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To Serve, to Survive

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The streets of Vergen had never been safer, but Iorveth could not remember the last time he felt so overwhelmingly tense.  His inability to remember could have been, in part, due to the contents of the pipe he was currently smoking.  He had toyed with the herbal blend himself, tinkering with the concentrations until he had found just the right mix to relax his taut muscles and mind.  Iorveth knew it was a fickle solution, one that would never stand the test of time, and that sooner or later he would need to find another way to handle his unease.  For now, however, he was content to spend his night drawing a hot bath, smoking his pipe, and counting the reasons to be grateful: the roof over his head and walls around him, the food on his table, the momentary security of his Scoia’tael brethren provided by Saskia’s favor.  It was a time to relax and recuperate, but Iorveth could hardly keep himself from wondering about what came next for him and for his comrades.  

The elf reclined in his small, metal tub and inhaled deeply from his pipe.  He removed and tossed aside the bandana hiding the right side of his face, the majority of which was disfigured with a deep, long scar that stretched down from his forehead, taken his eye, and ended at the edge of his lip.  Steam rose around him, the heat of the water soaking through his numerous scars and deep into his muscles.  He set his pipe aside and massaged his arms and legs, focusing on the worst of his wounds, which sometimes ached as if in memory of the biting weapons that had caused them.  The effects of the herbs kicked in quickly, encouraged by the heat.  His skin tingled pleasantly, his shoulders relaxed, and his thoughts wandered away from the recent battles and bloodshed, turning instead towards more pleasant imaginings.  

Saskia .  

It was foolish to think of her.  Saskia knew him well, though not as well as he knew her.  Iorveth knew she had entertained ideas of them together, and he knew that she dismissed them for all the reasons he knew she would.  They were the very same reasons that haunted him wherever he went, even here in Vergen.  He was a terrorist.  At least, this is what everyone believed of him.  In truth, Iorveth had done most things in his long life out of necessity, for the sake of survival and to protect his family and friends.  Even so, he knew how he appeared in the eyes of most, and no matter how he tried to prove himself otherwise, it would never change, not fully.

“So be it,” he muttered, sinking lower into the steaming water.  No one could stop him from dreaming.

And so he did.  As the warmth of the bath and the benevolent high from his pipe took hold, Iorveth drifted off into a pleasant half-sleep.   Saskia .  In his mind, she was standing before him, smoky-blue eyes afire with the adrenaline of battle, lips parted in a victorious smile.  Her golden hair was falling out from the knot she kept it neatly tied in, and tendrils of it curled around her sweet face.  She called his name with joy, and his heart swelled as she reached out to embrace him.  She crashed into his arms fiercely, and he held her close, the fingers of one hand twining gently into her hair while his other hand drew her waist to him.  He could smell every aspect of her at this proximity: the flowery scent of her skin and hair, the smell of sweat and blood brought forth by battle, and beneath that her true scent, something metallic and ancient yet wonderfully sweet.  Saskia drew back from him, breath quickened with elation, and smiled up at him, drawing him into a crushing kiss that pressed their bodies together.  Her fingers crept through his hair, and her lips parted as their kiss deepened…

A sudden knock at his door made Iorveth start with alarm.  His hand reached for his dagger, which of course was not at his naked waist, and he cursed under his breath as the initial wave of alertness subsided into wariness.  It was rare for Iorveth to have visitors at all, let alone this late in the evening.

“What?”  He snapped, reaching for his bandana and slipping it into place.  Iorveth sat up a little straighter in the tub and shuddered lightly at the touch of cool air against his bare chest.  The handle of his front door turned, but he caught her scent before he saw her, and for a moment he wondered if he was hallucinating.  He glanced suspiciously at his pipe, then back to the doorway through which she slipped.

“Saskia?” He blinked in surprised, his addled thoughts further confused as his eye confirmed her presence.  

“Greetings Iorveth,” Saskia murmured, her voice oddly hushed.  Her gaze flicked around the room, then down to his bare chest, then away in surprise.  She lingered in the doorway as if uncertain what to do next.  A cloak was draped about her, covering her head, hiding her face and the shape of her body.  “I apologize for the intrusion, I--I shouldn’t have come by at such a late hour.”

“It’s no intrusion,” Iorveth assured her, increasingly baffled by her indecisive behavior.  It was very unlike her.  “Is something wrong?”

Saskia regarded him for a long moment, then exhaled slowly, releasing a breath that it seemed she had been holding for some time.  “No, nothing is wrong.  I...I simply realized I hadn’t seen you in awhile, and I wished to visit you.”

If her confession was supposed to put Iorveth at ease, it did nothing but the opposite.  His face hardened with mistrust, and his eye wandered to his clothing, amongst which sat his dagger.  Saskia gave a soft laugh, noticing his suspicion, and finally stepped forward into his home.  

“I suppose surprising you mid-bath would be great timing, were I one of your enemies.  Fortunately, I am not.”

Iorveth eyed her with ongoing wariness, but beckoned towards a nearby stool.  She accepted it graciously and drew it a little nearer.  She let her cloak fall to the floor and seated herself, still largely avoiding his gaze.  

“Surely you didn’t trade in the niceties of your chambers just to sit about in my humble home.”

“No, I came to sit with you.”

Iorveth shifted within the bath, placing his arms on either side of the low tub.  When at last she looked at him, he caught her eyes with his one and held her gaze.  

“Why?”

Saskia looked at him and opened her mouth helplessly, though no words would come.

“It’s been weeks since you and I spoke.  Anything I’ve heard of you or what you’ve been working on has been word of mouth or rumor.  At best, I’ve seen you in passing, but you’ve hardly noticed me at all.  So, you’ll forgive me if I am hesitant to believe that you suddenly miss our cherished friendship.  Now, why don’t you tell me why you’re really here?”

Saskia clenched her jaw defiantly, crossing her arms over her chest.  Her smoky eyes blazed, anger rising to mask the nerve Iorveth had struck and wounded.  As she summoned her undoubtedly elusive response, he took the time to really look her over to see what he could gleam from the rest of her.  She wore a simple, white blouse, cut low with flared sleeves - no armor or chainmail.  The tops of her breasts were exposed - they rose and fell with every breath, and he had to force himself to not let his gaze linger.  Her leather breeches and boots were equally as casual, though she did sport a knife at her belt, as he would expect.  Her hair was tied up in its usual way, though it was beginning to fall loose in places, just as it had in his daydream.  She wore a small, golden necklace about her throat.  Otherwise, she was dressed unusually plainly, as if she truly had decided on visit him spontaneously.  Even so, it was difficult for Iorveth to believe that she was here because she desired his company.  

At last, she uncrossed her arms and spoke.  When she did, her voice was soft.  “I deserve your suspicion and understand why you are angry with me.”    

Iorveth blinked in surprise, her vulnerability shaming him.  

“In truth, I miss you.  In court, I am surrounded by those who tell me what I wish to hear simply because I wish to hear it.  You’ve never done me such disservice.  During Vergen’s war, I depended on your honest guidance.  Now, I remember it with longing.  Yet, you know I am unable to keep you closer.  It is not my wish, but it is necessary.”

“You are Upper Aedirn’s queen, Saskia.  All you must do to materialize your desire is say the word.  If you say that you trust me and the counsel that I offer you, your people will learn to trust me as well.  Or is it that you yourself no longer trust me?”

Saskia looked away, revealing the truth without having to speak a word.

Iorveth gritted his teeth and looked away as well, the realization more painful than he wished to acknowledge.  

“Then why the fuck am I still here?”

He extracted himself from his now-cool bath suddenly, his head spinning slightly, though whether that was from the contents of his pipe, the rapid change in temperature, or his mounting anger and frustration, Iorveth could not say.  He reached for a towel and wrapped it about his waist, stalking off towards where his bed was modestly sectioned off from the rest of his home behind a barrier constructed of sticks and furs.  

“Enjoy the rest of your evening, Saskia,” he dismissed her tersely, daring not to speak more lest his voice betray how wounded he truly felt.  

Iorveth stepped behind the barrier and closed his eye, a prolonged, internal monologue of curses streaming through his thoughts.  He waited impatiently for the click of his front door to signal her departure so that he could retrieve his pipe and maybe a strong drink or five, but he heard nothing.  After a minute or two, he wondered if he had missed her leaving, and just as he was about to turn to check, gentle hands slipped about his waist.  He jumped in alarm and had to force himself not to strike out in defense, a reaction built on a lifetime of caution and danger.  But her touch was not rough, not malicious or cruel.  Her fingers traced the scars that ran towards his stomach and upwards towards his chest.  There were many, mapped over his skin in varying stages of healing.  Several of them were new, obtained during their defense of Vergen’s walls.  No doubt, Saskia had several of her own.

His muscles tensed as she continued to touch him, drawing her own, warm body closer to his.  He could feel the soft press of her chest against his bare back, and his lightheadedness intensified.  

“Iorveth,” she spoke his name as if begging, the word both a question and a command.  

He relented and turned to face her, and when he did, there was a glimmer of tears in her eyes.  

“I have thought about you for a long time, ever since my fight with the witcher.  When he lifted my curse, he bid me to think of you, to consider all that you have done for me.  And I have.”

Gwynnbleidd .  Iorveth’s heart lifted, and he made a mental note to buy his friend a drink the next time he saw him.

“My hesitance is not due to my lack of feelings for you, Iorveth.  Please understand that just because I decided that we cannot be together does not mean that I do not care for you.  I do.”

Her hand trailed lower down his body, but Iorveth twisted away, shaking his head.

“That’s not what I want from you.”

“It’s part of what you want,” Saskia countered, stepping towards him with every step he took back.  “Compromise with me, Iorveth.  Let me give you what I am able.”