Cerys an Craite, Queen of the Skellige Isles, is in her study composing a letter to the chief druid of Spikeroog when Mairi comes to tell her that Ciri’s come to Kaer Trolde on one of her rare, unannounced, wonderful visits. Well, Mairi doesn’t actually get a chance to tell her this, but Cerys knows what it means when her chambermaid comes down to the study and dips her head nervously, and so she drops her pen and paper and goes running up the steps to her rooms, nodding breathlessly at her personal guards as she flies by. They know what that means, too, so they smile to themselves as they nod back, and maybe after she passes them they share a laugh, but she doesn’t care if they do, because Ciri’s here.
Cerys bursts into the room like a summer squall, and they throw their arms around each other and kiss each other hard, the way you kiss your lover when you haven’t seen her for nearly four months and you’re not sure when you’ll get to see her again. When she’s got her breath back again, she asks, “So what’s wrong now? And how long do you have?”
Ciri grins. “Nothing’s wrong, for a change. Since I killed the last assassin they sent – “
“– Redania’s been quiet. And honestly, it’s only been twice – “
“Three times. Don’t forget the trap in the hunting camp,” Cerys reminds her.
“That was not definitively traced to the Redanian rebels. And to answer your second question, I shut myself in my rooms and told them not to bother me for two hours unless the palace is burning down.”
“So, two hours.” Cerys deftly unbuckles Ciri’s sword belt, which she always wears despite her dressmaker’s protests about the creases it leaves in the fine fabric of her gowns. She leans in to kiss her again. “We’ll make the best of it, then.”
It was five months after she was crowned queen, not quite two months after the great battle near Undvik Island. Emhyr var Emreis had withdrawn his fleet, and the sorceresses had vanished; Geralt had visited briefly to wish her well before setting off to Toussaint on his witcher’s path. Things had returned to normal, or so she had thought.
She had just returned to Ard Skellige from Hindarsfjall, where she’d met with Sigrdrifa and the other priestesses of Freya to discuss restoration of their sacred grove. As she walked from the harbor back up to Kaer Trolde, Ciri had appeared at her shoulder, out of nothing, out of the air itself. The an Craite armsmen who were her constant escort shouted with alarm and drew their swords – she had her hand on her own sword-hilt as she whirled – but then she saw ashen hair and green, determined eyes, and even though they hadn’t seen each other since they were children, she recognized her old friend. She shouted to her men that they should put down their arms, then turned to Ciri. “Welcome to Ard Skellige.”
Ciri smiled. “It’s been a long time, little Sparrowhawk.”
“Little! I’m as tall as you, now!” They both laughed, embracing each other. Ciri was slender, wiry in her arms, and Cerys felt almost as though she had to hold back so as not to break her bones, though she knew that was a foolish thought. Ciri was every bit as strong as she was. And Cerys was only queen of Skellige – Ciri was on her way to being Empress of the Continent! “Geralt told me what happened. Apparently you saved the world.”
“That was the easy part,” said Ciri.
“So what’s the hard part?”
Cerys studied her for a moment. Ciri’s face was nearly as pale as her hair. Her eyes looked bruised and weary, her cheeks hollow, as though she hadn’t slept in a week. Instinctively Cerys reached out and touched her on the arm. “Take a walk with me?”
The men went on to the keep ahead of them, as she and Ciri walked in silence along the rocky path that wound along the cliffs. Ciri moved slowly, taking care not to tread on the hem of the silken gown that hung on her as though she were a little girl dressed up in her mother’s finery, and so Cerys set an easy pace. After the first steep climb the path widened into a tiny high meadow spangled with tiny pink and purple flowers, life clinging to existence in an unlikely home. Waves crashed against the rocks at the harbor entrance; sea-birds wheeled above, screeching and diving for fish.
Ciri stared out to sea. “They just let you go off on your own?”
“Let me?” Cerys snorted. “I’ve got my sword. They know I can handle myself, and if they argue, well, I’ve got my sword.” She grinned. “Anyway, the men on the walls can see us, and their crossbows are cocked and ready.”
“The palace guards would never leave me alone like this. Not even with a friend.”
“Then how did you come here?”
“Locked myself in my room, said I had a headache. Then I jumped through the worlds and back to An Skellige. I just needed to get away, and I’ve always loved this place.”
“Not a bad trick,” said Cerys. “But you should have put something more practical on first.”
“I would have, had I anything more practical left in my wardrobe. They threw out my leathers and my old cotton blouses. I’m to be Empress, so I must dress the part.” The contempt in her voice curled around the words.
“Then you’d best not go back with grass stains on your bum.” Cerys took off her cloak and laid it down on the grass and rocks, spreading it wide enough for both of them. “There, your Majesty. Have a seat.” She dropped to sit at one edge; Ciri lowered herself down more carefully, arranging her long skirts to keep them out of the way.
“You’re lucky you don’t need to wear this kind of...of costume.”
Cerys snorted and smoothed her own short skirts. “This is every bit as much of a costume as that gown!”
“But it’s practical. And it wouldn’t impress the courtiers of Nilfgaard.”
“It doesn’t have to. I wore it to impress the priestesses of Freya. A skirt to remind them that I’m a woman, a gambeson to remind them that I’m a warrior, and a circlet to remind them that I’m their queen.”
“And your plaid, to show you’re of the Clan an Craite.”
“That I would have worn anyway! But as for the rest, it’s more comfortable traveling in trousers. And armor’s for battle, not for meeting old women in a temple – and by the end of the day, this circlet’s as heavy as a helm!” She sighed. “But they don’t listen to me because I’m cunning and clever and see what needs to be done to preserve our islands. They listen because they look at me, and see the Queen of Skellige.”
“Oh,” said Ciri, her eyes wide with sudden understanding. She rose to her feet, pushing her skirts aside, and Cerys stood as well. “Thank you, Cerys, that’s exactly what I needed to hear. And I promise you, I will listen, and not only because you’re the Queen of Skellige!” The corner of her mouth lifted in a smile, as though she were trying to hold it back but couldn’t quite manage; she reached out to take Cerys by the arm and kissed her cheek. “May I come back when I need more advice?”
“Of course,” said Cerys, bemused. “But it’s not as though–”
Ciri was gone, between one word and the next.
“–I’m exactly experienced at this, myself,” she finished to the empty air. A gull, sitting on a rock, cawed at her once and then lifted itself into flight, banking out to sea in a long, sweeping turn.
“Cerys an Craite, Queen of Skellige and adviser to the Empress of Nilfgaard,” she muttered to herself as she picked her way back down the path. “Well, I like the sound of it!”
Ciri’s dress takes some work to remove, with its lacings and stays and small, delicate buttons. Her short boots are made from a leather so soft that Cerys can’t help but run her fingers over it. “You’ve had new shoes made,” she says, admiring the tiny stitches, which are nearly invisible unless the boot’s held up to the light. “Very elegant.”
“Yes, very elegant, but can you imagine walking through the marshes in those?” They both burst out laughing.
Cerys takes off her own house-boots, which are sturdy and fur-lined against the chill. Ciri deftly unfastens the clasps of the simple dress Cerys wears and pulls it up and off. “Now let’s get under the covers,” she suggests. “This keep is too cold for me.”
“You’re just going soft,” Cerys retorts, but she throws back the covers and they both dive in, snuggling under the pile of woolen blankets and furs.
“I can’t help it – we worship the Great Sun, after all! I’ve had to become a proper Nilfgaardian, and let the south seep into my bones. I expect even Geralt’s lost his edge by now, living as he does in the land of grapes and honey.”
“He’s old, he’s allowed,” says Cerys, and they share another laugh. She slides forward to capture Ciri’s lips with her own. “Hmm, I was right.”
“Soft,” she says, and leans in for another taste.
The lull in the raucous chatter that filled the hall caught Cerys’ attention. When she looked up, she saw Ciri standing in the doorway, stunning in a shimmering golden gown with fox-fur at the collar, looking distinctly uncomfortable at the eyes that had turned to her.
“Come in,” she called, beckoning. There was enough food for an unexpected guest, with their good supply of venison and smoked fish in the store-rooms. Fires blazed in every hearth, defying the winter storm that raged outside the keep. People returned to their conversations, laughing and raising their cups of ale as Ciri made her way between the long tables. She was a friend of their queen, and that was good enough for them; if any of the revelers recognized her as Nilfgaard’s heir, they said nothing.
Cerys patted Hjalmar on the shoulder. “Make room.”
He slid over without looking up from his food, not turning his head until Ciri sat next to him – and then he stared. “Oh,” he said, in a small voice very unlike the booming, confident tones in which he’d been talking to Cerys moments before. “Cirilla! I mean – Your Majesty? Your Grace? Hell, Cerys, what are we supposed to call her now?”
“Ciri will do,” said the woman in question, her voice filled with amusement.
Cerys motioned for a serving-man, but Ciri accepted only a mug of ale. “I’m stuffed full. I just came from a dinner – given in my honor, so I had to go. It seems there’s one every night.” She sighed. “I’ll need a new wardrobe, at this rate.”
“You look good to me,” said Hjalmar gruffly.
Cerys saw Ciri’s intake of breath, the momentary dismay that crossed her face, and put her hand on the other woman’s wrist. “I’m done eating, if you want to go somewhere quieter.”
She rose, waving to the crowd that they should go back to their meals. Taking her own mug of ale, she led Ciri out of the hall through the back corridor and into a small room she used sometimes as a receiving room, to hear out people’s concerns when they wanted a private, informal audience. It had comfortable couches rather than a straight-backed throne designed to impress, and the fire in the hearth was already set, needing only the touch of a candle taken from the corridor to set it alight.
She drank deeply from her ale, then placed the mug on a low table next to one of the couches and sat, patting the seat beside her. “Sit down, have a drink.” She didn’t ask Ciri why she’d come. Ciri would tell her, soon enough. This was the fifth time Ciri had come to Kaer Trolde. Sometimes she came asking for advice; sometimes, it seemed, she only wanted to complain about the intricacies of court life and the restrictions that she chafed against. It was best, Cerys had learned, to just welcome her as a friend, and let her speak when she was ready.
Ciri sat beside her and lifted her cup to her lips, though Cerys suspected it was a polite cover for composing her thoughts, rather than the need for a drink. Finally she lowered it, turned it between her fingers. “I didn’t mean to insult Hjalmar.”
“You didn’t. I don’t think he even noticed that you were upset.”
“My skull isn’t as thick as my brother’s is. What’s wrong, Ciri?”
Ciri looked at her cup. “The dinner tonight. It was to introduce me to the latest nobleman Emhyr thinks fit to marry me off to.”
Oh. “I take it by ‘latest’ you mean there has been more than one?”
“I have had more suitors than you’ve got islands, and that’s after my imperial father has winnowed out the schemers and fortune-hunters. Though I suspect the ones he’s pronounced ‘completely unsuitable’ are more interesting than the ‘acceptable’ ones I’ve been meeting.”
“Ugly old men?”
“That would be an improvement! The one I was introduced to this evening was as handsome as a marble statue – and nearly as intelligent. His family owns some important mines, which gave him exactly two topics of conversation: how to tell the difference between various types of ores, and how to keep one’s skin from becoming wrinkled. I had to listen to him telling me about how spending time underground improves one’s complexion for forty minutes.”
“Sounds dreadful,” said Cerys. “Not that I don’t know a few Skelligers who can’t talk about anything other than fishing and bashing people’s heads with axes.”
“But at least you don’t have to marry any of them. I have to continue the bloodline, says Emhyr – he’s as bad as Avallac’h was.” Her tone was bitter, and a little angry. “To him I’m only a broodmare.”
“If that were the case he wouldn’t be abdicating to you,” said Cerys practically. But she sympathized with Ciri. She herself had won the right to rule by demonstrating her strength and her cunning, and every decision she made confirmed her abilities – or risked losing her people’s confidence. If eventually she chose to marry and bear children, any of them who wished to rule would have to prove himself or herself to the Skelligers, as she had done. But if she did not, the people would choose someone else upon her death.
“It seems a strange way to choose a ruler,” she said aloud, and when Ciri frowned at her, she continued: “I mean, to depend on the right of blood, rather than the will of the people.”
“If it was put to the will of the people, Emhyr would be burned alive,” said Ciri.
“And if it was determined by blood, that useless brat Svanrige an Tuirseach would be on the throne instead of me. For all you people on the Continent think we’re savages here in Skellige, I think we have the better method!”
“Oh, no doubt. Especially since you don’t have to marry and bear children.”
“But do you, really?” asked Cerys. “Geralt had told me, after the battle, that he wasn’t sure whether you were going to take up the Emperor’s offer, or simply disappear and become a witcher. It wasn’t until later that we on Skellige heard the word from Nilfgaard.”
Ciri gave her a weary smile. She’d aged over the past few years; there were lines at the edges of her eyes and her mouth that had not been there before. “I suppose if I hadn’t, he would have married again. Or perhaps he’d have named some other relative as heir. Anna Henrietta, maybe. Or Morvran Voorhis.” She rolled her eyes. “Before I appeared, he thought he was getting the title, as Emhyr was to all appearances childless, and Morvran was the next in line. Now he’s not so pleased that he’d have to marry me to become emperor!”
“But you can do the same as Lord Emhyr, and name him as your heir anyway. Though anyone who wouldn’t want to marry you doesn’t deserve to rule.”
She shrugged. “He’s in love with a baroness.”
“She must be astonishingly beautiful and talented, then.” It wasn’t just loyalty; Cerys couldn’t imagine anyone choosing someone else over Ciri. Her strength, her fierceness, her kindness – she would be the best Imperator, emperor or empress, that Nilfgaard had ever seen. And whoever she married would be the luckiest man in the Empire. “You could name me your heir, then. Or Hjalmar.” She grinned at the thought – he’d given in with good grace, when she was acclaimed as queen, but wouldn’t it be funny if he were to become emperor instead? “We’re related to you as well, since your grandmother Calanthe married my great-uncle.”
“That’s by marriage, not by blood. I don’t think that counts.”
“So why not marry him? Hjalmar would be willing, I’m sure!” It was meant mostly in jest; while she suspected that her brother was still half in love with Ciri, whom he’d idolized when they were children, she couldn’t imagine him dressed in courtier’s clothes and mingling with the nobility of Nilfgaard. Not to mention that Emyhr var Emreis would no doubt consider him ‘completely unsuitable.’
“I certainly like him better than any of the suitors I’ve met so far,” said Ciri, “but there’s one small problem.” She took a long drink from her cup of ale and placed it on the table, then looked straight at Cerys. “I prefer his sister.”
“Oh,” said Cerys. She reached for her own cup and drained it dry, then tossed it aside to roll across the floor. “Well, in that case,” she said, and slid forward to take Ciri into her arms.
Ciri’s hair, loosed from its pins, spills across the pillows, and her white neck arches back as Cerys kisses her collarbone. There’s a hint of perfume at the hollow of her neck, something sweet and floral, and then it’s just skin, soft and warm. Cerys lets her tongue trail across one breast, cups the other in her palm.
“Oh,” says Ciri, half a word, half a moan. “Oh, you....” Her voice trails off into a gasp. Then she’s sliding, turning, bending to kiss Cerys’ neck. Her fingers stroke Cerys’ short hair, reach down her body.
“Hush,” murmurs Cerys against the soft white skin of Ciri’s belly. “Lie back.”
And Ciri does, spreading herself out across the bed, letting Cerys touch her and lick her and caress her, arching under Cerys’ fingers and mouth, sighing and grunting as though she were a twenty-crown whore and not the Empress of Nilfgaard. She shudders under Cerys’ touch once, twice, then grasps her by the shoulders and rolls on top.
“My turn.” She punctuates her words with a long kiss.
“You mean my turn,” says Cerys, when she catches her breath.
“Your turn to hush and lie back.” Ciri grins, then dips her head, circles one of Cerys’ breasts with her tongue. “My turn to make you moan.”
And she does, and they do, and when the sheets are a tangled mess and their limbs are heavy and sweaty they curl up against each other and feed each other berries from the bowl next to the bed, and talk about Redanian assassins and the shortage of alchemist’s powder on Spikeroog.
The Nilfgaardians were all very gracious, from the honor guard that greeted them at the harbor to the noblemen and noblewomen who flitted about like black-and-gold butterflies in the spacious gardens of the Imperial Court. Each one made a small bow and murmured something about how honored they were to meet the Queen of the Skellige Isles on this historic visit, and so on and so forth.
And of course Her Imperial Majesty was the most gracious of all, inclining her head and saying something very measured and formal. If it hadn’t been Ciri – if Cerys hadn’t known Ciri as she did – the weight of all the pomp and elegance around her would have been deeply impressive. As it was, she inclined her own head in precisely the same degree, and managed to keep from dissolving into hysterical giggles only by concentrating on the Empress’s left earlobe, and thinking about how lovely it would be to capture between her teeth.
The food was exquisite and delicious, served in tiny portions by black-clad servants who glided around the garden as though they had wheels rather than feet. Cerys nibbled on a miniature pastry stuffed with some sort of spiced fowl, making it last for three bites, when she could easily have put the whole thing in her mouth at once. A pity she couldn’t have eaten with her armsmen, who had been given whole roasted joints and ale to wash it down with. So she was especially pleased that Ciri brought a basket full of real food with her when she appeared in Cerys’ room, bread and cheese and bunches of pale green grapes.
“Not that I’m not happy to see you,” she said, popping a grape into her mouth, then another. She pulled out her knife and cut a large hunk of cheese. “But I don’t see how anybody gets enough to eat at these formal gatherings, between the ridiculously-small portions and the endless conversation. Every time I was about to put something in my mouth, someone else wanted to talk with me. At least you don’t think I’m being rude if I talk while eating.”
“Nobody thought you rude – in fact, you’ve charmed them all,” Ciri pronounced as she sprawled on the ridiculously-soft chaise. “I predict the next Nilfgaard fashion will be red plaid scarves.”
Cerys scoffed around her mouthful of cheese. It was pale and bland, without the sharpness of aged Skellige hard-cheese, but it melted pleasingly on her tongue and sated her more than any number of the thumb-sized delicacies she’d eaten during the reception. “I’m pretty sure they’re all secretly laughing at me. I know I heard someone calling me ‘the barbarian queen’ when he thought I couldn’t hear. Not that I mind that title, it’s rather fine, but still!”
“Oh, no, it’s me they’re laughing at. They’re applauding politely, but in private they’re whispering that it’s no wonder I’m swayed by the so-fascinating Skelligers, but really, those islands should be part of the empire, and the treaty we’re signing just shows how naive I am.”
“They’re never saying that!”
“Maybe it’s only Emhyr.” Ciri sighed. “He’s not pleased that I’m backing down from his dreams of conquest.”
“Well, you’ve certainly conquered the Queen of Skellige,” said Cerys with a grin. She licked the last bits of cheese from her fingers. “That should be enough for him! Though I suppose it’s not something you’ve told him.”
“He’s still holding out hopes for a great dynasty. Alas, he’s doomed to disappointment.”
“Good,” said Cerys. “I think Hjalmar’s rather taken with that dark-haired noblewoman from Vicovaro, what was her name? Mara, something like that? Anyway, I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”
“Mawr, and I suspect she’s far too fond of her luxuries to return to Skellige with him, so unless he wants to stay here –“ Both women laughed. Hjalmar might be enjoying Mawr’s attentions during this visit, but he was as out-of-place in the court as a fish on a mountaintop.
“So,” said Ciri. “Are you ready for tomorrow’s circus?”
“It won’t be as bad as tonight, will it?”
“Fewer people, less wine. It’s only a formality.”
“But an important one.”
Ciri nodded. “And one that not everyone in the court is pleased about. As I said, there’s a not inconsiderable faction who believe that treaties are for weak nations – and Nilfgaard prides itself on its strength. The Skellige Islands would be a strategic base for consolidating our gains in the North.” She held up a hand when Cerys began to protest. “I know, I know. It’s not part of the treaty. I wouldn’t let them slip it in, never fear.”
“Skellige will remain neutral as long as I hold the crown,” Cerys warned. “Though there are quite a few old-timers who still hate the Nilfgaardian Empire and would just as soon fight.”
“I know,” said Ciri again. “Anyway, just be ready for the grumbling.”
As it turned out, it was mostly just a matter of not falling asleep as various advisers and nobles gave long, droning speeches, praising or damning the treaty according to the sympathies of each. When it was finally time to get up and walk to the table where the actual document awaited hers and Ciri’s signatures, she was wishing there had been wine.
And then, abruptly, she was very glad she had all her wits about her, as she caught the glint from a blade, whirling through the air in her direction. She shouted a warning to Ciri and dropped to the floor; a courtier grunted – he’d been unfortunate enough to be in the path of the knife after it passed through the place where she’d been – and the hall erupted in chaos.
A familiar weight landed on her, pressing her even harder into the polished wood of the floor. Ciri must have blinked to her side as soon as she’d shouted, or maybe she’d seen the knife at the same time. She turned her head and whispered, “Not that I’m complaining, your Imperial Majesty, but people will talk.”
“Let them.” Ciri sounded as grim as she’d ever heard her.
Still, thought Cerys, she’d better not give Ciri a kiss – though it was awfully tempting. But she kept her face solemn as Imperial guards helped the women to their feet. Others, she saw, stood in protective stances around the room, keeping the small crowd away from them; two were hustling away a scowling youth in classic Nilfgaardian black-and-gold finery. He’d be executed, no doubt.
Ciri brushed the wrinkles from her gown, then turned her head slowly, making eye contact, it seemed, with every one of the assembled noblemen and noblewomen. “The Queen of the Skellige Isles is a guest of this Imperial court, a monarch in her own right, and a friend. Any offense to her is an offense to us. This treaty is the result of many months of negotiation, and we will not see it broken even before it is signed.”
A dropped pin would have resounded like a thunderclap in the silence that followed. As one, the crowd of nobles and advisers bowed deeply to their stone-faced Empress.
Well done, thought Cerys. She stepped up to the document, accepted the pen, and signed.
“I’ve got to get back,” says Ciri, pushing gently at Cerys’ head, which is resting comfortably on Ciri’s breasts. “Move.”
“Not that I want to,” says Cerys as she rolls away. “I’ll call for Mairi to bring some hot water for washing.” She winces as she gets to her feet, and limps a bit on the way to the door.
“The siren scar again?”
Cerys nods. Four years ago a siren had swooped down on her while she’d been up on the cliffs, clawed her thigh open, and though she’d soon separated its head from its body with a slash of her sword, the wound had never quite healed properly. The druids said that there must have been a poison on the siren’s claws, and gave her salves to ease it, but it still hurts from time to time, especially when she exerts herself. “Probably shouldn’t have run here so fast, but I’m not sorry I did.”
“We’re getting old,” says Ciri soberly. She washes herself efficiently and begins to dress.
“At least nobody notices your gray hairs!”
“Yours is still mostly red, really. And I think you’ll look elegant when it’s all as white as mine.”
“You’re just trying to make me feel better,” says Cerys, but it’s worked, she does feel better – or maybe it’s just that she’s been with Ciri, and that always lifts her spirits. “Speaking of being old, you will come to my silver celebration this summer, won’t you?”
“Twenty-five years as Queen of Skellige! You know, it would be quite against protocol for the Empress of Nilfgaard to attend.”
“I’m not inviting the Empress of Nilfgaard. I’m inviting my lover Cirilla. What she does with her spare time is her business!”
Ciri bends to fasten her boots, then stands beside the bed, pulling Cerys up with her. Arms around each other they share one more kiss, a long, sweet kiss that will have to last until they see each other again. Finally she steps back. “Your lover Cirilla wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she assures Cerys. And then she blinks back to the Imperial palace, between one heartbeat and the next.
Cerys sighs and puts her own clothes back on, then heads back to her study. It would have been easier, she supposes, to have fallen in love with someone she could live with, someone in the same keep, someone she could see every day, every night. Or, if she had to fall in love with Ciri – and maybe she would have fallen in love with Ciri no matter what – for her to have never become Queen of Skellige, or for Ciri to never have become Empress of Nilfgaard, so they could have at least been together all the time instead of only a handful of times a year.
But she’s proven her worth as ruler of these islands. Even those who had viewed her with skepticism, when she stepped up to vie for the crown after Bran’s death twenty-five years ago, support her now. And despite the endless arguments in the moots among the squabbling jarls, the difficulty of balancing the interests of the fishermen and the merchants and the druids, she’s found that she enjoys the challenge. Ciri, for her own part, has ruled the expanded Nilfgaardian Empire quite ably – once she developed the confidence to do so, which Cerys likes to think is at least partly her doing.
So they put the interests of their people ahead of their own, as proper rulers do; it might not be as enjoyable, but it is satisfying, and it is, they both know, the right thing to do.
“And I’ll see you in the summer,” says Cerys to herself, softly, as she again takes up the letter to the chief druid of Spikeroog – and she smiles.