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Jaskier was having a good winter, until he wasn’t.

Now, he’s nursing a glass of wine in one of Ard Carraigh’s cheaper inns, a little drunk, berating himself for screwing the castellan’s wife. It was such a perfect engagement: a grand castle, plenty of balls to play at and plenty of guests to get to know; warmth for the winter; far enough north that he could wait for Geralt on his way down from the mountains. Until he fucked it up. Literally.

In his defence, the castellan’s wife had screwed about half of the wintering guests before she got round to him. The castellan was too busy pleasuring the countess to pay much attention; Jaskier had assumed he didn’t care what his wife got up to. It was probably still a bit much to do it in one of the anterooms to the main hall, he reflects, but how was he supposed to know how loud the woman got?

Still, after getting caught completely in the act, he can’t blame the countess for throwing him out with only half his pay. It’s enough to wait out the rest of the winter, but not in as much comfort. Oh well. Every experience is a lesson; next time he won’t sneak off for a tumble within hearing distance without being certain his partner’s not a screamer.

You should write these tips down, he thinks, drawing a line through the beer slop on the bar. Someone would publish them, probably. Under a pseudonym of course. Confessions of a wandering bard, something like that. Though people would certainly guess…

He’s deep in inventing pen-names for himself when he catches the innkeeper pointing a finger in his direction and groans. What now?

The stranger making his way over doesn’t seem that threatening, though. A uniformed man in middle age, prim and proper and dull. He comes to a halt by the bar, and asks, “Are you Jaskier the bard?”

“I am,” Jaskier admits, a little warily. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“I represent a certain lady, whose manor lies two days’ north,” the man says. “Lady Elisabeta of Salzbach, perhaps you’ve heard of her?”

Jaskier makes a point to keep track of most of the noble families he might run into or be patronised by. He’s heard of the counts of Salzbach, who hasn’t? Even by the usual standards of nobility, they’re loaded. He nods, encouraged. He’s never heard of Elisabeta, and she’s a long way from the family seat, but perhaps she married a northerner.

“My lady saw you play at the countess’s castle,” the man goes on. “She would be honoured if you’d consider a repeat performance at her manor, and perhaps a few days’ stay? She is very interested in the arts, and considering a commission.”

It’s hardly a decision at all. Spend the next couple of weeks before the snows clear in an indifferent tavern with bad wine and a mattress that rustles; or travel to a manor, sleep in a feather bed, and turn out a few tunes for a woman who thinks herself a connoisseur.

“I’d be delighted,” Jaskier says.

 

They travel the first day in a hired carriage. Jaskier dozes. Stefan – the lady Elisabeta’s steward, he’s learned – stares out the window and doesn’t speak. They stop for the night in a small village inn, and Jaskier plays a short set to keep his hand in. Stefan seems displeased, but doesn’t say anything about it. Perhaps his mistress is the sort who craves exclusivity. No matter. Jaskier’s spent his whole career dividing himself between courts and the streets, and he’s not going to change that for anybody, no matter how rich they are.

The next morning, the lady’s carriage is waiting. It’s a work of art, its gilded scrollwork the finest Jaskier has ever seen. He can’t resist touching it, feeling the smoothness of the grain and varnish under his fingers. “Beautiful,” he murmurs, and Stefan unbends, ever so slightly.

“My lady always demands the best,” he says. “You should be flattered.”

“Oh, I am, believe me,” Jaskier assures him, making a mental note – the steward is over-invested in his mistress; the mistress is likely to be demanding.

His opinion of her taste rises again when he sees her manor, though. It’s not particularly large, but it’s incredibly well thought out and designed. The grounds are covered in light snow, but he can see the talent that’s gone into them nonetheless, and the house itself glows in the dull sun. Inside the wooden floors are polished to a rich shine, the walls papered in the latest style and the art on the walls would be the envy of any noble in the continent. He refuses to be intimidated. The lady recognises quality, why wouldn’t she recognise him?

Stefan shows him to a small but beautifully furnished bedroom. Jaskier washes and changes and spends a good half hour spreadeagled happily on the bed’s silk sheets before he ventures back down into the entrance hall and is shown by a flustered housemaid into a small dining room, panelled with cherrywood, where the lady Elisabeta is waiting for him.

She’s younger than anticipated – he pictured a wealthy dowager, husband dead and children grown, with the time and coin to indulge her own interests. Instead, she can’t be much older than him, mid to late 30s maybe, lean and golden-haired, with no ring on her finger. The Salzbachs must be rich indeed if they’re happy for an eligible daughter to go unmarried.

“My lady,” he says, and bows low. “I’m honoured you would invite such a humble bard into such a beautiful home.”

“Oh, don’t be modest,” she scolds him, her voice lilting and amused. “Your renown has spread across the continent, you must know that. I’m pleased that you think my home beautiful, though. I have spent a lot of coin and time and effort making it so.”

“It shows,” Jaskier says, fervently. Even here, in what must be a more informal chamber, the woodwork of the ceiling is ornate, with red beams dividing it into boxes, each recess painted a deep blue with silver stars.

The food they’re served is hearty, but plain, as are the clothes and jewels she’s wearing. He supposes cooking and fashion interests her less than art and music. She spends most of the dinner talking, explaining the provenance of the various works in the room, the commissions and the makers. It ought to be dull, but the passion in her voice somehow overrules how he’d usually react, and he finds himself strangely gripped.

“I do go on,” she says, as the dessert plates are cleared by a silent, sombre Stefan. “I apologise, my enthusiasms tend to run away with me.”

“Not at all,” Jaskier protests. “I’m the same about music, when given the chance. I’m only impressed at your expertise in so many subjects, it’s all I can do to keep pace with my own profession.”

She smiles a pleased smile. Flattery usually works, in Jaskier’s experience. Geralt is about the only person he’s ever met who’s immune to its effects.

“Will you play for me, master bard?” she asks.

“It would be my pleasure,” he says.

Jaskier goes to fetch his lute and they move to a salon where he sits on a stool by the fire and she lounges on a couch, like something out of a painting. She’s an appreciative audience, her eyes closed, attention rapt, nodding and clapping at the end of every song. It’s a little odd, performing for a single person like this – he steers clear of his more raucous offerings, things that won’t sound as good without a hall or an inn full of people stamping along.

“That was wonderful,” she says when he brings the performance to an end, his throat starting to feel slightly strained.

“I look forward to playing for your guests,” he tells her.

“Oh? Yes, of course, my guests,” she says, staring at him a little blankly. “Of course.”

He can’t quite decide if she’s one of those nobles, who want to see his clever fingers and tongue put to different use. She has a similar intensity, a focus, to some of those women (and men, to be fair) but… he doesn’t think that’s where her interest lies. He doesn’t have a sense of her as a sexual being at all, which is rare but not unheard of. And if he’s wrong, well, she’s young and pretty, it wouldn’t necessarily be a hardship…

But he doesn’t like the idea, he realises, shivering. He doesn’t like the idea at all, and he doesn’t know why.

She smiles suddenly, and the thought, the moment, passes. She says, “Did Stefan tell you I’m looking for a song?”

“He did, my lady.”

“I am quite decided that you should write it. I have engaged artists to paint pictures of my home, to paint me; all kinds of master craftsmen to decorate my manor. But I find I’m increasingly interested in ephemeral pleasures, in a memory of a perfect moment. I would love you to capture my collection, myself, in your music, however you feel inspired to.”

“It’s an intriguing commission,” Jaskier says, because it is – he’s never been somewhere like this, never met someone like her. So she’s a little unnerving. Rich and powerful people often are, they’ve never had to learn to temper their characters the way lesser mortals do. That, too, can go into a song. Something intricate that feels deceptively simple, something beautiful that rewards further study. He can almost feel the notes at his fingers. “I have to be back on the road in a week, but that should give me ample time.”

“Only a week?” she pouts, prettily, something a little false in it. She’s not really upset. It’s as if she learnt flirtation from watching, rather than doing. “I suppose that will have to do. But if you could stay ten days, I’ll be throwing a ball – that would be the perfect place to debut it.”

Jaskier does a little mental arithmetic. That should still give him time to return to Ard Carraigh and catch up with Geralt, especially if the snows linger as they seem likely to. “Ten days, then,” he agrees. “And, uh, I hate to marr art with commerce, but—”

“Don’t be foolish,” the lady says, almost sharply. “Everything has a price; what you pay for something is part of what makes it real.” She names an eye-watering sum that makes Jaskier blink, speechless for once. She extends a hand, and he rises to bend and kiss it, catching a faint whiff of something oddly sour on her skin, and the bargain is made.

 

The days pass very similarly after that. In the mornings, Jaskier explores the manor, sometimes in the lady’s company, sometimes without. The place is a treasure trove, each room displaying new marvels, each decorated with a surety of taste and a unity of theme that is quite remarkable. There’s a picture gallery, a hidden room full of rare objects, a library with almost as many books as the one at Oxenfurt, and certainly more entertaining ones.

Elisabeta calls her house her wonder-cabinet, and he has to acknowledge the accuracy of the name. Each corner reveals more wonders; even after five days he’s still happening upon an alcove, a new room, containing a statue or a fresco or a rock reputed to have fallen from the heavens. He’s almost dizzy with the riches around him.

In the afternoon he works on his commission, and then they eat an early supper and he plays. She talks about her collection, and he talks a little about his life. It’s a strange, almost surreal time, as the days flow into each other, and he sees barely another soul apart from Elisabeta and Stefan. There’s a cook, and he’s caught glimpses of a couple of other staff, but they are clearly encouraged not to interact with the guests.

The composition itself is going poorly in a way he can’t quite understand. He’s surrounded by inspiration, entertained by a fascinating and pretty host, and yet converting it all into music is proving slippery. Elisabeta isn’t charming, exactly, though she’s obsessed enough about her interests that, while she is talking, they become Jaskier’s interests too. There’s a power in that, which he tries to convey, and yet he can’t. Whenever he pins down a line or a melody it feels wrong, like there’s something he’s missing. When he’s with her, she seems bright and kind and clever; when he’s not her character fractures somehow. He can never see it clearly.

On the eighth day, he looks out of the window to see green grass for the first time, and realises there is something else missing. According to Elisabeta, in two days’ time she’ll be throwing a party, and yet there is no sign of any preparation, no cleaning or cooking or airing out of rooms, no increase in staff. It would be a funny thing to lie about and yet she must be lying.

On the ninth day he pulls together all of his abortive attempts and forces them into something passable. It’s not a work he’ll ever be proud of, he suspects, but it’s perfectly decent.

He plays the song for Elisabeta before they eat, in the wood panelled dining room where they first met. When he’s finished, she sighs and says, “it’s beautiful.” There’s something questioning in her tone, something a little dissatisfied. He feels the same way, but he’d never admit it. He fights back an impulse to apologise and bows to her instead.

“I hope it pleases my lady,” he says.

“It does,” she says. “It’s quite lovely.” She hums a refrain, and smiles. Her smile has a crack in it.

“I’m glad,” he says, “as I fear I must depart tomorrow morning. It’s been a true joy spending time here, exploring your collection, but all good things must come to an end, after all. Parting merely makes the memory sweeter…”

He’s blathering, unnerved by the stillness of her face. It’s like the painted lady has fallen away, leaving her expressionless, masklike.

“I thought you were happy here,” she says. He notes she makes no mention of her ball. Perhaps she’s forgotten all about it.

“I am! That is to say, I was. That is to say – I have an appointment to keep, and now the worst of winter’s passed I’m worried I’ll miss it if I don’t go. Your hospitality will stay with me a long, long time, and I’ll sing your song across the continent, but I’m a man of my word. I really must be leaving.”

“Don’t sing it,” she says, abruptly. He looks up, curious, and she waves a hand at him, beckoning him to come sit at the table. “I’d rather keep it to myself,” she explains.

“As my lady wishes,” he promises. He leaves his lute propped against the stool and takes a chair opposite her.

She rings a bell, and when Stefan enters, tells him, “Master Jaskier will be going tomorrow – will you make the necessary preparations for his departure?” Once he’s left, she turns back to him. “Who do you go to meet?” she asks after a moment, smiling again. It doesn’t, quite, reach her eyes.

“The witcher of my songs,” he says. “Geralt of Rivia. He usually passes south from here, and I’m minded to try and catch him on the road before too much of the spring is over.”

“The witcher’s real?” She sounds delighted, which is not the usual response when he drops Geralt’s name. “Though now I say it, I’m not surprised. There’s something in your White Wolf work that proves it, some underlying truth that elevates them.”

“They’re mostly lies,” Jaskier admits. “Geralt’s always annoyed about it.”

“Exaggerations, artistry, of course,” she says, waving a hand. “But you mean them.”

He has to stop to think about it, but she’s right, he supposes. There’s an intent to his songs about Geralt that much of his writing lacks. The others are good tunes, and they tell pretty tales, but they aren’t meant to linger, aren’t meant to convince. “You’re a most perceptive critic,” he says eventually, and she gives him a genuine smile at that.

Stefan enters with two glasses of white wine on a tray, and Jaskier takes his, raising it in a toast. “To music that means things,” he says. “And to you, my lady.”

She sips, her eyes on him as he drinks. The wine is good, cold and dry, and he’s thirsty after singing; he drains it in three gulps.

“I’ve known other men like you,” she says, after a moment. “Other artists who weren't always quite as good as they could be; I was never sure why. Lacking inspiration, perhaps. You could tell the works made for love and the works made for coin.”

“I’m not sure there’s such a difference. With most of my work, I aim for both.” He’s aiming for a joke but can feel it fall flat. His ears are ringing, slightly.

“But it’s the passion that lifts it,” she insists. The words reach him clearly but seem to be coming from far away. Her face is blurring a little as he watches. “I understand that now.”

He’s very tired all of a sudden. It seems like a good idea to doze, just for a while. He lays his head down on the table and closes his eyes.

He has time to think, what was in that wine? And to hear her voice, closer now, saying, “the song was perfectly pretty. But you can do better. You’ll see.”

And then he’s fast asleep.

 

He wakes in darkness, his head pounding. Elisabeta. The wine. What the fuck.

He’s lying down on a pallet, pushed into the corner of wherever they’ve put him. As his eyes adjust, he realises there’s a thin line of light far above in the ceiling, just enough to see the space he’s in. It’s a narrow room, wide enough for the pallet and a foot of space beside it; at the end of the pallet is perhaps another two feet of floor before a blank, handle-less door and a bucket in the corner. Jaskier looks at the door, at the bucket, and feels a kind of numb refusal. This can’t be happening. He was in the company of civilised people. They can’t have just drugged him and locked him in a cell.

Except, clearly, they have.

He wants to shout, pound his fists on the door till they’re bloody, demand his release, but that’s not the smart play. He’s been in danger enough times in his life, both at Geralt’s side and not, to know that you should gather all the information you can before making your move.

So he waits. There’s no way to track time in the gloom; he recites song lyrics in his head, spends some time walking the five paces up and down the cell, restless and furious. Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and no one comes. He’s starving, and thirsty, and exhausted, and he knows this is all on purpose, designed to make him feel weak and afraid, but gods, it’s effective.

Eventually he lies back down on the pallet. If he’s asleep, he figures, he can’t be hungry. He’s trying hard to remain angry rather than frightened, imagining what he’ll do when he gets out of here. Set Geralt on Elisabeta, blacken her name across the continent, show she’s picked the wrong person to imprison…

The daydreams are almost enough to make him feel better, until, just as he’s about to drift off, a rectangle of light opens up high in the wall, close to the ceiling.

He peers up at it, squinting. He can’t see anything beyond the brightness, but he knows. He’s being watched. Elisabeta is somewhere up there, watching him. He says, “my lady?” – questioning, sharp, he won’t let his fear show – and the panel closes, the light vanishing. But she could still be there, he realises. She could look down on him any time she wants.

The thought makes him shudder. He reaches for the thin blanket and pulls it over himself, shrouding his body from view, and tries once more to sleep.

 

The next time he wakes, it’s to the screech of an opening door. His body reacts faster than his memory, rousing him fast, so that he’s sitting up when Elisabeta appears. She has a candle in one hand, and a dagger in the other.

“You will be good, won’t you?” she asks, almost demurely, that same lilting tone.

“I— Yes, my lady,” he says, dazed, eyes caught on the blade in her hand. She’s holding it like she knows how to use it.

“Follow me, then,” she commands, and steps backwards, keeping the dagger pointed at him as she walks up a short narrow staircase that emerges in what can only be her bedroom. Jaskier tenses, but she waves a hand at an adjoining chamber, where he can see a desk, a chair, paper and pen and his lute on a stand. The normality of it chokes the breath in his throat.

“Sit down,” she tells him, and he does. She stands behind him a moment, her hand on his shoulder, possessive, the dagger cold against the nape of his neck. He stays still, even when she moves away to kneel down and fasten his ankles to the chairlegs with leather cuffs, and tie a belt around his chest to hold him there. It has the quality of a dream. He can’t quite believe it’s happening.

Once she’s done, she goes to lean against the window in front of the desk, casting a shadow over him. Her face is dark, her expression unreadable. He licks his lips. “I feel sure there must be some misunderstanding,” he tries.

“I commissioned a song,” she tells him. “A true song, an inspired one. You still owe it to me.”

“You’re right,” he says, soothingly. “It wasn’t my best work. I didn’t see the deeper, uh, nature of your spirit, before. The lengths you’ll go to for your art.”

“You flatter me,” she says thoughtfully. “I don’t mind that. As long as it doesn’t impact on your composition. I don’t want pretty lies, I want something real.”

“Of course,” he agrees. “What kind of collection would it be if the items weren’t genuine?”

“You do understand,” she says. She seems pleased. She walks away and returns with a glass of water, which she places in arm’s reach and watches as he drains it. It alleviates his headache, allows him to think a little more clearly. So: it’s a trade. If he pleases her, he’ll be rewarded. But then she’s clearly completely mad, and no matter how much he pleases her, she’s hardly going to let him go.

“I promise,” he says. “I’ll write something entirely suited to your deepest truth.”

He doesn’t try very hard of course, but he aims to look busy, writing and rewriting and covering himself and the paper with flourishes of ink, almost a parody of an artist at work. In the meantime, he evaluates his odds. She’s most vulnerable when she has to put the dagger down to untie him, but she’ll still have it to hand. Is it worth the risk? He reckons it is. And while the manor is in the middle of nowhere, they have horses. If he can just get outside…

The hours pass, and he feigns concentration. At one point she leaves the room entirely and comes back with a plate full of bread and cheese which he inhales gratefully. She doesn’t lock the door to her room. She clearly doesn’t believe that he’ll attempt an escape. Perhaps she thinks he won’t hurt a woman, which, the joke’s on her if that’s the case. When it comes to preserving his own life, Jaskier’s really quite laid back about who he punches.

At last the light starts to fade. Has it been a day or two days since they drugged him, nine or ten days since he arrived? If he never reappears, would Geralt look for him? Would anybody? He shakes his head. It won’t come to that. He won’t let it.

She’s been still as a statue all day, watching him work. But as dusk falls, she moves. She kneels behind the chair, sets the dagger down, and unbuckles the cuffs, unties the belt.

He waits till he feels the bond loosen before he springs up, spinning to land his fist in her throat. She chokes rather than screams, and falls, and he scoops up the weapon and runs.

Thank all the gods, the door opens at his touch and he finds himself at the end of a long corridor. He’s never been to this part of the house, but from what he saw of the sun it must be the east wing, and at the end of the corridor there’s a staircase which emerges in the picture gallery. He knows the way from there, and he flies down it, almost tasting the freedom, until—

The door to the main stairs is locked. The door is never locked. It never crossed his mind that it would be locked.

“No,” he says, staring at it blankly. “No no no no no no.” He pounds on it. If the housemaid hears or the cook – unless they’re in on it—

The blow comes from behind, out of nowhere, throwing him forward to his knees. The dagger falls from his grasp and skitters away. He twists, and takes a boot to the face, exploding stars in his vision, and the world turns dizzy.

When things stop spinning he finds himself lying face down, a knee on his back, his hands gripped tightly behind him. He struggles, but it’s no use: a day or two without food or water and he’s already diminished.

Delicate steps tread along the corridor and he moans, thrashes, is held still.

“Lift him up,” Elisabeta says, and Stefan – it must be Stefan – hauls him to kneeling.

She has one hand pressed to her throat, the glimmer of a bruise starting to show. He spits at her as she comes, wild, unthinking, suddenly desperately afraid.

“You said you’d behave,” she says mildly, kneeling down in front of him, and the mildness is more terrifying than any threat. She doesn’t even seem upset. She has her head tilted on one side, observing him like a disappointed parent when faced with an unruly child, or like a child about to discipline a dog. “Don’t worry, my dear bard, you’ll learn to do better. In art and in life. I’m well practised in getting the best from my collection.” She glances up at Stefan. “Hold him still.”

The grip on his arms tightens. She takes a fold of her billowing dress and carefully presses it over his mouth and nose. He bucks, tries to bite, but just gets cloth on his tongue, and she presses harder, and he can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. The world is going stuttery and unreal, and the last thing he sees are her eyes, empty tunnels that lead nowhere.

 

This time, it’s a smell that rouses him, sweet and foul. He blinks and lifts his head, slowly becoming aware of an ache in his shoulders. His arms are raised above his head; rope around his wrists caught on a butcher’s hook hanging from the ceiling. There’s a bit between his teeth, pressing down on his tongue and tied tightly behind his head. He can still breathe but it feels hard, and he draws in air through his nose instead, harsh inhalations that don’t entirely satisfy. The only thing he can see is a carpenter’s horse in one corner. The room is dark, lit by a flickering torch; the walls and floor are made of rough stone. The air is damp and stinks of rot. A basement perhaps. Far away from anyone who might care, if they even heard anything.

He hums under his breath, the warm up exercises any bardic student learns. It’s something to focus on, something to calm his ragged breath and racing heartbeat as he hangs suspended.

It’s not a long wait. There’s a sound of a key turning in a heavy lock, and Elisabeta enters, Stefan her silent shadow behind her. She’s carrying a bundle wrapped in black velvet; he’s carrying a small wooden step which he places on the ground before Jaskier, so the lady can climb up on it and look him in the eye.

The mundanity of it, the simple preparation, almost undoes him. He swallows, and glares, determined not to give her the satisfaction of trying to beg. She merely smiles indulgently.

“Time for your lesson, pet,” she says gently, handing her bundle to Stefan to hold as she unwraps it. The first thing she takes out is a collar, black leather, which she fastens round his neck, just tight enough to make breathing even more difficult, but not enough to damage. He stares above her head, feeling his body tremble, wishing himself far away. He’s dreaming, that’s all. He’ll wake up soon.

The next thing she takes out is a sharp pair of scissors, gleaming in the low light. She starts to cut carefully at his clothes, stripping him almost delicately. He can’t help reacting whenever they press against his flesh, flinching away from the cold touch of metal.

“It’s funny,” Elisabeta says, conversationally. “When I first started collecting, one of the things I was interested in was torture implements. They’re fascinating, really, when you think about it. All that human ingenuity and engineering, put to the service of pain. People are so creative, and so awful.”

Jaskier closes his eyes. He can’t stand to see her bland, placid face as she speaks of such terrible things.

“But I realised, when I used them, how pointless they are, really. You can break the body and the mind so easily but what are you left with? Just bones and blood. Good for nothing.”

She angles the scissors close to his groin, cuts away his breeches and his smallclothes, and presses the metal, briefly, against his balls. “I could hurt you,” she says, while he pants, “but that wouldn’t get me my song, would it? No, the key thing, the hard thing, is to break the spirit.” She pats his cheek. “I’m very good at it,” she tells him, almost shyly. “I’ve had a lot of practice. There’s no point thinking you can resist.”

Oh gods, Jaskier thinks. There have been others. Of course there have. How much of the wonders he’s been admiring, the paintings, the statues, how much of that was forced out of captives like him? How much of this luxury is papering over horror?

When he’s fully naked, she steps down and nods at Stefan, who pulls out the carpenter’s horse from the corner and positions it carefully. Jaskier looks down at it, confused. It’s a simple structure, though taller than some he’s seen: a crossbar at the top, two legs at either end of it forming a rough triangle. On each leg, perhaps a foot above the ground, leather cuffs are attached to the wood.

Stefan lifts his hands from the hook and angles him forward and before he can quite understand it he’s bent over the horse, the crossbar digging into his stomach, legs and arms dangling, blood rushing to his head. Elisabeta fastens his wrists to the legs in front, Stefan his ankles to the ones behind, leaving him spreadeagled, suspended, his pulse hammering in his ears.

Elisabeta is crouched in front of him. He tries to lift his head to see her, but it’s too hard, it hurts too much, his neck straining, the collar tight against his throat. “I tried this myself,” she tells him, stroking through his hair. “Not for long. Long enough to understand.” Stefan passes her the velvet bundle and she opens it fully on the ground below his head, revealing a blindfold and two curved plugs of cloth. The blindfold is thick and snug on his face, stealing all light away. Then she presses the plugs into his left ear, and the air goes dead and heavy. “Be good, pet,” she whispers in his other ear. “It’ll be over soon.”

The second plug goes in, and he has nothing.

No sound, no light, no sense. His body feels like it’s floating, the wood rough against his midriff, his wrists and ankles, but nothing to get purchase on. He can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t think. There’s nothing but the blood pounding in his ears, the constant struggle to draw in enough air. His muscles tremble, go numb, perhaps relax, he can’t tell. He can’t tell anything anymore, where he is, what he is. Everything’s just darkness and silence and—

Pain, sudden and shocking, against the back of one thigh. A cane. He jolts. Everything is pain. He can’t tell where it starts or stops.

And then there’s nothing again, and he drifts again. He can hear noises. Music, voices, on the edge of hearing, and he wants to follow them, wants to call out, but he can’t, and they don’t care, they wouldn’t care. He sobs, feels tears on his face; his bladder releases; and he wants to cry harder with the humiliation of it, but there aren’t enough tears. There isn’t enough of him left.

Pain again, like a bright light in the darkness, and he chases it, the feeling, because at least it’s something, at least it’s real. But it comes, and then it goes, and there’s no predicting it. Every time he starts to drift, to sleep, it comes, causing every part of him to clench with the hurt of it.

There are giggles and delicate hands on his body, stroking and patting and touching and touching and touching and he wants it to stop and he wants it to never end because how else can he know where he starts and finishes? He’s nothing, and nowhere, and there’s only black space and the pain and they won’t let him sleep. And he thinks he might be thrashing, and he thinks he might be screaming, but he doesn’t know, it might be the others who’ve been here before, he can’t feel it, he can’t feel anything, there isn’t anything, anything at all.

Then there’s a hand on his face, gentle, unfastening the bit between his teeth, taking off the blindfold, pulling out the plugs from his ears. His eyes water in the light, and he moans, and Elisabeta soothes him. He’s cradled in her arms, and she’s giving him wine to sip at, running a wet cloth over his blood- and piss-streaked body, and in that moment, held and given form, he loves her, more than he can remember loving anything.

“Ssh,” she croons, and he tries to swallow back his cries. “It’s done, pet, it’s done, you’ll be good now, it’s all over now; all you need to think about is pleasing me,” and yes, he thinks, yes, yes, he will.

 

Time stutters and shifts and he’s sitting in the chair, at the desk, leather around his naked chest, leather around the torn flesh of his ankles. Elisabeta is leaning by the window.

“My song, Jaskier,” she says, and he starts writing.

 

He doesn’t know how long it takes. She never lets him rest; when he starts to fall forward there’s a hand in his hair, sharp and tugging, and he returns to composing. Her dark eyes watch him, and he thinks in fragmented bursts of words and melody, remembering the beauties of the hall and the agony of the basement room and the screams that drifted through his head from all the ones who came before him.

“It’s done,” he says eventually, his voice cracked and broken, and she raises water to his lips and lets him drink. She passes him his lute. He sings.

He sings of fine cloth covering up the rot underneath. Of a fresco on a wooden ceiling peeling with damp. A painting crumbling and cracked. A beautiful garden nourished by corpses; beautiful flesh giving way to the foulness beneath. Of the most beautiful wonders and the darkest decay. Of a greed that destroys all it touches. He sings the truth of her.

There’s a long silence when she finishes, and he leans the lute carefully against the desk and lays his head down.

“How dare you,” she says at last. When he blinks open his eyes to look, there are two dark spots of colour lighting up the pallor of her cheeks. “How dare you!

He could explain. He could say, you wanted passion, and something real, and for me to be inspired. He could say, the best of my music might exaggerate but it doesn’t lie. But there’s no point. She thinks herself knowledgeable, but she’d never understand. She isn’t capable of anything so human. So he says nothing, doesn’t listen to her angry words, just enjoys the feel of the wood against his face, and sleeps.

 

He wakes, again, in darkness and silence. The bit between his teeth, the blindfold round his eyes, the plugs in his ears. His head is bent forward on his knees, and when he tries to move his movement is arrested: ankles tied together, wrists tied to ankles, collar tied to both. There’s no room to move anyway; he can feel the four walls against his back, his sides, his feet.

She must have really been angry, he thinks, but the thought drifts away without him worrying over it. His body goes numb, and then vanishes from his understanding. His memories fracture and shift: golden eyes, the air on his face, but those were dreams, weren’t they. Everything before now, before the darkness and the quiet, that must have been a dream.

If you’d asked him, before, he would have said that going mad was a loud thing. But he can’t go mad. He can’t go anywhere. There’s no him left. All there is is a small spark in the night, a thin tether between his body and his soul. And then the spark goes out, and the tether snaps, and his mind is lost entirely to silence and the dark.

* * *

Geralt is just a few days out of Kaer Morhen when he stops in the inn for a break and a bit of warmth. The wind is bitter cold still, and the ground frozen mud, and there’s only so many nights in the open he can take.

He’s served grudgingly but fairly, and is sitting in a corner enjoying a pint and a rabbit stew when his peace is interrupted by a girl approaching his table. She’s young, barely out of adolescence, earnest and a little scared. He meets her eyes, curious.

“Do you kill monsters if they’re human?” she asks abruptly.

Geralt nods at her to sit down, looking around him to check if anyone’s listening. “Tell me what’s troubling you.”

“There’s a woman,” the girl whispers, leaning forward over the table. “Rich. Powerful. She collects people. And when she takes a fancy to someone, they’re never seen again.”

Her scent is still anxious, but there’s no trace of a lie. “What kind of people?”

“Pretty ones,” the girl says, bitterly. “Talented ones. My brother, he was a carpenter, skilled beyond measure; the pieces he made were sought after across the kingdom. She hired him on at her manor to fit out her wonder-cabinet, and he never came home.”

“There are plenty of reasons that might be,” Geralt says, as gently as he knows how, but she just scoffs at him.

“He was married the spring before. Luiza was expecting their first child. He wouldn’t have just left, he wouldn’t. I went to ask after him, and she gave me an audience, and I knew then. She was laughing at me and lying through her teeth, and I knew. He was dead. She’d killed him.”

Geralt waits while she takes a deep unsteady breath. “After that,” she says, “I started paying attention. People go missing. Young men, usually handsome, always with some skill. An artist out of Ard Carraigh; a poet; a fencer. Even one of the grooms from the local duke’s stables they said had a way with horses. I don’t know if it’s because no one’s noticed, or because she has wealth, but no one’s ever done anything about it. Then just now I saw you, witcher, and I thought: maybe a man who kills monsters will do his job.”

He hums. Silver for monsters; steel for men. He’s no cold-blooded killer, but the girl’s desperate and grieving, and he’s never been good at ignoring that. He could investigate, at least, since no one has before.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“Katya,” she tells him.

“Tell me about the woman, Katya,” he says quietly, and the girl’s pinched face relaxes into relief. She looks at him with wet hopeful eyes and keeps talking.

 

The woman’s name, he learns, is Lady Elisabeta. She comes from a minor baronetcy far to the south, an unimportant family till three generations back when diamonds were found on their land, making them some of the richest nobles around. She has never been married, which strikes him as odd; daughters from even the wealthiest families are usually traded for a better title or political connections. Instead, she resides at a manor several days’ ride north of Ard Carraigh, and collects things.

That, at least, is a known fact. When he stops at a tavern halfway into his journey, a mention of Lady Elisabeta’s name brings out slightly contemptuous stories of a rich madwoman who’ll give rubies for any old rubbish as long as you claim it’s a mermaid’s tail or a dragon’s tooth. Now Geralt thinks of it, he remembers that some of the alchemists he’s sold parts to have mentioned a rich lady in Kaedwen who’s prepared to pay good coin for curiosities like drowner skulls or an arachas sting.

He’s keeping an open mind. He’s met enough eccentric nobles in his time not to put anything past them. But he’s also met enough young men who’ve run away from their responsibilities and grieving people spinning conspiracies to be doubtful of the girl’s story.

It starts to get dark a few hours from Lady Elisabeta’s manor, and he stops at a village for the night. He’s not quite decided on his approach, but he’s sure that turning up in dead of night won’t aid his investigation. And he’s near enough that the locals might be able to sift truth from rumour. This close to Kaer Morhen, witchers are more or less accepted, so though he’s not expecting a warm welcome, he assumes he’ll get a bed for a reasonable price.

He’s definitely not anticipating the landlady greeting him with a cheery “White Wolf!”

Jaskier. He sighs. He wouldn’t have thought the bard had ever been this far north, given how much he complains about the cold.

“That’s me,” he says, resigned to it by now. He’s even been wondering when he and Jaskier might cross paths again, not to the point of seeking him out of course, but he wouldn’t mind it happening sooner rather than later. “I’m guessing you had a blue-eyed, brown-haired, loud-mouthed lutist in here not long since?”

“Literally singing your praises!” the landlady says, laughing at him a little. Geralt grunts, orders a meal and sits by the fire awhile, contemplating what questions he might ask to help him on his way tomorrow.

It’s a quiet night, and the landlady shows an inclination to linger with her guests. Once there are only a scattering of tables left occupied, Geralt orders another ale, and when she brings it over, says, “I hear there’s a lady in these parts who’ll buy some of my rarer goods.”

“The Lady Elisabeta, yes, of course,” the landlady says, warm and open, sitting down to answer him better. If there are any hints at something darker about the lady’s hobbies, they haven’t reached here. “Her wonder-cabinet is famed as far as Redania; a scholar came to catalogue it at her request and he could barely sit still for anticipation. I’m sure she’ll be interested in any curiosities you have.”

“Would I need to seek an audience?”

“Oh, she doesn’t stand on ceremony. She barely has a staff. They say she’s so occupied with her collection she never throws parties, or cares if her clothes are the latest style, or even eats much more than bread and wine. No wonder they couldn’t find a husband for her: who’d want a wife who neglects the household?”

Geralt hums rather than answers. He’s fairly sure noble ladies would rather follow their own interests than manage their husbands’. Perhaps this Elisabeta is smarter than most if her eccentricities spared her from matrimony.

“Thank you,” he says. “I’ll try my luck tomorrow, then.”

“Perhaps you’ll find your friend there still,” the landlady says, getting up.

“What?”

“The bard? He stopped here on the way to the manor too.”

He feels the muscles tighten in his shoulders, his arms, as if he wishes to reach for a sword. Pretty people, the girl Katya said. Talented people.

“When was this?” he grits out.

She pauses, thinking. “Before the snow cleared,” she says. “The lady sent a carriage for him, since it was too deep still for easy travel. A fortnight back, maybe, something like that. He said he’d been invited, so perhaps she was entertaining for once.”

Geralt nods, teeth clenched too tight for speaking. Keep an open mind, he reminds himself. A noble hiring a travelling bard for some winter party is the most normal thing in the world. But what if…

He can see how easy it would be, now. A scholar summoned from Redania. A carpenter hired from thirty miles north. An itinerant musician. Who’d know enough to connect their disappearances? And even if someone did, what would the lady say? They came, they left. The roads are dangerous hereabouts. No one would question someone whose family has enough coin to bankroll the country.

He doesn’t leave immediately. Roach needs rest, and it would be dangerous for her to travel through the night. But he barely manages to meditate, and at daybreak he’s gone, riding as fast as dares through the slush and the mud, a great cold weight at his heart.

 

The manor is more modest than he was anticipating, though beautifully designed. Three storeys of honey-coloured stone, warm even at this time of year, with windows peeking through the lead-roofed attics. The grounds he rides through are well kept, with sculptures dotted here and there, a poison garden, cleverly designed waterways that look like a natural part of the landscape, a floral sundial. He wonders, with a fear he can’t quite suppress, what happened to the gardener.

He leaves Roach with a young stablehand, smartly dressed in a blue uniform, and walks up to the front door. It’s answered by a man in his forties, also in uniform, who regards Geralt with a look that’s both sneering and wary. “What do you want?” he asks bluntly.

Geralt decides that if his suspicions about the lady are correct, he has found her accomplice. “Geralt of Rivia, called the White Wolf,” he says smoothly, imagining how the bard would introduce him. “I came to see if your mistress would be interested in some of the more exotic items I have for sale.”

“Stefan!” a woman’s voice calls. “Who is it?”

“A witcher, milady,” the man calls back, nervous now.

“How exciting!” the lady Elizabeta cries, and enters the hall.

She is very pretty, in a standard way: golden ringlets falling down over her shoulders, deep brown eyes, a simple linen shift covering a lean body. She looks like a child playing princess. She smells of lavender perfume overlaying a week’s worth of sweat as if she doesn’t bathe often, and something stranger, darker, that turns Geralt’s stomach. “Stefan, fetch our friend some refreshment,” she says. “Have you come to trade or to see my collection?”

“Both, if you’ll permit it,” Geralt says, bowing in return. “I heard tell of your wonders from the moment I crossed into Kaedwen.”

“I do have some little fame,” she says, pleased and complacent. “Well, come on, come on, come see!”

She must be somewhere in her thirties, but she runs like a teenager and talks like a ten-year-old, excitable and babbling. Geralt learns that the marble came from this place, and the paintings were done by this person, and the frescoes by somebody else, a boastful happy stream that he lets wash over him. He’s feeling sicker and sicker by the moment and he can’t say why. Something cloying in her voice, something that strikes a discordant note. A certain possessiveness, maybe.

He can’t help looking around for any signs of Jaskier, and can’t decide if he should be worried or relieved to find none.

They stop halfway along her picture gallery, and she presses the top corner of a wooden panel causing a hidden door to open in the wall. Geralt enters first, ducking his head to do so. The room they’re in is windowless, with a curved barrel of a roof. It’s a little like being on the inside of a chest, if a chest were ever so ornately decorated.

On the far wall hangs an artful nude of Elisabeta herself, jewelled chains draping her breasts and sex, her hand on a cabinet filled with gems, preserved animals, bones and other wonders. The room’s ceiling is painted with a true-to-life depiction of the night sky at midsummer, constellations spread round a waning moon. The other walls are inset with drawers, shelves, glass cases, all full to bursting with Elisabeta’s collection. It ought to be overcrowded, too much, but the wood of the cabinets is sinuous and fluid, each shelf and edge joined to the next like twisting tree branches and vines, as if the whole construction has grown naturally from the walls. It’s very striking. If this is the work of the girl Katya’s missing brother, he was indeed a master.

Geralt peers into one of the drawers, full of shells, corals, and what might be a siren’s scale. Other cabinets contain the wonders of the earth, the animals, the sky. It’s quite fascinating, but it holds no evidence of anything sinister.

Behind him, a throat is cleared and he turns to see Stefan holding out a goblet filled with a rich dark wine. The lady has her own already in hand, and she raises it in a toast. “To marvellous things,” she whispers, her eyes hungry.

He takes the goblet, raises it to his lips. It’s pungent with valerian, enough to knock out a human twice over. Nowhere near enough to work on him. They clearly don’t know much about witchers. He drains it, smiles a little wolfishly. That’s proof, then. They’re not planning to let him leave the manor.

“I had heard,” he says carefully, “that your collection was beyond compare. Much richer than these mundanities.”

She pouts, rage flickering across her face before it returns to a placid prettiness. It shakes him, the extremity of it. The strange, rotten scent rises from her in a wave and then recedes.

“I could show you my true wonders if you like,” she says. “I’m sure even Geralt of Rivia would be impressed.”

Stefan coughs, a kind of warning, but she merely glares at him and nods towards the cup in Geralt’s hand. They think they’re safe; that they have a half hour at most before he succumbs.

“If you’ll touch my hand on the painting there,” she says, “I’ll show you.”

He does as he’s bid, and the wall slides away, revealing narrow steps down. What kind of woman builds a house like a puzzle, rooms within rooms?

One who has something to hide, he thinks.

There’s a torch at the head of the stairs and he lights it with igni, prompting a delighted squeal and a covetous lick of the lips from Elisabeta. They descend together; she first, then Geralt, Stefan following warily behind. Geralt will have to keep an eye on him. He’s clearly devoted to his mistress; he will share whatever secrets there are to keep.

The steps lead down to a narrow corridor. The air is cool; they’re in a basement of some kind. It stinks of blood and shit and rotting flesh, so strongly that Geralt almost stumbles. Elisabeta gazes at him, curious and excited. She must think it’s the drug.

“In here,” she says, and leads him into a room of pure horror.

It’s a small space, claustrophobic, made more so by the floor-to-ceiling cabinets that line both of the side walls, made up of boxes perhaps a foot square. A little more than half are empty. The rest are filled with skulls, one per box, a small golden plaque on the wood below each.

He looks at the closest. Marek, it says. Painter. And sure enough, lying next to the skull is a paintbrush, its tip red with what his nose identifies swiftly as blood. He forces himself to look, taking a tally of so many lives reduced to white bone, a name, a word. Wilhem, architect. Peter, singer. Caleb, knight. Close to the end, he finds what he came looking for: Markus, carpenter.

Poor Katya, he thinks. She said she knew, but she would have been hoping. Humans always hope. Like he is. There’s no Jaskier, bard in the collection. Perhaps the landlady was wrong. Perhaps Jaskier got a better offer on the way.

“It’s glorious, isn’t it?” Elisabeta says. She’s beaming at him proudly. “It’s taken me years to build up. So many talents preserved for all the ages.”

“They’re just dead,” Geralt says. He recognises her smell, now. A foul kind of madness.

“Their bodies are dead,” she corrects him. “Their spirits live in the walls around you, in the art, the legacy they gifted me.”

“And did their gifts come willingly?” he demands. Outside he can hear Stefan shuffling, the clink of a dagger drawn, and he almost laughs. They’ve grown fat on easy prey if they think they’ll get the better of him.

“I do usually have to persuade them,” she sighs, as if it’s a great burden. “And, you know, the sad thing is, by the end they’re not much good for anything at all. I don’t know why it should be. I only want them to shine, but they get so boring the longer they stay. It doesn’t matter, I suppose. I can always honour them with a place in my mausoleum.” She steps closer to him, her head tilted on one side. Geralt feigns a stagger, and sees her eyes gleam. “Will your skull match a human man’s, when I come to take it?” she asks hungrily.

He doesn’t think of it as murder, when he pierces her heart with his silver dagger. He thinks of it as putting down a rabid beast.

Stefan wails and charges him, and is disarmed with an easy twist of Geralt’s hand. “Show me the rest,” he snarls. “Show me what hells your mistress made down here.” He drags Stefan back out into the corridor, forces him to unlock doors with fumbling fingers. There are no more crypts, no more collections, but he finds a chamber with a long stone slab and a drain in the floor, putrid with the stench of flesh, where they must prepare the skulls. He doesn’t ask what becomes of the rest of the body, he can’t bear to know. There’s a cell with manacles hanging from the ceiling and walls, another with instruments of torture the use of which he can barely imagine. The reek of fear and pain and despair grows till Geralt thinks he might go mad from it.

Lastly there’s a room, small, plain. It contains nothing but a carpenter’s horse, except that no normal saw horse ever had cuffs on all four legs to lock a human over it and hold them down.

Jaskier’s blood is on the cuffs. His piss on the floor. His terror still lingers on the air.

Geralt doesn’t see red, but white: the world blanks out. When he regains control he has Stefan high against the wall, hands around his throat. “Where’s the bard,” he growls, and the man replies, voice trembling:

“In my lady’s chamber…” Then, triumphant through his panic, he cries, “But you’re too late! You’re too late!”

Geralt breaks his neck and leaves without looking back.

Back up the stairs he breathes in deep, shaking, the pure air cleansing and vital. He makes himself pause to think. He can’t rush headlong into this, no matter how desperately he’d like to. He’s just killed an important woman. Even if her family know something of the truth of her – which they might, given the fact that she lives alone, so far from their lands – they’ll avenge her death. He has to cover his tracks. Whatever state Jaskier might be in, he doubts it’s the kind that will change with ten minutes’ delay, and he needs to be able to help without interruption. That’s what he tells himself. It’s not because he’s scared to look.

He finds the kitchen, on the ground floor at the other end of the house, occupied by a bustling, stern-faced woman. He casts axii and asks, “How many servants are there here?”

“Myself,” she tells him. “Stefan the steward. My daughter Karolina the housemaid. Her brother Josef the stableboy. Sometimes there are men tending the garden, or women the house, but they’re hired on as needed.”

“Fetch your family,” Geralt orders, and then, before she turns to go, “Wait. Did you know what went on here? What your mistress was?”

Her eyes grow dim, troubled. “It’s not my place,” she whispers. There’s fear in her words. “My lord, my children—”

“It’s well,” he interrupts. “Fetch them.” She knew something: enough of her mistress’s true nature to be afraid. But she was not complicit; he’d stake his sword on that.

When all three return, he lays axii again, spins them a story that he was never there, that their lady was in a foul temper and bade them leave. It goes down easy; she must have been erratic, tempestuous. Whatever happens next, they’ll be well out of it, and so will he.

The housemaid points him in the direction of Elisabeta’s chambers when he asks. A part of him doesn’t want to face whatever he’ll find there. Too late, Stefan said. Too late for what? For a chance, for rescue? But he has to know. He can’t help hoping.

He walks to her rooms slowly, like a man on his way to his execution. He can’t hear a heartbeat anywhere, no matter how hard he tries.

The lady’s chamber is as sumptuous as the rest of her house. A large bed with silk sheets occupies an alcove, with panelled walls reaching halfway along the sides of the bed and a panelled ceiling overhead, as if she’d wanted to imagine herself sleeping in one of her chests. There’s a dressing table by the door, with a tray of food half eaten and a cup of water. A door to the right opens on to a wardrobe full of identical white dresses. There’s a faint smell of blood hanging over them, like washing couldn’t quite remove every trace.

Another door opens on to a small study, with a table at its centre and Filavandrel’s lute on a stand by its side. The table is covered with scraps of paper. Geralt recognises Jaskier’s hand, his style of musical notation, but has never seen the marks so unsteady, the words so uncertain, crossed out and retried and crossed out again. The chair at the table has leather cuffs at the feet, a leather band around its wooden back, to hold someone there while they work. They smell of his blood.

He feels dizzy, his senses turned askew by the lingering pain in the air that amplifies his own dread till he can’t see straight. In my lady’s chamber, Stefan said. He heard him say it.

Geralt returns to the main room and sits on the edge of the bed, and thinks about a woman who enjoyed puzzles and secrets and hidden doors. He thinks, if he strains, he can hear a faint heartbeat, but he can’t tell if it’s wishful or real.

The wood on either side of her bed is shiny to the touch, so he touches the panels on the left, pressing carefully till he finds a catch and one of the panels slides behind another. It’s too dark to see what lies behind it, even for his eyes, but he has the notion of a sunken space, a room that beds into the floor below. On the right side, there’s another secret panel, another hole, but this time, through it, he hears breathing, faint and fast.

“Jaskier,” he whispers, his face pressed to the gap. “Is that you?”

No answer comes.

The way in must be somewhere here. The lady Elisabeta wouldn’t want her exhibits far from her. He just has to find it.

He taps at the floor, and eventually finds a board that rings hollow under his heel. When he lifts at its edges, it comes up easily, revealing yet more steep steps down. He takes them, his slow heart beating a little fast. But he has to know.

There are two doors on either side of the space at the bottom, both padlocked shut. He casts igni to see and tears the lock away, entering into an empty room just large enough to hold a pallet and a bucket. He smells Jaskier’s sweat and panic, almost overwhelming. Above him he can see the gap in the wall, close to the ceiling, where the lady Elisabeta could lie in her bed and look down at her captive.

The other side, then. He ought to be able to hear Jaskier, if he’s living, his breath, his heart. But he can’t. The roar of his own pulse in his ears is too loud.

He opens the door, igni spilling from his hand, and for a moment can’t make any sense of what he sees.

It’s the top of a head, brown curls falling over a face that isn’t a face, a body contorted and strange. He swallows hard, blinks, and the image resolves itself into something real.

The room is tiny, barely a room at all, just big enough for a grown man to sit, and a grown man is sitting in it, in his own waste, bent half double. His ankles are hobbled together, and his wrists tied to his ankles, forcing his head onto his knees. His face looks like it’s divided in slices of light and dark: a blindfold, a gag, a collar around his neck leashed to the bonds at his feet.

“Jaskier,” Geralt says, his hands hovering in front of him, helpless.

Jaskier doesn’t react. His breathing continues, weak and quick; his heart carries on a slightly too-fast beat.

Geralt reaches his fingers to his face. He doesn’t know what else to do. But as soon as he touches Jaskier’s skin, his whole body recoils, flinching away with a panic that speeds up his pulse and his breath till every part of him is shaking with the effort.

“It’s me,” Geralt says sharply, pulling his hand away. Jaskier pants, alert and frightened. His head rolls to one side, far enough for Geralt to see his ears are plugged.

Blind. Dumb. Deaf. And left here, in a pit, unable to move more than an inch… For a moment Geralt wishes, fiercely, that he could go back and kill Elisabeta again and more slowly.

But Jaskier’s alive. He’s alive. Geralt listened to a tall story, and took a girl at her word, and he’s here in time to save his friend. Thank all the gods he doesn’t believe in.

He doesn’t know what to do. He needs to get Jaskier out of here. He doesn’t want to frighten him more than he has to. But he has no choice.

Sound first. He daren’t risk taking the blindfold off, not if Jaskier’s been in the dark for days; it’ll hurt his eyes too much. But if he can hear him, know he’s safe…

Geralt rests a hand on Jaskier’s head, trying to ignore the unsteady breath and sour smell of fear, and pulls one of the plugs out of his ear, a wad of cloth shaped with wax. He says, “Jaskier, it’s me.”

Nothing changes. Jaskier’s pulse continues to race, his flesh continues to tremble.

There’s no other option. Geralt lets igni fade from his palm, waits for his sight to adjust and then takes the blindfold off. There’s very little light down here, but enough for Jaskier to see the shape of him, at least.

In the gloom, Jaskier’s eyes are a pale shade of grey, blown wide as they stare at him with no recognition at all. Geralt waves a hand in front of them, and the pupils track. He’s not blind. He’s just… lost, somewhere, unable to tell a friend from a threat.

Too late, Stefan said, and with a sinking feeling in his gut Geralt begins to understand why.

 

Later, the memories of getting Jaskier out of that place feel more akin to a nightmare than anything real. Geralt takes off the blindfold, the other earplug, the bit between his teeth, the collar. He cuts the ties between hands and feet. And all the time Jaskier stares straight ahead, holding as still as he can despite the way he’s shaking. At last, when Geralt attempts to move him, he chokes out a low moan and faints.

It makes it easier to lift his body, still curled in on itself, to carry him up the stairs and lie him down on Elisabeta’s silk sheets. Geralt has to massage his tightly clenched muscles till he’s lying straight, then use the water he finds in a ewer on the dresser to wipe away the sweat and shit and blood. Jaskier’s wrists and ankles and neck are bruised by the bonds; his thighs bear the marks of a cane, more bruises and scabbed lines.

Geralt finds Stefan’s room and takes a white shirt, plain black trousers, a warm cloak. He hates that he’s dressing Jaskier in the clothes of his captor, but it’s still cold outside and he doesn’t have enough to spare himself. When Jaskier is clean and clothed Geralt lies down next to him and holds him, not for long, not for more than a few minutes. Just long enough to feel his breath and hear his heart and smell his scent, still sickly and pained, but with the faint beginnings of his own odour breaking through.

Then Geralt lifts him up, fetches his lute, and leaves the manor, casting igni as he goes: against the drapes, at the base of old wooden bookshelves, on paintings, trailing to the bottles of oil and wine in the kitchen.

Outside, he cradles Jaskier to him and watches the manor burn. A collection worth twelve kings’ ransoms is going up in smoke, and Geralt can only feel ruthlessly glad. He can’t give all Elisabeta’s victims a proper burial, he can’t return them to their homes, but he can scatter their ashes and set them free.

He waits long enough to be sure there’s no saving the place, and then whistles Roach away. He’s still holding Jaskier in his arms. It’s not the most sensible thing to do, and yet he can’t bear to do anything different.

 

He stops a few hours’ walk away, when night begins to fall. He was only in the manor for a morning, and yet it seems a lifetime since he started riding at dawn. Jaskier hasn’t stirred. Geralt settles him in a bedroll, lights a fire, fetches bread and cheese and water from his provisions, and waits.

The moon is high when Jaskier wakes. Geralt is half dozing, but he snaps out of it at the sound of Jaskier’s breath quickening in his lungs.

“You’re safe,” he murmurs into the dark, hesitant to touch, hoping the sound of his voice will be a comfort. “Jaskier, it’s all right, you’re out of there. It’s all right now.”

Nothing.

In the firelight, Jaskier’s eyes are streaming with tears. He makes no move to wipe them away. He looks at Geralt not simply as if he doesn’t know him, but as if he doesn’t know anything, anything at all.

“You’re safe,” Geralt tries again, and Jaskier simply stares.

 

The next morning, Jaskier is calmer. He eats from Geralt’s hand. He trembles less when Geralt touches him; at times he even seems to welcome it, leaning in to a hand on his shoulder or cheek, his heart rate slowing. But it’s not him, this pliant, silent shell of a person.

Geralt makes a decision. It’s not a hard one, but if anyone asked him, he wouldn’t be able to tell them why he makes it. He just knows he has to.

The road back to Kaer Morhen is hard, the ground mostly mud. He rests as little as he dares, pushing himself and Roach hard, relying on the last scraps of his savings to buy bread and hunting for meat. Jaskier rides when Geralt puts him on the horse, his hands curled round the reins. He walks when Geralt leads him, eats and drinks when Geralt hands him food and water. He washes when directed, lets Geralt shave him. He goes where he’s bid. Geralt would like to think it means some faint remnant of memory is at work, that Jaskier feels he can trust him. But it’s wrong to see him so obedient, so quiet, and Geralt knows that really it speaks to an absence he cannot fix.

He needs time, Geralt tells himself, desperate, hopeful. That’s all. Just a bit more time. He finds himself talking, more than he has in years, which isn’t much. Talking to Jaskier like he talks to Roach, little stories, things he’s seen and done. If Jaskier were here, truly here, he would never stop asking questions, but instead he sways silently in the saddle, or stumbles along with Geralt’s arm around his back.

They meet Vesemir halfway along the path up to the keep. Geralt steadies Roach as Vesemir’s mount whinnies in recognition.

“Did you forget something?” Vesemir asks him, a faint smile tugging at one side of his mouth.

Geralt feels like a defiant child called to his teacher after his latest misbehaviour. The feeling is not unfamiliar. He says, “I found my… friend. The bard I told you of. He’s not well.”

Vesemir looks at Jaskier, slumped on horseback. His eyes are closed, his mouth half open. A thin line of drool falls from his lower lip to his chest. “I see.”

“He needs a place to rest until he mends,” Geralt says, aware of the pleading tone in his voice but unable to entirely suppress it.

“The keep is always open to you,” Vesemir says, thoughtful, a little stern. “It’s mostly shut up. I let the goats out to fend for themselves but you could probably round one or two up. There’s a little firewood, some apples, some of the potatoes still in store. Half a barrel of flour I think. No spirits left, Lambert had the last after you left. You’ll need to hunt.”

“We’ll make do,” Geralt says, strangely relieved at the list of practicalities, the closest Vesemir could get to giving his blessing.

Vesemir pauses. In anyone else it would be a hesitation, but Vesemir is not a man who hesitates. “Geralt,” he says.

“Yes?”

“Sometimes, after the Trials. Some of the boys. The body survived but the mind did not.”

Geralt forces himself to meet the old man’s golden eyes.

“It was kinder to put an end to it, when that happened,” Vesemir says, roughly, almost gentle.

Next to him, Jaskier is tapping idly at the pommel of Roach’s saddle. He does that sometimes. Geralt likes to think he’s hearing music.

“That won’t be necessary,” Geralt says, and Vesemir just looks at him, steadily, without judgement.

“Don’t tarry too long from the path,” he says.

“He just needs time,” Geralt says. “He’d do the same for me.”

“Well,” Vesemir says, and nods. “That’s no small thing.” He carries on down the road, and Geralt watches him go.

When they reach the top of the mountain, Kaer Morhen still retains some of the vestiges of warmth from its winter occupation. As Geralt pushes open the doors, and stables Roach, and finds a small room off the kitchen for Jaskier to sleep in, he feels almost hopeful again, for all he knows that hope is a trap.

“This was my home,” he tells Jaskier, who’s sitting slumped in the dining hall where Geralt left him, his legs outstretched, arms loose at his side. “It’s not an easy place, but it’s safe.”

Jaskier blinks at him. Geralt interlaces their fingers. Jaskier has stopped flinching at all when he’s touched, but the lack of reaction isn’t much better. “You’ll be safe here,” Geralt says, bowing his head. “For as long as you need. I promise.” He pats Jaskier’s hand. “You’d do the same for me,” he says, and searches Jaskier’s face for any sign of his soul returning.

But his blue eyes stay empty.

* * *

It’s dark, and then it’s light; it’s cold, and then it’s warm; it’s quiet and then there are sounds: a voice, footsteps. A hand on his face, an arm around his body.

He doesn’t know what any of it means. He goes back to drifting.

 

There’s a lack, he knows, a hollow inside, but he can’t tell where it came from, what he ought to be looking for to fill it. He drinks when there’s water in front of him, eats what he’s given. It’s almost easy, the not caring, but there’s an itch at the heart of him. It’s not right. He’s missing something. He closes his eyes to consider it and time passes faster than he can follow.

 

He can smell bread. Feel cold stone at his back; clean linen against his skin. In the distance, someone is humming. He swallows, clears his throat, the sound unnerving. The humming stops.

Footsteps, and then a form, standing over him. A hesitation. “Did you… did you say something?” a voice asks, rough and tired.

He’s looking down at the floor. There are rushes strewn on flagstones. His hands are fretting in his lap. He watches them move, twisting, clutching, without any sense that he is moving them. They seem entirely separate to him, whoever he is, whoever’s doing the watching.

The voice is still talking. He lifts his traitorous hands to his ears to drown it out and warm fingers wrap around his fingers, arresting the movement.

“Hey. Hey. It’s all right.”

He closes his eyes. “Don’t touch me,” he whispers, the sound alien to himself. Is that him? Is that the noise he makes?

The fingers go away. There’s a long silence. When he blinks he can see someone else’s hands on someone else’s thighs; the man is kneeling in front of him.

“I won’t. Jaskier, I won’t.”

Jaskier. Like the flower. He catches a snatch of music, a hint of applause, turns his head to follow the source, finds nothing. When he looks back he sees a face. Pale. Golden eyes. White hair that could do with a wash. His fingers are itching again. There’s a faint echo in his mind, the vestige of a taste at the back of his tongue. He feels like he’s reaching for something, cast adrift. “Don’t,” he says again. “Just, don’t.”

“Jaskier,” the voice says, but his own blood is ringing in his ears and he closes his eyes, and he’s falling, falling, back into nothing.

 

It feels like rising, slowly, from a great depth: like there’s a heavy darkness wrapped round him that doesn’t want to let him go. He breathes.

He’s lying on a settle, a great rough thing in a great rough kitchen. In front of him, the man from before is turning a spit over the range. He wonders when before was, but a sense of time is one of the things lost to him, along with memory, understanding, his own name.

But he knows the gaps, can feel the shape of the lack. That’s new.

He must have made a sound, because the man stops and turns to look at him. Glowing amber eyes, as fierce as the fire he’s tending. They’re not human, those eyes, and some vague recollection comes to him. “You’re a witcher,” he says.

“Yes,” the witcher says, and something rocks his face, something that could be pain, could be hope. “Do you know me?”

He shakes his head, numb again. Is he a captive? Witchers are monsters, he’s sure he remembers that, and yet it doesn’t seem quite fair, doesn’t quite match this man with the solemn expression and steady golden gaze. He can’t make sense of it. He stands up. “I want to go.”

“Go where?” the witcher asks.

“I don’t know. Away. Alone.” The urge is in him, desperate: to flee, to run, to escape. He trembles on unsteady legs, waiting to be stopped.

The witcher pulls the spit from the fire. “All right,” he says. “This way.” The witcher starts to walk, and he stumbles after him, unsure, now, if this is truly what he wanted. He follows through the kitchen, a dining hall, a corridor, into an entrance hall with great double doors. When they get there the witcher frowns. “Wait,” he says, and turns aside, coming back with a thick fur coat and a black case in his arms. “You’ll want these,” he says, holding them out.

“I don’t understand.”

The witcher sighs, and opens the doors. Freezing air drifts in, and he walks tentatively through them, emerging into a frosty cobbled courtyard and – oh. Oh.

It’s stunning. High grey walls enclose the keep, austere and ancient, and beyond them the mountains lift their heads up, even older, crowned with white. The world is still, the sky a crisp cold blue, an eagle circling above. He can smell pine, hear a mountain stream tumbling some distance away. Everything is sharp, almost painfully real. He gasps, his hand against his mouth.

“What is it?” the witcher says, alarmed, from close behind him. He feels the coat settle over his shoulders, and registers for the first time the biting chill.

“It’s beautiful,” he says, pulling the fur close around him, letting his hands dig into the bristly warmth of the pelt. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“Hmmm,” the witcher says, moving to stand beside him, and he can’t tell whether it’s agreement or disagreement. “Cold though. Still want to go?”

“I— yes,” he says, because he needs to know that he can.

The witcher nods, and passes him the black case. “You’ll want this then.”

He takes it. It’s not heavy. It balances easily in his grasp. “What is it?”

A sigh. “Your lute.”

It’s like a burst of sound, or a bright light; something that comes in sharp and then fades, and when it’s gone, he finds himself kneeling on the cold ground, the case open in front of him, his fingers trembling over rich varnished wood. He says, “Jaskier.”

“Yes,” the witcher says.

“That’s my name.”

“Yes.” The witcher is crouched on the other side of the case, watching him carefully, one hand extended, as if to stop someone from falling.

“I was… There was a song,” he says. He. Jaskier. Him. It doesn’t fit right. “Jaskier was writing a song.”

The witcher makes a low, pained noise.

“She didn’t like it,” he whispers, and he’s shaking hard, now. The witcher gently closes the case, and takes his hands, and he – Jaskier – maybe he’s Jaskier – he falls forward and is caught, his head pressed against a firm chest. “I’m tired,” he tells the chest, blinking.

And above him he hears a rumbling voice say, “so rest,” and it vibrates through him, and he sleeps.

 

He’s running through an endless corridor, past the most exquisite paintings, all of the same woman, beautiful, cruel, smiling at him. He is running out of time, of breath, running out of his mind. And he knows, surer than anything, that if he falls, he’ll never rise again.

 

“Jaskier!”

He startles awake, pushes madly at the hand resting on his shoulder, stumbles over and up and comes back to himself panting. He’s standing by a bed in a high-ceilinged room, empty apart from the bed and a fire. Geralt is kneeling on the bed, staring at him. Jaskier doesn’t think he’s ever been so pleased to see anyone in his life.

Geralt,” he says, and sees the witcher go still, sees him exhale the way he does sometimes when he takes one of his healing potions, like all the pain has left him at once. “Oh, fuck, Geralt, am I glad to see you. She’s mad, she’s completely batshit crazy, you have to get me out of here.” He looks round, worried that he might be overheard. But the surroundings are wrong; the flagstones rough and dirty, the bed strewn with woollen blankets. This can’t be the manor.

“Elisabeta’s not here,” Geralt tells him. “It’s all right.” The words feel familiar. If he concentrates, Jaskier can hear them echoing, the fading memory of something repeated over and over until the words lost any meaning they ever had. He feels lost, fragmented. He’s missing something. He walks unsteadily to the window, finds nothing but mountains as far as the eye can see.

“Where are we? Also, why? Also, why don’t I remember getting here? Also—”

Geralt is standing next to him, poised to touch, not quite touching. Jaskier turns, tries to read answers in his opaque eyes, but it’s no use, it never is.

“We’re in Kaer Morhen,” Geralt says, slowly. “It’s the keep of the Wolf School. Where I grew up, where I was… made. The only safe place I could think of.”

“Why did we need a safe place?” Jaskier asks, quite convinced that he’s not going to like the answer; equally certain that Geralt won’t lie to him.

“You weren’t well,” Geralt says, looking away.

Jaskier sighs, goes back to sit on the bed, gestures to Geralt to join him. His legs are sore, he realises as he settles, runs his fingers down them. Feels the welts.

Blackness and then pain like a shooting star and then blackness—

“Jaskier,” Geralt is saying. “Hey, hey, shhh.”

He’s crying like a child, tears streaming down his face, his throat hoarse and aching with sobs, and he barely has a moment to feel embarrassed before Geralt embraces him, arms solid and warm and real, letting him wail into his shoulder. He has a terrible feeling he’s done this before.

“I think,” he says, after a while, uncoupling from Geralt’s arms and wiping shaky hands over his cheeks, “that I was a little more than ‘unwell’.”

“Hmmmm,” Geralt acknowledges. “You just needed time. To come back to yourself.”

Jaskier thinks about this. It’s hard, to contemplate the absence of oneself. It feels a bit like he’s been dead, and is now living. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“Nothing to be sorry for,” Geralt says brusquely. “You were hurt. You’re healing.”

“I don’t remember,” Jaskier says. He gestures helplessly at empty space. “Not much. Not really. The manor – and Elisabeta’s eyes – and then just… nothing. Nothing and more nothing. Pain.”

There’s a long silence. “You forget the pain, after the Trials,” Geralt says eventually. “You remember that it hurt like dying, but you don’t remember the sensation of it. You’d go mad if you did. It happened to a different person, and that person died, and you lived. Sometimes you remember how it made you feel, and that’s hard, but it’s still… the memory of a memory. Better that way. You remember the scar, not the wound itself. That’s how healing works.”

“You should know,” Jaskier says, but there’s no heat in it.

“I do,” Geralt says. “You’ll see.”

 

It’s strange, living in the aftermath of something so terrible it can’t even be remembered. It’s been over a week since he was at the manor, Geralt tells him, and he has no recollection of any of those days passing. He feels like someone has cut his life in two, before and after. Before was laughter and music and trouble. After is quieter, duller, as if some essential sound and colour has drained out of the world. He still loses time, still dreams without remembering, waking up gasping for air. Geralt moves around the echoing, derelict halls of the castle, keeping busy, mending his armour and clothes, making sure they have something to eat. He’s so careful. He never used to treat Jaskier like this before, like something that might break.

Jaskier knows he ought to be burning with questions, exploring Kaer Morhen, pestering Geralt for tales of a witcher’s childhood. A part of him wants to. But that part is small, easy to ignore.

He does wander, though. Along dark corridors, into the arch-ceilinged library, up to the walls. Geralt follows him sometimes, when he considers the route dangerous. Jaskier can usually sense when he has a shadow: something in the quality of the silence.

Maybe it’s the keep itself affecting his mood. The very stones seem heavy with loss, with emptiness. If he were to sing about it, it’d be a dirge, solemn and slow. The only place he can escape both the building’s and his own grief is high on the walls, outside in the clean air, looking at the mountains and valleys. The forests and streams and eagles don’t care about what happened. It’s much more relaxing than Geralt’s company, the uncertain way he watches.

One day, a few days after he – woke up, for want of a better description – his wanderings take him down winding stairs, into basement after basement. The air is chill down there, the spaces mostly empty. Some have fragments of glass on the floor, tables lined up in a row. Jaskier still doesn’t put two and two together until he finds the one with the remnants of alchemical equipment. This is where the Trials happened. No wonder Geralt isn’t following. The witcher’s never really spoken of them, but Jaskier knows that they were excruciating, and often fatal.

He shivers and turns to go, walking at a pace that makes his muscles tremble. Through room after room, and he can almost hear the screams that filled them. He’s running by the time he reaches the door to the stairs back up, and he yanks on it bodily, and it doesn’t open.

He takes a step back, staring at it. Tries again. The door is locked. The door shouldn’t be locked. Fuck. Fuck. He blinks, and then he’s hammering on it, the torch falling from his grasp and guttering out on the floor. There’s no light. His legs give way, and he lands on stone, curled around himself, shaking arms wrapped over his head, forcing himself to focus on the press of flesh against flesh.

Geralt finds him eventually, but Jaskier is mostly beyond noticing by then. He registers the soft light of flames in Geralt’s hand, the soft touch of fingers in his hair. He’s aware of the journey back to the kitchen in flashes, the jolt of a stair, the shift from gloom to daylight again. He says, “the door was locked,” gasping around the words.

“Stuck,” Geralt tells him. “Not locked. Never locked.”

“Geralt,” Jaskier says, but when Geralt looks down at him questioningly he doesn’t have anything else to say. He closes his eyes and hums and lets Geralt put him down on the great wooden settle again, where he grasps the rough edge of a blanket and breathes. Geralt’s hand rests on his shoulder, halfway between reassuring and repressive.

“I’m fucking broken,” Jaskier says after a while. He’s lying with his head angled to the wooden back of the settle, Geralt perched on the edge, sitting in the space left by the curve of Jaskier’s knees. “I couldn’t get out and it was dark and I just fucking panicked. I couldn’t even speak. Fuck.”

“It takes time,” Geralt says after a while. “You’ve learned to be scared. Now you have to learn not to be.”

“Like you?” Jaskier asks bitterly. “I have to say, not having any emotions sounds pretty good right now.”

Geralt doesn’t respond, but his hand tightens on Jaskier’s shoulder, proving once again that he does have emotions, quite clear ones. Not that Jaskier doubted it.

“Or maybe you like it,” Jaskier says. “Maybe you like that I’m quiet and I do what you tell me. Maybe you enjoyed telling me when to eat and when to shit and when to sleep.”

Geralt shifts, moving to roll Jaskier over so he can see his face. His expression is mostly blank but there’s a slight tension around his eyes. “Don’t be stupid,” he says.

Jaskier blinks at him. “I’m an irritation and an idiot,” he reminds Geralt. “I’m always stupid. And now I’m useless as well. You should be out on the path saving people and killing monsters.”

“I saved you,” Geralt says. “And I killed some monsters. Seems to me I’m having quite a successful time.”

The laughter punches out of Jaskier’s lungs and lingers till he’s wheezing from it. Geralt allows himself a small smirk of satisfaction at the response, and gives Jaskier a hand to sit up. Jaskier scrubs a hand over his cheeks, tight with dried tears, and lets out a final weak giggle. “But really, Geralt, why are you doing this?”

“Would you do the same for me?” Geralt asks. He looks faintly nervous, as if the answer could be doubted.

“Of course I would,” Jaskier says, too exhausted to make the words pretty. “I’d give you anything I had to give.”

“Then that’s why,” Geralt says firmly. He looks at Jaskier like that ought to be explanation enough, and Jaskier considers his memories of their travels – the way Geralt hunts their dinner and holds Jasker close when it’s cold and pushes him out of danger; the way Jaskier bullies Geralt into inns and baths and better clothes and wrings his audiences dry of coin – and leans forward and kisses him.

Geralt’s lips are cold and a little dry and it’s a chaste kiss, brief and close-mouthed, but still: Jaskier hears music. When he pulls back, Geralt looks like he’s taken one too many hits to the head. “Jaskier,” he says, dazed.

“I’m not wrong, am I,” Jaskier says, suddenly worried. “If I’d give you anything and it’s the same for you, then I’m not wrong?”

“Wrong about what?” Geralt asks, still confused, a little wary, and Jaskier has to smile at him.

“I love you,” he says. “What we’re talking about is love.”

“Oh,” Geralt says, slowly, like the thought never occurred to him, but his arms reach slowly to bring Jaskier into a hug. And Jaskier lets himself go, falling into Geralt’s embrace, feeling solid and real for maybe the first time since Elisabeta’s dungeon.

* * *

They’ve fallen into a routine, Geralt realises, a few days later. They sleep late, and then lie in bed later still, wrapped up in each other. Sometimes kissing, sometimes more, but mostly just lying still, reassured by the warmth of skin and the sound of breath and the regular beat of a heart. They walk in the woods, and Geralt traps rabbits and hunts a deer, once, and they roast meat over the kitchen hearth. Jaskier tries to make bread, and succeeds at creating something that would best serve as a cannonball. Geralt cleans his armour. Jaskier tunes his lute and plays music, complicated exercises without words. It’s perhaps the most rested Geralt’s ever been, the happiest he’s ever been.

He lets himself think the word happiness and has to spend the rest of the morning running laps around the keep. But when he comes back Jaskier just grins at him and pats the rug beside him, and it carries on being easy, easy like nothing else he’s ever known.

And yet. He can smell the season turning, and each morning when he wakes and listens to the birds and beasts scurrying more actively in the grounds, he knows they’ll move on soon, and that will be all right too.

Mostly, he is grateful. To the castle he both loves and hates, for providing space and sanctuary; to the girl Katya who gave him what he needed to save Jaskier and make sure there is one less monster in the world. When they leave, they’ll have to go by her village; Geralt isn’t looking forward to it exactly but it’s a necessary thing, to let her mourn and heal.

And he is grateful to Jaskier himself, who isn’t quite healed yet, whose eyes still go empty and lost at times, who still wakes shaking and searching for things he may never remember. But who was strong enough to drag himself back from hell, and strong enough to understand what Geralt couldn’t, and strong enough to name it. When Geralt returns from hunting or a training routine and sees Jaskier leaned over his lute, frowning, surrounded by paper, when Jaskier looks up and his eyes shine bright at Geralt’s presence… he sees his bard, back with him, and it feels familiar and welcome and right.

They’re in the kitchen one evening after dinner when Jaskier clears his throat and says, “I’m going to tell you something, and you’re going to worry about it, and I just – can you just trust me? And not say anything?”

Geralt inclines his head, already worrying. Jaskier grins at him, as if he can tell exactly what Geralt is feeling, and leans over to pull his lute into his lap from where it’s been resting against the table.

“I’ve been trying to remember the song I wrote,” he says, pulling out a wad of pages from his pocket. “I think I have it, now, or as near as I’m going to get.” He pauses and looks at Geralt, his expression wry. “I can hear you thinking that this is a terrible idea but I had to try. I can’t really explain why. I need to sing it again and then I’m going to burn it and then it’s going to be over.”

It’s not that simple, Geralt knows. And Jaskier knows it too. But rituals are still important. Sometimes drawing a line between one thing and another helps to make it feel like it’s over, and believing that something’s over can be half the way to recovering from it. So he nods his understanding, and waits for Jaskier to tune his instrument and peer down at his notes and begin.

The song is not much like anything else Jaskier’s written, though Geralt doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain the difference. It’s complex, the notes falling over themselves, rushing and disharmonious. The words come in a rhythm that patters neatly and sweetly and doesn’t quite match the music. It’s a song at war with itself: superficially pretty but entirely wrong. It’s very clever, Geralt supposes, though he hates every second of the few minutes it goes on for.

When it’s finished, Jaskier puts the lute down with a long exhale. He gathers up the papers and scrunches them into a tight ball. “Well?” he asks. “Three words or less, Geralt.”

Geralt thinks about it. “Glad it’s done,” he says eventually, and Jaskier laughs.

“Me too. It did help, I think.”

“Then I’m glad of that too.” He reaches a hand out, and Jaskier puts the scrunched up ball of paper into it.

“Care to do the honours?”

It doesn’t take long to burn when he calls igni to his palm, but when he closes his fist round the ashes, feeling the tingle of charred skin as it heals, he looks up and finds Jaskier’s face clearer, as if some kind of load has indeed been lifted. He’s looking at Geralt with a deeply fond expression. Geralt arches an eyebrow at him.

“Nothing,” Jaskier says. “Except that I have been very lucky in my choice of muse.”

“Hmmm,” Geralt says, and wriggles his shoulders, a little uncomfortable. Jaskier’s smile widens.

“We should go tomorrow, don’t you think? It’s time.”

“If you’re sure,” Geralt says, and Jaskier reaches to take his hand, holding it tight.

“You save people and kill monsters,” he says. “You’ll look after me whatever happens. Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well,” Geralt says, leaning in to kiss him, “you’d do the same for me.” And Jaskier’s eyes are full of life, and he kisses him back with all the passion he puts into his music, and Geralt knows with a certainty he rarely feels that no monsters can hurt them now.