Yule, the winter solstice 1286, in the great kingdom of Nilfgaard
“Ge-eralt!” his daughter screamed from her rooms in the Imperial Palace of Nilfgaard. He was already rushing, going as fast as he could. The shiny black leather boots were too narrow around the toes for his liking, and the stockings underneath pulled on his leg hair as they slipped. The white silk shirt felt too tight in the neck; the black breeches were too tight in the groin. The new doublet had golden stitching and laces on the hems. The cape was even worse: black velvet, held fashionably in place by a golden sun-shaped brooch on his shoulder. Wearing it for the occasion – apparently – was non-negotiable. Emhyr insisted. Mererid had informed the witcher with exasperation that it was a mark of considerable status, all the while the valet had been making a face that none too subtly conveyed that Geralt, in his opinion, was entirely beneath that status. To Geralt, the emblem felt more like a brand on cattle.
Rounding the hallway corner to her dressing room, Geralt was greeted by a sight to remember. There she sat, in front of her dressing table, covered in silks and laces, looking like an ill-tempered cat shoved into a foam bath. Several maids were flocking around her.
“You will need to come here, I can’t move,” she whined.
One of the maids was just finishing something with her hair that involved hot irons and pins. It certainly looked like torture to him. To be painfully honest, though, she looked amazing – not much like the witcher he had spent the last decade with – but beautiful. There were pearls in her hair, hanging from her ears and around her neck.
“Don’t look like that!” she complained, and he walked over to her.
“Like what?” he grunted.
“All sappy and whatnot,” she groused, wincing as the hot iron came close to her ear, before being pulled away to leave a perfect cork-screw curl.
“Please hold still once more, Your Highness, and we are almost done,” the maid begged as she pinned the last curl into a complicated nest on Ciri’s head.
“There, all done,” the maid sighed in relief and escaped. Ciri forcefully got up from her chair, and the witcher swallowed. A lace and feather ruff, open at the front, curved around her neck, like the spread tail of an albino peacock. A beautiful pearl and diamond collier nestled around her collar bones, below which the bodice of her dress was made out of jade green silk and floral golden stitching. The green fabric extended to the outer sleeves and train of the dress, whereas the inner sleeves and skirts were made of layers of pearly white silk. Geralt realised he was staring when Mererid, coming up next to him, dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief.
“Our beautiful Princess…” he whispered. Ciri rolled her eyes and gave Geralt a funny look.
“He’s not entirely wrong,” the witcher admitted with heavy feelings in his chest. Ciri rolled her eyes in response, looking away. “Are you ready?” he added in a softer voice, “If you need any kind of last minute escape...” he trailed off.
She gave him a little smile, sniffed, and then shook her head. He offered his arm gallantly, and she took it with a poised curtsy. Never let it be said an old wolf could not learn a new trick or two. They chuckled, and walked down the corridor towards the Temple. Crossing through the parlour, they caught up with Emhyr, who was pacing before the fireplace. He looked up upon their entry and stilled.
The former Emperor had changed his dress as well for the occasion. Geralt supposed that was to be expected. Gone was the padded long doublet. Instead, Emhyr wore the ceremonial robes of the High Priest of the Golden Sun: a layered white robe, offset with gold, and a golden cloak with red lining. His long hair was combed back as usual, but he now wore a thin golden circlet on his brow. The chain of office had been replaced by a large pendant of the Golden Sun.
“Ready?” he too asked his daughter, who nodded vaguely. Emhyr approached, coming to stand in front of his daughter, carefully assessing her face for a long moment. Then, to Geralt’s surprise – and possibly Ciri’s as well – he touched her chin and placed a gentle kiss upon her forehead. Without further comment, he turned and walked ahead of them, out of the parlour, and out of the palace.
The Impera Brigade, shield beside shield, lined the direct path across the yard to the temple, keeping the many spectators at bay. Rosa var Attre, their new commander, bowed deeply, and walked ahead of them with an entourage of nine officers. Ten further guards followed behind. He had not asked Emhyr what had happened to Matsen once they had returned to the capital, but one day he had ridden past Millenium square to see birds pecking at the rotting remains of a male body, tied onto an iron wheel. Gossip had filled out the maybes. At least he was glad to see Rosa’s familiar face around. She had taken him up on a renewed offer to train, though so far her new duties had kept her too busy. In the present, Geralt tried to ignore the cheering crowd and concentrate on Emhyr’s back. For a stretch or two, he was not sure who was holding onto whom: he onto Ciri, or Ciri onto him. Finally they had made it into the shade of the colonnades of the temple, where only the most select guests had access. They had to wait for a few minutes. Peeking past the shields of the guards, he could see the long gap towards the altar, where several priests had appeared. Down the way, he could see Philippa and Triss. Dandelion’s pink cap was visible somewhere in the front, as well as the head of Hjalmar an Craithe. Then, thunderously, several trumpets sounded once, and an orchestra of harps and strings began to play a ceremonial tune.
Emhyr started to walk towards the altar, and they followed at a measured pace. Where the crowd parted before the altar, he almost forgot that he had to let go of Ciri, but as his eyes fell on a nervous-looking Morvran Voorhis in the finest of clothes, he remembered. Giving her arm a last, encouraging squeeze, he let her go, and stepped to the side where Cerys and Hjalmar were standing in the first row. His eyes remained completely fixed on his daughter’s back. He did not hear the words spoken by Emhyr. Once his gaze swayed to the general, who had turned his head slightly back while looking at Ciri. His gaze met Geralt’s only for a second, before the younger man turned back to listen to Emhyr.
“Yes, I do,” he said, ripping Geralt out of his stupor.
“And do you,” Emhyr directed the word to Ciri, his voice strong but gentle, “Cirilla Fiona Elen Riannon var Emreis, wish to marry this man, Morvran Fergus Etienne Voorhis, honour and support him in light and dark times, give care and council, protect and support him until death do thee part?”
“I do,” she said clearly and without hesitation. Geralt felt his heart pause.
“Then by the eternal light of the Golden Sun, I declare the wed,” Emhyr said to them, and rings were exchanged. Then the High Priest of the Golden Sun raised his voice to the audience, “I give you the Empress and Emperor of Nilfgaard.”
Two priests, previously standing behind the altar, picked up something golden from a dais and walked around the altar. Geralt witnessed how two identical chains of office were fastened to the shoulders of Ciri and Morvran. They had turned towards the onlookers. He held her by the waist as they looked at each other hesitantly. Then Ciri lifted her hand into his neck and he bent to kiss her. Thunderous applause and whistles rang from the audience, and thrice more the trumpets sounded. Geralt breathed deeply, when Hjalmar clapped him on the back.
“A glamorous celebration,” Crach’s son remarked, dragging at his collar. Geralt groaned audibly.
“My dearest friend! How good to see you well!” Dandelion called, approaching him with open arms. They embraced heartily. Then he excused himself to congratulate the bride and groom.
“A mighty big party you are havin’ ere”, Zoltan said from below. Geralt could not keep in the laugh as he saw his dear friend in his fine garb. “Don’t do that, I borrowed the whole thing from Vivaldi. Can’t get his face out of my head when I had to ask him… apart from that, you are looking pretty fancy yourself these days, wolf. If you’re not careful, you might wake up as a tamed pet dog one of these days.”
Geralt winced, scratching the short curls in the back of his neck.
“Already too late, is it?” Zoltan laughed. Then he waved Geralt down to him: “Now where can one get away here and find a decent place to drink? Wouldn’t want to offend anybody Ciri still needs to deal with though, I reckon.”
Not that Geralt would not have loved to follow that suggestion, but in that moment Rideaux, in the company of Regis and Meara, made his way over to chat. There was no rest to be had from polite conversation, which largely meant for Geralt to distantly nod along with whatever was being said around him. It was for her sake, he told himself. By the time everyone had made their way back to the palace and into the ballroom, he almost wished for a monster, and assassination attempt, anything that would let him rip the peace tie and draw the sword at his belt. But everything went absolutely smoothly, if one ignored that the little Geralt, having escaped his father’s watch once, began to eat the decoration on the wedding cake before it was formally served. Dandelion had noticed fast enough to rescue his son from Mererid’s reprisal.
There was dancing, in lines, and squares, and couples. Ciri and Morvran had opened the floor. From a safe distance, Geralt had seen his daughter dance the second set with her father. There was a lightness and grace in the former Emperor’s bearing as he twirled his daughter over the dance floor that gave the witcher a jealous pang. The two talked to each other, about what, he could not hear. She looked happy, he thought, albeit he could not entirely fathom why. Ciri said something that made her laugh, and even Emhyr chuckled in reaction. Geralt managed to avoid the dance floor well enough. The present sorceresses made to claim on him, and Priscilla left him be after he refused a third time. Holding onto a glass of extremely good wine, he spent most of the afternoon talking to Dandelion, and later to a remarkably grumpy Vernon Roche. The Temerian had returned to the capital with Queen Anaïs entourage. Regis stopped by briefly, but had become caught up in conversation with Rideaux.
Dinner was a reprieve from most small talk, as he was seated between Emhyr and Cerys, further flanked by Ciri and Hjalmar. Most rulers had been invited to the wedding, and next to the royal family they took up the seats at the high table. What his own presence among them meant worried the witcher greatly, but the fixed seating order had left him no choice. Down the table, Morvran was talking to King Tankred of Kovir and Queen Anaïs of Temeria. To his embarrassment and pride, Anaïs had greeted the witcher briefly to thank him for her rescue all those years ago. Among the royalty of the Empire, Adda of Redania was present, and so was Francesca Findabair. Trying to avoid any thought of politics, at least for the day, Geralt spent most of the meal talking to Cerys and Hjalmar. He became distracted once when he felt Emhyr tense beside him, pulse going up. But when Geralt inquired after his well-being, Emhyr had tersely brushed him off. Following the former Emperor’s gaze across the room, he spied Yennefer at one of the lower tables. Her eyes looked devastatingly sad as she watched Ciri. With worry he followed her hardening expression as she glanced at Voorhis, Emhyr, and lastly at Geralt himself. He averted his gaze first. Yen was another line of thought he really preferred not to contemplate today. Upon the return of the sorceress from her state as a compressed miniature, Ciri and Yen had fought terribly. On that day, Emhyr – still the acting regent until the crowning – had coldly asked Yennefer to conduct her business from Imbaelk Tower, and only visit the palace if she was summoned. It had taken a few days of stewing and a long conversation one night for Ciri to open up about what had happened. Since that talk, Geralt grappled with the certainty that Yen had orchestrated the blackmailing attempt of the Lodge. And while there was ample evidence, Ciri had refused to sentence the woman she had called mother. A pardon with a long list obligations it had been instead.
“It would be prudent to keep a close eye on her,” Emhyr said lowly, leaning towards him. Apparently the man had followed his gaze as well, coming to a similar conclusion. Geralt nodded regretfully. “There is something I want to discuss with you, in private,” Emhyr added.
“When?” Geralt replied unobtrusively.
“Tomorrow for breakfast?” Emhyr suggested, but Geralt shook his head.
“I have a sparring match with Rosa, but how about afterwards?”
“That will do,” Emhyr muttered, and poked at his dessert. His body language was carefully controlled, but by the way he rested most of his weight on the back and armrests, Geralt suspected the former emperor was rather tired. He had recuperated slowly from his ordeal, but if the repeated sounds of somebody walking down the hallway in the middle of the night were any indication, he slept as badly as Geralt. The curse had passed, for all they could tell, but his sleeping mind kept replaying the nightmares of the last days. He wondered how much worse it must be for Emhyr, on whose vulnerabilities and guilt the nightmares had been built.
“When will it be polite to excuse oneself?” he whispered to his table neighbour.
Emhyr huffed, and Geralt could not quite tell whether it was in derision or sympathy: “The wedded couple is expected to retire soon, a time upon which the formal part of the festivities has ended.”
That Geralt really had not wanted to think about. He knew that Ciri was a grownup and strong woman capable of making her own decisions, which included facing the consequences. But some part of him could not help but worry that he would hurt her.
Emhyr considered him with a frown, something moving behind those dark eyes of his: “Perhaps you would care for a nightcap, somewhere more private?”
Geralt did not quite know what to make of the offer, but anywhere more private seemed like a great idea. He nodded, and took a long sip of his wine. It was excellent.
“Erveluce, pressed at Castel Ravello 1282,” he commented nonchalantly.
Emhyr’s eyebrows rose just a little: “So you know something about wine after all. I don’t suppose owning a vineyard has anything to do with it?”
“Not much,” Geralt considered, “Barnabas-Basilius runs the vineyard as you know. I only drink the produce – so long as I am in the country. But the witcher mutagens enhance all senses, including smell and taste. It comes in handy in unexpected ways.”
“An unintended application for the mutations, but useful,” the other considered.
At that moment, Morvran Voorhis rose from the table and drew out the chair for his wife. At least, Geralt thought, the nobility of the Empire was too polite to whistle as the couple said their good-byes and retired for the night. She was a grown woman, he reminded himself. If anybody needed protection, it was Voorhis. He sighed, still looking at the doorway through which she had disappeared.
“If you are quite done mimicking a kicked dog, we can leave,” Emhyr’s voice rang with slight impatience. A servant immediately drew back his chair, and he rose to walk away. Geralt got up as well, swiftly saying farewell to Cerys and Hjalmar. Then he followed Emhyr var Emreis out of the ballroom.