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Silver and Copper

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Extract from a letter sent from Witcher Vesemir of Kaer Morhen to Witcher Geralt of Rivia, in Witcher Geralt’s 8th year on the Path, regarding blood curses:

...Curses based in blood are some of the most effective, and difficult to break. There are a thousand and one ways to make them, and a thousand and one ways more to keep them from breaking. The binding placed in blood physically binds the curse to the living being attached to that blood, making the binding a form of anchor that feeds on the life force of the very person it is cursing. Blood curses make for parasitic curses, and can very rapidly turn deadly if wanted. Thankfully there aren’t many love potions that involve blood invocations or full blood rites, because if there were hedgewitches would be making coin hand over fist.

Do not presume that just because you’ve seen one blood curse you’ve seen them all. With all the dangers that blood magic possesses, its uses and dangers are more numerous than could ever be counted, and each case must be examined from a completely new perspective. Take your time and make certain you know how each piece of the puzzle fits together before trying to tear it apart, lest the backlash kill the curses target, the curser, and yourself. Dead Witchers don’t get paid.

Vesemir

PS tell Lambert to send me that damn peasant bread loaf recipe he has when you see him next, the one with all the nuts in it. I can’t remember what kinds he uses and it’s not coming out right.

oOo

“So,” Huntsman Herrin says over lunch, where he’s pinned Geralt. “Blood curse, you say?”

“Looks like it,” Geralt says, fussing with his potatoes. They’re damn good and he’s trying to decide if he wants to eat them now or after the frankly delicious chicken. News has traveled fast of his latest discovery.

“Ugly,” Herrin sighs, drinking some of his ale. “You had many of ‘em?”

“A few.” Geralt decides to give up on his potatoes for the moment. Herrin has the look of a man who wants something, and Geralt wants to eat his lunch in peace. “Spit it out.”

Herrin huffs out a laugh, eyes downcast. “Don’t miss a thing, do you?” He takes another drink before he says, very quietly, “What the fuck happened in Blaviken? You’re too damn sane for the stories to be true, Witcher. I’ve seen the kids with you, they know when something’s wrong with a man. And you might not be human, but you’re just as man shaped as me, and you’ve got a mind like a trap.”

Geralt’s lunch suddenly isn’t appetizing.

It’s been near to a decade since Blaviken. Longer, maybe. Time slipped from him, after, and he had struggled to gather his mind enough afterwards so much that getting to Kaer Morhen to winter had been difficult. He’s not certain about the years that followed, anymore. All that time, and his hands still feel wet whenever someone mentions the name, and his mind rushes him back, to the stink of the streets and the weight of the gold brooch.

“You want the truth?” he asks.

“In general, yeah,” Herrin says, eyeing him.

“Group of bandits planned on slaughtering the village to draw out a sorcerer and kill him. I killed them first. No one knew they were bandits but me.” Geralt forces himself to take a bite of the potatoes. They taste like ash in his mouth. “No one will believe you if you tell them. But that’s the fucking truth of it.”

Herrin considers him for a long moment, then sighs. “Shit.”

Geralt grunts.

“Well, I asked,” Herrin mutters to himself, and takes another drink. “You won’t find anyone who’ll give you shit here, at least. Not with Olga’s man, he took care of us for a good long time.”

Past tense. Geralt looks up. Herrin sees his face and grins ruefully.

“Yeah,” he says quietly. “Rilandrus died, oh, 7 years back now. Olga doesn’t remember it. We got news from one of his brothers, name of Coën. Younger guy, you know him?”

Geralt nods. “Met him once or twice. He’s a friend of one of my brothers,” he says, just as quiet. He thinks of Olga’s beautiful embroidered griffins, the colors perfectly matched to those from real life, and the Griffin Witcher who must have brought the feathers for her to match them to.

“He was a good man,” Herrin says. “And he did come, every five years, or more if he could. He was silver like you, lot more scars and wrinkles though. Wore his hair long like yours. Everyone could see he loved her. He’d stay as long as he could, but he ranged wide as possible, ran all over the place. He couldn’t stay. When Coën rode in, we knew he’d passed. Olga’s pretty stable in the head, but she just couldn’t wrap her mind around Rilandrus being gone. She forgets other things, too.” He sighs heavily, standing up. “I’ve taken enough of your time, Master Witcher. Thanks for the honesty.”

Geralt forces himself to eat, knowing he needs the energy, but his heart isn’t in it.

After lunch he takes Roach out for a ride through the countryside, passing Karris loping along bareback on Madeline on their way back up to the castle. He goes down into the valley, sits and watches people at planting and some young women out carding wool as Roach grazes.

Everything is beautiful, and perfect, and awful.

He’s a monster playing at being human, nothing but a beast in the guise of a man. He is two blades and too much pain. He is-

“Fuck’s sake,” Geralt snaps at himself, dragging his hands down his face. “Who the fuck does moping help?”

The clouds drift by, an absent flutter of white high above, and Geralt rolls over to bury his face in the grass and breathe in, forcing himself to ground down to reality, to the here-and-now of the world. With his gloves off he can feel the dirt, the sticks, the soft growing things. The physical land of Lettenhove does not care that he has pressed himself to it, does not care about things like Witchers and curses. The land simply is, locked in its eternal cycle of death and rebirth. He breathes deeper, mouth opening to catch more scent and pull it deep inside, the wet thumping weight of life, life, life. And, of course, he sneezes.

It’s worth it.

A trickle of a thought passes by as he runs his fingers through the grass. He frowns, pausing. He doesn’t actually know the parameters of the curse, or what the curse is meant to do to its victim. Jaskier screams during the day, won’t go in the sun, and is sometimes bleeding. He’s mostly emotionless until something interests him enough, and his heart rate is unnaturally slow and steady. He acts like the stories of vampires but one look at him had been enough to prove he wasn’t. Geralt’s met enough bruxa to know the difference, thanks.

“So what?” he mutters to the air, and Roach lips at his hair to get his attention and pull her saddle off. He gets her free of tack and lets her frisk around like a new filly, mind still prodding at the issue of Jaskier.

Why would he go to the stables? Clearly he’d hated them long before his newfound hate for the sun, so why now? What’s the reason to be there?

Geralt sits back on the ground, watching Roach trot back and forth with her head tossing. Roach isn't all that fond of stables either, but she goes when he insists. Jaskier's no horse but...

Force. He would go if forced. If it was a necessity.

“Hmmm,” he says to the afternoon air, and frowns.

Geralt does not even remotely have the element of surprise when it comes to his quarry now. Jaskier has seen him, knows him to be a Witcher, so… would it be so bad if he tried to play to that? If he tried to draw him out that way, with the curiosity of a Witcher in his court as bait? Geralt is not particularly fond of being bait, but if it means that Jaskier might talk to him, he’s inclined to allow it.

Humming, he lets himself fall back to rest against the side of the little knoll, looking up at the crystal blue sky.

Now, better question- how the fuck was he actually going to lure Jaskier out to talk to him?

When he brings this up to Antonia over their evening dishes she blinks at him in surprise.

“I didn’t realize no one told you,” she says, “but you can go up to the castle whenever you like at night. The Reach is open. Sometimes he wanders the keep, so you might catch him, but he probably won’t talk to you. Usually he'll spot you before you spot him and just disappears deeper into the keep, or will only nod or say hello before leaving again. You’re only guaranteed to see Lord Jaskier on Thursdays, for court, but in the evenings people can come and go as they like. No one does, of course, that castle is creepy in the dark, but the guards won’t stop you. In the day, you’re expected to be with someone at least to the gates who has business inside, since that's when he sleeps.”

Geralt stares at her. “He just leaves it open?”

Antonia looks at him wryly. “Would you want to fight a man in a pitch dark castle who knows every inch of the layout and walks so quietly you’d never hear him coming, if you didn’t have cat-eyes?”

“Ah. Point taken.”

So he goes up to the castle at dark, and the guards indeed let him through without a word.

Lettenhove Reach is run by a skeleton crew. Geralt knows all of them by now. Karris is the stablehand. Johann works as the only secondary undercook for Mathilde, the burly cook who feeds what’s left of the guards and staff. Alfred and Olivia are the only two cleaning staff left who do the best they can with the massive place. Darren tends to what gardens there are except the night garden. Ridgelock is the eternally stressed butler. The six rotating guards are Dayvid, Uldred, Crispin, Claude (from Toussaint, originally), Ianto, and Yakob. 14 people to run such a huge estate, and an alderman that’s thankfully extremely good at his job to manage the surrounding countryside— it’s not a pretty sight.

Geralt walks into the keep itself and frowns, considering.

If I was a cursed and very fucking weird viscount, where would I spend my days?

To save himself the annoyance of getting lost before looking in the obvious spots, he checks the places he knows first. The stables are quiet, and he gives Madeline a good petting when she comes to shove her face into his chest and whicker at him. The Great Hall gets a cursory sweep to find it empty before Geralt slips out the doors to check the day garden. It’s empty too, not that he expected it to have Jaskier frolicking among the flowers. There’s no new blood in any of those places, so he decides it’s time to check the night garden.

Luck is with him.

Or not, depending on your point of view, because Lord Jaskier de Lettenhove himself is standing in the center of the garden, staring up at the moon when Geralt comes through the door.

He freezes for fear of spooking him, and Jaskier very slowly turns his head to fix those horrific dead eyes on him. Geralt closes the door, and Jaskier very slowly blinks. He’s dressed all in black tonight, in the same general cut as the threadbare grey suit had been, and his doublet is completely free of ornamentation this time. He’s missing the necklaces now, and only has a few silver rings on.

“Witcher,” he says, voice perfectly level, and Geralt feels the weight in that word. “Come here.”

His legs are moving before he knows what’s happening, and then he’s there in the garden with Jaskier, the moonlight spilling on them. Jaskier’s heartbeat flutters, and kicks up the smallest amount.

“We meet again,” Jaskier says quietly. “Welcome to my garden.”

He’s unnaturally still, but his eyes are starting to slowly grow more lively. The shock did it the first time, Geralt decides, woke him up fast. This time he knows of Geralt’s existence, and isn’t quite so surprised to see him. “It’s nice,” he says, because he’s not actually sure how to make small talk with cursed nobles. Usually he’s just chopping off heads when they go for his throat.

Jaskier looks back up at the moon. Geralt takes the time to look at him closer.

Jaskier is incredibly pale, his skin near translucent from lack of sun in places. The hollows of his cheeks are sunken, his hands dangerously thin, and what Geralt can see of his wrists is also bird-boned and small. His scent is muted, as if covered by something that’s keeping it from escaping, but Geralt can smell the copper of old blood on his skin. It bothers him. Jaskier seems like a person who should smell of flowers or woody scents, not copper and violence. His hair is roughly cut. The curls dance around his head back and forth, and Geralt wonders if he’s been cutting it himself.

“Moonlight is only reflected sunlight,” Jaskier says, his voice as steady as ever. Geralt glances up at the moon, and then back at Jaskier. Jaskier doesn’t look away from the moon, but inhales slowly. His heartbeat flutters the smallest amount.

“Do you like moonlight, then?” Geralt asks.

Jaskier slowly closes his eyes. The moonlight has bathed him in silver, made him into a statue. He glows with it. He’s lit almost as much as the white flowers surrounding him, paired with their poisonous siblings.

“I,” Jaskier says, so soft that Geralt knows anyone without Witcher hearing would never catch it, “have never hated anything more. Lies are useful, but cruel.”

Geralt considers this. The man gets stranger and stranger.

“Fond of moonlight myself,” he says, because why not. “It’s easier hunting at night with the moon out. Full dark nights aren’t much fun.”

Jaskier’s eyes flash in the dark, a reflection of moonlight in them. The blue of his eyes is washed out by it, and Geralt feels the smallest catch of his breath. What color would they be, then, if lit up in the brilliance of noon? “Do you hunt many things by moonlight?”

His heart is picking up again, and his scent spikes a little. Coppery, still, but there’s an underlying smell that’s all Jaskier, specific and crisp. Somehow Geralt knows that he’ll know that scent the rest of his life. If he were ever to catch it on so much as the breeze four counties from him he would know it in less than a heartbeat. Lord Jaskier of Lettenhove is burned into his senses.

“Plenty of things,” Geralt says, stepping slightly closer. “Shall I tell you about them?”

Jaskier’s inhale is ragged, nostrils flaring as his heartbeat picks up again. It’s as if he’s scenting the air, and he sways a little into Geralt’s space. “Dangerous,” he murmurs, and when he looks up at Geralt almost all of the haze is gone from his eyes. “You shouldn’t.”

“Why not?” Geralt murmurs, leaning down a little. They’re far closer than he should dare, but so far Jaskier is just unsettling more than dangerous. His medallion is only shivering a little on his chest in the tiniest hint of a warning. “Tell me. I bet you've never wanted to do anything good for you in your life.”

Jaskier’s head tilts slightly, a mockery of a lover asking for a kiss, lips opening the smallest amount. Geralt would have to be a much better man than he is not to inhale hard at the sight of that long, elegant throat. His be-ringed hand comes up to very lightly touch Geralt’s chest, as if he were convinced that the five points of bare pressure is enough to hold Geralt fast. “You ask too much, Witcher.”

Geralt inhales again, just as ragged a breath as Jaskier’s was. Whatever’s happening here, curse or simple desire, he wants, sudden and powerful. “I heard that you like stories,” he murmurs, and Jaskier’s eyes blaze with desperate greed at the idea, the fingers sliding just a bit to put a bit more pressure on him. Idly, he notices a few small scars making their way around Jaskier’s mouth, tiny dents like old piercings had been removed. “Wouldn’t you like to tell me some?”

“Stop,” Jaskier rasps, his voice the clearest it’s ever been, and there’s power in the word.

Geralt closes his mouth, looking at him patiently as Jaskier closes his eyes and breathes slowly. His heart rate slows again, though not to the deepest level that it could be, and when he opens his eyes again they are half-hazed and empty.

“Come,” he says, letting Geralt go, and walks away on completely soundless feet through the garden.

Geralt follows.

“The library is this way,” Jaskier says, and Geralt follows him into the pitch black darkness. Jaskier never puts a foot wrong, but Geralt knows that without his improved eyes there’s no damn way he would have ever made it through the dark like this. They follow a winding, circuitous path until they reach a large pair of double doors that Jaskier pushes open.

Geralt likes libraries.

He doesn’t have much cause to be in them except for when he’s hunting information about various monsters, but he does like them. Some of his favorite times as a child in Kaer Morhen had been sitting in the library and reading old Witcher journals, transported to cities and towns that no longer exist. He likes the smell of books, the vellum and parchment and paper weight of them.

The de Lettenhove library is an absolute disaster.

It looks as if someone has torn through the place. Once it was a pretty damn good library, with a main level and on the right, a short staircase up to a half-level. There are endless shelves. Windows hang high in the walls, but even those have been covered by long curtains to block any light. Books have been ripped from shelves, massive scattered tomes littering the floors. Tabletops are cluttered with books open to random pages, and Geralt glances at them as they go. Bestiaries, books on potionmaking, three different extremely raunchy romances, one book on the history of rice cultivation in the far south of Nilfgaard- no cohesion at all. Whatever someone had been looking for, they hadn’t found it.

Geralt looks back to find Jaskier has vanished.

He stops dead, trying to decide whether or not to draw his sword. There’s no sound of steps in the library, but as his ears strain he hears a soft shffff of a book being pulled from a shelf. Geralt’s relatively certain it came from the second level so he simply listens harder for returning footsteps.

There are none.

Jaskier appears like a wraith at the top of the stairs, his eyes flashing in the tiny amount of light trickling in from a window whose curtain has been tugged just a bit out of alignment with its other half. His skin seems to glow in the darkness, luminous as his night garden.

“A story for you instead, Witcher,” Jaskier says evenly.

The book is a small volume, bound in a leather dyed blue and inexpertly tooled. A closer glance reveals small designs that are meant to look like erect cocks in the corners of the design, subtle enough to get away with. It’s the sort of thing a young nobleman might make for a school project, and Geralt takes the book from him. The flat eyes stare back, unblinking, and Jaskier finally turns away to walk from the library without asking him to follow.

Somehow the darkness feels more complete when the door shuts behind him, leaving Geralt alone in the pitch black and silence.

oOo

The handwriting is the clean and practiced hand of someone who has spent a great deal of time writing, but the book is in cipher. Geralt hums as he looks it over back at the Dove, and then pulls out the battered copy book of all the ciphers he knows or has run into. The only one he doesn’t have written down is Witcher cipher, too dangerous to catalog for fear of others finding it and using it for nefarious purpose.

The cipher Jaskier is using is the Rogelian crumple, a very unusual choice for a young man to know. But with Jaskier studying at Oxenfurt, perhaps not so unusual as it might have been. It’s entirely possible that he’d stumbled into the cipher while in the library and decided to use it. Rogelian has been out of fashion for anyone but the Redanian secret service for decades, and somehow Geralt doesn’t see a then 18 year old Jaskier deciding it would be a grand idea to join up with a spy network.

Geralt pauses. Actually, that sounds exactly like something an excitable 18 year old kid who tooled dicks onto his notebook would do without thinking. He eyes the cipher with increased suspicion.

He takes the book down to his dinner table and begs some papers off of Antonia to work on transcribing as he eats. Once dinner is done he does the chores before heading back up to work on the book.

It’s slow going, Rogelian crumple a wildly annoying cipher, but eventually his mind catches up to the cipher and he picks up the thread faster. There aren’t many entries, just 20 all told, but Jaskier writes in overly elaborate language for the first half. By the time he’s finished, the words are short, clipped, and hard.

When Geralt puts his nose to a page and sniffs, the book is scented of copper.

With the pages all translated, he sits down to read the book properly. He skips through most of the first entry, since it’s just Jaskier enthusing about having actually made the book with his own hands in a class, as he’d thought, and starts reading properly when it looks like it’s getting more personal.

Our exquisite lady Melitele herself must be so determined to see me suffer here as a way to prepare me for greater things later on, of this I am assured! Valdo continues to be the biggest headache this side of the Yaruga, and the fact that he kicked me out of his bed this morning with absolutely no dignity has nothing to do with my rage on this occasion. That’s practically friendly, for him. No, THIS time he’s only gone and convinced Professor Delania that HE should have the internship with her for the coming summer, not myself, which means that if I don’t acquire some means of staying in Oxenfurt I’ll be required to return home, and I have no desire to place myself at the tender mercies of my father.

Also, the bastard told me that gold doesn’t suit me, so clearly he needs to be checked for lenses.

Fucker.

Melitele, give me better taste in men.

Geralt snorts in spite of himself, amused. Entry two is much the same, and entry three is a long winded tirade about how terrible it is to be attracted to people with no sense of dignity, honor, or bedside manners, and how Jaskier intends to only bed women for the foreseeable future as they at least have a grip on their own mental well being.

This is refuted by entry four, which makes Geralt grin as he reads the opening lines.

Darling journal, repository of all my wonderful secrets, I have a confession to make.

I fucking hate Valdo Marx, and I especially hate that I have now spent the past two days of the weekend in his bed. I am an idiot.

“That sounds like a you problem,” Geralt tells this 18 year old disaster, skimming the rest of it. It’s just more complaining about Valdo and teachers that Geralt doesn’t know. Things start to change from casual discussion on entry 8, and his smile fades.

I’ve been asked for more than I was willing to give too many times now, and I think Valdo suspects that things at home weren’t always as boring as I’ve lead everyone to believe. We argued about how I would not deign to kiss him a few days past, and when he surprised me with a kiss this morning I’m afraid I broke down and started to weep as if he’d struck me.

He apologized, because while he’s an asshole and I hate him he’s not that kind of bastard, and he made excuses for me and let me hide in his rooms all day in bed, because trying to pretend I was fine in this state is beyond my capabilities. He thought I was just bad and embarrassed by it. As if I could be embarrassed by something so bland.

I know I was wronged.

I don’t want to think about it.

Valdo says wounds like this don’t heal unless you talk about them, give them a shape so you can kill them. But I’m no Witcher, to cut down the monsters hunting me with a silver sword. I’m nothing. I’m no one. And sooner or later they’ll drag me back and it won’t matter if I’m wounded, because if I am, I’ll bleed out quicker.

Geralt had let his eyes focus only on how the cipher fit together, not the words as a whole, coherent narrative. Now, reading Jaskier’s thoughts and pains in his own words, he finds he wishes he had read them closer, had let his mind catch on the details just so the sting of them would hurt less. He sets the pages down gently, rubbing his hand over his mouth, and just looks at them for a moment. His handwriting is impersonal. The scrawl of it is as casual as if he were writing his own journal or sending letters to his brothers or Vesemir. Somehow that makes it worse.

“Fuck,” he says to the quiet of his rooms, and goes down to the bar. He leaves enough coin for Antonia, and takes the strongest bottle of wine they have back up to his room.

It’s a decent year, a decent batch, and it takes the worst of the edge off of old and ugly memories that want to slither in and strangle him until he can pick up the pages to start reading again.

Entry nine is brittle in its cheer, but a normal description of the day. Ten and eleven are the same, but twelve changes again.

I am being forced to go home for the winter break. Not because there is nothing for me here. I have an internship I could take. But Natalia has written to tell me that father has refused to allow her to marry Rogir de Mattrin as she has grown increasingly weak. She fears he is poisoning her. If he is, I need to be there to counter it. I don’t know enough about poisons to fully reverse it, but perhaps I can help correct the worst of it. Natalia would not write unless it were dire. She knows of everything. She's awful, but she is my sister, and I won't let her be killed on my account.

Geralt drinks again, heavily.

He’s never had any fondness for rapists of any age or gender, and Jorgan de Lettenhove had attacked his own son. He shudders to think how young Jaskier might have been when it started. Jaskier has talked around it but he’s not blind, and he’s not an idiot.

He forces himself to turn the pages to entry 13. It’s short, and his frown deepens.

I’ve returned home in time, it seems. Natalia is very thin and growing thinner, but she kept all of her food down and instead it was me who grew sick this evening, as I expected. Father was waiting in the hall for me when I grew sick, and kept me from the garderobe, so I was forced to vomit on the floor. He was satisfied when I collapsed, and left me there to clean it up, which was a nice change of him gloating for hours. My siblings kept their doors locked, though I’m sure they could hear. Wise. I’m worried. After Piotr, they’re more cautious than ever. Piotr doesn’t talk much now. I must try to get some sleep, I need to be on top of things before they fall apart.

So, Geralt thinks as he drinks from the bottle. Natalia, just a little older than Jaskier, had been poisoned. Piotr, the next oldest, might have been abused in the same ways as Jaskier. No mention of the heir’s life yet.

He turns to entry 14 and finds it.

Lorenz fought with father last night and this morning came to the table with his face very blank again. I don’t know what father has done to him to make him like this every time they argue, but it doesn’t seem to take much to wipe him into a blank slate again. He just stares into the distance and you have to remind him to eat. I know that for all my searching I don’t know all of my father’s bolt holes and nastiness. It’s entirely possible that there is a hidden room meant just for tortures for Lorenz to suffer. He seems to like putting me in the stable, after all, and Natalia is never beat but often very sick. I do not care to think of what he does to Piotr, especially after his failed attempts. I must go and see what bushes in the night garden have been trimmed.

Entry 15 makes him sit up, frowning.

We were invited to a ball with the de Damavire’s and the de Romattin’s, and all of us have caught some sort of sickness. It came on suddenly, almost as fast as we came home, but we got news quickly from the others. The de Romattin’s newest child has already died, and mother is being very blasé about all of it, but I know that this is too fast to be natural. God knows I can hardly say that to her face though. She refuses to accept what’s happened to father, what he is. Natalia is already bedbound. I am certain that it won’t be long for her. We are all feverish and cannot keep food down, and there are sores in my mouth and throat and deep pain in my stomach.

Father has been watching me. There must be some sort of plan afoot, possibly to end me. I wonder if he’s decided he’s bored of me at last?

“Son of a bitch,” Geralt says with feeling, hand tightening on the page. What kind of fucking monster uses a plague as a convenient way to torture his children?

Entry 16:
Father has ordered a massive pyre built in the center of the keep’s open space and ordered all but the most necessary servants away. He seems calm about all of this, but he’s always been a grim and morbid bastard. Lorenz and Piotr are confined to bed, and Natalia is soon to be breathing her last. I can feel it. So far mother seems mostly unscathed but it won’t be long now before she starts to show symptoms. Nothing that anyone does brings the fevers down. It keeps us weak and fragile.

I have never been weak or fragile a day in my life, and I have no plans to start now. If not for fear of spreading this, I would run.

Entry 17:
Natalia has passed. Piotr and Lorenz will join her in a few days, we are near certain. Mother has not cried, but the last time I saw her shed a tear was when she got a stain on her favorite pair of shoes, so this is not particularly surprising. She’s never cared for any of us, least of all me. It is what it is.

I have not cried either. I don’t know if I still know how.

Entry 18:
Piotr and Lorenz are dead. It is only me left. I am the heir now. I will never escape.

Father gloated over me for it even as they lay in their beds, speckled with blood from their mouths where they choked on their blood in the night. He told me that I would have to behave now, that Lettenhove would have my head on a pike if I continue if I have been.

I went to the night garden when I had the energy to stand and found lobelia, and ate and ate and ate until I could feel nothing but empty and free of pain. The vomiting is an annoying side effect though.

Entry 19:
Mother has died, just this morning. Father carried her out to the pyre himself and dropped her on it like nothing more than a sack of flour. My siblings are there as well, rotting in the sunlight. He won't allow them to be buried, and I think that was what made mother give up so fast. I have found a piece of silk for the wrapping, and collected all that I need.

All I need now is my nerve.

Geralt wants to be surprised. He really does. He wants this to have been the first time he's met such an absolute bastard, but it isn't, and Jorgan de Lettenhove is simply the latest in the long list of bastards he hopes might yet rot into the ground for all of time. He rubs a hand over his face and looks back at the first entry.

Once, Jaskier was such a light and quick tongued thing. Even after everything he’d kept an air of lightness in his writing. The bitter despair in the later entries makes him want to throw things, smash furniture, command armies to turn. He wants to revoke his vows not to interfere with human nonsense and take his steel to Jorgan Lorenz Pancratz de Lettenhove’s throat. It’s nothing he hasn’t seen before.

Somehow that makes it worse.

The 20th and final entry is short, utterly bleak.

Father has called me to the throne room. It is only us here. He has sent the servants away. I have made every preparation I can.

It will not be long now.

Geralt finishes the entire bottle on his own, and goes down for another. By the time he’s drunk enough to court sleep, all that rings in his head is I’ll bleed out quicker, I’ll bleed out quicker, I’ll bleed out quicker.

oOo

Geralt knows he should go back to Lettenhove Reach and continue searching for more information. He’s fully aware of it.

And yet.

“Ah, Master Witcher,” Antonia says, sounding a little confused when she finds him methodically kneading dough in her kitchen the next morning. The dough ball is massive. “What’s brought this on?”

Geralt grunts, hands straining as he kneads harder. “Needed to do something. Bread needed baking.”

Antonia considers him, nodding slowly. “I see… Well, if you decide baking isn’t to your taste, some of the folk are clearing some trees at the edge of the woods later, I’m sure you’d also be welcomed with an axe and those strong arms.”

Geralt nods, and starts laying out loaves. Antonia carefully walks over to watch him work, mouth tightening a little.

“You know,” she says abruptly, “it was my husband who taught me to bake. Davyd, his name was. He wanted to take over his father's mill but his brother inherited, so instead we purchased the Dove from someone who looked to retire. We had a son, in time. Alan Julius, we named him. After our Dandelion, of course, who taught me that I even wanted children at all. We were happy for a while. In the evenings we would bake sweets together, all of us.”

Geralt can’t bring himself to look at her. He has the feeling he knows where this story goes.

“The plague took them. Davyd took goods to the castle and brought it back with him, and they died fast. We only lost six in the village, and my little family made up a third of that.” She sighs, and leans her head against his arm as he methodically works out the shape of bread. “But for all that, I still do love to bake. It makes me feel like I’m with them, just for a moment. I’ve gotten very good at breads.”

Geralt nods, quiet. She watches him work for a time, just leaning into him.

“My brother,” he says at last, the words feeling as if they’ve been wrenched from him. “He bakes. When he’s mad. He likes fire, so. I had to be with him, make sure he didn’t blow something up. Learned from him.”

“You have a brother?”

“Two.” He thumps a loaf into shape, and splits another into thirds to braid. “And one older one. A trainer. More like a father.”

Antonia hums. “Was that why you were passing through? To meet one of them?”

“We were supposed to meet in two months,” Geralt says, carefully turning over the strands. “Eskel. He’s… basically my age. Maybe a little older. We trained together.”

“Not the baking brother, then?”

Geralt can’t quite help smiling at the thought of Eskel, who disappears whenever someone so much as mentions the need for chopped up vegetables for the stew, willingly baking. “No. Lambert, he’s the baker. He fishes with bombs.”

Antonia nods in extreme understanding then. “That, I can definitely understand,” she says firmly, and reaches out to adjust one of the strands so it’s a bit smoother. “I hope this passes soon so you can reach your brother quickly. And if you’re still here, send him a message and have him come here. I’ll arrange for a room.”

Something about her brisk, no nonsense tone makes him smile. “Mothering me?”

“Someone has to,” Antonia says tartly.

“I am at least 30 years older than you,” he says, smiling a little, and she smiles back.

“That hardly matters,” she says, and her smile fades a little as she takes his hand. Her hands are tiny but strong, her eyes fierce. “You may have years on me, but I have a motherly nature, and I know it. You’ll forgive me for wanting to ease the pain where I can when I can see the boy you used to be under there. Surely even Witchers have mothers.”

Geralt looks to the floor. “We go when we’re young,” he says quietly. “We forget our old families, and all Witchers are men.”

Antonia nods. “I thought it might be something like that. It is very unfair.”

“Life often is,” he agrees, and she makes a soft, pained noise.

“Oh, come here,” she says, and folds him into a tight hug.

The shock of it nearly knocks the wind from him, and after a moment Geralt carefully hugs her back. Some deep, painful well in his chest has had its cover knocked off. He slowly lowers his head to rest it against hers as all the old grief pours up and over, making him shudder with the agony of that loss once more. Antonia doesn’t let him go, keeps him solid and steady while he shivers through it.

When he finally pulls away, she doesn’t step back and looks up at him, eyes determined.

“It will be alright,” she says.

He huffs. “You don’t know that.”

“No,” she says, squaring her shoulders and reaching up to brush his hair away from his eyes. “You’ll fix this. Even if it isn’t the solution we want it to be, even if it means that Lord Jaskier must pass to be freed, you’ll do it. Or your Eskel will come and you’ll do it together. Whether it was destiny, or Melitele, or sheer luck that brought you to us, I know you won’t let this go until it’s solved. Things will be alright. Now. Go and fetch me the eggs, so I can get you fed before you fall over.”

And because Geralt has no idea what to say to that, he fetches the eggs, and Antonia serves him his braided loaf with his breakfast.

He returns to the Reach at night again, and this time one of the guards stops him.

Ianto is his name, a dark haired man with perpetual worry marks around his gentle eyes and soft mouth. He’s been nothing but unfailingly polite to Geralt, which makes Geralt more than willing to stop and hear what he has to say.

“Master Witcher,” Ianto says quietly, glancing into the Reach. “You should know, he was screaming today. Bad. Worse I’ve heard it in a long while. It’s so quiet here we can always hear him when it happens, and this time he was- he was beggin’ the old lord not to hurt him.”

Geralt feels his mouth go tight. “You know,” he says grimly, “the more I learn about your old lord, the more glad I am he’s dead.”

Ianto nods. “I will not argue that in the slightest. We're all grateful it's Lord Jaskier and not Lord Jorgan we serve these days.” He hesitates, then nods to the swords on Geralt’s back. “Should it come to that, please, Master Witcher… make it fast and painless for him.”

Geralt’s heart squeezes. “I promise,” he says quietly, “I will do everything I can to make sure it does not come to that.”

Ianto nods, blinking rapidly, and falls back into his place. Geralt huffs a sigh and strides into the Reach. The keep is dark and silent, and Geralt stands in the entryway to just breathe for a minute before he finally gives in and starts for the Great Hall to start his circuit.

The stench of blood hits him like a physical thing. He stumbles back, hand going to cover his nose as he chokes on the copper tang of it. Breathing shallow through his mouth, he lets his eyes adjust to the darkness before slowly making his way into the room. He checks the dark corners and finds nothing, and slowly makes his way to the dais.

There’s blood smeared on the back of the throne. It’s in no particular pattern, but it’s there. When he looks closer he can see older dark brown smudges on the back, the placement of other blood markers.

He straightens, considering.

So. The curse on Jaskier is at least partly tied to the physical object of the throne, and probably the metaphorical seat of power that Jaskier’s been forced into. Okay. He can work with that. He jogs back out of the hall and finds more blood droplets in the stables, also fresh.

Checking the bedrooms on a day where Jaskier isn’t guaranteed to be away from them is probably too dangerous, so he heads for the night garden a little faster than he would normally. The empty keep echoes with his footsteps, and his skin crawls as he picks up speed until he’s racing down the twists and turns. The red spotted door has a bit of blood smeared on the handle, and he wrenches it open.

He could smell the copper even before he opened the door, and a muscle jumps in his jaw as he steps into the night garden.

Jaskier is standing bare in the artificial waterfall, and Geralt approaches on silent feet. His back is to Geralt, giving him a good view of the mass of scars that criss-cross his back. Some of them are old, but most are much newer. Long stripes cover his back, and his wrists are scarred as well- rope burns, repeated over and over until they stuck. The back of his thighs have cane marks. There are blade scars along the insides of his arms, though Geralt genuinely can’t tell if they’re self inflicted or just yet more torture he’s been subjected to. His back is bleeding sluggishly from a new whip wound, the water sluicing away the worst of it.

“Jaskier,” he says before he can stop himself, and Jaskier slowly straightens up and turns to look at him.

His eyes aren’t dead anymore.

His eyes are completely and utterly black, and black tears are dripping from them all down his face. When he opens his mouth, black oozes out of it to drop into the artificial pond. It reeks of rotted blood, the stench rolling off of him in waves that send Geralt stumbling back in alarm. Jaskier crumples, grabbing his throat and hacking and coughing, retching as the inky black mess pours from his mouth. The rot smell doubles. Geralt’s at his side in an instant, careful to avoid touching his wrecked back as he holds him steady. Jaskier is sobbing, the black tears coming faster as he struggles to cough up more of the black. At last, it seems as if the black is almost done, but then—

Jaskier wheezes, clutching at his throat and thrashing in the water as he gasps, trying for air that seems to be stopped by something clogging his throat. Geralt quickly shoots a thought to Melitele that if she did send him, she damn well better make sure that this works, and thumps him hard in the diaphragm to dislodge it.

There’s a horrible retching noise, and Geralt watches in sick fascination as Jaskier’s mouth opens wide and the carcass of a bird falls from his mouth.

“What,” he says blankly, looking at it.

It’s all wrong, a hodgepodge of birds stitched together. He can see raven or crow feet, lark wings, starling body, finch tail, and too many other parts and pieces shoved together to make one monstrous bird hybrid.

“Pluck it,” Jaskier wheezes. “Quickly.”

Geralt grabs it and yanks off his gloves to do so, cursing as his fingers slip on a mix of the black, stringy stuff Jaskier’s been hacking up and red blood. The bird must have torn his throat on the way out, or his mouth. He chances a glance at Jaskier as he does. Some of the black is receding from his eyes, but he’s still crying black tears and his whites haven’t fully come back yet. His crying is soft and he stays slumped in the cold water as he bleeds, head tipped back under the water. Geralt notices his neck for the first time.

There’s a scar where someone cut his throat.

His fingers don’t stutter, because he knows Vesemir would have yelled at him for 8 hours straight to show so much weakness in front of- of a client? Monster? Civilian? Victim? Whatever Jaskier is, it isn’t good to show weakness, and he’s been plenty weak before.

The scar isn’t long, just a short line across his throat, but something about it makes it the worst of the scars that he can see on Jaskier. It’s right where his vocal chords are, just under his jaw. It looks as if someone stabbed him there, honestly, a short and clean thrust. He files that away with everything else as the feathers fall wet to the ground around them. The bird isn’t too big, and he’s well versed in plucking birds.

He chances a glance back at Jaskier. He’s bony, which Geralt had expected, but the ribs he can count make him more than a bit worried. The dribbles of remaining black still coming from his mouth at every cough aren’t good either.

“Any other situation and I’d tell you to look your fill,” Jaskier rasps, and Geralt barks in a surprised laugh. It’s the most human Jaskier’s sounded yet, and he looks up to meet his now normal eyes, the black still draining via tears. Jaskier gives him a shaky smile that’s interrupted by more hacking coughs. He falls over in the water and shakes with the cold, and Geralt grabs him before his head can slip under, carefully helping him over to his side.

“I have a little time,” Jaskier rasps, his head lolling to pillow onto Geralt’s thigh with a limp thump. He looks as shattered as old silk, too-thin body barely held together, his black tears trailing down to wet Geralt’s pant leg. “Not much. Until my heartbeat slows and I warm up. There are rules.”

“How many can you tell me?” Geralt asks immediately.

Jaskier rubs his face against Geralt’s leg, shuddering for a moment before hauling himself up with shaky arms and hacking, spitting out globs of the black. “Few. I’m trussed up like an exceptionally tasty bird. I can’t tell you who did this to me. I can’t tell you how to break it. I can tell you that you are watched, so be careful in the Reach. You haven’t seen us.”

That raises the hair on Geralt’s neck, and he stares down at Jaskier in astonishment. “How?”

“There’s a shield,” Jaskier tells him, his eyes glowing in the darkness. “You must be careful. Eat nothing, drink nothing. Do not bleed.”

“Right,” Geralt says. “Can you tell me about the sun?”

Jaskier’s face is shot through with longing, and he reaches up with a shaking hand to gently touch Geralt’s face, eyes going soft. “I can never see it again,” he says quietly. His hands are shaking, cold. “Not if I want to stay myself. I’m dying, but I’ll be myself when I go.”

“Your heartbeat?” Geralt presses, filing that thought away to unpick later. The bird is now free of feathers, and he reaches up to cover Jaskier’s hand with his. Their blood slicked fingers tangle together.

“Warmth is the danger,” Jaskier explains, eyes fixed on Geralt’s. “Warmth and true light. Strong emotions. They kill faster. With my heartbeat up like this, it’s becau-” He gags on his words, gasping, and coughs out more black muck. He shakes his head, trembling, and Geralt wants to kill whoever’s done this to him.

“You’re so cold,” Geralt says quietly. “Can you get out of the pond?”

Jaskier shakes his head. “Not yet,” he rasps, and pulls away to suck some of the waterfall’s spray into his mouth to rinse it. The foul smell of rot is being washed away into wherever the pond drains to. He groans, falling back over to let his head pillow on Geralt’s knee. Geralt takes the opportunity to wash his hands clean of the muck, and watches him as he breathes.

Jaskier smiles up at him, wan but gentle.

Geralt hesitates for a moment before reaching down to gently stroke through his hair.

Jaskier shudders, melting into the cold water. “Oh, Melitele blesses me tonight,” he mumbles, eyes fluttering closed. “Don’t… don’t stop. Fuck, Witcher, you have such beautiful hands.”

“How long has it been since you’ve even touched anyone?” Geralt asks. The wet hair is bitter cold, but the relief on Jaskier’s face is enough for him to ignore it.

“Too long,” Jaskier murmurs. “Don’t tempt me, Witcher. I haven’t survived this long just to lose it when one man shows me a good time."

Geralt grins, a stab of affection hitting him. “This is a good time?”

“It’s been a long two years, White Wolf. It’s dangerous for me to be around you,” Jaskier says, but his voice is so full of longing.

“My name-”

Jaskier’s hand moves so fast that Geralt barely sees it, slapping over his mouth to silence him.

“No name,” he whispers, his heart rabbit fast. “Do not give your name. White Wolf will suit for now.”

“Bit dramatic,” Geralt says when Jaskier pulls his hand away. “Sounds like a fairy tale name.”

“And Jaskier is any better?” Jaskier counters, reaching up to tap his medallion. It jingles at the touch, the magic responding. “White hair, and a Wolf Witcher. White Wolf you shall be, my dear Master Witcher.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says, and lets his hand rest on Jaskier’s cheek. Jaskier’s eyes flutter closed again. “You need to get dressed before you get too cold. Did you bring new clothes?”

“Usually I walk back bare,” Jaskier mumbles. “You were a twist to my evening, but a very welcome one.” His hand creeps up to hold tighter to Geralt’s thigh, leeching heat. Geralt glances at his arm and frowns. There are lines of pink new skin, healing marks from wounds just deep enough to get blood.

“Don’t worry,” Jaskier says without opening his eyes. “I’m careful, and I’m not doing this out of any pleasure or punishment.”

“Hmm,” Geralt says again, uncomfortable, and gently smooths his thumb down Jaskier’s wound. “You cleaned them?”

Jaskier’s mouth curves into a bitter little smile. “I’d be dead by now if I wasn’t very, very good at cleaning wounds, White Wolf.” He sighs, and reluctantly sits up. “I don’t have much time now. I suppose I should cut this lovely little interlude short. Thank you for your kindness. Pass me a couple of the larger feathers?”

Geralt hands him some flight feathers, and Jaskier quickly washes them in the cold water before taking a slow breath and standing up on shaking legs. There are more caning scars on the top of his thighs, and Geralt forces himself to dispassionate recognition of the eyeful of Jaskier’s equipment he gets— and damn, no wonder he was popular in Oxenfurt.

Jaskier climbs from the pond and stands shivering in the cool Spring air for a moment. His heart rate is already starting to slow. “My clothes,” he says through chattering teeth. “There’s a blanket as well, on the walkway.”

Geralt finds them and helps him dry off, and Jaskier pulls on his clothes as his heart gets slower and slower still, his eyes starting to go hazy and dead again. He watches silently. The night garden stings his sensitive nose, all thick rot and delicate blossoms, the sting of poison waiting just behind his tongue. He can smell the oleander, the foxglove, the verbena and lobelias. Jaskier is another flower in this garden, copper bright and silver tongued, bathed in moonlight and ice water.

“Do you know lobelias?” Jaskier asks. His voice is growing still again, deceptively calm.

Geralt nods to the corner of the garden where they grow.

“Bring me some, White Wolf.”

He hesitates for a moment but goes to fetch a sprig, leaves and flower attached. Jaskier takes it from him with a ghost of a smile and smells it, eyes fluttering closed for a moment while he enjoys the scent.

Jaskier tucks the flower and feathers into his doublet, and the leaves into his mouth.

“For pain,” he says simply. He meets Geralt’s eyes, and Geralt can see the myriad layers of the curse locking him down again. “Good night, White Wolf. I hope you found your reading illuminating.”

His heartbeat reaches that slow, dangerous drumbeat level, and his eyes grow flat. He walks past Geralt without a backward glance, leaving Geralt alone with a dead bird and rotted blood.

Because there’s nothing else for it, Geralt makes his way through the keep and leaves. The guards nod him out, and wisely keep silent as Geralt begins the now painfully familiar walk back to the village. He’s tired. He needs to write everything down. He wants to drink himself into a fucking coma.

Geralt stops dead in the center of the road as realization hits him like a thunderclap.

The world stretches out before him, and he slowly turns back to look at the castle. This time he can see the moon-white face of Jaskier in the window, not moving fast enough to dip out of sight this time. How could he be so damn stupid, missing that in the heat of the moment?

You have not seen us.”

“This isn’t just a curse,” Geralt tells the summer air, bile churning in his stomach. “It’s a fucking possession.”