Maud quickly became something of a lifeline.
Yennefer had said she would only be gone a few days, but with someone new to talk to Jaskier began to test the limits of her spell again. Maud would arrive early in the afternoon or evening, before the two or three other staff that kept up the manor, and they would practice him stepping beyond the threshold.
With her aid, they discovered that he could get to about twenty feet beyond the gate before the disorientating sensation became too much. “I could drag you away, maybe?” she suggested once they’d made their way back inside. “Maybe if you got further away it would just snap.”
“Or I would,” Jaskier panted. “I’m not that miserable yet. That sounds like a plan B to me.”
The village wise woman had been little help, as he’d expected, but Maud’s assurance that he was not a monster meant that the village people were beginning to loosen up a bit. He occasionally saw the cook, an older woman called Hania, who would give him a wave on her way out and leave him small sweetmeats on the counter. Maud was still the only one who spoke with him regularly, and he was exceedingly grateful for her company. After a few hours of sweating in the garden and staring longingly at the forest beyond, they would retire to the solar and he would tell her stories. He didn’t sing, just a line here or there, but she seemed to enjoy them anyways.
One quiet afternoon she finally voiced the question that had clearly been plaguing her since they’d met. He was waiting for it, so it didn’t throw him off when she finally asked. “You’re the bard, right? The famous one?” They were sitting at the kitchen table, stuffing a meat filling that she’d brought over into small pockets of dough.
Jaskier flashed her a grin. “Ah, my reputation precedes me. I am indeed that illustrious bard. You’ve heard my work?”
She tittered, as she always did when he put on a grandiose tone. “Of course. Everyone has.” In a simple but pleasant voice, she sang, “Oh valley of plenty, toss a coin to your witcher -”
“Some of my earliest work and not my best,” he interrupted. The familiar chords twisted through his chest, plucking his heartstrings sharply. “Have you heard this one? O'er glistening roofs you float, through lily-strewn rivers you dive -”
Maud’s voice joined his own in weaving the simple melody, the song filling the warm summer air in the kitchen. The smell of baking bread wafted over them, and the large windows let the afternoon sunlight dance across the floor. For a moment Jaskier was filled with a soft contentment that he didn't think he’d known for a long time. He remembered similar evenings spent spread out in meadow grass, cutting chunks of meat and vegetable for their supper, humming simple folk tunes. Amber eyes meeting his own, a small smile lifting the corner of an otherwise stern mouth. Small moments that warmed him on dark nights, embers that might burn if he lingered too long.
Smiling at Maud as she sang, he wished that he could want a life like this. Simple, uncomplicated, honest. Challenging in its own way, certainly, but straightforward in its struggles. No dragons or sorceresses, and definitely no witchers.
Yennefer returned the next morning, and Jaskier was forced to exchange the company of his new friend for that of his jailer.
* * *
This time around Jaskier didn’t explicitly ignore her. When they ate together in the evenings he made polite conversation, mostly trying to subtly dig for information about the outside world. Yennefer was as cagey as always, but gave him bland updates about the state of the war with Nilfgaard, Temerian court life and even a bit of mage gossip. She didn’t let much slip, but from what he gathered working outside of the Brotherhood was no easy task, even for someone of Yennefer’s power. He was surprised to find her almost easy to talk to, and wondered if she was lonely, since leaving Geralt. She didn’t seem the type.
“I want you to drink with me,” Yennefer said one night. Jaskier paused in the process of bringing a bite of veal to his mouth, staring at her. Slowly, he reached out and picked up his goblet of wine, waving it at her slightly.
“I am drinking with you,” he said, shoving the veal in his mouth.
“No,” she said, “you are having dinner with me. I want to drink.” As if in demonstration, she threw back her goblet and he watched the pale line of her throat as she downed the rest of her wine. Once done, she set it down on the table and leveled him with a fierce look. A challenge. Her lips were stained nearly purple from the wine.
Well, he wasn’t about to be outdone by Yennefer, at least not in this. He finished off his own goblet in a few gulps and then reached to pour himself another glass. Swallowing heavily, he said, “What brought this on?”
Yennefer picked at the roll on her plate. “I’ve been swanning around the nobility for the last few days and I want a change of pace. Some entertainment.” She chucked a small piece of bread at him, and he was so astounded by the playfulness of the act that he didn’t even try to avoid it. Yennefer pouted at him.
“I’m not a dancing monkey,” he finally said. Which wasn’t entirely true, he supposed, but at least he didn’t dance for free.
“No, but if you won’t sing for me, you may as well drink,” she said, and he couldn’t really fault her logic.
They finished their dinner in silence. Once their plates were clear Yennefer stood and made her way into the solar that Jaskier had first seen her in, a bottle of wine tucked under her arm. Jaskier followed her, bringing his own goblet with him. With a flick of her fingers the fireplace roared to life, filling the room with a soft golden glow. Forgoing the chair, Jaskier sprawled out on the rug, the soft fur tickling his wrist as he supported himself on one hand. Yennefer settled on the couch, setting the bottle on the floor between them.
They drank in silence for a while, and Jaskier could feel the wine starting to get to him by his third glass. It was strong, some Redenian red that he’d never had before. It was shockingly sweet, thick with the taste of berries, and he found himself surprised that Yennefer would prefer it.
“You know,” Yennefer finally said, speaking to the fire instead of him. “I do wonder sometimes, if Geralt had not made that wish, if things would have been different.”
Jaskier set his goblet down hard, taking a breath to steady himself. If that’s how the evening was going to go, he might as well spend it drinking alone. She had no right to -
“I don’t mean to be cruel,” Yennefer said, turning to him as she noticed his expression darkening. “It’s just…” she paused, her eyes unfocused as she thought. “When we first met, I don’t think there was as much there as I thought. I wanted to believe that the pull we felt was natural, but the more I think back to when we first met, the less sure I am. There was an attraction, of course. I don’t believe that the wish has fabricated everything between us. But he wasn’t interested, despite my obvious intentions.”
Jaskier was curious despite himself, some of his anger fading. “Why?” Geralt’s interest in Yennefer had been obvious, though he never knew how much was caused by the bond between them. But why would he have made the wish, if he hadn’t been invested in her already? Geralt was a good person, an honorable person, he would have tried his best to save anyone, but - well, it seemed like a bit of a commitment.
Yennefer focused on him again, her expression softer than he’d seen it in a while. “You were injured,” she said simply, as if that held all the answers. “He came to me looking for help, and he was anxious about your recovery. He told me that he’d said some things to you, before the djinn attacked, that he would regret if they became his last. In retrospect I wonder if that was the first time he’d ever truly thought about your eventual death, or what he wanted to be to you. I just wonder, if the wish hadn’t been cast, what would have happened.” She looked back towards the fire, taking a long sip of her wine.
Jaskier pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, his own goblet dangling above his toes. After the events with the djinn, Geralt had been, not softer, but less snappish, certainly. He’d complained less about Jaskier’s singing, complimented his cooking occasionally, even let Jaskier braid his hair once or twice. Jaskier had been made to stay back on hunts more often, though he wasn’t sure if that was because he might get in the way or because Geralt cared about his safety. His guilt had bred a greater tolerance, Jaskier assumed.
“I doubt it would have changed anything,” he said eventually. The wine was making his grief feel further away, easier to poke at. “He hated me anyway, in the end. I don’t think not loving you would have made a difference.”
Purple eyes turned back to him sharply. “What makes you say that?” Yennefer asked, sounding genuinely confused.
Jaskier hummed, taking another drink of his wine. His glass was nearly empty, and he felt he would need significantly more to share this story. “After you left, on the mountain he… said some things. Again,” he snorted. “He made it very clear that he felt I was the root of all his troubles, and he wanted nothing to do with me.”
Yennefer gaped at him, a startling expression on her. “He did what?” she nearly gasped. “That oaf! One rejection and he turns on the only person that’s ever really - What did he say exactly? He blamed you for my leaving him? That’s convoluted,” she said, reaching for the new wine bottle. Jaskier held his goblet out for a refill, which she supplied generously.
“He said that I was always shoveling the shit,” he muttered into the glass, feeling his rage simmer below his intoxication. “His exact words were, ‘If life could give me one blessing, it would be to take you off my hands.’ So I left. Obviously he only ever tolerated me, so it was better for everyone that I stay away.” Jaskier could hear the bitterness in his voice but couldn’t find a way to keep it out. “In some ways I guess he was right.”
Yennefer leaned forward, one elbow braced on her knee as she rest her cheek in her hand. The firelight made her black hair shine with strands of brilliant gold, like pyrite nestled in coal. “In what way?”
“It was my fault that you two met,” he said with a sigh. Despite having thought it a hundred times, it was hard to say it aloud. “My fault that he had to use the wish on you. And I begged him to go to the party where he was gifted the Child Surprise, and now he feels like he’s doomed the child to a life of pain if he ever goes to her.” Jaskier shrugged. “I am kind of shovelling the shit.”
Yennefer stared at him a moment before snorting. Jaskier looked up at her, surprised. “Just because he fucked up in every possible direction doesn’t mean that you’re responsible just for inviting him to a damn party,” she said, rolling her brilliant eyes. “He is the most idiotic man alive, aside from you for letting his outburst get to you.”
Jaskier frowned, defensive on behalf of his own pain. “Maybe, but… he never liked me, Yen. He tolerated me at best, and I just deluded myself into thinking he enjoyed the company deep down. I was a fool,” he said, glaring into his glass. “And I wasted years of my life on someone who didn’t even care.”
Yennefer sighed. “He cared about you, anyone could see that. I don’t know why he said what he did, but… The two of you are tied together regardless, through magic stronger even than that which binds him to me.” She had abandoned her glass, taking a swig from the bottle itself.
“I don’t want to trap him,” Jaskier said, miserably allowing her to refill his glass yet again when she leaned over to offer. “He doesn’t deserve that. I’ll fucking… sing him out of my life, if I have to.”
“I don’t know that it works like that,” Yennefer said, lying back on the couch with the bottle sitting on her stomach. Her dark gown pooled off the side of the chair, a waterfall of tar. She closed her eyes, her tone academic. “You love him too much. It would taint anything you tried to say. Focus on my dilema first, and then you can worry about Geralt of Rivia.”
They were both quiet for some time, Jaskier turning to stare into the fire while Yennefer drank ungracefully from the bottle. It was shocking, to see her spill wine on her dress like anyone else. He decided suddenly that he liked her like this, so open and unguarded. For a moment he could see how they might have been friends, once; she had the same thirst for adventure that he did, the pressing need for more. But beyond that, she had a willingness to press and bend the rules that was joyful in its disregard for propriety. He watched the dry wood in the fireplace crack and pop, and wished that things were different.
“Did you always want to be a sorceress?” he asked, an eon later. Turning away from the fire, his eyes met her bright purple gaze.
She hummed, long nails tapping the glass of the bottle. “I didn’t know it as something to want, when I was a child,” she replied. “I was born to a poor family that saw me as a burdensome mouth to feed. I slept with the pigs in the cold.” With a snort, she took another long drink of wine. “So no, I didn’t always want to be a sorceress.”
Jaskier cocked his head to the side. “Wouldn't have pegged you for peasantry,” he said, amused. It was borderline hysterical, thinking of Yennefer sleeping in a muddy pen with pigs snuffling around her. She might as well have said she was born on the moon.
Her eyes were hard. “Sorceresses are brought to Aretuza based on their potential, not their background,” she said. “Our Chaos lashes out at some point, unintentional magic. They find you, after that.”
“They stole you from your parents?” he asked, aghast.
Yennefer looked back up to the ceiling, her mouth twisted in a tight line. “They bought me from my parents. They were desperate to get rid of their embarrassment of a cripple daughter.” Jaskier must have made a confused noise, because she pressed on. “I was born with a twisted spine. But when I finished my schooling I reshaped myself anew. And in exchange I gave them everything of me, at least for a while.”
“What happened?” Jaskier asked, in spite of himself.
“I tired of being a pawn,” she replied. Her eyes closed, face smoothing out into perfect, flat porcelain. “Aretuza, the courts, they just wanted to use me. Even Geralt did, in the end, though I can hardly blame him. I used him too.” She opened her eyes and turned her face towards him, eyes burning. “I won’t be a tool. Not again.”
“Do you regret it?” he asked. “Becoming a sorceress?”
She hummed. “At the time it seemed like my only way forward. Can you regret something that you never truly felt was a choice?” Quiet filled the room for a moment, the weight of the wine and the past hanging over them. “But I think I would choose it again, if I had to. I have power, this way. I can decide who to help and who to hurt.”
“Who do you help?” Jaskier thought of Maud and her kind, open face as she spoke about Yennefer saving her village. Her gratitude and hesitation to believe that the witch would hurt anyone.
“Those who can’t help themselves,” she responded simply. “And those who can afford it.”
“And the hurting?” he asked.
“Usually people who deserve it.” She smirked into the bottle. “Or who get in my way.”
“Like me.” He said it casually, but his stare was intent.
Yennefer blinked at him, something complex passing over her features that he couldn’t follow. Sitting up, she set the bottle on the floor. “Goodnight, Jaskier,” she said. “Sleep well.” And just like that she was gone in a swish of black skirts, and Jaskier was alone again.
Sighing, he reached for the rest of the bottle.