This dream is familiar to him.
In the dream, he’s eight. He’s just been brought to court. In the dream, like it happened in real life, Jaskier isn’t thinking of his parents right then. The point of the court is to dazzle, overwhelm the senses, keep you occupied. It was. He’s wearing an itchy doublet, carefully embroidered with tiny yellow flowers—dandelions. The plate in front of him is piled with more food than he was accustomed to eating in a day, a week, back in Lettenhove. His fingers tremble as he picks up the fork, still expecting the bounty of food to be taken away.
“Not yet,” says Aleksander, the man sitting next to him at the banquet table. He’s a surly, impatient man, and Jaskier’s new guardian. He will not be so for long, though neither of them know it. Jaskier, eight, has been told to look at Aleksander as a father.
Not like a father, like the father he already has somewhere in the world. But as. Jaskier’s too young to understand the difference. He doesn’t understand yet how the court works.
“Not until he’s had the first bite,” Aleksander says, still in undertone. The people at his banquet table, and the ones around him, are looking up to the front of the room. All the colors and perfumes and laughter make Jaskier think of birds, brightly plumaged. He tries to look, too, but he can’t see over all the heads. All he sees is the ornate, carved back of the throne.
There is a voice up there, saying something. Jaskier can’t hear it until the volume of the chatter drops away suddenly, to a still, hushed silence. Like birds do when they sense a predator in their midst.
“—There is one among our party who will not be enjoying the feast tonight.” That is what the voice says. Next to him, he hears Aleksander draw a sudden breath.
In the dream, his heartbeat echoes in his ears. He feels the urge to get up, to shout, to run and hide. He does none of those things. Before he can, the person sitting on the other side of him—not Aleksander—reaches over and pinches the skin on the back of his hand, hard.
“If you want to live, little fool,” she whispers, “look straight ahead and don’t move a muscle.”
So he doesn’t. He stares at his plate of food as a heavy pair of footsteps comes closer, and closer, stopping behind him. He hears Aleksander say some half-word, ple he says, and then there’s a wet sound, and Aleksander’s voice gurgles away.
In the dream, like in real life, Jaskier hardly flinches as a spurt of blood jets across the table—spattering against his cheek, across his plate of food. He stares ahead, numb, unblinking, waiting, like everyone else, for it to be over.
In the dream, unlike in real life, he feels next the cold touch of steel at the back of his own neck, a sharp sting of pain, and his blood offers its redness up to the blade. He wakes.
The dream is not, Jaskier thinks, good foreshadowing for his plans tonight. The dream, after all, is about a man who King Emhyr decided had betrayed him, and subsequently had him killed. Killed in front of the court, no less, as a reminder of how quickly their fates could change according to the King’s whims.
Jaskier stands in front of the mirror in his room, idly straightening the sleeves of his doublet. There are purple shadows under his eyes, and his skin looks too pale.
Tonight, after his performance, Jaskier plans to do just the same. Betray his king.
He finally turns away from the mirror, picking up his lute from its stand.
It’s the third week they’ve been at the keep here, nestled in the northern foothills bordering Kaedwen. The King normally prefers keeping his court further South—in Nilfgaard, when he’s not at war, and it the kingdoms he’s come to occupy, when he’s not. It’s warmer in those places, too, but the use of the keep these past three weeks has been strategic. It’s their stronghold closest to Kaer Morhen, to its Warlord, who has been a steadily encroaching threat these past few years.
Jaskier does not know as much about it as he could. He is, after all, one of the less eminent of the nobles there—his drafty room here, and threadbare bed, can attest to that—and any interest can always be misconstrued as something else, like a threat. Like something to be killed for. He knows people who have died for far less.
What Jaskier does know is that Emhyr may have met his match, if in nothing but brutality. The Warlord from Kaer Morhen was known to be a leader of witchers—deadly, barbaric. They say that the kingdoms he takes over have their crops watered in blood. Their children thrown from rooftops. That he takes conquests back to his mountains where they’re used with force and discarded with just as little care. The Warlord’s taken a few minor holdings to the west of his mountain stronghold—places that King Emhyr didn’t technically call his own (yet), although the wormlike, groveling rulers of such places considered themselves allies of the King.
But what else could you be, when the only other alternative was to be an enemy?
For now, the King wants them here—his court, a good portion of his army, for a showy threat, to warn the Warlord of his own might. Outside the keep are the mountains and a slight, greenish tinge in the air that—he overheard when tuning his lute the other day—the King’s mages believe is a kind of boundary marking the limits of the Warlord’s lands. What would happen if they would pass that boundary they don’t know for sure, only that any trespass would be taken as a sign of war, and the Warlord and his witchers could come charging down the mountain with slaughter on their minds as retribution.
Despite the location, court life has gone on as usual. Tonight, as every night, Jaskier is expected to perform during dinner. The flower of the court, they call him, a jewel of Emhyr’s crown. He dutifully sings the songs that extol Emhyr’s martial brilliance, his ferocity, his natural aptitude as a leader.
And, in other ways, court life has been usual. The lure of the court is that it can be so genial, for days or weeks at a time. They eat splendidly, dance the nights away. They engage in their dalliances, link arms in the garden for strolls, rut against each other in their chambers in the nights. But they can never forget what their real role is. Just four nights past, two nobles were brought up before the throne and their heads caved in. Spies, is what Cahir said—the voice for Emhyr’s whims, his de facto executioner. Traitors. And all the nobles and servants there knew the two nobles must have planned to escape, or a secret marriage to each other that the king did not want for them, or a million other sins, and leaked their plans to the wrong person. And Jaskier had had to step jauntily over the blood dried on the floor as he sang, as if he noticed it not at all.
He didn’t know the two nobles well. They were mostly unpleasant to talk to, and seemed exceedingly loyal to the King. But naturally appearances could be deceiving. Everyone at the court was, of course, exceedingly loyal to the King.
Four nights after an execution was risky. But the timing felt right, too. The King would think his court fully in his control, fully reminded of his wrath. Truly, the thinking would go, no one would be stupid enough to test his wrath so soon.
Jaskier exits his room, walks down the hallway to the banquet hall. He always arrives a little early, eating a light meal that will tide him over while he sings and others eat. The throne is empty, of course, as are most of the other seats at the table. A servant brings him rye bread, cheese and meat, a pitcher of ale. He nods his head and digs in. Tries not to think about a spurt of blood spattering across the food in front of him, the glint of a blade in the corner of his eye.
The truth is, Jaskier’s dream is also one of his earliest memories. Surely, before the age of eight, he’d had a life in Lettenhove, but he hardly remembers it. He thinks maybe life in the court displaced those earlier days, drove them away. All he knows is that he’d had parents, but they hadn’t been very present in his life, then. They’d known as soon as he was born that he’d have to be sent to court, and it was better not to feel much love or familial affection for a child that could easily be used as a pawn against you. For all he knows, his parents are dead now, anyways, because the King didn’t like them, or liked someone else better.
Technically, he’s allowed a short visit to Lettenhove every year, as it is his birthright. Jaskier has never returned. He doesn’t want to see what’s become of his parents, or, truthfully, what the people of Lettenhove must think of him. He knows they must be in the same dire straits as most people who live in the overtaxed lands the King has taken over—impoverished, hungry, cold. They would hate his fancy clothes and his courtly manner of speaking. He would deserve that. Although he did, in certain ways, envy them. The opulence of his life was less impressive when he knew that, at any moment, it all could be stained with someone’s blood.
Jaskier wishes his parents had taught him the necessary lessons early in life. If they’d known his fate at court, they surely could have prepared him better. Jaskier has learned these lessons by now—painfully, but yes, he’s learned them. But there is still something wrong with him. He can flatter the other nobles, he can bow to the floor when he sees the King, he can trade barbs and keep secrets as his only currency—but he can’t numb his sense of dread anymore. He can hardly sleep. His heart is always racing. He jumps at the lightest touch to his shoulder, thinking the worst. Sometimes a grip of fear comes down around him so tightly that he can’t move, can’t think, until the roaring in his head passes. To others, it can only look like a symptom of guilt. But he can’t—he can’t outwit the people around him, doesn’t even want to try, and he doesn’t want to be a pawn to their games anymore, either. He just wants to be free.
Even thinking that thought is traitorous. He downs the rest of his ale, hoping to get through the next few hours. He carefully rubs his fingers, particularly his thumbs, which were broken long ago, and healed since, but still are a bit stiff. He practices a few chords on the lute, nodding as a swell of sound bubbles in the corridor. Nobles begin to filter in—always timely, because they know better than to be late. He stands close by the throne, shining in his golden doublet, and his eyes move over the crowd and over to the slightly recessed door by the throne. The curtain covering it moves slightly.
Jaskier drops to his knee, and the room follows suit.
“My liege, the king,” Jaskier says, his performer’s voice singing out over the banquet hall, and the court echoes it back to him.
A large, pale hand extends itself into view. Jaskier closes his eyes and, as he does every night, he kisses King Emhyr’s hand in fealty.
And, like every night, the flower of the court guarantees himself another day alive in the sun.
Jaskier performs for about an hour. He has a newer song tonight, one he debuted when they first moved to the keep. In it, he compares the King’s might to the Warlord’s, finding the second one to be not nearly as ruthless, cunning, or cruel. In the song, the Warlord finds that he has poked a sleeping giant. His stronghold in the mountain is burnt to the ground. The witchers ground underfoot like dirt. The song ends with the Warlord’s head on a spike.
As the song ends, the King leans forward. The room quiets accordingly.
“Not a spike,” the King says in his soft voice, his eyes boring into Jaskier’s, who suddenly feels his knees turn to water. He knows, he immediately thinks, although how could he know? Jaskier’s been so careful, he hasn’t told a soul, he hardly even knows for sure himself, having changed his mind a dozen times—
“The so-called Warlord’s head should not be on a spike,” the King says. “No. His skull should be made into a cup. And I will drink out of it.”
The court laughs nervously, not knowing how serious their King is. When he smiles, they laugh more.
“Y-yes, your majesty,” Jaskier says, and smiles along. The King’s eyes pass on from him. He is safe, for now.
He transitions into songs suitable for dancing, and the King watches, his face inscrutable, as the court whirls across the stone-paved floor. Finally, with a flourish, Jaskier finishes his final song, and the nobles turn to face him and applaud politely, as they do every night. He sweeps another bow.
He has just slung his lute over his shoulder when a light hand intercepts him. The Countess de Stael, a light smile around her lips.
“A stroll around the gardens, Flower?”
He feels that familiar, acidic burn in his stomach looking at her. But he’s well-trained enough, his smile appropriately flirtatious, but regretful.
“I’m not up to it tonight, my dear Countess. Can I count on you tomorrow?”
“A wasting sickness? You certainly haven’t looked yourself recently.” A well-meant comment. Or a warning. Jaskier doesn’t let his expression break.
“I’ll be better in no time, I’m sure,” he says. They bow to each other, and he leaves the noise of the banquet hall behind. Once in his rooms, he unslings his lute, places it on its stand.
Then—to his wardrobe. In the sleeves of his doublets, he’s carefully rolled a cloak, a small bag of food, a flagon of water, a pouch of money. He left the thread of one his doublets, hardly visible, across the top of the wardrobe doors, knowing it would have been displaced if anyone had looked within and seen his stash. It is still where he left it.
Breathing out a heavy sigh, he looks once toward the closed door, and then again toward the wardrobe.
He is not brave, he knows. He is a coward, a traitor. A little fool. If he were actually brave, he would poison the cup the King drinks from, plan his overthrow in secret corners of the keep, damn the consequences. But no. He is a coward, and he can’t live like this anymore—until they kill him, or his own body does so to itself. So he puts on the cloak, pockets the pouch of money. Knots the bag of food and water in one hand. And stops, looking sadly at his lute. He knows it would only slow him down until he gets to the river—to safe passage, he hopes, and a lonely place on a coast somewhere where he can live unfound. But he will miss what has often felt like his only friend.
He finally forces his eyes away. Creeps to the window.
At this time of night, most of the court will still be under the King’s eye, or out in the gardens. And he’s noticed, from returning here each night, that there is less of a guard presence kept on this corner of the keep, so close to the gardens. The King’s soldiers are encamped further east, out of sight around the ramparts of the keep. As long as he can sneak creep past the gardens undetected, as long as he can wait for the nightly guard to pass on his round, as long—
Jaskier can’t think about it more. He quietly eases open his window, and then throws a leg over. He waits a moment, waits already for that first shout of alarm—but there’s nothing. His heart in his ears, he throws his other leg out, and then he falls to the ground.
He was only on the second floor. He’s able to roll to his feet, hardly feeling the impact. Another quick, assessing look around. No one. He slinks quickly along the wall of the keep to the high hedge of the garden, which meets it. If he can stay right up against the hedge, no one looking out from his wing of the keep should be able to see him—a dark, cloaked figure, a shadow against the hedge, not when the garden is so well-lit by torches within.
Jaskier can taste blood in his mouth. He thinks he must have bitten his tongue when he leaped out the window and not realized it. He closes his mouth, realizing that he’s breathing hard. He can’t be caught now—he’s already transgressed.
Oh, Melitele. Emhyr is going to make a cup out of your skull.
He can feel his heart beating a bruising rhythm against his chest. He tries to focus, not think. If he thinks too much, he’ll freeze.
On the other side of the hedge, he can hear merry laughter, the sound of heels on the garden’s flagstones, voices discussing summer in a certain noble’s family hunting lodge in Sodden. It is odd, hearing court life proceeding as normal only a few feet from Jaskier. He reaches the end of the hedge, pauses, like a rabbit waiting to see if a hawk will dive from the sky. He looks in both directions. It’s here, in this bare strip of land between the high hedges of the garden and the trees beyond, that he would be most likely to be seen. But he’s watched out his window, and the night guard patrols thrice an hour. And if the guard isn’t here now, well—he’d better cross this patch of land before he’s through again.
Jaskier looks again, then makes his dash. He waits to hear the whistle of an arrow, the clinking of chainmailed feet behind him—but. Nothing. He reaches the trees.
His breath is coming fast, hysterical, now. Beyond these trees, he doesn’t know. He can’t see from his window. It’s possible there are guards here, too. He’ll have to move fast and careful, and swing a wide arc around the keep to the West, and then he’ll get to the river downstream somewhere and barter for passage.
And hope, and pray, that the King would be too distracted by the close proximity of the Warlord and his witchers to be looking for the flower of the court for long.
The woods here are mostly naked trunks, the trees bare of leaves. He slips from tree to tree, working his way West, pausing every few minutes to listen for nearby noise. Nothing, so far. And no claxon bell rising from the keep yet, warning of his absence. He’s covered a good distance already. He thinks he might smell the river through the trees, now. He thinks he might be able to do this—
He turns, and runs into someone’s chest. A hand reaches out to steady him.
A soldier stands there, an iron grip on his arm. An iron look in his eyes.
“A night stroll?” The soldier asks stonily.
Jaskier knows, they both know, why he is out here. No one, save the King’s army, is allowed outside the keep.
Before he makes a cup out of your skull, he’s going to break you, slowly, into so many small pieces.
Jaskier cringes away from the voice in his head.
“A night dalliance,” he says. Tries to say. His voice croaks. “She and I were looking for some more… privacy.”
A look of understanding comes into the soldier’s eyes. Not at Jaskier’s words, but his voice. “The flower of the court?” he says wonderingly.
“Please, don’t,” Jaskier breathes.
“They’ll promote me to at least captain for this,” the soldier says.
They eye each other for a moment, and then Jaskier drops the bag of food—the other arm, the arm the soldier didn’t grab—and punches him in the face. It is a bad punch. He has never punched anyone before.
The soldier stumbles a step sideways and brings Jaskier to the ground with him. Jaskier tries to wriggle away, but the soldier still has an iron grip on him, and suddenly there is a knife at his throat. Jaskier feels the tip of the blade sink in, just slightly, and freezes.
“Stop,” the soldier pants. Jaskier stops.
Suddenly the soldier laughs, panting, above him. Laughing at Jaskier, or his luck, or both.
“You’re a dead man,” the soldier says.
Several things happen at once. The knife twitches against his throat, and although Jaskier dosen’t feel pain, he does feel—wet. His fingers come up, trying to wrench the blade away, and touch the blood sliding down his neck instead. He thinks to himself, dazedly, because it’s all he desperately wants at that moment, away away away away away—
The man is suddenly gone. The knife, too. Jaskier doesn’t understand for a long moment—and. When he sees, he still doesn’t understand. Some force has thrown the soldier backwards, thrown him with such terrific force that he is lolled at an inhuman angle at the base of a tree several yards away. His head sits sideways on his neck, his eyes still open in shock. He is very obviously dead.
Jaskier sits up, turns over, and throws up a weak stream of bile.
Not only has he managed to get caught while escaping, he somehow managed to kill the soldier who caught him, too. If the King wasn’t planning on tracking down his Flower before, he certainly would be now.
Jaskier scrambles to his feet. His mind feels addled, jumping too fast for him to keep up. He stumbles away, trying to leave the body behind as quickly as possible. He only takes a few more stumbling steps before he falls out of the trees and onto the bank of the river.
They’ll know, is all he can think. If they find the soldier this close to the river, they’ll know his plan easily enough. They’ll find out who gave him safe passage. They’ll track him to the ports downstream. His freedom could only be short-lived.
Should he go South, to the warmer climates there, despite still being in the King’s territory?
Should be go to Lettenhove and hope to still find someone loyal to its noble?
No, he thinks.
The King is smart. He’ll have to go where no one would expect him—not the King, or his bloodhound mages, or anyone else who has his ear.
He’ll go North.
He realizes, after some interminable time, that he’s lost his bag of food, his flagon of water, in his fight with the soldier. He begins to feel hungry, but there’s nothing in the inhospitable surroundings that looks like food.
It gets colder, a light snow falling. Jaskier can only hope he’s far enough from the soldier by then that no one is looking where his feet leave so obvious a trail. If they are, well. What else can Jaskier do?
He isn’t dressed for this kind of weather. He’d anticipated the coast, and before that, using his coin to buy warm rooms at out-of-the-way inns. His toes, in his boots, are freezing. So are his ears, and his fingers. Well. His whole body. He stop to tear a strip from the bottom of his cloak, and winds it around one hand. His thumbs, especially, twinge in the bitter chill. He tears another strip, winds it around his other hand.
Behind him, he imagines, he can hear voices, all speaking over one another, bearing closer and closer. The King, the court, the army, coming to be entertained by Jaskier yet again, until the snow is red around him.
He walks, because if he stops, he thinks the fear will keep him from going on again. Because if he sleeps, he’ll remember the unnatural tilt of the soldier’s head on his shoulder.
He realizes, at some point, that it’s become light again. And later, he looks around and realizes it’s become dark again. He’s stumbling, the snow shifting underfoot, too tired to lift his feet any higher. A full day outside of the King’s keep. Is this what freedom was supposed to feel like? Bitter, and cold, and feeling just as hunted as before.
He’s not sure when he collapses. When he looks around, the snow has blown up around him. Just ahead, there’s a strange, greenish hue that shimmers above the ground. It’s so close he could nearly touch it. He wonders if it would burn his skin, or would part around his fingers harmlessly.
The Warlord’s lands, he realizes. He’s somewhere close to Kaer Morhen now.
He feels too exhausted to do anything about it. He enters some strange black void for a while, but he doesn’t sleep. He knows because his eyes are open when the black void goes away. He feels weak, nearly too weak to lift his head. He looks ahead at that strange greenish boundary again, and realizes with a delayed jolt that he’s not alone. There’s a man there—tall, broad, with a sword strapped over his shoulder. There’s a deep, grisly gash that goes one side of his face. He’s standing on the other side of the greenish border, staring at him expressionlessly.
Witcher, the voice in Jaskier’s head tells him, in a strange, submerged way. If Jaskier weren’t half-delirious, he’d probably appreciate the novelty, at least, of seeing the stuff of court legend firsthand. Put you out of your misery.
But he doesn’t. At some point, the witcher is gone when Jaskier is able to lift his head again.
He realizes, now, that he’s dying. At least a day, if not days, now, lying in the snow. He can’t feel his hands, his feet. Everything seems very wispy and far away.
Jaskier tries to remember the plan again. To elude capture by Emhyr, and a painful demise. That he could somehow pass through the Warlord’s lands and back out without detection—being detected, he knew, could be grounds for being killed. Or for war. Or for both.
That, someday in the future, he could laugh without the catch of fear in his throat. That every touch wouldn’t seem like it was preceded by a blade. That he could sing what he wanted to sing. That he could trust. That he could love.
Well. He has been a little fool, after all, to believe he could ever get that.
But, he thinks, it is something to die like this, and not like the King would want him to die. That is something, isn’t it?
A long, interminable time lying there. The wind whistles in his ears. It’s so quiet that he can hear the snow piling up near his ears.
He feels the strangest sensation, then. Like he’s being watched, sighted out by a predator nearby. Perhaps a bear, he thinks, or a wolf, will be his end. He raises his head slightly, to see. And stills.
There’s a man crouched on the other side of the green boundary now. Nothing about him moves, nothing except his white hair, which is lifting gently in the wind. He looks—like Jaskier’s end. The yellow eyes are like the eyes of the wolf come to devour him. And even as exhausted as he is, he feels his heart begin to do what it did not for the other witcher: to sprint in his chest, panic. A fear response that is as natural to him as any prey animal, sensing death.
Some expression moves across the witchers’s face, although his features remain still. Finally, he stands. He takes a step forward, and the green border separates and reforms around him. His boots crunch into the snow in front of Jaskier as he stares down at him.
Jaskier closes his eyes tight, waiting for it. The blade that ends it all.
Instead, a strong hand grips the back of his doublet. He falls back into that black, black void, but not until the white-haired witcher hauls him bodily through the snow, through the green boundary, and to the other side—to witcher lands. To the Warlord. To what, he cannot know.
This, Jaskier has learned from experience.
To listen. To feign sleep. To think through all the possible outcomes, be prepared for the worst possible reprisals, before opening his eyes to face what’s to come.
So he catalogues what he knows. That the bed beneath him is soft, and nothing is keeping him bound to it aside from the heavy blankets atop him. That he is most likely alone in the room. That there is a fire burning somewhere in the room, warming it, and that wherever he is, it is isolated. He can’t hear anything beyond the crackling wood and his own breathing. That his body is strangely pain-free, even given the dire straits he last remembered himself being in.
It’s tempting to sink back into sleep again, the unknowingness of it. His brain seems to flinch away from memories of the dead soldier, the long trek in the mountains, the snow piling atop him. No, like a sore wound, his brain doesn’t want to think about his present circumstances: the strange green boundary, close enough to touch, and the terrifying witcher with yellow eyes that had dragged him through it. To here.
That would mean having to think about the fact that his escape from the court only landed him here, in the Warlord’s lands, and just because the Warlord is the King’s enemy he can’t say that makes the Warlord necessarily an ally. Not given his bloody, gruesome history. Perhaps the Warlord considers him the enemy, thinks him a spy scouting the boundaries of his land, or a would-be assassin. Perhaps his trespass is simply enough to ensure death. All Jaskier had wanted was to go far away North to avoid capture, to skirt by or through the Warlord’s lands undetected and be on his happy way to anonymity and safety somewhere else.
But no, he’s captured again. And, unlike what he anticipated if the King were to find him, he has no idea what the Warlord plans to do with him. All he knows is that he’s in a place populated by vicious killers.
Even with the fire in the room, he shivers.
Do they know who he is? Do they have any idea? If they somehow were to find out that he is the Flower of the Court, he can only imagine the pain in store for him. All those songs he sang of the Warlord’s ineptitude compared to Emhyr’s, his lack of cunning or sophistication, his monstrous butchery, his head destined for a spike—songs set to pen, proliferating throughout the King’s lands, songs that could have found their way here.
He is trying to gulp in breath like it’s water when the door flies open. The woman walking in seems just as startled as he is.
“Oh!” she says, lifting her hand to her mouth. After a moment she recovers. She has a kind face, Jaskier thinks. But he isn’t fooled. He’s known plenty of mages in his time, well enough to recognize her for what she is.
“I’m Triss,”she finally says. “You’ve been asleep a long while. Do you feel alright?”
Now that Jaskier’s eyes are open, he looks curiously around the room. He knew, already, that he must not be in a dungeon, but otherwise didn’t know what to expect. Stone walls. Slightly shabby furniture, like the room he’d just left at Emhyr’s keep, although it is remarkably clean. There’s a faded tapestry on the wall, and a table jumbled over with vials and bottles, filled with liquids of all different colors.
He looks longer at the table. He wonders what the assorted liquids are meant for. Truth serums? Potions that could induce paralysis, pain? He doesn’t know much of these kinds of things, only enough to be afraid.
“I hope that you are feeling better,” Triss says slowly, turning to see what he’s looking at. “You were very, very sick.”
She moves, just as slowly, to take a seat at the bedside. He realizes she is doing this as a way to calm him down, show him there’s nothing to be afraid of. His breath is still fast, but he consciously tries to slow it down.
“I feel fine,” he finally says. He looks down at himself, what he can see of his body that’s not beneath the covers. He brings his hands up to see—he still has all ten fingers. He flexes them, winces a bit. Then he wriggles his toes. All ten there, too.
“Extremities can be the first to go when frostbite sets in,” Triss observes. “I was able to heal you, but you still might feel some aches and sores.”
Heal him for what purpose?
“Thank you,” Jaskier says, still looking at his hands. He can sense that Triss is looking at his hands, too.
“There were some old breaks there, too,” she says, still in her soft, conversational voice. “Too late for me to do much for them. It seems you still have mobility. Do they pain you?”
Jaskier curls his hand into a loose fist. “Not much,” he says, his voice still hoarse. Triss helps him sit up and pours something clear into a cup for him.
“It’s water,” she says, “just water.” He nods without looking at her and drinks long and deep. When he’s done, she takes the cup away.
“So. What’s your name?”
“Julian,” he answers. This is technically true. It was the name his parents gave him, although no one in memory has ever called him such. Still, it is best to be wary in case they have heard the name Jaskier before, if they know that Jaskier is the bard who has written such derogatory songs.
“Julian, do you know where you are?”
His muscles seem to tighten up. He takes a deep breath. “The Warlord’s castle,” he finally says.
Triss’s eyes are gentle, assessing. “Yes,” she says. “This is Kaer Morhen. The White Wolf’s castle.”
The White Wolf? Their term for the Warlord, he realizes. Thinking of wolves, he thinks about the witcher who found him—the sheer, menacing power he exuded, the pitiless yellow eyes. The mindless panic that Jaskier had felt then, the natural response to seeing a predator who would show you no mercy. He’d rather be fed truth serum, paralyzed, poisoned, wracked with pain. He hopes he never has to see that witcher again.
“It’s not unheard of, us receiving refugees, asylum-seekers,” Triss says. “But this always happens in the warmer months. Getting so close to Kaer Morhen in the winter… it’s meant to be impassable.”
Impossible, she seems to mean. Perhaps, as a mage, she’s never known what true fear can to do to someone, pushing someone beyond their resilience. Jaskier’s doesn’t know how long he trudged, clambered, crawled through that snow. It’s all a haze now. But if he could have summoned the strength, he would have kept on.
She puts a slow, deliberate hand on his shoulder, so as not to startle him. “They want to talk to you, now that you’re awake.”
“The council,” Triss says. “Don’t worry. They just… have questions.”
That sounds foreboding, though. Jaskier’s breath catches again, although he manages to have it evened out by the time Triss stands, opens the door to softly speak to someone just outside, and returns to him. She helps him stand up on wobbly legs—he’s nearly naked, he realizes, but can’t even summon embarrassment. He idly wonders where his clothes went, watching as she helps him into coarse trousers and a large, loose black shirt. He must look like he’s swimming in these clothes.
He thinks again to the two witchers he saw—the one with the scars over his face, the terrifying one with the white hair. They were large, bulky with muscle. The clothes were meant to be worn by men like them. Was that what all witchers here looked like? If so, he was surrounded by people who could snap him in half as easily as kindling, even if they didn’t have their weapons. The thought nearly makes him laugh, and Triss looks at him, a little worriedly.
“You still might be running a slight fever,” she says, putting a palm to his forehead. “I’ll give you a tonic for it when we’re back. This shouldn’t take long.”
Triss wouldn’t realize what Jaskier finds so funny—that he would run away from a place where he daily feared for his life to end up here, populated by the most dangerous beings in the continent. Sensing his laughter could just as easily break into hysteria, he swallows it down.
Outside the door, there’s a long corridor in both directions, lit at intervals with torches. Each doorway looks the same as the last, nothing to denote what made Jaskier’s lodgings different from any other. As they walk, more and more hallways branch off on either side, and stairways, too. They walk up two flights, Triss helping to support him. He hears a man’s voice calling somewhere, and as they pass a window, the sound of horses. Everything feels very distant and strange from him, almost dreamlike, that it doesn’t even occur to him until Triss stops in front of a nondescript door that he could have tried to run.
Run where, and how long would he have managed to elude recapture?
For all his burning desire to escape the court, however many days ago that was now, the realization that he’s in just as dangerous a place, without knowing any of the rules that govern it, has sapped all the strength from him.
Triss squeezes his elbow, speaks lowly. “Just so you know, they’ll know if you lie.”
A threat? A well-meant warning?
Triss knocks, and they enter.
She had called it a council, so he had almost expected a throne room, a long table of faces glaring down at him. Instead, the room is dark, warm from a fire. He blinks his eyes against the light of fire, trying to make out the people there. Slowly, they come into focus. There is an old man, another witcher as far as he can tell, himself thick with muscle, his face carefully impassive as he looks Jaskier over. Standing next to him is a woman, with long, loose dark curls, penetrating eyes.
Sitting—lounging—in a chair next to them is another man. He is turned partially away, so at first Jaskier only sees him in profile, limned by firelight. A strong jaw, he sees, and white hair worn loose. His body catches on before his mind fully does—his heart painfully pounding.
But of course. It’s the white-haired witcher. His eyes only rivaled by the flames just behind him.
And, by the deferential way Triss curtsies to him, the way the two other people in the room turn to him to begin—
It’s the Warlord, his mind tells him.
He can feel cold sweat rise up all over his body—under his arms, down his spine. As if in response to this, the other people in the room seem to shift on their feet, cock their heads, still assessing.
Triss’s hand on his elbow squeezes, is suddenly gone. “I’ll wait outside.” The door shuts behind her.
Jaskier stands there, waiting, feeling himself a condemned man. Finally, the woman speaks.
“There’s no reason to be afraid,” she says, almost impatiently. “This kind of talk is standard.”
The old man, standing next to her, makes a grumpy-sounding snort.
No reason to be afraid, he thinks to himself, almost foggily. Don’t show it. Jaskier clenches his fists until he can feel the slight ache of strain, digging his fingernails into his palm. He knows better, has lived the court life long enough, to know that showing fear is showing weakness. Better to mask it. Better to push the feeling down so deep you could almost forget it’s there.
He does what he’s always done, picturing his fear as something heavy, leaden, like a ball he might have played with as a child, in another life. He pictures it sinking away beneath gray water. Gone. With the fear goes the sense of fogginess, dread.
He’s a performer. He can perform through this.
When he looks up, carefully composing his face, there has been an obvious shift in the room. The old witcher is now looking at him almost warily—as if he’s the one who presents a threat. The woman is smirking.
He doesn’t know what expression the Warlord in his chair has. If he wants the fear to stay where it is, he has to avoid looking at him.
If you want to live, little fool, look straight ahead and don’t move a muscle.
“Now that is an impressive trick,” she says. “Particularly for a human. Shall we talk now?”
He wonders what she means by that—a trick—unless she means him getting his fear under control? Triss had warned him that they could tell if he lied. Perhaps they could tell what he was feeling, too.
Jaskier bites the inside of his cheek, nods.
“So you’re the one Eskel found turning to ice,” the woman continues conversationally. She moves toward him, circling him, as if to take him in. He can tell, just like he did with Triss, what she is. A mage. “Why did you stop there?”
Jaskier shakes his head. “I was too cold. I couldn’t go any further.”
“I see,” she says. “By the clothes you were wearing, by your accent—Nilfgaard, yes?”
Jaskier opens his mouth to answer, hesitates.
When he was growing up in court, he had learned to set his knowledge to melodies, refrains he would sing to himself. It was the only way to keep the secrets and ever-shifting alliances of the court straight in his head, the only way to prevent himself from blundering into a juvenile mistake, currying disfavor where he didn’t want to. At night, he would sing under his breath that Casimir was courting Alicja, who was secretly courting Antoni, who had a secret hoard of coin he kept from the last tithe, but was paying a significant portion of it to Cezary, so he wouldn’t tell Casimir—
He didn’t know their secrets, their alliances. He only knows that this is the Warlord’s domain. That they can tell when he lies, but that he cannot tell the truth of who he is. The Flower of the Court. If he does, he doesn’t think he’ll live long.
“Yes,” he says. “I’m of Nilfgaard.”
“And based on the quality of the clothing you were brought here in, I’d assume you were a highborn of some kind. A noble?”
“Yes,” he says. He’s choosing to look into the fire, carefully moderating his breathing, rather than look at any of them.
“And based on our knowledge that the King of Nilfgaard moved his court and a significant portion of his army to the keep, I would assume you are a member of the court?”
“Yes,” Jaskier says.
The woman has completed her circle, coming to a stop in front of Jaskier so he has no choice but to look her in the eye.
“Experience with Nilfgaard’s soldiers we’ve had,” she says drily. “We can’t say the same for a member of the court, however. We are curious what you were seeking to find by leaving your king and trespassing onto the White Wolf’s lands.”
Jaskier stares at her. “Trespassing? I never made it onto these lands.”
There’s a strange tension in the room. The old witcher clears his throat.
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken,” the woman says, her purple eyes fixed on Jaskier’s. “You were found beyond our border.”
Many parts of his escape remain hazy to Jaskier, but that doesn’t. He remembers clearly the green boundary before him, nearly close enough for him to touch. But he couldn’t even crawl those last few feet.
Is this the part where he finds the penalty for trespass is death? Even if the one who forced his trespass is the one sitting silently in the chair by the fire, watching him, still withholding judgment?
Jaskier shakes his head dumbly. His hands are finely trembling. “Then I can only beg pardon for the accident,” he says. “It was not my intention to trespass onto these lands.”
“No?” she asks, raising an eyebrow. “So you didn’t intend to seek asylum from the White Wolf?”
“I intended to seek safe passage through, if I so needed,” Jaskier says finally. “My true destination is elsewhere.”
The woman turns for a moment to regard the Warlord, still sitting motionlessly in his chair, watching. Then she looks back to Jaskier.
“You were not seeking asylum, but you were seeking safe passage,” she repeats. “By your admission, then, were you running from the King’s court?”
“I had no wish to stay in the court any longer,” Jaskier says. He’s starting to feel the strange urge to laugh again—but this is the first he’s admitted, aloud, what could have gotten him tortured or worse just days ago.
“Have you no loyalty to your king?” the woman asks.
Jaskier does laugh then—a strange, barking laugh. “Loyalty?” he repeats wonderingly. “What loyalty? I have no loyalty.”
He senses, somehow, that this was the wrong thing to say, even though one would think that, given Emhyr is their adversary, this would be the better answer to give. The Warlord shifts slightly in his chair—Jaskier can almost feel his heavy gaze, like a touch, against his skin—and the woman’s purple eyes narrow. But he is not lying.
He manages, at least, to smother his laugh away.
The woman regards him a second longer. “What is your name?” she finally asks.
“Julian,” he answers. It is also not a lie.
“And what was your role at the court, Julian?” she asks.
The ball of panic threatens to bob up again, but he pushes it down, meets her gaze.
“I’m only a minor noble,” he says. “I’m nobody.”
Neither of these sentences are lies either—technically true, the first one, and an honest account on his feelings for himself, the second.
The old witcher rubs his head, but otherwise there is no reaction. It’s only then that the Warlord leans forward in his chair, easily commanding the room’s attention by that movement alone.
“I’ve heard enough, Yenn,” he rumbles.
Jaskier remembers—this is a council. But the Warlord alone seems to be deciding his fate now.
“He seems to be exactly what he says he is,” the Warlord says. “If he seeks safe passage elsewhere, he’ll have to wait until the thaw. Until then, he can stay. Find some occupation for him.”
The Warlord, by leaning forward, has his face lit up by the fire. The yellow eyes look inhumanly bright, still trained on Jaskier. The planes of his face look like a statue’s—immovable, as fixed as stone. He was beautiful. He was still terrifying beyond words.
Some other occupation for him—Jaskier had heard the stories. This time he can’t keep the ball of fear from rising inside him again. What will it be? Servicing the witchers’ cruel appetites? And for how long? He’s no sooner thought it than a fleeting grimace of distaste appears on the Warlord’s face.
“The laundry,” he says, shrugging back into his chair. “The kitchen. Something… suitable.” He stares at Jaskier for another long, impassive moment, and then turns back to the fire. He’s dismissed.
The mage walks him to the door. “I’ll talk to you again soon,” she says. “Your position in the court… you still may be useful.”
He nods to her, frozen, and then is handed off to Triss.
His nerves had been so shredded by the interview that he has to lean on her shoulder almost all the way back to the room. He still has no idea how big the castle is, its maze of corridors, and only takes it on good faith that Triss is leading him back to the same place. When she opens the door, there’s the scant comfort that comes with recognizing the bed, the faded tapestry. Something familiar, at least.
Triss stokes the fire.
“It seems it went well,” she says, giving him a smile over her shoulder. “Good. You should feel strong enough in a day or so, and we can find work for you.”
Jaskier nods, unspeaking. What had the purple-eyed mage—Yenn—meant when she said he might still be useful? As a pawn? As a bargaining chip? Fear frissions his body. He doesn’t want the King to find out where he is, or what lengths he might go to get him back. He also doesn’t want to know how the Warlord would react, knowing the full identity of the “minor noble” he’d just taken in.
How long could he keep up the half-truths, avoid telling outright lies?
Until the thaw, he tells himself. If the Warlord meant what he said, he could leave as soon as the weather allows him to.
Triss is at the door, taking a laden tray from someone Jaskier can’t see. She comes over and puts the tray on the bed next to Jaskier. There’s a stew of some kind, still faintly steaming, and a coarse hunk of bread. A flagon of something dark—mead, maybe. Jaskier looks over to Triss, who smiles again at him encouragingly.
“You must be hungry. It’s only been liquids for five days now.”
“Five days?” Jaskier repeats.
“Does that surprise you?”
“I didn’t realize,” he says, and trails off. Seven days, then, at least, away from the King’s court. Seven days away, and he was still alive, and out of reach. No matter what his current predicament, it still seemed miraculous.
“You still seem distressed,” Triss says. “Is everything alright?”
She is a mage, and Jaskier knows better than to trust anyone. But he is curious.
“The mage in there,” he says haltingly. “She said I was found on the Warlord’s lands. I had… thought, I had been certain, that I didn’t make it quite that far.” He gives her a quick glance, looks back at the stew. “I must have been wrong.”
“Ah,” Triss says. She seems to be thinking for a moment. “You have to understand, Julian, that we could not have found you on the other side of our border. If you had been found on Nilfgaard’s lands… well, you would have seemed like bait, dying in distress in the snow. And saving your life would have meant bringing you to Kaer Morhen, which could only be understood as trespassing onto the King’s lands and taking one of his subjects hostage, even if you were not in a place to object to it."
“So you see,” Triss says slowly, “that you could have been perceived as very pretty bait for the White Wolf to save, and in doing so, he could be accused of instigating an act of war if anyone from Nilfgaard was aware of this. In such cases the council would normally meet first to discuss the relative merits of acting in order to save your life. These conversations can be somewhat long-winded and onerous, which can be dangerous when a man’s life hangs in the balance.”
She pushes the spoon into Jaskier’s hand. “Luckily, though, you were found on the White Wolf’s side of the border. And I hope you’ll continue to remember it that way, won’t you?”
“Of course,” Jaskier says. His head is starting to hurt again. He knows what he knows—he remembers the Warlord’s strong hand grasping the back of his doublet, dragging him through the snow. Now he also knows that they saved his life—why? Against their better instincts? They certainly don’t all seem to trust him—he thinks about the wary stance of the old witcher, of the Warlord’s yellow eyes trained implacably on him. Why take the risk? Is he meant to think of this vicious Warlord and his people as good-hearted, after all he’s heard to the contrary?
You may still be useful the purple-eyed mage had said. Maybe he will find out another day, then, what his worth is to them.
He eats as Triss walks to the table, pours some goldish liquid into a cup. She turns and places it on his tray.
“For your fever,” she says. “Drink this before you drop off to sleep. Do you need anything else?”
Jaskier shakes his head no.
“Well, then,” she says warmly. “I have other things to attend to. I’ll come back in the morning for you. Sleep well, Julian.”
“Thank you,” Jaskier says, watching her leave. For a long moment he waits—what is he expecting? The sound of a key turning in a lock, he realizes. Like a prisoner locked into his cell. But there’s nothing.
Triss seems nice. He wants to believe that she is. That she is as good-hearted as she makes this place out to be. But beyond Triss, he doesn’t know what to make of the others he’s met. Does he want to be considered useful by them? It would probably better to be beneath notice, to be nothing.
He finishes his stew. Then he pushes the table in front of the door. It wouldn’t do anything to discourage a witcher, he supposes. They could easily break through. And he’ll have to try to wake up early so he can remove it before Triss comes again in the morning.
In the meantime, it makes Jaskier feel a little better, seeing the table blocking the door. If someone comes through, he won’t be oblivious to it. That is one boundary that, if crossed, he will know.
In the morning, he’s woken by the sound of laughter, voices in the hallway outside his door. For all that the place had seemed deserted yesterday, at least close to the room he was staying in, life and people have filtered back in. Jaskier pulls the table away from the door, although he doesn’t open it or venture out. Still, he wonders what it means, that others had been kept out of the vicinity until now. For his sake, or for theirs?
It’s almost a relief that Triss shows up so soon after that, if only to keep him from falling into the same stew of panic he’d felt the day before. If she notices the table is slightly askew, not quite where it was placed the day before, she makes no sign.
“I’m glad you’re up,” she says briskly. “I brought you something to eat, and then I can show you around.”
Jaskier nods a thanks to the warm bowl pushed into his hands. She moves to sit on the bed, pushing the covers smooth as she does.
“Normally, we give asylum-seekers roles in whatever best suits their talents. Many who come here were farmers, carpenters, metalsmiths in their homelands. All of them fleeing from violence and tyranny, like you, and are happy to pick up the work again.”
Jaskier gives her a small smile. “Except unlike me, they already have skill in a trade.”
“The White Wolf himself directed me to help you find an occupation you find pleasing. Laundry, stable, kitchen… whatever else you might be inclined to undertake, Julian, we can find a place for you.”
It’s odd, not being recognized for what he is. For so long he’s been synonymous with bard, his skill worth his life. He thinks, with a pang of regret, of his left-behind lute. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be a bard anymore—music is as important to him as breath, or food. But he knows better than to advertise who he is, here, and the idea of performing before all these strange, even hostile, eyes makes him nervous. It’s better not to draw attention to himself now.
“Julian?” He realizes that Triss was waiting.
He waves a hand. “I’m not particularly picky,” he says. “I’m adaptable. I’ll learn.”
She looks a little disappointed. Jaskier is not trying to give off the impression that he thinks, as a noble, this work is beneath him. But he is not looking to settle in happily to a craft here in this place. He only wants to put his head down and do the work put in front of him until the thaw comes, and hope that is the brand of usefulness that the sorceress Yenn had been referring to. He is not looking to enjoy this place—he is looking to survive it.
“Perhaps the stable,” he says. “Or the laundry. Someplace… out of the way.”
“Of course,” she says gently. “Now, how do you feel? Still feverish?”
He shakes his head, but she still lays a hand on his forehead briefly to check for herself.
“Good, then,” she says. “Shall we?”
He nods, stands up a little too fast and wobbles—he’s still not quite all the way recovered. Triss squeezes his arm, helps him balance himself.
“We\’re in no rush,” she says, in her kind, modulated voice. “Let me know if, at any point, you feel overwhelmed, and we can come back here.”
The answer is that, already, he’s overwhelmed. But he performs a brave smile for her, and it must work. They go to the door, and Triss leads him out.
“We’re in the eastern wing of the keep,” Triss says. “It’s a bit more unoccupied than the others. I’ll show you where the banquet hall is, and the baths, and other places you might need to go.”
Jaskier nods, craning his head around when he hears voices behind him. Two men—and they don’t seem like witchers, not nearly so intimidating—are walking through a door a few doors down from his bedroom. One nods at him briefly, distracted.
They pass a few stairways until they reach a familiar one—he thinks they went upstairs, the day before, when he saw the Warlord. Even now, thinking of the witcher’s golden gaze, he feels his stomach tighten with something like anticipation. He is glad that they go down, further away.
Triss takes him through the banquet hall—not so well-decorated as Emhyr’s, but imposing in its own way, with its high stone walls and one long tapestry depicting a snarling wolf behind the carved chair where the Warlord must sit. Triss tells him what times he could come here to expect breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and that he can always stop in the kitchen in hours between if he has been busy enough to miss a meal.
From there they briefly visit the kitchen. Which is a contained chaos of men and women busily stoking flames, chopping vegetables, stirring giant pots. The air is hot and fragrant. One kitchen worker catches his eye, nods like the man in the hallway upstairs had, and Jaskier nods back and quickly averts his gaze. They are friendly so far, or at least polite, but it doesn’t mean anything. Servants in Emhyr’s court knew to have discretion. And The members of the court in Nilfgaard could tell you the funniest story you’d heard in your life before they betrayed you--Jaskier’s experienced it enough to know.
He’s already slightly lost by the time they leave the kitchen. Triss points out a hallway that leads to her workroom in case he ever needs her, and one to a library, and another hallway that leads to the other sorceress’s chambers—Yennefer, Triss says—and yet another hallway that leads to the Warlord’s chambers. Jaskier tries to file this away, if only to know where to seek help, as well as where to avoid ever wandering.
There’s another flight of stairs that leads down to a cool, dark cavern, and Jaskier almost thinks he’s being shown the dungeons before his eyes adjust, before his ears take in the sounds of water splashing and laughter. There are deep pools sunk into the cavern floor here, the lips of them worn smooth by the bodies that have slid over them and into the dark, faintly steaming water.
“The hot springs,” Triss says. “You’ll come down here to bathe.”
She follows his eyes up, to the only source of light in the room—an eerie, white-blueish light spidering across the ceiling, brightening and dying away in rippling patches.
“Glow worms,” she says, with a touch of pride in her tone. “Magically enhanced. And through here—”
There’s an entryway tucked into one wall of the cavern, which leads not to more hot springs but the laundry, which also relies on the steaming water. Jaskier gets a brief impression of the dim room, and several people bustling industriously past him, the smell of lye soap, racks of sopping clothes left to dry. Although it’s no less busy than the kitchen, it seems a bit more calm, and less populated. Triss steps slightly into the room and grabs a long, black cloak from a peg on the wall, drapes it around his shoulders.
“Thank you?” Jaskier says. This addition to his new wardrobe is no less ridiculous, just as shapeless and over-long on him as the shirt and trousers he was given.
Triss quirks a smile. “We’re going outside. You’ll need it.”
They walk out of the caverns, through a few more hallways, through a door, and then Jaskier is outside for the first time since the Warlord rescued him from the snow. He blinks against the onslaught of bright white, because most of what he can see are the snow-covered slopes surrounding the Warlord’s keep.
“The practice fields,” Triss says, with a wave of her hand, and Jaskier sees a mass of men—no, not men, witchers—sparring with swords, hitting each other with bare fists. Jaskier watches for a moment, entranced, because although he’s seen plenty of soldiers, he’s never seen fighting like this. These men move against each other ruthlessly, efficiently, their swords moving in dizzying blurs of motion. Somehow, they do not kill each other, for all the honed brutality of their practice, which makes it all the more impressive.
There are somehow simultaneously more witchers, and less, than he was expecting. He’d only seen a handful so far—the witcher who first found him, and the Warlord, and then the older one who was a part of the council. If this is all the witchers the Warlord has at his disposal, the number might run somewhere between seventy and eighty. It does not seem much, particularly after Jaskier has seen the columns of Emhyr’s troops march into battle, the thousands made indistinguishable to the eye. And yet, seeing how they fight, he can understand that a single witcher could do more damage than many men put together.
He’s just thinking to himself how, mage or not, he’s glad Triss is by his side, and not of these terrifying witchers, when one such witcher separates himself from the melee.
“Oh, there’s Eskel,” Triss says. “Good, I have to get back to the workshop, and he can show you this last bit.”
Jaskier tries to say oh in an uncaring tone, but it sticks in his throat. Eskel, the witcher who found him, has a particularly terrifying scar marring one side of his face, and Jaskier had just watched him decapitate a straw-filled dummy in one fluid stroke. But as the witcher approaches, he does something unexpected—smile at Jaskier, which makes the scar bunch up along his cheek.
“A pleasure to see you up and well,” he says, in a jovial tone, and sounds like he means it. Eskel looks to Triss, a question.
“Julian has interest in the stables,” Triss says. “And after that you can bring him in for lunch?”
“Of course,” he says. His eyes rake over Jaskier, a little appraisingly. “You can hold out that long, can’t you?”
Jaskier straightens up, wondering if the witcher can somehow sense his slight fatigue, his still-weak legs, on top of his heart rate that hasn’t settled since Eskel first approached them. But even for Eskel’s jovial tone, his smile, it can’t mask what Jaskier can almost sense from him, a slight charge to the air. Predator, his senses warn him, although nowhere as strongly as they screamed when in the Warlord’s company.
“Yes,” he says, a bit stiffly.
Eskel laughs, not unkindly, and Triss lays a soft hand on his shoulder.
“I’ll see you later today,” she says, and then the brief comfort of her hand lifts as she walks away. Jaskier tries not to feel betrayed—she is a mage, and doubtlessly has better things to do than help an underskilled nobleman to understand the layout of the keep. Still, he had at least felt mostly unthreatened by her—she’d shown an interest in keeping him alive, after all.
But then Eskel, the witcher standing beside him, was the one who had found him in the snow. Who had brought the Warlord to see. Eskel had played a role in keeping him alive, too.
“Shall we?” Eskel leads them along the wall of the keep, away from the mass of witchers. Jaskier follows, walking a bit sideways—he feels odd about turning his back to a witcher— so he can tilt his head back to look at Kaer Morhen from outside. It is—intimidating, ancient, hewn into the very side of the mountain itself. Jaskier wonders at the songs and stories written about this place. It must be enough to fill libraries.
“Kaer Morhen’s weathered many winters,” Eskel says, following his gaze. “But ice and wind do their work over time. See that parapet there? It’s nearly crumbled. Once the thaw comes, the stone masons will try to shore it up.”
It looks dangerous up there—those stone masons would, in the spring, be buffeted by the winds on crumbling rock high above the earth. Jaskier opens his mouth to say something, closes it. Perhaps his curiosity would be taken the wrong way.
“You have a question,” Eskel states, cocking an eyebrow up.
“Oh,” Jaskier says. “Only—can’t your mages fix it?”
Eskel huffs a laugh. “Our mage doesn’t have the time and energy to fix everything. Particularly when preparing for a war with Nilfgaard.”
His last sentence isn’t pointed, but it still stings, reminds Jaskier he’s the outsider here, the interloper from the enemy nation. He nods, doesn’t say anything else as they turn a corner into a stableyard. There’s a small, enclosed paddock with a few horses there, stomping the snow until mud, and then there’s the stable, which is warm, smelling of horse sweat and hay. A few stablehands are in the act of throwing bales down from the loft.
“If you have an interest in working with horses, you’d be expected here in the morning and evenings. Muck out stalls, feed them, give them water. Most witchers have horses, and nearly all the refugees who come our way come horseback. This work will keep you busy. Do you?”
Jaskier, who is currently having his cloak sniffed at by a horse in a nearby stall, looks up.
“Do I what?”
“Have an interest in horses?” Eskel’s tone is appraising again.
“I—yes,” he says, feeling discomfited.
“If there’s an occupation that you’d rather prefer to take on—” Eskel says.
Jaskier shakes his head quickly. Perhaps, like Triss, Eskel is only trying to be helpful. But Jaskier, in his desperation to leave the Flower of the Court behind him, also sees it as a warning, a reminder of what he must hide.
Eskel keeps talking, amiably, as they walk out of the stable again and around the rest of the yards. There’s a view over the only path that leads to or from Kaer Morhen, currently impassable by snow, and beyond that, Eskel points out the direction of Nilfgaard’s keep, the direction of Ard Carraigh—not that there’s much to see, from here, as the locations are hidden behind the snow-covered peaks. Eskel’s finger hovers on the horizon.
“And that’s where I found you when I was scouting the border,” he says, his voice taking on a thoughtful tone. “You managed to make it a fair distance, didn’t you.”
“Thank you,” Jaskier says after a moment. “For helping me.”
“Anyone who needs help can come to Kaer Morhen for aid,” Eskel says, and Jaskier tries to nod like he believes him. Perhaps these witchers are on their best behaviors now, but he’s heard the stories of the blood on their hands. An ally today did not mean an enemy tomorrow.
They’re returning to the keep—for which Jaskier is grateful, as his hands are tingling with cold, and he’s growing tired again—when another witcher appears so silently at Jaskier’s shoulder that he jumps.
“So this is the human you’ve found with the ability to change into an icicle?” This witcher has short brown hair, a mocking smile.
“Lambert,” Eskel says. There’s a warning edge to his tone.
Lambert lifts an inquisitive finger and pokes at Jaskier’s shoulder. “Is there anything else he can do?” he asks, doubtfully, and less than impressed.
“He is named Julian,” Eskel says. “And we’re going in to lunch.”
“Julian,” Lambert says, and then he grabs Jaskier by the front of his cloak, strong enough to drag him up onto his toes. Just that quickly, his face drops into something wholly predatory, danger wafting off him like smoke, golden eyes narrowing to slits. His voice is blade-sharp. “How do you feel about eating with the enemy?”
The sudden proximity of the witcher doesn’t help, nor does the dangerous tone of voice. Nor does the fact that Lambert seems to think them enemies. He’d been halfway expecting the hidden teeth of this place to finally come for him, and Lambert’s threatening snarl doesn’t disappoint. Jaskier, who has been doing so well controlling his fear and anxiety thus far today, feels a sudden surge of senseless panic, trilling all through his nerves, but ruthlessly quashes it down, smothers it. It is so automatic to him, after Emhyr’s court, as to be an almost immediate reaction. His body returns to calm, boneless in Lambert’s grasp.
“Fine,” Jaskier replies, in a mild voice, looking levelly at Lambert. The witcher releases him.
“I’d heard that’s what else he can do,” Lambert says, cheerfully, to Eskel. Now he’s giving Jaskier an appraising look, too.
“Go away,” Eskel says flatly, and Lambert does, smirking.
So that’s what Lambert’s intention had been—to force a reaction from him. Or a lack of reaction. Jaskier resumes walking with Eskel, his mind swimming to pick up the pieces. Why is Eskel shooting him that strange, sideways look? Why was Lambert looking to provoke him? What did he mean—he’d heard Jaskier could do that—get his fear under control?
He would think that would be a good thing, but now it seems it makes him almost an object of suspicion.
Maybe they think he should be more afraid than he already is. He stifles the shiver that comes with that thought.
“Ignore Lambert,” Eskel says. There’s a crease in his forehead. “He’s only doing that because you’re…”
He trails off, wincing.
“Fresh meat,” Jaskier fills in for him, his voice level. “Yes, so I’ve gathered.” At this point Eskel’s opened the heavy door back into the keep, and Jaskier pauses in the doorway to remove his cloak, fold it over his arm.
Eskel opens his mouth to speak, closes it again, for some reason unsure what to say. “I’m needed elsewhere,” he finally says. “Do you remember your way to the banquet hall?”
Eskel is friendly enough in his goodbye, suggesting they’ll see each other again soon. Jaskier nods like that sounds agreeable to him. And then, once Eskel is out of sight, Jaskier traces his route back to safety—not to the banquet hall for lunch, but to his room. It’s only once the door is closed behind him, and he’s alone, that he feels he is safe again, like a rabbit returning to his burrow while a hawk’s shadow circles overhead.
Safe—safe for now.
After that, Jaskier’s days settle into routine, which is a small comfort in itself—knowing what to expect. He wakes up early enough that he’s out in the stable before most of the people in the keep are eating breakfast—after he’s done, he goes to the laundry in the cavern, and after that, back to the stables in the evening.
No one ever told him he has to work all day—in fact, most of the other humans he works with in the laundry and stable do not, happy to spend several hours of the day idle, like the stablehands who nap and play cards most of the afternoon. But Jaskier prefers it this way—somewhere out of the way, busy, justifying him stopping in the kitchen to request a bit of bread and stew to take with him rather than having to sit in the banquet hall with its boisterous crowd.
He tried that just once—the day he’d met Eskel and Lambert. He’s left his room in the evening to go to the banquet hall for dinner, following the rumbling noise that meant a room full of people talking, laughing, cups banging onto the tables, benches screeching across the floor. He’d taken a step into the banquet hall, looking to sidle into the nearest empty space, and stopped.
It occurred to him, all over again, that he knows no one here. Unlike his extensive memory of the different alliances and grudges in Emhyr’s court, where even something as simple as who you broke bread with took on a dire weight of its own, he has no idea who might be a danger to him, who might be a boon. What had kept him alive for years was suddenly useless here—now, he knew nothing, and must begin from scratch again.
How do you feel about eating with the enemy?
For the briefest of moments, he’d allowed his fear to bob to the surface again before he managed to sink it away again. But, in just that brief moment of fear, there was a flicker of movement along the wall opposite him. The Warlord, sitting at the high table in his carved chair, suddenly looked up, his golden eyes moving unerringly to Jaskier, pinning him in place.
Jaskier had frozen, expecting the gaze to move on, but the Warlord’s gaze did not waver. Again, he was reminded of the predator who he relied upon for hospitality—the breadth of his shoulders, the muscle of his chest—he might lounge indolently in his chair, but his eyes were watchful enough to show the witcher would never be caught unawares. Jaskier would never stand a chance.
Jaskier reclined his head respectfully, and, without looking up again, slunk out of the room.
He tries so hard to stay occupied in order to stay out of the way and out of sight from the witchers. So far, he’s been more or less successful, although he still passes the practice fields whenever he walks to or from the stables. And, although he is avoiding the witchers, he is still learning about them.
The laundry and stables are both managed by talkative, friendly humans, all refugees, and although some are family to each other, most are not, bonded solely by their time spent together. They are a mix of men and women, young and old, and—in the laundry especially—the best way to pass the time is to talk.
He learns in the laundry just how fast, strong, and lethal witchers are, in addition to other knowledge imparted just as casually: that there are different schools of witchers, that they can sense emotions, that—this is accompanied by titters—they have remarkable sexual aplomb. The humans in the laundry do not seem afraid of the witchers—in fact, they seem to take pride in them, and there’s a certain level of fondness in how they wash the blood out of the witchers’ clothes that they wear to the practice fields.
Jaskier keeps waiting for the hints, the veiled warnings, but there’s nothing. The other humans seems genuinely happy here, and welcome him as one alike them, someone else who has escaped tyranny, too. They don’t ask him for his story, so he doesn’t know if they are aware he’s a noble. In fact, they seem respectful of his silence on his own past, not pushing him to speak.
Their happiness here is a far cry from what he’d heard in Nilfgaard concerning the extravagant brutality of the witchers. It does make him feel slightly more at ease, but only slightly. Perhaps, in order to retain this sense of peace and industry here, they commit their atrocities in secret, or elsewhere. Perhaps they are entirely ignorant to the horrible history of their leader that only Jaskier knows. And Jaskier would feel safer if he had the same past as them, but he doesn’t.
No one else here wrote songs that were sent across the continent that had a rhyme scheme concerning the Warlord, dead, and upon a spike his severed head. That called him a butcher, a monster, and much else worse besides. No one else here has reason to fear retribution if he were to find out the whereabouts of its author.
Even if Jaskier doesn’t share much of his past, he’s happy that the work is its own brand of mindlessness, allowing him to wash and scrub and beat and wring sopping garments, lug buckets, muck stalls, while listening to the pleasant chatter around him. There is still a Jaskier somewhere in him who is used to being the center of attention, the bloom that everyone surrounds in admiration. He thinks there’s a Jaskier who truly prefers to be the center of attention, to be light and cheerful and effusive. But everything’s so mixed up in his head since leaving Nilfgaard, trying to separate who he is from how he had to be—cheerful as nonthreatening, effusive as being free of secrets—that he’s grateful for the respite.
It’s by listening that he also learns the Warlord has a young daughter, who they all speak of with a tone of fondness, too.
“Is she Yennefer’s daughter?” he asks, and there’s a round of surprised laughter.
“The Wolf and Yennefer are not like that,” one stablehand tells him. “I think she needs more than what he can give her.”
“What’s that?” another asks.
“Absolute power.” There’s more laughter—and although it’s not mocking, it doesn’t have that undercurrent of fondness. They might like Yennefer, but surely they are a little afraid of her, too.
“I think it’s because she has more bite than he can handle,” another stablehand opines. Which makes Jaskier laugh, too—the idea that the Warlord might be the gentler party.
“Ciri’s not even his by blood,” the stablehand says, returning to Jaskier’s question. “But she’s his daughter, all the same, ever since he rescued her from Cintra.”
Jaskier’s smile melts away. “You mean--?”
“The Lion Cub of Cintra herself. The Warlord nicked in and got her before—”
“Before Nilfgaard could,” Jaskier says. His face feels like a mask, and he turns away. He remembers well Emhyr’s rage at that, several years before. To overtake his greatest rival at the time only to have the princess slip through his grasp and disappear. He remembers trying to mitigate the dangerous charge of Emhyr’s fury by performing a song that celebrated Eist’s death by arrow, the Queen toppling from her window to the unforgiving stones below. Look at these successes, the song seemed to say, glorying in their deaths. Who cares about a scamp of a child next to that?
Emhyr has reason to fear the Warlord and the Lion Cub united against him, the most plausible threat to his power that he’s faced in years—a violent Warlord and the rightful ruler of a throne he toppled. If he doesn’t know Cirilla’s whereabouts, Jaskier assumes he will soon. Their combat with each other seems inevitable.
And Jaskier has all the more reason to fear being found out, having written songs that make him an enemy to both.
Jaskier drifts away from the conversation with the other stablehands, walks through the stables checking water buckets. Most of the horses are friendly, some indifferent, but there’s only one mean one he’s been warned off. Roach. He’s so full of his thoughts that he doesn’t even notice he’s reached her stall until he receives a sharp nip on his arm. He jerks back, sloshing water from the bucket.
“What did I ever do to you!” he demands. He can feel a bruise forming beneath his sleeve already. The horse simply lays her ears back and turns away from him.
“Don’t take it personally,” he’s told. “She doesn’t like anyone.”
“Then why keep her at all,” Jaskier mutters, and for some reason the other stablehands find that highly amusing.
Later, after the stables, he walks back in the dark to the keep, stopping in the kitchen for the small portion of food that they, by now, know to leave to the side for him. He smiles his thanks, quickly wolfs down the food, and hands the empty plate back within minutes. His appetite and then some have returned since he came here, perhaps due to the physical exertions of the work he does.
He thinks on this as he walks down to the hot springs—he likes to wait until this hour, having found almost no one else in the keep uses them this late at night. He has stronger muscles in his arms and back now, and his hands are red and tough now from the laundry work. As a minor nobleman, he was never expected to do much, to use his body in this way. And, truthfully, he misses his lute, misses his music, like a phantom ache in his chest. It’s the longest he’s ever gone without. But this is a small mercy, that he has found he can still be useful without it, that he can do this work as well as anyone else.
He sits in the warmth of the springs for a while, absently poking at the bruise on his arm from Roach, and looking up at the dim light of the glowworms gently undulating over him. After a while, he hears whispers, laughter, a splash not too far away—two people in one of the pools, arms around each other, kissing.
And ah, there’s his cue. He hoists himself as silently as he can out of his pool and out of the cavern, leaving the two to it.
That is one of the things he’s missing here, he thinks. Not necessarily the sex alone—although he does miss it—but the closeness, the intimacy. Even with the other humans here, he can’t fight the long ingrained instinct to protect himself, not share too much. There were times he had thought otherwise, like those months he’d had with the Countess de Stael. But the intimacy was short-lived, and Jaskier doubts he’ll be able to find something like that again, let alone in the Warlord’s keep.
He’s leaving his room early the next morning when he runs into someone right outside the door. For a moment his chest tightens, but then he recognizes its shape.
“I’ve gotten up progressively earlier for three days straight to try to catch you here,” Triss says, an amused edge to her tone. “Do you ever sleep in?”
“There’s work in the stables,” Jaskier hedges. She turns to make room for him to pass her, and they walk together down the hall.
“Although we want everyone to play a part in things here, Julian, I wouldn’t want you to overexert yourself.”
“Who says I’m doing that?”
“No one,” she says. “Although I’ve hardly seen you to be able to say otherwise. Are you settling in?”
“I am,” Jaskier says, eager to sidestep the beginning of her comment, but she doesn’t let him go so easily.
"You never come to the banquet hall for meals,” Triss continues. “Most people in the keep probably don’t even realize you’re here.”
“I’m eating enough, if that’s what you mean,” Jaskier says.
“I’m not the only one who has noticed your absence from there,” Triss says.
Jaskier concentrates on not missing a step on the stairs they’re descending. The White Wolf’s yellow eyes are suddenly foremost in his mind.
“I see,” he says finally, his voice carefully polite. “Is that a problem?”
Triss sighs. “I’m not warning you about anything. You’ve done nothing wrong. I’m simply observing that your absence sends a message of its own. Are you not comfortable here?”
“Of course I am,” he says automatically. He turns to her. “I would like anyone who cares to notice to know that I’m very happy here, just content in my own routines. Although my routines can change if so required of me.”
In the gloom of the morning light coming through the windows, Triss looks like she’s torn between laughing or cursing.
“Very politic of you,” she murmurs.
“I was raised a noble.”
“Of course. It’s like breathing for you.” Triss hesitates a moment more, then puts her hand on his shoulder. “Do you still remember the way to my workshop?”
“Good. Then come visit me sometime. You should have your time for freedom here, too.”
“I will,” Jaskier says, and after wrangling this promise out of him, Triss departs down another hallway.
No sooner than Jaskier is alone again does he turn and find a small body suddenly hurtling into him, knocking him back a few steps. There’s a surprised oof someone around his navel, underneath a cloud of faint blonde hair. The hair tips back so he can see a face, screwed up in something like suspicion.
“I beg your pardon,” Jaskier says, with a faint smile.
“I don’t know you,” the girl says, offended.
“I’m Julian,” he answers, arching an eyebrow, and points out, “I don’t know you, either.”
The girl seems to mull over the strange likelihood of anyone not knowing her.
“I’m Ciri,” she says, and oh—Jaskier feels a part of him cringe away, remembering his awful melody about Cintra’s fall, the grotesquery of its mocking sing-song. “And if anyone asks, I’m not in this room.” Before he can reply, she enters a door just past him, closes it swiftly behind her.
Seconds after the door closes, a new figure appears in the hallway, walking with purpose. It’s the sorceress, Yennefer. She doesn’t give him time to utter a word, but points past him.
“She’s in that room, isn’t she?”
Jaskier gives a strange shrug-nod, unwilling to say so while also not wanting to anger the sorceress.
“I thought so,” Yennefer sighs, and raises her voice to project down the hallway. “You will come to your lessons, Ciri. I’m not chasing you through the keep all morning.”
After a long pause, there’s the sound of a deadbolt sliding in, obstinate. Ciri won’t be coming out anytime soon.
Jaskier tries to hide his smile, moving to walk away when Yennefer’s purple eyes snap to his, slowly mapping his features as she speaks.
“We will have to have that conversation sometime soon, Julian. I’ve been busy, but I haven’t forgotten.”
The pit of Jaskier’s stomach turns cold, but he doesn’t let anything show but the polite mask of his face. “Of course,” he agrees, and walks away on wooden-feeling legs. A warning for him to not get too comfortable, he thinks. Their knowledge of his belonging to Emhyr’s court will always make sure of that.
He might not see the snakes, but the grass is always full of them.
Although he tries not to draw attention to himself, he seems to not be able to quite help it, either.
In the first place, it’s Roach’s fault. That mean horse is a menace to everyone, even to the stablehands she seen about the place for years, Jaskier doesn’t try with her, but one day he’s softly crooning to a horse a few stalls down, feeding him shaved bits of apple, when Roach kicks her stall door and pushes her head out, rolling her eyes to see what he’s doing. Surprised, but cautious, he came forward a few steps, offered her the apple core. She huffed and shook her head side to side and glared at him with annoyance. But he’d sung to her, in a low voice, crooning in the way he had to the other horse, and eventually she deigned to nip the apple core out of his palm.
Roach ignores him for several days, glaring at him whenever he’s near, but he notices her ears prick forward whenever he sings soft nonsense at her.
After a few days, she consents to eating apple halves held out in an open palm, looking suspiciously askance at him each time.
Ten days pass, and by then, while singing her a made-up song about a horse that can run like wind, she nibbles an apple slice from his fingertips and blows a hot breath into his hair.
Word spreads amongst the stablehands, and soon afterward he has an audience eager to see a man who can stick his head into Roach’s stall and emerge without a bite to show for it.
“I just sang a little to her,” he says, a mixture of pleased and embarrassed when the next stablehand who attempts to feed her a carrot and gets a swift, toothy rebuke from Roach instead.
In the laundry, it’s much the same. He looks up from his work one day, steam reddening his face, to find many of the other workers have slowed to a stop, looking at him.
“You have a beautiful voice, dear,” says Zofia, the head laundress. Jaskier had not realized, until then, that he was singing.
But it seems like some spring has become unstoppered in him, music a current that he is unable to slow. He finds himself moving his hands as if he has a lute beneath them, playing the fingerwork of the song in his head to the air. He hums snatches of melody as he walks through the stableyard, he wakes up in the night with a half-finished lyric in his head. Even if he’s trying not to be a bard anymore, it’s like his own body and mind won’t let him, his voice emerging after a long silence like a bird’s after a storm. The best he can do is try to curb it in, not advertise it too much.
Zofia even approaches him about his clothing,
“Aren’t you tired of these black bags you drape yourself in?” she asks, referring to Jaskier’s two sets of clothes here: the overlarge black shirt and trousers he was given, the same the witchers wear in the practice field—and he’s grateful enough, since learning that, that there are no obvious blood stains on the dark fabric. The witchers seem to mostly stick to this uniform, too, but the humans here dress in cuts and patterns of their own, and some of the women here run a nice enterprise, particularly in the winter months when there’s less to do, designing dresses and boots and chemises of their own, individual patterns—an assortment of styles from the places they called home once, pretty patches of color in the monochrome landscape of Kaer Morhen.
He shrugs. “They’re the only things I have,” he says.
“And I was a seamstress in another life, a good one,” Zofia says. “I could make you clothes like the ones you came here in.”
“O-oh,” Jaskier says. He thinks of his flashy doublet, one of the few things he’d taken with him from Nilfgaard. “They were past salvaging, I think.”
Zofia nods. “You were so frozen you had to be cut from your clothes. But I could try my hand at it. Fitting plumage for a songbird, I would think.”
Jaskier smiles up at her from where he’s sitting. “Ah, but I’m no songbird,” he says. “And I’m sure I couldn’t do your work justice by wearing it while—what? Cleaning out horse stalls? Thank you, Zofia, but I’m fine with what I have.”
Zofia doesn’t frown, but it’s a near thing. “Alright, dear,” she says. “Let me know if you reconsider.”
All Jaskier’s wanted is the respite of invisibility, obscurity, until he figures out what comes next. But for some reason, Kaer Morhen won’t let him.
He’s in the stables early the next morning, whistling a song to Roach as she tolerates him scratching under her chin, when a voice speaks behind him.
“So the rumor’s true.”
He’s so startled—he hadn’t even heard anyone’s footsteps—that his head jerks up, nearly colliding with Roach’s, before he can collect himself.
And it’s him. The Warlord. As much as Jaskier’s tried to tuck himself away, put himself beneath notice, live a life in Kaer Morhen as far from the witchers as possible, the Warlord is here. He’s leaned against the wall of stalls opposite, his arms crossed, a deceptively unthreatening pose. His yellow eyes and white hair are bright in the gloom.
“Rumor,” Jaskier says, and by some miracle his voice stays even. “What rumor?”
The Warlord nods toward Roach. “That she’d let another man touch her without removing his hand from his arm.”
Jaskier finally manages to snap his eyes away. He looks at Roach, too. “Well, she is particular, I suppose.”
“Hm,” the Warlord says. His voice sounds a little closer; a glance out of the corner of his eye shows him that the witcher is coming to stand at the other side of the stall, only Roach’s head separating them. Jaskier feels hyperaware of his presence—every follicle on his body seems to be standing up. “Particular?” the witcher asks.
“Well, yes, she’s… you know.”
The protracted silence seems to suggest that the Warlord does not, after all, know.
“Particular,” Jaskier repeats. He casts an eye up the aisle—he wishes another stablehand would appear, request his help, perhaps, but the stables are still empty but for them. “She’s, well, she’s a feisty old bag, isn’t she? Intelligent, yes, and also probably animated by spite alone, and about as kind to strangers as a thief on a dark night. Which are all probably good things, if she takes a liking to you.”
He’s rambling a bit, because his mouth is more likely to betray his nerves than anything else, so he abruptly shuts up. Roach turns her head, nips at her tail, and in doing so, he’s afforded a clear look at the witcher. He’s studying Jaskier’s face, and although his face looks just as impassive and hard to read as anytime else Jaskier’s seen him, it seems that his focus in entirely on Jaskier, a complete concentration that might be thrilling if it wasn’t also so terrifying.
Roach is about to stick her head out again, and Jaskier finally realizes that it might not be a good thing for the Warlord to go away sporting a bruise thanks to Jaskier’s lack of care.
“You, uh, might want to take a few steps back,” Jaskier says. “Any happy manners she might have would only be reserved for her rider, I think.”
“Hm,” the Warlord says, and Jaskier would like to learn, fast, if that’s a noise he reserves only for disapproval. Any further thoughts are derailed when Roach pushes her head out of the stall, turns toward the witcher, and begins gently nibbling on his hair. The Warlord sighs, but allows it.
“Ah,” Jaskier says, and as several things begin to make a whole lot of sense, he finds he’s at a loss for further words. “Ah.”
The Warlord’s lips quirk up, just slightly. “As you say, she only reserves her happy manners for her rider.”
“So I see,” Jaskier says. If he wasn’t so used to controlling untoward reactions, his face would probably be aflame right now. Brilliant. Telling the Warlord upon whose favor upon he depends that his horse is a spiteful old bag might not be the way to do it. He wishes someone would have told him that Roach was the witcher’s horse—he had, honestly, assumed any horse the Warlord would ride into battle would look the part more—a large, powerful stallion, white as the witcher’s hair, or something to the equivalent.
Standing so close to him, as Roach continues to graze at his hair, Jaskier suddenly realizes that he and the Warlord are of a height. He wouldn’t have thought it, what with the sheer power the witcher projects, that he could look him in the eye. He doesn’t know what to do with that information once he notices it.
“I should return to my duties, my—uh, my liege,” Jaskier says quickly. He never had been instructed how one should address the violent Warlord who permitted him asylum after escaping a power-mad king. The Warlord’s eyes narrow down, just slightly, so Jaskier infers that’s not the right one. “Your grace, I mean. Your highness.”
He ducks a quick bow—tries not to think about exposing the defenseless back of his neck to this witcher—and does not look up again as he straightens, turns around, and tries to walk just slow enough that it does not seem like he is making an escape.
He does eventually find the time to stop by Triss’s workshop a few days later, stopping over with his lunch between coming from the laundry and going to the stable. He sits at a table and dips bread into his stew while looking around her workshop with interest. There are countless glass vials filled with fluids in an array of colors. Bunches of herbs hung from the ceiling, and pots overgrown with plants he’s never seen, and a wall of books that look old, weathered. It is a peaceful place.
Triss, who is at the other side of the table looking over a book, her finger slowly tracing as she reads, looks up.
“Some leisure time, Julian?”
He shrugs. “What are you working on?”
She sighs. “Magical conduction—if it can work, how it can work. I won’t bore you.”
Jaskier waves the heel of his bread in her direction. “Bore me.”
Triss smiles, but then her face falls into her serious lines. “A mage’s ability to use chaos isn’t inexhaustible. We can become tired, overburdened. There are ways to lighten the load, but some seem to exist only in theory. Conduction—the idea that a mage could channel their magic through something that does not tax their own bodies. An amulet, maybe, a familiar, who is able to assist with its magic. Like anything else, it is not meant to be harmful, but can be used for ill in the wrong hands. Perhaps a reason why it’s fallen out of practice.”
It is interesting to hear Triss speak so candidly about it. The mages in Emhyr’s court were rather mysterious—rarely seen, unless trotted out to advise the King or work their magic. Many had to have been bloodthirsty for power, Jaskier believed, because they allied themselves with Emhyr willingly enough. That alone was enough that he avoided them.
“Why bring it back into practice now?” Jaskier asks.
“Because, as without peer as Yennefer is, there is only one of her—and the time may come when what is asked of her is more than she can manage.” Triss’s voice is heavy. Jaskier’s mood sinks, too.
“Oh,” he says. “Nilfgaard.”
“Oh, Nilfgaard, indeed,” she says, sighing. “Little has happened thus far, but we know that when Nilfgaard attacks, it will attack hard. Yennefer may not be outmatched, but she will be outnumbered.”
Jaskier pushes his near-empty bowl away. He doesn’t want to talk about Nilfgaard. He can only hope that, by the time that happens, the thaw had come first, and he will be far, far away.
Triss seems to catch his mood. “We don’t have to talk about it anymore,” she says. “We could talk about something else, instead. I heard a funny story about a stablehand calling the White Wolf’s steed a feisty old bag somewhat recently—”
Jaskier sinks back into his chair, hiding his face in his hands. “Oh no,” he groans, while Triss laughs at him.
Triss’s laughter is still ringing in his ears when he’s outside, walking toward the stableyard, humming to himself. He’s surprised to see a small group of figures clustered around an even smaller figure—Ciri, he realizes. Her blue cloak is whipping in the wind, and she’s saying something that makes the witchers jostle for her attention.
“I can only choose one more—” she’s saying.
“—But surely our friend here would like to try his hand?” This voice is familiar, the mocking edge to its tone. Lambert smiles at Jaskier, who stops warily. He’d prefer to walk on—he’d avoided seeing Lambert since the first they’d met, and was happy with it—but didn’t want to cause offense to a witcher, especially one who didn’t seem to like him much.
“Try my hand at what?” he asks cautiously. Aside from Lambert and the princess, he doesn’t recognize the other faces, although he doesn’t need to know them to know they’re witchers. He shoves his discomfort away as they approach him.
“He’s a little scrawny, isn’t he?” Ciri asks, looking Jaskier up and down. Lambert and the other witchers laugh.
“Well, if this is a matter of strength,” Jaskier says, shrugging, and tries to politely move on. Lambert takes another step, moving the group into his path.
“What, princess, you don’t think he could fight off a bear?” a witcher asks, gently nudging at Ciri.
“You don’t think he could take on a nest of drowners?”
“Give him credit, lads,” Lambert says. “I’d wager twelve of him could maybe all together raise a scratch on a single witcher.”
Jaskier shrugs again, uncaringly. “Round it up to fifteen,” he says coolly, and the other witchers around him let out a surprised whoop of laughter. Lambert’s eyes narrow. He was expecting to barb Jaskier with that comment, he thinks, but it’s true that he would be fatally outmaneuvered in any conflict with a witcher.
“I see our Nilfgaardian icicle’s gotten a little lippy since he’s gotten here,” Lambert grumbles. “You seem rather eager at the prospect of fighting a witcher.”
“Yet you’re the one who stopped me to propose it,” Jaskier points out, voice pleasant. Any fear he has at talking back to the witcher is safely packed away, probably because Lambert is a known quantity and, for that reason, strangely reassuring. He might not know what to make of the other witchers here, but he already knows enough about Lambert to know he’ll take any opportunity to goad him. It’s a return to familiar territory—actually knowing where he stands with someone else. His behavior can adapt from there.
Lambert grits out a grin. “And you think insulting witchers is a way to make friends here?”
Jaskier raises an eyebrow. “I didn’t realize witchers were so easily insulted,” he says. “Be glad that words aren’t weapons, or it would be terribly easy to raise more than a scratch on your thin skin.”
As soon as the words are said, he’s half-expecting Lambert to rip out his vocal cords. There’s a frozen, surprised silence, and then Ciri’s voice breaks it.
“I want him,” she breathes. The surrounding witchers—all but Lambert—seem to find this so hilarious that Jaskier doesn’t hear what else is said to him. Only that Ciri is grabbing him by the fold of his cloak and tugging him forward. The other witchers fall in around him, one giving him a thump on the back that he presumes is meant good-naturedly, although it sends him stumbling forward several steps.
“I really have to—” Jaskier begins, but no one listens to him, and then suddenly the whole group of them have come to a halt along the wall overlooking the valley. Yennefer’s there, interrupted in pointing out something to the person standing alongside her. All Jaskier can see is a broad back, white hair. He knows who it is.
“Yenn,” Ciri says, bounding up to her. “I did my lesson.”
“Already?” Yennefer says, and it certainly sounds to Jaskier like the sorceress was hoping it would take Ciri rather a bit longer.
“What’s all this about?” the Warlord questions. He looks amused as Ciri sidles over to stand proudly next to him—he rests his large palm over her head, a fond, protective gesture. For a moment he thinks the Warlord looks at him, their eyes meeting, but then his yellow gaze moves on.
“I told her to hand-select her own protective guard. Five of them. And explain her reasoning for doing so.” Yennefer is a bit distracted, looking over the group assembled before her. If Jaskier wasn’t in the thick of the burly witchers, he’d probably be easing away backwards now, hoping not to be seen, but there’s no such luck.
“It’s pretend,” Ciri assures her father. “A thought—a thought experiment.”
“Of course,” the Warlord says. His face returns to seriousness. “And you can explain your choices?”
“I can!” Ciri says, and begins to excitedly point from one witcher to another, Lambert and three of the others, who all seem able to kill or maim in distinctly different ways with sword or bomb or magic. The witchers in front of him stand aside and then there’s Jaskier, standing there sheepishly, last but not least.
“And Julian,” Ciri says.
“I don’t—” Jaskier begins, as the Warlord and the sorceress stare at him, but Yennefer, eyebrows drawn together, interrupts him.
Carefully, she says, “And why Julian?”
“Because he stays calm when people are mean to him, and even when Lambert was trying to make him mad, the only person who got mad was Lamber,” Ciri says. “Everyone else might be good at fighting, but if the fighting doesn’t work, he’s good at talking.”
“I see,” Yennefer says.
The Warlord’s yellow eyes don’t stray from Jaskier’s face. “He might be good for raising at least a scratch, too,” he says mildly, and that’s when Jaskier knows the Warlord was able to hear the whole conversation with Lambert, even though they’d been on a completely different side of the keep. Which says something for witcher senses, he supposes, but it makes him wonder, abstractedly, if the Warlord couldn’t help but listen in, or if he’d wanted to. Lambert gives a long-suffering sigh, and the moment passes. The group of witchers disbands after Ciri is praised for her choices, and the Warlord turns to speak to Yennefer again, and Jaskier skulks back to the stables.
Very pretty bait—he’s remembering Triss’s words now. The last thing he’s wanted is to put himself in front of the Warlord, but now he’s done so twice, in the company of the Wolf’s horse and his daughter. He can only hope that the Warlord does not view it as anything aside from accidental, or else there could be implications that Jaskier would rather not think about.
Jaskier’s luck, it would seem, has run out. He’s done more than just draw attention to himself. He’s been summoned to see the Warlord.
It’s evening, the next day, and Jaskier was already back in his room, stirring up the fire, when the knock came to his door. So he doesn’t have much time to prepare himself, can only strap on his mental armor as he follows a human he doesn’t know along that same path he took all those days before—down the hallway, up the stairs. It’s the council’s chambers, and the same three people await him: the sorceress, the older witcher, and the Warlord, who is leaning against a table with his arms crossed when Jaskier comes in.
“You wanted to see me,” Jaskier says, his voice carefully polite, inflectionless. Inwardly, he’s still trying to figure out how he has managed to call this attention down upon himself. He has been a good worker, industrious, in the laundry and stable. He’s caused no problems for others. Perhaps they want to ask him about Nilfgaard, if he can supply its weaknesses, its advantages. It’s the only thing he can think of.
“It’s alright, we only had a few questions for you,” Yennefer says. The same as last time, she takes over the talking for the others.
“Of course,” Jaskier says, still standing straight and calm in the middle of the room.
Yennefer pushes her hair over her shoulder. “So, then. I have to confess that the term, the flower of the court, meant nothing to us, Jaskier, aside from the fact that you desperately did not want us to learn what it meant. That thought was blaring like a beacon in your head, while almost everything else was submerged. That little trick of yours,” she says, shrugging, mildly impressed.
Jaskier stands frozen, just as frozen as he was that day they found him. The realization comes sluggish. This Yennefer can read minds—knows his real name. Knows exactly what he didn’t want them to know. Somewhere, a bottom is falling out of his world, but he’s too numb to know what to do.
“Our contacts in the port cities had an interesting story for us when last I checked in,” Yennefer continues. “That Nilfgaard’s King has a standing order to return his flower to him, his bard, who escaped several weeks past. A brown-haired, blue-eyed young man. And while we might not be familiar with his title, we are familiar with his work.”
Yennefer looks closely at him. On either side of her, the witchers are motionless. Jaskier feels that every eye is riveted to the visible bob in his throat when he swallows.
“Suffice to say, we were reasonably sure this songbird had migrated to our keep, and—well. Zofia tells us you keep the laundry entertained with your absentminded singing, that you play imaginary instruments sometimes when distracted. The stablehands have heard you serenading the horses there. It was rather obvious, wouldn’t you think?”
Jaskier was stupid enough to think he could escape predator’s eye. And all along, the entire time he’s been here, the eye has never been anywhere but on the back of his neck.
Yennefer seems to be waiting for a response.
“Yes,” he agrees. His steady voice sounds faraway to his ears. “Rather obvious.”
“Yes,” Yennefer repeats back. “So we have to ask, why the subterfuge?”
What is the point now in trying to lie? This mage can apparently read his thoughts. She knew his lies from the beginning.
“If you are as familiar with my work as you say,” Jaskier says finally, “then the reason should also be obvious.”
Yennefer smiles faintly at him. “You thought to predict our response to your songs,” she says. “And what songs they are, bard. I believe our animalistic Warlord is put down like a dog in several. Taverns across the continent sing lusty songs of how explicitly Emhyr will butcher this butcher.”
The Warlord shifts next to Yennefer. His forearms, still crossed, are strong with muscle, the firelight catching on the faint, silvery scars on his skin.
“If that is what worries you, we might as well get this out of the way.” His voice sounds tired.
Jaskier stares at him, uncomprehending, until the witcher waves a hand as if to urge him on.
“Sing it,” he says. “Whatever the worst song is in your repertoire.”
And oh this is cruel, cruel. Crueler even than anything Emhyr could dream up. To be forced to stand here and look the Warlord in the face as he voices the worst poison. The Warlord will make him repeat it all like a confession before he—kills him. Kills him. Kills Jaskier for what he’s done.
Jaskier’s finessed control slips for just a moment, like a kettle screaming steam before it’s taken off the heat. His helpless fear riots up through his body, and in response, he sees the two witchers rear back, eyes widening suddenly, as if startled. Yennefer starts forward, with a hand out to steady him as Jaskier’s vision narrows. But it’s the Warlord who speaks.
“Jaskier,” he says. And repeats it, “Jaskier,” as he is finally able to gain control again; it was only a moment’s slip. He sees that the Warlord is no longer leaning against the table, but straining forward, a furrow in his brow. He makes a slight movement, as if to uncross his arms and reach forward, but he doesn’t.
“It appears we are having a fatal misunderstanding,” the Warlord says, with a glance toward Yennefer. “I only meant—it might ease your mind. Whatever reaction you’ve feared from me, I’ve heard worse.”
“You were the bard of Emhyr’s court, and expected to sing what would suit his fancies,” Yennefer breaks in. “It’s true what the Wolf says—there is no ill will. I rather believe your old court has filled you with a fine dose of stories concerning the Wolf’s bloodthirst and violence, but we hope to put that to rest.”
Jaskier’s gaze travels slowly from the Warlord to Yennefer to back again. The old witcher speaks for the first time.
“He doesn’t understand,” the old witcher says. “Make it plain.”
“You needn’t fear punishment, bard,” Yennefer says. “We actually hope to use your defection for our gain. You’ve shown an aptitude for catchy songs that can curry the favor or ill will of the people. Now that we know who you are, we are offering you an opportunity—you’re wasted in the laundry, or the stables.”
Jaskier looks between them again. He feels wrung out, like a rag, but it appears that he is not, this day, going to die at the Warlord’s hands. The council is looking at him, awaiting his reaction. They do not know what he feels. Truthfully, Jaskier doesn’t quite know what he feels right now, either.
“An opportunity,” he repeats.
The Warlord moves aside slightly. Behind him, on the table, there is a familiar-looking shape. It’s a lute case. Jaskier’s fingers twitch to touch it.
“A different title,” the older witcher says.
“Not the flower of the court,” Yennefer says.
The Warlord’s golden eyes snap to Jaskier’s. His voice is a low rumble. “The bard of Kaer Morhen.”
l o o o o n g update after a loooong time away