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Blooded Crown

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Nilfgaardian formal affairs had a standard routine that they’d imported to Vizima: a long dragging banquet where you could only talk to the two people on either side of you, which went seven courses before it moved on to formal dancing. It was hard to say whether it was any improvement. At least they served wine with dinner, but during the dancing you could find a quiet corner to hide out in. Geralt parked himself on a narrow balcony overlooking the dance floor as Ciri and Morvran opened the floor together, whirling out into the precise steps. The guy was a decent dancer, so at least he had that going for him, Geralt noted a little sourly.

“They make a graceful couple,” Emhyr said, joining him at the railing to look down: a bit of a surprise to see the emperor hiding out from his own party, but he probably had to do a lot of these things.

“Yeah, sure,” Geralt said, and he didn’t have anything to lose, so he straightened up and looked Emhyr squarely in the face. “If he hurts her, Nilfgaard’s not that far away.”

“I am gratified to hear you say so,” Emhyr said unperturbed. “Come.”

Everything he said came out with an entire empire’s worth of authority behind it, and even Geralt wasn’t completely immune; he automatically turned and followed for a few steps before his general contrariness kicked in. “Where are we going?”

Emhyr turned and gave him a raised eyebrow. “Have I mistaken you? You would prefer mingling with the flower of Temerian nobility to a glass of brandy and a game of gwent?”

“You haven’t,” Geralt said, staring. It hadn’t even remotely occurred to him either of those things might be on offer. “You play gwent?”

“Even emperors have a few idle hours to fill,” Emhyr said, and swept onward. Geralt followed him after a moment. The minor pleasure of pissing off the emperor—and its associated dangers—definitely didn’t outweigh the massive pleasure of getting the hell out of the party. Especially since Emhyr’s brandy was likely to be very good.

It was good, and his gwent was even better. He liked to play best-of-seven instead of best-of-three, drawing three extra cards at the start, which made the strategy a lot more complicated. They played five full games, trading it back and forth—Emhyr took the last one in a brutal battle that came down to a single point in the seventh round—and drank most of a bottle of brandy. They talked, at first about the war, but they somehow got off onto a tangent of legal differences among the Northern Kingdoms—Emhyr was currently working on stamping out all the minor variations, one bit of imperial tyranny that Geralt strongly approved of: he had several annoying personal experiences of running afoul of them, particularly the minor variations about the disposal of corpses.  

From there they ended up talking about other odd interesting things they’d seen; they’d both spent most of their lives traveling the world, even if Geralt had done it alone on a horse, and Emhyr had done it in a carriage with a marching army behind him. They even landed on witcher philosophy for a bit. The fire burned low, and finally Emhyr sighed and put aside his snifter. Geralt figured that was a signal they were done, and realized bemusedly that he’d had about as nice a night as he could remember.

“Thanks for the brandy,” he said, raising his glass as he set it aside. “And the gwent.” 

“You need not thank me,” Emhyr said. “I have an ulterior motive.”

It annoyed Geralt to be surprised. He should’ve known from the start. “Yeah?” The words came out with a little bite. “Have another daughter you need me to track down?”

“If I wished to hire you, I would hire you,” Emhyr said. “No: I want you to come to my bed.”

“What?” Geralt said, blankly.

“Tonight,” Emhyr said, as if that was the aspect of the invitation that needed clarification. “I realize you Nordlings take a peculiarly sordid view of such relations, but you are not a man deeply bound by convention. I trust you can overcome your prejudice.”

“Uh,” Geralt said, flailing. He’d been propositioned by men a few times, but first off, never by a goddamn emperor—much less in the middle of his palace, surrounded by his heavily armed guards—and secondly, never quite like this. Emhyr might’ve been saying he wanted to have another round of gwent. “Look, no offense—”

Emhyr sighed faintly. “Geralt. Are you under the illusion that I have conceived a desperate passion for you? Or, for that matter, that I imagine you desire me?”

A stirring of wary alarm started raising the hair along the back of Geralt’s neck. “Okay. So why do you want me to—”

“I will tell you afterwards,” Emhyr said.

“What?” Geralt looked at the brandy bottle. Maybe it’d been spiked.

“I wish to have you,” Emhyr said, in the tone of a man exercising great patience. “I will tell you my reasons afterwards.”

“And if I say no—”

Emhyr made a faint grimace of distaste. “I am not proposing to rape you.”

Geralt just sat for a bit trying to digest it. Emhyr didn’t prod any. He didn’t seem to be in any rush, at least. “Maybe I’m missing something here,” Geralt said finally. “If you know I’m not interested, and you’re not planning to try and force me into it, I can’t figure out why you think I would.”

“And as I have already said: I will not tell you, until you have.” 

“Wait,” Geralt said, slowly getting the idea, or at least the only idea he could think of. “You think I’m going to let you fuck me for curiosity’s sake?

“Just so,” Emhyr said. He stood up and went past the screen into the other part of the room, where the heavy four-poster bed stood. Geralt stared after him. He couldn’t see him, but he could tell Emhyr was taking off his chain of office and the jeweled bracelets that clasped his sleeves: the links were clinking softly.

It was harder to argue with someone who’d halfway left the room, but Geralt couldn’t help it. “And you think that’s going to work?” he called.

He heard Emhyr sigh on the other side of the screen. “You are a witcher. You have almost no capacity for fear, endure routinely agonies that would break normal men, and live day to day roaming the wild with only occasional shelter and uncertain food, exposing your body to the elements and to the worst violence monsters can unleash. Am I to believe that you truly fear this?

“I’m not scared of getting fucked,” Geralt said, a little plaintively. Not wanting to have sex with Emhyr didn’t feel like something he should’ve had to explain.

“Then the question is merely whether you are prepared to endure half an hour of coitus in return for satisfying your curiosity. Your reputation in these matters suggests you are not ordinarily very discriminating.”

Geralt glared a hole in the screen. You fucked just one succubus, mostly by accident, and no one ever let you forget it. “For all I know, it’s just that you want to be able to say you did it.”

Emhyr gave a perfectly clear snort of disdain. “If I indulged in idiocies, I would have been dead long before giving you cause to wring my neck. Do you truly imagine my reasons for subjecting myself to this are going to be puerile?”

In slowly mounting indignation, Geralt started to realize that the whole thing was actually a damn good trap. Because this was Emhyr, for fuck’s sake. His reasons weren’t going to be stupid. And what’s more, since Emhyr didn’t expect Geralt to do any neck-wringing afterwards, they were probably going to be damn good from his point of view, too. “But then why wouldn’t you just tell me in advance?” he said, half to himself.

“I suspect you would find it an excessive distraction.” The ongoing rustle of clothing on the other side stopped: Emhyr had finished undressing and was getting into bed—with a book, the bastard; Geralt could hear him start turning the pages.

“Would it do any good to ask for a hint?” he said, trying to think.

“No,” Emhyr said. “If you have excessive distaste for the act, my reasons are irrelevant; you cannot do it. Otherwise, come to bed.”

Geralt ground his teeth together and looked at the door.

“If you leave, you will not have another opportunity to learn the truth,” Emhyr added.

“Goddammit,” Geralt said, and then he reached down, yanked off his boots and dumped them on the floor, and stood up to jerk open his doublet.

Getting fucked wasn’t half-bad, actually. Emhyr used some kind of thick unguent that smelled faintly of olives, and being pissed off didn’t stop Geralt enjoying the feeling of a slick warm hand wrapped around his cock, especially since Emhyr’s hand was big and he also wasn’t afraid to grip hard enough. After a little warm-up, Geralt didn’t really mind Emhyr’s cock pushing into him, either. It was a weird feeling, but not even uncomfortable—not by his standards, anyway—and if it wasn’t for the broader irritation of having Emhyr mess with him, he might even have seen the appeal.

Then Emhyr said, “Make an effort to remain still.” He took a small jeweled brush from the table next to the bed and ran it lightly over Geralt’s shoulders. The bristles had been crushed at the end, so they were soft, but there was some kind of enchantment on the thing, because it crackled faintly with tiny electric shocks like something between touching a cat in winter and the prickling of pins-and-needles. Geralt dragged in a breath to complain about it, and discovered he was having a hard time getting one.

Emhyr made a small grunt of satisfaction and touched him with it again. Geralt found himself arching up into it like a cat, shuddering, and then Emhyr reached around and ran the brush over the muscles of Geralt’s stomach, just as delicately. From there he swept it up Geralt’s chest and stroked it over his nipples, and oh shit that was, and then he slid it gently back down, a trail of tiny blue sparks dripping to the bed below him, and around then Geralt vaguely realized he was on hands and knees and braced for dear life, his head hanging down between his shoulders, watching the brush glide inexorably towards—his thighs, oh fuck Emhyr. Geralt groaned desperately as the thing went right past his groin and started teasing at his inner thighs, under the curve of his ass, smooth strokes down his legs—

He was sweating all over and panting. Emhyr put the brush down and gripped his hips and pounded him thoroughly for ten solid minutes, and then he reached down and got the brush again and stroked it right over the full hard length of Geralt’s cock.

It was roughly like getting hit head-on by a shaelmaar, which Geralt was qualified to say. It wasn’t even pleasure at first, just a complete white-out, and then he fell back into his body and was coming so hard his breath was coming in sobs, clenching shockwaves rolling through him, and he collapsed down into the mess still shaking all over.

“Holy shit,” he croaked out, strangled, when he could speak. He was gloriously disgusting. Emhyr had come too—inside him, and all over his ass and thighs, probably when Geralt had fallen out from under him. Geralt didn’t even mind. His skin was still tingling and shivering with little jolts of pleasure. “What the hell is that? Nilfgaardian sex toy?”

“Nilfgaardian torture device,” Emhyr said, hoarsely. He was lying sprawled on his back next to him, his own chest rising and falling heavily. “I suspected you might have a different response.”

“No kidding,” Geralt said. “Can I have it?”

“It is a device of ancient elven make,” Emhyr said. “There is only the one remaining, and it is reserved for imperial use. However, you will have ample opportunity to enjoy it.”

Geralt folded his arms and buried his head into them and groaned. Right. The big secret reason. “All right, tell me already.”

“Cirilla’s life is in danger,” Emhyr said. “There is a conspiracy to murder her as soon as she and Morvran are married and crowned.”

“What?” Geralt shoved himself up kneeling in the bed and glared down at him. “That’s what—and you thought it was a good idea to start literally fucking around—”

“As I said, I thought you would find it distracting. I assure you, we have not been wasting our time. The situation is a complex one.” Emhyr pushed himself up with a faint groan. “Come. The baths should be ready by now.”

Geralt looked over at the clock: exactly half an hour had gone by, so they were right on Emhyr’s schedule. Son of a bitch. He got out of the bed and followed Emhyr back out to the sitting area. There were two massive brass tubs standing before the fire now, steaming with water and fresh herbs scattered over the surface. There had to have been half a dozen servants in here working on them while he and Emhyr had been at it—and damn, Geralt hadn’t even heard them.

What the hell, if Emhyr didn’t care everyone knew he’d fucked his witcher, Geralt didn’t. He wiped the worst off with a rag before he climbed into the tub and sank down with a groan. “There’s no way this isn’t going to be all over Vizima by tomorrow,” he said, letting his head tip back against the curve of the tub. Then he craned his head up and squinted over at Emhyr. “Or is that the idea?

“The beginnings of one,” Emhyr said, who was sliding deep into his own. “Good. You are aware of the arrangement I reached with the aristocracy and the trade corporations, involving Cirilla?”

“Yeah,” Geralt said. “They gave you time to finish conquering the North, but now you have to abdicate to Cirilla, who’s got to marry Morvran.” His eyes narrowed. “Is Morvran the one who’s planning to kill Ciri? Because I swear I’ll—”

“No. On the contrary, Morvran himself is innocent. So innocent, in fact, that he very nearly led me to the slaughter.” Emhyr smiled, mirthless and savage. “It is Lord Voorhis, you see—Morvran’s father. It did not occur to me until very recently that he might have chosen to deceive his own son to such an extent.”

“So Morvran doesn’t know about it? Fine. Still don’t get why he’s downstairs dancing with your daughter, and why his father’s head isn’t already cut off,” Geralt said flatly.

“As I said, the situation is complex. My knowledge rests on a thread too fragile by far to support the execution of Lord Farathan Voorhis, even if my soldiers could reach him. He is in Nilfgaard, of course—the capital. Where he and his allies command considerable private forces; an aristocratic right of some importance.”

“Great,” Geralt muttered. “What is this thread?

“Near the end of the banquet this evening, a particularly notable wine from Skellige was served at the high table.”

“I remember it. Nice stuff. They age it in oak casks where they’ve first aged three generations of cider and one of mead.”

Emhyr nodded. “Morvran remarked upon it as well. Do you recall?”

Geralt vaguely remembered the conversation: he’d been down the table from Morvran by a Nilfgaardian general and two Temerian baronesses, but he’d been more interested in how the guy was treating Ciri than in his own neighbors, so he’d done more than a little eavesdropping. “Said he hadn’t tasted anything like it since a rare wine he’d had back home.”

“Yes,” Emhyr said. “I served the Skellige wine precisely because it evokes that comparison. A fishing expedition, one might say. There is only one Nilfgaardian wine, you see, which resembles it. A light and exquisitely balanced white wine with marked notes of apple and honey.”

“And now you know Morvran’s father has some of that wine?” Geralt said. Emhyr nodded. “All right. What does that mean? You’re going to have to spin that thread out a little more for me.”

“The Nilfgaardian vintage is indeed rare. It came from the vineyards of the usurper who murdered my father; a pride of his house,” Emhyr said. “He never sold it, only gave it as a gift. After his execution, I had his fields razed and all the stocks destroyed. To possess so much as a bottle these days is worth a charge of treason. To put such a wine on his table, a man must be one of two things: a fanatical drinker of rare wines, which Farathan Voorhis is not, or driven by a passionate hatred of me. A hatred which I find most unlikely to coexist with the cool and rational compromise that he and his traditionalist allies have crafted to put his son upon the throne beside my daughter.”

“Right,” Geralt said slowly. He was starting to get the picture, and he didn’t like it. “So you don’t think this guy has any intention of letting you retire and enjoy your mutual grandchildren.”

“None at all,” Emhyr said. “But as you see, I have no proof. A glass of wine, half-remembered, is no evidence to convict a powerful man of treason. And I lack even that evidence. If Morvran was aware he had betrayed his father in any way, he would be gravely alarmed and immediately deny having said anything, not offer testimony.”

“Great,” Geralt said. “So what’s the plan, and what does it have to do with us having sex? You don’t need to fuck me to get me to come to Nilfgaard to protect Ciri.”

“You cannot come to Nilfgaard to protect her,” Emhyr said. “She will be in the heart of Nilfgaard with the entire Imperial Guard around her. She has not the slightest need of protection—except against this conspiracy, and our one advantage at present is that they do not know that I am aware of the danger. You must have an excuse for coming with us.”

“And you banging me is an excuse?

“It can be made to serve.” Emhyr pushed up from his tub and got out. He dried off and swung on one of the waiting dressing gowns, warming by the fire, and sat down again in the chairs where they’d played gwent, waiting while Geralt got out of his own tub and grabbed one of the towels and came to sit with him. “The Nilfgaardian aristocracy have a different attitude towards such relations than prevails in the North. A relationship between two men of noble rank may be established on the order of your King Foltest’s arrangement with Baroness La Valette—an open secret, as it were, where all know of the connection, and the lover gains a considerable measure of social power.”

Geralt groaned. “Can’t you just—hire a witcher for something?” It came out weakly, like thumping uselessly on a heavy cell door that was securely locked. Emhyr was just too good at this shite.

“There has been no need of a witcher south of the Im’Lebar river in more than a century,” Emhyr said. “In any case, you would be of very limited use to me in such a role. A hireling cannot sit at table with my lords, nor attend a gala. Sir Geralt of Rivia, favorite of the emperor, will be invited everywhere.”

“This job is getting better by the minute. I’m guessing it’s completely impossible for us to just pretend to be fucking all that time?” Geralt said. It was barely even a question.

“There are three officials who have the authority to disturb me at any time of day or night, and seven imperial body servants who go in and out of my chambers routinely under the direction of my chamberlain. Do you wish to hazard Cirilla’s life on the prospect of deceiving them all?”

“Fine,” Geralt said resignedly. “Just don’t forget to pack the damn brush.”

#

The brush didn’t actually get packed for a couple of weeks, because Emhyr delayed the Imperial withdrawal from Vizima. He gave no official explanation, which meant that after a couple of days, everyone decided the unofficial explanation was that Emhyr wanted to nail his new favorite witcher a whole lot more. Emhyr did everything he could to bear that out, including fucking Geralt ruthlessly at least once a day, and a few times extra in places public enough that someone caught them in the act.

Ciri cornered him after the third day despite everything Geralt could possibly do to avoid her. “What the hell,” she said.

“No,” Geralt said.

“What?”

“No, we’re not talking about this,” he said.

“Like hell we’re not!” she said. “You’re fucking my father.”

Geralt lay down on the stone bench—she’d hunted him down in the palace gardens—and shut his eyes and pretended he couldn’t hear her. Ciri promptly used a portal to teleport a giant gout of water right onto his head, but Geralt just shut his mouth tight and held his breath and obstinately stayed clammed up.

“Fine,” Ciri said furiously, after another ten minutes of prodding and poking him in every way she could come up with that didn’t actually involve permanent damage. “I’m going to talk to him about it,” which Geralt had no problem with. It was no less than Emhyr deserved.

Then she found him again later that day, out by the training grounds sharpening his blades, and she sat down next to him and grudgingly said, “You could just have told me,” and he worked out after a little that Emhyr had told her that he and Geralt had shared a night of passion years ago around the time Geralt had broken his curse, and they’d agreed never to speak of it, so as not to hurt her mother.

“No, I really couldn’t have,” Geralt said through his teeth, and went to find Emhyr to express his feelings on the subject.

A couple hours later, Emhyr said, “Which of the rings would suit you best?”

“Mnuh?” Geralt said groggily. Emhyr’s bed was really comfortable. Also they’d just discovered that Emhyr could get him to the verge of coming—and keep him there indefinitely—using the brush alternately on the inside of his elbows and his ankles. The orgasm at the end had lasted for five minutes. He peered up crankily. “Which ring?”

“I mean to give you one,” Emhyr said, motioning to his hands: he had half a dozen rings scattered across the fingers, in a variety of shapes and sizes and jewels. “I wear them to have a marked gift to bestow: it will be noted by the court.”

Geralt made a face. “Let me try the green one.” Emhyr slid it off his ring finger, and Geralt got it onto his left pinky past the sword calluses with a shove. He leaned over and grabbed the candlestick near the bed: the ring didn’t interfere with his grip. “It’ll do. It’ll get smashed the first real fight I’m in, though. I go through a pair of mailed gauntlets every year.”

“It need not last long to make the point,” Emhyr said. “However, that reminds me: you must avoid fighting and training as much as you can, wherever anyone might see you. In particular,” he added, “I have made arrangements to be struck by an arrow as we depart the High Sanctuary after the wedding—”

“Wait, what?” Geralt said, pushing himself up onto his heels.

“The actual injury will be minor,” Emhyr said impatiently. “The wedding cannot be delayed, but an assassination attempt will give me an excuse to delay my abdication—which will force the conspirators to wait. Now listen: when the attack occurs, you must moderate your intervention. Do not strike the arrow from the air, and remain by my side and do not attempt to pursue the assassin yourself.”

Geralt folded his arms. “Count on it,” he said, snide. “Why don’t you want me to catch him? If I’m sucking as hard as I can on the imperial teat—”

“Please refrain from that simile on any future occasion,” Emhyr said, with a pained expression.

Geralt ignored him. “—why wouldn’t I jump after the guy who was about to cut me off?”

“Establishing your passionate interest in my health is far less important than concealing your abilities,” Emhyr said. “As I told you, there has been no need for a witcher in Nilfgaard proper in centuries. Stories of their more remarkable exploits are dismissed as fairy-tale nonsense. You will be assumed simply a reasonably skilled warrior with a few parlor tricks—and for that matter, an aging warrior, glad to enjoy a retirement amid the comforts of the imperial court. Do all you can to encourage this assumption.”

Nobody batted an eye a week later when the Nilfgaardian forces finally rolled out of Vizima with Geralt riding in the imperial carriage. Morvran of all people actually seemed pleased about it: he made a few friendly remarks about how Cirilla would be happy to have her childhood mentor near at hand, and how glad he was that he and Emhyr had “rekindled the spark of your youth.”

“Naturally he is delighted,” Emhyr said dryly in bed that night. “His own greatest concern is my attempting to cling to power after the abdication, behind a fiction of Cirilla’s rule. Nothing would please him more than to see me devote myself to the pleasures of the flesh. You might hint to him that I have spoken of traveling together, or perhaps of our taking a pleasure-house in the Delphinia Valley.”

“This can’t be over soon enough,” Geralt said, and then squawked involuntarily when Emhyr goosed him, inside, and jolted pleasure through him. “Oh, go to hell.”

Emhyr chuckled and got on him, and Geralt dropped his head and groaned as Emhyr started fucking leisurely in and out of him. At first he’d been efficient about getting them there, but now if he was in the mood, it could be hours, just being slowly and relentlessly fucked to the limit, Geralt’s whole body being coaxed gently higher and higher—Emhyr didn’t even use the brush all the time anymore, apparently that was too easy or something; instead he used feathers, and silk scarves, and also he’d have Geralt sniff an odd spicy incense, which he hadn’t particularly liked at first and now after two weeks already had an instantaneous effect on him, and Geralt wanted to simultaneously beat the shit out of him and beg him for it. He had the bad feeling that a month or two more of this was going to ruin him for normal, nice, everyday sex, the kind where you just went three acrobatic rounds on the back of a stuffed unicorn.

“Are you doing this on purpose?” he demanded resentfully.

“Geralt, you are by no means a natural conspirator. I prefer you to have ample support in playing your role. But I must confess,” Emhyr added with a thoughtful air, “that I am finding your very irritation a stimulating challenge.”

“Fuck you,” Geralt muttered, but clearly the only one getting fucked around here was him. “Come on, harder,” he added.

It was a full two weeks getting to Nilfgaard, moving at the pace of the imperial court. Geralt had never crossed the Im’Lebar river himself—contracts did get more and more scarce the further south you went—and he didn’t have a lot of an idea of what to expect. The southern countryside was beautiful and golden, lush green hills everywhere and tall old cypress trees, and the roads were in unreal condition: the imperial highway was wide enough for two siege engines to pass going opposite ways, and the paving stones looked like they’d been laid down a year ago.

“Many of them have,” Morvran said as Geralt and Ciri rode side by side with him for a while, all of them taking a break from the carriage. Emhyr was the only one of them who could go dawn to dusk inside the damn thing, reading papers and writing letters the entire time. He stopped every fifteen minutes like clockwork and stretched a bit, then dived right back into the work. And people thought his job was worth killing for. “Maintenance is performed on an annual basis after the winter, and any loose or damaged stones replaced.” Morvran pointed out a shed alongside the road that he said held a road crew’s tools, and also the drainage channels dug underneath, and once took them off the highway to show them one of the massive deposits of sand mixed with salt that they used to melt ice in the winter. He was obviously proud of the whole system, with justice, but Geralt was more interested in the way he obviously wanted to show it off to Ciri.

A couple of days later, the road took them over a bridge carrying one of the aqueducts that served the city, a huge arched three-tier wall that filled an entire valley from one cliff wall to the other. It was impressive all on its own, and it was even more impressive when they rode off it and came around the peak and the city rolled out below them, sprawling and monumental. Geralt couldn’t even figure out what to say. All of Novigrad could’ve fit into the first small neighborhood past the gates.

The streets were crammed with people, horses, carts, stalls; fountains ran on every corner, it felt like. It took another half day of riding to make it to the Imperial Palace, and that one solitary building was roughly the size of Vizima. Geralt followed Emhyr inside feeling vaguely bludgeoned by the scale. He only managed to spare a little energy to be glad that Ciri at least didn’t look overwhelmed, even though Morvran kept sneaking glances at her to see how impressed she was. Maybe Avallac’h had taken her to enough weird-ass places that the city didn’t faze her.

Morvran made his farewells after seeing them to the imperial quarters. “My parents are eager to see me again after so long an absence,” kissing Ciri’s hand. “I hope to make you known to them tomorrow, my dear, when you have had a chance to recover from the long journey.”

“Yes, of course,” Ciri said, and Geralt fought down the impulse to say like fucking hell is she meeting any of your murderous viper relatives.

“Emhyr, if you’re still not going to tell her, I am,” Geralt said, when they had finally shut the door on the servants and were private again. “She needs to know before she marries the guy. Yeah, I know he’s not guilty himself. I don’t think you’re wrong about that; far as I can tell, he’s getting ready to fall in love with her, not kill her. But she’s getting ready to do the same thing.”

Emhyr didn’t immediately turn around; he was standing in the balcony of his room, looking down into a courtyard. Geralt joined him: Ciri was in the garden sitting on the edge of a fountain, her hand held under the falling spray. “Geralt, there is every chance I shall lose this struggle,” Emhyr said finally. “I have few deeply trusted allies in the city after being in the North so long, and if too many of the powerful are arrayed against me, the rest of the independents will lend their support to avoid the ruin of a civil war.

“If that should happen, however, there will be one final option. I can expose the plot, among a private gathering of the most influential independent lords, and threaten to wreak all the destruction I can in my fall—or trade my quiet death for Cirilla’s life. But if that bargain should be struck, the security of Cirilla’s position will be greatly dependent on whatever affection Morvran has formed for her. And I assure you, he will not permit himself to love if he does not meet love in return. Do you think her able to dissemble so far? Would she wish to? Or would she be happier to learn to love her husband ordinarily, innocent of his family’s schemes?”

“Goddammit,” Geralt said. He ran a hand over his face.

“When matters draw nearer their conclusion, we will tell her together,” Emhyr said. “Time yet remains.”

#

Geralt’s palms still itched for his sword hilt when the servants showed Morvran and his parents in the next morning. The two of them were generic illustrations someone had put into a book next to Nilfgaardian patricians, from Lady Voorhis’ elaborately braided hair to the drape of their formal cloaks. They gave slightly more-than-polite smiles when Morvran presented them to Cirilla, and said slightly more-than-nice words, but Lord Voorhis was keeping the expression on his face deliberately controlled the entire time, tiny muscles in his face never unclenching. And after the introductions were over and they were all talking in the garden, Lady Voorhis’ eyes lingered on Ciri’s scar for just a little too long, and her hands tightened a bit in her lap, barely perceptible if you weren’t watching her like a hawk. Geralt looked away to keep from slapping her face, or better yet grabbing her and her husband by the scruff of the necks and shoving their heads into the fountain until they were dead.

“Yes,” Emhyr said afterwards. “A cut-up barbarian halfbreed whore, for her beloved son to marry, and I expect them to be grateful for the chance.” His hand was tight on his own goblet, and his mouth hard. In the garden, he’d spoken with cool, calm satisfaction of the course of the war, the certain fall of the rest of the North; he’d looked at Cirilla and Morvran with satisfaction too, and told Voorhis in a private aside that Morvran had done well, and had the loyalty of his troops. He’d even mentioned that he thought of an estate in Toussaint for his retirement: far enough to give Morvran and Cirilla a chance to establish their authority. He was better at hiding his feelings than the Voorhis were. Geralt would’ve sworn he meant every word. “You agree with my conclusions, then?”

“Yeah,” Geralt said grimly. He’d held out a little hope that Emhyr had been chasing paranoid shadows, or that it was all a setup on his part to try and hang on to power. He didn’t believe it anymore. “They hate you and they hate her. Are you sure I can’t just kill them?”

“If Cirilla did not want to be Empress of Nilfgaard, she could have vanished into the wilds with you before now. We are not going to shatter the nation merely to save her skin.” Emhyr put down his cup and turned, his eyes glittering. “But do not fear,” he said, low and intensely. “There will be work for your blade before the end.”

#

The marriage ceremony was held two days later. Geralt spent the time walking at least fifty miles of city streets around the palace, trying to get his bearings. The place was ludicrously clean, especially for a city that looked like it was twenty times the size of Novigrad. He’d heard Nilfgaardian officers say a million people lived in the capital, and he’d always thought it was some kind of joke, but it looked pretty damn believable now. There were latrines in the palace with water running in them, somehow, and he’d thought maybe that was just some imperial luxury, but he had to get a mile away from the palace into the poorer quarters before he saw anyone in the streets carrying a chamberpot, and even then, they took it to a sewer drain in the ground with water running into it from a thin pipe and dumped it in there, not just out of the window. In the wealthy parts of the city, there were men who literally just walked the streets with brooms, sweeping up refuse all day.

So on the bright side, any fresh tracks would show up like they’d been painted in garish colors. On the downside, if a mark went longer than a day, somebody would probably come along and scrub it away.

Emhyr hadn’t made him come to any parties or meetings yet. He was inviting guests to the palace, but they’d been carefully picked out: older men mostly, some scholars, not people with a lot of influence. “Except a few, who fit the pattern otherwise,” he said. “For now, I must appear to be meeting only with old friends and acquaintances, without any purpose but pleasant conversation: as though I was indeed readying myself for retirement. And of course,” he added, “with my bankers. I will reassure my enemies greatly by making enormous depredations of dubious legality on the imperial treasury at once—nothing could convince them more surely that I soon expect to have no power to draw upon the coffers. And, for that matter, that my funds are short.”

The wedding went off without a hitch from start to finish. Ciri looked beautiful with her hair braided with glimmering sapphires, and a gown of deep blue covered with a fragile white lace strung with diamonds. The priest called her Lady of Space and Time, which made the assembled nobility murmur a bit, smiling faintly, like they thought it was just an affectation; they probably imagined all the stories about her powers were made up. At the moment, that suited Geralt just fine.

At the end, when they were at the top of the stairs leaving, Ciri paused and looked right at Morvran and smiled at him suddenly, like she was making a decision, and reached out and took his hand. He looked back at her startled a little, and then he was smiling back, a real smile, and they didn’t let go as they went down the steps together. Emhyr watched them go down the stairs like a brooding hawk, and then he stepped out after them, and the arrow took him right in the meat of the upper shoulder.

People started screaming and running at once, the captain of the imperial guard was bellowing orders to give chase. Ten imperial soldiers had already thrown themselves around Emhyr with their shields raised and overlapping, and they heaved him up inside the turtle-shell and ran with him down to the wedding-carriage: Ciri had flung the door open and shouted for them to bring him. It slammed on him, and the carriage shot off instantly through the streets. Geralt let the noise and yelling push him back into the temple, and he turned and shoved through the crowd until he found the Voorhis, standing with a knot of other rich people near the doors talking anxiously in low voices, their guards around them. “Lady Voorhis?” he called over the wall of men, and she glanced at him half indignantly, who the hell is talking to me, but that went away when he told her, “Your son’s fine.”

“Let him through!” she said to the guards, and beckoned him in. “Sir Geralt, wasn’t it? You’re certain Morvran is all right?”

“He and Ciri were in the carriage before the first arrow launched, and they went straight to the palace,” Geralt said. He didn’t try to make his Nilfgaardian sound like anything other than rough-edged; they could go on thinking of him as a barbarian Nordling far as he was concerned.

“Did you see the attack?” another lord demanded peremptorily. “What happened?”

“Single archer on the roof of the narrow building across the street. He got Emhyr in the shoulder, nothing worse. The guard went after him.”

“In the shoulder?” Lord Voorhis said sharply. “You’re certain?”

“I’m pretty motivated to be sure. Yeah, the arrow went straight through, right here.” Geralt touched the spot on his own shoulder. “Archer only got the one shot at it. After that, the guard put a shield wall up around him, and it would’ve taken a catapult to get through at that distance.” He rubbed his sleeve over his forehead. “I’m going to try and get back over to the palace,” he added. “Just wanted to let you know about Morvran.”

“Most thoughtful of you, Sir Geralt,” Lord Voorhis said. Geralt gave him a short bow. “We will go to the palace ourselves as soon as our own carriage can be brought. Perhaps you would care to ride with us.”

“Thanks, appreciate it,” Geralt said. He stood aside from the Voorhis to wait, out of what would’ve been eavesdropping distance for a normal person, and while he listened in to their murmurs—a lot of variations on “who the hell is behind this?”—he got a good look at the faces of all the other nobles in their little clique. There were a lot more of them than he would’ve liked. Before they left, Voorhis said a quick whispered goodbye to one of them called Preuwen—that was one of the names Emhyr had winkled out of Morvran—and the man nodded and murmured back, “Tonight?”

“Yes. My house,” Voorhis said.

In the carriage, Lady Voorhis asked him a few polite questions about the North, and Geralt did his best to answer them like a guy who hunted drowners for a living and didn’t really pay a lot of attention to what else was going on around him, making apologetic answers about not really having been involved in the war. He’d slipped a couple of vials of vanilla essence into his pockets on the off-chance he’d need them, and when they got out of the carriage, he made sure to crush one against the carriage wheel while he held the door for Lady Voorhis like a yokel who didn’t realize the footmen were waiting to do just that.

The chamberlain had come out to meet them. “Lord Voorhis, His Majesty desires you to attend him at once,” he said formally, bowing, and ushered them past the bristling Imperial Guard and into the garden courtyard again, where Emhyr was already sitting up bandaged and drinking a glass of brandy with his face a cold mask of anger.

Sit,” he said icily, when Voorhis came in, and Lord Voorhis paused and inclined his head and sat.

“We are glad to find you so little harmed, Your Majesty,” Lady Voorhis said, sitting slowly beside him.

“Indeed,” Emhyr said. “Someone in this city, however, is surely gravely disappointed. A nearly ideal opportunity: the assassin escaped notice because the sun was directly at his back as we left the sanctuary. Well?” A guard captain had just come in, pale and sweating, and saluted.

“Sire,” the man said, his voice trembling faintly, “the assassin has been—was captured.”

“Do not irritate me further by drawing out whatever it is you fear to tell me,” Emhyr bit out.

The man swallowed and said in a rush, “We had cornered him in an alleyway. We did not wish to allow any chance of escape, or accidentally killing him. As we closed in—he drew a vial of poison from his belt and drank it.” Geralt jerked his head round to Emhyr, whose jaw had visibly tightened. “Every effort was made to force him to regurgitate it, and to revive him, but—”

“What poison?” Emhyr said, in low dangerous tones.

“Ressiltra,” the captain said, almost in a moan. “The counteragents were applied as soon as they could be brought to the scene, but so much of the throat had been eaten away that the necromancers say—”

“Enough,” Emhyr said. “When you have acquired any intelligence worthy of the name, bring it to me. Until then, get out of my sight.” He sat with his lips pressed tight, and then looked at the Voorhis. “The wedding arrangements,” he said after a moment, coldly, “have been in your charge. You will inform the captain of my guard of all who might have been aware of the order of events, and who had influence over their timing.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Lord Voorhis said at once. “However, I beg leave to inform you that the timing was set by the Temple itself. One of the augurers performed the traditional rites of sacrifice and in trance specified the most propitious time of day for the happiness of the young couple.”

Emhyr’s eyes narrowed. “Was this done in public?”

“Yes, Sire,” Voorhis said. “On the seventeenth, on the Temple steps.”

“Ah,” Emhyr said, and relaxed minutely. Lord and Lady Voorhis both relaxed just as minutely, and after a moment, Emhyr inclined his head. “Pardon a regrettable suspicion.”

“There is nothing to pardon, Sire,” Voorhis said immediately—which no fucking kidding. Emhyr dismissed them all out to the gallery where Ciri and Morvran were talking with a handful of other high-ranking wedding guests who’d come to check on the emperor. As soon as they were out there, Voorhis got hold of another lord that Geralt didn’t recognize and pulled him aside privately to whisper, “Tonight, my house. If we’re not careful, this will mean months more. We must find out what fool went blundering in. Kaselri? I could strangle that dogspittle bootlicker with my own hands,” and the venom in his voice had nothing to do with concern for Emhyr’s long-term health.

Getting a private word with Emhyr afterwards wasn’t easy: the Imperial Guard wanted to keep everyone out, and all the most powerful people in Nilfgaard had shown up at the palace to demonstrate their concern and wanted in, so there was a hell of a traffic jam to negotiate. Geralt finally gave it up after the Voorhis left the palace and just followed them himself on foot. He easily tracked their nicely stinking carriage wheels all the way back to their house, a huge palatial affair high up on the city’s tallest hill behind an encircling wall covered with ivy. There were plenty of guards patrolling it, and after some thought, Geralt decided trying to listen in to whatever meeting was on for the night was going to be more risk than reward. Instead he waited until after dark, then took his other vial of vanilla, covered his head with some rags and went limping past the gate, pouring the vanilla into a long sticky line in front of the gates.

Then he parked himself out of sight around a corner and hunkered down to wait. Half a dozen carriages and two horses came to the house not too long after. The guests only stayed a couple of hours before they left, and the vanilla sticking to their wheels was still plenty vivid enough to track through the city. He followed all of them back to their homes and made quick scribbled sketches of the crests and the locations.

Around dawn he made it back to the palace with his information. Emhyr was asleep, but Ciri was sitting at the bedside, and she stood up the second he came into the room. “What the hell is going on?” she said flatly.

“Isn’t this your wedding night?” Geralt said, darting a desperate look over at Emhyr.

“Assassination attempts on my father don’t really put me in the mood,” she said tartly. “And don’t you dare try to change the subject.”

“Cirilla,” Emhyr murmured from the bed, “I am grateful for your alarm—”

“I’m not alarmed,” she said fiercely. “You wouldn’t let an archer shoot you unless you knew damn well he wasn’t going to hit anything important.”

Emhyr was silent a moment, and then he pushed himself up in the bed, gesturing to Geralt for his arm to help sit up. “You will oblige me by not repeating that theory anywhere someone else can hear you,” he said, with a grimace, as he settled himself up. “What has given rise to it?”

“Are you joking?” Ciri said. “You’re lovers, and you’ve just been shot by an archer, and Geralt didn’t go after the assassin? Who then ends up suiciding and no one can figure out anything about him, but Geralt doesn’t insist on at least inspecting the body? Do you both think I’m an idiot? Although I guess I am,” she added, whirling on Geralt. “You fall in love with my father and come to Nilfgaard with us?”

Emhyr pressed his lips together in annoyance. “Told you we should’ve told her,” Geralt said, unremorsefully throwing him to the wolves. Emhyr shot him an even more annoyed look.

“Well, you’re going to tell me now,” Ciri said.

“No,” Emhyr said abruptly. “We are not.” He held up his hand before she could protest. “Cirilla. There were reasons why we did not yet inform you. Those reasons still hold true. For the moment, therefore, I ask you this: can you trust that Geralt and myself have no other aim in mind but to see you safely to Nilfgaard’s throne?”

“Honestly?” Ciri said. “I think you’d be delighted to see me safely to Nilfgaard’s throne about twenty years from now.”

Emhyr’s mouth twitched. “I will not deny it,” he conceded. “Would you regret a delay?”

“Me? Not really,” Ciri said. “I’d gladly take at least ten years to learn enough from you to feel like I know what I’m doing. But Morvran would be sorry. If you’re working on some scheme against him, and you got me to marry him to make it look like you aren’t—”

“Ciri,” Geralt said quietly. She looked at him. “Looks to me like Morvran’s a pretty decent guy. I wouldn’t be on board if this was about going after him, or for that matter keeping Emhyr on the throne for another decade or two.”

She was silent, and after a moment she said, “Morvran’s a little annoyed at his family. They skipped a couple of traditional steps in the ceremony they arranged—I heard him asking them about it this afternoon. They told him they thought I’d find them too difficult because I was raised in the North. They all seem to think everyone born north of Metinna is a howling savage.”

Geralt shot Emhyr another look, although Emhyr didn’t even bat an eye in his direction. “A lamentable attitude,” he said mildly, “and one sadly prevalent in Nilfgaardian society. I trust he will be able to moderate their attitudes now that you are married.”

She looked at him hard, and then she said, “I want a deadline.”

“A month,” Emhyr said. “And then we will tell you, one way or another.”

Ciri looked over. Geralt gave her a nod, promising, and she stood up, her mouth tight. “I still don’t like this,” she said. “If I find out the reason you haven’t told me is some idea of treating me like a child to be led around by the nose—”

“It’s not,” Geralt said.

“Fine,” she said, but she still looked irritated when she stalked out of the room.

“Great. Now she’s pissed,” Geralt muttered.

“So much the better,” Emhyr said.

“What?”

“Let Cirilla be irritated with us, and Morvran with his own parents,” Emhyr said. “Nothing could be more conducive to the growth of affection for one another. They will complain of our shortcomings and agree firmly they shall never be so infuriating to their own children. Did you find anything?”

“Yeah,” Geralt said. “And I also have some questions of my own. You skipped mentioning the part where the assassin you hired was going to kill himself.”

“Did you imagine he was going to escape?” Emhyr said. “Or that imprisonment and torture in the imperial prisons would have been kinder? It was part of the arrangement.”

“Yeah? How do you pay someone enough to die for you?” Geralt said flatly. 

“The archer was a fanatic member of a Scoia’tael commando who fought with my soldiers during the second war,” Emhyr said. “After the Peace of Cintra, I swore to them that despite the treaty, I would one day return and assure the elves sanctuary and full rights within the borders of Temeria. I have kept my oath to them. This was my request in return. The investigation will uncover evidence that he is a solitary drunken survivor of one of the hostile elven clans from the foothills of the Tir Tochair who rebelled and were put down some six years ago.”

“Dammit, Emhyr!” Geralt said. “I’m not on board with you throwing away people like trash.”

“Do you think the archer considered it so?” Emhyr said. “If Cirilla and I are slain, how long do you imagine my protection over the elves of the North will last?”

“That’s not the point. Risking your life to fight for what you believe in isn’t the same damn thing as pouring a vial of ressiltra down your own throat.”

Emhyr shook his head. “He knew that his capture was inevitable, and his death a necessity. He volunteered regardless. If you cannot respect my choice, respect his. And if you find it comforting, know he would already have drunk hearts-ease as soon as he fired the arrow. He would have had very little sensation by the time he drank the ressiltra.”

Geralt glared at him. “I don’t find it comforting. From now on, you tell me before you set someone up to die. Otherwise I’ll take Ciri and we’ll fuck off to some other world and you can all claw each other to pieces for all it matters.”

Emhyr glared back at him, mouth pressed tight, and then said curtly, “What did you wish to speak to me about?”

Geralt drew a deep breath, and then he let it go and brought out the sheaf of sketches. “Voorhis had a meeting at his house tonight. Preuwen was there, too. I followed all the rest of the guests back to their houses: these are the crests.” Emhyr was nodding, going through the pages, his eyes sharp and intent. “I saw a lot of people around Voorhis at the church when I went back inside, after you got shot. I’d recognize them if I saw them again.”

“I will ensure you have opportunity,” Emhyr said. “Excellent. This is better than I had hoped.”

“Really?” Geralt said. “Because it looked to me like he’s got at least a dozen people in on this with him. And I’m betting all of them are heavy hitters.”

“They are,” Emhyr said. “And if Voorhis’ allies are going through the streets to his house, I assure you that the rest of the aristocracy and the masters of the trade corporations know something of their gatherings, and resent them. They likely do not suspect his real plans, and so merely imagine he is having conversations about the future of the empire under his son’s rule—with many of the powerful, and yet without them. They will be far less eager than they might have been to try and force my immediate abdication. That was the worst threat facing us, and indeed, you have brought me a priceless opportunity to thwart the possibility.”

He touched one of the crests that Geralt had sketched, off a large house in the most expensive district. “This is Lord Duchene. His house is one of the wealthiest and most ancient in all Nilfgaard, and he is a nobleman of the first circle—he has the right to maintain a substantial body of private troops in the city, and he has expansive voting powers in the Senate. A highly valuable ally for Voorhis to have secured. However, House Duchene is also engaged in a blood feud with House Fliran—for now nearly twenty years. It was begun by the fathers of the present lords.”

“Enemy of your enemy?” Geralt said.

“Yes,” Emhyr said. “And while Lord Fliran is merely a nobleman of the fourth rank, by an interesting quirk of events, he is personally an anointed litharch. Which authority gives him the power to raise a religious rather than a legal inquiry in the Imperial Senate. And only the emperor has the right to dismiss such an inquiry.”

“Uh huh, sure,” Geralt said, not even pretending he had any idea what Emhyr was talking about.

Emhyr smiled thinly. “While a religious inquiry stands unresolved, no secular debate may be held and no secular law may be passed. Such as, for instance, a bill requiring my immediate abdication.” He took another deep breath, then said, “Help me up.”

“What, now?” Geralt said.

“The Imperial Senate will convene in four hours’ time,” Emhyr said. “I must see Lord Fliran before then. It is entirely possible otherwise that Voorhis spent the meeting you observed making plans to introduce a bill of abdication as the first matter of business tomorrow. He must certainly suspect that I will use the assassination to delay yielding power, even if he does not yet suspect me of having contrived it myself. And that idea will come to him very quickly—even if not as swiftly as it reached Cirilla.”

He said it dryly, but there was a faint note of pride and satisfaction in his voice, oddly familiar: he sounded like Geralt had felt, the times he’d seen Ciri take the head off a ghoul or hamstring a hound of the Wild Hunt. “Yeah, she’s a regular chip off the old block,” Geralt said, with a snort. “All right, grab my shoulder.” He helped Emhyr lever up and out of the bed.

#

Four hours later, Lord Fliran stood up in the Imperial Senate and demanded the right to address a religious matter before they got to business. He gave a speech declaring that the emperor’s blood being spilled on the sanctuary steps was a sign that the gods were displeased, and raised an inquiry into what sacrifices and propitiatory gestures were necessary to make amends. That apparently was the cue for two dozen snoozing lords in the back of the room to wake up and start a rousing and violent argument over the merits of three different kinds of animal sacrifice versus pledges to build monuments or hold games. Absolutely none of them showed any inclination to compromise. After about half an hour, several other lords lost patience and half a dozen voices started yelling at Fliran to close his inquiry.

Fliran, still standing, swallowed and said in a slightly wavering voice, “I do not choose to close so important an inquiry with so little resolution achieved,” and that was evidently the signal that he wasn’t just being a stickler, he was deliberately blocking all other business. Most of the Senate got up and left immediately. Voorhis was one of them, his mouth pressed into a thin, hard line.

Geralt watched him go broodingly, flexing his hands against each other. It made him more sick with anger every minute: everything they’d gone through, tracking Ciri down, fighting through the Wild Hunt, her ferocious courage and the way she’d gone to face the White Frost—and now this asshole who thought the only part of the world that mattered was inside his city walls, who even had his son practically on the throne already, wanted to slit her throat.

Emhyr reached over in the carriage, on their way back to the palace, and caught one of his twisting, clenching hands. He pressed it open, letting his thumb slide across the ridge of sword calluses at the base of the fingers and into the middle of the palm. “I imagine you rarely hate the monsters you slay.”

“Depends on the monster,” Geralt said. “But usually at least I can just go kill them.”

“I had a long time hating the usurper before I had my revenge,” Emhyr said. “I made a weapon of it, but in the end, it cut my own hands nearly as deep as his. I have tried to avoid it, since. It makes one prone to…clumsiness.”

“So this is all just another day at the office for the Emperor of Nilfgaard?” Geralt said tightly. “One more palace conspiracy, nothing you take personally?”

Emhyr raised his eyes, hard as deep-winter ice. “No.” 

It was—a relief, maybe. Geralt found himself letting out a deep breath along with the tension Emhyr’s thumb was pressing firmly out of his hand. “Well,” he said after a moment, “if you slip up and get yourself killed and leave me without anything better to do, I am going to kill Voorhis and every last one of his pals I can get to. In case that makes you feel any better.”

Emhyr’s mouth twitched. “That you will leave a swath of slaughter through the ranks of my enemies and throw all Nilfgaardian politics into a violent upheaval? It is peculiarly comforting.”

His hand was still on Geralt’s, and it was going to be at least twenty minutes more getting to the palace through this traffic. Emhyr followed his glance out the window and said, “It would make an excellent opportunity to be caught.”

“How’s the shoulder?” Geralt said.

Emhyr’s mouth curved very faintly, a gleam of malice. “We will contrive,” he said blandly.

What he meant by that was Geralt was going to straddle him and ride the rest of the way, bracing himself on the roof of the carriage to keep from falling off. It was the best workout his legs had gotten in the last month, he could say that about it, and Emhyr used his good hand to good effect, and also there were actually a lot of irregular bumps and ruts in the surface of the streets after all. “Oh damn,” Geralt said, when they rattled over a wide gutter running through one of the crossroads, and came before he could stop himself.

“Hm,” Emhyr said, looking down at his stained robe. “Unfortunate.”

“Beg to differ,” Geralt said, hazily, still hanging on. He felt a lot better.

The imperial servants all nearly purpled with the effort of keeping their faces straight when they saw the wreck of Emhyr’s clothes—and of Geralt’s everything; he was pretty sure even ordinary people could smell the stink of sex coming off him just fine. He was also pretty sure that Emhyr didn’t make a habit of this kind of thing, going by the way even the normally unflappable chamberlain gabbled out an incoherent, “Yes, at majesty—your majesty—once—at once, your majesty,” as Emhyr airily told him in passing to have the imperial baths made ready for them. They even passed a couple of nobles in the corridors on their way back to Emhyr’s chambers, and one of them actually stared so agog he tripped and fell down a small set of stairs.

If there had been any doubts about Geralt’s role in the palace, that cleared them up thoroughly. He spent the next week going to a lot of parties where people eyed him up and down with faint smirks and made bland comments about how much they’d heard about him and asked him smilingly how many of those stories about witchers were true. “Every last one of them,” Geralt said. “I kill drowners twenty at a time without breaking a sweat.” They laughed. Once he overheard Emhyr say, with the faintest touch of a curve at the corner of his mouth, “I can only say the tales of their legendary stamina are in no way exaggerated,” to an older countess, just loud enough to be overheard on the other side of a large potted plant. People smirked at Geralt even more afterwards.

By the end he’d collected up the names of all the people who’d been talking to Voorhis in the sanctuary, and by following them around at night, he’d added a handful more. There were two dozen all told, more if you threw in wives and husbands and heirs of the principals. “I’m pretty sure that’s the lot,” he said to Emhyr, as they looked over the network, which was now a large sheet of parchment spread over his desk full of names of noble houses and two trade corporations, lines drawn among them. Voorhis had kept his inner circle to nine aristocrats, three of whom were the centers of their own smaller networks. “Not that there aren’t enough of them.”

Emhyr nodded slightly. “And now I must find counters to all that they can do.” He brooded over the page, frowning.

“What’s the bottom line? How many men can Voorhis raise?”

“That is far from the bottom line,” Emhyr said. “If Voorhis mustered a force of armsmen and took to the streets, I would have both legal cause and popular support to bring soldiers of the regular army into the city to suppress the violence. Therefore, he will do no such thing. And if I were to take the Imperial Guard and assault his house, the Senate would instantly swing with great violence against me, and the armsmen of every aristocrat in this city would rise to tear me down. Therefore I will do no such thing. Which is precisely what the laws and customs of the city are designed to ensure.

“No; money will be perhaps the most critical matter. Voorhis has three of the five governors of the Imperial Treasury. They have the power to cut off all payments to the army and the Imperial Guard, and worse than that, to the dole which ensures every citizen receives their daily bread and oil. There would be riots within a day if that flow ceased, and the fault laid at my door. Therefore I must ensure another temporary source of funds.”

“How much do you have?”

“From the conquest of the North, forty million crowns,” Emhyr said.

What?

“Most of it in gold still locked in Northern banks, or traveling south on treasure ships and caravans, and not easily accessed, alas. However, it will do for collateral.” He slid his finger along the lines to the two trade corporations in the mix, both of them with a couple of masters attached to the network centered on Preuwen. He tapped his finger twice against the parchment. “These two corporations serve only the most traditional aristocratic families. I imagine they have been promised considerable tax relief and preferential treatment in the event of Voorhis’ accession. Something their more flexible rivals would surely dislike. And if I recall, Lord Fliran’s wife is the heiress of one of the masters of the Northern Wind trade corporation, which has done very well out of the war. A low marriage for him, but sons of a house in blood feud often have few options. If her family’s corporation took the chance to ally themselves with his house, they may well be amenable to taking another risk or two for more aristocratic connections—and their cash reserves ought to be quite large.”

“And you’ve already blocked legislation in the Senate,” Geralt said. 

“For now,” Emhyr said. “Fliran’s inquiry cannot stand forever. Sooner or later he will irritate enough independents that Voorhis will be able to have him assassinated—a prospect I imagine gives Lord Duchene great joy. But at least temporarily that route is closed to him. However, there are others.” He touched another cluster. “These four families together control the grain shipments to the city which provide the aforementioned dole. It is remarkable he should have persuaded them all to cooperate, but if they do, they can cut the city off from grain shipments even if I have the funds to pay.”

“Can you get grain from somewhere else?”

“Can I?” Emhyr murmured. “I wonder. Perhaps I will gratify Cirilla after all.”

Geralt straightened. “You’re going to offer Skellige peace terms?”

“No,” Emhyr said. “Peace terms require negotiation and are a matter of public record. I will simply offer Queen Cerys a bargain. My warships withdrawn from Skellige waters in exchange for sending her raiders instead against the grain ships that make the run from Metinna—and then selling the cargoes to my captains. With peace terms to be negotiated after my position is secure.”

“If only you had to put down a couple more conspiracies, we might end up with peace in the whole Continent,” Geralt said. Emhyr scowled at him. “What else? Could Voorhis make water an issue?”

“The water supply is more difficult to attack without repercussions…but perhaps. Let me see the map.” They marked out the houses of all the families involved, and then Emhyr dug out a couple of other maps showing the sewer network and the aqueduct lines and compare them. “Yes. A small accident staged on the Aqua Rigano would do no long-term harm to the city, but temporarily would reduce the supply to a large fraction of the Netherene Quarter and the Imperial Guard barracks to boot. Hordes of citizens would come pouring into the Triumphalis Quarter to get at the Aqua Eleuthros, much to the distress of the less-traditional aristocracy who inhabit that quarter, and who form much of my own support. If they begin to desert me, my hours would be numbered. The question is how to avert the attack. There are some twelve miles exposed near the city, a difficult stretch to patrol.”

“Could you redirect supply back to the first aqueduct?”

“That would not reduce the distress of the aristocracy,” Emhyr said dryly.

“What if you blame the whole thing on him?” Geralt said.

“Mm.” Emhyr looked down at the chart. “Difficult to make it appear Voorhis’ doing personally, but his ally Lord Tenurial is in fact one of the city’s water curators. If I arranged to have one of his lieutenants produce a forged document indicating he had conspired in the attack…ah, and he has his account at the Riverna bank. Lord Riverna lives in the Triumphalis quarter, but is rigorously agnostic in his politics. I will arrange for a man to quietly bring a large sum of gold to the bank to be put into Lord Tenurial’s account. Riverna will certainly be informed of the deposit, and as certainly willing to confirm it, when his peace is overturned.”

It wasn’t any too soon for Emhyr to put his counters into play. The next day, Morvran started making polite but increasingly insistent hints about scheduling the abdication, which Emhyr ignored completely. Three days later, the hints stopped. That evening, Ciri came to Emhyr’s chambers and said bluntly, “Emhyr, Morvran says if you don’t abdicate immediately, the compromise his father brokered is going to fall apart, and then the opposition will start to work to bring you down.”

Emhyr raised an eyebrow. “He told you so directly?”

She folded her arms. “He’s been getting increasingly anxious for the last week. I sat him down this afternoon and made him tell me why.”

“Remarkable,” Emhyr said. “I am sorry I cannot give you the power to reassure him.”

“And I’m guessing I still don’t get to be told what’s going on?” she said dangerously.

“I believe two weeks remain to me of your original deadline,” Emhyr said.

She threw up her arms and stalked out of the room. The next morning, the governors of the Imperial Treasury voted to suspend the flow of funds pending “an investigation into recent unexplained transactions,” and four hours after that, reports started coming in of the fountains in the Netherene Quarter drying up.

“How gratifying to have one’s expectations fulfilled,” Emhyr remarked, sent out messengers to trigger his countermoves, and said, “Come with me,” to Geralt.

“Where are we going?” Geralt said.

“My bedchamber,” Emhyr said. “Events have been set in motion, but we will not begin to see the full political effects of their first maneuvers and my own responses until tomorrow, and there is no sense merely fretting. I have some thoughts on how we might pass the time.”

Geralt couldn’t come up with any objections. In the bedroom Emhyr got out a carved marble phallus big enough to match the statue of him that presided over the North Garden, and also a new jar of ointment flecked with tiny red speckles that he’d evidently been saving for a special occasion. He put on a glove before he dipped his hand into it and generously greased Geralt’s balls with the stuff, which went from faintly warm to a bright frizzing along his every nerve in about ten minutes.

Shit, shit, shit, old gods and high dragons, fuck,” Geralt strangled out, writhing on the bed as much as he could with Emhyr’s hand still cupping him firmly, fingers gently caressing it into the skin. “Emhyr.”

“On the phallus as well?” Emhyr asked, almost tenderly.

Geralt whined high in the back of his throat and grabbed onto the headboard, his hips twisting helplessly. “Yes,” he gritted out, after he got a few more breaths, and Emhyr greased it up and, ah, fuck, “Ngaaarh,” Geralt actually yelled out loud as Emhyr slid it inexorably home, a soundless explosion rocking all the way up his spine that arched him like a bow. From there on he just held on in wild desperation as Emhyr spent the next ten minutes fucking sounds out of him that Geralt hadn’t known he had in him to make. Finally Emhyr let go and stroked his cock twice and said commandingly, “Come for me,” and Geralt cracked the headboard right off the bed and they smashed down to the floor in a noisy wreck. He came blindingly. He couldn’t even bring his thoughts close enough together to give a damn about the guards and servants who came running to peer in at them and make sure he hadn’t killed the emperor, which was so fucking far in the opposite direction they might as well have kept going to Zerrikania.

“Emhyr, you son of a bitch,” he said faintly, some long incoherent time afterwards: they’d fixed the bed with him still in it, because like hell was he moving. “Come here and fuck me.”

“Perhaps after you have—”

“Cleaned up? Fuck you,” Geralt said. “If I can take that, you can take this. Now.”

Emhyr paused, and then abruptly he got between Geralt’s legs and pushed into him, and yeah, there were traces lingering, judging by the agonized clench of Emhyr’s jaw, but give him credit, he didn’t let it slow him down even a little. Geralt shut his eyes and groaned softly in satisfaction when Emhyr came, a cool wash of relief, and he came again himself. “Damn,” Geralt said out loud, and fell solidly asleep.

He woke again in the last minutes before dawn, automatically sitting up to grab the hilt of the sword stabbing down towards the bed. He slammed the man’s own pommel back deep into his eye socket, ripped the sword from his already-loosening hand, used it to take off the head of the man swinging a hair’s-edge behind him, spitted a third lunging from his own side, and threw the sword thwock down the length of the bed to spear directly between the eyes of the last man standing there with daggers in his hands.

He woke up the rest of the way afterwards, in the midst of the bloody corpses. “The hell,” he said. Emhyr had sat up next to him and was surveying the wreckage with a raised but unalarmed eyebrow. Geralt grabbed him by the front of his loose sleeping gown. “What the fuck was this, and why are you not surprised?”

“I am surprised,” Emhyr said. “You just killed four men without even getting out of bed. A remarkable performance.”

He put his hand on Geralt’s like he thought he was going to just brush him off; Geralt tightened his grip and dragged him in closer, Emhyr looking at him with real startlement now after all. “That’s another one of their next moves, isn’t it,” Geralt said, his heart pounding with fury. “Killing you, and you didn’t even think it was worth mentioning.”

“It was not meant to succeed,” Emhyr said slowly, eyeing him like Geralt was an unexpected bomb that might be about to go off. “It was meant as a warning—”

“They had four men with swords at your bedside and it was a warning?

“Under ordinary circumstances I sleep with eight guards in my chamber,” Emhyr said. “A well-known habit. Voorhis does not want me to die quickly at the hands of an anonymous assassin with a sword. He wants me to stand at my daughter’s grave and look at him and his son the emperor across it, and know him for the architect of my destruction, before he undoubtedly arranges my slow and grotesque—”

Geralt shook him. “He’s not going to have the chance if I strangle you first, you goddamn bastard; what if I’d woken up a minute too late?”

Emhyr had grabbed onto his wrist with both hands and was staring at him like he’d grown a second head. “Then I would have died. It seemed a highly unlikely possibility,” he said, sounding actually bewildered, as if he couldn’t figure out why the hell Geralt was so fucking upset, which was a damn good question, actually—

“Oh, shit,” Geralt said, in horrible dawning realization, just as Emhyr started developing an expression like—like a backwoods peasant who’d just been handed a sword encrusted in gold and jewels: it wasn’t exactly that he didn’t want it, but he hadn’t expected anything like it, definitely had no idea what to do with it, and was concerned he might do some damage to himself while he figured it out.

Geralt let go of him and scrubbed his hands over his face and said shortly, “Let’s get someone in here to clean up the blood,” and got out of bed.

#

Emhyr moved around Geralt cautiously and warily the rest of the week, and spoke only about concrete plans and details. Things were going reasonably well on that front. The masters of the Northern Wind trade corporation and the Metinna Collective had thought over their options and taken a peek at the private accounts Emhyr let them see, and had agreed to ensure his cash flow, so the Guard was getting paid and the dole was going just fine, especially since the Skellige raiders were already hard at work on the grain ships and warehouses up and down the Nilfgaardian coast.

To add insult to injury, Emhyr used the excuse to publicly hand out decorations to several of his loyal naval captains, who’d supposedly captured back lost cargoes to keep the grain coming. And Lord Tenurial was having a very bad time over the accident to the lower city aqueduct—he’d been ready to defend himself against the sabotage he had committed, but he’d been blindsided by the revelation of the bribe he hadn’t actually taken.

Geralt was still doing the endless whirl of dinners and parties alongside Emhyr, and he’d started to hear more than a handful of aristocrats making reasonably public comments to Emhyr about how young his daughter still was, and how a steady hand on the reins was no bad thing. By now, Geralt could actually interpret that for himself as independents getting increasingly pissed off at how Emhyr’s enemies were bungling things in the effort to pry him off his throne. There was a glint of satisfaction in Emhyr’s eye when they left the third party that week, after Lord Riverna himself had actually come up to him in front of half a dozen other moderate aristocrats and said bluntly, “If you will forgive an old man’s opinion, Your Majesty, these dogs yapping at your heels are asking for a good swift kicking, and I for one would be glad to see you give it to them,” before stomping away again.

“Where he leads, a hundred houses follow,” he said. “In another week, I will be able to have Fliran withdraw his inquiry, pass a bill to repair the Aqua Rigano, and propose another to diversify the sources of grain for the dole—at which point those four of Voorhis’ allies will fall away at once. Preserving tradition is all well and good, and a little satisfying revenge never goes amiss, but not at the cost of one’s own income.”

“Will they testify for you?” Geralt said, watching him on the other side of the carriage, stripes of blue light flickering over his face as they rolled past the streetlamps.

“No, that will be too far a step,” Emhyr said. “Not until I have winnowed away half his support, and even then, I doubt any will confess who can tie Voorhis himself to the conspiracy, or testify to his intentions. Many of these adherents likely do not even know that there is any intention beyond forcing me to abdicate. He has chosen his inner circle carefully. It will be a difficult matter to break through that ring.”

He turned away from the window as he said it, met Geralt’s eyes, and fell silent. After a moment Geralt got up and moved to the other side of the carriage, because what the hell was the point pretending he didn’t want to. Emhyr was breathing hard even before Geralt started kissing him, holding his head for it and going after his mouth. He tasted like the strong red wine they’d been drinking, and after a moment his hands went viciously tight in Geralt’s hair, gripping.

The carriage stopped: they were back at the palace. Emhyr walked mechanically up the stairs at Geralt’s side with his back rigidly straight but his eyes unfocused, like someone had hit him. A strange, panicky kind of happiness was churning in Geralt’s gut, something he wanted and was scared of getting. He reached ahead of Emhyr and pushed open the door to their chambers, and Ciri stood up from the chairs at the fireplace and turned to them, her mouth pressed tight. Morvran was sitting with her: he’d been holding her hands, talking to her in a low voice, and he rose along with her.

Emhyr halted on the threshold of the room a moment, and then he said mildly, “Cirilla,” acknowledging her, and stepped inside. Geralt came in and pulled the door shut after him.

“You’re going to tell me now,” Ciri said, without any other preamble. “Tell us now,” she added, gesturing to Morvran, who darted a look at Emhyr and back at her, obviously wondering what the hell was going on.

Emhyr glanced at Morvran. “I think perhaps—”

“No,” she said, cutting her hand across the air. “I’m not waiting any longer. Either you’re going to tell me, or I’m going to start by telling Morvran everything I already know, and then asking people stupid questions until they answer enough of them for me to figure out what’s going on, even if it wrecks everything.”

“Cirilla,” Morvran said, low, “listen to me, tell me first, I will—”

She waved him to silence. “No. You listen to me. All of you. I don’t care whether my father stays on the throne until the end of his days, I don’t care if he abdicates tomorrow. But we’re going to settle this, and now. You’re all out of time.”

Emhyr was looking at her strangely. “Why?”

“What?” She looked back at him.

“It lacks only a few more days, not quite a week, of the month you promised me,” Emhyr said. “There has been no extraordinary event of which I know. Why are we out of time, Cirilla?”

She stood still a moment, her mouth a line, and then she abruptly turned and reached out and took Morvran’s hands. He let her have them, but he was frowning. “Cirilla—”

“I’m with child,” she said to him, and Morvan stopped with his mouth open, staring at her. She let go of one of his hands and turned back to Emhyr. “I’m with child,” she repeated, her chin held high, her eyes bright.

Emhyr didn’t look away from her. “It is not a month since the wedding. Can you be so certain?”

She hesitated, and then she said, “Yes. I’ve seen his face.” Morvran jerked a little, and Emhyr straightened. “Three times in the last three nights. I’m sure. And I’m not blindly trusting his safety to anyone—not even you, Geralt,” she added, with a quick apologetic glance. “Whatever’s going on, I’m going to know about it, now. All of it.”

Morvran was looking pretty dazed, but he stirred for that. “What do you mean? Cirilla, tell me, what has Emhyr been doing?”

“Yes,” Emhyr said to Ciri. “You are correct. We are out of time. Sit down,” he added to Morvran. “We have much to discuss.”

Geralt went around behind them and swung an extra chair over to face the other two. Ciri caught Morvran’s hand and pulled him down beside her, and Emhyr sat across from them. Geralt stayed standing, his hand gripping the back of Emhyr’s chair. He didn’t want to sit. His swords were lying on the table by the door, in easy reach. He kept his eyes on Morvran’s face.

Emhyr waited until they’d sat down. “What Cirilla knows, which you must already have suspected, is that the assassination attempt at the wedding was staged. I arranged it in order to delay the abdication.”

Morvran pressed his mouth hard. “Emhyr, if you suppose that I will agree to—”

“Your agreement is irrelevant,” Emhyr said. “I delayed the abdication because as soon as you are crowned, your father intends to have Cirilla murdered, followed by myself.”

What?” Morvran stood out of his chair so fast it rocked on its hind legs and back with a thump. “How dare—Cirilla,” he turned to her, and bending down clasped her hands, “I beg you to believe me, this is rank falsehood. For years now, all my father’s ambition has been to find a peaceful compromise between his allies and Emhyr’s faction. He has urged me to make myself valuable to Emhyr, and a worthy suitor for his daughter, if ever she should return. He has forestalled the trade corporations, the demands of the ancient aristocracy for Emhyr’s immediate overthrow—”

“Ring for my chamberlain,” Emhyr told Geralt, cutting across Morvran’s words. Morvran stopped when Geralt pulled the cord. The door at the end of the room opened instantly, and the chamberlain came in and bowed. “Have the palace sommelier attend me,” Emhyr said. “And bring one of the bottles from the back of the third shelf of the coldbox. The unlabeled ones.”

The chamberlain paused, and then said uncertainly, “As Your Majesty commands,” and whisked out. He came back in only a couple minutes with an unlabeled green bottle he was holding with his thumb and forefinger circled around the neck like it was a snake that could bite him and supporting the base on his open palm. The sommelier was trailing him carrying a corkscrew and a tray of glasses. They both looked nervous.

Emhyr nodded at the bottle. “Open it,” he said.

It was a beautiful wine, like the taste of late summer caught into a glass, a breath of honey and apples and a lingering coolness in the mouth, clean. “This is the wine you drank at your father’s table, shortly before you joined me on this last campaign,” Emhyr said to Morvran, after the servants had been sent from the room again. “On the night, I imagine, that I agreed to the terms of the compromise he had proposed: my abdication in Cirilla’s favor when the conquest of the North was complete. I do not ask you to confirm it. By now you must realize which wine this is.”

Morvran didn’t have to confirm it. His downturned mouth was doing that for him, his fist clenched too tight around the stem of the wineglass, and the way he was staring at the unlabeled bottle on the tray. Ciri didn’t even ask about the wine; she was reading Morvran’s face instead. Morvran turned his eyes slowly back to Emhyr.

“I do not ask you to believe me,” Emhyr said. “I will give you yourself the power to prove your father’s guilt or innocence. But this I do demand. If your father seeks Cirilla’s death and mine, there is no compromise to be had. You cannot stand on both sides. You must choose. And you shall choose now.”

There was red color standing along Morvran’s cheekbones. He said after a moment, a little jerkily, “How do you mean me to prove it?”

“You will write to your father formally to ask him to host a familial dinner for your wife and her kin,” Emhyr said. “In an informal postscript enclosed on separate parchment, you will add that despite your shared irritation over my delaying the abdication, you nevertheless beg him to meet this particular obligation with all ceremony, and also hint that he should make the event more elaborate than he might otherwise, and invite more guests of high estate, as Cirilla will have a startlingly early announcement to make at the close of the evening, which you are sure will give him and your mother great joy. You will further add that Cirilla has asked that Geralt, as her beloved foster-father, be included in the invitation.”

“And what do you imagine will happen then?” Morvran said.

Emhyr spread a hand. “He will oblige you. We will be invited. And at that dinner, he will seek to have us murdered before a formal announcement is made. He has no other option. Once Cirilla has informed him that she is bearing your child, she becomes a member of your house, and he cannot have her killed without becoming kinslayer.”

“And when he does not have her killed?” Morvran threw at him. “When, indeed, my parents receive this news with all the joy I am sure they will feel?”

“Do not distract yourself with such fantasies,” Emhyr said impatiently. “You have served with me, Morvran, for five years. Do you think I am to be so misled?”

“I think you would gladly believe whatever gave you an excuse to hold to the imperial power that slips from your fingers,” Morvran said.

“Then let us put it to the test,” Emhyr said. “You will send the letter, as I have proposed. You will not warn them in any way of my suspicions. And if I am mistaken, and your parents welcome the news of your heir with open arms, I will sign the writ of abdication when we return to the palace that very same night. Are we agreed?”

Morvran stood there staring at him, his hands clenched at his sides, trembling a little. Ciri had been sitting silently by the whole time, listening, but she was looking at Morvran in an oddly familiar way—and in an abrupt shifting moment, Geralt realized it was the same exact way Emhyr was looking at him, with a kind of clear, waiting coldness: prepared for the answer, whatever it was, and ready to act on it.

And then Morvran said, his voice cracking, “I have a condition. If—if—” He stopped.

Emhyr made a small gesture, inviting.

“Honorable death by their own hand,” Morvran said. “And their bones interred in the family crypt—not laid into your ballroom floor.”

Emhyr inclined his head. “Agreed.”

Morvran half turned almost desperately to Ciri. “It will not be so,” he told her. “I only—” She stood and silenced him, with her fingers on his lips.

“You don’t need to tell me,” she said. “Let’s just get it over with. We don’t want this awful idea festering. Ask them to have it soon, say that I’m impatient, I want to tell everyone I know—say I’m already writing letters to Cerys of Skellige and Yennefer of Vengerberg and Triss Merigold, all my friends in the north. You know they won’t like me making a muddle of the tradition, even if they’re perfectly innocent.” He was nodding at her, eagerly, relief on his face. “The sooner we have the dinner, the sooner this will all be over.”

Morvran turned to Emhyr defiantly, holding Ciri’s hands. “I will send the letter this very evening.”

“Very well,” Emhyr said. He’d been watching them, watching Ciri, with his face gone still and a little remote, as if something were surprising him; barely noticeable unless—unless you knew him, had learned every line of his face without even meaning to, with all the detail of witcher senses.

Morvran hesitated, and then he said abruptly, “What measures will you take for Cirilla’s safety, since you fear for it so?”

“Geralt will be there. I think no other measures will be required. As soon as the threat is laid bare, Cirilla will simply take you and return to the palace by means of her powers.” Morvran glanced over at her, startled, but Ciri was looking at Emhyr. “I trust that would prove no difficulty?” he asked her. She shook her head a little. Emhyr rose. “The hour grows late. Send your letter, and then go to your rest. Cirilla has spoken wisely. This is a matter to be disposed of quickly.”

They left together, Ciri’s hand through Morvran’s arm. She threw Emhyr one look as they left, a slight nod. Emhyr stood for a while looking after them when the door had closed.

“What is it?” Geralt said.  

After a moment Emhyr said, “I have thought of her, all these years, as Pavetta’s daughter. It is strange to think of her also as—mine. Perhaps I ought to have listened to you and confided in her from the beginning, after all.”

Geralt snorted. “Try and remember that for next time. Now tell me something: was this always the plan?” Emhyr paused and turned to him. “To hang on until Ciri got pregnant? Use that to set Voorhis up?”

Emhyr was silent, and then he said, an answer, “Pavetta knew the morning after she conceived.”

Geralt nodded shortly. “You were that sure it would turn Morvran?”

“I was sure it would decide Morvran, one way or another,” Emhyr said. “And now Cirilla can be certain of him, forever. He is hers.”

“You think he’s going to stick the landing?” Geralt said.

“Yes,” Emhyr said. “You saw it also. He chose. Even though, despite his bravado, he already knows his father is guilty.”

“So what’s the plan, exactly? Other than getting Ciri the hell out of there first thing.”

Emhyr shrugged. “To do whatever is necessary. The shape of that will come clear in the moment, I imagine.”

#

The dinner was set for two days’ time, and abruptly all the rest of the problems went away. The Imperial Treasury came unlocked, and the grain ships and caravans started coming again, and the repair work on the aqueduct suddenly picked up its pace.

Geralt missed his swords when they walked into House Voorhis. He wasn’t worried. He’d put on a doublet and pants of heavy leather, and he had a knife in his boot. He just wanted them, although he wasn’t sure he could’ve helped pulling his steel the minute they walked into the house. He recognized every face in the drawing room, all nine of the inner circle smiling at Ciri with all their teeth, wolves wearing human skins. If he’d had any doubt that Voorhis would go through with the murder, that he’d have a second thought about killing his own son’s wife and their unborn child, it was gone as soon as he saw them. Voorhis wasn’t just going to do it, he was going to put on a fucking show for him and his friends: murder Ciri for the first course’s entertainment, and Emhyr for the second.

They were even all wearing belt knives—not a common Nilfgaardian fashion. Voorhis was probably planning to let them all stab Emhyr to death together with their own bloody hands. They all looked like they could barely wait, like they’d planned to do it all the smart way, the sure way, but now they had an excuse to just bring out the knives and bury their snouts in blood, and they were rejoicing for it.

It was almost just as well. If they hadn’t been so fucking eager, if they’d been paying more cautious attention, Morvran might’ve given the game away. Because he knew, too. He didn’t want to know, but Geralt could see his face. He didn’t let Ciri off his arm for so much as a second, and his hand was white-knuckled covering hers as he greeted the guests shortly. Ciri sounded more natural than he did, greeting everyone formally, cool and steady. Emhyr was still looking out of her eyes.

“Come, my friends, let us to the table,” Lord Voorhis said expansively, and when they were all seated, a servant came around and poured wine for everyone from a single bottle, starting with him and going round the table. When everyone had been served, Voorhis raised his glass. “To Nilfgaard!” he said, smiling at Emhyr across the table, only to stop without drinking when Geralt leaned over and got the glass from in front of Ciri’s place.

It wasn’t a thick coating, just a fine line painted around the inside rim of the glass that shone blue-iridescent when he tilted it a little to the light. A long sniff was enough. He put it down and told Emhyr flatly, “Vitruvian.”

Emhyr’s lips tightened.

“What is the meaning of this?” Voorhis said, setting down his glass. “I have invited you to my home, and now—”

“And now,” Emhyr interrupted shortly, “you seek to murder my daughter before my face, presumably before you proceed to regicide.” There was total silence around the table; a lot of glances got traded quickly. Voorhis was the only one who never wavered, his eyes fixed straight across the table on Emhyr’s, his slight smile unchanging.

After a moment, he said, “This is absurd, Emhyr. You have degenerated into paranoia—unless this is merely a scheme to discredit me and put my son aside—”

Morvran abruptly reached out and took the glass himself. “The accusation is easily dismissed, father. To your health, my lords.” He raised it without hesitation to his mouth, and Lady Voorhis cried out, “No!”

His hand stopped, just short of his lips. He shut his eyes, and he slowly lowered the glass back to the table and set it down with an audible click. Then he opened his eyes and stood, looking down at his parents. “Why?” he said, his voice trembling. “Why Cirilla? Now of all times, when she is—”

“Morvran!” his father snapped, cutting him off before he could say it. 

Morvran stopped. His face was crumpling, wrenched. “Why?” he cried across the table. “She is my wife! A wife of the Elder Blood—”

“Of polluted and corrupt blood, the daughter of a barbarian slut and the man who whored himself out to her rather than marry a true daughter of the houses of Nilfgaard!” Voorhis snapped back, angry and flushed.

“Darling,” Lady Voorhis said, reaching a hand across the table to Morvran. “My darling, I’m so sorry. I wanted you to be told, warned, before the wedding—I feared this, I knew she’d do her best to ensnare you—but you must trust us. You must—”

Trust you!” Morvran said, staring at her. “Trust you to do what? To murder my wife and my unborn child? What have you done?”

Voorhis had jerked in anger. “We will forget what you have said,” he said after a moment. “I see now that your mother was right. We have put you in a difficult position. I can only say I will do anything in my power to gain your forgiveness for it once you are freed from this unfortunate entanglement. There will be another bride, and sons of ancient and true blood—”

Morvran was shaking his head a little, back and forth. There were tears sliding down his face. Abruptly Ciri pushed her chair back and stood and slipped her hand into his, cupping his cheek with the other and turning his face towards her. “There’s no sense in dragging this out,” she said quietly. “Morvran. They love you. Think about that, remember that, and not the rest. Let’s go.”

He didn’t move a moment, and then he nodded, minutely. Across the table, Lord Voorhis blew out an angry sigh. “This is foolishness. I am sorry, but I will not permit you to ruin what has been so long in coming.”

Permit?” Ciri said with a sudden flare of contempt, almost a laugh, looking directly at him across the table. “Permit?” Voorhis stared at her, starting to frown, but she turned to Emhyr. “You promised Morvran—”

“It will be done,” Emhyr said. “Go, Cirilla.”

She nodded, and then she threw one final cold look back at Voorhis before she turned and put her forehead against Morvran’s. Her magic blazed out cold and silver around them, blinding for a moment, and then they were gone.

Voorhis reared up from his seat, his face shocked, and half the others were rising, looking around the room wildly like they thought Ciri had just moved a few steps away. “You may all as well sit down again,” Emhyr said. “They are gone to the palace. My daughter’s corrupt and polluted blood, you see, nevertheless confers some advantages.”

They all stared at him. Emhyr reached into his gown and brought out a large vial of murky deep-blue liquid, sealed with wax. He rolled it across the table to clink softly against Voorhis’ plate. “Tenebrius. A kinder end than you would have given me and my daughter. You may administer it yourselves: your son bought that for you.”

Voorhis stared down at the vial, then up at Emhyr, and abruptly he called, “Captain!” The door of the room behind them opened instantly, and a man in chainmail under the colors of the house stepped in, standing to attention. “Make certain the house is secured, and the grounds, and send word to all our allied houses to expect an attack at any—”

“Voorhis,” Emhyr said in weary tones, shaking his head a little, “there is no attack coming. My soldiers remain encamped outside the city, where you have been observing them these last six weeks. The Imperial Guard are on alert at the palace to defend Cirilla and put down any eruption from your own forces, not marching through the streets. No one is coming to batter down your door.”

Voorhis stared at him, wary and baffled at once.

“You have spared me the necessity of any such crude measures,” Emhyr said. “You have let your own death in by the front door, and seated it at your table.” And he gently gestured with an open hand to Geralt.

“Is that my cue?” Geralt said to Emhyr. “About goddamn time.” He shoved his chair back from the table and stood up and cracked his neck a little.

“Captain,” Voorhis said sharply, “summon the household guards, and kill this man at once.”

Geralt didn’t bother getting out his knife, just picked up the heavy silver candlestick in front of him on the table. He turned, and threw it heavy end straight at the captain’s helm, knocking him back a few steps. The man’s hand was on the hilt of his sword. Geralt closed in, got a hand on it too, drew it along with him, and smashed an elbow into the man’s face to knock him off it. The blade was in decent condition: not as good as Geralt’s steel, but it got the job done. The captain’s head came off with the next swing, sword shearing through his neck. It went flying and landed on the table, knocking over a vase full of flowers. Lady Voorhis screamed, a jolt of noise, and covered her mouth.

“Armsmen! Armsmen!” Voorhis was shouting, and a dozen were already running into the room, swords drawn. The two footmen tried to jump Geralt from behind, too.

It wasn’t much of a fight. The soldiers were good men for house guards, meaning that they’d all seen combat in the last five years before they got their current cushy posts, and they’d kept in training and maintained their blades. But they all came charging through a single pair of double doors at the end of the dining room, and the quarters were cramped with heavy furniture. Geralt weaved through their swings almost effortlessly, taking openings whenever they showed up, and he had them all down in less than five minutes. He clubbed the surviving footman unconscious—the guy was crying and trying frantically to yank on his arm, he didn’t even have a dagger—and kicked the doors shut.

He turned around and gave the room a quick sweep. The guests were all staring at him, frozen in their seats, too shocked to even scream. The three maids who had been serving the dishes were cringing back into a corner under a serving table, clutching at each other in open-mouthed horror, averting their faces to avoid meeting his eyes. No more threats. He didn’t hear anybody else coming, but just in case, he grabbed the massive carven sideboard with a hand and dragged it across the doors to block any more from coming in, ignoring the shattering of vases and crystal toppling off the top.

He turned and stalked back to Emhyr’s side and pointed his sword around the table, blood dripping from the edge to spatter the cloth. “Emhyr may have promised Morvran, but I didn’t come here to kill a bunch of guys who’re just trying to earn a paycheck,” Geralt said. “You want the poison, take it now. Otherwise, it’s going to be you on the other end of my sword next, not more of them.” He jerked his head towards the dead men behind him.

After a long, silent moment, Emhyr said, “Well, Lord Voorhis? The choice is yours. I have given Morvran my word you may have honorable death, and burial in your ancestral crypt, but if you prefer to be slaughtered like cattle, I will be glad to expand my ballroom after all.” He swept a look over the others. “You may all have the same terms. I will not be harsher with the servants than the master.”

It started finally to sink in for them that they were done—that they’d lost, right in the moment when they’d thought they’d won. They looked past Geralt at the slaughtered armsmen, and back at him, and then to Emhyr, and then even over the paneled walls and paintings, like rats hunting for an escape hole to dive through. There was another door at the side of the room that went to the kitchens: Lord Ginnhael was on that side of the table, and he made a faint twitch towards it. Geralt rolled his eyes, picked up his table knife, and threw it hard enough to thunk into the wood at eye level. “Don’t waste my time. In case you need it spelled out, none of you are leaving this room alive. Except you three, nothing’s going to happen to you,” he added to the maids, who just cringed tighter against each other scrunching their eyes closed. “The only thing that’s up to the rest of you is how you go.”

After a moment, Voorhis slowly picked up the vial and cracked the seal. He reached out and tipped a small amount into his wineglass. He turned and looked at his wife, and then he gave her the vial. She took it in a hand that trembled a little as she poured out a dose. She put the cap back on, and then she looked up and blurted to Emhyr, “My son—”

“Do you dare ask me for assurances?” he said softly, savagely. “You, who would have butchered my daughter before my face: my child of silver and flame, with her mother’s eyes? You who smiled at her with a false mouth and would have taught your son to betray her in her marriage bed?”

Geralt realized, oddly, that it had never occurred to him that Emhyr loved Ciri. He reached out and put his hand on his shoulder, feeling the hard tension in every line radiating up his neck. After a moment, Emhyr reached up and covered it with his own. He said abruptly, “Morvran is Cirilla’s husband and the father of her child. His fate will rest in her hands. Count yourself fortunate that he is a better man than you would have made him.”

Lady Voorhis dropped her head, closing her eyes, and then she pushed the vial on down the table and reached for her glass. Lord Voorhis was holding his already. They looked at each other. He raised her hand to his lips, and then he drank. She shut her eyes and drank her own glass down too, quickly.

Tenebrius took a while to kill, but the first stage hit fast. They were both sinking even as their glasses slid empty from their hands, eyes closing, their bodies going limp and slumping back into their heavy chairs. The rest of the conspirators followed quick, pouring out their doses and throwing back the glasses as fast as they could like they didn’t want to watch the others go. In a couple of minutes all of them were under, except for Lord Duchene, who was staring down at the vial: his neighbor had left it by his glass. He was standing. He’d started to draw his own knife while Geralt had been mopping up the guards, but he hadn’t even gotten away from his seat before they’d all been cut down.

He looked down at the vial, and then the knife in his hand, and back at Geralt with a panicky expression. He was a young guy, not much more than twenty—young enough to have more excuse than the rest of them for being a shithead, and he’d looked away earlier with something like guilt in his face when Morvran had been yelling at them all about going after Ciri.

Geralt told him not unkindly, “You want to die with a sword in your hand instead, you can,” and picked up one of the swords scattered at his feet and slid it hilt first across the table.

But Duchene stayed white and sick looking. He reached a trembling hand out for the blade, and then he looked at Emhyr and blurted, “My sister—my brother—”

Emhyr turned over his hand slightly. “You chose, Lord Duchene. You knew the risk you ran.”

“She’s not fourteen,” Duchene said desperately. “She knows nothing of this matter. She’s been in a convent school for four years, since our father died. She only begged me to bring her to the city for the wedding—the coronation—My brother’s only six—”

“The people in this room who were out to kill children were all on your side,” Geralt said through his teeth. “What do you think we’re going to do to them?”

Duchene threw an agonized look at him, and Emhyr said, “Lord Duchene’s circumstances are somewhat unusual. As you may recall, his house is the one engaged in a blood feud with House Fliran, who have given me most critical and steadfast support. Lord Fliran will naturally ask my aid to put an end to the feud in return.”

“And what does that involve?” Geralt said in the rising grim certainty that he didn’t even need to ask.

“The death of every blood member of the enemy house,” Emhyr said. Goddammit. “I should note that inflicting the same fate on House Fliran was undoubtedly the price Lord Duchene asked Voorhis in exchange for his own assistance, which rather diminishes his moral standing in the matter. Lord Fliran has two young children, I believe.”

Duchene didn’t deny it. There were tears welling in his eyes, and then he dropped the sword and came round the table and knelt at Emhyr’s feet. “Sire, I beg you,” he said, almost inaudibly. “The crime was mine, the folly. Have mercy on them. I beg you.”

Emhyr,” Geralt said.

Emhyr glanced at him and then looked down at Duchene broodingly. “What is her name?”

“Iniara—”

“Not your sister,” Emhyr said. “The woman who would not wed you while your house stood under blood feud.”

Duchene’s mouth worked a little, and then he whispered, barely audible, “Lady Isildra.”

“Lord Preuwen’s eldest daughter.”

Duchene nodded. “He—he would not allow—” He let his head fall.

Emhyr pressed his lips thin and shook his head. “Son of a bitch,” Geralt muttered, glancing at Preuwen’s corpse, already fallen face-first onto the table: so Duchene had fallen in love with the guy’s daughter, and Preuwen had used it to rope him into the whole mess.

“I will not deny Lord Fliran,” Emhyr said quietly. “Your house must die. But it may die with you alone.” Duchene looked up at him, still white and shaking. Emhyr reached into his belt pouch and took out a single gold coin. He held it to Geralt. “Geralt of Rivia, I lend this coin to Lord Fliran, and on his behalf, hire you as the instrument of his vengeance.” He turned to Duchene after Geralt slowly took it. “Geralt shall take your head and hands back to Fliran, to testify to the end of your house. If he accepts the evidence, the feud ends, and House Duchene as well.”

Duchene swallowed and whispered, “But—my brother and sister, they will be made nameless. They would have nothing, no property or protection—what will become of—”

Geralt had a pretty good idea of what would become of a thirteen year old girl and a six year old boy thrown out onto the streets of Nilfgaard, whose family had just had the bad taste to wind up on the losing side of a major power struggle. He looked hard at Emhyr, who eyed him back sidelong and then let out a nearly imperceptible sigh and said, “I will take them into House Emreis.”

Duchene’s head jerked up. “You will—” he choked out, and then he dropped his head and said brokenly, “Sire. Thank you. Thank you—

Emhyr held up his hand. “Fliran will have the right to repudiate the act. If so, I can do nothing. The right to seek full vengeance is his. You can only hope that he will show your kin more mercy than you offered to his.”

Geralt said, “But if he won’t take it, I’ll protect them myself.” He could practically feel Emhyr glaring you’re complicating the situation at him, every word clear, but he gave Duchene a confirming nod anyway. “I’m not here to trade some other kid’s life for Ciri’s.”

After a moment, Emhyr heaved another faint sigh, agreeing. He told Duchene, “Rest your head and hands on the table.” Duchene nodded and turned shakily, and Geralt brought the sword down fast, even as the guy was lining himself up: no sense dragging that out. Duchene’s body fell to the floor with a thump.

Geralt blew out a sigh as he looked around the room, slumped corpses all around the heaped platters in a grotesque half-unreal tableau. The tenebrius poison had finished working while they’d been dealing with Duchene, the last slow heartbeats fading away, but the flies hadn’t even come for the food yet, much less the bodies. The serving maids were still huddled into a terrified knot in the corner. “What a fucking mess.”

“And even so, cleaner by far than it might have been,” Emhyr said. He pushed his chair from the table.

“Do I just carry the parts out in a tablecloth?” Geralt said dryly, gesturing to the remains. 

“We will take the wine bucket,” Emhyr said, equally dry. Geralt had to fight down a laugh. Probably inappropriate. All right, definitely inappropriate.

He cleaned his sword and his knife on the crisp tablecloth and took one of the red damask napkins from the table to cover the bucket. “Think we’ll have a fight on our hands on the way out?”

“I doubt it,” Emhyr said. “Voorhis would not have trusted any but the most loyal of his bonded armsmen with even a hint that something untoward might occur tonight. And those men, I imagine, are already here on the floor. Let us go.”

Geralt shoved the sideboard aside and opened the door. The hallways right around the dining room were empty, and Emhyr led the way out striding with easy assurance. The guards lined up on the front door steps all went instantly to crisp attention when he came out. The imperial carriage was already waiting at the bottom of the steps, and the senior guard officer even walked down and held the door for him, although he darted a few confused glances around, clearly wondering why no one was seeing the emperor off.

“Your master requires you in the dining room, I think,” Emhyr told him, as he closed them in. The man looked even more confused, but he only saluted even more crisply and said, “At once, Your Majesty,” before stepping back from the coach.

And then they were rolling away into the city streets, and Emhyr sighed sharply and let himself sink into the seat as if he’d let out a breath he’d been holding a long time. He shut his eyes a moment, and then opening the hatch said to his coachman, “To House Fliran,” before he shut it again. “It will be best should Fliran learn of his deliverance from me directly. It will improve the chances of a happy resolution, since you have decided to thrust yourself into the midst of the matter.”

“You really think he’s going to demand the right to kill a couple of kids? What kind of an asshole is he?”

“A sensible man who loves his own children,” Emhyr said. “There is a reason blood feud is declared rarely. It represents the total dedication of one house to the eradication of another. The present Lord Fliran had to abandon a planned career in the temple and marry to preserve his family line after Duchene’s father had his four elder brothers and his mother all murdered in various ways. His father died killing Duchene’s father in revenge. If there were only a girl, and I promised to have her dedicated to a remote and isolated convent for life, he might consent. But to leave a son of the house alive, hungry for vengeance, even if technically the house itself is ended? If Fliran does agree, most of Nilfgaard will think him a fool.”

It took half an hour through the city streets, even in the imperial coach: the evening traffic was still in full swing and the sun had only just gone down. Voorhis had scheduled his murderous dinner party early; to have time to celebrate afterwards, Geralt figured. When they pulled up to Fliran House, a neat smallish villa in the Triumphalis Quarter, the four armsmen on duty scrambled out of the gatehouse wiping their mouths to open the gate for the carriage, and Geralt could hear people still running inside the house and yelling frantically even as Emhyr stepped down out of the coach.

Lord Fliran came out a few beats too late with his formal surcoat on askew and missing his belt, and his wife, carrying the loaf of bread behind him, had bits of unbraided hair escaping from under the formal wig she’d thrown on as a desperation move: they’d clearly been having a casual family dinner. Two small children came behind her, a little girl and an even littler boy, walking slowly and carefully carrying the bowls of salt and oil. Fliran tore off a hunk of bread, dipped once in each bowl, ate, and then bowed deeply. “Be welcome to House Fliran, my gracious lord.”

Lady Fliran brought the loaf to Emhyr with her head bowed, her hands trembling a little. He tore off a hunk and dipped and ate—the kids didn’t bow their heads, staring with open interest—but when she would have offered the bread to Geralt, Emhyr put out his hand and said, “No. This man is engaged by your house, if you will have it so.”

“Sire?” Lord Fliran said, darting a look at Geralt.

“Earlier this night, I presumed upon your will, and hired Sir Geralt of Rivia to serve as the instrument of your vengeance,” Emhyr said. He turned to Geralt and gestured to the wine bucket. “At his feet.”

“Uh,” Geralt said. The entire family—and a lot of peering servants—were all staring at him now with wide fascination. “Maybe the kids shouldn’t—”

Emhyr turned and contemplated the two of them. “Are they under seven years of age?” he asked Lady Fliran. She nodded with enormous eyes. “They must remain, but you may cover their eyes.”

She groped out without looking away and got her hands over the kids’ faces. “Mama, I want to see!” the little boy said, scrabbling at her hand. “Mama, let me look!”

“Shhh!” his sister hissed, poking him, and when Emhyr gestured again, Geralt dumped out the wine bucket onto the flagstones at Fliran’s feet. The contents had gotten a bit messier along the way, but Duchene’s face was still recognizable.

Lady Fliran made a choked noise in her throat, and Fliran gaped at the head openly a moment before he jerked up staring at Emhyr.

“Do you accept this man’s service?” Emhyr said.

Fliran stared at him, his mouth still hanging open, and then he strangled out, “Yes—Sire, yes, of course—”and turned to look at his wife, who pulled her eyes away from the remains and stared back at him and blurted, “Is—does that mean—”

“It’s over,” he said to her, his voice breaking. “It’s over,” and she moaned out loud and sank to her knees and pulled the children against her shoulders with a sob, salt and oil spilling everywhere and the boy still whining, “But Mama, what is it, I want to see,” a little more uncertainly, until her tears silenced him. Fliran went to them and put his arms around them all for a moment, his head bowed, before he dragged himself back up and turned back to Emhyr, wiping his face hurriedly and saying, raw and struggling for formality, “Your Majesty, I beg your forgiveness,” and then he stopped, trembling, and burst out hoarsely, “You have lifted the shadow from my childrens’ lives,” and put his hands over his face.

“You must repay the sum I laid out on your behalf,” Emhyr said, his voice as gentle as it ever got. “One oren.”

Fliran made a jerky nod and turning called, “Sessa—Sessa, my purse, at once—” and the servants—it looked like everyone in the house had come cramming up to the front to watch—all rushed into a lot of unnecessary bustling action to justify being there. One older man, a majordomo or something, came out with a leather sack, and Fliran took out an oren and gave it to Emhyr.

Lady Fliran was just managing to get hold of herself. She looked up and asked faintly, “May—may the children go back in?” Emhyr nodded, and she beckoned over a couple of nursemaids, who hurried over and shepherded the kids away without letting them get a look—the boy still complaining although a little muted—and she stood up herself with a futile brushing at her dress, crumpled with a massive oil stain all down the front, and got herself to her husband’s side. Her eyes kept trying to go down to the remains still at her feet, and she kept jerking them back up.

“Will—will your Majesty dine with us?” Fliran asked, his voice trembling. “It would be our honor—”

“Not tonight, I think,” Emhyr said quietly. “And Geralt has one more task remaining on your behalf.”

Fliran nodded a little, and Lady Fliran darted her eyes to him and then swallowed and whispered to him, “Adir, what about the Duchene children?”

“It’s all right, Hanna,” Fliran murmured to her. “It’s—this ends it, they don’t have to be—”

“But what’s to become of them?” she said. “Will their mother’s kin take them—”

Emhyr was regarding her with a slightly raised eyebrow, and when she noticed, her voice faded away completely under it. She dropped her eyes. “Lord Fliran,” Emhyr said after a moment, “you are fortunate in your wife. I hope you know it.”

Her eyes lifted a moment, startled, before they dropped again. “I do, Your Majesty,” Fliran said.

Emhyr nodded. “House Duchene is dead in law,” he told Lady Fliran. “So too are all the children of that house. They have no kin, and House Morel has no obligation to take them, nor likely inclination. I will take them into my own house.” She inclined her head, acknowledging, and he turned to Fliran and said abruptly, “And to yours, I offer the kinship of House Emreis.”

Geralt had no idea what that meant, but Fliran obviously did, because he looked like someone had just banged him over the head—for a second time in the last ten minutes, for that matter. He fell stammering over himself to accept, obviously losing track of his own words, until Emhyr raised his hand and he fell gratefully silent. “We will arrange the formalities soon,” Emhyr said. “For now, I take my leave of you. I will see you in the Senate in the morning.”

“What was that all about?” Geralt said, back in the carriage.

“I have effectively offered to adopt their house,” Emhyr said. “They will become a cadet branch of House Emreis—and therefore legally of the first rank, henceforth.”

“How often does that happen?”

“Never, in the last century,” Emhyr said. “The process is extremely expensive, and once completed, the adopted branch becomes the responsibility of the parent house. Their feuds will be mine, their business interests likewise. The children will have the right to call upon me as the head of their house, and I will be honor bound to treat them as my kin.”

Geralt said slowly, “And you’re about to adopt the Duchene kids, too. So they’ll be—related, officially? No more feuding allowed?”

Emhyr’s mouth lifted a little at the corner. “We will make a Nilfgaardian of you yet.” 

Geralt snorted. “Uh huh. Sounds to me more like you’re going soft.” Emhyr glared at him. “Come on, admit it. You want a happy ending or two out of this mess.”  

Emhyr huffed after a moment. “Perhaps I do, or at least as much of one as can be extracted from the ash and ruin. I must be getting old.” He sighed and looked out the window. “Hold the horses a hundred feet from the gate,” he told the coachman, as they drew up to Duchene House—much bigger than Fliran’s, with the gates of iron and heavy stone staffed by half a dozen watchful guards holding crossbows. They were eyeing the imperial coach uncertainly, and when it didn’t come any nearer the gate, one wearing an officer’s knot came out and walked up to the door of the coach and bowed.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” he said formally, “forgive my temerity, but if you contemplated a visit to our house, I regret to inform you that my lord is from home.”

“No lord lives here,” Emhyr said quietly. “Do you understand me? Say nothing aloud, only nod.” The man stiffened away from the carriage door, his cheeks sagging into loose pouches. His mouth worked, but after a moment he nodded silently. “Good. Have the servants make the children ready to meet with me. There is to be no ceremony of welcome and the household gods are to be brought out. Do they have a nursemaid or trusted servant who can most gently break ill news to them?” The officer nodded again, jerkily. “Good. Tell that servant they have my permission to make the children understand what you do before they meet with me, that they may formally receive the news without betraying themselves. My coach is not yet at the gates. It will be half an hour before I arrive. Go.”

He leaned back against the cushions and shut his eyes. Geralt got up and sat down next to him after a moment, their shoulders and legs together, and Emhyr relaxed minutely against him. They waited together in silence, the minutes ticking past, until Emhyr stirred at last and opened the hatch again. “Take us up to the gate,” he said, and the house guards swung them open smoothly for the carriage. They’d used the time: armsmen and servants were lined up around the wide courtyard before the house, and the two children were standing together in front of it in formal wear, red-eyed and stunned, with an old woman in a black dress behind them. A rough old wooden shrine had been carried out into the courtyard, several blurry stone statues set in niches.

Emhyr stepped down from the carriage, and the two children made a formal bow. The girl was tall and foal-skinny in that stretched way Geralt remembered from when Ciri had first shot up, her hair up in formal braids and her face blotchy under a quick coating of glamour, and the boy a sturdy little kid with his lip stuck out somewhere between belligerence and misery, just old enough to understand about half of what was going on. He was holding a ragged old toy, and he kept glancing back at the nurse. Emhyr looked at them both and said quietly, “Lord Duchene is dead.”

They’d known, of course, but even so, many of the servants flinched, and the nursemaid stifled a noise, one hand going out for a moment towards the children as if she wanted to protect them. The boy’s mouth wobbled. The girl swallowed once and said in a trembling voice, “We are grateful to Your Majesty for informing us.” She stopped there and swallowed again.

“I cannot tell you that he died with honor. However, he died with courage, and with thoughts of his kindred foremost,” Emhyr said. “It is my sorrow to inform you that his house died with him.”

The boy threw a confused look up at his sister as she drew in a sharp breath. The nursemaid gripped a crystal around her neck and shut her eyes briefly as if she was giving a prayer, before her hand fell away. “I—I understand,” the girl said after a moment, but uncertainly, as if she didn’t, not really. She looked around herself a little jerkily. “We—must we—”

“Come,” Emhyr said, and stepped over to the shrine. There was a small silver bowl and a knife on a shelf. He took the knife and cut off a lock of the girl’s hair, lit it at one of the burning candles, and dropped it into the bowl to char to ash. He scooped up the ash with two fingers and turned and drew a line across her forehead. “Iniara var Duchene is dead.”

Her mouth was trembling, and she blinked hard, but she didn’t cry. She stepped back and motioned her brother forward. Emhyr took a lock of his hair, too, and repeated the ritual. “Iren var Duchene is dead.” Then he beckoned the old nursemaid over. “Go and wash these clean in the fountain and bring them back,” he told her, handing her the bowl and the knife. He turned to Geralt. “You must smash the shrine and burn it. The household gods must be wholly destroyed.”

“Right,” Geralt said. “Step back,” he told the servants, and hit the thing with a quick Aard spell. It was old, dry wood, and it collapsed instantly. The little stone statues smashed down against the flagstones, and he broke them up a bit more with another round, then ground them under his boot heel and set the whole thing on fire.

The whole household was utterly silent, watching it burn. Emhyr waited till the fire was going, and then he turned and beckoned the girl forward. “Take your brother and go inside and change. You may take nothing with you save a slave’s shift. Leave the garments in the house and your shoes as well, everything.”

She took the boy’s hand and went inside. They came out a few minutes later barefoot in plain ragged-edged shifts made of coarse linen. The boy was crying outright now, knuckling at his eyes with his free hand, and the girl had taken the pins out of her hair and her braids had fallen down and were unraveling. The old nurse had already come back with the bowl and knife washed clean, as if she’d run, and her face was a mask of agony looking at the two children. Emhyr held out his hand for the bowl and the knife, and she gave them to him and then abruptly creaked herself down to the ground and lifted the hem of his robe to her lips. “Let me go with them,” she whispered. “I who am a worm at your feet beg you.” 

“Hush,” Emhyr said quietly, not unkindly, and beckoned the children towards him. “Hold this for me,” he told Geralt, giving him the bowl. He unfastened the buttons of the left sleeve of his coat and folded it up to the elbow, and took off the tight bracelet clasping the shirt and folded the cambric back over the sleeve as well. Then he took the knife and deliberately slit his wrist along the vein. Geralt almost jerked and grabbed him on instinct, and had to keep fighting it while blood went gushing out into the bowl in three horrible spurts before Emhyr folded his white shirt sleeve back down over the wound, packing the loose cuff of it into a small pad, and secured it with the bracelet again—like it was designed for that, Geralt realized indignantly. 

Emhyr turned back to the staring children. The nurse had sat up on her heels and was covering her mouth. “Come here,” Emhyr told the girl, and when she stepped up to him, he dipped two fingers into the blood and drew another line across her forehead going the other way, wiping away the ash. “You are Iniara var Emreis.” The servants were murmuring increasingly loud as he did the same thing to the boy and lowered his hand. “Go into the coach,” he told them.

“Yes, Your—yes, my lord,” the girl whispered, and took her brother and started to draw him after her.

The boy resisted her pull a moment and blurted, “Please, please, if I’m not dead, can’t I take Brion?”

Emhyr frowned down at the child and looked over at the servants, as if he was wondering which one. “He means the toy,” Geralt said, realizing the sister had made him leave it inside.

“The—” Emhyr stared at Geralt as the girl hissed to her brother, “No, I told you, it’s not yours. You can’t take anything from the house, it would be stealing.”

The boy’s face was crumpling again into choking sobs, and Emhyr looked down at him with the baffled expression of a man who’d been fighting for his life and throne since he was thirteen years old and hadn’t seen his own daughter any time between the ages of four months and twenty-one. “Hang on,” Geralt said, and went into the house. The toy was lying on the floor just inside the door, like the kid had clung on to it until the last second. Brion had once been a wyvern, although most of his left wing had been lost in an accident at some point, and the tail was looking a bit thin. He carried it out to Emhyr.

“You cannot take it either,” Emhyr said, shaking his head.

“It’s not an it,” Geralt said patiently. “You heard the kid: his name’s Brion.” He nodded towards the bowl: there was still blood left in it. Emhyr gave him a look of speechless outrage, and the servants all looked shocked, but Geralt looked pointedly down at the little boy, who was gazing up at them in utter desperation.

Emhyr looked down at him, obviously contemplated the consequences of refusing, and with a very hard look at Geralt dipped his fingers back into the bowl and brushed a streak of blood over the wyvern’s very grey fur. “You are Brion var Emreis,” he said through his teeth, and then Geralt handed the toy to the boy, who clutched it tight and finally let his blanching sister drag him into the coach.

Emhyr threw Geralt another cold look and then turned to the nurse. “I offer you employment with my house. Do you accept?”

She fell back to the ground and kissed his hem again. “Yes, Sire,” she gasped.

Emhyr nodded. “You may ride with the children. A servant will be sent for your possessions.” He turned to the guard officer. “All servants of this house shall remain employed by the estate until the legalities are completed. Keep your duties, and permit no intruders to disturb the house.”

The coach was a little cramped with the two kids and the nurse in with them, everyone involved still bewildered and shell-shocked, maybe increasingly so. Emhyr was regarding the two children roughly like they were young arachnophores and he was wondering what he’d been thinking. Iren was the only one happy, cuddling his wyvern tight at first, and then he dropped it on the floor of the coach—Emhyr threw Geralt a look of profound outrage—to get on his knees and peer out the window and say, “Look, we’re so close to the palace!”

“We’re going to the palace!” Iniara hissed at him, yanking him back down onto his seat. “Stop being stupid!”

Iren resentfully started kicking his bare feet against the seat. He said to Geralt interestedly, “Are you part cat?”

“Nah,” Geralt said. “I’m a witcher.”

The boy’s eyes got huge. “Like Mithrion of Dale?” he breathed out.

“More or less,” Geralt said. “He was School of the Manticore. I’m School of the Wolf.”

“Then where are your swords?” Iren demanded in sudden suspicion. “Witchers always have two swords.”

“They’re back at the palace,” Geralt said. “I’ll let you see them in the morning.”

The carriage rolled into the palace courtyard. Ciri was hurrying down the stairs to meet them by the time they got inside, saying, “What happened—” until she stopped short, seeing the barefoot kids in their shifts with the bloody lines still drying on their foreheads. She looked at Geralt.

“Long story,” Geralt told her.

“Cirilla,” Emhyr said, beckoning her down, “these are your sister Iniara and your brother Iren. They are Emreis.”

The servants were all whispering madly, but after an incredulous look, Ciri came down the rest of the stairs and reached out to take their hands. “I’m so glad to meet you,” she said. “My name’s Cirilla, but you can call me Ciri.”

Iniara looked like she was somewhere between dazzled and ready to burst into tears. Iren held up the wyvern. “This is Brion. He’s your brother too,” he told her. “See, he’s adopted and everything.”

Geralt was reasonably sure he heard Emhyr grinding his teeth. Fortunately for all concerned, Iren broke into an enormous yawn before he came out with anything else, and Emhyr beckoned over his chamberlain and delivered the nurse and the kids into professional hands, clearly to his own massive relief. “But where did they come from?” Ciri said, after they were all whisked away.

“Their late brother tried to murder you,” Emhyr said dryly. “You may apply to Geralt for a more exhaustive explanation. All the inner circle are dead. Where is Morvran?”

“In our chambers,” Ciri said. “I got him to drink a little lethe-water and go to sleep. A messenger came from Voorhis House looking for him to tell him he’d inherited, if you can believe it. I put the man in a room and told him he’d have to wait until morning.”

“Yes,” Emhyr said. “Several such messengers have gone out tonight, I imagine. In the morning’s session at the Senate, I will—” Geralt reached out and got hold of his arm, where the bloodstain had dyed the white cambric of his sleeve brick red.

“The next round of scheming can wait a little while. Hey,” Geralt called to the chamberlain, “get a healer to the emperor’s suite.”

Emhyr frowned at him but grudgingly let himself get towed to his suite and bandaged up properly, and cut out of his bloodstained clothes. “Are you going to have to do something like this again for House Fliran?” Geralt said suspiciously, watching the mage-healer mend the opened vein with a murmured charm.

“I told you the process was expensive,” Emhyr said.

“I thought you meant in money.”

“It will be that as well.” Emhyr flexed his hand when the healer was finished, grimacing slightly. “I could hardly do otherwise once I had agreed to adopt a traitor’s siblings. Was I to put the children of his house above the children of a man who had served me so notably as Fliran has? It would hardly recommend me to anyone considering a future alliance.”

“Uh huh,” Geralt said. “You liked him and his wife. I’m guessing they make a nice change from everyone else you know, not being complete selfish bastards.” Emhyr looked even more irritated, and it made Geralt want to kiss him so badly that he just did, ignoring the servants all milling around the room, and even Ciri standing by the other side of Emhyr’s couch.

The rest of the servants had all taken themselves off hurriedly by the time he stopped, thanks, but Ciri had just stayed right there. In fact, she was staring at them with her hands clenched. “But—isn’t it over?” she said. “I understand why you were, but it’s done, isn’t it? What more is there?”

Geralt opened his mouth and shut it again. He had no damn idea what to say. There wasn’t anything more. And nobody needed a witcher in Nilfgaard.

“You need not be alarmed, Cirilla,” Emhyr said coolly. “The conspiracy is indeed thoroughly dealt with. The last details will be managed tomorrow. Geralt has trapped himself at court entirely by his own doing. He made a vow to protect the Duchene children. A vow which I assure you I intend to enforce,” he added dryly.

“Seems like a pretty wide interpretation of what I said,” Geralt said, folding his arms, trying to fight down a sharp, ridiculous burst of happiness.

“Unfortunately for you,” Emhyr said, “the final interpretation of vows lies with the emperor. And I certainly do not intend to be held responsible for raising a toy wyvern.”

“Hm, probably should’ve figured that was going to come back to bite me,” Geralt muttered.

“Indeed.”

Ciri had stopped looking worried, but now her eyes were narrowing. “None of that explains why you’re still kissing.”

“Cirilla, I will require you and Morvran with me in the Senate for the session tomorrow morning,” Emhyr said, ignoring her firmly. “I think perhaps you should rest.”

“You’ve actually fallen in love, haven’t you,” Ciri said.

“Ciri, go to bed and leave us alone already,” Geralt said. She laughed and went out of the room deliberately whistling one of Dandelion’s most recognizable and soppy ballads. “Great. We’re never going to hear the end of this.”

Then he looked round at Emhyr, who had that I’m going to chop off my own hands with this alarm settling into his face again. “Hey,” Geralt said, softly, and Emhyr shut his eyes briefly and reached for him, drew his head in close and kissed him, sharp and tender at the same time.

“Do you want me to yield to this?” he murmured against Geralt’s mouth. “You must know I will never let you go. How long before you yearn to set out on your Path again?”

“Emhyr, the last time I left a kid in your hands, you lost track of her four months later and then conquered half the damn world trying to find her. Who knows what you’d do this time around,” Geralt said. “I’m not going anywhere this time until they can all take care of themselves. And if I’m bored by then and you aren’t, you can let Ciri take over and retire up north with me. There’s plenty of work for a witcher a day’s ride around Novigrad.”

“How absurdly simple you make it sound,” Emhyr said.

“Let’s start out that way,” Geralt said. “I’m guessing you’ll handle complicating things as we go.”

“Why?” Emhyr said abruptly, as if he didn’t want to ask. “You care nothing for rank and little enough for worldly possessions. Gold runs through your hands like water. Power does not interest you, save in the exceptionally direct methods you apply. What is there for you here?”

“Well, I really like that brush,” Geralt said, desperately flippant. He half didn’t want to answer the question for himself.

Emhyr only glared at him. Geralt said roughly, “You’re a lot like your city,” which was as close as he could get to putting into words how it felt to know him—vast and complicated and cruel, determined as a battering ram and sometimes shatteringly magnificent. “And maybe you both need a witcher around more than you think.”

# End