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Spice, Ink, Iron

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The ride from Toussaint to Nilfgaard was a long one and gave Geralt far too much time to think. He would have ignored the imperial summons with its vague explanation and its assumption of obedience if it had not been for Ciri’s looping handwriting as a post-script. The two words were enough for Geralt to recognize her hand, even without a signature. He avoided pulling it out and re-reading it. If the first dozen times had not allowed him to extract any hidden meaning, the thirteenth -- or thirtieth -- was unlikely to help.

Geralt kept Roach’s head pointed south as the roads became wider and more well-travelled. The further he went, the fewer suspicious looks he got and the fewer people spat at his feet. He couldn’t decide if Nilfgaardians were better mannered or if witchers were less well-known, but he enjoyed feeling like any other traveler on the road.

Packed dirt gave way to paving stones as he hit the imperial highway. From there it was a straight shot into the heart of the empire. He couldn’t help looking around as he rode and thinking of Ciri, of her ruling all that he saw. Was she happy? Unhappy? Wanting to run? Was that why she asked him to come? Or maybe she had a job for him.

Gritting his teeth, he pushed the thoughts out of his mind for the thirteenth or thirtieth. He would find out when he got to the imperial palace, and there was no point in speculating.

Roads drained into the City of Golden Towers like rivers draining into a bay. A seemingly endless stream of people mingled into the seething mass of beings beyond the city walls. An itch crawled up Geralt’s spine, and Roach danced to protest the tightened grip on her reins. He had never seen a city so massive or towers so high. It seemed impossible that the ground could hold weight of so many buildings without collapsing. It seemed impossible for so many people to exist.

What the hell had Ciri gotten herself into? And how could Geralt help get her out?

The imperial writ got him past the guards at a gate to the grounds of the imperial palace and then into the palace itself. It got him a bath and a change of clothes (though he protested both and refused to shave) and then it got him led into a chamber where Geralt recognized the scents of half the people before he bothered to take note of their faces.

Ciri was always the first one he sought and the first one he noticed, but Yennefer was a close second. Or perhaps third. Scents – warm, spicy, flowery, musky, sour – filled his nose and he wished sorceresses did not like perfume quite so much. He snorted to clear his head. The sound drew the attention of the people closest to the door, and Triss Merigold broke away from the group to approach him.

“Geralt.” Triss was as lovely as ever, and the sound of her voice made Geralt’s stomach lurch sideways. He looked at her and knew what she wanted, but his reasons for not picking up their relationship still held true and so he only smiled back.

“Triss.” He kept his voice to a low murmur. “What the hell is going on? I got a message from Ciri and--.”

“The Lodge had been granted amnesty for helping Ciri.” Triss turned to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Geralt, allowing her to watch the room. “These are the negotiations over what comes after. The emperor will grant the Lodge recognition, land for a school, and a place among his advisors in return for oaths of fealty and certain obligations.” Triss hesitated as if she would say more, then shook her head.

“What does that have to do with me?” Geralt asked, looking from face to face. The sorceresses formed half of the semicircle at one end of the room and strangers made up the other half. Geralt suspected they were the rest of the aforementioned advisors, and few of them looked pleased. “Ciri said--.”

“She’s next to the emperor so you will have to wait to talk to her.”

“Yes but--.”

“Shh.” Triss frowned sideways at Geralt, without moving her eyes from the people. “I want to hear.”

Geralt fumed for a moment before trying again. “I got a message--.”

“We can talk later, Geralt.” Triss brushed her hand against his, her fingers lingering until he twitched his away. “I need to get closer.”

“But I--.” Triss slipped back into the semicircle, leaving Geralt to grind his teeth alone. He was not left so for long, however; Lambert slid into the space Triss left, though he did not stand quite so close.

“Hey, Wolf.” Lambert sounded entirely too pleased with himself. Keira must not have discarded him yet. “How’s it hangin’? Not great, if that little scene with Merigold means anything.”

“Lambert.” Anything more would only encourage him. “What are you doing here?”

“Keira.” Lambert gestured vaguely toward the sorceresses. “She said something about keeping Philippa and Yennefer from strangling each other. Which is the only action I’m going to be seeing around here. There’s hardly any work for a witcher south of Ebbing. Have you seen the number of patrols on the road? I didn’t even see any bandits. And Keira wouldn’t let me go off into the swamps to find a water hag or kikimora or even a drowner.”

“Uh-huh.” Geralt let Lambert’s rant wash over him. No monsters meant Ciri’s message must not be due to a dangerous contract. Political intrigue? He did not think he could help with that but for her, he would do his best. “I’m here because I got a message from Ciri that--.”

“Ooh, ooh, look!” Lambert grabbed his Geralt’s arm and jiggled it. “Philippa is about to shove a spell crystal down Viscount Eiddon’s throat. Ha!”

Lambert was right. The conversation was becoming a bit heated. Geralt watched Keira tuck her hand into Philippa’s elbow and hiss in her ear. The gesture tugged Philippa sideways, creating a gap that finally allowed Geralt to see Ciri and, sitting in a backless chair, Emhyr var Emreis. Emhyr watched the drama with a face like stone. He was the mountain, and even time could barely weather him. A shiver slid up Geralt’s spine, and Emhyr’s gaze flicked to him as if he could sense it. Their eyes locked and Geralt’s breath caught. Time paused until Emhyr looked away and Geralt could breathe again. Sound rushed back into his ears and with it, Lambert’s horrified gasp.

“You smell like you’re in heat!” Lambert hissed, his eyes bouncing between Geralt and Emhyr.

Geralt could see Lambert’s revelation about to go off like a grapeshot bomb, and it would be a complete disaster if it happened in the receiving room. He grabbed Lambert by the bicep and hustled him out of the room, nodding to the guards at the door in a vain attempt to play it cool.

Shock held Lambert’s tongue long enough for Geralt to get him into a side room. It looked like a broom closet. “What. The. Fuck, Geralt. What was that? What the hell was that?” Lambert’s face flushed bright red. “Wait. Does Yennefer know that you have the hots for the Emperor of Nilfgaard? The White Flame Dancing on the Graves of his Enemies?”

“Not so loud!” Geralt had no illusions about the number of spies in Emhyr’s employ, nor of his reach. “And my... hots are no longer Yen’s concern. Nor are hers mine.”

“When did that happen?” Lambert staggered back from Geralt, and Geralt could only wish it were Eskel in here with him. He wouldn’t turn every little thing into a drama.

“When we were hunting that djinn in Skelli-- that’s not the point!” Geralt glowered at Lambert.

“Geralt.” Lambert’s expression shifted from horror to concern. “Are you that hard up? When’s the last time you got ploughed?” He put both of his hands on Geralt’s shoulders. “Look, I understand how you are. You have needs. I’d fuck you but Keira would scoop out my eyes with a spoon.”

Geralt made a face at the suggestion, but Lambert went on without noticing.

“We can find you a brothel. There’s got to be at least a hundred in a city this size. Do you need a man? Someone with big hands who will order you around? You can get this... this thing out of your system. There’s bound to be at least a few look-alikes around here. You can’t be the first person who wants to be bent over by--.”

“Lambert, enough!” Geralt brushed off Lambert’s hands and his mordant concern, and stepped back. “Just... enough. I don’t need you to solicit for me. I’m fine. And anything between me and Emhyr is not your business.” Geralt heard the mistake as soon as he said it.

“You and Emhyr? There’s a you and Emhyr? He lets you call him Emhyr?”

“That’s not what I meant!” There was no way to stop this runaway horse. All Geralt could do was point it away from civilization. “Did you say something about hunting water hags? Because I saw a nest that could be--.”

“You’re not going to distract me, Geralt.” Though Geralt could see that Lambert was tempted. The Nilfgaardian patrols must be very effective, if Lambert was that bored. “I need to tell Keira. She’ll know how to help you.”

“No!” Geralt grabbed Lambert as he lunged for the door and the two fell to the floor as they wrestled. A bucket clanged as a mop was knocked over and a stack of towels fell on their heads, muffling the cursing. Geralt managed to pin Lambert’s arms but a brutal knee to his side made his grip loosen enough for Lambert to slither away.

He scrambled to the door and Geralt crawled after him, grabbing him by the thigh and calf and clawing his way up Lambert’s body. Lambert kicked his shoulder twice, trying to get Geralt to let go, and turned the doorknob. They tumbled out into the hall and into the path of a procession.

Ciri, at least, looked amused if also somewhat dismayed. Emhyr’s expression did not shift, his gaze cold as it slid across Geralt and paused a moment on Lambert. They continued past without stopping, leaving room for the people tailing the emperor and his heir to get a good look at the disheveled witchers. Yennefer’s expression, especially, made Geralt want to find a deep hole.

He rolled away from Lambert after one last hissed demand for silence, and rose to his feet, brushing himself off.

“You have a hand towel in your collar,” Triss pointed out as she walked by, her eyes sparkling. He sighed and removed it. Ciri had better need him for something big.

*****

“I hear that you are in love with the emperor.”

Fringilla Vigo sat across from Geralt in the dining hall, catching Geralt mid-bite.

“For fuck’s sake,” he sighed, lowering his fork. “Keira?”

“No, I heard it from Lady Liddertal who heard it from Margarita.”

“Great.” Geralt resumed eating, grimly hoping that Fringilla would take it as a cue to leave. His luck was never that good.

“I suppose I should be grateful,” Fringilla continued, leaning back as a young servant placed a few slices of roast onto her plate, “that you only ever called Yennefer’s name when I was bedding you, and not the emperor’s.”

“It was one time!” Geralt scowled at his stew, embarrassment heating his skin like a rash. “Are you going to hold that against me forever?”

“Hm.” Fringilla ate a bite of roast and pretended to think it over. “I imagine that one or both of us will die before forever, so no.”

The best way to deal with a needling sorceress was to ignore her and so Geralt doggedly ate his stew. The sooner he finished, the sooner he could be free.

Fringilla continued, as if Geralt’s lack of reply was irrelevant to the conversation. Which it was. “Triss, of course, does not believe a word of it. She says that you hate him, and that you’d never lower yourself to bedding him.”

Geralt ate faster.

“And I pointed out that sex with someone you hate can be the most... piquant. The most... athletic.”

Geralt choked on a piece of carrot, and lowered his fork to glare at Fringilla. Even knowing that he was playing into her game, he couldn’t stop his biting reply. “You--.” He choked on the rest of his words the same way he had choked on the carrot. Lambert was making his way toward them, and that must not be allowed to happen.

“It was great catching up, Fringilla,” Geralt said, rising to his feet. “See you later.”

Geralt ignored Fringilla’s smirk as he hustled out of the dining hall, abandoning his dinner and his dignity. For the former, he would sneak into one of the kitchens later and for the latter, his absence would best serve to recoup it. For now, he needed to get his head down. And he needed to find Ciri so that he could get the hell out of here before the rumors made their way to Emhyr’s ears.

He headed down a hallway that looked vaguely familiar. He had the sense that the imperial quarters were in that direction, and the increasing quality of the guards’ arms and armor bore that out. Now he only needed a likely servant or chamberlain to help him find Ciri. He would even take Emhyr’s chamberlain, Mererid, though it was fifty:fifty odds that he would direct Geralt to the dungeons rather than help. Or maybe worse; he did not seem any more impressed with Geralt here than he had in Vizima.

“Sir Geralt.”

The familiar voice slowed Geralt’s steps. Reluctantly, he turned to face Morvran Voorhis. Yennefer’s last letter referred to him as a potential suitor for Ciri, a politically advantageous match that bettered her chances of a smooth transition once Emhyr abdicated. The very thought of Ciri needing to marry someone for politics made Geralt want to sink his sword into a few faces. Which, now that he thought about it, might be why no one but Yennefer had mentioned it to him.

“Morvran.” Geralt nodded a greeting.

The nobleman strolled up to Geralt, every inch the self-assured military commander. Geralt would give him that; Geralt might not like him (he liked few nobles on general principle) but he did respect his military prowess.

“It was a surprise to see you here this afternoon,” Morvran said. “It had been my understanding that you had retired to Toussaint.”

Geralt eyed Morvran. Why was anyone paying attention to where Geralt might or might not be? Paranoia, he reminded himself, was a valid way of life, no matter what Dandelion said. “Yeah, well, I got a message.”

“Ah.” Morvran’s eyes brightened with understanding. “Say no more.”

Geralt had hardly said anything in the first place. “Uh-huh.”

“I am certain the separation must have been difficult on you both,” Morvran continued.

Geralt blinked, startled. Morvran must have some care for Ciri to notice. There were few Nilfgaardians who would recognize any connection between the two of them. Maybe Morvran was not such a bad guy. It warmed Geralt toward him, and his smile echoed that sentiment. “Thanks. It’s been tough but I didn’t want to be in the way.”

“A generous impulse. I shall keep you no longer.” Morvran stepped to the side and gestured down the hall. “The imperial quarters are that way. Rooms will have been prepared for you there.”

“Thanks, Morvran.” His mood the lightest it had been since that ridiculous scene with Lambert, Geralt set out with a spring in his step.

His good mood lasted the length of one hallway. At a branching, he caught Philippa’s scent -- wet feathers -- too late for him to dodge her. She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and forced him to slow to her sedate pace.

“What do you want, Philippa?”

“Geralt. It has been too long.” Philippa’s voice was perfectly pleasant but only a fool would be taken in. Geralt was not that kind of fool. “I thought we might catch up.”

“Right.” Geralt allowed her to lead them away from the main hallways and into a small courtyard before pulling his elbow out of her grasp. The twittering of songbirds in the trees that encircled the courtyard did little to soothe his mood. At least they’d make it harder for them to be overheard. “Cut the crap, Philippa. What do you want?”

“Geralt.” Philippa’s voice was chiding, as if they were friends and Geralt had been mildly rude. It made him want to be seriously rude. “Can I not want to be on friendly terms with you?”

“Only if I have something you want. Which would be... what exactly?”

Philippa crossed the courtyard and sat on the edge of the marble fountain in the center. Perhaps she had the same thought about being overheard. Geralt stood in front of her with his arms crossed, not wanting to get too close, and studied her. The blindfold covered her from cheekbone to brow, making it difficult but not impossible to read her expression. He would take any advantage he could get.

“If I may be blunt,” Philippa said, as if anything in the world could stop her, “now that you are here to stay, you need allies. Without them, the imperial court will chew you up and not bother to spit you out. You could ally yourself to me and help secure Ciri’s position.”

It was not the most insane thing Geralt had ever heard but that bar was low enough to crawl over. “What do you mean ‘to stay’? Who said I’m staying? I’m only here because Ciri--.”

Philippa sniffs. “Don’t be more stupid than you can help, Geralt. Everyone knows the truth now. There is no reason for pretense.”

“The truth?” Geralt shook his head and tried to get the insanity back within sight of reason. “Look, Philippa, the only thing that matters to you is the accrual of power and I don’t have any. What could I possibly have that would entice you to this...,” he waved a hand between them, “...this farce?”

“You sell yourself short, Geralt. It is no small thing to have an emperor’s ear.”

“What?”

“You and the emperor.” Philippa rose to her feet and circled Geralt. He spun on his heel to avoid having her at his back. “Everyone knows. Whatever reason you had for hiding -- and I am sure there were many.” She looked him up and down, which was especially creepy given her lack of eyes. “Many. Whatever they were, they no longer apply.”

Geralt went still, feeling as if he had been rung like a bell. Little snippets of phrases swirled around and around in his mind: here to stay, emperor’s ear, here to stay, emperor’s ear, him and Emhyr, here to stay. Slowly, they coalesced into a single realization. Philippa believed the rumors. Philippa Eilhart, savvy survivor of some of the dirtiest in-fighting a royal court has ever seen, believed that he and Emhyr-- no. Just no.

His second thought was that he was going to kill Lambert.

“There is no ‘me and Emhyr,’” he said, his voice flat. “I don’t know what you’re hearing, Philippa, but I’m telling you that they are wrong.”

“Geralt. Be sensible. You are not hunting monsters here. All that you know will not help you. You need me.”

He crossed his arms over his chest, trying not to feel defensive. “Even if a single one of the rumors were true and even if I did need help, you would be the last person I would trust to give it to me.”

Philippa snorted and turned away. “If you change your mind,” she said over her shoulder, “you know where to find me.”

Once she was gone, Geralt sat on the edge of the fountain and stared blankly at his feet before burying his face in his hands. He was going to kill Lambert.

*****

Night had fallen by the time Geralt gave up on finding Ciri and started looking for breathing room instead. The balcony that he found looked over the city. There were as many lights spread below him as there were above, and it gave him vertigo. He gripped the railing, an unnamable tension riding his shoulders and back, and focused on the ground under his feet. He should never have come, even with Ciri’s message. He did not belong here, and his chest ached at the thought that Ciri did. His little girl had never felt so far away, not even when she was travelling on different worlds.

He lowered his head and exhaled.

A waft of spice, ink, and iron preceded the soft footfalls, and Geralt closed his eyes. He did not need to see to know who it was. “It’s not my fault.”

“I am aware.”

The sound of Emhyr’s voice made the hair on Geralt’s arms rise; he gritted his teeth, helpless to stop it and furious about it. “Really, I tried to explain and no one is listening. I came because of Ciri--.”

“I am aware.”

“What aren’t you aware of?” he snarled. Trapped, he was trapped. Trapped by his body and by his good intentions.

“That you were still attracted.”

Geralt had nothing to say to the obvious. He kept his eyes closed, an impulse that he recognized as childish.

“It has been over twenty years.” With a rustle of silk, Emhyr moved next to Geralt, close enough that Geralt could feel the heat of his body. He rested his hands on the balcony rail. “And we have been on poor terms for most of them.”

The worst of this, Geralt despaired to himself, was that Emhyr did not smell only of spice, and ink, and iron. If only Lambert could be here now, he would laugh himself sick at the two of them.

Geralt wanted to bury his face in the most tender places of Emhyr and breathe deep. Not that he has any tender places, Geralt thought sourly. The man is a shaelmaar. And one that was content to stand and watch his city in silence.

“Is there anything left to fight over?” Geralt asked, finally breaking the weighted silence.

“You are a man of infinite resourcefulness,” Emhyr said, his voice dry. “I imagine you could find something, if you put your mind to it.”

Geralt laughed, and that only made him angrier. “Damn it, Emhyr, can’t you just...?” He sighed, and opened his eyes, looking sideways at Emhyr. He was looking back. “Emhyr.” Geralt could not think of anything else to say.

The corner of Emhyr’s mouth creased. He flexed his fingers on the rail and his pinky came within a hair’s breadth Geralt’s. It was the closest they had come to touching in two decades, and Geralt ached at the proximity. He could feel Emhyr’s presence, heavy and solid like a hand on his nape. But simply feeling was not enough.

Straightening, he turned to face Emhyr, and Emhyr moved in sync with him. They ended up close enough that their breaths mingled. Geralt resisted the urge to rest his forehead against Emhyr’s collarbone, and had to continue to resist it. It would be so easy, easier than falling.

“I don’t want--.” Geralt could not get any more out. His throat closed around any other words.

“Don’t you?”

Geralt struggled to say something, to avoid saying anything, to breathe.

“You had sex with me when I had quills,” Emhyr said, and Geralt flashed on a sense memory of how they had felt under his palms. “You won’t deign now?”

Geralt laughed, if the jagged sound could be counted as such. “Have any of the reasons we stopped fucking changed?”

“Do any remain?”

Geralt shook his head, avoidance rather than agreement or disagreement. He knew better than to get sucked into an argument with Emhyr.

He looked away from Emhyr. He could not bear to move away and could not stand to move closer. Closer would mean things he has avoided for twenty years. “I ended things with Yen because everything was a battle. Everything was an argument. And she would never listen. What I said, what I thought never mattered to what she would do. The ends justified the means, no matter how dirty or how many were hurt. I didn’t want to live that way. I still don’t.”

Emhyr’s lips thinned. “You wanted a relationship with Yennefer.”

Geralt scoffed, giving Emhyr an incredulous look. “Do you think it would be casual between us? Do you think it could be? When has it ever been?”

Emhyr did not look away as another man might, which let Geralt see the acknowledgement in his eyes. They stared silently at each other. A drop of sweat trickled down Geralt’s spine. Emhyr’s gaze fell to Geralt’s lips and they tingled in response. He licked them and he could see Emhyr shudder.

Emhyr eased back from Geralt, ceding ground as he never had for anything ever, and Geralt felt a cold emotion. The feeling was relief, Geralt told himself. Relief.

“My quarters are two doors down from yours, if you change your mind.” Emhyr looked at Geralt for a moment longer then turned and left, his footsteps no louder than those which had heralded his arrival. All that remained was his scent and with no one to watch and judge, Geralt opened his mouth and pulled deep breaths of it across his tongue. It was almost like tasting Emhyr’s skin. His mouth watered and his belly tightened.

He was wrong. There was one person to judge, and he was judging himself harshly.

Idiot.

*****

“I’ve been looking all over for you.”

Geralt glanced over at Lambert and grunted in reply, not moving from his spot on the low rock wall. A good night’s sleep would have helped settle his mind. Too bad he didn’t get it. Even though the bed he had been given was more comfortable than any he had ever even thought of sleeping on, it wasn’t enough to relax him enough to sleep. He had hoped that a visit to the practice grounds would wear him out but none of the soldiers would spar with him. He couldn’t tell if it was because he was outside their hierarchy or because he was a witcher or because he was Ciri’s foster father or because-- he refused to think more of it. Whatever the reason, it left him with no way to burn off his tension.

At least there was no one on the palace grounds to look sideways at him or stare or, worst of all, bow. It was peaceful out here. Until Lambert showed up.

Lambert huffed as he sat next to Geralt. “Your trail led all over the palace before coming out here. What the fuck were you doing? Hoping to catch a glimpse of your sweetheart?”

“I was looking for Ciri,” Geralt growls. Gods, Lambert was an ass.

“Seems like the wrong Emreis if you’re looking to get a leg over--.”

“Lambert! For fuck’s sake!”

Lambert raised both hands, palms out. “Whoa, settle down, White Wolf. I’m just looking out for you. I talked it over with Keira--”

“No kidding,” Geralt interrupted, his voice dry.

“--and we agree that you need a good fuck to get this out of your system. I found the names -- well, Keira did -- of a few brothels that have, uh, relevant specialties.”

Each word out of Lambert’s mouth filled Geralt with greater despair. There was no way out of this, no escape. He would take the Wild Hunt over this in a heartbeat.

“Now, normally an appointment can be hard to get. Who knew that there was such a demand for getting fucked by the emperor? After all, the North got it for free--,” Lambert laughed at his own joke and Geralt refrained from punching him in the throat, “--but Keira knows someone who knows someone who knows someone else who was able to trade a few favors and we were able to get you an appointment today.”

Geralt stared out at the sun-drenched gardens and thought of Emhyr on the balcony last night. “Fuck it. Okay, sure. I’m in.” It couldn’t be a worse idea than actually sleeping with Emhyr again. He rose to his feet with a decisive movement. He was doing this, then he was finding Ciri, then getting the hell out.

“You are?” Lambert blinked up at him gormlessly.

“Yes. Right now. Let’s go.”

“Ha! I knew it!” Lambert jumped to his feet and headed toward the palace gates. “You’re going to thank me for this. You’ll owe me, too, of course, but the important thing is that you’ll be back to your old self, no more moping in a flower bed. You’ve been spending too much time in Toussaint. You need to get back on the Path and kill some monsters.”

It was a long walk to the gates and an even longer walk into the city with Lambert nattering the whole way. The streets were no less crowded than the day before, though the areas that Lambert was leading him through were nice. The streets were clean and the residents well-dressed. The City of Golden Towers lived up to its name, with the roofs of the dozen tallest literally covered in gold. They were blindingly bright in the midday sun, and it all made the largest city in the North look like a mud-spattered hamlet in comparison.

The building that Lambert took them to was no less lovely than its neighbors, built of stone and marble with clean lines and arches, and golden suns embedded in the cornices. Flowering vines wound up the walls, and red banners were draped from the eaves. Stepping inside was like the first dip into a pool, the cool air a contrast to the warm summer day. Lambert met the proprietor and exchanged a few words while Geralt looked around. There was a velvet divan next to an unused fireplace, and an image of Emhyr lounging on it popped into his mind. He laughed to himself while trying to squelch the sudden burn of lust.

“That’s the spirit,” Lambert said, appearing at his side. “Mistress Jansen said the guy is upstairs, second door on the right. Go get ‘em!”

Lambert slapped Geralt on the shoulder, knocking him out of his daydream. Geralt gave Lambert a half-hearted glare then trudged up the stairs. This would be good. Lambert was right. This would let Geralt get it out of his system, if the match was close enough.

Geralt knocked on the door and waited for the call before entering. He stepped into the room and closed the door, then gave the room a quick scan. Bed. Desk. Table. Divan. Geralt froze. Emhyr was sitting on a fucking velvet divan in front of a window wearing only a light silk robe. It was a gut-punch. What the ever-living-fuck.

“Geralt. Welcome.”

It was the voice that broke his paralysis. That and the welcome. Emhyr never welcomed anyone into anything in his life. Geralt swallowed hard and moved toward the imposter. The incredibly accurate imposter. Who was going to have sex with Geralt.

“What should I call you?” Geralt asked.

“Emhyr, if that is your preference.” The man smiled and set his goblet of wine aside before rising to his feet. “Daan, otherwise.”

“Right.” Geralt nodded and decided to not use either one. “So...”

The man reached for Geralt without asking, which was more like it. He grabbed the nape of Geralt’s neck with a heavy hand and drew him forward. Geralt went into the kiss willingly, eagerly, his body lighting up at the demand. The man’s mouth was firm, his tongue sliding against Geralt’s as if it were taking possession. It was perfect.

Except he tasted wrong. Geralt slid his mouth down the man’s throat to press against the heavy embroidery covering his shoulder instead. That was better.

The man allowed it for a moment then spun Geralt around and pushed him against the desk. Geralt landed heavily, both palms slapping on the wood to keep from hitting chest first. Paper shifted under one palm, and he shoved it to the side. The man stroked his hand down Geralt’s spine, and Geralt exhaled a moan. Much better.

“You look good this way,” the man said, resting his hand on Geralt’s hip. “Bending your neck for me.”

Geralt inhaled sharply, his fingers gripping the wood. He lowered his chin and pretended the voice was a little deeper, a little rougher. The man slid his hands around Geralt’s waist and unbuckled his belt. He shoved Geralt’s trousers and underwear down to his knees with little ceremony, then scraped his nails over the bare skin.

“You want it desperately, don’t you? I wonder if I should make you beg for it.” That was something that Emhyr would say, and another jolt of heat ran through him. Geralt’s cock started to fill, his balls tightening and his breath quickening. The man leaned in, his chest pressing down on Geralt’s back, his arms bracketing Geralt’s. It was good, it was perfect, so why did it feel wrong?

Geralt tried to push the thought away but it wouldn’t go. It nagged at him until he realized that the man smelled wrong, not spice-ink-iron. He smelled of soap and arousal, and it was good but it was not Emhyr. Geralt sighed as his cock flagged, and he rested his forehead on the desk.

“This won’t work,” Geralt said, closing his eyes for a moment before pushing himself up and shuffling to turn himself around. He reached down to pull up his trousers and cover himself. “Sorry. You’re good -- really good -- and normally, I would be all over you. But I--.”

The man -- Daan -- studied him for a moment, one eyebrow quirked. The expression was nauseatingly familiar and Geralt looked away. “But you...?”

“Look, I--.” That was where Geralt ran out of words. He shrugged and waved a hand in a helpless circle.

Daan waited patiently for Geralt, and that only increased Geralt’s cognitive dissonance. Emhyr had the patience of an arachas and so little of that patience was spent on waiting for people to catch up with him. “It’s not right. You’re good but you’re not right.”

“You know him.” There was surprise in Daan’s voice. “Not simply have seen him or been around him, but you know him.”

There was not anything to say to that so Geralt shrugged again. “Sorry,” he repeated.

“It’s all right.” Daan smiled and rested a hand on Geralt’s chest. “Though it is a shame. I’ve never had a witcher, and I’ve heard stories of your stamina. And you are lovely to look at. I wasn’t lying about that. It would have been no chore.”

Geralt smiled back, relieved by Daan’s easy acceptance. “Same here.”

“What gave me away? I would be grateful for what you could tell me to improve my performance.”

“Your voice isn’t quite deep enough. And you don’t smell right,” Geralt said, with twitch of his head. “Though that won’t be a problem for most people.” He gestured to his face. “Witcher.”

“Thank you. For that, I’ll tell Mistress Jansen to return your money.” Daan smoothed his hand down Geralt’s chest, his fingers pressing lightly against where Geralt’s cock was tucked back into his trousers. “Are you sure you don’t want to...? I would make sure we both enjoyed it.”

“I’m sure.” Geralt cursed himself but lifted Daan’s hand away.

“If you ever change your mind, come back.” Daan stepped back from Geralt and an unknown weight lifted from Geralt’s shoulders.

Geralt allowed a moment of regret before he left Daan behind and headed downstairs. If he were lucky, Lambert would be gone. But if it weren’t for bad luck, he would have no luck at all. Lambert was draped over a chair, drinking from a mug when Geralt reached the base of the stairs.

Lambert fumbled his mug onto a table and leapt to his feet. “That was fast. You must have really needed it. So, how was he? Was it magic? Was it all that you wanted? Am I going to have to worry about you losing all of your money here on visit after visit after visit?”

Geralt didn’t pause on his path to the door. “No.”

“No what?” Lambert scrambled after him.

“No, it was not magic. No, it is not what I wanted. No, I won’t be spending money here.” He would, however, be spending money at the next inn that he saw.

“Eh?”

Geralt came to an abrupt stop and spun on his heel to face Lambert. “I didn’t fuck him. It was a ridiculous idea, and I’m not listening to you again.” He spun back and marched in a straight line down the street. He was a man on a mission.

“This is worse than I thought,” Lambert whispered. “I need to consult with Keira.”

“You do that. I’m getting a drink.” Geralt ignored Lambert heading off. There was an inn on the corner and he was not going to come out until he could see two of everything. Maybe three.

*****

Geralt made it back to his rooms under his own power, though it was less of an achievement when one took Vesemir’s training into account. Geralt had held in his guts with one hand and still made it back to his camp. He had battled to utter exhaustion and still found Roach. His sense of direction was unerring and his physical endurance was unmatched; an afternoon of drinking was nothing.

“I did not expect you to change your mind so soon.”

Geralt looked up from where he was sitting on the floor, one boot in his hand and the other kicked next to the door. “Wha’?” He blinked at the wavering figures looming over him and wondered why the world was swaying. Likely some kind of evil magic. “Who’sit?”

The wavering figures resolved into two Emhyrs. That sounded like a good idea. Wait, no, a bad idea. The best bad idea. “Why’re you in m’room?”

The Emhyrs made a sound, rough and dismissive, and Geralt wanted to lick it from their mouths. “You are in my quarters.”

“Wha’?” Geralt looked around blearily. “No, s’mine.” There was a very important reason that Geralt couldn’t be in Emhyr’s quarters. He pondered it then snapped his fingers and pointed at one of the Emhyrs. “Guards! Guards’d keep me out of yours!”

“I told them to let you through at any time.” The Emhyrs crouched down in front of Geralt and regarded him with an expression that he couldn’t read. Not on either face. “I wonder if you will remember any of this in the morning.”

The Emhyrs looked warm and so Geralt scooted forward, dropping his boot and curling himself into the curve of an Emhyr’s chest. It felt so good that he wanted to weep. Fingers slid through his hair and he shuddered, tucking himself closer.

“It will be better for you if you do not,” Emhyr said, his voice soft.

Geralt’s limbs began to grow slack and heavy. It was not worth it to lift them. He did not know why he would want to move in any case. Not when he was where he was supposed to be. He tried to explain his objection to movement as an Emhyr drew his arm over his shoulders and lifted him to his feet, but he was not sure that the Emhyr understood. Maybe the other one would.

Everything shrank down to flashes: the sound of an unbuckled belt, the softness of a mattress, the murmur of voices, the dimming of lights. Then he knew no more.

When he woke, it was to the certainty of death. And it couldn’t come a moment too soon. His head ached with the pounding of a hundred tiny hammers. His mouth was stuffed with moldy cotton retrieved from a water hag’s nest. His stomach twisted upon itself, and if it would only do him the courtesy of consuming itself, he would be grateful.

He groaned and rolled onto his back. That was a terrible mistake. The room swung in wide, erratic circles and whatever he had managed to eat that day (the day before?) started to crawl up his throat. He gagged it back down and breathed deeply for a few cycles. The only way to get through this was by keeping perfectly still.

Geralt squinted his eyes open and stared up at the ceiling. It was strangely ornate. Even in the darkened room, he could see that a golden sun mosaic covered half of the ceiling in delicate, intricate tilework. He did not have a mosaic on the ceiling of his bedroom. He turned his head to the side, as slowly and carefully as possible to keep it from rolling off his shoulders, and stared at the glass of water and vial of White Honey that someone had left for him on the nightstand.

Lying on the bed was not going to get him any closer to figuring out where he was and how he got there. He swallowed hard in anticipation of the taste of bile and levered himself upright. The White Honey blunted the edge of the pounding and got rid of the swimming, and the water soothed the cotton in his mouth and the ache in his throat.

That was enough to get him out of bed and moving -- slowly, but moving. He staggered into the next room where there were candles dimly illuminating Emhyr’s sitting room. And Emhyr. Well, that explained where he was.

Emhyr looked up from his desk, gave Geralt a quick but flaying once-over, then returned his attention to the papers he was reading. “A light supper has been prepared for you,” Emhyr said, his quill scratching on a parchment. “Sit. It will be here momentarily.”

Geralt stared blankly at Emhyr then sank into the chair. He bit back the first two things that came to his tongue. Emhyr told him long ago that he hated when people made obvious statements. Inane, Geralt, and a waste of time. Obvious questions were even worse. Geralt suspected that he had a lot to apologize for, so he was not going to irritate Emhyr more than he could help.

He needed to put together the pieces himself. He clearly remembered leaving the brothel and entering the inn. The memory of leaving the inn was... fuzzy, but there. He was not sure how he made it into the palace without being challenged but he did have a conspicuous appearance. He was easy to recognize on sight. Which means the guards saw him and let him through.

“I got the doors confused,” he finally decided. “I meant to go to my own rooms and got the doors wrong.”

“Was that so difficult to puzzle out?” Emhyr did not even look up. It made Geralt want to tear those papers from him and set them on fire.

“You didn’t have to put me to bed here,” Geralt said sourly. “You could’ve gotten your guards to toss me back into my own room.”

Emhyr looked up, and his expression was unimpressed. That must fall into the category of ‘obvious statements’.

Geralt’s expression soured further. “Conversations would be a lot easier if you contributed to them.”

A pair of servants slipped into the room and set up a small table next to Geralt, then placed a variety of foods in front of him. His stomach twitched but he decided it was hunger and not nausea. Probably. He grabbed the bowl of light broth and started to eat.

“Did you enjoy your morning with the prostitute?” Emhyr’s question was delivered casually, with the same tone he would use to ask after the weather. Except he would never do something so prosaic. So, as if someone else asked after the weather.

Geralt choked on his soup and glared at Emhyr while trying to blot up the soup on his beard and jacket. “You had me followed?” His cheeks burned. Fucking Lambert.

“I maintain a watch on the brothels that have imperial impersonators. It can be advantageous to know who is making use of their services.”

Geralt stared at Emhyr, frozen in horror. Just when he thought the conversation could not get more mortifying. “I didn’t-- I couldn’t-- it wasn’t my idea!” There was no way to continue and maintain any dignity, so he shoved a hunk of bread in his mouth to keep himself from trying.

Something of satisfaction touched Emhyr’s mouth and Geralt wished that he had not noticed anything about Emhyr’s mouth. He hunched his shoulders and returned to his soup. “Where’s Ciri? I have something to talk to her about.”

“Is that only reason you are here?” Emhyr folded his parchment into precise thirds then sealed it with gold wax and set it onto a stack on the right. He pulled a piece of parchment off the stack to his left and began to read.

“Yeah. Why else?”

Emhyr paused, staring at a single point on the parchment, then looked up at Geralt briefly. “Cirilla is meeting with the Lodge, discussing terms, and then she has a dinner to attend. I do not expect her back until it is late.”

Geralt sighed. He was going to be stuck here for another day, at least. He wasn’t sure he would be able to handle it. He was simply going to have to avoid Lambert more vigorously. His next plan was sure to be even stupider than his last. At least Lambert couldn’t bother him in here.

“Do you want to play a game of gwent?”

“Are you planning on hiding in here until Cirilla is available?” Emhyr sat back and reached for a goblet.

Geralt gritted his teeth. He had been but now he was rethinking. Lambert couldn’t be worse than this. “Are you going to answer every question with a question?”

“I answered your implicit question regarding the brothel with a statement.”

“Would you stop bringing up the brothel?” Lambert was looking better with each word.

“No.” Emhyr smiled, and Geralt was caught by the expression. He couldn’t imagine that it was one that many people have seen, not since Emhyr was thirteen -- before his father was overthrown and he was cursed into a monster and cast into the woods.

Geralt looked away. “Why didn’t you have me taken back to my own room?”

He hated the note in his voice -- raw and real -- and he hated that Emhyr could pull it out of him. Emhyr was a cold-hearted, steel-spined tyrant who brought war to the North over and over until he was able to crush it. He made Yennefer’s ruthless pragmatism look like the work of an overeager child. Whatever distant memories Geralt had of Emhyr fighting grimly to hang onto his humanity until his curse could be broken should not have been enough to sustain this-- this thing. This craving.

And yet.

"Why?" Geralt repeated, looking down at his hands. The silence lasted long enough that Geralt thought Emhyr wouldn’t answer, and he started to curse Emhyr for a bastard and himself for a fool. "You--."

"Geralt." Emhyr waited until Geralt looked up, meeting his gaze. "You looked at me and saw a man. You are a monster hunter and your Path is to kill monsters for coin. And yet you looked at me and saw a man. And you helped me for no reward. No gold. No acclaim."

"I claimed Ciri from it."

"You invoked the Law of Surprise," Emhyr corrected, "and you did it after the fact and because it was expected of you. No one invokes the Law of Surprise unless they have nothing else for which to ask."

It was true, which made it worse. "I-- you were a man. All you were trying to do was live. To cure yourself. To take back the humanity that the curse took from you."

"As your humanity was taken from you?"

Geralt shoved away from the table and headed for the door, an instinctive response that had him ignoring his lack of shoes, belt, and reason.

"Must you always run?"

Geralt paused with one hand on the doorknob. He bowed his head, inhaled on a count of three, and exhaled on a count of five until his heart stopped rabbiting in his chest.

"I am still human," he rasped.

"I know, Geralt." Emhyr's voice was as soft as it got, which was still hard as granite. There was no give and no pity, only a firm empathy that was as much as Geralt ever wanted. "Sit down and finish your soup. And we will play gwent when you are done."

Geralt exhaled one last time then nodded and turned away from the door. He returned to his seat, pulled his bowl back toward him, and picked up his spoon. He would look for Ciri in the morning.

*****

Geralt woke the next morning recovered from the hangover, though not from his losses at gwent. He was in his own room, at least, which was an improvement from the previous day. As he dressed, he formulated a new plan. Or rather the same plan -- find Ciri -- but with greater emphasis. He needed to get out of the city before either Lambert or Emhyr managed to break him.

The plan started to fall apart before Geralt made it three steps outside his door. "Geralt." The smell of lilac and gooseberry should have warned him. He would have climbed over the balcony. It was a steep climb but only twenty feet to the next window. He could have made it. "Let's talk."

"Let's not." Geralt tried to scoot around Yennefer but she was having none of it. She crossed her arms over her chest and arched a brow.

"Don't be childish, Geralt. We have matters to discuss."

"No. We don't."

Yennefer took Geralt's elbow and led him away. He could have yanked his arm away but at that point, he was resigned to having discussions that he did not want to have. "I thought of taking us somewhere private via portal--"

"So that you could abandon me there?"

“--but I know how much you hate portals and decided that a walk around the palace grounds would give us sufficient privacy,” Yennefer continued as if Geralt had said nothing, which was representative of their entire relationship. Geralt sighed and went along with her, to really round out the symbolism.

The palace grounds were extensive with manicured lawns, formal gardens, and carefully tended woods. Yennefer led them toward the woods where they might theoretically have more privacy, hidden from sight by the silver-barked birches and the tall, broad oaks. It took a good half-hour to get out of the palace and far enough away for Yennefer to pick up the threads of the conversation. “Keira has been very eager to tell me all about you and the emperor. It’s all she wants to talk about.”

Geralt hunched his shoulders and wished he had his swords on his back. If there were any way he could get away with wearing them on palace grounds, he would be bristling with blades like a porcupine with quills. Not that he would use them on Yennefer but they would be a comfort. At the very least if he had to break and run, he could make it out of the city by nightfall without having to return to the palace. He was sure Ciri would send his abandoned clothes and gear to Corvo Blanco for him.

“Keira likes to twist the knife.” Geralt would like to, rather less metaphorically.

“If you hadn’t let her know that it was a tender spot, she wouldn’t prod at it.”

“So it’s my fault?”

Yennefer gave him that long-suffering look of hers that made him want to do something dire. “Don’t be a child, Geralt. This isn’t about pointing fingers.”

“Then what exactly is this about?” Geralt stopped in the middle of the path under the overhanging branches of a small glade and turned to face her.

“Everyone in the palace is talking about the fact that you stumbled into the emperor’s chambers yesterday afternoon and didn’t leave until late in the night.”

Geralt winced. It was worse than he thought. It was bad enough when it was only the sorceresses gossiping but there was no telling how far the rumors had spread now. Would Dandelion show up, wanting to turn all of this into a song? He would rather die.

Studying Yennefer did not tell him how she felt about it. She had no expression on her face or in her voice. He inhaled carefully, trying to avoid giving himself away, but she knew him too well and was not standing close enough for him to catch a hint of her mood.

“Nothing happened.” He faced her straight on so that she could see that he was not lying.

“Why not?”

Geralt blinked, his mouth hanging open. “Eh?”

“Why. Not.” Yennefer stalked closer to him and tapped him once in the center of his chest. “It’s not like you to dither. If you didn’t want this, you would leave. Or you would make your utter disinterest clear and that would be that. Or you would fall into bed with him and then fall out as easily, as you have done with many others. And yet here you are, hovering around the palace grounds, following Lambert on his ludicrous plans, lingering around the emperor. You are acting like a fourteen-year-old maiden who is waiting to be wooed.”

“That’s not--.” Except that was how it was. That was exactly how it was. “Fuck.” Geralt rubbed his face with both hands then pressed his fingers against his eyes. “Fuck.”

“Geralt.” Yennefer waited until he lowered his hands. “What are you doing?”

Geralt turned and took a few steps away. Half of him wanted to keep going, to run until he hit the border, run until he ended up somewhere that even he did not know his name. The rest of him knew that would not be far enough. “I don’t know.”

Yennefer gave him time to pull himself together but he could not. Flashes of images and conversations and feelings swirled around in his head, none of them alighting long enough for him to make any sense of his thoughts. Witchers were said to have no feelings but the truth was that they were there, only hidden under a gauzy layer and harder to understand. Or maybe that was just Geralt.

“A djinn bound us together,” Yennefer said, finally breaking the silence. “And when that binding was broken, there wasn’t enough to keep us together. What binds you and the emperor?”

Geralt exhaled, feeling like his breath had been punched from his chest. “Yen--.”

“Come on, Geralt. You need to talk to someone and if it can’t be me, then who?”

Geralt glanced over his shoulder at her then looked away. She was dear to him even now, even with everything broken between them. She always would be, and that was the only reason he managed to scrape the words out of his throat. “He was a monster and I hunt monsters. So I did. I took a contract and then... And then I met him and... I had never seen someone fight so hard to be human. To keep themselves.

“And he treated me like a man. He spoke to me like I was man, like I wasn’t anyone to be afraid of or disgusted by. I had come to kill him and he spoke to me with such-- purpose.” Geralt fought each word, struggled for each one.

“He-- I slept with him. While he was cursed.” Geralt could still remember how the quills had appeared under his palms when the sun rose over the horizon. Emhyr had frozen but Geralt had only stroked them, smooth and cool, and found places to touch that would please them both. He remembered how Emhyr had melted into the touches and how careful they had to be. He remembered hissing when a quill pierced his back, and Emhyr soothing it with kisses and soft words before tugging him over onto his back and pressing them both into the dirt. He remembered laughing and swallowing an answering laugh. He remembered Emhyr’s laugh.

“He was just a man, like me, but then he was cured and revealed to be a prince of Maecht. That was bad enough. Because he couldn’t be mine. I had the Path and he had a princess. There was no reconciling that. And then it was given out that they both had died at sea and I thought--.” Geralt has to force the words out. “And I thought that was as bad as it got. He was gone so there were no more chances. And then I found out that the whole time he was actually the Emperor of Nilfgaard.”

Geralt tried to laugh at himself, at his incredible naivete, but the sound was horrible and strangled. “I was an idiot. He wasn’t Duny, the man I met. He wasn’t the man or the prince. He was Emhyr var Emreis, Emperor of Nilfgaard, King of Cintra, Lord of Metinna, Ebbing, and Gemmera, Sovereign of Nazair and Vicovaro, Deithwen Addan yn Carn aep Morvudd.” The titles sat on Geralt’s tongue like sharp stones.

Yennefer closed the distance between them and rested a hand on Geralt’s shoulder. He tensed then slowly relaxed. She waited until he did before she spoke. “You’re a good judge of character, Geralt, even when you don’t see it. If you saw something in him, it’s there. He is still Duny under all of the rest of it.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does.” Yennefer’s grip tightened and she gave him a shake. “Don’t be stupid. Think. What is the emperor doing? These last few days, what has he been doing?” When Geralt did not reply quickly enough, Yennefer’s voice sharpened with irritation. “He has let you into his private spaces. He hasn’t crushed any of the rumors. He hasn’t exiled Lambert from the city. He isn’t having you followed and isn’t trying to stop you from leaving. He’s left it all up to you.”

“Ciri--.”

“This isn’t about her and you know it.” Yennefer pulled him around to face her. “For twenty years, he’s taken control of every choice, every outcome. But in this, he’s letting you lead. What do you think that means?”

Geralt shook his head. He did not want to know. He did not want to think about it.

“Geralt!”

“What?” he snapped. Yennefer stared at him and he looked away. Playing stupid never worked with her. “I don’t know what he wants,” Geralt muttered. “Not really.”

“Have you asked him?”

Geralt snorted. “Have you tried having a conversation with him? He’s impossible.”

Yennefer stared at him longer.

“What?” Geralt lifted both brows, shifting his weight. She looked like she was waiting for the penny to drop but he had no idea what she was waiting for.

“No,” she said, her voice sardonic. “I do not have conversations with the Emperor of Nilfgaard. He grants audiences, in which he may listen to a petition, ask questions, and issue commands. I do not think one could even consider what he has at parties ‘conversations’.”

That was too much to hear, too much to think about. From the moment he arrived, it had been one pressure after another. One more would set him off like a triggered trap. Geralt pulled away from her grip, turning around and spreading his arms wide. “What do you want from me, Yen? What?”

The look she gave him made his stomach twist; there was such sympathy and compassion in it. He hated it.

“Oh, Geralt.” Yennefer sighed. “I only want you to be happy.”

He did not resist when she pulled him into a hug, though part of him wanted to. “He’s merciless. He’s untrustworthy. His ends justify any means. We don’t have anything in common.”

Yennefer had a smile in her voice when she replied. “Both of you can be ruthless in defense of what you love.”

He did not have anything to say to that. He leaned into Yennefer’s embrace, and waited for his thoughts to settle. What did he want? Why was he waiting? Why was he finding this so difficult?

The shadows in the glade had shifted by the time Geralt had sorted out his thoughts. In the past, Emhyr had chosen revenge and ambition over Geralt even if neither have them had recognized that it was a choice. This time, he wanted Emhyr to choose him. “I guess I am waiting to be wooed after all.”

*****

Geralt studied himself in his mirror, stroking his bare cheeks. Emhyr preferred him clean shaven and he needed every advantage that he could get. He wanted Emhyr to choose all of him, not simply the bits that involved the bed. Or a chair. Or the floor. He wanted a relationship -- the very thing that Emhyr scorned when they talked on the balcony.

He still was not sure that he was on the best path but it was the only one he saw. Yennefer was right; he needed to stop dithering and make a choice.

He set the damp towel on the edge of the bowl, still half-full of water and suds, and headed into main room of his suite. His best clothes were waiting for him on the bed, something provided for him to attend a ball for Duchess Anna Henrietta. He hated them but they were appropriate for court, or for negotiating with an emperor. He pulled on the blue silk and cream linen, smoothing it down over chest and thigh, before combing his hair back with his fingers and binding it with a silver clasp that Dandelion had given him while trying to convince him to dress up for a show at the Chameleon. He had not done so.

Giving himself no more time to vacillate, Geralt left his rooms and counted down two doors, picking Emhyr’s quarters deliberately this time. The guards watched him open the door and he did not watch them watch him. Avoiding eye contact was a key step in his plan. Except with Emhyr. He was going to need eye contact with Emhyr at some point.

“We need to talk,” Geralt said, closing the door behind him. His delivery was firm, showing that he was serious and ready. Yennefer would have been proud of him, though she would have taken off points for the fact that he was delivering it to an empty room.

Geralt sighed and poured himself a drink before settling into a chair. He was not leaving the room until he and Emhyr had reached a resolution, whatever that might be. He could’t keep on like this. It was untenable.

His determination was tested as an hour passed without a sign of Emhyr. He finished his drink and refused to pour another; no one needed a repeat of the previous day. He ended up taking a book from one of the bookshelves to give himself something to do, and he made it a third of the way through a marginally interesting treatise on hunting restrictions by the next time the door opened.

Emhyr gave him a sweeping glance that paused on his jaw before dropping to his book. “Your tastes are more exotic than I recall,” Emhyr said, walking over to his desk with Mererid following on his heels. The chamberlain set a stack of papers on the desk then left after a flick of Emhyr’s fingers, though not without giving Geralt a flat look. At least that was one thing unchanged.

“Better than the book on imperial tax codes of the last century.” Geralt closed the book and set it aside. He expected Emhyr to bury himself in his work, so he folded his hands over his belly and stretched his legs out, getting comfortable even if he did not feel it. He was not leaving the room, he reminded himself. He was doing this. As soon as Emhyr was done. So, in an hour or two. That would give him time to prepare himself again; the long wait had drained some of his resolve.

He was surprised when Emhyr collected the cognac bottle from the sideboard and brought it and a glass over to Geralt. Geralt’s brows climbed higher when Emhyr refilled his glass before taking a seat across from him.

“You don’t have work to do?” Geralt asked, uneasy.

“I do.” Emhyr sipped his drink, as relaxed as Geralt was tense. “But you implied that you wanted me to participate more in our conversations, and you appear to want one.”

Emhyr was not supposed to just give Geralt what he wanted. That was not how the world worked. No one gave Geralt what he wanted without a price being attached.

Geralt set that thought aside and met Emhyr’s gaze. “I have had sex with a lot of people.” Geralt paused at the flicker in Emhyr’s eyes then resumed when it did not resurface. “And that was all it was. Mostly. It had been more than sex with a few and I didn’t know what to do with that. Sex was easier.”

If this had been a battle or an exorcism, Geralt’s hands would have been steady and his heartbeat would have been slow. But this-- he barely knew how to talk about this. He had no training, no guide, only Yennefer’s conviction that he and Emhyr had something binding them together.

Geralt paused again but Emhyr seemed content to let him talk himself out, so he continued. “A long time ago, I thought you were someone I could have. Except you weren’t. And that... hurt. I don’t want to feel like that again. If you’re going to make me feel that way again, then I don’t want anything to do with you.”

Emhyr nodded once. “A fair stipulation.” He took a sip of his cognac. “That is what you do not want. Will you tell me what you do want?”

Geralt looked at the door. He could still leave. He could do this another night. Yennefer was clearly crazy and so was he for listening to her.

“Don’t run.” Emhyr’s voice drew Geralt’s gaze back to him. He was staring intently at Geralt, as if he were a secret to steal or puzzle to be solved. “It is fair,” he said, enunciating each word, “for you to ask for what you want.”

Geralt’s lips thinned but he did not argue.

“Geralt.” Emhyr set his drink aside. “I have been remiss in my actions. I did not consider fully what I wanted. Or rather, I knew but could not reconcile both desires. I took the easier path and in doing so, I treated you unfairly.”

Emhyr could not have startled Geralt more if he had struck him. He fumbled for his glass and almost dropped it before managing to get it to his lips. He drained half the glass then set it on his knee and closed his eyes.

“Damn it, Emhyr.” Geralt did not know why he was angry. He had no other word for the way his hands clenched and his jaw tightened, for the way his heart beat faster. The Emperor of Nilfgaard apologized to no one. Geralt could hear the echo of Yennefer’s voice. What do you think that means?

Emhyr waited patiently until Geralt opened his eyes, and then met them with a level, even gaze. “I am clear on what I want.”

Geralt did not want to ask but he knew that he needed to. “And what is that?”

“You. However you will let me have you.”

It took Geralt a moment to understand what Emhyr meant and when he did, his jaw fell open. He had expected Emhyr to throw him out, at best, or to be told he was only wanted for sex, at worst. He expected things that were not happening and now he did not know how to react.

“You--. I--.” Geralt huffed then his confusion spilled out. “How would this even work?”

“I am abdicating as soon as Cirilla is ready. That will remove most of the obstacles.”

“But not all of them,” Geralt pointed out with the certainty of a gwent player laying down a leader card.

“No. Those we will need to work out ourselves.”

Geralt jerked to his feet and started to pace around the room, trying to burn up some of his anxious energy. “How will we do that?”

“Like any other couple.”

The reply brought Geralt up short. He pivoted on his heel to stare at Emhyr. Yennefer’s words came back to him -- that Emhyr has left it up to him -- and he realized the truth of it. It sucked the anger out of him, which was not really anger to begin with.

“A couple?” Geralt sunk back into his chair, staring at Emhyr and held by the return gaze. He swallowed. “You want that?”

“A week ago, I would not have known to.”

“What changed?”

“I had time to consider.”

Geralt snorted. “Twenty years wasn’t enough?”

“Twenty years,” Emhyr said, a sardonic tinge to his tone, “turned out to be barely enough.”

Geralt laughed and relaxed, his shoulders dropping. “Some people are slower than others.”

He shuffled his feet, hunting for the right words. Words were slippery and slid away from him all too often. He did better with actions. “I, ah, didn’t think you’d talk to me. I thought you’d-- we parted ways when you were cured. And I thought that was it. I never saw-- you never seemed to-- you went with Princess Pavetta and left me behind.” Stupid words.

“I loved my wife but I never forgot you.” Emhyr shook his head. “I do not regret loving her. I do not regret returning to Nilfgaard. I do regret hurting you.”

The idea that someone would regret hurting him was as foreign to Geralt as the idea of someone giving him what he wanted simply because he asked for it. He set it aside for later consideration. “What now?”

“What do you want?” Emhyr asked.

Geralt had known it would come back to this. Emhyr was the most stubborn person he knew; he wasn’t known as ‘The Relentless’ for nothing. Still, he thought he finally had an answer. “I want to try. For more. With you.”

Emhyr did not make him explain further which was a relief. He simply nodded. “Will you have dinner with me?”

“Yeah.” Geralt set his glass aside, a giddy, bubbling feeling in his chest. It prompted him to blurt out, “I thought this discussion would be harder.”

Emhyr arched a brow, silently encouraging Geralt to continue.

“I was going to try to--.” He waved a hand to himself, to his bare jaw and his rarely-worn finery.

“Seduce me?”

Geralt scowled. “Convince you! To take me seriously!”

Emhyr’s expression warmed, though Geralt could not point to any one thing and say that was what caused the change. He knew that he liked it, however. “Consider me convinced.”

To hell with dinner. Geralt rose and took the step toward Emhyr, his hand outstretched. Without hesitation, Emhyr took his hand and rose to meet him. The contact sparked along Geralt’s nerves. Finally.

He had wanted Emhyr so much for so long and had not let himself even think about it. And now he could have Emhyr. And he could be had in return. The two of them, holding onto their humanity with both hands, could now hold onto each other. That was what bound them.

He leaned in, pressing his nose against the soft skin behind Emhyr’s ear. Spice-ink-iron. He shivered from head to toe, and licked the patch of skin. It tasted right. He couldn’t believe he had ever mistaken Daan for Emhyr. Emhyr felt right, tasted right, smelled right. Geralt wanted to roll himself in Emhyr’s scent until he smelled of him. Geralt-and-Emhyr. Geralt-and-spice-ink-iron.

Emhyr gripped the back of Geralt’s neck and pulled him away. He looked at him, his eyes hungry as they took in Geralt’s expression, then tipped his chin and slid their mouths together, kissing Geralt as if he were a kingdom that he had conquered.

Geralt wrapped his arms around Emhyr, pulling him close until they were pressed together from chest to knee. It wasn’t close enough. Too many layers of clothes separated them, and too much time. Emhyr’s hand slipped into Geralt’s hair, tugging out his silver clip and letting it fall. Geralt groaned, the sound rumbling in his chest, and tried to press closer. Emhyr bit his lip in response then smiled and kissed the corner of his mouth and the corner of his jaw. Geralt turned his head, chasing Emhyr’s mouth, discontent to have it taken from him.

“Come to my bed,” Emhyr said. His voice was low and rough, and made promises that Geralt wanted desperately him to keep.

“Yes.” Of course, yes. Geralt slid his mouth down Emhyr’s throat, biting a path down to his collar. He nosed the cloth out of the way and sucked a mark into the bare skin.

“And stay.”

Geralt lifted his head. “The night?”

“As long as you want.” Emhyr squeezed Geralt’s nape then slid his palm down Geralt’s spine, heavy and possessive. Geralt made a needy sound that would have embarrassed him if he had had the attention to spare. This was what he wanted. It was what he had always wanted: to be known and wanted and chosen. He nodded, unable to speak.

“Come,” Emhyr said.

Emhyr led Geralt to his bedroom, and Geralt wondered if it might someday become their bedroom. Their bed.

With a touch to Geralt’s shoulder, Emhyr fixed Geralt in place. Geralt stood patiently as Emhyr removed each piece of clothing from him one at a time because Emhyr wanted it from him, and he wanted to give Emhyr what he wanted.

“Look at you,” Emhyr said, his fingers reverent as they stroked across each revealed bit of skin. “Do you know how lovely you are?”

Geralt twitched at that, and Emhyr soothed him with a palm down his flank. “You are,” Emhyr said. “Each scar shows how strong you are.” He scraped a fingernail over a claw mark on Geralt’s ribs. “They show that you survived. How could I not admire them?”

Geralt reached for Emhyr and Emhyr caught his hands and placed them back by his sides. Geralt left them where they were placed, though he ached to touch. Emhyr circled behind him and rested a hand on Geralt’s hip. He kissed the back of Geralt’s neck, and then stroked the skin with one fingertip.

“I have thought of you in a collar with my seal upon it or dressing you in my colors,” Emhyr said, his tone musing. “I like the idea of all who see you knowing with whom you belong.” Geralt flushed, and Emhyr hmmed. "You like it, too." There was great satisfaction in Emhyr’s voice, and it made Geralt’s flush deepen. “I will give it to you. I will give you everything you need. And whatever you want, you only have to ask.”

“Touch me,” Geralt pled.

“Yes,” Emhyr said, and stepped away which was the opposite of what Geralt wanted. Before he could protest, Emhyr continued. “Get on the bed.”

Geralt complied, his movements clumsy, his cock bouncing hard and hot against his belly. He felt like he was on display. Emhyr stripped with quick, efficient movements, his eyes never leaving Geralt, then joined him in the bed. He put his hands on Geralt’s knees and pushed them apart, then lay claim to the space between. He wedged his thighs against Geralt’s and bracketed his shoulders with his arms.

“I am going to keep you,” Emhyr rasped, hair hanging around his face as he stared down at Geralt. “It was a mistake to let you go. Now that I have you back, I am going to keep you.”

Geralt tipped his face up, silently asking for a kiss, and Emhyr gave it to him. Geralt wanted another and another, and he got those, too. He got everything he wanted as Emhyr prepared him then slid inside. Both of them moaned, and Emhyr bit kisses into Geralt’s mouth as if he were trying to mark him from the inside out.

They moved together, their hands clutching, their mouths greedy. Geralt came first, with Emhyr’s hand on his cock and voice in his ear. He shuddered, sweat beading his sides, his chest rising and falling like a bellows. Emhyr followed after, his face pressed against Geralt’s neck and his hands leaving bruises on Geralt’s hips.

Neither could stand to move away, not even to wipe themselves clean. Geralt tucked himself into the curve of Emhyr’s body as peace stole over him. A fragile feeling that he did not dare name squeezed his heart. He closed his eyes and exhaled, and trusted that Emhyr would be there in the morning.

*****

The next morning passed in a delirious haze. Emhyr only left when he could not put off his work any longer, and he made sure to leave Geralt sated and ready for a nap. Geralt dozed until the sun was high then pulled himself out of bed where he found a hot bath waiting for him. He wanted to flush in embarrassment to think of servants moving around him while he slept but he was too worn and too happy to manage it. He would be embarrassed later.

After his bath, he pulled on the fresh clothes laid out for him -- not his, he noted, but fitting perfectly -- and wandered into the main room, following the scent of lunch. His favorite dishes were placed on a small table and he smiled, quietly pleased.

Geralt was less pleased when he read a note waiting on top of one of the cloches.

Geralt, I will be busy until late this evening. If you are seeking entertainment, Cirilla was looking for you. -- E

He grunted and dropped the note onto the table. As if he hadn’t been looking for her for the last three days, he thought indignantly. Grumbling to himself at the high-handedness of all Emreises, he scarfed down his food then headed out to find his foster daughter.

As he walked through the palace, Geralt couldn’t help overhearing the whispers or seeing the poorly disguised glances. He ignored all of them. That would have to be one of the things fixed by Emhyr’s abdication; nothing else would slow the gossip.

He finally found Ciri in an out of the way library. He paused in the doorway to watch her. Her head was bent over a book, stacks of them on either side of her, and her pale hair was twisted into a braided crown. However, wisps of hair fell around her face and neck and he knew that it was still her. She was still his little girl inside of the elegant young woman. She would be an empress, but she would also be herself.

Reassured, Geralt pushed away from the doorframe and snuck over to her table, setting his feet carefully to avoid making noise. He got within arm’s length of her before she turned a page and without looking up, said, “If you mess up my hair, I will drop you in a muddy ditch. It took the maid an hour to get it to stay and that is an hour that I will never get back.”

Geralt laughed and leaned in to hug her over her chair back. “Already ruled by the servants, eh?”

“As if you didn’t let Mererid shave you and squeeze you into a new outfit back in Vizima to avoid his dour look.” Ciri grinned and twisted around in her chair to hug him back. “I missed you.”

Geralt tightened his hug. “I missed you, too.” He held her close for a long moment before reluctantly releasing her and sliding into the adjacent chair. “But it seems like you’ve been busy.”

“Not as busy as you, from what I hear.”

Geralt groaned at Ciri’s arch tone, rubbing his face with one hand. “Not you, too.”

“It’s not every day that the emperor takes a lover.”

The word made Geralt cringe. “Nooooo. Please, Ciri. If you love me at all, no.”

Ciri’s smile softened and she squeezed Geralt’s hand. “Alright. I won’t tease. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.” She paused, a little anxiety peeking through. “You are... happy, aren’t you? This is what you want?”

It seemed like a conversation that Geralt should have with Emhyr first except... fuck it. Ciri was his daughter and she deserved to know. “I am. I think.” He cleared his throat, shifting in his seat. Just because she deserved to know did not mean he was comfortable talking about it. “We’re... working on it. It’s... we were...”

He exhaled and tired again. “There’s history there. Good and bad. A lot of bad,” he admitted. “But there was always good, even when it was buried under all of the bad. And we’re going to try to... see what we can make of it.” He made face. He sounded like an idiot.

Ciri studied his expression and must have approved of what she saw because her smile returned. “Then I’m happy for you both.” She closed her book and pushed it to the side. “Father told me that you had something to talk to me about.”

Geralt had long resigned himself to Emhyr knowing everything, or at least giving the appearance of it. Now he would have to get used to Emhyr knowing everything from up close. He added that thought to the ‘to work on’ mental list, and put it aside. “You were the one who wanted to talk to me. You sent me an urgent message. I came as fast as I could.”

Ciri blinked at him. “No, I didn’t.”

“You did!” Geralt rummaged through his pockets for the missive that started his journey south. He had gotten in the habit of keeping it on him, transferring it from pocket to pocket until it was worn and the edges tattered. “Here.” He pulled out the crinkled parchment and held it out to Ciri who leaned in to frown at it. “See?” He pointed to the ‘please come’ written at the bottom.

“Oh that.” Ciri sat back. “I wanted you to come to my investiture.”

Geralt stared at her then stared down at the note. “Huh?”

“I’m being formally recognized as Emhyr’s heir,” she said. “That opens the way for his abdication, probably in a year or two. It is traditional to have your family in attendance, so I wanted my father here for it.”

Geralt’s hand dropped, lowering the note to the table, and he opened then closed his mouth. Part of him was furious that he had been so worried over nothing and that he had ridden hundreds of miles for no reason. Another part of him remembered how Emhyr’s bare skin looked against the pale bedsheets and pointed out that that was a very good reason. The rest of him melted at the reminder that Ciri loved him as much as he loved her. “Oh.”

“It didn’t worry you, did it?” Ciri peered at his face, frowning at his dumbstruck expression. “I didn’t think you’d come unless I included a note but I didn’t have time for much.”

Geralt looked back down at the note then smiled and shook his head. “No, not worried.” He leaned in to kiss her temple. “Thank you for inviting me.”

Ciri beamed and started to chatter about what she had been studying and what she had learned. Geralt listened with part of his attention. He used the rest to create a mental checklist. He needed to remember to thank Lambert and Keira. As stupid as their plans were, they somehow helped. And he couldn’t wait to see Philippa’s frustration. And he needed to let Yennefer know that she was right. She would like that.

And most of all, he had to find Emhyr and kiss him, now that he had license. In fact, he needed to kiss him at least once an hour. He would make it a rule.

He looked at Ciri, earnestly explaining the difference between manners for a dinner with nobility from Toussaint and nobility from Mettina, and he smiled. He had Emhyr and Ciri. He had people who knew that he was a witcher and human and whole, and it was as much as he dreamed of wanting. And it had only taken a few hundred miles and twenty years to get here.