The performance hall smells of ink and candlewax, wine and ale, bread and cakes, fruit and cheese. (“The bitterest torment!” Jaskier says as he passes the refreshments table, eyeing a sharp white wedge; by now Geralt knows the rule about singers and dairy and tugs at Jaskier’s elbow as he is expected to.) Noble patrons walk among the academes, but something about the scholarly air here sits better with him than an aristocratic ballroom’s atmosphere does. Students gather in this room to scribble frantic essays and compositions; professionals use this room to hone and display their craft. He can respect that.
Mostly. It’s still bards, after all, and a lot of young ones, too. They must take a class about projecting their emotions just as much as they project their voices; Geralt has to stiffen his senses against the gale of their anticipation in the air.
“We’re almost due to start,” Jaskier says. “They’ll turn the lights down and everyone will shut up soon if they know what’s good for them.”
Jaskier had reserved their seats on the right side of the hall, with Jaskier at the very end of the row so he can walk up to the stage when it’s his turn, Geralt just to his left so Geralt can “protect him from the attentions of jealous compatriots.” Geralt interprets this to mean that he should be his unapproachable self in order to save Jaskier from having to mingle with his peers before his performance. Convenient; being unapproachable is what he’s good at.
As the torches around the room begin to dim and the ones on stage spark to life, he stands with Jaskier so they can let an old man pass by and sit down. The old man’s bright yellow barding outfit involves a lot of colorful silk tassels. It looks like a fancy version of the baby-vests that parents wear in Toussaint, which are decorated with glinting materials that an infant might like to stare at or hold in their tiny fists.
He turns to raise his eyebrows at Jaskier, sure that Jaskier would find the same comparison without him needing to say a word, but Jaskier’s eyes stay locked on the stage. The first performance starts and Jaskier’s fingers tap-tap-tap against one of his thighs.
Nervous. He needn’t be. The first song could be a good one, but the singer is boring. Jaskier’s voice has a lot more range. His lung capacity is clearly superior, too, probably from exercising it all day with his endless chatter.
“They sang with one note,” Geralt mutters at Jaskier during the post-song applause, trying to get those tap-tapping fingers to still.
For some reason, Jaskier glances over at the old bard sitting next to them. “It wasn’t that bad,” he mutters, a smile trying to escape at the corners of his mouth.
“The story is stupid,” Geralt says about the next one.
“It needs a more compelling ending,” Jaskier agrees diplomatically, flicking his eyes again at the old bard.
“Why the fuck would a warrior queen take one look at some impoverished merchant and want to give up the throne in order to settle down and have babies?”
Jaskier sighs. “Some people think ‘love at first sight’ excuses everything.”
“He’d better avoid Cintra,” Geralt says. Jaskier might exaggerate but at least he never stretches suspension of disbelief that far.
…Fuck. Why does he even know what suspension of disbelief is? Fucking bards.
“The rhythm is off,” Geralt complains about the performer after that. A lot of Jaskier’s music goes da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM, or DUM-da-da, DUM-da-da, or some other variation with regular emphases. It makes it easy to stomp and clap if it’s that kind of song. The bard who just sang was all over the fucking place, and not in an engaging way.
Jaskier’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “From the content of the song,” he says, “I would guess that the discordance is meant to reflect the chaos of our modern times.”
“The past was chaotic too,” Geralt points out. “Their discord needs to sound better.”
The singers are all responding to the same prompt, which Jaskier had told him about immediately upon receiving his invitation to the competition: they have to sing something inspired by the word ‘epic.’ How they interpret the word is up to them.
Jaskier had spent a day or so ranting about the difference between cliches and classics and balling up scribbled-on scraps of paper, but after a while he’d brightened and started muttering about horses and shoes instead. (Something about luck, perhaps?) Though he’d only hummed his new song around Geralt, the tune seemed promising enough.
Whatever arcane process Jaskier had gone through to find his inspiration, Geralt finds himself wishing the other bards had done it too. So far the Oxenfurt Bardic Competition is less epic and more epically mediocre.
For a change, the newest bard sings very well, to Geralt’s ears. Unfortunately, they also stand frozen on stage while they do.
“There’s a philosophy that says kinetic performance only distracts from vocal art,” Jaskier explains, apparently reading Geralt’s thoughts from his face.
“If I wanted to hear music from a statue, then I would get one enchanted,” Geralt says.
The old bard next to them snorts in what seems like agreement.
The next singer is the last one’s opposite, a charismatic performer who tumbles acrobatically across the stage; they duck, flip, and shadow-box in the wavering light from the stage torches. Decent enough to watch, and they sing the tale of a prize-fighting “match of the decade.” Finally, something fun.
But if Jaskier were singing it, the song would be…more than fun. Somehow.
“Hmm,” Geralt says when Jaskier looks to him during the applause, because Jaskier would never let him live it down if he said “Too shallow” instead.
Valdo Marx sings a story about fighting a dragon; afterwards, Geralt understands better why Jaskier hates him. The man did tricky things with his voice and his lute that Geralt had heard Jaskier practicing on the road, and he performed well, seducing the audience. The song he sang, though, and the way he sang it—
“No heart,” Geralt tells Jaskier. The admission of something feelings-adjacent is worth it for the way Jaskier bumps shoulders with him and looks relieved.
“The parts with the dragon were also horrifically inaccurate,” Jaskier adds, slanting a knowing look in his direction.
Geralt nods. “Uninformed drivel,” he says. “But the prompt said ‘epic,’ not ‘real.’”
“You like real,” Jaskier points out, as though what Geralt likes matters at all.
Jaskier opens his mouth as if to continue, but the bard next to them clears his throat, which makes Jaskier shut up. Incredible.
(If bards live long enough, do they gain power over silence as well as sound?)
The bard who comes on stage next is the youngest yet. She brings a handheld drum with her instead of a string instrument, and for a few moments the drum is the only thing they hear.
Geralt finds himself listening more closely; Jaskier leans forward in his chair and looks as focused as Geralt has ever seen him.
When the bard sings, even Geralt’s slow-beating heart is moved by the soaring and crashing of her voice, the story of mutual sacrifice, the lovers’ final crescendoing triumph over their foes, the way the inexorable drum beat drops out at the end and the survivor has to continue on alone.
During the applause, he makes sure to look at the stage instead of at Jaskier. Jaskier, the bard. Jaskier, his friend. Jaskier, who will almost certainly die before Geralt does. His chest tightens. This is why he hates music.
“Not bad,” he says, distracting himself. “Not sure she’d last a whole night in a tavern.” A fine voice is one thing, but a bard has to have stamina and she looks a little peaky.
Jaskier huffs a quiet laugh. “Brim’s just got over a chest cold,” he tells Geralt. “She can sing for a night and a day under ordinary circumstances.”
Geralt raises an inquiring eyebrow. Jaskier always scouts out the competition, but there’s a distinct fondness in his voice.
“I sponsor her scholarship here,” Jaskier explains. “Passing on the favor; I got in on merit, you know.”
Not on his family’s money, Jaskier leaves unsaid, because he’d run away from it by then. Geralt had suspected as much. “I always thought you just complained until they let you in to shut you up,” he says. He shoves Jaskier towards the stage before Jaskier can squawk his outrage.
Jaskier performs last. More pressure; the closing act has to be good. But Jaskier makes a self-effacing remark that gets his audience chuckling, dispelling the tension in the air, which is good, because his supposedly epic song starts out humorous, an ode to the utterly pure love involved in…
…sharing a bedroll even though your sleeping partner has the garlic farts.
Jaskier puts a loyal hand over his heart even as he wrinkles his nose, and the audience laughs again.
Geralt frowns. Jaskier has told him enough times that comedy wins coin but not awards.
But he shouldn’t have doubted: the song soon develops in complexity, Jaskier’s voice and lute creating a story of yearning and affection out of visuals that should be prosaic:
“That smudge of honey in their hair,
walking the road at midday and
breathing the same dusty air,
smelling like the same horse
because we’ve only one to share.”
As Jaskier dances across the stage, his voice and his musical styles travel from the depths of the Velen lowlands to the peaks of Skellige isles and then back again, much like Jaskier himself has done by Geralt’s side. The variety could have been distracting, Geralt thinks, but Jaskier makes all the different bits fit together, clearly using them to emphasize the consistency of the relationship in the song. And when Jaskier’s rhythm falters or twists, the song feels better for it, changing, growing into something tempered like folded steel through interruptions and frustrations.
In reels and in chants, in classical measures and in folksong, Jaskier’s partners keep walking their dusty road together.
The song concludes with a verse about finding your shoes freshly-soled by your bedside. About the certainty that comes with having solid leather between your toes and the sharp edges of life. About not knowing where you’ll go next, but knowing who you’ll be in step with on the way there.
When Jaskier bows with a flourish and leaves the stage, most people in the audience are smiling, including the old bard sitting next to him. Including Geralt, even, though his lungs still feel too small in his chest. He’d dropped Jaskier’s boots off at the cobbler’s this very afternoon. For once in his fool life, Jaskier hasn’t exaggerated at all. The song is all real. Every line and note of it.
“Exceptional,” the old bard says next to him, standing up. “Jaskier has clearly benefited from having you around as a critic.” He squeezes past Geralt and pats him on the shoulder in a grandfatherly sort of way.
(Pats him! A witcher! Are all bards mad? Geralt is probably the oldest person in the room. And the only thing he does to critique Jaskier’s music is tell him to stop caterwauling.)
A few moments later, the old bard takes the stage with two other colorfully tasseled individuals, one of whom still has oily spots while the other has just begun graying at the temples. Maiden, mother, crone—though the bards are of different genders.
“We will announce our decision in ten minutes,” the old bard says, projecting towards the back of the hall with ease. “Please feel free to refresh yourselves.”
He’s a judge. No wonder Jaskier had been nervous.
Nerves seemingly forgotten, Jaskier beams with pride as he crosses the room, one hand on Brim’s shoulder. “Geralt, Brim,” he says, introducing them. “Brim, Geralt.”
Brim nods at him and straightens to her full height, which is what other bards tend to do around Jaskier when they aren’t trying to strangle him with his own lute strings. Something about Jaskier seems to inspire better, prouder performance.
Jaskier spreads his arms wide and grins at him. “Three words or less,” he says, as is their routine.
Following the ritual, Geralt makes a show of thinking. Then: “Congratulations,” he says to Brim. Turning to Jaskier, he raises a doubtful eyebrow and says, “Maybe second.”
“Geralt! Me, come in second? You are a notorious traitor, throwing me over for this incredible new talent!” Jaskier scolds him, clutching his heart as if wounded, but beneath that, he looks pleased. When he turns to the blushing Brim, he says, “Base treachery aside, my friend has a very good ear, you know. I have no doubt about his assessment.”
Brim clicks her tongue. “I think if you don’t win, it’s because you were singing for a different audience than the judges,” she says, her eyes flicking in Geralt’s direction.
Jaskier shrugs broadly. “Darling, you know a good bard always sings for the toughest audience in the house!” He winks at Geralt before turning back to Brim for a conversation involving a flurry of musical terminology.
It occurs to Geralt then that Jaskier couldn’t have sung this song anywhere else. He couldn’t have sung it in a tavern; the musical variety alone, celebrated here, would put the masses off. No one who’d grown up in Velen would want to hear “foreign shit” from Skellige while they tried to drown their sorrows in ale, and vice-versa. It’s mostly not written in the style favored by nobility, either; no pretty romances or brave battles. And Jaskier wouldn’t bring something like this to their fire or the road, places where Geralt dedicates half of his hearing to monitoring their surroundings for threats.
Really, it’s a song as homeless as Geralt and Jaskier are.
“Could’ve written about a bruxa,” Geralt says after Brim abandons Jaskier for a circle of her admirers.
Jaskier huffs his scorn. “Bruxae are so quotidian.”
And Jaskier’s eyes do sharpen at that. “Tempting,” he admits. “But only because I want to write a better one than that dreadful hack, as you well know.”
“You won’t win,” Geralt says, finally, unable to keep from prodding. “Probably. I thought that was the point of these things?”
“Only for people who don’t have better things to care about, my attentive aristarch.” Jaskier smiles a cat’s secret smile.
Geralt narrows his eyes.
On stage, the judges call for all performers to line up in front of them and for the audience to return to their seats.
Jaskier lingers, leaning in. “Now’s a good time to slip out,” he says. “They’ll drag out the awards for at least fifteen minutes even though there are only four of them, and then there will be a horrible party full of drunken bards who may or may not remember how to play their instruments but are still determined to try. You should bring Roach some apples.” He jerks his head to indicate the refreshments table.
“Hmm.” It’s a good plan. However, if he’s going to leave Jaskier alone… “Do not,” he says, “physically harm Valdo Marx.”
“Oh, we know better than to do that on campus,” Jaskier replies, breezy. “Neither of us fancies getting exiled from the guild.”
Geralt levels an unimpressed look at him for the evasion.
Jaskier’s shoulders slump dramatically. “All right, all right,” he says, and he repeats the words just as he repeats Geralt’s instructions on a hunt. “I will not physically harm Valdo Marx. For tonight.”
“Good.” Geralt nods again, gestures at the stage where the three judges are beginning to look impatient.
“Oh! I’m coming!” Jaskier bounds across the room and onto the stage—just like with his performance, he’s the last one.
In the cool night air, on the walk back to Roach’s stable, Geralt chews on the evening’s events along with one of the honey-cakes from the refreshment table.
He and Roach have been serenaded, there’s no doubt about that.
(Jaskier wrote an entire stanza about the alacrity of a horse’s bite matching the swiftness of her gallop.)
(He and Roach are, apparently, the most epic things in Jaskier’s life.)
Does Jaskier expect him to…what? Serenade him back? He could no more do that than Roach could. Whisper sweet nothings? That’s Jaskier’s job, and a lot of the time they end up being funny nothings anyway. But usually a serenade means someone wants something. He’s pretty sure that’s how it works.
Geralt thinks back to the song. If they’re going by that, then Jaskier wants to keep walking behind Roach. He wants to keep eating garlic and stealing Geralt’s warmth in the bedroll. He wants a tough hide between himself and the elements, whether ‘the elements’ are the rain or a kikimore. He wants Geralt to pick up his shoes from the cobbler’s in the morning.
All things that were and are going to happen anyway, song or no song.
The stables smell of hay, horse shit, oiled leather. Roach knows his step—she has her eyes open and whickers when he gets to her stall. She must smell the apple slices. He doles them out one at a time, lets her lip them from his palm. Slices are a novel shape and she shakes her head at him over it, but she eats them readily enough when they keep coming.
She hasn’t done anything specific to earn them. She doesn’t need to. She’s Roach.
Ah. Geralt smiles and runs a hand down Roach’s neck. That must be it.
Jaskier’s song is an apple.
Something Jaskier thought he’d like, that Jaskier had wanted to give him. The only thing Jaskier wants of him is the same thing he wants of Roach, and all Jaskier wants of Roach is for her to be her usual “grumpy and locomotive self,” have more common sense than a curious bard, and perhaps let him express his affection without biting his head off.
“Geralt! Did you get me new boots?”
Of course Jaskier notices them as soon as he returns from wherever he curled up to sleep off his alcohol. Of course he does.
Geralt keeps his eyes on the hybrid oil he’s mixing on Jaskier’s bedroom vanity. “They have better traction and ankle support than your old ones,” he says.
“And you don’t want me falling to my death while we traverse the rock-strewn cliffs in search of your griffin! How lovely.” Jaskier sits on the bed, tries the boots on, and wriggles his feet with apparent delight.
Geralt sighs. There’s something else. It would be easy to skip it, especially with the prize purse of professional validation already hanging off of Jaskier’s belt. But Jaskier gave him a true song, of all impossible things. He can give Jaskier five true words. “The other bards,” he begins, grimacing.
Jaskier frowns. “What did they do?”
Jaskier looks poleaxed for a satisfying moment, and then an extremely silly grin spreads like a sunrise across his face. “Oh?” he crows. “The best of a bad lot, am I? The others fail even harder than I do at meeting your exacting standards?” He flops onto his back, looks up at Geralt from the mattress. “I’m afraid I have no choice but to see this as the highest praise. Terribly sorry. There’s nothing you can do to change it.”
Geralt goes back to his oil.
“You know,” Jaskier says after a few moments, “I never thought about it before, but those judges’ outfits reminded me a lot of those baby-vests from Toussaint.”
“Hmm,” Geralt agrees.
If he has to travel with a bard—and he’s used to it by now, really—then at least he’s traveling with this one.