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“Uh,” Geralt said, staring down at the glass bowl.

“Ribbit,” said the frog.

“Thought you might take an interest,” Dijkstra said, leaning back in his chair; he had his fingers laced over his belly. The bowl with the frog was sitting on his desk. It looked like a reasonably nice home for a frog: a dish full of water, a bit of damp dirt and sand, a few scattered bits of rotting fruit to draw in flies. The frog shot its tongue out expertly and nabbed one as it flitted by, very much like any ordinary frog.

The only odd thing was it had a dirty and very small purple velvet cap perched askew on the top of its head, drooping over one large liquiescent eye.

“That’s not really—”

Dijkstra shrugged. “You’re the fucking expert. Didn’t see him get cursed myself. One of my bully boys on an errand won him off an innkeeper in Blaviken. She said a witch showed up one night he was performing, screamed he’d been false to the wrong woman, and bang, frog instead of minstrel.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Geralt muttered, running a hand over his face. It sure as hell sounded like something that would happen to Dandelion. Come to think of it, it’d been seven months since he’d last heard or seen anything of Dandelion. That was a bit longer than the average between yells for help. He squinted at the frog more closely. He knew frogs pretty well—side effect of spending a lot of time hunting in swamps—and this definitely wasn’t a local, and not a northern species either. Looked more like the kind you got down south, with that purplish iridescence along the sides. He leaned down and sniffed deeply at the bowl. Hard to be sure—it mostly smelled like wet frog—but yeah, there was something there, faint trace of an ozone crackle like for an active spell. Fuck.

“Your man learn anything else about what happened?” he said grimly, straightening up from the case. Going back to Blaviken to get pelted with rocks was nowhere on his list of things he wanted to do, not to mention his chances of getting answers from anyone there were slim to none.

“Yeah,” Dijkstra said, and left it there, significantly. Geralt glared at him. Dijkstra just spread his hands. “Looks to me you owe me a favor already, witcher. You want more, you’ll have to pay for it.”

“Grrr,” Geralt said. “Fine. What do you want? And don’t overestimate how much it’s worth to me to turn Dandelion back,” he added sourly.

Except dammit, apparently it was worth a week slogging through the mucky half-frozen fields north of Novigrad to dig up the corpse of Dijkstra’s missing messenger and then track the nekkers who’d killed him back to their lair. Which turned out to be more of an underground complex, eight caverns full of the little bastards getting fat on the human and horse corpses they’d been squirreling away from the battlefields. Geralt grimly downed half a dozen of the strongest potions he could brew and hacked his way through the horde, and finally at the very back of the last cavern found the remnant of the messenger’s pouch, clawed and its contents shredded to wet unrecognizable sludge.

He took it back to Novigrad nursing a hell of a hangover and dumped the slimy mess on Dijkstra’s desk next to the glass bowl. The frog was looking well. Its skin was glossy and moist and it had grown a bit. Someone had even washed its little cap for it. “Your man’s dead, and whatever he was carrying, you don’t have it, but neither does anybody else,” Geralt said flatly. “Now talk.”

Dijkstra scowled at the mess but grudgingly said, “Fine. Innkeeper wrote down the curse. She’d figured a friend of his might come along someday and be willing to give a coin for it.” He reached into his desk and brought out a dirty scrap of paper smelling of beer; an unsure hand had scribbled on it, A creacher of muck ye are and shal be, until the corse of the sun be run.

Geralt frowned down at it. “‘Course of the sun’? Sounds like the sun’s journey. Usually just means a day goes by.”

Dijkstra shrugged. “I didn’t write it, witcher.” He pushed the bowl over towards Geralt. “Good luck.”

Geralt stalked out of the bathhouse with the frog under his arm. “If you ever cheat on a sorceress again I swear I’ll cut off your dick myself,” he told it bitterly.

“Ribbit,” Dandelion said.

Geralt had to rig up a sling to carry the bowl off the side of his saddle, in place of the slyzard head trophy he’d been carrying. Didn’t have quite the same impact. When he rode into the next village, the children all ran after him laughing and trying to tap on the glass. “Mighty foe you’ve vanquished there, witcher,” one of the old men sitting smoking outside the tavern called to him.

“Everyone’s a jester in his own court,” Geralt muttered, stomping inside. He bought a bruised apple and a near-rotting piece of meat off the innkeeper before going back outside, shooing off the kids, and riding on. That night at his campfire he cut up the pieces roughly and took off the loose net cover to drop them into the bowl. One of them knocked the tiny velvet cap off the frog’s head. “Ribbit!” it said loudly, and jumped out.

“Oh fuck me,” Geralt said, and dived for it.

An hour later, dripping wet, he grimly shoved the frog back into its bowl and pulled the net cap back over it. He threw himself back down onto his log and plucked the stork he’d killed just before it had eaten Dandelion, and roasted it vengefully. Stork didn’t make very good eating, but he was ready to take whatever satisfaction he could get right now.

Three days later he rode into Oxenfurt and broke into the university library. The place was still locked up, even though that fuckhead Radovid was months in his grave. Geralt wasn’t even a little bit sorry he’d helped Dijkstra and Roche arrange that, but no denying Redania was in a complete mess as a result; nobody had even managed to take over yet. He was surprised Dijkstra hadn’t left Novigrad to get in on the action, actually, but maybe he’d decided there wasn’t much percentage in being the ruler of Redania right now. Geralt couldn’t have disagreed. The Nilfgaardian legions had wintered snug and easy in Temeria now that Emhyr had made his peace with Roche and the partisans, and they’d be on the move again pretty soon: would’ve been on the move already, if Emhyr hadn’t gone back to Nilfgaard for the winter, presumably to knock together a few nobles’ heads and shove Ciri down their throats as his heir. Whoever did end up in charge of Redania was probably just asking to have their head decorating a pike by summer.  

Geralt still wished someone had gotten around to opening the University back up: it was a hell of a lot harder to find any information without a librarian to help. He had to dig through three dozen books of magical verses before he found one that talked about the Course of the Sun, in capital letters like it meant something specific.

He sighed deeply and then went to the religious section and looked through a few books on the Nilfgaardian cult of the Great Sun, and in the third one he finally found it. The Course of the Sun is a notable and unusual ritual in the Nilfgaardian religion, very likely a relic from times of human sacrifice and very little removed from them, as most attempts to run the Course—and thereby win the blessing of the Sun for the city—are fatal. Only those already sentenced to death on rare occasions will try, in an effort to win grace and pardon for their crimes, as well as imperial reward for themselves or their survivors. The Course can only be attempted during the Festival of the Spring Equinox held in a Golden Year—

“Oh shit,” Geralt said, dropped the book, and ran for the door. He threw himself back on his horse and  started riding flat-out for the south. When the mare got close to foundering, he stopped at the next village, looked over every horse visible, found the best one, made the trade, slung his saddle from one to the other—“Ribbit!” Dandelion protested; Geralt ignored him—and kept going. He rode through the night. After forty-eight hours and another two horses changed, he stopped at an inn—he thought he was somewhere in southern Temeria, but he wasn’t sure—slept for three hours, traded his horse in again, and got back on the move. He ate in the saddle, handfuls of dried meat and fruit and nuts, and sprinkled water onto the frog from his waterbag.

 Once he crossed the border into Cintra, he had to make a call; he reluctantly gave up the two days of time and went east until he got to the Nevi River, so he could follow the straight shot south through Angren and Toussaint until he got to Nazair, and then he had reached the imperial roads and clear sailing. But he only had six days left and more than half the distance. Every town he rode through was putting up decorations for the damn Golden Year equinox, too, like a reminder Dandelion’s time was running out. Frogs didn’t live seven years, so if he missed this one—

Geralt made it to the Nilfgaard valley not long after dawn on the equinox. The last horse quit two miles short and would have required beating to keep going, so he just left her on the side of the road, grabbed the bowl of unhappy frog, and ran the rest of the way on foot. It wasn’t a lot slower at that point, because the roads to the city were thronged with pilgrims. He had to shove to get through to the High Temple, which was up on the mountain over the city, beneath a monumental image of the Great Sun carved directly into the solid rock. People were jammed tight around it, and they glared at him when he pushed by, but he had been in the saddle for twelve days, he hadn’t eaten anything but dried fruit for the last three, he hadn’t slept more than sixteen hours across all of them put together, he was about to have to pull off a stunt that killed people more often than not, and he just glared back at them with all the seething fury he felt and they looked away and didn’t say anything.

Inside the temple, the religious ceremony or whatever was already going on. Over the heads of the crowd, Geralt even caught a glimpse of Emhyr in full black-and-gold regalia on a dais next to a woman in gold who had to be the high priestess, and Ciri looking faintly bored one step behind him: at least after this was over, he could maybe say hello. There were priests repeating the ceremony outside for the crowd of commoners who couldn’t get inside the temple itself, and some of them were passing through the crowd carrying a bowl full of some kind of golden liquid: they’d dip their finger in it and press a circle between your brows. “Yeah, enough,” Geralt said impatiently, jerking his head away too late when he got up to one and the guy hit him with it. He caught the man’s arm. “Hang on. The Course of the Sun. Anybody trying it this year?”

The priest frowned at him. “No, my son,” he said, faintly reproving, and tried to tug loose.

“Great,” Geralt said, not letting go. “What is it?”

Turned out there were eight satellite niches carved all over the mountain face around the golden disk, in the shape of the sunbeams of the symbol, each filled with magical crystal that would ignite when you touched it. You had to get all eight lit to complete the course. The disk itself would burst into flame if you did it.

He could see why people rarely managed to survive: the entire face of the mountain around the beams and the disk was a sheer, dwarven-polished slab. Getting between them would be tough enough for an ordinary man: the disk was about fifty feet across, and though the craggy rock there hadn’t been polished, it was coated with gold. The beams themselves were ten feet apart. And once you’d set everything on fire, there wouldn’t be a single handhold left.

Fortunately, it looked like they’d only polished about four feet above the top sunbeam. A Quen shield would keep the fire off him long enough for him to get up there. After that, it would be a climb of about three hundred feet straight up to the nearest ledge before he could get around to the other side of the mountain and back down to the road. He ground his teeth. It was doable, but barely.

“Fine,” he snapped at the priest. “Any other rules? Does it matter what order they get lit in? How you start? Anything you have to do after?”

“No,” the priest said, bemusedly. “But—”

Geralt shoved on past him. He didn’t know how much time he had left, but it wasn’t a lot: the sun was already high up. Most of the audience was trying to be close to the mouth of the temple, to see the emperor and the high priestess, so once he got to the edges, the crowd thinned out. He went around the side of the temple and tipped Dandelion out of the bowl into a small patch of shade. “Don’t damn well get yourself killed while I’m doing this,” he told the frog. Then he climbed the wall, got onto the roof, backed up for a running start, and threw himself at the bottom sunbeam.

People started yelling as soon as he got the first one lit—fortunately, he discovered, you could touch a beam lightly at one end and the flames would take a minute or so to travel the whole length. He managed to get a handhold on the lower edge of the disk and jump to the second beam on the left before the fire was licking at his heels. He cut across the disk at that point and went all the way up the three on the right—it was screaming pandemonium below by then—and went back over across hand-over-hand, holding the top of the disk. He got the last one on the top left with a swing and a tap to the base of it, then put on the Quen, grabbed the bottom of the last beam, hauled himself up it hand-over-hand even as it caught on fire around him, jammed a foot into the top point, and launched himself up.

He got a grip on a narrow ledge above, just in time. The whole disk erupted into flame, and it felt about as hot as the actual sun for a moment, roaring of the air below him so thunderous it shook pebbles loose down on his head. “Shit,” he muttered. He grabbed for another handhold, and another, hauling himself up pretty much by his fingertips—he owed Vesemir a lot of drinks in the afterlife for all those hand exercises the old man had insisted on—and then he was able to get a foothold on the cliff face at last. He paused there for a break and rubbed his hands one after another on the rock to get them dusty; he was pouring sweat. Then he started climbing again.

It took him another ten minutes to get up to the ledge, make it around, and slither all the way back down to the road. When he got there, he sank to the ground, leaned his head back against the rock, and closed his eyes. His head was pounding and his throat was raw, and his hands were bleeding and sore. He’d ripped off a fingernail somewhere. He was going to roast Dandelion on a spit for this. There was a faint clamor of voices coming in his direction. He groaned and pushed himself up to his feet and turned to the priests as they came running down the road pell-mell dusty in their golden robes, a pack of guards and worshipers behind them.

#

The first inkling he got that something was really wrong was when he was dragged hurriedly into the inner sanctum of the temple—through a roaring, screaming crowd, all of them trying to reach through the cordon of guards and priests to touch him—and saw Emhyr waiting for him alone with his face a total mask of rage: Geralt had never seen him anywhere that close to uncontrolled.

“I am waiting to learn,” Emhyr snarled, “if you are a catastrophic idiot, or if you have simply lost your mind.”

Geralt rubbed his arm across his forehead. It was hot and smoky in the small room: they were at the top of the temple, and the burning disk of the sun was still roaring wildly overhead. His eyes were stinging with sweat and the last of the adrenaline was draining. He could've gladly laid down on the stone floor and gone to sleep. “What’s the problem?” he said tiredly. “I thought you’d be happy for the course to get run. Isn’t it a blessing or something?”

“It is a blessing,” Emhyr said. “The most sacred in the Nilfgaardian religion. It has been accomplished only seven times in the history of the Empire.”

“Fine,” Geralt said. “You’re welcome.”

“And the only reward commensurate with your accomplishment,” Emhyr said, through his teeth, “is the hand of my daughter in marriage.”

What?” Geralt said, in absolute horror. “Like hell!” But one stare at Emhyr’s savagery convinced him. He staggered backwards against the wall and slid down to the floor. He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. “Oh, fuck. No.”

Emhyr took a deep breath in through flaring nostrils, obviously making a massive effort to get himself under control. “Why did you do it? It never occurred to you to consult with me beforehand?”

“I don’t—I was almost out of time,” Geralt said blankly, helplessly. “It was Dandelion’s only chance.”

“Explain further.” Emhyr listened with his mouth pressed tight as Geralt told him. “I see,” he said finally. He’d pulled himself together by then, open fury buried back under a thousand glacial strata.  “A catastrophic idiot, in the service of another one.”

“No damn argument,” Geralt said, his head bent over his knees. “Emhyr. What if I just run for it?”

Run for it?” Emhyr said. “This entire temple is surrounded ten thousand deep by the most fanatic worshippers of the Great Sun—twenty thousand deep, by now, since the disk is plainly visible throughout the entire city, and all Nilfgaard is likely trying to get up the mountain to watch the ceremony.”

“Wait,” Geralt said, lifting his head and staring up at him, “this wedding is supposed to happen now?

“The wedding of the empire to the sun,” Emhyr said, his voice deadly iron, “is a part of the rite of the Golden Equinox. Ordinarily, it is performed symbolically by the emperor and the high priestess. Under these circumstances, it ceases to be symbolic. It is to be carried out now, and to be consummated now. Publicly.”

Geralt was still reeling as the door was abruptly opened. The high priestess came in, looking pale and terrified but also determined; she said in a shaky voice, “Your Majesty, I am truly sorry, but the rites must go forward, before the hour of the equinox is closed. We dare not wait longer.” She hesitated, glancing up and down at Geralt, and said to Emhyr bluntly, “I can give the princess a draught of lion’s breath and ask the Great Sun to fill her mind with fire. She will know nothing of—”

Geralt stood up. “Over my dead body,” he said, and she did a double-take at him, like she thought he’d be on board. And fuck, no wonder she thought that: she thought he was some asshole who’d done this for the chance, that Emhyr was trying to protect Ciri from being raped by some random stranger who’d managed to jump through enough hoops to get his hands on the emperor’s daughter. “You’re going to have to figure something else out, because I’ll slit my own throat first.”

She hadn’t looked happy about having to hand Ciri over to him, so he’d figured she’d be glad to find out he wasn’t going to insist on it, but she was staring at him with an expression of total horror instead. “She’s like a daughter to me!” Geralt snapped at her, and turned to Emhyr. “Emhyr—the law of surprise. It’s law in Nilfgaard, too, isn’t it? That means Ciri is my daughter here, too, not just yours. That can’t be a part of your damn religion.”

“The law of surprise?” the high priestess said, staring between them, trapped between bewildered and horrified. “What has the law of surprise to do with this?”

“He is a witcher,” Emhyr said. “He saved me long ago, when I had no means to pay; Cirilla is his by the law of surprise, the child I did not yet know I had. Atherina, there must be some other way, some substitute—”

But she was staggering with a hand groping against the wall; all the color had drained out of her face. “He has touched the face of the Sun!” she said, her voice shaking. “He must be the Sun in the rite. There can be no other. But—the union between the sun and the empire must be fruitful. There must be a child of the union, who shall be blessed by the Sun. But a witcher is sterile. Even if he would act, the union can have no fruit. The rite will be perverted.”

Geralt didn’t give a shit about some random religious ceremony going badly. “You’re just going to have to handle that,” he said flatly. “If it doesn’t make a difference—”

“What will happen?” Emhyr demanded, ignoring him and going to stand over the sinking priestess. “Atherina—”

She had collapsed into a heap on the floor staring unseeing straight ahead, not even looking up at him, her face hollowed out with utter horror. “The blessing of the Sun heals the sick, cures the blind,” she said, thin and dazed. “It makes the crops fruitful tenfold and cleanses the waters. It strikes monsters from the earth and makes all the empire’s works prosper. If it is perverted, if the rite is not completed—it will unleash horrors on all Nilfgaard as great as the blessings that would have come. The sick will die, the healthy grow sick; a plague of monsters arise—famine and poisoned wells, wherever the Great Sun shines—”

And Geralt would’ve sworn Emhyr didn’t have an ounce of faith himself, didn’t care about the approval of men or gods, but he didn’t look like he had a second’s doubt about a word the priestess was saying. His face had gone deadly pale. “There must be something!” he snarled at her. “What if one had died in the rite who had no kin, or whose only kin were past bearing—”

“Wait!” the priestess said, holding up her hand, her eyes wide and staring. “Wait.” Abruptly she lifted her head to Emhyr, massive relief coming into it. “The marriage of the childless.”

Emhyr had been standing over her in tight-fisted desperation; now he just gawked at her. Geralt said warily, “What is that?”

“By the law of the Sun, one who cannot have children is permitted to marry one who has already been blessed with a child,” the priestess said. “When they are joined in the light of the Sun, that child becomes the child of the union—”

Great,” Geralt said, almost sagging with relief. “Fine. Anyone.”

“Not anyone, you imbecile,” Emhyr said. “Me.”

#

Geralt had seen and done a lot of deeply weird shit in his life, but getting married to Emhyr var Emreis in front of fifty thousand ecstatically screaming spectators made it pretty high up the list, even before they got to the part where he got fucked on an altar. There were only eleven minutes left of the hour after the equinox when they came out of the sanctum with the plan, so at least there wasn’t any time to think about what the hell they were doing: they pretty much ran into the sacristy where several frantic priests literally cut Geralt out of his armor and clothes and shoved the formal golden gown over his head, and meanwhile Emhyr was getting anointed with some kind of ceremonial oil—Geralt could only hope some of it ended up in a helpful location—and then they ran out again straight into a wall of noise: Geralt had been hit in the face by bruxa wails and shaelmaar booms, and there wasn’t even a comparison.

Except this noise wasn’t trying to kill him, it was with him, everyone screaming with joy as they spoke the vows, jumping up and down, dancing, and it was contagious; the sheer excitement came thrumming into him through the warm stone of the altar as he lay down on it, and when Emhyr pushed up the gown and put his hand on his thigh, a shiver of anticipation rolled up along his spine and turned into pleasure. Geralt stared up at the blazing sun overhead with a kind of fascinated bewilderment as he got hard.

He was already close to delirious by then with some combination of dehydration and adrenaline, and lust decided to join right in. The priests started beating drums and everyone started stamping along in time, a pounding echoing through his whole body, and Emhyr angled up his hips and pushed into him and oh fuck yes, and Geralt shut his eyes and grabbed onto the golden flames rising from the edge of the altar above his head and lifted to meet the thrusts. He didn’t doubt the power of the ritual even a little anymore; magical currents were surging all around him, filling him: the roaring sun eager to embrace Emhyr, to embrace the worshippers, the city and the Empire—all the love and devotion of centuries of worship being reflected back to them in one barely-controlled blaze of heat.

Geralt wanted to be with them suddenly, wanted to give them what they wanted. When he came, the crowd erupted into a thunder of wild hysterical cheering, rising to climax right along with him, and when he let himself sink back into it and came again, it got even louder, frantic and urgent, the drums beating faster and faster, and Emhyr, panting raggedly by then, finally pulled out and came all over him, and people in the crowd were coming around them too, random strangers turning to each other and kissing, pressing their bodies together, moaning in orgasm. Geralt groaned hoarsely and grabbed Emhyr’s hand and wrapped it around his own cock and made it once last time with a single desperate thrust, to join them in the final explosion, and then he collapsed limply flat into a gasping, wrecked heap.

#

The sun was still burning in the middle of the night. Geralt had been vaguely aware of people moving him, after the rite. He could’ve done something about it if he’d had to, but there didn’t seem to be a reason. They’d taken the crumpled, stained gown off him, and they’d washed him off, and they’d taken him somewhere in a carriage, and some more people had carried him up some stairs and put him into a bed, and he’d had no objections to any of that. He just sank even more deeply under as soon as they put his head on a pillow.

But after about twelve hours of sleep, hunger prodded him awake; he yawned and sat up. It was the middle of the night, but through the balcony doors in front of him he could see the fiery sun still blazing out of the mountainside in the distance, clearly visible in the dark. There was singing not far away. He got up and padded out onto the balcony. The huge courtyard on the other side of what had to be the palace wall was full of people still dancing and singing, facing the burning sun.

The balcony continued along the curve of the building to a neighboring room with lights burning. Geralt figured he’d find someone there, and maybe that someone would tell him how to get something to eat, so he went along it and stopped in the balcony doorway: Emhyr was sitting at a desk, wearing a dressing gown, writing. He paused and looked up after a moment, and stared at Geralt.

“Uh,” Geralt said, awkwardly.

“Are you recovered?” Emhyr said brusquely, returning his attention to the papers.

“More or less,” Geralt said. “I’m guessing you don’t go down to the kitchens to get yourself a snack here.”

Emhyr reached out and touched a stone sitting on his desk, and a servant instantly popped into the room—literally; she stepped through a wall and bowed. Emhyr flicked a hand towards Geralt. “Bring food,” he told the woman, who bowed right back out through the wall, and in about fifteen minutes a large cart was rolled in—through the door, at least—and twenty dishes were put out on the low table in the middle of the room. Another one of the magic stones was tucked discreetly at the end, and the chief servant said, “Please let us know when you are ready for the next course, Your Highness,” and it wasn’t until after she’d whisked out after the cart that Geralt realized she’d been talking to him.

Your Highness?” he said to Emhyr in horror.

“We are married. You are presently the Imperial Consort,” Emhyr said, without looking up.

“For how long?” Geralt said, in a burst of hope. That sounded like maybe—

“Until the coronation.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake. “Then what am I going to be? Empress?”

“Roughly a dozen senior protocol officers are desperately engaged upon answering that question at this very moment. You have presented them with a novel situation of considerable difficulty.”

“Great,” Geralt said, fatalistically, and went and sat down at the table and dived in. He was clearly going to need the fortification. At least the food was fantastic. He’d eaten at Foltest’s table a couple of times, and at various nobles’ houses, but it hadn’t been anything like this. The dishes were mostly cold—no wonder, how fast they’d come—but the variety was tremendous: smooth jellied pâté made with port wine; thin slices of fish seared along one side, cold and hot at the same time; crayfish in a bright pickle; fish eggs with thick cream and round thin wheatcakes; a dish of small vegetables with little speckles that were intensely spicy, perfect match for the tiny deep-fried cubes of something he literally didn’t recognize— “What is this stuff?”

“Bean curd,” Emhyr said, after a glance over that turned into a stare.

Geralt eyed him back a little doubtfully, then looked down at the demolished platters. “What, did I just break some etiquette rule? I thought I was supposed to eat it.”

“You are meant to eat those which please you, and leave the rest,” Emhyr said. “There will be a second course of hot dishes. Will you want it?”

“Sure,” Geralt said. “I didn’t have much time to eat on the way.”

“Evidently,” Emhyr said, with a slight frown. He actually sat back and watched Geralt eat the second course like it was a play being put on for his entertainment. Geralt didn’t let that stop him eating all three of the quail—they were amazing, glazed with honey and red wine and cardamom—and the entire bowl of fresh noodles dressed simply with butter, how the hell did you make noodles and butter taste this good; the mountain of roasted vegetables; all of the glorious beef, red juices pooling around it, a crackling crust of pepper on the outside; the thin fish in a salt crust that let out a steaming gust of fragrant herb-scented air when he broke it open—

“Would you care for a sweet course, Your Highness?” the servant said, when they came to collect the emptied plates.

“Won’t say no,” Geralt said, and launched himself into that glorious battle with fresh enthusiasm. He actually felt full by the end of it, and waves of drowsiness were climbing back over him. He tapped the stone to let the servants know he was done and let his head sink backwards into the couch and closed his eyes for just a minute, and when he woke the next morning, he was stretched out on the couch and Emhyr was standing at the balcony looking out at the still-blazing sun with a slight frown.

Geralt sat up and rubbed a yawn out of his face, feeling a thousand times better. All right, he was currently the empress of Nilfgaard, but given the whole blessing thing, Emhyr probably couldn’t cut his head off or throw him in a dungeon, and short of that, there wasn’t a lot that would keep him from escaping sooner or later. Actually, Emhyr would probably be perfectly happy to help Geralt fake his death and disappear in a few discreet weeks.

He looked over at Emhyr, about to ask, and in the gilding line of the sunrise he noticed Emhyr had a bit of a shadow going along the line of his jaw, right where you’d mouth over it, and his hair was tucked behind his ear and baring the line of his throat, and he had his hands behind his back, his long fingers loosely clasped around the other wrist, his shoulders broad under the red-patterned silk of the dressing gown, his feet bare—a thousand sensual details that Geralt had never noticed in a man before, like a whole new set of desires had been written into him. He had to fight down the impulse to get up and go over to Emhyr and ask him for the rest of it: he wanted to smell, he wanted to taste—he remembered the taste of Emhyr’s mouth, of his skin, remembered having him inside

Emhyr turned around while he was still struggling with it, and got an eyeful as a result, since Geralt wasn’t wearing anything but a loose thin linen shift that someone had put on him last night, mostly translucent. But Geralt looked up at him with his jaw clenched, and Emhyr didn’t just politely look away and pretend it wasn’t there, he kept staring down at Geralt’s jutting cock like he was thinking about doing something with it, and Geralt broke; he said, trying to sound cool and not hungry for it, “You know, if you wanted a repeat—”

Emhyr stood there a moment longer with an odd look on his face, and then he actually said, “Come,” and took Geralt through a door to a chamber that faced even more directly onto the flaming sun, the whole room empty except for a single monstrous bed the size of a decent boat, made of solid gold, all four sides framed in the rising sun with yard-long flames erupting to the ceiling. If Geralt had been one ounce less ready to get laid, he would’ve stopped everything just to laugh his head off: they had to swing out a panel to even get onto it.

But once they were on it, oh: he didn’t know what the mattress was made of, but it smelled incredible, like sunshine itself, and the sheets were made out of cloth-of-gold satin. Geralt could probably have made it just rolling around on them. He gripped the arc of the sun at the foot and braced himself on his knees, a beautiful fresh spring breeze coming into his face as Emhyr worked his cock into him with steady jerks of his hips, and then he pushed Geralt flat down on the glorious satin and fucked him sliding back and forth over it. Geralt moaned ecstatically and came three times in quick succession—thankfully the bed was so damn big they could just shift over and find another spot to fuck on—and then Emhyr’s breath started to go that last little bit ragged, and Geralt said hoarsely, “Wait, pull out again,” and when he did, he rolled over and grabbed both their cocks in his hands, and stroked firmly—he knew himself how damn good it felt to have the sword callus on the edge of his thumb sliding over the head of your cock, and Emhyr actually groaned out loud and came in his grip. Feeling his cock pulsing brought Geralt sailing over the edge again himself.

Emhyr toppled over onto his back next to him, chest heaving. Geralt closed his eyes and basked luxuriously, drawing deep breaths of the smell of them—he’d generally thought of men as vaguely stinky before, but he was feeling highly open-minded at the moment. The ritual had been some kind of bizarre otherworldly experience, it hadn’t really been like sex, but this was; this had been everything he loved about sex, raised to some nearly incandescent level: the fabric, the warm air, the gardens—hell, the amazing meal first, the dreamless sleep, after two solid weeks of deprivation—

“I have given you too little credit,” Emhyr said abruptly. Geralt opened his eyes and looked over. Emhyr was flat on his back staring up at the ceiling too, but there wasn’t anything dreamy or relaxed about his face; he had a hard, intent look. “When did you start for Nilfgaard?”

“Twelve days ago, in Oxenfurt,” Geralt said, and then groaned. “Oh, shit, Dandelion. He must’ve shown up around the temple naked and with no idea how he got there. He’s probably been thrown in a prison somewhere.”

Emhyr ignored Dandelion’s fate. “You rode from Oxenfurt to Nilfgaard in twelve days? It is more than a thousand miles.”

“Like I said. Didn’t have much time to eat. Or sleep, for that matter,” Geralt said. “Changed horses as often as I could, just kept going.”

“Yes,” Emhyr said. “And arrived here barely in time, with no opportunity to seek permission—how did you come to learn of this curse, with so constrained a time to repair it? It seems an unlikely coincidence. Either you ought to have learned it sooner or too late—”

Geralt had already rolled up on his arm and was staring down at him. “Dijkstra,” he said. “Goddamn Dijkstra. He set me up—on purpose? Why would—” He stopped short: he knew why.

“Yes,” Emhyr said. “I was to start for the North today. My soldiers would be crossing the Pontar in three weeks’ time. The fall of Redania is inevitable—unless, of course, a curse of extraordinary power had fallen on all Nilfgaard. I imagine he learned enough of the rite to realize that either your refusal or your sterility would cause the union to be cursed—and not enough of the more obscure provisions of the faith.”

“And then what, he got Dandelion curs—oh, no, that fucking bastard, it was a frog,” Geralt choked out, gone almost breathless with rage. “Emhyr, when you do head north, there had better be a horse for me, because I’m going to string Dijkstra up by the balls.”

“As little as I care to disappoint you in that aim, neither of us will be leaving the city for some time.” Emhyr levered himself up and pushed open the side panel and clambered out of the bed.

“What do you do when you need to piss at night?” Geralt muttered, scrambling out after him: there wasn’t a graceful way to do it. “I’m surprised you haven’t speared yourself.”

“I do not sleep here,” Emhyr said. “This is the imperial marriage bed. It is an altar consecrated to the Sun.” He gestured out the window, at the burning symbol.

Geralt eyed it with a growing sense of doom. Right. He wasn’t done getting fucked on altars, apparently. “How long is this going to last, exactly?”

“It is possible for the Sun to keep burning until the autumnal equinox,” Emhyr said.

Six months?

“I suggest you consider the many less palatable outcomes of the situation you allowed yourself to be used to create,” Emhyr said a bit pointedly. “And do your best to find consolation in this one.”

#

Somebody had told Ciri the story before she came to see him, later that morning, but at first he figured she hadn’t really worked through it yet, because she had a really odd look on her face and a stifled voice when they talked. Except after she tried a few lines of bizarre small talk—“So, how have you been?”—with that faint quivering going underneath, he said in irritation, “Dammit, Ciri, how do you think I am?” and it came bursting out of her as gales of laughter.

She laughed so hard she had to lie down on the floor. “You’re married,” she said finally, high-pitched. “To my father.

Geralt glared down at her.

“Yennefer and Triss are both going to cry with laughter when I tell them,” Ciri said.

“You could stand to take this a little more seriously,” he said sourly. “Did you know what the hell they’d try to pull on you if someone did the Course?”

“Of course,” she said, still lying on the floor, unperturbed. “One of my advisors is a priest who’s been droning doctrine at me for months. Did you think I’d just allow it? I poked through the articles of the faith and worked out a plan just in case: I’d have opened a portal to another world and gone through. In the light of the Sun, it would be as though Emhyr didn’t have a daughter anymore. There’s half a dozen noblewoman of the first rank with Emreis blood who would claw their own faces off to be named his heir. In fact, come to think of it, some of them have children. You could’ve married one of them instead.”

Geralt stared at her.

“But this is much funnier,” she added, finally getting up and dusting herself off, and leveling a hard look at him as she crossed her arms. “And no less than what you both deserve for shoving me off into a room like you needed to protect my delicate sensibilities.”

Goddammit,” Geralt said.

Emhyr pressed his mouth tight when Geralt shared Ciri’s insight with him, but after a moment of consideration said dismissively, “Immaterial. I have not the least desire to name either Karina var Fereen or Lorensia var Adrein as my heir, nor see the blessing of the Sun laid upon either of their fairly dim-witted and brutish sons. Now that Cirilla is the daughter  of our union in the light of the Sun, the blessing will come upon her reign, and ensure its prosperity and glory.”

“Great,” Geralt said, a bit sourly, but he couldn’t exactly argue with the idea of making Ciri’s reign smooth sailing, and privately he couldn’t even mind all that much that Ciri was officially his daughter now; officially wasn’t what really mattered, obviously, but—he liked it when the staff said your daughter wishes to speak with you, like the whole world had finally noticed and agreed with him. It was almost worth having the Your Highness tacked on afterwards. And getting fucked by Emhyr on a daily basis.

All right, so Geralt didn’t really have a lot of objections to that part either.

They got in the habit of getting it out of the way in the mornings: he’d wake up and roll out of his own bed and go down the hall and meet Emhyr in the ridiculous bedroom of the sun, and he’d lie down on the spectacular sheets and Emhyr would push his cock into him all the way up to the hilt—a week of daily practice was making things go a lot smoother—and then methodically fuck his brains out for half an hour. Geralt didn’t even have to do any work. He could just lie there like a complete sybarite and close his eyes and concentrate on the glorious slide of Emhyr’s cock going into him and hitting the sweet spot of pleasure at the bottom, the sheets stroking over his skin with just a little easy rocking, the changing sweet smell of the gardens, their hands laced over his head and the luscious feeling of dissolving into purely wonderful sensation, not a single grating edge to the world. And then they got up, and took a bath, and then someone brought him bacon. And twelve other breakfasts, too.

“Oh fuck that’s good,” he said drunkenly, the day Emhyr found the perfect rhythm again, that same drumbeat pace from the mountain, and kept it going all the way. “Oh fuck yes. Yes.”

“I am glad you are content,” Emhyr said afterwards, breathing hard. “The coronation will be tomorrow.”

Geralt groaned faintly, muffled, his head still buried in his arms. But to be fair, he hadn’t gotten around to suggesting a quiet disappearance to Emhyr yet himself. He had to get back to the Path at some point, of course, but—this was all right as vacations went. Anyway, he couldn’t go until the Sun went out, and so far it was burning merrily along. Emhyr had even put General Morvran in charge of his armies and sent them north without him. “So what’s the title going to be?” he said resignedly.

“Emperor Consort,” Emhyr said. “Awkward, but at least clear. I will have to take you in public again.”

“Fine,” Geralt said, stifling a shiver and pretending he hadn’t just gotten hard again. It had been—something.

Emhyr stilled like a panther that had just scented a wounded deer. “Indeed,” he said slowly, thoughtfully. “Turn over.”

“What?”

“Turn over,” Emhyr said. “I want to have you again. As I took you on the altar, as I will take you tomorrow before the whole of my city, with your thighs spread for me, your whole body given over—”

“Oh fuck,” Geralt said, and rolled over and gave it up, completely, let Emhyr fuck the hell out of him, panting frantically, and Emhyr lasted a long time, and when he was done he jerked off over Geralt again and then hung over him gasping, wet, and said raggedly, “I will come inside you tomorrow,” like a promise.

Geralt staggered back to his bedroom with his head whirling, sank into the waiting bath and stared at the ceiling in something between horror and desperate excitement. He wanted Emhyr var Emreis to come inside him in front of a million people. He was fucked. No, worse. He was married.

#

The ceremony was just as bad as he could possibly have dreamed it would be.

#

Ciri came by early the next morning. She had a new peculiar expression. “Geralt, I’ve just found out—why are you still having sex with my father?”

“Uh,” Geralt said.

“I can understand why he’s having sex with you,” Geralt blinked, “but I don’t see why you care that the armies of Nilfgaard can’t be defeated as long as the Sun is burning.”

“Oh, that son of a bitch,” Geralt said, flatly. “Does the Sun keep burning—”

“As long as you have ritual sex once a day while the sun is up,” Ciri said.

Emhyr didn’t even bother to deny it when Geralt stalked down to the bedroom at the usual time and confronted him. “Would you prefer to forgo?” he said mildly, gesturing at the bed between them.

Geralt crossed his arms. “Maybe we’ll skip a day.”

“Mm,” Emhyr said. “Perhaps more than one, once the necessity is removed. There are many demands upon my time.”

“You absolute bastard,” Geralt said feelingly.

“It may comfort you to consider that the benefits are not merely restricted to the armies. All the works of the empire will prosper.”

“Why would that comfort me?”

“Because I have sent out a thousand men to hunt down Sigismund Dijkstra and bring him to me in chains,” Emhyr said.

Geralt scowled. “Fine,” he said grudgingly, even though he knew Emhyr was just giving him a paper-thin way to save face.

And then it got even worse, because victory turned Emhyr on. His eyes glittered, and he said, “Get in the bed,” and Geralt’s mouth went dry, and when they were lying down, Emhyr said, softly, brutally, “You will use your mouth on me first.”

“Oh, shit,” Geralt said, helplessly, and fell on him, because fuck, he loved giving head, and he hadn’t even thought about sucking cock before, but oh fuck, Emhyr’s hands gripping his head and the sheets under him, the gigantic bed was perfect, the smell of him, his cock getting thick and hard and swelling over his tongue—and Emhyr talked to him, told him in a thickened, lustful voice when to suck harder, when to use his tongue, told him how he was going to come in his mouth and then Geralt was going to suck him hard again so he could fuck him, and Geralt moaned in the back of his throat. There was a reason he’d wound up in bed with sorceresses over and over himself: the one thing they never smelled of, even a little, was fear; they weren’t afraid of a witcher’s strength, his violence. And okay, that tended to go hand in hand with being ridiculously bossy and wanting to be in charge of every damn thing, but he could work with that. He’d spent his whole childhood learning to meet insane demands from a brutal taskmaster he’d desperately wanted to please.

And afterwards, Emhyr, lying next to him, said in an almost wondering tone, “You are magnificent,” and Geralt said pitifully, “Don’t say that,” in despair, and then Emhyr rolled over and pulled his head around and kissed him.

The next day, the goddamn bastard had Geralt fuck him.

That afternoon, Geralt asked one of the servants for a calendar and counted the days until the autumnal equinox. There were a lot of them. He was still looking at it grimly when Emhyr came into his chambers and told the servants to serve them lunch together, which was apparently code for him wanting to sit on the couch and make out while they ate. He saw the calendar on the table and laughed softly. “Do you imagine I will tire of you afterwards?”

“Hope springs eternal?” Geralt tried desperately, and then he gave up and pushed Emhyr down on the couch to kiss the amusement out of his mouth, and it was another hour before they got around to the second course.

“You do recall that we are married,” Emhyr remarked later, adding insult to injury. They were in Geralt’s bed by then—his completely ordinary, unsanctified bed. Emhyr was stroking his hand through Geralt’s hair, gently.

“Come on,” Geralt said. “I can’t actually spend the rest of my life as your damn consort.” He said it terrified that he was going to. He felt desperately, horribly happy. Every day this went on, it was only going to get harder to walk away. All the irritating, scratchy, grating parts of life on the Path were being wiped away with imperial luxury, and Emhyr would fuck him blind every day of his life, and maybe even love him. Geralt was getting a very bad feeling that Emhyr was like one of those giant centipedes that had a five-inch-thick upper shell you couldn’t so much as scratch no matter how hard you beat on it, and then the second you got at their soft underbelly, boom, they were gone.

And he knew himself, too: he loved when he was loved, he couldn’t help it. Some black hole had opened up in him when the soft hands he only vaguely remembered had gently pushed him from behind into the grasp of the witcher on the gate at Kaer Morhen, and gone away. Dammit, he’d nearly killed himself riding a thousand miles and hurling himself into a deadly challenge like a lunatic, all for the sake of a damn annoying asshole of a bard who kept writing songs about him and that he wanted to strangle more often than not—well, or more accurately, for the sake of a fucking frog.

Someone from the temple had even found the damn thing still there hanging around with its purple cap. It was now ensconced in a large terrarium in a corner of Geralt’s bedroom, being fed on flies raised on tropical fruits. Not in the cage, obviously; the imperial servants weren’t having flies in the Emperor Consort’s bedroom. They raised the flies somewhere in the kitchens, caught them, and brought them to their doom in tiny mesh bags twice a day.

“This is all your fault,” Geralt told the frog morosely, feeding it himself, after Emhyr finally left him alone for five fucking minutes to go do some less important emperor things than torment poor helpless witchers with irresistible sex.

“Ribbit,” said the not-Dandelion frog contentedly, and licked up another fat sluggish fly. It had definitely gotten bigger, and more purple and iridescent.

Geralt sighed. Then he frowned at the frog. “Wait a second. Where the hell is the real you?”

#

“It would be my honor to be of service, Your Majesty,” Master Wolreg said, bowing deeply. Emhyr apparently had an entire stable of mages tucked away in one corner of the palace that he called on whenever he needed time and space itself bent to his will.

“Yeah, great,” Geralt said. “Can you find someone for me?”

Wolreg looked dubious. He did a bunch of divination rituals that didn’t turn anything up, and then shrugged helplessly. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but it is exceptionally difficult to locate someone without any artifact connected to them—a lock of hair, for instance, or a garment worn a long time—”

Geralt frowned. There were plenty of girls who’d gotten a lock of Dandelion’s hair, but they’d probably mostly burned them. “Would a garment that looks the same help?”

He brought an even more dubious Wolreg the tiny purple cap—the frog looked indignant about the removal—and watched him examine it closely. “Hmm, interesting,” Wolreg murmured. “Your Majesty, this item appears to be under a spell.”

“What?” Geralt said. He picked it up and sniffed it and then glared down at it: that was where the ozone smell had come from.

“A moment, if you please.” Wolreg went puttering around his workshop for what was a lot more like an hour than a moment, gathering bits and pieces of equipment and materials and laying them out on a laboriously drawn chalk diagram with thirteen different sides of varying length, each of which he measured three times before he drew and double-checked twice after. Geralt barely restrained himself from tapping his foot.

Finally Wolreg put the cap at the center of the diagram, stood up, and said almost negligently, “Cyfrinila datgelwyn,” and a flare ran through the lines and the cap in the middle popped up off the ground and burst to full-size and landed back on the ground, crumpled velvet drooping, and Geralt stared at it.

“That’s Dandelion’s actual hat,” he said, and then he snarled, “Oh, that pig-faced bastard Dijkstra has him. Wolreg, can you use this to find out where he is?”

This time he figured on the long wait, so he went upstairs and got on his armor and his swords while Wolreg worked. There was still another full hour sitting around the workshop waiting, during which Geralt realized armor really wasn’t that comfortable once you got out of the habit of wearing it every day, and it turned out a really nice silk doublet could be, if it was made by the imperial tailors to your exact specifications, not to mention he’d been spending most of his days lately either naked or in a dressing gown anyway—before Wolreg could tell him only that Dandelion was somewhere in—Blaviken. Geralt groaned deeply. “Of course he is,” he said. “Can you narrow it down at all?”

“I fear not, Your Majesty,” Wolreg said. “He seems to be partly concealed from magical sight, as though he were being held in a shielded location.”

Geralt ground his teeth. Naturally. He grabbed the cap off the ground and frowned, peering inside: there was a folded piece of paper tucked into the brim on the inside. He had a bad feeling even before he opened it up. If you’re reading this, I figure you’re pretty fucking pissed off at me, which is why I arranged insurance, Dijkstra had written. You want your poet back, come alone to the Tuna Fish in Blaviken and ask for Swine-faced Sigi at the bar. Oh, and if you get there after the first of May, don’t fucking bother; I’ll figure you aren’t coming, and there’s only so long I can stand to listen to his caterwauling.

“Son of a bitch,” Geralt said. The coronation had been held on the first of May: he was two days late. “Open me a portal right now.” 

“To Blaviken?” Wolreg stared at him. “But it is behind enemy lines.”

“I’ll manage,” Geralt said. “Now!”

Wolreg uncertainly opened it for him, and Geralt gritted his teeth and dived through. He rolled up to his feet vaguely queasy in the middle of a pasture and found a startled audience of six cows all staring at him. Then he looked down at his elbow, which had rolled through— “Goddammit,” Geralt muttered. One of the cows, with a calf at her side, made a deep threatening bellow. “Yeah, I’m leaving,” Geralt told her sourly, and climbed the fence onto the main road into town.

He hadn’t been back to Blaviken since the time forty years ago when he’d gotten his charming nickname. He hoped maybe people would’ve forgotten by now, but the first person he walked past, an old woman sweeping out her yard, took one look at him and squealed loudly, “The Butcher! The Butcher of Blaviken’s back!” and fled into her house with a slam. Five minutes later the place might’ve been an abandoned town overrun with monsters. Geralt muttered under his breath and went down the dusty lane. Yeah, he’d really missed this kind of reception. And he’d landed at the opposite end of town from the Tuna Fish, of course.

People were still eyeing him sidelong and wary as he stalked into the tavern. The barkeep himself drew back. It was more than a little excessive for having killed half a dozen bandits, even in the town square. Okay, it’d been a bit gory, and no one else had known the bandits were bandits and about to start killing people, but even so, they’d clearly all blown the damn story out of proportion in the retelling. Fine, he’d use it. “Looking for Swine-faced Sigi,” he growled at the barkeep. “Want me gone, tell me where he is.”

The man quavered out, “The—the old church down the road. Said anyone asking—was to meet him there. S’haunted,” he blurted.

Geralt sighed deeply.

It wasn’t hard to find the old church: the wooden spire and doors had burned a long time ago, but the stone walls were still standing, blackened, with the faint remnants of low huts scattered around it. Probably some people from the town trying to expand south at the time, and then the haunting had chased everyone in the opposite direction. Geralt stopped outside and called, “Dijkstra! If you’re anywhere around here, you’d better come the fuck out now before you piss me off any worse!”

The only answer was a faint low wailing from inside the church. Geralt drew his silver blade and went inside, resignedly.

Seven murderous howling wraiths and a painful headache later—how the hell had one small cluster of huts managed to raise seven wraiths, for fuck’s sake—Geralt had finally cleared out the whole church and crypt. He searched every spider-infested corner top to bottom—got bit by a rat while he was at it—and found not a single damn thing. He went back out and hunted over the outside—anyway how would Dijkstra have gotten anyone inside with the specters all over the place—and finally in desperation went through the ruins of the huts. He found seven bags of rotted grain, a couple of rusted-through knives and one axe, a lot of disintegrating linen, some smashed bottles, and a journal with something of an explanation: some crazed newly-ordained Eternal Fire priest describing his brilliant plan of setting fire to his own church during services and how he and the truly faithful would surely emerge unscathed. Geralt shook his head in exasperation.

What he didn’t find was any sign of Dijkstra or Dandelion, or for that matter a sign that any living person had come anywhere near the place in the last century. He finally threw down the last lid of the last barrel and climbed out of the last cellar he’d excavated. It was well after dark by then, and he’d spent the whole day digging around an abandoned ruin. For no damn reason, as far as he could see.

“What the hell, Dijkstra, are you just trying to waste my time?” he said out loud, and then he said, “Oh, that miserable son of a—” and ran back to town, went past the Tuna Fish straight to the other tavern, The Golden Court, and stopped just inside the door in breathless outrage: Dandelion was perched on the stage in front of a crowd, singing with his lute, a pink velvet hat perched on his head to match with his resplendent new pink velvet doublet.

Goddammit, Dandelion!” Geralt roared in absolute fury, interrupting the song. Dandelion jumped and stumbled off his stool, knocking it over, and the entire population of the tavern crammed itself out through the two back doors, including the innkeeper.

“But what did I do?” Dandelion was saying bewildered, trailing up to the bar through the empty room as Geralt stalked around behind the counter to pour himself the stiff drink he deserved.

Geralt downed a glass. “Why the hell can’t you be found with magical scrying?” he demanded.

Dandelion blinked at him. “I can’t?”

Geralt glared at him and then squinted. There were a few subtle runes embroidered around the collar of the pink doublet in gold, carefully interwoven with other designs to make them almost invisible. “What happened to your purple outfit?”

“Well, one likes to make a change once in a while,” Dandelion said. He puffed himself up. “My new ensemble was a gift from the same noble patron who funded my stay here as artist-in-residence. Do you like it? I thought the shade brought out my—”

Geralt stared at him. “And what noble patron would that be?”

“Oh, I don’t know. He insisted on anonymity so I wouldn’t feel the need to make a demonstration of gratitude by putting him into a song—that is traditional, of course, but one has to appreciate the purity of his intentions—”

Geralt closed his eyes. “Have you been here the whole time?”

“What whole time?” Dandelion said. “I’ve been here for the last eight months, it’s a year-long grant.”

“Some anonymous person paid you to sit in a tavern in Blaviken for a year and you weren’t a little suspicious about why?” Geralt said.

Dandelion looked vaguely offended. “Geralt, I realize this may be difficult for a mere witcher to appreciate,” he said loftily, “but there are indeed individuals of taste and refinement in the world who believe in supporting the work of true artists—”

“I’m going to strangle you,” Geralt said resignedly.

“I still don’t understand, why are you so upset? Why were you looking for me, anyway? Where have you been?”

Nilfgaard,” Geralt growled at him. “And dammit, now I’ve got to find a way to get back before sundown tomorrow.” He heaved an exasperated sigh. “Not like Nilfgaard even needs the damn blessing that badly when their army is five times the size. Why the hell Dijkstra bothered to—oh, fuck me,” he groaned. He swigged down one more gulp from the bottle in front of him, went around the bar, and grabbed Dandelion. “Come on, let’s go.”

“What? Where? I can’t just—ulp!” Dandelion yelped as Geralt dragged him upstairs. One glance out the window on the landing confirmed it: what looked like an entire battalion of Redanian soldiers had surrounded the building, and were now cautiously creeping in towards all the doors, shields up and swords ready. Geralt ground his teeth. Dammit, he wasn’t good at this endless scheming bullshit. He didn’t want to spend his days imagining what new fucking twist Dijkstra was going to throw at him.

“They’re here for you? What did you do?” Dandelion said, staring out at them as Geralt hauled him up to the second floor and down the hallway with the bedrooms.

“Married Emhyr.”

“What?” Dandelion said, frowning. “What do you mean, married—did you say Emhyr?

“Long story.” Geralt kicked in the last door, said, “Sorry,” to the very startled couple having sex in the bed, and opened the window. The roof of the stable was just five feet away. “Come on, jump for it.”

“Are you crazy? There’s a hundred soldiers out there! Surrender is the only possible option!” Dandelion said.

“I can’t surrender, you idiot, I’m the—empress of Nilfgaard,” Geralt said. “I don’t know what the hell Dijkstra’s planning to make Emhyr trade for me, but it won’t be small. But if you want to find out what they’ll do to you trying to get me to turn myself in, be my guest and stay.”

“Oh, Melitele protect me,” Dandelion moaned, and then let Geralt heave him out onto the other roof. The shouts of alarm started up even as Geralt jumped after him, but fortunately there were a couple of saddled horses still loosely tied in the yard, chewing their hay behind the line of soldiers. Geralt blasted the gate to smithereens with Aard and smacked Dandelion’s horse hard with the flat of his blade, and they raced down the lane with the battalion running wildly after them.

They made it out into the forest, but the horses had both been ridden pretty recently, and they started tiring fast. Close to dawn, they had to abandon them and just start shoving through the underbrush on foot.

“My doublet,” Dandelion lamented.

“The goddamn trail you’re leaving,” Geralt muttered, grabbing yet another long snarled pink thread off a bush. He was grimly sure they weren’t going to get clear; he could hear the dogs yelping not that far in the distance, and Dandelion was starting to slow down. Maybe if Geralt got him up into a tree and kept going himself, laid a false trail…

He heard the yells behind them rise suddenly, and glanced back even as he ran to see something flaring blue in the trees. “Come on, faster!” he yelled at Dandelion, giving up any hope of concealing their trail. Whatever Dijkstra had arranged now, it was coming too fast. He kept looking for someplace he could shove Dandelion, hide him, but in less than ten minutes, the light flared again behind them, even nearer, and then five minutes later it exploded again right up ahead, an incandescent burst of light in his face. He threw up an arm wincing to block the glare from his eyes, and came down with his silver sword in hand, only to lower his arm and stare. “Ciri?”

“I hope you’re happy,” she said. “I’ve been bouncing around Blaviken all day trying to locate you. Father’s having a fit. Come on, I’ve got to get you back before he murders poor Wolreg for letting you—Dandelion?”

“Hello, Ciri,” Dandelion said in a feeble voice, staggering up through the bushes, and then he sank to the ground at their feet in a dead faint.

“Goddammit,” Geralt said, hearing the yelping dogs close in: they’d seen the flares of light. “Quick, get him out of here!”

“What about you!

“You can’t take us both!” Geralt said. “Go! I’ll keep ahead of them, you’ll come back for me.”

“Oh, Father’s going to love this,” she said, and reached down and grabbed Dandelion under the arms. They vanished in a blaze of light.

Geralt took off top speed through the trees, running hard and mostly blind and hoping he didn’t throw himself into an unexpected crevasse. There weren’t a lot of regions of the North he was completely blank in, but naturally this was one of them; he hadn’t been here in forty years, and he hadn’t stayed long then. He threw a glance east at the sunrise starting to peek through the tree trunks and muttered under his breath, “You know, if this blessing is actually worth anything, maybe you could keep me from going headfirst into a hole.”

The next instant the whole world turned upside down as he went tumbling straight down a loose slope that had just opened up right in front of him at the edge of a stand of trees. He fell head over heels, bouncing off gravel until he landed hard and just slid the rest of the way like going down a chute, straight into—a giant hole in the ground. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Geralt said out loud, just lying there without moving.

“Ha ha ha, funny mans rolly down hill,” said a large rock troll, unfolding itself from the entrance of the cave and peering down at him. “Funny mans taste good?”

“Funny mans is a witcher,” Geralt said.

The troll shook its head sadly. “Witcherers taste bads. Always drinks bads potion.”

“Also, witcherer has silver sword,” Geralt said. “Give me a minute and I’ll show you.” He still wasn’t going to move until he absolutely had to. For that matter, being eaten was starting to sound like maybe a blessed release.

The yelping of the hounds was loud and nearby. The pack burst into the cave and all surrounded Geralt, barking madly and jumping in excitement around him. Then they all stopped abruptly and looked up. “Doggies!” the troll said. “Yorg love doggies!”

He did love doggies. He ate all six of them in less than five minutes.

Afterwards Yorg belched loudly and said, “Yorg not hungry nows. Maybe not eat witcherer after all. Witcherer takes silvery sword and goes?”

“Fair enough,” Geralt said, bemusedly. “Hey, is there another way out of this cave?”

The other entrance of the cave let out almost a mile away, on the other side of a rocky rise, with a nice empty road stretching out ahead of him. A crossroads post nearby had signs pointing south saying Oxenfurt and Novigrad. He could very distantly hear the pursuers still beating around in the forest looking for him. Geralt looked up at the sun. “You couldn’t manage it without dumping me down a mountain first?” Then he sat down on a rock and rested for a bit.

Ciri popped into view ten minutes later, bloody sword in hand, her hair a sweaty mess, looking exasperated. “How did you get all the way over here?” she demanded. “I’ve been hunting for you for the last hour. And I dumped Dandelion at Father’s feet and left again without waiting to explain, so by now he’s probably having him and Wolreg tortured to death. Not to mention I don’t think he’s ever going to let you leave the palace again.”

Geralt groaned faintly and held up his hand. “Yeah, well, I’ve been starting to reconsider my commitment to the Path anyway. Let’s go.”

She hauled him up, and they vanished off the road in the sickening squeeze of a portal—ugh—and popped into Wolreg’s workroom amidst absolute pandemonium, the whole room full of officials and mages and Dandelion, capless, being held at swords-point by ten fury-purpled imperial guardsmen. He instantly began yelling desperately, “Geralt! Geralt! Ciri! Tell them it’s not my fault! I didn’t do it on purpose! I didn’t know!”

“What didn’t you know?” Geralt said, and then he realized the only person missing from the room was—“Where the hell is Emhyr?

“Ribbit,” said the very large and angry-looking black frog perched on the table. It had a tiny gold chain around its neck and was sitting on the heap of Dandelion’s pink velvet cap, somehow managing to convey an air of majesty and rage despite being, well, a frog.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Geralt said, staring at the frog. It glared back at him.

“How did this happen?” Ciri said.

“There was an enchantment on the cap,” Wolreg said. He sounded like he was near tears. “As soon as His Majesty touched the bard, it took effect. A moment afterwards, this scroll materialized—”

He handed it to Ciri. The scroll said, in Dijkstra’s handwriting, If you want the curse on your emperor broken, you will immediately comply with the following terms—

Geralt reached over and took it out of Ciri’s hands and crumpled it up and threw it to the floor. “I’m done dancing to Dijkstra’s tune,” he said flatly as she stared up at him. “This one we’re handling the traditional way.” He reached out and picked the frog up off the table in both hands—it had started glaring at him even harder as soon as he’d tossed the scroll—and kissed it firmly on the lips.

There was a pop of light, and he staggered under a sudden armful of absolutely furious emperor, who seized him by the straps of his swordbelts and snarled, “You colossal idiot, as though you could think of nothing better than to hurl yourself into an instantly obvious trap—” before he noticed that they had a large, wide-eyed and very interested audience, including a delightedly smirking Ciri and an O-mouthed Dandelion and his entire guard and most of his senior advisors and court mages.

“You are never to do anything without consulting me ever again,” Emhyr said a few hours later, after he’d gotten rid of the crowd, scowled away a still-grinning Ciri, informed Dandelion he would be taking up a post as a court bard—with a permanent military escort—and finally dragged Geralt back to their chambers and fucked him soundly and thoroughly, twice. He still wasn’t quite mollified. “A frog,” he muttered savagely, under his breath.

“Yeah, fair enough,” Geralt said. He was more than happy to delegate the paranoia. He yawned and stretched. They were in his bed; apparently Emhyr had forgotten about having to renew the sun’s blessing. Geralt hadn’t bothered to remind him. It was only just past noon; there would be plenty of time for another round before sunset. And later today, he’d find the chamberlain and ask him where he could set up a real training course. The palace grounds were mammoth, there had to be someplace. He could keep in shape until the equinox, then—well, Wolreg could give him a jump somewhere they needed a witcher, and he could work his way back south on the Path.

“Let’s get in some lunch, I’m starving,” he added.

“Ribbit,” the purple frog put in hopefully from its terrarium. Geralt squinted over at it. The servants had traded the glass case out for a still-larger one. They’d even engineered a tiny little waterfall in the corner and transplanted a lily pad into the enlarged pond.

“Yeah, sure, some flies, too,” Geralt said. “Why not.” A nap afterwards sounded good to him, too. Maybe he’d talk to the chamberlain tomorrow.

# End