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the tempo of falling (in love)

Chapter Text

It was two months after the mountain when Yennefer found him.

He was in Novigrad, his favorite place on earth - not as stuffy as Oxenfurt, with plenty of taverns eager to hire a famous bard and patrons with pockets deep enough to buy him whatever he wanted in return. He’d spent the last several weeks on what he was generously calling a “journey of self re-discovery,” but which most of his colleagues in town had labelled an extended bender. It was his right, he felt, after two decades spent madly in love with a man who cast him aside like bones from a broth. He was entitled to a few weeks of wallowing, and to purchasing enough wine and company to dull the ever present knife in his back.

To say that he was surprised to see Yennefer enter the tavern he was currently occupying was an understatement. To say that he was displeased was a gross trivialization. There was perhaps only one person that he would like to see less than Yennefer, and he was unlikely to be caught within ten miles of the city. Especially if he knew that Jaskier was here.

Yennefer stepped - or glided, perhaps - through the front door of the tavern just as Jaskier was wrapping up a song. He fumbled the last note, shocked into stillness for a long moment, though the crowd around him didn’t seem to notice. As his heart hammered in his chest, he debated his course of action. Run? If she wanted to speak to him he could do little to stop her. Go up and confront her? Too risky; if she felt like it she could easily turn the crowd against him. And he very much wanted a place to sleep tonight.

Finally he decided that he would simply continue on as if he hadn't seen her. He was a professional with a set to finish, and the show stopped for no one. Even an all powerful sorceress who's keen violet eyes were piercing him from across the room.

He played longer than he might have otherwise, hoping that the witch would be on her way. Finally, the tavern had all but cleared out, and he could no longer put off the inevitable. Yennefer still watched him from her table in the back, for a moment looking much like him despite their radical differences in physical presence. Jaskier packed up his lute and his gold quickly, hoping to escape to his room upstairs.

“You’re quite good,” came a voice directly behind his shoulder. Jaskier couldn't hide his jump, only just managing not to drop his case. “I’ve never truly heard you play beyond the drivel you toss about on the road.”

“Yennefer,” he said in a sigh. He felt exhausted, both from his extended performance and the resurfacing of his neglected grief. “To what do I owe the utmost displeasure?”

“We have things to discuss,” she answered loftily. “Let me buy you a drink.”

Jaskier eyed her suspiciously. “What could we ,” he said, waving his hand between them, “possibly have to discuss? I think we left things exactly as we should have.”

We didn’t leave things at all,” she said. “We barely spoke the entire way up the mountain. You were too busy singing, and mooning after Geralt.”

Jaskier couldn’t stop his flinch. “Well, we said enough,” he grumbled. “I have no interest in catching up.” He turned away, pulling the strap of his lute case over his shoulder. A warm meal and a few tankards of mead would have helped his mood nicely, but he’d have to be satisfied with the rations in his pack upstairs until morning. Unless Yennefer was satisfied with his rebuttal, which he doubted. 

An unyielding grip caught up around the wrist. “Jaskier -”

He stopped and turned back towards her, teeth gritted in frustration. Even knowing that she could tear him apart with a word did not lend him any sense of caution. His sense of self preservation was at a low, lately. “Yennefer,” he spit out, “I do not wish to talk to you. I do not want to see, speak to or listen to you ever again in my life, if that would be possible. I’m just a bard, there’s no reason we ever need to interact again so long as I’m alive. I’m sure my life is just a blink of an eye to you, so just give it about fifty years and I’ll be out of your hair. Just,” he ripped his hand away from her grasp now, turning back towards the stairs, “leave me alone.”

“You won’t be,” Yennefer said from behind him. 

Jaskier stopped again, refusing to turn to face her. “What does that mean?” he asked, staring up the flight of stairs before him. The tavern had almost completely emptied by this point, leaving only the sleepy looking barkeep and a few drunk patrons in a far corner table. 

“You won’t be dead in fifty years,” Yennefer said. Jaskier turned back to look at her sharply, confused and irritated by this digression. 

“That’s generous of you, Yennefer, perhaps I’ll live to the ripe old age of one hundred, let’s make it sixty -”

Yennefer interrupted him, her bright eyes flashing dangerously. She looked sharper than before, he realized, more dangerous. This was the creature he had seen, all those years ago, when he first woke from the djinn attack in the manor. When she was trying to chain the power of a thousand wishes to her will. An impossible woman. “You will not be dead in fifty, sixty, one hundred years or more, perhaps,” she said. Jaskier’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Something has changed. Have a drink with me, bard.”

* * *

The drinks were good, despite the barkeep’s surly attitude at being kept up so late. They sat in an isolated corner of the large room, a candle flickering between them to keep the shadows at bay. Jaskier downed his first pint in several long gulps and immediately called for another. 

“If you think I’m paying for this, you’re sorely mistaken,” he said, starting on his second. It was a warm winter brew, heavy with spices to cover up the weak flavor of the mead itself. The taste of it lingered on the back of his tongue, thick with sweet honey and cloves. 

“You made plenty of coin tonight,” Yennefer pointed out, circling her finger around the rim of her goblet of - wine? He hadn’t seen the barkeep fill it, but she sipped from it nonetheless. 

“It’s compensation for my time,” he replied. “What do you want?”

Yennefer set her goblet down and placed her hands flat on the table. She looked like she was thinking about what she wanted to say, picking her words carefully. “When we met, you were, what would you say, twenty five years of age? Twenty eight?” Jaskier nodded. “And we have known each other for nearly ten years more since then. I didn’t notice it, time is so… ten years is nothing to me.” She looked away, staring off towards the fireplace at the center of the back wall. Her eyes were far away. “Half a century goes by and it seems like no time has passed at all. I didn’t notice, and I was preoccupied with -” She cut herself off, turning to scowl down at the table before turning her gaze back to him. “You have been unchanged since the day I met you, bard. I didn’t notice, not until I made that jibe about your crows feet.”

Jaskier huffed. “What about them?” he asked, taking another gulp of mead. 

“You don’t have any,” she said, a small line creasing the perfect skin between her eyes. “Did you notice? Maybe not. Witchers age so slowly, and I not at all. Did you not return to Oxenfurt and see that your colleagues were beginning to gray and wither while you remained youthful?”

“I’m only forty,” he said, pouting. “I’m not old .” He couldn’t comprehend what Yennefer was trying to say. He was aging well, so what? Why would that matter to her?

She huffed out a frustrated breath. “Bard,” she said sharply. “ You don’t age . There is a magic around you, within you, that keeps you young.”

Jaskier blinked at her, shaking his head slowly. “No - What, you think I’m cursed? Some hag put a spell on me a decade ago and I never noticed?”

Yennefer looked angry now, her fingers scratching at the wood near the base of her goblet. “A mere curse could not do this,” she said. “Immortality, even the slowing of the aging process, is exceptionally powerful magic. I had to give up everything for it,” she hissed. “What you have is stronger. Sometime along the way, I don’t know when, you became more than human.”

Jaskier laughed then, a sharp, disbelieving sound. It landed in the silence of the room around them like a wet rag. “I don’t think so,” he snorted bitterly. “I think I would have noticed.” He raised his mug for another drink.

Yennefer reached across the table and put a hand over his tankard, slamming it down into the table. “You are not listening to me,” she said, her pretty white teeth bared. “I am telling you that you have power, maybe even greater than my own. You’re a Bard .” Something about the way that she said his title held a weight to it, filled with the quiet awe of religion or fear.

“That is my occupation,” Jaskier said, because he couldn’t think of what else to say. He was tired of all of this - of Yennefer, of her wild theories, of being reminded so vividly of everything he’d had and not had, before. He wanted to go upstairs, go to sleep, and tomorrow he would leave town and run until he couldn’t remember the smell of lilac and gooseberries. 

“That isn’t what I - A Bard is a powerful type of spellcaster, maybe even a creature closer to that of a djinn. They begin as humans, but sometimes if their work reaches enough people, in enough places, the energy of so many believing in their words makes their songs into a spell, of a sort. It’s… complex. I don’t understand it, not completely. The magic is vastly different from my own.”

Jaskier had had enough. “Yennefer,” he said, pulling his mug away from her. “I am not a magical bard of legend. I sing rowdy songs in taverns and I’m popular, yes, but that doesn’t mean I, what, sung myself into immortality?” He gave her a disbelieving look, one that he hoped conveyed a healthy lack of faith in her current mental state. 

“Do you know what he was, before you began to write songs about him?” Yennefer asked, pulling her hand back. “I suppose you wouldn’t, you weren’t even born for most of it. But I remember, after I went to court, hearing the gossip and songs about him. He was a villain, the great Butcher of Blaviken. He was hated almost universally across the Continent, for what he was and what he did. And then you came along with your catchy little songs, and you changed everyone’s minds almost overnight. You made people love a witcher, someone they hated and feared. You changed things. You changed everyone.” Her gaze grew soft for the first time that evening, filled with remorse and overwhelming pity. “Your love for him was so strong it became magic.”

Jaskier stood up from the table so quickly that his chair fell behind him with a clatter. He could barely breathe. “Stay away from me, Yennefer,” he choked out. “Just - stay away.” He turned and fled up the stairs and to his room, not turning to look back at her sympathetic eyes as he ran.

He flung his lute down in the corner after locking the door behind him, not bothering to even remove his shoes before throwing himself onto the threadbare bed. Finally he let the tears that had been threatening him all night fall, though no sound escaped him. Staring up at the ragged beams of the inn as they were obscured by his wet eyes, he thought about how cruel that would be, if Yennefer were right. If he’d loved Geralt so completely that he’d made himself into some kind of immortal demigod, and Geralt had wanted nothing to do with him. A poet of legend with the power to touch the hearts of all men, except the one he’d already given his own to.

That would be cruel indeed.

* * *

Yennefer left him alone for nearly a fortnight, two mercifully uneventful weeks. No monsters nipped at his heels, no witches tried to curse him, he didn’t have to stop to punch any idiots in the nose for insulting Geralt because they hadn’t heard Toss A Coin recently enough. He played in the taverns he stopped in, and used the coin to buy supplies to last him until the next town over. He bought a few traps, learned to use them, caught himself dinner regularly enough to make his stash last. Despite the witcher’s constant harping on his skills, he wasn’t completely useless. He could fend for himself if needed, even knew a bit of swordplay from back when everyone thought he would still fit in as a noble at court. And travelling for twenty years off and on with someone who foraged for nearly everything rubbed off. 

Jaskier wasn’t entirely sure where he was going, after leaving Novigrad, but for now it was enough to keep putting distance between himself and the mountain and wherever Geralt was. Nilfgaard had been pushing progressively closer to Cintra; perhaps he would make his way there to finally claim his Child Surprise. Or perhaps he would continue fucking around in the wilderness hunting nekkers. It mattered not to Jaskier, so long as they remained far apart.

So he continued walking during the day, and at night he made camp and ate his meager catches or rations, and he tried to write new songs but couldn’t. He felt like he was living in a sort of haze, only half aware of his own thoughts. A quarter of every emotion was shoved into a corner of his mind and left unexamined. His gut reactions were muffled, the urge to say Geralt, look at this shied away from on instinct. Cutting the witcher out of his life left him feeling grayed out, frayed at the edges. But it was better this way, he told himself. At least living in this washed out world was honest. 

Yennefer found him again one night at the tail end of the fourth week, just when he’d begun to think she’d taken his request to heart. He smelled her first, of course, the sickening scent of that heavy perfume cutting through the crisp twilight air. When he looked up she was stepping gracefully into the clearing, dressed in a black gown that tumbled off of her shoulders and was glaringly out of place in the quiet forest. He sighed, tossing the stick he’d been using to poke the fire down in exasperation. “What can I pay you,” he said, “to stay out of my life?”

Yennefer stalked towards the fire, lowering herself to sit across from him. Her violet irises glittered, reflecting the flames eerily. He was always surprised to realize that he had again forgotten how beautiful she was, otherworldly in the sharp cut of her jaw and the smooth curve of her cheek. His memory never did her justice, always turning her more jagged and cruel than she really was. Her true visage was a beautiful sheath hiding a dangerous weapon. “I am here to ask you for a favor. Or offer you a job, however you might wish to look at it. I will compensate you however you wish, if you can do as I ask.”

Jaskier crossed his arms and rested them on his knees, eyeing her wearily over the crackling fire. “I can’t imagine what I could possibly have to offer you, Yennefer,” he said. 

“I want you to write me a song,” she said, and he had a feeling what she asked for was more than a simple ballad. 

Still, he said, “Ah, something to repair your reputation? I’m afraid that may be a task even too great for me, my dear. You see, you are reviled across the Continent and beyond, feared by -”

“Jaskier,” she snapped, and it was rare enough for her to use his name instead of simply calling him ‘bard’ that his mouth clamped shut. “I want you to remove Geralt’s wish.”

Jaskier felt his entire body grow cold. “What makes you think I could do something like that?” he asked.

“I told you before,” she said, impatient. “You are a Bard. I’m sure of it. Even all the mages in Aretuza could not remove the curse as it is. A djinn’s magic is some of the most powerful in the world. But a Bard’s magic is something else. It does not work within the laws as we know them. There is no spell so great that a Bard cannot undo it. You are not a source yourself; each person who says the words helps to cast it, over and over again. All you have to do is sing it,” she said. It was as close to begging as he had ever heard from her, he thought. Her fingers dug into the fabric of her dress, clenching and unclenching it. “I must be free of this bond,” she said. “My mind must be my own again.”

If only all of us had that luxury, Jaskier thought. “I’m not what you think I am,” he said. If he was, wouldn’t he have written himself into a happier narrative a long time ago? He wasn’t a fan of tragedies.

“You are,” Yennefer insisted. “I will give you anything, anything you desire. Just write the song, bard.” She paused, and then bit out, “Please.”

He stared at her across the fire for a long moment, and then said, “No.”

* * *

Yennefer haunted him. Everywhere he went, she was only a few steps behind, and he could only travel so quickly. As soon as she knew where he’d headed, she was there - distance was no object to her. She would sweep into the room while he was performing, or eating, or sleeping, interrupt his day and start hounding him about magical songs. He was infuriated. Yennefer refused to drop the issue, and she had all the time in the world to try and persuade him. It would do her no good. What she asked was impossible, because he was not, and never would be, a bard with magical singing powers. Yennefer was so desperate for a way to undo the wish that she had fabricated this concept of him. It didn’t make it true.

He could stop performing, he supposed. If he did so, he might be able to avoid her for some time. For about a week, it worked - he left the town she had most recently confronted him in and kept to the backwoods, and when he reached the next village over he did not utter a peep. He moved on once again, but quickly found his coin dwindling. By the time he made his stop in the third town, he was forced onto the stage again just to make enough to buy his dinner. 

She found him a few miles outside of the town the next day, as he was breaking down his camp. He threw down his bedroll in frustration, feeling for a moment that he very well might attack her. 

“This has to stop,” he begged, for what felt like the hundredth time. Yennefer looked as cold and aloof as ever, but something was different. Her gaze was calculating, looking at him like a puzzle to be solved. 

“I agree,” she said. Jaskier balked at her. “This game of cat and mouse is getting us nowhere. I tire of chasing you about the Continent. It will be easier to convince you to help me if you stay in one place.”

Jaskier did not like the sound of that. It wasn’t stated as a threat, but it held one all the time. “Yennefer,” he tried one last time, “I can’t help you. I’m not what you think I am.”

“I can taste the power of your words in the air of every village I follow you through,” she said, dismissive. “You may not have the ability or training to recognize magic, but I do. I know what you’re capable of, even if you don’t. Besides, what’s the harm in writing the damn song? If there’s no magic in it that does little to harm you.”

“Besides demolishing my reputation,” Jaskier muttered. “I don't want to write you a fucking song, Yennefer. For the last time, let it go.”

The sorceress shook her head, her mouth pulled into a tight line. “I didn’t want it to come to this, but you’ve left me no other options,” she said. She reached for him - when had she gotten so close? - and said, “This won’t hurt.”

“What? What won’t -” he started, and was cut off when her fingers reached his brow. She muttered a word, and everything fell into darkness.

Chapter Text

When Jaskier woke, it was like emerging from a deep pool. He lurched upright, chest heaving as he caught his breath. The details came to him in pieces. Soft linen sheets covered his legs, and he was dressed in a simple pair of cotton trousers and a cream shirt. A gentle breeze stirred his hair, heavy with the smell of recent rain. Sunlight from the open window fell across the bed in fractured pieces, turning the wine colored duvet blood red in swatches. It was quiet, the only sound his own labored breathing and the almost imperceptible swish of the curtains.

Cautiously, Jaskier pushed the blankets back and stood, feeling a bit off balance. He was in a lavish bedroom, sitting on a large canopy bed. A plush rug met his feet, protecting him from the cold stone floor. The room was small, clearly a guest bedroom of some type, but everything in it was of exceptional quality. Even the dresser across from him was carved with intricate and delicate reliefs of flowers and vines. Jaskier slowly crossed to the window, blinking a few times to adjust to the onslaught of daylight.

The window overlooked a garden, with high stone walls that he could only just see over. Beyond the sprawl of colorful flowers and neat hedges, he could barely make out a forest and the distant smudge of chimney smoke. It appeared that he was in some kind of manor overlooking a town, though he couldn’t say exactly where. It seemed warmer than the area he’d be travelling through, so it must be a ways away from Novigrad and Oxenfurt.

He frowned, remembering his last moments of consciousness. Yennefer.

After a brief survey of the room, he was able to locate several fresh sets of clothes as well as many of his travel supplies. His lute was leaning against the dresser, and he spared a moment to be grateful that it hadn’t been left behind. Small mercies. The clothes he found were not his own, but their orderly stitches and fine embroidery showed their worth. He changed quickly, unsettled by how neatly they fit his frame.

His boots had been cleaned but not replaced, so he slid them on and crept into the hall. The corridor outside was just as opulent as the room he’d left behind, with plaster walls and clean cut stone floors. The heels of his boots clicked against it mercilessly, his steps echoing down the hall. It was absolutely still. A place like this would usually be bustling with servants, but he saw no one.

The entire corridor seemed to be filled with doors that led to guest rooms like the one he’d found himself in. Most looked drab and underused, everything covered in a thin layer of dust. None of the rooms were occupied, so he pushed past them to the end of the hall.

He found himself in a large solar. The room was filled with brilliant daylight which filtered through the floor to ceiling windows on the far wall. A large fireplace dominated the wall nearest, a yawning thing with two small wyvern statues standing at attention on either side of it. It was currently unlit. Before it sat two plush armchairs with a settee between them, dozens of pillows and throws piled on them. When Jaskier approached the fireplace, his boots sank into a thick bearskin rug.

Yennefer was sitting in one of the chairs, her eyes skimming through a book she held in one hand. When he came into view she looked up, eyebrows raised. “You’re awake,” she said, sounding unimpressed. She did not put down the book.

“Where the hell are we, Yennefer?” Jaskier asked. He was extremely confused, and more than a little angry even though he hadn’t quite figured out why he should be.

“South of Oxenfurt,” she said, and that wasn’t exactly an answer because there was a lot south of Oxenfurt, as it turned out. He glared at her, but she continued as if she didn’t see it. “I’ve appropriated this manor for my own use - It was a gift, you could say, from the previous owner.” Her lips curled with disdain for a brief moment.

“And what,” Jaskier said slowly, “am I doing here?” He allowed his contempt to bleed into the statement, turning it acidic.

Yennefer flipped a page of her book. “You will live here, until you can produce a song for me.”

Jaskier gaped at her. “I’ll what?” he said, blinking rapidly.

Yennefer finally met his gaze, apathetic. “I’ve put a spell on the house to prevent you from running off. You’ll be cared for while you’re here, but you won’t be able to leave. I was tired of chasing you down,” she said, sounding bored.

Jaskier felt fire licking up his spine, fury curling up behind his teeth. “You can’t do this. You can’t just lock me up because I won’t write a damn song for you, Yennefer, you - you just can’t!” His nails were digging into his palm, their manicured edges pressing in like claws.

Yennefer’s expression cooled, her disinterest morphing into annoyance. “You think I wanted this, Jaskier? I don’t relish being the villain, despite what you think of me. But I have no choice. This is for your own good and mine. Free me, and maybe we’ll talk. I refuse to be trapped like this forever.” She said it with finality, a promise and a threat.

Jaskier grit his teeth. “Is it so bad to be bound to him? He did it to save your life.”

The book finally snapped shut. “You wouldn’t understand. I can’t trust anything. My emotions, my own thoughts, they’re not my own.” She paused, her jaw tightening. “It was not his right. What I feel for him is not love. You’re jealous of a prison cell.”

Jaskier was breathing hard, feeling nearly wild with rage. And it hurt, too, because she was right - he would take her place in an instant. He liked to think that he would also want to know if the witcher really loved him beyond the influence of strange magics, but in his heart he knew he wouldn’t. He would give anything to have even a moment where Geralt looked at him the way he’d looked at Yennefer. “I can’t help you,” he said, feeling the fine tremor in his clenched fists. Cruelly, he added, “Even if I could I never would. You want out of your cage so you put me in one as well? Fuck you, Yennefer.”

Yennefer’s expression grew dark, and she stood. “Then you can rot here,” she said coldly. She raised a hand that danced with magic, and behind her the air twisted and warped.

Jaskier watched as she opened a portal and stepped through. He was left standing in the warm solar, filled with impotent rage and entirely alone.

* * *

Left to his own devices, Jaskier forced himself to focus on exploring the house. Passing through the solar, he found himself in a large dining hall. A long table suitable for at least twenty people stretched the length of the room, punctuated by another enormous fireplace at the back of the hall. Jaskier bypassed it with only a quick glance. The next doorway led him into an entry hall, a grand affair with stained glass windows overhead that cast colorful spots of light across the floor. An imposing set of double doors guarded the entrance, and Jaskier hurried towards them.

He was unsurprised to find them locked. Yennefer never made anything easy.

A glance at the windows on either side of the doors found them sealed as well, looking out onto the manor’s small courtyard. With a frustrated grunt, Jaskier doubled back to the dining room and made his way from there into the kitchens. The servants quarters were likely somewhere nearby, if there were any, and manors such as this one typically had a back door for the workers. He’d snuck out through them himself often enough, either with a paramour or to escape their angry spouse.

He located the servant’s entrance easily enough, down a small flight of stairs at the back of the kitchen. The door swung open easily in his hands, unlocked. Elated, Jaskier took a step forward, striding towards the dirt path. He could see a gate ahead, leading out of the manor property.

It took only two steps for the feeling to start building within him. It began in his stomach, a lurch that made him stumble slightly. Within moments he was gasping as the world spun around him. He fumbled to his knees, stomach rolling as he tried to regain his bearings. For several minutes he lay in the dirt, trying not to vomit, before dragging himself back over the threshold of the manor. As soon as he crossed back over the door frame the disorientation faded, leaving him staring at the ceiling in disbelief.

“Fuck you, Yennefer,” he said, still out of breath. “Fuck you.”

* * *

The first few days of his captivity were spent testing the boundaries of whatever spell or curse Yennefer had put on him. Every time he set foot outside the manor he would be assaulted by an acute sense of vertigo. It didn’t seem to do any actual harm to him, but eventually the sensation always forced him back inside. It was infuriating. Jaskier spent hours sitting on the ground outside the servants’ entrance, trying to get himself to move another step or two beyond the door. The further away he got, the more intense the feelings became. Once he’d nearly made it all the way to the gate, but he ended up crawling back on hands and knees as he retched. Eventually he had to admit defeat.

Morosely, he turned his attention to the manor itself. There was no shortage of entertainment, once he’d explored a bit. There were rooms upon rooms lining the twisting halls, some decorated with portraits and landscapes. There were lounges thrown into perpetual twilight with the use of heavy window drapes, baths with stunning mosaic floors, windows that looked out over the rich green of the forest below. There were bedrooms with rich satin sheets and padded mattresses where he could lay to rest, and the library was stuffed floor to ceiling with books that Oxenfurt would salivate over. There was an interior courtyard nestled in the center of the guest wing that didn't send him into a fit when he stepped outside, which was a relief. He didn’t think he’d be able to survive for long without feeling the sun on his face.

There were also many, many rooms filled with instruments - lutes and lyres, trumpets, drums, viols and cellos, even some that he didn’t recognize. Yennefer’s silent plea for him to write her out of her curse.

For the most part Jaskier ignored the instruments. They only served as a reminder of why he was here, and he felt little inspiration for song anyway. His muse of twenty years had shoved him away. It would take some time to find a new one.

Yennefer hoped it would be her, but so far Jaskier was feeling distinctly uninspired by the sorceress.

Overall, there were plenty of things for him to do, once he’d mapped out the manor itself. The library alone could take decades to comb through, and many of the books seemed like they might be out of Yennefer’s own collection. His academic side was eager to see what the witch had deemed safe for his consumption, though he was loath to partake in any enrichment she wished to provide. It was difficult to forget that he was in a cage, no matter how gilded the bars.

By the end of the first week, he found that he was simply lonely. He’d been lonely before, of course. He’d lost his best friend, really his only friend, and that tended to make one feel a bit lost. And the loneliness had been present even before that, if he admitted it to himself. Years and years of travelling alongside a man who could barely return a fraction of his affections took its toll. He had spent half a lifetime literally singing Geralt’s praises, pouring out his love and affection to anyone who would listen. In return the man had barely even considered him a companion. Maybe not even that, Jaskier thought bitterly. Really, if he cast his mind back, he could not think of a time in his life that had not been colored by an ever present sense of profound solitude. Despite making it his life’s mission to please people and lift their hearts with song, he never managed to stay in one place long enough to make a home with someone. Even amongst his own family he’d been an outcast, not sharp enough or composed enough for the delicate game of court.

So while being alone in the manor did not stir up anything new, it did throw old scars into sharp relief. Typically Jaskier could bury the feeling by standing in front of a crowd of strangers and singing until they loved him. And they did, generally. They loved his music and that made them love him, for a moment, and they carried his songs with them across the Continent. Not many could say that, and usually it was enough to wrap up the small pieces of his heart that wanted more. For someone to see him past the performance. Here, though, in the dull pleasantness of Yennefer’s prison, he felt those pieces stabbing at him, like tiny shards of glass settled too close to his lungs.

There weren’t even any servants to talk to, at least that he could see. It would be very like Yennefer, he mused, to ensorcell the previous staff of some poor nobleman and force them into servitude. Despite not seeing another living soul, the baths were regularly filled with steaming water in the evenings, and every morning he entered the dining hall to find plates of warm scones and decanters of sweet juices. The kitchen was stocked with fresh fruits and breads, local root vegetables and even the occasional fresh baked pheasant or fish. The beds were made daily, and his discarded clothes were regularly returned to the room he’d first woken in, laundered and folded. It all seemed like quite a lot to have going at once, if it was a spell. For a bit Jaskier became convinced that he must be dreaming it all. There was no Yennefer, no manor, no mysterious refilling wine goblets. Maybe if he was being generous there was no mountain, either. He would wake and find himself camping with Geralt as the sun peeked over the horizon, and Jaskier would tell him that he’d had the strangest dream. He would say, It’s so funny, you said all these awful things -

And what would Geralt say then? Jaskier let the fantasy fall apart, afraid to think about it too much.

Instead he went back to the books. The library was the most obvious source of entertainment if he wasn’t going to spend his time composing. When he entered for the first time, his eyes snagged on a book titled The History of the Bard: A Tale of Minstrel Magics. The books around it all had similar titles, all on the same subject. Bards, capital B.

The books were numerous, which was annoying in that Jaskier knew they’d been put there specifically for him. Despite obviously being a rare subject, Yennefer’s library had a small collection entirely devoted to the concept of Bards. Clearly she was eager to prove her point, and hoped she could reach him through academic discourse. She wasn’t wrong, necessarily, but that was beside the point.

For the first week, Jaskier ignored the books entirely, focusing on making obnoxious edits in the margins of the poetry section. Eventually, though, his curiosity overwhelmed him.

The first line of the first book he opened said, A Bard’s magic is, at its most intrinsic, based on love. Jaskier slammed the cover shut and did not return to the section for a month.

Chapter Text

By the time the third week rolled around Jaskier was so desperate for company that he was almost glad to see Yennefer again. Despite his best efforts, he had still yet to come across any servants, though he was convinced there had to be a few around. He suspected that they were coming at night while he slept. He hadn’t pulled an all-nighter since his studies at Oxenfurt, but it was certainly on the agenda.

Yennefer gave no warning before her return. One morning on the eve of the fourth week Jaskier simply walked into the dining hall and found her sitting at the table. He gave a shout when he saw her, startled after weeks without human contact. Seemingly unfazed by his outburst, Yennefer gestured him over. Several plates of fruits and tarts were spread out on the table before her. “Eat with me, bard,” she said.

Warily, Jaskier stepped forward and sat in the chair next to her. “What are you doing here?” he asked, picking up a scone. It was covered in a light sugar glaze, and when he bit into it the sweet jam inside burst across his tongue.

“I try to check in on all of my imprisoned bards at least once a month,” she said. He gave her a disparaging look, and she rolled her eyes. “I’m joking. I needed to check in on the estate, and I have business in the area. I trust you’re finding the accommodations suitable?”

Jaskier glared at her, breakfast forgotten. “I’m so glad you can make light of the situation,” he snapped.

Yennefer acted as if she hadn’t heard him. “I thought you might want to know that Nilfgaard is approaching Cintra. A battle will likely take place soon.”

Jaskier’s immediate urge was to resist the attempt at light conversation, but his curiosity got the best of him. “Cintra will win?”

Yennefer leaned back in her chair, crimson lips pursed in thought. “That is the popular opinion. But Nilfgaard has been amassing power for years, and Emhyr is relentless. There are rumors that their mages defy the sanctions of the Brotherhood. It’ll be a hard fight, regardless.” Her eyes were far away, thinking of battle strategies and shifting alliances. Jaskier was reminded that sorceresses were political agents, first and foremost.

“Will you fight?” he asked. He didn’t want to be concerned about Yennefer - she had kidnapped him, for Melitele’s sake - but you couldn’t know someone for the better part of a decade and not be slightly invested. Besides, if she died in a battle with Nilfgaard he might never get out of this house. A dreary prospect.

“No,” she said, and he tried not to feel relieved. “I’m done involving myself with the petty squabbles of noblemen.”

Jaskier eyed her with interest, picking apart his scone. His fingers were tacky with jam. “Why did you stop? Sorceresses are almost always at the right hand of some ruler or other. Weren’t you in Aedirn?” The appointments of the Aretuza and Ban Ard mages were fairly well known, at least those that operated in the public eye. Jaskier remembered hearing Yennefer’s name come up a few times when discussing Aedirnian politics.

Yennefer sniffed, her expression filled with disdain. “I played the part for a while. I thought I could make a difference, at court. Push fickle rulers in the right direction. I thought I could work behind the scenes, pulling the strings, changing things for the better. But I was wrong.” She paused, taking a sip of what must have been juice but could just as easily have been wine. “I didn’t change anything. I wasn’t important, or loved, and I certainly wasn’t listened to. I was just a vessel. I grew tired of it. I wanted my life back.” Her violet eyes regarded him cooly. “I still do.”

Jaskier stared at her for a moment, and then said, “Geralt’s Child Surprise is in Cintra.”

Yennefer tilted her head to the side, her only reaction to the change of subject. “How would you know that?” she asked.

“I was there, when she was gifted,” he said, swallowing. It’s always you shovelling it. “It’s Calanthe’s daughter, the princess Cirilla.”

“The Lion Cub of Cintra,” Yennefer murmured. “Of course Geralt would be destined to raise a princess.”

“She may not be safe,” Jaskier said, rubbing his palms anxiously on his knees. “Geralt might not - He doesn’t want anything to do with her. What if he doesn’t go to her, before the fight?” Jaskier knew Ciri, if only from afar. He’d visited Calanthe’s court more than a few times, when Geralt had been off at Kaer Morhen or they’d had to separate for business. He’d kept an eye on the girl, trying to make her laugh during dour feasts and singing her songs about fearless witchers. In some way he’d thought of himself as a sort of messenger from Geralt. I’m here. I care. I see you.

And now she might be in danger because of the man’s pigheadedness. “Let me go,” Jaskier pleaded. “Just to go and make sure she’s safe, to make sure he’s there for her. If anything happens to her, Yennefer -”

The sorceress stood, brushing her hands off on her dress. White, this time, and he saw a small spot of ruby red juice staining the hem of her sleeve. Like blood from a wound. “No,” she said. “Cintra is well protected, and the Lioness most of all. If Geralt wants to go to her he will, but it doesn’t concern you.”

Jaskier stood as well, anger filling his veins. His sticky fingers clenched into fists. “Yennefer, let me out of this fucking house.”

She leveled him with an unsympathetic look. “Write me a song,” she said, and left the room.

* * *

Yennefer stayed in the manor for the better part of a fortnight, off and on. Typically when he woke she was nowhere to be found, which suited him just fine - he had decided to ignore her for the foreseeable future. Dinners were another story. Over the past few weeks he’d been mostly fending for himself. Fresh foods were always available in the dining hall in the morning, but for the rest of the day he typically managed for himself. It wasn’t a hardship, of course; the pantry and kitchen were always well stocked, and after years of cooking for two on the road it was easy to pull together simple meals for himself. Jaskier had always preferred that others do the cooking for him, optimally in a banquet hall, but he had quickly learned that Geralt’s idea of fine dining was adding salt to whatever meat he slapped over the fire that night. Jaskier had taken over preparation of their meals early on, despite his own inexperience. At least he knew about spices.

Regardless, he was pleased that Yennefer’s arrival seemed to usher in a never ending stream of prepared meals, which he was almost certain were summoned by magical means. His own simple peasant dishes of rabbit and fowl mixed with local greens were satisfactory, but the veal, boar and goat that came along with Yennefer was appreciated. As were the fruits that suddenly filled the kitchen, tropical things that had no business being this far north. Despite his distaste for the woman, he had to admit that she had good taste.

Still. He wasn’t going to speak to her.

Instead, he returned to the library. Yennefer rarely spent any time there - most of the books seemed to have belonged to the previous owner, and he assumed that if anything was of interest to her she would have already appropriated it for herself. It was a decent collection, and he spent much of his days in the central courtyard, curled up in the sun as he devoured the tomes.

Eventually, he forced himself to return to the books on Bards. Yennefer’s conviction was not wavering, and he was curious despite himself. There must be something here to prove or disprove her theory, or she wouldn’t have left them for him to read. Jaskier decided the thing to do was approach the issue as an academic. Gather information, identify the arguments, decide what his own stance on the matter was. If he could build up a solid enough case, perhaps Yennefer would be forced to see the truth in his words and let him go.

Many of the books were essentially fairytales, to his disappointment. In truth they were immensely enjoyable, appealing to his sense as a storyteller, but the information within was vague and inconsistent. There were stories about women charming animals and people alike with their voices, pipers that could lead children away into the night with their haunting song, men that could put giants to sleep with a simple lullaby. Many of the tales were ones he’d heard before, though these had more emphasis on the magic of music. While engaging, Jaskier did not feel that they were true reflections of what Yennefer referred to as Bards. The romanticization of heroic deeds and incomprehensible magics would always muddle the realities of cases such as these. Jaskier himself took advantage of that fact often enough.

So he moved on, to the handful of texts that seemed more academic in nature. One was a study from Oxenfurt, more a paper than a book. This was more informative, giving a short but thorough list of known Bards and their deeds. There were no more than five listed, each of which Jaskier recognized easily from his studies. Famous in their own right, each went on to live surprisingly long lives, though three of the five were elvish.

The last two books were filled with strange diagrams and Elder script, clearly written by magical practitioners. Those took him the most time to get through, having to sludge through the translation. Bards, he learned, drew power from Chaos like all other magic users. However, while most spells were powered by drawing on the caster’s own Chaos, the power of a Bard came from each person that heard or sang the song lending a bit of their energy to the spell. It is magic based purely on belief, one text said. In some ways a Bard’s song is more like a prayer than a spell. Eventually, that much belief can call upon enough Chaos to shape the world. A Bard’s magic, the first book said, was dependent on the ability to make people want the reality that was sung about. When enough people added their energy and love and belief to a Bard song, it began to take the form of a spell, one stronger than any that might be cast by a single individual. It could not be killed or dispelled by any typical means, living on as long as people still carried the song with them. It might be possible, the Oxenfurt author said, that a Bard and any subject in their songs might live forever, if they remain in memory and public favor.

But nothing in the texts gave Jaskier any real proof that he himself fit the description of a Bard.

When he stopped to truly think on it, he could admit that Yennefer had a point about a few things. He was youthful for his age, perhaps unnaturally so. His features had not changed since he was in his late twenties, and that was putting it generously. He hadn’t really noticed, initially; most of the people he saw on a regular basis were immortal or nearly immortal, so it was hard to judge the passage of time. His mid twenties had been when he had truly begun to rise to what he might humbly call fame. Five to seven years after he’d first debuted Toss a Coin in Posada, it was still being sung across the Continent. He’d begun to get offers to sing at banquet halls and run down taverns alike, singing songs of Geralt’s adventures and triumphs. And people had started treating the witcher differently after a while, as the songs began to truly circulate. In the first year he’d known the man, they’d been thrown out of as many towns as had invited them in, usually depending on how big their monster problem was. People had sneered at Geralt in taverns, spit on him in the streets, and Jaskier had gotten into more than a few fist fights on his friend’s behalf. Geralt had weathered it all serenely, clearly used to the treatment, but Jaskier had seen how it wore him down. The bard sang relentlessly about the men’s virtues and struggles, and the more he sang, the less stones were thrown. He’d assumed he was simply a strong orator, but maybe it was more than that. Maybe he’d sung up a shield, to protect Geralt from the world.

It was ridiculous. He was just Jaskier, nothing special. He was good at what he did, but that didn’t make him magical.

He went to find Yennefer, bringing the Oxford book with him. He found her in the kitchen, mixing unidentifiable herbs together in a mortar. Jaskier decided that he didn’t want to know. Dropping the book on the table in the center of the room, he said, “Why don’t you just do it yourself?”

“I see we’re speaking again,” Yennefer replied, not turning away from her work. There was a brief flash of light near her hands, and the room filled with the heavy smell of burnt sage and thunder. “Do what?”

“Write the damn song. Make a spell. The masses are not overly difficult to please, it wouldn’t be too terribly difficult to convince them that you’ve broken a curse.”

Now she did turn towards him, one hand leaning on the counter while the other rest on her hip. The bowl behind her smoked faintly. “Did you not read the other books? It’s not the simple, bard.”

“Elucidate it for me,” Jaskier said. “My Elder is rusty.”

Yennefer sighed, a put-upon sound. “The type of spellcrafting that a Bard does, weaving a spell with the Chaos of others, it has to be genuine. Any sorcerer can use the energy of another to craft a spell, though it’s strictly forbidden. This is different. The people involved are not just giving up their own Chaos, it’s more like, I don’t know. Building a bridge. When I cast, the spell comes from me, and out into the world. Point A, to point B. When a Bard casts, it’s a process. The spell builds between you and the audience, a feedback loop of magical potential. Over and over again, growing stronger with everyone that hears it. There’s no way to replicate that artificially. They have to love you, trust you, for it to work. They have to believe that what you’re saying is true, and let that belief shape them and the world around them. It’s complex, Jaskier. It’s never been done in the same way twice.”

“Yennefer,” he said, faux sympathy in his voice, “I know it would be an immense challenge for you, but I’m sure you could manage to be charismatic for a handful of minutes. It’s only one song.”

“I could perform a song,” she said peevishly, “or a thousand songs, every day until I wither and die. It won’t make people give me their hearts, or their magic.”

“I don’t know why you think I would do any better. I’m a decent artist, not a miracle worker.” Jaskier picked up his book and turned to leave the room, shoving it under his arm. Yennefer’s voice made him slow his steps for a moment.

“Maybe not,” she said, “but they love you. Everyone that meets you loves you.” Her voice was laced with a caustic bitterness that he couldn’t begin to unravel, something like anger, or maybe jealousy.

“Not everyone,” Jaskier said, thinking of harsh words on the side of a mountain and his mother’s voice sighing in his ear, saying If only you weren’t so much, Julian.

“Well I can certainly relate to that,” Yennefer said, and though it was said with a casual air there was a sadness beneath it that had something like pity stirring in his chest. He imagined decades of solitude, surrounded by people you couldn’t trust who wanted to use you for your power or your beauty. Building up walls of malice and sharp words to hide the pain of that isolation. Yennefer was not someone he envied. But he refused to show her sympathy now. Maybe years ago, when they’d only known each other through Geralt, after she’d saved his life. Maybe then, they could have been friends, and he could have tried to ease that pain in her. Now he just tucked his book more firmly under his arm, and left without a word.

Chapter Text

Yennefer left soon after that. They were taking their breakfast together, silent as usual, when she suddenly said, “I have business to attend to in the south. I won’t return for a few days. If you need anything leave a note on the dining table and it’ll be seen to. I’ll check in as soon as I’m able.”

“Don’t hurry back,” Jaskier said through a mouthful of sausage.

Yennefer pouted at him, an expression that made her look shockingly childish. Rising from her seat, she said, “I leave tonight. Maybe you could come along, if you’d sing for me.” She turned in the direction of her rooms, clearly not anticipating a response.

“Not interested!” Jaskier called after her, with false cheer. Every time they spoke the opportunity was there, set before him like a roast on a silver platter. If he would only try, Yennefer said, he could at least come with her and leave the manor. But he wasn’t about to give in yet. At the very least her leaving meant he wouldn’t have to deal with the wild spikes of anger he experienced whenever she entered the room. Mood swings were only useful when he was actually writing.

Yennefer left the room without responding. Jaskier did not look for her that night to say goodbye.

* * *

Once he was sure that Yennefer was truly gone, Jaskier began to hatch a plot to catch the servants unaware. He was desperate to talk to someone that wasn’t a witch, and they might also have valuable information about the outside world. Yennefer didn’t seem to be trying to keep anything from him, but their stilted conversation meant that it was difficult to find out what was going on.

If he was lucky, the servants might even be sympathetic to his case and he could get them to deliver a message for him. His stomach sank, however, when he gave this plan more thought. Who would he contact? Geralt certainly wouldn’t come for him, especially if it meant siding with him over Yennefer. He had plenty of friends and casual lovers, but no one that he could honestly say might be invested enough in him to risk going against a sorceress, even if they had the necessary resources. The Countess at one point, maybe, but she had long given him up.

Once upon a time he wouldn’t have even been worried in this situation, so sure was he that Geralt would come for him. It made Jaskier feel hollow with shame.

Regardless, it would be nice to talk to someone, anyone, normal again. Jaskier missed people, and Yennefer certainly didn’t count. She was barely human, literally but - more importantly - emotionally speaking. He missed hearing people’s stories and regaling them with his own, teasing out their sympathy and excitement. He missed being able to see the delight on their faces when he sang and they were taken away from the hardships of their own lives, if only for a moment. He liked people, even if they never really liked him back.

Yennefer’s comment about the note had confirmed his suspicions that someone was taking care of the manor, and he was determined to find out who. The first few nights he attempted to simply switch to a nocturnal schedule. Which was easier said than done, it turned out. The first night, he sat himself in the solar with the most engaging tome he could find and resolved to stay up until sunrise. Surely he would notice anyone slipping into the house. He woke nearing noon the next day, the book open on the floor below him where it had fallen from his grasp. Writing was more engaging, but he quickly found that he hadn’t been lying to Yennefer when he’d said that he simply couldn’t. The words trapped themselves behind his teeth, and the ink dripped down onto the page in messy splotches. He turned back to reading.

Finally, near the end of the week, he managed to delay his rest until finally he was staring blearily at the sun as it rose through the window. He never once heard a peep within the manor, no doors opening or footsteps scurrying about. It was like they knew when he was sleeping. Or maybe he’d been mistaken, and there weren’t servants at all. Maybe the dishes were enchanted to do housework.

He’d almost decided to give up completely when his luck finally turned.

He found her in the kitchen, wandering in with a blanket wrapped around his torso to ward off the morning chill. For a long moment Jaskier didn’t even notice her, busy shuffling over to pick an apple out of a fresh basket of fruit. He turned and froze in the middle of biting into it, staring.

She was young, maybe in her late teens, with dark brown hair in a high knotted braid favored by the common people of Temeria. She was sitting at the kitchen table with her head on folded arms, cheek pressed to a large wooden bowl between them. A light dusting of freckles covered her nose, and a large, dark birthmark stretched across her left eye and down her cheek. Her face was relaxed in sleep. Jaskier barely breathed.

Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to speak to the first person he’d seen aside from Yennefer in weeks, he crept closer. “Hello?” he said softly. “Uh… miss?” He reached out and just barely nudged her arm, trying not to startle her.

She came awake slowly, mumbling sleepily. Her dark brown eyes blinked open slowly, and she rubbed at them as she lifted her head. Jaskier gave her a slight smile as their eyes met.

“Good morning,” he said, and her eyes widened in horror. Not the reaction he’d hoped for.

She scrambled off the chair and backed away, the bowl clattering to the ground between them. “Oh, oh no,” she said, face open with panic. “S-stay back!”

Jaskier raised his hands before him, trying to placate her. “Okay, okay! I’m not going to hurt you. My name is Jaskier, the famous - some say infamous - singer and songwriter. Recorder of great deeds and praiser of great men. And you?”

She didn’t answer immediately, eyeing him with suspicion. “We’re not supposed to talk to anyone inside the house,” she said. “I… It’s the only rule.”

“Who’s rule?” he asked. “The sorceress? Yennefer?”

The girl nodded slowly. “She said that we should come and do the cooking and cleaning, but to never be seen. She gave us charms.” She ran her finger under a small bracelet she wore, a flat, round bead set in the center. “I have to go,” she said nervously.

Jaskier felt his chest tighten. He had to get this girl to talk to him or he might lose out on his only chance. “Are you in danger?” he asked. He tried to lower his shoulders, appear more relaxed, concerned, harmless. No easy task, as the thought of Yennefer forcing the locals into servitude made him want to tighten his fists in rage. “Is she making you come here against your will?”

The anxiety fled her features as she looked at him in open shock. “No!” she said quickly, waving her hands to dismiss the idea, as if shooing it from the air. “Of course not! The mistress has only been kind to us.”

Well that didn’t sound right. “You… You’re working for her? On purpose?”

She nodded. “Of course. We owe her so much, and she pays us well. We all thought it was odd, that she would want us to care for someone we can never see, but I always thought…” A light flush rose on her cheeks, embarrassment coloring her features as she looked him over. “I thought you must be some kind of monster, if she wanted us to stay away. I thought you must be dangerous.”

Jaskier snorted. “Only if you’re frightened by music and song,” he said. “I’m a performer, my dear, not a fighter. Certainly not a monster, and I would know.” Though he wondered, for a moment, if she would consider a Bard to be monstrous, if she knew of one. Someone who could worm their way into the minds of others with only a few words and a tune. Some might consider that a new kind of dangerous.

“You don’t look scary,” she said. “But the mistress said to stay away, so I have to. I’m sorry.” Her eyes flickered to the servants’ door.

“Please,” he said, tone edging into desperation. “I need your help. I’m trapped here, alone. Please.”

Her gaze lingered on him, sympathetic but conflicted. “Maud,” she said. “That’s my name. Goodbye.”

Jaskier watched as she fled out the door, unable to follow.

* * *

It was two days before he saw her again. In truth, he’d not expected to see her at all. He’d somewhat given up on escape and had taken to strictly moping, nowadays. He would lie in the solar or his room or the courtyard and stare up at the ceiling or sky and feel deeply sorry for himself. It was nice, in a way, to be able to just wallow in his misfortunes for a while. No one could tell him to pick himself up or get over it, no one wanted him to put on a happy face or pretend everything was fine. So he didn’t. The introspective work would be good for him in the long run, he said to himself.

It was like this that Maud found him, splayed out in the courtyard garden staring at the sun as it dipped down over the high walls. He heard footsteps and thought at first that it must be Yennefer returning, and he had a scathing remark primed before he’d even sat up. When he turned to look, however, he saw only Maud, looking at him nervously. He was shocked into silence, staring at her.

“I want to help,” she said, fingers twisting in her shift. “I want to help you escape.”

* * *

They sat inside at the dining table, both clutching cups of warm tea that Maud had brought from her home. “It’s my grandmother’s blend,” she said shyly, handing his mug over. “Mostly willow and chamomile.” They only had a few hours before the other staff would start showing up to work, she told him. Assuming that he was safely in his room.

“They hum when you’re nearby,” she explained, showing him the bracelet. The small charm at the center buzzed ever so slightly, vibrations tingling up his fingers when he touched it. Maud had taken it off and set it on the table, saying that the constant drone was annoying when he was near. “If we feel it, we move out of the house quickly, but it doesn’t happen too often. Mostly we come when you’re already asleep.”

“That must be difficult, working all night,” he said, annoyed once again at Yennefer. Talking to the servants wouldn’t help him escape, after all. They should have been allowed to come in the day. She had likely wanted him to feel more isolated, forcing him into solitary confinement. All the better to persuade him to go along with her wishes.

“It’s not so bad,” she said with a shrug. “We’re happy for the work. She pays us well. Our village was falling to pieces before she came. It’s why we agreed, really.”

“What do you mean?” he asked. The tea was excellent, warming him from the inside out. The smell of it reminded him of rubbing salve into warm skin marked by decades of scars, but there wasn’t much he could do about that. It was still good tea.

“Before she came, the mayor lived in this manor. I think he hired her - there were rumors that he had a broken cock.” She grinned briefly. “She arrived and was here for a few days before she came to the village, but I know she was displeased. I never saw her myself, not then, but it must have been easy to see that things were hard. There was a drought, a year past, and then a sickness this winter. We were struggling to make ends meet, and the mayor was taking harsh cuts of our grain. He said that he was giving us protection, but from what? Nilfgaard is far from here, and we are too far off the main roads for bandits.” She stared into her mug, face twisted in anger and grief. “My mum died, because of him. She was sick over the winter, and when the grain tax came we had to give up so much that we didn’t have enough for her to get strong again.”

“I’m sorry,” Jaskier said, quietly. “I can’t imagine.”

Maud shook herself, giving him a quick smile even as her eyes held onto her grief. “Thanks. Things got better, after the mistress came into town. We don’t know what happened, but we didn’t hear from the mayor again. No one asked questions. We were all just relieved. And after she was living in the manor for a while the crops started coming in plenty - the weather always seemed on our side. We’ve been doing well, and she comes to the village sometimes to see the children and offer potions for aches and coughs. She’s good to us,” she said, a bit defensive.

“Well,” Jaskier said. He was deeply confused. The Yennefer he knew wasn’t necessarily needlessly cruel, but he had always felt that her ambitions overruled any kind of compassion she might have. It was difficult to reconcile the sharp tongued sorceress he knew with someone who would help a small town back on its feet for no personal gain. Maybe there had been something in it for her, he mused. “I’m glad that you’re people are doing better,” he finally said.

“I just don’t understand how she could do this,” Maud lamented. Her thin fingers, rough with years of work even for someone so young, slapped the table lightly. “You seem so nice! Why would she trap you here? Are you cursed?”

“Not cursed. I have something she wants,” he said slowly. “Or… she thinks I do. Maybe I do, I don’t know. She wants me to help and I don’t know how, or if I should. So she’s keeping me here, until I agree.”

Maud frowned. “Why don’t you just try?” she asked.

“At this point? Because she’s locked me in a house for two months,” he said. “It’s the principle of the thing.” Maud laughed, and he grinned at her before becoming more somber. “I don’t think I can do what she’s asking, and I don’t know if I would want to, if I could. She’s a dangerous person.” That, he knew, was true no matter what she had done for this village. Writing a song to sing Yennefer into the good favor of the many could have consequences unforeseen, and singing her out of a curse sounded like a recipe for disaster. Songs had a way of twisting around and changing meaning once they fell into the mouths of others.

“Okay,” Maud said. “So you’re stuck here? You’ve tried leaving?”

“Of course,” he said, huffing. “I can leave, technically, but it makes my head go, you know, all over the place. I get disoriented. It feels like I’m being pulled in a thousand different directions. It doesn’t hurt, much, but it’s impossible for me to move more than a few feet out of the house.”

“Hmm,” Maud said. “I’ll talk to the wise woman in town, Gemma. Maybe she can help.”

Jaskier doubted that, considering the strength of Yennefer’s magic, but he was touched nonetheless. “Thank you, Maud,” he said. “I can’t say how much I appreciate your help. It’s honestly just nice to talk to someone else.”

She gave him a soft smile, reaching out to pat his hand. “I don’t know why she wanted to keep you away from everyone, but I’ll keep you company,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

“You’re not afraid of her?” Jaskier asked, genuinely curious. He wasn’t sure if the girl was just unaware of Yennefer’s power, or if she somehow was brave enough - or stupid enough - not to care.

Maud squared her shoulders a bit, sitting up straight. “I don’t think she would hurt me, but I won’t leave you all alone either way. It wouldn’t be right.” A bit more nervously, she added, “But let’s try not to get caught, alright?”

Jaskier clinked their mugs together softly. “Cheers to that.”

Chapter Text

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.