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These Things Which Cannot Be Held

Chapter Text

 

 

“I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held. Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix.”

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

 

 

The heavy snowfall that had been flurrying past the window during the afternoon’s interminable conferences has eased to gentle flakes drifting down. In the time it takes Tissaia to gather her cloak and wash bag the snow has ceased entirely and she sets out from Tor Carnedd under clear skies. Nestled between the Kestrel and Dragon mountains on the western bank of the Buina, the Duchy of Carnedd is a well-kept secret. Through Saovine and Imbaelk the snows are thick and soft, the cold winter tempered by numerous hot springs scattered amidst the mountain streams and rocky outcrops. In the summers, the river turns the lowlands lush and fertile whilst the moors bloom in thick carpets of heather, snowy peaks still visible even in the height of Feainn. Widely held to be a remote outpost with treacherous weather, the Hengfors are in fact a flourishing league of duchies remaining neutral in the conflicts that the larger Northern Kingdoms often get drawn into.

Tissaia first landed here by boat from Kovir and Poviss in her early days as an envoy for the newly formed Brotherhood. (Or rather, that is her official version of events. Few people know it, but she was here once before when the tower still belonged to the Aen Seidhe, before Falka turned the snows red with blood.) The Chapter had chosen to lease Tor Carnedd after Falka’s rebellion, the bloodstained hallways and shattered windows too painful to repair in the immediate aftermath. Now the home of the Knights of the Golden Stirrup, it is still available to the Brotherhood should they ever wish to hold Council there, as is the custom for any sites of ancient magic. Most mages grumble loudly and profusely whenever it is announced they are required to make the journey to the Hengfors, but Tissaia loves the place. The tower is well-maintained, the Knights careful not to destroy any remnants of the Elves and First Mages who walked the halls in the centuries before them. And the surrounding mountains are a haven for anyone wanting to escape the walls with ears. After a particularly arduous day of bickering and pontificating, she is light-hearted at the thought of disappearing up into the snowy crags to a pool that only she knows about.

The walk to the spring is fairly long, and steep in places, but there is a path to follow for most of the journey which requires minimal scrambling over boulders or down scree slopes. Her footfalls are muffled in the powdery snow, still unbroken by anyone else’s tread… it is easy to believe she is the first person ever to set foot on this ground. Somewhere unmarred and unblooded, a fresh start. Tissaia’s derisive snort at her own wistfulness startles a nearby hare who twitches her ears then bounds away into the scraggy juniper bushes.

Squaess’me, elaine beag.”

If anyone were to hear Tissaia apologising to a hare for startling it, she would be laughed out of the next Chapter meeting, but this mountain path is one of the few places on the Continent where she is certain of being alone, so she indulges herself. She is breathless by the time she reaches her destination, the dip in the peaks where a small pool is fed by hot springs, deep enough to swim but not so deep that one worries a creature will grab one by the ankle. The snow and chill air are biting cold on her bare skin as she strips, the soles of her feet burning as she pads across the snow to the flat boulder where she always drapes her clothes. Her pendant is the last thing to be removed, nestled carefully in the folds of her gown. Her ribcage expands as it always does whenever she lifts the weight off her neck, a hand twitching momentarily as she shakes the sudden burst of Chaos from herself. It has always been this way – the moment after her pendant comes off is a knife-edge she has to balance on. People, ordinary folk and younger mages alike, assume that pendants are symbolistic knick-knacks. Jewellery to mark a mage out, a token of their power and affluence. They forget the chains’ original purpose, a binding, an anchor. Several decades ago (over ten in fact, she realises with surprise) it had become unfashionable to carry a staff and mages had searched for an alternative vessel to which their Chaos could be tethered. Mistress de Winter’s voice still echoes in Tissaia’s ears whenever she is tempted to remove her pendant for longer periods.

If a spell goes wrong, if you meddle in matters you ought not to, better a piece of metal bears the brunt of your error rather than your own body. This is not a noose, it is a shield.  

It is a heavy shield though, and it keeps feelings in just as effectively as it keeps them out. 

Rolling her shoulders, Tissaia releases the breath she’d been holding, easing into the water with the same cautious relaxation. She swims to the far side where rocks give way to a steep slope, the valley spread out below, and rests her forearms on the edge looking out. The heated water and sunset colours relax her enough that she lets her body float out behind her, pillowing her chin on her arms and closing her eyes. 

The peace is shattered by an all too familiar voice,

“So, this is where you disappear to.”

Tissaia startles and splashes as she whirls round, submerging herself up to her neck even though the water is clear enough that it will do little to hide her from the violet eyes raking up and down her without hesitation.

“What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

Yennefer does not reply immediately, instead reaching up to undo a lace at the back of her neck which miraculously unfurls the gown that had been clinging to her every curve. It is either a spell or tailoring of the highest skill – Tissaia wouldn’t put it past Yennefer to spend Aedirn’s treasury on her own wardrobe. The thought rankles her, the girl knows what it is to be starving, to have nothing… she has forgotten it would seem. All thoughts are wiped from Tissaia’s mind however as the fabric falls from Yennefer’s body and pools at her feet leaving her body entirely bare. In the setting sun, reds and golds, her skin glows like flames, her hair blacker than ever against the snow. Despite this fiery appearance, the cold still affects her, the tell-tale tightening of her nipples making Tissaia swallow hard and flush. She squawks as Yennefer steps into the water,

“You can’t come in here.”

“You don’t tell me what to do anymore.” Yennefer ignores her protests and wades further in, skimming her palms over the surface, “If you’re so concerned about privacy, I’d cover your tracks next time – it wasn’t hard to follow your footprints.”

Tissaia inches further away but feels the stone edge hit her back and crosses her arms across herself, “Why are you here?”

“To bathe.”

“No, I mean at the Conclave. You have avoided all gatherings called by the Brotherhood since Ascending. King Vifuril may appreciate your distrust of mages, he shares it, but it will serve neither of you to continue in isolation. I’m curious why you’ve decided to come to this one.”

Yennefer rolls her eyes and flicks her head in annoyance, as though Tissaia’s words were an irritating fly. She sinks further into the water, letting her hair float out behind her and hums in enjoyment. Some moments later, when Tissaia is still glaring at her with arms firmly crossed, Yennefer sighs and settles against the edge. Whether she does it on purpose or not, when she stretches her arms along the rocks one almost brushes Tissaia’s shoulder who shifts further round the pool’s edge. The smirk on Yennefer’s face makes it clear she knew exactly what she was doing and Tissaia curses under her breath. Just when she is wondering how best to retrieve her clothes without having to walk naked under Yennefer’s gaze, the younger woman speaks again.

“Rumour has it you are seeking evidence to implicate a certain Chapter mage in the deaths of several young girls.”

This gives Tissaia pause, and she turns slowly to face her, “Speak plainly, Yennefer. The atrocities of late are too grave a matter to be tiptoeing around them.”

“You suspect Stregobor is testing his twisted little theories on girls born under the supposed Black Sun. There have been… incidents in Aedirn, I would see the culprit brought to justice.”

Could it be? Tissaia cannot tamp down the hope that flares in her chest. Is Yennefer finally taking responsibility for her Kingdom? Growing up and deciding to use her considerable talents in the pursuit of the greater good? She allows the hope to cloud her judgement, to colour her voice with a softness,

“You need my help?”

If Yennefer sees this for the olive branch it is, she gives no indication. Only scowls and pulls her mouth into an ugly, hard line,

“I want that bastard given a reckoning. Even if it means I have to speak to you to get it.”

Her spine is already pressed against the rocky edge or Tissaia would have stepped backwards at the spite in Yennefer’s voice. Without her pendant it is harder to maintain her customary neutral expression and she cannot keep the hurt off her face. The almost imperceptible widening of Yennefer’s eyes is the only clue that she has noticed the pain she has caused. Not certain she wants to know the answer, Tissaia asks,

“Is it truly so awful seeing me again?”

That horrid smirk Yennefer has picked up somewhere in the years since Tissaia last saw her makes an appearance,

“I grant you, you’re not altogether unpleasant to look at like this, dear Rectoress.”

Heartsore and flushed, Tissaia stands abruptly and steps out of the pool. She grabs her clothes, pulling them on before she’s dried herself. She is still doing up the buttons with frozen fingers as she hurries away down the path, furious at herself for the wet trails on her cheeks that are not from the pool. She was a fool to think anything had changed between them, even more of a fool for wanting it to have.

The spell to dry her skin and the clammy fabric of her gown is a simple one, she could cast it in her sleep. Yet the pit of her stomach lurches and her breath gets snatched away as though she had suddenly stepped off an unexpected height. Dizzy with the wave of Chaos that burst through her she scrabbles at her neck and then understands. 

Her pendant. She must have left it at the pool.

 ----

 

There have been few experiences in Yennefer’s life as satisfying as watching Tissaia de Vries scurrying away half-dressed and utterly discomposed. This Conclave had simply been another officious gathering to avoid, her absence another rock to throw at the Chapter. But then the girls had begun to disappear – dairy maids and nobles alike. Sabrina’s last letter mentioned Tissaia was making discreet inquiries and it seemed too perfect an opportunity to ignore. In one move, Yennefer can win Vifuril’s favour for solving Aedirn’s problems, stick it to Stregobor, and force Tissaia to admit her precious Chapter is a dangerously out-of-touch at best, a fundamentally flawed entity at worst.

She had not taken into account the emotional turmoil seeing the Rectoress again would cause. The rage and bitterness still burns hot and sour in her stomach as it had that night at the Ball. But even more troubling, the old yearning for approval, the inexplicable need to please the woman. The spitefulness is easier to handle than the strange fluttering under her ribs so Yennefer clings to it, focuses on it until it is razor sharp and cutting. Which is why when her gaze catches on something flashing in the last rays of sun and she swims over to see Tissaia’s pendant forgotten on the ground, Yennefer smiles in triumph.

There is a momentary shimmer, a quivering, as she reaches out towards it, but nothing happens and Yennefer clasps it in her palm. Cold and heavy, smoother than she had expected with the runes and raised designs worn away by centuries of thumbing. She barely has time to stuff it under the bundle of her clothes before she hears the crunch of hurried footsteps in the snow. Tissaia reappears and stops short when she sees Yennefer is still there. Dragging her eyes up Tissaia’s form and lingering on the exposed skin where the chain would normally sit Yennefer taunts,

“Rectoress, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you look so… naked.”

Tissaia’s long neck is bare, tendons flexing and throat bobbing as she swallows her irritation when Yennefer saunters to stand in front of her.

“Move aside, I need to get back to the pool.”

“Why? I wonder… what have you been up to that’s made bathing again so soon a necessity? And without your pendant – I imagined you only ever take that off in intimate situations.”

Yennefer wonders if she will be incinerated on the spot but it is worth it for the dark flush creeping across the Rectoress’ pale face, for the way the pulse at the base of her throat jumps, clearly visible without the chain round it. Tissaia sweeps past, Yennefer making certain she has to physically push by her, taking wicked enjoyment in the frustrated shoving and the way Tissaia’s hands snatch away from her naked body when she presses into them. The exasperated noises become tinged with real fear as Tissaia searches in vain for her pendant and when the water in the pool starts to visibly churn with Tissaia’s anxiety, Yennefer relents. (She tries to ignore the concern that flares in her own chest when she sees the desperation in Tissaia’s eyes.)

“Alright alright, calm down, I’ve got your precious necklace.”

Tissaia’s eyes narrow, “You?”

Yennefer quirks her lips in a smirk, “I couldn’t resist the temptation… one could almost believe you’d left it on purpose as an invitation.”

“How? How did you even pick it up?”

Yennefer tilts her head as though Tissaia is being dense, “You’d left it on the edge…”

Tissaia interrupts her with a snarl, “You shouldn’t have been able to touch it! Give it to me, now!”

Yennefer clasps her hands behind her back, adopting an air of nonchalance. “I don’t have it anymore.”

Tissaia’s eyes narrow even further making her look like a displeased cat. Her tail would be fluffed with indignation if she had one, Yennefer smirks at the thought.

“What do you mean, you don’t have it anymore? Where is it?”

“I can’t say for certain, somewhere between us and the void… I never did master teleporting things to other dimensions…”

Tissaia goes even paler which Yennefer would not have thought possible and she watches in fascination as the woman’s hands begin to tremble where she has clenched them in the folds of her gown.

“Bring it back. Now.”

“I can’t. It will reappear soon, a handful of days, no more. Long enough for us to investigate the deaths in Aedirn.”

Tissaia closes her eyes, swaying on her feet and for a moment Yennefer worries she will actually faint. Her hand comes up to clutch where the pendant would normally hang but her fingers close round empty air. She releases a shaky breath then opens her eyes with  grim resignation,

“I will help you trace these killings to Stregobor as you ask. In return, you will stay with me until my pendant has returned – I cannot risk it reappearing in your hands when you are halfway across the Continent.”

“Rectoress, anyone would think you cannot bear to be rid of me.”

“No one can know I do not have my pendant, least of all Stregobor. You must promise me, no one will hear of this.” Tissaia steps forward and insists, “Promise me!”

Yennefer throws up her hands in exasperation at the nagging, “Fine! Sweet Melitele, what an uproar over a silly necklace.”

The shadows have deepened as the sun finally sinks below the horizon, the dozens of pillar candles dotted around the clearing with the pool like stalagmites in puddles of wax lighting themselves with some ancient magic woven into the rocks. In their flickering, Yennefer can no longer see Tissaia’s face clearly, her profile sharp in the play between light and dark. She catches a flash of a strange expression, hears the heavy sigh and sees Tissaia’s narrow shoulders droop a little in silhouette. Her voice echoing through the cold air as the beads of water in her dark hair turn to frost, shimmering as she turns her head away as though wishing she could shield herself from Yennefer’s gaze.

“You do not understand what you have done to me…you never do.”

The woman is silent for the remainder of their walk back to the tower, her arms crossed over herself tightly and Yennefer almost offers her her fur-lined cloak. Almost. She’s not entirely sure it’s the cold making Tissaia hold herself together so fiercely… there’s a strange undercurrent to her Chaos that Yennefer hasn’t felt before. Something untethered, untamed. And, in the tight-laced bodice of her gown, the metal still cold despite being pressed to her skin, Yennefer feels an answering thrum from the pendant she’s lied about having in her possession.

 

Artwork: @ehay 

Chapter Text

“Will you stop that!”

Tissaia hisses from beneath her hood, her gaze fixed on the man at the table whom they have been shadowing all day. Yennefer protests,

“You’re not even looking at me, what makes you think I’m doing anything ?”

Tissaia turns her head sharply and her eyes grow hooded like an angry kestrel as she takes in the mess Yennefer has made whilst bored. Breadcrumbs scattered across the table, napkins folded into lewd shapes and, her current entertainment, a dozen grapes levitating and circling round each other in an approximation of a star system.

“You’re drawing attention to us and making a mess. We are meant to be undetected, raising no suspicions. How else can we expect to follow our suspect?”

Yennefer yawns and stretches, her grapes dropping to splatter on the tablecloth like fresh bruises, Tissaia’s hand twitching at the untidiness. Her palm flattens against the table and her eyebrows raise in alarm as Yennefer stands.

“Where are you going?”

“To ask that man what he knows of the killings. We could wait for him to show us his plans or we could just convince him to tell them.”

“And just what makes you think he’ll spill his secrets to you?”

Yennefer pulls the mane of her hair so that it brushes against Tissaia’s face as she leans in behind the older woman to purr in her ear,

“Oh Rectoress, people always give me what I want when I ask nicely.”

The practiced sway of her hips and the ease with which Yennefer insinuates herself into the man’s space would put the most infamous courtesans to shame. Tissaia, like the rest of the tavern’s clientele, cannot keep her eyes off the woman. She is powerless to look away when Yennefer turns to catch her eye, a triumphant smile on her face as she allows the man to pull her into his lap, whispering something in his ear even as her eyes bore into Tissaia. Cheeks flushing in a way they have not in decades, Tissaia studies the warp and weft of the linen tablecloth, her fingers tapping a nervous pattern on her knees. The general hubbub of chatter and flagons clinking fills her ears, no one paying any notice to the solitary middle-aged woman with her face obscured in the shadow of a hood. Were the circumstances different, Tissaia may relish the rare anonymity, the chance to disappear in a crowd. Yennefer’s throaty laughter breaks her thoughts, and she steals a glance at the pair, something clawing at her ribcage as she watches the man palm Yennefer’s bottom and press his lips to her throat. The screech of her chair on the flagstones reaches Tissaia’s ears before she registers that she has made the decision to stand.

“Get your hands off her!”

The man’s surprise pales in comparison to the outrage on Yennefer’s face as Tissaia yanks her up and out the door before anyone has a moment to question who the possessive diminutive figure was. Yennefer snatches her arm from Tissaia’s grip and snarls,

What is your problem? I almost had him!”

“You had his cock-stand, nothing else! We will find another way to get our information, I will not have you whoring yourself.”

“It’s not your decision! And don’t you dare call me a whore!” Her chest is heaving with the exertion of arguing, and the sudden cold, but it is only when she realises Tissaia’s eyes are fixed on her neckline that Yennefer notices the rise and fall of her breasts. In the low-cut gown, pulled lower by the man’s attentions, she is almost spilling out of her bodice. Any thought of covering herself is muted however by the completely foreign look on Tissaia’s face. One Yennefer has never seen before, and which takes her a moment to decipher. Her eyes widen in surprise and then narrow in amusement as she prowls closer, “Anyone would think you were jealous…” She pauses inches from Tissaia’s body but lets a fingertip brush down the woman’s throat, “Did you want me all for yourself? Has the loss of your collar and chain left you with… urges ?”

Tissaia steps backwards, “Stop it, Yennefer...”

In a rare moment of principle, Yennefer opts to argue her convictions rather than continue teasing. She spreads her hands placatingly but keeps her head held high, daring Tissaia to contest her experience in such matters.

“Our bodies are a weapon, one we can employ as we see fit. Tonight would hardly have been the first time I have traded pleasure to gain power. In fact, if you do it properly, you can walk away with both.”

The flicker on Tissaia’s face is shocking, as is the momentary tremble in her hand and Yennefer suddenly recalls the only other time she has seen the woman so close to crumbling. She’d been younger, still a hunchback, and had been pleading for her future. She is older now, old enough to recognise the brief lapse in Tissaia’s focus for what it is - the struggle to withdraw from a painful recollection. The Rectoress’ voice is oddly hollow when she replies,

“Sometimes, even if you do everything right, you come away with neither power nor pleasure. Sometimes, your body is not your own to determine how it is used.”

Yennefer steps forward again, but this time to comfort rather than torment, “Tissaia…”

As before, her attempts at intimacy of any kind are rebuffed as Tissaia holds up a hand between them to keep their distance.

“I will not have you give yourself to someone who does not value the gift. Promise me you will never try that again…”

And, despite everything she wants to argue with this woman about, Yennefer finds herself nodding. She knows it is unlikely she’ll keep the promise, she enjoys the power of seducing and manipulating men too much, but it is impossible to deny Tissaia. It always has been.

 

---

 

The miller’s house next to the waterfall and wheel that turns his millstones is filled with children. Boys and girls, the youngest still a babe slung on his mother’s back. A pair of dogs too, adding to the mess of noise and chatter. There is a child missing however, one of the daughters, who would have been fourteen summers old had she not been found with her throat cut in a ditch two moons ago. The healer at Tor Carnedd had spared her parents’ the details and insisted her body be stitched into its shroud to hide that her throat was not the only part of her to have been mutilated. Tissaia shudders as she recalls the diagrams and notes from the healer’s report – the Knights had been leading the search party for the girl and brought her first to the tower. The girl’s mother is younger than her face suggests but grief and hardship has creased her skin, deadened her eyes.

“More mages sniffing round and asking questions!” She spits when she sees them, “Your kind have done enough damage, leave us be.”

Her husband lays a hand on her shoulder, “They’re here to help. They want answers – same as us.”

There is nothing beyond circumstantial evidence and the miller’s word but his description of the tall, bearded man who had asked to foster their oldest daughter makes Yennefer snarl. The miller frowns,

“I told him, ‘no father in their right mind hands a daughter over to a strange man, no matter how charitable his intentions might be’. And he wasn’t happy with that, wouldn’t take no for an answer. I had to set the hounds on him in the end to make him leave.”

This makes Yennefer grin bitterly, “I’d have liked to see that.”

Tissaia hushes her with a look and asks more questions, but they leave with nothing more than their suspicions given credence. They have almost reached the rocky wall that marks the boundary of the miller’s home when one of the oldest boys comes running after them with a girl of five in his arms.

“Please, Mistress, wait!” He reaches them out of breath and gasps, “Please, take her. She’ll be safe with you. My ma and pa would have my neck if they knew I were saying it but there’s naught we can do here to protect her.”

Yennefer is not certain what she is expecting but Tissaia reaching out to take the child and balance her on her hip was never on the list of possibilities. Neither was the gentle hand she lays on the boy’s shoulder or the quiet compassion with which she tries to explain.

“What happened to your sister was senseless but there was a reason for it. She was a victim of her birth, and of fools who believe a sun-shadow can turn girls into monsters. I know it is of little comfort, but it does mean this child is not in danger.”

His shoulders, which are in that odd limbo between boyish narrowness and manly width, droop as he sighs heavily,

“I can’t make her believe she’s safe. She cries at night, saying they’ll come for her too.”

Tissaia crouches down and sets the child on her feet, then leads her by the hand to a trio of rowan trees planted in the corner of the fence. There are still several clusters of berries despite the snow, bright red with little stars on their bases and Tissaia picks a large handful. The needle and crimson thread appear from within her sleeve (a sleight of hand, Yennefer knows, so as not to alarm the girl by conjuring objects from thin air) and Tissaia methodically threads the berries into a string, getting the child to count them along with her. Two thin twigs from the tree, stripped of their leaves and bound into an x with more thread, make an unlikely pendant to suspend from the chain of berries. It is an old rite, the sort of rustic superstitious charm that gets hedge-mages laughed out of Brotherhood meetings. The girl clutches it tightly though, her eyes wide and solemn when Tissaia hands it to her.

“It will keep you safe.”

The child has a lisp (Yennefer has to bite the inside of her cheek at the memories of her own stumbling speech when her jaw was twisted).

“Is it magic?”

Tissaia nods, “Yes, but not all magic is evil. The rowan is the witch’s tree because it protects us from evil whilst we cast spells.” Her hand strokes once down the girl’s hair, the comforting gesture disguising the rune of rest Tissaia’s thumb traces on her forehead. “You will be safe. I make it so.”

“Thank you.” The boy nods and gathers his sister back into his arms, reaching for the conspicuously flat coin-pouch on his belt but Tissaia stops him. His eyes (too old for his face) narrow, and he flushes, “You must let me pay you, we’re not beggars.”

“It is unusual to see rowan fruiting this late and any mage would pay good silver for the berries. Cut me two branches and consider the cost met.”

He considers for a moment then nods, sawing two branches thick with leaves and berries with the knife on his belt and binding them with twine.

“Have you a packhorse to carry them?”

Turning expectantly to Yennefer, Tissaia smiles for the first time since losing her pendant.

 

---

 

Blowing a cluster of leaves out of her face, Yennefer adjusts the branches on her shoulder and grumbles, “What in Alzur’s name are you going to do with these? Whatever lies you told to spare that boy’s pride, no self-respecting Sorceress would pay a single copper for rowan berries.”

“That is because most mages nowadays are both ignorant and too clever for their own good.”

“You genuinely believe these are sacred? You’re beginning to sound like a druid. I’d have thought you above such homespun charms and folk-remedies.”

It has been years since Tissaia last worked the protections and wards taught by her mother. Long before she could speak Elder or knew how to channel Chaos, Tissaia had learnt the spells of wood-witches. Aretuza had frowned upon such heathen superstitions and Rectoress de Winter had forbidden her from practicing any magic not regulated by the Chapter. Tissaia has abided by that rule ever since but her iron discipline, like her practiced emotional detachment, seems to have vanished along with her amulet. Shrugging further into her cloak as they search for a convenient spot to portal from, Tissaia replies,

“There is more than one way to cast a spell, Yennefer. Magic is intention, how you achieve your intentions is irrelevant. A Chapter-spell in Hen Llinge is of little use to a frightened human child. They need something tangible, something they can hold onto at night when they are afraid. The talisman I made carries my intentions just as an enchantment would have.”

Yennefer huffs, “I would not have thought soothing frightened children was within your repertoire.”

“Do not confuse my sense of duty towards the common people with a softness – I did not comfort that child because I felt sorry for her, I did it because we have a responsibility to serve those without magic.”

Throwing the rowan branches to the snow and blowing on her hands to warm them, Yennefer snaps, “I’ve never heard such rubbish! Why should we be of service to people who would burn us at the stake? Have you forgotten Falka?”

Tissaia knows she is in dire need of her pendant when she blinks and finds she has grabbed Yennefer by the front of her dress, pulling so the younger mage’s face is forced close enough that Tissaia can see her reflection in her eyes.

“How dare you speak to me of those days? They are nothing but pages in a history book to you. I lived them, survived them. You think you have all the answers, but you haven’t even found the right questions yet.”

Yennefer’s grip on her wrists is painful, her fingers rough to match the hoarseness in her voice, “Falka is my history, just like every other bloodbath before and after her. My mother’s grief, my tainted blood and twisted spine, the fucking pigpen you found me in – all of it because your precious ‘common people’ distrust anyone remotely different to them.” She snarls with new vehemence, “And let’s not forget what happened when the supposedly enlightened, educated members of your Chapter learned I was quarter-elf… or was that just another lie you told to manipulate me?”

Something shifts inside Tissaia. She cannot pinpoint the cause, but it makes her hands unfurl so they are pressed flat against Yennefer’s chest, the fury in her intensity turning to an equally insistent sincerity.

“I have never lied to you.”

Myriad emotions flicker across Yennefer’s face, too many for Tissaia to decipher, her expression settling on weariness as she sighs,

“How can you even tell anymore? You’ve told yourself so many stories, been so many versions of yourself, hidden behind so many barriers…” Yennefer releases her wrists and pushes away from her, “I wouldn’t know what your honesty looks like.”

Chapter Text

The bonfires of the Saovine festival are quite the accomplishment this far North where the snows make it difficult to find such large quantities of dry wood. Even without this logistical challenge, Tor Carnedd’s bonfire are the most impressive Yennefer has ever seen. The ground in front of the walls is cleared of trees, serving as a harvest marketplace during Lammas but conspicuously bare in the winter months. The reasoning for keeping the treeline at bay becomes clear however when she sees the large ring of fires placed round the perimeter of the open ground. As night falls and the Mages, Knights and locals gather, the flames are bright enough to make it almost daylight within the ring of fires. Women wander around in revealing gowns of floating black silk, men bare-chested and kilted with ornate belt buckles glinting in the firelight, none of them feeling the cold as the heat in the circle keeps the chill at bay. It is bad luck to play an instrument during Saovine, the bards laying their lutes and pipes aside in favour of singing. Without the support of their instruments, they band together in large groups to be heard over the noise of the gathering and their voices rise and fall in strange cadences with ringing harmonies. The songs of Saovine are not cheerful affairs, at turns mournful and ethereal with kulning, bone-chilling whenever they stamp their feet for the war chants. A time for gathering the spirits of those who have died, and for holding strong against the creeping onslaught of winter.

Yennefer approaches a stall selling what promises to be excellent vintages given the quantity of coin he is collecting, the rich burgundy she can see being poured looks almost black in the firelight. It is only when she steps closer that she sees the steam rising from the tankards and smells the sweetness. Cocoa. The dark confection imported from Zerrikania and melted into sweetened milk, spiced with star anise and vanilla. No wonder the merchant is charging so much. Weaving her way through the crowds without spilling her precious pair of drinks means Yennefer is frowning in concentration when she finally finds Tissaia perched on a log near one of the outermost fires.

“That is exactly the expression you used to pull whenever you were trying a new spell. I was never certain whether you were thinking hard or in pain.”

Yennefer glares but lets the dig slide, she is here to make peace after all.

“Here, drink this.”

Tissaia accepts the tankard with both hands and asks wryly,

“To sweeten my sour temper?”

Arranging her skirts so she can sit on the log beside Tissaia (at a safe distance), Yennefer chances a cheeky grin,

“Or to spice you up.”

Tissaia scoffs but a smile tugs at the corner of her mouth and she shifts a little in an invitation to sit closer. The chocolate is good enough to silence them both as they drink, tentative sips followed by a deep hum of satisfaction escaping Tissaia. Her narrow face almost disappears behind the circumference of the tankard and when she lowers it, there is a smudge on her top lip, her eyes half-lidded in bliss. Yennefer gestures at her mouth and Tissaia looks sheepish, dabbing at her lips with the back of her hand. A fleck remains and Yennefer reaches out, slowly, hovering until Tissaia juts her chin forward in silent permission. Thumbing the last of the chocolate away, Yennefer is struck by the warmth of Tissaia’s breath on her palm, noticeable even in the heat of the fire-circle. She only realises she has lingered longer than is polite when Tissaia clears her throat, her lips twitching under Yennefer’s fingers as she swallows an exhalation. Lifting her hand away, Yennefer pulls an awkward smile, worse than some fumbling adolescent. To relieve the awkwardness, she nods at Tissaia’s black gown.

“You dressed for the occasion I see.”

It is not half-as-revealing as some of the other garments Yennefer has seen tonight but for the usually corseted, buttoned-up Rectoress it is positively scandalous. Open-backed to almost the base of her spine with waterfall sleeves, black silk that shimmers in the firelight and floats about her ankles when she walks. Most surprising of all, her feet are bare beneath her hem and Yennefer frowns,

“You’ll catch your death with no shoes.”

Tissaia raises her eyebrows in amusement, “The tables have turned if you are advising me to be less reckless.” She rubs her feet into the earth damp with snow-melt, “Saovine is when the veil between worlds is thinnest, when Nature is at its most potent. It is ancient custom to allow yourself to be grounded, in contact with the power in the earth. The Chapter does not lend credence to the old-ways but that does not mean there is no power to be harnessed.”

Yennefer’s eyebrows are in danger of disappearing into her hairline she arches them so high, “Did you just outright admit the Chapter has faults? And contradict one of their teachings?”

“I have had teachers other than the Brotherhood, I have lived lives other than that of Rectoress de Vries.”

The pendant in Yennefer’s pocket thrums more insistently and she clamps her hand over her thigh to silence it. The thing seems to have a mind of its own and to be attuned to Tissaia’s thoughts – frankly, it unnerves Yennefer, and she is half-tempted to throw the wretched necklace somewhere it will never be found. Only the memory of how distressed Tissaia had been at its initial loss stays her hand. The older woman seems to have settled slightly, or at least resigned herself to its absence, in the days since it was taken but Yennefer suspects that is only because she believes there is a time-limit to its disappearance. Scuffing at the ground with the toe of her boot alongside Tissaia’s feet, Yennefer observes,

“The Knights are very thorough in keeping this ground cleared, there isn’t even grass-root here under the snow. It must be a constant battle to keep the treeline back and the earth bare.”

Tissaia frowns, her face growing sombre, flickering shadows make her features even sharper than usual.

“The Knights have no part in it. Nothing grows here. From the walls to the treeline is cursed ground.” Seeing Yennefer’s confusion, she turns away with a disappointed sigh, “You do not even know where we stand, do you?”

There is cheering suddenly as several straw figures are carried from the tower gate into the circle and paraded round. Tissaia’s voice is choked, harsh and throaty,

“Tor Carnedd was the culmination of Falka’s bloodshed. It was here she flayed Master Radmir, one of the Six who formed the Chapter. She skinned him alive as Mirthe burnt.” Tissaia points to the horizon, “Mirthe once stood half-a-morning’s ride that way. Its spires were visible from the mountain pool.”

The straw figures, which Yennefer now realises are the traditional effigies of the She-Falcon, get thrown onto the bonfires, flames shooting up, showering sparks through the sky.

“Nothing grows where his blood spilled,’ Tissaia says with chilling simplicity. ‘I have made it so.”

As more and more figures burn, the cheering grows deafeningly loud, hundreds of stamping feet making the ground tremble. Tissaia’s jaw jumps and she stands abruptly, striding out of the fire-circle without a word. Yennefer hurries after, cursing the velvety-thick darkness as her eyes adjust. Through the trees, ghostly black with bare branches, ankle-deep snow glowing silver in the moonlight, Yennefer follows Tissaia. When the arch-mage halts and then splits the air in front of her with sweeping arms, Yennefer hesitates but Tissaia glances over her shoulder once and leaves the portal open long enough for her to step through afterwards.

Looking around to get her bearings of this new location, Yennefer sees the far edge of the forest behind her, the smoke from Tor Carnedd’s fires still visible in the distance. In front of her lies the ruins of a citadel, lopsided marble columns and gap-toothed stone walls, all blanketed by snow. Tissaia stands very still, arms wrapped around herself and shoulders the closest to slouching Yennefer has ever seen. Trying to walk quietly in the crunching snow, she comes to stand beside her former teacher and is surprised by how deeply affecting the woman’s sadness is. Still staring at the ruins, Tissaia speaks,

“There was a garden,” she points at a bare patch of ground, “just here. It had apple trees and a fountain.” Her hand moves towards a snowy shape beyond, the plinth of the fountain rising a little way off, its bowl conspicuously absent like an amputated limb. Tissaia smiles weakly, “I used to practice water-bending with it.”

Uncertain what to say, Yennefer lifts her hand to lay it on the woman’s shoulder but Tissaia has already stepped forward, walking towards the ruined fountain. Crouching at its base, she scrabbles the snow away with her bare hands, a desperation in her urgency. Before Yennefer can reach her, she has already cleared a space large enough to lay her palm flat on the earth and begun to chant. It is not a spell Yennefer knows but she recognises some of its components and she steps forward in alarm,

“Tissaia, stop.”

Ignoring her, Tissaia continues, her voice deepening with power, a wind picking up and scattering the powdery top layer of snow. The ground starts to tremble beneath their feet, a trickle of blood appearing from Tissaia’s nose. Yennefer narrowly avoids being impaled as the trunk of an apple tree shoots up through the soil, branches unfurling, golden leaves and small fruits sprouting rapidly, aging years in a matter of seconds. Water that should be frozen solid suddenly shoots out of the carved fountain base, the marble cracking under the pressure. For the first time in several years, Yennefer is truly frightened and pushes through the swirling Chaos round Tissaia to grab the woman, falling to her knees,

“Stop! Tissaia, enough!”

The pendant is rattling so violently its chain can be heard clinking and Yennefer gasps as it starts to burn her thigh through the fabric of her gown. Unable to think of anything else that might distract Tissaia enough to break the focus she appears to be locked in, Yennefer frames her face in her hands and presses an urgent kiss to her lips.

For a moment, it appears she has sorely misjudged the situation as Tissaia’s Chaos only swirls more violently, the water in the fountain cascading down in fury and soaking them both. Forcing her trembling hands to a gentle caress down Tissaia’s neck coming to rest at the base of her throat, Yennefer silently wills the touch to ground her, to snap her out of whatever madness holds her. With a weary sigh, the Chaos subsides, the fountain slowing to a gentle trickle and the wind dying down. It is eerily quiet in the aftermath of Tissaia’s recklessness and Yennefer is suddenly aware of their proximity, too close, Tissaia’s lips too still beneath her own, unresponsive. She pulls away apologetically,

“Sorry, I couldn’t think what else might grab your attention.”

Tissaia’s face is impassive, and Yennefer can’t help wishing she’d do or say something . Even outrage would be preferable to the unfocused glaze in her eyes, the downward pull of her mouth that betrays her exhaustion. She does not resist when Yennefer pulls her to her feet and portals them to her room leaving behind a lone apple tree that for years will confuse locals whenever it bears fruit in the middle of winter.

The feast is still in full swing, and it will be many hours yet before the rest of the tower turns to their beds but Tissaia is swaying on her feet with tiredness, and Yennefer leads her to her chambers unnoticed by the rest of the attendees. The fine silk gown is muddied and soaking wet, clinging to her ankles as she steps free of it and draws a robe round herself. Yennefer is fussing in a corner with her own wet clothes, her back decorously turned despite Tissaia’s apparent nonchalance over baring herself.

“You may take a robe if you wish.”

It is the first time Tissaia has spoken since the spell that had made the earth shake and Yennefer jumps at the unexpected voice. She turns to the bed where Tissaia has already sat against the pillows, knees bent to her chest and covers drawn up over them. With uncharacteristic shyness, Yennefer crosses her arms across her breasts, clutching her wet gown at her waist. Something has shifted since that evening in the pool when she had not spared a thought for modesty, flaunting herself with abandon. She cannot explain the change, but she is now painfully aware of Tissaia’s eyes on her.

“I don’t think anything of yours will fit me.”

“Surely lowering a hem and adjusting some sleeves is within your capabilities? With magic if not with a needle and thread.”

Determined not to be found lacking (even now, even after all this time) Yennefer selects a robe of grey velvet and works the enchantments to alter it. Slipping into it, she breathes a sigh of relief when it sits snugly on her frame, its hem whispering at her ankles and the inner lining of combed fleece delightfully warm against her bare skin. Tissaia smiles wearily,

“See what you can achieve when you apply yourself.” She passes her hand over her eyes, now dark-circled and bloodshot, “I need to sleep… I should not have exerted myself so.”

“On that we agree at least. Rest. I shall stay until you are asleep, with your permission.”

Tissaia laughs though not unkindly, “My dear, when did you ever need my permission to do anything.”

She does not make Yennefer leave though and even allows it when the younger woman pulls up a chair to her bedside. The arch-mage is asleep with moments, her chest rising and falling with deep breaths, face smoothing as the tension seeps away from her brow, her jaw, her mouth. It makes her look younger and Yennefer rubs at her breastbone to ease the ache that has appeared. To distract from such ridiculous feelings she pulls the pendant from the puddle of wet clothes on the floor and runs it through her fingers, the chain glinting in the firelight. She finds herself drifting in thoughts, in memories, of a time gone by, and her eyes begin to close of their own accord, the cool chain of the pendant still running through her fingers.

The fire has almost died down when Yennefer is snapped from her doze by a scream. Tissaia is fighting the bedsheets, her head buried in her arms and cowering from some unseen terror. Hurriedly stowing the pendant, Yennefer reaches for her,

“Tissaia, it’s a nightmare, you’re safe, wake up.”

Startling under Yennefer’s hands, Tissaia scrabbles to the headboard and wheezes, her eyes wild and face pale. Lighting several lanterns with a single flick of her hand, sparking the fire back into a blaze of warmth, Yennefer sits on the edge of the bed tentatively, coaxing her as though she were a spooked horse.

“Come on, it’s over, here let me warm your hands – you’re frozen. Just breathe, it was only a dream.”

Still scanning the room for any lurking danger, Tissaia’s fingers scrabble round her neck searching for something and Yennefer realises; her pendant is her talisman. The object to which she clings when she is frightened of the dark. It is such a pitiful gesture that Yennefer almost relents and hands over the pendant. Almost but not quite. Because without her usual anchor, Tissaia’s hands reach out in search of something else to hold. And Yennefer’s fingers meet hers with such ease and rightness that she decides she’s never giving the pendant back. Glancing up from their joined hands with more clarity than a few moments ago, Tissaia speaks,

“There is somewhere I need to go. Will you come with me?”

Chapter Text

Tissaia leads them both up the mountain path under the cover of stars, the fresh snow reflecting enough light to safely pick their way up the steep route. Yennefer follows, huffing behind her, cursing her long skirts that drag through the snow drifts.

What do you have against portals?” she calls out when she pauses on a level spot to catch her breath.

Tissaia neither turns or pauses to reply, forging ahead with unwavering determination.

“Nothing. However, this journey is one that must be done on foot – it is part of the reason for making it, working our bodies harder than is comfortable.”

Yennefer scoffs and mutters something unintelligible making Tissaia shake her head in annoyance. 

In the cliffs that shelter the pool from the cold air that flows down the Kestrel’s slopes, there is a cleft the width of a man’s shoulders, and it is this passage which Tissaia slips through. She stops only to cast an orb of light, the dim blue glow allowing her to find her way through the deep darkness as she does not trust her feet to remember the path. The muted light source suddenly becomes irrelevant however as Yennefer conjures a small pillar of fire in her palm and holds it aloft casting great flickering shadows on the walls. Tissaia shakes her head again,

“Subtlety was never your strong suit.”

“I’d be offended if you thought otherwise.” Peering closer at the strata of the rock around them, Yennefer tilts her head, “There’s obsidian running through the granite.” When Tissaia looks back at her, quietly impressed, Yennefer only shrugs, “Istredd was fond of rocks if you recall.”

Eyelids fluttering momentarily and clearing her throat at memories neither of them want to be dredging up, Tissaia moves briskly on before old hurts have a chance to resurface. The further they advance through the narrow passageway, the more the walls glimmer with glassy black stone. Tissaia has the benefit of experience and knows she is not imagining the uncomfortable warmth under her gown and cloak. Yennefer on the other hand is perplexed and runs her finger around her collar once or twice before swearing,

“Melitele, I feel like I’ve run a mile in the Korath desert! Am I ill or have I inadvertently set myself on fire and you’re waiting to see how long it takes me to notice?”

Tissaia does not turn round, her voice echoing off the stone and back over her head to Yennefer,

“You’re not ill. As for being on fire, I leave that to you to judge.” She runs her fingers over the nearest wall as she walks, “The heat is in the stones.”

Panting as their path takes a steep upward turn, Yennefer asks, “What’s heating them?”

“You’ll see in a moment. We’re almost there.”

‘There’ turns out to be another opening in the seemingly endless corridor of stone, cool air and flakes of snow blowing in through the edges of the cleft. Emerging, Tissaia stands looking up at the sky and waits for Yennefer to appear.

“Stargazing, Rectoress? I’d have thought-”

Yennefer does not get the chance to voice her opinion on the matter as she cuts herself off abruptly and stares at the horizon. The sky is a dull orange glow cloaked in swirling black clouds, the faintest glimmer of stars visible through the haze. Rising up in front of them, and sloping far down past their feet, is a mountain with a crater-top belching fire, molten rock running down the sides and cooling as it reaches the snowy shoulders of the volcano. Glancing round to get her bearings, Yennefer realises they have just walked through the western slope of the mountain, circling from the poolside cliffs that obscure the geological monstrosity to this small plateau roughly two-thirds of the way up the volcano. Her throat suddenly very dry, Yennefer tries to quip,

“Well, that explains the heat.”

Smirking, Tissaia walks towards a hunk of rock, beckoning for Yennefer to follow. On closer inspection, the rock is in fact a standing stone, tall and oblong, the edge a natural roughness rather than one sharply shaped by tools. On its flat surface are dozens of carvings in the ideograms used by the early Aen’Saevherne, none of which Yennefer remembers the meanings of. Removing the glove from her left hand, Tissaia presses her palm against the carving in the centre and shuts her eyes. Her lips move soundlessly, no words discernible but Yennefer feels the shiver of expended Chaos. Opening her eyes, Tissaia nods at the stone,

“Place your hand here and say your name.” She clicks her tongue against the roof of her mouth when Yennefer hesitates, “Hurry up, if I wanted to kill you, I’d have done so a long time ago. Gods know you’ve given me reason.”

Yennefer glares, “I could say the same about you.”

Tissaia blinks deliberately, sighing through her nose with the frustrated patience she seems to reserve exclusively for her interactions with Yennefer. She nods more forcefully at the stone and Yennefer rolls her eyes before complying.

“Yennefer of Vengerberg.”

“Your real name.”

“That is my real name.”

Tissaia blinks again and Yennefer scowls, biting out her next words bitterly,

“Yennefer… I have no other name.”

Tissaia’s voice is unusually soft as she replies, “I know. We bastard daughters only ever have one name.”

Yennefer’s eyes widen in surprise at this revelation but before she can question it, Tissaia has started to walk up the slopes. There is no path and seemingly nowhere to go, the snow gives way to craggy rock, treacherous with deep crevices that threaten to snap an ankle with a single misstep. It is only when they round a large boulder that Yennefer sees the doorway. Fashioned into an archway with keystone and pillars, clearly constructed by man or magic rather than nature. Now more than a little breathless with the climb and the heat, Tissaia warns,

“I granted you entry at the standing stone but best to proceed with caution, the doorway can be fickle.”

“Very reassuring.”

Yennefer is not expecting Tissaia to comfort her, certainly not by reaching out and linking their hands so they walk together through the archway. Whatever mood the doorway is in, it seems willing to let them pass and in a moment, they are standing on a wedge of rock that juts out over the cavern. Far below lava churns and boils, and above them a circle of sky is visible through the crater. Yennefer swears in awe, letting go of Tissaia’s hand to peer over the edge.

“Fuck…”

“Court has not broadened your vocabulary as I had hoped it might.”

“We’re standing inside a live volcano, Tissaia, what else would you have me say? Remark on how unseasonably warm it is?” She jumps as a bubble of molten rock bursts and droplets get flung up through the crater. “Why in Alzur’s name are we here?”

Tissaia seems unperturbed by the danger, her hands clasped at her waist as though she were about to commence a lecture in a greenhouse.

“It is where my pendant was forged. My own Rectoress, Klara de Winter, made it for me whilst I watched, standing almost exactly where you are now.”

“You want to make a new one?”

If Yennefer had known her prank would mean coming here, she’d have left that wretched necklace well-alone. Tissaia shakes her head,

“I only wanted to remind myself why it was made. And to show you why I choose to wear it, even though it costs me the freedom to feel as strongly, as openly, as I might like to.”

Tissaia’s hands rise, fingers relaxed, to the level of her sternum and warm strands of gathering Chaos begins to surround them as the sorceress starts to weave. 

Yennefer has always loved to watch Tissaia cast spells. There is a fluidity to her gestures, even when manipulating vast amounts of energy that would require most mages to grimace and gesticulate wildly. Her seeming effortlessness does little to diminish the magnitude of power however, the air thrumming even if she herself is immovable. No, not immovable , Yennefer thinks. There is movement in the precise twist of her wrists as her palms face upwards, the subtle shift of her feet in preparation for withstanding the incoming force. She is... unshakeable.

The glowing starts at the tips of her fingers, making the skin translucent, travelling down to her wrists where it disappears under the cuffs of her gown. Her hands full of light, fiery colours swirling under her skin, oranges and reds and golds rippling and curling in ribbons. Yennefer swallows her trepidation; fire magic is fickle at best, deadly at worst. It is also, technically, forbidden. Tissaia’s voice echoes in the cavernous mountain-top, incanting yet another spell Yennefer does not know but can recognise elements of. Water-bending forms the basis of dozens of incantations, even those as complex as portals, the water in the air and in human bodies being manipulated to transport it elsewhere. The simple spell learnt by Novices in Aretuza will over the years be woven into ever more complex formations until it is powerful beyond their wildest dreams. Now, Yennefer hears the words she’d first lisped over in the greenhouse made dark and terrible, Tissaia’s eyes flashing as she tethers the most dangerous of all elements. 

To Yennefer’s surprise, rather than unleashing it in a huge burst, Tissaia begins to draw shapes in the air, releasing little flickers here and there until a small dragon made of fire is floating in front of her. Yennefer cannot muffle her delighted chuckle when it yawns, stretches its wings and breathes a tiny burst of flames, flicking its tail playfully at her. Tissaia smiles, sweat beading on her brow furrowed in concentration, and coaxes further sparks from her palms so there is a cloud of butterflies that circle round Yennefer. Their wings fan into blue-tipped flames every time they flap and the heat radiating off them is very real as Yennefer cautiously stretches her finger out towards one. Gazing with undisguised awe at the display, she nods at Tissaia,

“You break the rules with style, I’ll give you that.”

Tissaia flicks her wrist, and the butterflies flutter up out the crater, the dragon chasing after them with tiny roars. Dabbing at her brow with her sleeve, Tissaia replies,

“I am not disobeying any edicts that bind me.”

Yennefer crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow, “Fire magic is forbidden by the Chapter, Tissaia. Anything more than lighting a candle or rousing a fireplace is frowned upon to say the least.”

“The element of fire was not always considered too unpredictable for teaching. Those of us who completed training in its use may request dispensation from the Chapter to practice it.” The little smile that tugs at the corner of Tissaia’s mouth makes Yennefer’s heart skip a beat. “So, I am afraid I’m not quite the rebel you imagine.”

Although she had seemed composed whilst manipulating the fire, Tissaia is now breathless and her shoulders drooping, so Yennefer nudges gently at her elbow to make her perch on a nearby boulder. Settling herself next to Tissaia on the stone, Yennefer shakes her head,

“Of course you would insist on being able to control it. When did you stop teaching fire magic?”

“The Aen’Savherne have never used it, it goes against their bond with Nature. The Chapter outlawed it shortly after I graduated.” Tissaia gives no reason for the ban, but her eyebrows knit together at some unpleasant memory before she continues. “To the best of my knowledge only Gerhart of Aelle and Lytta Neyd are allowed to wield fire, other than myself.” Her lips thin in a downward grimace, “And Stregobor.”

Yennefer would spit if she weren’t worried about looking unglamourous (she pushes away the niggling voice that wants to know why she suddenly cares whether Tissaia finds her attractive). She does makes a noise of disgust and Tissaia glances sharply at her,

“I know he is insufferable but do not underestimate him. He is skilled, and clever. And, for all that I am suspicious of his part in these killings, he is still one of the few I trust not to destroy what I hold dear. He is predictably staunch in his support of the Chapter and its educating bodies.”

Yennefer does not voice the retort that Stregobor nearly destroyed her career as a graduate of Aretuza because she is too preoccupied swallowing her disappointment at the logical conclusion. She is not on the list of things Tissaia might treasure. Seemingly oblivious to the hurt she has caused, Tissaia picks at some black dust that has settled on her skirts, a faraway look in her eyes. “Rectoress de Winter was adept in all forms of elemental magic but fire was her specialism. To take her class, an Adept had to reach out and grasp her hand which had been set alight. A test.”

“If you were brave enough to try then you found out it was just an Enchantment and were allowed to start lessons?”

“It was no Enchantment, it was real. I can still hear my own screams from the burning.” 

Tissaia lifts her left hand from the folds of her cloak and holds it palm down in front of Yennefer. Splaying her fingers, she tilts her wrist so the light from the lava flickers over her skin. With considerable alarm, Yennefer notices the vivid burns which she knows were not there before. Tissaia’s other hand reaches out to rest on Yennefer’s knee appeasingly,

“Calm yourself, they are old scars. Wielding fire illuminates them again but they do not cause me pain. Not anymore.” Even as Yennefer watches, the scars begin to fade without fire beneath the skin to reveal them. Tissaia shakes the last of the glow from her hand, “They are the means by which the Chapter tests if a mage truly studied fire magic. De Winter created the spell that allows for such scarring to remain hidden unless channeling her favoured element. When I was a young mage, it was a badge of pride to carry such a brand.”

“And I thought you were harsh in your teaching methods.”

Yennefer is surprised at the shadow which passes over Tissaia’s face, the hint of regret visible for a moment before she smooths it away. Whether Tissaia is more open without her pendant or she is becoming better at reading Tissaia’s expressions, Yennefer is not certain. 

“De Winter brought me here not long after I passed her test and fashioned my pendant for me. It allowed for power previously unattainable. Kept me safe as I pushed myself to every limit possible. Were I wearing it tonight, I could have conjured a dragon large enough to raze Tor Carnedd to the ground and barely been out of breath.”

This last assertion makes a grin tug at the corner of Yennefer’s mouth. She’s never heard Tissaia boast before and, like so much this past week, it makes her seem more human. Choosing not to shatter the fragile trust building between them, Yennefer does not remark on it and instead muses out loud, 

“De Winter must have thought a great deal of you to take such an interest. To come all this way just to protect you and give you such power.”

Tissaia stands, adjusting a sleeve as is her habit but for the first time Yennefer sees the gesture for what it is. A distraction. Drawing attention away from the painful truth she speaks, “And yet I resented her. Just as you do me.”

She begins to walk towards the door. As the distance between her and Tissaia elongates, Yennefer feels a tugging as though a fishing line had hooked under her ribs. At the start of this week, being in Tissaia’s presence had been an annoyance made bearable by the grim satisfaction of baiting her at every turn. Now though, Yennefer is reminded of the aching tentative longing that had stalked her as a student. She wants Tissaia to stay, wants to keep talking. She wants. 

Tissaia has almost reached the doorway when Yennefer calls, shouting to be heard over the lava simmering far below,

“Why de Vries?” Tissaia pauses and Yennefer persists, “Now I know it wasn’t your father’s name, I can’t help but wonder why you chose it.”

The weariness in Tissaia’s limbs is bone-deep, even breathing feels as though it requires herculean effort. She’d hoped coming here to this place she associates with endurance and the strive for perfection would help. It has only served to remind her of her own frailty however. Without her pendant, she is nothing, no one. Yennefer’s question has reinforced the old fear of being inadequate. She prefers not to remember the days when she was nameless. When Tissaia looks over her shoulder though, Yennefer is looking at her  with such a longing expression on her face that Tissaia cannot begrudge her her curiosity. She would wager Yennefer doesn’t even realise how much like her younger self she looks at this moment. Eager, hungry, hardly daring to believe but unable to stop hoping. It is an expression Tissaia is accustomed to seeing opposite her but only on Yennefer does it make something ache under her breastbone.

What she needs is to curl up in an unflattering dressing gown and sleep for days but she finds she wants to stay here and speak to Yennefer. And, as has happened with worrying frequency this past week, she chooses to do what she wants rather than what she should. Settling herself back on the boulder, Tissaia gestures for Yennefer to join her.

“I found it in an old book. Many Sorceresses at the time used the ‘de’ prefix to hint at noble lineage and ‘vries’ sounded similar to the word for ‘ice’ in my mother tongue. I liked the thought of being cool and collected, hard and crystal-clear.”

Yennefer sits but on the ground, shoulders resting against Tissaia’s thigh as she slumps comfortably, her weight a welcome heaviness that grounds Tissaia and makes the nervous jittering of her knee grow still. 

“Common Tongue wasn’t your first language? What did you speak?”

It is entirely out-of-character but Tissaia cannot stop herself from reaching out to rest her hand on the crown of Yennefer’s head, stroking down through the loose locks as she replies,

“It is a dead language now, it was supplanted by Common Tongue.”

“Say something in it.” Yennefer glances up, nudging gently with her shoulder, “Please?”

It has the lilting of Elder with vowels similar to Skelliger jargon but something else entirely unfamiliar to Yennefer. She cannot understand it but she would listen to it for hours because it mellows Tissaia’s voice, removes the clipped consonants and biting tone that she usually employs. 

“What does it mean?”

Tissaia’s eyebrow arches slightly, “I said ‘you ask too many questions and give too few answers in return’.”

Yennefer huffs a laugh, “There is nothing about me you do not already know. Barely any part of me which you did not have a hand in shaping.” Tissaia makes an unconvinced noise but does not protest when Yennefer asks yet another question. “And ‘Tissaia’? That came from a book too? Or your mother?”

“Neither. It was de Winter. She named all the girls on arrival and refused to use our birth names. I had neither the courage, nor the stupidity, to ask her what its significance was.”

As though a reflection of Tissaia’s absent minded caresses through her hair, Yennefer has begun to fidget with the hem of Tissaia’s cloak where it has draped over her shoulders and into her lap. Her fingers wander, tracing the beaded patterns without purpose and (perhaps unwittingly) making Tissaia shiver as every minute shift in the fabric travels up to where it  is fastened at her throat, whispering across her skin. Violet eyes, intensely bright, find Tissaia’s as Yennefer turns to rest her chin on Tissaia’s knee,

“What’s your real name?”

Without a shadow of doubt, she replies, “Tissaia de Vries.”

A frown makes Yennefer’s eyes grow hooded, mouth downturning prettily as she insists, “What name do you give to the standing stone?”

“Tell me a secret first.”

The words escape before she can stop them and Tissaia curses herself for them. It is dangerous to trade intimacies this way. And it betrays that she is not in fact omniscient, that there are things about Yennefer she cannot yet comprehend. Of all the misdemeanours and dirty little foibles, the fears and shameful regrets a person might trade as a worthy scandal, Tissaia’s heart breaks when Yennefer chooses vulnerability as her greatest secret.

“Giltine said it was your name I was sobbing during the worst bits of my Enchantment.”

He’d helped her stand, brought warm water and cloths for her to wash. And as he’d left her to dress, he had turned in the doorway, ‘For all your defiance, in the worst of it it was your Mistress’s name you cried out. Perhaps she is not the root of all your trouble as you insist.’

Yennefer shivers at the memory, rolling her shoulders against the vestige of old pain that lingers. When warm fingers encircle her wrist, Yennefer thinks at first that Tissaia is searching for her scars, perhaps to comfort her in some way. But then the woman slides gracefully to her knees next to Yennefer and pulls her hand to the ground. Dusty black grains coat the rocky floor of the promontory and in them, Tissaia guides Yennefer’s forefinger to draw lines and curves. When she stops, there is an abstract outline of a small songbird with outstretched wings. Or the suggestion of one, as though someone had sketched the bare minimum shape then left it unfinished.

“My mother tongue had no lettering, this was how I was taught to sign my name.” 

She turns her head to watch Yennefer’s face as she follows the lines with her eyes, deciphering the shapes. They’re close (too close). She can see the downy hair that  wisps at the nape of Yennefer’s neck, the delicate curves of her ear and the flecks of kohl clinging stubbornly to her eyelashes. Can feel the warmth of her cheek, see the shine on her lips as she moves them silently searching for the words to match the diagram. Closing her eyes in the hopes it will quell the dreadful urge to rest her forehead in the crook of Yennefer’s neck, Tissaia murmurs,

“My name is Skylark.”

She waits for the inevitable scoff, the huff of laughter, sightless and safe from any visible scorn in return for her secret. The rush of cool air beside her is tell tale as Yennefer stands. Tissaia’s heart sinks as she hears the sounds of footsteps as Yennefer walks away from her. Old fool that I am , she thinks. It is ridiculous to believe the woman would welcome such yearnings, she would likely mock them (just imagining the sneer on her face makes Tissaia’s blood run cold). She seeks Tissaia’s approval and power, nothing more. Perhaps desire would play a part, for a short while, but nothing so untidy as - Tissaia finds she cannot even think the word let alone say it. Were she to try its syllables on her tongue she would stumble over them, for it has been so long since she had cause to use the word. Love. When did it become so foreign a concept to her? 

She opens her eyes, breathing deeply to compose herself after nearly bringing ruin down upon them both with a silent declaration. The unspoken but unmistakable sentiment that would have flowed from her unguarded mind had she let herself sink into Yennefer as she wished to. Her own self-pity gets pushed aside however as her eyes adjust and she sees Yennefer at the edge of the walkway, hands splayed in the same pattern Tissaia had demonstrated moments before. Scrabbling at her skirts in her haste to stand, Tissaia warns,

“Yennefer, don’t!”

Too late. She feels the surge of Chaos in the hair’s breadth of time between the incantation and the flames appearing. Sees the liquid heat latching onto Yennefer’s hands and being absorbed. Dread makes Tissaia’s limbs heavy as she stumbles forward, desperate to reach the woman before she is ripped apart by forces she should not be channelling. 

“Tissaia.”

Her name, spoken softly, makes Tissaia pause and she watches as a shape shimmers above Yennefer’s outstretched palm. It unfurls and grows solid, a little rough around the edges but its silhouette familiar. The fiery skylark spends a moment in Yennefer’s palm before she launches it gently into the air and directs it to circle Tissaia once, twice, before flying up and out the crater into the night. 

There are strong arms around her before Yennefer can register how unsteady she is on her feet. She sinks into the hold and tries to stop the trembling that is making her teeth chatter. Tissaia presses cool fingers to her temple, eyes shutting briefly with the spell to calm the Chaos still raging through her, then soothes,

“Just breathe, I know it feels like your chest is being crushed but it’s only your pendant doing its work. Lean on me, that’s it.”

Gasping like a landed fish, Yennefer clutches at her former mentor,

“What happened?”

Despite the tenderness in her hands, Tissaia’s voice is sharp with admonishment, “You meddled where you ought not to. What were you thinking? That spell takes years to perform safely, even with training in basic fire magic which you have not undertaken.”

The cocky grin on Yennefer’s face both warms and needles Tissaia as she smiles up at her, “I did it though… did you like what I made?”

Tissaia sighs, half in frustration and half wistfully, “It was beautiful.” Locking an arm round her waist and taking a handful of Yennefer’s gown to better steady her, Tissaia tugs them towards the doorway, “Come, it is time we left this place. It is unwise to linger here.”

The air outside is bitingly cold after the heat of the cavern making both women shiver, the tremors only making Yennefer more aware of Tissaia pressed against her side. To distract herself, she asks,

“You said my pendant was ‘doing its work’... what work?”

Tissaia pauses to fasten her cloak tighter and raise its fur-trimmed hood. She then notices Yennefer’s coat is open at the throat and tsks before reaching out to the neckline. As she pulls it more snugly, her fingers brush momentarily over Yennefer’s star suspended on its black ribbon. 

“I may not have dragged you to a volcano to watch its forging but that does not mean your pendant is only a trinket. Why do you think I picked it out of all those that were on display in Giltine’s room?”

“You made it? For me?”

“Obsidian is notoriously difficult to shape so I had a Gnomish craftsman make it but the design, and the Enchantments woven into it, are mine.” Satisfied that Yennefer is now wrapped up warmly enough, Tissaia resumes her place at her side, a steadying hand still at the small of her back. “I know you wanted something more extortionate at the time but I suspect you have grown to enjoy the simplicity of this one - am I right?”

A gentle nudge with her hand makes them start walking again and Yennefer only hums, neither admitting nor denying that she has based her entire wardrobe on the black and white of the pendant. She casts her gaze over the hunks of glossy black stone scattered around the slopes, 

“There are seams of obsidian in Tor Lara, you need not have come all this way to get some.”

“The stone you wear was one I picked when I came here as a girl. I paid no heed to its useful properties or how I may turn it to a purpose at the time - I only thought it beautiful.”

They walk in silence back to the cleft by the pools, concentrating on the ground in front of them, the muffled crunch of the snow beneath their feet the only sound. At the pool, Tissaia halts and gestures down the path to Tor Carnedd,

“It is safe to portal from here, we are far enough from the volcano that it will not interfere.” A flicker of embarrassment crosses her features, “If you’re not too drained, would you cast it? I dare not do any more magic tonight without my pendant.”

Unable to curb her curiosity, Yennefer tilts her head, “Why? Portals are not especially dangerous.”

Tissaia straightens her already ramrod back and raises her chin defiantly but she cannot keep the quiver from her voice,

“I am already… unsettled. Any portal I cast is unlikely to be stable.” She pauses, biting her lower lip but letting her eyes flicker up to Yennefer’s, “I have learnt my limits, Yennefer, do not make me break them...I ask this of you.”

If she had to hazard a guess, Yennefer would wager they are no longer talking about casting spells or draining one’s Chaos but of something far more human. Perhaps with mages like them it is the same thing. Consumed by their emotions, their desires. Her throat goes dry at the implications of Tissaia admitting she is balancing on a knife-edge but Yennefer finds her first instinct is to protect rather than exploit this woman. And so, she splits the air for the two of them and guides them through time and space towards the main gate of the tower.

Between the tower’s courtyard and the marketplace a wide bridge crosses the moat. It is deserted at this hour save for a lone cart the dairy maid has parked just inside the gate. The sudden appearance of two women out of thin air on the bridge spooks her carthorse.The beast rears, upsetting the load, making the churns of milk topple off the wagon and barrel down the sloped bridge towards the sorceresses. Fast and heavy enough to knock a hulking Skelliger greatsword off his feet, two slender women stand no chance and Yennefer yanks Tissaia out of the way in the nick of time. The stones of the bridge’s parapets at her back have knocked the wind out of Tissaia but it is the heavy warmth of Yennefer pressed against her front that steals her breath away. The sounds of the carthorse’s clattering hooves against cobbles and the dairy maid bemoaning the loss of her produce is muffled, as though far away, and Tissaia can neither think nor feel anything other than how much she is aching . Yearning, her body arching up into Yennefer and hands gripping tighter than they need to maintain her balance. Yennefer’s arm bracketing her either side, palms pressed against the wall and so close that a curl of hair is tickling Tissaia’s temple, each rise and fall of their chests pressing them deliciously even closer for a brief moment. In the cold grey of dawn, Tissaia can pretend she imagines the darkening in Yennefer’s eyes but the gravel in her voice is harder to ignore,

“Are you alright?”

Yes.” Tissaia breathes the word, not trusting her voice to say anything more elaborate. 

For one terrifyingly wonderful moment, Yennefer leans in closer, ducking her head but mere seconds pass before she pulls back and steps away. Colour creeps up her cheeks making her skin look like the dusky roses Tissaia grows in her gardens in Aretuza. Which is an unfortunate comparison to make because now Tissaia can only think of cupping her and inhaling the scent of her as she does the blooms. Summoning the last of her self-will, Tissaia pushes herself off the wall to standing upright and clears her throat,

“I must go arrange compensation for the goods we destroyed. Try to sleep - you’ll need it after the fire spells.”

Although she worries that Yennefer will outright refuse and insist they address this development, Tissaia is relieved when the woman nods and leaves without a word. She pays the dairy maid more than the milk was worth and tells herself it is generosity rather than a fervent hope that she will not spread gossip. The Chapter is already suspicious over her protectiveness of Yennefer, they do not need further fuel.

In her rooms, Tissaia paces back and forth despite her weariness. She has been simmering for days now, her blood surging, everything usually held in check by her pendant now surfacing and demanding attention in its absence. The old ways her mother taught her, the dark memories of Falka, the conflicting emotions surrounding her own Rectoress, her Chaos relishing the freedom to flow untethered. All of it making her unsteady until she feels she may split out of her own skin. There is a solution but she is loath to employ it. It is something she has fought against most of her adult life, a misconception that she has worked tirelessly to banish. That a woman’s power is somehow tied to her sexuality, that a girl cannot be a Conduit if still a virgin. Ridiculous male-driven notions. The idea worms itself into her mind though and will not be banished. 

Emotions become Chaos - it is the first principle she teaches but she often neglects the reverse side of the coin. Chaos can become feelings. It is a technique de Winter taught her in the days when her Chaos was unpredictable as the sea surrounding Aretuza. Tissaia makes a face at herself - it is no ‘technique’, it is nothing as refined as that.

Unleashing your Chaos is dangerous, girl, but turning it into something less volatile and then releasing it is a quick way to restore your Balance. Some turn it into sadness and cry, some into physical energy and run until they drop, some bring themselves a different kind of… release. Do you know what I speak of or must I explain the intimate details?

Tissaia flushes at the memory of de Winter shaking her head in answer to her own question. 

I believe you know exactly what I mean. Go, tend to what you must and then return to my class with a clearer head.  

Nowadays, on the rare occasions that she finds herself dangerously unbalanced, Tissaia usually opts to cry. Quietly and with what dignity she can, always late at night so her eyes are no longer puffy the next morning. Today though, she groans out loud at the insistent heat in her belly that will not leave now that she has acknowledged its presence. 

Very well, if this is what it takes to survive until her pendant is restored, so be it. She ignores the bed and its inviting cushions - this is going to be done out of necessity, not pleasure. She will not allow herself to enjoy this. Leaning against the wall though only makes her think of being in the same position not half an hour ago with Yennefer’s hips nuding at her own.

She settles at last for sitting in the window seat with her feet propped against one wall and her back against the other. The glass is stained and bevelled so she will only be a moving smudge of colour to anyone who happens to look up. She draws the curtains round the alcove to screen herself from the room and the irrational fear that someone will enter without knocking. It was a mistake not to remove her undergarments before getting into position but she is too embarrassed by the whole situation to get up and undress. Between her voluminous skirts and unyielding corset, the angle is awkward but she finally manages to get her hand where it needs to be. Her other hand braces herself against the panelled wood of the alcove though at some point she is forced to bring it to her mouth and bite down on the knuckles to keep from making noise. She will not let this be an undoing, an unravelling. She is taking back Control, not losing it. 

When it is over, she is shaking, sweat dampening her hair round her forehead and temples. The release restores her balance, just as it always does, but she is horrified to find it has done nothing to ease the ache in her chest. De Winter forgot to mention, perhaps on purpose, that release does not always bring satisfaction. Tipping her head back against the wall and sighing, Tissaia lets weariness win in the hopes that sleep will dull the hollow feeling she knows is what other people call ‘loneliness’. She had forgotten what it is to want, to need, another person. And now, Yennefer is all she can remember.

 

Artwork: @ehay

Chapter Text

Balls have never been Yennefer’s favourite activity; she enjoys dancing but more often than not ends up spending the evening embroiled in intrigue and political machinations. She resents that the simple pleasures of music and dance have become a vehicle for negotiations and gossip. The ball to conclude this Conclave at Tor Carnedd had been no different and she’d sidestepped any and all offers with distaste. That was until Tissaia had held out her hand and quirked an eyebrow. There was nothing to be gained in the offer, no ulterior motive, no political agenda and Yennefer had been powerless to refuse. The tension that had been simmering between them since the bridge yesterday morning only thickened during their dance. 

They’d danced again and again, Tissaia’s attentions bordering on possessive. Fingers around Yennefer’s wrist, a hand on the small of her back, linking their elbows - her hold shifting through the evening but never letting go, as though it were vital they remain joined in some way. Despite the late hour, when the Ball finally wound down Tissaia had drawn Yennefer close, murmuring against her ear,

“I don’t want to be alone tonight - will you stay with me?” 

And now, here they are, in Tissaia’s chambers, barefoot on a couch. And quite alone.

Yennefer knows what she wants (has finally admitted to herself that she does want) and how to get it. It's simple, all she has to do is lean in and kiss her. She knows Tissaia will respond in kind (after some hesitation certainly) but eventually she’ll give in and let Yennefer have her way. She can read it in the other woman’s body, the way she keeps drifting closer without realising it. But Yennefer can’t do it. She growls in frustration and swings her legs off the sofa to stand and pace. Tissaia makes a disappointed noise, blushing at the involuntary needy sound before asking,

“What’s wrong?”

Yennefer sighs, curling her fingers roughly through her hair, “I can’t keep lying… it started out as a prank, a stupid prank. I wanted to rile you up but then you started to soften, you were kinder to me than I’ve ever known you to be.” She pulls the pendant from where it has been burning a hole in her pocket, heavy against her thigh. “I enjoyed you being less constrained and thought if I gave you this back then you’d return to being so guarded, so shut-off.” Tissaia’s eyes widen in surprise and then grow hooded as her eyebrows draw together. Yennefer makes herself sit back down and lays the amulet on the cushion, “I can’t bear the thought of going back to the way we were, but I don’t want” she gestures between them, “ this to happen under false pretences.”

Tissaia takes the pendant slowly, lips thinned to almost nothing, and Yennefer feels her heart sink. It had been so tempting to reach out and take what she has wanted for as long as she can remember. To have Tissaia, completely and unreservedly. But she wants it to be real, to be a choice Tissaia makes rather than the result of her being unbalanced. 

It is desperation that makes Yennefer foolish, she has no choice in the matter. This whole week has been about Tissaia trying to keep a handle on herself without her anchor, but it is Yennefer who breaks first, pure feeling driving her to lunge forward and press her mouth to Tissaia’s. The woman makes a surprised sound and stiffens but then Yennefer feels the cold weight of the pendant hitting her knee as it slips from Tissaia’s grasp. The woman’s hands come up to grip Yennefer’s shoulders instead, pulling her closer, sliding further to the back of her neck and fingers digging in almost painfully. Too afraid to move slowly or tenderly lest Tissaia change her mind in the time it takes, Yennefer pulls her roughly to the bed, breaking their kiss only to glance down momentarily so her hand knows where to reach as she hikes Tissaia’s skirts up. The warm curve of a thigh beneath her palm, Tissaia arching up into her so that the buttons on her gown dig into Yennefer’s chest, the gasp that turns into a whimpered,

“Oh, Yennefer…”

It’s suddenly too much and Yennefer falters (which she never does), going still as stone. As the heat that had been driving her mad dissipates, Yennefer registers she has somehow been stripped of her gown in the time it took to reach the bed. She cannot recall who pulled it from her, herself or Tissaia. And oh, Tissaia… hair mussed and lips swollen, the top button of her bodice pulled loose on its thread, skirts bunched up round her hips. Swallowing the lump in her throat, Yennefer tries to make her limbs move but they won’t. It’s ridiculous, she’s bedded dozens, men and women. But this is Tissaia . Tissaia who remembers Yennefer’s body before it was made beautiful. Tissaia who has years of experience and knows things Yennefer couldn’t even imagine. Tissaia who in her own strange way has cared for her all these years. Tissaia who, for all that they have made new memories this last week, is still the face of everything Yennefer hates – the Chapter, Aretuza, Control. Her voice hoarse, Yennefer stammers,

“I can’t… we’re not alone. You bring our entire history to bed with you, you’re not just a person I want to fuck…”

Even to her own ears, it makes no sense, but Yennefer cannot find the words to explain it and the hurt expression on Tissaia’s face betrays that she has said something too close to the bone. Of all the reactions she might have expected though, Yennefer is wholly unprepared for what happens next. Tissaia reaches up to cup her face with such tenderness it steals what little breath Yennefer still had,

“Will you run from me again?”

Shutting her eyes against the emotions threatening to overwhelm her, feeling her eyelashes brush against Tissaia’s thumb, Yennefer pulls herself away with a wretched noise.

“I’m sorry, I can’t.”

She’s halfway across the room before she remembers she is naked and fumbles with a sheet folded on top of the linen chest, pulling it round herself even as she keeps running. Out the door, down the corridors, no destination in mind.

 

 ---

 

For all that her pendant’s absence had weakened Tissaia’s impulse control, she has enough innate level-headedness to pause and pull on a fur cloak before hurrying after Yennefer. She argues it is practicality and common sense that makes her remove her restrictive ballgown first, she will be better able to chase after the younger woman. She is a fundamentally honest individual however and she cannot deny the pleasure she gains in releasing her chest from the tight bodice so her nipples brush against the soft fur lining of her cloak, soothing the arousal cut painfully short. She’d seen Yennefer panic, had watched the moment the significance of their actions dawned on her and her mind resorted to the primal flight response of safety. Tissaia had had her eyes open, unwilling to let a single second pass her by, drinking in the sight of Yennefer naked and wanting , holding herself above Tissaia and kissing her just as passionately, just as recklessly, as Tissaia had imagined she might.

There is a fine trace of Yennefer’s Chaos for Tissaia to follow out the doors and up the mountain path. She reaches the pool and then the cleft in the rock, and finally up onto the slopes. Yennefer is at the standing stone, her palm pressed against the carvings and the other clutching at the edges of the sheet is wearing. Tissaia calls out as she approaches,

“It is simply bad manners to leave a lady half-finished in the bed you pushed her into.” She softens her tone as she reaches Yennefer’s side, “Though something tells me this is a rare occurrence for you.”

Yennefer scoffs and glowers at the stone shamefacedly, “More like entirely new… I have never had that happen before.”

“Faltering like a virgin then running out the door half-naked? No, I don’t expect you have.”

Hackles raising and shoulders hunching like they used to to guard against pain, Yennefer snarls, “If you’ve come to mock me-”

Tissaia interrupts her, laying a gentle hand on her bare shoulder and insisting, “Do not think it, even for a moment.”

Yennefer sighs and looks up at the stone, “I thought coming here might help.”

Tucking an errant curl back behind Yennefer’s ear, Tissaia smiles, “You thought an ancient elven monolith would give you the courage to bed me?”

Yennefer smiles in return, bashfully looking at her feet, “Well when you say it like that it just sounds silly.”

A gust of wind nearly rips the sheet from her and she shivers violently, her teeth starting to chatter. Tissaia takes her by the hand and leads her back down through the passage to the pool without saying a word. The warmth of the water makes Yennefer hiss as she steps into it, feeling returning to her extremities too quickly. Tissaia waits until she has settled against an edge and stopped shivering then slowly pulls her fur cloak from her shoulders. She does not miss the way Yennefer’s eyes widen and it sets her mind at ease. It is not a lack of desire that sent Yennefer running, only the fear of intimacy. And this, this Tissaia can work with. A small voice in her mind warns that it is dangerous to encourage such openness, such closeness, such entanglement . She pushes it away and steps into the water until it is past her hips then wades over to Yennefer.

“Turn around.”

The younger woman raises an eyebrow, “Really, the time for modesty is long past.”

Stepping closer, close enough that the ripples of water she makes lap against Yennefer’s skin, Tissaia places her hands on the woman’s shoulders and pulls her to turn.

“I couldn’t agree more. I want to see you.” Realisation dawns on Yennefer and she resists for a moment until Tissaia leans up to murmur against her ear, “Trust me.”

Releasing a shuddering breath, Yennefer allows herself to be moved round until her back is to Tissaia, her hair gathered up and draped over her shoulder. Tissaia runs her fingers lightly down Yennefer’s spine, inspecting the changes worked nearly six years ago. She might have expected a scar or some discolouration in the skin from the paint, but Giltine has surpassed himself. Her hands still skimming over shoulder blades and down vertebrae, Tissaia sighs in wonder,

“Flawless…”

“Stunning?”

Tissaia does not miss the significance of the adjective but does not reply immediately instead conjuring a sea-sponge and soap. Lathering the sponge, she glides it over Yennefer’s trapezius and round her shoulders.

“You’ve always been stunning.” Tissaia chuckles a little, “Making me feel like I’d been hit between the eyes kind of stunning. Every time you argued or pulled a stunt with some unchecked Chaos.”

She feels rather than sees the smile in response, the muscles beneath her hands starting to relax as she washes the long length of Yennefer’s torso.

“You were stunning though, even before Enchantment.”

Shoulders stiffen once again and Yennefer scolds, “Don’t pander to me, I know I was ugly to look at.”

Lowering the sponge so both her hands are free, Tissaia holds Yennefer by both shoulders, her chin resting between her shoulder blades.

“I wasn’t looking at your body. I was looking at you.

Yennefer gives a disbelieving snort, shrugging to hide how desperately she wants it to be true. Tissaia sighs then instructs,

“Close your eyes.”

“Not this again, Rectoress.”

As before, Yennefer eventually obeys, her skin pebbling as Tissaia shifts in the water to stand by her side, a hand skimming over her ribs and down her waist, feeling Yennefer tremble under the touch. With her other hand, Tissaia’s fingers graze through Yennefer’s hair to settle at her temple mimicking the gesture she’d used all those years ago in front of Giltine’s mirror. The same spell as before allows them to access each other’s mental images but this time the transfer goes from Tissaia to Yennefer. Sharing the memory of that day, the affection and pride, the growing sorrow over losing the younger woman to her bright future. Emotions that cannot be falsified in such transferences.

“It is the truth, Yennefer. You were beautiful to me .”

Their height difference means Tissaia’s forehead is barely level with the nape of Yennefer’s neck but she steps close, gliding her arms round the younger woman’s waist until they are flush together and presses her lips to Yennefer’s spine. The raw sound escaping her reverberates against Tissaia’s hands, their bodies so close that every breath is known and measured, every heartbeat felt and answered by another from a different chest. Yennefer turns in her arms to face her and cups her neck, thumbing gently at the skin left bare without chain and medallion.

“I’m sorry I took your pendant. I’m sorry I’ve been wretched to you since Ascension.”

Tissaia nuzzles at her, combing fingers through long black hair, “Do you know my pendant has a safeguarding spell? It should be impossible for anyone but me to touch it without it burning through their palm. Only someone I trust completely, innately, is able to bypass the Enchantment.”

“You mean, when I picked it up…”

“I was as surprised as you when you told me you’d sent it to another dimension. It has a mind of its own, as you’ve no doubt discovered these last few days, and had seen what I could not at the time. You are someone, the only person in a long time, who I do not need to be shielded from and whom I do not need to hide my darkest parts from.”

Yennefer’s smile is wide, so different to her customary smirk, and it makes something unfurl inside Tissaia’s chest. Bending her head to rest their foreheads together, hands cupping Tissaia’s cheeks, Yennefer sighs,

“I’ve never felt safe with anyone but you.”

“Then will you let me take you to bed? Will you allow me to love you?”

Tissaia knows the word ‘love’ is used as an activity nowadays, a genteel way of describing intercourse. The sort one might read in a dreadful novel, ‘he laid her down and loved her’. If Yennefer chooses to hear that meaning, then Tissaia will not press the matter, but she meant them as two distinct questions. Yes, she wants to bed the woman, aches to have her, taste her, be inside her. But oh, she wants to love her also, wants permission to accept the feelings she has denied for so long. Yennefer does not reply, only nods and slips her hand into Tissaia’s, following her out of the pool. They dry themselves with magic, fashion a gown of sorts from the sheet for Yennefer, Tissaia pulling her furs back on. When they are dressed, they link hands again and Tissaia leads the way back down the path.

 

--- 

 

The walk back should seem cold and tedious, an unnecessary discomfort when they could just as easily have portalled to their room. Yennefer is floating though, every step twisting the anticipation in her tighter and tighter. Tissaia has taken the tumultuous desire and overwhelming intensity of earlier and turned it into a wonderful aching want. It is new to Yennefer, being seduced, being cared for, surrendering control.

Tissaia sits on the edge of the bed, spreading herself down and leaning back on her hands.

“Come here.”

The tilt of her head and jut of her chin, eyes sultry under hooded lids, lips softening from their usual pinched line to part invitingly. Yennefer has never seen the arch-mage’s face even remotely similar before; beckoning, lustful. The last of her nerves (and stubbornness) burnt away by the heat that pools in her abdomen, Yennefer obediently crosses to the bed and sinks to her knees between Tissaia’s thighs. Leaning forward, she presses her cheek to Tissaia’s chest, hands sliding round to clutch at her narrow back. Gentle fingertips trace her jaw, lingering over the old hurt there before tucking under her chin and lifting so she is looking up at Tissaia. The blue of her eyes deepened to cornflower and sharp features softened in the firelight. Surging forward, Yennefer kisses her, full of longing and urgency but the older woman brings her fingers between them to press against her mouth and hushes,

“Shhhh. Slowly.”

Some small part of Yennefer bristles at being told what to do, it’s not as if she’s a blushing virgin requiring instruction! But such thoughts vanish as Tissaia hooks an arm under Yennefer’s to press her close with a hand on her back, the other hand sliding through her hair to cradle her skull, nails scraping gently against her scalp. Kissing her with slow deliberation, every brush of her lips made with intent, nothing done carelessly. Fumbling with the fastenings, Yennefer undoes Tissaia’s cloak, something breaking loose inside her when the woman arches her back to assist in its removal. The knowledge that Tissaia wants this, wants her is enough to make Yennefer whimper, the sound swallowed by Tissaia as she deepens their kisses.

Before Yennefer can undo her makeshift gown, Tissaia pulls her up onto the bed and lays her down, kneeling over her with the little smile that always makes Yennefer shiver.

“Allow me?”

Her hands hover over Yennefer’s ties and only proceed to pull them apart one by one when Yennefer nods. Tissaia’s palms press against her ribcage, fluttering her fingers over the ridges and planes of her making Yennefer arch her spine into her touch. Yennefer reaches out and rests her forefinger between Tissaia’s clavicles, tracing where the chain of her pendant would sit were it not lying forgotten somewhere in the room. Desperate for more, she sits up and links her arms around Tissaia’s torso, bending her head so she can kiss at the notch where her pulse makes the skin quiver. Tissaia clutches at her and tips her head back in invitation, throat pale and taut, exposed . Yennefer is thorough in her exploration, tasting each angle and curve so that she may commit it to memory. The arch between ear and chin, the span of collarbones and the column from jaw to shoulder, teeth nipping at tendons and making Tissaia hiss in admonishment.

“You’ll mark me.”

“Do you want me to stop?”

The groan Tissaia makes is muffled as she presses her lips to Yennefer’s hair, the younger woman feeling rather than seeing her shake her head. By the time she is satisfied every inch of Tissaia’s neck has been reclaimed from the chain that once hung round it, Yennefer’s lips are swollen and Tissaia’s eyes almost black with want. She rolls them, surprisingly strong, lithe limbs tugging at Yennefer until she has her where she wants her. Pulled close, lying on their sides, legs tangled so thighs nudge against the places that make them both gasp. Tissaia’s hands settle on Yennefer’s hips, reassuringly firm in their grip as she guides her to move, rolling her against the smooth warmth of her thigh. It suddenly seems absurd to Yennefer that in all her years of all those lovers, not once has she ever done this. Side-by-side, no one on top, no one submitting. Only a give and take, balance and control as they each steady the other, stabilizing themselves at an angle they could not maintain alone. For the first time, she understands: submitting to Chaos is not the same as surrendering Control. She can’t help but wonder if Tissaia is also beginning to understand this, surrender without submission.

As though she can tell Yennefer’s thoughts are not focused on them (she probably can, Yennefer is making no effort to shield her mind) Tissaia nips at her neck in reprimand. Nudges herself higher onto Yennefer’s hip and rocks against her, shockingly wet. Yennefer closes her eyes in an effort to slow herself down, but Tissaia insists,

“Look at me. I want to see you.”

Her hips move of their own accord, jerking under Tissaia’s hands as Yennefer pants. She hovers on the edge for what seems a lifetime, Tissaia working closer and closer until they are suspended together in the last breath of space before the fall. Just as she thinks she cannot bear it any longer, Yennefer feels Tissaia shudder and joins her with a cry, bending her neck so their foreheads touch. She does it because she is seeking closeness but Tissaia cups her face to keep them pressed together and lowers the barriers round her mind, turning the simple touch into so much more. The explosion of sensations down Yennefer’s body radiating out from her pelvis is magnified by the waves of feeling Tissaia shares.Yennefer had not known thought transference could be so tangible, so visceral. So many thoughts and wishes and hopes and memories all flooding her mind. only subsiding when their bodies calm, leaving Yennefer breathless and tearful.

Tissaia…

Tissaia hushes, thumbing at her cheeks, “I know. I know, sweet girl.”

She draws sheets and blankets over them with an incantation, unwilling to let go of Yennefer long enough to do so manually. Breathing in the scent of Tissaia, utterly spent and unable to stop her eyes from closing, Yennefer falls asleep still inextricably tangled up in the other woman’s limbs. 

It is in her last moments of lucidity that Yennefer thinks she hears Tissaia murmur, “I’m sorry” but in the years that follow she will never be certain whether she only imagined the whispered apology.

When she wakes the next morning, both Tissaia and the pendant are gone. The fading scent of her on the pillows is the only proof it hadn’t all been some wonderful, terrible dream. And, as she runs her fingers over her kiss-swollen lips, Yennefer knows – she will never be satisfied ever again. Not now, not after this.

Chapter Text

Tissaia is coiling her hair up as she watches the waves through the window of her chambers. She’s done this tens of thousands of times, the movements so familiar that she needs no mirror to gaze in, no guide for her hands as she tucks three pins in to secure the elegant twist she’s made. One piece of hair doesn’t lay flat - pulling free when it sticks to her damp palms.

Tissaia’s jaw jumps in annoyance at her body betraying her nervousness. After smoothing out the strand that escaped from the pins, she crosses to the armoire. In a shallow drawer, dozens of pairs of gloves are arranged neatly in a spectrum of colours ranging from light to dark. The collection is divided also by fabric and length; evening satin gloves with pearl buttons that reach her elbows, a leather pair with bronze wrist guards and snug cuffs that sit round her forearms for when she is training in non-magical combat. From the section designed for muffling the chill without sacrificing elegance, Tissaia pulls a pair of softened leather, dyed burgundy to match the inner lining of her sleeves. They will hide the manifestation of her anxiety. A reassuring layer between her and the world. She can do little to mask the thin film of sweat on her upper lip other than dab at it with more powder and take several deep breaths, forcing her body back under the control of her mind. A final glance in the mirror to check her appearance, patting her hair smooth, she summons her chaos.

The portal opens at her command but she hesitates for a moment when she confirms what she had already suspected. The house on the Redanian bank of the Pontar is unwarded, not a single barrier in place. Tissaia frowns. The lack of security makes her task easier, but it is dangerous to be so blatantly...accessible. And yet, she thinks with more than a little regret, she would have expected nothing less from Yennefer. Perhaps she wants to be found. Or maybe she believes no one would be looking for her. Tissaia cannot decide which option makes her ache more. 

As though a window had suddenly opened in a stuffy room she is assaulted with new scents. Cool air, damp with rain and river mud. Incense, thick and cloyingly sweet, but only in occasional bursts as though drifting in from another room. And yes, there it is, the scent Tissaia has simultaneously tried to forget and to remember. It irks her that she cannot recall the smell itself but the effect it has on her seldom leaves her mind. 

Lilac and gooseberries. Sweet with a sharpness, soft petals and prickly thorns. The two starkly contrasting sides to Yennefer’s personality blended into one captivating perfume. 

The source of the scent is the first thing Tissaia’s eyes land on as she steps through. A bottle with its stopper lying beside it, precariously close to the edge of the dressing table and too close to Yennefer’s elbow for comfort. It is ridiculous but the most pressing matter in Tissaia’s brain suddenly becomes the fear that the bottle will be knocked over, smashed to pieces and its precious contents wasted. Carelessness. Reckless, stupid, willful carelessness. 

Yennefer is impressively unfazed by the sudden, albeit subtle, appearance of her old Rectoress in her mirror. Not even an eyelash out of place as she paints her lips in a vivid red. A horrid, garish colour to match the bitter curl of her lip that Tissaia knows will soon appear. Oh how she wishes she could kiss both the colour and the spite away, kiss until those lips soften into a smile as they had that night in the Hengfors. It’s been over thirty years since that week in the snow and fire and Tissaia doesn’t think she’s been properly warm any day since.

While she has thought about this moment for years, decades even, the words that pass her lips are the product of spontaneity rather than strategy.

“You like pain, I get it.”

Immediately, she curses herself as she hears the innuendo behind her words. What is she even referring to? The pain Yennefer causes herself in this fruitless search for a cure? The pain of the grudge she insists on carrying? 

There is the slightest twitch under Yennefer’s right eye but otherwise nothing. Not until she is satisfied with her lips and lowers her brush. Only then does she lock eyes with Tissaia in the mirror,

“I inflict pain.”

I know. Is what Tissaia wants to say but there appears to be two conversations at play simultaneously. These barbs they are trading back and forth are an act: it is the unspoken that lingers in the air between them making it thick and heavy. 

“My dear, you still think there’s a difference.”

Tissaia manages to twist her grimace into a brief, condescending smile (the mirror is invaluable; she can watch her own face and ensure she is giving nothing away).

The endearment was meant as an insult but all Tissaia can hear is her own voice, breathless and tender, saying those same words as Yennefer had kissed between her legs. No - that was not what had happened in Tor Carnedd. It is only one of her own imaginings, the waking dreams that plague her in the sleepless hours before dawn.

“It’s been too long. I haven’t seen you for years .” Almost forty in fact. Mere minutes to a mage who has lived as many lifetimes as Tissaia but they have been the longest years she’s ever known. “Not since you maneuvered your way onto Aedirn’s Court.”

Yennefer hums in distaste, her eyebrows and mouth pulling into disdainful amusement. She doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t need to. Tissaia can hear it plain as day,

We’re to pretend Tor Carnedd never happened? Very well.

“King Virfuril is fine, I’m sure.”

Tissaia lists the succession of kings, gives a tidy summation of where the Continent stands. Talking about everything but their own state of affairs. The dig at Yennefer’s failures compared to Fringilla’s success is the first thing to get a rise out of the younger woman. Some things never change - Yennefer cannot bear to be second-best. She turns in her chair and their eyes meet properly for the first time rather than in the mirror. Tilting her head up defiantly, she snaps impatiently,

“Why are you here?”

I miss you. I worry about you. I can’t forget you, no matter how hard I try.

It would be so easy to bend and press her lips to Yennefer’s, to slide a hand round the back of her head and pull her close. Biting the inside of her cheeks and pursing her lips as though she can physically swallow her emotions, Tissaia turns away sharply. Uses the brief moment of her face being hidden to gather herself, forces her voice to remain steady, disinterested even. Her knees are quaking with adrenaline so she crosses to the only other piece of furniture in the room that can be sat on. 

It is only as she steps up onto the short platform that raises the bed from the flagstone floor that Tissaia realises the stupidity of her actions. Disguising her hesitation, she inspects the sheer drapes on the bedpost. 

Oh this was a mistake. 

Despite the surprisingly tidy bedsheets, she can see the rumples here and there from where Yennefer lies. The indentations in the pillows - does she still bundle them up and cuddle into them, Tissaia wonders. The drapes are thin, as is the coverlet, and Tissaia cannot help wondering whether elegance is being achieved at the cost of warmth. Watching the gauzy fabric flutter in the wake of her touch, she is suddenly struck with the image of shadowy forms shifting behind the drapes. Limbs tangled, silhouettes hinting at hands melding with curves, the definition of the fingers disappearing as they meet warm dark places. The picture is too detailed, too clear, to have been conjured on the spur of the moment from her own imagination. And it is not being projected by Yennefer. Which means it is an afterglow, a residual trace of Chaos embedded in an object where a scene has been imagined so vividly, so often, that it becomes part of the fabric. Within the shadowy pair, Tissaia recognises a small figure with their hair in a bun. The implication (that Yennefer has pictured her in this bed) makes her breath catch in her throat. A notion strikes her. Perhaps it is time to try a different strategy.

Sinking more comfortably into the mattress, she leans back on her hands so every part of her is clearly defined through the tight-fitting gown she’d agonised over this morning. Her pose is almost a direct reflection of when she had summoned Yennefer to kneel between her thighs in Tor Carnedd. She softens her voice, deepens it to the mellow pitch she knows used to make a young Yennefer shiver (no matter how hard she tried to hide it).

“You’re looking for something.”

It is a hollow victory when the delicate skin under Yennefer’s eye twitches again and she turns back to her mirror to fiddle with a pair of earrings. Her disinterest in Tissaia’s provocative pose would be hard to swallow if her inattention wasn’t so obviously forced. Yennefer might have grown adept at playing games but Tissaia has been alive long enough to know when someone is hiding something. 

“That’s why you’re here - to warn me.” As she hooks an earring through her earlobe, Yennefer deigns to flick her eyes over at Tissaia. “How can I ever repay you?”

And just like that, Tissaia loses the upper hand. The suggestiveness of earlier is thrown back in her face as Yennefer projects a memory at her with a smirk. It is a scene Tissaia remembers but seen through Yennefer’s eyes rather than her own. The man’s hands hot as he paws at her bodice, Tissaia clenching her hand so tightly the tablecloth is creasing, her lips parted desperately trying to draw air. This time, Tissaia does not have to infer the unspoken meaning in Yennefer’s silence - her thoughts are as loud and brash as her crimson lipstick.

I could pay you in pleasure - you seemed to enjoy watching me… what was the phrase you used? ‘Whore myself’. It wouldn’t be the first time you had me fuck you, would it?

Tissaia’s jaw clenches, Yennefer’s words causing physical pain. 

Don’t. Do not cheapen what we shared.  

Rather than allowing these thoughts to be heard, she stands, almost stamping her foot in anger, biting out the words.

“Don’t be petty! This is on you .”

They argue about Enchantment and its impossible cures. About Yennefer’s disregard for her responsibilities and Tissaia’s stubborn refusal to imagine anything more than what she already knows to be true. They argue about everything except what they need to.

In a final bid to make this more than a wasted trip, Tissaia resorts to coaxing. Lays her hands on Yennefer’s shoulders and asks her to come home. That’s all she’s ever wanted, isn’t it? Somewhere to call home.

“It is time to move on. Return to Aretuza.” To me. Come back to me.

When Yennefer stands and walks away, Tissaia resists gripping the back of the chair, instead clenching her hands inside her gloves so tightly the leather creaks. She had assumed Yennefer’s crossing to the cabinet in the far corner was a distraction to obtain some insignificant trinket. When she sees the pendant, dark and glossy on its ribbon, Tissaia’s heart leaps into her throat. The hope it conjures makes her step forward, wringing her hands in emphasis as she encourages,

“You could use your talents to shape a new generation.”

It is a mistake. One in a long line of misjudgements she has made today. Yennefer’s voice is dripping with sarcasm,

“Am I hearing this right? The great Tissaia wants my help? What’s the matter?” Her eyes flick up and down Tissaia’s body, “Have you lost your touch?”

“Only you can be thrown a lifeline and think that you are saving me .”

Why saving? No one had said anything about needing to be rescued. Why does she worry that Yennefer believes Tissaia is asking to be saved?

“You’re afraid .” 

Oh the girl is infuriating! Because she has a knack for seeing everything but understanding nothing. Because Tissaia is afraid but not in the way Yennefer assumes. She does not fear being overshadowed or outshone. She fears regret. The regret that Yennefer no longer needs her, just as Tissaia has begun to realise that she needs Yennefer. No, not needs. Tissaia has lived long enough, suffered enough, to know that humans can survive on precious little happiness. She does not need Yennefer, she will not die without her. But oh, she wants her. 

“Afraid I’ll be everything you could never be. Without you.”

Despite the less restrictive neckline on this gown, Tissaia feels as though a noose were being drawn around her throat. It is the pendant, heavy on its chain, her neck aching with the weight of it. Yet it is the only thing holding her together; without it she would be a tearful mess. The one small comfort in this entire wretched situation is that she can feel Yennefer’s Chaos bristling, radiating off her and eagerly seeking the edges of Tissaia’s. However, the scant reassurance is destroyed when Tissaia realises the significance of Yennefer retrieving her own amulet. She wishes to put it on and rein in her feelings, subdue her Chaos. And the cruel irony is not lost on Tissaia. Yennefer will be smothering any warmth she may still harbour for her using the very tools Tissaia gave her. 

“How did we get this way?” she asks quietly. “I gave you all I could give.” I could not stay, I could not wake the next morning and face you. Not when it would mean having to say goodbye, having to explain the things which I cannot let go of, those things that keep my hands from being free to hold what I might wish to. “What more do you want?”

Tissaia already knows the answer, but hearing Yennefer say it out loud is heartbreaking. Doubly so because of the resignation on the younger woman’s face as she lays down her ultimatum. Tissaia is not the only one in the room who already knows that she is incapable of giving anything more.

“Everything.”

Her eyes close briefly as Tissaia swallows the pain, trying to get her breath past the lump in her throat and the weight of her chain. The pendant has begun to thrum, warming her skin even through the stiff boning of her corset. It knows when someone who has touched it is close by. In the days after she’d run away from Yennefer at Tor Carnedd, Tissaia had examined her amulet, curious about the effects of it spending so long in another person’s possession. There had been nothing to suggest anything had changed within it but now, Tissaia knows. Her pendant, just like its mistress, has missed Yennefer. She wonders if Yennefer’s star also remembers, does it recall her touch and the instructions she gave it? To guard and protect, to steady and soothe. 

Just as she is summoning the courage to turn around, tear off her gloves and watch what happens if she closes her fingers around the glossy black disc, if she lets the weight of her own drop into Yennefer’s palm, Tissaia hears Yennefer dismiss her.

“You may go, Rectoress. I have business to attend to.”

Stepping back through the portal, Tissaia keeps her back straight and her chin held high, eyes front. If she had allowed herself to look back, she’d have seen Yennefer watching her in the mirror with a lingering sadness. Whether by luck or some subconscious design, Tissaia steps into her own rooms directly in front of a bedpost. The polished oak does not protest her weight as she collapses against it, arms around it and hands gripping hard enough to make permanent creases in her gloves. The solidity of it along the length of her body is comfort as she falls apart, sobs racking her chest. Soundless ones though; she does not have the energy to cast a muffling charm and no one can be allowed to hear this. 

As Tissaia catches her breath and wipes ineffectually at her streaming nose, it occurs to her she did not get a chance to try her final strategy. She had planned, if all else failed, to apologise. Examining her eyes red and spiky-lashed with crying in the mirror, Tissaia releases a long shuddering sigh. Perhaps the time for asking forgiveness has long since passed. Perhaps it is too late.

 

---

 

The candles flicker in a breeze even though there are no windows open. Even now, after all this time, Yennefer still gets a thrill whenever her power physically manifests itself. A stirring in the air, a rumble in the distance, a transformation right in front of people’s eyes. The young girl rapt with wonder as a boy conjured a gateway in thin air, when a woman lifted a stone with a word, is still inside her somewhere. Yennefer’s penchant for dramatic flair has served her well since leaving Aedirn; the fools she conjures remedies and talismans for fall for spectacle quicker than anything else. It does not escape her that she is now closer to the old ways she had once mocked Tissaia for than she is to being a Sorceress. Plying charms and amulets, screening her magic behind ancient superstitions and folktales, the homespun remedies belying her sheer power. But it pays, and no one tells her what to do or where to direct her energies. 

Snapping her concentration back to the present, Yennefer blocks out the bard’s bleating and focuses on the binding spell. The amphora painted on her abdomen stings, it is the same paint as the Artist had used on her spine years ago and her skin recoils in recognition. The incantation is one she knows but has never spoken out loud and she has to repeat it twice before the shadow appears.

“Avrei deh mae, a hael mae.”

She is conspicuously bare from navel to neck, her breasts only adding to the bard’s panic. It is the exposed skin round her throat however that makes Yennefer feel vulnerable. It is madness to attempt this binding without a pendant to protect her but she refuses to wear it - Tissaia will not have her hand in this endeavour, however indirectly. Even without the woman’s leash round her neck though, she still makes her presence felt when Yennefer is slumped on the floor, gritting her teeth and whimpers her name. She hates herself for it but it is still the word that comes to her lips whenever she is hurting. The Witcher appears in the doorway and Yennefer forces herself to straighten up, defiant and screaming loud as the howling wind that blows the candles out.

Her recklessness continues unchecked in the wake of the djinn’s escape as she throws herself with abandon at the Witcher. He is irritatingly irresistible, and Yennefer needs something to ease the pain and fear from her mind. Pleasure (brief but effective) proves to be an excellent remedy. When she wakes, he is gone and it hurts more than it should. Just once, she’d like to wake up with someone still there… 

She retrieves what little she can from the wreckage of the mayor’s house, a few dresses that survived the blast, some food and a horse. In the rubble, she finds her pendant miraculously intact, not a single scratch on its surface. Indestructible and impervious as its creator. It is several days later before she feels able to put it back on but when she does, Yennefer cannot help sighing in relief. It is comforting despite the control it demands of her. Not unlike her memories of Tissaia, somewhere along the way the pendant has become a part of her. 

Downriver from where Yennefer rides, along the Pontar all the way to the sea, there is a tower. Sitting in it is a woman with dark hair and pale face who runs her thumb over an amulet deep in thought. The pendant is quiet for now but it had rattled incessantly several days ago, its uneasiness mirrored in the dark storm clouds gathering across the bay in Redania. It trembles regularly in the seven years that follow, always making the woman frown and snatch at it with trepidation. She still doesn’t understand how it happens but Tissaia recognises it for the distress call that is. Yennefer is in danger but every time she tries to locate her, the woman’s trace is masked. Perhaps this is her penance, Tissaia thinks, to know that Yennefer is hurting but be powerless to help.

 

---

 

Entering a Conclave after seeing Yennefer for the first time since Rinde is dangerous ground for Tissaia. Not least because she has put two and two together and is now faced with the wonderful, dreadful, realisation that Yennefer is only here because she thought Tissaia had asked for her. Her mind moves faster than a spinning top, trying to unravel what has changed to make Yennefer respond in such a way to her supposed summons. The bitter, angry, spite that had been burning in the younger mage several years ago has dimmed. Tissaia almost finds herself missing it in the face of this new disillusionment and lethargy. Yennefer should not be so… dulled, so jaded. Burning hot and bright and dangerous yes but not this, it is not in her nature.

Tissaia’s balance still off-kilter after her encounter with Yennefer in the corridors means she does not have her usual iron-grip on her temper. Snapping at Stregobor is the first of several outbursts but oh, it is satisfying.

“All those years swinging his sword around were years he wasn’t serving as a mage.”

“Or killing babies born at an eclipse.”

There is an uneasy silence and he glares at her across the table. There had never been anything more than circumstantial evidence to link him to the killings. He’d been canny enough to make no secret of his interest in the Curse of the Black Sun whilst making sure he was never directly involved in the deaths. Only benefiting from someone else’s dirty work, turning a tragic accident into life-saving research. 

As equally out of character as Tissaia’s strident opinions is Yennefer’s silence, for once she seems content to hold her tongue. Though it does not last long and when she does speak it is just as incendiary Tissaia would have expected.

“I’d vote to burn it all down!”

“Cintra are proud and smart and difficult, yes, but I’d wager above else they are scared. We failed too and it is time now that risk not only our lives but our pride and try again.”

She is talking about Cintra but Tissaia can feel Yennefer’s eyes burning into her and knows she has hit a nerve elsewhere. And when she turns to catch her gaze, the look that passes between them is enough to make her heart skip a beat. It is the sudden, shocking hope that one feels when the first buds of Birke break through Imbolc’s snows. And, when the word ‘please’ escapes her lips in the corridor, she cannot find it in herself to regret it. 

 

---

 

It is futile trying to sleep but if she is huddled on the ground under a homespun blanket, Yennefer is more likely to be given the peace and quiet to turn her thoughts over and over. She chooses the spot amongst strangers on purpose, not wanting an audience to her furtive tears. The last few weeks have been one disappointment after the other… The dragon hunt crushing her last hope of a cure and bringing to light the devastating truth of Geralt’s wish in Rinde. The revelation that he had not afforded her the same courtesy she had given Tissaia; to allow her the choice of acting on her feelings in the knowledge that they were being manipulated by external factors. Then Nazair and even Istredd, steady, reliable Istredd, failed her. Maybe he’s right, maybe she’d never have been satisfied with him but it would have been nice to try. Returning to Aretuza an outcast and renegade rather than covered in glory like she had imagined as a girl, only to find Tissaia had not asked for her at all. And now, here in the freezing mud of a crumbling keep, resigned to dying. Or rather, she had been resigned but that was before Tissaia had handed her a tankard of ale. Sitting by one of the fires as they had done that Saovine long, long ago, so much and yet not enough having happened in the years since. 

It is true what she’d said; she has lived several lifetimes already. The regret and pity on her face when Tissaia had murmured, “you haven’t been satisfied in any of them” had made Yennefer want to bury her face in the woman’s lap and weep. 

Because she could have been, she came so close. They came so close to everything.

It is the anger on Tissaia’s face as she had insisted, “you still have so much to give” before walking away that sticks with Yennefer though.

What right does Tissaia have to be angry? It was her who ran away, not Yennefer. Her who hadn’t been able to find anything more within herself to give. 

Yennefer is pulled from her thoughts by the whining sound that builds to a roar, orange light making the sky glow as the burning sphere arcs towards the keep. It takes immense effort to halt and redirect it, the flames hissing angrily as she forces them to her will. The spots in her vision have barely faded before she sees the next one being fashioned on the hill across the battlefield. 

“Get up, get out!”

She screams at any refugees nearby because she will not have the strength to hold this next one. Biting back the whimper and brow creasing in concentration she forces her arms up in preparation, grits her teeth as she draws on the last of her reserves. The unexpected hands on her shoulders settle light and warm, gripping her with a gentle resoluteness. Even through the screaming of the projectile, she hears Tissaia’s voice brushing against her ear.

“I’m here. You will not falter.”

Though she wants nothing more than to sink into the woman behind her, Yennefer snarls,

“I don’t need you!”

“I know. That does not mean you are not allowed to want me.” A hand shifts from her shoulder down to her ribs and then skims up to settle over her sternum, fingers brushing over her pendant making the diamonds shimmer in response. “I could not give you everything but I can give you this. Allow me to. Please.”

Yennefer hesitates but nods, gasping as a new strength fills her, Tissaia’s Chaos flowing into her. Just as the sphere comes close enough that they can feel the heat radiating off it, she hears Tissaia,

“Show them what you can do, show them all what I see every time I look at you.”

The fireball halts at Yennefer’s command, suspended in the air before hurtling back where it came from, crashing into the Nilfgaardian barricades. All through the night the barrage is relentless, fire and stone being hurled at the keep. And when dawn breaks, Yennefer is still standing on the ramparts, sweaty and soot-stained. Not a single missile hit its target during the night, each one cast away or thrown back towards the invaders. In the mist and smoke, barely anyone notices the smaller figure stood behind her and, if they do, they would not recognise the dishevelled woman for the Rectoress of Aretuza. 

Tissaia’s face is pale and drawn in the morning light, strands of hair falling round her temples and a streak of soot down one cheek. Nodding at the crowds of refugees below them, staring up at Yennefer in awe, she smiles wearily.

“They see you for what you are. Magnificent.”

Yennefer scoffs to hide how touched she is by Tissaia’s sincerity but the woman refuses to let her brush it off.

“You don’t believe me?”

Yennefer smiles mirthlessly, “It’s not you… I have never been able to fully believe I’m anything but a girl in a pigpen.”

When Tissaia reaches out to free a black curl that has strayed, smoothing it carefully back into place, Yennefer’s breath hitches. The murmured apology that follows is enough to set her heart stuttering in her chest.

“Forgive me for any part I played in sowing that doubt.” As Tissaia lowers her hand from Yennefer’s hair, her fingers drift across her jaw, brief but tender. “I could never have been enough for you but that does not mean I could not have tried harder.”

Yennefer’s voice cracks but she knows she cannot blame it on the strain of defending the ramparts, 

“Tissaia, I-”

She is cut off by a shout below, Vilgefortz pointing towards the hill where a fog is rolling towards them with unnatural haste. Tissaia climbs down to the lower ramparts, stepping through a breach in the wall and crouching next to Coral to observe with a growing sense of dread. She and Vilgefortz muster the remaining mages between them, issuing instructions in what could be their final stand. 

As she takes Triss to the grassy outskirts of the walls, Tissaia berates herself. ‘Reserve your Chaos.’ A less-poignant farewell has never been made, Tissaia is certain of it. Except the familiar swell of Chaos brushing against the edge of her consciousness reminds Tissaia; it is not farewell, Yennefer is with her still.

Tissaia, can you hear me?

And oh, the sound of Yennefer’s voice is the best tonic for any weariness, any dismay. Warm and bright, tentative but defiant all rolled up in one and it makes Tissaia ache with the desire to live , to survive. She answers with the truth, with what has always been true.

I can. I’m here. With you.

---

 

In amongst the shadows and flames, there is a ripple of white light and Yennefer follows it. The trace is weak, muted in some strange way, but she knows the barrier spell is Tissaia’s. The last defence round the keep is the narrow stretch of grass that Nilfgaard has yet to cross and the only thing holding them at bay is the shield Tissaia has conjured. From behind, Yennefer sees her narrow shoulders dropping, the sway in her torso as she tries to keep her balance on unsteady feet. 

“You’re alive!”

Beneath the soot and blood streaking her face, Tissaia is deathly pale and it makes Yennefer’s stomach lurch with dread. Something is not right; Tissaia feels foggy as though seen through a dirty pane of glass and her nostrils are crusted with dried blood, her hairline damp with sweat.

“Yennefer…”

Tissaia’s voice is hoarse, tinged with surprise as though she does not dare believe they are both still here. The word is also rough in her mouth, grown unfamiliar after years without using it. With sudden vivid clarity, Tissaia recalls the last time she’d said Yennefer’s name out loud. Warm and sated, their limbs tangled and lips so close she’d breathed the word into Yennefer’s lungs. Dark hair twined round her fingers as she’d tipped her head forward, catching a glimpse of snow fluttering past the window before she’d drowned in violet eyes. 

Shaken from the pleasant memory back to the mud and blood and screaming, Tissaia falters. With a ragged breath, her hands drop to clutch at Yennefer as her knees buckle and the shield shatters. Yennefer falls to her knees beside her and half-demands, half-begs,

“No! We can’t give up.”

In the flickering light she sees Tissaia’s chain glinting amongst a darker shine and realises with horror it is blood. The metal has cut through the fabric of her gown and rubbed her skin raw, palpable heat radiating off the medallion as Yennefer leans closer. Something is forcing her pendant to breaking point. It is when Yennefer sees the blue-grey iridescence scattered across her bodice that she understands why Tissaia feels so strange, why her pendant is so strained. Dimeritium.

Fear makes her blood run cold. They are lost if Tissaia’s power has been shackled. With the last of her hope dashed and the sound of armoured footsteps approaching, Yennefer risks telling the truth.

“You saved me, I won’t ever forget that.”

Tissaia’s hand is cool on her cheek, soothing the cocktail of Chaos and pain that had been making her burn. 

“Let your Chaos explode.”

The fabric under her fingers is soft when Yennefer clutches at Tissaia’s sleeve, desperate to keep her hand where it is, afraid to have it pull away. But Tissaia stays, even tugs her gently so they are closer and Yennefer lets her forehead rest against the other woman’s. And it’s there, just as it was all those years ago, the same wonderful open warmth. Tissaia’s mind bright and beautiful and giving.  

I wanted to give you everything, I believed I could in that moment. Do you remember? 

I never forgot. I never wanted anything but you.

The flames under Yennefer’s skin swirl and ripple, each one a memory, a feeling, a desire. Not all of them belong to Tissaia but she can tell which ones do, they burn bright and gold in amongst the reds and oranges. It is tempting to release it all in one tangled mess, to split herself open and let it all pour out with a scream. Her pendant warm against her throat reminds her she does not need to. And so, she waits. Waits until she has made the patterns in her mind to weave each strand so it forms the shape she desires. No dragons or songbirds but a river, flowing strong and free except for a single boulder that is unshakeable and forces the water around it. And, when she is ready, Yennefer lets it all go. 

 

---

 

In the grey morning light, the ash still drifting through the air like snow settles on Tissaia’s gloved palm. She’s been searching all night. Where once she had forbidden herself from saying it out loud lest she make the feelings it conjures too real, she now screams it.

“Yennefer!”

The wrenching of her breath makes her chest tremble and her pendant quiver but, as she buries her face in her hands and sinks to her knees, she feels the amulet vibrate more insistently. Clenching her fist around it, she forces herself to stand. Too many times she has had to feel Yennefer’s suffering and do nothing. No more. Never again. 

I’m coming for you, I will find you. I will not let you go. Not this time. 

Tissaia learnt long ago how to hold onto that which must not be broken.