling robe perhaps, but even so. He would be fully capable of keeping the bleeding staunched and controlled until they could arrive home at last for Newt to be seen to properly. But Hermann doesn't want any of that to happen, doesn't want Newt to bleed again, to make those awful keening sounds through another round of stitches at the keep, to be hurt even more.
It had been Newt's magic, the healer at Moon's Crag had said, that made it so hard for her to bring him relief. Her own ability, unrelated to the cardinal elements, and surely honed over many years of practice... it might have done wonders for anyone else, but for Newt, it had done little good. Hermann doubts the royal physician could do better-- based on what Pentecost had said, there's little chance of that.
"You don't need magic to distract me." Hermann shakes his head, nestling closer. He definitely needs the distraction.
"I will, one of these days." Newt says, in a tone Hermann cannot unravel. "But... for now. You would believe me without it?"
"There is one more thing... about magic, and about water dragons, that I've wanted to tell you. Or dreaded telling you. Both."
"Is it about why you couldn't be healed easily?"
Newt shakes his head, blinking at Hermann. "Oh-- the pain, no... No, that's not-- It doesn't matter what type of magic you have, for that. Some dragons are just resistant to the magic of others. Perhaps if I had studied less of it, I might not have built such a resistance. But that's not important, I don't need to be magicked to heal, it's only nice to have the pain taken away when a thing is fresh... No, it's-- This is a rare body magic. Shapeshifting."
Hermann feels suddenly dumb, his mouth opening soundlessly. His thoughts push as if straining to come through wool, and don't.
"I was afraid to tell you, at first. After we met at the palace and you-- I thought if you knew that I could, you... you would only want me if I became someone else for you." Newt continues, his own voice soft. "Or I would have told you. But... when you said that you wouldn't change me, I-- I believed you meant it."
"I did." Hermann manages at last. "You can change your shape? And your size?"
Newt nods. "To take on a fully human form is taxing. It means concentration. There are legends where it's done for months on end, but I could never-- A couple of hours, maybe. Even then, it would require my focus. I couldn't do much in an unnatural shape. A half-change is easier. Keeping my eyes the same, or keeping my horns, I could still make myself man-shaped. Sized. I could stay that way for some time, but... it might not-- That is, I don't know--"
"Someday I will... I will like to see this. Even for only a moment. It would impress me very much, and I would understand your wanting a rest once you've done it, and... I would like to see what sort of a human you make, to see how rightly or wrongly I once pictured you, when stacked against this magic of yours. But... I will not be disappointed if it is a brief thing, if you prefer not to do it much. I will not-- I will not ask it of you, not often, not-- not in exchange for my love."
"I have your love, then?" Newt sounds hopeful, and Hermann could weep. Instead, he kisses the end of Newt's snout.
"Have I not made it clear these past days?"
"Gratitude and love are not the same... I would hardly presume-- More than friendship, your love?"
"More than any friendship I have had... I don't know how to explain it, but you have it, for all it's worth. A spiritual love. Is that what you feel for me?"
"Y-yes. A-- a spiritual love. A physical love as well, in our own way, I think. It pleases me to be kissed, though I can hardly return them. It pleases me to have you near me when I sleep, and it pleases me to be touched when we sit together. It pleases me to see the shape of you all pink and foggy in the bath, and to know you're with me... The scent of you pleases me, it's familiar to me now and agreeable... comforting. I am glad to have your companionship in the flesh-- I am glad not to be letters and empty spaces. Are you?"
"Yes." Hermann agrees, whispering. It feels like it should be whispered, and he strokes Newt's face again. "I am glad for your companionship-- gladder than I ever-- The idea of being parted now, after all we've been through, I don't like to even picture it. I was hoping, in fact-- I was hoping... The bed I've been given, there's room for us both. To sleep the way we have at Moon's Crag."
Newt hugs Hermann even tighter, with wing and tail, and his chin pressed to the top of Hermann's head.
"Hermann... do you love me enough-- enough that... that nothing could come between us?"
"I can't imagine what would, now."
"Do you love me enough to spend a dragon's lifetime together?"
"Newt, I don't have--"
"But could you love me enough?"
Hermann closes his eyes. "Yes."
"A true love? A love all the way down to your bones?" Newt presses, and he sounds so desperate it makes Hermann's chest ache.
"Newt... I love you. I don't know what answer to give, but I do. Please-- don't worry yourself with how."
"I have to worry myself, Hermann. I-- I have to know. Is it real? Is it so real you'd stake your life on it?"
"What's gotten into you?"
Newt swallows again, hard, another long sound, and it takes some time stroking along his neck before the strange, nervous energy in him seems to still a little.
"Hermann... if you could love me like that, if you could promise me your entire soul, then there is one more magic-- then you could have a dragon's life with me. We wouldn't have to say goodbye at the end of a few decades. We wouldn't ever. If you loved me more than life, if you were sure and true, if nothing could sway you from love and from trust in me, then you could live as long as I do."
"The Trial." Hermann's voice quavers, but it's no question.
"Yes. The Soulbond Trial. If-- if you wanted to be technical."
"You were so afraid to tell me what it was, not so long ago. What's changed?"
"What hasn't?" Newt nuzzles at him again. "We both have, haven't we? We've changed together. And... you wouldn't change me. And the thought of losing you hurts me... I don't only mean jumping in front of a knife, either, it-- I can't imagine it. I won't imagine it. Not any way you could be lost. I knew in an instant, no matter what had come between us, it would never be enough to stop me loving you the way I did in letters. And that nothing could come between us again that way. Not truly."
"So why were you afraid?" Herman asks, and he tilts his head up to kiss the very end of Newt's snout, right over the smooth scale plate protecting it.
"It's agonizing... it's a pain you can't flinch from or you'd be destroyed. More than that-- the Trial sees into the heart of you. Of both partners. There's no room for doubt. There's no room for other loves. When it's true, when it's right, then it's hundreds of years of life for the human who completes it, it's the promise you and your partner will never live a day alone. Freely given by the magic that governs it. There's no cost-- none the righteous partners pay. But maybe it takes that payment from those who are wrong. A sliver, a fraction of untrue-ness, and it could take both lives in an instant."
"And your mother had doubts... so you grew up fearing it?"
"I was very young, and she was already old, when everything was arranged and my three parents had me." Newt hums. "My father says one day she looked at me-- they'd planned to go through with it, before she was too old to want so long a life-- she looked at me and she told him she couldn't. They came to love each other, over all the years they were married... she moved from her rooms into his, they walked together and read together and flew together, and did all things together, but there's no room for doubts, fears... for anything. And she told him, the risk, it was so much. She had thought, by the time she was old, she would know, and there wouldn't be any room for doubt in her heart. But there was the little Newt, and if they were wrong in any small degree, then it would cost me two parents. And she said she couldn't. I could lose one, but not both."
"Oh..." Hermann kisses him again. He doesn't know what else to do.
"She had a very long life for a human. I had some time to know her. And... well, I still have one living mother, though she travels a good deal, and mothering was never her strong suit. It's still good to have her when she comes to the palace. And I have my father, and my uncle. And my father... he has all of us. It was hard then, but all four of them have always only made the decisions they thought were best for me, so I'm grateful."
"If you were ever confident... if you knew you would love me and not flinch from it, if you knew there was nothing on your heart that would unbalance us... then I would go through the Trial with you, Hermann. My own heart is made up-- my heart is one for absolutes. But think about it for however long you need. And come to me if ever you feel sure."
Hermann's stomach lurches, with a dip in the palanquin-- not a wild dip, nothing to make him think he and Newt need to bail out and flap towards the ground-- and he closes his eyes and presses close against Newt, head pounding and chest tight. Could he be so sure? Could he love Newt that way, with no doubts or fears? Could he consider the love between them so complete that he would never look to another? Newt had been right not to tell him about it before. Putting his words together with the story, the locked lips and the description of that feeling of being burned from inside out, Hermann wonders if Newt had been right to tell him of it all now. And yet, he can't not consider it. The question is there, and Hermann has no firm answers, but he still knows he would love to spend hundreds of years at Newt's side, the both of them studying their separate passions together.
Chapter 15: Homecoming
Newt gets fussed over some more, basically.
They set down once, and are given the chance to stretch or to relieve themselves, but Hermann declines, and is glad when Newt does the same. He doesn't really want to have to let go of him yet, doesn't want to let Newt step out of the safety of the palanquin until they're back at the palace, no matter how well guarded they might be.
When they land again, Tendo opens the door and he and two of the triplets help them out. Hermann feels a sudden rush of shame when he looks up to see Jacob rushing to meet them, seeing Newt all bandaged. His worry is writ as clear as any human father's would be-- clearer than Hermann imagines his own father's worry would be. It had taken Hermann some time to understand dragon expressions, but at least it had been clear to him from the start that expression was something they didn't shy away from. Jacob had often seemed calm, but it was never a mask, a public performance.
He hurries to Newt's side, moving to support him in place of the guard who'd been doing the job, preening gently at his son's face and enveloping him with one great wing. His voice is soft, drifting between the common tongue that Hermann knows and a low, rolling, sussurant language, one he doubts a human could properly speak. One that everyone had been too polite to speak in front of Hermann before now, perhaps, but he doesn't need to speak it to know the content.
"I beg your forgiveness, Highness." Pentecost bows low to them both, but he addresses Jacob. "For not sending a full report to you at the start."
"No, of course." Jacob nods, still shaken, but some of his calm returns to his voice when he addresses the commander. "I-- I understand."
"I would have instructed Sasha and Alexis to tell you, had the king's injuries been truly dire, but he would not have had you worry over this."
"It's not bad, really." Newt adds, his tail reaching back to Hermann, to guide him in closer. "Not deep at all, it's only that it kept me grounded a while. We didn't want to make the trip until we were sure I could fly under my own power in an emergency."
Hermann follows, though he shrinks a little when Jacob's eyes turn to him. It had been his fault, after all, though perhaps no one had informed Jacob of the fact. He waits for blame, or for questioning, but instead, Jacob looks him over and sighs with relief to see him unchanged.
"Of course, the important thing is you've both come home in one piece. Everyone has, I see." He glances past Hermann to the palanquin and their escort, the riders dismounting to stand at attention beside the dragons. In looking back at them, Hermann can see there are crossbow bolts sticking out of shields, and one embedded in the palanquin, which gives him a bit of a start.
Pentecost had been correct-- without a ballista, there really wasn't much an attack from the ground could do, if he and Newt hadn't even noticed being shot at during the flight.
"Yes, Sir." Hermann nods, shrinking again when Jacob holds up a claw in protest.
"No formalities, please-- you are of my house now, and free to speak to me as if you were of my blood. At least to address me by name." He smiles gently, and Hermann's throat burns suddenly. He would have addressed his own father as 'Sir', but he can't bear to explain that to Jacob now.
He can't speak at all, afraid of the tight, hot feeling spreading to his eyes, the last thing he wants is to cry now. The only thing he really wants is to be alone with Newt again, or close to it.
Newt seems to pick up on at least some of what he's feeling, and he promises to tell the whole story inside, in private. With Jacob supporting Newt and Newt supporting Hermann, they slowly make their way into one of the royal sitting rooms, a small room for dragons, and the fact that it seems designed for family members to relax and talk rather than for receiving guests puts Hermann at ease. Illia joins them, but Tendo remains outside with the royal guard, and settled against Newt's side, Hermann is content to face his family before seeking any real privacy.
Newt recounts the story with only a little bit of peacocking over his own past bravery-- he glosses over the injury itself, and the healer, and the difficulty he'd had in moving around, emphasizing the would-be assassin's capture, and the importance of Hermann's safety. Something Hermann still expects to get some cold shoulder over, but Jacob only repeats how glad he is they both came home safe, and Illia commends Newt for his quick thinking and action, coming in to join in preening over him. Hermann slowly allows himself to relax, to accept the lack of recrimination, and Newt seems so pleased to be fussed over and nuzzled that he can't help a smile. He even joins in after a moment, stroking the side of Newt's neck.
"It really was very brave. And it all happened so fast." He nods, keeping his eyes on Newt. He feels less nervous that way, he finds. "I hardly knew what was happening before it was all over... Newt was magnificent, though, that much I am certain of."
"We'll keep this quiet a while longer." Jacob says seriously. "If we can... I want us to have all the information there is, before the story spreads. Once it leaves us here, there's no controlling where it travels. I would not like it to reach any co-conspirators before we know their identities or their motives. But, Pentecost will see to that. He's never failed us, not since he first joined as a young rider."
"Still." Illia's voice rumbles, more amused than his brother's. "If it does spread... it's good for people to hear that they have a brave king. And a resilient one. It'll be all right."
"It will be." Newt adds, nudging his nose in against Jacob's. "I'm not a hatchling anymore, I'm a king, and-- I'll be good at it. We will be, together, Hermann and I."
"Of course you're no hatchling... but a father doesn't outgrow worrying when his child outgrows the nest. I'm very proud of you, though." Jacob nuzzles back, before giving the end of Newt's snout a sharp little tap with his chin. "I can be proud and worried at the same time. Someday you'll learn that the hard way."
Newt curls in on himself with a wordless grumble at that, and Hermann strokes his mane, in no mood to complain if Newt is not looking forward to fatherhood too eagerly. He doesn't feel remotely ready for the responsibility himself, and he doesn't like any of the thoughts he's had lately involving surrogate mothers. Would they choose one together based on some notions of good breeding, or would Newt select someone he was attracted to? Would it be a clinical thing or a passionate one? He hates the idea of Newt leaving him to take someone else to bed, but he's no happier with the thought of being present for the conception.
It hits him hard and out of the blue, the notion that he understands Newt's late mother perfectly. Surely she cared about Newt's future, and the kingdom, he doesn't doubt Newt's story is also true. He believes she looked at a helpless infant who would call her mother and she refused to lose him both parents. But just as surely, Hermann thinks she knew she would fail the Trial. She knew before Newt was born, or even conceived, she must have. She knew as soon as she was forced by circumstance to share the husband she'd come to love with someone else, knowing that someone was capable of doing something she wasn't. Hermann knows it because he now knows himself to feel the same. If Newt took some other lover, even for the purest, impersonal, practical reasons, he would feel insecure. He would love Newt still, and love him fully, but if it only took a momentary sliver of doubt or worry, then Hermann knows he would fail.
His fingers tighten in Newt's mane, and Newt uncurls to look at him questioningly.
"I-- Sorry." He mutters, shaking his head. "Tired."
"Of course. You've both had a long journey." Jacob rises. "Newt, let me walk you to your chambers, and then the royal physician will be summoned to check on your progress. If a banquet is too much tonight, dinner can be brought to you both--"
"To Hermann's chambers." Newt corrects, ducking his head. Hermann fancies he'd be blushing, if his skin was thinner and paler. He can feel that he is, at the look he imagines they get. "It-- it's easier to send dinner up to us together, and for security to be stepped up."
"Hermann's chambers. We'll go together and then I'll leave you to rest."
Hermann feels so awkward he's surprised he makes it to his door without tripping over his own feet, without his palms sweating badly enough to make him lose his grip on his cane and Newt's tail alike, surprised not to have gone into a swoon from it. It gnaws at his stomach even as he and Newt find themselves alone, and he wants to run, barricade himself in the bath and scream or cry or tear at himself. Instead, he throws himself at Newt, embracing his neck tightly and burying his face against the warm, semi-armored hide.
"Hermann! What is it? What's the matter?" Newt preens at his hair, his good wing coming up as far around his front as possible to hold Hermann in return.
"I'm just tired. I just-- I'm so tired, Newt... and I-- I don't want-- I don't want children. Is that awful of me?"
"If it is, I'm just as awful." Newt relaxes a bit in his arms, chin resting on Hermann's head now. "It's too early to worry about that, though, we've barely honeymooned. We both need to be used to running a kingdom before we can add any other responsibilities. Unless-- did you mean... ever? And-- would it be because... because they'd be dragons?"
"That's not why." Hermann reaches up to stroke Newt's face. He wants to banish that tiny note of worry, but he doesn't know quite how. "But... ever. I never-- I never thought I could be a father. I never wanted to be. It is awful-- I knew from the start, it was part of the treaty, that I was a suitable candidate because you would be able to use a surrogate, and as the king, you'd need an heir, it-- it's foolish to be upset about it now. Just... when your father mentioned, about fatherhood, and you seemed-- For a moment, I just thought..."
"Thought we might both want the same thing?" Newt pulls back, smiling softly. He leans in to nose at Hermann's forehead. "For now we do... We don't have to discuss it now, neither of us is eager."
"I still feel awful about it." Hermann shrugs. He doesn't mention having potentially-uncharitable thoughts about Newt's human mother, or why the thoughts had shaken him. Newt doesn't press. He fixes Hermann's mussed fringe with a tiny lick and the cool, curved back of one talon, and settles onto Hermann's bed to relax, and that relaxation helps Hermann to unwind again.
Tendo accompanies the royal physician in, building a fire while Newt's injury is looked over, and Hermann frets all the while despite Tendo's attempts at pulling his focus away.
"Tomorrow I'll want to work with you on repairing the damage and exercising the wing gently, but you've made good progress-- I'm happy to know you were at Moon's Crag when it happened. Tonight, you'll leave the bandages off a while-- you can redress it before bed to keep anything from rubbing up against it overnight, but let it breathe a bit first. Take a hot soak, and then dab on some of the medicine I leave you for it, and just let it sit in the open air." The physician nods at last, laying out bandages and the jar of medicine for Newt to take advantage of later. "It will take some time for the scar to fade... but it won't look this bad for long, anyway."
Hermann isn't sure how he'll eat dinner while looking at it, even with as much healing as Newt's done since the attack, but he won't rush the bandaging process for his stomach's sake, if the physician thinks it needs to breathe. None of his worries stand up to Newt's joy at being ordered to have a bath at last, and he goes to draw one for him. The distance from bed to bath is short enough that Newt needs no assistance getting there, and he eagerly settles into the enormous tub even as it fills, sighing in pleasure as the water rises around him and steams.
"I'm sorry you had to miss out on so much when we were at the springs..." Hermann smiles, reaching to remove Newt's glasses. "I know I can't quite make up for that, but I can still do this for you... and we can both think about pleasanter things for now."
After a moment's hesitation, he strips down, joining Newt. There's room for them both, but not for any real distance... he isn't sure how well Newt can see him, but it matters less now. He uses his fingers to comb through Newt's mane, wetting it, and he massages at the wing-shoulders, scooting around from one side to the other to be able to get both, trying to mimic the action he'd witnessed without the special implement that dragon co-bathing made use of.
Newt is perfectly relaxed even if Hermann's tub is nothing compared to Moon's Crag. His eyes barely open, his chin resting on the tub's edge, his wings occasionally spreading out, slow and careful. The fin on his tail ripples under the water, and Hermann can't believe he'd never realized how beautiful it was before. He'd recognized how delicate it was, yes, but not how beautiful it could be. All the time they'd spent at Moon's Crag and he'd never noticed that Newt's skin was more beautiful when below the water than it was out of it-- it became a galaxy, tiny silver bubbles forming and clinging to the midnight-dark hide. There were bluer notes teased out of him, and there at the frilly crest on his tail there were spots and swirls of barely-visible color that could only be seen when light refracted through water to reach him.
"You're amazing." Hermann sighs, catching himself only once the words are out. He blushes, meeting Newt's eyes as they flutter open, wide and so green.
"So are you." Newt swallows, and it's clear at this distance he can focus. His gaze dips down to Hermann's chest, but no lower, before returning to his face. "You're so pink-- more than usual. Is it all over?"
"Mostly." Hermann's blush feels like it doubles. "It-- it's the heat from the bath that does it. And-- and blushing, some."
"You have hair-- I mean, it's... It's not just a mane." He laughs a little, delighted. "I saw it on your legs before, when you pulled up your robe to dip your feet in the water. But I wasn't thinking much about it."
"Yes. Arms, too. Well, nearly everywhere, just fine like this." He holds his arm out. Newt's breath stirs the little hairs there as he leans in close to look. "But yes, it's thicker some places, or... coarser. And darker."
"I always thought it was only on the head. The top or the face, like some men have. I never looked at a human's arms or legs so close before, though." Newt marvels, stroking Hermann's arm with one talon, careful to use the smooth side of it and not to let the tip catch against Hermann's skin.
Hermann's chest hair is not much more apparent, but Newt leans in close and touches his snout there, just mid-sternum, and grins at the discovery, such as it is. Hermann winds up allowing Newt to nose under his arm, and when Newt lets out a little laugh, his breath tickles Hermann into laughing along.
"I like how you look here." Newt nuzzles one shoulder, making Hermann blush all over again. "You're shaped... nice."
"So are you."
"I've never paid so much attention to a human like this, am I being excited over silly things?"
"No more than I am." Hermann shakes his head. He runs his fingers along Newt's skin, below the water, bubbles clearing away in the wake of his fingertips, reforming after a moment.
"I like this bath even more than at Moon's Crag... for having you share it with me like this. Not shy or far away."
Hermann bites his lip and nods. "You know, Newt, I think-- I think I do, too. Let me help you with your medicine. We could stay here all day if I let you, but I don't want dinner surprising us before I've had the chance to dress, and it's too easy to lose track of time in here."
Newt nods, rising up out of the water, and Hermann follows, slipping into a thick, soft robe quickly so that he can towel Newt off first. He's gentle around the healing injury, patting softly instead of rubbing, and when it comes to Newt's underside, he just lets him flop down onto the bathmat and wriggle a bit until he feels satisfied. Once Hermann has dried off as well and made himself decent, he slathers Newt's medicine on. The smell isn't as bad as he'd feared, and Newt only winces a very little bit over it.
"Thank you." Newt smiles, watching Hermann as he washes his hand off.
"My pleasure. Well, I mean-- I'm sure I owe you that much. And I don't mind it! I'm happy to do it." He rejoins Newt, to walk back to the bed together, to settle there together.
"I'm glad, then. It's much nicer having you take care of me."
"It's nice to be able to take care of you." Hermann reaches up to stroke Newt's face, beaming as Newt relaxes into him. Newt is so big, and here Hermann is able to take care of him, to coddle him as if Newt was the small, soft, vulnerable one, and he was strong and capable. It's a good feeling, and Newt seems perfectly content to be as small and soft as he possibly can be, for Hermann.