Geralt had no damn idea what to do with a vineyard when Anna Henrietta gave him Corvo Bianco, but he figured it couldn’t be that bad. He’d probably run the place into the ground, but it seemed to have been run into the ground already. Worst-case, it still meant a place to sleep between jobs that he didn’t need to pay for, with a bed that nobody else slept in. He was used to bedbugs and lice, but he didn’t like them. Anyway, it came with a majordomo who knew what he was doing. His plan was to do whatever Barnabas-Basil told him to do, hand over some pay once in a while to patch up the roof, and spend the night whenever he wasn’t working.
His first year of being a landed knight of Toussaint ran pretty much along those lines. There were a few infestations of archespores to deal with, and the estate needed so much money sunk into it that even with the five thousand crowns the Duchess had paid him, he ended up having to take as many contracts as ever. He didn’t mind. He also definitely didn’t mind coming home to a hot meal and a comfortable bed. Felt like something he could get used to.
The second year went well, too. The vines had started bearing grapes, and all of a sudden he needed vats and barrels and bottles and corks and labels, how the hell could little pieces of paper cost so damn much, and he rode through the beautiful countryside for weeks in every direction hunting up jobs. And winemaking was fun in its own right. Geralt hired a vigneron on Barnabas-Basil’s recommendation, but when it came down to actually choosing the grapes, the yeast, the temperature of the wine, the barrels, how long to age it, everything, he went with his own nose, because he figured the main person who was going to be drinking the wine was him. The third year was pretty much the same.
Then the fourth year came, and his wine won sixteen awards. The biggest battle he was in, that whole fall, was the fistfight that broke out among four winesellers at the auction for his limited stock. Not exactly taking on a griffin or a zeugl, even if he did pick up a few clawmarks from Mme Aubre dragging her off old Pierre Vauban, who had just outbid her at the last second for the last case of the red. When the sales were finally over, he asked Barnabas-Basil how much money they needed for the next harvest. He was informed they’d made enough money to quadruple production and cover the estate’s expenses for the year. But if he wanted to expand their markets, they could use some extra coin to ship the wine to influential winesellers in Novigrad and Nilfgaard. That was good for a couple of extended trips to the mountains at least.
The fifth year, they made a hundred thousand crowns of profit, and Geralt’s life went completely to shit. He had always spent money like water, as fast as it came in, but at this rate he couldn’t keep up no matter how hard he tried. Armor and weapons had eaten up every coin he could make, so he made the mistake of setting up Grandmaster Lafargue with a new forge, workshop, and larger store, at terms that B.B. complained were outrageously favorable, and then Lafargue jubilantly reported a massive increase in sales and insisted on loading Geralt up with free swords and armor every time he set foot in the shop. The stuff was so much better than anything he could buy from anyone else that there was no point spending money on gear at all.
Geralt agreed to an expansion of the villa in hopes that the cost of the renovations would mushroom hideously. Four months later, while showing him around his stunningly beautiful six-bedroom villa complete with a dining room that could seat twenty—he didn’t know twenty people he wanted to have over for dinner, or at least not at the same time if he didn’t want a pitched fight to break out—B.B. proudly reported that they’d come in a few hairs under budget.
At that point, Geralt desperately tried gambling for high stakes, but he won more than he lost. He bought some racehorses; they won more than they lost, too, and after Barnabas-Basil made a few noises about stud fees and setting up a breeding operation, Geralt sold the damn lot of them before that could start making serious coin, too.
Meanwhile the Toussaint nobility were no less interested in money than anyone else, under the window dressing of titles and lands and honors, and he had the window dressing, so they all started inviting him to parties. Turning the invitations down didn’t help. It just made him into a catch, and a witcher tracking down a wounded slyzard had nothing on a Toussaint countess on the hunt for a remarkable guest for her latest soiree. Geralt didn’t mean to say yes, but then fifteen minutes into a conversation he’d hoped would turn out to be about a haunting at a distant hunting lodge or a pack of necrophages in the family cemetery, he would find himself somehow agreeing to come to a nice intimate dinner for forty the next night. On top of that, occasionally the Duchess would invite him to the palace and then he had to go. Hosting a pitched battle in his dining room was starting to sound better by the minute.
He tried to go out on jobs even though he didn’t need to. It didn’t work. He couldn’t haggle over fifty crowns with poor villagers when he knew he’d just made another four thousand in wine sales that week. He ended up not taking the coin at all, half the time. But then he was ankle-deep in swamp muck for no reason, drowner guts stinging in his scrapes and their putrid stench in his nostrils, and his feet ached and his back ached and he felt old and goddamn tired, and meanwhile, just like always, anybody who wasn’t actually trying to hire him called him a freak, and spat in the road when he passed, and kids threw dung balls and sometimes rocks when he rode through town. He didn’t want to be some heroic martyr, nobly putting his life on the line for people who treated him like shit. He wanted to be a witcher, and witchers didn’t work for free.
He got back from that trip less than two weeks after he’d left, half falling off Roach’s back into his courtyard, angry and still drunk on the cheap liquor he’d bought with the one sack of coins he’d actually taken. The asshole who’d posted that contract had called him a freak even while trying to hire a witcher. Geralt staggered into his beautiful house, dumped all his muddy stinking gear on the floor of his bedroom, and crawled naked into the luscious silk and fur nest of bedding on his enormous and well-sprung bed with the goose-down featherbed and the three mattresses of fresh clean wool and just the faintest smell of lavender and Toussaint sunshine on it all, and tried not to think about the future.
B.B. gave him the formal invitation the next morning when Geralt made his late and surly appearance at the breakfast table. Another command appearance at the palace, with a twist: Emhyr was finally on his way home to Nilfgaard to crown Ciri, having conquered everyone there was to conquer and then some, and he was stopping in Toussaint for a state visit along with the Crown Princess and her betrothed, Lord Morvran Voorhis.
Geralt let Barnabas-Basil stuff him into a new doublet and went to the palace, hoping against faint hope for an assassination attempt. He’d heard of at least four tries on Emhyr in the last three years, and why couldn’t someone try again while he was there? But the dinner went off without a hitch, and Emhyr didn’t suffer anything worse than getting pigeonholed by Baron Wilens during the promenade before the dessert course. Of course, Geralt would gladly have traded in a conversation with Wilens for an hour of moderate torture, but Emhyr somehow managed to disengage after literally three minutes, even leaving Wilens looking pleased.
“And he’s been all right to you?” Geralt asked Ciri, watching the emperor make his gliding progress through the room, inexorable and graceful and vaguely reminiscent of a particularly vicious drowner in the water.
“More or less,” Ciri said. “He’s an absolutely brutal taskmaster, and I don’t think he knows how to be anything but hard. But he’s just as hard with himself, too, so I don’t really mind.”
“And this Morvran guy. You sure about him?”
She smiled briefly. “I’m sure I don’t have a choice. Emhyr told me straight out from the beginning that it was him or civil war—said I’d be better off not coming back than refusing him. The aristocracy have never forgiven him for not marrying one of their own, and if I wouldn’t take their candidate either…Anyway, Morvran’s all right. He keeps wanting me to be a well-bred Nilfgaardian lady, and he doesn’t know what to do with me when I keep not being one, but he’s clever, and he’s kind, and he’s none of the awful things that someone in his place might be. I’m going to give him a chance, anyway.”
She sighed a little, though, and Geralt nudged her. “It’s not too late to give the whole thing up. We could slip out tonight, make it through some back alleys I know, hit the road to Aedirn—” He couldn’t help it coming out hopeful. Being stripped of his lands for treason, chased by all the armies of Nilfgaard under Emhyr’s vengeful command: sounded great to him.
But Ciri just said quietly, “We’re going to be crowned right after the wedding. That’s the bargain Emhyr made with the aristocracy and the trade corporation. He only got to finish the conquest of the North in exchange for handing the throne over to me and Morvran, afterwards.”
“He’s really going to retire?”
“In triumph, at the height of his glory,” Ciri said. “He told me that he thought it was even a good precedent, and Morvran and I should plan to do the same, when—when our heir is old enough.” A mischievous light came into her eye. “I think Father is considering an estate here in Toussaint, in fact. He said it was just close enough to civilization to be bearable, and just far enough from Nilfgaard to convince people he had really given up power. Perhaps you’ll be neighbors.”
“Great,” Geralt said, dryly. That was all he needed.
Two months later, Barnabas-Basil appeared out in the gardens in the morning. Geralt was lying flat on his back on a divan staring up at the adorable twittering birds in the tree, fighting the temptation to shoot them down with cherry stones and swigging from his first bottle of wine of the day. B.B. cleared his throat and said, “Sir, I hope you will forgive my presumption, but a small matter has arisen in which I wonder if you would consider taking an interest.”
“Copper vats sprung a leak?” Geralt said, dully.
“The problem does not lie upon our own estate,” Barnabas-Basil said. “Perhaps you were aware that His Imperial Majesty has chosen to retire to Arthach Palace?”
“No?” Geralt said, craning his head up.
“Indeed,” Barnabas-Basil said. “The emperor took up residence just last week. Which makes it all the more distressing to his castellan—a close friend of my own honored mentor—that yesterday, while investigating the source of some small noises in the plumbing which disturbed His Majesty, they suddenly broke through into a series of what appear to be subterranean burial chambers, many of them partially flooded and infested by a large variety of—”
“I’ll get my gear,” Geralt said, swinging his legs over the side of the divan.
He spent the next three days underground, slaughtering a small army of drowners and ghouls who’d been feasting on the preserved elven corpses, and a second small army of elven spectres and wraiths who were really pissed off at having their bodies eaten by necrophages. He finally re-emerged blinking against the glare into the late afternoon sun with the whole place cleared out, and a sketch to show the castellan the places where the walls had broken and let the water and the monsters creep in.
“Well, witcher, it seems I once more find myself in your debt,” the deep, familiar voice said, as Geralt was drinking a very welcome glass of wine in the lower palace courtyard to clear out the sour aftertaste of sixteen Cat potions.
The castellan evidently hadn’t expected the emperor to take a personal interest in the extermination process: he’d jumped a mile in the air and was now sweeping a deep bow, murmuring apologies. Geralt wiped his mouth and looked up at Emhyr; he didn’t get up. “Glad to help out,” he said. “Turns out my majordomo knows your castellan.” The castellan lifted his head enough to shoot him a desperate glare that suggested he didn’t want to acknowledge any connection to a filthy barbarian lout who was breaking every rule of etiquette, but too bad. Geralt had just spent three days cleaning out Emhyr’s cellars, he was damn well going to sit for a while. “Place is cleared, but I should tell you this probably wasn’t just a summer palace. Number of tombs, the kind of scrollwork, the passages—the work is more elaborate than I’d expect for servants or local nobility. And I think there’s more rooms walled up down there. I went through everywhere I could get to, but the layout feels incomplete.”
To his surprise, Emhyr didn’t make a fuss about the formalities himself, only nodded thoughtfully. “The elven kingdom in Toussaint resisted conquest for some time. Likely they had time to close off passages to more important tombs before the end. A matter worth further inquiry. For the moment, however, I will be content not to have my slumbers broken by shrieking wraiths. I would not have expected the dead to be so loud.”
“They get a lot louder when you’re shoving a silver blade through them,” Geralt said cheerfully.
Instead of getting tossed off the estate, he ended up invited to dinner. As soon as Emhyr left earshot, the castellan made it clear that invited was a polite word for commanded, but hell, wasn’t like Geralt had anywhere else to be, and at least the conversation wasn’t going to be about the latest fashions from Nazair and the most appropriate flowers to send while courting in spring. The invitation came with a hot bath and clean clothes, too, and Emhyr had clearly brought along some imperial-caliber household staff and supplies. The food was fantastic, and the wine even better.
They had a couple hands of Gwent over the port and cheese, and talked about how Ciri was doing. There was a fierce pride in Emhyr’s voice telling Geralt how she’d shut down Morvran’s father’s attempt to keep her out of council meetings after the wedding. “He had the gall to change the time and place of the next meeting without informing her,” he said. “Cirilla moved herself through time to arrive shortly after it began, and informed him that the next time he acted to undermine her authority, she would have him barred from the palace entirely.”
“So she’s doing all right on her own,” Geralt said.
“Magnificently,” Emhyr said. And then he sighed very faintly and reached for the decanter to top up his glass; he held it towards Geralt in a silent offer.
“I can stand it if your cellars can,” Geralt said, sliding his glass over.
“You have provided me ample room to expand them,” Emhyr said, pouring generously. “I understand you have turned vintner yourself, and with considerable success.”
Geralt sighed himself. “Yeah.”
“I confess myself surprised. I would not have imagined you seeking retirement.”
“Look who’s talking,” Geralt said, dryly.
“My alternatives were unsatisfactory.” Emhyr sat back in his chair and looked away at the view. The northern doors were closed against the faint miasma of the swamp air, but a wide balcony stood open out to the south, with Beauclair Palace a faint misty vision of spires in the distance. “I preferred to leave upon my own terms, and hand Cirilla an empire worth ruling, than destroy what I had wrought with a civil war I would have to spend another two decades fighting.”
“Mm hm,” Geralt said. “You sound a bit wistful about the second option, though.”
Emhyr snorted. “Perhaps. And what of you? Do you ever find the quiet of your vineyards oppressive for lack of shrilling beasts?”
“Every goddamn day,” Geralt said, more honest than he had meant to be—they were several bottles down—and found himself spilling the whole sob story of his success to Emhyr, who actually broke and laughed out loud when Geralt got to the racehorses.
“And I can’t even burn the place down,” Geralt finished. “There’s forty people employed by the estate. I know because my majordomo had me come to a holiday party for them and their families. He’s giving them all bonuses. They’re all really happy.” He downed the rest of his most recent glass.
“I would imagine so,” Emhyr said, wiping the corner of his eyes with his thumb. “You have trapped yourself in a prison of your own nature. You are not cruel enough to please yourself at the expense of those who depend upon you, and not kind enough to please strangers who treat you brutishly. At least you may congratulate yourself on your self-knowledge. Most men would be sunk in misery without even understanding why.”
“Yeah, it’s a real comfort.”
“Perhaps you can hope for the failure of your business. Winemaking involves a great deal of chance, I believe?”
“Not for a witcher,” Geralt said glumly. “My vigneron just throws out any batch of grapes or yeast that doesn’t smell good to me and everything comes out all right. We ended up tossing half the harvest this year, but that only made the prices triple.”
“I must tell my castellan to acquire some, evidently,” Emhyr said.
“Is that a joke? You can have ten cases for free. No one can look at me reproachfully for giving it away to the emperor. Just promise me you won’t tell anyone if you like it.”
“If asked, I will dismiss it as a very trivial vintage, too light to be of serious interest,” Emhyr said, his voice shaking slightly with freshly suppressed laughter.
“Great,” Geralt said. “Take twenty cases.” And he’d definitely had too much by then, because he added without thinking, “Come for dinner tomorrow and take it back with you if you want. It’s an easy ride now that the road is clear.”
Emhyr said, bemused, “Come for dinner?”
“Well, it won’t be this,” Geralt gestured towards the already-cleared table, which had held a total of thirty-two dishes over the course of the meal, “but I do have a really good cook.”
Emhyr just stared at him, and after pulling together the few unsodden remnants of his brain that were left, Geralt realized belatedly that you probably didn’t just ask the Emperor of Nilfgaard to drop over for a visit, retired or not. Except Emhyr had probably had a bit too much by then himself, because before Geralt could withdraw the invitation, he looked around at his chambers, gave a sudden snort and said, “Why not, after all? Very well.”
His staff almost had hysterics the next morning when Emhyr informed them he was going to ride to Geralt’s, and the carriage could come pick him up that evening. “Sire, at least let me send an escort,” Captain Merrin said, just short of tears. He was the captain of the imperial guard cohort that had been assigned to protect Emhyr in his retirement.
Emhyr glanced at Geralt, an eyebrow raised. Geralt shrugged back, privately enjoying the agony. “They can come if you want them. The road’s pretty safe, though. We won’t see more than a few drowners around the area here, and then there’s only Iocaste. She’s cleared most of the rest of the monsters.”
“Iocaste?” Merrin said.
“Silver basilisk,” Geralt said helpfully. “Endangered species. She’s got a protected range on the di Salvaress lands. She’ll hit a caravan if they go through her territory, but chances are she won’t come at us.”
“We will trust to Sir Geralt’s expertise, I think,” Emhyr said dryly, while Merrin all but frothed at the mouth with horror and rage. “Even if not to his sense of humor.”
It was a beautiful, clear spring day. A couple of feeble drowners did shamble out onto the road at one point, but that just meant Geralt got in a bit of light exercise. “Why’d you decide to live in a swamp, though?” he asked idly, ducking under a flailing clawed swing before he decapitated the last one.
“If I were close to any plausible power base, my enemies would not trust my retirement to last,” Emhyr said, which was fair enough; Geralt wouldn’t have trusted it either. “At least Arthach lies on the natural main route to the northern kingdoms. Now that the conquest is complete, trade and communication will increase. Messengers will come upon the road, merchants with a wider array of goods…” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
“Uh huh,” Geralt said. “And if something went wrong, one of your conquests tried to rebel, you’d hear about it first?”
“One would assume. However, I assure you that the North has been thoroughly pacified.” Emhyr sounded pretty glum about it.
So had all the countryside around Beauclair. A handful of would-be bandits peered out of some bushes at them at one point, but thought better of it after Geralt looked straight at them. Otherwise they didn’t run into anything. Iocaste did go overhead on a hunting flight, her moaning hiss making the horses put their ears back nervously, but she didn’t come down.
“Geralt,” Emhyr said in deceptively calm tones, after he got his horse back under control, “is that a basilisk?”
“Yeah, that’s Iocaste,” Geralt said.
“That was not a joke?”
“What?” Geralt said. “No, she’s really protected. Count di Salvaress has guards that keep people off her territory so she doesn’t hunt them.”
“Indeed. Are we in her territory?”
“Yeah, it’s the straightest shot to—”
“What precisely will you do if she does attack us?” Emhyr said, very levelly.
“Kill her,” Geralt said, surprised. “But like I said, she won’t. Basilisks aren’t dumb, they’re closer to dragons than wyverns. She knows me. I’ve ridden through here carrying draconid trophies, she got the point. If I went for her nest, she’d fight, but not when I’m just going through.”
Emhyr eyed him. “If you are so certain of your ability to kill her, why does she yet roam?”
“Uh,” Geralt said awkwardly. In fact, the ducal camarello had made a few strong hints in his direction about ‘the one remaining blot on the Beauclair environs’ which he’d been resolutely ignoring. “Well.”
“Ah,” Emhyr said, as if he understood. He looked up, and they both followed Iocaste’s flight with their eyes for a while, the sun glittering a rainbow off her scales as she swooped into a graceful arc, the gleam traveling from her crest to the tip of her tail and flashing off the silver spikes. “She is indeed beautiful.”
“Yeah,” Geralt said, embarrassed a bit.
They actually ran into Count di Salvaress on the way: he spotted their riding dust and came full-tilt to chase away whoever had come onto his lands, since Geralt had made clear that he would take Iocaste down if the killing didn’t stop, no matter whose fault it was. “Halt there! Halt at once! Did you not heed the signs!” he was yelling, before he even got close enough to see them, and then he pulled up his horse shortly with relief. “Master Geralt! Forgive me, I did not see it was you. But is it wise for you to bring another into—” and then he finally noticed who was with him and went sickly-pale and open-mouthed.
“Emhyr, this is Count Bories di Salvaress,” Geralt said blandly. “Count di Salvaress, this is—”
“We have previously met,” Emhyr said, very dry, giving Geralt a look that said he saw him having fun and disapproved.
“Yes it I that,” Count di Salvaress babbled, and then pulled himself together and swept a bow from the back of his horse and said desperately, “Of course Your Imperial Majesty must be wondering—Perhaps Geralt has explained the unique nature of the specimen—”
It turned out that despite disapproving looks, Emhyr wasn’t above tormenting his subjects a little himself, given an irresistible opening. “He has mentioned its unusual qualities,” he said austerely. “It seems quite dangerous.”
Poor Count di Salvaress forgot or ignored all etiquette to ride along with them explaining frantically how Iocaste was really not dangerous as long as you didn’t get anywhere close enough that she might possibly see or hear or smell you, and telling Emhyr every tender heartfelt story he could about her adorable habits of slaughtering wolves and wild boars and the beauty of her mating song—“Very likely it will be audible even at Arthach Palace!”—and earnestly swearing that she hadn’t killed anyone in at least eight months.
They finally ditched him at the border of his lands, and as soon as he was out of sight, Geralt looked at Emhyr, who looked back, and then jerked his head away fighting to keep his jaw set as Geralt crumpled into strangled laughter. “I see your generosity extends to madmen,” Emhyr said severely, or as close to it as he could manage while bent over his reins with the battle not to burst out laughing himself. “If its mating song is audible from my palace, you are going to kill it.”
“Sure,” Geralt said. “I’ll tell the Count you demanded it. He can haunt your doorstep instead of mine.”
He hoped to get a serious rise out of Barnabas-Basil, too, but after a first moment of silent blinkered staring—as Geralt said airily, “Emhyr’s staying to dinner, B.B. You can get something put together, can’t you?”—B.B. rallied heroically and said in very calm tones, “Certainly, sir. I will inform Marlene at once. Will you and His Imperial Majesty be dining al fresco, or in the dining room? And are there any requests for the menu? Perhaps you would care to choose the wines yourself?”
He did go into the pantry afterwards and shut the door behind him and—Geralt heard it faintly—screamed into a cushion. But that wasn’t really satisfying. Geralt sighed philosophically and said to Emhyr, “Want a walk? It’s nice in the vineyards this time of day.”
They walked through the fields, had a chat with old Rymir, who as usual complained to Geralt at length about how the young field hands would never tie the vines properly like they did in his day—he clearly had no idea who Emhyr was and no interest in finding out—and then sat in the herb garden and drank the two-year-old white wine while the sun went down. “Hm,” Emhyr said, after he tasted it.
“What?” Geralt said warily.
“I am afraid you are going to be an extraordinarily wealthy man,” Emhyr said.
“I already am.”
“Your definition of extraordinary wealth is not quite the same as mine. This is by far the best new wine I have drunk in ten years.”
“Wait until you try the red from last year,” Geralt said morosely.
B.B. poured it with the main course at dinner, which was just Marlene’s usual Sunday-night chasseur stew served in a single cast-iron pot, except this time she’d made it with what tasted like six bottles of the red and a combination of wild boar and short rib, and then put a thick, enormously fluffy pastry crust over the top whose bottom layers had soaked up the juices and whose top was perfectly golden and crisp. It was so good Geralt nearly moaned over the first bite, and literally neither of them said a single word the whole time they were eating.
Emhyr finally sank back in his chair afterwards, held out his glass to be refilled, and told Geralt, “Yes, I am afraid your doom is sealed. Also, your cook is indeed a woman of rare gifts. How did you manage to acquire her?”
“Funny story, actually,” Geralt said. “She used to be a wight.” Emhyr looked at the pot with a suddenly dubious expression. “She got better.”
Emhyr wanted another walk after the meal, so Geralt took him over the estate and showed him the cellars—he was a lot more interested in the mutagen lab than Geralt would’ve expected—and then they walked along the river together under the stars for some way, across the border into the Vermentino vineyard and up to the folly at the top of the big hill on their lands. The fireflies were out, tiny blue flickers, and the quiet Toussaint countryside rolled gently out over the miles in every direction, a faint song drifting over the fields from a distant worker going home, and from the road the steady clip-clopping of a single knight errant on his way to the capital. In the distance Beauclair and the ducal palace were lit up for the night, a beautiful half-moon shining overhead, a near-magical vision of peace and tranquility.
They both sighed. Geralt had carried along the rest of the last bottle of wine. He sloshed a healthy dose into the two goblets he’d also brought—B.B. had insistently shoved them into his hands—and offered one. Emhyr reached out and took it without hesitation, and they both tipped up their cups and drained them to the dregs.
“Let me know if you get any more undead rising out there,” Geralt said wistfully the next morning, seeing Emhyr off; the carriage was sunk low under the weight of all the cases of wine. “Or if the drowners get aggressive.”
“I shall send for you at once,” Emhyr said dryly. “As recompense for your hospitality.” Geralt snorted.
A couple weeks later, Geralt got summoned to the ducal palace again for a masquerade ball. That was better than it might’ve been, masks at least made it easy to slip out early, but he’d still worked his way through three bottles even before he found himself eeling desperately around a large potted tree to flee the noblewoman trying to talk him into an extended visit to her country house. “I assure you, not hide nor hair of dangerous beast anywhere for miles around,” ugh.
He escaped to an isolated corner of the gardens and found Emhyr standing by a gurgling fountain, looking into the depths like he was contemplating drowning somebody in it, possibly himself. “No mask?” Geralt asked, taking off his own.
“I have very limited appetite for theatrics,” Emhyr said.
Geralt was about to ask why he was at a masquerade, then, when Vicomtesse de Blanvollet sailed around the corner, trilling, “Sir Geralt, so here’s where you have gotten to.” She advanced on him with a predatory smile for three more steps before she suddenly noticed Emhyr standing there regarding her impassively.
“Oh, Your Imperial Majesty!” she gasped, and instantly switched targets, with all the finely tuned instincts of a wild-game hunter scenting an even bigger trophy. “Do forgive me, Sire. Sir Geralt and I were just speaking about the little country party I am organizing. Pouilly is acclaimed as the most beautiful place in Toussaint to greet the spring—perhaps you have never had the chance to stay in that part of the country before?”
Emhyr frowned very slightly. “Pouilly? Where have I heard that recently…are you acquainted with the Lavorraines?”
The Vicomtesse paused. “Our lands march together?”
“On the other side from the Dubrochet estates, I presume.”
“Oh, no, Sire, the Dubrochet estates are the other side of mine.”
Emhyr raised an eyebrow. “Curious. Are you selling? I had heard an alliance was in the offing. It would seem inconvenient, if they did not mean to acquire the intervening lands.”
“But I am not…I beg your pardon, Sire,” she said, trailing off, “and hope you will excuse me, an urgent matter calls me,” and she bowed herself away hurriedly as soon as Emhyr waved a dismissing hand.
“What was that about?” Geralt said, relieved.
“At this time of year, nobles with social ambitions larger than their purses will often mortgage their lands to permit them to host lavish events, then pay off the debts after the harvest and gathering the tax,” Emhyr said. “If an unscrupulous buyer managed to acquire the mortgages, wait until de Blanvollet had spent herself thoroughly into the hole, and then called the note due, they might be able to acquire her property when she was unable to raise the funds.”
“And these neighbors were going to pull that on her?”
Emhyr shrugged. “I have not the least idea. But she will find it difficult to prove a negative. I imagine she will not be inclined to risk the expense of a large party after all. I dislike encroaching.”
“Well, lucky for me she encroached, then,” Geralt said dryly. “Why did you expose yourself to it in the first place, though? Not like Annarietta can command your presence.”
“No, but she can take advantage of it,” Emhyr said sourly. “I came to Beauclair to purchase new books. There is no suitable house available in the city at present, requiring me to spend the night at the palace. I did not suppose the Duchess could manage to arrange a state occasion with less than two days’ notice, but evidently I underestimated her staff. The masquerade is an effective way to obscure that the guest list is insufficiently elevated to merit an imperial presence.” He sighed. “I will have to make an effort to find an estate in a day’s distance.”
“There’s a big estate empty on the riverside, by the Metinna Gate, for what it’s worth,” Geralt said. “Belonged to Lady Orianna. I don’t know if it’d do for an emperor, but it seemed pretty nice.”
Emhyr raised an eyebrow. “What happened to the previous owner?”
“Killed her a few years ago,” Geralt said. “Not much of an identifiable corpse left after and no heirs, so the place has been stuck in limbo.”
“I will hope she had an extensive library. Why did she merit death?”
“Vampire with an orphanage.” Geralt figured that was enough; by Emhyr’s grimace it was. “If you want, I could take you there for a look,” he offered.
Several screams of drunken laughter burst out over the nearby hedge wall. “By all means,” Emhyr said emphatically.
Geralt took him a back way past the gardeners’ sheds, where he broke one open and got a ladder. Emhyr gave him a narrow look but climbed it to get to the top of the garden wall, which was wide enough to stand on, and Geralt hauled it up to tip down to the other side. The outer walk of the palace was mostly empty except for guardsmen sitting around smoking and chatting, and carriages lined up waiting to take their owners back; nobody paid attention to the two of them walking by through the shadows.
The front door to Orianna’s estate had been boarded up, so Geralt had to bash it open, but the place was in decent shape inside: her staff had evidently closed it up properly when she’d disappeared. Geralt even managed to dig up a bottle of wine out of a cabinet and a couple of dusty glasses, and Emhyr managed to dig up one book that he hadn’t already read out of a bookshelf.
They settled in companionably on the terrace overlooking the river, with a clear view of the palace gardens and all the revelers going like wind-up toy figures. Anna Henrietta herself was easy to pick out in a dress of ivory silk and gold. She seemed to be moving around a lot, almost like she was looking for someone among the guests. Emhyr had a narrow and satisfied expression watching her roam. “I understand you were instrumental in resolving the attempted coup, some years ago now,” he said. “Quite extraordinary reports reached me of the matter.”
“Yeah,” Geralt said. “Pretty rotten business. It was months cleaning the blood out of the streets of the city.”
“Tell me, why did the duchess decide to spare her sister’s life?”
Geralt sighed. “Annarietta never wanted to do anything else. Syanna just gave her the chance.”
“And did you approve of her mercy?”
“More or less. Hard to forgive what Syanna did, but she had some cause. Not enough, but some. And killing her wouldn’t have solved anything. At least this way she can try to make some amends, and the Duchess doesn’t have her own sister’s blood on her hands.”
“Mm,” Emhyr said. “I confess, I nearly ordered Sylvia Anna’s execution myself directly. I thought the duchess had allowed a childish sentiment to override all sensible political judgement.”
Geralt looked over sharply. “Why didn’t you?”
“Your own involvement, as it happens. Cirilla was of the opinion that the reports made clear you had ample opportunity to kill her, and had instead stayed your hand even at considerable risk to yourself.” Emhyr gestured slightly. “I agreed with her point that it was better to trust in the judgement of a trustworthy agent upon the scene than to intervene from afar with imperfect knowledge of the circumstances.”
“I’m flattered,” Geralt said.
“Mm.” Emhyr didn’t say anything else a while; his book was open in his lap, but he wasn’t reading it. Abruptly he closed it with an air of decision. “You have indeed proven yourself exceedingly reliable, once committed. The question with you therefore is merely how your commitment is to be obtained.”
Geralt felt like a hunting dog that had just gone on point, a flicker of game sighted in the distance. His hands tightened around his own goblet, involuntarily. “Depends on what it’s for,” he said, trying not to sound as desperately slavering as he felt. Fortunately, Emhyr couldn’t be planning anything that major; he’d pretty much run out of nations to conquer unless he wanted to take a shot at Zerrikania. Hell, Geralt had always wanted to visit Zerrikania.
“I confess that when I chose to retire here, it did not even occur to me to consider you one of the, shall we say, local resources,” Emhyr said thoughtfully. “It seemed clear when I passed through last autumn that you no longer needed money. I saw little other incentive that might tempt you to be of service to me—and little chance of finding your service tolerable, for that matter. It is peculiar that I should find your insolence less irritating precisely when I have less power to rebuke it.”
Geralt had to admit, he wouldn’t have bet on getting along with Emhyr, himself. He said slowly, “I guess all the bowing and scraping used to mean people had to do anything you said, so it pissed you off that I wouldn’t do it. But now when people bow and scrape, they’re just wasting your time.”
“An interesting suggestion,” Emhyr said. “Perhaps it is even correct. In any case, I was wrong to discard the possibility. For however improbably, it seems I do have something you desire: work to be done, at considerable danger and difficulty.”
He might as well have thrown down a freshly butchered raw tenderloin. Geralt swallowed. “Yeah?” he said, fighting to keep his voice level. “And why would I do this work?”
Emhyr shrugged. “Let us not invent some spurious fiction. You will undertake it because, like myself,” with a faintly bitter note, “you have nothing better with which to occupy your time.”
Geralt ran a hand over his face. All right, he should’ve known there was no point trying to bluff Emhyr. “What kind of project did you even come up with sitting in a damn swamp?” and then before Emhyr could even answer, “Son of a bitch, you did find some more burial chambers.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Emhyr said. “I procured a selection of historical journals discussing the elven rule of Toussaint. Perhaps it would interest you to know that scholars believe that Beauclair was a later settlement, and in fact Arthach was the historical seat of the elven kings before the Conjunction of the Spheres?”
That took it right past burial chambers, even royal ones. “You think there’s a necropolis down there.”
A tiny curve lifted the corner of Emhyr’s mouth. “Well, witcher?”
Geralt stared at him. “You want to wake it up? Why? The only thing you can do with a necropolis is chat with the dead.”
Emhyr shrugged. “For curiosity’s sake. Because there is no other necropolis left intact. Because the ancient dead may have wisdom to share. Because it will strengthen the loyalties of elven citizens of my realm. What does it matter?”
“It matters a lot if you’re bullshitting me and you’ve got some secret way to raise an unstoppable army of the dead or something,” Geralt said narrowly, but Emhyr just gave him a look. Fine, he had a point: if you could raise an unstoppable army of the dead out of a necropolis, the elves would’ve done it themselves, back when mobs of humans were first overrunning their lands. “Anyway, since when are you an elven king?” he demanded.
“As it happens—”
“Right, nevermind.” Geralt waved it away. “Picked a title up off somebody you conquered somewhere sometime? Good luck getting the dead to listen to the technicalities.”
But Emhyr was smiling faintly, a gleam in his eye. “The remains of the last elven king and his knights were scattered across the slopes of Mount Gorgon by a savage mob on pogrom. But after the slaughter was done, a few of those too weak to fight, who had survived hiding in deep caverns, crept out and gathered their dead. By legend among the elves, they buried them somewhere on the mountain.”
Emhyr shrugged. “Did you think this was going to be a trivial undertaking?”
“Okay,” Geralt said. “So you want to go up to Mount Gorgon, find the bones of the last elven king—I assume you’re going to insist on gathering them with your own hands?” Emhyr inclined his head. “And then we take them down to your cellars and hope his dead relatives hang back long enough for you to stick him in a nice crypt?”
“That alone would be unlikely to make the necropolis speak to me,” Emhyr said. “But I will do so with the formal rites of a king burying his predecessor.”
“Sure, crown yourself first, why not,” Geralt said, fatalistically. “You realize what you’re actually going to do is piss off the dead so badly they swarm you, rip the flesh off your bones, and go howling all over the countryside for miles around? Just as well the place is in a swamp after all.”
Emhyr folded his arms over his chest and leaned back in his seat, regarding Geralt with a raised eyebrow. “So you have no interest in joining me, I take it?”
Geralt snorted. “Of course I’m joining you.” He raised his glass in a toast. “Like you said, I’ve got nothing better to do.”
It was spring down in the valley, but winter still had the mountain slopes gripped tight, with the exciting twist that there were just enough warm days scattered around to make avalanches a lot more likely. And Emhyr wasn’t a witcher and also not a young man, which kept their pace down. But he’d agreed to leave behind his escort again—much to the escort’s dismay—and he even shouldered a pack of his own for the climb when Geralt offered it to him.
“I’ll carry the necessities, but I need to be able to swing freely,” Geralt said. “So it’s up to you if you want to bring the secondary gear yourself. We can manage without a tent and blankets, as long as a late blizzard or a deep cold spell doesn’t hit, but we’ll be a lot less comfortable, and if one does threaten, we’ll have to head back down the mountain and lose most of our progress.”
Emhyr regarded the pack like it was an oozing trophy that had just been dumped at his feet without provocation. “I trust, Geralt, that this is not yet another form of humor in which you are indulging yourself. Is there some reason not to allow one of my enthusiastic squires to join us?”
Geralt shrugged. “Any slope I can get up, I can haul you and the packs up behind me, but that’s my limit. I can’t afford to get exhausted on the mountain. So you’d need at least two men, each with their own climbing equipment, and then they could divide up the secondary gear. But if either one of them falls, you’re out half the gear anyway, or all of it if they both go down. Your enthusiastic squires are right out. You’d need to hire real mountaineers, if you think you can find any you want to trust with the secrets of an elven burial ground.”
Emhyr kept frowning but said, “Show me how to put it on,” and once it was on his back, he spent a couple minutes in silence with it and then said, “Very well.”
They left his unhappy guard and relieved horses behind at the last tiny village scrabbled out of the mountainside and started trudging up the tracks the goats had left behind them going further up the mountain to browse. Emhyr held up with a surprising lack of complaint on the steep, rough trails, climbing doggedly behind him while Geralt scanned the slopes around them.
It had been five hundred years since the final battle, so Geralt didn’t expect to find traces of any makeshift shelters the elves had put up for themselves back then, but he figured that the mountain itself wouldn’t have changed too much. The elves would’ve needed water, and not to fall down and break their necks. They would’ve looked for caves and crevices at first for shelter while they built themselves somewhere to stay.
He spotted a narrow dark crack in the rock late that afternoon, just barely visible between two mounds of snow. It wasn’t too hard to reach. There were some remnants of old fires—nothing from elven times, just recent shepherds—but the crevice kept going into the back of the mountain, a passage just wide enough to squeeze through. Geralt took some deep sniffs of the air coming out, but the wind off the mountain was scouring the cave with regular gusts, and he couldn’t get anything strong.
“Worth checking, though,” he said, coming back closer to the mouth of the cavern. “We’ll take a look in the morning. Let’s get the tent up. We’ll probably be here a few days.”
The temperature did start dropping fast once the sun went down, but the tent was good thick leather with a lining of sheepskin, the best quality money could buy, and nice and small and snug. Once they got inside it with the flaps closed, it warmed quickly. Geralt had packed two metal cups with clean snow and tea outside and given them a blast of Igni. He brought them in with him, and they drank the hot tea and ate a supper of cheese and dried meat and biscuit, and polished off a small sack of dried fruit and nuts. It was better than plenty of meals he’d eaten on the road.
Emhyr chewed his share with a narrow look of concentration, and afterwards eased himself slowly onto his back with a tiny sigh and shut his eyes, as close as he’d come to admitting he was even a bit tired. “What makes you think the caverns will be extensive enough to spend several days here?” he asked with what looked like a visible effort.
“It’s not the caverns. You’re going to be pretty sore tomorrow.” Emhyr frowned at him for that, but Geralt just shrugged. “I’ll take you through some stretches in the morning and you’ll be up to going through the start of the cavern at least. Day after that, you’ll be ready for another full day’s climb. No sense in forcing it faster than that. You’ll do better if you take the rest.”
“Mm,” Emhyr very grudgingly grunted, and closed his eyes again. He was breathing deep in nine seconds flat.
Geralt grinned down at him with a sudden unexpected burst of something like affection. Most men went slack with exhaustion, but none of the hardness left Emhyr’s face even in sleep. His lips stayed closed, one arm folded on his breast and the other by his side, his chest rising and falling evenly, a hint of a stern furrow set into his forehead and his mouth a firm line: an unyielding spar of granite in the world that you could trust wasn’t going to give up a thing without one hell of a fight, not even to the scratching claws of time. “Goodnight, Your Majesty,” Geralt told the sleeping emperor, and lay down with his arm behind his head, hard rock under his back, his swords at his side faintly chill with the cold they were absorbing from outside the tent wall, and the wind howling ruthlessly around the mouth of the cave. He was as happy as he’d ever been in his life.
In the morning, Geralt realized he’d underestimated just how savagely determined Emhyr was not to show weakness: he hadn’t overdone things a little, he’d overdone things a lot. He couldn’t even sit up. Pushing himself up onto his elbow in the bedcovers was an effort of massive proportions that left him heaving for air, his face a narrow, focused mask. Geralt shook his head and mixed him up a cup of willowbark and even squeezed in one drop of Golden Oriole to neutralize some of the acid in the muscles. He stirred it thoroughly before he handed it over. “Lie back down flat after you drink it,” Geralt said.
He went outside and heated up a few round flat rocks with Igni blasts, then took them inside as soon as they were cool enough to carry. Emhyr had collapsed back curled on the bedroll with his eyes half shut. Geralt rolled him onto his front and rubbed his back and arms and legs with the hot rocks through his clothes until Emhyr groaned faintly and muttered, “Enough.” He managed to crawl out of the tent and get to his feet with help, and started slowly walking back and forth across the cave to loosen up more.
“Who did you think you were impressing?” Geralt said, exasperated.
Emhyr snorted as he lurched along. “Why do you think I had any notion I was inflicting this on myself? I have not made a habit of climbing mountains on foot.”
“You have to have been pretty damn uncomfortable long before we made camp.”
“I did not come expecting to be comfortable.”
Geralt rolled his eyes. “New rule: from now on, complain. You’re the first damn aristocrat I’ve ever met who wouldn’t proclaim it from the heights if he got so much as a pebble in his shoe.”
“Few aristocrats have spent seven years roaming the wilderness in half-bestial form. My standards for discomfort are somewhat elevated. However,” Emhyr grimaced as he limped awkwardly through a turn, “I do take your point.”
The sun came in through the cave mouth shortly before noon. Emhyr was moving a little better by then, enough to be ready to take a look deeper in. Geralt squeezed through first, carefully, feeling out footholds ahead of him and poking out with his knife to make sure the way was clear. The crack opened up, and a shot of Igni illuminated a large empty chamber, so Geralt stepped out and lit a torch and called Emhyr through.
Emhyr made it through but then paused, considering, and said, “I will stay by the opening.” He lowered himself with another silent grimace to sit on a large rock, and Geralt lit a second torch and made a foray out across the space. The ceiling dipped down almost to the ground in places, and he had to stoop in others. He found a few more scattered remnants of old fires, and in one small nook mostly hidden by a jagged outcropping he found a few small broken shards of old pottery, the broken edges stained and black with years, but still white under a smooth glaze on the finished surfaces.
He brought them back to Emhyr, and they studied them in the thin slice of light coming in from outside. “Moonlight glazing,” Emhyr said. “They were here.”
“Yeah. But this can’t be the burial ground,” Geralt said. “It’s too easy to reach. Shepherds come in here just by accident.”
Emhyr was silent a moment. “Could you find any traces of blood after so much time?”
“If I warm up some water and sprinkle it around, maybe. Only if there was a lot of it to begin with.”
“There may well have been,” Emhyr said. “We are not far up the mountain, and this cavern is large. Likely the youngest and most infirm would have sheltered here. When the pogrom came, they would have barricaded themselves inside and held as long as they could, hoping for relief from their warriors. And when in the end that relief did not come, and they were overwhelmed…”
“Hmm,” Geralt said. “Wait here.”
He squeezed back outside and got a cup of water and went back in. The floor was pretty swept clean, but when he went into the far corners of the cave, the darkest places where children might have huddled in terror in the arms of their grandmothers, the faint but clear smell of blood rose to his nostrils out of the deep cracks when he dripped warm water into them. He put his fingers wet into a few hollows and brought them out rusty-brown.
“Yeah,” he said bleakly, going back to Emhyr. “A lot of people died here.”
Emhyr nodded. “Yet the bones are not here. And I find it unlikely the shepherds would have been the ones to gather them.”
“A trail wouldn’t have lasted all this time, not out of the cavern,” Geralt said. “I won’t be able to track it.”
“We need not track a scent or a blood trail,” Emhyr said. “After such violence, the elves would likely have marked a funerary path to guide the spirits of the dead from the place of their death to their tomb. There may well be runes of the Elder Speech marked in the rock—in hidden places, to keep them from prying eyes. Have you found any further passages or chambers?” Geralt shook his head. “Then outside.” He put his hand on the boulder. “Help me up.”
Geralt levered him back onto his feet. Emhyr got himself through the crevice, slowly, but once there, he’d clearly hit his limit; he let himself down onto the ground again and leaned his head back against the cavern wall. Geralt made more hot tea and also cooked a thin soupy porridge with more of the dried meat. He dosed Emhyr with more painkiller and spent the rest of the day checking over the climbing equipment while Emhyr slept until late afternoon, then gave him another rubdown and put him through a ruthless stretching before dinner and another dose. “Nice day, huh?” Geralt said after they crawled back into the tent and Emhyr all but collapsed into his bedroll again.
Emhyr said something to him in Nilfgaardian so formal that it took Geralt a minute to work out he’d been called a motherless goatfucker from a country the gods had used to shit on while they’d done the work of Creation. He hadn’t known Emhyr knew how to swear. He fell asleep grinning again.
Emhyr was at least moving again the next day, even if not completely restored. They went outside and started poking around the rocks looking for runes. After a couple of hours, about five yards from the entrance Geralt caught a glimpse of a straight line peeking out from behind a clump of dry grass when he brushed away the snow from the foot of a stone face. When he pushed the yellowed grass away, it was the rune for wayfinding, scratched shallowly into the rock. “Got it,” he called, and Emhyr came over and nodded.
Geralt started to get quicker at finding them after the next couple. By late afternoon they’d traced it about a mile further up the mountain, branching away from the common goat track and between some craggy rocks, and to the head of a trail that was pretty much just the width of a man’s foot—a narrow foot—between two sloping walls of bare rock. It went climbing steeply up the mountain. “We’ll pack up tonight and go tomorrow,” Geralt said.
Emhyr was walking better the next day, and they made good time. The trail was a straight shot, and the elves had marked it less frequently, but with more clear signs, obviously figuring no one but the dead had any reason to be going this way. The path was mostly bare rock: the wind obviously came tunneling through here on a regular basis, scouring the passage clear. But it was barren and jagged, getting steeper all the time, and around noon, it got bad enough that Geralt got out a line and clipped Emhyr on to him, in case his foot slipped. “I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do than have to explain to Captain Merrin that I dropped you down the mountain.”
The trail bottomed out at the base of a wall of sheer rock about sixty feet high with a nice clear rune etched at the top, just to make clear that yeah, they really did have to go up there. “Right,” Geralt said. “Stay here.”
“I see few alternatives,” Emhyr said dryly, looking down the long steep gully behind them.
It took Geralt an hour to get to the top, chiseling himself handholds with the small hand pick, and another half hour to haul up the packs and then Emhyr himself, even with Emhyr doing his best to help. As soon as he got him over the edge, Geralt let himself lie down with a sigh, head pillowed on the packs. They had got up onto a ledge protruding only about ten feet out of the side of the mountain. Emhyr sat down with his back firmly against the cliff wall and shut his eyes. Geralt gave him a squint. “Do I have to remind you to complain again?”
“I am not in pain,” Emhyr said. “The height is mildly discomfiting. Are you actually impervious to the sensation?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” Geralt said, looking over the edge. He knew some people were bothered by heights, the same way he knew others were bothered by dismembered corpses or howling noonwraiths: intellectually. He had a vague distant memory of fear like that, bound up with the smell of piss in bedsheets in the dark and an older boy laughing at him the next day, then Vesemir finding him in a corner and telling him gruffly not to worry, he wouldn’t be afraid anymore, soon enough. But it was too far gone to really reach. People weren’t all wrong about how witcher mutations stripped emotion; the process was just targeted at the ones that got in the way of the job.
They followed the ledge around the curve of the mountain until it broke into a ragged gravel slope down to a small sheltered valley. It was full of tall, dark green pine trees, and also a good forty feet of snow. “Well, shit,” Geralt said. He looked at Emhyr. “Want to come back in late August?”
“I am not repeating this climb,” Emhyr said. “Fortunately we need not excavate the entire meadow. The king would be buried at the center, to offer the most ground to bury warriors beside him.”
“Yeah, great. And I’m going to be doing most of the digging,” Geralt said.
“Most?” Emhyr said, faintly amused. Geralt glared at him.
He’d brought a shovel blade along, and a few blasts brought down a sturdy branch good enough for a handle. It was still a whole damn lot of snow to move. At first he had to take off some layers to keep from sweating through them, but as the morning wore on, he stopped being too hot, even though he was working just as hard, and after that, he started to feel chilly, even though the sun was getting overhead. He straightened up and blew out a deep gusty breath, and the moisture in his breath hung thickly white and prickled into ice crystals on his lips. “Temperature’s dropping,” he called to Emhyr, who had been going around after him with a long branch of his own, poking down into the area Geralt had half-cleared to try and see if he could find any raised mounds hidden beneath the remaining snow. “We need to get the tent up.”
“Where do you mean to pitch it?” Emhyr said.
“Need to get some more branches down, make a frame to get us off the snow.”
He brought down another few dozen large branches, and they laid out a rough grid by the foot of the largest tree, packing snow around the lower part and making a low wall of snow around the border to keep the whole thing from sliding around. It was so cold by the time they could actually get the tent up that Emhyr’s hands were shaking too hard to do anything that required a grip; he could only brace things against his body. “Go ahead and get inside, your body heat will start warming the thing up,” Geralt told him. He tried to heat the cupfuls of water again, but the sparks of Igni mostly died on his fingers. He managed to melt the snow, but the water was still pretty cold, and a thin layer of frost was already climbing the sides of the cups again before he even got inside the tent.
Emhyr was shivering violently by then, and the tent wasn’t warming all that quick. Geralt muttered, “Dammit, got to try,” and took the risk of a single shot of Igni inside the tent itself. The blaze that would’ve set the whole tent burning a few hours ago barely managed to get a cloud of steam out of the single cup, and Geralt didn’t even bother putting tea in it. He just got Emhyr to sit up and pretty much poured the hot water into him, holding his hands around the cup. “Better?”
“Yes,” Emhyr said. He was still shivering, but not quite as bad.
“Eat as much as you can now, while your mouth is still warm,” Geralt said. He was getting their bedding spread out, testing the amount of cold coming through the ground: they were going to have to split their layers between the top and the bottom carefully. He shook his head after a moment and unlashed his own bedroll, spreading it out flat. “We’re going to have to share.”
He heated the second cup, and gave Emhyr half of that one, too, and then they crawled into the covers along with the food. “Don’t take this personally,” Geralt said, “but we need to take off our clothes, too.”
“I begin to feel like the heroine in a bad novel,” Emhyr said, as they awkwardly got out of their clothes, shoving their trousers down to make a nest by their feet and keeping their shirts tucked behind them. He was finally warming up, though, and the chill was pushed back as they settled in close, skin against skin.
“You read novels?” Geralt said, trying to make some kind of conversation to distract himself from the fact he was cuddling with Emhyr. If Yennefer ever found out about this, she would laugh herself so sick she’d vomit.
“A great many of them in the last month or so,” Emhyr said. “I assure you, freezing to death is a preferable fate.”
“Remember any of them?”
“Are you asking me to tell you a story?” Emhyr said.
“We’re stuck here until morning if we’re lucky, and it’s damn awkward,” Geralt said. “Have any better ideas?”
“None immediately, but I am reasonably certain the situation will not become less awkward if I recount The Seduction of Lady Isolde for you.”
Geralt snorted with laughter. “You didn’t really, though.”
“I did,” Emhyr said. He sounded pretty grim about it.
“You’ve only been retired for eight weeks. How did you end up on that?”
“I used to read five hundred pages of documents in a day,” Emhyr said. “Half of them full of deliberate lies and the other half full of inaccuracies and mistakes, and all an incomplete description of the reality beneath. Novels are far more easily consumed. I have resorted to ordering a copy of everything new that comes into the one Nilfgaardian bookseller to be found in Beauclair. An inordinate proportion are egregiously unrealistic erotic romances.”
“But you’re reading them anyway?”
“They remain preferable to The Secret Life of Giant Centipedes.”
Geralt nodded with enthusiasm. “I don’t know what asylum that guy’s locked up in, but they’re giving the inmates too much paper and ink.”
They drifted off to sleep after dark finally came. The cold got worse, and Geralt woke up in the middle of the night shivering himself. “Dammit,” he hissed, groping for a handful of fruit and nuts in the dark with a shaking hand.
“Is there a draft at your back?” Emhyr muttered.
“I’m just running out of energy,” Geralt said, around his mouthful. “Did too much work in the cold and didn’t eat enough to make up for it. Witchers burn a lot of fuel.”
Emhyr put an arm around him and pulled Geralt closer to him, his body heat calming down the shakes, and Geralt got some slices of the salt pork out of their ration pack and ate them cold, chewing the fat and swallowing it down. His mouth was painfully salty afterwards, but the shivering stopped. They fell asleep again, and woke when morning came, but it was still horribly cold. “We can’t afford to lose any heat from in here if we can help it. We’re going to have to piss in a waterbag,” Geralt said. “Do you know how?”
“That description is adequate to convey all I need to know of the process, I think,” Emhyr said dryly.
Afterwards they shoved the bag in the furthest corner of the tent and huddled back in together. “How long do you expect this weather to last?” Emhyr said.
“No idea. Could be an hour, could be three weeks if a cold front has settled in.”
“We cannot stay inside this tent for three weeks.”
“We’ll be dead by then, if that makes you feel better,” Geralt said. “We’ve got about twelve days of food, and every time I have to open the flap to get us some water, we’ll lose a day’s worth of energy. Figure we’ve got about a week at most.”
“I may have to revise my assessment of the relative merits of bad novels,” Emhyr muttered.
Meanwhile Geralt was trying pretty desperately not to think about how good it felt to have Emhyr’s hand still rubbing broad circles around on his back. Geralt didn’t especially go in for men, but he’d shared beds plenty of times, traveling, and he was happy to trade a friendly warm hand under the covers now and then when someone muttered an offer, or looked like they might be interested in one. Emhyr very definitely didn’t fall into that category, but that didn’t help much. Their legs were tangled, the warmth of Emhyr’s chest radiating just an inch away, his mouth close, unbearably intimate. His hand kept sweeping wide warm strokes over the line of Geralt’s body, even down to his hips, sensual even if not sexual, and finally Geralt broke and said in faint desperation, “I don’t suppose,” pretty much expecting Emhyr to tell him several exciting new ways to go fuck himself in Nilfgaardian.
Emhyr didn’t break his stroking even for a beat. “In the middle of an elven burial ground?” he said pointedly. “We are not here to provoke them.”
Geralt groaned. Well, that hadn’t helped. Now Emhyr’s hand sliding over his body was sexual, an invitation in every inch of skin traveled, except he wasn’t being allowed to accept. Then abruptly he said, “Oh shit, I’m an idiot.”
Emhyr’s hand stopped. “The cold is unnatural?” he said after a moment.
“Yeah,” Geralt said grimly. “Didn’t think of it because it’s too cold. It’d take a lot of specters to spread this kind of chill over this big an area. But the dead started out restless, then they followed the trail to get here—could’ve roused them up. And elves don’t bury their dead in earth if they can help it. So they’re not buried according to their own traditions. There could be a damn army of them half raised around us.”
“What is there to be done?”
“Well,” Geralt said. “We’ll need to rile them up enough to show themselves; I need them to manifest before I can kill them. So—uh—”
Emhyr gave him a narrow look. “Restrain yourself. How precisely does it serve our greater purpose to desecrate their burial place and then cut down the wrathful manifestation of their spirits?”
“Hard to say what else there is to do,” Geralt said. “They’re here and they’re angry. It’s going to be hard enough just to make them show themselves—no chance of finding anything that was theirs in life that could exert a pull on them to make them manifest. And next to impossible to address the source of their anger. We’re the closest thing around.”
“I did not come here not to try,” Emhyr said. “Help me dress.”
“Emhyr, if you go out there, you’re going to start freezing to death in five minutes. This kind of cold, you won’t be able to talk for longer than three.”
“Unless what I say induces them to wish to hear more. Come. If all else fails, you can pour our urine out on their graves and insult them in profane terms while I retreat to the tent.”
“The other way sounded more fun to me,” Geralt muttered, but he helped Emhyr get back into his clothes inside the nest of bedding, and got his own armor back on. He dug through the pack and rubbed some specter oil on his blade and got out a couple of bombs full of silver shards, hooked a few potions onto his belt and got the waterbag. “All right. Let’s give this a shot.”
He went out first and used his body to block Emhyr from the worst of the initial blast of cold. Out in the depths of it now, he could feel the unnatural quality of it, a frozen hatred running low and subtle underneath. Emhyr put a hand on his shoulder after he got out and stepped forward around him, straight even in the viciously-cold air, and said clear and ringing in the Elder Speech, “I am Emhyr, lawful heir of Divethaf the Fallen, who lies uneasy in the earth beneath the snows. I have come to bear forth the king, to lay him at last to rest among his ancestors in the deep halls of Arthach, in the peace of carven stone. Spirits of the restless dead, whether you will help me or hinder me, show yourselves and speak! By what right stand you between me and my kinsman’s remains?”
Geralt winced at the wording of that last bit. The wind shrieked furiously, circling, whipping snow up around them in a blizzard froth, pounding at them, and he pulled Emhyr close and blew a lot of power on a Quen shield around them both. “Well, I think you got them pissed off at least!” he shouted into his ear over the howling.
Emhyr just shook his head a little, still standing straight and looking forward into the wind. “Come forth!” he called again. “Or would you see a king’s bones rotting in the wet earth far from all civilization, never again to hear the voices of his people raised in song?”
That did it, at least. The wind screamed, and abruptly the terrible cold broke like a pane of glass, condensing with the whipped snow into the narrow translucent forms of ice wraiths, eyes of blue flame glowing out of their faces. There were a lot of them, ringed round in tall wavering ranks, and they all started drifting closer in with their hands rising into claws. Geralt reached for his sword, but Emhyr caught his arm and held it. “Who among you shall speak for the dead?” he demanded. “Let them step forward.”
The wraiths slowly parted, and from the center of their ranks a taller one came forth, a spiky wreath of a crown blooming in ice crystals from his head and a sword in ice held in his hand. “I am Divethaf the king.” He didn’t exactly speak: there wasn’t a mouth, but the words echoed into the air around him on gouts of frozen white air, trailing around his head like clouds of smoke. “By what right call you yourself my kinsman and heir, foul treacherous dh’oine, whose footsteps pollute the place of our rest?”
Emhyr didn’t bat an eye. “Hail Divethaf, last king of the line of Methinne. I am Emhyr var Emreis, descended through mortal blood from Shianth of the Golden Leaves and Rowena cousin of Methinne; and by oath of tree and silver the sworn overlord of Enid an Gleanna, Queen of Dol Blathanna and last heiress of Methinne. Would you taste of my blood to know the truth of my words? You may have it given freely.”
Geralt ground his teeth around yelling bad fucking idea. Emhyr had clearly been reading a few things other than bad romance novels. He wasn’t wrong: offering a specter your blood of your own free will could create a binding between the living and the dead, letting you stand in for something from their mortal life—but it also made it trivial for the thing to kill you, which is why witchers didn’t do it. Except if Emhyr knew enough to do it, he knew that too, because there was only one fucking necromantic text that talked about the method. So he was doing it on purpose, and maybe going up a mountain with a guy who had just finished conquering the world and was now bored to death hadn’t been Geralt’s greatest idea either.
The elven king drifted closer, irresistibly drawn: it was hard for the dead to refuse a taste of life, no matter how angry they were. Emhyr drew a knife from his belt—a silver knife, Geralt noticed, an old one, marked with elven runes: MTNE, probably the mark of Queen Methinne herself. The king bent his head towards it too, and Emhyr sliced his palm with the blade and offered the red wet edge to the specter.
The king reached out and put one icy long finger onto the blood. It drew up into him, flushing the ice-pillar of his body with sudden red glowing color that settled in abruptly into pallid flesh, his living form taking shape. He was tall and black-haired and green-eyed, his face thin and hard and proud, and he stared into Emhyr’s face and licked red blood from his lips and said, “Well, dh’oine, you have not lied. But the line that joins us is thin and corrupted with centuries upon centuries of mortal heat, quick-burning. Yet you dare claim kinship with me, who sat upon a throne? I shall drink deep of your blood, and let it fountain to my people, a taste of revenge for what your kind have done to mine.”
“A taste will be all that you shall have, then,” Emhyr said. “A single moment’s heat. Will it still warm you when the world has forgotten your name, and no carved stone holds it? For five centuries you have rotted on this silent hill. Already the worms have devoured your flesh and the turning dirt gnaws at your bones. The thread that joins us is thin, but a thread of silk may have the strength to hold a sword suspended. I have followed it here to your grave. Let me take your remains. I shall raise them with my own hands, and bathe them with clean water, and wrap them in samite embroidered in silver. I shall carry them forth from the wilderness back to the halls of your ancestors, where Tirval your father and Senele your mother lie sleeping, and lay them to rest in a tomb of white marble.”
Divethaf was staring at him, yearning open hunger in his face struggling with hatred and anger, and all the ice wraiths were drawing in a little closer. Emhyr swept his arm to take them all in and added, “Nor will I leave you to sleep alone. Before the ending of the next summer, when these snows all have melted, I shall send men to bring out all those who died with you, the last faithful remnant of your people, and they too shall have rest in the deep stone. Whatever their birth or honors in life, they have won that right with their long sentinel watch beside you all these years. And if they have kinsmen yet living, I shall open the way for them to come and hear the voices of their dead.”
A faint sighing noise like a winter wind around the eaves of a house went through the wraiths. “Why should my people and I believe these promises?” Divethaf burst out, raw. “Have the murdering humans all vanished, that you should be able to open the silent halls, and call our people hence? I think rather you seek only passage into the tombs of the great, to plunder them with our bones held hostage against their wrath.”
“You insult your own lineage,” Emhyr said coldly, “when you call me a robber of graves. I have spoken to you with the courtesy due a king and a kinsman and offered you my blood, and this is the gross offense you offer in return, to call me a thief after having come with so much toil to bring you peace? With a word I could command the halls of Arthach shattered by ten thousand men, the tombs laid bare and broken, sown with salt and silver. I have no need of your bones to buy my way to pillage thence, if I willed it.”
Divethaf paused, frowning, wavering. Geralt got what Emhyr was trying to do, and it was smart: feeding the king pieces of information without telling him everything, keeping him talking longer, making him curious—complex emotions like that brought specters closer to the living, and further from incoherent rage. The wraiths had been on the verge of attacking, but they’d all lowered their arms again. “Who are you, to make such a claim?” Divethaf said a little uncertainly. “What power do you hold over the lords of men, to make these things come to pass?”
“I am Emhyr var Emreis, Imperator of Nilfgaard, lord of Mettina, Ebbing, and Gemmera, sovereign of Nazair and Vicovaro, overlord of Temeria and Toussaint, by marriage guardian of the Elder Blood, by my own hand Conqueror of the North. The descendants of those who overthrew you have knelt at my feet and sworn oaths of fealty: in me does your blood once more hold dominion over these lands. I have come, venturing my own person, to do you honor, and what I have promised you, I swear by tree and silver and my own blood shall be done. Answer me now. Will you be restored to your own? Or dwindle into mindless shades, howling alone in the wilderness?”
Of course, Geralt still had to dig out half the damn valley to get to the remains, which were also buried under a cairn of bits of stone. Emhyr did not help, until finally the bones were exposed, at which point he took over and spent two more days picking each one gently out, washing it—Geralt got to melt a lot of the snow he’d just shoveled—and laying it on the embroidered samite that he had in fact brought up the mountain with him.
And Emhyr still wouldn’t have sex with him. The specters had faded back and weren’t trying to kill them anymore, but they hadn’t been fully laid to rest yet. They were all still around, watching, so even if it wasn’t as bitter cold as before, sharing blankets still made things a hell of a lot more comfortable—except for certain key parts of Geralt’s anatomy. Whatever principles Emhyr had against fucking in a burial ground didn’t stop him short of that, either, so every night was some kind of damn torture, Emhyr’s hand warm on his side idly stroking, his voice murmuring thoughts to him about how to get the rest of the graves excavated, when the snow would have melted, how hard it would be to get more men up the cliff, like Geralt gave a shit about any of that when Emhyr’s fingers were curled over his hip, his thumb tracing circles two inches away from his cock, and it might as well have been two miles.
Finally the collection was finished: every bone accounted for, including the seven pieces of shattered vertebrae where Divethaf’s head had been cut off, the five pieces of his smashed skull, the many assorted fragments of his ribcage, and the two chunks of his right thigh bone, and three small bone chips that probably fit somewhere or other. “That is the last, I think,” he said, folding the samite carefully over the heap.
“Good. We’re going,” Geralt said.
Emhyr glanced at where the sun was starting to dip past the western side of the valley. “Now? Surely it would be more prudent to—”
“Now,” Geralt said flatly.
Emhyr frowned, but he didn’t say anything else and packed away his bones—Geralt had already broken down the tent and all their gear—and followed him carefully up the ragged slope back to the ledge. The sun was a little higher up there, but it was already twilight in the gully by the time Geralt let Emhyr down the cliff face and climbed after. He hooked them together again and took the anchor position, carrying a torch in his left hand.
“We are surely far enough away now that you can speak freely,” Emhyr said, picking his way carefully along. “Why are we in so inordinate a hurry? There are four days left of your supply estimate, even if the weather turned bitter again.”
“I’m not the one who’s been worried about a bunch of ghosts overhearing us,” Geralt said through his teeth, and Emhyr stopped in the middle of the gully and turned an incredulous expression on him.
“Are you saying that you are dragging me down a mountain in the dark out of lust?” he demanded.
“You’ve been pawing me for three goddamn nights,” Geralt said. “You’re damn right I am.”
Emhyr had the nerve to keep complaining about it all the rest of the way back to the first cavern. “If I could conceive anything it might gain you, I would assume this some stratagem,” he was still saying even as they climbed inside, as Geralt did his best not to listen so he wouldn’t strangle him before he finally got laid. “We are not mad striplings. And I had more self-restraint at the age of sixteen. What is that noise?”
“What?” Geralt said, in the middle of dumping the bedrolls off his back, and then he ripped his silver sword from his sheath and whipped around just barely in time to take off the head of the first nekker leaping for him. Another twenty of the vicious little fuckers all came boiling out of the inner cave clawing. “The bomb with the blue-green marking, left pocket!” Geralt roared at Emhyr, keeping his body and his whirling sword between them. He blasted half a dozen of them flat with Aard, killed a couple, and then Emhyr fired the bomb over his head into the mass of them. Three of them went down right away, and another eight were frozen or thrashing blinded; Geralt cut them down and mopped up the rest, catching the last one trying to flee back through the crevice, which the bastards had widened.
“Okay, keep the second bomb ready and stay here,” he told Emhyr afterwards, and went into the inner cavern with a torch. He found the nekker tunnel and collapsed it and covered it up with rocks, then came out and heaved all the nekker corpses into the inner cavern. “I’ll set ’em on fire when we leave tomorrow,” he said, while Emhyr helped him clean and tie down the bandage over the one scratch he’d gotten on his arm. “It’s cold enough up here we probably won’t get ghouls overnight.”
“Your confidence is enormously heartening,” Emhyr said dryly, tucking the ends of the bandage. “Is this tight enough?”
“Yeah, it’ll be fine,” Geralt said. He cleaned his sword, put it away, then took a deep breath, let out his irritation with a gusty sigh, and said, “All right, let’s get the tent up.”
He pitched it in the back corner away from the blood, got the bedrolls inside, made tea and dinner, and then crawled in after Emhyr, who lay down with a deep sigh and shut his eyes. “Are you kidding me?” Geralt said, dangerously, and Emhyr opened his eyes and stared at him like he was a lunatic.
“You have just slaughtered two dozen monsters after hiking half the mountain in the pitch darkness, and now,” he began, so Geralt grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him in and shut him up as thoroughly as he knew how. Emhyr came out of the kissing with an expression no less disbelieving, but at least he stopped talking: he kissed Geralt back, and helped him take off their clothes, and then, oh finally, he reached down took a quick, firm—no, hard, fantastically hard—grip on Geralt’s cock, and worked him ruthlessly to orgasm in five blissfully straightforward minutes.
“Damn,” Geralt gasped in relief and let himself fall backwards into the bedroll.
“Now are you recovered?” Emhyr asked, as if it’d been some kind of momentary spasm.
“Give me a couple minutes, you’ll get yours,” Geralt said, deliberately misunderstanding.
“That is not what I—” Emhyr stopped and glared as he got that Geralt was yanking his chain. “Is this yet another side effect of your mutations?”
Geralt rolled his eyes. “The mutations are just the horses. You’re the one who whipped them into a frenzy.”
“Next time you shall warn me,” Emhyr said in exasperation, and then started back in on him with the same businesslike stroke—yeah, poor him, much put-upon, just getting it over with. Geralt snarled under his breath and twisted them over and went to work: breathing in deep from the tender corners of his body, burying his nose in the crook of Emhyr’s thigh and the hollow of his throat and his elbow, hunting down all the ways to touch him, to stroke him, the secret places to kiss and lick, everything that made Emhyr’s heartbeat speed up and his skin break into a fine sweat, that made him taste of arousal and his breath catch in his throat, that brought the blood rushing quicker in his veins, and when Geralt found them he used them, ruthlessly, until he had Emhyr’s hands gripping brutally tight in his hair and harsh ragged gasps breaking out of his throat, all his damn words wrung out of him; he sucked Emhyr hard and pushed him over and licked him out while he writhed, groaning in utter abandon, and then fucked him, burying his face between Emhyr’s shoulderblades and wrapping a hand to tangle with his around his cock, Geralt’s own hips chasing down the rhythm that brought them finally over the edge together.
He fell asleep still tangled up with Emhyr in their sweat and stink, with the deep satisfying consciousness of a job well done glowing through him. He kept that consciousness, and a smirk, all the way through breakfast: Emhyr was still wearing a slightly dazed look. “We could have another round before we pack up,” Geralt offered, with maybe just a little bit of smugness.
Clearly his sense of self-preservation hadn’t improved since he’d gotten himself into any of this in the first place. Emhyr turned his head slowly and stared at him, and then his eyes narrowed malevolently. “I think we shall not tread on Captain Merrin’s nerves unnecessarily,” was all he said, deceptively mild, but about half a mile down the trail from the cave he remarked, “Perhaps you would find some of my recent reading of interest,” and spent the next six hours telling Geralt fantastically erotic stories in his deep red-wine voice, occasionally leavened by thoughtful comments wondering things like whether Geralt himself would enjoy being flogged gently with velvet before being thoroughly possessed—Geralt didn’t know, but right at this moment he was sure as hell ready to give it a try, thanks—and flatly and steadfastly refusing to even think about stopping until they got to the end of the road.
“I swear, the first building we reach with so much as half a roof,” Geralt said fervently, after Emhyr finished the slow, lingering, caressing recital, from memory, of a long poem by Sarathina that managed to be the raunchiest thing Geralt had ever heard without once using a single piece of profanity. He had no idea how Emhyr could even get through three lines without blushing; that was the brutal part of it, how completely cool and steady and unaffected the bastard sounded while Geralt could barely walk anymore. “There we go,” he added, spotting a lambing shed out the outskirts of the village.
Emhyr snorted. “You will have to wait a little longer than that for satisfaction.”
Geralt had expected something like that. “You can fuck me this time,” he said, figuring that would do it.
Emhyr didn’t bat an eye. “I am not going to fuck you, as you so eloquently put it, in a shed. I am going to enjoy you three nights from now in my own bed, on silk and furs, while you writhe and moan and beg me for satisfaction for hours. Perhaps with your wrists bound,” he added, with an air of considering a minor detail.
Geralt tried to say something, but it came out as a gargle of rage and arousal, and by then one of the guards—a couple of Emhyr’s men had parked themselves high up on the goat track—had spotted them and was blowing a horn, and the men were pouring out of the huts and barns to form up into official ranks to greet them.
Poor Captain Merrin looked like he was going to fall down in a dead faint when he saw Emhyr—some of the nekker blood and Geralt’s had wound up on his clothes, not to mention he was covered with dirt and looked like he’d spent a week on a mountaintop digging up bones. Anyone who got a good sniff of him was going to guess at some of the other activities, too. “I am pleased to see discipline has not wavered, Captain,” Emhyr remarked, serenely ignoring Merrin’s face. “Sovic,” he added, to one of his squires, “Arrange baths and a meal. Sir Geralt also has a wound that requires attention. We shall depart for Arthach in the morning.”
He went straight into the ealdorman’s hut, which had been cleared out for his private use, without so much as glancing back at Geralt. Merrin instantly planted four guards outside the door and two more at each of the two windows, and his savage hate-filled glare in Geralt’s direction made clear there was absolutely no store of good will available to call on that might possibly have gotten him inside. Geralt ground his teeth and stalked after Emhyr’s other squire to another hut across the village. At least they did get him a bath and clean bandages and dinner—which he ate alone before spending the night in a cold, empty bed. To add insult to injury, right when he was about to take off the edge before getting under the covers, one of them brought him a sealed note from Emhyr with a handwritten copy of one verse from the poem and an unsigned note: I trust you have the strength of will to delay gratification until the appropriate occasion.
“Oh, fuck you,” Geralt snarled, and set the thing on fire before throwing it into the chamberpot. And then got into bed without touching himself, because like hell was he going to let Emhyr win this.
It did take them three days to ride back to Arthach Palace. Emhyr insisted on taking it at an unnecessarily easy pace, and to make things worse, the intervening nights were spent in comfortable inns with perfectly nice beds and clean sheets and even solid oak bedposts if Emhyr had really meant it about binding his wrists, which Geralt was more than prepared to concede. He even managed to get Emhyr alone on the second night to make that clear: on the balcony of his bedroom, which through an oversight was accessible by climbing over the roof from the other side of the building, at least if you were a witcher. “You could have me right now,” Geralt said, and kissed Emhyr’s wrist over the pulse, and ran the flat of his tongue over it and quickly up to the webbing between his fingers, and Emhyr made a stifled grunt and shuddered all over. “Come on,” Geralt wheedled, moving in for the kill, nuzzling at his throat and catching his earlobe between his teeth—
“Tomorrow,” Emhyr ground out, savagely, before wrenching himself away and shutting the balcony doors in Geralt’s face, and the next morning got his revenge by having Geralt summoned to his sitting room for breakfast—with both of his squires in dutiful attendance. Two minutes in, Geralt realized that Emhyr was making every line of the conversation a double entendre if you mentally translated from Nilfgaardian into Common Nord, and after he noticed, he couldn’t make his brain quit playing along. And then Emhyr let his fingers brush the back of Geralt’s neck as he got up and went into the bedchamber to dress.
It wasn’t a comfortable day’s ride.
They got to Arthach just in time for dinner, which of course the bastard wouldn’t cut down from the usual six-course extravaganza by a single dish. Then a couple weeks’ accumulated correspondence was brought in on two large silver trays, and Emhyr showed every sign of planning to go through it all, and Geralt said dangerously, “You know, I don’t really mind if they stay,” with a pointed look at the hovering servants, who looked puzzled at him.
Emhyr paused and grudgingly said, “Leave us,” and waved them all out. He still kept looking at his letters even while Geralt shoved back and came towards him, but he didn’t do anything to stop them spilling out of his lap onto the floor as Geralt dragged him up, and his hand clamped around the back of Geralt’s neck like iron as he kissed him back.
Geralt was so furious and desperate by that point that he didn’t figure it out right away: he was ready to have some of his own back—a lot of his own back—and he threw himself into making Emhyr sorry as hell for making them both wait. And Emhyr just—let him. It wasn’t that he lay there like a lump or anything: Emhyr kissed him and touched him with eagerness and wrote want all over him with hands and mouth, but there was nothing practiced about it; he let Geralt do anything he wanted, and absolutely no velvet floggers or dimeritium shackles or enchanted cock rings made any kind of appearance. He came to pieces at the end again, gasping and gripping with brutal tightness on Geralt’s hips as Geralt fucked himself wildly on his cock, and in the early hours of the morning Geralt sat up again with the dawning half-indignant, half-glorious realization that Emhyr had no damn idea what to actually do in bed.
“Never bothered to help the imperial concubines out, huh?” Geralt said with surly satisfaction, propping himself up. Emhyr had already got out of bed—running away—and into a dressing gown and parked himself reading a crumbling-edged elven tome by the fireplace. “Serves you damned right.”
Emhyr paused a moment, his finger holding the page, without looking at Geralt; then he said briefly, “My concubines served a court function. I have taken no one to my bed since Pavetta died.”
He bent his head back down over the book as if he’d just mentioned something mildly interesting about the weather. Geralt stared at him aghast. “That was—twenty-three years ago.”
“Twenty-four, and two months,” Emhyr said. He wasn’t really reading anymore, just staring down at the page.
“Why?” Geralt said, because it wasn’t for lack of wanting; there were plenty of people who didn’t like sex that much, but he was now prepared to swear on significant parts of his own anatomy that Emhyr wasn’t remotely one of them. And it wasn’t like the Emperor of Nilfgaard couldn’t have gotten as much as he wanted, and it also wasn’t like Emhyr had been making some kind of public gesture, since Geralt was pretty sure everyone else in the world shared his assumption about the function the imperial concubines served—
Geralt didn’t really expect an answer, but abruptly Emhyr said, in an oddly raw voice, “I was not certain she was dead.”
Geralt stared at him. He knew how Pavetta had died—or at least, he knew Emhyr’s story about how she’d died. None of them had known who he really was, back then: the usurper had still been reigning in Nilfgaard, and even after Pavetta had married him and Geralt had broken his curse, Emhyr had kept on pretending to be the younger son of a minor Northern king, far enough away from Cintra that it hadn’t been easy to check. But he’d always planned to go back to Nilfgaard and take back his throne, and he’d wanted his wife and baby daughter along.
Except like hell was Pavetta of Cintra, daughter of Queen Calanthe, going to help restore him to the imperial throne: she’d have known instantly it meant the end of her own country’s independence. Nilfgaard had been slavering to snap up Cintra for generations by then; she wouldn’t have knowingly married Emhyr var Emreis with a knife to her throat, no matter how much she loved him. So he hadn’t told her. When it was time for him to launch his plans, he’d just tried to take her and Ciri on what he’d pretended was a sailing excursion—without mentioning it was sailing all the way to Nilfgaard.
“What actually happened?” Geralt said harshly. “You said you argued, she fell overboard—”
“That is what happened. When I realized she had deliberately left Cirilla behind that day, I grew angry, and then she knew she had been right to be suspicious. She demanded to know what I was trying to do. She realized the sailors were Nilfgaardian. She called me a traitor to Cintra and accused me of betraying her—and in a rage, I told her all. I told her who I was, and that I meant to take back my father’s throne. I swore to her on my life that I would see our daughter crowned Empress of Nilfgaard and the North.
“And in her own rage, she swore to me that it would happen only if she herself were dead. A moment later, the wave took her. The ocean scoured her from the deck before my eyes.”
He stopped for a breath. There was a ragged edge to his voice when he went on. “The sailors prevented me from diving off after her. They threw ropes and nets—they searched. They found nothing. They were still searching when Vilgefortz’s portal seized the ship, and brought us to the waters off Nilfgaard as had been arranged.”
“You never saw her body?” Geralt said, low, his throat tight and sorry. He’d wondered for years if Emhyr had been telling the truth about Pavetta’s death—or if he had actually killed her himself, either in a fit of anger or deliberately, to stop her from interfering. He found now that he didn’t wonder anymore.
“No,” Emhyr said. “I thought perhaps her powers might have saved her. It was unpredictable—she had none of the training Cirilla has had, and far less power. It did not answer her will. But I thought…” He shrugged, trailing away.
“If she’d been alive, she would’ve gone back to Ciri.”
“I did not say it was a reasonable doubt, nor a reasoned one. She was swept overboard violently in a storm miles from any shore. I knew she had died. But…I was not certain.” He was silent. “I was not certain,” he finished at last, very low, “until I put the crown on Cirilla’s head, and saw her made Empress of Nilfgaard and the North, as I had sworn all those years before. And then at last I knew for certain that Pavetta was dead. As she herself had sworn.”
He put aside his book abruptly and stood, going to the window to stare out to the North, where the moss-and-vine-strangled trees of the swamp formed odd furry twisting shapes in the creeping edge of the dawn. “I’m sorry,” Geralt said to his back, and meant it, even thought it’d been Emhyr’s own damn fault. He could’ve spent the rest of his life happily in Cintra, consort to the queen; he could’ve given up the dream of Northern conquest or taking back his throne.
Except like hell he could have. The man who’d survived the murder of his whole family at the age of thirteen, who’d evaded his pursuers and fled alone across half a continent, even under a curse that made him a beast that no one would help or speak to, who’d clawed himself a haven out of the forests and saved the life of a king to win the hand of a princess in the first place—that wasn’t the man who could have lived a quiet happy life by the fire. Hell, it still wasn’t.
“It is a grief—and a guilt—that has had twenty years and more to fade,” Emhyr said. “And… it eased me that it was Cirilla’s choice, in the end, to follow the path of destiny. That she willingly took the throne, and its power to shape the world.” His shoulders rose and fell with a deep sigh. “But that is why. Perhaps it has been my penance. ”
“Well,” Geralt said after a moment, “can’t say you’ve got a type, anyway.”
Emhyr gave a snort of laughter like a mistake that had escaped him, and turned to glare at Geralt, not all that successfully. “Do not imagine that I intend to let you form a hold over me with this.”
“Look who’s talking,” Geralt said. “I guess I should be grateful. If you were half as good in bed as you are out of it, I’d have to flee the damn country before you had me fitted for a collar. Come on, come back to bed. We’ve got at least another hour before anyone comes in. You can get in some more practice.”
Emhyr frowned, but he did grudgingly let himself come back.
It took a grand total of nine minutes and twenty seconds after breakfast was served—by the wooden-faced chamberlain and two wide-eyed maids—for the knowledge that Emhyr was fucking him to spread through the entire staff. Geralt could measure it by the time it took for the laundresses singing and chatting on the bank of the river to suddenly fall totally silent. He glanced out the window just to make sure they hadn’t been attacked by drowners or something, but no: they were all huddled around one of them who’d just come out with a basket, whispering together.
After breakfast, he and Emhyr rode out with his guards and squires to start looking for a potential coronation site. Emhyr had put his workmen on hunting through the swamp, and they’d uncovered plenty more elven ruins, most of them ankle-deep in water. A couple of hundred years ago, some genius of a duke had decided that he knew better than the gods which way the Sansretour River should go, so he’d made an elaborate attempt to correct their work. Hadn’t worked out all that well. The river now just splattered out into a stinking bog over the whole northern edge of Toussaint: that was what had flooded Arthach Palace itself, not to mention dozens of villages besides.
Drowners wouldn’t attack a group as big as theirs, but they were out there in numbers, too: Geralt kept catching glimpses of them shambling away into the murky depths of the swamp. “Got to be a lot of nests out there. Better start coming out here and doing sweeps to burn them out.”
“No use, master witcher,” one of the workmen said. “The duchess has sent scores of men, many times! I myself have helped guide the knights. But the creatures cannot be purged. One day, a nest is visible, you burn it—the next day, the waters have shifted, and it is underwater, and another has come up. When we hunt them, they flee to the deepest parts of the bog and dive into the muck. And every year, the edges spread a little further. My own grandfather lived just over there as a lad, where you see those metal posts? It was his father’s mill.”
“Hmm,” Geralt said, and reined in to bring his horse next to Emhyr’s: the guard was keeping him squarely in the middle of the pack, eyeing the distant drowners warily. They instantly made room for him without a fuss, though—Geralt had vaguely expected Merrin to be even more pissed off now that he knew Geralt had seduced his emperor, but apparently it had worked the other way round: he’d been reclassified from hired help that my lord keeps listening to instead of me to another fucking lunatic noble I’ve got to manage around to do my job.
“You might want to revise your retirement plans,” he told Emhyr. “At the pace this marsh is spreading, your palace is going to be permanently underwater in fifteen years, no matter how many drainage ditches you cut.”
“Mm,” Emhyr said, frowning, and called back the workman, who confirmed the pace. “But surely Arthach Forest must resist erosion.”
“Alas, the trees die, Your Majesty,” the workman said, apologetic. “There is unwholesomeness in the water, and it destroys their roots.”
Emhyr kept frowning as they rode on. “I have been hearing some concern about the marsh spreading further south, into the Sansretour Valley itself,” he said, when Geralt asked. “But it has always been expressed as a distant matter. At the pace he describes, it will begin consuming productive farmland in a decade. The vineyards could be devastated before the turn of the century.”
Geralt brightened. “Think it might get as far as Corvo Bianco?”
Emhyr said repressively, “You must live in hope.”
It would clearly be a real disaster, though, and Geralt couldn’t see what anyone would even do about it. Three mountain ranges drained into the Sansretour Valley: the only way to move that much water was with a river, and if the one that existed was determined to dissolve itself into the ground, good luck making a new one. From Emhyr’s expression, he was thinking the same thing with a side order of specialized frustration: he couldn’t see what he could do about it. He shook his head after a moment. “All the more reason to learn what we can from Arthach before it is lost,” he said with determination, as if he was trying to convince himself it was worth something.
They didn’t have a lot of luck that day. The ruins the workmen had uncovered were elaborate and beautiful, but they were all elaborate and beautiful, there wasn’t one that stood out, and there wasn’t anything like a sacred grove in sight. There were a bunch of places where Geralt was pretty sure entrances had been walled up, but those would only have led to more underground tombs. No elven king would be crowned under a roof.
In more than one place he could still feel faint traces of ancient power humming through his fingers while he ran them over the stone. At the sixth potential site, he climbed up to an elevated point and looked back at Arthach: the highest arch was a tiny gleam through the trees, smaller than the towers of the Duchess’s castle were from the docks of Beauclair. “What is it?” Emhyr asked, looking up at him.
“All these sites are pretty far from the center,” Geralt said slowly. “Shouldn’t have this kind of power, not after all this time. They should be dead stone. For that matter, they shouldn’t have gotten this much attention to detail. Come look at this.” He reached down to give Emhyr a hand up, and showed him the top surface of a marble arch, carved with a hundred tiny flowers. “This arch would’ve been a hundred feet over anybody’s head. Nobody would’ve seen it. Didn’t need to be polished work, not for some minor alcove for a couple of nobles. Elves weren’t that picky.”
“They might have been, for a site of sufficient importance,” Emhyr said, touching the stone flowers lightly. “The elves valued carven stone far more than untouched, and around Toussaint in particular they preferred stone carved with flowers and fruit and vines: they felt it formed a connection between their dwellings and the natural world. If enough of the highest dead were buried here, they might have chosen to require all the tombs to reach a certain standard, at least by the later building periods.”
“Still doesn’t explain the power after all this time.”
“But this site is intact, as few others you have seen would be,” Emhyr said.
“Emhyr, we’re miles from the palace. This site would have to be physically connected to the rest of the necropolis. Rusalinoi was only a mile across, and even that held the tombs of more than fifty elven kings.”
Emhyr swept his arm in a wide circle, taking in the palace and the forest and swampland all around. “Rusalinoi was founded only some three hundred years before the Conjunction of the Spheres, but we know the Aen Seidhe lived on this world for millennia before humans came. The valley of the Sansretour may well have been one of their earliest settlements. This is as likely a candidate as any for their largest and most powerful site.”
“And we’re about to start fucking around with it,” Geralt said resignedly. “Great. Well, if you’re right about all of these being outlier tombs, then I think we’re looking in the completely wrong place. You might have a coronation site far away from a palace, out in the wilderness, connected to nature or a sacred site or something like that, but you wouldn’t put it in the cheap district. Or let anyone build a cheap district up around it.”
“Mm,” Emhyr said. “Where would you imagine, then?”
Geralt shrugged a bit, and looked around trying to think. The site they were at had gone slightly askew with the sinking ground, and water was lapping up the marble stairs at his feet. Out in the murky haze of the swamp he could see faint lights gleaming in and out, will-o-the-wisp flashes, more drowner shadows moving. “Do you know where Duke Adam did his experiments?” he asked abruptly. “When he tried to move the river?”
“Ahh,” Emhyr murmured. “You think it might have been the coronation site? An interesting thought. One of my texts mentions the location. North of here, near the Theodula Pass—a considerable distance.”
“Wouldn’t have been a long way by magic portal,” Geralt said. “And I’ve gotta say,” waving around at the swamp, “this seems like a hell of a lot of damage for someone to do with just a few spells.”
“Unless they were magnified by the power of the site he chose,” Emhyr agreed. “And I believe he had his mages perform surveys of the area precisely to try and find a location imbued with power, and connected to the river, to cast their spells. He might very well have stumbled upon the elven coronation ground. It is certainly worth a few days’ expedition to investigate.”
It was sunset by the time they got back to the palace. Emhyr ordered the Corvo Bianco red brought up for dinner. His extremely snooty sommelier had a barely repressed sneer on his face as he opened the first bottle—clearly he figured the emperor was indulging his new pet—that depressingly vanished completely before he’d even finished decanting it. When he tasted it himself before pouring, his face got roughly the look that Geralt imagined you wore when someone put your first child into your arms. Dammit.
Emhyr had a tiny smile on his face that was clearly the equivalent of pointing and laughing loudly and mockingly in the street for most people. Geralt glared back at him. “You’re enjoying this.”
“I am merely glad to see you finding encouragement to continue our work,” Emhyr said blandly. “Since you have expressed some doubts.”
“Sure, why the hell not. At least this way there’s a chance I’ll get killed by a bunch of elven wraiths before next year’s vintage comes out,” Geralt muttered. “One thing, though. We’re going to send your people away before we really go in. They aren’t bored. You’re just going to have to make do with a last meal cooked over a campfire.”
“As you wish,” Emhyr said. “I will leave it to you to arrange the withdrawal of my guard with Captain Merrin.”
“Thanks.” Geralt scowled.
Emhyr put on a good show of being ready to settle into bed with a large dusty book afterwards. Geralt tried to call his bluff by snuggling his face up against Emhyr’s hip and letting his hand wander gently over Emhyr’s thigh and down to his knee and back, stroking tender spots until Emhyr’s breath was coming a little quicker, but then Emhyr put aside his book, took a different one that had been waiting by the bedside—with a luridly drawn cover of an extremely lush looking young woman whose shirt lacings had encountered some serious issues—and started reading from it aloud—
“Dammit,” Geralt said, and grabbed it out of his hands and tossed it across the room. Emhyr was smirking as Geralt dragged him flat in the bed and pounced.
In the morning they rode out with the guard, this time by the northern trade road that ran along the old course of the river—or what was left of it; the sides of the highway were crumbling away into the muck so badly that for long stretches Emhyr ordered them to ride single file to keep from making things worse. Whenever they passed a hill, they spotted stacks of raw wooden planks and sacks of rocks, clearly meant for emergency fixes. Emhyr got more and more disapproving as they rode onward, and when they came across a road crew of muddy workmen in ducal colors, he stopped to interrogate the foreman. “I pray Your Majesty’s forgiveness,” the man said nervously, bowing every third word. “It is only the beginning of the trade season—the annual repairs have just been started—”
“This degree of damage is not a matter of a year’s maintenance,” Emhyr said severely. “This highway took thirty years to build: neglect of this extent will shortly undo the work of a generation, and sever a trade route that will only grow more critical as the North becomes more settled. You will inform Her Grace—” He paused, looking down at the cringing man, and finished slightly through his teeth, “that I am curious why it has been allowed to reach this state.”
He rode on with his face set into hard lines that Geralt had no trouble reading between: heads would’ve been starting to roll right now, if Emhyr still had the executioners to swing—but he didn’t, and the Duchess of Toussaint was technically still his vassal, but she was also a reigning monarch with a standing army, and he was a rich man with an empty title and a guard of forty men and a palace that was sinking into a swamp.
He nudged Roach up next to Emhyr’s horse so they were riding side by side, and said with all the obnoxious cheer he could manage, “So, no second thoughts yourself, then?”
Emhyr glared at him a moment, and then allowed a small huff to escape that might have been second cousin to a chuckle. “None. I will endeavor to be grateful for the clarification.”
The old channel of the river was still vaguely possible to make out alongside the highway in places. A thin stream still ran down the middle in some places, but for the most part it was just thick marshy ground. There were traces of an elven walking path on both banks, and when Geralt hopped down to inspect the stones and wiped away muck and dirt from the edges, he found faint runes carved into some of them that matched the wayfinding runes they’d seen on the mountain.
It was late afternoon when they got to the site and ran into a problem. According to Emhyr’s book, Duke Adam’s mages had done their work on a large island in the middle of the widest part of the river. Now it was a green hill swelling up out of a sea of green muck, with the stumps of marble bridges poking up on either side. Squinting at it, Geralt could just faintly make out a few white stones showing at the top of the hill.
The algae layer was so thick it looked like you could have walked across it: there were actually clumps of plants growing on small mounds of dirt on the surface, some of them big enough for a horse to stand on, apparently. But if you poked one of them with a stick, it drifted away through the solid green, and Geralt easily shoved in a branch taller than he was straight down, all the way up to his fist around the top, and pulled it back out solidly coated with thin mud and slime. “We’re going to need a raft.”
He wasn’t sorry that Emhyr had brought Merrin and his guards this time, since it meant he didn’t have to build the raft, and the enthusiastic squires got to do the work of poling them across—five of them, him and Emhyr and Merrin along with Sovic and Denys. Geralt jumped out onto the other side and stamped around to make sure the ground wasn’t going to break off before he held an arm out to help Merrin over, and then Emhyr, and the two kids—well, kids was relative; they were both at least twenty, and Sovic was doing his damned best to grow a mustache to prove it.
They moored the raft securely to two different trees with two different ropes, and pulled it pretty far up the slope, too. The squires both looked a little eye-rolling about it, but Geralt insisted. He didn’t like the place from the second he set foot on it, not the trees and not the ground and not the solid green lie of the swamp, and he liked it less with every second. “There’s something seriously wrong here,” he said grimly, drawing his silver sword. “Merrin, you bring up the back. You two, either side of Emhyr. Don’t follow me anywhere until I tell you it’s safe.”
Merrin stiffened slightly. “I should—”
“No,” Geralt said flatly. “Take a look behind you every time you step, and yell like a scared three year old if you see anything. What kind of an idiot was this duke?” he demanded from Emhyr over his shoulder.
“At the time he was Duke of Nazair and Toussaint both,” Emhyr said. “The central authority of the emperor had been weakened by an internecine struggle in Nilfgaard proper, and as a result he was the richest and most powerful man alive, if such things are measured by his freedom to indulge his most extravagant whims without check.”
“Fantastic,” Geralt said. They climbed the slope slowly. Nothing jumped out at them. He felt the squires radiating more irritation at the creeping progress that was all he allowed, but he ignored it. He wished something had jumped out at them. If it hadn’t, that was just because it was waiting. Things that were smart enough to wait sucked.
He didn’t try to tell the squires so. It wasn’t going to work anyway, but at least part of the reason was he’d already written them off in his head as bodies and steel that would give him an extra minute or so to protect Emhyr. He didn’t know when exactly that had happened, when Emhyr had become a person he’d shield with the bodies of others—it sure hadn’t been true before—but apparently it had, and there were a lot of things Geralt didn’t know how to fear, but he knew how to fear this: someone at his back that mattered, in range of some nightmarish piece of shit that Geralt might or might not be able to kill before it got to him. Dammit.
Halfway up the hill, the ground under his feet started to feel a little different, and Geralt poked down an inch of his sword-tip and then scraped clean the top of a white marble step with the steel toe of his boot. “Well, that answers it. This was definitely the coronation grove,” he said grimly, after a single look: he’d seen carvings of siyene before, the extinct flower that had been a symbol of the elven kings, and the whole step was covered with the delicate tracework. “Not that I’d suggest starting any rituals here right now. This whole place has been corrupted. Not sure how Duke Adam’s mages did it exactly, but they must’ve found a way to tap into the place’s power. And then they screwed it up.”
“The elves have always sought to live in harmony with nature,” Emhyr said. “To enhance what was, rather than wipe it clean and write their own desire fresh on the world. If the mages sought to use the stored power of this place to alter the course of the Sansretour—for any purpose, much less the whims of a man who merely wanted a larger hunting ground for boar—they turned it to a use totally inimical to the will of those who had spent the centuries building it up.”
“Yeah, that would do it, all right. Question is how to fix it.” Geralt went another cautious stretch up, swiping another few steps clean, and then froze as his medallion trembled faintly against his chest. Emhyr had just put his foot on the bottom step. “Don’t move!” he said sharply. He went on guard, made a slow circle without going any further up the hill. Nothing so much as twitched; the air didn’t even shimmer. Bad. “That’s it,” he said decisively. “We’re leaving.”
“We’re not holding any coronations here,” Geralt said to Emhyr flatly. “You want, I’ll come over tomorrow alone, see if I can get a better read on what’s going on here, but I want you out of here, now. Merrin, start heading back down.”
Merrin hesitated, but Emhyr didn’t contradict Geralt, so he slowly started back down the slope. The squires both actually let out very faintly audible sighs before they turned. Geralt came down behind them walking backwards, eyes roving over the top of the hill and to either side, conscious at every step of Emhyr at his back, and he didn’t look around until Merrin said, “What in the light of the Sun—”
Geralt looked over his shoulder with his gut sinking all the way to the bottom of the mirk. “Raft’s gone?” he said grimly.
“I don’t understand, Sire, we tied it to those two trees right there, we dragged it up to that rock,” Denys was saying bewildered, and Merrin said, “We’ll simply have to build another. I’ll hew some branches—”
“We’re not making it back across tonight,” Geralt said. “Look.” He jerked his chin, and they all turned to look over the water. The faint miasmic haze had thickened into a deep greenish fog, and large pale green bubbles were slowly rising out of the surface of the algae, swelling, and popping without a sound. The far bank was invisible in the fog, not even a light to show where the rest of the guard had encamped. “Don’t know what’d happen if we tried to set out over that water, don’t want to find out.”
“Then what do you propose we do?” Merrin said after a moment, real unease starting to creep into his voice. “We cannot spend the night on this hillock. We have no supplies, no tents—”
“If we’re still alive tomorrow morning, we won’t give a damn about not having a tent,” Geralt said. He looked at Emhyr, who just looked steadily back at him. “Two choices,” Geralt told him. “We can hunker down somewhere around here—those rocks are probably the best choice. Put our backs to them, make a line of silver, try to hold out until morning.”
“Or?” Emhyr said, not wasting a moment with questions.
Geralt blew out a breath. “Or we go back up and try to crown you on the hill after all.”
“You said just before that it was too dangerous to try any such ritual!” Merrin said sharply.
“It is,” Geralt said. “But so is every minute we stand around and let this place think about what it wants to do with us. The other way—if we can complete the coronation rite, it’s possible that might get rid of the corruption. Guide the power here back to its original purpose.”
“How likely is that?” Emhyr asked, intently.
“No goddamn idea. What Duke Adam did here must have taken a lot of mages, and it was a long time ago, so everything they screwed up has had a chance to get locked in—like a bone that’s been set wrong. We’ll have to rebreak it before we can heal it.” Geralt shook his head. “We go up, it’ll fight us like a cornered beast. We stay down here, it’ll hit us, but probably not with everything it’s got.”
“Then we should stay here,” Merrin said instantly.
But Emhyr was silent, and after a moment he said, “I will go up the hill.”
“Sire—” Merrin said.
Emhyr raised a hand to stop him. “I came here to lay claim to the crown which waits upon that hill. If I leave now, having been challenged, I will be giving up that claim. I will never be able to secure it.” He looked at Geralt. “Do you disagree?”
“No,” Geralt said grudgingly. Emhyr was probably right; it had that gut-level feel of hard justice that magic operated under. “Think it’s worth risking your life for?”
Emhyr shrugged. “This has always been an endeavor fraught with risk. Am I to turn back now, only because we have reached the moment of danger? But I will order no man to come with me. Merrin, Sovic, Denys—I know you are inclined to doubt Geralt. I urge you not to do so. If you choose to stay here, he will remain as well, to protect you as long as the night lasts.”
“Hang on a second—” Geralt said, because like hell, as they all started protesting, but Emhyr waved them to silence.
“These men are valiant, and strong, but they cannot stand against the power here,” he said to Geralt. “If they remain here alone, without your protection, they will die.”
“If you go up there alone, you’ll die!”
“Perhaps. But these men have followed me for the sake of their oaths and their honor. I will not use that goad to force them up that hill, nor abandon them here to die. To do so would be to court another kind of death,” Emhyr said. “As you yourself said, they are not bored.”
“Dammit!” Geralt ran a hand over his face. Emhyr was right, horribly right, about all of it, except the part where Geralt was supposed to stay down here. He looked at Merrin desperately, his broad anxious furrowed face; he’d taken a cushy boring job that was supposed to be making sure nobody poked the former emperor with a sword, and here they were instead, the white steps going up the hill like the exposed bones of some monstrous buried corpse and maybe Merrin didn’t have a witcher’s instincts, but even an ordinary man could feel the shadow lengthening over them now. Of course he didn’t want to go up that hill; no sane person did.
But Merrin swallowed and said unsteadily, “Sire, I took oath to you first as a boy of sixteen, and I have followed you on every campaign you undertook despite all who would have gainsaid you. I have had the honor of marching beneath the enemy’s standards as you bore them back to wave from the golden towers. When Emperor Morvran offered me a place as the chief of his guard, after the coronation, I refused it. I will not turn away now. I will go up the hill with you, my liege, and if you go to find your death, I pray to the Great Sun only that mine shall be before it.”
Emhyr was looking at him half-startled, as if he didn’t quite know what to make of it. He didn’t really believe in that kind of loyalty, Geralt knew. Foltest had always wanted people around him who felt that way, who’d have thrown themselves on a bomb or been spitted on a sword to protect him. Geralt had been at one of the talks around the Peace of Cintra when Foltest had thrown it in Emhyr’s teeth, asked him how many of his men he thought would die for him, if it came down to it. Emhyr had said almost pityingly, “I prefer to avoid the circumstances that would enable me to answer your question.”
Except now he was deliberately walking into those circumstances, and it turned out he had those men around him after all, because Sovic and Denys both also refused to stay below. Emhyr tried to decide what to do with his expression and only managed to look slightly baffled. Geralt shrugged at him, trying not to let his own desperate relief show. “Well, I guess if everyone else is going,” he said.
They headed up the hill again. Geralt took point, and cleared the steps as he climbed them. He didn’t go slowly anymore. No point. The hill knew they were coming, and he felt it now, it knew they were bringing Emhyr. It was waiting.
Emhyr didn’t hesitate either, deliberately placing his feet on every step. He was murmuring words to himself in the Elder Speech, some kind of litany or meditation maybe, the kind of thing you’d recite during a vigil. They climbed up to the top of the hill, covered with a thick mat of vegetation with a rotting stink. “Can you clear it?” Emhyr said.
“If there are sun runes under here, we’ll be giving it more power,” Geralt said. Emhyr just nodded, so he set fire to the vegetation, and when it burned down, they were standing on a large circular plaza of white marble, with a single round smaller circle cut into the center. The outer ring was carved with elven runes and more flowers, but the inner one—
“That is not Elder Speech,” Emhyr said, coming to stand by its edge.
“Koviri necromantic sigils,” Geralt said grimly. “They’re used by their necromancers to seize the power of a conquered place. Usually involves a whole lot of blood sacrifice of the conquerees.” He knelt down and studied the grain of the marble: both slabs were almost pure white stone, barely a hint of shading, but there was a difference in some of the striations of white on white. “This whole piece was added later. Doesn’t match.”
“Let us remove it,” Emhyr said.
They used their swords and pried up the whole inner circle. A horrible stench came rushing out from underneath in a gust when they finally cracked it open, and Geralt was straining to hold the slab up alone for a moment while Merrin and the squires staggered back retching and vomiting. Emhyr sprang forward to help hold the sword Sovic had left jammed under the stone, and after a moment Denys—who Geralt had seen cheerfully eat an entire sheep’s head and call it a delicacy—managed to get back and join them. The others got shakily up too, after a few minutes, and together they levered up the whole circle of stone and got it tipped onto its side.
They stopped there for a minute panting. Geralt still wasn’t worried about being attacked. They were taking all the chains off the power here, it would let them do it before it started trying to kill them. Damn, he hoped this wasn’t an even stupider idea than he knew it was. “Okay,” he said finally, still breathing hard. “Let’s roll it off the hill.”
They carefully rolled it along on its side to the edge of the round plaza and then started to guide it down one of the uncleared sides, but suddenly it slipped out of their hands and went flying downhill and away, the whole long green slope, and then it vanished into the gathering fog and moments later a faint gurgling splash sounded from the mist.
“Well, saved us the work,” Geralt said. He turned back and went to stand next to Emhyr beside the dark circular opening, a deep well full of pitch-black water with a charnel-house stink still rising, even if it wasn’t as strong as in that first moment of uncorking. He eyed the still surface grimly. “There are a lot of dead bodies down there,” he said, sure of it.
“Yes,” Emhyr said softly, grim. “Elves of ancient bloodlines, descended from the kings. The duke lured them to his court somehow, as guests or servants perhaps, and then he had them drowned here to give his mages power over their land.”
“Sounds about right,” Geralt said. “Fishing them out is going to be pretty ugly.” He squinted up at the sun, or at least at the slightly brighter spot through the murky haze. It was getting pretty low to the ground. “Also, it’s going to take a long time.”
Emhyr was silent, looking down into the murk. “An elven king must be crowned by starlight,” he said finally. “But no stars can reach us through this haze. Perhaps a bargain can be struck.” He straightened and looked around, and said in Elder Speech, “I would see the waters reflecting once again the light of moon and stars. If the skies directly above us should clear for the night’s length, we will take it as a sign that we may remove from the depths the bodies of the murdered dead.”
There was a deep heavy silence all around them, and then slowly above their heads the haze thinned out to open a grudgingly small round patch of clear blue sky directly over the pool. Geralt sighed a little. “Terrific.”
He made a rough carrying sack out of Sovic and Denys’s cloaks, and then there wasn’t any help for it, so he jumped into the well. The water felt more like oil on his skin, viscous and gluey, and he held his mouth shut tight and squinted as he kicked his way to the bottom, his pupils stretching wide to bring in the tiny bit of light. The well wasn’t very wide, and the skeletons choked it almost halfway up, curled in thrashing pleading shapes with hands stretching up, like they’d been shoved down atop the other dead bodies and held with poles until they drowned. He piled bones into his sack and kicked back up to gasp for breath, pulling himself out and hauling the sack after him. It didn’t take long to unload, but he had no desire to stay in the water in between dives.
“Spread them on the grass around the hill, and try to lay the bones straight,” Emhyr told Sovic and Denys. “We will take them back to lay to rest in Arthach if we can.”
There were sixteen dead bodies laid out when Geralt brought up the last, the small body of a child with a golden circlet still fixed around its head. Emhyr knelt down beside the skeleton with his face hard. “This must be Eslinne an Mithal. A descendant of Mithlinne, and a plausible heir to the elven throne of Toussaint. She lived in the duke’s time. The enclave of elves in Vicovaro where she was born was dwindling and dissolving into neighboring human settlements, so she was sent north to kindred in the Blue Mountains. She disappeared with her retinue along the way, and no trace of them was ever found.”
“Yeah, it’s a real surprise that changing the course of this river hasn’t worked out,” Geralt said. “Everything usually goes well when you start by kidnapping and drowning a nine year old. Goddammit.” He looked around. The sun was going down for sure, and the circle of sky above, still clear, was darkening. “We’d better get ready. I’m guessing that as soon as the stars come out, bad things are going to start happening, and I want you as far from that pool as we can get and still be up here. How long does the ritual take?”
“I cannot tell you,” Emhyr said. “The coronation is not simply a rote performance. The king must speak with the stars until they ‘crown him with light.’ Also, I am afraid there may be a complication. The text refers specifically ‘to the stars in their pool of night.’ I assumed this meant addressing the sky. However…” He indicated the dark reflection of the sky.
“Great, that’s going to go well, too,” Geralt said under his breath, eyeing the glossy, murderous surface of the water.
Emhyr knelt at the edge of the pool. Geralt put Merrin at Emhyr’s back and the squires on either side of him, a little way back, and stood just a little further around the pool himself. “Which of you is the best shot with a crossbow?” he asked, and Denys said he was pretty fair, so Geralt gave him his crossbow with the silver bolts. He shook out his wrists and rolled his head a little as the last glow faded from the sky, and as the sun slipped into night, the corpses on the hill stood up jerkily and turned and came for them.
It wasn’t like on Mount Gorgon. These wraiths hadn’t been gently gathered by their kin and buried as best they could. They’d been bound in a necromantic ritual for centuries, and there wasn’t anything left of them but rage. The skeletons clawed at them furiously, stripped jaws working. Geralt moved fast among them, kicking them off the others and knocking them downhill with huge sweeps of his silver blade, but when they landed on the slope in a heap of tumbled loose bones, they just stirred after a moment and reassembled themselves and started coming back up the hill. Sovic already had a long scratch down his cheek after only a single round, and one of them had left deep gouges in Merrin’s leather trousers.
“Damn, wish we’d brought a shield,” Geralt muttered, panting after the second round, and then he grabbed the wet cloaks and tossed them to the others. “Here, tie the corners together. When they come next time, grab the ends and rush them, try and wrap them up in this. I’ll try and hit more of them into it.”
Merrin nodded, and the three of them worked fast while Geralt knocked the wave of skeletons back down the hill a second time, and the third time they came, Sovic and Denys rushed them, holding the cloaks tied together between them like an outspread blanket, and Geralt dived, rolled, came up behind the skeletons, and whacked the ones on the outside into the center. The squires ran in to each other, wrapping the cloaks around the skeletons, and Geralt raced back in with a rope to throw it around them and tie up the whole sack of death.
“Emhyr, any time now!” he yelled over his shoulder, just yanking his hand back out of range of a snarling, biting skull.
“There must be seven stars in the pool before I can begin,” Emhyr said, and then he said, “Ah,” and took a deep breath and spread his arms and said in the Elder Speech, “Behold, I am Emhyr of the Emreis, heir in oath and law of Divethaf and of Eslinne, descended by blood of Methinne, and I have come before the stars in their pool of night to claim the crown. Stars, speak! I seek to know your will!”
The skeletons in the cloth instantly just collapsed into loose bones. Sovic, his face white and shaking where he held one end, his eyes staring a little, blurted, “Does that mean—”
“No!” Geralt said, ripping his silver sword from his sheath. “Back to positions, get ready!” He threw himself back at the pool just in time: an enormous horrible misshapen club-like form came surging up bodily out of the water, glossy black and covered with mouths full of ink-black gnawing teeth, and they all opened and howled, “Death,” as it threw itself at Emhyr.
Geralt slashed his silver sword through the whole thing, and cut it off like a limb from the surface of the water. The whole ghastly thing burst over the white stones like a balloon that had been popped, the water spilling away in black glossy lines—and then they began to run back together and reform into the grotesque shape all over again.
Emhyr had taken the opening: he was leaning over the water again. “Stars, speak! I seek to know your will!” he said again, thunderous and commanding, and another one rose up out of the water, shrieking, “Death,” and went at him again.
A new wraith came up every time he asked the stars to speak. Geralt cut them away from the well one after another, and then turned and slashed through as many of the reforming ones he could reach. Denys was firing crossbow bolts at them, and Sovic and Merrin were slapping them down to the stones with the wet cloaks. They came apart easily, but they formed back up just as easily, and kept coming for Emhyr, a tide of charnel ink. Whenever another one rose up from the well, all the ones that had reformed mouths to speak screamed, “Death,” along with it, and flung themselves at Emhyr all over again.
Geralt stopped being able to track their numbers in his head after a while with the endless horror of the night rolling onward. He was fighting too hard to be able to think it through, come up with any strategy: every moment was going just to staying alive, to keeping Emhyr alive. All he could do was try and maintain a clear ring of safety around Emhyr’s back, and stop the new wraiths as they came shrieking out of the well.
The water wraiths didn’t attack him or the others directly. They just tried to flow around him, to slip past his guard, and kept coming, unstoppable—like the river that once had been, the ceaseless river that had been turned out of its course, polluted with murder and black magic. There were so many of them, and more with every time Emhyr spoke. The water in the pool kept getting lower and lower, as if the whole well was emptying out, but they didn’t show a single sign of relenting.
All the others were stumbling-exhausted. If the mouths had been interested in anyone but Emhyr, Merrin and Sovic and Denys would’ve been dead already, and Geralt knew he was going to tire soon, too. The ring he was fighting to keep clear around Emhyr’s back kept getting more and more narrow.
Emhyr spoke one more time, his own voice gone hoarse and rasping, “Stars, speak! I seek to know your will!” and in one final gout all the last of the black water came boiling out of the well crying again “Death.” Geralt severed it just half an inch from Emhyr’s face. He had to whip around instantly to kill another dozen of them, all of them surging at Emhyr together: he put himself at Emhyr’s back and struck them down, over and over. They were coming as fast as he could kill them, and sooner or later, one was going to get through.
“Geralt,” Emhyr said, “if this fails, tell Cirilla what I have told you of her mother’s death, and tell her I asked her forgiveness at the last.”
“What?” Geralt said, and spared one glance to see Emhyr deeply ripping up his wrists with the silver knife, Methinne’s knife, and holding them out over the dry body of the pool. “Emhyr!” he yelled, horrified, but he couldn’t stop fighting, all the water wraiths had gone as frantic as if they’d smelled the blood they hadn’t had a chance to taste and were coming in an oceanic tide, and Geralt kept cutting through them desperately and shouted, “Merrin! Merrin! Stop him!”
Merrin had crumpled to the ground a few steps away like the wet cloak in his hands, sunk on his knees; he swayed up his head, his eyes dull and staring with horror, and then he looked past Geralt. He dragged himself up and went in a shambling run, slapping away a couple of the howling black-water mouths, and grabbed hold of Emhyr’s arms even as he began sagging. Geralt whirled furiously around them, so fast he could barely see, keeping the wraiths off them; Sovic and Denys had struggled back up to help him, as much as they could.
Merrin gasped, “A belt, another belt, I need a strap!” and Denys jerked the strap off the crossbow and threw it to him. Merrin had bound his own belt bloodlessly tight around Emhyr’s right arm; he got the second around the left, and he was supporting Emhyr. “Sire, Sire!” he cried, and Emhyr stirred and whispered in the barest rasp, “Hold me over the pool.”
“Do it!” Geralt shouted, still fighting, and Merrin supported Emhyr leaning out—Geralt couldn’t spare the time for more than the slightest sideways glimpse of him, and it was worse than not getting any; he was bloodless white as a ghost himself. But he leaned over the pool and managed to whisper softly, “Stars, speak. I seek to know your will,” to the reflection of the stars shining in the pool of his own blood, and suddenly there was a light shining out of the deep well. Geralt heard Merrin, staring down into the well, gasp in surprise, and then a voice echoing from deep within said, “Cyferaeth, brennin ulei,”—hail, high king.
The water wraiths were still coming in their endless, furious waves, unappeased. But faintly in the distance Geralt heard a low, rumbling roar like a hundred dragons waking up. It started to get louder and louder, and the ground was shaking as it drew closer—the wraiths were falling apart even as they reformed, and then suddenly for a moment he was standing inside a thundercloud, or what felt like it: the roaring of water everywhere, and the blaze of stars coming from the well the only light Geralt could see; he couldn’t breathe, like being underwater, a torrent rushing over his skin—and then just as fast it was over. He was standing soaked completely to the skin and gasping on the wet grass, all the water wraiths washed away.
He dropped his sword and turned to grab Emhyr out of Merrin’s slipping hold, take his weight and cradle him in his arms. Emhyr sagged deathly-pale and limp against him, but breathing, shallowly. The pool was brimming full to the top with water, full of endless stars. The bowl of the sky was all around them, the fog blown away, and after a moment, his ears trying to make sense of the odd rushing sound that wouldn’t stop, Geralt slowly lifted his head, and saw down the long slope of the hillside the clear endless running water of the river, laid back in its channel.
“As soon as you’re better, I’m going to kill you,” Geralt told Emhyr flatly, watching him spoon up beef broth slowly and carefully with a visible effort.
“You yourself said the coronation had to be completed,” Emhyr said.
“Shut up, I also said we could hang out until morning,” Geralt said. “Don’t tell me for one second you went up there to get an elven crown for your goddamn collection. You went up there to fix the river. When did you get the idea?”
“It occurred to me when you first proposed that the coronation site might have been used for casting the spells upon the river.”
“Grrr,” Geralt said.
“However, I saw no reason to raise so obscure a possibility.”
“Bullshit. You just figured we would all sit on you. Scale matters in magic, you idiot. Going up there to shove the entire Sansretour back in its course is a hell of a lot different than going up there so you can open up the fourth basement of your palace. That’s why it was that bad.” He ground his teeth as Emhyr gave him a faintly irritated yes I knew that look. Of course he’d known. And he’d gone straight up anyway. Of course. “It was insane,” Geralt bit out at him.
Emhyr swallowed the last spoonful and sighed out deeply as he lay back against his pillows. “And yet, worth doing,” he said, barely over a murmur. “Is it all restored?”
“Haven’t gone to check. Been kind of busy keeping you alive.” Emhyr just waved a finger at him, oh go on, and Geralt scowled and grudgingly said, “It was running back in the old channel the whole way we came back. The marsh is draining like a sieve. Never seen drowners confused before. They can’t understand where the water went, so they keep going around in circles trying to get into the ground. Your guards are shooting them like ducks.”
Emhyr smiled faintly, and then was asleep again, all that sternness still lingering in his face, but maybe a hint of something eased, too. Geralt glared at him, and then started to feel unwillingly affectionate again, so he got up and got his swords and stomped out to go kill some more drowners before they started running wild over the fields trying to find their beautiful giant all-devouring marsh again.
He spent the next couple days clearing them out and watching Emhyr eat and gradually stop looking like a drained corpse. He was up and around pretty quickly, but he still got tired quickly. On the third day, Geralt paused on his way back to the palace for lunch and held Roach on the road listening, hearing a faint far-off jingling of armor and spurs and hooves, and then he galloped the rest of the way back and dashed upstairs. “Sounds like about twenty full knights on the road coming,” he said bluntly. “I’m guessing the Duchess has some questions for you. Want to go to Beauclair and answer them?”
Emhyr put down his latest bodice ripper. “Not particularly.”
“Let’s go,” Geralt said. He snuck Emhyr downstairs and onto a horse, told Merrin, “You don’t know where he’s gone. If they ask about me, I got paid and went home,” and took him straight across what was left of the rapidly draining marsh. They had to take the ride by slow easy stages, but it was beautiful out, and there were plenty of spots of higher ground where they could sit in the sun. Grass and small seedlings were already bursting out of the dark rich soil, and halfway there, while they were resting, out of nowhere a high, unearthly beautiful song full of dazzling harmonics burst into the air, and they sat staring as Iocaste sailed by through the air flaring her wings and fins, calling to a mate.
“I’ll be damned,” Geralt said blankly. Emhyr was listening with a bemused expression.
They reached Corvo Bianco late in the spring evening. Marlene didn’t have anything fancy ready, but Emhyr devoured two helpings of her ordinary beef stew and drank two glasses of red wine and fell asleep in Geralt’s bed breathing easily, a little color creeping back into his cheeks. “He’s not here,” Geralt told her and Barnabas-Basil, who nodded.
Sir Palmerin did stop by a week or so later to ask him for some more details about what the hell had happened on the hill, but he didn’t even ask if Geralt knew where Emhyr was, just added distractedly at the end, clutching at his hair, “And what Her Grace will say if I cannot find the Emperor, I do not know. She told me I was on no account to return to her without him, but as far as I can tell, he has simply vanished into the air! All his servants are accounted for, and they all swear they knew nothing of his departure. He took nothing but a single horse! Did you hear him say anything of where he might be going?”
“Not a word,” Geralt said, which was true. Emhyr hadn’t said anything about it at all. He was asleep under a large-brimmed hat on the deck of the house not ten feet away during the entire conversation. “You should probably go back anyway, though. Pretty sure the Duchess will want to know he’s missing.”
“Yes, I suppose,” Palmerin said. “Lebioda’s thumb, what will the Empress say?”
What Ciri said, two weeks later, was, “Geralt, where is my father?” She was standing in his courtyard with narrowed eyes and her hands on her hips, in traveling gear, without any escort; she’d obviously used a portal to get to them.
“Gazebo in the south field,” Geralt said. “Come on, I’ll take you. How’d you figure out he was here?”
She snorted. “Is that a joke? The only reason I didn’t come here as soon as he vanished was no one bothered to mention to me that you were involved. Did you know what he was planning to do to the river?”
“Hell, no,” Geralt said. “The plan was supposed to be opening up the necropolis under Arthach.” Ciri gave him a glare. Geralt shrugged back. “It wasn’t as crazy.”
“I still don’t understand why you helped him with it, though.”
“Haven’t had much to do lately,” Geralt said. They topped the hill: Emhyr was stretched on a couch in the shade, a glass of wine next to him, in loose pants and shirt and barefoot, reading; he had already made it halfway down his stack for the day. Ciri stopped short, staring, and Emhyr glanced up and paused, lowering his book.
“Cirilla,” he said. “I hope all is well?”
“Oh, everything’s fine,” Cirilla said. “The former emperor of Nilfgaard’s just vanished, throwing everyone into a complete panic, especially as he did it right after having singlehandedly restored the Sansretour to its path.”
“Hey!” Geralt said, indignantly.
“Sorry, Geralt,” Ciri said. “You know they always leave the witchers out of the story. As far as most of the empire is concerned, my father picked the river up with his bare hands and put it back where it belonged. The Hierophant of Beauclair’s started making noises about having you canonized,” she added to Emhyr. “A lot of his followers are spreading the idea that you were assumed directly into the heavens by the gods to join their number.”
“How entertaining,” Emhyr said. “If he does it, I will certainly attend the ceremonies.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” She folded her arms over her chest. “Why are you hiding now?”
Emhyr shrugged. “I had the option to recover peacefully here, or with a great deal of fuss in Beauclair Palace, under the care of an angry duchess who has wanted to keep me under her thumb ever since I settled in her realm, and certainly has not altered her desire since I had the bad taste of saving it from the grotesque foibles of her great-grandfather. It did not seem a particularly difficult choice.”
Ciri rolled her eyes and turned on Geralt. “All right, you tell me why he’s here.”
“Uhh,” Geralt said, but a real fire was starting to come into her eye, so he shrugged and said, “Well, we’re sleeping together.”
She gaped at him. Emhyr frowned. “I hardly think this is a subject that requires discussion with my daughter,” he said austerely.
“Are you joking?” Ciri said, her voice rising. “It very much requires discussion!”
There was some more yelling for a while after that, and Ciri still had a vaguely outraged expression when they sat down to dinner, but after they ate and she spent the rest of the evening sitting outside with them, watching the glowflies gleam in and out over the vineyards as they talked, it settled into something a little more grudgingly soft, just still a bit puzzled. Geralt put his wine glass down after a bit and said, “I need some exercise, and you two probably want some time to talk. In other words, it’s time for you to tell her about Pavetta yourself,” he added to Emhyr. “Don’t think I’m going to let you get away with shoving it off on me with any more damn deathbed requests.”
Emhyr scowled, but Ciri was turning on him with a frown, so Geralt jogged off whistling with the satisfaction of revenge.
“I don’t believe I’m saying this,” Ciri told him the next morning, before she stepped through another portal to go back to Nilfgaard, “but take care of him, will you? And he is going to have to reappear at some point soon—before he gets canonized. I refuse to have to refer to him as Blessed Emhyr in public.”
They dawdled exactly a week too long: the grape harvest finished coming in, and nineteen different winemakers and winesellers tried to sneak onto the estate to get a sniff of the new vintages in their vats. The workers ran them off, but a few of them ended up close enough to get a glimpse of Emhyr.
Geralt took him out of the house for a day to avoid any more sightings—it was beautiful weather anyway, a late-autumn day masquerading as summer, and they ate a picnic down in a sunny clearing and then messed around for a while with the sun baking their bare skin, until it ducked behind a ridge and the air started getting chilly again; Geralt nuzzled a few last kisses to Emhyr’s throat until he finally got firmly pushed off. They pulled on about half their clothes and strolled back barefoot and disheveled to find a loud argument going on in the courtyard. A company of traveling mummers had come by to perform for spare coin, which happened fairly often, except this troupe had decided to make some more coin by taking a couple of winemakers onto the crew, and they’d just been caught in the cellars.
When Geralt and Emhyr showed up, it turned out that the mummers had also taken on a party of Vikorian assassins—as a knife-juggling acrobat show, which to be fair had to have been a pretty solid act—who went for Emhyr instantly on sight. “Into the house!” Geralt yelled over the sudden panic and screaming, as he kicked one of the assassins over the balustrade—with a bare foot, ow—and caught another’s flying knife out of the air to slit the throat of a third.
He’d just backed Emhyr into the Great Hall, where he had several very good swords on racks, when a portal opened at his back and another party of assassins jumped through: these ones were Temerian Blue Stripe fanatic commandos with crossbows, goddammit. Geralt just managed to knock three bolts out of the air before shoving Emhyr under the dining table, and hurling the enormous epergne full of flowers—B.B. was going to be upset—into their faces with a fast Aard just to get some breathing room.
He was almost glad after that when Sir Palmerin burst into the dining room with ten mailed knights. They made reasonably fast work of the assorted assassins, although afterwards Palmerin whirled on him with a face suffused red in fury and pointed his sword and thundered, “Where is the—” until a hideously high-pitched shrilling noise erupted from the bedroom to drown him out. They all winced and turned to stare, just as Count di Salvaress burst into the front door crying, “Geralt! Geralt! You must do something! Someone, this very morning, stole Iocaste’s egg while she was out hunting! I do not know where they have taken—”
He stopped short at the shrilling, his mouth frozen into an O, and a moment later a baby silver basilisk came out into the dining room in short flapping hops, still wailing piercingly. One of the knights said, “Saint Lebioda preserve us!” and was about to stick it with a spear when Salvaress threw himself in front of the baby, yelling about endangered species. A moment later, more screaming started up outside. Geralt resignedly glanced up at the roof, and then dived beneath the table himself.
Emhyr was still under there: he’d taken the opportunity to finish getting dressed and was just rebuttoning his cuffs. He raised an eyebrow at Geralt. “Better get down,” Geralt advised, and covered Emhyr with his own body as Iocaste bashed through the ceiling overhead, shrieking in deafening fury.
It took a while to restore order. Once Geralt heaved the baby up into the air high enough for Iocaste to grab it in her talons, she flew off, but most of the knights were still buried under rubble or so blinded by dust that they kept trying to stab her even after she was gone and the only people left to stab were each other. One of the assassins hadn’t been completely killed and took another shot when Geralt heaved a roof beam off him—that ended abruptly when Geralt let the beam drop, onto his skull this time—and Sir Palmerin had bit halfway through his own tongue and couldn’t really talk, even though he was still lividly angry and clearly had a lot he meant to say anyway.
Fortunately for Palmerin’s health, if not entirely his well-being, the tirade got shut down before much of it could get garbled out. Emhyr had slipped out from under the table. He put himself into the doorway, framed with the sky behind him, and said in his most austere imperial tones, “I will assume there is an acceptable explanation for this.” He made all the knights—the ones who could stand, anyway—jump to attention by giving them a slightly incredulous look up and down.
“Y’r Mpryal Mayesty,” Palmerin said, making his formal bow, still red-faced, “Heh Grashe ha’ sen’ me—”
Emhyr raised a hand. “I am uninterested in hearing it. You may take an hour to restore yourself and your men to the order I would expect from knights of Toussaint,” with a faintly skeptical air, as if he wasn’t sure they could manage it, “before we depart for the palace. I must see the Duchess without further delay. Sir Geralt, you will accompany us,” he added, and strode into the bedroom without batting an eye at the wreckage around him.
Geralt said blandly, “Guess I’d better go pack,” and went after him. Emhyr was standing in the bedroom contemplating the wreck of the wardrobe with irritation—whoever had decided to use a basilisk egg as a weapon of assassination had cleverly stuck it in there, and there was a lot of eggy mess and bits of shell all over the clothes. “I’ll see if B.B. can manage something,” Geralt said. “Unless you want to run for it?”
“No,” Emhyr said, with an air of regret, after a glance at the window. “I have already excessively indulged myself. Anna Henrietta has been justly provoked, and temper makes her short-sighted.”
“What’s she going to do to you?” Geralt said. “Pretty sure she can’t throw you in a dungeon.”
“She will attempt to force me to take up residence at court.”
Geralt snorted. “Why the hell would she want that? You’d be running the place in fifteen minutes.”
“As I said, she will be too angry to think the matter through.” Emhyr paused and then said thoughtfully, “However, perhaps it might be possible to improve her vision. Have your majordomo procure a hooded cloak for me.”
Geralt groaned faintly. “Now what are you planning?”
Barnabas-Basil heroically managed to pull together a suitably regal outfit and a cloak for Emhyr, but he was nearly in tears contemplating the total ruin of the house. “Sir, I fear it will be a fortune to rebuild,” Barnabas-Basil said brokenly as they rode out.
“Don’t worry about it,” Geralt said, beatifically. “Spend whatever it takes.”
Palmerin didn’t quite like Emhyr’s plan of arriving incognito, but he didn’t have a lot of choice about it. Half his knights were laid out at Corvo Bianco recovering, and Geralt had deliberately kitted himself out in the frankly creepy vampire armor he’d found in Tesham Mutna. It was great armor, but he’d given up wearing it on normal occasions because everybody would run away and close up shop when they saw him coming: annoying when all you wanted was to buy a damn sandwich from the local tavern. Even the knights kept instinctively flinching away and giving him anxious sidelong looks as he rode alongside them. So when they got to the palace and Emhyr said firmly, “We will enter the gardens by the back. You will bring Her Grace to me there,” Palmerin glanced at Geralt a bit uncertainly and then caved.
It definitely only pissed Anna Henrietta off even more, though: she’d probably been expecting to welcome Emhyr into her Great Hall with as much cold formality as she could manage, and she clearly did not like being summoned to meet him instead. She swept into the garden pavilion regally with both Damien and an abashed and half cringing Palmerin at her heels, eyes stormy, and glared down at Emhyr, who had seated himself on a bench and opened a book. “Your Imperial Majesty,” she said very coldly, and made just the barest inclination of her head. “We are delighted to see you well, if surprised that you should insist upon this manner of presenting yourself at our court.” She shot Geralt a barrel full of blistering fury turned into a look.
Emhyr folded the book shut around his forefinger. “I shall present myself formally in the morning. Given what must occur then, I felt it an appropriate courtesy to give you advance warning.”
Emhyr shrugged slightly. “We shall have to deal reasonably with one another for some time. I do not care to begin such matters with hostility. You will have to marry me, of course,” he added, with the same cool flat tone.
“I will—” She stared at him with her mouth open, shocked, and Damien and Palmerin both gawked right along with her. Geralt stared at him, too. The hell?
Emhyr raised an eyebrow. “You have sent armed knights across your realm seeking me, and made a parade of your intention to bring me to you by force. You have spoken indiscreetly of your determination that I shall henceforth take up residence in Beauclair, where you can, I believe the words were, keep an eye on me? You have said outright that my retirement was a fiction and I mean to usurp your authority—were you under the impression that I lack for intelligence about your court?” he asked, as Anna Henrietta drew back, biting her lip. “I assure you, I do not. You have, in short, made it plain that you mean to bar me from returning to my retirement at Arthach. This, you have the power to do. I am a guest in your realm. However, I am also your liege lord, not one of your subjects, and most disinclined to suffer the irritation of being treated as such.”
He gestured with his open hand. “Tomorrow, therefore, when I present myself at court, having proceeded first through the streets of Beauclair with my retinue, I will announce to the assembled court and populace that I risked my life to restore the Sansretour having lost my heart to both the realm of Toussaint and its duchess—and have come therefore to claim her hand. And then I will command the hierophant of the Great Sun at your court to marry us at once, before the cheering throng. And naturally, as your husband, henceforth relieve you of the difficult burden of exercising the ducal power.”
Geralt leaned back against the garden wall with his arms folded, almost admiringly. It was pretty neat. He couldn’t see how Anna Henrietta got away with saying no thanks without making a massive political incident and outraging her own people—if there was anything the Toussaintois loved, it was a romance, and they all knew exactly how they were supposed to end. She knew it, too; she had gone utterly pale with horror, and Damien was almost as stricken—Geralt had always suspected the guy was more than half in love with the duchess himself.
She swallowed. “Your Majesty,” she said, in a much more sincere tone, “I—I cannot accept the honor you seek to do me—”
“Can you not?” Emhyr said steadily. “There is an alternative, if you prefer. I can instead arrive at your court and accept your homage as your emperor, and your formal thanks for the restoration of the Sansretour. I will then attend an evening’s gala in my honor—where you will show me all the precedence and respect due the emperor of Nilfgaaard—and then return to my estate, and the untroubled peace of my retirement. Which I trust will in future remain untroubled by your knights. For I assure you, this is an honor I will not permit you to refuse a second time.”
It was a nice party. Even Anna Henrietta herself looked like she was having a good time; she was probably massively relieved. Half of Beauclair had followed Emhyr up the road to the palace that morning screaming in joy—the owners of the vineyards in the north of the valley were especially enthusiastic—and the hierophant had spontaneously ordered all the bells of all the churches rung to celebrate the emperor’s return. All her own damn knights had knelt before him in homage. Geralt had never seen a woman as happy as when Emhyr had raised her from her own curtsey and greeted her as his beloved vassal.
Everyone else at court was also being extremely respectful of Emhyr, since none of them still had any idea how he’d managed to do it. “I’ll get you a glass of wine,” Geralt said grinning, and left him holding court with a dozen nervous high-ranking nobles who were all trying to come up with polite ways of asking if the gods really had bestowed terrifying magical powers on him, or what. Everyone else was holding well back.
Marquise Polliard intercepted Geralt as he carried back the two glasses of wine—the very first Corvo Bianco vintage; the palace had more of it left than he did, since he’d drunk his way through all of what he’d made that year. “Sir Geralt!” she said. “There you are. Richard and I were saying to one another only yesterday that it has been ages since we’ve had the pleasure of your company, even for a quiet evening of gwent.”
“Sorry,” Geralt said insincerely. Her idea of a quiet evening of gwent was forty to a formal seated banquet before a long stuffy musical performance and then a bunch of promenade dances, and if you didn’t dance at least five of them she hunted you down at the card tables and dragged you back to the floor. “Been busy.”
“Yes, of course,” she said, managing to link her arm through his: he could’ve stopped her any of a half-dozen ways, but they would all have involved bloodshed and possible murder, and by the time he’d stopped himself doing any of those, she was attached as firmly as a remora and gliding along at his side. “Indeed, dear Sir Palmerin was just telling us that your house was destroyed by a basilisk—how dreadful for you! He said you had nowhere to go. Naturally Richard and I agreed at once that you must come and make a long stay with us.”
Palmerin was standing at the far side of the ballroom with his arms folded across his breastplate and narrowed vengeful eyes, watching. Geralt shot him a very hard look. “Uh, that’s nice of you, but—” he said to the Marquise.
She tapped him on the lips with her fan, which was massively embroidered and had peacock feathers stitched to the tips, so he had to break off or end up with a mouthful of fluff. “Nonsense!” she said. “I knew you would try and refuse, but I assure you, it is not the least inconvenience. We are hosting a dozen guests the entire spring, and there will be a ball every week. I will not accept no for an answer. Will you drive out with us tonight, or would you prefer to ride up tomorrow with Sir Baudremar?”
“You will have to excuse Sir Geralt,” Emhyr said, taking the glass out of Geralt’s hand, and making her jump: thankfully they’d gotten in range. “I find I cannot spare him.”
The Marquise was gawking at him wide-eyed. Emhyr gave her a cool nod, and beckoned to Geralt; her grip had loosened enough he managed to slip free and fall in with him gratefully. “Thanks,” he said as Emhyr sailed them away. “How do you turn all these damn invitations down? You must get a basketful every day.”
“On the contrary, I receive none,” Emhyr said. “To invite the emperor is a breach of etiquette: it implies my presence might be unwelcome at some other time. My secretary may be informed of events, but I cannot be asked for a response.”
Geralt processed that and said slowly, “If someone’s staying with the emperor—”
“No imperial guest can be invited away, of course. That would imply they might prefer to be somewhere else than in the emperor’s presence.”
Geralt snorted. “Watch out, I might never leave Arthach again.”
“Mm.” Emhyr didn’t look over at him, but there was the slightest suggestion of a curve to his mouth. “I might contrive to find work for you while you remained.”
They stayed another half-hour, and then as everyone else started filing in for the actual banquet, they took off. Damien was there to let them out the back gate, looking about as relieved as Anna Henrietta: she’d had no objections at all this time about Emhyr slipping quietly away without fanfare.
“How did you know what she was saying in court, though?” Geralt asked idly, as he swung himself up into Roach’s saddle. Captain Merrin and his men were waiting just down the road. “You didn’t get any spy reports at Corvo Bianco.”
Emhyr shrugged at him slightly. “It required no tremendous insight to guess.”
Geralt shook his head snorting.
It was late when they reached Arthach the next day, and they fell into bed together barely getting undressed. It wasn’t until the next morning that Geralt really saw the change: he got up, yawning, went out onto the balcony to stretch, and it stopped him. The marshy fields all around the palace had exploded into bloom, an ocean of pink and blue and yellow in every direction like a bad painting; young trees were already lifting branches heavy with pale green leaves, and some of the older trees that had survived on higher ground were in full sweet flower. And over the walls of the palace itself, climbing, were thin and delicate dark green vines just starting to bud white flowers. “Look at that,” Geralt said softly, kneeling down to touch one that had determinedly reached the bottom of the balcony.
“What is it?” Emhyr murmured drowsily from inside, and then he came out and stopped too, gazing all around in silence, before he looked down.
“It’s siyene,” Geralt said. “Been extinct for—centuries. It’s a healing herb,” he added. “But no one’s ever been able to grow any from seed. It has to grow wild.”
The days were getting longer and the sun had been out and shining full strength for weeks; Emhyr sent people out to the mountain burial ground that day to get started on bringing down the rest of the bones. Geralt went down into the cellars he’d cleared out before and ran his hands over the walls carefully until he found one that felt—not wrong exactly but new, more recent, and then he stood guard over the workers while they carefully opened it back up, and found the stairs going down on the other side.
Emhyr ordered his servants and guard to clear out of the palace the next day. He and Geralt went down together with Divethaf’s bones wrapped in their shroud, through one entire level and then a second and a third filled with the beautiful carven tombs of nobles and knights. The ones on the lowest level were rougher but very old: the engravings weren’t in even in Elder Speech. “These are in the Laith aen Undod, the elven tongue from before the Conjunction of the Spheres,” Emhyr said, looking at the runes. “Carved long before humans even arrived upon this world. My guess about the age of this complex is correct. I imagine that over time, the necropolis was expanded far to either side to accommodate the middle nobility while reserving the lowest levels near the palace only for the royal dead. We have not yet found the deeper halls where the kings are laid to rest.”
They explored a long way in every direction on the third level, probably at least half a mile around, but still didn’t find a way further down, and when the dates on the tombs shifted to the modern elven calendar, Emhyr shook his head and said they had to go back. “They must have concealed the entrance to the royal tombs more thoroughly.”
They started over again in the most central chamber, and Geralt went over the walls with hands and nose, feeling over every inch. In the third room to the south he got a sense of just a little something odd, and on a hunch he took out the Eye of Nehalani and tried it. The only sign anything had happened was the slightest flicker over the surface. The illusion that had been dispelled was almost identical to the wall beneath, like the elves had bricked up the passage to carefully match the walls and only then put on the most subtle illusion to hide it even more.
Geralt considered the smooth wall, and then he said, “All right, we’re out of time for tonight. Let’s head back up. Tomorrow we’ll come back down and get through there.”
The training had taken: Emhyr didn’t even say why are we going all the way back up to spend the night or anything like that. They ate a cold supper the staff had left that was actually twelve dishes, pâté and cold meat and cheese. Geralt lit the fire, and they made love in the crackling glow, slow and sleepy and luxurious, Emhyr moving in him with a steady rocking rhythm, a little bit studied, determined to master this like everything else. Geralt groaned and shuddered under him, their hands entwined. Afterwards they lay tangled together in the big warm bed, Emhyr’s body under his hands and mouth, and Geralt grinned at himself a little. A day spent exploring an elven necropolis and a night in a palace with his very own emperor: he couldn’t really complain about the working conditions.
“Anything you do plan to ask them, when we finally get through?” he asked Emhyr idly, between kissing along the line of his wrist, letting his tongue trace the healed scar. “I’m guessing the dead probably will talk to you now after all.”
Emhyr was lying back heavy-lidded and sated in the pillows, eyes resting on Geralt and his own mouth smiling just a little. He was silent a moment and then he said, “I thought of asking them where the white ships are.”
Geralt paused. “The ships they used to go between worlds? What do you mean, ask them where—you think they’re still intact?”
Emhyr shrugged one bare shoulder. “The dwarves have a few accounts of the arrival of the Aen Seidhe. They arrived in a host of many thousands, suggesting large vessels, but the dwarves never saw their ships, nor has anyone ever found a plausible fragment from such a craft. Early elven records suggest they ultimately foresaw having to escape to another hospitable world further from the White Frost—so they had reason to see them preserved safely.”
“Sure, in one of the most godforsaken isolated spots anywhere on the planet, surrounded by the strongest enchantments possible,” Geralt said pointedly.
Emhyr’s smile only widened, sly. “I did promise you more work.”
“Terrific. I’ll tell Barnabas-Basil I’ll have to miss the wine sales,” Geralt said, and climbed up the bed to kiss him, deeply happy.