As she stepped into the tavern and laid eyes on the competition, Yennefer felt like swearing. She didn’t, of course, she was better trained than that – she’d been a court mage for decades, she knew how to hold back her swear words, and when to let them out. This wasn’t nearly bad enough for that, although it was annoying. If she’d known Geralt would show up, she wouldn’t have bothered with Sir Eyck of Denesle, but here she was. Well, there was nothing for it except to make the most of it. Besides, Geralt was the one who kept leaving, going off with that uncouth bard, who Yennefer really couldn’t understand why he bothered with. Apparently his charms rivalled hers in Geralt’s mind, for some unfathomable reason. But she’d show Geralt what he was missing, what he could have all the time, if he committed to her and left the bard behind. She kicked her flirting up a notch, with both him and Sir Eyck. As an additional benefit, it also got the bard riled up – it was so adorable seeing him trying to feel two emotions at the same time – obviously too much for his poor little underdeveloped human brain. He didn’t want her to hurt Geralt, but at the same time, he didn’t want her to have him, either. She felt so bad for him, truly, she did.
Theirs was an uneasy pact, bound together by the one they both loved too well to give up. She couldn’t see why Geralt hadn’t kicked the puppy to the curb years ago – he wasn’t the type to go for empty flattery and the bard really didn’t seem deep enough or interesting enough to be a match for Geralt, but she’d tolerate him, for Geralt’s sake. Her want for Geralt was worth putting up with the human for. Neither of them pushed him to make a choice, because both of them secretly feared he wouldn’t pick them, or at least weren’t willing to risk the gamble, and so the arrangement continued.
Yennefer had never been one to share well; she had a jealous bent. She knew this – by now she knew herself very well indeed, flaws and virtues both. But for Geralt, she would put up with him letting the human hang on to his coattails when she wasn’t around. But when she was around, Geralt was hers, and she would absolutely rub that fact in the human’s face. She never claimed not to be petty.
At least the bard didn’t seem any happier to see her than she was to see him. She made a jab about his crow’s feet that hit home, and as he fumbled for a reply, she allowed herself a moment of smugness. But then she started thinking about it. The human had been following along behind Geralt when they first met, and by the way they spoke, he’d been fawning over Geralt for decades by that time. Surely he should look older? He should have more than crow’s feet, he should be a raisin. He should be walking with a cane. He should be rasping out those unimaginative little ditties he like to throw around and barely be able to breathe long enough to hold a note for longer than three seconds. Was there something more to the bard? Was he more than just a human? But there was very little speaking for it, aside from the fact that he looked remarkably young. If her were some sort of creature or hybrid, he’d surely be more interesting. He was probably just very vain and took good care of his appearance. He was the type, after all.
Geralt questioned her motived for being on the hunt, because of course he did. She didn’t ask for his – no doubt he would betray his patron and side with the dragon eventually. She wondered at the fool who would hire the man known for caring about monsters, despite the efforts of his loyal side-kick to paint him as a protector of innocents. That Geralt sometimes considered the monster to be the innocent was something the bard tried to keep under wraps, but rumours would spread and grow as rumours did.
As for herself, well. Geralt might not believe she wanted to be a mother, but she wanted the possibility. She resented that Aretuza had taken that from her, as if she couldn’t be beautiful and powerful and have children of her own. They had moulded her into something that suited them, and taken her ability to create life and mould it herself, and for what? To control her. To decide what she could and could not do with her own life, and she was sick of it. They took her choice, and she wanted it back.
She had one night with Geralt, revelling in being adored and admired. Others who showed an interest in her wanted to control her, or even possess her, an ornament and a show of their own power, that they had sway over a powerful sorceress. Geralt appreciated her for her own sake. He wasn’t interested in her for her powers – he had powers of his own, he knew how little joy they brought, how few problems they actually solved and how many they created. It was refreshing to be with someone who understood her on such a fundamental level.
Only it turned out he didn’t understand her as well as she thought he did. It turned out he had wanted to possess her, had bound her to him with a djinn. Oh, he said it was to protect her, but she had been fed that bullshit before by patronising men who thought she was incapable and incompetent, simply because she was a beautiful woman. He accepted the unbelievable cruelty that had been done to him, but that didn’t mean that she would. She couldn’t live that way, and she didn’t appreciate how he judged her for not being as meek and passive as he was.
She’d hardly been at base camp for more than five minutes, still repacking her saddle bags, before the bard stumbled down the mountain and into the camp, because nothing could ever go her way, could it? The universe just loved to heap on the misery on her.
“If you’re here to gloat, you can fuck right off,” she told him, because she was not in the mood to get into a pissing match over Geralt of fucking Rivia right now. “You win, and you can have him all to yourself. I’m done with it all.”
“So am I,” he said, and he looked so miserable that the taunt she was preparing died on her lips. Despite what many may have thought, Yennefer was not actually a complete bitch.
By unspoken agreement, they fell into step with each other, and when Yennefer had packed her saddle bags and untied her horse, she waited for the bard to finish before they set off, side by side. They rode in silence. Then, because silence was not a thing the bard could understand or appreciate, he burst out with:
“He’s such an arsehole, isn’t he?”
“What did he say to you?” Yennefer asked, curious despite herself. “I’m sure you heard the shit he said to me.”
He pulled a face.
“Yeah, that was… harsh,” he replied. “I’d say I’m sorry, but for once it has nothing to do with me and Geralt landed himself in the shit completely without my help, so go me, I guess. Which is ironic, given that he told me that every time he landed in shit, it was me piling it on, and then basically told me to get the fuck away from him. So, yeah. That happened.”
He was clearly trying to make light of it and pretend he hadn’t been hurt by it, and Yennefer felt a pang of sympathy for him. She knew what that felt like well enough, all right.
“Self-righteous prick,” she said. For once, she was in perfect accord with the human – they’d both been hurt by Geralt of Rivia. Gods damn them, why did they love him?
“He did say that you were what was missing from his life,” the bard offered. “Just after you’d left.”
“That doesn’t mean much,” Yennefer said with a dismissive toss of her head. “Not after what he did. He’s just one more man, taking my choices away from me. I don’t care if I fill a hole in his life or not.”
“You don’t mean that,” the bard said.
“Yes, I do,” Yennefer insisted. Who was he to tell her what she felt?
“If that’s what you want to believe, I won’t argue with you.”
Yennefer felt oddly disappointed – she’d expected him to push back.
They rode in silence for a few minutes, before the bard felt compelled to break it again. She wondered how Geralt put up with him constantly. Did he reach a point where he could just drown out the bard’s chatter, have it join the background noise, like wind or bird song?
“I’ve been with Geralt since I was 18 years old,” the bard said. “That’s more than half my life. I don’t know what I’m going to do now. Keep wandering the countryside, I guess. I can’t go home.”
“Are you fishing for me to ask why?” Yennefer asked.
“I don’t even know if I have family left,” the bard said, so that was obviously a yes, and he’d obviously taken her comment to mean she had asked. She wasn’t sure if she was annoyed at his presumption, or relieved that she wouldn’t have to embarrass herself and actually ask. “My family didn’t exactly approve of my dreams to become a wandering musician. First of all, my family doesn’t wander, and secondly, they don’t sing. My dad said I wouldn’t last century away from our little island, and it hasn’t even been half that much. I’m not going back now, even if I could.”
“Humans don’t live to a century,” she pointed out.
He looked at her, confused.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You’re human, aren’t you?” she asked, suddenly unsure.
“No,” he said. “I’m a selkie. Did you not know?”
Now she thought about it, neither Geralt nor Jaskier had ever said anything about it, she’d just assumed. Huh. She’d thought he was just Geralt’s human tag-along, but now, he seemed interesting.
“Well, it’s not something one immediately thinks when one meets someone new, is it?” she defended herself. “‘Oooh, I wonder if he’s got creature blood in him.’ Seems rather rude.”
“I suppose not,” he said. “I just thought you could tell those sorts of thing.”
Well, she couldn’t. Maybe other sorcerers and sorceresses could, but that was not something they had taught them at Aretuza.
“I can’t, and you never let on,” she said.
“Have you ever heard of a singing seal?” he asked. “That’s not the sort of thing we’re known for, or anything that brings joy to the ears. People think it’s impressive if a seal balances a ball on its nose. I knew I was made for bigger and better stuff than to just clap my hands and bray.”
Yennefer recognised that drive in herself. Perhaps that explained why she’d never liked the bard.
“I did think it was strange you looked so young for your age. Shouldn’t you be halfway to your grave by now?”
“Fuck you, I’m 41,” he said good-naturedly. “Even if I were a bog-standard human, I’d still be in my prime.”
“You said you wouldn’t go home, even if you could,” Yennefer said to bring them back on track. “Why can’t you?”
“Don’t have my pelt,” he said.
“Did you lose it? Does Geralt know?” she hoped he didn’t read concern into her tone of voice. She was curious, that was all. He had hidden depths, things she hadn’t known about. He was interesting now.
“Fuck if I know,” Jaskier responded. “If he does, he’s never said anything, but he never does, does he? Just grunts.”
And that reminded them that they were both rather angry with him, and they spent the rest of the day bitching about him, until they reached an inn where they could spend the night. Yennefer made a point of asking for separate rooms.
“What does your pelt look like? Or is that a personal question?” she asked that night in the dimly lit main room of the inn, waiting for their food to be brought to their table.
Jaskier looked nervously about the room, but they were on their own – and the barkeep was far away that he wouldn’t be able to hear a quiet conversation. She could see his internal debate playing out on his face, before he replied.
“As a seal, it’s dark and shimmering in many colours, but they’re hidden, like oil on water – you can only see them in the right light. As a human, it’s a cloak where the hidden shimmering colours have been brought out. The cloak shifts from one colour to another, and you can’t see where one colour ends and the other begins.”
“It sounds beautiful,” said Yennefer wistfully. She was surprised to realise she meant it.
“Thanks,” said Jaskier. He seemed equally surprised at her sincerity.
“Do you have any idea where your pelt is?”
“I gave it to Geralt,” he confessed. Of course he had. She rolled her eyes.
“How soon after you met him was that?”
“Three months. He didn’t know what I was doing – he tore his cloak in a fight, and I gave him my pelt as a replacement. He never wore it, though, just grunted and put it away in his saddle bags, and then bought a replacement in the next town. I never asked if it was because he knew what it was and wanted to take care of it, or if he just thought it was too gaudy for him.”
She gave him a look to indicate just how much she was judging him.
“I was a teenager! A teenager in love!” He looked sheepish. “Do you want to know the worst part?”
“I’m morbidly curious, go on.”
“We weren’t even fucking yet. I was pining like a coniferous forest, with no indication if he even liked me, or if he just tolerated my company for how I could be useful to him, and I gave him my pelt!”
He put his face in his hands.
“Do you regret it?” Yennefer asked. “Do you want it back?”
“How pathetic am I that I don’t?” he asked, still with his head in his hands. “Even after he asked me to go fuck myself, I consider myself married to him, even if he’s not married to me.”
“Well, if you’re pathetic, then I’m just as pathetic as you,” Yennefer said. They clinked their rather suspiciously stained pewter mugs together.
“Still, if Geralt has your pelt, and you’re basically split up, that’s a problem for you. One that we need to sort.”
“Why do you care?” Jaskier asked, as if they hadn’t just clinked their glasses together over their shared patheticness in their love for Geralt of Rivia.
“Who says I do?” Yennefer snapped.
“Uh, you. Just now. You know, when you said it was a problem we had to sort.”
“Well, I don’t care. If you don’t want my help, that’s no skin off my back – it has nothing to do with me. Geralt has your pelt, you don’t know where he is and what he’s doing, but it’s all fine. He might be selling it to a rag-and-bone man, who knows, but no matter. If you don’t want my help, I don’t mind at all.”
He looked at her sceptically. Well. Maybe she cared a little bit. Nobody wanted to be rejected twice in one day.
“So, does that mean you’re offering to help?”
“I guess I am.”
Focusing on Jaskier’s problems was better than focusing on her own.
“All right then,” he said. “Thanks.”
She blinked. Was it really as easy as that? Had he just decided to completely bury the hatchet of their years-long grudge, with no more ceremony than a shrug of the shoulders? Well, she’d take it.
“So, you don’t want it back, and leaving it with Geralt seems like a spectacularly bad idea. What do you want to do?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” he said.
Yennefer knew the feeling. It was easy to get lost in the possibilities of what could have been, and very difficult to work out what still could be. She and Istredd might have been happy in the future he painted for them – him with his rocks, she working as a mage in some inconsequential town somewhere, moving on when he had a new project to investigate. It wasn’t that far from what she had ended up doing, except without Istredd, and with the scorn and disdain from the Brotherhood for supposedly wasting her talents by throwing over her position in Aedirn. Istredd was the only other man, aside from Geralt, who had seen her for who she was, and loved her for it. Perhaps he could have made her happy. But that kind of life couldn’t have. She’d have gone mad, with the suppressive, claustrophobic domesticity closing in around her. She needed more excitement and freedom. She did toy with the idea of seeking him out, and if it hadn’t been for Jaskier’s company, perhaps she would eventually have worked up the determination to do so, but no. She might not be happy with the direction her life had taken, but she wasn’t going to go back to Istredd, begging on her knees for him to take her back into her life. She wanted to be loved, she wanted to belong somewhere, but she wasn’t that desperate.
They drank their rather weak ales for a moment – Yennefer had learnt not to ask for wine in establishments such as these, dodgy beer was easier to cope with than dodgy wine, which was just an insult to wines everywhere.
“So, Geralt has a Child Surprise,” she said, aiming for casual. The glance Jaskier threw her told her she’d missed, but then he’d been there earlier that day when she and Geralt had had their blow-up fight about how she longed for something she could never have, and had heard what the dragon told her. She could hardly be subtle, given the circumstances.
“I’m surprised you want to be a mother,” he said, rather than answering the question. “You hardly seem the mothering type.”
Yennefer rolled her eyes. Yet more men telling her what she was and wasn’t. As if they knew what the mothering type was. She’d be a damn good mother – she knew everything not to do from her own parents and Tissaia. But he’d been very forthright with her about this whole selkie business, so she supposed she owed him some answers.
“I want someone who looks up to me,” she said. “I’ve never been looked up to by anybody. Everyone has either looked down on me, or wanted to use me. I’ve never been just admired.”
“People like you, me and Geralt, I don’t think we get that,” Jaskier said, which sounded like what Geralt had told her. Did he have any of his own ideas to come up with? He was a bard, he should have plenty of words not stolen from other people to comfort her with.
“I want to be important to someone,” she said, which was what she’d told Geralt, and he’d brushed her off with lies. “Geralt said I was important to him, but, well, look how that turned out. And it’s not just that. I want a legacy.”
“I think you have a legacy. You’re one of the most powerful sorceresses in the world. You’ve advised Kings.”
“And I left it all behind to live in obscurity when I failed in my task. Who will remember Yennefer of Vengerberg, adviser to the King of Aedirn? All people will remember is Yennefer the travelling witch. That’s not the legacy I want.”
She fiddled with her tankard.
“Did you know, I was to go to Nilfgaard,” she said.
Jaskier made an interested noise.
“Back when it was still an underdeveloped, unimportant backwater country to the south. I wanted more than that. I wanted a better legacy. I guess we’ll never know what could have happened. I still don’t know if I would have stopped the coup and the military expansion, or if I would have gone with it, as Fringilla has. If I would have converted to their new religion, and been with them as they conquered the world. That would have been a legacy. And what do I end up with? The woman who was almost Nilfgaard’s sorceress.”
“You know, I am in the legacy-making business,” Jaskier said, flagging down the barkeep for another round. “What do you want to be known for?”
That was… intriguing. She knew, of course, that that was what Jaskier had done for Geralt, massaged his reputation, put a slant on the facts so he came off the better for it, and made him more well-known. She just hadn’t worked out until now, that it was something he would be even remotely interested in doing for her, and that since he was no longer with Geralt, his services would be available. It would mean putting up with him as a travelling partner, but she supposed that might be worth it. He hadn’t seemed too bad today.
“Do tell me more,” she said with a smile.
Jaskier was actually decent company, when he wasn’t being jealous of how much attention Geralt paid her. He was also a decent bard – which shouldn’t surprise her, given the popularity of his first song, the one about paying your Witcher properly, but she thought that had been a case of even a blind hen occasionally finding a seed.
Jaskier had just finished playing a highly edited song of how they decided to leave Geralt and join forces, which Yennefer dearly hoped was not for public consumption, even with all the edits and omissions. It seemed far too personal to put on display. She wondered if Jaskier understood that concept, or if he was just so enamoured with showing off that he put everything up for public display. She thought not – Geralt couldn’t possibly have put up with him for so long if he didn’t have at least a theoretical understanding of boundaries, even if he was woefully appalling at applying them in practice.
“So, there you have it. What do you think? Will it rock the world? Change the history of music forever? Be the launching point of your ascendancy towards fame and glory? I was going to work in a bit about how being your travelling bard instead of Geralt’s meant less blood and guts, and more love potions, but couldn’t quite work it in. Speaking of…” he trailed off, meaningfully.
“No, I am not giving you a love potion,” Yennefer said. “I dread to think the ways in which you would abuse it.”
“Unlike your perfectly ethical and responsible use of it?” Jaskier asked.
“Fair point. The answer’s still no.”
He seemed to take that in good cheer. Jaskier was very hard to keep down for long, and forgave insults very quickly – which was good, since Yennefer doled them out frequently. She wondered if she put Geralt in front of them right now, would he go crawling back into his arms, leaving her behind. She wondered if she would crawl back into Geralt’s arms. But no – she was made of stronger stuff than that.
Their newfound companionship wasn’t completely without adventure. Yennefer had taken Geralt’s example, and travelled from village to village, solving their problems and then moving on, rather than establishing herself in one town. If she were on her own, that would have been lonely, but since she had Jaskier, she found she didn’t mind. She did mind how people assumed that they must be husband and wife, or at least lovers, but since he seemed to find the idea of being in love with her as offensive as she found the idea of being in love with him, it worked out. Sometimes it was even funny to see him splutter and deny it, even after a hundred such comments.
Some of the problems they solved did involve killing or subduing monsters – fewer than Geralt’s, since she her repertoire was broader, and she could also solve infertility (though not her own), pains and aches, failing crops, and the other boring minutiae that plagued the lives of the common people. Killing or subduing monsters did by necessity involve some blood and guts on occasion, but she really tried to avoid that.
“It helps that you toss some purple dust at them, rather than running a sword through them,” was Jaskier’s observation.
They spent four months like that, enough time for the worst hurt to fade, for their conversations to move beyond Geralt, their one point of connection, and more to themselves. She thought it was probably good for Jaskier especially, who had spent all of his adult life to date as “the Witcher’s bard”. She had many tales to share, from Aretuza, from the courts of the Northern Kingdoms, from individuals she had met during her many years as a lone mage, but all of his seemed to circulate round Geralt. He was reluctant to speak about his childhood, on one of the smaller of the Skellige Isles, with his selkie family, half in the sea, half on land.
“I was never a very good swimmer,” he said ruefully on one of the rare occasions she got him to speak about it. “Runt of the litter, too. So I wasn’t exactly mister popularity.”
He quickly changed the subject to one of her early exploits, which he thought would make a good topic for a song. Some of the songs were spreading, and while she hadn’t noticed a particularly warmer or more welcoming reception in the villages, Jaskier assured her it was coming.
Word was spreading that Nilfgaard was heading North, and was marching on Cintra.
“That’s where Geralt will be,” Jaskier commented idly. “He’ll be wanting to keep his Child Surprise safe. If we wanted to see him again…”
Of course Jaskier was the one who wanted to go back to Geralt, for all the reasons Yennefer had already catalogued. The question was, did she?
“He hurt me terribly,” she said, because by now she could admit that to Jaskier and be confident he wouldn’t mock her, put it into a song, or use it against her. They’d shared enough time with each other and bared enough of their souls to each other that any lingering bitterness and jealousy was gone.
“Me too,” he said.
“I don’t want to see him again,” she said.
They headed towards Cintra.
They met up with Geralt about a day’s travel from Cintra. Their tempers had cooled in the meantime, but they were all expertly able to bear grudges, so it was a bit awkward. Nobody apologised for the words they’d said, but then, Geralt had always been one more for actions than words.
“Geralt,” Jaskier said warily.
“Jaskier. Yennefer,” he replied.
“Are you heading to Cintra?” Yennefer asked.
“What a coincidence,” Jaskier said. “We just happen to be going that way too, by pure happenstance.”
Yennefer wasn’t surprised to see he didn’t believe it for a second. She wouldn’t either.
“Surprised to see you two together.”
“We make a surprisingly good team,” Jaskier said defensively.
They set up camp together that night. They all slept in their own tents. Yennefer supposed they’d have to come up with some kind of arrangement for how they’d split Geralt’s time fairly, if they were going to travel together in the long term.
In the morning, before they headed off, Geralt handed Jaskier a bundle. He tried to do it in private, before Yennefer came out of her tent, but she was nosy, and it wasn’t like they’d walked away from the camp, so as soon as she heard them talking, she nudged the opening of the tent a little wider so she’d be able to see without poking her head out and making it obvious she was awake and listening.
“Do you want this back?” Geralt asked awkwardly. It was a cloth bundle, and Yennefer knew what it was even before Jaskier shook it out – a cloak that shimmered in every colour of the rainbow and some more. She could see Jaskier swallow, but when he spoke, his voice came out steady.
“You keep it,” he said. “You’ve kept it safe so far. It’s in very good condition.”
He folded it back up carefully and held it out to Geralt.
“It’s important,” Geralt said, and made no move to take it.
“It is,” Jaskier agreed. “I trust you with it.”
Finally, Geralt took the pelt.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll look after it.”
Sometimes, Yennefer could strangle that man. That was it? Jaskier was essentially handing him his life, declaring his eternal love for him and binding himself to him, giving him the power over his future, and that was it? That was all Jaskier would get? But of course, to Geralt, that was it, she realised right before she stormed out to take him to task. It was obvious that he would look after it, and he was grateful Jaskier trusted him with it – both sentiments he had expressed, however briefly. What else needed to be said? Well, some kind of reciprocation would be nice – she still remembered Jaskier saying that he considered himself married to Geralt, even if Geralt wasn’t married to him, but maybe his acceptance of the cloak was confirmation.
At some point they probably would have to sit down and have an uncomfortable conversation about feelings and relationships, but she’d leave it to Jaskier to initiate. He was better at that than both Geralt and herself.
“So, what’s the plan now?” she asked, emerging from her tent into the morning light.
“Hm. I thought you had your own adventures,” Geralt said. “You’ve always turned down my invitations to come with me in the past.”
“Well, now I want to join you,” she said.
“And you’re okay with this?” Geralt asked Jaskier, which to her knowledge he hadn’t before, so maybe officially receiving Jaskier’s pelt had changed something for him.
“Sure,” Jaskier said easily. “Coffee, Yen?”
She accepted the cup gratefully, and quirked and eyebrow as Geralt looked between them, confused.
“You know, when you leave both of us behind like that, you shouldn’t be surprised that we find each other,” Jaskier said. “We were brought together by bitching about you, to start off with, you know, common ground and all that.”
“And now?” Geralt asked.
“Now we can bitch about you while travelling with you,” Jaskier said.
As far as Yennefer could tell, that particular hum meant that he was exasperated, but also endeared.
“So, off to Cintra,” she said.
“How do you feel?” Jaskier asked.
“I feel fine,” Geralt said. “I’ve been running long enough. There’s someone I want you both to meet.”