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The War of Silver and Ash

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The sun hit his face in the morning when it broke over the edge of the world, a few dry wisps of grass rubbing against his cheek in the wind. The warmth steadily grew. Geralt opened his eyes. Orianna’s hollow eye sockets stared back at him, faint wisps of smoke still rising off the odd hematite gleam of her bones. The flesh was already gone. He pushed himself up onto his knees. His stomach was still churning hideously from the Black Blood, and the chill shivering through his limbs told him he had a high fever. He’d brewed a more potent version, close to the limit. Gotten a little closer than he’d meant to, felt like.

He stayed there for a while. It wasn’t meditating exactly, his head was too cloudy for that. He was just breathing. And she wasn’t anymore, so he couldn’t complain too much. The sun was somewhere past noon before he risked getting to his feet and whistled Roach up. He couldn’t have done the cleanup without falling over, but he didn’t need to take a trophy. He hadn’t come here with a contract. He’d come here to get the faces out of his head: the bloodless dead sprawled in heaps through the streets of Beauclair, the morning after the rampage Detlaff had unleashed; the blank eyes of the boy in the orphanage tilting his head to let Orianna drink from his throat, with the lullaby she’d been singing him still hanging in the air.

Wasn’t working that well so far.

A couple of peasant boys were watching him from a distance, the thatch of their messy hair and wide eyes poking up over a fence at the limit of the abandoned farm. “Hey,” he called to them. They didn’t budge, just staring. They’d have been more scared of him than of her, if they’d seen them together last night. Before her fangs had come out. He jerked his head a little towards the corpse. “Alchemists’ll pay good coin for vampire bones. There’s one on Warbler Street in Beauclair who’ll give you a fair price. Get them sold by nightfall.” He pulled himself slowly up onto Roach’s back and turned her head south. The boys wouldn’t need help figuring out what to do with the jewels, the necklace and the bracelets and the rings from her fingers.

Normally after a bad fight, he’d have found an abandoned hut to hole up in, lick his wounds; maybe a tavern, if one was close enough. Now instead he headed back to Corvo Bianco. He took it at an easy walk, his head sagging in the saddle. The sun was hot on the back of his neck. It didn’t reach the deep chill inside. He didn’t get out of the saddle when he stopped to water Roach at the trough of an inn, because he was pretty sure he wouldn’t get back into it. He drank a few sips of White Honey himself, all he could risk.

It was long past dark again by the time Roach brought him through the gates, and she made the last few turnings herself: she knew the way. He’d never lived in one place long enough for that to happen before. She knew where the oats were, too: she went to her stable and nudged at the door until one of the grooms came out rubbing his eyes. Geralt half woke up then, with hands reaching up to him and Barnabas-Basil’s familiar voice speaking. He let them help him down, and that was as far as he got. The rest was a blank.

He slept the clock around and then managed to sit up and take a little more White Honey. The doctor that Barnabas-Basil had called in wanted him to try eating some toast and drinking some water, but Geralt shook his head. He could tell it wasn’t going to stay down. “Sir, you have lost a great deal of blood,” the doctor said bluntly. “You must eat and drink, or you will die.”

“I know. If the Black Blood comes out of my system in time, I’ll make it,” Geralt said. “If it doesn’t, I won’t. Making myself vomit’s not going to help. Just make me feel more like shit along the way.”

The detox took three days, Geralt’s lips cracking and dry and the world getting dim, one swallow of White Honey every hour all he could take. But he’d asked them to put him in the sun when they could. On the morning of the fourth day, as they carried him out in his bed, the sun hit his skin, and Geralt took a deep breath of the morning air and nodded when Barnabas-Basil asked him softly if he was hungry. Marlene brought out a bowl of fragrant, rich beef broth and fed it to him spoonful by spoonful, along with softened chunks of bread dipped into the liquid, until he got the whole thing down.

He spent the rest of that first week just lying in bed and eating small meals six times a day, being carried outside again whenever the sun was out, and sleeping. He started to be able to get up and walk around a bit after that, but he still got tired fast, and as soon as the sun went down, so did he. He stuck around the house, took short walks, ate and rested. His whole body felt scraped out from the inside. When he tried to pick up his sword, his arm shook so hard the tip went wild and drew crazy twisted figure-eights in the air. He put it down again.

But when he wasn’t doing anything, he ended up staring at a wall with his head full of the feeling of Orianna’s mouth on his throat, the soft tender lips against his skin and the teeth tearing into his life beneath. The sweet comforting lie peeling back from the truth, like the false curtain of safety ripped off the streets of Beauclair.

So he picked up a pen instead. Vesemir had always harped on the importance of taking down notes on any unusual encounter while it was still fresh in your mind. Geralt hadn’t done it much lately, not since the last witcher school had closed, but writing it out helped. He made his notes as dispassionate as if it had all happened to someone else, as if he was a kid back in the library at Kaer Morhen set to copying material over from some ancient witcher text, old and crumbling. He put down the weapons that had been effective, the locations. The recipe for the Black Blood he’d used against Orianna: take five measures of Witcher Gordith’s recipe for Superior Black Blood to seed the reaction and add to it 15 measures of alghoul blood and 5 measures of sewant mushrooms cut up small and allowed to rot for a week, blend thoroughly and then add 7 fully open nostrix blossoms (do not remove stems or thorns) and bottle as soon as they have wilted. If brewed correctly should taste of chalk and partially chewed fishbones. The section on aftereffects was long: weakness, fever, inability to eat, tremors, muscle loss, debilitation.

He added a note that taking a dose of White Honey right after the fight might have helped, cleared some of the toxin from the bloodstream before it had settled into his muscles and bones and organs. Of course, right after the fight he’d been unconscious for probably nine hours. Not much to be done about it. He’d needed every tiny fraction of an edge he’d gotten from the brew to take Orianna. And fighting Detlaff, he’d had Regis’s help. Not something another witcher could count on getting.

The two fights had been completely different in almost every other way. Detlaff had taken longer, but he’d been a little easier: apart from Regis having weakened him, he’d been insane with anger and misery. The vast twisted forms he’d taken, they felt in retrospect like explosive reflections of his mental state, not something deliberate. Huge and terrible, but overall, wasted energy. And Detlaff had been fighting for something almost human. For revenge, for rage. Orianna hadn’t wasted an ounce of either emotion or power. You didn’t need to crush a witcher to kill him. Fangs that could pierce steel could do it. Would have done it, too, if he hadn’t poisoned his own blood. She hadn’t seen him as a person, any more than she’d cared about the kids in her orphanage. They’d been an orchard to be tended so she could enjoy the fruit. He’d been a rabid dog to put down.

It took him a full month to finish putting down the two accounts. But he was still too sick to even get through a basic training exercise, and the night was coming earlier every day. So he burned candles into the dark at his desk, and kept going. He’d fought more kinds of vampires in Beauclair on that one night than most witchers saw in ten years. There was already a decent body of work about garkains and fleders, so he wrote up the bruxae and alp fights first, but he got to the rest of them eventually.

Finally he’d finished putting down the lot of them, and he was still getting winded at the end of a run around the vineyards. He knew how to work himself back up from there, of course: situps, pullups, running, sword drills, lifting heavy weights with every damn part of his body; the tedious grind of building strength and speed. It was time to get started on it, if he was going back out on the Path anytime soon. He hadn’t lost all his muscle tone and he certainly hadn’t lost the skills, but he also wasn’t eleven years old the way he’d been the first time. If Vesemir had been around, Geralt knew his ass would be getting kicked all over the vineyard already.

But Vesemir was gone, and Geralt didn’t want to kick himself around. For the first time, the thought of being out on the Path again didn’t mean longing for the singing of his sword in the air, the tide of fierce excitement rising in his veins, the satisfaction of coming to the end of a chase. Only the dragging, everyday memories wanted to come: huddling around a campfire to warm sore muscles, eating tasteless dry rations in an abandoned hut, slogging through a swamp with his feet squelching with every step. Ghouls looking up from fresh corpses with entrails hanging from their mouths; following a trail of bloody tracks and discarded bones to a wyvern’s lair. The faces of dead children in the street.

And he didn’t have to kick himself around, either. If he’d been living in a room over a tavern somewhere, his money would’ve run out by now; he’d have had to start taking contracts again if he wanted to eat. But Corvo Bianco was paying for itself these days, selling grapes to neighboring vineyards, and there was still some money left from the big purse the Duchess had given him for taking down Detlaff.

But Geralt practically felt Vesemir’s disapproving glare between his shoulderblades the morning he woke up in bed with an early snowfall drifting down outside his window and rolled over to go back to sleep, not because he was sick but because he just didn’t want to go out and do his run. “I’m wintering,” he told the old witcher’s ghost, making excuses. “Anyway, I should bring it all together, turn it into a book. Probably know more about the damn things by now than anybody else ever has.”

He started later that day, sitting at a desk in the upstairs room that looked over the snow-draped vineyards with a tall mug of what Marlene called her “Winter’s Warmth,” which was hot cider and apple brandy and honey mixed with spices and went down like nectar. He ordered every text on vampires that the booksellers in Beauclair could get their hands on and wrote to Dandelion to borrow some others from scholars in Oxenfurt: they arrived a month later in a large box. He also had sheaves of loose pages he’d gathered along the way hunting, scrap notes he’d scribbled down of things Regis had mentioned in passing.

He put things in order, sketched out his classification scheme, an introduction with the general principles of fighting them—with several harsh words about the bullshit of garlic and stakes—and dived in. He was flipping the usual structure: vampire texts mostly started with the common lower species and worked up from there, probably to disguise the fact that the author knew jack-shit about the higher vampires. Geralt started with them instead, and even wrote up a first section with everything he knew about their larger society, information about the different vampire tribes and the tiny hints Regis and Orianna had dropped about the Unseen Elder—it all filled a grand total of three pages, but that was still more than he’d ever seen in any other book. Then he put in his fights with Orianna and Detlaff, mentioned they’d been living in Toussaint for decades; he wrote up her grotesque orphan-farming scheme and Detlaff’s large entourage of bruxae and alps. He added the story Regis had told him about the vampire from Tesham Mutna, the one who’d gone so crazed for blood that even the other vampires had locked him up, and he copied out the hideous accounts he’d found there, the scribbled fragments of a prisoner being slowly drunk to death, the vampires’ own debates about the relative tastiness of free-range versus caged humans.

He stopped there and considered, but finally he went on and wrote Regis up, too. Not by name, and he left out anything identifying that could’ve let someone track him down, but he described Regis’s blood addiction, how he’d kicked it, how he’d helped against Detlaff—and the limits he’d put on that help. Also how he’d been resurrected even after the mage Vilgefortz had literally melted him.

It felt good to be writing it. It felt like he was doing something, making progress. Winter fell like a blanket over the countryside while he worked. He yielded to Vesemir’s ghost enough to put in a chin-up bar and interleave paragraphs with exercise. The house was full of the smell of good, rich food, Marlene’s soups and stews and fresh bread, roast chicken on Sundays. When Midwinter rolled around, she asked him if he’d like something special and suggested paying a huntsman to bring in a wild boar.

“Don’t bother, I’ll go get one,” he said, abruptly wanting to go, and he bundled up and went out and tracked one down in the di Salvaress forests—he figured the Count wouldn’t mind, and Iocaste would be mostly dormant this time of year. He took the boar carefully, with a trap, finished off with a couple of spears thrown at a safe distance. He brought it back on a travois after a couple of days outside, tired but not exhausted, and felt pretty pleased with himself when it landed on the table gorgeously roasted and he looked around at the beaming faces of the workers and their families as they all drank to Corvo Bianco, and fell upon it.

The winter drifted onward. He went back up to his snug office and wrote steadily through the rest of the chapters on the lesser vampires, synthesizing older texts and adding information and turning his own accounts into case studies. He put in his own most successful recipes for bombs and potions, and then looked at them and went down into the alchemy lab in the cellars and started experimenting until he came up with improvements, and added them to the text. Getting out of breath going up and down the stairs annoyed him enough to start running steps: he did it inside the cellar, out of the wind, while he waited for potions to simmer or ingredients to cool. He was starting to have a hard time falling asleep at night unless he did enough exercise, and the first day the icy wind died down he went out for a long walk and found himself running flat-out up the tallest hill just for the hell of it, his lungs filling with the bright cold air and a grin breaking out on his face as he crested the top, still breathing easily, looking out over the glittering crystal of Toussaint in winter.

He finished the last species chapter—on plumards—that night in front of the fire, and the melting snow began dripping steadily from the eaves outside as he worked on the conclusion. The words suddenly started coming slower. Something was itching at him—not the familiar urge to get back on the Path, just an undirected restlessness in the back of his head. It was distracting.

By the end of the month he was doing sword drills five times a day in the cleared courtyard now—the workers’ children were a dazzled audience—and long runs along the roads. But he was still happy to come back home at the end of every day, to a warm fire and a good meal. He didn’t particularly want to get back on the road. Regis had asked him once if he’d ever give up the Path, settle down, retire to his vineyard. Geralt had said no. Now he wondered half uneasily if maybe the illness had knocked something essential out of him, whatever it was that made him want to keep moving.

He didn’t know what to do about it, though, so he just kept grinding out the sentences and workouts both, and as the crocuses started to poke up out of the wet black dirt he got to the last page and wrote down, In the end, if you get anything out of this book, make it this: don’t ever, ever, underestimate the higher vampires. Even a witcher can’t recognize a higher vampire on sight. They live among humans. We don’t know who they are or how many of them there are. They’re smart enough to hide, to moderate their hunting, to avoid notice. Increasingly, people in settled places don’t believe they even exist. That makes them more dangerous, not less, because humans don’t expect them and aren’t ready to fight them when they do come.

And when they come, they’re almost unstoppable. A single higher vampire in a fit of rage unleashed a horde on the city of Beauclair that slaughtered more than fifteen hundred people in a night. A single bruxa following his lead took down half the ducal guard of Toussaint without being wounded herself once. If you fight them stupid, if you make mistakes, if you go after them with anything less than everything you’ve got, you will lose. And we’re nowhere near ready if it comes down to a war.

He put down the pen and looked at the last line. He hadn’t meant to write it. He hadn’t even thought it before. Wars were things a witcher stayed out of, best you could, to get your job done. But then again, who was he writing this for, anyway? There were what, maybe forty witchers still alive and on the Path? Weren’t any new ones being trained, either. Who the hell else was going to be able to fight vampires?

Barnabas-Basil put his head into the office. “Sir, Marlene would like me to inform you that lunch is ready, whenever you care to come down,” so Geralt left the manuscript page drying on his desk and went downstairs to eat. Afterwards he took Roach out for some exercise, and found himself riding farther than he’d meant to, all the way to Beauclair. The streets had been scrubbed clean, but there were still scars from the attack: clawmarks dug deep into heavy wooden shutters and doors, panes of broken glass still filled in with paper or thin sheets of wood. Memory candles stood in the windows of almost every house, ready to be lit at sundown, and useless strings of garlic hung above every door. There were a lot of shuttered shops and houses, and new graves in the cemetery just starting to grow their first layer of grass after the winter.

He turned Roach back towards Corvo Bianco as the sun started to go down. The streets were getting thin of people fast, and even the patrolling guards had a nervous look, not the usual smug confidence of city guardsmen. They knew that they were prey now. They knew how easy they were to kill.

The first spring rain came the next day, washing away the last of the snow, and Geralt lay in bed listening to it drumming against the roof and spattering on the window of his bedroom. He got up and sat down with his whole manuscript and read it from start to end. He’d thought he was doing something worthwhile, writing it. It was as good as he could make it. He couldn’t think of anything to add. But there wasn’t much in it that would help an ordinary man survive a fight with a vampire for longer than thirty seconds; not even a troop of ordinary men. Most witchers wouldn’t make it, for that matter. He frowned down at his own words. If you go after them with anything less than everything you’ve got, you will lose, the last page told him.

“Marlene,” he said at lunchtime, “do me a favor and bake me some of that road biscuit of yours, would you? I’m heading out tomorrow.”

“Of course, Geralt,” she said. “Are you going far?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m going to Nilfgaard.”

#

He’d never actually been to Nilfgaard before—to the city, that was, Nilfgaard of the golden towers. He’d figured that was a poetic thing, sunlight on yellow stone, something like that. Nope. There were thirteen towers all over the city literally covered top to bottom with gold. They weren’t skinny little towers, either. The city itself filled the entire valley. It was gigantic and smelly and loud and full of people. He’d never seen this damn many people in one place in his life, actually. There were enough of them just in the one biggest market square to re-enact any battle out of the invasions, both sides, any time they liked. Weirder than anything else, not a single one of them spat at his feet or muttered freak as he walked by. One elaborately-dressed man actually ran after him in the street and seized him by the arm and blurted, “I must know, where did you get them?”

“The swords?” Geralt said.

“What? No, the lenses,” the man said. “In your eyes. They’re magnificent. I’ve never seen anything like them. Where did they come from?”

 “Kaer Morhen,” Geralt said dryly. “Not available anymore.”

There were elves and dwarves and halflings in the streets mingling freely with humans, and young journeyman mages selling minor artifacts and charms at stalls that proudly carried seals from the imperial university. The guards were friendly, even to strangers. It made Novigrad look like a sty full of angry pigs and Vizima look like a village in the wilderness.

At the walls of the inner city, the guards told him—still polite about it—that he had to leave his swords in a lockup, and he also had to leave a deposit to be allowed inside at all: fifty florens, to be returned when he left. They gave him a chit. On the other side, the noise and smell of the outer city dropped away like a cloak. Every single building was made out of stone and glass. Another chatty guard—the few of them around looked bored as hell, actually—told him wood had been outlawed inside the walls the last time the city had suffered a bad fire, six centuries before.

The imperial palace stood in the center of the city right on the cup of the bay. It didn’t look like any building Geralt had ever seen in his life. Actually, it didn’t look like any thing he’d ever seen in his life. He’d expected something like elven ruins, maybe, built of stone, clad in marble, decorated with paint and gilt. Instead it looked like a mountain that someone had impossibly sculpted out of blown glass, huge undulating curves with seams of steel lapping out of the center and two vast wings. There were actual waterfalls coming over the edges in half a dozen places, cascading down into the bay, and whole stands of trees growing on terraces and atop the two wings. The whole surface had an opalescent shimmer reflecting the movement of the water in the bay and the clouds overhead. He just stood and watched it changing colors for a solid half hour before he kept going towards it.

Geralt finally found somebody willing to be hostile when he went up to the officer at the gate and asked how to get inside. Although, after a little more conversation, it turned out even that was just because the man thought Geralt was a dumb tourist who’d been set up to annoy him: apparently it was a running gag to tell country rubes that you could ask for an audience with the emperor if you were a landowning citizen who had paid all their taxes.

“No,” Geralt said. “Not a citizen, and I sure haven’t paid any taxes. I’ve worked for him in the North, though.”

“I don’t understand. Do you mean you’ve been summoned?” the officer said.

“No,” Geralt said. “No idea if he’ll see me. But I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important. His chamberlain Mererid might remember me. Not fondly, though.”

The officer looked completely at sea. Apparently nobody saw the emperor without being invited—no public audiences or anything like that. Geralt could even understand it. Number of people in this city alone, Emhyr wouldn’t have had time to wipe his own ass, much less conquer half the world. Geralt wondered if maybe he should’ve detoured to Nazair: Ciri was out there on the coast as part of a round of touring the provinces; he could’ve asked her to get him in somehow. It hadn’t occurred to him it would be this hard just to get a word. He shrugged to himself and said to the guard, “I can wait outside the doors and hope he spots me next time he goes out. Uh, he does leave sometimes, right?” He eyed the massive undulating wall. It looked entirely possible someone could spend their whole life inside the building, barring occasional forays to conquer foreign nations and things like that.

The officer was still frowning deeply, but he said finally, “Wait here,” and went inside, sent off a message, and came back and told Geralt to sit tight.

It was two solid hours before a minor functionary came out. He told Geralt to come inside and wait in a new location, this one at least inside the palace. That was a big step: Geralt figured that in the worst case, now he could just slip off on his own and try to get close enough to Emhyr to shout for his attention. He had two days’ rations in his belt pouch and there were fountains running literally every way he looked, he could probably make it long enough to search the whole place. But there was also a carved wooden bench with a view through the wall of the palace—it was transparent from inside, and there was a small garden outside, and an ornamental metal grate let in a cool breeze carrying the smell of the pink flowers blooming out there, so for the moment he sat down and shut his eyes and rested. He was doing better, but he’d felt his two weeks on the road.

An hour later, another servant came and got him and led him up a wide marble staircase to another waiting room, this one full of a small handful of anxious and rich people clearly also waiting for an audience. They were all either in uniforms or formal Nilfgaardian clothing, and they stared at him baffledly.

Another hour passed, and then finally Mererid showed up. His face was extremely sour and disapproving. “The gentleman will follow me,” he said coldly.

“If it makes you feel any better, I’m willing to bow this time,” Geralt said, dryly, as he followed him down another hall. The walls were lined with guards in full armor standing so still they might’ve been statues; Geralt only barely heard their breathing.

The chamberlain only sniffed. “His Imperial Majesty has, I think, given up any hope of the gentleman’s exhibiting civilized behavior.” He reached the massive ornate door at the end of the hall and opened it and led Geralt into a gigantic room that had to be one entire floor of that central portion of the palace, the enormous curving glass roof shaded to dark at the top. There were beautiful bookcases made of what looked like wrought steel everywhere, and tucked between them thirty desks full of young men and a couple of young women working, some writing as fast as they could go and some reading documents and making notes as they did. It felt vaguely like being inside a brain: probably not too far off, either.

Even Mererid’s shoulders straightened a few millimeters more as they approached a pair of wooden doors, carved and inlaid with the sun of Nilfgaard. A double wall of imperial guards stood around them, and one of them opened it for them. Emhyr was writing at a desk of wood and steel at right angles to the curving outer wall. A waterfall was rushing by outside, breaking the sunlight into rainbows, and the whole wall was open; plants everywhere on either side of it, so you could barely see where the window would slide shut.

Mererid motioned Geralt to stand in front of the desk and said, “Your Majesty wished to see Geralt of Rivia.”

Emhyr put the pen aside, looked up, and waved the chamberlain back out. It had been a while since Geralt had seen him last, on the warship off the coast of Skellige. Six years or so, by now. He hadn’t aged much, exactly; the elven blood in the Emreis line was holding off the years, and there was still only that least touch of iron grey at the temples, and the fine lines at his eyes. But he looked tired, as if he’d decided to give himself a hard time now that there was no one else in the world left to do it for him. “Well, witcher?”

Geralt took out the manuscript of the book and handed it to him. Emhyr took it and read the cover. “Vampires. Why does this interest me?”

“Not sure it will,” Geralt said. “But I’m pretty sure it should. Did you hear about what happened in Beauclair last autumn?”

“I did,” Emhyr said. “The reports seemed excessively lurid. The Duchess has assured me matters are under control.”

“They’re not.”

Emhyr’s eyes narrowed slightly, the lids heavy, resting on him. “Mm.”

“You don’t need to read all of it. First chapter and the last. But it should be you, and not one of those busy bees out there.” Geralt jerked his head back in the direction of the secretaries on the other side of the door. “If it does interest you, the fewer people know about it, the better.”

Emhyr looked down at the manuscript again, considering, then said abruptly, “You have served me well, twice. That is more than I can say of most men. Mererid!” The chamberlain popped back inside instantly, as Emhyr set the manuscript aside in an open spot on his desk. “Have the witcher housed. I will want him back here in three days. Find fifteen minutes of open time.”

They put him up in what was presumably the worst guest room in the place, meaning it only had a bedroom, sitting room, small garden, and two fountains of its very own to gurgle in time with one another. “The baths are down the hall,” the young manservant delegated to the job of showing him around told him. “And, er, forgive me, but we’ve had to explain to Nordling guests before,” and showed him the flushing toilet inside a closet. “Dinner will be served at seven. I will come to escort you to the hall, unless you prefer to dine privately?”

Geralt shrugged. “I don’t mind coming down. Long as I won’t offend anyone by eating with the wrong fork.”

“Very good, sir,” the young man said, and then hesitated again and blurted, “Are you really a witcher?” He turned a little red and darted a look at the door like maybe he expected Mererid to pop through to lecture him on proper behavior towards guests.

“Last I checked,” Geralt said.

The forks weren’t a problem at dinner, the couches were. You were apparently supposed to eat mostly lying down. How anybody managed it without dropping half the food along the way from the table to their mouths, Geralt had no idea. He didn’t.

On the bright side, that was all the excuse he needed to hit the baths a second time in a night. They could’ve just put him up in there, far as he was concerned. He was into his second blissful hour of soaking when his minder reappeared, looked distraught at finding him naked and wet, and hustled him back to the room and into clean clothes and through the corridors and up and up stairs to a room where Mererid was waiting with mouth pressed tight. “Twenty minutes?” he said.

“Cut him some slack, I was taking a bath,” Geralt said. Mererid looked even more irritated. He turned and led Geralt through the doors straight into the night sky, or that was how it felt: the floor was of dark blue stone and it continued outside past the walls, where a pool set into the ground seemed to just go straight on into the distance, capturing the stars in its still water. Emhyr was sitting by the water’s edge by a warming brazier, reclining on another one of the damn couches—he looked completely comfortable on it—in a dressing gown, a glass of wine at his elbow and a magical lamp hovering above his shoulder. The manuscript—someone had bound it for him—was in his hands, and there was a stack of other books near him—familiar books, Geralt realized: about half of them were texts on vampires that he’d read himself, doing the research.

Emhyr waved the chamberlain back out and said, “Sit,” gesturing to another couch. “This text stands in marked contrast to the rest of the literature. Why do none of the others mention any of this information about higher vampires? Several of them question their very existence.”

Geralt raised an eyebrow, looking at the books. “Thought you weren’t interested in vampires.”

“You desired to interest me. You have succeeded.”

“You read all these today?

Emhyr made an impatient gesture. “The manuscript you gave me in detail, the others briefly. Enough to confirm the distinction. Well? Where did you get this?”

“Wrote it myself,” Geralt said, a bit bemused. “Far as the higher vampires, pretty much none of those guys ever met one. The only other record by an actual survivor of a fight that I know of is at Kaer Morhen—Vesemir fought one when he was young, with his teacher Desemon of Gran and Erethen Tair, a witcher from the School of the Griffin. They both died. He barely made it. A few other witchers have come up against higher vampires, usually after tangling with one of their lesser servants, and both sides have backed off. Master Orodvik there,” he pointed to the middle book in Emhyr’s stack, “interviewed Morgan One-Eye ten years after he ran into a higher vampire in Brugge, and also the bard Sovric Adelson, who witnessed a meeting between one of them and Sir Pelleton of Gravnia. That’s as close as any of the other sources have been.”

Emhyr was looking at him with a slight frown. “You wrote this?”

Geralt shrugged. “I fought Orianna in late October. Been laid up since then, pretty much. Figured I might as well use the time.”

Emhyr kept studying him narrowly, like he wasn’t entirely done thinking about it. “Very well,” was all he said, however. “Then I will assume its accuracy. You have certainly brought me a remarkable problem. Have you any solutions to offer?”

“Came here looking for some,” Geralt said. “I’ve got more information now than we’ve had before.” He waved at the manuscript. “I could teach another witcher, work on better weapons. But there’s not a lot of witchers left.”

“Nor would even they serve,” Emhyr said. “In these circumstances, modesty is not a virtue. You are not an ordinary witcher. What you have barely survived would destroy most of your fellows.”

“Maybe. Don’t even have to think I’m special to say that. Either of those fights could’ve gone the other way. Easily. And I’ve got no damn idea how anyone who isn’t a witcher could make it. But I figure you’ve got a lot of good soldiers. I could try to work with a few of the best of them, find a way.”

Emhyr looked down at the manuscript, his finger tapping a few times on the page. “No,” he said after a moment. “The best soldier will never be the equal of a witcher. That will not do.” He reached out to the hovering lamp and held his hand in front of it; after a moment it flashed blue, and an instant later Mererid appeared through the doors again, bowing. “I want Colonel Ragnor and Colonel Ethenios, and sergeants Arios, Gothren, and Idron—the ones who took the Caudric three years ago.” Mererid bowed himself right back out without another word.

“What’s the Caudric?” Geralt said.

“The highest prize for drill sergeants,” Emhyr said. “It can be won only by a group of sergeants who take a troop entirely of raw conscripts and win the annual melee for one of the six army corps. The only ones permitted to compete for it are those who have won the melee previously with a troop including veterans and volunteers. It is given infrequently. And Ragnor and Ethenios are the two most creative of my officers in charge of improvements to the drill standard.”

Geralt was nodding already, sharply. It hadn’t occurred to him, but the second Emhyr said it, he knew it was absolutely right: the missing puzzle piece. He’d been trying to figure out how he could train ordinary men to fight like witchers, but he didn’t know a damn thing about how ordinary men fought: he hadn’t been one himself since the age of nine. What he needed was the men who trained the unstoppable legions of Nilfgaard. And he was their missing piece.

“One other issue,” he said.

“Yes,” Emhyr said. “Is there any other kind of monster—”

Geralt straightened. “Necrophages. Wars in the north, fewer witchers to clean them up—makes sense you’d want your soldiers to deal with them. And they’re also post-Conjunction. You’d use a lot of the same weaponry, silver blades, bombs, fire. Throw in some wraiths, restless dead—casual observer won’t know the difference. Only way someone would figure it out is if they were in the training day in and day out, and they already knew better. Hell, you don’t even have to tell the men that’s not what they’re training to fight.”

Emhyr was nodding. “Only you and the handful of men who will design the drill will know otherwise. How likely is it that the vampires have established a presence in the upper ranks of the Imperial bureaucracy?”

“Tough to say,” Geralt said. “They wouldn’t be doing it systematically, but one or more of them could be spending a few decades doing it on a lark, think it’s fascinating to watch humans do that kind of thing. More likely, you’ve got a lot of rich minor aristocrats out in the city who die well-preserved every forty years or so and leave everything to a relative out in the country, who dies twenty years later and leaves everything to someone who looks remarkably like their ancestor.”

“Mm. It seems a complete audit of the imperial tax records is overdue.”

“You should also check into charitable works,” Geralt said grimly. “Enthusiastic supporters of orphanages and hospitals. The kind who like to actually visit the places they sponsor.”

They talked it over for about ten more minutes, and then the light flared blue again. Emhyr waved his hand in front of it. The doors opened, and the five summoned Imperial officers came in, two a bit visibly bleary and the other three with a hint of marching in their stride; they all went to attention as Mererid closed the door behind them. Geralt looked them over closely. The sergeants were big men, the kind of guys it was easy to dismiss as common soldiers made a little bit good, but Emhyr hadn’t picked them at random. They had plenty of muscle, but he could see it was smart muscle: they targeted their exercise for a balance of strength and flexibility. The officers were both a bit thicker around the middle, men who’d mostly come off the battlefield, but not that long ago; their hands still had sword calluses. They were just stained with ink, too, and they were both looking a bit bleary: these weren’t men retired to a cushy sinecure, they were men who still spent all their time working. 

Emhyr told them, “This is Geralt of Rivia, a master witcher. You will be working with him to develop techniques for use against vampires.” The three sergeants didn’t so much as blink—clearly also top-notch at ignoring ludicrous things said by superiors—but both of the colonels flinched a bit, one a little more than the other. “You may speak, Ragnor.”

“I beg your pardon, Your Majesty, but I was under the impression that vampires were largely extinct,” Colonel Ragnor said, by which he obviously meant that they were total fantasy: he was the younger officer, one of those blond Nilfgaardians from the islands in the south, with a really dedicated mane of hair.

“Your impression is mistaken,” Emhyr said. “It is also the one a dangerous enemy have been at systematic pains to create, while in fact their numbers have been increasing, and the witchers who served as their main check dying out. You are to consider the empire as preparing for war, and both your efforts and your silence critical to our victory. I trust I have conveyed the gravity of the situation.”

“Sire,” Ragnor said, bowing his head. He and Ethenios had got their faces under control by then, too.

“You will select an unoccupied training camp at least three days’ ride from the city,” Emhyr went on. “In one month’s time, you will take fifteen drill sergeants to be trained. The following month, another fifteen. After that, the men you have trained will train one hundred raw recruits, while you develop a second set of techniques, and another similar cohort will be sent to be trained in these. You will spend the final month devising a test to compare the results of both regimens.

“You will make no effort to conceal your work, but so far as anyone else shall know, I have hired Master Geralt to aid you in training the army to manage the increasing irritant of corpse-eaters in the North, an unfortunate result of the wars of conquest. The men themselves will not be informed otherwise. Ethenios, you shall send me monthly reports in the clear. Geralt and I have already agreed upon the correspondence between the two groups. Should any senior officer or official seek to informally observe your training, you will allow it with all usual deference, and privately inform me at once.

“Master Geralt has my confidence. You will be guided by him. You are dismissed.”

#

The five of them took it seriously not because they were worried about vampires but because they were worried about their careers. Geralt let it slide for a bit, because he figured they probably cared about that as much as anything in the world, but they hit a wall after they got past ekimmaras and Geralt started to describe how a bruxa could move. They stayed polite and cooperative, but they didn’t believe him, so they kept suggesting things that wouldn’t do any damn good.

“All right,” he said finally. “You’re going to have to see it to believe it, I guess,” and took them all out to the old training course in the camp, the one they’d been redesigning on paper, and had them watch while he went through and destroyed it, literally, in fifteen minutes. He wasn’t breathing hard after when he came back to them; he’d been feeling a lot more motivated in his workouts lately. They were all totally silent. “That’s not how a bruxa fights,” he told them. “It’s how a witcher fights. But it takes everything a witcher has to beat one of them. When I tell you that a bruxa can shift into incorporeal form and reform again within two seconds, it’s not bullshit. And if you can’t come up with a way to do something about it, then all of your soldiers are going to die. Very, very quickly.”

They didn’t say anything at first. Then Ragnor said, slowly, “The silver nets—”

“They take three seconds to fire and open,” Geralt said again, a little exasperated. “You won’t get one with them.”

“What if all the men fire the nets on themselves, at the same time, as soon as the bruxa shifts,” Ragnor said. “Whichever of them the bruxa attacks, when she reforms, the net will be falling upon them. They can try and tangle her limbs with it, wrap the net over her. Anyone near enough simply runs at her as well, with their own net already draped over them—”

After that, finally, they were off to the races. Geralt wasn’t sure if they really believed, but they believed enough to argue aggressively about their ideas. He’d take it.

But it turned out the hardest part had nothing to do with coming up with good ideas. They spent the first three weeks doing that together, came up with some brilliant ones, and then the five of them informed him, in a unified front that brooked no argument, that they had to spend the last week throwing them out. They insisted on ditching nine out of ten techniques to get down to what they called a manageable drill.

“Half the unit is going to die if you meet an alp without the silvermist bombs on hand!” Geralt fumed.

“Those are acceptable numbers,” Rognor said simply. “The units we are designing can function at up to a quarter strength. We cannot spare the weight allowance, the silvermist bombs must be thrown differently from every other design, and alps are very rare.”

Geralt shook his head in frustration, but he got the principle. They refined the drill and pared it down even more with the help of the next fifteen drill sergeants. By then they were all in the habit of saying drowner for fleder and alghoul for bruxa. The new men never learned otherwise.

Over the next months they went through Emhyr’s entire pyramid scheme of recruits and then moved on to the second round, where they threw out the entire drill and put together a second regimen from scratch. At the end of it, they divided each cohort into units of twenty men, and Geralt had them each identify him and then hunt him through the woods at night. He left signs that would match up for them with one kind of vampire, and when they found him, he fought with those techniques.

Four units took him down with losses of less than half. Another three managed to get him down even if they were more or less wiped out too. Three went down completely. They repeated the trials with him imitating three or four other types of vampire. The second set of a hundred had a clear edge by then with everything except the bruxae: the net technique that the first group used was just by far the best way to go at them.

The final test, he didn’t leave a trail at all. The units just got a report about a weird epidemic of deaths of people, mostly poor, who slowly got weaker and more pale, and finally died. They’d been trained to identify it as symptoms of someone possessed by a starveling demon, which was an exotic species of monster Geralt had just made up for purposes of the cover, since there weren’t any necrophages even remotely as tough as higher vampires. He figured any snooping vampires wouldn’t know shit about demons, though: they weren’t subject to possession themselves.

The units had to ask a lot of questions and figure out that it was Rognor who was the possessed target—he behaved completely normally, answered questions and ate and drank and went about his business, with only hints of odd behavior and a couple of weird records that suggested he was older than he looked. When a unit did confront him, Geralt jumped them instantly, and he didn’t hold back at all, didn’t try to imitate any particular technique; he just went at them full force with everything he could improvise in the moment.

Almost all the units went down fast. But one of them had picked a cautious sergeant as their leader, a man who’d been in Temeria fighting partisans, and he’d divided his unit into two groups before going in, with just a small handful inside the room for the initial confrontation. When the yells started happening, the others just threw everything in their arsenal at once: nets, bombs, fired a couple dozen crossbow bolts with round balls on the ends marked as being tipped in silver and oiled with vampire oil—they called it corpser oil for the drill—and sprayed in a vat of more vampire oil and pretended to ignite it. Geralt figured that got them a few minutes of him staggering around, and every last man alive charged him together with silver swords and axes, hacking furiously at literally any part they could reach, and he finally called it. He’d only gotten a quarter of the unit.

“Are you satisfied, master witcher?” Rognor asked afterwards.

“Yeah,” Geralt said, wincing a bit: the weapons had all been padded, but he still had a raft of bruises.

#

Emhyr summoned them back to the palace to report: the final drill was mostly taken from the second version, but with the net technique for bruxae and the kitchen-sink approach for higher vampires integrated. He nodded and then said simply, “Have the new drill issued as a general standard. You have all done well. I am satisfied.”

The officers saluted and went out glowing. Emhyr had motioned Geralt to stay. “What happens now?” Geralt asked him, perching on the end of the other couch again.

“Now? We wait,” Emhyr said. “It will take twenty-three weeks for the new drill to be fully integrated.”

“That long? How many soldiers are you training in this?”

Emhyr looked at him. “All general standards are required of every private. Some two million men.”

“Two—” Geralt stared at him speechless. “How the hell—”

Emhyr’s mouth twitched slightly. “We have sixty drill sergeants already trained. Next month each of them will train thirty more. The next month, each another thirty. That will cover some fifty thousand sergeants. At that point, they will begin rotating into army units and training the men. Full integration will be delayed for some time after that as some units will be on furlough, some on special duty, too many men sick, such matters. But the majority will be completed in the first sixteen weeks.”

Geralt blew out a breath. “Wow. All right. What do you want me doing in the meantime?”

“Research,” Emhyr said. “I have put three of my best mages and three of my best weapons designers on the problem. When their work has been advanced, I will want you to begin on the next iteration of the drill. We must assume that the techniques you have devised can and will be countered. We must have ideally the next two generations of weaponry and drill in progress at all times.”

Then he tilted his head slightly, looking at Geralt. “But first I think perhaps the time has come to discuss your position. You have awoken me to this threat. You have trained my men and provided critical intelligence. If you desire a witcher’s fee and to set out again on your Path, I will not deny you. But this will not be a brief struggle against a foe defeated in a single year’s campaign. This will be a war fought over decades, even if it never erupts into open battle. And I require a general to fight it. If not you, I must find another. Well?”

Geralt swallowed. Emhyr was right, obviously. It didn’t make any sense—in fact it was a hell of a bad idea—to rely on someone who might pick up and go anytime. And he knew it, but here he still was, inviting Emhyr to do it. What do you want me doing wasn’t a question a witcher asked someone offering him a contract. It was a question you asked—your emperor. Someone whose orders you obeyed. Someone who could take a single witcher and turn him into two million soldiers, a wall of defense around the rest of humanity.

He got up from the couch, and then he knelt down. Emhyr stood up before him. “Give me your hands,” he said. Geralt reached them up together, and Emhyr closed his hands around them: not a brutal grip, just a firm, practiced hold. He didn’t make it elaborate or drag things out. “Geralt of Rivia, do you swear to me your allegiance?”

“Yes,” Geralt said, and Emhyr said, “As you have sworn, so do I, and shall return honor for loyalty, valor, and wisdom in my service. Rise.”

Geralt got up weirdly off-balance. He was grateful Emhyr had done it so fast, gotten it over with, a clean cut—but it seemed the whole world had changed in the time it took to kneel, and stand up again.

Then abruptly Emhyr put his hand on Geralt’s shoulder and took hold of him, the weight of his hand oddly intimate—he’d never seen Emhyr touch anyone at all, actually, not in public or in private. It should’ve felt possessive, like being owned—and it did, but it felt like owning something back, too. Like Corvo Bianco, Geralt realized, a little distantly: the estate that had sucked up so much of his money and time and attention, and then had saved his life. If he hadn’t had somewhere to go, all those hands reaching up to help him, Orianna would have killed him. He’d just have died a little later than she had, in some abandoned hut along the road, alone. That was a witcher’s death. Maybe the witcher in him had died it, after all.

“You are not interested in titles or show, nor wealth,” Emhyr said. “The show will come, for the benefit of others, and you will have to endure a little of it; but I cannot reward you thus, as I would most men.” He held up his other hand, when Geralt would have spoken. “I know you have not knelt for a reward. The best never do. But what I can give, I shall. When we are alone, you shall call me Emhyr.”

He turned away to wave his hand over the lamp for a moment, which was just as well, because Geralt didn’t know what was on his face, but he was pretty sure it was embarrassing. He’d always used Emhyr in his own head and to other people’s faces, and he’d never said Your Majesty and sure as hell not Sire, a small petty defiance that maybe hadn’t been that small after all, because he suddenly almost wanted to, now when Emhyr had given him his own name like a gift to use.

Mererid appeared in answer to the summons, and Emhyr said, “Geralt is to see me whenever he wishes,” simply.

“As Your Majesty commands,” Mererid said, bowing, and Geralt looked away hard, because his eyes were trying to sting, dammit; how did Emhyr even know, when he hadn’t known—when he’d have laughed at the idea of any of this mattering to him at all? The door closed gently again as Mererid bowed himself out, and Emhyr gripped his shoulder a little tighter one last time, and let go. Not that it made a difference: Geralt was pretty sure he was going to feel that hand on him the rest of his life.

“We must also make arrangements for you to meet some of the younger officers serving in the North,” Emhyr said, turning away and going to a sideboard to pour—two cups of wine. Geralt went after him and took the cup he offered, mechanically. “You will need a staff,” Emhyr was going on, “younger men with experience but who have not yet hardened their minds, and ideally who have some experience of monsters. I will rotate some of them through the court. It will not be unusual—although your own presence will be remarked upon, and your access to me. Without other explanation, I am afraid the most likely assumption will be that you are my lover; you will have to put up with it a while.”

“I don’t mind,” Geralt said flatly, because he didn’t; he wouldn’t have minded if it was true

Emhyr actually jerked a little looking around at him, the first time Geralt had ever seen him visibly startled: understanding exactly what Geralt had said. There was one strange, suspended moment. Then Emhyr put down his cup, and Geralt dropped his to go rolling away on the floor, and Emhyr’s hand was on him again, sliding up his neck to cup his cheek.

Geralt hadn’t even imagined wanting this six heartbeats ago and suddenly he was desperate to have it. He kissed Emhyr hungrily, trying to wrestle himself out of his clothes—“Goddamned brand-new doublet, why do they always do this to me,” he muttered half under his breath, struggling, and he ended up grabbing two sides of the seam at the neck and just ripping it down off himself.  

Emhyr was actually—laughing, softly, and kissing him again. He said, in deep warm amusement, “Come to bed, witcher,” and somehow that worked to slow Geralt down. They got out of their clothes, and climbed into the bed, and kissed and moved together. Emhyr let him in. Geralt dived in greedily, mouthed every inch of his skin and got down Emhyr’s scent and the thump of his heart and mapped out his body, every hollow and curve and angle. And all the while, Emhyr didn’t stop touching him, smoothing out the planes of his shoulders and back, letting his hands find Geralt’s scars and moving gently over them; learning him like a new country.

“I confess I am as surprised as I have ever been in my life,” Emhyr murmured, taking kisses softly from Geralt’s mouth, almost idly, as their bodies worked together beneath the sheets, pressed skin to skin along the line from thigh to hip, rocking gently back towards another peak.

“Which part?” Geralt panted.   

“All,” Emhyr said. “Although at you more than myself, if I consider.” His face had softened a little with pleasure and relaxation and now with thought; his fingers traced the line of Geralt’s jaw. “A man betrayed as I was can value nothing more than loyalty, and yet can trust in it nowhere. A curse of its own kind. There is not a man in my service I do not expect, in some part of my heart, to betray me, even though I do not allow myself to act upon that expectation: that way lies only an endless mad struggle with shadows. But you…I need not struggle to believe in you. For you are not loyal to me. You have not truly bent the knee to the Emperor of Nilfgaard. You have chosen to serve humanity. And so long as I do the same, you will never betray me.” His mouth twisted with a faint smile. “It is only I who might betray you.”

“Don’t,” Geralt said, something tight in his chest, and kissed him again.

“No,” Emhyr said, agreeing, kissing him back, his hand stroking through Geralt’s hair. “I do not think I will. After all, I have conquered the world. Now I must take care of it.”

#

Geralt ended up back out on the road after all: a couple of weeks after the drill was issued, he took ship all the way to Kovir and worked his way back south, reviewing the troops and seeing how the drill was settling in. It actually did work pretty well on necrophages, in fact: some techniques were a bit of a mismatch, but on the other hand the numbers of men and the coordination was overkill for them, so it balanced out. In southern Redania he did run into one young lieutenant colonel who apologetically said, “Master witcher, if you’ll forgive me saying so, we’ve had some opportunity to apply the drill in the field, and if I might suggest,” before he dived into a recommendation for what would’ve been several significant improvements to the drill if it really had been meant for necrophages.

Geralt stopped him halfway and said, “No, have your men stick to the drill, and pack your bags. You’re being transferred back to Nilfgaard. I’ll get an official order sent in a few days. When you report to Colonel Rognor, tell him I said to tell you the mapping.”

He found another half-dozen promising officers that way, and also spotted a handful of weaknesses. He wrote to Rognor with his notes. But more or less it was all working right, and every infantryman had his new regulation long silver knife on his belt, and one silver spring-loaded net and one moon dust bomb hanging from the bottom of his pack. There were sacks of silver shavings in every storehouse, and diagrams in the armorer’s station for making a dozen other kinds of bombs when needed. In Novigrad he got waylaid in a tavern by an enterprising young blacksmith who had been supplying nets and who’d come up with a deceptively simple technique of washing a single strand of meteoric steel with silver to turn it into a garrote or a trap. She got a large reward for the process and a fat contract for supplying the troops around Novigrad directly.

It was three months before he got back, but it didn’t matter. He was going home the whole time, and when he got there, late in the evening, he went upstairs, and Mererid let him in. Emhyr glanced up at him from a book and smiled slightly, and stood up, and took Geralt’s face in his hands and kissed him. They didn’t fall straight into bed together; Emhyr sent Mererid for the dinner Geralt had skipped for wanting to get back a little earlier, and while he ate they talked about what he’d seen, and afterwards they went to sleep: Geralt was yawning his head off, and all he wanted was to lie in bed with his nose tucked against Emhyr’s skin somewhere.

In the morning he happily wrecked Emhyr’s schedule for the entire day, probably offending a dozen unknown dignitaries in the process. Emhyr lay gulping for air next to him afterwards and then sat up with a massive effort, and then clearly thought fuck it even if not in those exact words and lay back down and fell asleep with him again. They woke up just in time for Geralt to talk him into another round before lunch. “There are some matters which do actually require my attention,” Emhyr said dryly, afterwards. “Stay and rest.” He bathed and dressed and went off to his office, and Geralt took him at his word and went back to bed and slept until evening, so he was all set for a third time when Emhyr came back and woke him.

Geralt sighed happily and put his arms behind his head. “Could get used to this,” he said, not without a touch of smugness.

“The empire would fall,” Emhyr muttered groggily, from his pillow. He dozed off for an hour himself before they got up and had dinner.

They had seven weeks more after he got back; Emhyr did refuse to indulge him quite that spectacularly most days, but after a couple of weeks or so, Geralt surprised a grudging scowl of sour approval on Mererid’s face when he came upstairs in the evening, and when he prodded he got an even more grudging and chilly, “His Majesty looks well,” which was probably as close as Mererid was ever going to come to saying anything nice to him. Geralt picked up with Rognor and Ethenios, working on the fourth iteration of the drill.

Then a messenger came from a small town in the west of Vicovaro one morning with a report—per standing orders, all necrophage unit encounters had to be written up and sent to the new division in the eastern wing of the palace. Geralt read it and then got up and went to Emhyr’s office in the middle of the day and told Mererid to interrupt a conference. “He is with the ducal representatives from Nazair and Metinna,” Mererid said: they were basically as important as anyone in the whole city. Geralt just nodded, and Mererid bowed and opened the door and said, “Your Majesty, Master Geralt.”

Emhyr paused mid-sentence and glanced up; the two envoys looked outraged. “Well?” Emhyr said.

Geralt held up the report. “Just over the border in Vicovaro, last night. The ones in the city will know by tonight, if they don’t already.”

Emhyr nodded and turned to the envoys. “This is fortuitous timing, then. Lord Neath, Lord Estain, you have met Master Geralt. For the last year, he has been overseeing a covert mobilization under my direct authority.” They both gawked at him. “It will shortly no longer be covert. You will go with him to the eastern wing and be briefed at once, and then immediately go to the mages’ circle and depart the city by portal. I wish your respective dukes to be fully informed and their forces on high alert by the end of the day. It is possible that attacks may be launched anywhere across the Empire almost at once. You may go.”

They followed Geralt to the eastern wing with vaguely indignant expressions. “And I actually believed you were his lover,” Lord Neath said to Geralt sourly. “Trust the emperor to make everyone think he’s finally in his dotage as a blind. And this mad determination to slaughter every last corpse-eater of the world also, I suppose? Of course. So what in Lebioda’s name is really going on?”

They both looked extremely dubious when Geralt told them about the vampires, but he planted his hands on the table and looked at them hard and said, “If you don’t want to believe in vampires, call them something else. Someone attacked Beauclair two years ago out of nowhere, took out half the Duchess’s guard and tore through the city. Nazair’s on the border of Toussaint. Metinna’s not that far away. You probably know her people. Think they’re stupid? Badly trained? You like the idea there’s some enemy out there who can pull something like that on one of your capitals, no warning?”

He let them read the report from Vicovaro, too, and by the end of it they swallowed it with some reluctance. “All right,” Estain said. “But what about this notion an attack may come as soon as tomorrow? Why?”

“Because they’re about to find out that the legions of Nilfgaard have been trained to fight them,” Geralt said. “They’re not going to like it. They might decide to hit us hard, try to scare us into backing down.”

Neath made a deep sigh. “You’d think by now even vampires would know better. Just when I thought we might actually have peace for a whole decade.”

“Might still manage it,” Geralt said. “The emperor’s not really looking to spend his entire life in the field.”

Neath just answered that with an eloquent snort.

Geralt spent the rest of the afternoon doing more briefings for officials just a rung or two down the ladder. Their reactions were pretty similar, except for the extremely crotchety old Marquise of Levain, who was the representative of the small province of Mag Turga. She peered at Geralt narrowly and sniffed. “So that’s why he fell in love with you. You brought him a war. Only kind of present the man would really like. Vampires, is it? Just as well. Better monsters than men.”

  He finished off with the representatives from the Northern kingdoms, whom he’d lumped together because, he told them, “I’m betting none of you are going to waste my time telling me there’s no such damn thing as a vampire and we should all just drink some warm milk before bed.”

Baron Murkau of Redania huffed. “Hardly. One of those alpoy things settled in and ate her way through three villages on my lands eight years ago. Had to pay one of you witchers a damned fortune to kill the thing. Are you saying they’ve got an army?

“Hoping to head them off before they get that organized,” Geralt said.

After that he went upstairs and let Mererid have him stuffed into yet another doublet, although after a lot of effort on his part—Emhyr’s comment was, “I have never before imagined hearing you whine”—at least this one had been broken in a little. Emhyr was wearing black, his mantle embroidered in gold. They walked down to the Hall of Water together.

There was some kind of evening entertainment at the palace every night, and most aristocrats could get an invitation just for the asking: it was partly a way to support the arts, partly a way to keep aristocrats milling around the palace, and it also meant that Emhyr could host an important function on roughly three hours’ notice. The flip side of the lack of public audiences meant that anytime he let it be known that he’d be coming to a gathering, it turned instantly into the most urgent social occasion around, whether it was listening to mountain singers from the Tir Tochair or a lecture on the weaving techniques of the Sudouth Valley.

Tonight it was going to be a performance from a dance troupe from Novigrad, who’d just had their careers made before they even got on stage. The room was already packed: whenever Emhyr did do social events, he usually came early and left the same way, and nobody wanted to miss him. Geralt slipped off and went down the smaller side staircase, stopping at the landing halfway to watch as the herald announced Emhyr and the whole room went swaying into a bow. Emhyr paused to let them all look for a bit—“A great many of the guests find it important to be able to describe my appearance in detail to their friends, though they never come close to me in the room,” he’d told Geralt a bit wearily before another one of these—before he descended and started cutting his usual swath through the crowd.

Geralt was skimming the room, looking for faces he recognized, when a man leaned onto the railing beside him and said, “Hello, my friend.”

“Regis,” Geralt said, not really surprised, and turned to shake his hand.

“I’m glad to see you in good health,” Regis said. “I had heard…well, at any rate, you seem quite recovered now. Are you?”

“Maybe not all the way up to my old fighting trim,” Geralt said. “I’ve been taking things a little too easy lately.”

“Yes, palace life can do that to some, or so I understand. Will you forgive my asking, are you and Emhyr really—

“Yeah,” Geralt said. “Surprised me, too, for what it’s worth.”

Regis snorted. “Indeed. How unpredictable you humans are sometimes.” Then he hesitated, a long stretch of silence while he looked out over the milling crowd. Finally he said, “I hate to trade upon such a relationship, but I confess that I’d be glad to put a word in your ear that might do well to reach his. A…situation has arisen. One which might lead to regrettable consequences.”

“You can have my ear anytime you want it,” Geralt said quietly. “Come on. We can talk in the lower east salon.”

He led Regis around the hall and into the maze of side rooms off it: guards were standing on the doors of the eastern set of salons, but he nodded to them and took Regis through and into one of the smaller rooms, cozy by palace standards, a simple view looking out into a plain garden and a crackling fire laid. Geralt opened a cupboard and found some bottles of liquor: a decent old brandy.

Regis accepted a glass, but didn’t drink much, just cupping his snifter between his hands, resting his arms against his knees. “There was an incident last night,” he said finally. “Just over the border in Vicovaro.” He sighed. “A vampire there—a higher vampire—was on, let us say, her final warning. She’d been drinking excessively, and without discrimination in her targets. Attacking loved and healthy human children, ones whose parents noticed them weakening and grew quite desperate to save them.”

“Final warning?” Geralt said.

Regis looked up, his eyes regretful. “Two had died. She was told in strict terms to moderate her hunting, and not to allow a third death.”

“Not a lot of comfort to the parents of the first two,” Geralt said.

“I imagine not,” Regis said, heavily. “I am sorry, Geralt. I can only assure you that I had no part in allowing her to continue at liberty. My own presence here in Nilfgaard is…tolerated, but little more. There are many who feel I betrayed my own kind by helping you to slay Detlaff, even after all that he did. My voice has little weight in the local community.”

“And they knew, and they didn’t stop her,” Geralt said. 

 “No,” Regis said. “But…and here we come to the crux of the matter…she was stopped. Last night.”

“Yeah,” Geralt said.

“But not by a witcher, you see,” Regis said. “She was stopped by a company of thirty soldiers and militia volunteers under the command of the local sergeant. They set a trap for her at the house of the most recent victim—they’d taken a bit of a child’s blood themselves, and left a saucer full of it on the windowsill laced with an odorless but highly effective poison. When she took corporeal form to lap it up, they attacked. They used nets made with strands of silver and struck her with half a dozen bombs full of silver splinters, shot her with silver crossbow bolts, even poured a flammable oil on her from the roof and ignited it with torches. Quite an exhaustive array.

“They brought her down with the sheer volume of the assault, and then hacked her limb from limb with silver axes without ever taking off the netting. They then took sledges and pulverized her remains flat, still wrapped in the nets. Then they rolled the whole up, wrapped it in a sheet of silver, and cut it into small parts, each of which they then buried inside a separate silver casket—each filled with silver shavings and sealed with wax flecked with silver, to make the containment just that bit more thorough—and then carted them all off in separate directions, we know not where, presumably to be hurled into a wide array of swamps, bogs, and crevasses, if not the depths of the ocean itself.” Regis was speaking dryly, but he wasn’t completely achieving the light tone he was trying for; he’d clearly been a bit shocked himself. He waved a hand up and down at his own body. “We are, as you know, extremely difficult to kill permanently. But such an extraordinary degree of silver poisoning and disruption of her essence may indeed do it.”

“How did you get all this detail?” Geralt said.

“Extensive reports were gathered from the local owls and rats. As you can imagine, there was considerable resistance to believing that a fairly ordinary human company could achieve the death of one of our number. In fact, I myself argued strongly that there must have been a witcher involved. But the rats knew every man present by smell. There were no strangers in town at all.”

He spread his hands. “The news has gone through the community like a thunderclap. Thirty men! With the advantage of surprise, and a trap, to be sure—but even so. It has provoked a great deal of alarm. And I very much fear the reactions that alarm may provoke in turn. I have urged calm, and further investigation. But as I said, my voice carries little weight. There is much talk of reprisal.”

“Wouldn’t be a good idea,” Geralt said.

“For any concerned,” Regis said.

“Mostly for them,” Geralt said. 

Regis paused, a frown starting on his face, and then he said slowly, “Your heartbeat is perfectly steady. You already knew of this attack, didn’t you?” Geralt nodded. “You were there.”

“Depends on how you look at it,” Geralt said. “I wasn’t there for the fighting. But yeah. I was involved.”

“The weaponry,” Regis said. “Dividing up her essence, poisoning her with silver—”

“Pretty much all of that, yeah,” Geralt said. “Helped them with the tactics, the identification—”

“Oh, Geralt,” Regis said, putting his head in his hand. “What have you done? Don’t you understand what this will mean?”

“It means the next time a Detlaff decides he wants to go on a rampage, he and his pals aren’t going to have it all their way,” Geralt said.

“Don’t be absurd!” Regis stood up and started pacing the room in wide, slightly unnatural swaths, his limbs moving a little too jerky-fast. “Training ordinary soldiers to kill us? You are threatening the fragile balance that allows our two species to coexist more or less in peace.”

“Regis. Up until now, higher vampires have avoided slaughtering humans because it caused them too much fuss. They’ve all felt confident they could do it any time they wanted. That’s not a balance. Now there’s a balance. Because now, one of you pulls that kind of stunt, humans know how to fight back.”

Regis whirled on him, his face anguished. “And what do you think my fellow vampires are going to do about it?

Geralt stood up. The clock was past eleven, and distantly, the applause for the dance performance had stopped. “Time to go find out,” he said.

Regis stared at him. “What?”

Geralt went to the double doors in the back wall of the room, the ones that opened onto the larger east salon. He pulled them open and stepped out; a few banquet tables had been set up with an array of dark bottles and clear glasses, enormous vases full of a profusion of delicate flowers, just barely fragrant: he’d told the flower-arrangers which ones to use. Regis followed him in just as several other doors along the room opened and the staff began bowing in a few selected aristocrats from outside. That was also a palace routine for imperial appearances: handfuls of guests got plucked out for a more intimate gathering with Emhyr afterwards, the servants discreetly cutting them out of the larger crowd not to offend any feelings; no one said no, of course.

The first chosen guests were stepping in that moment, most smiling a little with satisfaction, obviously pleased to be taken into the inner circle: a rare experience. Then they looked across the room at the others—more being ushered in now, a dozen, two, and suddenly none of them were smiling anymore, as they saw each other’s faces, and turned to look over everyone else in the room, recognition creeping in. Regis, behind him, was standing very still, and then the doors at the top of the dais at the far end of the salon opened, and Emhyr walked in.

All of the guests looked up at him without even bowing, frozen unnaturally in place. “Come see me after,” Geralt said softly to Regis, and then crossed the room and climbed up the side of the dais to stand next to Emhyr as a pair of servants brought in a heavy carved chair through the door behind him and placed it; Emhyr seated himself.

“I imagine,” he said, into the heavy, waiting silence, “that no introductions are necessary among you. Your community is a small one. However, I myself am unfamiliar with your true ranks and titles, as they surely bear little resemblance to the fictions you have adopted to move among humans. Who can speak for you with some authority, let them come forward, and present themselves as they wish to be styled. We have, as surely you have already gathered, much to discuss.”

 There were a lot of traded glances. Then abruptly one woman stepped forward, a thin, fragile-looking slip of a girl with pale skin and green eyes and black hair, in elegant but relatively modest clothes and only a few jewels: a low-ranking aristocrat, the dime-a-dozen kind who flocked to palace events on a regular basis. She could have passed as a sickly human, but unlike most of the others, Geralt was pretty sure he’d have pegged her almost instantly: there was a hint of something odd starting around the corners of her eyes, like something breaking through that she couldn’t entirely suppress anymore. “I suppose I will speak for the community, Your Majesty,” she said in a high, breathy voice. “And Lady Alinda will do perfectly well.”

 “Very well,” Emhyr said. “By now, I trust you are all aware that one of your kind was executed in Vicovaro last night for the crime of murdering human children. Many of you may be wondering how much concern you should feel. That depends upon what it is you desire.” He held out his hand. “Some among you may desire to continue as you live now. To lie and conceal your nature, to live by deceit among humans on whom you prey at your pleasure, restrained only by your own convenience. To make a pretense of loyalty to human lords and human laws while holding them in secret contempt, truly abiding none but your own.

“If so, you should indeed feel the gravest alarm, for today, this way of life comes to an end. My soldiers have been trained to eradicate you—effectively, as you have seen. We have identified many of you, and my lords have the lists of your names. We are resolved if necessary to fight to destroy you to the last.”

“A remarkable threat,” Lady Alinda said, after a moment. “One might wonder why you have placed yourself so much in our power before making it. Do you not fear our killing you here and now?”

Emhyr snorted. “Tell me, Lady Alinda, how many years do you imagine remain to me? Forty, perhaps? I value them, as does a beggar the few coins in his bowl, but not so much that I will not spend them to buy a priceless jewel for my heirs. What do you think would happen should a pack of vampires, masquerading as his nobles, slay the Emperor of Nilfgaard in his very palace? What lord of men will doubt any longer that your kind are a threat to him? Still worse for you, what farmer will think his children safe? If you fear my soldiers, how much more should you fear it if every mortal child old enough to hold a blade learns that when the cry goes up of “Vampire!” he must come running with his little silver knife, for there is no survival save for all of us in our tens of millions to throw ourselves without hesitation upon every one of you in your meager thousands?”

He was getting to them, Geralt saw; the room might as well have been full of statues, statues with too many sharp teeth, the façade of humanity slipping out of their flesh.

Emhyr looked them over, and nodded. “Murder me if you will. My lords are warned, as is my heir, and you will not find Cirilla of the Elder Blood easy to slay. If you do kill her, another will stand forth in her place. And another after her. We can lose endlessly, a thousand battles to every one of yours, and still be victorious. And you—what can you win? If you threw down all our cities, our civilization, what then? Where are your palaces, your golden towers? You might have raised them already if you meant to do so. And yet there is no city of vampires. Instead you live like lurking shadows, borrowing glory as you borrow blood. Is this truly all your ambition? To be the fat and loathsome parasite sucking on the strength of others?”

“And what ambition would you have us pursue?” Alinda hissed, the sibilants drawn out between lips pressed tight. Her eyes had gone thickly bloodshot red in the lamplight.

“I would have you step out of the shadows,” Emhyr said. “The monster that lurks outside the fold can meet only an unsheathed blade. But the guest who knocks at the door shall be seated at the table.

“Lie to conceal your identity, and you will be exposed as any fraudulent deceiver. Steal blood from those who do not give it willingly, and you shall be treated as those who steal the coin from another’s purse. Kill, and you shall pay with your life as any murderer. Conspire, and you shall be held traitors.

“But come forth in honesty, follow the law and keep your oaths, and you shall have the protection of the law as does any other citizen. And then—you may join us truly, instead of as mere spectators sitting in the dark while the play unfolds upon the stage. You shall build cities with us, and see them raised from the first stone to the last while the generations of mortal builders flow past you, and taste of our eternity as you share your own.”

He rose. The room was utterly silent. All their eyes were fixed on him, but none of them said a word. “For my part, I will treat this night as a parley. You may depart in peace to carry my offer to the rest of your fellows and confer among yourselves. I know I have offered you no easy choice. For it is certain that there will be many among your people who will refuse my offer. And those of you who choose to come among us shall have to forsake them, and leave them to suffer our just vengeance, as did the Beast of Beauclair and the one who died last night in Vicovaro.”

There was a sudden snarl from one of the men in the front ranks, a man dressed as a baron, whose face and hands had been stretching into bestial form, and he lunged suddenly blindingly quick through the air right at Emhyr. Several of the others blurred into motion, only to halt at the base of the steps as the first one dropped, having sliced himself into half a dozen pieces on the invisible tripwires strung across the stairs, blood gushing out of him to paint them red. The coat of bloodboil potion that Emhyr’s alchemists had painted on the steps burst into flaring intensely hot blue flames and charred the remains to fine ash in a few scorching moments, and the silver paint beneath curled up and flaked off to mingle with them.

Emhyr didn’t bat an eye. He simply turned and walked out of the room. Geralt went after him.

#

“Well, that was certainly dramatic,” Regis said, when they came into Emhyr’s room: he was standing out on the balcony waiting.

“That was the idea,” Geralt said, coming out to meet him. “Emhyr, this is Regis. Regis, Emhyr.”

Regis bowed formally. “An honor, Your Majesty.”

Emhyr gestured to the couches. “We need not be formal. Geralt has told me that it is largely to your intervention that we owe the end of the slaughter in Beauclair. I am in your debt. Will you drink?”

“I confess I wouldn’t mind some strong liquor in the slightest,” Regis said.

“So what’s the split going to be?” Geralt said, after they’d settled down together at the edge of the pool, braziers lit and glasses of brandy in hand. 

“Honestly? I haven’t the least idea,” Regis said. “That was a remarkable touch at the end there—highly unexpected. None of us have ever seen anything like those wires before, or the potion either. Am I correct in presuming they are a recent innovation?”

“A few months old,” Geralt said.

“Yes,” Regis said. “And only a few months before that, none of your soldiers had the least idea what to do with so much as an ekimmara, much less one of us. It was quite an effective illustration how quickly you humans can do things.” He shook his head a little. “If I had to guess…it will be half and half. Those who already dislike your kind will now want war. Those who find you entertaining will want to come out of hiding. I doubt there will be many left in the middle.”

“Your elders,” Emhyr said. “How much authority do they have over the rest of you? If they choose to declare war, will the rest follow?”

Regis snorted. “The elders won’t declare war. It would be like you declaring war on rats. Er, no offense,” he added. “What I mean is, I presume you yourself distantly think of rats as annoying creatures that sometimes trouble others of your kind, and you wouldn’t mind if someone exterminated them, but it’s hardly something you’ll concern yourself with.”

There was a certain glint in Emhyr’s eyes that suggested to Geralt he was inclined to make himself a concern to the elder vampires, but all he said was, “Are there any among you then who have the power to command the rest?”

“Not really,” Regis said. “There are those whose opinions carry more weight than others. Alinda is quite old—more than twelve hundred years. She didn’t come through the Conjunction of the Spheres herself, but she was one of the first of our kind born on this world, and she is almost as powerful as an elder. If she decides to fight you, then some younger vampires might feel safer standing with her. But that’s as far as that goes. No, everyone will decide on their own, more or less.”

“Yes, you are all lords unto yourselves, are you not,” Emhyr murmured, his eyes resting on Regis very cold and thoughtful, like an executioner’s blade hanging.

Geralt could see him thinking we could destroy them all right now, and he swallowed and said to Emhyr softly, “They’re not monsters. They think and feel. They love their children, too,” and Regis glanced at him puzzled and then stared, seeing that Geralt meant it, like he didn’t himself quite believe the danger went that far.

Emhyr glanced back at him and inclined his head. “We will risk it,” he said, looking back at Regis. “As I said, we have a debt.”

Regis walked out with Geralt into the gardens, frowning. “You’re quite serious, aren’t you,” he said abruptly. “You haven’t the least doubt of victory, if it really came down to it.”

“No,” Geralt said quietly. “Not anymore.”

He couldn’t blame Regis for doubting. He’d come to Emhyr because he’d wanted to bring everything to this fight, but he hadn’t known himself how big that everything was. It was too big to look at. You only saw the little part of it you were standing right next to, the army on a battlefield or the bridge being built. Except now he’d spent the last year standing next to Emhyr at the one place with a clear view all around, the mountaintop of the empire he’d built, and he’d seen what you could do when you put millions of hands together on a rope and pulled at the same time in the same direction. And vampires could think and feel and love like humans, but they couldn’t do that. Because they were all lords unto themselves.

“You’re too strong,” Geralt said. “You don’t have to work together to survive. So you’re no damn good at it. What higher vampire’s going to take being yelled at by an asshole of a drill sergeant or digging ditches every day? Anyway, it wouldn’t work. There aren’t enough of you. Meanwhile Emhyr has a half hour chat with me in his bedroom one night, and a year later, two million soldiers know how to kill vampires.” He shook his head. “Witchers are dying out because humans don’t need witchers anymore.”

Regis vanished away into the air wearing a disturbed expression, slightly irresolute, as though even he still couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it. Geralt watched him dissolve into the night sky, and then he went back inside, to the command center. The still-crisp map of the continent was rolled out across a long table with the troop markers in place, one for every unit, clustered around the cities and towns. Most of them were plain grey, but the first silver marker—a unit that had taken out a master vampire—was now standing in Vicovaro. There had already been handfuls of red ones, for alps and bruxae, and a fairly large number of black ones for the lesser vampires. The small wooden boxes of pins with their array of different colors were waiting along the side; as attack reports came in, they’d be marked one by one.

Emhyr had his hands clasped behind his back, studying the whole vast sweep of it. “So the war begins.”

“Yeah,” Geralt said, and went to his side. They were ready.

# End