When Ciri wakes to find blood in her sheets and her underclothes, she’s not that surprised - nobody who menstruates around the palace makes much of a secret of how painful or inconvenient it is. What she is surprised by is that her Gran shows up to talk to her about it. Normally her scrapes and bruises, even those earned during sword drills and sparring, are tended to by her ladies-in-waiting. Obviously, this is much more important.
“Now,” says her Gran, handing her a T-shaped charm made of coiled copper wire, “I’m not foolish enough to try to forbid you from having your fun before you’re married, but for fuck’s sake wait until the political deal is sealed before getting knocked up. Otherwise -” her lips thin in displeasure and she looks away. Ciri has listened to enough court gossip to understand that her own mother fell pregnant with her without, apparently, thinking of the consequences to the kingdom.
Ciri looks down at the charm in her hands. “This will - stop me getting with child?” she asks. She knows better than to ask how it works - magic is an advanced subject, after all. “What if it gets, I don’t know, lost or stolen?”
“It won’t, it goes inside your womb,” says her Gran.
“What? How?” Ciri asks. Is she meant to swallow it?
“It goes in the same way a baby comes out,” says her Gran briskly. “Now, I don’t deny it will hurt, but you are the Lion Cub of Cintra; you must bear it with grace. I will sit by to supervise while your maids help you insert it. Then when you are recovered, you can go to Mousesack and he will explain the rest to you.”
Ciri swallows and nods. None of this feels very reassuring or informative, but she is, as her Gran says, the Lion Cub of Cintra - she must meet the expectations set for her.
Mousesack takes Ciri prospecting along the shore at low tide for sea urchins.
“Sea urchins? Why?” Ciri asks.
“Because they are spiny and disagreeable, like little girls who ask too many questions,” says Mousesack.
“You mean like crusty old druids who only answer questions with riddles,” grumbles Ciri, but she dutifully transfers the urchins Mousesack selects into specimen jars, carefully following his instructions.
Back in Mousesack’s laboratory, they prepare slides full of water from the specimen jars at regular intervals and observe them under the microscope, with Ciri doing her best to record what she observes in a sketchbook.
“But what has this to do with my getting my courses?” she complains.
“You’ll see,” Mousesack promises her.
Eventually Mousesack deems that Ciri has enough drawings, and he coaches her through looking at them in sequence. At first, she’s not too sure what she’s seeing - two animalcules of different shapes merge, then split again to become two, then four, then eight, sixteen, thirty-two blobs all stuck together. She understands these to be numbers with mystic significance, but she is to be a secular ruler, not a druid or priestess.
“I still don’t understand,” she confesses.
“Do you see the shape the animalcules are taking?” Mousesack prompts her.
She looks again, follows the sequence further, and - “They’re forming baby sea urchins inside the animalcules!” she realizes.
“Exactly,” says Mousesack. “And so it is with all animals, even higher ones like humans, elves, dwarves, and the like. Some produce seed, and others eggs. And so, without the use of a contraceptive charm, any time someone who produces seed couples with someone who produces eggs, there is a chance that a child will be conceived, just as you observed with the sea urchins.”
“Do you mean men and women?” Ciri asks.
“I do not,” smiles Mousesack, “for nature is much more subtle and varied than that. There are men, and women, those who are both, those who are neither, and those who are somewhere in between. And all of that has to do with who they truly are inside, and not what body parts they have or what animalcules they produce when they couple.”
Ciri dodges out of Otrygg’s grasp - again - and makes her way as sedately yet quickly as possible to the high table. Last time she visited Skellige, everybody had been happy to play together - at quoits, Fox and Hounds, even Gwent, once Hjalmar got his hands on his father’s deck. This time, Ciri’s suggestion that they play quiet games was met with a scoffing, “that’s for babies ,” by Hallbjorn and Uve; instead, the preferred entertainment seems to be trying to get close enough to Ciri and Cerys to tug on - and hopefully untie, apparently - their kirtle-strings. The boys all howl with laughter, congratulating one another any time one of them gets anywhere close, but Ciri doesn’t think it’s funny at all.
Queen Birna looks down her nose at Ciri as she slips onto the bench next to Granddad.
“You’re never going to get a husband if you act so cold,” she says.
“They’re being mean to me,” Ciri tells her.
“Silly girl,” says the Queen, patting her hand. “That’s how boys show their admiration for you. You ought to let them pay you court. Give them a chance!”
Ciri feels her stomach sinking like lead. She doesn’t want to give them any more chances. To her other side, she notices Granddad shaking his head as he drains his drinking horn.
The banqueting won’t wind down until well toward morning, but near midnight Granddad offers to walk Ciri and Cerys back to the chamber they’re sharing.
“That might be how boys share their regard,” he tells them, but it isn’t how men show their regard. Do you think your Gran would have accepted my suit if I treated her the way those whelps have been treating you?”
Ciri and Cerys look at one another. Ciri has never seen any man treat her Gran with anything less than full respect.
“Now listen,” says Granddad, crouching down so he can look at them eye to eye. “Both of you will be great queens one day. And it’s true that you might not have as free a choice in husbands as some village maiden might, but you don’t ‘owe a chance’ to every swain of noble birth who happens to come your way. So hold out for a man who treats you properly from the start and don’t go letting Birna Bran fill your head with such -” he shakes his head, stopping himself before saying what was obviously going to be a bad word “ -nonsense. And now, I’m going to go knock some sense into those boys. Good night, ladies.”
“Good night, Granddad,” says Ciri, giving him a hug. She thinks she might cry if she tries to tell him how relieved she is that he doesn’t think she should have to put up with such loutish behavior, so she settles for giving him a big hug. He gives good hugs. “Thanks.”
“Now listen,” says Jaskier, “I know this is going to be a tad bit awkward, but I had rather a bit of embarrassment now than any unplanned pregnancies later. So -”
Dara looks away, blushing. The tips of Jaskier’s ears are also a bit pink, and he’s twisting one of his rings round his finger, but he seems determined to go through with this, so Ciri leans forward. This ought to be good. She’ll let him get partway through explaining how coupling leads to conception and then tell him that it’s irrelevant because she has a contraceptive charm - oh, wait, that’s not what he’s talking about at all.
“-plenty of ways to ensure that you and all of your partners pleasure each other without running any risk of pregnancy - and yes, it should feel good for everybody, it shouldn’t feel painful for anybody, unless that’s what somebody wants to feel; but I think we’ll save that for an advanced class - oh dear, I’m letting myself get sidetracked, now, where was I?”
As he’s talking, other youths from around the camp start to congregate, like they do when he starts talking about what he thinks will happen with the war, and soon he has quite a large crowd.
“Right, any questions?” he eventually asks.
“My uncle says if you do it with your clothes on, you can’t fall pregnant,” says someone in the crowd.
Another youth says, “My sister fell pregnant because she sneezed outside when the moon was full, my ma said so!”
A third says, “I saw an explosion during the siege, I don’t want to get blown!”
Someone in the back calls out, “Do breasts have bones in them?”
Later that evening, Ciri is still thinking about some of the techniques Jaskier described that afternoon - maybe she would try touching herself to see what she liked, if she had more privacy - when she hears Geralt and Jaskier talking about the impromptu lesson.
“Kids shouldn’t be fucking in times like this,” Geralt says.
“Like you weren’t fucking already at that age,” Jaskier tells him. “I know I was.”
“That’s different,” grumps Geralt.
“Why, because we knew what we were doing?”
“ No , because we didn’t know what we were doing,” Geralt replies. “They should wait -”
“But they’re not going to, and we know they won’t, because we wouldn’t have,” Jaskier interrupts.
“We’re idiots,” Geralt says.
“Mm, no argument there,” agrees Jaskier, and then there are noises like them kissing each other. Gross. “But all kids are idiots. So, better if we tell them everything we wish we’d known, so they at least have more information to base their decisions on, yeah?”
“Hmm,” Geralt grumbles.
“Okay, okay,” Sabrina slurs as Ciri makes her way into the room the sorceresses have claimed as their sitting room at Kaer Morhen. “Never have I ever fucked Geralt of Rivia.”
Yennefer, Triss, and Keira all groan audibly and then take drinks from their goblets.
“You should, though,” says Triss, “he’s quite a passable lover.”
“Passable,” Keira repeats. “I never met a man as enthusiastic or skilled at oral.”
“I would, but I don’t know how to get him to ask me,” says Sabrina, swirling the wine around in her glass. “You saw how it was, this afternoon.”
“Oh no, you don’t wait for him to ask you,” says Yennefer. “You just tell him it’s happening. Hallo, Ciri, come on in.”
Triss makes a face and puts down her drink. “Maybe we shouldn’t -” she begins.
“Shouldn’t what, play Never Have I Ever with Ciri around?” asks Yennefer. It’s okay, she’s got to learn about sex and relationships somehow, and those two idiots downstairs -” Ciri assumes she means Geralt and Jaskier “- obviously aren’t going to teach her anything useful. Come on, Ciri.” She pats the space next to her on the chaise longue. “We’ll pour you some apple juice and you can play along. Just ask if you have any questions.”
Ciri climbs up next to her. Actually, Jaskier’s lessons have been informative, but he’s a man, and there are things she’s sure he doesn’t know or can’t answer because of it.
“I can drink wine,” she says.
“Oh, all right,” Yennefer allows. She flicks her wrist and a goblet appears next to the pitcher of wine, which obediently raises itself into the air to pour.
“And no more questions about my dads,” Ciri adds, “I don’t need to know.”
“Sure thing, kid,” agrees Keira, and raises her glass in a toast.
“Okay, my turn,” says Triss. “Never have I ever -” she draws the last word out, clearly thinking about what act she wishes to discuss, “- fucked my former lover’s former lover, to make our mutual former lover jealous.”
Ciri tries to draw a diagram in her head of the relationships involved in that sentence. Sabrina and Keira say “Ooohh,” in knowing tones.
Yennefer grumbles, “I thought we just agreed no more questions about Ciri’s idiot dads,” and then takes a long draught from her goblet.
“Oh, Yen, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,” says Triss, in a faux-innocent voice.
“Keira’s turn,” says Yen, glaring daggers at Triss. Ciri traveled with Geralt, Jaskier, and Yennefer long enough to realize that when they’re acting mean to each other, it’s because they like each other but don’t really know how to show it. She can’t quite decide if it means the same thing when the sorceresses act the same way with each other.
“Okay, hmm,” says Keira. “Never have I ever - erm - made love on horseback.”
“Melitele’s tits!” swears Yennefer, and drinks again. So does Sabrina, and then Keira and Triss look at one another and collapse into giggles. Ciri tries to hide her surprise. She’s picked up, from the way that Geralt, Jaskier, and Yennefer tease each other when they think she and Dara aren’t listening, that Yennefer likes to do things that some people find adventurous or scandalous, but now she realizes that her imagination hadn’t carried her far enough in thinking about what kinds of things those might be.
Yennefer swallows, then uses her goblet to gesture menacingly at the rest of the sorceresses in the circle. “Alright, you pack of pellars,” she says. “Never have I ever romanced more than one of a set of siblings at a time.”
There’s general groaning and complaining from Triss, Keira, and Sabrina, each of whom takes a drink. Ciri thinks back to the last time she visited Skellige, and takes a drink of her wine. Yennefer, Triss, Keira, and Sabrina stop teasing one another to stare at her, and for a moment the room is completely silent. She starts to worry that she’s done something wrong, or that she really is too young for all this stuff.
Then Triss bursts into delighted laughter, Keira whoops and cheers, and Sabrina leans forward to give Ciri a hug.
Yennefer says, with a proud smile, “That’s my girl!”
Ciri skates backward on the pond, gathering momentum before taking off into a spinning jump. She manages two and a half revolutions before landing on one foot, sticking the other out behind her and allowing the momentum to keep her spinning to steady her landing.
“This is boring,” complains Jorulf.
“We won’t need to do fancy twirling on the battlefield,” agrees Hallbjorn.
Ciri disagrees - her Gran has made sure she practices her pirouettes as part of her sword drill so she can fight opponents in any direction - but she keeps her mouth shut. For some reason, it’s like her friends from previous years’ visits to Skellige have been replaced by a load of ploughing arseholes.
“Let the princess save her dancing for the ballroom. Come on, Vigi, I’ll race you to the other end of the pond.”
And, saying so, Hallbjorn pushes Vigi to the ice and skates off at top speed, laughing.
Ciri, shocked, crouches to help Vigi up, but he’s already on his feet, spluttering and swearing and taking off after Hallbjorn. Otrygg, Uve, Jorulf, and Cerys all take off after him, yelling insults at each other and shoving one another. Ciri crosses her arms and hugs herself a little tighter. Why is everything so different this year?
Hjalmar, the only one of her former playmates who hasn’t started acting mean, crosses his arms too, but more loosely.
“Show me again,” he asks.
“What, the jump?” asks Ciri. Hjalmar nods, so Ciri repeats her spinning jump. She lands it just in time for the other youths to come racing back from the other side of the pond. Otrygg heads straight for Ciri, so she uses the momentum of her rotation to grapple him, throw him to the ice, and pin him there with her elbow across his neck. He yelps, surprised.
“Fuck off,” she hisses. “Go race somewhere else. We’re skating figures here.”
“Ooh, a fierce shield maiden,” leers Otrygg, and splays his hands out over Ciri’s backside as he pushes her aside so he can stand up. She stands quickly herself, skating quickly away from Otrygg and brushing her hands over her coat as though it will help rid her of the feeling of his hands.
“You heard Ciri,” says Hjalmar, crossing his arms again. This time, he makes it look much more forbidding, and when he draws himself up to his full height, he’s taller than Otrygg. “Fuck off and race somewhere else. Cerys, you want to stay and skate figures with us?”
“Not bloody likely,” snorts Cerys, somehow looking down her nose at her brother even though he’s a head taller than her. “Come on, boys, I can see where we’re not wanted. Bet you can’t catch me!”
Ciri waits until they’re gone, feeling annoyed that they listened to Hjalmar but not to her. Her Gran doesn’t ever have to wait for Granddad to repeat her instructions.
“Okay,” she says to Hjalmar when the rest of them are out of the way, “here’s how it works.”
He has several false starts, and at one point splits his lip open on a rock while he’s landing, but before the end of the afternoon he has managed a jump with a single rotation.
“You did it! You did it!” cheers Ciri. She claps her hands and then skates up to Hjalmar, letting the momentum turn her hug into another spin.
“Only thanks to an excellent teacher,” he says, taking her hands instead. Now they’re at arms’ length, but when he grins at her, even with his busted-up lip, it makes her stomach do funny flip-flops.
“Only - only because you’re an excellent student,” she stammers, and then pulls him in close so she can kiss him before she loses her nerve. He feels warm and strong, and the tingle she feels when he puts his arms around her is nothing at all like the crawling sensation she felt when Otrygg put his hands on her earlier.
Ciri and Cerys are bedded down in the bed they’re sharing in Queen Birna’s head lady-in-waiting’s chamber with the candles snuffed out and the fireplace banked for the evening when Cerys whispers,
“I saw you kissing my brother earlier.”
Ciri’s heart rate had settled after Granddad walked them to their door and gave them his advice, but now she feels a spike of anxiety again. After all, Cerys had been playing along with some of the teasing.
“What of it?” she counters.
“Oh, nothing,” says Cerys airily, rolling onto her back and putting her arms behind her head. “Only that I’ve always been better at everything than Hjalmar.”
When Ciri works her way through what Cerys is implying, she feels not just warm and tingly, but hot and squirmy, in places she didn’t even really know she had. “Prove it,” she says, her voice coming out unexpectedly breathy.
“You sure you’re ready for this?” Cerys asks, cocking an eyebrow at Ciri. Her smile makes Ciri’s heart beat even faster, but this time it doesn’t seem to be from anxiety.
“Do I look like a coward?” asks Ciri, and then decides that she had better make the first move, like she did with Hjalmar. She rolls toward Cerys, putting one hand on Cerys’ shoulder and leaning over her so she can press their lips together. But Cerys was rolling toward Ciri, too, and she’s bigger than Ciri and apparently a more skilled wrestler, too, because the next thing Ciri knows, Cerys has her pinned to the bed, one knee between Ciri’s legs. Ciri’s nightgown has ridden up and that is - not very much linen separating her body from Cerys’, and a lot of bare skin touching bare skin. Unbidden, one of Ciri’s hands finds its way into Cerys’ loose hair.
“See? That’s much better, isn’t it?” says Cerys, a glint in her eye. She lets one of her hands stray to Ciri’s bare thigh.
It is much better - much more exciting, but Ciri has a feeling that if she says so now, the experience will stop, and she’s ready for it to keep going.
“I’m not sure yet,” she says, trying to sound less breathless and failing.
“Well,” grins Cerys, “I can see I have some more convincing to do.”