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“There is one small problem, good witcher, with regards to your payment.”

Geralt feels the headache that has been lingering behind his temples all day grow from a mild ache into a steady throb. Witchers shouldn’t even be able to get headaches, least of all Geralt. If anything could do it, though, it would be stupid lying nobles who try to cheat Geralt out of his coin after a job well done when he’s already running two weeks late getting home for winter and is already cold and cranky. That’ll get his head pounding, and his teeth gritting besides.

“That’s impossible,” Geralt informs Baron Algoras through them, staring the man down with yellow eyes that he knows are predatory and haunting when he wants them to be. Algoras shivers. “I specifically remember telling you I would kill the griffin for 300 crowns, and you said yes. I killed the griffin, so now you pay me 300 crowns. What could possibly be the problem with that?”

“Well, after consulting with my accountant, I’ve been informed we simply don’t have 300 crowns to give you,” Algoras says. Geralt doesn’t smell a lie on him, which probably means that he really doesn’t have the money. The nervous shifting of the noble in his seat suggests he probably knew that before he’d made the contract with Geralt, however. “You’ll just have to take 150 instead.”

“Half the price?” Geralt growled, furious.

It had been a bad idea to take this contract in the first place. Algoras has a reputation for being a cruel lord, brutal and merciless, and the very idea of helping him in any way leaves a bad taste in Geralt’s mouth. Still, this autumn had been a hard one and he would need coin to buy supplies on his way to Kaer Morhen. It wouldn’t do well to show up late and empty handed. 

“There’s nothing to be done about it now,”Algoras sniffs, waving a hand to dismiss Geralt’s anger. “The creature is dead and 150 crowns is the sum that you’ll be receiving. Unless you’ve got a means for going back in time and sewing that thing’s head back on, I hardly see what whining will do about the situation.”

Geralt moves so quickly that none of the guards have time to so much as unsheath their weapons before he’s close enough to press the tip of his steel sword to Algoras’ throat. “Whining will do nothing. Adding your head to my pile of trophies for the day might make me feel better, though.”

“Monster!” Algoras spits out, probably attempting to seem fierce. It’s severely undermined by the way he reeks of fear. “It’s true, what they say about your kind! You’re animals!”

“If I were an animal, I’d have already killed you,” Geralt growls. “I may be a monster, but I do have some level of self-control. Quickly dwindling self-control.”

“What would have me do?” Algoras’ voice is nearly a whine. “I don’t have the coin!”

“Then you’d better think of something before I take the rest of my payment in blood.”

It’s an idle threat --he wouldn’t kill an unarmed man, not even a cheat-- but Algoras doesn’t need to know that. “Alright, alright, you beast! I’ll pay you through the Law of Surprise!”

Geralt absolutely, unequivocally, does not have the time or the patience for this. “Fine,” he snaps, stepping back. “That which you have but do not yet know. That will be your payment to me for this contract.” Not that it fucking helps him now, since a promise of some future yield isn’t going to buy Geralt any supplies on his way North, but it’s better than continuing this irritating argument any longer. “Give me the 150 and I’ll be back in spring for the rest.”

Algoras smooths the front of his doublet with a disdainful expression, as if Geralt were some child who’d bumped into his legs in the market instead of a professional killer who’d threatened to slit his throat. “Very well. Here, take your coin, witcher, and begone with you.”

Gladly, Geralt thinks as he catches the small purse tossed to him.He doesn’t even bother counting it. It feels close enough to 150, and if it’s short he’ll just collect interest when he returns in the spring. Whatever gets him out of this wretched court and on his way faster.

He almost makes it out of the building when a servant bursts in from the courtyard, moving towards the receiving hall as quickly as his feet will carry him without outright sprinting. One of the guards grabs him by the arm and stops him with a sharp, “What is it? Speak, boy!”

“It’s arrived! The item from Stygga Citadel!”

Stygga Citadel, the place that was home to the witchers belonging to the School of the Cat. Whatever this interruption is about, it has to do with Geralt’s bastard cousins in the guild. Curiosity at the boy’s excitement shifts to outright suspicion, and Geralt halts in place.

“Send it in,” the guard tells the boy immediately, spine straightening. “I’ll let him know. Run now, he’ll want to see it immediately!”

The boy takes off, and Geralt’s hand twitches nervously at his side, itching for a sword in his palm. Something is wrong here. Some sort of item arriving that the whole court knew to be excited for, and it was coming to someone like Algoras. That was shady enough. And if the Cats are involved… well, that only guarantees that whatever the item is, it’s not only unsavory, it’s probably also dangerous.

Fuck. How do I always get involved in this shit?

Acting on his instincts, Geralt slips down one of the side hallways unnoticed, everyone distracted by the news of this mysterious item’s arrival. If his mental map of the building’s layout was accurate, he should be able to find a door somewhere down this hallway that opened up to the side of the receiving room. It had looked unused from the inside, a suit of armor in front of it, and Geralt might be able to use it to get a hidden view of the events inside the receiving room.

He finds a door exactly where he expected it to be, in a little alcove with dusty curtains partially obscuring it. Pressing his ear to the crack, he listens for what might be on the other side. He can hear Algoras’ excited chatter on the other side, confirming his theory. Quietly, carefully, he pulls the door open just a crack to reveal a near-perfect view of Algoras’ plush armchair and the space before it.

A moment later, in stroll two Cats, long and lean and deadly, carrying a large object between them by handles set on either side of it. Algoras greets them eagerly and they curl their lips in a cold smile, identical in their thinly veiled disdain despite their varied appearances. One is dark-skinned and bearded, head shaved to reveal a webwork of scars on his skin. The other is pale with black hair, cheekbones sharp, half of one ear missing with a jagged edge as if something had come close enough to bite it off. Both of them have two swords on their back and eyes that don’t so much as glance in Geralt’s direction, hidden as he is.

Geralt focuses his attention on the object between them. It’s a cube of some sort draped with fabric, about four feet on each side, and apparently not very heavy given the way the witchers carry it with ease. Hollow, perhaps. Straining his senses, Geralt can smell something that bizarrely brings to mind the aroma of a bakery early in the morning. Fresh baked bread, melted morsels of chocolate, sugar and honey and spice. Whatever’s in there, Geralt wants to close his eyes and lean into the smell and get lost in it and pay no attention to the mystery of the source.

That is, until he hears the heartbeat.

There’s something living inside of that box, Geralt realizes as his eyes widen once more. It’s a quick, fluttering heartbeat, fast enough to stand out between the two steady pulses of the witchers on either side. Some sort of animal, then, brought to be part of a menagerie. Something exotic that required witchers to trap and tame it. It was exactly the kind of thing that a frivolous lesser nobleman would spend his limited coin on and then be unable to pay to keep his own lands and people safe.

He almost leaves, then, having no desire to see some poor wretch of an animal caged and miserable. This is between Algoras and the Cats, and Geralt doesn’t want any part of it. He almost leaves, except that there’s something primal in him that roots him to the spot as pleasantries are exchanged because he has to know what’s under that sheet.

“Now then,” says Algoras, “let me get a look at my new toy.”

The Cats grin at each other, and then in a move so perfect that it has to be rehearsed, reach down in flawless synchronization and grab the bottom edge of the sheet covering the item. With a flick of their wrists, the sheet whips off with a flourish and flutters to the floor behind them. Beneath it lies a cage with metal bars, through which Geralt can glimpse--

A young man, human, bare except for a collar at his throat, kneeling in the cage with his back perfectly straight and his hands resting on his thighs, a picture of perfection.

Anger flares up hot and dangerous in Geralt’s gut. Everything about this is wrong, on so many levels, and Geralt rages at the implications of the presence of this man in this cage. Even in Velen slavery was eradicated, and to find out that another School was involved… Geralt will have to have a word with Vesemir about this. He and his brothers may owe Stygga Citadel a visit in the spring.

“Well isn’t it lovely,” Algoras purrs, rising from his chair to approach the cage, his saunter confident and predatory. He might have been a cat himself, the way he moves. “Look at those gorgeous blue eyes. And those perfect lips. You’re going to feel divine on my cock, aren’t you, little pet?”

Geralt sucks in a breath, feeling as though he’s been punched in the gut. Surely he couldn’t mean--

“Better than any you’ve had before,” the caged man purrs.

“I’ve been waiting a long time for you. Years in fact. I hope you’ll be worth the years of tedium I’ve endured while you were being custom made by my feline friends.”

“Not friends,” the dark-skinned witcher replies. “More like craftsmen. Ones who get paid handsomely for their services rendered.”

“Ah yes, of course, of course. Guards, bring forth the witchers’ payment, please.” Algoras returns his eyes to the man in the cage, reaching through the bars and cupping his cheek. In response, the man leans his face into the touch and turns his head to kiss Algoras’ palm. “Oh, isn’t that something? It’s eager, too.”

“Eager enough to beg for just about any cock it sees,” the raven-haired cat snorts. “I fucked it just this morning and it still had the nerve to beg Gramer for his, too.”

“Maybe that’s a reflection of your skills, Jokull,” his companion replies drily.

“Fuck off,” the one called Jokull replies. “It’s insatiable. Doesn’t matter how good the cock is, it always wants more. But don’t worry, Algoras, it’s been well-trained. It knows you’re its master now. It’ll only beg for you.”

“Is that true, pet?” Algoras asks the man in the cage. “Will you beg for me?”

“Yes, Master,” comes the reply, the man’s voice musical and lilting and yet nauseating for its blind submission. “I’ll do anything for you.”

“The mutagens have done their work,” Gramer informs Algoras, sounding bored. “It’ll be sturdier than any human, and you’ll find its holes ready to use any time. Nice and wet and loose for you, just like a cunt. As far as its mind… the thing has no memory of its life before we found it. All it knows is how to obey its master’s every desire.”

“There are a few flaws,” muses Jokull. “Using mutagens to manufacture whores instead of witchers is a new frontier, after all. Our alchemists made it a little too eager. It gets practically feral without enough cock.”

“I’m sure you’ll have no problem keeping up with it,” Gramer says.

“And if it’s pestering you, give it to your men. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind a few rounds,” finishes Jokull.

Just then two guards enter with a large wooden chest between them, struggling under its weight far more than the witchers had with the weight of the man in the cage. When it’s set on the ground with a resonating thunk, Jokull strides forward and opens the lid to reveal a mound of gold crowns. Geralt could save every bit of payment from every contract for a year and still not have that much.

So much for not having the other 150 crowns for me, Geralt thinks acidly.

Algoras isn’t paying the witchers much mind anymore, except to take the key to the cage when offered to him and fumble to unlock the cage door. “Yes, thank you for your services,” he says without looking at them, tossing the lock aside and opening the cage door. “Tell the others of your School that it was my pleasure doing business with you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to play with my new toy.”

The Cats don’t express a single flicker of emotion as Gramer picks up the chest of gold and starts heading for the door. “Have fun,” Jokull calls over his shoulder as he follows suit.

Geralt watches in horror as the caged man crawls forward on hands and knees and resumes his kneeling position before Algoras, who’s untying his trousers with a leer at the man before him. “Open up,” he says, his order obeyed instantly, “and show me what I paid for.”

Geralt sees red.

“Stop,” he barks, voice ringing clear and loud across the room as he throws open the door and strides in. Both Algoras and the man on his knees jump at the intrusion, Algoras stumbling back with his cock hanging out of his pants. He reaches for his dagger and waves it in Geralt’s direction, backing up as he yells for his guards. They rush in past the Cats and stand useless and confused with their weapons half drawn. Geralt draws his sword as well, the steel ringing ominously as it slides from his sheath, ready to defend himself and the innocent human before him.

The kneeling man doesn’t move. He’s still on his knees with his mouth open, right where Algoras left him, not moving from where he was put despite the way that Geralt can see him watching the witcher out of the corner of his eye, alight with curiosity. He doesn’t twitch a muscle out of place, though; he appears to be waiting for orders, or at least permission to protect himself, and Geralt’s rage burns a little hotter.

“What do you want, witcher?” Algoras spits out, scowling. “You have no business to be here after I’ve dismissed you. You’ve no right to meddle in my affairs!”

“I do when they concern me,” Geralt snarls, reaching the kneeling man and stepping around him, placing himself between that trembling form and any danger. “By the Law of Surprise, I claim this man.”

The man on the floor gasps, and Algoras goes deathly white. “You can’t do that!”

“I can and I have,” snaps Geralt. “He was already on your property before I claimed the Law of Surprise, but you had yet to be informed. That which you had but did not yet know. He is my prize. If I have to spill blood to take him, I will.”

Algoras, color returning to him tenfold, doesn’t look like he’s going to let Geralt go on his way peacefully. He’s a concerning shade of scarlet as he looks to the Cat witchers frozen in the doorway to implore them for help. “I’m your client!” he yells to them. “That property was supposed to be delivered to me! Stop him!”

Jokull and Gramer share a brief look, then Gramer shrugs. “We did deliver it to you. Keeping it in your own possession is your own concern, not ours. We won’t meddle in this affair.”

Geralt spares a look for them, baring his teeth in a primal threat. “Expect a visit from the Wolves soon,” he simply says.

The fury in his gaze must communicate the rest of his meaning clearly enough. The Cats share another look, and this time it’s Jokull that answers. “We look forward to meeting your steel with ours, Wolf.”

With that, they turn and stride out of the room definitively, leaving Geralt alone with the humans. He takes advantage of the brief confusion to turn slightly and extend a hand to the man on the floor. “Get up, quickly. You’re coming with me.”

Blue eyes flicker with hesitation. He looks at Algoras, then Geralt, mouth closing and plush lower lip getting caught between his teeth as he worries it briefly. He’s beautiful, Geralt can’t help but notice, even with his face marred with indecision. Finally, hesitantly, he takes Geralt’s hand and rises to his feet. 

It’s then that Algoras snaps, his voice shrill enough to give sirens a run for their money as he screams at the guards to seize Geralt. They try their best, of course, but it isn’t fast enough. It isn’t nearly fast enough, not when they’re clumsy and fat and Geralt is a witcher that makes even others of his guild look oafish. Geralt puts his back to the blue-eyed man and takes up a defensive stance, and before he has time to exhale his deep, steadying breath, there’s a circle of dead guards bleeding on the ornate rug around them.

Algoras is the last one standing, cock still out and hanging limply at his front, dagger clutched white-knuckled in his grip. “I’ll kill you for this!” he howls at Geralt. “It’s mine!”

Geralt has a very good lesson prepared about how people belong to no one but themselves, but he never gets a chance to teach it. Algoras spoils the opportunity by lunging at them with his dagger, rage and desperation in his face, and Geralt sighs heavily as he swings his sword out in a wide arc and removes the man’s head from his body with a single stroke.

He regrets it instantly when blood sprays all over both him and his charge. He should have just stabbed Algoras, but he’d let his emotions get the best of them and now he and the already terrified human are soaked. It wasn’t so much that it bothers him; he’s already covered in griffin blood from his hunt earlier, what’s a little noble blood on top of it? When he turns around, however, the blue-eyed man is staring down at the rivulets of blood running down his chest with the kind of disgusted horror that Geralt hasn’t felt in decades, if ever.

So much for saving him from trauma. “Ah, fuck me,” Geralt grumbles.

The human looks at him with sudden alertness. “Yes sir,” he replies, taking a step towards Geralt.

For a moment Geralt is confused, but it doesn’t last for long. It’s hard not to fill in the blanks when the man wastes no time reaching for Geralt’s belt, hands shaking but skilled as they fumble at his belt. As soon as the realization clicks, he’s snapping out his hands to seize the man’s wrists. “What the hell? You think I intend to bend you over and fuck you after I just saved you from those assholes?”

Confusion and the very slightest hint of annoyance take over that beautiful face between the splatters of crimson. “You commanded me to fuck you. Would you… prefer my mouth instead, Master?”

Geralt has to very deliberately release the man’s wrists and take a step back, before his shock drives him to accidentally crush delicate bones in his brutal hands on accident. “I didn’t mean it literally,” he snaps, gritting his teeth. “Look, we need to get out of here. Fast. There will be more men coming. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Stop calling me that,” Geralt growls. 

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

There’s no time for this. Geralt starts removing the gear from the top half of his body as quickly as possible. “What’s your name?” he asks the man.

“I’m… called Jaskier.”

“We’re going to have to run for it, Jaskier.” Swords and armor removed, Geralt tears at the buttons on his shirt, wrenching and struggling to get it off as quickly as possible. It takes a minute, but eventually he manages and holds out the sweaty fabric to the human. He deserves at least some dignity. “Go on, take it.” 

At Geralt’s insistent shake, Jaskier takes the shirt and pulls it on, cautiously, as if he’s not sure if the garment comes with a catch. His fingers fumble with the buttons, and Geralt finishes returning his gear to his bare chest --uncomfortable, but serviceable-- and moves to help him. The shirt is overly large on Jaskier’s skinny frame, and it hangs far enough down his thighs to give him a small amount of modesty. It’ll do, for now.

“Come with me, quickly,” Geralt tells him with no further ado, grabbing Jaskier by the hand and leading him towards the door. 

It only takes a few of Geralt’s powerful strides to realize that Jaskier won’t be able to keep up with him at a brisk walk, let alone at a run. He’s clumsy, uncoordinated, as if walking on his own two feet is a foreign sensation. Geralt wonders how long he was curled up in the cage on the journey here from Stygga Citadel. He wonders how long he was curled up in the cage before that, too.

Silently seething at the injustice, Geralt slows his pace to one that Jaskier can stumble along behind him at more comfortably. All the guards in the vicinity had come running at Algoras’ call and subsequently were killed, but it had been several minutes since then. Any minute now, someone would wander in from a different part of the building and see the carnage and then Geralt would fight his way through them, too. He would do it without hesitation, but given a choice, he’d prefer not to shed any more blood today.

“Sorry, Sir, where exactly are we going?” Jaskier whispers from just behind him.

“I have a horse in the stable, ready to go. I’m trying to get us out of here without any more fighting, but if something happens--” Geralt breaks off and reaches down to pull a dagger from his boot, flipping it to offer it to Jaskier handle first.

The man looks at him as if Geralt has grown a second and third head all at once. “Are you perhaps short of a marble?” he hisses, then seems to remember himself with a flinch. “Sorry! Sorry, I mean-- I’m not allowed to have weapons, Sir. I may never take up arms in the presence of my masters. I’ll be punished most severely.”

“You won’t be--” Geralt stops, weighing the benefit of having the argument for all of five seconds. Jaskier being unarmed and defenseless is a risk, but so is having him armed and untrained. Moreover, they don’t have time for this. “Fine,” he says, returning the knife to his boot. “Just stay close to me and try not to get killed, alright?”

“Yes, Sir.”

They make it almost to the stables before coming across another living soul, thanks to Geralt’s keen senses and his knack for finding shadowy corners to duck into. When they’re finally spotted, it’s by a young boy of no more than eight, dressed in the garb of a stablehand. He spots Geralt and Jaskier as he’s reaching for a bucket in the pathway between buildings and freezes in his tracks, wide-eyed.

“It’s alright.” Geralt squats down to his level, keeping his voice low and calming. “Listen kid, go and find someplace to hide. If you hear a commotion, don’t come out until it’s quiet again. Got it?” No need for a child to be harmed in the midst of a fray if Geralt can convince him to stay safe.

The kid blinks at him once, twice, then sucks in a breath and screams at the top of his lungs.

Right. Covered in blood. Probably not the friendliest looking guy right now. Fuck.

From then it’s a mad dash around the stable and to the post where Geralt had tied Roach, yanking Jaskier along behind him. In the background, guards and servants start yelling as the danger in their midst is realized. “Get on, quick!” Geralt yells to Jaskier, but the man just freezes. He’s looking at Roach like he’s never seen a horse before, expression one of utter bewilderment and fear, and Geralt does not have fucking time for this. 

He grabs Jaskier by the waist and all but tosses him into the saddle, his thin frame nothing compared to Geralt’s strength. His arse is barely in its seat before Geralt is swinging up behind him, wrapping his arms around Jaskier’s body to hold onto the reins. “Run, Roach!” he yells, digging his heels into the mare’s sides, and she takes off like a flash despite a heavier load than usual. 

It isn’t a clean getaway. There are guards chasing after them, loosing arrows that barely miss the two riders, and the lone man who attempts to stand in their way at the gate is knocked down and trampled by Roach’s charge. Geralt just keeps spurring her on, curling his body protectively around Jaskier’s, aiming for a spot on the horizon where the flat plains of farmland give way to dense forest and the trees provide.