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Left on the Hither Side of Death

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“So I have a question,” Jaskier says, as he scrapes the pile of herbs from his cutting board into the jar of oil waiting for them.

“Go on,” Triss says, nodding, and stretches up on her toes to reach for a jar of some unpleasant monster part or other. Aubry reaches over her head and plucks it down, handing it to her carefully, and retreats to his usual corner again. “Thanks, Aubry.”

“So this room is big enough for a dozen people to work,” Jaskier starts, slowly, “and I’m pretty sure you didn’t develop the Trial mutagens. There were other mages here, before you came, weren’t there?”

Triss puts the jar down and turns to lean against the table, giving him a solemn look. “This isn’t a tale for one of your songs, bard,” she says softly. “It’s - no one here likes to remember it. I’ll tell you, just -”

“No song, got it,” Jaskier promises. “Or if I do write one it’ll never see the light of day.”

“Good enough,” Triss nods. “Alright. So. When we got here, me and Yen and Istredd and everyone, there were sorcerers already, a dozen or so. A couple for every School. They were - you know about the different types of mages?”

“...As in, whether from Aretuza or Ban Ard?” Jaskier ventures.

“No, though that’s a good guess,” Triss says. “Roughly speaking, there are court mages and research mages.”

Jaskier grins. “Yen’s a court mage,” he guesses, “and you’re a research mage.”

“Yep,” Triss agrees. “I mean, it’s not a hard and fast rule or anything, I could certainly work in a court if I wanted to, it’s just a way to describe what a mage is happiest doing, or best suited to.” She shrugs. “All the sorcerers here were research types. And Yen and me and our group, we sort of came in as court mages, to support the Warlord, y’know?”

Jaskier nods, and picks up another bundle of herbs, starting to chop as he listens.

“So a couple months after we got here, the year’s Trials happened. And - well. It. Nobody warned us, because all the Witchers were so used to it, so we woke up to the screaming. It’s...not a quick process. Three days, on average. And when it was over, we watched the Witchers build the pyres, and there were - there were so many little bodies.” She swallows. “Fifty-two. I counted.”

Jaskier puts the knife down, feeling a little ill. Fifty-two children - fifty-two boys about as old as Ciri is now. Oh, Melitele preserve them all.

“So I...asked some questions.” Triss grimaces. “There’s a certain kind of man who looks at a pretty young woman - even if he knows she’s a sorceress - and figures she’s not got a brain in her lovely little head, and will tell her anything she likes, as condescendingly as possible.”

“I’ve met several of them,” Jaskier agrees. Valdo Marx, for one - there’s a reason Priscilla hates the man as much as Jaskier does.

“Right. Well. It’s infuriating, but also occasionally useful. One of the sorcerers - Bear School, he was, I think - was exactly that sort, and I batted my eyes at him and got the whole process of the Trials explained to me.” Triss flicks her hands, as if batting away something disgusting. “I think he thought I’d be so impressed I’d end up in his bed, which, hell no. But I got what I needed. And then I did some research - quite a lot of research, actually, I basically ransacked the library here - and figured out that in point of fact the mutagens need to be that horrid in order to work. No point trying to dilute them, or anything like that.”

She shrugs. “I won’t go into detail about the process of designing the test potion - I don’t think you’ve any alchemical background, so most of it wouldn’t actually make any sense to you.”

“Thank you,” Jaskier says, quite sincerely.

“The short version is, there’s a certain...call it an element, that’s either in your blood or it isn’t. If it’s in your blood, you can deal with the mutagens. If it isn’t, you die. And while testing every new trainee’s blood would be a hassle, it’s pretty easy to give them a very, very mild mutagen and see if they become ill from that. Once I’d figured that out, it was just a matter of picking the mutagen and refining it down to something that wouldn’t have any nasty after-effects once the kid finished puking.”

“Makes sense,” Jaskier agrees, adding several underlines and a little star to his mental note about never ever trying the testing potion, even on a dare. Not that anyone in Kaer Morhen would dare him to, but still. Uncontrollable vomiting is not his idea of a pleasant afternoon, and it would almost be worse if he didn’t throw up.

“It genuinely didn’t take that long to put together,” Triss says, and she looks...sad and furious, which is an interesting and worrying combination. “A couple of months, which is very little to a witcher or a mage. Even for a human it’s not that long. I brought it to Vesemir, who brought it to the full council, and it - Rennes wept. Ivar hugged me.” Jaskier tries to imagine big, stoic Ivar hugging anyone and can’t quite manage it. Granite-faced Rennes weeping is even less comprehensible.

“Geralt asked me to announce it to the Schools that night at supper,” Triss continues softly. “So I did. And - Jas, you could’ve heard a pin drop. Utter silence, just complete shock, and - you know that moment just before a crowd really starts to cheer?”

“Yeah,” Jaskier says. He’s had a few performances like that, where there’s that moment of silence because no one can quite bear to break the spell by cheering. It’s a deeply flattering silence.

“And Sulla, who was the chief mage back then, got up and said that they forbid it.”

“He what?” Jaskier blurts, gaping at her. “He - forbid? What? Why?

Aubry rumbles a growl, quiet and angry. “He told us they needed the deaths for their experiments. That we could play at being heroes, but must never forget who our true masters were, what our true uses were. That we were all their toys, to use and discard as they chose.”

Jaskier makes an incoherent noise of rage. They called his Witchers what? They dared? They - “They were doing that on purpose?” he sputters. “That - seven boys in ten - Melitele wept!”

Triss nods. “I probably should have guessed,” she says. “Since it was such an easy thing to make the testing potion - almost four hundred years, and no one had ever come up with it before? But I was so excited to have fixed it -” she breaks off and shakes her head. “I should have seen how twisted they’d gotten. That’s the dangerous thing about research mages. When you’re up in your tower tinkering all the time, it’s really, really easy to forget that people are...well...people. To start seeing everyone and everything as nothing more than possible research. Experimental subjects. Expendable.”

“Ye gods,” Jaskier whispers. “But what happened?”

“I genuinely don’t remember who moved first,” Triss says slowly. “One minute the mages were standing there looking snooty - they had their own table, near the Wolf table, just for them, the stuck-up assholes - and then there was this...roar. I’ve never heard anything like it. Like a mountain falling. And then -” she spreads her hands. “Witchers...happened.”

“Was a Cat, first,” Aubry says. “Cats are all a little mad. Go berserk if you push ‘em too far. Was Kiyan, I think, broke first.” He snarls softly. “But then it was all of us.” He’s got his hand clenched on the back of a chair, so hard the knuckles are white and the sturdy wood is beginning to splinter. “We all remember,” he says, so quietly Jaskier has to strain to hear it. “We all had brothers, before the Trials. I had a brother. Dear as Eskel is to the Wolf. Died on the bed next to mine.”

“Oh gods,” Jaskier breathes.

“None of the sorcerers got a spell off,” Triss says. “I don’t think they even realized they were in danger before they were dead. Geralt ordered the bodies burned, what was left of them, and Yen and I sat down and went through their notes and pulled out all the - all the bits that had nothing to do with the Trials, and burned most of that, too. It was...not pleasant reading. And then it was just me in charge of all the Trials, because I don’t think the Witchers will ever trust any other mage to handle them.”

Aubry nods. “How could we? Maybe if you took an apprentice. But no more Ban Ard bastards. Ever.”

“Melitele wept,” Jaskier says faintly. He’s feeling a little ill, truth be told. The mages had wanted the deaths? It’s going to take him a while to really wrap his head around the idea of anyone being that utterly heartless. Jaskier has seen his lovers wake from nightmares of the Trials - has heard the agony in Geralt’s voice as he recounted the losses among his class of trainees, the rasping horror in Eskel’s harsh descriptions of the stone tables and the screams - has seen Lambert’s vicious, half-feral rage over being the only one of his class to survive. Has looked at Ciri and realized that she would soon be the right age to go through the Trials, were Geralt to ever dream of allowing such a thing - and would most likely die of them. It’s the sort of thought that keeps him up at night, and gives him nightmares.

“Sit down,” Triss says, pushing him towards a chair, and Jaskier obeys without really thinking about it. “Breathe. We’ve all had a while to get used to this, I suppose.”

Aubry pats his shoulder gently, big warm hand heavy and comforting.

“That’s...deeply foul,” Jaskier says at last. “I’m very, very glad they’re dead.”

“So’re we,” Aubry says.

“I will make no song of them,” Jaskier says, reaching up to cover Aubry’s hand with his. “Let their names die with them; let them be forgotten. But I will make a song of you, Triss, if you’ll let me.”

“Of me?” Triss says, startled.

“Of the woman who has saved, if my rough calculations do not fail me, at least four hundred children from the most horrible death imaginable, and whose invention will save many hundreds - maybe thousands - more? That seems a fitting subject for a song to me,” Jaskier says. “Many the ballads of battle and blade / many the songs of the bright-shining steel / but sing with me now of the sorceress sweet / whose hands are the hands of a healer. What do you think, Aubry?”

“I’d sing it,” Aubry says.

Triss is blushing, cheeks very pink. “You wouldn’t.”

“Oh, I will,” Jaskier says. “You shall have a song worthy of you, my friend.”

And when he sings it, a week later, to the assembled Witchers of Kaer Morhen, it is not stone-faced Rennes alone who weeps - and sings along.