Chapter 1: PART I – Early Spring
“I hear you’ve got yourself another job already,” Valdo said over his sloshing tumbler of brandy. “I can’t imagine how you’ve managed, but I suppose we must all bow to you at least in your ability to pull the wool over a potential employer’s eyes.” He looked particularly well in a new black frock coat. Jaskier would have eaten Valdo’s entire suit to spite him if he thought for a second that it would put a dent in the man’s inexhaustible ego. Unfortunately, Valdo was beyond help.
“Don’t be an ass,” Essi said, thwacking Valdo on the back of the head and making him spit out a mouthful of drink. “It was hardly Jaskier’s fault that the Countess’s new fling turned out to be a vampire. He should have been given a raise for what he did, not been let go with no reference.”
“No, I was talking about the time he had an affair with the Grey Lady living in Lord B’s north tower,” Valdo said, fussing with a spot on his tie.
“Oh yes, that was your fault, Jas,” Essi agreed. A wicked smile lit her eyes and Jaskier suddenly remembered that she could be twice as cruel as Valdo if she was trying and had a lot more dirt on him besides.
“You know what,” Jaskier said, cutting her off efficiently. “My run-ins with the, uh.... Other Side are exactly what got me this job. So you can both fuck off.”
Essi raised one perfect pale eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?” she asked. A note of concern entered her voice. “Please tell me it’s a normal family, Jas. Jokes aside, you’ve literally only just recovered from that vampire situation. I thought you were genuinely going to die and who would I mock Valdo to tears with then?”
“Uh...” Jaskier hesitated.
Valdo was smirking. He already knew. “You’ve got worse taste in employers than Drogodar did and, correct me if I’m wrong, but he hasn’t got a head anymore.”
“You’re one to talk!” Jaskier said. “You’re tutor to the Foltest children.” He knew he was about to push it, but pushing it was at the heart of Jaskier and he’d sooner be able to fly than make himself shut up when he had a good comeback lined up. “Never has one of my charges needed a violent exorcism for a life-threatening possession acquired while she was under my care !”
Valdo leapt to his feet, red-faced and spitting-mad. He slammed his drink on the table. Behind the bar, the mercurial club proprietor Pietch gave them a hard look. Valdo leaned in towards them so it wouldn’t cause such a scene as he hissed, “Another way to put it,” his face was shaped by disgust. “Is that I am tutor to a Duke’s children and not to the child of the man who performed said exorcism.” He turned on his shiny boot heel and stalked away from their little table.
Essi groaned. “Oh no, Jas,” she said, mourning him already, it seemed. “Please tell me you haven’t?”
Jaskier shrugged. “Well, he was hiring, darling, and as Valdo has so kindly pointed out, I’m no longer in a position to be picky.”
Truth be told, Jaskier was a little nervous. On the day of his interview, Sir Geralt hadn’t been up to receiving visitors. Apparently having dispatched a large pack of barghest the night before, he was sleeping in. Instead he was met by the Baroness of Vengerberg, Lady Yennefer.
Lady Yennefer was both a known witch, and even more scandalous, twice-divorced. The second divorce had only been finalised in the last year and it was from the very man upon whose property they were now meeting. Jaskier had been a little surprised, therefore, to find her conducting Sir Geralt’s affairs for him in his absence, but she had not offered an explanation. For his part, Jaskier had already formed his own theories when the gossip had come out months ago.
Lady Yennefer had always been something of a scandal but she was beautiful and she was rich. At the conclusion of her first divorce with some minor scholar-lord from out of the country, the blood had barely cleared from the water before she was being courted exhaustively from every direction. That first marriage hadn’t counted anyway, no-one even remembered her first husband’s name. Who wouldn’t want such an exotic jewel for a wife?
Well, she had really shocked society when she’d passed up the best of them for Sir Geralt, who had barely any decent lands to speak of and was a Witcher. She might as well have gone out in the street and proposed to a fishmonger. Jaskier prided himself on his schemes but even he couldn’t think of a quicker way to make oneself a scion of society than becoming a Witcher’s wife, let alone his ex-wife. So maybe he hadn't been very surprised to find her lounging on a sofa in the orangery, drinking lemonade from a tall glass.
Sir Geralt’s lands were... not what he was expecting. To get from the looming iron gates to the front door, Jaskier had walked mossy paths between raised beds of strange herbs, fat marrows topped by limp orange flowers and berry stalks thick with golden fruit, somehow all in season at once. Aside from that mystery it was awfully gauche to have a kitchen garden in full view of arriving guests - it was miles from the formal hedge gardens of most estates.
It was small for a manor house, but there were three towers and a moat which gave it a very defensible air. Inside, the house was decorated in something like the Toussaint style, though much less effusive. The few carved embellishments were mostly flowers or geometric patterns. The furnishings were upholstered in neutral tones, the walls of the entryway were hung with simple tapestries of green hills and the curtains were all plain linen. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting from a Witcher’s house, but this wasn’t it.
“Wondering where the blood soaked stones, iron manacles and piles of rusted swords are kept, Mr Pankratz?”
“That’s my father’s name.” Jaskier said quickly. “Jaskier, please. And... I suppose I was,” he admitted. “Guilty as guilty charged.”
“Well, there’s blood, iron and swords enough in the West Tower,” she said, airily. “But don’t worry, Geralt would never let a weapon rust.”
“Great,” Jaskier said. “That really relieves me.”
She gave him a shrewd look. “You’re not afraid of him.”
“I’ve never met him,” Jaskier said.
“Hmm...” Lady Yennefer waved one hand vaguely over her lap and a pile of paperwork dropped out of nowhere onto her tastefully spread skirts. “Here is a letter from the Countess of Dilligen. She says you were dismissed after some kind of kerfuffle,” Here Lady Yennefer stopped to sigh. “She really did write kerfuffle ... some issue over a vampire. Granted, the letter is unflattering, but...” she raised her eyebrows to glance up at him over the top of the paper, “It’s rather unspecific. Did you entice it in?”
“No!” Jaskier said. “I’m not an idiot. She did! I walked in the library while she and the local princess of darkness were en flagrante , it was about to take a big bite and I screamed and stabbed it through the heart!”
“Did you kill it?” she asked, curiously.
“Obviously not!” Jaskier said. “I’m not a professional. Well not in that department. But luckily my screams drew about fifteen footmen armed with silver candlesticks and the vampire decided it wasn’t worth the trouble and jumped out the window.”
“And you were let go with a poor reference? For that? Why?”
Jaskier scoffed. “For screaming, obviously.”
Lady Yennefer seemed puzzled. “Did she find it... cowardly?”
“No,” Jaskier was surprised he had to explain any further. “For drawing attention. She’s as good as ruined now.”
Lady Yennefer’s face held a rather complicated expression. She sighed, leaning back on the wicker bench and glancing up at the glass roof like she might find some answers there. “What the fuck is wrong with these people?” she mused.
This surprised a laugh out of Jaskier. “That’s what I said!” he replied. “...and maybe that was why the reference was so poor.”
“I shouldn’t think Geralt will hold this against you,” she said, tossing the Countess’s letter onto the silver tray that held her lemonade. She flicked through the rest of the papers. “Some of these other things...” An amused little smile quirked her lips. “You’ve really got a type, haven’t you?” Jaskier coughed and kept his mouth shut. “Well, it’s not up to me to decide,” she added, mostly to herself. She rose, went to the door to the orangery and stuck her head through into the hallway beyond. “Ciri,” she shouted. “If you’d like to voice an opinion, get down here.”
“Ah... nice weather we’re having?” Jaskier braved. “Spring’s warming early.”
Lady Yennefer silenced him with a glance. Ice clinked in her glass - what a strange luxury where others lacked. Finally, there was the pounding of footsteps and a girl appeared at the door. She was perhaps twelve. She was wearing cotton trousers and a matching jacket with patched elbows. The only hint of her importance was a thin gold chain at her throat, and her hair. Even the practical braid that kept it out of her face could not hide that it was brushed smooth as silk and the colour of dawn sunlight streaming through a clear window.
Of course Jaskier had known who his charge would be before he came. Everyone had heard the tragic story of Lady Pavetta and the Law of Surprise, not claimed for nearly a hundred and fifty years till Sir Geralt presumed. Then several years thereafter, the Duchess of Cintra’s suspicious death and little Lady Cirilla’s fraught cross-country journey, hiding out in fear that her grandmother had been murdered and that she might be next. The papers had had a field day with the few confused facts they could find on that. The legal battle over the inheritance of the estate of Cintra was still raging on and it had seemed that little Cirilla - perhaps a Duchess herself now - was fighting the corner all on her own until Geralt had appeared and swept her away under the mysterious wing of his bizarrely acquired but undisputed protection.
“I don’t need a governess,” Lady Cirilla said, crossing her arms. Her chin had a certain stubborn tilt. Jaskier knew that they would get along immediately.
“I’m not a governess,” Jaskier said. “I’m a tutor.”
“That’s the same,” she glared. “Except you’re a man, which is even worse.”
Jaskier inclined his head, conceding the point. “Well,” Jaskier turned to Lady Yennefer. “You heard her. She doesn’t need looking after. I’m not sure why you sent for me.”
Lady Yennefer narrowed her eyes. Jaskier thought she was telling him she was good for the game.
“I guess she already knows how to sketch a vase of flowers and play the pianoforte?” Jaskier asked.
Lady Cirilla made a sound of disgust. “Ugh!” she said. “See, Yen, what did I tell you?”
“And I suppose you can already embroider in the Temerian style,” Jaskier added.
“No,” Lady Yennefer said, very convincingly saddened. “She won’t touch a needle.”
“Oh dear,” Jaskier said. “Well, I won’t be able to teach her to stitch up a wound then, either, I guess.”
“What?” Lady Cirilla asked.
“And I have a rule that I don’t teach fencing or hand-to-hand combat till the pupil can stitch a wound, so that’s out.”
“Ah,” Lady Yennefer agreed. “That’s very sensible. What a shame Cirilla wouldn’t be able to study those arts.”
“But she does sketch? And play? You didn’t mention. And she must be able to recite poetry at least.”
“I’m sorry to say she cannot. One of the previous governesses said that Cirilla was able but uninterested.”
“Alas!” Jaskier said. “But you can’t learn Thieves Cant if you won’t sketch or memorise symbols. And how I love to teach The Ballad of the Blue Mountain Murderer. But I can see Lady Cirilla wouldn’t be interested. It requires a high level of discipline to understand the unusual time signatures. And the use of metaphor in The Bard and the Witcher, two went out walking – but obviously if she has no interest in verse, she wouldn’t like to study the salacious poetic histories of medieval witchers.”
Lady Cirilla crossed her arms tightly over her chest. “I’m not stupid,” she said. “I know what you’re doing. But I’ve had a lot of governesses and tutors before and some of them were alright, but at the end of the day no one really has the balls to teach the future Duchess of Cintra Thieves Cant and The Bard and the Witcher. So you can leave off. You might think you’ve got me now, but I’ll be rid of you in a fortnight.”
Lady Yennefer did not tell Cirilla off for her foul language and Jaskier understood this to mean that he had just found his true calling in life.
“Are you the future Duchess of Cintra?” Jaskier began. He let himself ask the question to her as if she were an adult, his voice teetered on the fine edge of derision and pity. “Or are you the ward of a Witcher, looking back on society from a cold and unwelcoming outside edge?” he continued, a little savagely. “Maybe it doesn’t matter what I teach you. Or maybe it matters a very great deal, but in exactly every way you’ve never even considered. If I were merely being hired to tutor a future Duchess, we could sit all day in a sunny room on the second floor of the house and paint roses. Perhaps you would grow bored, but I can think of worse ways to grow and one of them looks a lot like you, right now. I think, my lady, that if your guardian chooses to hire me,” Jaskier carried on. Was it over the line? “It’s because he knows that my reputation is tarnished and my skill set is broad.”
Lady Cirilla stared at the ground, pink-cheeked. Her fists were clenched.
Jaskier felt a little guilty. She was only a child. “I’m sorry, my lady. It’s only that I wouldn’t like to begin with any lies.”
“No,” she said. Her chin came up again. Her eyes were clear, river-green. “You’re right. Will you really teach me hand-to-hand?”
Jaskier laughed. “Yes,” he said. “If your guardian allows it, but I can’t see why he’d object. You’re probably better off with him teaching fencing though.... I serve well enough for someone not likely to ever see a real battle, but...”
Well, who could say what Lady Cirilla’s future held? The two of them stood for a moment, just looking at each other, sizing each other up. It was clear, then, that an accord had formed. She half-grinned at him, a sharp and direct expression that made a shiver of foresight roll down Jaskier’s spine.
Of course, at that moment, Lady Yennefer stood up and came around the mosaic table. Her presence dispelled the tension like she was winding it up into a skein of yarn. She smiled at him without giving anything of herself away.
“Thank you for coming,” she said. Her voice was perfectly mild. “We’ll be in touch.”
Jaskier felt as though he’d been in the frying pan and someone had come along, yanked him out and patted down his smouldering coat. He didn’t like it at all. “Oh,” he’d said, quite dumb. “Excellent. Thank you for speaking with me.”
He’d left and gone home, tried not to feel a sense of awkward anticipation every time the post was delivered. Three days passed and he was more and more sure that the whole interview had gone terribly wrong. The way he’d spoken to the poor girl! What had he been thinking? Lady Yennefer hadn’t asked him any normal questions, nothing about his philosophy of education, where he’d studied, what languages he knew. Surely if she meant to hire him, she’d have wanted to know those things.
Then the letter came.
The post is yours, if you’re still interested. Yennefer said you amused her and Ciri wouldn’t shut up about you, so I guess I’ve no choice.
Sir Geralt of Rivia
He’d sat staring down at it and then Essi had come and they’d gone to the club with Valdo, the tosser. And now he was here, looking at the letter again. Sir Geralt had a good hand. It wasn’t fine, but Jaskier would have praised it, had Sir Geralt been his student. The ink was not wasted nor was it thin, the curve of his letters was precise and strong, but it was not like a clerk’s writing - the worst possible criticism of a gentleman’s hand. It had a certain personality. The paper smelled faintly of cloves.
He knew he was right not to be jealous of Valdo, but was he stupid not be jealous of Essi? She was the governess for a boy and a girl, both under ten, pretty and well-mannered. Her employer was some nobody Lord from the Velen Marshes who loved his wife and never travelled. She took the children riding on their matching ponies and taught them to play the fiddle for fun. She’d been employed by the family since the eldest was a toddler and even if she only worked for them another twelve years, they loved her enough she could probably get pensioned off by them and live her own life in simple luxury in some rose covered cottage in a corner of their estate. Sometimes Jaskier could see that she was bored, but it was like he’d told Cirilla. There were worse things that could happen to a person.
Maybe he should just go home. Maybe the incident with the vampire had been the warning sign that every single person who knew Jaskier kept telling him it was. He could live with one of his brothers, maybe Bartek, who was so obsessed with his horses he probably wouldn’t even notice Jaskier’s arrival. Bartek had a shaky enough relationship with their father that he wouldn’t rat Jaskier out. Jaskier could play cards with his brother’s rowdy friends and develop a drinking problem. Was that really such a better way to die than dying young?
He fell asleep with Geralt’s letter in his hands.
It was raining when he came to Sir Geralt’s lands to take up his post. He shared a hackney coach headed to Aldersberg as far as Carreas and then walked the rest of the way. He didn’t mind wet weather, but he was soaking by the time he got to the Manor House. The water had long since gotten in through the collar of his oilskins and he was thanking his lucky stars he’d thought to wrap his sheet music and books in waxed paper before he’d set off.
Suffice to say, when he knocked at the front door he looked like a drowned rat. “Oh,” Jaskier said, when Sir Geralt of Rivia himself opened the door. “It’s you.”
“It’s me,” Sir Geralt replied, looking down at him.
“Sir Geralt, very good to meet you finally. I’m the new governess- ugh, ah tutor,” Jaksier said. He really could have kicked himself. Gods above.
“Yes,” Sir Geralt said. Though his face had barely changed it was evident from the tilting of his pale eyebrows that he was laughing at Jaskier from behind his sharp and strange amber eyes. “Jaskier, is it? Yen said you don’t prefer your surname. You might as well drop the Sir, then if we’re not standing on ceremony.”
“Of course,” Jaskier said, internally cringing. Then, without warning, there was nothing else obvious to say so instead they were staring at each other. Somehow, Geralt was even a little taller than Jaskier had imagined. He was dressed as Lady Cirilla had been - comfortable and practical: cotton trousers, grass stained at the knees and a long cotton shirt. The fabric was pale and thin enough that Jaksier could see the vague shadow of Geralt’s body behind the roughspun cloth, his trim waist, the pull against his upper arms where the shirt was just a little tight across the shoulders.
Jaskier became aware that his mouth was dry and that there might well be a problem with his employment here that Jaskier had not foreseen. Essi and Valdo had both met Geralt before, if briefly or under fraught circumstances. He thought of Valdo’s smirking and Essi’s amused concern. They both knew what Jaskier was like. They had already expected this inevitability. He swallowed and shifted in his place and the sticking of wet fabric against his stomach and thighs reminded him that he looked like he’d been dragged here backwards all the way from beneath the banks of the Ismena.
“I’ll show you your rooms,” Geralt said. “So you can... dry off.”
“Great,” Jaskier choked out. They walked together through the halls of the Manor. The floors were stone with plain runners but the walls were hung with interesting paintings - strange labelled creatures, landscapes and herbological sketches. They looked more educational than artistic.
“Is this your family home?” Jaskier asked, having recovered his dignity somewhat. The swift recovery of dignity was one of Jaskier’s specialities.
“Hmm,” Geralt said. “In a manner of speaking.”
Since it quickly became clear he didn’t intend to expand without prompting, after a moment, Jaskier added. “And what manner is that?”
“It’s passed from Witcher to Witcher,” he explained. “There are several properties throughout the kingdom. We let some of them out, since there are only a few of us now. One’s a boarding school, I think.”
“Huh,” Jaskier said. “You weren’t born a Witcher, then? Just a normal gentleman?”
“No,” Geralt replied. “Not born a gentleman, nor a Witcher.”
“Oh...” Jaskier said. “Then how did you–?”
Geralt cut him off. “Your room,” he said. His voice was deep and still as a mountain lake. Jaskier shut his mouth, taking the hint.
“Right,” Jaskier said. “Sorry. I’ll just... I’ll just dry off and – sorry – I’ve dripped all down the hall, I just realised. I– uh–”
They went into the room. Jaskier didn’t know where to look. He wanted to watch Geralt’s still face for any hints at what he was thinking, but he was probably meant to be making some comment about the rooms. They were well-appointed compared to what he was used to. Cheerful butter-yellow striped paper adorned the walls and a big bed hung with curtains that smelled of verbena took up the middle of the room. Through a concealed door at the back, Jaskier glimpsed a little office with a quaint carved desk and half-full bookshelf. Based on the size of the house and their journey through the halls, he suspected he was being put up in the family wing, not some trumped up servant’s corridor. “It’s very nice,” Jaskier said, which was true.
“You didn’t offend me,” Geralt said, finally. Jaskier was relieved that the tone of Geralt’s voice suggested he was still amused. “The making of Witchers is a state secret.” Geralt had stopped at the large sash window. The rain still poured and the foothills of the Mahakam range were just visible in the distance as purple, blue and grey smudges. “You said to Ciri that you’d teach her The Bard and the Witcher. You know what it takes.”
Jaskier’s mouth nearly dropped open. “That’s just a story,” he said. “They can’t really... not still...”
“I think it makes them feel better, to make gentry out of us, after. I reckon you didn’t find many Witchers living in manor houses back when The Bard and the Witcher was first circulating.”
“That was hundreds of years ago. Surely they’ve come up with ways to... do it... better?”
“There aren’t many ways to make a man indestructible without destroying him first,” Geralt shrugged and stood, handing Jaskier a drying cloth that had been laid over the basin beside the window. “I’ll wait in the hall,” he said.
“Of course,” Jaskier said, faintly, not knowing what to make of anything.
Jaskier had never changed so quickly in his life. He threw his pack open and pulled all the books and papers out, leaving them spread across the floor so the water wouldn’t have a chance to soak through. He found his driest outfit, which, thank the saints, was half-decent – his good blue waist-coat. Essi always teased him over it, saying he wore it to bring out the colour of his eyes. Guilty. He washed and dried his face and brushed his hair and then there was a horrible moment where he stood looking at himself in the mirror, checking whether he was decent and he had to tell himself he wasn’t wondering whether Geralt would look at him even though the truth was that he was half a step away from pinching his cheeks and biting his lips to give them a little colour like some half-grown lady about to receive a call from a new gentleman in town.
Jaskier opened the door and went back out into the hall where Geralt really had waited for him – were there no servants in the house? Some pale girl had shown him in to meet Lady Yennefer when he’d come for the interview. Then Geralt did actually look at him, just in the way Jaskier hadn’t dared imagine. “You clean up well,” Geralt said, as if he were commenting on the weather and Jaskier could have swallowed his tongue. His heart was beating audibly in his chest. Didn’t Witchers have heightened senses? What if Geralt could hear it?
“What’s that?” Geralt said, pointing at the instrument case Jaskier carried over his back.
“Huh?” Jaskier said, stupidly.
If it kept on like this, Jaskier was probably going to die from that way Geralt had of looking down at him, his head titled just the slightest bit to the side, his eyebrows quirked, laughing at Jaskier without showing it except all the ways he was showing it. “The case?” Geralt asked.
“Oh,” Jaskier said. “It’s a guitar. I thought I’d show it to the Lady Cirilla, to whet her appetite for learning music. You don’t see them much here.”
“They’re common in Skellige,” Geralt said. “Ciri will like it. Do you play it well?”
Jaskier rolled his eyes. “No, I carry around an instrument I’m inept at just to really make my students feel superior to me,” he said. “Of course I’m good at it. I attended Oxenfurt on a musical scholarship, didn’t you read my letter of application?” he said. “I’m an expert.”
The second the words were out of his mouth, Jaskier had to seriously ask himself if he was trying his absolute hardest to get himself fired before he’d even slept one night in the house, but Geralt only huffed out the barest breath of a laugh. “Right,” he said. “Sorry. I didn’t read your letter of application. Yen took care of the whole thing. You’ve got to let her be in charge of things else she’ll find something to put herself in charge of. That’s advice, by the way.”
Jaskier laughed. “I got that impression.” He couldn’t help his curiosity. “Does she... uh, live here? I thought you weren’t...”
“Mm,” Geralt said. “She comes and goes. We’re not sleeping together, if that’s what you’re getting at. Lately, anyway,” he sighed. “It’s uh–”
Jaskier could have laughed again, but he didn’t know how Geralt would take it. “It’s complicated?”
“Hm,” Geralt affirmed. His attention meandered away from Jaskier. Perhaps he was musing over his relationship with Lady Yennefer. They were on their way back down the grand staircase now. Jaskier surreptitiously watched him from his position half a step behind. Geralt had the peculiar manner of a man who didn’t mind talking but didn’t need to talk either. It made Jaskier itch. He’d never met a silence that he could let lie.
“You ever have a bruise–”
Geralt scoffed. Okay, point taken. A man whose life revolved around fighting the kind of creatures that were usually left to nightmares and legends probably had sustained a bruise once or twice.
Jaskier offered a bashful smile and Geralt turned his head back in time to catch a glimpse. “Right, of course,” Jaskier said. “Hear me out though, you ever have a bruise that you can’t stop poking? Is it like that?”
Geralt pondered this for a moment. “I suppose it is,” he said.
Jaskier sighed. “I’ve had that,” he said. Understatement of his fucking life.
Dinner brought with it the first of many strange and settling kinds of relief. Both Lady Yennefer and Geralt seemed about a hundred times more sane than any story he’d ever heard told about them had led him to expect. When Jaskier came down they were having a very ordinary argument about buying cheese. Even when the conversation moved on to the topic of a possible drowner infestation in a pond near Flotsam, they spoke in such relaxed and casual tones that Jaskier could almost believe it was any other gentleman’s discussion of a hunt.
Dinner was simple and delicious: a roast duck with potatoes and carrots rolled in fat from the bird. The pale girl appeared again to lay the meal and shock of all shocks, sat down at the end of the table and ate with them. Jaskier learned that she was called Angoulême and had a surprisingly foul mouth for an adolescent maid of all work. She also explained that he would be welcome to bring his laundry down on the first day of the week, that breakfast was at eight in the morning, dinner at seven in the evening and he should tidy his own bedroom, lay his own fire and find his own lunch in the kitchen at his leisure, because she had enough to be getting on with. It seemed this division of labour applied to the whole household. Her weary expression suggested that these rules had been met with much consternation from innumerable temporary staff members and guests before him, but Jaskier was not only unbothered but delighted. He was used to existing in the netherworld between the family and the servants. How charmingly rustic to find the gentry of the house down at his level for once.
“You know, we could afford more servants,” Lady Yennefer mused at the conclusion of Angoulême’s explanation. “Then I could lie in during the winter.”
“We’re rarely even here in the winter,” Geralt said. “You bugger off down south and Angoulême comes with us to Kaer Morhen.”
Lady Yennefer let out a yearning sigh. “Imagine if someone was in charge of the library and it was properly organised and dusted!”
“I dust it!” Angoulême said. “But we could have someone to do the garden. At this point, I’ve decimated the hot house. I don’t know what the fuck I’m meant to do with tomatoes.”
Their arguments had the careworn ring of a hundred-times repeated case. Geralt kicked back in his chair like their whining was a soothing lullaby. “No more staff. I hate teaching people not to faint at the sight of blood.” He gestured towards Angoulême. “I didn’t even mean to hire you.”
“You just hired him!” Angoulême pointed at Jaskier, whose mouth was very full of deliciously crispy roast potatoes.
“You won’t faint at the sight of blood, will you?” Lady Cirilla asked him.
He was chewing too intently to answer. All he could do was dutifully shake his head ‘no’. Geralt laughed that not-there laugh, his eyes catching the light and glinting, like a predator’s in the night.
“We’ll see how steady he is the first time you come dragging your potion riddled body through the door on your knees, black-veined with a cockatrice head under your arm,” Angoulême said pointedly. To be fair, that sounded pretty gruesome - Jaskier could only agree with her.
“We do alright as we are,” Geralt said, calmly. Though his servant was happy enough to argue with him in front of new staff at dinner, now his voice carried the kind of gentle but final authority which made Angoulême shut up and get right back to her own potatoes. Geralt ought to run a masterclass for the feckless city lords in Vizima.
After dinner, Jaskier devised an idea that he ought to teach Ciri some proper table manners. Who knew when some third cousin of her estate would appear out of the woodwork and demand hospitality from her here at the Manor House, digging for any excuse to further complicate her inheritance battle? It was better that they make her irreproachable as early as possible in every way they could.
They went into the aforementioned library. Jaskier was only as keen a reader as any tutor had to be, but even he could see himself lost in here for a long afternoon. The watery grey twilight lay in miles-long shadows across the old velvet chairs. There were no gas lamps here yet, like there had been in his bedroom and the dining room. The light came from ancient, tarnished candelabras carved with strange creatures, which Lady Cirilla lit herself with a practised hand. The books, which stretched into infinity in the half-light, had titles in a hundred languages, gold-leaf stamping out enticements such as ‘ Forbidden Histories of the Empire’ and ‘Ancient Secrets of the Scoia'tael’.
“My last tutor said I wasn’t allowed to touch them. I complained to Geralt but he said I should ‘listen to the experts’ about what I ought to learn and when,” she said, testing.
Jaskier smiled. “Well, I’d have to agree, but I’ll admit I’m intrigued myself. Some books are spelled to curse or poison you if you open them unauthorised, though, so I’ll have to find out from Geralt or Lady Yennefer which ones are safe.”
Lady Cirilla nodded. “Yen told me that,” she said. With a little pleading leaking into her voice, she added. “I’ve not touched any, just in case. But I wish I could.”
“I’ll get a list,” Jaskier said. “We can read some, I promise. I’ve brought my own books, but they’re mostly anthologies made for tutors. Whatever we can find here will be much more interesting for both of us.”
She seemed to take him at his word finally and they sat down side by side before the broad cedar desk. Angoulême came in with the tray that Jaskier had asked her for: a full place setting with every single ridiculous knife and additional frilly fork she could find. “Right,” Jaskier said. “First lesson.” He bent over the desk to help Angoulême lay them all out correctly and when he looked up, Lady Cirilla had an expression of total betrayal on her face.
“Are you going to try to teach me table manners?” she said. She sounded hurt rather than petulant.
“Ah...” he began. “I do have my reasons?”
“No,” she said. She crossed her arms. Her chin went up. “Jaskier, I’m serious. No.”
Jaskier sighed. This was definitely a time to pick his battles. “Okay,” he said, holding up his hands. “I’m leaving this here. Maybe we’ll circle back around to it, but it’s only you and me here, no reason for you to suffer.”
She seemed confused to have won so easily. When Jaskier unveiled his guitar she was too wrong-footed to get her back up about music. He thought they’d start with singing first, since it seemed easy to a novice, though it wasn’t any easier than other instruments once you got into the finer details.
“I’ll sing it for you first,” Jaskier said. “It’s called The Cherry Tree .”
He sang it through for her, accompanying himself, using a simple style that she’d be able to match quickly so she’d feel she was making good progress. By the end of the song, she looked a little wet-eyed.
“It was so sad, ” she said.
“Oh,” Jaskier said. “Was it? It’s not really meant to be a sad song.” It was only about walking through a spring meadow thinking of a lover left at home. Jaskier had always thought of it as a kind of aspiration. It wasn’t a song about going away, but about going and coming back and having something to come back to.
“The way you sang it, though,” she said, with a little shiver. “It felt... so lonely.”
“Ah,” Jaskier said. “Well...” There wasn’t anything else to add. He couldn’t help it if the dark well that ran through the heart of him sometimes spilled over. “Let’s begin with the chorus and then I’ll show you some of the chords.”
“Right,” Lady Cirilla said, all thought of rebellion now left far behind. “You know, you can call me Ciri. Everyone else does. Now how does it start again?”
“You talked a lot at dinner tonight,” Yennefer was stirring her tea and deliberately not looking at Geralt. They were sitting on the mezzanine level of the library, in the window alcove. It was dark out, clear-skied at last. Glittering stars dusted the valley. If he squinted, Geralt could see a herd of shining-eyed deer grazing in the far field.
Geralt folded his arms across his chest. How to answer? Yennefer could see through him like he was a glass door, but on the other hand anything he said could and would be used against him. “And?” he asked.
“You talked to Jaskier a lot,” she poked. There was a gleeful shape to her mouth.
Below them, in the library proper, Jaskier was giving Ciri a lesson on etiquette. Geralt could only guess he hadn’t been impressed with her comportment at dinner and had decided some things wouldn’t wait. He’d somehow managed to draw Ciri into the lesson by way of a complicated theoretical scenario in which she was cast as a dinner guest at a secluded estate where a terrible murder had been committed. Only a strong working knowledge of how to address the soiree attendees correctly combined with keen instincts for light conversation about wine pairings and selecting the correct utensils could catch the killer.
“He had terrible manners at dinner,” Geralt said, listening in on them. Jaskier and Ciri’s voices barely carried. The library was one of the largest rooms in the house and Geralt would have had to stand up and lean right over the edge of the mezzanine to see them, but Ciri was giggling through her questions. Jaskier replied and whatever he said made her crack up into laughter. He’d barely ever heard Ciri laugh. How awful to never hear his own child laugh.
“He knows all the rules, though. You can tell,” she said. “And he seems a good judge of character. He had Ciri figured out in two seconds.”
“Hmm,” Geralt conceded. He turned his attention back to the deer, moving silently through the dark.
“I hope you aren’t blaming yourself for anything,” Yennefer said. “If things went a little wrong at the start, if she was a little sad and running amok, well you’re going about fixing it. This is the best place for her.”
The muscles in Geralt’s neck went tense with unvoiced arguments.
“I mean it,” she said. “Jaskier - you should have heard him in the interview - he knows it. I know it. Yes, she needs love and protection, yes she needs to learn to act her station. She also needs to be made strong - where else is all of that possible?” she sighed and her fervor trailed off, long-suffering in the face of Geralt’s stiff silence. “Well, I’m glad you like him, anyway.” She added. “You need more friends.”
“I don’t need any–” he began, bitter.
Yennefer glared good-naturedly over her swirling cup, cutting him off with a glance. “Don’t lie to me, Geralt. I can smell it on you.”
There was a worrying possibility she was telling the truth.
It was late when Jaskier finally climbed into the big, curtained bed. He was embarrassingly relieved. He’d rather not have to admit it to himself, but after so many failed positions, he was starting to wonder if he was actually a bad teacher.
Ciri was funny and a quick learner. She’d taken to him the way children do after rejecting someone at first and then deciding to take the rejection back. She was absolutely desperate to pretend to them all that she’d been sure about him from the start and had only been testing him. She had the chorus of The Cherry Tree down pat after only a half an hour with the guitar and a good ear for harmonies. She’d eaten up the comportment lesson with a spoon after he’d finally thought to make a game of it.
On the one hand, most of his dismissals were unrelated to his role as a tutor. On the other hand, things always seemed to start going wrong once he got bored. He should never be allowed to make his own fun. He wasn’t good at it. Leaving aside his bad habit of getting into the beds of the wrong people, most families had rules about what he could teach and how he should do it. Sometimes the children were meek or nervous themselves. Jaskier wasn’t here to judge the personalities of little kids, but he didn’t understand it either. He’d been champing at the bit to run around in the woods and read the sauciest books from the top shelf in the library since he could remember.
It was emotionally exhausting to baby some wet-eyed lordling through a gruesome historical battle scene. How do you think your daddy’s daddy’s daddy got this fancy house and all the horses and all the money, he often wanted to ask them. Whether in politics or war there was always blood. Jaskier never knew how to teach someone who didn’t want to hear or wasn’t allowed to be told about blood. Ciri already knew. Though perhaps it was a little heart-breaking, he had to admit that he was thankful to start with the worst done.
Though it was a new and strange house, Jaskier slept like the dead on that the first night. He’d eaten well, any niggling fears he’d had about the mysterious household of Sir Geralt of Rivia, Witcher, were put to rest for the time being. If he dreamed of Geralt’s unsettling gaze resting on him across the polished oak dining table, it didn’t wake him.
In the morning, he rose with birdsong, just after sunrise, though he was usually a late sleeper. The skies were clear blue in all directions and the air smelled cool and clean. Angoulême was in the kitchen and offered him a pre-breakfast bit of bread and cheese. He made them both cups of tea and they sat at a little table just outside the kitchen door and watched the dew steam off the herb garden.
For one perfect moment, a kind of lightness came over him. It began in his belly and rose up towards his lungs. When the feeling reached his head, he had two thoughts at the same time. The first one was ‘maybe I’m actually going to be okay’ and the second thought was ‘you better not fuck this up’. In the face of feeling his heart pushed by the equal and opposite forces of joy and self-doubt he choked on his cup of tea.
“Fucking hell,” Angoulême said, patting him firmly on the back. “I mean I’ve killed a man before, but not over breakfast.”
The first few days passed and Jaskier didn’t immediately fuck it up. He didn’t see much of Geralt or Lady Yennefer during the daytime, though they all ate together every night, but after Ciri’s post-dinner lesson in the library on the third evening, Lady Yennefer leaned over the carved wooden railing of the mezzanine and summoned Jaskier up to join them where they sat gossiping.
“Bring the guitar,” she called down.
He sang The Bird Came Singing and My Sweet Mistress and when he noticed he wasn’t quite impressing them, he couldn’t help himself from throwing them for a loop and sang a song he’d had to learn by ear in a pub in Skellige that didn’t precisely have one name to itself, but sometimes was called ‘a bad night’ and sometimes called ‘a very good night’. When he saw that he did have Geralt’s attention, finally, and that the suppressed laugh, which appeared just for Jaskier, was there again caught under the surface of Geralt’s still and calculating face, something in him curled up like a dog by a fire.
He was going to follow the Skelligen bit with a really raunchy drinking song to seal the joke, but he found himself re-tuning and without really meaning to, he played the opening of The White Riders Go Hunting with all the fiddly ornamentation. He sucked his breath in and let his eyes fall closed. The opening vocal notes were killer, a slide from the top to the bottom of his range and when he opened his eyes again, it seemed that only a single second had passed and he was playing the closing bars.
For a moment the room was perfectly still. The shadows lay close around them and the hairs on the back of Jaskier’s neck stood on end. In the library’s deep amber, polished shelves, the books leaned in like a crowd holding their breath. Both Lady Yennefer and Geralt were staring at him, rapt. Jaskier swallowed and a shiver rolled down his spine. He felt strangely like he ought to apologise, though he didn’t know what for.
“You know,” Lady Yennefer said, stretching like a cat and breaking the spell. “You’re not terrible.”
Jaskier breathed out, thankful and the uncanny tension of the moment rushed away. He rolled his eyes. “Why does everyone always expect me to be terrible?”
“It’s your whole...” Geralt waved his hand around in Jaskier’s direction - he seemed to be encompassing the entirety of Jaskier’s being, body and soul. “You’ve got a look like you’re going to skip out on a bill.”
Jaskier folded his arms across his chest, letting the guitar slide down to the floor to lean against his knees. “I take offense! What’s that supposed to mean?”
Geralt smirked. “I think it's your little coif.”
“My hair makes me look untrustworthy?”
“I didn’t say untrustworthy.”
Lady Yennefer stood and leaned over. She flicked at the curl of hair that brushed over Jaskier’s forehead. Jaskier rocked back in his seat, looking up at her, shocked by her presumption. “I see what you mean, Geralt,” she said, smiling down at Jaskier blithely. “On that note, I’m going to bed.” She exchanged a meaningful glance with Geralt, which Jaskier unfortunately couldn’t translate and then he and Geralt were alone.
“You should be careful with White Riders ,” Geralt said after a moment. “It smelled like magic the way you played it.”
“It was weird, wasn’t it,” Jaskier admitted. He flexed his fingers. “Sometimes it happens. Apparently about a million generations ago, there was some elf blood somewhere in the family line. I don’t know. It’s the kind of thing that never works for you the way you want it to.” He shrugged. “I’m going to blame you. It wanted to be played for you.”
Geralt sighed. “Sounds about right,” he said. “The world is always conspiring to remind me that I’m going to die alone in the dark someday.”
“That’s what you take from that?” Jaskier asked, letting go of a little half-laugh. “You’ve got White Riders totally backwards. It’s not about death. It’s about... uh, I don’t know how to say it. Not fighting so hard,” he said. He sang a little bit of the eerie-sweet chorus over again. “‘ And the night carried her away, down, down / like a silver flute in a velvet case/ down, down, like the river carries moonlight.’ See? It’s about giving yourself over to... fate or a higher power or love or whatever it is you’re holding back from.”
“To fate and love, huh?” Geralt said. “I didn’t peg you for the sentimental type.”
“I’m not!” Jaskier defended. Then smiling mostly to himself he said, “Well, I am. But I’m an... an artist! Where would I be without sentiment? What’s worth living for anyway, if not fate, higher powers, love and the things you won’t admit to yourself that you want?” He didn’t mean to, but somehow he looked up as he said those last few words.
Geralt leaned forward, bracing his arms against his knees. His eyes glowed in the candle-light, a creature in a dark wood. His voice, when he spoke, was smooth and deep, like moss carpeting the forest floor. “An artist, hmm?” he asked.
Jaskier licked his lips. For a second, he felt like he couldn’t quite draw in a full breath anymore. “Huh?” he said, ineloquently. “Oh, sure. Yes. Well, if I could have gotten away with it, I wouldn’t have become a...”
“A governess,” Geralt said, raising one eyebrow.
Jaskier leaned back in his chair, kicking one leg over his knee. “Right,” he said, with a quirk to his mouth. “A governess, tutor, what-have-you. Maybe this is the wrong conversation to have with my employer.”
Geralt shrugged. “I don’t doubt that you’ll be a good tutor to Ciri,” he said. “Don’t worry about that.”
“I suppose I’d have liked to be a musician,” he said. “I tried it for a while, but I was strongly encouraged by my father to stop making a spectacle of myself in music halls in Vizima, though of course there wasn’t money or inclination enough for me to do it as a hobby for the gentry, which might’ve looked better. I went abroad, tried to keep myself afloat, ran out of funds, came home, couldn’t stand staying, couldn’t pay to go again. The rest, as they say, is history.”
“Thanks for the life story,” Geralt rumbled.
“You asked!” Jaskier said. Geralt gave him that look and somehow it smoothed Jaskier’s ruffled feathers. They were quiet again. Geralt seemed tired. Jaskier thought how many hours he knew Geralt must train. He’d already happened upon him in the side yard more than once, practising sword forms and dripping sweat.
“Will you sing the one from the first night, again?”
“Which-- Oh, you mean The Cherry Tree? You were listening?” Jaskier said.
“Somehow, I seem to always be listening to you now, Jaskier,” Geralt said, rather cryptically.
To Jaskier’s surprise, he felt his cheeks go hot with a blush. “Ciri said I played it too sadly,” he said.
“That’s not exactly what she said,” Geralt replied, gentle. “Go on.”
Jaskier played the song. His fingers and his voice were still alive with whatever it was that made him sometimes a little too good and sometimes not very good at all, so when he played, it came out like White Riders had, though it was such a sweet and simple little song, the only strangeness that brushed over them was the feeling that you could almost smell the blossoms. Jaskier found himself turning to the window to see if it was open, to see if the fields outside really were wet with petals and fragrant dew, but it was only night and when he turned back, he saw that Geralt had fallen asleep in his chair. He let the volume of his voice drift down to nothing and then the guitar next, quieter and quieter till music was only the barest vibration in the air.
He waited at the song’s end for a long-held breath to see if Geralt would stir and when he did not, Jaskier stood and crept to the staircase which led back down to the main level of the library. When his foot was on the first stair, back turned, Geralt murmured behind him. “Goodnight, Jaskier. You play it just right.”
Chapter 2: PART II - Mid-Spring
An important discussion; a storm
This is the chonky chapter.
Please see end of chapter notes for content warnings.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Geralt left in the early afternoon to deal with the possible Flotsam drowners, which hadn’t resolved themselves yet. He rode out on a dark bay horse while Ciri sat on the windowsill in the upstairs drawing room and watched him go. Too soon, he was just a black speck in the distance.
“He won’t be gone long,” Jaskier reassured her. He was surprised to find that he was reassuring himself as well. “Even a layman like me knows drowners should be easy for him to handle.”
“I know,” she said, too quickly. As she turned back to face him, she scrubbed at her eyes. “I know that.” His heart went out to her.
“How long have you lived with Geralt?” he asked. “I never asked.”
“It’ll be three years in one week,” she said. “He said he’d bring me back something interesting from Flotsam and we could celebrate the anniversary. Like a birthday party.” She lowered her voice as though she was about to let him in on an exciting secret. “I think he might get me a sword.”
Jaskier laughed. “Well, we better teach you first aid at last, so I can show you some unarmed defence.”
“How come you’re always like this about everything?” she asked. “A whole load of stuff to do first before the good bits?”
“Sometimes the good bits are not the ones you expect,” he answered.
By evening, Jaskier and Ciri were practising safe falling on the grass meadow beyond the gardens. Ciri admitted learning to fight wasn’t as glamorous as she imagined, but they were both laughing the whole time. There’d been no sign of Lady Yennefer all day save plumes of blue and red smoke curling from the top window in the North Tower, but an hour before dinner she appeared on the lawn, for once not dressed like a page from an experimental dressmaker’s pattern book, but instead wearing a full length leather apron marked with strange purple symbols.
“Where did you even learn hand-to-hand?” she asked as they walked back up to the house together.
“Uh,” Jaskier said, glancing at Ciri who was practising a cartwheel a little ahead of them. He coughed. “The usual way?”
She raised one eyebrow. “You don’t really look the type for bar-brawling,” she said.
He shrugged. “I’m not. I never went looking for trouble, but...”
“The trouble finds you?” Lady Yennefer mused.
Jasker sighed. “What is it? My roguish good looks? My fetching singing voice attracting the wrong attention?”
She looked back at him and the weight of her gaze turned heavy. Their steps slowed as she assessed him. “I think...” she said, after studying him for a long moment, “that people can tell you’re going to make your own mind up, regardless of what you hear. People don’t like that. They’d rather you just swallow what you’re given.”
“Oh,” Jaskier said, faintly. He liked Lady Yennefer about as well as he liked any of the beautiful, rich people he’d ever worked for, if even a little better, but she certainly did seem to enjoy making his soul feel as though it was searching for a swift exit from his body.
The following day Lady Yennefer was called away to Court on some unexpected witch business. She left, back to form, wearing a dress with the most astoundingly low cut neckline Jaskier had ever seen a person dare and he’d very briefly been part of a travelling circus. Before she went, she talked with Ciri in the library for nearly an hour. Ciri came to Jaskier where he was playing guitar in his now-established favourite spot just outside the kitchen. She was looking very serious, walking with her head held high. He could see a shadow of the Duchess of Cintra she would someday become. She was clutching a little decorated silver box, which she tucked into a drawstring bag that she had tied around her waist.
“Yen says she’s sorry to leave me alone with you so soon,” she told him, more like she was repeating the words to herself than informing Jaskier. “She said she couldn’t avoid it, but Angoulême is still here if I – if we need anything.”
“Of course,” Jaskier said. “Now listen, I’m not a soft touch,” he said, possibly revealing himself to be a soft touch. “You’re still going to bed at nine or... when is your bedtime?”
Ciri looked a little cheered up and sat down on the bench beside him. “I’m nearly thirteen. I don’t have a bedtime.”
“Fine,” Jaskier agreed. “But you better follow the rules, whatever they are.”
“What would you even do to me if I got in trouble?” she asked, hands in her lap, fiddling with the drawstring bag. Her voice had gone very small - she really wanted to know the answer. Jaskier tilted his head to try to catch a glimpse of her expression without giving away that he was looking at her.
He shrugged, saying lightly. “Well, I don’t really foresee you getting in trouble, but I guess... I found a particularly creepy looking book of ancient spells we could practise translating from Nilfgaardian in the library yesterday morning. Lady Yennefer said it was safe to open, but I suppose we’d have to wait to see what’s inside if you weren’t on best behaviour.”
“Okay,” she said. “I guess that would be fair.”
There was something she wasn’t saying.
“Shall we do a new song?” Jaskier asked.
“Yes please,” she said, smiling a little. She put her hands out for the guitar and Jaskier helped her fingers find the right frets through the three warm-up tunes he’d taught her. “I can almost do them myself now,” she commented, pleased with herself.
They sang and played back and forth for nearly an hour. Jaskier taught her a nonsense song called The Mushroom Fairies which he was pretty sure was about taking psychotropic drugs, but that aspect of it went right over Ciri’s head and it was full of silly nonsense words that finally had her giggling again. As they reached the afternoon, it started to grow cold - the weather out here was changeable, the mountains sometimes catching strange winds and keeping hold of them in the valley. Jaskier suggested they go back inside and Ciri stayed sitting, going very still. The smile dropped from her face again.
“I wanted to tell you...” her eyes went suddenly wet.
“Ciri,” he said. “It’s okay. Geralt will be back soon – don’t worry. I know we haven’t known each other very long, but I’m here to take care of you.”
She wasn’t even listening “I – uh – the tutor before you,” she said, stuttering. Then, in a rush, “Well, I really, really hurt him.”
Jaskier tilted his head. This wasn’t the direction he had expected. “What do you mean?” he asked. “You couldn’t have–”
“I did,” she said, wavering. “He’s uh... well I don’t think he can walk yet and he’s permanently deaf now and... uh. I just wanted you to know that I really like you, Jaskier, I know it’s barely been a month, but you’re way better than any of the other tutors, especially him, so if you heard anything, you don’t have to worry, but I know you won’t... do anything, so it’s not going to happen again. I wouldn’t... I’m sure I won’t...”
“Woah,” Jaskier said. Ciri was nearly hyperventilating. “Slow down there. I didn’t hear anything. So you don’t need to worry about me.... suspecting you of anything or whatever you thought. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but you just seem like a normal girl.”
“I am not normal,” she said. Her voice was shaking.
“Okay,” Jaskier said. “That’s okay too. Do you want to tell me what happened?” He really wanted to put his arm around her shoulder and give a little comfort, but she was sitting as stiff as a board and it seemed like it might not be welcome.
“I didn’t mean to,” she whispered.
“Anything you want to tell me, Ciri, I’m listening,” he promised. “Or if you don’t want to say anything more, that’s okay too.” He was beginning to imagine already, and the conclusions he was drawing made the pit of his stomach knot up into a ball.
“Yen got me this...” Her knuckles went tight around the drawstring bag. “It’s a xenovox, so I can call out to her and tell her if anything goes wrong. She’ll hear me if I shout to her through the box. She said she can teleport back in two seconds. It’s not that I think anything’s going to go wrong, but...”
Her voice trailed away and they were silent for a moment. Jaskier waited her out, not wanting to put any words into her mouth, which he knew he’d start doing if he let himself talk.
“I’m some kind of witch too,” she said. “Powerful maybe. It doesn’t seem like Yen’s magic. Mine’s apparently odd. I can’t really control it yet. But last Autumn, before we went away for the winter, I had a tutor and he... well he said that I wasn’t good. That I was never going to learn my lessons, which is true, and that he’d get me in trouble with Geralt if I didn’t do... what he wanted me to do...”
“I’m listening,” Jaskier said, forcing his voice to come out calm. Gods he was going to kill this piece of shit all over again, since the job wasn’t finished.
“I can’t say it,” she said, defeated.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I... I can guess. He was a–” Jaskier couldn’t really think how to phrase it without using a lot more expletives than the moment asked for. “A very, very, very bad person,” he finally settled on and the words tasted like ash, but he didn’t know what wouldn’t.
“I know,” Ciri said, quickly. Of all the things, she was trying to reassure him . “I didn’t believe him, even for a second. I mean, you know I lived on the streets when I was little for a month, I’m not stupid about... I knew straight away what he was trying, but I got so angry. I got mad and my skin felt hot all over and I just.... I just exploded.”
“Good,” Jaskier said. The word came out savage and he was glad.
“I’m sure it’s not going to happen again,” she said. “I know I said I can’t control it, but it was only because–”
“Ciri, if I, or anyone else, ever does anything to hurt you like that, you are more than welcome to cause permanent damage in whatever way you see fit, on purpose or not.”
“What if you haven’t done anything? What if it just happens?”
Jaskier shrugged. “Well,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t. But normal or not, you are just a kid and it won’t be your fault.”
She blew out a long breath. “That’s what Geralt said,” she admitted. She let out a shaky laugh, her hands trembling as she released the drawstring bag, finally and wrapped her arms around her middle. “I’m glad I finally told you. I’ve been thinking about it basically this whole time. I didn’t want you to be scared of me.”
“Do I seem scared of Geralt or Lady Yennefer?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“And do you think that they could probably kill me if they wanted.”
“Oh, definitely!” she said confidently, then realising how that had come out. “Uh... sorry, but it’s true.”
“I know,” he said, laughing. He shrugged. “It just doesn’t bother me.”
“I think that’s kind of weird,” Ciri said. “I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid all the time that whoever killed my grandmother is going to find me and finish the job.”
“You remember, way back, me telling you there are worse things than growing bored?” Jaskier asked.
“Yes,” she said, serious again.
“Well,” he sighed. “There are also worse things than dying. In fact, sometimes I worry that my life is a long experiment to find out whether it’ll be worse to get bored or to die. But I’d rather either than...” he paused.
“What?” she asked.
He let out a humourless little laugh. “You know it really is cold, now. Maybe we should go inside. This might have been enough heavy talk for our first unsupervised afternoon.”
“Please, Jaskier,” she said. “No one else ever talks to me properly about this kind of big stuff.” She crossed her arms, nearing a pout.
“That baby face isn’t helping your case any,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
“Sorry!” she said, putting her arms down and sitting up straight again.
“Fine,” he acquiesced. “I guess for me... I’d hate to die lonely,” he said. “And if you never take a chance on anyone, you never let them get at you where it can hurt, well, that’s what you’re signing up for. I’d rather die because of someone I love than without anyone to love.”
“Hmm,” she said, thoughtfully. “I suppose I understand that, in a way.”
Jaskier let the quiet of twilight lay down between them. They stared out into the dimming garden, shoulder-to-shoulder, Jaskier strumming aimlessly at the guitar, thinking together.
“Before we go in, can I say something else?” Jaskier asked after a while.
“Obviously,” Ciri replied.
“You are a good student,” he said. “The... that man was lying about that. You can learn whatever you’re interested in, you’re an excellent student.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t expected that. Her cheeks went pink and her eyes filled up again. “Ugh,” she said. “I’m gonna get a headache from crying.”
“Angoulême will make you some tea.” Jaskier said. “I wanted you to know. It’s important.”
“Thank you, Jaskier. I guess we’ll see.”
“Okay,” he agreed. “Good enough for now.”
The first two days after their long conversation went by better than nearly any Jaskier could remember. He tried to keep the lessons relatively structured in the morning. The knowledge that Ciri had had a very patchy and many times interupted education was always in the back of his mind. In the afternoon, he relaxed. They’d collect Angoulême from her work and he let them run wild. They played word games, drew silly pictures and delved into the twenty dusty unused rooms in the Manor, many of which were filled with fascinating weapons and strange, broken antiques. He let Ciri drag Angoulême into making a fort out of old sheets in one and he thought it was perhaps one of the first times in years either of the two had allowed themselves to be just girls for an hour or two.
Unfortunately, it was undeniable that Geralt should have returned by now. Worry in the wake of his absence began to mount. On the fourth morning, Ciri came to breakfast clutching the silvery xenovox.
“Do you think I should call out to Yen?” she asked.
“I don’t know how unusual this is,” he said. Since he’d been here, Geralt had gone out hunting a few times, but he’d never been gone for more than a day. “Has he ever been gone for four days before?”
“Well, yes,” she said. “But not for drowners.”
“Can you talk to Lady Yennefer without calling her back here?”
“I could...” Ciri hesitated. “But I don’t want to bother her for some stupid reason. She’s meeting with the Emperor.”
Jaskier didn’t know what to tell her. “Yennefer wouldn’t want you frightened,” he said. “But it’s your xenovox and so it’s your choice.”
She didn’t use it at breakfast, nor through all their morning lessons, though she had it clenched so tightly in her hands, Jaskier was rather worried it would break before they could do anything with it. By dinner time, it was clear that Ciri could think of nothing else.
“That’s basically five days now!” she said, standing up from the table. She’d barely touched her food. “I’m using it.”
Lady Yennefer responded right away but she didn’t have an answer either. She sounded worried even through the metallic echoing quality of the xenovox, but she said they shouldn’t fret too much till a week had passed and told them to call again if he hadn’t come back after two more days. “I can’t come away, yet” she apologised, looking over her shoulder at something important that was happening behind her. “I’ll try to wrap up as soon as I can, but I’m sure he’ll probably beat me back. Don’t worry, Ciri. It’s Geralt. Whatever it is, he’s survived worse.”
Angoulême shook him awake while it was still dark. “Jaskier,” she was desperate. She dripped candle wax on his coverlet, gripping his shoulder. “Shit,” she said. “Come on!”
He came awake all at once and nearly clocked her in the face. He wasn’t prone to accidental violence, but the panic leeching off her felt thick in the air and carried over to him instantly. “What’s happened?” he asked. “Is Geralt back?”
“Ciri’s gone,” she said.
“Oh shit!” Jaskier said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. Was she taken?”
“What?” Angoulême asked. “Taken?”
“Was she kidnapped? Is there a note?”
“No, no,” Angoulême rushed. “I think she’s gone after Geralt.”
“Thank fuck,” Jaskier said. “That’s something. How long?”
“I don’t know. I woke because I heard banging in her room, so I went in to check on her. Her window was open and the wind was rattling it. There was a rope, she must’ve climbed out. I checked the stables before I came here just in case I could catch her on foot, but Kelpie is gone. Would a kidnapper take her horse?”
“Probably not,” Jaskier said. He was already out of bed and Angoulême handed him riding clothes throughout her explanation. “Is there another horse?” he asked. “I thought there was just Roach and Kelpie.”
“There’s two Roaches,” Angoulême said. “In case one needs a break.”
Jaskier couldn’t help but laugh, though it came out hollow. “I’m actually not even surprised. Of course he named them both Roach.”
Jaskier went out to the stables to ready the horse while Angoulême packed him a bag of provisions and a bedroll. When she met him at the gate, she had a sword, too. It was a Witcher’s sword and she was staggering under the weight.
“I could maybe handle a fencing foil, but that wouldn’t do much good and I have doubts whether I’ll even be able to lift that behemoth properly,” he said, gesturing for her to put it down and save them both the trouble.
It seemed she had predicted his rejection, so instead she offered him the two pistols and a silver dagger she carried in a sheath looped over her shoulder. “I don’t think the guns will do much against creatures from the Other Side, but who knows what’s keeping Geralt and you’ll have the dagger at least,” she said. He took them, strapping the holsters around his waist and then set about helping her fill the saddlebags and secure the holey old bedroll in place.
“Sorry,” she said, gesturing to the bedroll. “Ciri must have the good spare, there was only this one left. I’ve been meaning to turn it to rags.”
“I’m glad she’s got one. The wind makes me think the weather will turn again.”
Angoulême agreed. “It’s only a little over a half-day’s ride to Flotsam,” she said. “Maybe you’ll catch her and be back by tonight.”
“That depends on where Geralt’s got to,” he said.
“You’re going after him, too?” she asked. He thought he could make out her pale eyebrows rising with surprise in the dark.
He didn’t answer. He hadn’t decided yet. She offered him a hand up and he mounted Roach the second, only a little clumsy adjusting his seat. “If we’re not back in two days’ time, you’ve got to find a way to get word to Lady Yennefer, fast.”
“Of course,” she said. “Good luck.”
“I suppose I’ll need it,” he said, and nudged Roach out the gate, into a canter.
Jaskier was barely a competent rider, but thank the Gods, he had a chance at catching up since Kelpie was young and not used to long rides, unlike Roach who carried Jaskier along the back country lanes like she already knew where they were going.
Even so, he had to stop twice along the way to ask directions, once at an inn at the edge of a village and once at a quaint farmhouse. At the farm, one of the hands recalled having seen a girl with flaxen hair ride past at dawn while he was out for the cows. Jaskier could have cried with relief. He must be gaining on her, for dawn was barely forty minutes gone.
By their usual breakfast time, he’d spotted her once in the distance and he pushed Roach into a final sprint over a rolling green meadow. In any other circumstances, he’d have allowed himself a minute to be impressed by his own skill or luck or whatever it was. Aside from learning in his childhood, his riding experience was pretty much limited to going on leisurely day excursions to nearby lakes and likely misguided attempts to correct the seat of dim-witted children who owned three ponies for no good reason.
“Ciri,” he shouted, once they were on her tail. “Stop!”
She leaned her head down against Kelpie’s neck. He could see her whispering, urging the horse to go faster.
“Please, Ciri,” he called. “I can’t let you go on alone. We’ll exhaust the horses.”
It was the right thing to say. She sat back a little and Kelpie, perfectly responsive even in her inexperience, slowed right down. “Go on?” she shouted back to him.
“I’m worried too,” he said, letting Roach drop back to a fast walk with deep relief. “You should have told me what you wanted to do.”
“You’d never have let me go look for him,” she said.
“I don’t know what I’d have said. You didn’t ask.”
Their horses drew even. Ciri had worked up more of a sweat than the horse. The colour was high in her cheeks. She’d been crying as she rode.
“I’m not coming back,” she said. “If you make us turn around, which I doubt you can do, because Kelpie won’t listen to you over me, you’ll have to tie me down. I’ll just leave again the second you look away.”
“Okay,” Jaskier said. “I said I’m worried too.” Unbidden, an image which came to him often unfolded in his mind, Geralt falling asleep while listening to Jaskier play - the blue dusk light; Geralt’s voice as deep and scuffed as the mahogany panelling in the library. He sucked in a breath through his teeth, trying to stay afloat on the very surface level of his fears. “I think we should look for him.”
Ciri whipped Kelpie round to face him. “Really?” she asked. “Oh, thank you, thank you, you’re the best, thank you so much, Jaskier.”
“Right,” Jaskier said. “We’ll see.” A part of him was sure then that he was sealing his fate. He had let Ciri run away. Maybe some part of him had even known, after that dissatisfying conversation with Lady Yennefer, that her running was a possibility and yet he hadn’t waited up watching. Thank fuck, he had said to Angoulême. What had he even meant by that?
But he had a bad feeling and he couldn’t ever leave well enough alone, so he was going to ride off on an ill-advised rescue mission with a child and get himself fired from the first good job he’d had in years before a month was out and that was just how it was going to go.
They rode at a pace the horses could keep up for a long while till Jaskier audibly heard Ciri’s stomach growl and then he convinced her to stop by telling her Kelpie needed a break, though to be fair, the horse looked as restless as her rider to get on once they were unpacking a few provisions from the saddlebags in a clearing to the side of the road. The wind was picking up.
“It’s going to storm,” Ciri said, watching the tops of the trees whip against the clouded sky’s dark grey underbelly.
“Did you bring oilskins?” he asked. “It won’t be pleasant riding soaking wet and it’ll cut our search time down because once you can’t control your shivering, we are stopping.”
“I brought them,” she said. “We’re not stopping.”
He spoke gently, “We’re not trying to make things more difficult for him when we do find him.”
She let out an exasperated huff. “Fine,” she said. “But we ride through the storm unless it gets very bad.”
It got very bad. The horses were ridiculously well-trained but even an excellent human soldier might take a concerned notice as the lightning and thunder together rolled over the landscape directly above them in a single blow. Jaskier found himself ducking his head to lay flat against Roach’s neck and whispering into her ear, trying to comfort them both in equal measure. They got to the outskirts of Flotsam before Jaskier finally had to call it. Whether it was the pelting hail or one of the horses spooking badly, something was going to go wrong soon enough. “Ciri,” he shouted, over the sound of the wind and rain roaring through the trees. “Stop at the first inn you come to.”
“The pond he was going to is on the other side of town,” she shouted back.
“They might’ve seen him pass through on his way in. We can ask. We’ve got to... got to stop.”
She obeyed him. He could have cried as they burst into the inn, from relief or guilt, he couldn’t say. They stood dripping and gasping with the wind banging the door back against the lintel. The inn was packed - every other traveller on the road had also had to stop to get out of the weather. A boy hurried over and promised to take Roach and Kelpie through to the stables once Jaskier flashed a coin at him. Jaskier joined the crowd at the bar while Ciri found the free edge of a table.
She was unsticking her soaking cornsilk hair from the back of her neck and shoving it hastily into a roughspun cap. Jaskier had to admit that she had the body language down pat to pass as an indolent boy of nine or ten. She crossed her arms and rested her chin in one hand, kicking at the trestle and looking as bored as a child had ever looked. Though knowing her better as Jaskier did now, he could see her thoughts whirring behind her eyes, catching sight of every dangerous looking sod in the bar, marking her escape routes.
“There now lad,” said a man scrunched up against the bar next to Jaskier, clapping him on the shoulder with a wet slap. “Don’t look so worried, it’s only a Spring storm. It’ll never last.”
“You’re right, I’m sure,” he said. “Listen... are you from around here? I’m looking for a friend of mine who came this way a few days ago.”
He had to chat up about five people before he found a woman and her daughter who’d been having a nice walk culminating in a luncheon in the tea rooms a little farther up the road when Geralt had passed through at the start of the week. Their house was out near the pond so they’d been one of the petitioners who’d signed the letter to the local Lord asking him to request Geralt’s presence. When they’d seen him riding by they’d recognised him and stopped him to ‘explain the situation’ or as Jaskier freely interpreted, gossip his ear off about the strange behaviour of their neighbours and every single problem in their neighbourhood, which could apparently all be attributed to the Other Side.
“He killed it,” said the daughter. “He definitely got rid of it. Lord Pelka made an announcement and all.”
“Was it not drowners?” Jaskier asked.
“No, no,” she said. Then, lowering her voice to a salacious whisper. “It was some sort of awful thing playing at being a god. Flies in the face of the proper behaviour befitting families of the Empire, if you ask me, but the first thing he found was some kind of grotesque shrine to it, before he even went for it in the pond. He had to have the Lord’s men come and destroy that and then he spent a day working out which families were worshipping–”
Here the mother cut in, “Oh yes, we always knew the Marek family was... well there was something not right about them–”
“Human sacrifice!” The daughter cut back in, eyes wide and voice trembling with delight and disgust in equal measure. “Can you believe it!”
“Sadly, yes,” Jaskier said, who’d seen and heard about enough kinds of human sacrifice to know that being drowned for the sake of some aquatic demon probably didn’t even make the top ten worst cases. “But when did he fight the creature?”
“Oh two days or so ago, I think,” the mother said. “Awful racket.”
“The smell was worse,” the daughter chipped in. “I think he went away the evening before last. We heard the horse.”
“Back this way?”
They both shrugged. “Lord Pelka said he’d been given his reward and left, so I guess so,” the daughter offered.
Jaskier went back to the edge of the table to sit across from Ciri feeling a little defeated. “He’s already come back this way,” Jaskier said. “Could we have passed him? Taken a different route?”
Thunder rattled the windows and Ciri slumped further down in her seat. “Maybe?” she said. “The way we went is the best. There aren’t so many roads out here. Farmer’s tracks and rambler’s paths maybe, but why would he avoid a better route?”
The landlord brought them each a slice of barely warm mutton pie, a little apologetically. “Sorry there’s no gravy left,” he said, gesturing to the restless crowds as his excuse. Neither of them were hungry anyway, though they both grimly ate their full portions, knowing it was fear suppressing their appetites.
“We’ll start back once it’s cleared a little,” Jaskier promised. “Take it slower and pay attention. We easily could have missed him, we were rushing.”
Ciri’s face crumpled. “This was so stupid,” she said. “He’s probably home now, wondering where we went. I’m going to get us both in trouble over nothing.”
“Hey,” Jaskier said, patting her shoulder. “If that is the case then no harm done. We’ve had a wet day out. We’ll be home by bedtime, even taking it slow on the way back since we made such good time here. Geralt can sing you a lullaby.”
Ciri rolled her eyes. “He would probably rather be dead than sing me a lullaby.”
Jaskier smiled, allowing the joke. Then he couldn’t help but add, “That’s definitely not true.”
“Whatever,” Ciri sighed, poking the remaining pie crust on her plate. The stable boy came back in, dripping and letting a gust of wind into the room, causing several of the tables nearest the door to complain loudly. He had a confused look on his face as he made his way towards Jaskier.
“I’ll pay you on the way out,” Jaskier promised. “We’re only here for lunch and till the worst of the storm passes but–”
“No,” the boy interrupted. “It’s something else. Did you come with three horses?”
Jaskier tilted his head. “Uh–” he started, but Ciri cut him off.
“What does the horse look like?” she asked.
The boy crossed his arms, shrewd. “You tell me,” he said.
“Dark bay,” Ciri said. “Narrow white forehead stripe.”
“That’s her, alright,” the boy said.
“That’s Roach!” Ciri said, standing abruptly.
“Geralt’s Roach?” Jasker stood too. “Where did she come from? Does she look alright? She’s our friend’s horse – he’s missing.”
The boy looked alarmed. “She came up out of the wood in the back as soon as I went round to the stableyard with your two. I guess she recognised ‘em. She seemed alright, calm enough. She was saddled, but nothing else with her.”
“One,” the boy said. “It was open and empty.”
“He must be near,” Ciri said. “Roach is smart but she’s not magical.”
“What if she’s been wandering for a while?”
“I don’t think she would stray very far.”
“Let’s go, then.”
They went back out into the storm. Big gaps were coming between the crash of thunder and the flash of the lightning now – it was moving away from them, thank the saints, but the rain was still coming at them sideways. Jaskier pulled up his own hood and then tied Ciri’s under her neck for her, for whatever little good it did them. The boy obligingly led them to the stable, where Roach the First was indeed waiting shoulder to shoulder with Roach the Second. She came right over and put her head against Ciri’s chest.
“Do you think she could lead us?” Jaskier asked, glancing at the stableboy.
He shrugged. “Depends on the horse,” he said.
“Come on, let’s have her,” Ciri said. Roach let herself be led out by Ciri easily. They went back into the yard between the stable and the inn. The ground was a soup of mud. Jaskier had visions of them sinking down into the ground and being swallowed whole while they waited for the horse to make up its mind about which way to go, but once they reached the tree line and Ciri let the line go slack, Roach immediately started off into the woods with apparent purpose.
“She better not be dragging us towards a particularly tasty patch of grass,” Jaskier said, trying to keep things light-hearted. Ciri was white-faced, her mouth compressed into a thin line. She didn’t respond.
“That’s the way she came from,” the boy said. “Hope you don’t mind, I’ll leave you here.”
Jaskier flipped him a coin. “One for now, more when we get back, if the other two are well kept.”
The boy nodded keenly. “We look after things here, sir,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
Jaskier gave the boy a wet pat on the shoulder, brushed the water dripping down his face out of his eyes and turned on his heel, plunging into the forest after Ciri and Roach.
It was still unpleasant amongst the trees but at least there was a windbreak. They’d not even been in the inn long enough to dry off any, but Jaskier refused to start shivering, since he knew once he started he wouldn’t be able to stop. Roach seemed to be encouraged that they were letting her lead them and before long they were almost jogging, stumbling here and there over tree roots. Ciri was covered in mud nearly up to her waist and Jaskier imagined he didn’t look much better himself.
After nearly thirty minutes of tramping loudly through thorny undergrowth and whip-like saplings, Roach seemed to slow down, wandering around a little aimlessly, going round the same big tree twice.
“Look there!” Ciri said. Roach’s second saddlebag and a few empty glass bottles littered the ground at the base of the tree. “He’s not here, though,” she said, frustrated. She was nearly in tears, two red spots of colour high in her cheeks. Jaskier remembered suddenly that she hadn’t slept since yesterday.
“This is a good sign, Ciri.” Jaskier reassured her. “If he were dead, he’d be laying here right where Roach left him. He’s probably dragging himself towards the road or something.”
“We’ll go ten paces away from the tree in opposite directions, check in, then another ten,” Jaskier said. “Once we’re out of hearing range we’ll go again at another angle. We’ll have to stay together and search in a spiral after that, if we still haven’t found him.”
Ciri seemed to relax a little in the face of a clear plan. Jaskier gave her the silver dagger and held one of the pistols himself, though considering the rain, he privately suspected the gunpowder was probably wet through and therefore it was only as useful as any other hunk of blunt metal. Better than nothing but not by much. Ciri shook out her oilskin and patted Roach on the side, telling her she was still a good girl and then they took their places back-to-back and walked ten paces apart. The wind in the tops of the trees made it difficult to make out words after only thirty paces.
After forty paces, they came back and met in the middle again and moved round to walk perpendicular to their first lines.
Jaskier found him first. Thank the gods, because Jaskier had never seen someone who was still breathing look worse. Geralt was leaning half propped up against a tree. His left leg was a bloody mess. His face was twisted with pain and ash grey. When he heard Jaskier’s footsteps, he blinked his eyes open. They were perfectly and entirely pitch black. Jaskier stood frozen, dripping on Geralt’s destroyed leg, trying not to let any panic show on his face.
“We must stop meeting like this,” Geralt grit out.
“What?” Jaskier said, a little squeakily.
“You’ll catch your death.” His hand twitched. Jaskier surmised that he was attempting to gesture to the poor weather.
“Fucking hell, Geralt. Are you dying?”
“Not quite,” he said. “It seems that I’ve severely poisoned myself.”
“Right,” Jaskier muttered. “Your leg... ”
“Oh,” Geralt said. “I guess that’s why I can’t walk. I hadn’t noticed that yet.” His head tilted a little - he was listening to something. “Is Ciri with you?” he asked. “I’ve been hallucinating. I wasn’t sure that it was you either.”
“Great,” Jaskier said with mock cheer. “Well, we’re both really here. She ran away after you.”
“And you caught up with her?” Geralt asked. He had the gall to look a little impressed. “She’s calling you.”
Jaskier turned and shouted back in Ciri’s direction. “I’ve found him!” Then he stripped off his waxed outer layer and threw it over Geralt’s awful-looking leg.
“Good idea,” Geralt said as Ciri came tramping through the undergrowth and immediately threw herself down into the mud at Geralt’s side. Her hands hovered over him, afraid to touch anywhere, since it all looked bad. There were claw-shaped tears across the majority of his leather-studded armour, red welling up against the visible slashes of too-pale skin. Jaskier hadn’t even registered those, since he’d been so distracted by the ruined leg. For a moment Ciri just sat there, staring down at her mauled guardian, and then, as was only the right and decent response for a scared and exhausted twelve-year-old, she burst into tears.
“Come on, now,” Geralt murmured. “It’s not that bad.”
“Really?” Ciri choked out, harshly. “Because it looks very, very, very, very, very–”
“Okay, we get the picture,” Jaskier said. “Geralt, can we move you? We’ve got Roach, at least? We’re thirty minutes from a decent inn.”
“The pressing matter is the poison,” Geralt said. “I reckon I drank about three times the amount of Thunderbolt potion I’m meant to and twice over Petri’s Philter for all the good that fucking did, so we’ve not got long before–”
“Before you die?” Ciri screeched.
“Before I pass out,” he mitigated. “Then you’ll have a hard time getting me on Roach. I lost about half the contents of Roach’s bags somewhere near here, including the White Honey. I was looking for it.” He said this last as though he was now being held back from the task by having to explain it to them.
“Yes, I can really see you were putting the search grid method to effective use before we came upon you,” Jaskier said, rolling his eyes. “Please don’t let us stand in your way.”
Geralt just glared at him and Jaskier glared right back, hands on his hips.
Ciri was thinking and her face cleared suddenly as she launched herself to her feet. “Wait!” she said. “Is it a kind of clear, yellowish–”
“That is what honey looks like, usually,” Jaskier advised.
Ciri ignored him, unperturbed. “There were some more bottles spilled back in the first direction I searched! I think maybe–” She was already running off in the direction she’d come from, calling behind her. “I’ll be right back.”
“Great,” Jaskier said. “Plenty of time to amputate your leg before she returns.”
“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Geralt said.
“I know,” Jaskier said, peeling back the oilskin covering. “Because if it were as bad as it looks, you’d be dead already. I’m going to try to, ugh, fuck. I guess I should splint it and bind it?”
“Ciri hasn’t got a xenovox on her, by any chance?” Geralt suggested. He didn’t appear hopeful. At least he seemed to have given Jaskier and Ciri both the benefit of the doubt in assuming they’d have already called Yennefer if they could.
“Yennefer is in Vizima. She did leave one and we called to ask about you yesterday – Yennefer said she wasn’t sure whether to worry or not. Ciri’s tried her a few times on the road – she must be busy.”
“Well I can’t always expect her to sit waiting with baited breath to hear of my misfortune,” Geralt said, half-smiling. Jaskier made use of Geralt’s slight distraction to jam a good sized stick up against the mangled leg and cinch the first tie he’d made tight around Geralt’s lower calf.
“Fuck!” Geralt shouted.
“Now you can feel it, huh,” Jaskier said. “Maybe that’s a good sign?”
“As a general rule, I don’t really experience mortal pain,” Geralt said. “So no, it’s not.”
“Will you take me seriously for a moment, Geralt?”
Geralt looked up at him. The fine veins just under the surface of his skin ran with black and violet blood. His eyes, swallowed entirely by their pupils, were impossible to read. Jaskier leaned across Geralt’s blood and sweat drenched body and pushed the strands of faintly greenish pond-water soaked hair out of Geralt’s face, fingers catching on his jaw, the few days of dark stubble.
“I’ve heard the stories about you. I’ve listened to them all. This is not how you are going to–” He cut himself off, frustrated. Then, grimly, he said, “If you die because you accidentally poisoned yourself over a few human sacrifices in Flotsam of all the shithole cities in the Empire and you make Ciri watch it, I’ll stalk and exorcise your pathetic ghost myself.”
“Don’t you grow attached quickly?” Geralt murmured.
“No, I don’t,” Jaskier said. He ripped another strip of trouser leg away with considerable effort and tied it tightly just above Geralt’s knee. Geralt’s fists clenched convulsively. “As a rule, no, I do not. Maybe you have heard some stories about me. Well let me tell you that there is a massive difference between fucking a lot of people and growing attached and it is a difference that I am intimately aware of. So you should take it seriously when I tell you that this time, I am attached and that I’m your problem now.”
“You’re my problem?” Geralt said, wheezing out something that was like a laugh and a grunt of pain at the same time.
“Yes,” Jaskier swore. “I’m your problem. Not the other way around.”
“Okay,” Geralt said. “Fair enough.” His voice was oddly gentle. He lay still while Jaskier did the third splint tie and the fourth. Wind rushed overhead, scattering droplets held on the leaves over them. Uneasily, Geralt spoke again. “If Ciri finds the White Honey, it’ll clear the poison and then I’ll start healing on my own,” he said. “If she doesn’t....” He trailed off. It didn’t seem that he would shy away from any harsh truths so Jaskier took that to mean he was feeling faint.
“How do you make it?” Jaskier asked. “Come on, tell me, Geralt.”
“White Honey?” Geralt asked. It was difficult to tell because of his eyes, but Jaskier thought he was starting to sound disorientated. “Needs to be enhanced... honeysuckle obviously, white myrtle petals, alcohest...” His voice trailed off again.
“Tell me, Geralt,” Jaskier demanded. He did the last tie on the splint. Geralt gasped. “Honeysuckle, white myrtle petals, what else?”
“Alcohest, more honey... the bee kind....”
“Is that it? Now the method.”
“I don’t... if you’re planning to make it you’re going to...”
In the distance, Jaskier heard Ciri crashing back through the woods, running. “I’ve got it,” she called. “I’ve found it!”
“Come on Geralt,” Jaskier said. “One more minute.”
“I know Yen teases you about it,” Geralt said, vaguely. “But listen, I like your hair.” Jaskier was bent over Geralt’s leg, propping it up on his own knee to hastily finish wrapping it back around with the oilskin, hoping to both hide the sight from Ciri and staunch some of the bleeding. Geralt reached out and brushed back the bit of fringe that was falling into Jaskier’s eyes. “You could grow it even longer, if you’d like.”
“You teased me about it first,” Jaskier replied, wryly. “But thanks for the permission.”
Ciri appeared from between two huge trees, holding a handful of potions. “I think it’s this one,” she said, panting as she passed it over to Jaskier. Jaskier held it up for Geralt.
“Oh good,” Geralt said and passed out.
“Ugh!” Jaskier said. “Ten more seconds even, Geralt, come on !”
Instead Jaskier had to wrench Geralt’s jaw open while Ciri poured the viscous liquid down his throat and then clamp his jaw shut again to force him to swallow by reflex, like giving medicine to a sick farm animal. After a good long minute, the black tracery of his veins cleared and the tiniest bit of colour seemed to return to his face, but he didn’t wake up either. They waited. Nothing.
“He’s lost a lot of blood, I guess,” Jaskier said. “Will you get Roach?”
There was no way they were going to get Geralt up onto Roach’s back while he was passed out. Jaskier contemplated sending Ciri back to the inn for help, but who knew if she’d be able to convince someone to come with her considering the storm. He was starting to get damn cold himself now, with no oilskin anymore. Sitting still for an hour in the rain was likely to end up with both of them sick and Ciri in charge. Jaskier didn’t doubt her ability but he wanted to protect her from that terrible feeling of having to figure it out alone if he could. She’d had enough of that for one childhood already.
Ciri came up with the idea, in the end. They rolled Geralt onto her oilskin and then used the lead rope that the stableboy had given them for Roach, cut in half, to tie the back two corners of their make-shift stretcher onto the saddle, just behind Roach’s shoulders. Then they could each take one of the front two corners and between all three of them, lift him up.
It was slow, back-breaking work, maneuvering a heavy man on a soaking piece of canvas only just big enough to hold him through the tightly packed trees. All the while the rain was still coming down on them in fat droplets. At least the hard work meant they weren’t cold anymore. Half way back, Geralt woke with a start and they nearly dropped him as he jerked upright.
Thankfully, once he was awake, Geralt managed to pull himself up onto Roach’s back with Jaskier pushing from behind and Ciri taking care to keep his leg immobilised.
“Ciri, you climb on too to help Geralt. Roach can take you both back as far as the inn,” Jaskier instructed.
“What about you?” Ciri asked.
Geralt was only partially conscious, fading in and out of making sense. His contribution to the discussion was to tell Jaskier in about five half-started, twisted up sentences that he was apparently too pretty to be in the woods alone.
“Uh. I think I’ll be fine. I’ll barely be ten minutes behind you. Ciri, tell them we’ll buy a room for the night and to send for a doctor or a healer if they can.”
Ciri nodded and tapped Roach into her fastest walk. After a few minutes, Jaskier lost sight of them in the rain and the oppressive gloom of the dense wood.
He carried on at a good pace to keep his blood up so he wouldn’t get cold. It occurred to him that he should have kept the silver dagger, since he had no doubt that in the event something came after Ciri and Geralt, Geralt would discover some impossible reserve of strength left to protect them, but Jaskier himself was now entirely defenseless. It ended up being a moot point, because he was back to the inn in less than twenty minutes. The rain had lightened considerably now and the sun was even gilding the edges of the most distant clouds. There were about half as many carts out front and fewer still horses tied up around the stables, so Jaskier guessed that the fair weather crowd had carried on their way.
He stuck his head in the stables to check on the Roaches and Kelpie. They were each in a stall, heads down in fresh hay. Jaskier stood for a long minute, contemplating them. A strange thought came into his head. He should borrow one of the horses and leave. He could ride to the nearest inn aside from this one and rest, and then from there he could ride to Carreas and from there to Vizima and three days from now he could be drunk enough that it would feel to him like he’d never met Geralt or Ciri or even Angoulême and Lady Yennefer. He would remember them, but it would be a wonderful dream and he’d never... There’d be no way for him to fuck up the whole... In his memory, he could stay forever in just this moment, where he’d done everything he could to help them and he was about to go back to them and they were just out of sight, in a warm place where he was wanted, waiting for him.
He had an argument with himself, there in the door, wet in a way that felt bone deep. Why are you fantasising about abandoning the only place that you’ve ever felt...
He was so cold and still trying not to shiver. He felt that he’d been trying not to shiver for his whole life now, and he couldn’t stop anymore. Why had he told Geralt that he was attached? Why had he told Geralt that Jaskier was his problem? He crunched down, holding his knees tightly with his arms and put his head between his thighs, sucking in deep, juddering breaths around his chattering teeth. He had to stand up and go inside, but he couldn’t make himself.
Absolutely nothing about the way Geralt had spoken to him in the woods indicated for even a half second that he was going to dismiss Jaskier over this, but his thoughts were running away with him, on the surface circling around an emotional paradox. Didn’t he believe what he’d told Ciri? He wasn’t afraid of Geralt or Yennefer or even Ciri herself, was he? Wasn’t his deepest heart the most afraid of being alone? Underneath that his mind was going sideways into another bizarre and vicious little daydream, where he went inside and Geralt and Ciri were sitting near the fire, shoulder-to-shoulder and Geralt started railing at him for letting Ciri run away and Ciri was for some reason also angry at him for not keeping her safe and–
There was a strange sucking feeling in the air and the colours around him seemed to seep away before snapping vividly back into place. For a second, he really thought he had lost it completely. He looked around the yard to try to orient himself and then Lady Yennefer was stepping out of thin air in front of him.
“Jaskier?” she asked, catching sight of him, half collapsed in the entryway of the stable. “Oh fuck, what’s happened? Where’s Ciri? Is Geralt-”
“No,” Jaskier said, clenching his jaw to try to talk around the shaking. “No, Ciri’s fine, Geralt’s fine. Not fine. But not dead. They’re--” Lady Yennefer had closed the space right up between them and she was putting her arms around him, heedless of her work-of-art dress, gathering him against her chest. “They’re just inside,” he managed to finish. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, everything’s okay.”
“You’re panicking,” she said. “Come on, it’s okay, breathe with me.”
“This is so stupid,” Jaskier juddered out, into her shoulder.
“Was it bad?” she said. “When you found him?”
“I thought he was going to die,” Jaskier said.
“I know,” Yennefer said. “I know. That’s his speciality. Come on, can we go inside? I’m exhausted. I’m sorry I’m late. I came as soon as I could. Ciri just got hold of me. I went back to the house first so I could have Angoulême prepare. There are a surprising number of inns on the outskirts of Flotsam called the ‘The Old Dun Cow’. I’ve been to three in the last twenty minutes.”
Jaskier let the talk wash over him, breathing against her neck, in and out in huge lungfuls of air till his heartbeat started to steady. She was so warm and she smelled like the gardens at the Manor House at dawn. “Okay,” he said, letting her support a good half of his weight up to standing. She was strong enough for it, which didn’t really surprise him.
They staggered back into the inn. The stable boy from before was hanging around near the entrance and he leapt up when Jaskier came arm-in-arm with Yennefer through the door. “They’re upstairs,” he squeaked. “We gave ‘im the best room. The doctor’s been sent for!”
“Leave the doctor,” Yennefer said. “I’ll handle it.”
The boy bobbed his head, evidently in awe and then, after staring open mouthed at them for a moment, Yennefer added, unimpressed. “Which way?”
“Oh, follow me, my lady,” the boy sputtered out. “Apologies my lady.”
He led them up the stairs and pointed out the door. “Would you like a bath sent up?” he asked.
“Obviously,” Yennefer replied, and Jaskier was relieved because he couldn’t think of anything in the world that sounded better than a hot bath right now, but he didn’t want to push it, assuming he could just use the family’s funds for whatever luxury he felt like.
Even before they went into the room, Jaskier could hear that Ciri was singing inside. It sounded like The Mushroom Fairies. She was making up the words she’d forgotten, which suited the song anyway. Yennefer pushed the door open. Inside, there was a fire crackling merrily away in the hearth in the corner with all of Ciri’s clothes and half of Geralt’s hung on a little wooden clotheshorse before it. Geralt was laid out bare-chested on top of the covers on one of the two beds. The hundred scrapes and claw marks that littered his chest were still bleeding, but only sluggishly. Ciri sat cross-legged on the other bed, wrapped from head to toe in a quilt. Geralt’s eyes were closed and his colour was considerably better, but his leg hadn’t been touched yet. It was still wrapped in the oilskin that Jaskier had tied. Ciri went quiet as she turned to the door and all the tension ran out of her as she saw that it was Jaskier and Yennefer.
“Yennefer!” she said. “You came!”
“I was worrying even before you got hold of me,” Yennefer admitted. “I thought about coming back all day, yesterday. When you called me – well I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”
Geralt’s eyes cracked open. “Did you tell those oiled-up politicians where to stick it?” he rasped.
“Not in so many words,” Yennefer replied. “Because I’ve actually heard of the concept of tact.”
Geralt made a face which suggested he wasn’t too sure if that was true or not.
“Yennefer,” Jaskier whispered. She turned back to glance at him and he gestured to Geralt’s wrapped leg. It’s very bad, he mouthed.
“I saw that,” Ciri said.
“What did you do to Jaskier?” Geralt asked Yennefer.
Jaskier looked down at himself. He was still shivering a bit but it wasn’t like outside where he’d barely been able to move properly.
“What’s wrong with me?” Jaskier asked.
“You look upset,” Ciri said. “And you’ve gone kind of... grey.”
“Oh,” he replied.
“He’s fine,” Yennefer replied to Geralt. “He just had a panic because he had to chase you and your plucky ward across the countryside in the worst storm of the year to save your wet arses from your own pride and idiocy.”
“Uh,” Jaskier helpfully contributed.
“Take off your clothes,” Yennefer said to Jaskier as she crossed the room to contemplate the inexpert field medicine that Jaskier had applied.
Jaskier obediently went across the room to near the window where there was a wicker screen. Ciri shuffled over and left another quilt hanging over the top so he could protect his modesty after he changed. He felt immediately better out of the wet clothes. His jaw ached as he finally managed to unclench it.
The boy knocked on the door, lugging a huge tub in from the hallway and by the time Jaskier had wrapped himself up in the quilt and come to stand aimlessly by the fire, the boy was alternating with an older girl bringing pitchers of steaming water up to empty into the tub.
While Ciri had a wash, Jaskier and Yennefer contemplated Geralt’s now unwrapped leg.
“It looks a lot better,” Jaskier said.
“No wonder you were crying in the dirt outside, then,” Yennefer said. Her mouth was set in a grim line.
“You cried over me?” Geralt said, arch.
“No!” Jaskier glared at him and then turned the glare on Yennefer, but she looked a little worried and Jaskier’s defensiveness fell away. “Can’t you do healing magic or something?” he asked.
“Yes,” Yennefer said. “And Geralt will naturally heal much faster than you would. Well. If your leg looked like that I’d probably just have to... remove it. But even he can’t just shrug this off. Healing magic is complicated. The spells and potions that made Geralt like he is were beyond complicated – old magic. Not the way we do things now and not known for protecting the recipient’s comfort. It’s all complicated.”
“Isn’t it always,” Jaskier sighed. “What even happened? The woman I talked to in the pub earlier said it definitely wasn’t drowners.”
“I can’t really remember,” Geralt said. “I went down to the pond, had a few rounds with about thirty-five pond-dwelling horrors of every creed imaginable. There was no way all those creatures would be working together so I figured it was an old god that’d managed to get itself a good little cult of human worshippers. Had to disband that with... force. That was the god mostly dealt with, but then I had to go back and clean up the army it’d accrued. The leg could’ve been anything – foglet? Leshen? Who the fuck knows. There was a blinding fog the whole time and there were a lot of them.”
“You fought them blind? ” Jaskier said.
“I could hear them and smell them,” Geralt pointed out, as though that were just as good as seeing and he didn’t want too much credit.
Once Ciri was back out of the bath and tucked up in bed, watching them work through slitted, sleepy eyes, Jaskier went to work washing out Geralt’s wounds. Geralt lay still through the whole thing, barely wincing. “Doesn’t it hurt?” Jaskier finally had to ask.
“Yes,” Geralt said, adding nothing else. Jaskier did feel like the small cuts across Geralt’s upper body were disappearing before his eyes. “It’s more itchy,” Geralt offered finally. “The healing.” Jaskier smiled. What a ridiculous person. While Yennefer started working a spell over Geralt’s leg, Jaskier washed Geralt’s face and hair free of the pond muck. He started to fall asleep as Jaskier smoothed his fingers through the pale strands, silkier than Jaskier had expected. By the time Jaskier had finished he was snoring very softly.
Jaskier had his bath, finally. The water was still hot, since they’d pushed the tub over so that it was practically in the fireplace. He came out feeling a lot more like a whole human person again and perched on the edge of Geralt’s bed, watching Yennefer’s hands hovering over the slowly improving mess of Geralt’s leg. Everything was shimmering like a mirage in the distance on a summer’s day. Jaskier didn’t know whether to put it down to exhaustion or magic.
“You look like you’re about to fall over,” she said after a moment. “Go on,” she gestured vaguely to the space in the bed alongside Geralt.
“Huh?” Jaksier asked. If he’d been any less tired he might have summoned up some kind of argument or alarm, but all he could offer was a half-arsed, “What if I jostle him?” even as he was already leaning down.
“It’s fine,” she said. “You won’t hurt him more. You’re still a bit hypothermic. It’ll help you.”
Jaskier nodded, not willing to argue further, and pulled the quilt up over himself and the half of Geralt that Yennefer wasn’t busy with now. He put his face into the space between Geralt’s shoulder and the mattress and immediately fell asleep.
He woke twice in the night, bleary eyed and scratchy throated, once to Geralt snoring more deeply and once to Geralt awake, watching him, eyes silvered by the scant light shading through the window. He was very warm and after a hazy moment considering this, he realised that Geralt was wrapped fully around him, his good leg hitched up over Jaskier’s waist and his arm situated between Jaskier’s shoulder blades.
“Are you alright?” Jaskier whispered, for a lack of anything else to say.
“Hmm,” Geralt replied, keeping his voice very low. “Better. But you were shivering.”
“Oh,” Jaskier whispered. “Oh well.” He shifted around to a cool spot on the pillow. “I feel hot now,” he said, and Geralt rolled away from him with the efficiency of someone who might have been thinking about how to best extricate themselves already. “No, wait,” Jaskier said. “It’s nice.”
“You have a fever,” Geralt said. He eased his arm back around Jaskier, holding him.
“No I don’t,” Jaskier whispered animatedly. “I’ve been lost in the fucking Dragon Mountains in the dead of winter. I’m not sick from running around after a wayward knight on a rainy day.”
“I’m not a knight,” Geralt argued.
“Oh it’s about you now, is it?” Jaskier sighed. “You’re called Sir. You hunt monsters. What do you think you are?”
“Knights live at court or in fairy tales.”
“And you live in a weird castle with a weird garden with a weird library. A witch lives in your tower. You don’t think someone could tell a story about that?” he asked.
Geralt shrugged. He was still cradling Jaskier so the motion jostled him slightly. Seeming to realise, Geralt smoothed his hand back down Jaskier’s spine like he was settling a horse. “Not a hero story,” he said.
Jaskier snorted and then craned his head to look at the other bed over Geralt’s shoulder where Yennefer and Ciri were sleeping, hoping he hadn’t disturbed them. They made two still, dark hills in the glimmer of moonlight slipping in through the window. “Fairy tales aren’t hero stories, Geralt,” he murmured, gentle, like he was explaining to a pupil. “Fairy tales are about paths. They’re about... straying and staying.”
“Hmm,” Geralt replied. Jaskier turned his face into the warmth of Geralt’s shoulder and was overcome by a wave of exhaustion he hadn’t noticed hovering over him this whole time. Geralt, who always seemed to notice these kinds of things, tucked Jaskier even closer against him and said, so very quiet. “Maybe you have a point. Sleep now.”
In the morning, Geralt was proved right. Jaskier was definitely ill. He felt awful. Too hot and too cold at the same time with a cracking headache that made even the watery grey post-dawn light into daggers. Everyone else was already up and moving as he dragged himself to sitting. His throat was sore when he spoke.
“Can I just reassure you that I’m normally a very hardy young lad,” Jaskier said, watching the other three tidy up the room around him.
Geralt wasn’t allowed to put weight on his leg, but he seemed almost fine otherwise, moving only a little stiffer and slower than normal, just a few raw scrapes visible across his face and hands. He was repacking the horses’ saddlebags from the wooden table under the window.
“Ciri and I will bring the horses back,” Yennefer explained. “I’ll open a portal for the two of you.”
Jaskier fell back asleep waiting for them to be ready and when he woke, he was being carried by Geralt through the shimmering mirage of Yennefer’s portal. “You haven’t got a leg to stand on,” he protested.
“I’ve got the one, still,” Geralt reminded him. He was propped up on a makeshift cane made from all the splints Jaskier had collected bound together. He took one admittedly shaky step, looking a bit queasy over the portal’s swirling not-flames, and they were through to the kitchen garden. Angoulême came bursting from the house, armed with slings and bandages and a big jug of some kind of strange strengthening potion that Yennefer must have set her about making before she’d left. Geralt set Jaskier down and he was surprised to find he couldn’t support his own weight. Angoulême had to catch him as he listed sideways.
The next half hour was spent getting them all up the stairs. Geralt had to stand with the bannister on one side so he could hop, and then support Jaskier on the other, who was growing increasingly weak for no discernible reason, and then Angoulême on Jaskier’s other side, since he needed the both of them to help him stay upright but he did still have two working legs. They came to Jaskier’s bedroom first and Angoulême informed them that she’d gone far enough and put them both in the bed there, propping Geralt’s leg up on about a million throw pillows and checking Jaskier’s temperature with the back of her hand against his forehead.
She bustled away and returned with bowls of steaming porridge topped with ripe berries and cream. Geralt inhaled his and Jaskier consumed it with lacklustre determination. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked, vaguely. Geralt shook his head, watching him with worried eyes and pulled the blankets up around them, tucking Jaskier’s head under his chin. He fell quickly into a fitful sleep haunted by strange storm-soaked dreams of walking and drowning at the same time, of being watched in the night and liking it.
This chapter contains non-graphic descriptions of a previous tutor's attempted assault on Ciri (which she successfully defends herself from).
Chapter 3: PART III
A fever; the library after dark
Please see end of chapter notes for content warnings
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He woke. It was dark and he was drenched in fever sweat. His head was swimming. He gasped as he sat up like he was breaking the surface of a pool of water. “Geralt?” he asked, in confusion.
“You’re okay,” Geralt said. He put his big, scarred hand on Jaskier’s face, sweeping one thumb across Jaskier’s brow, soothing him.
“Am I dying?” Jaskier asked. His mouth felt wrong, like he’d been swallowing cotton wool by the handful, dry and scraped raw. Geralt stroked his face again, almost absently, which alarmingly drew Jaskier’s attention to the fact that there was now several days worth of stubble on his own jaw.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Geralt said.
“That’s not a no,” Jaskier said. “I’m thirsty.”
Geralt handed him a tall, cool glass of water. Jaskier’s brain slid sideways into a perfectly recreated daydream of watching Yennefer drink lemonade on his first visit to the manor. “How is the fruit all in season?” he asked. “The berries are ripe but it’s not time?”
He thought he was asking Yennefer but it was Geralt who answered, even though he wasn’t even here. “It’s some spell,” Geralt replied. His voice was soft. “Yen likes fresh fruit.”
“Oh,” Jaskier said, and he fell back asleep.
He woke again. It was daytime and he was alone. He could hear birdsong drifting in through the propped open window and a slight breeze, though the curtains were drawn. He felt a little better but when he went to sit up his head spun so badly he was nearly sick. He lay straight back down and instead stared up at the ceiling rose above, an intricate pattern that reminded him of dragon tails. Soon, even looking felt like too much effort. He’d never been so ill in his entire life, but his worry felt far away and not worth the effort, like it was on behalf of a little-loved family member. He faded back into a sleep that came up around him as slow and warm as rising bread.
Yennefer was with him next. She was holding his wrist, measuring his pulse when he stirred.
“How long has it been?” he asked. His back ached and all of his joints ached.
“Eight days,” she said.
“ What?” he rasped, incredulous. “What’s wrong with me? I’ve never been this sick before. It was some fucking rain.”
“You overexerted your magic,” she said.
“My what?” his voice, broken though it was, squeaked up a register.
“You must know,” she said. “The way you played for us.”
“Okay, but it’s not... you know... it’s barely... how did I even... what would I have even...”
“Are you a good rider?”
“Huh?” he asked.
“Do you ride well?”
“Not particularly,” he said. “I mean, I was better when I was a child, but I haven’t had much practice since I left home.”
“Right,” Yennefer explained. “So you, a barely competent rider, managed to leap onto a horse you’d never ridden before and catch up to Ciri, who is more than competent and had more than an hour’s headstart. And once you did catch up to her, you navigated successfully through shockingly bad weather. Along the way, you ran into multiple people who had useful information, found a good inn just as you were desperate and then Geralt’s horse just happened to easily find you. And after following it for thirty minutes you actually came across him lying in the woods. He was near death and needed a potion he’d been looking for for hours, which Ciri somehow found after looking for ten minutes... I mean. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“The way you’re telling it makes it sound different!”
“It’s the luckiest story I’ve ever heard,” Yennefer said. She helped him sit up and this time he managed it and drank the swirling, dark red potion she gave him without complaint even though it tasted like blue cheese mixed into vinegar and sugar syrup.
“Have you ever had a magical hangover, or whatever this is?” he asked. “Is it actually a real thing?”
“Sure,” she said. “I was sick for a day after bringing you all back. Five portals in twenty-four hours, all the healing. I was lucky I didn’t pass out. I probably would have if I’d tried to pull something like your trick, though I haven’t the faintest idea how I’d have gone about it.”
“What do you mean ‘how you’d have gone about it?’ I didn’t go about anything, it just happened.” he said. “It’s not even proper magic.”
She pondered this for a moment. “At Aretuza they would agree with you. They teach spells and what you do is not spells. Ciri is untrained and a little unusual but I could teach her and she could channel her power into words and incantations and bend nature to her will. I don’t think I could teach you to do that. You’re not bending nature, you’re going sideways through it. The schools and the Court would rather glaze over your existence because how can they make use of you? Better to leave those that don’t fit doubting themselves and dwindling. But make no mistake. It is ‘proper magic’ and you might have only the tiniest drop but you managed to pull luck down to yourself for about ten hours. I wouldn’t be surprised if that storm was so bad because you’d tipped the balance so far in your favour nature had no choice but to adjust.”
“Gods,” he said. “This whole nature readjusting thing actually makes some past events make sense to me.”
Yennefer raised an eyebrow. “Be careful,” she said.
“How can I be careful when I’m not even trying?” he whined.
Yennefer shook her head. “You and Geralt deserve each other,” she said.
Jaskier’s jaw dropped. “What is that even supposed to mean?”
“Nothing,” she replied, suddenly coy. “I’m going to ask Angoulême if she’ll make you something to eat. Ciri will bring it up. She’s been insufferably bored without you.”
Jaskier fell into a doze once she’d gone, into the half-dreams of the half-awake, where real life happens but in upside-down ways. He dreamed that Geralt was feeding him beef broth spoonful by spoonful and couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a memory of some moment he’d been awake and had then forgotten about. He dreamed of Ciri singing to him and reading aloud to him from dusty history books and telling him she was sorry and about her house in Cintra and how she still missed it sometimes even though she knew there was nothing good there for her now.
He woke again at the creak of Ciri’s footsteps in the doorway. She had a plate of biscuits and cheese. Jaskier was suddenly ravenous and ate them all with wild abandon while she giggled over the mess of crumbs he was making.
“Go get your school books,” he said, when he was done. “I bet you haven’t cracked open a single one this whole week.”
“I did!” she swore. “I read Greig’s History to you! It was so boring! Geralt said I didn’t have to but I did it anyway because I knew you’d want me to.”
“Greig’s History is not boring,” Jaskier defended. “It’s non-stop blood and murder. It’s absolutely thrilling. You’re trying to put me off of the scent but the real question is did you do any household accounting work.”
“ Jaskier,” she begged, horrified. “Anything but that.”
Having won this round, Jaskier agreed that they could do some geometry instead, which was what he’d really wanted to teach her. He devised a little project in which they were building a waterwheel for some desperate fictional villagers. He fell asleep again after only half an hour.
When he woke, it was night. There was a candle lit on the dressing table and Ciri had left her working out for him on a sheaf of papers at the end of the bed, but he felt she was long gone. Jaskier checked through them and then struggled up to sitting.
“Fuck!” he gasped. Geralt was sitting completely silently in the armchair to the far side of the window. “You could have warned me!” he said.
“Didn’t mean to scare you.” Geralt said. “I was just watching you.”
“Yes,” Jaskier said, clutching at his heaving chest. “I gathered that. You know that’s kind of eerie.”
“I was watching your breathing,” Geralt said, as if this was a more enlightening explanation.
Jaskier just stared at him for a long minute, incredulous. Jaskier had thought he looked better the morning after, but now he really looked better. His leg was propped up on two cushions and a footstool, still bandaged, but otherwise... his eyes were clear, the only visible scars on his face looked long since healed. His hair was clean, braided back out of his eyes. He looked like he’d actually slept for once, which was a change since Jaskier had come to the Manor House.
“Are you bored or something?”
“ Yes, ” Geralt said, emphatically. “Yen won’t let me walk. But I’m perfectly fine now. ”
Jaskier turned his head slightly to hide a smile. “So, if I unwrapped that leg there, I would just find smooth unblemished skin, huh?”
Geralt pursed his lips. “Are you on her side or something?”
“Well,” Jaskier said. “Let’s remind ourselves who managed to find themselves fully unconscious for nearly two weeks after preventing you from expiring in some uninteresting patch of trees. I think you could say I have a vested interest.”
“Right,” Geralt said. He looked a little put upon. They were silent for a moment. Jaskier contemplated the ceiling rose again, as had become his habit and Geralt contemplated Jaskier. “About that...” Geralt said, finally. His voice had gone a little quieter. “Ah... thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” Jaskier replied, breezily, not meeting Geralt’s gaze again. There was a shuffling sound and Jaskier finally looked back at him to see that he had a proper crutch for his injured side and he was using it to make his way to the bed. He loomed over Jaskier for a long minute until Jaskier said, “Will you sit down, you’ll make me strain my neck.”
“You’re laying down, you’re not going to strain your neck,” Geralt answered him back but he did sit, closer than Jaskier thought maybe he meant to because when he rested his hand on the bedspread, his fingertips were nearly brushing Jaskier’s arm. He’d seemed to mean to say something before, but instead he just turned his face up as if he too might find some explanation for events in the whorling pattern of the ceiling rose and made a tiny, frustrated sound in the back of his throat.
“You were afraid that I was going to die,” Jaskier surmised from this display.
“Yes,” Geralt answered, like the word had to be pulled from somewhere deep.
“Well, don’t worry about it. I thought you were going to die, you thought I was going to die. That makes us even.”
Geralt scoffed. “I don’t think that’s how it works,” he said.
“Oh,” Jaskier answered. “And who is in charge of how it works?”
Geralt looked even more frustrated. His fingertips connected briefly with Jaskier’s skin and all Jaskier’s arm hairs stood on end. Geralt didn’t seem to notice but for one stupid moment, all Jaskier could think about it what it would feel like if Geralt’s warm hand wrapped all the way around his wrist and slid slowly up his arm to his shoulder and then–
“Look,” Geralt said, interrupting this fantasy. “I don’t like people very often, so I would appreciate it if–”
“You like me?” Jaskier asked, astounded. “You like me?”
“No!” Geralt corrected himself quickly. “You’re annoying!” he explained. “You’re always singing! And you eat breakfast about three times a morning for some reason, where do you even put it all?”
“You like me,” Jaskier repeated. An incredulous smile spread across his face. He thought he might laugh.
“Not like that,” Geralt said. “Not as a person. I just can’t stop thinking about – ugh.” He made a second annoyed sound, similar to the first yet imbued with an even deeper and more profound irritation and then he leaned down and kissed Jaskier right on the mouth.
Jaskier gasped with surprise and Geralt’s hand did slide up his arm, all the way to cup his head and the other hand came up too, fingers sliding into Jaskier’s hair. His brain caught up with his mouth and he started kissing back and it got very deep very fast. Geralt’s tongue swept into Jaskier’s mouth and, gods, how many times he had imagined this but it was somehow better. Geralt smelled so good, freshly bathed, a hint of clove oil and sweat. Jaskier arched up against him, gripping his shoulders. Geralt broke away from Jaskier’s mouth and slid sideways, kissing along his jaw, leaving gentle, open-mouth bites on his neck while Jaskier panted against Geralt’s hair, just above the shell of his ear, dizzy with sensation, with the sudden snap of getting something he’d been longing for but never really believed he’d could have.
“I’m gonna pass out,” he managed to whisper. The room was spinning, Geralt’s fingers were carding through his hair making shivery little frissons of feeling tingle down his spine.
Geralt leaned back abruptly, breathing hard. “Right,” he said. He pulled his hands away. Jaskier sagged back into his pillows. “Well,” he said, contemplative. Jaskier absolutely could not read him. “Are you... Do you want...”
“I want it,” Jaskier promised, cutting Geralt off in a rush, not wanting his hesitance to be misconstrued. “I want you.” He swallowed. “Since I first saw you, fuck, I could hardly think but for-”
“Good,” Geralt said. He stood, balancing on one leg. He put the crutch under his arm, leaned down to kiss Jaskier again, once, so light and brief it felt like Jaskier might’ve imagined it. “We’ll wait for a better forecast, then.” Geralt said. He smiled that almost-there smile, maybe pleased with his own joke. Then he left. The weather, damn it, the fucking rain.
“What,” Jaskier asked the ceiling rose in the silence of the candle-lit bedroom. “The Fuck. Was That?”
The pace of Jaskier’s recovery picked up once he could manage to stay awake for more than an hour at a time. He and Ciri went back to their habit of proper lessons in the morning. He didn’t have the energy to run about with her in the gardens in the afternoon yet so instead they decided to tackle the mysteries of the library.
The first day Jaskier went downstairs he had to sit halfway down and put his head between his legs till a dizzy spell passed. Ciri came out looking for him to find what was taking him so long and sat next to him with one arm around his back while he took deep breaths. When he looked up, finally, Geralt was leaning against the balustrade the level above them, braced against his crutch, pretending not to be worried.
Physicality had never been one of Jaskier’s strengths but it had never been a weakness either. His body just was. It looked good enough to charm people, but not so good that he had to fend off unwanted attention at every turn. And before now it had generally done whatever he’d asked of it. Now he was having to think about it a lot - how quickly it could move without making him dizzy, how many steps it could take before it would stop.
Conversely, like a strange dark mirror of the constant worry that his body might give out, he was also always thinking about what Geralt might be thinking about it. More often than not, Geralt looked in on him in the morning to make sure he hadn’t had some fit in the night and he’d come and sit in the armchair by the window while Jaskier stretched and yawned, eyes glimmering over every twitch of Jaskier’s body shadowed beneath the white sheets. Geralt would watch as Jaskier gingerly made his way across the room and put his hand just under the hem of Jaskier's nightshirt while he leaned to look out over the garden, warm palm resting in the middle of his lower back.
“Do you want Geralt to come help you?” Ciri asked, giving Geralt a little wave. Jaskier’s head spun.
The weight of Geralt’s gaze on him was exactly the same as his hand on Jaskier’s back, promising things he hadn’t quite let himself imagine yet.
“He can’t walk properly!” Jaskier said. “How’s he meant to help me down the stairs?” He had conveniently forgotten that Geralt had practically carried him up the stairs on that first hazy morning back in the Manor.
“I dunno?” Ciri said, exasperated. “He could probably pick you up with one arm and sling you over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes!”
Jaskier felt very guilty for the thoughts that came into his head along with that image while Ciri, a child, was sitting right beside him. “I’m fine,” he said, hastily. Then, louder, calling up to Geralt, he said it again, “I’m fine!”
“You don’t look fine,” Geralt said. He didn’t even raise his voice but the rumble carried like a waterfall across a valley. “I can carry you down,” he offered.
“You can’t walk properly!” Jaskier called back. “Why does everyone keep treating me like I’m the only invalid around here?”
“I could pick you up with one arm and sling you over my shoulder,” Geralt replied. “One leg or not. I did it before.”
“Will you all stop telling me how Geralt can pick me up with one hand, gods.” The tiff actually seemed to revive Jaskier somewhat and he stood, gripping the bannister and made it the rest of the way to the bottom with no other help than Ciri’s arm under his for a few little wobbles. He glared up at Geralt as they turned down the hall towards the library and Geralt just watched him go, head at an angle, eyes laughing. Once they were in the library, Jaskier collapsed into the biggest of the brocade armchairs and breathed for a few minutes, with his eyes half-closed.
“Do you get paid extra for nearly dying ‘cause of me?” she asked.
“No,” Jaskier replied, rolling his eyes. To be entirely honest, he probably did. The contract he’d signed as laid out by Yennefer had been one of the more sympathetic ones of his career. Unfortunately, Ciri had a funny way of thinking about things, and he was worried she might concoct some scheme in an effort to get him a nice raise out of the kindness of her heart that would result in him having to jump out a third story window into the moat in her aid. It was better to keep her imagination in check as much as possible. “Anyway, it wasn’t because of you,” he said. “I might have gone after him regardless. I said as much to you already.”
“Geralt likes you, you know,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere.
“What?” Jaskier asked.
“You don’t have to deny letting him help you or argue about everything with him so much,” she said. “He likes you. He wouldn’t mind. I actually think he likes doing things for you. When you were really sick, he fed you broth fives times a day, even though it took ages because it had to be just a tiny trickle so you wouldn’t choke. Angoulême said she’d do it but he wouldn’t let her. And he likes to listen to your stories and he’s always laughing when you’re around.”
“He doesn’t laugh!”
“Well, the way Geralt laughs, anyway. He thinks you’re funny,” she assured him.
“He’s laughing at me. He thinks I’m ridiculous,” Jaskier said, uncertain of how he was being dragged into this conversation by a twelve-year-old girl.
“No, he doesn’t!” she insisted. “He likes you.”
“Ciri,” he said, a little annoyed. “I’m not going to discuss this with you. Go and get that spell book I said we could translate.”
“I just want you to know that I’ve never seen him put up with anyone so much or be so kind to anyone aside from me and Yennefer I guess, so you don’t need to feel guilty about him bringing you breakfast and whatever else. He likes doing it.”
It was the thing he wanted to hear most and the worst thing to hear at the same time. He knew with a sudden and terrible clarity that this was the moment he’d be thinking about when he was inevitably crying on Essi’s shoulder at Pietch’s in six or eight months’ time. He wouldn’t think of Geralt kissing him into dizziness that first time. He wouldn’t think of Geralt fucking him, an event which he could practically feel in the air around the Manor, like coming rain, so palpably close now.
He’d think of this conversation and he’d say to Essi, “Even young Lady Cirilla could tell that he liked me. How could I help myself? How could I stop?” and she would say “But you knew this was going to happen.” and he would say “I always know and I still do it. What is wrong with me?” and she would say “There’s nothing wrong with you, you just have an open heart.” and this time.... Well, he was afraid that this time she would be wrong when she promised him that, because there was an awful chance that Geralt would be the man to finally close it and rust the lock.
Ciri retreated as the strange tension of grown-up thoughts that were too much for her to handle tinted the air between them and she came back a long ten minutes later with her arms full of books. They spent the rest of the afternoon on the translations, which blessedly prevented Jaskier from thinking about anything besides his actual job.
One week later, Jaskier and Geralt fucked in the library after everyone else had gone to bed.
It happened like this: Jaskier was on his second day of having walked around under his own power for more than twenty minutes. Geralt was on his first full day without a crutch. When evening came, Jaskier still didn’t feel completely worn out, which was an achievement. He got into a raring after-dinner discussion with Yennefer about the merits of oral history versus writing things down in which Jaskier took a typically romantic position and Yennefer was eminently practical. Geralt watched the whole thing unfold like their row was a dessert he was eating. Yennefer finally went to bed feeling like she’d won and Geralt gave Jaskier a look that made him feel like he’d won and then they were alone in the little library alcove and the house was quiet.
Jaskier thought about how perfect Geralt’s hearing was and asked him about it and Geralt let slip the bones of a spare and bittersweet story of how he could sometimes hear a woman singing the next valley over from them and it was such a lonely, beautiful image that it brought a few glittering tears to Jaskier’s eyes. He felt for the first time in ages that he was well and that his sleepiness was the ordinary sleepiness of a busy day and it was warm but not too warm and he’d eaten plenty and there was nothing really to dread in his immediate future so for one golden second he let go of the ever-present certainty in his heart that he was about to fuck everything up.
Geralt said, “You look as though you feel better,” in his lowest and deepest voice.
Jaskier kicked back in his chair. “I do feel better,” he answered, content, thinking of almost nothing.
“Do you feel, uh, well enough to...?” Geralt began, carefully. The way he said it, Jaskier would have called it vulnerability on any other man, but he could not believe that Geralt might be worried Jaskier would reject him. It was so bizarrely backwards to how he knew things were between them.
Jaskier was already half standing from the chair. The sleepiness drifted away like a mist in the morning and his heart jumped into his throat. “I feel,” he said, very seriously. “As though I’m about to die from waiting.”
“Well then,” Geralt said, even as Jaskier closed the space between them and Geralt’s hands came to rest on Jaskier’s hips. Of course, at that moment, Jaskier remembered that he was going to fuck everything up, but he couldn’t make himself care as Geralt’s thumbs slid along the high waist of his breeches and he couldn’t make himself care as Geralt undid the fastenings and he definitely couldn’t make himself care as Geralt leaned in and took Jaskier’s instantly hard cock into his hot mouth.
“Holy shit,” he gasped. Geralt was already swallowing around him. There was a shaky moment where Jaskier thought he might topple over, but Geralt lifted him so he had a minute to spread his thighs across Geralt’s lap and balance with his knees on the arms of the wingback chair. He braced himself by gripping the top of the chair but Geralt reached up and moved one of Jaskier’s hands to the back of his head. Jaskier ran his fingers through Geralt’s hair, trying to convince himself not to pull. His hips stuttered as Geralt sucked around him. Jaskier looked down and it was way too good an image so he had to squeeze his eyes shut to keep himself from spending right then.
After a minute, Geralt pulled back and, voice shot, he rasped, “You’re being careful, quit it.”
“Oh fuck,” Jaskier said. “Okay,” and experimentally pushed his cock a little further down Geralt’s throat. He could have passed out from how good it was. He slid back a little and then in again, a very cautious fucking. Geralt hummed around him, pleased and pulled at Jaskier’s hips in the universal sign for more of that . Jaskier let himself move, his cock sliding back and forth, pushing up against the back of Geralt’s throat. Every few thrusts, Geralt would stop Jaskier’s hips, holding him in place and swallow further. It was the finest edge between torture and pleasure - that moment where it suddenly became obvious that despite their positions, Geralt was entirely in control and could move Jaskier wherever and however he wanted and there was nothing Jaskier could do about it. Geralt pulled back again enough to speak. “ Now you shut up?” he wondered aloud.
Jaskier snuck a glance down. His cock, flushed and stiff, bobbed a scant half-inch from Geralt’s lips, which were glistening. There was a little red in Geralt’s cheeks and his hair was mussed from Jaskier’s compulsive stroking.
“You want me to talk while you do it?” Jaskier asked, a little surprised.
Geralt’s face twitched. “I don’t want you to do anything,” he said, defensively, in that low and torn up voice.
Jaskier laughed at him. He couldn’t help it. “Sure,” he said. “You look entirely unaffected.” Even as he said it, doubt entered his mind. What if Geralt didn’t really want him? Geralt had weird ideas about guilt and owing people things. Maybe he was trying to wipe clean some imagined debt. Maybe he was doing this because he wanted to be absolutely certain of Jaskier’s loyalty and he’d seen how desperate Jaskier felt so this seemed like an obvious way to... to bribe him.
Embarrassingly, Geralt seemed to read the anxiety on Jaskier’s face and he said, more gently. “I want you... however you want it.” He paused, as if trying to decide whether this was worth a push, and then he added. “I just noticed that you’d gone quiet.”
“People generally get annoyed when I don’t shut up,” Jaskier said.
Geralt stared up at him, amused. Jaskier couldn’t stop staring at his wet mouth, at his own cock so, so close to Geralt’s slightly parted lips. As an image, it was fucking conveniant for preventing this brief emotional aside from affecting his arousal. “Hmm,” Geralt said, a little sarcasm tingeing his tone. “Let me think. Do I want to listen to the most over-dramatising storyteller I’ve ever met describe how it feels when I suck his cock in sensationalist detail? No, that sounds terrible. Think of what it might do to my ego.”
“You don’t even have an ego,” Jaskier argued.
“Yes,” Geralt replied, serious. “I do. And you can say whatever you want or nothing at all, but trust me, I might not be an ordinary man, but I like it when someone tells me how good I am.” A little lighter, he added. “This is probably the only situation where I’ll ever mean that wholeheartedly.”
“Ah, fuck,” Jaskier said as that space between Geralt’s mouth and Jaskier’s cock disappeared. Geralt put his tongue out, aware that Jaskier was watching him this time and drew him in slowly. “Fuck, fuck, you look so good doing that,” Jaskier said. “The way your throat feels around me, fuck it’s so wet and tight, ah, ah, your hands on my hips, I feel like you could do anything you wanted to me and I wouldn’t be able to stop you, yeah, come on, like that, fuck, I’m not gonna last if I’m allowed to talk, Geralt, please–” he whined, arching his back convulsively. “I’m so close now, can I touch you? I want to feel your cock first.”
Geralt released him with a wet sound. Jaskier sagged back, his thighs shaking. He might have lost his balance if not for Geralt’s hands wrapped around him, holding him in place. Jaskier climbed off the armrests with Geralt’s help and sank down onto his lap, taking care over Geralt’s injured leg. Geralt’s cock was a hard line, contained by his tight breeches. “Gods,” Jaskier moaned, rubbing his ass down against it and trapping his own exposed cock against the rough linen of Geralt’s shirt and under that, Geralt’s tense stomach. “You feel so big,” he said.
They both got distracted, rocking back and forth for a minute. Jaskier let his head fall to rest on Geralt’s shoulder, hands gripping his upper arms tight enough that on anyone else it might have left bruises, whispering in Geralt’s ear how it felt to have him moving underneath him, how it would feel if Geralt fucked him.
“Come on,” Geralt said. “Let’s do it properly.”
“Yes, please,” Jaskier said and slid back far enough to unfasten Geralt’s trousers for him, fumbling with the buttons. Geralt caught him up in a kiss while he was busy, his tongue sweeping into Jaskier’s mouth like a promise. The hand that wasn’t helping Jaskier keep his balance moved up to cup his chin and Jaskier sighed into Geralt’s mouth. How different it was, being told that he was wanted compared with feeling it in a kiss like that, drenched in certainty.
Once Geralt’s trousers were open, there was another moment of distraction where Jaskier licked all along his palm and wrapped it around Geralt’s cock for the feel of Geralt arching up into it. “Fuck,” he growled. “Jas, come on, I’m close enough already.”
Jaskier scrambled back off Geralt’s lap - he didn’t need to be told twice. They both stood up and got their trousers off. “Do you want to fuck me?” Jaskier asked.
“Not yet,” Geralt said. “You’re still weak.”
“I’m not!” Jaskier argued. “Please, you’ve got me in my head about it. I want it so bad now.”
“You could fuck me?”
“Not the same - I’ll get tired too quickly doing that anyway.” Jaskier knew he was whining about it, but he didn’t care.
“I’ll fuck myself on you,” Geralt suggested, voice perfectly even.
Jaskier choked. “Well, that’s definitely going to happen at some point now. But that’s not what I... I want to feel...”
Geralt smirked down at him. His expression said he knew just what Jaskier wanted to feel and that he was going to use Jaskier accordingly. Geralt slid his hands up Jaskier’s chest, thumbing at his nipples, then he smoothed his hands round to Jaskier’s back, pressing in and letting his fingertips meet along Jaskier’s spine, sweeping down till Jaskier was shivering with the sensation. He felt owned.
“I’ll do your thighs,” Geralt said. Jaskier swallowed hard. Geralt bent down and came back up with a vial of oil from his trouser pocket. He’d planned this. He tipped it out, glistening, into his hands and slicked it all between Jaskier’s thighs, between his ass cheeks, smeared one hand round and took hold of Jaskier’s cock and stroked him till Jaskier couldn’t control his breathing anymore and he was panting out in little “Yes, ah, uh, yeah,” breaths. Geralt kissed Jaskier on the back of the neck and then bent him forward. Distracted, he windmilled a little till Geralt braced their hips together, his big cock slipping up between Jaskier’s thighs. Jaskier gripped the armrests of the chair to steady himself further as Geralt fucked himself in between Jaskier’s ass cheeks. He followed the path of his cock with his thumb and nudged Jaskier’s hole. “Don’t, unless you’ve changed your mind...” Jaskier panted. “You’re teasing.”
“Fine, fine,” Geralt said. “Put your legs tighter together.”
“Yeah,” Jaskier gasped. “Yeah, of course.” He clenched his thighs. He felt as tightly wound as a spring. Geralt pushed in again. There was more oil, he must have slicked himself, and he gripped Jaskier’s cock as he moved, sliding in at the same pace so if Jaskier closed his eyes there was a kind of strange feedback loop where he almost felt like the blunt pressure of Geralt taking his pleasure was also his – they were twisted up in the warm dark together.
Geralt started fucking in earnest, deep strokes, sometimes slipping a little so that his cock would brush up instead of down, gliding briefly over Jaskier’s hole, sometimes hard enough that the tip of Geralt’s cock pushed up against Jaskier’s balls. All the while, Geralt kept his own slick fist in place around Jaskier’s cock for him to fuck up into and Jaskier was babbling the whole time. “Fuck it feels so tight, imagine how it’ll be when I ride you, ah, you feel good, feels big, put your hand like – ah, yeah, harder–”
And then Geralt was coming across the back of Jaskier’s thighs, a hot splash that set him off too. He felt like he’d been on the edge for so long. When he tipped over, the feeling on the other side was deep enough to drown in. He was gasping as Geralt turned them both around again, sitting heavily on the armchair and pulling Jaskier back onto his lap, one arm wrapped loosely around his waist, so they could lay there, sprawled against each other, catching their breath. Geralt rubbed a wet hand across Jaskier’s side. “I’ve made a mess of you,” he said, a little pleased with himself, a little apologetic.
“Bound to happen sooner or later,” Jaskier replied and it came out rueful even though he hadn’t meant for that. Luckily, Geralt didn’t seem to notice, just tucked his face into the sweaty hair at the nape of Jaskier’s neck and kissed him absently, grumbling something about cleaning them both up.
Warnings: This chapter contains descriptions of illness and there is graphic sex
Chapter 4: PART IV – Late Summer
A hunting party; a threat
SIX MONTHS LATER
“I have to admit, I’m a little confused about what’s happening here,” Jaskier said, watching Yennefer sprint around the dining room with a half open spell book in one hand and a huge armful of hot-house flowers in the other. She was muttering under her breath and as she did so. Wallpaper of the most up-to-date Vizima fashion was unrolling itself over the plaster, garish after months getting used to the plain linen and neutral colours that were the Manor House’s natural state. “You know the season is ending, right?”
“The Vizima season is ending,” Yennefer clarified. “And when the Vizima season ends, where do all the little lords and ladies go?”
“Their... country estates,” Jaskier answered, beginning to see.
“Exactly.” Yennefer slowed briefly to explain. “The surrounding foothills are about to echo with the dulcet tones of single ladies’ swishing gowns and bored eligible men shooting their rifles at undeserving wood pigeons. And they will come calling.”
“Why? ” Jaskier asked. “Isn’t Geralt’s very existence a bit taboo?”
Yennefer’s mouth pinched. “And if you were the neighbour or even the neighbour’s neighbour of the most scandalous man in a hundred miles, you wouldn’t spend every second of your unfulfilling life trying to get a look inside his house to see what the situation is with his mysterious sort-of-daughter and his literal witch of an ex-wife who still lives with him?”
“I take your point,” Jaskier offered lightly, silently tacking on and his governess-slash-lover who’s famous for fucking his employers on to the end of Yennefer’s already thorough account, since it was definitely his responsibility to mitigate the potential damage surrounding that little detail.
“Could you quit bothering me and go pick some pretty little song to perform that will charm the masses,” Yennefer snapped, waving him off with one flapping hand. Her fingertips crackled menacingly with visible blue static.
Ciri skidded into the room. She was half-dressed. A comically fluffy white chemise ballooned from under a half-finished skirt. “I am NOT wearing this,” she announced, looking uncertain as to whether she should direct her gaze at Jaskier or Yennefer.
Angoulême appeared, out of breath and red-faced. Her usually severe hair was frizzing around her temples. “Lady Cirilla!” she called after Ciri. The formality of her address illustrated her frustration. “You are wearing it and I’m not a seamstress so it won’t be finished in time if you don’t let me have the rest of the measurements I need! ”
“It’s light blue,” Ciri whined.
“Since when do you care what colour something is?” Yennefer asked.
“I can’t run in it. It’s long,” she said.
“You wanted to dress like a grown up,” Yennefer said. “That is what a grown up lady wears to a hunting party.”
“It’s a hunting party?” Ciri whined. “I’m definitely not going to be able to hunt dressed like this!”
“No,” Yennefer agreed. “You’re not. You’re going to wait on the lawn and fan yourself and say how hot it is considering it’s practically autumn and smile and explain what’s in the sandwiches.”
A look of pure rage came over Ciri’s face and Jaskier saw her fists clench in the fabric. There was no use ruining good muslin whether Ciri was ever going to be convinced into it or not. It was a nice colour, more of a duck egg blue than light blue. Maybe Angoulême could have the dress herself if they couldn’t get Ciri into it. Saints knew where she’d wear it but it didn’t deserve to meet its end at the hands of a teenager testing boundaries.
“Ciri!” Jaskier interrupted before either of them could say anything more. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Geralt suggested we might do a song together in the evening. Can you come help me choose it?”
“But–” she began to argue, but calling Geralt’s authority into the picture seemed to cut her sails after a half-second of thought.
“We’ll sort it out,” Jaskier assured her. “No one wants you to be unhappy. Off with the dress, hand it back to Angoulême.” He came across and started tugging on the ribbons at her shoulders. She put her arms up almost automatically and he had it off her and safely back in Angoulême’s hands in under a minute. Left in her poofy chemise with her face in mourning, she looked like the ghost of an orphan in a story book.
Give me thirty minutes, he mouthed at Angoulême over Ciri’s head. She looked relieved that the problem of convincing Ciri wasn’t hers anymore and disappeared through the door, slinging the armful of fine fabric over her shoulder.
“Come on,” Jaskier said, steering Ciri out of the room. “Let’s go to the music room.”
Jaskier had rehabilitated one of the many disused spare rooms, which had once hosted either guests or night horrors – it was always a toss up in this house – into a kind of classroom. After Jaskier had accidentally filled it with instruments and scores, Angoulême took to calling it the music room and the name stuck.
Inside, the big wooden work table in the centre of the room was covered in annotated sheet music. He’d been composing again, lately. He cleared the scruffy attempts and half-finished scores into a neat pile and then began to flick through, looking for anything that might be useful. Jasier well knew he wasn’t about to strike gold, but the task allowed Ciri a minute to calm down.
Once the tension had mostly leached out of her shoulders and she stopped picking at the wood of the table, Jaskier opened up the conversation. “Will you please finally explain to me why exactly we are throwing parties in the Manor House and not boarding up the windows and pretending we’re not home?” he asked.
“Oh,” she said. It disarmed her that he hadn’t immediately turned the conversation to her feelings. “I think it’s some kind of obligation?” she began to explain. “You know, until you pointed it out, I’ve never thought it strange before.”
“You’ve never thought it strange before that Geralt, who behaves in every possible way, deliberate and accidental, as a societal outcast, would decide to suddenly start hosting parties?”
“I dunno,” she mused. “They have them every year, but I wasn’t allowed till now. Last year, Eskel came and took me early to Kaer Morhen. I guess Geralt just wants the other gentlemen to know who he is.”
“ Why?” Jaskier asked.
“They don’t come to me otherwise,” Geralt said, appearing, ghost-like, at the door to the music room. Incongruously, he was holding a dressmaker’s tape measure.
“Who doesn’t come?” Jaskier asked. Geralt crossed over to Ciri and held out the tape measure and a small slip of paper, which Jaskier read upside down to see that it was a list of the measurements Angoulême presumably required to get on with her haphazard seamstressing.
“If the lords don’t know me and they think of me as a true outcast, they don’t come with their problems. I tried it to get away without it. The Witcher before me did too, but it just makes more work later, cleaning up messes that have gotten out of hand. It’s not like the old days, ‘toss a coin’ and all that. They think if we aren’t gentlemen and we don’t belong amongst them then it’s vulgar to ask for our help.”
“They don’t think it’s vulgar to hire a blacksmith or a bricklayer,” Jaskier argued. Ciri was struggling to measure around her upper arms, since she had to lift the arm and adjust the tape at the same time. Jaskier rescued the tape and did it for her, carrying on the argument over her head. “Or a midwife or a wet nurse - if you’re about to tell me it’s something to do with intimacy.”
Geralt shook his head. “It’s not about intimacy,” he agreed. “In fact, I think they’d rather I wasn’t a gentleman in the face of their private dramas because then they’d think they were on higher ground when they told me to keep my mouth shut. It’s about the swords.”
Jaskier opened his mouth to ask what Geralt meant, but as he thought, the reasoning became obvious. Witcher history was murky, but Jaskier reckoned that he knew a ballad or two that talked about just what flavour revolt you’d end up with when Witchers rode by and common people stood in the street shouting ‘he’s just like us!’. It had happened in other countries – across the sea they didn’t have a King anymore. The gentry from Tretogor to Vizima to Toussaint might not agree on much, but they certainly wouldn’t like the idea of a common man running around the countryside looking after high and low born alike carrying two swords slung across his back and twice as good at fighting than any man with Sir Whatever or Baron This for a name. No matter what it cost them, it was better to drag the Witchers out of the mud, polish them up and set them like a trophy on the shelf next to the other stories of blue-blooded saints and semi-divine kings.
“They wouldn’t rather you take the title and leave them in peace?” Jaskier asked, after a long moment considering this. He made a few notes on Angoulême’s measurement list and handed the tape back to Ciri, who grudgingly took over and did the underbust measurements herself.
“They have to see it’s real,” Geralt said. “They have to see that I’m...” he sighed, looking awkwardly at his black boots. “...civilised.”
Jaskier closed the space between them. He put one finger against the cool metal of the large broach Geralt wore on his chest, traced the shape of the wolf there. “They ask too much of you,” he said, in a soft and private voice.
Something shifted in Geralt’s expression. He reached up and touched the crease Jaskier’s worried frown made in his brow. “It’s no matter,” Geralt said. “Out of all the things I do.” His tone changed – lightening in a way that would have been imperceptible to anyone who hadn’t spent months studying his every micro-expression. “We have a dual purpose now,” he said, gesturing to Ciri.
They turned as one. She felt their eyes settle on her. “What?!” she asked, petulant.
“You don’t intend to give her a season in Vizima in a few years?” Jaskier asked, curious.
Geralt shrugged. “It’s neither here nor there. I will if she wants one, but it will be better for society to see what she’s like now. The more gradual her introduction, the less of a stir she’ll make.”
Jaskier could see the logic here. “Yennefer is going out of her mind trying to dress her up like a perfect little pre-debutante.”
Geralt gazed upwards, put-upon – he was evidently aware of the issue. “How about this,” he suggested. “Ciri, wear the dress for the dinner. Play something with Jaskier, recite a poem for the ladies. But when we hunt, you may ride with us and show off your skills. You’re a crack shot - it would be a shame to waste you.”
“You know you’re not going to shoot at anything?” Jaskier was not-so-privately amused. “The dogs take down the fox.”
“Huh?” Geralt asked. “What have I let Yen plan? For fuck’s sake. We shot things last time! We ate them!”
“You went pheasant hunting on foot,” Ciri said. “Yen says you were too good at it.”
Geralt sighed. “What’s this fox even done to anyone?” he mused, aimless.
“But I can still come?” Ciri asked. “Wearing whatever I want?” she added, pushing her luck.
“Within reason,” Jaskier quickly edited, flicking his eyes to meet Geralt’s, who dipped his chin a half-inch in agreement.
Ciri sighed, but underneath she was glowing with victory. “Within reason,” she confirmed.
Jaskier braced himself to be neatly shunted to the side for the day of the hunt. He found Angoulême early to ask her if she needed help putting guest rooms together, but she shooed him off.
“You’ve got to get Roach Two ready,” she said. “You leave in an hour!”
Jaskier’s riding skills had improved, living for months in a house full of people who thought that ripping one’s thigh muscles to shreds on the back of a horse cavorting through the woods for two hours was lovely break from real work, but he hadn’t expected anyone to let him near a full blown hunt.
Angoulême saw his alarmed expression. “No one’s expecting you to successfully bring back a mythical white hart, Jas, stand down. You’re there to accompany Ciri and also...” she looked a little shifty. “Maybe encourage Geralt to actually let one of the other gentlemen do something. He forgets they can’t all smell the wind direction.” She wiggled her fingers, presumably to indicate Geralt’s unsettling senses at work.
“Sure,” Jaskier answered, dubious. He couldn’t recall ever having spent longer than an hour at a party hosted by one of his employers. He would sometimes come out with the children and coach them through some painful recitation of a poem early in the afternoon. Maybe if he had a particularly good relationship, he’d stay on after shooing the children back out of sight, for a glass of wine and a few minutes of dire small talk before someone raised an eyebrow and it was clear that it was time for him to go. He’d certainly never gone on a hunt. The rest of it - standing at the corner of the room for twenty minutes trying to keep his mouth shut to avoid embarrassing anyone and inevitably failing – Jaskier would just have to see how the day unfolded. He didn’t want to be disappointed before anyone even deserved it.
Jaskier rode at the back of the party for the start. At first he was worried he wouldn’t be able to keep up but it soon became obvious that he’d improved more than he’d thought. Half the men present were no better than him and some were worse. A few jostled around at a trot, barely able to post.
There was a lady riding sidesaddle, looking sharp and pristine in a black hat. She positioned herself rather confidently near Geralt. Jaskier thought Ciri might gravitate towards her since she seemed a ripe prospect for a bit of hero worship, but Ciri was having too much fun with the fact that no one had even realised she was a girl. In her riding leathers with her hair shoved out of the way in a flat cap, she looked like she could be one of the huntsman’s boys, being shown the ropes. Jaskier had never seen her ride sidesaddle. She’d probably have to be convinced to learn at some point, because Jaskier couldn’t imagine it was easy. That was a headache to enjoy another day.
Geralt didn’t keep dogs since he didn’t hunt, per se, and he wouldn’t have needed a pet to sniff them out if he did. If Geralt had held a grudge against a fox, Jaskier imagined he’d probably have crept up behind it in the night and snatched it up with one hand around its throat. As a result, a nearish neighbour had lent his pack – a lot of thin white and sand lurchers with spindly legs. The neighbour was acting as Master of the Hunt, but he kept glancing over his shoulder as if checking for Geralt’s approval, which was rapidly degrading his authority.
The day was cool with the promise of autumn. Jaskier leaned forward to rest his head for a moment along Roach’s neck and whisper to her. Ahead of them, he watched the dogs surge away into the undergrowth and then return like a swelling sea. Lord Pelka fell back from the main group. Jaskier had a grudge against Lord Pelka: fair or not, he secretly blamed the idiot for the Flotsam Incident and therefore the way that Geralt still sometimes winced if he came down too hard on his leg in the wrong weather.
“Mr Pankratz, is it?” he asked, as their horses drew shoulder to shoulder. Whatever showed on Jaskier’s face must’ve given away his displeasure. “Or do you prefer Julian? I heard Sir Geralt runs his household... informally.”
“Jaskier,” he answered. “That’s what I go by.”
Lord Pelka raised an eyebrow. “How sweet,” he said, smiling sympathetically like he thought Jaskier was probably thick. “I’ve met one of your brothers, I think,” he said. He failed to add any further detail, but Jaskier didn’t blame him. In fact, it even excused his low estimation of Jaskier somewhat. There was nothing much to distinguish any of the Pankratz brothers from each other nor from a dozen other society men. Much to everyone’s dismay, Jaskier was the exception. Pelka cast around for something else to say. For once, Jaskier sat silently, refusing to make it easy. “You ride well,” Pelka said at last. “Are you fond of horses?”
“Not really,” Jasker replied. “Lady Cirilla taught me.”
Pelka seemed to take this as a joke. “Oh, I haven’t made the infamous young lady’s acquaintance yet,” he said. “I hear she’s quite the handful.”
“She’s there,” Jaskier indicated Ciri, who was weaving through the trees just at the edge of the deer trail they were following. Kelpie took the turns with such a sprightly ease she barely seemed to be touching the ground. Pelka’s jaw nearly dropped and Jaskier tried not to let any petty amusement show on his face.
“I thought that was...” Pelka began faintly. “I thought that must’ve been some local boy.”
“She was very disappointed we aren’t shooting anything,” Jaskier said. “You should see her moving target practice. It’s unsettling stuff.”
“Uh-huh,” Pelka replied, voice uneven. Jaskier expected him to wander off at that point but he didn’t. They rode in silence for another long five minutes while the sunlight winked through the trees, and birds chattered above them. The whole group was ambling since the dogs still hadn’t caught a scent. Finally Pelka said. “So... Lady Yennefer...”
Ah. He was trying to pump Jaskier for gossip. Now it all made sense.
“She and Sir Geralt...” Pelka continued.
“Look,” Jaskier cut him off. “You must know that I’m up to my eyeballs in confidentiality contracts. I’ll save you the effort and promise you there’s not much to tell you anyway.”
The tips of Pelka’s ears went red with shame at Jaskier calling him out. He spent a moment looking chastised and then as was the way with powerful men, he managed to shake himself out of it and remember that there wasn’t anything anyone could do about him being a bad person so he might as well conduct his business as unpleasantly as he liked. “I’ve heard...” he said, flicking his eyes forward to ensure they were far enough back from the main group he could be confident they wouldn’t be overheard. “That you might be amenable to skirting around the edge of contracts. If you know what I mean. For the right price, of course.”
Jaskier looked away so he could roll his eyes without Pelka catching him at it. ‘If you know what I mean’. Right. Not exactly a carefully veiled metaphor was it? The dolt. “Shall I tell you an interesting story?” Jaskier asked.
Pelka sat up in his saddle, looking more eager than he had all day. “Be my guest,” he said.
“Well, the other day I was teaching Ciri her lessons down by the brook – the one we just passed over a moment ago – we were over where it runs into the orchard. And in the lesson, I was explaining some interesting facts about the Battle Without Sun to her. If you didn’t know, my lord, several Witchers fought in the battle. Very unusual, for at that time, they were considered ungoverned by any one Kingdom. We were discussing the reasoning behind this.”
Pelka was confused. He didn’t see where this was going.
“At dinner that evening, Sir Geralt said I’d got some of the facts wrong. He went about explaining the politics of Medieval Witchers to us. Witcher history is a hobby of his, though he’d never admit it. I said, ‘wait a moment, Geralt, weren’t you in the far pond collecting buckthorn all morning? When did Ciri tell you about this?’ and he said, ‘no, I just overheard’. The far pond is the one you pass before you come to the front gate of the Manor House. What's the distance from there to here, do you think? One mile? Two?”
For a long minute, Pelka’s face remained fixed with puzzlement. Then, as the point of Jaskier’s story dawned on him, his gaze snapped to the front of the hunt. Geralt’s head was turned, watching them. When his sharp, inhuman eyes locked with Pelka’s, he held up one hand in a half-wave. Jaskier returned the gesture and let a mean and private smile curl across his face. Pelka went white.
“Unfortunately with Sir Geralt, I simply don’t have the same leeway,” Jaskier said, like it really did disappoint him.
“Of course,” Pelka said, near whispering. Without another word, he dug his heels in and his horse shot forward to catch up to the rest of the hunt.
Jaskier thought that would be the end of it, but in fact, it was barely the beginning. He spent the rest of the ride fending off the attention of a long string of riders. Some of them wanted to ask him about Geralt, most of them wanted to ask him about Yennefer. One of them seemed to think he could convince Jaskier to put in a good word with Geralt about his teenaged son’s aptitude as a future marriage prospect for Ciri. Pointing out Ciri, who at that moment had been galloping ahead of the rest of the hunt in hot pursuit, standing in her saddle and shouting nonsensically at the dogs, had not discouraged him. Jaskier couldn’t decide whether that was a good sign or not. He was rather concerned that he’d gotten so mixed up making clear he didn’t have any say in the matter that he hadn’t actually told the man that he would do no such thing. By the time the hunt had ended – the brush was awarded to the lady who’d ridden practically the whole time at Geralt’s side – Jaskier was actually sick of talking.
Ciri rode with him on the way back, chattering away about some trick riding feats she was hoping to accomplish. It was soothing, listening to the familiar cadence of her carefree voice, but Jaskier found his eyes drifting again and again to the woman rider and Geralt. Their horse’s shoulders were practically touching. A few times, Jaskier caught sight of the side of Geralt’s mouth curving up at the edge as he half-turned his face to look down at her.
“Is it Lady Maryja you keep staring at?” Ciri asked after he failed to notice she’d gone quiet mid-sentence.
“No,” Jaskier said, too quickly.
“She’s awfully pretty,” Ciri admitted. “And she rides nearly as well as me... but I thought...”
There was something funny in her tone. Jaskier looked round quickly to catch her gaze. She was staring off into the trees, her chin tipped up in that prideful way she had.
“You thought what?” Jaskier asked.
“Well, I know I’m not really supposed to have noticed, but I thought that you and Geralt kind of...” she sighed sheepishly, her mood shifting her weight in the saddle so her shoulders dipped inwards. “I thought you were kind of... oh, come on Jas, you know what I mean.”
“Hmm,” Jaskier said. There was an echo of Geralt’s voice in the way that avoidant, drawn out sound shaped his own mouth. Maybe they were spending too much time together, though Jaskier was always complaining that it was barely enough. He sighed, shaking his head as if to clear it. “That’s not for you to worry about, sweetheart. I’m not looking at Lady Maryja. Not like that anyway.”
This seemed to satisfy her. Or at least she nodded and she suggested they sing to pass the remaining time, so they practised Sweet Sleeps the Babe and Bridge Over the Pontar . By the end of the second song, they’d gathered a little crowd of gentlemen who’d slowed their horses to listen and were encouraged to continue, so they did the long version of Song of Ban Glean too. Ciri only knew the chorus so far, but it made for a pretty rendition, their voices handing the tune back and forth. Under the dappled sunlight, they came in sight of the Manor House again and Jaskier was in such a better mood, he even let himself pretend he hadn’t noticed how Geralt helped Lady Maryja down from her horse with one perfectly gentlemanly hand and led her into the stables himself.
Jaskier was still waiting for his turn at the mounting block – he was a better rider than he’d ever been, yes, but Roach Two was tall and he wasn’t trying to win any awards over here – when Geralt reappeared. Jaskier was a little mollified to see that not a single white strand of hair was out of place on Geralt’s head. Certainly, Jaskier hadn’t spent the ten minutes that Geralt had been out of sight feverishly obsessing over whatever dishevelling activities Geralt might be doing in the dark stalls. Lady Maryja had detached herself from Geralt’s side and was nowhere to be seen now.
Geralt strode across the yard and fed Roach Two a carrot out of his pocket. He must have got it from the bag they kept in the tack room. He patted her on the shoulder and then reached up and put his hands around Jaskier’s waist. After giving Jaskier half a second to prepare himself, Geralt lifted him out of the saddle and set him neatly on his feet. Jaskier’s breath caught a little. He probably wouldn’t ever really get over Geralt, but he was only a mortal man, what else could be expected of him? Geralt brought one big hand up and cupped Jaskier’s face, smoothing a thumb across his cheekbone. Jaskier stared up at him confused.
“It’s funny,” Geralt murmured. “I don’t remember you signing a single confidentiality contract when you came to work for me, and yet the latest gossip is that I hired a Law Witch in Oxenfurt to create a contractual spell that would boil your blood in your veins if you let slip a single secret concerning the... what was it I overheard? The ‘nefarious goings on in the North Tower’.”
“Uh...” Jaskier said.
“And yet...” Geralt said. “At the same time, everyone seems entirely convinced that they are just about to get something out of you if maybe they come up with a bribe good enough.”
“Old habits die hard?” Jaskier tried, squeakily.
Geralt bestowed half of a smile on him and gently patted his cheek. “I genuinely cannot tell whether you’re trying to make them afraid of me, or make them think that you hate me, or make them think that I hate you nor can I tell whether any of them actually are going to get a secret out of you.”
It was Jaskier’s turn to grin. “So you see the point!” Jaskier said. “Now I’ve got all the cards.”
Geralt sighed, half-amused, half-exasperated. “What do you need to gamble for?” he asked. He didn’t quite seem to expect an answer, just stared down at Jaskier, his golden cat’s gaze miles deep.
After a long minute, he turned to go, hands dropping away from Jaskier’s waist. As he set foot towards the house, Jaskier caught his sleeve and said in a rush. “I don’t mean to gamble, but it is really like I said... old habits and I just... want to be useful to you.”
Geralt didn’t turn back to look at Jaskier, but he answered. His voice was quiet – hard to hear though they were close enough that if they’d been face-to-face, Jaskier would’ve felt Geralt’s breath on his skin. “You don’t have to try at that.”
When they arrived at the house, Yennefer looked nervous. She took Geralt by the elbow and led him out of the entrance hall as soon as they came in, her face closed off. Ciri and Jaskier shared a look, watching them, but no one else seemed to notice. The gentlemen were being shuffled off to their rooms by the ruthlessly efficient Angoulême and ladies were coming in from the garden, gossiping over the decor with their hands half covering their smiles.
Jaskier went to wash up in the kitchen, not willing to wait till after the guests were all delivered their pitchers of hot water to have his. Angoulême came in to find him dripping into the soup. She looked rushed off her feet and she put him to work pitting sour cherries. Ciri came in after a while, half-ready in her lovely duck egg dress but her hair around her shoulders. Jaskier convinced her to put on an enormous apron to protect her outfit and they finished the cherries together, making jokes about bloodstained hands. Yennefer arrived finally and said nothing much as she made Ciri hold still on the kitchen stool, piling hair on top of her head with the judicious application of ribbons.
She stood for a moment, looking dissatisfied with the wisps of fringe framing Ciri’s face. “If you try to curl it, I’ll run away,” Ciri said firmly, glaring up at Yennefer.
“Fine, fine,” Yennefer replied. She tucked a stray strand behind Ciri’s ear. “My dear,” she said. Her tone was very serious. “Something has happened. Lord Cahir is here.”
Ciri stiffened in her seat. Her petulant expression was replaced with something at once steely and frightened. “Why?” she asked. “Why now?”
“He didn’t say, of course,” she said. “Well... he said it’s familial duty to look in on you. He said he’d heard we were hosting and he was certain his invitation must have been lost. I think... Geralt and I have been looking into the matter. He’s been speaking with lawyers these last months. He may have some idea he can get custody of you.”
Ciri looked sick.
“You needn’t be upset, I just want you to understand. The law of surprise is considered old-fashioned, yes, but there is no reason for it not to be honoured. Even if it came to some legal matter, we have a good standing as long as we give no reason that Geralt is unsuitable as a guardian.”
Ciri’s fists were clenched in the white fabric of the apron, leaving bright, arterial streaks of cherry juice behind. “Sometimes,” she whispered, speaking like the words were being torn from her, “I wish he would just be done with it and kill me.”
Yennefer was surprised at the vehemence in Ciri’s words. Her hands hovered like birds not certain where to settle, but it was Jaskier who came forward and folded Ciri into his arms. “No, sweetheart,” he said. “You’ve got it backwards. Sometimes you just wish you could be done with it and kill him.”
Ciri turned her face up to them and Jaskier used the corner of her apron to clear the tears caught at the corners of her eyes. Before them, the fear in her faded and the steel came forward, straightening her back and setting her chin firmly. “What would happen... if I did?”
Yennefer took the question seriously. She stood, thinking for a long moment. Her eyes were caught on Ciri’s stained apron. “Let’s make that the last resort,” she said.
Ciri nodded. “Certainly,” she said softly. She stepped off the stool and there was something strange about the way she settled onto the ground, a kind of gravity like the kitchen was straining towards her. Yennefer’s eyes narrowed watching as Ciri went to the door. Her eyes flashed green as lightning on the sea as she turned back to them, framed in the doorway. “Tell my cousin I’ve missed him,” she said. “And seat us next to each other at dinner.” She turned away on a soundless heel.
“If this goes wrong, I’m blaming you,” Yennefer said, following Ciri out of the room at a mildly panicked pace. Jaskier swallowed. It hadn’t sounded like she was joking.
Chapter 5: PART V
Singing; running away
See end of chapter notes for content warnings
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
At dinner, Yennefer took Lord Cahir’s arm into the room, unceremoniously leaving the heavily mustachioed man who happened to be the highest ranking gentleman hovering awkwardly in the doorway. He looked uncertain as to whether he should take the arm of the next highest ranking lady in forfeit or jump out the window.
Lady Maryja turned out to have at least an inch of good sense, because she responded to the etiquette upset by saying, loud enough to be overheard and in a delighted tone, “Oh I have heard this is the way they do it in Kaer Morhen and the far reaches of the Blue Mountains. We must each take a new friend in, if possible. I will have Lady Ewa’s arm since we met only this morning. We may sit wherever, isn’t it so, Sir Geralt?”
He grunted a vague agreement to this statement. For all Jaskier knew, it was true. Usually they all came tumbling in for dinner at the same time, in various states of dinner dress. Ciri was usually filthy and had to be sent away to wash her face, at least. Half the time, Yennefer read at the table and it was usually up to Jaskier to make any interesting conversation.
Jaskier accompanied someone’s younger sister in - she was happy to be on any arm at all. Once they were round the table, Yennefer deposited Lord Cahir in the second seat on the right from the head and glared pointedly at Jaskier till he took the seat beside Cahir. Geralt had Ciri’s arm and put her in the empty spot between himself at the head and Lord Cahir. Yennefer circled to the other side and took the second seat down so she would be opposite Cahir. It seemed they were taking no chances. Lord Cahir was surrounded.
Pelka scored the seat beside Yennefer and Lady Maryja went to her other side, next to Geralt. Jaskier looked down at his silverware. It didn’t mean anything; it didn’t bother him in the slightest. Lady Ewa sat down to Jaskier’s right. She looked a little disappointed to find herself next to the tutor but he turned to her with his charm fully ignited. “I hear you’re a fan of poetry, my lady,” he hazarded a guess – she seemed like the type. Her face lit up and they were off, knee deep in discussion about alliterative metrical forms within five minutes.
Lord Cahir looked disappointed to discover that Jaskier, the supposed safe option, was occupied and Yennefer across from him had been drawn in by Pelka. He was left with only Ciri for conversation now. Cahir stared down the line of his narrow nose at his empty plate. His skin was so pale it was nearly translucent. His veins stood out purple at his temple and wrists. He looked vulnerable.
“Ciri,” Geralt said, resting his elbows on the table. “Why don’t you tell your cousin about your studies?”
“Oh,” Ciri said. “Of course.” She looked down at her hands – they were folded neatly in her lap. “I’ve nearly finished Greig’s History. I’m writing an essay on–” she abruptly cut herself off.
Jaskier hid a smile in his napkin. She was writing an essay on dragon lore, comparing groups throughout history who’d hunted dragons versus worshipped them and their relative success. It was not a topic for a well bred young lady. “Uh...” she stuttered over the bowl of soup Angoulême delivered. “Well, you know I’ve also begun mathematics with a view to household management. It’s very, uh... interesting,” she lied through her teeth.
The fact of the matter was the Cahir wasn’t even listening to her. He was glaring daggers across the table at Yennefer. Every now and then he’d turn his head slightly, like he was trying to catch a glimpse of Geralt from the corner of his eye but didn’t feel brave enough for a direct look.
“Jaskier?” Lady Ewa asked. “I asked if you’d read the Northern Sagas?”
Jaskier turned back to her slowly. He noticed that Lady Maryja was taking pity on Ciri and asked her a question about Grieg. Geralt’s mouth twitched approvingly. “The... sorry, say that again,” he asked, dragging his gaze away from Geralt’s pristine white cuffs.
“The Northern Sagas?” she asked.
“Oh, of course,” Jaskier said. “Yes, certainly.”
The rest of dinner progressed in this manner. He worried over Ciri – the wind had blown out of her sails in the face of Cahir’s disinterest. What could she do if he wouldn’t even meet her as an opponent? He worried over Yennefer and Cahir glaring at each other without meeting gazes hard enough to burn holes through a dinner plate. At one point he was pretty sure the man’s shirt smoked a little. It did not seem to be a recipe for deft politics. He worried over Lady Maryja laughing at everything Ciri or Geralt said, with her hair like a shining river and her voice like sleigh bells.
“You know,” Lady Ewa said to him, conspiratorially, over dessert. “I have heard that Lady Maryja is set to inherit her own fortune, regardless of marriage.”
“Oh?” Jaskier said, confused by the direction of the conversation.
“I’m just saying,” she said, dropping her voice to just above a whisper. “I’ve noticed you watching her. If you wanted me to introduce you...”
“She’s free to marry whoever she chooses, even...” her voice trailed off as she realised there was no polite way to say ‘even some murky-blooded fop singing for his supper, whose highest achievement to date is a certain notoriety ’.
“Is she?” Jaskier said, voice faint. Though Jaskier was an unreformed people-pleaser, he could not scrub the sarcasm from his voice as he said, “Well, isn’t that splendid.”
Lady Ewa was shrewd enough. Her brow creased as she looked from Jaskier’s stiff expression to Lady Maryja and then finally to Geralt. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “No!” She looked again at each of them. “You don’t think she’s interested in Sir Geralt? But he’s so....” she blushed. “He’s terrifying.”
Jaskier leaned back a little, tipped his head so he could glance at the ceiling and thought for a longing moment of the swirled ceiling rose in his own bedroom. “I think some people like that kind of thing,” he said. To his own ear, he sounded embarrassingly crushed. Whatever he was really feeling – it was more complicated than that.
“Goodness,” Lady Ewa said, a little awkward now. “Well, I suppose you may be right.”
After dinner, the ladies went into the drawing room and the men into the library. Jaskier was relieved Ciri would have a break from Cahir and, though he tried not to let himself think it, that Lady Maryja and Geralt would have a break from each other. Unfortunately Cahir still wasn’t brave enough to approach Geralt directly, so he fell upon Jaskier as a source of information.
“I hear you are my cousin’s tutor?” he began, snide.
“Guilty as charged!” Jaskier smiled a winning smile, which slid right off of Cahir like he was an oiled snake.
“I’ve heard of you...” Cahir narrowed his colourless eyes.
“Well, we did sit next to each other throughout dinner!” Jaskier carried on with airheaded cheer.
Cahir smirked at him. He seemed to be forming the opinion that Jaskier was a guileless idiot, so that was going according to plan. “What I meant,” Cahir carried on, sharp, “is that your reputation precedes you.”
“Really? Does it?” Jaskier asked, letting his face soften and his eyes go big and hopeful. “In what way?”
Cahir’s already pinched face squeezed down further on itself. He seemed caught between irritation and confusion. “You know,” he said, crossing his arms tightly over his chest. “I’ve heard about your... escapades. ”
“My what?” Jaskier said, widening his eyes even a little further and gazing blankly up into Cahir’s severe expression.
“Jas?” A warm hand settled in the small of Jaskier’s back. Geralt loomed suddenly at his shoulder, appearing as if from thin air. Cahir visibly startled and glanced wildly around as if he might be able to see where Geralt and his improbably silent boots had come from.
“Yes?” Jaskier smiled sweetly up at him.
“I came to see if you’d go and get your guitar so you and Ciri can sing for us.”
“Oh, certainly!” Jaskier barely restrained himself from fluttering his eyelashes and Geralt looked down at him like he knew exactly what Jaskier was about.
Jaskier went out into the cool and silent hallway. He let the door close behind him so there was only the smallest sliver of light and noise coming from within. He stood with the handle at his back for a moment and took a deep breath. He rolled his shoulders and fussed with the bone buttons of his dinner jacket. One was coming loose. Maybe if he promised to help with laundry day, Angoulême would fix it. The handle disappeared from under his back and the unmistakable presence of Geralt took its place, clove oil and the leashed illusion of a storm silent behind a windowpane. Jaskier knew it was him before he spoke or felt Geralt’s hand settle on his waist.
They stepped out fully into the hallway together. Geralt pushed him, gently, leading him twenty paces down the hall to a deep set window alcove. He nudged Jaskier into the alcove and drew the heavy velvet curtains – recently hung by Yennefer’s whirlwind redecoration spells – behind them. They were cocooned entirely within. The window was a little ajar against the warmth of late summer nights. A breeze whispered in, across the back of Jaskier’s neck, making him shiver as the hairs on his arms all stood on end. The little light there was laid across them in a fine veil, deep and purple.
“You and Lady Ewa got on well at dinner,” Geralt said, avoiding Jaskier’s gaze.
Jaskier raised one eyebrow. “Did we now?” He tried to decide how he was going to throw Lady Maryja back in Geralt’s face, but before he could formulate the sentence Geralt’s mouth was on him. They kissed for a long, hot moment. Jaskier’s fingers tangled in Geralt’s hair, loosening the tie that kept it neat and out of Geralt’s eyes. The air was close in the cramped alcove. Jaskier gasped in the crushed-thyme smell of summer as Geralt pinned him against the wall, one thigh sliding between Jaskier’s legs and lifting him just enough that only his tiptoes touched the ground. Geralt kissed under Jaskier’s jaw: the prickly scrape of his short beard, the wet heat of his open mouth.
“And the way you were looking at fucking Cahir, like you’ve never had a devious thought in your life when I know what you think about.”
Jaskier huffed out a laugh, sliding his hands down Geralt’s back and then up again, under his jacket, only one thin layer of linen separating skin from skin. Geralt made a pleased sound against Jaskier’s throat and bit him very sweetly. Jaskier thought of Lady Ewa calling Geralt terrifying and somehow now, it made him laugh harder.
“Shh,” Geralt said. “Whispers only.” He pressed his thigh more firmly between Jaskier’s legs, moving with intention. Jaskier threw his head back, holding back a moan. He tried to steady himself on the wall behind him, but he didn’t want to let go of Geralt’s hip and his free hand only found the ineffectual sliding velvet curtains.
“I’m going to fall,” Jaskier said. What if he accidentally ripped the curtains down and made a huge commotion? What if one of the guests stumbled across them? His heart was beating so fast. Geralt tugged at the fastenings of Jaskier’s trousers and pulled them open, for once at least taking care not to rip anything. He cupped Jaskier’s hard cock, rubbing his thumb over the head with excruciating patience.
“I’m holding you,” Geralt promised.
“Okay, okay,” Jaskier murmured. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly for a few seconds as he rocked up into Geralt’s hand. Jaskier started to tug at the laces of Geralt’s trousers, but he shook his head and moved Jaskier’s hand to his own dick.
“You first,” Geralt said.
“Okay, fuck,” He rocked his hips up into their hands cupped together. “It’s good,” he whispered, breath hot enough to leave a wet spot on Geralt’s sleeve. “You’re so good.”
Jaskier twisted for a better grasp on the curtain and slid abruptly sideways. Geralt’s arm came up around his back, holding him more firmly in place. He left off jerking Jaskier for a minute and held up his hand so Jaskier could put Geralt’s fingers in his mouth. Jaskier sucked at them gratefully, laving his tongue against the rough pads of Geralt’s fingers. Finally, Geralt pulled away and returned his hand to Jaskier’s cock. The angle was better since Geralt had shifted them and his hand was slippery now. Both their hands were working Jaskier’s cock together. Geralt set the pace – just this side of two slow, just this side of two loose – it was a maddening feeling with the white hot promise of satisfaction just out of a reach. Jaskier was grinding into the slick passage of their combined grip, making little half-voiced sounds of desperation.
“You know you’re mine?” Geralt asked. “Right?”
At that, unexpectedly, Jaskier came with a muffled gasp, uncomplicated pleasure tangling with the place in his mind he tried not to look at, the bittersweet faultline of doubt and desire. Am I? He wondered. He kissed Geralt again, opening to the mercy of Geralt’s hands sliding over the now-sensitive skin of his bare ass and his insistent mouth. Could I be?
“Sure,” Jaskier said out loud, panting for breath. Geralt drew back, his eyes two silvered pieces of the moon in the dim half-light. The curtains pressed against them with the breeze, stifling. Geralt wasn’t going to accept that for an answer and Jaskier’s heart jumped into his throat because he had no fucking idea what either of them were going to say next.
Suddenly, Geralt froze. His attention whipped away from the hot space between them to the dark pane of glass over Jaskier’s shoulder. Geralt’s whole body twitched and his pupils grew huge, till his irises were only the thinnest of outlines. He’d caught sight of something outside and was now staring intently through the window. Geralt thrummed with tension. He set Jaskier back down fully on the floor and took a half step further towards the window, barely breathing.
“What is it?” Jaskier asked, feeling a thread of fear prickling at the back of his neck. Hastily, he used the bottom corner of one of the curtains to wipe his hands and did up the fastenings of his trousers.
“It is here,” Geralt whispered, more to himself than in answer to Jaskier. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“What’s here?” Jaskier asked, tone rising with urgency.
Geralt gave half a glance to check Jaskier was decent again before he whirled the curtains back open and produced a long and wicked silver knife from a sheath that had been strapped flat to his forearm. How had Jaskier not noticed that? “A bruxa,” he said. “A kind of vampire.”
“What?” Jaskier squeaked.
“Listen,” Geralt said. “Get all the women into the library along with the men. Tell Yennefer it’s here and to bolt the windows and draw the curtains. Try not to panic everyone. You and Ciri go ahead with your performance. That’ll distract them. Do not come out until I let you out. If I’m more than an hour you can assume I’m dead and Yennefer will have to portal for help. Make sure you keep Lady Maryja safe, preferably in the middle of the group, with Yennefer by her side.”
Apparently Jaskier really was selfish enough for his stomach to drop at this last pronouncement, but luckily, or perhaps extremely unluckily, Geralt was rather preoccupied and Jaskier managed to recover himself almost instantly, nodding to Geralt in what he hoped was a very confident and capable manner. “Best of luck!” Jaskier called as Geralt sprinted off down the hall.
Not even an imminent vampire attack was enough to prevent Geralt from turning his head back and glaring Jaskier’s chipper comment down. Despite himself, Jaskier grinned.
Jaskier made his way towards the drawing room at a quickened walk. Every shifting shadow down the end of a hallway made him swallow hard and increase his pace till he was outright running by the time he passed the music room. He had to take a deep breath to make himself open the door. He swung it open with a swift kick – it was empty and still within. He grabbed his guitar and sprinted to the drawing room. As he ran, the awful image of the grey, uncanny form of the vampire in Dilligen House stooping over the unsuspecting Countess replayed in his mind. What if it had somehow come after him here to seek revenge for a job unfinished? He could still remember its dead-eyed stare, taking him in. He rounded the corner – he was relieved to hear voices chatting congenially within. The door was cracked open and light spilled into the dim hallway.
He stood still for a moment outside, composing himself, trying to put off irrational fears and slow his breathing. He swept his fringe off his forehead and pushed the door open with a carefully arranged smile.
“Good evening, ladies,” he said, arily. “Sir Geralt asks if you would like to join us in the library?”
Yennefer quirked her head, confused. “I thought that the gentleman were going to–” She cut herself off as she caught on to Jaskier’s frantic stare. “Ah, did Angoulême decide it would be better to bring the drinks there?”
“Uh... yes,” Jaskier said and added no further details. He took Lady Ewa’s arm again into the hall. From the far end, in the direction of the library, there was a distant crash.
“Did you hear that?” Lady Ewa asked.
“It’s grown quite windy out,” Jaskier replied, confidently, then turning back to the party: “Lady Yennefer, Sir Geralt suggested we visit the portrait gallery on our way to the library!”
“What a wonderful idea!” Yennefer had Ciri on one arm and Lady Maryja on the other. Jaskier was relieved he didn’t have to tell her what Geralt had said about keeping Lady Maryja safe. He thought the words might stick in his throat. Not that he wished any ill on Lady Maryja. In fact, if she were easier to dislike, he would have minded her less.
Jaskier led Lady Ewa off at a clipped pace. She glanced at him, her gaze direct as she said. “It’s not windy out.”
“Panic will do us no favours,” Jaskier replied, as quietly as he could. She nodded in agreement, tightening her grip on his arm. They came across Angoulême on their way towards the portrait gallery. Her face was too pale and her grip on the tea tray was white-knuckled.
“My Lady,” Angoulême said, sketching out a rushed little curtsey as she approached. “Sir Geralt has suggested that we take the haunted servant’s corridor from the portrait gallery to the library. I told him of course that it would be too frightening for the ladies, but he insisted I offer since it’s part of the character of the Manor.”
“Oooh!” Lady Ewa chimed in, quite convincingly. She squeezed Jaskier’s arm, reassuring. “Oh, please do let us go that way! How fascinating!”
“Is it really haunted?” One of the other ladies asked, voice quavering.
Jaskier forced out a laugh. “Certainly not,” he reassured her. “It’s lined with a kind of stone that makes a sort of low humming noise in the wrong weather.”
“How curious,” Lady Maryja said, with contrived enthusiasm. “I’d love to have a look.”
Echoing down the hall behind them came another loud bang. Lady Maryja let out a little noise of distress. Jaskier saw that she was clutching Yennefer’s sleeve and the smile plastered on her face was thin as paint. “Shall we go?” she said, a little shakily.
“Let’s!” Yennfer said brightly as she set off at a swift pace.
Ciri looked to Jaskier as they passed, her eyes wide with confusion. What is going on? she mouthed. Jaskier gave a minute shake of his head and she furrowed her eyebrows in frustration.
Jaskier barely slowed in the portrait gallery, though it ran the risk of drawing suspicion onto their pathetic cover story. Some of the unsuspecting women tried to linger, looking at the varnished, ancient portraits of weapons-laden Witchers across time. Lady Maryja rushed everyone along saying “Oh, I hope it’s making the noises today! How weird it will be!” and patting a nervous younger lady on the shoulder, saying “You know it’s just scientific.” Nervous energy was rolling off her.
Yennefer loomed behind Maryja and Ciri. A kind of invisible, electric tension crinkled the air around her. Jaskier felt a little safer watching the way her hair floated oddly as she moved.
Angoulême took the keys to the servant corridor from her pocket and unlocked the door. Lady Yennefer went in first, followed by Ciri, Lady Maryja and then the rest of the ladies. Jaskier and Lady Ewa brought up the rear with Angoulême. As Angoulême pulled the door shut, Jaskier caught sight of a flash of movement at the far end of the gallery – a glint of silver, a red spray of blood. He gripped Lady Ewa’s arm and she turned away from the door, making the sign of warding over her chest instinctively. They hurried the back of the group onward.
The hallway was utterly silent. Angoulême held a candle and Yennefer lit the way at the front with an eerie blue witchlight that cast their faces into sinister shadow. From behind them, there was a scratching at the door they’d just gone through. One of the women in the middle of the group let out a little shriek. Jaskier closed his eyes and sped up.
After a long, hushed minute, they drew abruptly to a halt. Angoulême pushed through to the front of the group. The women parted around her candlelight. Yennefer took the keys and after a held breath, waiting, a warm yellow glow flooded into the corridor.
They all filed out of the corridor into the library in record time. If the men had been shocked by the sudden appearance of the women from behind a false bookshelf, the group had settled again by the time Jaskier emerged. It seemed that no one had noticed anything amiss since Jaskier had left them, for they were lounging on the deep armchairs and gossiping amongst each other, barely having even taken notice of Geralt’s absence.
Angoulême set about serving the tea while Jaskier kept trying to catch Yennefer’s attention so he could pass on the rest of the details, but she seemed to have read his mind already. She sat Lady Maryja directly in the centre of the whole group. Lady Ewa took the spot behind her and they linked arms, soothing each other. Jaskier allowed himself a moment to consider how exactly Lady Maryja had become alerted to the danger they were all in, but he supposed it was to be expected at this point that she was always one step ahead of him.
“Gentlemen,” Yennefer said, her voice ringing out over the chatter, after the room had settled again. “Lady Cirilla and her tutor have prepared some entertainment for you.”
Jaskier arranged two chairs beside the fireplace and Ciri took her place beside him. Jaskier set the guitar on his knee.
“How rustic!” Lord Pelka said. Jaskier tried not to roll his eyes.
His neck was still prickling with fear. He’d spent this whole time managing not to think of Geralt fighting a vampire. Everyone knew vampires were more than even most Witchers could take on by themselves. Hell, if Jaskier remembered the rumours correctly, the Witcher who’d looked after this region before Geralt had been killed fighting a vampire. The image of that creature leaning over the Countess flashed again though his mind. The way its head rotated much too far to look at him as he swung open the door – so many teeth, a twisted face that had been so inhumanly beautiful the last time he’d seen it. He thoughts slid sideways, to finding Geralt under the tree, the rain worming its way down Jaskier’s neck, how still and bloody Geralt’s body had lain there.
“Jas?” Ciri whispered.
Jaskier shook his head to clear it and tried to focus on Ciri - her concerned spring-coloured eyes, her lovely dress with the ribbons coming undone at the shoulders and the hem of it already somehow a little trodden on. She was looking at him for reassurance – her gaze kept darting to Lord Cahir, sitting stiffly at the edge of the group, disapproving of his cup of tea and everything else besides. Ciri seemed uncertain if she ought to impress or repulse him, or how afraid she should be. Suddenly, it was much easier for Jaskier to be brave.
They’d prepared The Ballad of Sodden Hill since it was a well respected and technical piece with an impressive part for the female voice and then they’d planned to sing Hey Oh, The West Wind Blows as a lighthearted follow-up, which most everyone should know the words to.
He strummed a few chords, checking the tuning and when he was satisfied, he and Ciri hummed together to try out their first harmony.
“Okay?” Jaskier asked her. She nodded, her chin tipped up with that wilful confidence and she offered him a perfect, daybreak smile. Jaskier took a breath and they began.
The strangeness came slowly into the room. Later, when he looked back on it, he would wonder if Sodden Hill was the kind of song that didn’t lend itself so easily to Jaskier’s workings. After all, the piece was rather well trodden. Jaskier himself had learned it at university and it was probably the first year piece of a thousand vocal students. Over time, he would come to suspect that his sort of magic worked best with things that no one else had beaten into a particular shape before him. At that moment, he didn’t think anything of it at all. He was only singing it again as he’d done a hundred times before, but this time power went into it. Thick as treacle, slowly to start and then all at once.
As they started the final verse, he realised what was happening. Ciri’s gaze snapped to his and he saw that her eyes were impossibly green, ringed in gold. She could feel it too. Their voices sounded utterly perfect, alive with a glow that nearly coloured the air. The end of the song was all about fire - the temperature in the room rose. The women in the front row watched them, rapt, sweat beading on their brows. The cheery little flames in the grate behind them were changing with the tune, growing white hot and licking hungrily at their backs.
Sweat broke out across his own forehead. His and Ciri’s voices climbed and climbed, filling the space around them till the music was a physical thing that billowed forth, thick as smoke. He caught Yennefer’s gaze, but she didn’t look alarmed, she looked fierce and relieved. Vampires were susceptible to magical fires, Jaskier remembered suddenly, and he didn’t let up. He couldn’t even feel his fingers on the guitar anymore and the instrument sounded strange to him – as though there were a whole orchestra supporting them.
Ciri flung out her hand. They were coming to the final few bars of the song – the central figure of the ballad, the witch, she was burning everything, burning up – Jaskier sucked in a sharp breath and it tasted like ash in his mouth. A huge spray of golden sparks from the fire flicked into the audience and one of the gentlemen gasped.
The final note – high and harsh – Ciri’s hand connected with Jaskier’s knee and he felt the power that was in her – a terrible column of infinite peace, a kind of indefinable noise, as huge and white as death. Yennefer stood bolt upright from her seat, her dress frothing around her in an unseen wind. The curtains drawn across the windows on the mezzanine above them flew open and a light as bright as day shone in on them, brighter even, like the sun had stooped down close to peer in through the glass.
“It’s too much!” Yennefer warned – he couldn’t hear her, he only saw her mouth form the words. The audience was fearful, but they were frozen in place. Yennefer needn’t have given warning: Jaskier was well aware. He had been taught something about too much already, in the storm all those months ago and this right here was the textbook definition of too much .
Without a second’s pause, he flowed straight into the next song. He played the first few notes of Oh Ho, The West Wind Blow, but the song got away from him, changing somehow of its own accord and there was a crisp smell in the air, sweet as a splitting-open orange and new as earth coming awake under snowmelt. He realised he was playing The Cherry Tree and Ciri’s grip unclenched from his knee, loosening just enough that Jaskier dared to draw in a breath. Woodsmoke rather than ash – that was moving in the right direction.
“On a spring morning, I set foot home walking,” Jaskier sang.
For one moment, there was no sound, they held their breath all together, the guests, Yennefer, Jaskier, Ciri, the world maybe, teetering on the edge of something much worse than a vampire bursting into the room and making off with a guest or two.
“ On a cold morning, I set the frost breaking,” Ciri’s voice took up the line, sweet and cool as rain. Jaskier closed his eyes against the light in the windows above them and sang with Ciri till the room smelled like dew and the delicate thread of a breeze brushed across his forehead. The tension broke. The fire eased back into its grate. He opened his eyes again as relief flooded through his chest. The audience was hushed. The room was dim, liquid green. The air smelled fresh and alive. All around them, patterns of ivy carved into the wood panelling subtly shifted and bloomed in the flickering shadows.
With a crash, the main door to the library splintered open. The smell of welling sap sang out of the ancient wood. A horrible form staggered through the shards of the door. It was the vampire. Somehow, though its twisted form was now blackened and burnt, Jaskier recognised it immediately. It was the same one who had tried to prey on the Countess. It pitched forward, slumping to its knees which bent wrong and Jaskier wanted to stop, because how could he sing of spring in the face of that creature scrabbling towards him? Its clawed, ruined fingers left bloody welts on the rug with each struggling twitch and creeping drag.
Jaskier left off with the guitar part, yet Ciri’s hand found his. They sang in unison. “ On a Spring evening, the door was opening / On a warm evening, the blossoms were parting”. Their voices were strong and pure.
Geralt’s shining, wicked knife preceded him through the maw of the torn door by several seconds. It angled through the air, fire glinted in the polished hilt, bouncing light into dark corners. It slammed through the base of the vampire’s spine, pinning it flat to the floor. For a moment, it twitched and struggled. Then Geralt arrived, streaked with gore. “ Igni,” he spat at the creature. It combusted instantaneously into a huge ball of flames. Geralt thrust his arms into the fire, grasped the knife and plunged it deeper still into the vampire’s back, till the hilt was flush with the creature’s sickly skin. The room watched with horror and time stretched. Finally, the creature’s grotesque movements ceased. Geralt yanked his sword from its scabbard and unceremoniously cut off its head.
Together, Ciri and Jaskier sang the final words of The Cherry Tree. The room had been lit by a soft, grass-golden light. It wasn’t till it faded that Jaskier realised the candles had all blown themselves out and only the fire was left, curling in on itself.
From the middle of the shadowed group of guests, Lady Maryja’s voice quavered out, “Is it dead?”
“Yes, my lady,” Geralt said. “It is dead.”
There came a sound of rustling silk, a lady-like sigh. Jaskier could only assume she had fainted. Yennefer flicked her wrists and the candles relit themselves. Looking around in the chaos, it seemed that Lady Maryja wasn’t the only one. Several ladies and gentlemen had fainted. The rest of the guest’s faces were in various states of shock, terror and intrigue, clamouring and shouting all at once. Pelka was trying to get a look at the vampire’s body. Angoulême was swamped with women asking for smelling salts and cold compresses. Jaskier’s head hurt with an immediate and fierce ache. He slumped back against his chair, letting his neck roll.
Lord Cahir stood up. He had been the closest to the door and flecks of vampiric ash dusted the perfect black field of his dinner jacket. Jaskier watched as his face melted from the narrow pinch of a man scheming to an expression of complete moral outrage.
“You people,” he said it like it was debatable, whether they were people or not, “are utter lunatics ! You have invited these guests into your home, under the illusion of safety, trapped them in a room full of banned and dangerous books!” With this remark, he removed a particularly occult book from the shelf in his near reach and flung it across the room. Unfortunately, it was an obliging sort, so a spray of bright red blood erupted from its pages as it arced through the air towards Geralt, who was leaning on his sword like a crutch over the smouldering body of the vampire. To his credit, Geralt caught it neatly out of the air, but it seemed the damage had already been done.
“You distracted them with the wild tricks of a hedge witch , who has evidently been using his petty and uncontrolled conjury-” this last word he spit out in an admittedly impressive manner implying somehow both that Jaskier was incredibly dangerous and inferior at the same time. “To influence, nay, to poison, my impressionable and defenceless young cousin. While we were swayed by his workings , Sir Geralt has been cavorting with creatures of the night a hair’s breadth away from us all–”
Saints bless Lady Ewa, for she cut across his tirade here to argue. “I’d hardly call slaying a vampire that has been targeting the gentry for these last months cavorting with creatures of–”
Cahir did not allow her to finish her sentence. “Some months ago, a previous employee of this household came to me, in desperation, having been injured so gravely by the dangers he’d suffered while working at Sir Geralt’s behest that he was made permanently invalid. He had no way to gain a livelihood. He begged me to come and see for myself the horrors behind these walls and help him seek legal recourse. I put him off. I said, look at how the Wicher has taken my cousin in. I know Sir Geralt to be an honourable man!”
Ciri had gone white beside Jaskier. There were twin bright red flags colouring her cheeks and she was shaking visibly. Jaskier thought of how he’d eased her power down into the song and he prayed he could do it again even if they weren’t singing. Yennefer was right there, maybe she would be able to do something?
Cahir seemed completely oblivious to the fact that Ciri was about to murder him in full view of a dozen nobles. Or maybe he knew. Maybe he hoped to incite her in a situation where it was likely Yennefer would be able to keep everyone safe and he would get Ciri disposed of by way of public outrage.
“In light of events that have transpired here tonight,” Cahir carried on. He seemed to be coming to the pinnacle of his rant. “Though I am fearful for my own safety and, even a man such as myself can admit, shaken to my very core at how close I have been brought, by you, Sir Geralt, to death this evening, yes, even despite all this, I am thankful that I came here. Now, by the grace of Melitele, perhaps I have a chance to save my dear cousin from death or ruin. Lady Cirilla, you must come away with me at once.”
Ciri reached out to grasp Jaskier’s hand again, as she had while they were singing. She shot up out of her seat, dragging Jaskier to stand beside her.
“ No,” she said. Jaskier could feel it again, that vast pillar of white fire. There was a smell in the air, sharp as crushed pine needles. Too much, Yennefer had said before, but ‘too much’ was nowhere near big enough to encompass how power lapped and near-overflowed from Ciri. When she spoke again, Jaskier’s voice joined hers, pulled out of him. “ I’m not leaving,” they spoke in strange harmony, Jaskier banking the fire on instinct, where it threatened to spill into violence. “ You’re leaving.”
Cahir’s eyes widened. Behind them, the little fire crackled and popped.
Cahir disappeared. Just - poof - he snapped out of existence.
Lord Pelka helpfully asked, “Is he dead too, now?”
Fuck, Jaskier thought. Now you’ve really gone and done it.
Let’s be clear about one thing. Jaskier did not faint. He just sat back in his chair very swiftly, and once he was sitting, he felt quite tired and in the next second, he fell asleep.
He woke in his own curtained bed in the yellow room. It was dark – the middle of the night. A cool current of air trickled in through the open window. He could hear the distant hooting of owls and nearer, crickets chirping.
Gearlt was asleep beside him. He smelled of the hard lye soap he used if he’d fought something with particularly corrosive blood. Jaskier turned his face into Geralt’s shoulder and breathed in. Tears threatened, prickling behind his eyes. He clenched his fists in the smooth linen bedclothes but the lump in his throat only grew. Geralt stirred, turning into Jaskier’s huddled body and enfolding him into his arms. “You’re alright,” he whispered, his voice thick with sleep. “It’s okay, I’ve got you.”
“How long have I been asleep?” Jaskier asked.
“A few hours,” Geralt murmured. “Not long.”
Jaskier let himself be held till his breathing finally evened out and the tension bled from his body, leaving him boneless and sleepy. Geralt stroked his hair and after a long, long time, his hands stilled and it seemed that he had fallen asleep again.
Jaskier sat up as slowly as he could manage, half an inch at a time, extricating himself from Geralt’s arms as gently as possible. He slid out of bed and padded across the room to the window. For a while, he stared out towards the moonlit hills in the distance. Then, he dressed himself in silence, picked up his guitar, which had been laid with care in the armchair beside the window and went out of the bedroom.
As he pulled the door closed behind him, Geralt sat up onto his elbows in the bed. “Jas?” he asked. “Do you feel well?”
“I’m fine,” Jaskier replied. “Just thirsty.”
They watched each other for perhaps a full minute. Jaskier’s eyes struggling to focus on the dim, sleep-hazy shape of Geralt in the bed. He should get it over with and ask Geralt outright how much trouble he’d brought down on them. Better to discover the consequences now. Instead, he wondered what it was like for Geralt to look at him. Was it as though he was in full daylight? Or was perfect nocturnal vision something else entirely, another world of fine-cast greys, blacks and blues that Jaskier would never see and couldn’t really imagine.
“Where are you going?” Geralt finally asked him, into the lengthening stillness.
“Just out,” Jaskier whispered and closed the door behind him.
Downstairs, he found Angoulême in the kitchen. She was asleep on one of the tall stools pushed up against the wooden worktop, slumped over with her head pillowed on her arms. She startled awake as he pulled the sticky door of the pantry open, despite the care he took to ease it past its creaky inch.
“What are you doing up already?” she asked, lighting the two tapered candles on the bench.
“Couldn’t sleep,” he said. “You should be in bed.”
Angoulême scrubbed at the crease her sleeve had left on her cheek. “I couldn’t sleep either.” She huffed out a half-laugh. “Well I was having trouble earlier anyway.”
“What happened after I... Is Cahir--? Did Yen say anything about...” He couldn’t decide what he wanted to know.
“You– she didn’t– He isn’t dead,” Angoulême answered. “Yennefer found him wandering in a field a mile away. He was confused. Lady Ewa lent her coach so he could be taken home.”
“Right,” Jaskier said. “That’s something isn’t it? Better that I haven’t added outright murder to my list of charges, I suppose.”
“No one’s going to come for you from the court or Aretuza over the magic, Jas. If that’s what’s frightening you. Yennefer’s qualified to teach magic, she could just say–”
“It’s fine, Ang, I’m trying to be funny.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “You’re doing a bang up job.”
Jaskier let out an empty little laugh and then they were together silently in the kitchen, just the way they often were, when they were working shoulder to shoulder. Angoulême watched him with her head cradled in her hands and Jaskier filling a cloth bag with non-perishables, trying not to think about what he was doing.
Finally, Angoulême said, “Before this, I was in a street gang. I told you that, didn’t I? I probably had less than a year left in me out there. I don’t know what would have got me. Murder? Venereal disease maybe, the way things were headed. Geralt snatched me up off the street, brought me here. He said I didn’t have to stay, if I didn’t want to. He said he would send me to school, but that wasn’t – I would’ve survived longer on the streets than at a finishing school in Vizima.”
She was silent a moment, thinking. Jaskier didn’t say anything. He finished in the pantry and came to stand in the dim glow of the two candles.
“It was bloody awful at first,” she continued. “Ciri was younger then, she needed a lot of looking after. Yennefer and Geralt were in about a year long shouting match with each other and I’d never even washed a fucking cooking pot before, let alone run a Manor,” she continued. “I kept thinking: I can’t do this. Someone proper should be doing this and I’m not proper.”
“But you came back?” Jaskier asked. His voice came out small.
“I got as far as the next village over. There was a woman hanging her laundry out. I thought... Yennefer will never help me do the laundry again. I’ll never run through the sheets with Ciri playing hide-and-seek. Geralt’ll never come out of the house and stand in the kitchen door, looking after us with his arms crossed over his chest. Even if I’d found work as a maid in another house with what I’d learned, it wouldn’t be like this. Nowhere is like this.
“So you came back then? You knew this was the place you–” he couldn’t get his words out. “Nowhere else will ever–” he stopped trying.
Angoulême waited a moment, to see if he’d try again. Finally she took pity on him, reading his expression for the open wound it was. “Not then,” she said, soft. “It weighed on me, but it still wasn’t enough.”
“Wait,” Jaskier said, half-recovering. “Is this when the famous cockatrice incident occurred?”
Angoulême laughed. “Yep,” she said. “Got it in one!”
“What, so you helped Geralt finish off the last cockatrice, sorted him out, got him home, cleaned him up and you suddenly realised that you were the right person, it was fate, no one else fit in like you did–” His chest felt tight; he could barely keep his voice steady again.
“No, no!” Angoulême cut him off. “You’ve got it completely backward. I realised that no one in the world could fit,” she said, emphatic and certain. “This–” she opened up her arms like she was encompassing the house, the people in it, everything otherworldly about them and everything ordinary too, all of it. “–it’s too much to ask of anyone. It’s too much to ask of them, Geralt and Ciri and Yen even, but they still do it. Face monsters, twist fate.”
“I can’t– How could I– ”
She took his hands in hers. There was something ageless about her, though Jaskier knew she was only a few years older than Ciri. She looked up at him, eyes as blue as his own, almost pleading with him to understand her. “ No one is up to the task so just fuck it, Jas! It might as well be me. It might as well be you.”
Jaskier shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said, whispering. “Tell Ciri I’m sorry, and Yen too. And tell Geralt–” his eyes were wet again, tears sliding down the end of his nose and dripping onto his shirt. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.” He pulled free, gathered up his sack and left.
It was nearly morning. The base of the sky was lightening to an unblemished, royal blue. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. It was good weather for travelling.
Warnings: This chapter contains both sex and violence.
Chapter 6: PART VI
Drunk under the table; bravery
“Jaskier, you scoundrel, is that you?” Valdo Marx stooped over him. He smelled overwhelmingly of sweet almond and it brought on an immediate second headache that seemed to somehow target only the parts of Jaskier’s brain that didn’t already hurt from his absolute brick of a hangover.
Jaskier dragged himself upright just enough to prop his chin in one limp hand. Valdo retracted slightly with disgust.
“For gods’ sake, Jaskier, you look like the backside of a mangy street cur. What the fuck happened to you?”
“I’m not interested in recounting my sordid tale to you, Valdo, firstly because I’m not interested in recounting it to our entire graduating year and since you’re an intractable gossip, it would be effectively the same, and secondly because I really don’t like you. Leave me to die in peace, now, please, thanks.”
Valdo did not leave him to die, in peace or otherwise. Instead he pulled out an empty stool across the table and sat down. He had a rather tiresome way of sitting in which he thrust his hips out and spread his knees obscenely wide so any poor unsuspecting soul who’d never been to a club with him before had to suffer a guided tour of his cock nearly splitting the seam down the front of his trousers. Jaskier could now officially say that he’d taken bigger, so he felt smug enough to have a swig from the warm and sticky pint of ale in front of him rather than remark on it.
And you’ll never have it again, Jaskier’s traitorous mind spit back at him. He slumped down again till his head thunked forward on the table.
“I have to say,” Valdo drawled. “For once, I’m actually surprised to find you in this... state. ”
“Oh?” Jaskier asked. Surely news of him running out on his employers in the middle of the night, leaving them in the lurch only hours after illegal magic use and inciting a literal vampire attack would have made the rounds by now. Tutors and governesses of the Empire had a rumour mill to rival the most cutthroat spymasters in the land.
“Well,” here Valdo’s tone took a turn for the resentful. “Last I heard you had all the residents of Castle Creepy firmly under your thumb. I mean, first there’s not a peep out of you for half a year except for distance ordering some top quality books and fine paper and commissioning new instruments and whatnot from the most expensive sellers in Vizima, like you’ve suddenly got the budget of a Korthaian Prince. Then next thing anyone’s heard, the Baroness of Hagge’s ladies’ maid tells the governess for Lord L’s brats the most unbelievable story I’ve ever come across. She’s sputtering nonsense about how you and the little witch girl sang a song that burnt a higher vampire alive in its tracks and flowers bloomed from dead wood in celebration and you’re basically a hero and a witch yourself now, etcetera, etcetera, other implausible rot ad infinitum.”
“That’s the last you’ve heard about 'Castle Creepy', as you so elegantly put it?” Jaskier said. Saints, he felt sick. He should probably drag himself down the back alley and throw up for a good few minutes before they carried on. Otherwise he’d probably do it on the table and get himself thrown out again.
“Well, the last I heard about you, anyway,” Valdo said. He cheered up a little as he added, “Save for de Rouleu telling me that you’re drunk under the table in Piech’s and to steer clear because you’re looking for a fight.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Jaskier asked, vaguely. “You want to fight me?”
“You don’t look like you could win against a thirteen-year-old girl,” Valdo said, pityingly.
“Well, that’s the fucking truth,” Jaskier wheezed. Thinking of Ciri made an extra-sharp pain lance right between his ribs. “But it would have to be the right one.”
“Personally, I don’t pick fights with things I tread on in the street.” Valdo said. He opened his pristine jacket and removed a few folded sheets of paper. “As a matter of fact,” he interjected into his own sentence with an extremely put-upon sigh. “I’m here as a favour to Essi. She said she’d tried sending you a letter but it seemed you didn’t have a fixed abode at the moment so she asked me to pass these on to you if I got wind of you–” here he pointedly turned his nose up in the air, “–which I have done. Just doing my due diligence as a friend. Of Essi’s. Not yours. Just to clarify. Apparently, whatever’s in them is rather urge–”
“Do you ever fucking shut up?” Jaskier asked.
“Hm,” Valdo said, peeved. “That’s my line.”
“Will you give me the damned letters and then go away?”
“Some thanks would be nice.”
“Valdo, at least half the thrilling new rumours you’ve heard about me are true, so pass over the damn letters or I’m going to sing a song about how you died tragically covered in boils and just see if it doesn’t fucking happen.”
With a hiss of disgust, Valdo dropped the sheaf of papers onto the ale-soaked table in front of Jaskier, turned on his obnoxiously shiny heel and stomped off.
Jaskier’s head swam as he untied the ribbon around the bundle of letters. It was a surprisingly thick stack. He and Essi were close, but they tended not to bother with long communications when they were apart. Theirs was not a friendship built on the sharing of everyday minutiae.
The pages within weren’t all in Essi’s hand either. He unfolded one of the pages with writing he didn’t recognise and inspected the cracked seal at the letter’s close. It was Cahir’s family crest. He nearly dropped the paper with surprise. His hands were shaking enough, anyway. Quickly, he sifted back till he found Essi’s letter and read it though, his chest tightening with a growing panic.
I write to you with an increasing sense of urgency. I have been trying to reach you for weeks now to no avail so I have had no choice but to entrust these papers to fucking Valdo since he’s got the best chance of sussing out your whereabouts, being the gossip-mongering snake that he is. I have enclosed only a few pieces of the evidence I’ve collected, so if Valdo doesn’t hold to his end of the bargain, we’ve still got something to work with. I thought it was safer to split the papers amongst a few people anyway so if one of the caches is discovered and destroyed we still have some chance. I guess at this point you’re pretty desperate to know what I’m talking about so, about three weeks ago now, Lord Cahir called on Lord V in an absolute state, saying he’d just attended a country party at Sir Geralt’s estate where he’d uncovered dark secrets about your charge, that little girl, Cirilla. He said she was a sorceress of unparalleled power and scheming with you, the Baroness of Vengerberg and Sir Geralt to overthrow the Empire. I think he was trying to stir up support against them and came to Lord V because he’s known to be wary of magic users, but he wasn’t to know that my lord is also about as interested in throwing his political weight around as a jar of jam.
Obviously I took interest in this all on your behalf, so while Lord V was lecturing Cahir at length about how he ought to find a nice wife and set all these radical notions and conspiracy theories aside, I managed a long chat with Cahir’s footman. I did some poking around in Cahir’s bags while the footman looked the other way and what did I find but a stack of correspondence between Cahir and one of Lady Cirilla’s teachers before you. Apparently Cahir paid this guy to try to incite Cirilla into reacting violently towards him, only it worked better than Cahir could have hoped and left this tutor in an absolute state and now the guy expects Cahir to pay him off because he’s too injured to work. I stole those letters and acting under an increased suspicion, I sent a letter of inquiry to a maid I know in Cahir’s house who’s a friend of a friend. And fucking hell, Jas, what she sent me in return...
Well, you can read for yourself but suffice to say Cahir going around trying to convince people that a thirteen-year-old witch is trying to overthrow the empire is going to go down in the history books as the greatest hypocritical act of this century. If I don’t hear from you soon, I guess I’ll have no choice but to take this to Sir Geralt myself since I’m not about to entrust the evidence to some random messenger or let this poor girl get murdered on my watch. I hope the reason I haven’t reached you isn’t that Cahir’s already I’m rather concerned about the consequences of abandoning my post and I definitely don’t think even my best pieces of blackmail will incite Valdo into delivering messages to a Witcher (think of his reputation!) so... I don’t know what else to do. I hope you get this and write back soon.
By the conclusion of the letter, Jaskier’s rising panic and hangover had joined together in unholy matrimony and he had no real choice but to lean to one side so he could throw up across the ale soaked floorboards, narrowly avoiding his boots.
“For fuck’s sake, Jaskier!” Pietch crowed at him, from behind the bar.
“Sorry!” Jaskier gasped. “Sorry, I’m leaving anyway.”
“Good fucking riddance,” Pietch spit back. Jaskier threw down all the coins he could find in his pockets on the table, tied the papers back together the best he could with his shaking hands and, shoving them into his jacket, he sprinted from the club.
It was night by the time he reached the Manor House again. He was numb with exhaustion. He hadn’t stopped since he’d read Essi’s letters except to wash his face and change clothes so that a cab would take him on as a passenger. Since he’d left the hansom when it turned off towards Alderberg, he’d been walking the fastest pace he could keep up without having to stop for rest.
The house looked no different than it had that early blue morning he’d left it. After all, Yennefer tended to keep the plants growing in year round abundance and there was little other ornamentation, just the swept clean courtyard and a few green vines curling over the lintel. Tonight the house was aglow with light. All the windows on the ground floor stood yellow against the black face of the building.
Jaskier couldn’t bring himself to knock on the main door. He’d come the whole way here with a terrible certainty that every second counted and now seeing the Manor, still and lovely, he felt that he’d arrived in a painted world he shouldn’t disturb. He walked around to the back of the house. The kitchen door stood open, spilling gold onto the flagstones and the bench where he’d sat with his guitar a hundred mornings over.
As he stood in the dark, sheltered in the invisible shadow of the fruit trees, Angoulême and Yennefer came into view, descending towards the work table from the stone steps that led up to the dining room. They were talking about something with serious, determined faces. As he watched them, a kind of homesickness came over him with the unexpected severity of the first frost of the year. He swallowed against the feeling, crossing his arms over his chest as a shiver ran down his back.
A moment later, Essi appeared. At first Jaskier was confused, seeing her there. It was like that half-disconnected moment of reading in another language, translating through a mother-tongue and back before it clicks and the understanding flows.
Of course she’d come as quickly as she could. Even as she’d sent the letter, she would have already been making arrangements to get away for a few days and warn Ciri in person. She was brave, she cared to a fault, even about lost causes like Jaskier. That was the kind of person she was; that was why they were friends.
There was no need for him to feel like an idiot for having come. If she hadn’t been able to make it, his arrival would have been vital. But now that he’d seen her, he should just– He should just turn around and–
Geralt came down the steps into the kitchen. He looked the same as ever, dressed for work in plain breeches that were pulled taught across his thighs. Was it just Jaskier’s imagination, or was there something tight and tired around his eyes?
The four of them all stood talking around the table for a few minutes. There were papers spread out between them on the worktop. The wind came up as he watched them, frozen with indecision. It carried the scent of the deep woods, leaves sinking into the soil. It was the autumnal smell of things ending and Jaskier’s chest clenched as it brushed gently against the back of his neck.
As Jaskier watched, Geralt stilled suddenly, like he had when he’d seen the vampire out the window, every inch rigid with alert tension, then slow as dawn, his whole expression changed: a kind of unrestrained, heartbroken hopefulness that drew an automatic sound of distress from Jaskier’s throat in response. Geralt dropped the piece of paper he was holding. He said something to the women and all three turned and looked out the window together. Jaskier barely considered what they were looking for. All he could do was watch Geralt as all of that awful hope was shuttered swiftly away and once again he was as unreadable as ever.
Geralt turned away and moved to go back up the stairs to the dining room even as Essi crossed towards the kitchen door. Just as she was about to push the door the rest of the way open and come out into the yard, she stopped. Angoulême or Yennefer must have told her not to. Jaskier shrank back into the shadows. Did they know someone was here? Did they know Jaskier was here? Geralt could have heard him or even... the wind... had he caught Jaskier’s scent?
Why isn’t he coming for me? It felt like an almost sacrilegious thought. I know he wants to, I saw it. He should go now. He should turn and run. Or he should... he had seen how Geralt felt. Maybe, for just a minute they could talk and Jaskier could try to explain why...
When Angoulême had shaken him awake on the night that Ciri had run away, when Ciri had looked up at him in the library and he’d known there was an extremely high chance that everything was about to burn down around them in the next ten minutes – why was it so easy to be brave then when it was so impossible now?
“Jas,” Geralt said. Jaskier nearly shrieked as he spun around. Geralt was behind him, appearing from between slim boughs of the younger fruit trees. “It’s just me. I thought you might run if I gave you warning and it seemed like it would be sinister if I chased you down.”
Jaskier was stuck in place, mouth half open and every coherent word blown from his mind. “Jaskier?” Gods, his voice sounded like– Jaskier didn’t know. He couldn’t believe that his own name was capable of sounding like that.
“And it’s not sinister at all for you to appear silently out of the dark and box me in?” Jaskier’s stupid fucking mouth spoke before it managed to recieve any input from his brain.
Geralt just stared back at him, like he didn’t know whether he should laugh or roll his eyes or knock Jaskier across the back of the head to relieve his apparent hysteria. It was a very familiar expression and in their months of sleeping together it had most often preceded the swift removal of clothing. The air between them vibrated almost audibly, like the strike of a tuning fork, as they stared at each other. Were they daring each other to do something? Daring each other to do nothing?
“Fuck this,” Geralt growled and in a swift motion, the space between them closed and he was gathering Jaskier into his arms. “Is this– can I–?”
“Of course, of course, of course, you must know I never–” Jaskier’s rambling was cut off by Geralt’s mouth. They kissed till they were both breathless and Jaskier walked them backwards a few steps. Geralt’s back hit the trunk of the pear tree. He pulled Jaskier flush against him and broke away long enough to kiss his forehead. He tucked his chin over Jaskier’s head, his breath ruffling Jaskier’s hair. For a moment, they panted together, body-to-body, as familiar and good as it had been the hundred times they’d lain against each other before. Geralt’s arms came up, encircling Jaskier, hugging him closer.
“Are you smelling me?” Jaskier asked.
“ No, ” Geralt said hastily, and kissed Jaskier’s mouth again, lush, letting the threat of teeth hint at Jaskier’s full, lower lip. A feeling almost as good as relief bubbled up into Jaskier’s chest, bright and sweet and not enough, twisting in on itself till he genuinely couldn’t tell if it was making him start to get hard against Geralt’s thigh or making him want to cry or both.
Geralt must’ve felt Jaskier tense up, because he leaned back so they could look each other in the eyes and did a very unfair thing he only seemed to be able to do at the most inopportune moments. He read Jaskier’s mind. “Jas,” he said. “Believe me, I cannot fathom these words coming out of my mouth, but I think we need to talk.”
“I don’t think I can do this,” Jaskier said. It came out in a near-sob. “I’m sorry.” He couldn’t even catch his breath properly, his words came out in shaky bursts. “But I know how I am – it’s better this way – for me to go while you still want me – Please, Geralt – I’m begging you to just tell me to go because I don’t know if I can make myself – if I let myself come back – I know I’ll just fuck it up.”
Geralt didn’t say anything but he didn’t loosen his arms. He just held on and Jaskier put his forehead on Geralt’s chest because it was easier when those silver-backed eyes weren’t dragging the honesty out of him by force. Jaskier thought suddenly of reassuring Ciri in this same courtyard all those months ago. He felt like an imposter now. This was it: the only thing that stood between him and what he’d yearned for as long as he could remember was himself and he was too scared. All he had to do was open himself and trust a man who’d already proven his honour over and over, yet he was more afraid of this than death, violence, indignity, anything.
“I know that I’m acting irrationally,” Jaskier said, forcing calm into his voice. “And that the least I could do is come inside and talk to you. And I’m sorry for leaving like I did, but I honestly didn’t think you really–”
“What exactly do you mean,” Geralt cut him off with a surprisingly flat tone, “by ‘fuck it up’?”
Jaskier almost wanted to laugh. That’s what had caught him? “Uh, well, gods, where do I start? I mean, the scandals alone!” He continued before Geralt had a chance to interrupt. “Fuck, this doesn’t sound like how I mean it, but do you know how desperate I had to be to take this job in the first place?”
“Yes!” Geralt said, harsh. “I know exactly how desperate you’d have to be! That’s my point! I’m... I’m an inhuman assassin badly playing a gentleman who can’t even–”
“You’re not an assassin! You’re not inhuman! You protect–”
“Protection!” Geralt interrupted. “Don’t get me started on protection, I can’t even protect Ciri from her fucking murderous cousin, let alone–”
Jaskier’s eyes went wide. “You better not be about to tell me that Ciri’s been carted off to Cahir’s dungeon, because if that’s the case, we need to be talking about something significantly different than whether you and I can–”
“No, no,” Geralt reassured him, hands smoothing over Jaskier’s shoulders. “She’s fine.”
Jaskier sucked in an unsteady breath, pricklier than before. “Then don’t punish yourself for something that hasn’t even happened. You absolutely have protected her. And you’ve protected Yennefer from the hordes of assholes who want to chew her up for her money and her power–”
“If that’s the way round you think my relationship with Yennefer is, then you’ve got–”
“Shut up!” Jaskier snapped. “Yennefer would say the same, she’s said as much to me. I’m not saying you control her, I’m saying you’re the one place she has where there’s no threat of it. Of course she can fend the Court idiots off herself, but don’t you see the fucking respite of not having to guard against the hungry dogs every second of every fucking day. And–!” Jaskier cut himself off abruptly and sagged. The last words escaped without permission, in a near whisper: “And you’ve protected me.”
“How can I have?” Geralt asked. “All I’ve ever done is endanger–”
“No,” Jaskier said. “No, you’ve saved me from–” he swallowed and looked up at the full green bellies of the pears above them, the dark leaves patterned silver on silver against the distant stars. “I was about to give up,” he said, finally.
“You’ve never given up on anything in your life,” Geralt shot back, sceptical. “I know you enough to be sure of that, at least.”
“I was,” Jaskier insisted. “I was until I met you. And Ciri and Yennefer and you. You saved me. I’m a completely ordinary idiot who just stumbled into–”
“You are not ordinary, Jaskier.”
“Well, okay, ordinary might be the wrong word, but I’m whatever the worst kind of extraordinary is. Everything that can go wrong does. I mean, even you know that I’m not cut out for...” He stopped, frustrated, pulling away from their embrace. “Gods, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, bringing this up now, but what about Lady Maryja? What was that all about? Heavens knows, I’m not blaming you for it, because she was a fucking goddess, but I saw how you–”
“Lady Maryja?” Geralt was genuinely confused.
“You stuck her to your side like a burr. You told me I had to keep her safe above everyone else!”
“No, I told you to mask her scent by putting her in the middle of the group because the bruxa was specifically after her. She came up to me that morning to hire me since she thought she was being hunted. I told her she was overreacting but it turned out she was right. You thought I was... courting her? I know you knew I considered us together, Jas. I know I’ve got a problem or fucking two with–” he gestured indistinctly to the space between them, “–all this, but I wouldn’t just treat you like–”
“I know you’re different from– but I just couldn’t... I mean it certainly wouldn’t be the first time I was just someone’s... you know . I thought the vampire was after me.”
“Why would it be after you?”
“It was the same one from the thing with the Countess of Dilligen.”
“Of course,” Geralt said. He drew back enough that Jaskier caught sight of his expression: surprised, tender, even. "But you didn't say anything. You handled it well. You should’ve been terrified.”
Jaskier grated out a half-laugh. “I was fucking terrified!” he replied. “But it was more... I was more scared of the magic – when Ciri and I– Gods, if you could’ve felt it, it felt like it was the end of the world. It felt like we could’ve ended the world.”
“If you two hadn’t.... I don’t even know what you did... sung it on fire...? The bruxa might well have killed me. It was old and very powerful.”
“I thought what Ciri and I did would ruin things with Cahir. Yen wanted me to keep her out of trouble and I did the exact opposite of that. I mean obviously now, I know it doesn’t matter, since we’ve buckets of letters proving he’s been plotting against Cintra for a decade, but at the time, I was worried about Ciri’s custody. I thought maybe if I just got out of there, the fallout wouldn’t be so–”
“Ciri’s livid with you, you know. She’s not the forgiving type. There, you are absolutely fucked.”
Jaskier glanced back up at the sky, the sliver of visible moon between the smoke-grey clouds. “So you’re the forgiving type, then?”
Geralt sighed and pushed his hand over his face. “No,” he murmured. “But with you, I just feel so–” He didn’t have the word and Jaskier couldn’t blame him for that. Jaskier watched him for a long, silent moment. They were lit only by the windows in the house, but Jaskier was sure now that he hadn’t been imagining it before, when he’d noticed the tension above the bridge of Geralt’s nose and in the corners of his eyes. There was something about him that was scraped raw and vulnerable and it was with a huge wave of a great and terrible unnameable emotion that Jaskier realised he was the cause.
“You missed me,” he said, almost breathless with it.
“Yes,” Geralt said. The word came out like Jaskier had physically reached inside his chest and pulled it out. “Of course." There was a kind of relief in every word. “Jaskier, of course I missed you.”
“I missed you,” Jaskier said. “I mean, I knew I would before I left, but I just wanted to tell you that. I guess it’s obvious, you must've known I was in love with you all this time, so–”
“I didn’t know that.” Geralt’s arms came up around Jaskier again and Geralt sunk his face into Jaskier’s neck, undeniably breathing him in. All Jaskier could process was the tightness of that bittersweet almost in his chest untwisting and it was truly relief, relief, relief. Geralt reached up and cupped Jaskier’s face in his hands and kissed him again and again.
They broke apart after a long time. Jaskier was a little unsteady but he grinned when he asked, “Aren’t you supposed to say it now? You know, I’m in love with you too and I’ll never let you leave me again and from now on we’ll talk about our feelings every day and all that?”
“Hm,” Geralt said, thoughtful. “Not yet. Anticipation is the only hold I have on you. You’ll have to wait around and see.”
Chapter 7: EPILOGUE - Winter
A button; Kaer Mohren
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Snow came early to the Manor House that year, but no-one was around to see it. Geralt had felt the changing weather in his joints and smelled the slicing, white tone in the air, so they’d packed up for Kaer Mohren early. Better to leave sooner rather than later else they might never make it up the pass into the Blue Mountains.
It also so happened that the Emperor had taken Yennefer aside and suggested they lie low for a while after the fall out with Cahir and his conspirators. Geralt usually felt fed up with the Manor House by the time the first frost traced crochet patterns across Yennefer’s impossible berries and apricots, but this year he was experiencing a distinctly new emotion. He was excited to show Jaskier Kaer Mohren.
Since all five of them were going, they borrowed Lady Ewa’s coach for the winter, packed it up with all the books and instruments that Yennefer and Jaskier insisted they could not do a moment without and set off. It was a long journey in a rattling box and Ciri didn’t shut up the whole way, but Geralt thought only of all the baby-babble and childhood nonsense speak he’d missed before she’d been his, how every day he saw more of the resolute woman she would become, how soon she might no longer want to share her every passing thought with them. He tried not to let on that he was committing her aimless chatter reverently to memory, lest Yennefer make fun of him for being maudlin.
“And, I know you said you’ve been in the mountains before,” Ciri prattled on, hanging half out the window and letting her fingers catch on the sharp tips of pine needles furring the evergreens they passed on the narrow trail. “But you’ve never seen ridges like this, Jas, they pierce right into the sky, and you’ll never have seen snow so deep, It goes right up over your head–”
“I have seen heavy snowfall, Ciri, the Dragon Mountains are the most–” Jaskier tried to defend his traveller’s honour in vain, but Ciri had no need of his input into the conversation and carried on right over the top of him.
“And the castle is so fascinating, Jas, it’s definitely, definitely haunted. It’s haunted, isn’t it, Geralt?”
“Ghosts aren’t really known for remaining in quantity where a large contingent of Witchers make their–”
“Well, what does he know anyway, last year I stayed in one of the rooms that used to be a dormitory for kids who were gonna be turned into Witchers and I swear I saw this little boy running down the hall and when I called out he just disappeared! So mysterious! So this year I’m going to–”
“You’re not going to try a ghost summoning ritual, Ciri,” Yennefer said, with a firm tone Geralt could only dream of mastering.
“Oh, Yen, why do you have to ban everything that ever sounds fun?”
“If you try to summon something, Ciri, Gods know it just might actually work. And who knows who or what could come visiting.”
“Eskel promised me he’d stay with me the whole time just in case it does work! What’s gonna happen that he can’t handle?”
“Finding out the answer to that particular question is the exact reason you are definitely not going to set up a summoning circle in one of the most ancient continuously occupied buildings in the whole Empire.”
Ciri crossed her arms over her chest in a huff. “Fine,” she said. There was a brief moment of silent respite. Jaskier was looking out the window at the pine trees in their thousands. His breath clouded in the air and a little shiver ran through him. Geralt wrapped one arm around him, settling them into place more comfortably.
“What’s that you’re fiddling with?” Jaskier asked, turning his attention away from the world passing by sedately out the window.
Geralt shoved his hand into his pocket. His face felt suddenly warm. “Nothing!” he said, too hasty.
“Come on,” Jaskier crowed. “If you’re going to be like that, I have to know.”
A brief tussle ensued. Ciri egged them on and Yennefer threatened to get out and go sit with Angoulême in the driver’s seat. Eventually Jaskier won, since that was how things usually went between them.
Jaskier sat up, brushing dust off his knees as he caught his breath and settled back into his seat. He held up one hand triumphantly to reveal... a button.
He stared for a long moment, expression fixed in confusion. Maybe he wouldn’t even recognise it?
“Wait a minute,” Jaskier asked – his eyes went wide. After a lifetime without it, luck wasn’t exactly about to kick in now, was it? He definitely recognised it. “This is my button, isn’t it! It’s the one off my good dinner jacket. I lost it that night everything–” His gaze shot up to meet Geralt’s but Geralt was busy looking out the window with a sudden and firm attention.
Jaskier put his hand gently on Geralt’s arm. Geralt could feel the precise calluses on Jaskier’s guitarist fingers resting against the pulse point of his wrist. “You kept it?” he asked. “All this time?”
Geralt cleared his throat and resisted putting his hand over his face as he turned back to the crowd in the coach. Yennefer and Ciri had busied themselves with paying attention to something out the other window on the far side, Yennefer’s distraction appeared convincing, Ciri’s not so much. “I... thought I could track you with it, if push came to shove.”
“With my button?!” Jaskier asked. “I barely took anything with me, you could’ve used one of my books, or some of my bedclothes or something, surely?”
Geralt was absolutely certain that he used to be good at lying. “It has a strong magical signature,” Geralt said. “Since you were wearing it when you–” he mimed playing an instrument in a mystical manner. They didn’t really have a good shorthand for Jaskier’s particular skill set yet.
“ Bull,” Jaskier accused him. “That is bollocks. You are a sentimental prick, just admit it.”
“Yen,” Geralt cast around desperately. “Back me up here. We could’ve used the button to track him! You suggested it when I was–”
“When you were crying your eyes out in the abandoned music room?” Ciri directed this barbed comment quite meanly at Jaskier, but peace had long since been made between Geralt and Jaskier, so this only served to feed Jaskier’s fire.
“You did not cry,” he gasped in disbelief.
“He didn’t,” Yen agreed. “But he might as well have. As for the button, I did suggest we use it to track you, but why it’s still in his pocket months later, well, I think you’ve got the right end of it, Jas.”
Jaskier took Geralt’s hand fully, wiggling smugly in his seat. He leaned over and showily tucked the button back in Geralt’s pocket. “I’ll get you something better later,” he promised. “Maybe a nice monogrammed lace handkerchief that I’ve worn against my skin. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Geralt was mortified to realise that he would. Jaskier read the truth right off his face, but thank the Gods, at that moment Kaer Mohren came finally into sight and they were all suitably distracted.
The keep grew out of the mountains that surrounded it like it had been born there, part of the ancient rocks that reached to dizzying heights. All around, the pines painted a perfectly still, black forest against the snow-white sky and the grey rock.
“It looks like something out of a novel,” Jaskier said, voice reverent. He leaned across Geralt bodily, so he could stick his head out the window into the icy air, breath clouding like the steam that escaped the Roaches’ nostrils up ahead.
“I know it looks daunting,” Ciri said, aiming for the reassuring tone of a wise woman of the world. “But you’ll like it. It’s got all kinds of interesting old bits in it. It’s got some weird medieval instruments! There’s one that’s kind of like a guitar, even.”
“Oooh,” Jaskier said, enthused. “It must be a lute. Has it got a crooked head?”
“I think so,” Ciri said. “Didn’t you say you played a lute at university? To learn The Bard and the Witcher properly? You can finally teach it to me! Last time she came visiting, Lady Ewa told me it’s got naughty bits and it’s not for a gentlewoman’s ears. Please, Jaskier, you did say you would!”
“Sure,” Jaskier said. “Why not? You know, now that I think of it, that song...” his voice trailed off and a lost look came onto his face. He shook himself, like he’d fallen into a dream for just a moment. “Hmm, nevermind.”
“Are you alright?” Geralt asked. He glanced warily at the stone towers of Kaer Morhen. There was something about them that sometimes seemed outside time. It was a feeling that didn’t sit well with everyone.
“This place gives some people strange turns,” Yennefer added.
“No,” Jaskier said. It had begun to snow, fat flakes that fell down slowly, few and far between. They caught in Jaskier’s hair, lacy-edged and melting little-by-little, like sugar in a hot pan. His eyes, blue as summer, were fixed on the distant castle. There was something about him that held onto warmth in any weather. “You know, it’s funny but it almost feels familiar to me.”
“I always think it feels like home,” Ciri suggested, catching a snowflake on her outstretched palm.
“Maybe that’s it,” Jaskier said, softly. He retreated from the window and pressed his cheek to Geralt’s shoulder for a brief second. “Like home.”
Thanks so much everyone who has been commenting as I've been posting. Lots and lots of love. You can find me on tumblr under the same name!!